This morning, as I drove to work, I heard the local radio station offering tickets to a singer-songwriter I had never heard of who had been inspired to write music by an episode of “The Simpsons.” As it happens, ironically enough, this particular artist is performing at the Crystal Ballroom, a legendary venue within Portland (that I have yet to see) that was originally called The Starry, Starry Night. Even to this day, about a century after the venue was built, there are supposed to be stars still on the ceiling even with the change in name of the building. What made it particularly ironic is that the song that was in the episode of “The Simpsons” that inspired the singer was Vincent, better known as “Starry Starry Night.” Life is full of ironies.
If there is a city that needs a reminder of starry, starry nights, that city is Portland. Portland, like most of the cities of Cascadia, is famous for its cloudy skies, its rain and fog. It is an immensely dispiriting matter for many people to be underneath the clouds for months at a time, deprived of the light of the sun in the sky or its heat on the skin, or a sight of the glorious sunrise and sunset, or of the starry, starry night. Life in Portland, and other cities like it (Seattle comes to mind) is not unlike the existence of Frodo and Sam in the last part of The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King, where they are under the dark clouds of Mordor for so long that they are encouraged and surprised by the sight of the stars at night, and realize that as dark as the sky may be the stars still shine above whatever clouds exist, even if the stars are so far away.
When Don McLean sang “Vincent,” he gave a picture of an artist consumed with transcendent beauty but who (like many artists) was so oversensitive to the grubbiness and sordidness of life that he was driven to despair. There is a somewhat stereotypical image of artistic people as being depressed and despondent. As is the case with many stereotypes, there is an element of truth to the stereotype. Part of that truth lies in a simple but rather troubling fact. For us to be sensitive to the transcendent, we must also be sensitive to the immense suffering and corruption in our world. We can get the bad and the good, or neither. In order to maintain our wonder and our appreciation of what is beautiful and good, we must anguish and weep over the evil and unjust in this world. To reach towards the stars we must be moved by the gutter.
In our lives we are often caught in a tension between the transcendent and the immanent. It is tempting, but futile, to attempt to resolve that tension either through a focus on the immanent or on the transcendent. If we resolve the tension towards the immanent, then we lose sight of the stars and become swallowed up in the grubbiness of life. Rather than caterpillars seeking to become butterflies, we remain worms caught up in the corruption of life. We lose sight of the ideal and become corrupt pragmatists. We may live life with less disappointment at life’s sordidness, but we become corrupt ourselves, and despoilers of what is good and innocent and beautiful in this world. Alternatively, we may neglect the immanent and focus on the transcendent, becoming lost to anything practical, and even losing ourselves in despair at how far away the transcendent is from our world, even being driven to self-destruction.
Yet on a day like today, I was at least a little bit glad for the clouds. Even if I didn’t like being rained on this evening, the clouds helped hold the heat in, and that kept us from suffering the blizzard conditions that enveloped most of the country. The same clouds that can keep out the heat from the sun can also hold in the heat that remains. Much depends on context. Theologians and philosophers and artists all deal with the same ground. By embracing the tension between the beautiful and the sordid, the high and the low, and the good and the evil that we face within us and in the world outside, we understand that our experience of the suffering and darkness and torment of this world helps spur our longing for beauty and wholeness and the light. It is as if we are all stars in the night sky, seeking to diffuse enough light to pierce through the veil of darkness that surrounds us, so that we know we are not alone in the night sky.