Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Treasures from Trash

I am not a fan of garage and rummage sales, but when my wife dragged me to one two years ago, I found a gem among all the clothes and cast-off junk: a video on spiritual searching, featuring the painter William Segal. And it was made c. 1995 by Ken Burns (before he was famous).

One problem is that it is an imperfect VHS; the other that the program on Vezelay and its medieval church in France where Segal goes is brief. But the insights of the then 90-year-old American artist are important. Since the film was made, Segal died in 2000, at 95, and Burns, has gone on to do bigger things.

But I am grateful that he went to the Vezelay, whose doorways and cloisters and nave are captured in a series of slow, meditative shots as the philosopher-artist offers some spontaneous reflections on silence, stillness, and the importance of searching; he shows us how visual artists, as he says later, help us see reality in new ways, from new perspectives.

Even though the setting is religious, the focus of this early Burns documetary is on the spiritual. Still, he recognizes that the sacred location of a shrine like Vezelay enhances its potential for healing. Segal, too, is concerned with the spiritual search, seeing that, though we may go alone to such places and alone into ourselves, we remain connected to the larger community; as a result, he says, we become less self-centered. So he is, in effect, validing the importance of communal worship for the individual, whatever his beliefs may be.

Segal raises important questions, chief among them: what part of us is changeless, and what part comes and goes? In an ancient building like the church at Vezelay, one is aware of the past living on in the present, and universal questions naturally arise. We intuitively sense that there's something in us that is changeless: what do we call this part of ourselves? The soul? The true self?

Does it have to have a name? Spirituality, like faith, is beyond naming and understanding in a logical way. The search, which never ends, cannot end in neat answers.

In this quiet, eloquent little film, which I watched again this week while recuperating, William Segal, with all the wisdom of his years, articulates truths that can't be expressed in words; they involve the mysteries of life itself that strike us with wonder. These mysteries are prompted by sensory images of an inner reality that is captured in the biblical idea of the Kingdom.

Seeing this film about the search reminds me of a favorite line from Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks): "You search frantically from room to room for the diamond necklace that's already around your neck."

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