It’ll be tempting for me at times to get lost in exposition or explanation, but I want to stick as much as possible to what’s central to this series of posts: an experience that I had some years ago on August 28 in Israel that suddenly came to mind as I was looking at Keith Carter’s Fifty Years and thinking about his use of shallow focus. Before our trip to Israel, my wife had to talk me out of my anxiety about going to a place visited so often by violence. She wanted very much to take me – I was then what you might call a “new Christian” of only three years — to the Holy Land for my birthday. Once she won me over, she signed us up for a small group tour led by a somewhat unconventional minister. Our guides to the Land itself would be two Hebrew archaeologists, Micah and Ariyah.
You’ll notice the poor quality of the photos that I’ve used as illustrations here. Forgive me, I’m the guilty party. When I took them, I knew nothing about photography, had as gear only a Kodak Instamatic with no setting controls, and was shooting in mid-day sun invariably as harsh as it gets. But these snapshots have at least the virtue of being authentic, taken on the days and at the place that I’m about to describe.
It was on the 28th that I had the experience that I’ve been leading you toward, but events occurred the day before, on the 27th, that provided an essential prelude and preparation. Having grown up Jewish, and having only recently accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, I’d never been baptized. For that matter, as a youth I had always (mistakenly) thought of baptism as a strictly Roman Catholic rite. But then, when I had read the Gospels more than once, I knew that Jesus himself had said: “Truly, truly, I tell you that unless a man is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5.) And, even though John the Baptist protested to Jesus when Jesus came down to the Jordan, telling Him that it was he, John, who should be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around, Jesus insisted that He himself must be baptized.
Part of our group’s itinerary for August 27 called for each of us to be baptized in the River Jordan, with white robes provided for the occasion, at the site that is popularly believed to be the place where John baptized Christ. (Having more than a touch of the melancholic about me, I can’t help remarking that partly because of the disputes about “ownership” of the place between Israel and its “neighbors,” and because of their antagonism generally, the Jordan has become so polluted with sewage that most authorities warn people not to be baptized or raft in it, or even to wade in the water. At some places now, the River is no more than a trickle.)
By that time, I knew the “significance” of baptism, but knew far less than some Christians of longer standing just what I might experience in the moment and immediate aftermath of immersion. The 27th was sunny and hot, as most days in Israel are. We were lined up on an inclined concrete ramp with handrails that leads down to the River, and we sang songs as each of us waited to be dunked and blessed. There was a general atmosphere of jubilation. When I entered the water, it was surprisingly cold, and the bottom felt slimy beneath my feet. I was happy about the ceremonial induction into the Kingdom, but I felt nothing that day resembling certain spiritual “experiences” that I’d had on a few occasions in my past. The next day, however, proved more eventful in that way.
On our schedule for August 28 was a visit to the Church of the Beatitudes, a Roman Catholic Church on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Gennesaret or Lake Kinneret), near the towns of Tabgha and Capernaum. The building has that name because the Catholic Church and many other people have deemed it the site of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the most famous portion of which is referred to as the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. / Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. / Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. . . .”
When we arrived at the Church, the site and its surroundings looked glorious: blue, blue sky; blue, blue waters; palm trees, date trees and other Mediterranean vegetation around and behind the Church, where the grounds slope down to the shore. See the photo at the beginning of this post!) That slope may be a key to the name of the Church and the beliefs about it: One of our Hebrew guides told us that expert acoustic testing showed that the sloping ground behind the Church has exceptional properties — most especially that it would allow a man standing at its bottom, or in a small boat just offshore, to be heard clearly by very large crowds of people sitting up and down the slope.
The first exceptional thing that I experienced at that place occurred as I was walking down a flight of steps. I think that they were stops leading from the Church’s front door down to the pews, but they might well have been along the side of the Church, leading down to the water. Or, although I don’t think so, it might just have been a stretch of downward-slanting ground. What I remember most vividly about this, and wrote down that night, was that as I was descending, I began to feel something that I’d never felt in my life: powerful currents of vibrating electricity or some other energy moving slowly up and down my arms, from my shoulders to my fingers and back up again, in intermittent waves. It wasn’t a weak or doubtful sensation. There are Christians who might put a name to it, but that would not dissolve, resolve, or add to its nature or its mystery.
I believe, however, that it was a prelude to something else that happened to me, even more extraordinary and overwhelming, within the following hour.
After a time within the Church building, we went outside as a group to a kind of patio or concrete platform adjacent to the building, with an unimpeded view of the grounds, the slope, the Sea. The minister led us in prayers, and then in spiritual songs as he played an acoustic guitar. I began to sway to the music, along with the other worshippers, and I closed my eyes as I did.
Then, gradually, it was as though a fog rose up from the ground all around me, muffling all sounds till they became only the faintest humming, reducing all sights to the vaguest, thickest of blurs. I was completely enclosed within it. It felt warm, not hot as the day was “outside.” It felt soft, though not tangible, soothing, comforting. Soon, although I can’t say if it was expressed in any words or just in thoughts and feelings that entered into me, I was receiving the message, the spiritual sensation, that I was loved, that I was forgiven, that I didn’t need to feel so guilty, so painfully wanting as I sometimes have and often still do — that I was accepted, broken and weak as I might be. No, not necessarily by people, by any people outside that cloud of mercy – but by Jesus, by God. I began to sob, releasing pain, bowed, opening to the comfort and the blessing given.
I couldn’t say how long that experience had lasted, but, of course, eventually, gradually, you might say tenderly, the cocoon of fog dissipated, the sights and sounds of my fellows and my surroundings came back to me. Apparently, no one else had noticed what was happening to me. Or, from what may have been visible to them, they thought that I had just been caught up in the music and the worship as they had been. No one I spoke with afterward had even seen me crying.
If my “return” wasn’t more jarring or sad to me than it was, that was because my wife was right there, who treats me with more of such comfort and acceptance and love than anyone else but God has come close to doing. More than I help being grateful and amazed at.
Now, I take it that I don’t need to explain why I think it was that this experience came into my head as I was absorbed in Keith Carter’s photographs and thoughts about the emotional atmosphere of the out-of-focus, blurred areas in his work, the kind of soft blur that often surrounds or almost overwhelms his in-focus subject, be it a dog, a goat, a little girl, or an orange. This unsought connection didn’t come from any process of logic or analysis, yet contained deeper truths not only about Keith Carter’s work, but about art and what it can be and what purpose it can serve. And for those of you who have read certain earlier posts of mine, like the series on “Summoning the Genie’s Power,” you’ll recognize my thought about this mode of revelation, this direct recognition of a kinship between certain experiences. Not through deductive reasoning, but by – what should we call it? If you want to name it, I’ll leave that to you. I’ll just say, as George MacDonald wrote, that we should understand that there are modes of thought higher and more consequential than exercises of intellect.
Various people, including Rumi, and now including me, have made the observation that art is like religion, but “less so.” Not, of course, everything that goes by the name of art. And by “religion” we don’t mean sects or theology or moral codes, but rather those activities, visible or invisible, in which love passes between man and God.
Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .