New York, New York…. A few weeks ago I spoke to a group of artists from across the city. Gathered together by Redeemer Presbyterian Church and All Angel’s Church, we spent the evening on the vocation of artist.
First some very gifted musicians played, and then I took up “Pilgrims, Prophets and a Cellist: On Seeking the Flourishing of the City.” Four times a year this group meets, and this was their beginning-of-the-year event.
Standing in front of the crowd, I couldn’t help but think of Madeleine L’Engle, the novelist and poet who had made All Angel’s her church in the years she lived in the city. And moving across time, I then thought of the contemporary painter, Mako Fujimora, who is a member of Redeemer. For years I have asked the question, “Can you sing songs shaped by the truest truths of the universe, but in language the whole world can understand?” Both of these very gifted people have seen their work in that way, telling stories on page and canvas for everyone everywhere.
Pilgrims? I told about Walker Percy and Wendell Berry, the former judged by the NY literary critics as “the American Camus” as he won the National Book Award, the latter judged by the same critics as “the most prophetic voice in American literature”– and their pilgrimage to New York City in the early years of their careers. Eventually both returned to the South where they took up their longer work, Percy to Louisiana and Berry to Kentucky. In very different ways they have had eyes to see the world with unusual honesty and grace, and I have gladly apprenticed myself to them.
Prophets? Of course I began by remembering Jeremiah, and his call to the exiles in Babylon to “seek the flourishing of the city.” But then I reflected on Jean Bethke Elshtain, judged as one of our leading public intellectuals, who has written in her characteristically thoughtful, textured way about “abundance” in human life, in particular taking up the vision of John Paul II. And so then onto John Paul himself, who gave the years his life to a remarkably rich exploration of the conditions required for human flourishing.
A cellist? My friend Jozef Luptak of Bratislava, Slovakia, who for ten years has brought flourishing to his city and society through his Konvergencie festivals. From large venues in the city to small gatherings across the country, each September he directs a national celebration of truth, beauty, and goodness, incarnate in chamber music. A wonderfully gifted artist himself, when he plays his cello it is as if he wraps his soul around the instrument, creating the most glorious music imaginable. You can see some of his work on YouTube. In his own very unique way, Jozef embodies the vision of Jeremiah.
As we finished, I offered these words: “Seek the abundance of the city. Seek the flourishing of the society. Plant trees. Build houses. Give concerts. And remember that when the city and society flourish, you will flourish.” One of the truest truths of the universe, whether in Babylon, Bratislava or New York.