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B&W Tree (1 of 1)

Cottonwood, Hangman Creek, Sunday, March 24, 2013

For followers of this blog (and I know there are a few), it is no secret that I am an admirer of the work of Robert Adams, and have in my collection nearly every book the man has ever published.   Whenever a new book is announced, I try to buy a copy as soon as it is released.   My copy of his new book, “Prayers in an American Church”  arrived in the mail yesterday.

I should state that often it takes me years to understand what Robert Adams means by his books:  there are often levels of meaning in the pictures, the essay (often what is not said but is implied is more significant than what he leaves on the page), and in  the editing  and sequencing of the book that are not apparent at first reading.

The levels of meaning in this new book are many, starting with the physical object:  on opening the package, I was greeted by a drab olive green cover with the foil stamped “PRAYERS IN AN AMERICAN CHURCH”, absent a dust cover.  The book had the look and feel of something one might encounter in the hymn rack of a church of an unfamiliar denomination, creating a sense of tension about what prayers might be offered by this church, to a god who might be different from my own.

Robert Adams first book, “White Churches of the Plains”, published in 1970, contains photographs of dozens of churches of various denominations, standing white in the sun in the emptiness of the space of eastern Colorado.  I have sometimes wondered, while looking at those photographs, what was said, what prayers were offered, what sermons were preached, in each of those churches, every Sunday, for generations.  Included in his collection was a Mennonite Church, covered with durable (and perhaps toxic) asbestos shingles.  This photograph brought back memories of the church of my own childhood, built from stones taken from the fields of the surrounding farms, and I imagined that similar hymns were sung every Sunday in the church in the Adams photograph.

On opening this new book, one is greeted by photographs of trees, or branches and leaves.  Many of the photographs are of looking through the branches to the light of the sky beyond.   There is not a single photograph of a church of any denomination here, nor is one implied.

The rhythm of the book is interesting:  in book design, the right page of a spread is usually reserved for the most significant content:  in this book, the 11 prayers are all placed on the right half of the spread, but there are several spreads where photographs are presented on the right with blank pages on the left, reading as moments of silence.    As in prayer, the silence before and after can be as significant as the words.

The selection of prayers is somewhat eclectic—there are poems presented as prayers, there are prayers attributed to native American tribes, and there are prayers taken from the core of Christian traditions.  Some of them are only a few words, some take a minute to read.  There are prayers asking for  forgiveness for the damage we have done to the earth, prayers for the departed, a prayer for the animals, and several prayers of thanksgiving.  I have, so far, read the prayers in the sequence presented in the book several times, and each time find myself sitting with tears streaming down my face.

I do not know how any other person might react to this book, and perhaps the strength of my own response is due to the condition of my parents, still alive, but both failing in mind and body.

In thinking about my parents’ approach to death, I sometimes recall the sermons preached in the church they took me to when I was a child.   I remember the restless hours spent on hard benches, and the old men, all farmers, who sat up front and slept through every sermon (sometimes the most excitement in the entire service was when one of them would snore with spectacular volume and resonance).  The ideas taught in Sunday School and church were presented with what seemed to be an unshakable certainty, and my belief as a child, was, in turn, absolute.  As I grew through my teens, I began to question the ideas presented, and found myself unable to accept the possibility of a god as described to me.  Eventually, I decided I could no longer honestly participate in the communion offered by the church (a ceremony conduced only twice a year) and would instead spend those Sunday mornings alone, walking in the woods near my home.

The idea that one can have a spiritual experience while in nature is not a new idea in American thought, and is perhaps most clearly articulated in the work of Thoreau.   However, speaking from my own experience, rejecting the forms and patterns of organized religion also meant separating myself from the people who still believed, and, for me,  resulted in a loss of a sense of community.  While I continue to have an abiding admiration and affection for the people I grew up with, I do not sit in worship with them, I do not commune with them, I am no longer one of them.

In sitting and reading this book, I felt, for the first time in many years, the stirrings of hope regarding religion.  This book, which to my knowledge does not yet reside in the hymn rack of any church pew, contains prayers that speak to me,  of thoughts I have had on those walks in the woods, acknowledging the mysteries of life and death, and of our own shortcomings, and of our gratitude for being alive, and for beauty and love.   This is a church I feel at home in, even if there is no building with a sign on front announcing the time of worship, no membership roll, no passing of the offering basket.

Robert Adams has taken on the American understanding of big ideas before—for example, his statement “Duchamp was wrong” seems to be, at least at first reading, a futile attack on what most art magazines discuss between their covers.   But Adams offers, through his own photographs, an alternative view of art, an affirmation of beauty, of love, of life.  In this new book, in place of the televangelists, Adams reminds us why we need the consolation of prayers in confronting the challenges of our lives.  He suggests that these prayers might appropriately be used by those who spend Sunday mornings avoiding the churches, and instead chose to commune among the leaves and light of a forest.

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