During “the monastery years” as I have come to call them, we used to joke among the brothers about the steel mullions on the windows of our cell. The monks cells looked out onto the Charles River near Harvard Square in Cambridge Massachusetts. The monastery was designed by Ralph Adam Cramm who loved the “monk mystique” and created a monastery which looked like it had been plucked from a french village. The windows had black steel mullions around the glass panes. Some days the steel squares on the windows of our cells looked like they were bars which kept us inside our cell and sometimes the steel bars seemed as though they were there to keep the world out and protect our cloistered life. We would sometimes have an “in day” and sometimes an “out day” depending on how the bars of our cell windows seemed to us – confining or protecting.
This statue set over the door near the chapel in the cathedral is what one sees as one heads up the stairs to the offices of the Dean, Cathedral Chapter and staff. We pass by them every day up and down the stairs from morning prayer, evening prayer, Eucharist and meetings; and this androgynous angel has become a sort of companion to me. My eyes brush her, or him, every day, many times like a valley wind brushes the edge of a forest. My psyche touches it as I go by as if dipping a finger into a baptismal font on the way past in a procession.
Not unlike the cell window bars, the statue changes its message depending on what is going on in my heart and soul at the time of the passing. When I am missing friends and the farm in New Hampshire (which is perfectly normal in a transition) it seems a bit funeral. When I am optimistic and joyful about my choice to come to Denver, her empty clam shell is a symbol of potential and hope that I have found a remnant healthy corner of the Episcopal Church. When the ascent up the stairs is at the end of a day, the angel’s clam shell reminds me of the shell used in our Baptism and I am encouraged that we are doing valuable work. When I have visited with someone who has arrived needing pastoral care, the angel reminds me that we clergy are fed so that we can feed and her shell bowl represents offering and sustenance.
The power of art and beauty in a church or a home is that it can become like any icon in which one sees what one needs to see or what one projects and in either case there is much to be learned. The art of life is not in understanding what is going on in our lives and our souls. That is not our job. They are just thoughts. Believing them is dangerous though common. The art of life is in taking the time to notice what is going on in our souls so that we can, like this angel, place our hopes and fears, desires and demands, regreets and failures into the shell as we pass as if it were God’s in-box – as if God cares. For indeed I think God cares very much.