“We must hunger after the beautiful and good... (George Eliot)”
Oh, you’ll take the high road And I’ll take the low road, And I’ll be in Scotland before you. For me and my true love, Will never meet again, On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond. Early Friday morning, with rain pelting my...
I’ll tell you mine, because I really want some new stories these days. On the bus ride out to class this morning, a friend asked me how I choose the next book I will read. This became a discussion on the various book lists we both always...
Cross-posted at The Rabbit Room. One great delight of having a composer for a brother is the fact that he passes the best of his studies on to me. Joel explores reams of classical music that I could never find on my own, and every time...
Bless You, o Bright One
From whose beauty every good falls
As a shard; refracted luminescence
From the burning, diamond Heart
Whose beam calls all things into being.
May your splintered splendor lodge
In me, a seedling radiance
Deep-rooting in my darkness, let
Each fragment of your beauty grow
And grasp toward its parent light,
And rising, may it reunite me
With the uncreated Light.
|BEHOLD the Lightener of the stars
On the crests of the clouds,
And the choralists of the sky
Lauding Him.Coming down with acclaim
From the Father above,
Harp and lyre of song
Sounding to Him.Christ, Thou refuge of my love,
Why should not I raise Thy fame!
Angels and saints melodious
Singing to Thee.
Thou Son of the Mary of graces,
O Christ my beloved,
-from the Carmina Gadelica
My post today at the Rabbit Room.
My St. Patrick’s day celebration was impromptu. I love all things Irish and think St. Patrick himself the hero indeed, but the great day found me mired in about a thousand unanswered emails. I got home from church to face the prospect of a Monday morning to-do list that stopped me cold in my tracks. The fact that it was Sunday and I was supposed to be sane and calm and thinking holy thoughts added guilt to my fretting. I despaired of fun and set to work. But a phone call late in the windy afternoon changed the fate of my day: “Sarah,” said my mom, “we’re downtown; do you want to just go for a quick bite of fish ‘n chips at Jack Quinn’s? Leave the emails. There will be music!”
I couldn’t say no. Jack Quinn’s is a dim old downtown Irish pub, floored in dented, honeyed wood, with tiny booth rooms windowed in stained glass just like the pubs I visited in England. It has the dusky depths, old-photos, and jumbled shelves of mugs and jugs to give it the feel of a real pub. But steeped in age and shadow as it is, the ceilings are high and sheathed in forest green tin. Voices and folk music bounce in a rollick of notes from the floor to the heights in a brightness and dance as good as light. For such a place, I always want to spare an hour. I paused at my desk and almost stayed. I stared at my list, I despaired of my life. But as the sun set, I flung down my pen and out the door I went.
And oh what a party awaited me. The moment we stepped in the door we joined one great, grand swirl of Irish celebration. The long room was crammed to its every edge. A bag piper rose to play as we entered, kilted and bold in the middle of the room, all purple-cheeked and bulging-eyed as he filled the pipes with song. Hundreds of feet kept a good tapping time, laughter boiled up like a drumroll from every corner, and voices rang like trumpets as people talked over the scream of the pipes. The faces in that dim room glowed like fireflies in a hot summer garden.
Everyone wore green. Eight or eighty, no respectable soul would come to an Irish pub on St. Paddy’s day without a token of emerald to honor the feast. Some wore glittering bits of jade or jewel, some were decked in the gaudy gleam of green plastic beads, some were clothed head to toe in forest, moss, sage, or emerald, every hue of the color of Eire. And then there were the men who swept by in kilts. They had that delighted pride of eye belonging to those who are dressed just right for a grand occasion. At least I had on my lucky green shirt, thank goodness.
I smiled as I stood, I could not help it. I leaned against one of the old walls to wait for our table with the breath of song and laughter in my lungs. I bumped elbows with strangers and swayed to the jigs flung out from the fiddler now on stage. When our name was called, we trundled upstairs to community tables stretching the length of a long, low room. Plates were piled with cabbage and corned beef, or fresh fried fish and chips. We settled in with a jolly bunch of strangers, exchanged names and stories, and set to the work of feasting. The music on this floor was softer, but no less pert. A band of fiddle, whistle, and bodhran kept our toes tapping the entire meal. Another explosion of laughter rumbled from the far end of the room as the fish salted my mouth.
And, “blessed be the day,” thought I. Joy welled up in me as if a new spring of water was struck alive at the core of my heart. Exuberance was a tide, rising in my blood and thought, a freed delight in the sheer gift of life. Forgotten were bills and furrowed brows and the dullness that comes from forgotten zest. Remembered was the ever-present possibility of glee, the limitless capacity of my heart to come alive to a fathomless joy, to respond to friendship, to lift up my soul to the cry of music.
A sudden silence came upon me then; one of those moments in which a part of myself stepped back, suspended in time, to ponder the scene and my abruptly joyous self at that table. Keenly did I look at the hundred faces lined in laughter, closely did I listen to the rumble of voices and music. I saw the clustered groups of people in sudden fellowship, watched as music wove us all into a pattern in which no one felt loose or at odd at ends. I saw the way good food and people pushed close for the eating made friends of strangers. I saw fun, plain and simple in the jigs and chips and tapping toes, saw the childlike mirth in the eyes of my family, felt the warmth of it in a blaze on my face.
And I knew again why feasts are of grave importance, vital events to be claimed and marked. Festal days must be kept with great resolution for this single glimmering fact; we are made for joy. We were fashioned for gladness with hearts formed for fellowship and spirits for singing. Feasts teach us to remember this core fact of our being as they fling us together and banish our listless thoughts and the loneliness that hovers like a fog around our hearts. Polite, isolated, technologically-tied souls in a sin-shattered world that we are, feasts remind us of friendship, they force us into a joy we might have forgotten in the midst of our busy, driven accomplishing of life. A festal day reminds us that in the beginning, far before pain broke into the perfect world, life itself was a feast to be eaten. Existence was a great song, our lives an answering dance, and in Christ, the broken music begins anew.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a dull-eyed ghost in my own modern life. I move about my days, working at this bill or that project in my quiet room. I bump about my hushed suburban house, drive my car along deserted concrete streets to shop in big, impersonal stores, and I’m lucky if anyone even waves. I work mostly on my little black box of a computer. When I get really lonely, I check my email, hoping for an offer of comradeship from my machine. Or I sit anonymously in coffee shops, wanting company, but wary of breaching the divide of polite silence that dictates correct, autonomous behavior. Add some grief, a dose of guilt, and I find I forget to fight for rejoicing, or even to remember that all good things have their birth in God.
Satan, I think, strikes a few of his best blows when he can persuade us that God is boring. That life with our Savior is a dull and dutiful upward climb toward a summit of righteousness always a little out of reach. We are close to defeat when we start to believe that God cares nothing for joy, that holy people are wage slaves to long days of righteousness. Work, pray, endure, and pay your bills, check off that list of upright deeds. And the image of God in our weary minds becomes that of a long-faced master whose only concern is our efficient goodness. We forget that we are called to a King who laughs and creates, sings and saves. That our end is a kingdom crammed with our heart’s desires. We forget that our God is the Lord of the dance and the one whose new world begins with a feast.
At Jack Quinn’s, I finally remembered this fact. Celebration cleansed my mind and renewed my hope. And I wonder, today, if celebration is a craft I need to learn, a practice of faith affirming the joy of my saving God. Perhaps my moments of chosen joy incarnate the beauty to which I believe I am being redeemed. On high days and holy days, yes, but also during the common days. A candle lit, a meal prepared, music played, and laughter exchanged; perhaps amidst the fear, the grief and need of fallen life, those moments cup a draught of new-world joy. God came that we might have life, and life to the full. St. Patrick gave his life to the proclamation of that very fact. I think I’ll join him by celebrating his day, and the God whose cosmic feast is about to begin. All joy is mine. Blessed be the day indeed.
I offer a few thoughts culled from a weekend of snow-bound reading. The ice was thick on the windows and the wind in a howl when I encountered these passages. Perhaps those elements lent a deeper sense of import to the thoughts below as I read them, yet I felt each to be potent, words to convict, to hearten, to quicken, humor, to dare a heart to further action.
First, for sheer fun, the young and scholarly C.S. Lewis’ concept of a perfect day as sketched in Surprised by Joy. Don’t I wish this sort of day were true, at least once in awhile:
“I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a good cup of tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better… At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the out-door world… The only friend to walk with is one… who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared. The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude… for eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably… At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies… there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven…”
From Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and I challenge you to consider how Nature (and by this he means creation) has taught you joy and then I dare you to take a walk with these words in your head and see what greets you in the wind:
“…I at this time,
Saw blessings spread around me like a sea.
Thus while the days flew by, and years passed on,
From Nature overflowing in my soul,
I had received so much, that all my thoughts
Were steeped in feeling; I was only then
Contented, when with bliss ineffable
I felt the sentiment of Being spread
O’er all that moves and all that seemeth still;
O’er all that, lost beyond the reach of thought
And human knowledge, to the human eye
Invisible, yet liveth to the heart;
O’er all that leaps and runs, and shouts and sings,
Or beats the gladsome air; oe’r all that glides
Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself,
And mighty depth of waters. Wonder not
If high the transport, great the joy I felt,
Communing in this sort through earth and heaven,
With every form of creature, as it looked
Towards the Uncreated with a countenance
Of adoration, with an eye of love…”
From Julian of Norwich’s famous passage in her “Showings” (or, Revelations of Divine Love):
“I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand. And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand….In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.”
The opening passage from Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (revel in the sheer wordiness please, and imagine, if you can, a time in which this would count as pop lit):
“You have requested me, my dear friend, to bestow some of that leisure with which Providence has blessed the decline of my life, in registering the hazards and difficulties which attended its commencement. The recollection of those adventures, as you are pleased to term them, has indeed left upon my mind a chequered and varied feeling of pleasure and of pain, mingled, I trust, with no slight gratitude and veneration to the Disposer of human events, who guided my early course through much risk and labour, that the ease with which he has blessed my prolonged life, might seem softer from remembrance and contrast.”
And last, this little gem from Whitman (chanced on when I found the enchanting online magazines at sparrowtreesquare.com):
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
So, I’ve been thinking. And if you make it to the end of this odd jumble of thoughts, I’d love to know what you think too. Here goes.
Beauty is a primary way that I perceive the reality of God. Nature has always signified the transcendent to me. I’ve been reading about this kind of wordless knowledge in Lewis, in Guite, in others, pondering the idea that every aspect of the world points back, “signifies” if you will, to a Mind and Reality beyond itself, from which (or in Whom) it has its beginning. David says in the Psalms that the stars “speak” though their “voice is not heard.” Creation then, communicates to us in “a language without words.” Nothing in creation, it seems, is uncommunicative because each atom came from, and gestures to, the mind of God.
This makes the stuff of the everyday, the wind and pines, bread and skin and stone and water, the very substance of breath and bone, quite precious. Contact with the very material of existence becomes, when you think like this, an encounter with the Mind of God. Nothing is neutral or superfluous. The whole world communicates to us about the unseen world that we take by faith. Christ’s incarnation then, is the joining of the material with the Real from which it came. In Christ, the unseen, ultimate Reality (the instigating, living Word) took on flesh and became touchable, visible, “with us” in material reality. So any lover of Christ must be inescapably “incarnational” in their outlook, perceiving that the material signifies to, and in Christ (and in a fallen way in humanity), contains, the spiritual.
One of the great robberies of secular thinking is to empty material reality of meaning. The materialist worldview posits that physical reality is all there is, so that the substances of earth are mere mounds of atoms without spiritual significance or inherent meaning. When we perceive the world (even when lovers of God, influenced by materialism think like this) as a collection of mere physical material, we are no longer aware of that “language without words” in which stars sing and trees mean and skies embody truth. The loss here, is meaning. Material reality robbed of meaning.
But what if the material world is then robbed of materiality?
Here’s what this is all leading to; I’m wondering how virtual reality affects us spiritually.
Because it occurred to me that virtual reality could be seen as a form of “de-incarnation,” a process by which physical reality is made merely mental. As the modern world exists, relates, and works increasingly in virtual constructs of reality, in which the physical aspects of friendship, play, and business are made merely mental activities, I wonder if we are approaching some dangerous territory. Because de-incarnation to virtual reality isn’t a return to the spiritual, it’s the turning of something physical into a disembodied idea. Not only are we separated from spiritual significance within the material world, we are separated from the material substance itself so that we truly are no longer “in touch” with reality. Mind and flesh are disconnected.
Now, at this point I have mostly questions. I’m not studied enough at this point to say what the consequences of that disconnection might be. I’m not ready to comment on whether it is a viable option for modern people to live half of their lives in the virtual world. I don’t know yet how that influences our view of God’s reality, or if it alters our sense of the consequences of our own (disembodied) actions. I don’t want to critique, I want to question, and I’m not attacking all technology and virtual reality as wrong.
However. If God made us as inescapably physical beings, with five senses through which we were meant to experience the rich, communicating earth, what might happen to our awareness of his presence if we are no longer in contact with that earth? Can we apprehend God’s reality as well as other cultures if we live mostly in insulated houses surrounded by artificial materials while working on computers? Can we know consistently experience (or communicate) the love of Christ in others if we never experience their physical presence? What might the consequences of disembodied action be? Will we learn to separate action from effect?
And what about children? As childhood education and entertainment becomes increasingly virtual and technological, can we assume that mind, soul, body, and heart are developed fully without recourse to nature, to physical activity, to real-world learning, writing, touch, play, exploration, or relationship?
Again, at the moment I have mostly questions. But I intend to have them answered. I think we have been abruptly immersed in technological changes that might just be shaping our very perceptions of Reality. And I don’t think we can take that lightly.
Oh, the craziness of the conference season. I’m back home after three weeks away, and today I’m doing my best to defeat my mountainous backlog of unanswered emails. You see, I must have Saturday free. A blizzard is expected to lay siege to the mountains early that morning and I’ll need every hour of that wondrous sort of day for countless cups of tea, the reading of my newest stack of books, and the tromping through wild and windy hills.
Blizzard make for festival days.
However. I cannot neglect this friendly space for one more day. I’ve been storing up things I wanted to share, so today you get a this and that, tidbits from the road sort of post.
First, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine asked me to write an article on the value of libraries in the making of lifelong learners. You can read the online version here: A Few Good Books
Second, my brilliant brother Nate has begun work on what I think will be a poignant and powerful movie. The name? Confessions of a Prodigal Son. I would love it if you would watch the trailer he has crafted below. And if you are captivated by it, as I was, perhaps you’ll take a glance here at his Kickstarter campaign (only 24 days left!) and consider supporting him as he gets this thing off the ground. Nate is a great lover of people and a soul who chases hard after God and this movie comes straight from his lively heart.
Third and last (for now), I found this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I thought I knew most of his work, but somehow I missed this one. Since I did a good bit of wandering in the woods when I was on the east coast and went on treasure hunts for crocuses and daffodils, this spoke my joyous mood. I’m glad the quickening of the year is soon to be upon us.