Thursday, September 11, 2008

When Jellyfish become liturgical furniture we know we have lost touch with Christian Tradition

I am thinking I probably need to offer a seminar on the liturgical imagery of jellyfish [ Phylum Cnidaria (pronounced ni*da"ri*a)] since we have four of them presiding over our new sanctuary at St. George's Episcopal Church in Germantown,
Tennessee. Here is the Bishop consecrating this jelly fish altar apparently completely unaware of the ensnaring and entrapping imagery he is exalting into the liturgy. The top of the altar is made of blue glass, the pediments are made of aluminum tendrils. What were they thinking?
Apparently, they weren't.

What do you think? Have you ever thought that those gelatinous floating stinging ensnaring predators should be exalted to suitable decorations for sacred space? Well it has happened to our church. How it happened is inexplicable, other than by recognizing that sometimes the real truth behind theology will sometimes burst forth and proclaim its entangling, ensnaring and predatory features.

So we sold our wonderful old cruciform church over on Poplar Avenue, built a new one that looks more like a bus than a church. Two rows of seats are separated by a central aisle. A large windscreen/picture window sits where the cross or some other suitable sacred imagery worthy of contemplation should be behind the altar. Front and center is a large operating jellyfish console where the Priest steers us on our spiritual journey in this ecclesiastical omnibus.

Stage right there is another large jellyfish pretending to be our lectern. It sits there with its large blue mantle sitting on top of its curling tendrils as if waiting to ensnare its speaker in one error after another.


I was part of a committee that worked on the decorations for this church. The Rector asked me to help find liturgical antiques we might consider. Europe just now is flush with amazing relics of ancient churches for sale. Amazing craftsmanship reflecting centuries of christian tradition was available. Just go looking here for example: http://www.kingrichards.com/viewCat.php?item=1


They asked me what kind of liturgical furniture we should include in the sanctuary. I offered many ideas--traditional mostly--I found fantastic antique possibilities for them to consider from our Episcopal tradition. We considered one of those magnificent eagle lecterns for a brief moment, but eschewed the eagle of St. John for the Jellyfish of . . . Jonah? Or was that a whale?

Here is the baptismal font in jellyfish form: an amazing image of an engulfing and ensnaring creature placed right in the middle of our most sacred rites having to do with infants.

The opportunity to have wonderful things which have been surrounded and saturated with prayer and singing was clear and compelling.

What did they do? They hired a local artist--not a bad idea actually--and he went wild and came up with glass and aluminum jellyfish--four of them. Jellyfish have absolutely no tradition of religious symbolism, except as spiritual monsters.

Two which make up the altar seem to be engaged in some kind of mating dance. The lectern seems to want to float away and that baptismal . . . . it is the most scary given the implications of the English poet and painter William Blake's imagery.

At one time when I was writing actively about William Blake, I wrote usefully about one of Blake's great spiritual monsters which he feared most especially: The Polypus.

In his poem, Jerusalem, he writes:

In every Nation of the Earth till the Twelve Sons of Albion Enrooted into every Nation: a mighty Polypus growing From Albion over the whole Earth: such is my awful Vision.

then later

Soon Hand mightily devour'd & absorb'd Albions Twelve Sons. Out from his bosom a mighty Polypus, vegetating in darkness, And Hyle & Coban were his two chosen ones, for Emissaries In War: forth from his bosom they went and return'd. Like Wheels from a great Wheel reflected in the Deep. Hoarse turn'd the Starry Wheels, rending a way in Albions Loins Beyond the Night of Beulah. In a dark & unknown Night, Outstretch'd his Giant beauty on the ground in pain & tears:


Soon Hand mightily devour'd & absorb'd Albions Twelve Sons. Out from his bosom a mighty Polypus, vegetating in darkness, And Hyle & Coban were his two chosen ones, for Emissaries In War: forth from his bosom they went and return'd. Like Wheels from a great Wheel reflected in the Deep. Hoarse turn'd the Starry Wheels, rending a way in Albions Loins Beyond the Night of Beulah. In a dark & unknown Night, Outstretch'd his Giant beauty on the ground in pain & tears:


The image Bake draws upon is the jellyfish and the hydra which he imagined as living in the spiritual loins of women which would snatch the soul from heaven and embed it in a fleshly tomb of the body. Hence the horror of seeing it embodied as a baptismal.


In Blake's period there were fantastic wax sculptures of the human body he would have known which exhibited just this kind of jellyfish/body structure. We must remember that for many many years dissection of the human body in England was forbidden on the theological hypothesis that the body had to be put whole and entire in the grave it the person expected to be resurrected.




In Blake' day this prohibition was broken when the authorities held that convicts probably were going to hell anyway so their bodies could be dissected. Consequently, there rose in London great dissection theaters like the one managed by William Hunter and his brother, a dissection theater which we suspect William Blake might well have frequented in his effort to familiarize himself with human anatomy to prepare himself as a medical book illustrator.

But for the ordinary citizen of London, it was exhibits of wax preparations such as these and those which Hunter was famous for creating which revealed the interior workings of the human body. These images may not seem shocking to us in the 21st century. But in Blake's day they were shocking.

In response to images like this, and perhaps his encounter with uterine cancer which was called the polypus in his day, Blake created a spiritual monster to represent the obscuring, entangling, entrapping materialism which was/is concealing the eternal world in which he believed we live daily.

So you can imagine my amazement and concern when I discover that our new and otherwise beautiful church celebrates this monstrous imagery in its most sacred liturgical furniture. Perhaps it is the universe speaking to us, giving us a serendipitous sermon about the reality behind the words.

Surely, we need to think about our embrace of this image before we invite it into the sacred spaces of our liturgical life. How on earth I can join the celebration of the Mass with these monsters surrounding me is beyond me. As a result of this invasion, my church has become an alien space infested by creepy entangling predatory sculpture.


So because I am so unsettled by these creepy crawly polypi swarming about our new church, I am unchurched these days, I guess. Maybe I'll go be a Buddhist. To my knowledge they have yet to invite jellyfish into the design of their liturgical furniture and temple architecture. I may be wrong, but I don't think so.

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