Perhaps it is true of you too. Sometimes you listen into a conversation, hearing the way that someone thinks, the way that they see the world, and you find yourself sure that there is something more to be known, a deeper friendship to be explored. That happened to me this past week as I spent a couple of hours with Mako Fujimura, a very thoughtful man and a very gifted painter.
He invited me to come along with him to see his new work at a museum right in the middle of Manhattan. The Fashion Week gala was happening a block away, full of beautiful people with their emperor’s new clothes. Busy, busy, and more busy. But we entered into a quiet space, and walked through his work. This year he produced The Four Holy Gospels, the first time in 400 years that an illuminated book of the four gospels has been undertaken by a single artist.
I have never before had the experience of an artist allowing me the gift of seeing “over-the-shoulder, through-the-heart.” From the first painting, one he calls “The Tears of Christ,” we talked about his vision for the project at-large but also the details of each work. Bringing together ancient Asian practices with a very contemporary style, Mako twines together two commitments that are rarely seen: theological rootedness with painterly excellence.
As we talked about “the tears of Christ,” we pondered together what we have learned from Simone Weil, the great French philosopher who slowly, slowly made her way to “the God who cries”– as she described her pilgrimage from Marxist materialism to a love for the one whom the gospels sum up in the simple words, “Jesus wept.” I told Mako that if John 11, the story of Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus, was not in the Bible, it would be very hard for me to believe, or even want to believe. He understood, deeply so—and has created an evocative collection of paintings that tell that story, always a story in conversation with the realities of social, political, and artistic tensions that are everyone’s, everywhere. Much more could be said.
The day before, I spoke at the Gordon College chapel, setting forth a vision of sacramental learning—and began with the story of Simone Weil, from her childhood embrace of Marxism to her disillusionment after her years at the Sorbonne, to her labor among the sufferers and groaners of France, to her finally finding a place in the universe made by the “God who cries,” to her remarkably rich essay “On the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” all the way to the last night of her life when she wrote these words, “The most important task of teaching is to teach what it means to know.” She has profoundly influenced me, requiring that I ask and answer questions that are hard as they are important. Mako understood that.
And so, a 21st-century painter and a 20th-century philosopher, together giving us eyes to see the world that is really there. A sacramental world, one where heaven and earth meet each other, straining amidst the sorrows of this life, where the tears of Christ teach us to cry for what matters. As I used to say to my children when they were much younger, “You need to save your tears for when you will really need to cry. Don’t use them all up right now”—and then I hugged them.
(I write this sitting in my reading chair, with a painting of Mako’s over my head. Not wall-size as much of his work is, but a small painting of a tree, one that makes me think of the tree at the beginning of time, and the tree at the end of time. Asian, allusive, and yet very modern too—a wonderful gift that graces my life, day by day.)