Marina Abramovic has spent many hours of her life completely motionless, silent, and fasting. She has endured voluntary poverty and physical pain for the sake of her vocation. She is not a nun or a mountaintop hermit, but a performance artist – sometimes called the “grandmother of performance art.” Born in Yugoslavia in 1946, her childhood was shaped by the Eastern Orthodox spirituality of her grandmother and the intense, communist discipline of her distant parents. Her performance pieces, most of them ephemeral or time-based, explore the limits of the human body and the mind. All of them challenge our cherished definitions of art. In 2010, Abramovic performed a piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Artist is Present,” part of a retrospective of her forty years of work. For this, she sat motionless and silent in the center of the Museum’s atrium surrounded by four bright lights. An empty chair stood opposite the artist, in which anyone who cared to was invited to sit and engage in a silent, mutual gaze with her. Abramovic was present in this way for three months, six days a week, for 7.5 hours a day. While the curator of the museum advised her to be prepared to face a frequently empty chair, her simple offer to be unflinchingly present touched a collective nerve and awakened a widespread hunger. That chair would be occupied by a total of 1,545 people, many of whom lined up before the museum opened or slept on the pavement to get a spot in line. People smiled uncontrollably, laughed or silently wept. Each face was met with the same gentle, mysterious, steady gaze, in a physical environment that framed each encounter as a moment of art enfolding a moment of life. Of the piece, Abramovic said, “The hardest thing is to do something which is so close to nothing that it demands all of you, because there is no story anymore to tell, no object to hide behind. There’s nothing – just your own, pure presence.”
The Martyrs of Japan
A large, distinctive, and inviting piece of art hangs in our refectory at Emery House, an image of the Last Supper in which the figures wear kimonos and dine on saké and sushi. It is a Japanese print in the mingei, or folk-art style, by the twentieth century Christian artist Sadao Watanabe. Watanabe used a technique called katazome, utilizing traditional mineral pigments in a medium of soybean milk printed on mulberry paper. Of his works, Watanabe once remarked, “I would most like to see them hanging where people ordinarily gather, because Jesus brought the gospel for the people.” Having lost his father at the age of ten, he began attending Church when a local Christian woman in his neighborhood took him under her wing. He was baptized at age seventeen.
Here is my sermon preached this morning at the Monastery in Cambridge. I knew before I went on our end of January “Away Week” that I was scheduled to preach on this Feast today, so I began thinking about how I should present it. Having served for some years in the former SSJE Japanese Province (1962-1975) I could draw on my experience of having lived in that country as a priest and monk. My first thoughts were about my memories of seeing the notice board prohibiting Christianity that hung for many years on the wall of one of our hallways here at the Monastery, and then seeing one of the same boards at St. Michael’s Monastery, Oyama, Japan, and hearing some of the story of the Martyrs from Japanese members of SSJE. There was also my own memory of actually visiting the site of the crucifixion of the 26 Martyrs in Nagasaki on one of my visits there. I also used “Google” to refresh my memory concerning some of the details of that event, plus having learned of some of the other martyrdoms while I lived in Japan. The last paragraph was inspired by the newspaper and TV reports of the recent deaths of the hostages in the Eastern Mediterranean. We certainly need to pray for a solution to that situation.
The Martyrs of Japan (1597- ca.1630)
Today is the Feast of the first martyrs in Japan, followed by others over a period of years.
Late in the 16th Century reports reached the Daimyo, Hideyoshi, and other leaders in Japan, that the Philippine Islands and other parts of Southeast Asia were being colonized by Spain and Portugal and other European countries through the influence of Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries.