Hebel, Grace and the Art of Andy Goldsworthy: Part 2, Living as a Sacrament

Think, for a minute, about what Andy Goldsworthy does.

He wanders out into the nature and, initially, spends time familiarizing himself with the space, its rhythms and the materials that are available to him. After this period of familiarization, which can take years and repeated visits (the best of Goldsworthy's work is around his own home because he knows the place so well), Goldsworthy then begins to work. He may find autumn leaves on the ground and arrange them, making a striking strip of color or fading yellows gradually into reds. He may impose some order upon the scene. This order might be geometrical, a circle or a line of flowers or stones. These sharp, precise Euclidean shapes jump out from the background of a world dominated by a chaotic and fractal geometry. But some of the order Goldsworthy creates might be more whimsical, like purple flower pedals threaded with a vine playing among the branches and green leaves of a tree. Or Goldsworthy may grind up stones to gather red pigment, then using that color to paint rocks or turn a waterfall red.

When I encountered Goldsworthy's work my first thought was this: That is what the Christan life should be like. This artform is the perfect metaphor for how we should move and act in the world.

Here's what I mean. Today each of us will wander out into the world. And around us we'll find all sorts people and all sorts of situations. It's a fractal, messy, and chaotic world out there.

And it's not all bad. There are beautiful things, like flowers, out there. But there is also sadness and brokenness, conflict and deadness. And what we'll try to do today (or what we should be doing today) is very similar to what Goldsworthy does.

We will try, given what we find out there, to bring grace and beauty into the world.

And to do this, like Goldsworthy, we'll need to take the time to listen and learn about the people around us. Who are they? What are their dreams? Where do they hurt? And then, once we know the materials and rhythms of their experience, we'll try to move and act in a way to bring beauty and grace into their lives.

And into the world. We might bring grace and beauty to a dead patch of urban ruin. Or a bit of color into an expanse of grey.

We might, simply, pick up some trash as we pass, leaving the world cleaner rather than dirtier because we cared and loved.

Ever nudging the world closer to Eden.

And we'll try do this in a way very similar to how Goldsworthy goes about his art. We won't carry hammers, saws, bulldozers, and nails into people's lives with the goal of cutting everything down and building something artificial, imposed, and unnatural. Something we'd like to see but might not fit the person or environment. We won't try to use force to make "good" happen. Our touch shall be light. We will not dominate, own, or control. We will specialize in improvisation and creativity.

And, importantly, we know we won't be able to control the outcome. Like Goldsworthy, once we've done our "work" for the day, trying to bring a little bit of beauty, peace, truth and grace into the world, we'll relinquish control. We'll have to let it go. Just as Goldsworthy releases his art to the forces of time, wind, rain, and sun. We can't, by ourselves, hold all the brokeness together. All we can do is try, for a moment in time, to hold two broken pieces together in a way that is beautiful, redemptive, and hopeful.

Like Goldsworthy's artwork the fruits of our fragile, transient and gracious labors will rarely last beyond the moment, which brings a sense of sadness and loss, but it hints and gestures at what is possible, at that Beauty that sits behind all things.

Which brings me to the idea of sacrament. In the face of hebel, the fleetingness of life, our goal isn't to build lasting monuments to the ego, to somehow "fix" everything.

We are, rather, to live sacramentally. We are to live as signs and portents of the grace that is at hand in any given moment, even in the ruin, the boredom, the loss and the trauma. The Kingdom of God, Jesus said, is in our midst.

Living sacramently, then, is making that Kingdom visible, here and now, in the midst of us.

We are to live beautifully, hopefully, redemptively, and graciously. We must, in the words of Wendell Berry, be a people who practice resurrection.

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5 thoughts on “Hebel, Grace and the Art of Andy Goldsworthy: Part 2, Living as a Sacrament”

  1. Richard, check out this interview with Australian/Icelandic musician Ben Frost and what he says about death and creation. I think it might connect beautifully with what your doing here.

    "Idon’t want to die. I don’t want there to be a finite fucking point to my understanding of the world. I cannot understand people who perceive death as some natural part of life. I think death is a fucking tragedy. I [pause]... Death. I’m not scared of it. I loathe it. It bothers me. It bothers me because I [pause]. I want to keep learning. I want to see where all this goes. And I want to understand it. And I want that understanding to be cumulative.

    The only way that I can reconcile that, the only way that I’ve found to be effective in reconciling that pervasive feeling of insignificance mixed with a weird sort of self-loathing is to use it as fuel for creation."


  2. your thoughts seem somewhat similar to something that christopher alexander wrote. he was an architect and wrote "a pattern language," a book about common and repeating architectural solutions to problems at every scale, from the township level down to the trim on rooms.

    one of his patterns is that a new building should be put on the ugliest part of the land, not the most beautiful part. the reason is, that when you build something on the most beautiful part, you're probably making it a bit uglier. but if you build on a part that's already ugly, you're probably improving it and making it a bit more beautiful.

    some of your comments above seemed tangentially related to alexander's concept.

  3. managed to find a quote from an amazon review, about the pattern "site repair":

    we always build on that part of the land which is the most healthy, we
    can be virtually certain that a great deal of the land will always be
    less than healthy. If we want the land to be healthy all over--all of
    it--then we must do the opposite. We must treat every new act of
    building as an opportunity to mend some rent in the existing cloth; each
    act of building gives us a chance to make one of the ugliest and least
    healthy parts of the environment more healthy--as for those parts which
    are already healthy and beautiful--they of course need no attention. And
    in fact, we must discipline ourselves most strictly to leave them
    alone, so that our energy actually goes to the places which need it.
    This is the principle of site repair." (p.510)

  4. Like Goldsworthy's artwork the fruits of our fragile, transient and gracious labors will rarely last beyond the moment, which brings a sense of sadness and loss, but it hints and gestures at what is possible..

    My challenge is how to not be overwhelmed by the sadness and loss and succumb to the seeming hopelessness in the task and fall into the abyss of cynicism.

  5. I struggled with your language: "fractal" or "fractured?" I guess it's both, though "fractal:" reflecting in each part a true image of the whole (my own paraphrase definition)? I'm not sure the world as it is truly reflects the wholeness of the kingdom (which I'm not sure is the referent anyway)? Nope. But our call to live in the world -- to reflect a true image of the kingdom? That's for sure, as best we can.

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