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Essay

The role or purpose of art in our lives is to serve as a reminder. We have a sense that the world of perception is illusive and created. Through the acceptance of the gifts of beauty we feel that we are able to draw back the veil cast over our senses, if only briefly, and stare into a greater communion. We are partial to art. That is to say, it is incomplete without us.

—Jonathan Castellino

MY GRANDFATHER RARELY SAT in a church pew, unless it was for a wedding or funeral, and even on those occasions I’m sure he skulked in the back row and kept glancing at the exit with his shifty blue eyes. It’s unlikely he ever went forward for an altar call or partook of a sacrament. At least, that’s what I used to think, back before I knew much about art or experience, when I thought I understood what sacraments were.

The Lord’s Supper, for instance, as we Pentecostals called it, was a symbolic way in which we remembered Christ’s last meal with his disciples, and of course his suffering, death, and resurrection. The elements, though, were just that: symbols, emblems—nothing more. Just shot glasses of grape juice and bits of bread. The whole thing had meaning, sure, but a finite amount—the ceremony was as non-mysterious as it was nonalcoholic.

Being Pentecostal, we did not expect much of our sacraments. They were mere signs of the direct experience of God we could press into at any time if only we called on the Lord in fervent prayer to fill us with the Holy Spirit and then—insert exclamation in tongues!—immediate, close contact with God himself.

No need for all that Catholic waving of the hands over big gold cups.

No need for icons; or, God forbid, art.

If you wanted to hear from God, to enter into the reality of his presence, you answered an altar call and approached his throne directly, with confidence; and, if you were lucky (we preferred to say “blessed”), there was laughter. I remember a lot of laughter in my church, raucous hours of rolling around like fools after services, “drunk in the Holy Spirit,” as one ex-alcoholic elder used to say.

I always wanted to hear my grandfather laugh like that, wanted to see him saved so he could pass me candies in church—the Life Savers he kept in his shirt pocket.

It never occurred to me, until I read Andre Dubus’s essay “Sacraments,” that such times as those long ago altar calls were sacramental: encounters with a surface experience through which I slipped into a deeper experience of God and my place in the world.

I imagine it would have been hard to explain to my grandfather—to anyone not raised Pentecostal—how those frenzied altar calls created bizarre, inexplicable stillnesses inside my head. I vividly recall lying sprawled on the floor at the front of the church—exhausted from laughing and speaking in tongues, interceding for my grandfather’s salvation—and feeling absolutely alone. And not just alone but spent, as if I were standing in my own skull looking up at the bone-white vault of my mind so often thrumming with adolescent worries about sex and other things. But those strange, still moments seemed never to darken into such anxieties. It was never night then, in my thoughts, though there were shadows and everything seemed blasted and abandoned, quiet: like a city center shut down, yet glowing with strange warmth, like my grandfather’s woodstove in his cottage by the lake, a soothing heat that evoked both his presence—the smell of Copenhagen chewing tobacco—but also his absence—his empty chair by the broken eight-track player.

PLATE 1. Jonathan Castellino. The Narrow Path, 2009. Giclee print. 36 x 24 inches.

Private spiritual experiences like that (and the memories cupped within them) came to mind when I first saw a photo by Toronto-based artist Jonathan Castellino in Comment magazine in 2009: a snapshot of the interior of the now abandoned Church of the Transfiguration, which is nestled in a poor residential neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. The shot, similar to another image called The Narrow Path, was taken using an ultra-wide-angle lens to capture the interior space of the church [see Plate 1]; the paradoxical effect is that, though more is included in the frame, the shot seems intimate—the viewer’s line of sight is curved in a very particular manner, like arms reaching out. The image opens the interior space of the church, showing its vastness and vaulted ceilings, but also invites the viewer deeper into the shot, in the direction of the absent altar. I recall staring at the cracked plaster ceiling in Castellino’s photo, seeing as clearly as if I were there the warped and watermarked walls of my grandfather’s cottage, his Formica kitchen table set with soda biscuits, crunchy peanut butter, and his half-empty can of Copenhagen.

Castellino has said that his work—particularly of abandoned sites—is often classed as “guerrilla photography” because he goes beyond Do Not Enter signs to get many of his shots. But he sees his art differently: as serving what he calls “the threefold function of Truth by apophasis, Beauty by glorification, and Resurrection in the hope of revitalization.” The idea of Truth by apophasis—truth we recognize by its absence—when I first came across it, was mind-bending for me, because for a Pentecostal, Truth equals God who is the Truth, and God is present to believers in the Holy Spirit who Christians ask to “infill” them. God, therefore, is always present. God is Truth.

And Truth is always here: now—with us.

Even in a bare-walled church like ours without a real altar or the faces of saints or Christ’s body twisted on a cross. These symbols of God were absent from the church I grew up in, but God was not absent. So, in that still space in my skull, staring at Castellino’s photo, I realized something: my faith tradition was all about approaching Truth by apophasis, seeking a God whose symbolic representations are, well, absent.

I’m inescapably Protestant in that way. And, because of that, I have to ask myself if the image of an abandoned church resonates with me because of my iconoclastic sensibility or for some other reason. (And how am I to explain the strange memories evoked by the image—the smell of my grandfather’s skin?)

I recall first looking at the photo online and feeling God’s presence, as keenly as in those still moments during altar calls as a kid. But why? Because of the absence of iconography, maybe: the statues of saints I’d grown up believing were Catholic idols in need of smashing. (There is still a midget Cromwell in me, a puritan devil I can’t seem to exorcise no matter how much Catholic literature and theology I read—and I read a fair bit nowadays.)

At any rate, I’ve always been suspicious of material sacraments, as opposed to experiential ones, like altar calls or charismatic worship services where I’ve felt consumed by Holy Spirit fire. For a long time I thought this was just part of being evangelical, but I’ve come to see the same thing in Flannery O’Connor, whose (often Protestant) fictional characters experience searing moments when all they thought they were—all that made them them—is blasted to ash. And it is that blasted, cratered sense of self that, for O’Connor, was holy.

In absence, the possibility for presence: resurrection.

Absence, then—that empty church; the recollection of my grandfather’s vacant chair—became, in Castellino’s The Narrow Path, a sacrament, at least to my Pentecostal mind. The image is an empty vessel for my associations, thoughts, and memories—mainly for how I feel about contemporary evangelicalism, but also for how I feel about my own life as a Pentecostal skulking in the back pews of other churches—Mennonite, Wesleyan, Episcopalian, Catholic. And the vessel—Castellino’s photo—has become as holy as the experiences and memories I’ve poured into it over the last six years.

I now realize that both image and receptor—cup and consciousness; Castellino’s photo and my recollections—have been sacramentalized: both consubstantiated, both made “holy, wholly.” That last phrase is the tagline of Castellino’s website, SacramentalPerception.com. The full line reads, “Everything is Holy, Wholly,” which is a very Catholic idea: one that comes, in part, out of Castellino’s papist background and resonates with the idea that the whole world is sacred to a Catholic. O’Connor said as much in her essays and letters, as has Annie Dillard, whose Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm Castellino has often cited in our email and Facebook conversations over the past several years.

Other writers, like Andrew Greeley, have pushed the point further, though, claiming that the church—the physical building—is to a Catholic more sacred or “specially graced.” And, perhaps because I find Castellino’s photographs of abandoned churches uniquely evocative, I put the question to him in an email, asking if he saw churches differently than other abandoned places—as more holy. He responded by saying:

A building abandoned no longer serves the purpose for which it was built. We know this. The transit is to an aesthetic place, for the artist, one that preserves somehow the memory of the people who left it, who may now themselves be forgotten. From a Christian perspective, [photographing these churches] is an exploration of the place where God dwelt, the place where His people gathered in community. The question posed, then, is whether the absence of the flock is a signal of a Divine absence. This is something I struggle with. Ordinary language fails me here, and I use the photograph to try and figure it all out. Writing with light: I cannot think of a more appropriate tool.

Photography as writing with light—writing not to present a thesis about these spaces and why they are holy, but writing: angling the lens, retaking the shot, adjusting the settings, waiting, snapping again, thinking, considering the image framed—the light, the shadows, the silence—all to wrestle with the mystery of God’s “real presence” and what that might mean in the sacrament of such a space.

I get how a photograph can be sacramental, but I find it interesting that even the questions explored in snapping and sharing a picture are part of its sacrament. Which means I get to converse with Castellino when he asks whether the absence of the flock signals Divine absence. Do the empty churches in rustbelt America signify a God who’s moved elsewhere—maybe Florida? Or, to paraphrase Hopkins, do “the dearest freshness deep down things” still live? Is the world still “charged with the grandeur of God”? Is everything holy, even the cracked foundations? Perhaps the photograph titled Still Here, a rare color shot of a stained-glass window glowing dimly, is Castellino’s answer. Or, more likely, that image is part of the conversation Castellino is provoking with his camera: writing with light that in some images seems gone into “the black West” and in others like dawn “at the brown brink eastward” springing, as in Hopkins’s poem—like the light that causes old stained-glass windows to blush. The latter are the images of Castellino’s that I gravitate toward. The ones that make me think of resurrection, new life—hope. (I’m not a big fan of Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets.”) That’s the Pentecostal in me: the charismatic not used to—or comfortable with—seeing my God crucified every Sunday on the wall behind the altar. Such a God seems useless. Why suspend the moment of God’s suffering? Why not paint Christ resurrected in glory instead—an image of a God who is alive? Why photograph abandoned urban sites rather than bustling downtown city centers or shopping malls or suburbia?

PLATE 2. Jonathan Castellino. The Vast Structure of Recollection, 2014. Giclee print. 24 x 36 inches.

If Castellino’s art serves “Truth by apophasis, Beauty by glorification, and Resurrection in the hope of revitalization,” then his emphasis seems less on Resurrection and more on Truth. Beauty, I think, is there in each image, in the glorification of every place set apart, framed as holy. But Resurrection, “the hope of revitalization,” seems as absent as altars in his shots of church interiors. There seem to be few signs of refurbishment or rebuilding—except perhaps in images filled with scaffolding like The Vast Structure of Recollection [see Plate 2]. And yet Castellino’s images do appear charged with “God’s grandeur” in a different but no less surprising way than Hopkins’s sprung verse.

What truly surprises me about Castellino’s urban art, though, are the strange memories it conjures and the stillness it evokes. And that stillness jars me most because cities, in my experience, are noisy. Not peaceful. So where does this stillness come from? How is it seen? According to Castellino, it isn’t made but given. And our job is to learn to be more receptive—more open.

“If we take Grace as a gift,” Castellino writes, “an unmerited reception, then perhaps the quiet of church ruins possesses a sacramental grace that lies outside of usefulness.” Maybe, then, the grace I feel when I look at Castellino’s photographs has nothing to do with the potential use of these buildings—how I wished as a child that my grandfather would get saved and come to our church with us—and everything to do with the grace given me when I imagine the transfiguring quiet of one of those ruined sanctuaries, a quiet which I remember in my grandfather’s cottage. Castellino’s images of these churches bring to mind those long-ago Pentecostal altar calls when I’d imagine myself standing inside the cracked bone vault of my own mind—all anxieties gone to ash; remembering, for some strange reason, my grandfather’s last days.

I think of such a layered memory as an “inscape,” as Hopkins might have meant the word—a textured experience of my own thisness, a graced moment in which all my angsty adolescent worries about my flesh seemed silenced, like a hormone-fuelled factory shut down. Somehow, at those times, I knew I was seen by God as I truly was, and yet still loved. As a writer I understand this is how love works: to love someone you write about, to show them compassion on the page, you need to help the reader see them as you do—from all angles. Only then can the character be seen as he truly is—in all his thisness.

Only then is his inscape perceptible.

PLATE 3. Jonathan Castellino. To Forgive, 2013. Giclee print. 24 x 36 inches.

Castellino says his photos “are a celebration of phenomena simply ‘as they are,’” and that he is doing in photography what Dillard says artists ought to do: “deal primarily with what is ready to hand,” which, for him, means the urban spaces he pours his life into, exploring them each day with his Leica Rangefinder. Each of his photographs, in setting apart a scene, becomes a sacrament: a lifting up of things seen to recognize their significance—to reveal that significance, that holy worth, to a dull-eyed Protestant like me.

The scenes and people filmed are vessels.

And, as Castellino points out, such a vessel “may be scarred. But shed of its surface, it can also be sacred. Hopkins’s inscape was, after all, the mark of God, and not the name by Adam.” Names, in this instance, are like the furnishings and draperies, the icons and candles of a church, the surface of things; they’re given by Adam, made by people. They are beautiful, but their beauty is part of a deeper beauty given by God, a beauty beyond usefulness, utility, or practicality. Seeing the inscape of a thing, then, is “more about the reception than the object itself—the universal presence contained in all matter when seen in this light.” In a recent email, Castellino pushed this idea further, expanding on what he means by “sacramental perception”:

The sacramental is very much a presence, separate from the viewer. The viewer chooses to participate when they allow the thisness to express its fullness—which is its presence, just as it is. It is a stripping down of the materiality of the substance. That being said, the dialectic between object and subjects may differ entirely. This is our joy. This is what makes it our own. This is the definition of an encounter.

PLATE 4. Jonathan Castellino. Poetics of Solitude, 2013. Giclee print. Diptych, 24 x 36 inches each panel.

There are of course many ways one could frame this encounter in art, but one of Castellino’s most innovative methods is through a series he calls Inscapes, diptychs inspired by creepy Stephen Gammell illustrations that take two often contrasting shots and meld them by inverting one below the other and blurring the division between the two, as in Poetics of Solitude [see Plate 4], where a wintery, rail-fenced barnyard bordered by a bent tree is blended with a panoramic rooftop view of a nearby city. This shot pricks me most because in it rural and urban worlds become one: my grandfather’s world and my own. As an “interior landscape”—another way Castellino describes his inscapes—the image, to me, implies that I was as much a part of my grandfather’s world when he was alive as he remains part of mine.

Yet my grandfather and I are as different as countryside and city, farmer and academic. But despite our differences, I know he loved me, and this love joined us—joins us still. He never said that he loved me, of course—only gave me a candy and tied a yellow cord to a tree so I could climb up his “mountain,” the hill behind his cottage, without falling and cracking my head on the protruding rocks. He loved me without saying so. And I’ve imagined him vividly since his death, though I’ve never written about him, until now.

We’re opposites conjoined, he and I. “Conundrums,” Castellino might call us: two different people who, like the views in his inscapes, contrast yet exist together, and, when playfully perceived, coalesce.

Castellino’s inscapes conjure memories of my grandfather and make them new; but his inscapes also complicate my view of cities, and they complicate the views of critics who have wanted over the years to peg his work as mere “urban exploration,” photography that simply documents urban decay, which he calls “a totally twisted and narrow view.” There are shots of abandoned churches, shut-down asylums, and defunct factories in the works Castellino has classified as Contemporary Ruins on his portfolio site (www.jonathancastellino.com). But Castellino also does a lot of “rooftopping,” which allows him “some fairly unique angles of Toronto…on a larger scale than say, the street photographer.” He says, “Many of the city shots built into my inscapes are shot from the roofs of buildings, usually unfinished condos or abandonments.”

Over the last decade, with increasing complexity, Castellino has continued to explore the idea and the practice of sacramental perception, which, he argues, “may not be limited to perceiving inscape. I may have missed the encounter entirely, while still producing an interesting picture. It’s not a magical decoder of the world around us, but rather a situational gift, present when we allow ourselves to be still.” If we allow ourselves to be still—and, for me, spending time contemplating Castellino’s work allows for such stillness—then “transformation occurs, but only in the perception; it remains rather one-sided. The situation is the same, but our perception of it is altered, if we allow it. That we are allowed…to encounter these real presences is nothing short of a miracle. And the miracle requires a journey.”

Castellino’s emphasis on the journey—on sacramental encounters occurring in lived experience and not apart from it—can in part be attributed to his upbringing in a Catholic family. But when I asked if he saw his work as Catholic or as having been influenced by Catholicism, he said that while church teaching was presented as “intellectually stimulating, it always seemed divorced from the reality of the world” as he saw it. “As an adopted child in an ethnic family, the love I was offered is what stands out the most. And that love had its roots in the faith of my adoptive parents. In the way that anyone’s upbringing affects their later endeavors, I suppose that Catholicism has shaped my filters. But my most informative encounters are with the Christ in other people, which always seems so much more about stillness than creed.”

Seeing Christ in others is an easy thing to talk about, but in my experience a difficult thing to do. It’s a theological idea with which I am sympathetic, but it’s hard to practice. For instance, it’s easier for me to see Christ in people who are nice to me, like my grandfather, because I like to imagine Jesus as being a nice guy.

But what about assholes? Or televangelists?

Can Christ be seen in such people? Are such people as full of contradictions and conundrums as Castellino’s inscapes? And is it their contradictory natures that bespeak God’s presence, or are their contradictions—their capacity for giving love and causing pain—fissures in their lives, cracks through which, as Leonard Cohen sings, “the light gets in”?

These questions lead me back to a particular encounter I had with Castellino’s image Come As You Are. The photo is a still-shot of a chapel in an abandoned prison, and the modernist lines in the room—the tables and chairs welded together and bolted to the floor, the empty futuristic cross—bring to mind the living room of my grandfather’s cottage, his hospital bed in the corner facing the bright, secular altar of his TV screen.

The association doesn’t make sense. My grandfather wasn’t in prison and wasn’t at all religious. The two rooms are nothing alike. But the memory of being in that living room with my grandfather is vivid when I stare at that empty prison chapel: we’re watching Jimmy Swaggart preach—the televangelist’s hair is graying and his face looks worn. He’s already blasted the evangelical world with his confession about an encounter with a New Orleans prostitute. This is Swaggart after his televised resurrection.

It’s a weird recollection, I admit, and because I’m one who needs to make sense of things, I’ve clamored for connections, trying to comprehend the neurological flashes—like so many charismatically shouted amens—that allowed me to pass through Castellino’s photograph into my grandfather’s living room, the old clock chiming the hour. It’s two in the afternoon in my memory. Swaggart is in tears, talking about forgiveness.

And I feel as if I’m the figure silhouetted in The Vast Structure of Recollection, foregrounded against scaffolding that fills an entire cathedral-sized room, and that room my grandfather’s life—the shape of his mind, his body about to collapse.

In my memory of watching Jimmy Swaggart with my grandfather, my grandfather is a week, maybe two, away from his death. On the day he dies my uncles will try to carry him out to his car but he will ask them to take him back into the house; he’d like to see the lake a last time. And me: I’m too young to remember all this, and so this memory is made up.

Or it’s a gift.

I don’t know.

I feel present in the memory—in the image—but also as if I’m missing something. There’s no English word for the feeling, though there is one in Portuguese—saudade: the title of a photo-essay on Flickr that Castellino compiled a year ago now, after I asked where he was in his artistic journey. He said he was going to use the word saudade as a guide to answer that question because it seemed to express how he felt about “what a city is.” It can be used to express a longing, or “missing of something, even during a presence.” Saudade can also mean “the love that remains” after someone or something is gone: the recollection of experiences that once brought joy and which now trigger memories that ambush you and jolt you back into life.

Art, in various forms, can evoke this feeling of saudade.

It’s a dark, epiphanic experience, but one also filled with hope.

Much like the light illuminating the tiny window of the priest’s chamber in the confessional photographed in To Forgive [see Plate 3]—that window bright as my grandfather’s TV. Confession, after all, is a religious expression of saudade, the simultaneous experience of sorrowing over one’s sin and rejoicing in one’s forgiveness. The image invites the viewer to confess, and it does so in the openness of the confessional’s doors and in the infinitive of the title—I am invited to forgive. I am implicated in the piece.

It calls me, and my response completes it.

PLATE 5. Jonathan Castellino. The Rain in My Heart, 2013. Giclee print. 24 x 36 inches.

For instance, when I look at The Rain in My Heart [see Plate 5] I see blank pages on gravel, and the writer in me—the one who for years has avoided writing about my grandfather—wonders if the sacred is written on the pages of my grandfather’s life, my memories of him, or do I inscribe him with my sense of his holiness in trying to imagine his life? Or, as Castellino frames the question, “How much do we read, and how much do we ‘write-into’? And are the two at times interchangeable?”

That is, sacramental.

I’m trying to describe the encounter I’ve had with my grandfather in the still spaces of Castellino’s art, whose photography opens windows on old recollections, new thoughts. Like the window depicted in My Perspective, a fractured pane in the business office of a derelict candy factory (my grandfather always kept that roll of Life Savers in his shirt pocket, next to his tin of chewing tobacco, and those O-shaped candies always tasted of Copenhagen). It’s through these framed windows that I see myself, my own world. Castellino’s art gives me focus—a perspective. Each piece seems to say, “Look at this from this vantage point.” And doing so doesn’t foreclose meaning (or force me into Castellino’s mind) because I’m always asked by each piece, “What do you see?”

A work of art is incomplete without our participation in it, just as an altar is incomplete without sacraments being blessed upon it—broken and given.

I write this, yet I wonder: What can come from a demolished altar? Like the infamous Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit pictured in Castellino’s triptych Shape of the Living [see Plate 6], which draws its title from T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses from the Rock”:

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.
Out of the formless stone, when the artist united himself with stone,
Spring always new forms of life, from the soul of man that is joined to the
soul of stone;
Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or lifeless
Joined with the artist’s eye, new life, new form, new color.

PLATE 6. Jonathan Castellino. Shape of the Living, 2013. Giclee print. Triptych, 36 x 24 inches each panel.

This passage of Eliot’s is one of Castellino’s favorites because “there is a great deal of hope” in it. And I would say there is a lot of hope in this triptych—a series of images that to me evokes the contemporary reality of parts of Midwestern America (where I now live) and southern Ontario (where I went to college) in much the same way that Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece must have reflected the contemporary reality of early sixteenth-century Germany. At first glance Castellino’s triptych shows urban decay, but in arranging the images as he does—in the shape of a traditional altarpiece—he reveals that lifeless places, when perceived by an artist as sacred, can be given new life, new form, in that artist’s work.

And I wonder if I can do that very thing in writing about my grandfather—give new life to his memory, new form to my faint recollections of him. Can an essay be a triptych, an altarpiece or collage? Can it give a sense of my grandfather’s life from the few fragmented memories I have of him?

When I look at Castellino’s Shape of the Living I think of my grandfather’s outer life: what he did, who he was known to be in our community. But when I view My Name Is Agnes I try to imagine my grandfather’s inner life, how he might have seen the world through his bleary blue eyes. I mentioned this, in much vaguer terms, to Castellino—not mentioning my grandfather specifically—and to my surprise he said that the comparison made sense: “Modern man might resemble industry on the outside, spirituality on the inside.”

I don’t often think of my grandfather as a modern man, though.

But I guess he was. He watched horses give way to tractors, saw his seasonal job—shoveling sand out of a truck bed onto icy highways—disappear when salting trucks were introduced into our township. I know about what my grandfather did, different jobs he held—his outer life. But I know little of his inner life. And when I try to imagine that inner life, I have few images. So, I look at Castellino’s triptych of that abandoned church and picture my grandfather’s cottage, which is gone now.

Torn down.

My parents’ new house stands in its stead. But I still recall the old place—there wasn’t a straight line or a square corner in it. The slope of its roof saddled from the four layers of shingles tacked one on top of another. One corner, I’m told, was built on a tree stump that had never been uprooted. I imagine the cottage as skin to my grandfather’s soul; much of his life was, after all, imperfectly aligned—as are my memories of him.

Jonathan Castellino. My Name is Agnes, 2013. Giclee print. Triptych, 36 x 24 inches each panel.

Like my recollection of watching Jimmy Swaggart sweat.

That once-rock-solid urban evangelist is yelling in my grandfather’s cottage, his southern voice hollering out the open windows and echoing across our eastern Ontario lake. Worlds collide and coalesce in this memory. Swaggart’s talking prostitutes and porn, and I’m there with him, nodding, though all I’m guilty of at that age is desperately wanting to kiss a girl.

I don’t remember my grandfather’s look because we were both facing the evangelical icon on TV. But my mom has told me that it was Swaggart—that day or another, I don’t know—who gave my grandfather what he seemed unable to receive from anyone else: some scaffolding in his soul, the good news that he was forgiven.

Forgiven for not being a father to kids he’d fathered. For such sins I’d heard hinted at over the years: ones that found him out—ones he paid for over and over again. (He once gave an old Chevy truck to a boy who was his boy but who he never called his son.)

My mom told me a few years ago that my grandfather, referring to Swaggart, had said, “If God can love an asshole like him, then I guess I’m not too far gone.” He wasn’t a Christian, my grandfather. At least he didn’t have an altar-call conversion like I did, nor was he slain in the Spirit. But he must’ve felt himself hollowed-out when he heard Swaggart preach—cratered, like a demolition charge had gone off inside him.

Nobody I knew at the time believed in Swaggart. He was a joke, a hypocrite. A burned-out Pentecostal preacher. My grandfather knew all this, of course. He watched the news.

But Swaggart’s words that day became a sacrament for him—presence where there seemed only absence. They stilled him somehow, and showed him his own holy, human worth. They gave him his life back.

Alistair MacLoed once wrote that “we are all better when we’re loved”—loved by those present in our lives and those now gone; loved by those we see and those we do not. It’s easy to know the first, to glimpse such care in smiling faces. But it’s hard to see the latter: difficult to imagine what’s not apparent. (How can I know my grandfather’s joy when he never smiled in pictures?) That is why we need sacraments, and art: to give us the beauty of the oft unseen love in our lives.

I realize now that I’ve been trying to piece together what is not whole: in some fragmented way to make whole what is broken, to control it, to account for my encounter with (and through) Castellino’s art. In the end, all I have is enough light to glimpse this mystery somehow present in the demolished rooms that are my grandfather’s life now long gone.

And discovering this mystery is joy—joy written with light and words, Castellino’s art and my memories cupped in those images, these words.

Bittersweet joy that tastes of candy and Copenhagen.


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