Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Small Look Back: Summer and Liminality

A few weeks back, a post I wrote appeared on the Art House America blog. I love that blog and appreciated being asked again to contribute. I meant to put a link to the post on my blog, but with school starting up and my wifi bugging out at home, I never did. Well, for those who didn't catch the AHA post, I am posting the entire piece here. As the cool edges of fall begin to take hold, the post is a small backward look, reflecting the kind of summer I experienced--slow, quiet, with spaces for writing and tending others. This piece is more vulnerable than other things I write, but it is a good thing to write about those places where deep calls to deep. As I tell my Autobiographical Writing students, a class I'm teaching right now, we need to increase our literacy of our own inner landscapes in order to live fearless and authentic lives. May that be true of us all. Thanks for reading.

It is early August, and I am on the second floor of the university library on the campus where I teach. The school grounds rise lush and full after so much generosity of heat and rain and light, beauty now pouring in through the floor-to-ceiling window next to my table. The deserted floor is stillness, save my hive of the mind, as I work over an essay begun two summers ago, trying to conjure its closure, engaging in the slow, steady work of knitting together these little pictures of the world, of life.

I began this writing project—a book-length collection of literary essays on faith and writing—during a sabbatical four years ago. The project has ebbed and flowed, drifted through certainty and doubt, call and confusion. In the last six months, my proposal has been rejected by a handful of agents—unsurprising, really, I know this project is a hard sell.

A pencil fidgets in my hand, tapping my yellow legal pad. There is so much difficulty in the saying of things as I scratch away at sentences in this room, alone, windowed away from summer. My first paycheck of August reflects this year's teaching contract—vast diminishment, a pay cut I requested that felt like spiritual call to buy time. But everything slows now—sleepy words and thoughts—and nothing about these essays, their future, is remotely clear. I don’t even know how the one scattered on this table will end.

I look up. The library's emotionless air and light remain a hymn of constancy, and all around me, the rows of books darken the spaces between shelves.

*       *        *

The Catholics have a word for these places—liminal space, liminal from the Latin meaning threshold—in times of hard transition, in the awkward footing between old and new, in lives pressed toward change, whether birth or death. It is a time of disequilibrium, imbalance, teetering at the edge of the unknown. Liminality is marked by darkness, a lack of control, yet spiritual guides call it sacred space where the only genuine transformation occurs.

*        *        *

My mother has cancer. Almost eleven months ago, in October, she was given three to six months to live. In those first months, I wept and waited, last fall semester a nightmare, deep breaths to pull myself together in classroom doorways, my brain on a numbing kind of auto-pilot, grief coursing through me like electricity. All that passed, calming into Christmas, spring, and now late summer, and she remains reasonably stable. The hospice nurse visits weekly and is not concerned. We are completely off the given medical maps.

When I decided to bring meals over more regularly, I began internet searches for recipes, needing dishes beyond my personal throw-together style, tapping in search terms like "chicken noodle casserole" or "easy stroganoff." I bought a bigger crock pot and bottles of wine for cooking, filling my refrigerator with good cuts of beef, shallots, and mushrooms. When I stand in my small kitchen, carefully measuring and splicing together all the ingredients in a frying pan, it feels like purchasing goodness or hope.

Tonight, we sit together, my mother, father, and I, in the small dining room, surrounded by antiqued-flower wallpaper, and eat beef short ribs that simmered for seven hours in a Cabernet sauce, with pilaf and field-fresh Minnesota corn, chatting amid the satisfying clink of silverware against plates, as applause and ticking roulette spins of Wheel of Fortune resound from the small TV on the credenza. Day wanes and the light summer air in the room gentles everything, and for a minute, it's as if little time has passed, and we are all younger, wooled away from terrors of every kind. A little island of grace.

But after the serving and the cleaning, as I prepare to depart for home with darkness glazing the living room windows, I wonder how I can leave these two fragile people embracing me by the front door, and then I feel it, the edges of the painful in-between, this shadowland where we find ourselves, sharp and distinct, this place of vulnerability and hard thresholds. 

*        *        *

Catholic priest and author Richard Rohr explains liminal space: "It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer....These thresholds of waiting and not knowing our 'next' are everywhere in life and they are inevitable. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.

*        *        *

I climb into my Toyota and turn the key for the drive home, the illuminations from my car the only light on my parents' lampless street. I cue my Innocence Mission Pandora station, as I often do when leaving their home, wrapping the ride in a wistful, melancholy comfort. Exiting into Northeast Minneapolis, my car rolls toward the stoplight just before the railroad bridge, when "Snow" comes on: "I go out in the morning snow / in my pajamas and my winter coat / And take from the house our darker thoughts / And take away the memory of loss / And if I drop them into the snow / Will we never find them anymore?" and I let the words sing my grief into solidity. While the car idles at the light, a train rhythms over the bridge, the rumble of dark, secret cars winding across my windshield, glimpsed, then gone.

I think about the passings to come, the uncertainty I hold in this long journey with words, wanting to fully embrace the dim thresholds I’m given. Sometimes, there is a bone-deep loneliness to these moments, a lostness that buries me in the dusk of the car's interior.

*        *        *

I believe that our lives, our stories, are ultimately meaningful. We are marooned in time, and within our ever evolving pilgrim way, there is a strange goodness in the places where we learn to hold the faint mysteries of the eternal while at the brink of earthly affliction and darkness. With nowhere else to go, liminal space bids us to anchor ourselves in the present moment, to hold the anxious tensions, to see and feel and love more deeply the beautiful and broken world around us.

*        *        *

The library closes soon, so I push back from the table and gather up my books and papers, the essays ending still unformed but closer. I am achy, a little foggy and discouraged, but I know making art is part of the ongoing work of meaning in my life. I shrug my messenger bag onto my shoulder and walk the long aisle past the stacks, the oversized art collection, thousands of books standing at attention. I head toward the stairs and back into the hot breath of summer.

In a time threaded with liminality, all I have to offer is my finite, fallible self, my defenseless skin, and I try to hold onto my capacity to be faithful to the inexhaustible opening of time and whatever glories or agonies attend it. I think about the coming months, this precarious stretch, my parents and my infamous traveling crock pot, the urgencies of art, stacks of sentences that require me to wrap myself around silence and suffering and joy's quiet possibilities so closely that I recognize myself in every note of grandeur and desolation.

Classes begin in a few weeks, and this quiet campus will soon be teeming. The deep green will give way to autumn, to things I cant picture. I know liminal space invites me to a larger place of trust in God, and most days I desire to live into that. Car keys in hand, I unlock the door, listening a little harder, more readied for mysteryperhaps this is the grace of the journey.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Remembering the Sacredness of Story

The last few days of June, nine writers gathered with me to delve into spiritual memoir writing at the St. John’s Guesthouse on the grounds of St. John’s University. We all tumbled in with our luggage and laptops, gathering for dinner on Thursday evening. The group bonded at that first meal, and I knew we were in for a great retreat.

In our first session on Friday morning, we talked about foundational elements of spiritual memoir. The three that I presented were incarnational reality, contemplation, and the deeply spiritual value of personal stories. The last one summed up why many of us were drawn to the retreat. Think of people gathering around a wood fire, low voices narrating across the flames thousands of years ago, as well as last night in your neighborhood—it’s part of our spiritual DNA to be drawn to stories and to desire to tell our own.

There is a sacred element to our stories because, whether fully acknowledged or not, they hold a narrative of God’s gracious initiative into our lives. The fully alive man or woman of God becomes precisely that in part because he or she has fearlessly journeyed into the recesses of the past and owned his or her whole story and not just the pieces that seem pleasant. We are called to live fearless and authentic lives before God and others. Our stories need to be told. I shared with everyone a quote from Frederick Buechner that embodies these things well:
My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.  Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally.  If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.
And, of course, we do lose track of our stories and who we are in those stories. We lose the plot and find ourselves adrift, and sometimes we need others to help us remember, to encourage us to find, again, the thread of meaning and purpose that runs through every life. I believe it’s by processing, owning, and listening to the past that we are best able to hear God’s voice and press into our calling.

While I've taught writing for twenty years, this spiritual writing retreat was my first adventure in exploring some new places I think God may be opening for me. It was a little risky—inviting a vast array of strangers into a three-day retreat experience and waiting to see who responded. Also, I’m not good at juggling finances (picture plenty of nervousness as I photocopied checks and dutifully paperclipped deposit slips to them). But in the end, a few people gather, some risking by their coming, and the retreat, too, becomes part of my story, our story. Maybe the weekend was a way to keep seeking the bravery to hold the plot, to stay faithful to the story we're given.

And many brave things were spoken and written over the three days. I was honored to witness the stories of those beautiful people who gathered with me. I think we all felt that way. There were plenty of embraces on Sunday afternoon as we departed, and I knew something good and holy had happened, something God created with us and in us: it was all of us learning to keep track together.

I am planning to facilitate more writing retreats next spring/summer. If you’d like to know about them, you might want to subscribe to this blog or “like” my author page on Facebook (under “Judith Hougen”). Thanks.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Road Trip with Brennan: Remembrance and the Wholeness of Story

A few months ago when I learned that Brennan Manning died, I knew I wanted to eventually write about him and his influence upon me. The craziness that attends the end of my teaching year prevented me from drafting my thoughts. While a little tardy, I wanted to share a story and a reflection on the man whose ministry so strongly shaped me as a person. Thanks for reading.

When he said Brennan Manning would be our retreat speaker that spring, I was disappointed.

In that brief leadership meeting, I had touted someone else to quarterback the speaking duties, unacquainted with Manning or his work. Nonetheless, I eventually picked up his latest book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, to help prepare me for the retreat.

I was hooked. Over the weeks I spent spelunking my way through the book, as well as parts of my own psyche, I came to love and revere this man who spoke a language my soul desperately needed. And what’s more, he was coming to Minnesota to speak at our retreat! Somewhere along the way, I was hijacked by what I can only describe as my inner false-self fan-girl. And she had a brainstorm: finagle a way to ride with Brennan up north to the retreat.

This task turned out to be surprisingly easy, accomplished with one enthusiastic spate of lay-leader begging. An incredible piece of luck although, considering my inordinate fervor, I would have done well to remember Oscar Wilde’s dictum that there are two tragedies in life: the first is to never receive your heart’s desire, and the second is to receive it.  

This road trip would prove the truth of the latter.

*       *       *

The day of the retreat was a disaster: trouble getting off of work early, getting lost in the house of horrors St. Paul’s downtown highway system can be for the uninitiated. Frantic and afraid of being left behind, I showed up mentally disheveled and a little wild-eyed at the pastor’s home.

I’m leaving in that last sentence. It accurately explains my state of mind, but it also feels like an excuse offered for how wrong things started. Still, I know everything would have slid that way regardless.

And just like that Brennan’s tall frame scrunched into the backseat with me—touchable, real—and I quickly spilled my little story of how much Ragamuffin was becoming my soul’s manifesto, how important it was to me to have this chance to ride with him, to be with him, and so on—wild-eyed, remember? I’m pretty sure he was counting the minutes left with me in that too-small steel box.

The trip is tatters of memory now, but I remember how he wanted Diet Coke and stopping to buy a twelve-pack and some donuts too, and how Brennan consumed both, then falling asleep, his head against the window as concrete buildings blurred to farmland rushing across the glass. I sat there, charged, awake, aware that things were not going as planned.

We pulled off for dinner at Toby’s in Hinckley, a glorified truck stop and Minnesota landmark, where we had dinner. I was too self-aware and on display. I tried to insert witty opinions, to force some banter with the waitress. Something was off—I was off—this I understood, but I couldn’t find my way toward any other way to be in that moment. I’m sure I was giving off falseness like a pheromone.

*       *       *

The retreat was life-altering. I heard for the first time so many of the Brennan-isms that have become part of the fabric of my own life and faith. His corny jokes and riveting stories, his gravel-voiced proclamations of God’s furious love, his memorable syntax of grace—I was stunned, we all were. One phrase I scribbled in my notebook would reverberate again and again: live in the wisdom of accepted tenderness. And I do remember those few days with a sense of tenderness, along with an amazed gratitude, the kind you have when you realize the tectonic plates of your life are beginning to shift.

As the retreat waned, I faced the ride home with a kind of renewed hope that it could be different—I was more relaxed, more ready, full of a newness I had not begun to unpack. Not long before we all dispersed, I saw Brennan talking with another retreatant, an acquaintance of mine, in animated conversation. They were clearly connecting. He wondered if he would see her later, and she said, no, she was about to drive a young woman back to the Cities who had a disability, and he seemed a little disappointed. In that instant of eavesdropping, I knew the right thing to do—volunteer to switch places with her. I had my time with Brennan, give someone else a turn. I held that idea in my mind, pondered it, but in the end, said nothing.

A half hour later, Brennan and I assumed our places in the back seat, and we were off, threading our way back to St. Paul, largely in silence.

*       *       *

For many years, I separated the genuine spiritual good I received during the retreat from the terrible awkwardness. I reviewed my notes from the talks regularly but rarely talked about the travel time and never with the kind of detail contained herein.

My tendency is to brush shameful memories with one swipe of color—the road trip, my refusing to enter magnanimity when it was offered, all the machinations of my false self—but in recent times, I see the gleam of little moments: Brennan’s graciousness amid my mania, our discussion about creative writing, his excitement over his soon-to-be-released book, Abba’s Child. There’s always more if we are willing to look long enough.

That summer, I waited for Abba’s Child to appear in my local Christian bookstore and savored it for months, coming to understand more about the shifting of those tectonic plates. For years, I led many book studies on it with college students. I read the authors he quoted. Anytime Brennan spoke in the Twin Cities, I attended if I could, inviting others to go with me. I sought to more truly live in the wisdom of accepted tenderness. Eventually, I became so familiar with my own “impostor” that alone on a personal retreat a few years after the one with Brennan, I sensed a call to write my own book on the false self, a work that cultivated further transformation within me.

*       *       *

These days, I know that we can’t choose our moments of spiritual instruction like delicacies at a smorgasbord and become the people God is calling us to be. We need to be present to all of it, own the whole story, in order to find Christlikeness. Brennan taught and modeled that to me, especially in recent times when more details of his life-long struggle with alcohol were recounted.

When I learned of Brennan’s death in April, I wept as I sat at my computer. I then pulled some of his books off of my shelf, thumbing through the underlinings, my own small ceremony of departure. This passage from Abba’s Child seems aimed at us both:
To live in the wisdom of accepted tenderness is to let go of cares and concerns, to stop organizing means to ends and simply be in each moment of awareness as an end in itself….We can embrace our whole life story in the knowledge that we have been graced and made beautiful by the providence of our past history. All the wrong turns in the past, the detours, mistakes, moral lapses, everything that is irrevocably ugly or painful, melts and dissolves in the warm glow of accepted tenderness.
Beautiful words but even with all that God has done in my journey, I still have trouble leaning into them with my whole story, trusting them with all that I have. There's a lot of wreckage in my past but also those small gleams of grace which shine out, brighter and brighter. I'm still learning to look harder and see more in this one story I've been given—something I think Brennan did, giving me courage to trust more deeply in the wild tenderness of God that changes everything.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

God, the Artist and the World: My Guest Post

It's been quite a while since I last posted. I'm pleased to say that while I've been absent from blogging, I've been more active with my own writing (my never-ending project of essays about faith and the writing life). I received a four-credit release from my college this semester to free up a little more time to write, and I'm grateful for that. However, I did complete a post for Ross Gale's blog for his Creativity Series. The prompt he gave was to write about creativity and the role of the artist. I felt happy about the piece I contributed. It distills some things I feel very deeply about what it means for me to be an artist in God's beautiful universe. Ross just published the post on his blog, so I'm inviting you to mosey over to his place to view it. To whet your appetite, the beginning of the piece is below. Otherwise, I hope to be back soon with some musings in this space. As always, thanks for reading and take care.

Photograph: Corbis
When I was sixteen, my father retired from the military, initiating the last move of my childhood to a small town in Wisconsin. I was once again the new kid, the outsider seeking a space, a community, to call my own. That summer, I found myself drawn to night skies, the warm swirl of darkness and stars freed of suburban glow. Laying in the front yard of our home, surrounded largely by farmland, there was something about vastness that eased my loneliness, my wretched anonymity.

I remember cool grass under my shoulders, the sawing of crickets, and a growing sense of immensity. In that space I contemplated my life and the God whose existence I couldn’t shake. That scene remains for me a picture of longing, an attempt to grapple with, to reconcile, the random awkwardness of my small existence with an expansive and patterned universe.

To read the entire post, click here--and feel free to let me know what you think.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Unguarded Selves: Beauty, Tragedy,and the Artist

Last night, I had the privilege of participating in an event with Art House North in beautiful St. Paul that provided space to explore the artist of faith's response to the reality of tragedy, focusing largely on the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December. Troy and Sara Groves asked if I'd bring a piece of writing to share that night. I was honored to do so. I took a post that I published shortly after the horror visited upon Newtown and spent the last few weeks fashioning it into a more narrative and artful piece of nonfiction. My words joined with dance, drama, and music as we all grappled with reality of pain and the brokenness of our world.

The Connecticut shooting affected me as a human being who cares about the most defenseless among us as well as an educator who sees these kind of stories becoming tragically more commonplace. My hope is that the horror of this event will stay among us long enough for redemptive change to occur, and I believe thoughtful art, as evidenced last evening, is part of the change.

This creative nonfiction piece contains elements of the original post, but it is changed enough that I decided to publish it here. Thanks for reading.

This morning I sip coffee, climb the ladder of emails, sort papers in my college office while gathering thoughts and photos for the last day of Advanced Writer’s Workshop, something short, pithy, something for our theme of the writing life, wanting to give away pieces of a vision. It is December. We are all itchy for Christmas break. And as I plan a hopeful last word, school children in Connecticut are murdered in their classrooms, the story arriving in chaotic pieces, images of women clutched and crying, SWAT teams jackets draped around huddled children with eyes like dark waters.

The news becomes my comfortless curriculum until afternoon when I cross the campus to class, backpacks brushing my elbow, all of us bundled against the early winter snow and cold, gray breath pushing away from faces, these young people not far removed from their own childhoods, somebody’s son, daughter, faces distinct and precious as the ones before me now in our windowless classroom, bland fluorescent light stretched over us.

My students gather in groups around words they’ve crafted for weeks, a last exchange before their portfolios, seeking careful strings of sentences that witness the face of beauty in story, thought, image. I wander among them, listening, a dozen of us in this little room, and wonder at the efficacy of art, how it can seem too small an offering, thin and defenseless against the unfolding fact of tragedy.

As we collect for the closure I planned, I talk about Vedran Smailovic, a musician in Sarajevo during a time of civil war, who, after starving people were shelled in a bread line near his apartment, took up his cello. He exchanged safety for song, dodging snipers as he played in bombed-out buildings, memorial sites, and cemeteries, beauty his answer to brutality. I offer photos of him dressed in his performance tux, raising his graceful lament in places of ruin. The last, a black and white of the cellist sitting in a graveyard, hand over his eyes, blinded by grief, embodies our artistic vocation, I say, how we must bring our unguarded self, our most lucent art, to desolate places and participate in their agonies.

I lay his story beside the shooting, the calculated clamor of classrooms, hallways, and we feel it, the unbearable stillness of children. What can we lift against the terrible maw of war or madness? The cellist’s story reminds us how much beauty matters, that the words we create can remember the beauty of God in places lost to the amnesia of evil and despair. Our banner is the beauty we seek, a tender thoughtfulness, humanness, and vulnerability that inhabits the best of our work.

What are they thinking as I say these things? Some seem near tears, others quietly zip their backpacks. And me, I’ve spent all these years at sea in the holiness of language, seeking meaning, coherence, a syntax stunning enough for this bright and blemished world. But what if, in the end, the only person beauty changes is me, would that be enough? One person who is a little kinder, a little gentler, who more clearly sees the image of God emblazoned upon the souls surrounding her? And what if there’s more? What if the heart tendered and schooled by beauty finds its way into words, paint, or sound, and maybe a few others understand that something luminous and transcendent is happening on the page, the canvas, the notes, that something irresistibly good and true breathes just behind the veil of the mundane? Would that help? It seems so small, I know, but the way of beauty, along with God’s kingdom, is always faith in the slow way of the mustard seed, barely noticed, but which one day will come to define the whole garden.

In the wake of slaughter, we need conversations about guns and mental illness, but those alone are insufficient. Dorothy Day said we need to create a society where it’s easier to be good. This vision requires love, and love is the foundation of beauty, where we might more fully embrace goodness and truth, realities that find their home in the heart of God.

It is right to be with my students today, a blessing to talk together as we gather coats and bags, and calmly exit our classroom, whole and without fear. I believe there was beauty in their earnest thoughts about writing, glimpses in the poems and stories they coax together. They are just beginning the search for love and meaning in a broken world, to know themselves as broken, to learn that amid the brutal chaos, we are capable of beauty and of knowing the God who is the Beautiful, to understand that we must not fail to open our words, ourselves, to the greater story, the greater goodness, that permeates, changes, and one day completely overwhelms even the darkest of places.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Not by Bread Alone: Christian College Students, Art, and the Church

In my line of work as a creative writing professor at an Evangelical college, I get an up-close look at the handiwork of the conservative church. My English students are wonderful young people, possessing curiosity and a fervor in their faith. However, when it comes to recognizing artistic excellence or how the arts strengthen and enhance their faith, there is often disconnection or perhaps a tabula rasa of sorts.

My beginning genre classes are not simply for teaching tools and techniques to usher them toward constructing good writing. I first have to deconstruct what the students have embraced as admirable writing. Vague, smarmy poems about love or friendship or Jesus. Dull, emotionally shallow stories, sometimes presented as thinly veiled gospel tracts, where nothing very bad happens, with family-friendly language and an ending wrapped up like Christmas. Of course, on the other side, there is the occasional drug-dealer-fueled gun battle at midnight on Christmas Eve in a Perkins Restaurant—written by middle-class kids reared in the suburbs. Their view of art tends to cater to the bread of less lofty human appetites. If the students have cut their teeth on “art” made within Christian culture, the deconstruction task is usually greater, as this culture has the potential to immerse its adherents in a deep and infantilizing level of sentimentality.

This is both the frustration and the wonder of my work.

Amid the talks on technique, I’m privileged to unfold for them the great story of the God of beauty, how artistic enjoyment and vocation is affirmed at the start of creation, how beauty, truth, and goodness create the triune qualities of God present in all God creates. Always I witness a portion of the class eating up these ideas like cake, and I suddenly have the best job in the world.

The arts are not optional for the Church to be the Church. They are not here to doily-up our gray little lives. They are not some peripheral nonsense relegated to bits of our leisure time, if that.

Dana Gioia, whose poem I featured in my last post, has some pointed and eloquent words about the Church and the arts in the current issue of Image. Three questions and answers were particularly powerful, so I’m sharing them. Gioia is talking about the Catholic Church specifically, as that is his tradition, but certainly his thoughts can be broadened to the church as a whole (and the Evangelical Church, which has no significant history with beauty and creativity, is likely in a worse place as far as the arts are concerned).
Image: What has been the effect of this divorce between the church and the arts?

DG: The schism has hurt both faith and the arts. The loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and vigorous sense of the sacred, and the ancient and powerful tradition of symbolism and allusion have impoverished the language of the arts. We see the result of this immense loss in the cynical irony, the low-cost nihilism, the sentimental spiritual pretentions, and the shallow novelty of so much contemporary art.

Please understand, I am not asking that all art be religious. That would be a disaster. What I am suggesting is something more subtle and complex—namely, that once you remove the religious as one of the possible modes of art, once you separate art from the long established traditions and disciplines of spirituality, you don’t remove the hungers of either artists or audiences, but you satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious, and the sentimental.

Image: What is the impact on the church?

DG: The loss of a vital aesthetic sensibility in the church has not only impoverished worship. It has also weakened the church’s identity in modern society and limited the ways in which it speaks to the world. The graceless architecture of most new churches, the banal and formulaic paintings and sculpture, the mediocre music so indifferently performed, and the tone-deaf language of religious services reveal a Catholic Church that has not only cut itself off from culture, but also lost touch with its own great traditions of fostering beauty and creativity. You see this problem in many ways but perhaps most dramatically in the flight of artists and intellectuals from the church.

Image: Why has this happened? Does the Catholic Church view art as an unnecessary luxury? There has been such a rich tradition of sacred art.

DG: There are many reasons. The church is rightly concerned with issues of poverty, health, education, and social justice. In the US, Catholicism has always been the religion of the poor, especially poor immigrants. These are communities with huge material needs. But, to quote a relevant old phrase, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Even the poorest people—perhaps especially the poor—need beauty and the transcendent. Beauty is not a luxury. It is humanity’s natural response to the splendor and mystery of creation. To assume that some group doesn’t need beauty is to deny their humanity.

I think about Gioia's words, and I remember my students. In their earnestness, some try so hard to do the spiritual life "right," to become good girl and boy scouts, their theological ducks all in a row, as if living only by bread in these strictly human measures were sufficient. But that's not the story we're invited into, and maybe my teaching deconstructs more than notions about bad writing. There's something else being offered in the luminous moments of those discussions: beauty, transcendence, splendor, the spiritual riches of the imagination, the face of God in the world. 

Gioia reminds me that the arts vivify us spiritually and humanly, as well as opening a vital voice to a broken world. While his thoughts could be seen as discouraging—there’s so far to go—I find the way he uplifts the value of beauty and the arts invigorating to me as a writer and as one who desires to shepherd young people into a fuller experience of their faith. As the church, perhaps we've too often tried to live by bread alone when sweet mystery has been closer than our next breath all along.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Through Thickets of Darkness: Solstice Thoughts

Yesterday was the winter solstice, December 21, the shortest day of the year, the day the dark most deeply reigns. Perhaps it’s fitting that the solstice comes so close to Christmas. These days, I refuse the radio songs that push upon me an idealistic image of holiday to which reality could never hope to aspire (“it will be the perfect ending of a perfect day” and all that). The truth is, many of us find ourselves in the slow trudge through thickets of darkness at this time of year. I’m burdened by the end of a long semester and the work its closing piles on my kitchen table, along with wonderings about shifts in my vocation, the dire illness of a loved one, pondering and processing these months that have been among the most difficult of my adult life.

Into my weariness came this poem by Dana Gioia, reminding me to embrace and bear with my one small life, whatever the circumstance. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and one of the nuances of the word poor—ptochos in the Greek—is “one who is reduced to a beggarly dependence, one who is broken.” There’s only one kingdom I know of where brokenness is blessing, bringing me to the end of myself, receptive to a bigger story, and I'm grateful to be a part of it.
Here's is Gioia's poem:

Prayer at Winter Solstice
Dana Gioia

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.

Blessed are the hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.

Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.

Blessed are the cat, the child, the cricket, and the crow.
Blessed is the hawk devouring the hare.

Blessed are the saint and the sinner who redeem each other.
Blessed are the dead calm in their perfection.

Blessed is the pain that humbles us.
Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.

Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light.
Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.

In an interview in the current issue of Image, Gioia comments on the poem, saying: “It is not a poem for everyone. It offers a set of beatitudes that praise the suffering and renunciation necessary to make us spiritually alert. It celebrates the transformative and redemptive nature of suffering—one of the central spiritual truths of Christianity as well as one easily forgotten in our materialist consumer culture. It is also a poem about facing the hard realities of our existence. Our feel-good society tries to deny suffering—unless it can sell you a pill or product to banish it.”

So I’m going into this Christmas season with darkness and light in each hand, both necessary and paradoxical, both pathways to greater intimacy with the Christ that this day celebrates and remembers, a man of sorrows who embodies humanity’s greatest possibility of joy.