Monthly Archives: October 2007

Art really is contemplation

Art is contemplation.
-Auguste Rodin

I love art. I just do. I’m one of those strange, bookish people who could spend their whole day in an art museum, wandering the galleries and staring for long, uninterrupted moments at time worn paintings. Throw in some coffee and moments for thought jottings and you have one of my more introverted versions of a perfect day. There is some sort of silent beckons to me in great art, this call to come close and look hard at the single slice of story that the artist left behind in his painting. As a writer I have an unlimited number of pages in which to elaborate my philosophy, an artist has only the single canvas. His belief and love and grief have their life in the strength of his color, the fold of his subjects hands, the fall of light, the glance of eye. I love the mystery that waits to be considered in every painting, especially the old ones.

461px-hans_holbein_d_j_044.jpgSo yesterday, I was all for a jaunt with friends up to the Denver Art Museum. First of all, I turned one corner and was face to face with a Hans Holbein painting that I befriended through a book in childhood. My mom and siblings were equally delighted as I to see this painting face-to-face. Hello Mr. Hans! Then too we saw a Bouguereau painting of two girls; my future daughters will be great friends with the gladsome, natural lasses of his paintings. We had a guide who gave an interesting tour from the point of world view which I enjoyed. It is fascinating to see the belief of generations reflected in the vivid pictures they produced. From the medieval age of divine revelation with it’s plethora of sacred art all telling some part of the Biblical story, to the age of reason with it’s bright-eyed lords and ladies. You can see the thought and hope of each generation reaching out through their pictures. I love the emotion and fixation with light of the Impressionists, the passion and attention to craft of the Pre-Raphaelites. I love their quiet-eyed 763px-william-adolphe_bouguereau_1825-1905_-_a_childhood_idyll_1900.jpgladies, sitting in bowers of woodland and thought. I love the great swaths of color, the sun-loved landscapes. Regardless of the artist’s doubt or belief, I find a record of faith in every picture because every painting is an affirmation of some part of life. It was the artist’s attempt to articulate the beauty, often broken, that he perceived in the world around him, coupled with a desire for something to transcend and yet bring healing to it all.

I’d better stop now. I could wax eloquent for hours. There is just so much life-altering contemplation to be had at the feet of great art. I’ve made it a practice of mine to surround myself with pictures. It’s why I have my little art widget on this blog. I really believe their beauty catches at my thought, presents questions, beauties, hope to my mind. Pictures are poignant short stories left for us to read and the integrate into the well-living of our own bit of story. So I guess that I’ll end by saying along with Rodin that art really is contemplation. It’s a slice of soul left behind for the world to consider. And the great works of art whisper at just how well we could live if we but tried.

Now if I could ever just make my way to the Louvre…

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First snow and other small but generally delightful happenings…

mypicture.jpgWell here I finally am again; it’s been a good few days since I last wrote. Since then, the Indian summer days of our lingering warmth have given way to the sudden bluster of the first snow. We woke to a world cloaked in white. Something in the blue and grey enchantment of the snow sent me into a week of autumnal nesting that has ended in my own small world being appropriately crafted for the colder days now settling in around us. Baskets of leaves and berries, a dozen little candles, old scarves pulled out of the trunk, new books selected and stacked. All the necessities of a life made rich.

dangerous.jpgOn the last chilly Saturday I nestled up with hot chocolate and finished The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. He was a contemporary of Dickens with the same writer’s penchant for intricate plot twists and unforgettably piquant characters along with the necessary dose of romantic drama. His mysteries are excellent long winter reading. On a more serious note, I just finished Mike Yaconelli’s Dangerous Wonder. It’s a short book, very easy to read, but full of startling passion. Just look at the chapter titles to get a feel for the childlike fervor that pervades this book: 1. Dangerous Wonder – 2. Risky Curiosity – 3. Wild Abandon – 4. Daring Playfulness – 5. Intense Listening… It is a book about recovering the fire and frost wonder of God. I like it because while on the one hand urging a Father/child intimacy with Jesus that nestles close to the Spirit of God and experiences daily life as miraculous, he also advocates a recovery of awe, a new realization of the otherness of God in all his beauty and indescribable mystery. I like books that prick my heart and haunt my thought. This one did.

In other news, part of my woefully infrequent blogging of late is the fact that every spare chance at writing I get it is spent on putting together book proposals for two of my current projects. One is a book that has grown up in my mind through my days and years, a book about the “strange” gifts of God. The unexpected gifts of pain, loneliness, physical suffering, isolation and how when relinquished to God, they become the things that most deeply shape us for all that is good and beautiful. The other is a sort of “adult fairy tale” as Lewis himself might say. I’m thrilled to have the chance to propose either of these. Please (oh please oh please) pray that I’ll overcome my current writing block. (The diabolic humor of the universe sometimes floors me; here I am finally able to submit a proposal and now my restless brain insists on freezing? This is something up with which I shall not put!)

And lastly; in four more days I am off on a short, traditional jaunt to my second home in a tucked away cottage in Kentucky. I spend time with my beloved friend Gwen every autumn and the time has finally come. The comfort of her cottage and her friendship are some of the most tangible evidences of God’s reality I’ve ever felt.

So, a week of small things writ large over my thought. Not much extraordinary is in the air of late, but the ordinary is quite fulfilling in and of itself. I think it’s something in the apple crisp air…

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My Irish Prayer

May you treasure wisely this jeweled, gilded time,
And cherish each day as an extra grace,
Whose heedless waste would be a tragic crime,
In today’s tasks may you find God’s tender face,
May you know that to miss love’s smallest chance,
Is a lost opportunity, a senseless waste.
May you see need in every anxious glance,
May you sort out of the dull and commonplace,
An invitation to God’s merry, manic dance,
And may the Lord of the Dance bless you,
As He invites you to the dance of the hallowed present,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Amen.

(An Irish blessing by Father Andrew Greeley)

The merry, manic dance; oh Lord, here I come! I found this prayer in an old book about the Irish people. It sticks with me yet. I remember reading the author’s claim that when surveyed, the Irish were more likely to identify God as Father than almost any other people group. His conclusion was that because of that belief, that ultimate reality was loving and tender toward them, the Irish possessed a gladness, a culture of celebration that marks their music and prayers and lives. I like that thought. We should all be like that. Living as if our days were feasts spread out by a God who loves us. So, here from the hallowed present, I wish you a dancing sort of day.

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Thirsty

Over the mountains and up through the pine woods I’ve been… to my church’s autumn retreat for my college/twenty-somethings. And now I’m back… sorry it’s been so long! I had much time though for contemplation and rambles through brooding mountain meadows so I have plenty to write about in the coming weeks. I’d been looking forward to this retreat for quite sometime, just because it’s good to get away to the mountains, listen to people talk about loving God, and worship with a lot of other people my age. I went up this time expecting fun and some inspiration, some “good times” as my friends say.

It’s funny how spiritual themes weave like a counter melody through life at times and how they can suddenly burst out into a symphony at the most unexpected moments. I didn’t expect any deep spiritual revelation, but in a way, I found it. The retreat was called “Thirsty”, as all the teaching centered around cultivating a thirst for the living God, and living that thirst out in day to day life. I found my heart responding with surprising vigor. The thought of hungering for God has been potently with me in the past month. Due to some conversations and experiences in the past year, I have deeply questioned God’s presence in my life; doubted his day-to-day kindness or tenderness toward me. I often struggle with feeling or knowing in a real way that God loves me, a feeling compounded by some of the influences of the past year. But as I have gotten home from England and immersed myself back in this home life, trying to comprehend the shape of my hope and future, I have felt my thirst for God rising up even as I grapple with my feelings. I have felt a strong sense of his call in my heart to seek him, to love him persistently even in the midst of my doubt.

The first week I was home, I went to a Biblestudy taught by a friend. He taught on Romans eight, where Paul describes the reality of the Holy Spirit crying out to God from within us. My friend went on to say that we were meant to know God, to desire Him, to love him and he challenged us to seek God hard in the confidence that He would meet us. It convicted me, helped to push me that extra step in devotions. I began to push beyond an anemic perusal of Scripture to a robust daily reading. I began to pray the Psalms. I got down on my knees and told God that I loved him, that I was determined to know him, that I would seek him regardless of my fear. And with Peter I say, what else could I do?

In the midst of that, I began to read a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, a sort of extended essay on contemplation written by an anonymous 14th century mystic. I don’t know why I am so drawn to the mystics and contemplatives. It feels at times like painful irony as my life so rarely reflects their quiet. And yet, as I read this book, I began to remember that contemplation is really about a single heart; about a will that thirsts for the living God above all other things. What really struck me though was a particular quote (which, of course, I can’t find at the moment, but will paraphrase instead): God is brought near when we love him, when our love reaches out to him. He is near us anyway, but there is something that happens when our hearts are turned to reach for him with a hunger that refuses to be satisfied.

And so, with that in my heart, I went to a retreat with a bunch of zany people and great music and found faith reviving in my heart. I found a thirst not desperate or painful, as my thirst often is, but a thirst that rose up so that I would be driven to know God. With all the thoughts and study of the past weeks grounding me, I listened as each teacher spoke of thirst. The talk that clutched at my heart though was on the second day. The speaker that day said that sometimes our thirst is met with doubt, or pain and it is at that point that we have to decide where it will take us. I understand that. It is part of my struggle; matching up the ongoing hard circumstances of my life with the idea of a God who loves me. Part of my thirst is often self driven; a need for God to answer my suffering, provide for my need. But it is at that point, he said, that we make our choice. Our thirst can lead us into a life of doubt, an assumption that God doesn’t care, that prayer is useless. It can lead us to self reliance. Or it can lead us into mystery.

Ahh, mystery. Sometimes, he said, our thirst isn’t met with instant blessing or better lives. It is met by an awesome God who gives himself as the incomprehensible answer to our questions. And then he spoke of Job and his incredible suffering and the fact that God never answered his questions, never explained why he had suffered so much. He only met him with questions that led him to embrace the grand mystery of the living God. And in that statement, I found an answer. I have so many questions, so many fears. I can clutch at them all my life and let them sap the hunger and thirst out of me. Or I can finally come to a place of saying, I don’t understand, I can’t quantify or outline or comprehend my God, but I can trust him. I can believe that he is Love. That he is with me. That he crafts hope and beauty and joy for me even in the midst of pain. I can embrace mystery by faith. I can run after him with all that I am. And that leads to… surrender.

That was the conclusion of the speaker, and it is mine as well. I have thought of thirst as something that demanded satisfaction. I think it is perhaps a hunger I surrender to a God beyond every desire I could have. I still don’t find it easy to “feel” God’s love, I still wonder about this fascinating and very broken world. But my thirst is satisfied by faith in this God so entirely beyond me. I took a long walk on my last morning at the camp and felt the sheer size and scope of God’s presence in his mountains. The first snow was dripping on the pines, icing over the tiny stream, the sky was brooding with more snow. All was quiet. Including me. My thirst was wakened and satisfied all at once and I knew it to be good.

And that was a ridiculously long post. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: spiritual realizations involve long ramblings. They are only compacted with time. So take what you can. And may your day be marked by the mystery of our Father.

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Why, thank you!

0mathetes.jpg

I feel downright glad and humble all at once. Brenda, at her lovely blog Coffee, Tea, Books and Me, has passed on the Mathetes blogging award to me, originated over at the Management By God blog. It is for “excellence in discipleship”, and it is a deep grace to me because it both reminds and refreshes the spirit in which I write, books or blog.

I’ve thought a lot about the idea of discipleship of late. I have just joined the ministry to highschool aged kids at my church and I have been convicted again and again as I have gone through their discipleship training. They have rearranged their entire program in order to be able to put personal mentors with small groups of kids. Once I have finished their training, I hope to have a group of ten girls to teach, to love, and really, to walk with as they learn what it means to know our wild and beautiful God.  As I prepare to teach them, I have thought a lot about what it means to be a discipler. It involves the teaching of Scripture of course, prayer and worship, the basics of Christian faith. But it is also far more than that; I think it is a day-by-day infusion of love, of discipline, of grace into the lives I have been given. I want my girls, whoever they are, to know Scripture, but I also want them to live richly. I want them to walk into my home and be comforted as well as taught. I want to companion them in their struggles with loneliness or doubt, celebrate their delights, expand the eyes of their souls to perceive the beauty that is always near them. Discipleship is a beautiful thing. It is life, lived fully in God, poured into the hearts with which God entrusts us.

And I think that’s what this blog is meant to be as well. I am certainly not hugely knowledgeable; I struggle daily and often hourly. But I can record the beauty I have seen. I can repeat the whispers of grace I find in Scripture, pass on the strength I find in relationships. I can share the color that rises up like grace in nature, in song, in the small rhythms of these dusty, priceless days. I can live a bit of my life and pour a bit of grace into the words that fill this blog.

So thank you Brenda, for so graciously passing on this award. You encourage me greatly with your blog and your words. Grace to you and so many thanks!

P.S. – I’m pondering who to pass this award onto as well…

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I will be autumn

If I could choose a season to represent my soul, I would without a doubt choose autumn. There is an inherent passion in this season of color, an earthy beauty that is startling in its intensity. It is the season of paradox, when a riot of color signals death, when halcyon days herald the grey of winter. It is a season of change, and yet it holds a peace I have never found in any other span of the year.
I love the passion in this season; it has a vim akin to that of youth when the world is still filled with ideals and it throbs through the whole earth, running red through the veins of the leaves and burning the faces of the trees crimson with its strength. The sky grows heavy with it and the wind is full of its whispers.
Yet there is a peace to equal the passion, a quietness that comes like the still of dusk and makes the earth seem as if it is listening. The fields grow sere, the sky broods grey. It is the calm of acceptance. Death has come to the earth, and soon the bright leaves will lie in their graves. But the trees fling their last summer joy into a celebration of color. It is as if they have accepted their lot and the joy of their acceptance burgeons into a last grand declaration of beauty. Life and death have met, summer and winter are dancing.
And I’ve decided that this is how I would like to live.
I have a passion and life in me as fiery as the leaves, as strong as the wind. There is such goodness to be crafted in this time, such life to be had if we will only take it. I revel in life; in the striving toward beauty, in the making of friends, in the celebration of music, seasons, feasts and family.
But my body is of earth and like the trees, it is dying. Slowly, to be sure, yet steadily. I am young, but I already sense the rest to be had in all that lies beyond this life. The peace of acceptance is in my heart, a quiet of assurance that when my flesh is gone, my spirit will live on. That the color here is for a season, but the passion and joy will run on into eternity. I find myself at peace.
And so, I would live an autumn life, a life of paradox. I want to embrace all the gypsy restlessness of this season, revel in the beauty that calls so irresistibly to the pilgrim soul in me. I want to live the sort of vivid, crimson and storm passion that points beyond to “joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (Tolkien). But I hope that the very tang of that otherness will send souls deep into the equally great mystery of the present moment and its well-living. For the beauty begins here. The celebration happens in the gift of this very good day.

So here is a toast to an autumn life. May we all live it well.

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October

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood,
Touch of manner, hint of mood,
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.

The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry,
Of bugles going by,
And my lonely spirit thrills,
To see the frosty asters like smoke upon the hills.

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir,
We must rise and follow her,
When from every hill of flame,
She calls and calls each vagabond by name.

Bliss Carman

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