Sarah James, a biracial Indian American woman of color, is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and founder of Clerestory Magazine.

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Drawing Out the Infinite in the Infinitesimal

by Sarah James 03-20-2023
Vija Celmins' lithographs inspire us to live out a posture poised for awe.
A black-and-white lithograph of rippling ocean waves, meticulously drawn by Vija Celmins so as to appear like a black-and-white photo.

“Ocean” (1975) by ©️ Vija Celmins / courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

THERE'S A REFORM JEWISH Sabbath prayer that reads, “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: ‘How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!’”

If we want to experience awe or wonder, we need to reach for inputs of wisdom that enliven our ways of seeing. As a person who struggles with overthinking and anxiety, I find visual art, like the work of Latvian American artist Vija Celmins, to be instructive. “The thing I like about painting, of course,” Celmins said in an interview with the Tate museum, “is that it takes just a second for the information to go ‘bam,’ all the way in, and then you can explore it later.” Engaging with Celmins’ work teaches me how to pay close attention to the life in front of me, noticing the beauty that pervades everything.

The 11-Foot Puppet Traveling ’Round the World

by Sarah James 12-27-2022
Little Amal has traversed more than 5,500 miles to share a poignant plea: “Don't forget about us.”
An 11-foot puppet designed to look like a Syrian child is surrounded by a crowd with signs advocating for relief for refugees.

The Little Amal puppet joins the 2022 Manchester Day parade. / Mark Waugh / Alamy Stock Photo

LITTLE AMAL, an 11-foot-tall puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee, is the star of “The Walk,” a live public production to honor millions of displaced children in the world. Named after the Arabic word for “hope,” Amal took her first steps at the Turkey-Syria border in July 2021. Since then, she’s traversed more than 5,500 miles in 13 different countries to share a poignant plea: “Don’t forget about us.”

Four puppeteers help Amal walk. One person sits inside her torso, visible through a cage, to operate her face, head, and feet; two move her hands with external rods; and one offers balance support from behind. Amal towers over the crowds who greet her, and the enormous space she occupies sends a powerful message: Forced displacement is an urgent and collective responsibility. The Walk embodies compassion, care, welcome, and belonging — core principles of Christianity. Amal, who has more than 170,000 followers on Instagram, has become a well-recognized humanitarian symbol, reminding us that displaced people are not “aliens” or “strangers.” They are our siblings, parents, children, neighbors, and friends.

Reclaiming Advent as the Season of the Midwife

by Sarah James 10-31-2022
As we anticipate the birth of Jesus Christ, we must remember that God appeared in these tender places — in human flesh, in the womb of a refugee, at the site of vulnerability and oppression.
An ancient illustration of Mary giving birth to Jesus with the help of midwives as they are surrounded by animals.

“The Nativity,” from Ethiopian manuscript Nagara Māryām (1730-1755)

IN THE EIGHTH season of Call the Midwife, set in post-war east London, nuns and nurse midwives of Nonnatus House assist a woman with severe complications from a “backstreet” abortion. Sister Julienne says to a young nurse, “The word ‘midwife’ means ‘with-woman.’ A woman in that situation needs somebody by her side.”

I’m pro-choice, which was an unpopular stance in the Catholic community I grew up in. For my views on reproductive rights, people in youth group called me a “baby killer” and “Pontius Pilate.” During Advent, specifically, I loathed the hollow teachings on Mary and childbirth. We sanitized the Nativity into a cute story — the equivalent of a Disney movie featuring a white family and a manger crowded with men. Only recently did I learn that some scholars believe that midwives attended Jesus’ birth. As reproductive freedom and care are further undermined in the United States, this is an apt time to reclaim a more feminist view of the Nativity and rethink Advent as the season of the midwife.

Seeking God’s Wisdom Through ‘Visio Divina’

by Sarah James 08-02-2022
The contemplative practice that renews our capacity to see.
A canvas painting capturing the scene when Mary learns that she will conceive a son. In this painting, the angel is a woman and she holds a gold-rimmed flower in her hand as she waits by Mary's door.

"Annunciation" / Ivanka Demchuk

AT THE START of the war in Ukraine, images overwhelmed me. Families crowding onto trains. Teachers holding assault weapons. Nigerian students being held at the border. The clash of human tenderness with extraordinary aggression was arresting. In between checking updates from a friend—an art curator sheltering in Kyiv—Instagram suggested I follow Lviv-based contemporary icon artist Ivanka Demchuk. With fears of global annihilation humming in my head, Demchuk’s fresh, calming pieces, such as “Annunciation” and “Sophia the Wisdom of God,” captivated my attention and softened the edges of my growing despair.

In recent years, Lviv has become a hub of Christian sacred art technique and production. Lviv National Academy of Arts, from which Demchuk graduated, teaches icon creation, sacred space decoration, and icon theology. For centuries, icons helped make Christianity accessible to illiterate populations. But today, it strikes me that we need this life-giving artform in new ways. We are inundated with photographs of violence, from destruction in Ukraine to police brutality in our neighborhoods. Jesus Christ, our Wounded Healer, taught his disciples how to see injustice and move toward it. How can we, as Christian people committed to justice, cultivate these twinned capacities—seeing clearly and seeking social healing—within ourselves?