Placeholder for Hope
© 2003 Ginger Henry Geyer
Glazed porcelain with gold
Placemats: 1 ¼” x 18 ¼” x 12 ½” (12 parts)
Adaptations of Giotto's Virtues and Vices, Arena Chapel
"Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table."
Someone compared the conflicts in the church these days to conflicts over a big family dinner. The extended family you’re not so sure about comes to visit so you prepare a big meal. You intend to set the table in advance. You pull the heavy leaf for dining table out of the closet, then realize that you need help. It takes opposing forces to pull the dining table apart to make room. But make room, you must. The imperative for the church is even stronger, for the church must remember whose table it is to begin with. Whom can we justifiably exclude when Jesus himself constantly dined with “sinners”?
Some say that the dining table is the most powerful place in the house; it is where we grow up. Setting the table is a good habit, one that sets in place the anticipation of goodness made tangible, of nourishment and sustenance. At our home, it is our daughter’s dinnertime chore, a good habit. Like many, we each get into the habit of sitting in the same place-- the placeholder is laid down for us, we are expected. Habits are at the core of the vices and virtues, according to ethicists. If that’s true, how do we develop habits that lead to virtuous living? Which of the virtues do we lack? Collectively, the virtue that seems in low supply these days is hope. How do we become habitual about hope?
The virtues and vices have been listed since ancient times in various fashions, but conventionally they come down in sets of seven. Unlike the William Bennett version of virtues, others see holiness itself as a set of habits. A set, a whole group made up of parts that are connected and work together. The classical set of virtues is composed of four cardinal virtues on which all others depend: Prudence (Practical Wisdom), Temperance (Self-Control) Fortitude (Courage), Justice, and three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. The Byzantines felt that development of these goodnesses was a matter of manifesting the beauty already present in us. It goes back to being created in God’s image. The corresponding set of vices, sometimes called the “Seven Deadly Sins” are Pride, Envy, Anger (Wrath) Covetousness (Avarice), Gluttony, Sloth (Acedia), and Lust. Giotto’s version in the Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel in Padua, uses a different scheme of vices: Despair, Envy, Idolatry, Injustice, Anger, Inconstancy, and Folly (Stupidity).
In the early Renaissance, when Giotto created his fabulous fresco series, civic virtue was emphasized over personal virtue. So, in this set of porcelain napkins, the largest ones are Giotto’s Justice and Prudence. On the top placemat are paired Despair and Hope, opposites which must co-exist. Despair without hope is suicidal. Hope without Despair is glib escapism. Notice Giotto’s depiction of Hope. Her posture says it allshe leans forward and upward as if flying, but her feet are grounded in the edge of the faux frame. She gently reaches for a crown offered by a tiny angel figure who probably is Wisdom (see Proverbs 4). The crown symbolizes the eschatological reward for a virtuous life. The figure of Despair is a chilling contrastshe's hung herself and her weight even bends the pole above.
Giotto doesn't give gluttony a place on the wall (or at the table) in the Arena Chapel. But gluttony is usually included in the seven vices. The contemporary life cycle theorist Donald Capps, says that gluttony is the opposite of hope. It is related to despair, in that gluttony begins with a fear of scarcity, a despondency over deprivation. From that an insatiable desire develops, leading to hoarding and gorging, all based on a lack of trust. Hope can break gluttony, which some say was the sin of Adam and Eve.
Perhaps gluttony harkens back to the ancient Israelites tendency to hoard the manna, that freely given food from heaven. Later the Hebrews long for a table in the wilderness, best expressed in the beloved 23rd Psalm: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." In those days, a place at the table was assigned according to rank and relationship to the host. An invitation to share a meal was a sign of friendship; a refusal to dine was a terrible affront. There is a story of a pushy mom who tried to get Jesus to seat her boys beside him in the kingdom of heaven. He told her she didn't know what she was asking, for not only did such a relationship require personal sacrifice, it also wasn't up to him to grant it, but God. (Matthew 20:23) And he goes on to turn the tables: "For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:27) Later he also reassures us that he will go beyond to prepare a place for us (John 14:3).
A friend looked at my precarious bisque sculpture and asked two obvious questions that needed to be asked: "What do placemats and napkins do?" And "Why is hope so fragile?" Both questions made me think about protectionof our laps, of the table, of the world? And it brought up issues of identity. Who marks the spot for us, sets our place? And, if we place our identity as a child of God, do we inherit hope?
The ethicist Stanley Hauerwas links the absence of hope not just to despair but to violence. With no hope, we ask "What have I got to lose?" and all hell breaks loose. Great patience is required of hope, indeed what we must develop is hard-headed hope for an end that may not come within our own lifetime. Indeed, hope is the necessary virtue for survival. The habit of hope requires not just practice but creativity that can envision new forms and energize toward them. Art can be a vehicle for hope by making suffering audible and visible, by charging the very air with the pull of the "not yet".