Wednesday, January 25, 2012

acrobats and pure prayer - Phillippe Petit

PHOTOGRAPH: Aerialist Philippe Petite opens dedication of St.John The Divine. Credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times, 1982

Every now and then a person comes along who, though not overtly religious, is innately contemplative.

Luke, over at Intense City has an intriguing post ("Settling into the Heart") today about the movement from the head to the heart, referencing the word munem, which in Japanese Zen means intelligent action without thinking, and a quote from a Chinese Zen master: “If you want to see into it, see into it directly.  When you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed.”

Luke provides Unknown Friend’s notion of concentrating without effort with the wonderful example of the tightrope walker:

“Look at a tightrope walker. He is evidently completely concentrated, because if he were not, he would fall to the ground. His life is at stake, and it is only perfect concentration which can save him. Yet do you believe that his thought and his imagination are occupied in what he is doing? Do you think that he reflects and that he imagines, that he calculates and that he makes plans with regard to each step he makes on the rope?” - Unknown Friend

(This all sounds like how Cynthia Bourgealt teaches Centering prayer.  Cynthia says that one moves out of the head into a sort of vague area where one trusts the awareness of that moment.)

Anyway, Luke expresses this all so well over at his site.  The photo that he posted, which I have re-posted above because I love it so much, is of Phillipe Petit, the French high wire artist walking on a wire to the Cathedral of St. John of the Divine in 1982.  Petit is best known for his wire-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974.   When I watched the film, Man on a Wire, about this walk, I recognized that Petit was, in fact, a contemplative; he embodies concentration without effort!  Of course, this is the point that Luke makes.

Can performance art be called "prayer"?  Lax does:
“It has all the business about the sun coming out and Mogodor coming down the field and they way he said hello. Completely casual – hello. They didn’t leave any doubt that they were pleased to see me. They took me right into the family. Mogador and I would go out on the trucks all night and talk. He enjoyed talking. He suggested calling my book “Unfolding Grace.” He had been reading some mystic and he was getting good ideas. He said the thing about a performance or anything like it was throwing everything away. What you’re doing is getting rid of everything by every gesture and everything you do. And then you’ve got this pure thing left.

“… even a somersault on horseback, for example, after it had gotten to be everything you might think it was – like a test of your strength, a test of your power, or a good way to amaze the public – everything it might be except just this thrill act itself – is what you’ve thrown away. It is like a mystical thing.

“… I think it’s what Merton is saying about prayer, - whatever it is, anything in it that is an impurity, that is anything but the act itself, which is practically unnamable. And if it is what it should be, then the poetry is prayer, the acrobatic act is prayer.

“Pure act, I think it’s a metaphysical concept starting with Aristotle and flowering in St. Thomas that God is pure act and that there is no POTENTIA in Him. But that almost everything else in the universe is IN POTENTIA, it’s on its way to being pure act, on its way to unity with God. But only God is pure act. And that made me think about a lot of things. One of them is that business of the purity of an acrobatic performance, of any performance, at the point where it becomes really pure, is at its closest to the divine and closest to that unity.”

“Throwing everything away except the act itself, and I think at that point it also joins with the ideas of Zen, that everything is right here in this moment, and all those same things are being thrown away in what they describe as the Zen act. So if you were living in that kind of purity or call it action, it would be close to the kingdom of heaven. = Lax (p. 437-438, "When Prophecy Had A Voice") 
- see also the louie blog post: "lax on pure act"
It certainly seems like this is what is happening during Centering Prayer.

HT: Intense City

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  1. Beautiful reflection!

    It's true... More often than not, the real contemplatives are those who probably don't think that they're contemplatives, like Petit.

    Love the Lax quote, too.

    Before I read your blog, all I knew about Lax was that he was one of Merton's good friends. Now, because of your posts, I'm beginning to appreciate the things that this gentle soul wrote about.

    Thanks for sharing, Beth.

  2. You will come to love Lax, Matt.

    I think that I wrote this all up just so that I could put that photo and the interview with Colbert at the end onto louie! :-)

    Petit's art is very close (maybe a cousin) to that of a clown or mime, and I've always known that they were holy beings.

  3. Hello Beth,

    Thank you for your comments and for shedding some more light on this post. Much like Matt said above, I am well acquainted with Merton, but I am unfamiliar with the work of Robert Lax, so thank you for the introduction. I feel there is a lot of material of a definite inner quality in his writings to be discovered and savored. I love your blog by the way, it has been a frequented and favorite place of mine since I discovered it. Many blessings.

  4. A striking photograph! P.Petit is walking a wire toward a church having set aside all encumbrances, leaving behind hindrances, including friends and family. Can he hazard the thought of fame? I wonder: is he "concentrating" step by step, or is he waiting as the church arrives at his feet? The photographer has placed him near the upper edge of the image, almost out of the picture.

  5. Agreed, James - an amazing photograph. Almost unreal, yet so very real.

  6. Interesting post and comments. What struck me about the composition of the photo is that due to camera angle and I suppose the lense used, there is a sense that Petit is actually decending to the Cathedral (from the heavens). The background of the gray puffy clouds add somewhat to that idea as well. I imagine that he is on a wire parallel to the ground but the photo in a lovely way deceives the viewer as it appears that he is going down a slope.

    I can't imagine where his mind would have to be in order to do this "work". I don't know if the word concentration is correct but where ever his mind is, amazing that it can be held so steady for so long. Talk about being "in the zone".

  7. The contemplative is a turning inward of the individual. The performance is a turning outward.

    Anyone who is a musician has experienced the flight of when the flood gates open and you don’t reflect on what you are playing – as Patti Smith shouted on one of her records – “I trust my guitar and I don’t care about anything!”

    A performance in the street without “reason” that engages the spectators whether they like it or not – this I would strive for – in its purest sense spectator and performer one in the performance – the action, which is political.

    A man on a tightrope is over an abyss to a cathedral – that is political, especially in Paris

    i think his name means "little horselover" pretty cool and appropriate


The Stuff of Contemplation (Joan Chittister)

Thomas Merton, Trappist, died December 10, 1968 Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, at the age of twenty-s...