Madeline Bugeau-Heartt, MDiv '24, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on March 28, 2022.
First and foremost, I will offer a reading from the children's Bible. It's a fiction book by Lydia Millet and the reading goes, "You're right. It's more like art, poetry, but it still comes from what they used to call God, doesn't it? What they used to call God, he murmured. I think you solved it Jack, in your notebook. Jesus was science, knowing stuff, right? And the Holy Ghost was all the things that people make. You remember? The diagram said, making stuff. Yes, it did. So maybe art is the Holy Ghost. Maybe art is the ghost in the machine. Art is the ghost."
So, good morning again. And it's so good to see you all here. My family's here and that's exciting for me. Recently, I thought of a person I had not thought of in years, his name was Ben and he was a fellow acting student of mine when I was at NYU doing undergrad for theater. He was a frequent scene partner of mine and coveted. He was handsome and an amazing storyteller, honest, vulnerable, and nuanced. I was not the only one disappointed to learn, he had a beautiful French girlfriend. After our first year of the program, however, I learned that Ben had dropped out of school to become an EMT. I saw him at a party some weeks later and I asked, why had he dropped out? He told me it was because he'd had some kind of a reckoning. And even though he loved to act, he could not stand by with all the suffering in the world and do nothing. Now that he was an EMT, he felt he could be of service in a tactile and real way.
That was 10 years ago. But despite that, and the many changes that have occurred in my own life, I never lost or could quite kick the bug for theater. It's what prompted me to apply to Harvard Divinity School with hopes of melding theater, as a sacred space with timely, deep questions of the spirit and how we search for meaning amidst the great mystery of things. I want to deepen the container, I tell anyone who'd listen. But a few months prior to arriving here, I began to feel a little creep of anxiety set in. When I thought about the process of making art, be it, how to create or what to create, I drew blank after blank. This kind of panic and amnesia comes with the territory of being an artist. Not one project has gone by wherein I didn't start from a place of doubt surrounding the skills I've been honing for over 15 years.
But something was different this time. And I knew it had to do with the fact that the world now felt very different to me. What with the past several years, building to a cacophony of pandemic, racially motivated murders, the realities of climate collapse galloping ever near, the general chaos, division and violence within our country and the world, I did not know how to make work for such times, times that reek of collapse. The thought of making art felt like a luxury, a tone deaf response, and certainly not a necessity. I began to think like Ben had, how I might forego the dream I've had since I was a teenager to be an artist in order to be a more immediate, tangible service.
This spring, I am studying in an independent reading group as an offshoot of the Reverend Matthew Potts' class, Apocalyptic Grief. We meet every week and hungrily discuss the imminent demise of our time on this planet. We reckon with everything from the question of God's place and suffering to how to love the dying, be it the planet, each other, or ourselves. It was to this special concerned group of people that I brought the question I'd been wrestling with, "why does story, why does making art matter?" The conclusion we collectively drew was this, "What else can we do?" Storytelling, making art, is at its basis a way of putting seemingly random pieces together in order to create some semblance of meaning. And so, as long as we are living, what else can we do but try to make sense of such chaos, to bring the pieces together that on their own feel forsaken, in hopes of construing a narrative beyond just base suffering in which we might remember the things we live for, the people we live for.
I used to believe that I made art in order to shine light on the seemingly mundane. Why not expand this mission to include shining light amidst horror, a kind of revelation within the swirl of apocalyptic grief. The scale has just gotten bigger. Our souls do not need saving from the middle class suburban malaise I was lucky enough to grow up in and vowed to combat as a younger artist. That world no longer exists. For many, it never did. It is for the acute, existential woes, as great as our possible extinction and all the suffering that will surely lead up to this for which our souls need balm. The stories will not save us, this I know, but if there is meaning to be found, perhaps it will not all be for naught. At the very least, as long as there is someone to tell and someone to listen, we are not yet alone amidst the great unknown.
So with all the gratitude, for a purpose tentatively rekindled and profoundly altered, I go forward to make a new piece this summer, the one about vampires and the end of the world and menstrual blood and beauty and horror entwined. I am scared silly, of course. I still don't know how to make work for such times. Though, I know I must, if only to help myself and others try to make meaning of the things we are living through. And I ask God for help in this. Thank you.