Ash Wednesday: Repentance and The Great Wave

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For the first reflection in this series on The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter by Sister Wendy Beckett, Associate Editor Karen McClain Kiefer considers Ash Wednesday, the theme of ‘Repentance’, and Beckett’s selection of The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai; she also offers reflection on her personal connection to them. In this book, Sister Wendy offers a painting a day and a brief reflection as she guides us through the Lenten season chronologically, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter Sunday. Each week, a contributor will reflect on the theme and selected paintings for that week, along with Sister Wendy’s comments. We encourage you to do the same! For more information on Sister Wendy and this series, see our Series Launch.]

 

 

As I mentioned in the introduction to Sister Wendy in this series launch, one quickly gets a sense from this book that she can convey a great deal in very few words, and her expertise shines through in her selection of these themes, the paintings, and her reflections. This is certainly the case with the first painting we encounter in this book – that for Ash Wednesday. The theme for today is ‘Repentance’, and for this, Sister Wendy selected The Great Wave, by Katsushika Hokusai.

Created in 1831, this work is an example of the Japanese style known as Ukiyo-e. Often translated as ‘pictures of the floating world’, Ukiyo-e refers to Japanese paintings and woodblock prints that originally depicted Tokyo’s pleasure districts during the Edo Period (1603-1868), a time ‘when the sensual attributes of life were encouraged amongst a tranquil existence under the peaceful rule of the Shoguns’. [1] However, ‘by combining uki for sadness and yo for life, the word ukiyo-e originally reflected the Buddhist concept of life as a transitory illusion, involving a cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth’. [2]

The latter seems a more fitting etymology for a style of painting chosen for an Ash Wednesday reflection. I might have expected a more subdued or even desolate-looking painting – perhaps a desert-type of image – to associate with Ash Wednesday and Lent than Hokusai’s tumultuous tempest.  While certainly a sparse painting would be congruent with Jesus’s own 40-day desert journey before the start of his ministry, I find Sister Wendy’s selection a clever choice. Not only does her reflection complementing this painting describe the lack of control and unpredictability in life that is certainly evident in this work by Hokusai, but I also detect a clever allusion perhaps to the former, common translation of Ukiyo-e. The painting is indeed a picture of boats on a ‘floating world’ (the sea), and that ‘world’ also seems suspended (floating) in time moments before certain peril ensues as that sea rages and threatens destruction. Perhaps this ‘destruction’ could be viewed as a kind of suffering and death of one’s being or reality, or perhaps as the destruction of a deceptive ‘floating’ reality. The ‘floating world’ of wafting on worldly pleasures does not shelter us from tempests. Perhaps such a world may even lead us to them.

Not surprisingly, either translation of Ukiyo-e in relation to this painting fits with Sister Wendy’s reflection. Within the theme of repentance, she elevates the reality of uncontrollability and unpredictability of life. ‘We cannot control our life . . . the great wave is in waiting for any boat’. [3] What do we do? ‘What we can’, she states, ‘[b]eyond that, we endure’.

The powerlessness and the endurance (the ‘awaiting’) of that sentiment hits us head-on in Hokusai’s painting. As I contemplate the painting, it is as though that wave is awaiting me . . . and with a claw-like grasp that seems almost personal in its intensity. It also seems just as much that I (as one in the boat) am heading into it as it is ‘coming at’ me. I find truth in that notion. Sometimes such an image may represent to me a wave of reality crashing upon a ‘floating world’ that I have escaped to in refuge from life’s difficulties or perhaps in distraction from life’s mundaneness. At other times, perhaps a circumstance in which I find myself feels as though I have been swept up in a tempest despite ‘living by principle’ (2) and taking refuge in what truly matters (e.g., what can ‘float’ and survive in a storm), far beyond worldly pleasures or distractions. The wave does not seem to care. Regardless of how one may have maneuvered or ‘floated’ there, encountering it is inevitable. Sister Wendy reminds us that it is how we respond that matters. And she dashes any notion that we can do it ourselves by relying on our own righteousness or ‘bootstrap-pulling’ capabilities.

Failure does not diminish our humanity, but demonstrates it, fills it, completes it.

Why? Because that puts us in God’s hands. It throws us upon God’s loving mercy. And it is that notion that truly breaks open this Ash Wednesday reflection and the richness of Hokusai’s painting in this context. Sister Wendy takes the theme of repentance ascribed to this day not to focus on punishment or righteousness or even sin in ways we might expect. But instead, to acknowledge our humanness by accepting our own fallibility. In the reflection and her painting selection, she encourages us to accept our fallibility, and therefore our failures. Failure, like the great wave, is inevitable. Failure does not diminish our humanity, but demonstrates it, fills it, completes it. We were not made by God to always succeed. That would make us only half human, and God created us to delight in us fully. Our failures remind us of our need for God, for relationship with God. That relationship is weakened if we make ourselves like gods (who are not supposed to fail) and denounce our fallibility.

Mea culpa

I am culpable of this forgetfulness or attempted denial of my own fallibility, and, therefore, of my own humanity. It is all too easy and habitual to thrash myself when things go badly, even things beyond my control. This was the case in the prolonged episode and aftermath of the economic and housing market crashes from 2006 to 2011. My inability to correct the course as that ‘great wave’ was building was paralyzingly traumatic. As Sister Wendy so calmly instructs, I did what I could do. I did everything I could possibly think of or summon from myself. When that wasn’t enough and the wave crashed, shattering the little boat I had been frantically rowing and bailing, I found myself berating myself for struggling in the depths, for barely being able to keep my head above the turbulent waters. The unthinkable had happened, and I had to face my fallibility. I had to face my own failure, especially by societal standards, and live with the colossal and criminal failure of institutions that impacted my life as I knew it. There was no ignoring or denying it – I was utterly powerless. I could not control my life. In an era of tremendous focus on self-empowerment, this was (and is) not an easy thing to acknowledge.

Counterintuitively, perhaps a gift in my financial failure was its public nature. While it evoked shame in me, it was a ‘failure’ I could not hide. There was an odd freedom in not being able to positively ‘spin’ my precarity. I had few options other than to ‘throw [myself] on the loving mercy of God’ (2). There was no question that I could not rely on a ‘floating world’, and had to face the hard-crashing wave of truth that I am ultimately powerless. What mattered then and what still matters is my relationship with God and to powerlessness. At times God may feel distant, and I might feel abandoned and powerless as a result. But being able to admit that puts God in control and gives me back my dignity from oppressive self-berating. To admit utter defeat, to cry out in anger or despair, or ask ‘Where are you?’ keeps me active in my relationship with God and not isolated in shame. Facing my fallibility and resisting a tendency to isolate also helps me stay active in my human relationships. In looking at the painting, no one is fighting the mighty force in isolation. No, each person is ‘in it together’ with the others, and all of them are a part of this particular story. Even in the most tempestuous times, it is easy to feel isolated and powerless. But there is hope conveyed in this painting and reflection. We are not alone. Even if our perception tells us otherwise.

Sister Wendy refers to Romans 8:38-39 in her reflection to remind us we are not separated from the steadfast love of God, and we are not isolated in this ‘life’ journey. It is God’s mercy that sustains all things. When I forget this is when I truly need to repent. This passage provides a reminder – one that is honest and enduring, even if sometimes difficult to embrace. We are not promised an easy path, and certainly not one we can control. But we can ‘throw ourselves on the loving mercy of God. For we have been assured that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus’ (2).

‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39 NRSV).

Not even failure.

 


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa.jpg.

[1] Rebecca Seiferle, ‘Ukiyo-e Movement Overview and Analysis’, The Art Story, accessed February 10, 2019, https://www.theartstory.org/movement-ukiyo-e-japanese-woodblock-prints.htm. ‘These idyllic narratives not only document the leisure activities and climate of the era, they also depict the decidedly Japanese aesthetics of beauty, poetry, nature, spirituality, love, and sex’.

[2] Ibid. ‘But ironically, during the early Edo period, another ideograph which meant “to float,” similarly pronounced as uki, came into usage, and the term became associated with wafting on life’s worldly pleasures’. She continues, ‘Ukiyo-e prints were popular “low” art forms, created for the merchant class and the urban working population, but soon came to be considered masterful works of art’. See https://www.theartstory.org/movement-ukiyo-e-japanese-woodblock-prints-history-and-concepts.htm.

[3] Sister Wendy Beckett, The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter (London: SPCK, 2017), 2. In this reflection on repentance, all quotes from this book are from page 2.

1 Comment

  • J. Homrighausen says:

    I enjoyed this, Karen. I’ve been working with visual treatments of Psalm 93 lately so the image of the waves took me in a totally different direction. Also, how bold to do a Christian theological/spiritual meditation starting from an image rooted in Japanese Buddhist concepts.

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