Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Revisiting a Classic: The Practice of the Presence of God

The Practice of the Presence of God is one of those classic works of devotion that I feel I should have read in its entirety...but I'm not sure I ever have. I know I've read it in excerpt, but it's been a while since I've done even that. Still the idea of Brother Lawrence, living his simple, every-day life in a 17th century monastery and practicing his awareness of God's presence while he washes dishes is very appealing to this tired, simple, every-day mom-teacher-writer. So today I thought I would pick it up and start it anew.

The funny thing was, I loved the first page so much, I couldn't get past it. (Okay, today was a busy day...but still...I really felt the need to linger on those opening paragraphs.)

Here's what I especially loved in those first few paragraphs:

  • That he felt his first deep "kindling" of love towards God when contemplating a bare, winter tree and considering how it would soon bloom with flowers and fruit again. This gave him a vision of God's providence and power.
  •  That when he first joined the monastery, he assumed everything about the life would show him his awkwardness and faults and that he'd be making a big sacrifice to enter that kind of life, but God instead gave him years of satisfaction and contentment. (Surprise! How like God to give us joy where we expect difficulty!)
  • That we need to be faithful in times of dryness, insensibility, and "irksomeness in prayer," that our faithfulness in times like those could do much for our growth in love for God. (I love how he just candidly admits to irksome prayer times.)
  • That instead of troubling himself and freaking out (okay, my paraphrase) about how bad people could be and how awful the world was getting, he marveled that, given the power of sin, things weren't worse, he prayed for those who were sinning, and he trusted that God could remedy anything. And after that, he wouldn't trouble himself about those things anymore. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Staying Power of Art

My husband brings home the most interesting books. This week it's Charles M. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time.

You may think you don't know Knight, but if you're at least forty, you probably do -- even if not by name. Knight was the artist/naturalist who, for many years, was the "go-to" guy for artistic renderings of dinosaurs in museums and textbooks.

Although the jury is still out on what dinosaurs looked like/acted like (in recent years, there's been a switch to quicker moving avian-like as opposed to slower moving reptilian-like) it was Knight's imaginative renderings, based on fossil reconstructions and the scholarship of his day, that captured the public imagination for so many years. When I look at the paintings in this book, especially of his T-Rex and Brontosaurus, I harken back to elementary school...and I also think "yup...that's what's dinosaurs look like." Stephen J. Gould is referenced for saying that "although Knight never published original research in scientific journals, he was more influential in shaping our ideas about ancient extinct animals than any paleontologist who ever lived."

I found this buzzing around my brain this morning as I thought again about what I reflected on in my last post ("Feeling and Thinking"). The power of imaginative work that engages our senses as well as our minds is staggering. Work that captures our curiosity, makes us feel or ponder, has real longevity -- in our own lives and in the life of the culture. It's not that creative artists can't be scholarly -- many creative artists are also scholars, or are creating their works of art (paintings, songs, stories) as part of a responsive engagement to scholarship. But it's the stories/poems/songs/paintings that have the staying power, long after the scientific (or theological) journals are set aside.

For evidence of that, one need only turn to an imaginative storyteller like C.S. Lewis whose heart and imagination capturing work has phenomenal staying power. So does J.R.R. Tolkien's. The pictures these writers painted of a world invaded by grace have an ability to raise questions, stir eternal longings, and move people Godward. Their work lives on in a way that the work of academic theologians of the same era -- and there were some good ones -- simply can't. I'm not saying that good, theological scholars aren't necessary; I'm not even saying that either Lewis or Tolkien saw themselves as theologians. But they were actively engaged people of faith who poured their grace-steeped views of the world into their work, with the result that the gospel truth was so intricately and beautifully woven into their stories that people still see it and marvel and respond to the whole big picture (and sometimes without even seeing all the threads). 

One of the reasons I think it's so deeply necessary for Christians to engage in the arts (beyond the sheer joy of doing so, in response to our very creative God!) is that it's storied/poemed/sung/painted truth that has a lasting power in the shaping of the human soul and a lasting influence on the culture.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Feeling and Thinking

“ Mozart fulfills me. But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it.” ~Pope Francis
Not long ago, I came across this beautiful quote from Pope Francis. I so resonated with it, and it keeps coming back to me as I contemplate my experience of both music and stories.
It seems to me that our deepest experience of either music or story comes when we fall headfirst, or perhaps heartfirst, inside the world that's been created. We find ourselves in the world of sound and harmony or the world of narrative and poetry, and while there, all we can do is listen, not think outside of the experience. 
When we're inside that subcreated world, listening is what matters. I think many of us have had the literal sense of being so lost (and paradoxically so found) inside a created song or story that it feels like a "coming back" to the outside world when the last note sounds or the final word is read and we close the book. 
Many of the best things we read or listen to do indeed cause us to think, but the thinking comes later, and that kind of more analytical thinking is a distinctly different kind of pleasure than what we experienced in our initial encounter with the work. We might think about the creation of the work itself: how did the composer, the writer, do what he did, and why? What thoughts or experiences inspired a certain bend or turn in the work that we didn't expect?  Frankly, I love doing that kind of thinking, but not everyone does, and I don't think we need to assume that a person who doesn't love it has had any less of a deep experience, though they may respond in a completely different way.
Just a few rambling thoughts this afternoon...more to come another day. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tolkien as Artist (Heraldic Symbols from Middle-earth)

We're continuing our study of imaginary landscapes in the afterschool arts program today. D. has been researching into art inspired by Tolkien – there’s a lot of it – and he’s also had a fascinating book and documentary video that showcase some of Tolkien’s own visual art.

I knew that J.R.R.T. had done maps, other drawings, and water colors. I had even seen a few of them (mostly the ones that appear on the covers of some editions of his books) but I had no idea how many lovely paintings and drawings he did. Not to mention some very fine doodling. As a somewhat prolific doodler myself, I was happy to see some of the interesting designs he created in pen and ink and watercolor.

One of the things that fascinated me most was to see that he had created heraldic devices, symbols for many of the characters and houses in Middle-earth. It doesn’t really surprise me to learn that he did, given the incredible amount of detail that went into the creation of every aspect of his subcreation: language, geography, cartography, legends, music. It makes complete sense that he would have colors and symbols in mind for his characters. But oh, I love them. As someone who likes to play with repeating designs, I find these symbols beautifully winsome. I think they have inspired me to try my hand at some similar symbols and designs for my characters in the Four Princesses.

They're all lovely, but I think this one, for Luthien, is one of my favorites:

(This is taken from the Tolkien Gateway site; as a non-profit, they use the image under fair use laws.)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Is Writing a Joy, or Is It Work? Yes.

Over the months, I’ve signed up for a few “writer’s pages” at Facebook, primarily because I enjoy the inspirational quotes, occasional writing prompts, and the spirit of camaraderie fostered by hearing other writers talk about writing. Today one of those pages posted this quote by Agatha Christie, which has garnered a number of comments, some in agreement and some not:

“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t particularly writing well.”

This is provocative. One responder claimed this was the reason she’d never be a professional writer. Another one said she wants to be a professional but will only ever write what she wants and as long as she loves it. (To which I say, “heh.”)

The problem (if it is a problem) is that, in good Anglican fashion, I both agree and disagree with Christie’s words, which means I both agree and disagree with the responders.

There is a very real sense in which being a professional – at anything, writing included – means showing up day and after day and doing the job. That includes days you don’t feel like doing it. And if you’re going to do something as mundane as, say, earn an income from writing, then you will likely be tackling some writing assignments that you would never touch unless someone said to you “we need this by Friday…can you do it?”

It’s what Jane Yolen helpful refers to as the B.I.C. approach to writing: “butt in chair.” There are days, quite frankly, when I would like to be elsewhere, doing something else, but I stick to the chair as though duct taped there because the work needs to be done.

Of course – and here’s the flip-side, folks – why would I be doing that if I didn’t want to write in the first place? There are a lot of other things I could be doing, but I choose to do *this,* even on the days when it’s hard or boring or lonely or not going well, because quite frankly I can’t imagine doing anything else. Even when I am not in the chair, I am thinking like a writer, processing like a writer, responding to life like a writer, working on projects in my head (whether that’s mentally mapping out a lead for a book review in the shower, planning a blog post while I cook, or having an inner conversation with one of my fictional characters while I fold laundry).

Not coincidentally, the Jane Yolen “B.I.C.” approach is one that she expounds in her lovely book titled Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft. Clearly Yolen, a highly prolific writer, sees no contradiction between saying that she loves writing and writes for the joy of it and that she needs a pragmatic/dutiful/persevering approach to writing sometimes. In fact, one might say that it’s the joy of the thing – the sheer enjoyment of finding the right word, of putting words together into phrases and sentences and paragraphs and stories – that keeps you in the chair (and keeps you from pulling out your hair) on certain days.

Even on the writing projects you really love, that you do not because they’re assigned or because anyone has promised you any recompense, you’re going to have times when you despair that the writing will ever be what you want it to be. Do you quit then? Well, sometimes. But if you’re a professional, you don’t quit for long stretches. You quit to go walk the dog or check the casserole in the oven or answer an email or read a book to your child or watch an episode of Sherlock or eat some ice cream. But you don’t quit forever. You go back to the page that day or that night or the next day, because you’re a writer…and writing is what you love to do.

Loving to write, however, doesn’t always mean that it’s going to be easy. I think this is where our culture tends to trip up with the whole idea of love and work or duty – seeing them as diametrically opposed when they’re really not. We say “I’m only going to do something if I really love doing it!” when what we really mean is “I’m only going to do it as long as it’s fun and feels easy and doesn’t take too much time or inconvenience my schedule.” It’s only when you really love to do something that you make room for it in your life even when it’s not easy, when you commit to doing it even when it’s difficult or when you aren’t doing it as well as you’d like to but still feel called to keep at it.

So the answer to “is writing hard work?” is a resounding yes, but that yes will feel much easier and more life-giving if your answer to “is writing a joy?” is a yes that reverberates even more loudly.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

No Joy In Mudville

In honor of the Pirates (and their great season though heart-breaking loss last night) the sweet girl and I enjoyed reading "Casey at the Bat" this afternoon. I gave it my most rousing rendition. Is there any better anti-climax to a narrative poem than this?

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

You can read the whole poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer here, at 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Re-Reading Sayers: Strong Poison

It's been a re-reading kind of week. I don't always know what gives me the re-reading bug, but I suspect it has something to do with busyness. When life is feeling full to overflowing, it's especially wonderful to go to the bookshelf and pull down an old friend.

This week the old friend happened to be Strong Poison, the first of the Wimsey/Vane novels by Dorothy Sayers. I am a big fan of Lord Peter's, but especially in the season where he gets to know and love Harriet.

It had been five years since I last visited this novel, and though I'd not forgotten the solution to the mystery, I had fun remembering how Sayers guides Peter...and her the very end. What I had almost forgotten was how delightfully funny certain passages are. As Lord Peter might say, "I'm frightfully fond and all that" of Miss Climpson, despite her annoying habit of speaking in italics. Despite the irritation, there's something endearing about it, you know! I found myself giggling over the passage where Miss Climpson turns sleuth and inwardly debates the pros and cons of pursuing the woman she's following (per Peter's instructions) into a shoe store. Such a dilemma...on the one hand, an opportunity to sit next to your unsuspecting quarry and strike up a conversation while you're both trying on shoes, and on the other hand, courting the possibility that the person you're pursuing may slip outside while you're shoeless, or even worse, in the "amphibious" condition of one shoe on/one shoe off.

It's wink and nudge moments like that keep Sayers books so lively. She is not always the best mystery plotter, though I like the plot of this one, and her novels sometimes struggle a bit with pacing (I noticed that again this time out) but it's difficult to care because she's having so much fun. The fun she felt while writing is infectious. Peter seems to feel it, and so do we.

Harriet is hardly a shadow in this one, not at all the full-blown character she'll become in later books. We see her only a handful of times, either in the dock on trial for her life, or in prison when Peter goes to see her. His immediate attraction to her would probably have been even more off-putting if Harriet hadn't been so tense and worried about the trial. As I said in my review of the book five years ago:

But in spite of this very strange beginning to their relationship, we readers can tell that Harriet soon realizes there's more to Lord Peter than meets to eye. Something about this wealthy, light-hearted aristocratic man-with-the-monocle inspires trust. It may be his brain (which is quite good at figuring out knotty problems that stump the police) or it might be his kind heart. It might be the way his sometimes brash bravado clashes with his child-like vulnerability. 

I still stand by that, and the rest of the review too, though I confess it's hard not to let the other Peter/Harriet books color one's sensibility when re-reading these early ones. Maybe that's not a bad thing. In fact, it just might be time to re-read Have His Carcase....

Related post, if you're so inclined: "Oh What a Lovely Gaudy Night," a reflection from 2009 in which I explored some of the wonderful ways in which Sayers deepened Harriet's character as the books progressed.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Seven Year Shoes: Gratitude and Simplicity

My all-weather mocs have finally worn out! I figured out how old they are by revisiting a post I remembered writing about them (and about the blessing of sister love and gifts) back in 2006.

There is something really satisfying in actually wearing out a pair of shoes, especially when they are good quality shoes that have seen a ton of walking wear. I remember, back in my younger years, feeling sort of in awe of Richard Foster's chapter on the spiritual discipline of simplicity where he talked about wearing out clothes. In my youth, I couldn't quite fathom that. In the past decade and a half, I have not only learned it can be done, I've made a practice of doing it. Granted, I've mostly come to this from the practical fact that we can't afford many clothes, and since I am a) not working outside the house and b) not growing anymore (unless unintentionally because of weight gain, alas) I am the one in our household who can get by with fewer things. But sometimes practical considerations and choices, when they become habits over time, can work their way into our hearts and help us learn and grow. Like the practice of writing and sending a poem to friends during the Advent season, or the practice of cooking mostly meatless meals.

The whole conversation around spiritual disciplines and daily choices can take time to work out in your heart, I think. The sweet girl and I were talking recently about why I first became a vegetarian many years ago (I'm no longer a full vegetarian, but only eat poultry and fish, not red meat or pork). I had a lot of reasons, but one of them was to eat lower on the food chain, partly out of solidarity with hungry people. That's a hard one to explain sometimes, because my eating less will not help anyone eat more -- just as my wearing my clothes longer (not getting hung up on fashion, and wearing things till they wear out) will not clothe anyone who needs clothes. I think it's why we need disciplines of engagement (like works of mercy -- feeding the poor, providing clothes to those in need) along with disciplines of dis-engagement and self-denial.

Any time we learn to do without -- especially if we let it draw us closer to God and to our fellow human beings -- there can be blessings. Doing without, or simplifying, in and of itself, is not necessarily virtuous. You can do without and possess a spirit of envy and discontent or anger. Or you can do without and feel pride in the doing without. We're really good at falling into sin either way, we human beings, even when we're trying our hardest not to. But doing without can also be a window and a place of grace.

It's not always easy. I am super, incredibly thankful for the generous gifts that helped us to get our car fixed recently. Not having a reliable car for two months, while doable, was plain hard. Our family has been there before, and likely will be again, and while I am so grateful for God's provision, I'm also grateful for lessons we learned while walking and riding buses. I'm proud of how my daughter, whose struggles with OCD and anxiety make it very hard for her to embrace change and deal with brokenness, dealt with those two months that were filled with other challenges at the same time.

I'm also learning newfound thankfulness for the people I see all around me who see situations of hardship and choose to walk right into them and do what can be done with love. I think of two dear friends making a difference with a homeless shelter ministry two hours north of me, and a woman in our church, in ministry in the town across the river, who is gathering formula and gift certificates for moms who can't get WIC during the government shut-down. I think of people who will never know how their incredibly timed gifts have sometimes literally fed and clothed my family.

It's so awesome when we become hands and feet for each other in the body of Christ. And it's funny how just looking at a worn out pair of shoes can sometimes be cause for doxology.