Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Thanks to Robin over at the Dharma Bums for the invitation to recall a moment of epiphany--one of those moments when the sign is clear that it's time to change one's life. Rather than take up too much space in the comment column of her blog, I decided to post mine here instead. It's the short version of a longer story, which I'll tell you more about at the end. Here goes:

It's the morning of New Year's Day, January 1, 1992. We're in the middle of an ongoing family crisis and I've heard recently from a professional counselor that if I want to help resolve the crisis, I need to "work on myself." I have no idea, really, what that means, but it strikes me as the last thing in the world that a polite and educated Englishman like myself would want to do. It sounds like the kind of psychobabble I most deplore. Anyway, this morning, the first of the year, I check up on my to-do lists on my desk. One is a list of phone calls needing to be returned. There are five names on the list, and every one is a Peter.

Well, that's part I. I chuckle, a little spooked. I tell myself that this will be "the year of Peter."

Part II, three months later. I find myself in Rome. I have been asked to travel here to write about "Secrets of the Sun", a major light and space installation at the Trajan Market by the Los Angeles-based artist Peter (!) Erskine. (It happens that there's a concurrent exhibition at a major gallery of the Los Angeles-based artist Peter (!) Shelton, one of the artists whose work I most admire. A constellation, then, of three Peters from Los Angeles in St. Peter's city.)

Ellie and I had been in Rome a couple of years before. Amongst the many things we had wanted to see was Michaelangelo's "Moses," one of the great art works of the ages. We had spent hours searching for the right church but--no accidents--had got lost in a maze of alleys and had failed to find it. This time around, I was determined...

Well, we find the church. It's San Pietro in Vincoli. St. Peter in Chains. We find the massive sculpture and stand, awed, behind a crowd of tourists whose guide is speaking in a language I'm not able to identify. Ellie moves off to follow some direction of her own devices and, for reasons unknown, I decide to follow the tour to their next stop. We peer down into a dark crypt chapel and the tour guide gives his spiel. When the group moves on, I take a closer look at what they have been gazing at. It's a reliquary. Contained within, I gather from a plaque, are St. Peter's chains--the chains burst asunder, as the New Testament story tells it, by the angel of the Lord who came to rescue Peter from the jail into which he had been thrown for the audacity of teaching the Christian faith in Roman times.

Well, I was born, according to the Anglican church calendar, on the Feast of St. Peter's Chains--the festival that celebrates the occasion of his release. It's how I got my name. (My father was an Anglican minister, and Peter was the "Rock," remember, who went on to become the foundation stone of the Christian church.) And it came to me--with one of those awesome shudders of realization that seize the entire body at such moments of truth--it came to me as I stood there, alone, gazing down into the crypt, that these were in some irrefutable sense my own chains, the spiritual and psychic and emotional chains that I had been carrying around with me for the whole of my life to date--and that the time had come to shake them off...

... which was the start of everything that led me to where I am in my life today, still working every day to shake off the chains where I find them, still seeking that ultimate liberation from them.

And how about you? Epiphanies, anyone?

(On an unavoidably commercial note, those curious about the continuation of the path I started on that day can find the longer version of the story and the events that followed in my memoir, While I Am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man's Heart. It was published several years ago, but you can still find a copy on Amazon.com, I believe (from 0.18c, plus shipping! Still, the book does have a four-and-a-half star rating...) Or I'll be happy to send you one. But to cover my costs, including mailing, I'll need a check for $15 from the US or Canada, or $20 from overseas.)


robin andrea said...

A grand epiphany, with a whole host of players across the globe. It sounds like an incredibly profound moment when you were looking into the crypt and recognized your lifetime of chains.

David said...

Peter, that's a good story. And it's cool that you were in Rome to see Peter Erskine's installation. I've seen his slides of it, but it must have ben amazing in person.

PeterAtLarge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PeterAtLarge said...

That last comment was not, as you might think, a compliment from me intended for me: it came from Ellie, who hit the wrong send button on the computer. Thanks for posting, Ellie. It's your first comment. It would have been even better if you hadn't posted it... from me! David, good to hear from you. Yes, that installation at the Trajan Market was quite an event. Robin, thanks, again, for the inspiration.

PeterAtLarge said...

Me, again. Sorry, friends. Ellie's comment was removed at her insistence. Too bad. Hope she'll try again soon. Cheers, PaL

Kat said...

Thanks for the goosebumps on a hot August day. I can only hope for such an epiphany!

carly said...

To some degree, I have an epiphany each time I consult the Book of Changes. Tonight, I had a powerful dream. I dreamt I was fired from my office job because I was out of favor within the group and as I stood by the elevator to go down, I was a bit shaken, because I had nowhere to go. I awoke disturbed, went to the book, and asked this question, how does the dream explain my waking life?

I have been contemplating my artistic purpose as I lose my former profession and make my appearance in art. Through other epiphanies, I have learned the ultimate purpose is to bring the joy to the people which is necessary for joyous assent. In this movement in my case, two ideas are very interesting, gentle penetration and ceaselessness. Both are integral to gradual development in my endeavor. Also, I am aware that my favorite image in my work Is currently a crouching figure. And, because I am in transition, I am a wanderer.

Here begins the epiphany. The book replied: The Gentle, turning into Gradual Development. No surprise there, for after thirty years of use, I expect the utterly specific reply. I have learned there are no coincidences in my life. The epiphany was in deeper understanding of what these mean in terms of the dream and the connection to this moment in my life.


"57. Sun / The Gentle (The Penetrating, Wind)


Sun symbolizes wind or wood; it has for its attribute gentleness, which nonetheless penetrates like the wind or like growing wood with its roots.
The dark principle, in itself rigid and immovable, is dissolved by the penetrating light principle, to which it subordinates itself in gentleness. In nature, it is the wind that disperses the gathered clouds, leaving the sky clear and serene. In human life it is penetrating clarity of judgment that thwarts all dark hidden motives. In the life of the community, it is the powerful influence of a great personality that uncovers and breaks up those intrigues which shun the light of day.

THE GENTLE. Success through what is small.
It furthers one to have somewhere to go.

Penetration produces gradual and inconspicuous effects. It should be effected not by an act of violation but by influence that never lapses. Results of this kind are less striking to the eye than those won by surprise attack, but they are more enduring and more complete. If one would produce such effects, one must have a clearly defined goal, for only when the penetrating influence works always in the same direction can the object be attained. Small strength can achieve its purpose only by subordinating itself to an eminent man who is capable of creating order.


Winds following one upon the other:
Thus the superior man
Spreads his commands abroad
And carries out his undertakings.

The penetrating quality of the wind depends upon its ceaselessness. This is what makes it so powerful; time is its instrument. In the same way the ruler's thought should penetrate the soul of the people. This too requires a lasting influence brought about by enlightenment and command. Only when the command has been assimilated by the people is action in accordance with it possible. For action without preparation of the ground only frightens and repels.

Nine in the second place means:
Penetration under the bed. (a divided line here, represents the legs of the bed)

At times one has to deal with hidden enemies, intangible influences that slink into dark corners and from this hiding affect people by suggestion. In instances like this, it is necessary to trace these things back to the most secret recesses, in order to determine the nature of the influences to be dealt with, then remove the influences.
The very anonymity of such plotting requires an especially vigorous and indefatigable effort, but this is well worth while. For when such elusive influences are brought into the light and branded, they lose their power over people."

And in this is the secret and form of the joy I, specifically might bring to the people. And the time is favorable for the movement. And this is different from Buddhism, in that movement, not standstill, is required and most appropriate.

What's more, in the commentaries on this movement, it reads:

"The firm penetrates to the middle and to the correct, and its will is done. The wanderer has nothing that might receive him. So, The Gentle means going into, or 'crouching'. (as if in a small cave) This gentle crouching succeeds in penetrating the nature of the influences to be dealt with. Through the gentle, one is able to weigh things and remain hidden. It is the exercise of character. (Again, different from Buddhism). Gentle penetration makes the character capable of influencing the outside world and gaining control over it. For thus one can understand things in their inner nature without having to step into the forefront oneself. Herein lies the power of influence. In this position, one is able to make the exceptions demanded by the time, without being inconsistent.

In issuing the commands, (art) it is all-important that they really penetrate the consciousness of the people, scattering the evil hidden in secret recesses, as the wind scatters clouds. And a second, still deeper penetration, to the depths of consciousness, where the hidden good must be awakened. To obtain this, the commands must be given repeatedly.

Here we have penetration of the realms of the visible and the invisible, whereby it becomes possible for everything to be set right."

This last touch, is another epiphany, because it jibes with my favorite quote by an artist, "to put the visible in the service of the invisible". Odilon Redon

PeterAtLarge said...

So, Carly, I've been dreaming too--as you'll see from today's entry, written before I got around to reading your comment. Now I need to go to The Book of Changes, as you did, to see what enlightenment I can get in the matter of my own dream. I plan on doing this a little later in the day. Thanks for the inspiration! Cheers, PaL

They call him James Ure said...

What a powerful story with lots of symbolism. Thank-you for sharing with us. By the way I posted my own epiphany today. :)