I was moved by the many tributes to Prince on the news last night, how his philanthropy, though widely undercover, assisted many in need, and how many fans were awakened or inspired or just plain made happy by his music and his invitation to dance and to choose life. In the middle of the night a vague memory came to me of how, a number of years ago, I was lecturing in his hometown of Minneapolis in a large Lutheran Church with a full house and lots of electricity in the air and, shortly before entering the sanctuary to begin my talk, a stranger came up to me and said, "Look over there and you will see Prince. Well, actually, you may not see Prince. You'll see his big bodyguards, but he is there between them." After my talk the same person came up and said, "Prince stayed for your talk but left during the Q and A. He's sort of introverted, you know, and I'm sure he wanted to avoid the crowd."
I confess to not being a devoted Prince fan so much as a distant admirer for his sense of independence and sometimes purposeful outrageous efforts to distinguish himself from the crowd. I liked that and I liked his song titles, especially "Purple Rain." Yet I did not follow his music nearly as religiously as did his strong fan base. I always wondered what made him tick and where his spiritual sensibilities were rooted. I knew he had some roots in conservative Christian movements like Jehovah Witness, and I heard him cited that reading the Bible kept him grounded most of the time.
But of course one goes to the artist's work to get glimpses into his or her soul and Prince's work offered many a glimpse into his spiritual roots. His attention to detail, his obvious genius at song writing and singing and acting and dressing up and handling an audience, all of it speaks to great discipline as well as great devotion to his calling, one might even say his priesthood. For if a priest is, as I propose it is archetypally speaking, a "midwife of grace," then clearly Prince was a priest to many of his ardent fans. He graced them and he brought out the grace in them.
His philosophy seemed to be especially devoted to cutting through dualisms, whether those of gay and straight, male and female, sex and spirituality, black and white, personal and societal. The fact that he grew up in Minneapolis, one of the whitest cities in the US, and called that his home by choice his whole life long says something about his ability to cross boundaries. It was striking that the big party that gathered last night at his compound to celebrate his life was probably 95% white--which is pretty much the case for the twin cities themselves.
There was something wild about Prince, not only his outfits and hairdos and other out-of-the-box stylish effects but his willingness to sing about sexual taboos and hints at androgyny that seemed to some over-the-top. But as a writer in The Nation magazine put it, he was celebrating sex when the AIDS epidemic was making sex scary to everyone from President Reagan on down. He was non-dualistic about sex and sexuality and not afraid to link sex and spirituality. And do it loudly.
In many ways his midwifing of grace was well enacted at the rituals he celebrated and presided over that we call concerts. Gatherings where people of many ages and persuasions gathered to have an experience of something transcendent or greater than daily humdrum problem solving or money making or television watching or political posturing. He challenged apathy and couchpotatoitis. He sang that Life is a party and that all parties come to an end and so partying was important. I wrote something similar when I proposed that prayer is a radical response to life and we need to live our Yes to life and our No to injustice and enemies of life loudly.
Thomas Berry has said that our times require "fewer priests and fewer professors and more shamans." Maybe Prince was more a shaman than a priest insofar as his rites of passage and other ceremonial excursions were less rational or churchy than they were ancient modes of transcendental breakthroughs for those who participated. And of course his teachings were more heart-felt and more lower-chakra based than are most professorial lectures in academia. The dancing and the beat and the rhythm and the intonations and the repetitions by Prince were from an ancient place more than an ecclesial or academic place. They traveled from heart to heart. Often he seemed to go into a kind of ecstatic trance when he was leading the tribe at a concert. Leading them to another world, a more ancient one than the everyday world we encounter at work or school or on television.
I see in some of Prince's teaching some of my own. In his sense of confidence and in his attacks on dualism I see my teaching in Original Blessing (yes, we are all blessings no matter how wounded and I propose there that dualism is the original sin). In his affirmation of sexuality I see my work on Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh. In his priesthood and midwifing of grace I see my proposal in The Reinvention of Work that all workers (and surely artists fall in this category) who are doing good work in the world are priests, part of the priesthood of all workers. In his devotion to his calling as an artist I see mirrored my teachings in Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet, for I see him in ecstatic and mystical mode when he carried on his composing and playing of music and gifting at his concerts. In his basic philosophy I see my working definition of prayer as in Prayer: A Radical Response to Life (originally called On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear: Spirituality American Style, a rather wild title which I suspect Prince may have found alluring).
The great psychologist Otto Rank, whose book Art and Artists has been considered a classic in its field, has defined the artist as "one who wants to leave behind a gift." Prince has left many gifts behind, over 100 million albums sold, countless songs composed and played, many of which have not yet seen the light of day but surely will, many enthused and exalted souls dancing and alive because he spoke truth to them and encouraged them to live up to their own truths.
The Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote that "art is more spiritual than dogma" and he was right. Leo Tolstoy wrote the following:
"An artist's mission must not be to produce an irrefutable solution to a problem, but to compel us to love life in all its countless and inexhaustible manifestations. If I were told I might write a book in which I should demonstrate beyond any doubt the correctness of my opinions in every social problem I should not waste two hours at it; but if I were told that what I wrote would be read twenty years from now by people who are children today and that they would read and laugh over my book and love life more because of it, then I should devote all my life and strength to such a work."
Prince's work is of the latter kind. He devoted his life and strength to his music that years from now people will listen and laugh to and love life more because of. For this we can all be grateful. He was an instrument of Spirit, as every authentic artist is, and he maintained a certain humility about it his whole life long. He lived the truth that creativity itself is a mystical experience and a reciprocal gift between the giver and the receiver. Thank you, Prince, for putting your royal personhood, your many gifts, on display so that all who chose to could be graced by them. Your work, your shamanhood and your priesthood, will continue long, long after your death. Beauty does not die nor should it.
Matthew Fox is a spiritual theologian whose most recent books include A Way to God: Thomas Merton's Creation Spirituality Journey; Stations of the Cosmic Christ; Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest; Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society.