Thoroughly Alive

Light Eternal in London

Light Eternal in London

Posted By on Aug 15, 2014

photo 2A little over a week ago, Joel and I forayed out into the darkling streets of nine o’clock London to catch a late concert at Royal Albert Hall.

We wanted to stave off the end-of-trip rue attending our last night in London by filling it with music. Solemn, startling music as it happened. When Joel discovered that it was John Tavener’s Ikon of Light we were slated to hear, he was quite enthused. Even I, with a far lesser knowledge of classical or choral music, was glad to find that this was the concert on offer. Oddly enough, I had encountered snippets of Tavener here and there and found his choral music arresting, if not always easily accessible.

We barely made it in time, fairly sprinting from the Tube stop to the doors of the Hall, sinking into our red velvet seats in a summer flush just as a voice summoned us to settle in for the opening of the concert. The lights dimmed a little as the host for the evening, a calm man in a dark suit, took the stage and addressed us with quiet, engaging gravity. I was still breathing hard, trying to collect breath and body into stillness, distracted by the rustle and thump of the fidgety audience. I was only half aware of the introductory comments, but the man on stage seemed almost to reach up and touch me, abruptly, when he spoke these words:

“In tonight’s piece, one must think of the string section’s part as the cry of the soul, its reaching toward the light. And the answering choir, as the voice of the light itself.”

With that command, he stepped off stage, the lights died in the high, echoing space, leaving only the spotlighted stage and the circle of three violinists with the black mass of the choir curved in a half moon behind them. When the last high note of the quick tuning was accomplished, the violinists lifted their bows and for a moment, waited. Arrested by their patient poise, the audience stilled, attention inexorably drawn to the waiting three on stage.

The music began almost before I was aware; a single note thrummed from a single violin. A note of yearning, that gathered insistence as the voice of the second violin joined its plea. But timid. The simple melody was a question, a request presented almost in fear. Soul’s cry into the night.

photo 4And it was met with the mighty, sudden crash of the choir, a startling, almost trenchant declaration of song that answered the wistful violin so robustly one felt the violin might retract in frightened silence.

But into the shocking hush that followed the choral statement came the violin’s renewed plea. The melody was a low request, a strengthened desire, and the voice of the second violin added a note of resolve that made the music something that reached into the darkness with set intent. The taste of that crashing light had strengthened the soul, heightened its longing. And when the light answered, the answer was richer than before.

On it went, back a forth, a conversation of a concert between violin and voice, soul and light, song and silence. And with the introductory words in my mind the music became a story to me, the image of my own soul’s hungry, yearning journey through the long valley of this life under high, cold stars. The music sang my constant inner reach toward the mountains of a future, an eternity, almost unimaginable, sang my ache for that fragile, silver line of dawn I sometimes glimpse to come and set me free from the darkness. Ah, the darkness.

For the shadows were palpable that night. Death stalked the night just outside of the music in the suffering of the wider world, in the secret, very present sorrows of my own heart, and in the memories haunting the concert. For the performance that night was couched in the memory of death, given on the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s entry upon WWI. The music was chosen to usher listeners all over the country (hearing it via the BBC) into a contemplative hour in which people were invited to switch off their lights in memory and tribute to the multitudes who died on the battlefields of the Great War.

The darkness came very close when the music was done. For the host came back on stage and asked those who had been given electric candles to switch them on. For an instant, light reigned as the hall shimmered with hundreds of starlike lights that danced in the hands of those who waved them through the shadows. And then, they were told to switch them off. At once, the stars died. And the loss of them felt like grief, like the dying out of the countless hopes and loves and joys of those whose lives so tragically ended. The hall grew dark and loudly quiet. An actor took the stage then and read the words from the announcement a hundred years before that had plunged the whole country into a time of such sorrow.

And silence reigned. For a few moments, everyone kept their seats. No fidgeting scratched against the quiet now. No quick breath, no tap of foot. As if the utter, unnatural silence of hundreds in one room could offer some tribute to the dead, we kept a steeled hush. And in it, caged in it, I thought of the ongoing march of death through the world. I thought of those soldiers, hundreds of thousands, dead in their prime, now dust. I thought of the fighting in Gaza, the starving of children in Iraq, the wailing of their mothers. I thought, almost with shame, of my own small pains and felt them joined with the wars and famines and fights raging throughout the world at the very moment of our vigil.

A rustle from the stage drew my eye and I realized that the concert had ended. No light came up, no closing word was spoken. The choir and musicians left the stage, and in silence, the audience got to its feet and we left that darkened hall with its fierce echo of music, its record of sorrow begging for the grace of light.

Out into the twilit darkness of late night London we strode. And for a long time, we simply walked. We skipped the first tube stop and walked the deserted dirt paths around the edge of Hyde Park. When the gravity of the silence that closed the concert had worn off a little in the temperate air with the heat of our breath and hard thump of our feet, we began to discuss the music. How it promised so much, those crashing affirmations of hope cried out through the notes of Tavener’s work. But how pervasive, how disturbing was the silence that followed the darkness.

How is hope kept in a night-black world? Funny, isn’t it, how small sorrows can be borne, loneliness and minutiae and the tiny losses and tiny deaths attending every ordinary day. But when they are coupled with the raging griefs of the world, and joined by a tragedy or even a moment of deep loneliness, the sadness can seem almost too much to bear. Even now, a hundred years on from the war that was supposed to end all wars with new battles seeming to spring up every day, we have to ask ourselves what it means for light to come in the darkness. What hope do we have for peace? For safety? What does it mean to live by light, to reach for it, to believe it’s promise when people die and children suffer? How does the promise of light answer our pain? And how do we order our lives, our aching lives, in response?

We rounded a corner, swift in foot and thought, and stopped abruptly in our tracks. The trees around the park drew back and a long vista of city roofs and steeples and high rise apartment buildings stabbed the navy sky. But above them all, stronger, taller, outreaching them by what seemed a mile rose a mighty shaft of light that shot right up toward the stars and bloomed into a blazing orb. The light shaft was like a sword, like a prophet’s staff, clean and bright and unbreakable, searing through dark and mist.

I recalled that someone had told me that a column of light would blaze in London to mark the WWI centenary. I was awed by that light. My eyes held fast to it, marveling at its power, the way the darkness fell back from it. Immediately, the words from the Gospel of John came to my mind, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” I have always savored that verse and the presence of that word, “comprehend,” with its different shades of meaning. The darkness neither understands the light, nor can it grasp it, wrap its hands around it, assimilate it into itself. Light, even a pinpoint star of it, will always stand free of shadow.

And abruptly I remembered the last piece of music played at the concert. In the solemn drama of chosen silence and dark, I had forgotten that the high, startling music in Ikon of Light and the similar piece that followed were closed by a short, simple choral arrangement of a poem by William Blake. The song was so gentle, so humble, it slipped almost forgettably in at the end of the musical battle before it. But it grew now in my mind, the rich, woven music and the words like a seed bearing fruit at just the right moment:

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee;

He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and he is mild.
He became a little child.

I, a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Little lamb, God bless thee!

I stopped at the corner before the Tube stop, breathing hard. In that instant, the many symbols, the music, the light, the wavering dark that I had witnessed that evening drew together into a blazing truth. And I knew that whoever had planned that concert had chosen the Blake song to be the quiet answer to the darkness that would inevitably attend us out of the hall. As we dispersed into the night, that song was a gift to accompany us, a shepherd in the valley of the shadow teaching us how to hope. For the Light whom the darkness could not overcome was a Lamb. A little lamb, a tiny, wailing babe born in a stable. And he was the Light of the world, and his “life was the light of men.”

He was lifted up, blazing, into the sky of history just like the standard of light stabbing the London horizon. And when He was bound to a crude, hooked, splintery cross, beaten until his brightness faded into blood and pain, it seemed at first that Light could die. Like the millions of others on the battlefields and barren mountaintops. Like the hearts whose light is extinguished by loneliness or desolation. But the darkness could not comprehend Him. He blazed straight out, unconquerable Light splitting open the tomb.

But even better? That conquering Light wasn’t only outside of us, on the horizon of history. The Light indwelt us. By the gift of that fragile, gentle lamb, Light made his home in our hearts. When any soul now truly cries out for the presence of the light, like the violins in their keening desire, the answer isn’t merely a crashing glory outside ourselves, nor even just the promise of Light to one day conquer. Our answer is the voice of Love speaking within us, eternal Light present now, burning in the core room of our hearts. In us, day has dawned.

And by that Light we live. In its strength, we order our days not by the darkness we see, but by the great dawn that indwells us, the ever-present promise of the healing that will one day spill over and remake the broken world. We are driven by Light, shaped by it, mobilized to embody its splendor for the rest still caught in the night.

My breath came quicker. Eyes fixed upon that column of light, that fierce declaration of remembrance proclaiming that the brave and the dead will not be forgotten, I no longer sat passive in the darkness of my doubt. That London memorial came because of the many who chose to live by hope. Who understood that to live by Light is no longer to sit and question the darkness, passive, inert, waiting for light to answer for us. Rather, we wield that light ourselves, craft its beauty, cup it and offer it to those in the shadows, and in so doing, we become the answer to the darkness ourselves. We build, create, sacrifice, love, form homes, make songs, speak out the great stories and fight the great battles. Over and over again, we answer the darkness with our own small flame, kindled in us by the lamb whose Light was could not be vanquished. By setting ablaze our countless small campfires of hope, we gesture to the great, eternal day that will one day come and conquer the night forever.

My mind and body and skin and bones felt suddenly steeled and strong, straight as the sword-like light before me. And a single phrase, learned long ago, ran through my head as I finally ran for my Tube stop.

Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur. 

Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow.

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Evensong and Sunlight

Posted By on Jul 31, 2014

Below, you will find my favorite picture from these past, swift, richly thoughtful weeks. I snapped it at the closing ceremony: an evensong service with Eucharist celebrated in the matchless beauty King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. There are few places in the world that so strike me silent in wonder. This moment in particular was one of those that Madeleine L’Engle would call “kairos time” – not caught in the usual chronological march of minutes and hours but containing within its beauty a seedlet of eternity.

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The context: late afternoon, the end of the service, the honeyed, summer golden hour. We had taken the Eucharist and sung the closing hymn under the high, solemn splendor of the east windows, portraying the crucified Christ. Tinged in blue with the coming night, the purple and dusky panes of the Passion lent a solemnity to the last minutes of the service, a greater weight to the prayers we spoke and the proclamations we made to live rightly, to love purely, to act in courage and grace.

And then we emerged.

Down the nave, through the gates dividing the chapel, we emerged into the wide, high space of the western window. There, made radiant by the setting sun, colors in a myriad glint, was the western window with the risen Christ, arms out, beckoning our eyes to his face and heart. And beneath him was the door opened wide into the summer world. From the Eucharist, from that inner room of the church where we lived again the story of the God who gave his heart and body and life to redeem ours, we walked out strong. Out, out, to emerge into the world with hearts and blood quickened by the life of the risen Christ. Out into the sun, with eternal light in our hearts. Out into the world to live his love, craft his kingdom, speak his story, sing his song.

For an ending to a conference on living the virtues to the full, it was a triumphant closing moment.

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And now… it’s off to London I go. Cheerio.

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Oxford Again

Oxford Again

Posted By on Jul 26, 2014

I am sitting on a bus with the low thrum of the engine idling as we wait for the last sleepy passengers to amble in to catch their ride to Cambridge. A week ago I stood on the Oxford  platform, strangely alert with that pre-jet lag wakefulness, adrenaline in a surge as I savored my return to a town that “stabs my soul awake,” as Robert Louis Stevenson said.

Oxford. Honeyed stone and hidden gardens behind the massive old oak doors and people in a bustle after learning and books and friendship every hour of the day. Evensongs echoing in the many chapels at each sun’s setting. Crammed streets and rambling bookshops, beehive pubs in a hum of revelry and conversation, and Port Meadow stretching it’s green serenity just beyond the borders  of town with the river a silvered thread tying meadow and heart together.

What I have always loved about Oxford is the life that aches and yearns in a bright flow through the veins of it’s streets. And how it draws and livens me as well. I’m here for the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Summer Institute, a conference that happens every three years for a week in Oxford and a week in Cambridge. Centered around a theme from Lewis’ work – this year it’s “Reclaiming the Virtues: Human Flourishing in the 21st Century” – the conference is a gathering of speakers and writers and thinkers and curious souls here to consider what it means to embody the rhythms and habits of faith.

I’m typing this on my iPhone and have decided I was a bit ambitious to attempt a whole post, so I shall save longer contemplations in the talks for later. But the effect if it all in my soul seems encapsulated to me in the words from Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” sermon (which we heard passionately preached again from the very pulpit in which it was first given):

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Convicting stuff, eh? And that is the theme of this time really, how do we choose and create the formative practices that begin that everlasting splendor in our own hearts and in our education, leadership, love, and art?

That’s what I’m pondering in this dear old city with its “dreaming spires.” And in between I’m  wandering my old tea shop and bookstore haunts, strolling over Port Meadow at dusk with the rest of my family, and every single day feeling the pulse and music of this place and the thoughts it’s atmosphere provokes as it bring me to a fresh and thorough life. I hope you are finding the same in whatever summer corner you read this. Over and out for now, from Oxford.


Read More is live! is live!

Posted By on Jul 18, 2014

Storyformed_BlackI could burst with delight and relief and pride and… many other things too. is finally live!

I’ve been working on this website (and an accompanying book) for the last eight months. With the help of a brilliant friend, the website has become a online literary world and I am so happy to finally present it to the world.

It’s definitely still in progress as I will be filling out all the various pages with book reviews and research, but the bones are there and it’s explorable.

The heart of the Storyformed venture is simple: to get great books into the hands and hearts of children everywhere. My goal is to help parents and educators discover the best children’s books to be found. I’ve created as a place to celebrate, and defend, the soul-forming power of imagination, story, and beauty to form children to love what is right, hunger for what is good, and grasp what is true. Because to read a great story might just be to start living one too.

To that end, is both a literary online resource, and the home of a new publishing imprint, Storyformed Books.

We’ll be republishing excellent out-of-print classics, releasing new fiction by contemporary authors, and publishing a series of essay collections on reading and imagination. My book, Caught Up in a Storywritten largely to explain the Storyformed worldview, is the first to release with the imprint. We’ll follow it soon with Just David, one of the favorite children’s classics of my childhood.

The website, meanwhile, was designed to be richly stocked with book reviews, research, quotes, and reading lists, countless resources to guide parents and teachers as they enter the world of children’s books. If I could, I’d have every single reader into my library for a cup of tea, but for now, a ramble round the literary rooms of the website will have to do. Here’s a quick tour of what will be on the

  • The BLOG is an ongoing quest and conversation in the realms of imagination and story. You might find book reviews, quotes, pictures from my literary travels, featured artists, thoughts on imagination, or any number of other tidbits. Check back often.
  • The LIBRARY is a searchable database of book reviews and recommendations. If it’s in there, it’s good. This page will be continually updated. You can search by categories and tags.
  • The BOOKSTORE houses the newest releases from Storyformed Books.
  • The BOOK LISTS page, also continually updated, will offer families various top ten lists for easy reading ideas.
  • The RESEARCH page will be continually updated with resources specifically for parents and teachers. From studies and statistics on reading, to essays on imagination, to books on education, to websites of children’s classic illustrators, this is where parents can find their own source for education and delight.

Anyway. I’m just bursting over here and couldn’t bear not to let the world know the website is up. There will be an official launch in August (along with the release of my new book Caught Up in a Story), complete with giveaways and all that good stuff. But for now, it’s an open house for exploration. If you know any interested friends, please pass on the word about the new website. Read on!

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My Facebook Investigations

My Facebook Investigations

Posted By on Jul 16, 2014

One swift summer month has passed since I deactivated my Facebook account.

I’ll admit, I made the decision with a mind split evenly between resolve and reluctance. The flint-faced half was the stronger, that crisp, unbending inner voice reminding me how often I’d fretted over my busy brain. My mind had become so raucous that even the quietest of moments founds my thoughts racing with fears, worries, images, headlines, articles, ideas, many of them rooted in things I’d seen or clicked through online. Inner hush is something I think I was born to need, so native to my soul and my creative capacity that when I cannot command it, I get rather panicked. And resolved.

But the reluctant half of me felt a little lonely once that easy outlet for action and interest was shut. I felt disconnected from things. Life still felt hectic and busy and my mind raced right along. Except that loneliness cut  deeper than usual. The long afternoon hours that occasionally make me regret the solitary nature of the writing life set me yearning to sing or dance or just talk to someone. I wanted to hop on Facebook. And I wondered, as I often do, if this was yet another instance in which my ideals were out of all proportion to normal life. Who was I to think that I could opt out of the social network? FB didn’t seem so evil in those first few days, but for sheer pride, I stuck it out a month.

I logged back in a couple of days ago, my month mark being passed, thinking perhaps my break hadn’t made much difference. I was rather excited. I scrolled for five minutes.

And I promptly deactivated my account again.

The sudden gallop of my thoughts, the five posts that made me anxious over everything I’d missed, the two that made me insecure at who hadn’t missed me, the next ten that set my thoughts spinning over a provocative headline, and the three after that sparking the old mix of restless desire and wistfulness that comes when I am confronted with too many good possibilities. I was so swiftly gripped by it all that I barely had a choice. It was self-preservation to close my computer and take half an hour to calm back down.

In the gradual quiet, gathered back to me second by second like raindrops gathering in a glass, I realized the difference that a month of hush had made. The sudden return of an inner cacophony made me aware of the quiet that had grown in my soul all month, a thing so humble and still I hadn’t noticed it until the contrast of the uproar made it plain. Returned to it, basking in it that afternoon, I began to examine the changed air that had come to my soul in my chosen quiet.

A quiet in which I could read my Bible in the dawnlight without the pinprick impulse to check my computer accosting me every five words. A hush that beckoned me to look out my window, learn again the different moods of the pines in the dawn and dark and halflight instead of turning to Facebook the minute I sat down, hungry to catch up with everything missed. A silence of possibility, in which loneliness or longing were channeled into letters written and spaces ordered and stories sketched instead of submerged in the painkilling run of the FB feed. A silence that slowed me, forging a safe inner space from which I could weigh my thoughts, consider my choices, know my emotions, before the press of the outer world provoked me to action.

That quiet was, I realized, a choice of mental sovereignty. A reclamation of the direction, rhythm, and source of my thoughts.

Facebook debates often center around the inherent good or ill of social media. I won’t claim either because I think that Facebook (and all social media and the Internet too) can be used profoundly for both. What I won’t go on to say, however,  is that the online social world is a neutral force, a tool like any other to be employed without consequence to the person who uses it. Rather, I believe that Facebook, whether used for good or ill, is a profoundly formative presence because of the way in which it trains our minds to a certain rhythm, substance, and habit of thought.

Every time I use FB, I am submitting my mind to the rhythms and patterns of its universe. The realm of social, technological media is a kind of world, a space separate from the confines of our material existence. The rhythms of earth and body require me to sleep. The limitations of my physical sense mean that I can only hear so many voices, so many words at one time. But the online world is unresting. Rest, pause, stillness are antithetical to the nature of the internet which is to produce “new” information every hour of the day. So are moderation and even mental limitation. I can scan an almost incredible amount of information in an hour on the internet, and I need never rest on one page for long. There is always the next thing to scan, check, discover.

But every time I dwell in that universe, submit my mind to its laws, I am trained to its swift, unresting pattern of information. Facebook teaches me to desire constant surface stimulation. Formed by the thought patterns of machines, my own mind cranks along, unable to rest because it has been formed by a disembodied, unresting online atmosphere. But the constant stream of information isn’t forming me to think more deeply, to deeply contemplate, to have the long considered knowledge that becomes wisdom. Rather, its teaching me simply to glean information and then move on. As author Nicholas Carr wrote, “The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it.”

How do I apply a scrambled attention to the command to “pray without ceasing?” How do I reconcile the constant mental activity online with God’s ringing directive to “be still and know that I am God?” How do I choose the “one good thing” of sitting at the feet of Christ, listening, while giving my brain to the thousand articles and opinions paraded online? Really, how do I travel to that inner realm of my own, that place in which every story I have ever told, every poem written began, when my consciousness is held hostage to ever-changing feed on a screen?

It was questions like these that prompted me to experiment with a Facebook break in the first place. The longer I ponder them, the more I am convicted that I cannot use the online world without great control and inward caution. The internet may be a primary medium of influence in my age, but if I am shaped by it, submitted to its disembodied, distracting rhythms, I won’t be able to obey the central rhythms of godliness described in Scripture, rhythms that seem always to describe an inner silence, a rest, an attention without which it is difficult to encounter the voice and presence of God.

That inward quiet is mine to command. God waits to meet with me. Ideas for new creation seed and grow in the ever fertile earth of my imagination. But the choice of where I will send my thought and on what patterns I will form the atmosphere of my brain is up to me. I rule my mind. And at the moment, I feel that I must guard that sacred inner space against the unresting distraction of FB. It’s mostly because I am not yet strong enough to dwell often in the FB world without being profoundly formed by it. When I can sojourn there, shaping it to my own goals and desires for relationship, holiness, and beauty, then I will return.

But for this moment, here in my chair, with the candles lit and another cool, misty day staring in at me over the mountains, I’m glad for the quiet.

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Work vs. Wonder

Work vs. Wonder

Posted By on Jul 2, 2014

A dim, shadowed day has finally come after the long cacophony of hot ones. The air is like cool, still water, the clouds silken grey, a canopy under which the birds cry in the windless quiet. My candles flame and my oldest Celtic music is playing – that first set of Irish songs that stirred my blood and quickened the breath of my sixteen-year-old soul. This still, dark, eerie day, feels like the shelter of God’s wings to me, a hidden room of a day in which to hide and rest my weary mind.

I want to remember, or somehow even to inhabit again the unfettered wonder of that sixteen-year-old self. I need her calm eyes, her ability to trust in the goodness of coming days. I need her surety. Today, I wonder if past selves can sometimes be a mental presence to which we can return and shelter from the busier, confused selves we have become. I wonder if those past selves can somehow counsel a current self, speak again of the vital things forgotten in the intervening years.

Sometimes, of late, I stop an instant and wonder when I grew up, when my days took on, so completely, the cadence of adulthood with its work and bills and constant deadlines. When did the mass of people – friends, connections, partners, acquaintances, peers, mentorees – grow so great around me and when did I accept the work of their many holy demands? It’s not ungratefulness or impatience that asks, its my inmost self taking stock as my outer self increases in action. It’s the girl in the inmost room of my heart, the girl who does not change however many years slip by, holding the woman I have become to her oldest ideals, her ancient faiths.

For many years I have pondered and defended the keeping of a quiet heart, a childlike wonder, a cultivated innocence. For me, to live in awe, to walk outdoors, to roam imagination was simply to be as God made me. If I spoke or wrote about them as work, it was only because I wanted others to join me in the joy I knew within the realm of wonder. So when, I ask my older selves today, did those natural gifts become my battlegrounds? When did wonder and inmost hush become the illusive, fleeting, pearl of great price treasures I now must fight and seek and wait with holy patience to attain?

I am aware of the world in its work and hurry rising up around me, challenging me each day to greater action and work, discipline, love, and sometimes, suffering. My limited spaces of time and thought begin to be crammed with the many demands of the active life, the working, loving, giving life required of those who love God in this world. Dreamer, writer, free-souled girl though I be, I cannot deny those burdens. To do so would be, not creative, but cowardly, a squandering of all the richness I’ve been given by love and training. And so I work hard, write, travel, clean… give. And my present self has become quite capable.

But today, in the dim light, I know that my work will be empty, my labor vain, if it echoes with exhaustion. If all that I accomplish bears the tang of bitterness because somewhere along the way, I lost that inmost, essential quiet. My temper is quick these days. My words too swift, too sharp. I scorn rest. I forget to wonder. Until I stop, as in this darkling morning moment with the candles like eyes staring down my soul and the music a road I walk back to my inmost self. And I know that I have forgotten to live in love, love that is the only sustainable basis for action. Love, that drove me to work and give in the first place as I saw it at play in all creation. I settle into the hush around me. My old self draws near with her innocent, eternal ideals.

I find myself thinking about Mary and Martha. I ponder them because Mary was the woman who embodied the hush and wonder I wanted for myself from the earliest days of my faith. I wanted to be the woman who chose the one good things, not the busybody who bustled and fretted right in the face of her Savior. Now, though, I often wonder about Mary, because it seems her choice is impossible to any responsible adult. I would love to slip away, even as I write, I would love to set this computer down, ignore the emails, the deadlines, refuse to notice the dirty dishes and hungry hearts in need of my touch. To do so would only be to burden someone else, to heap a weight of strain and need upon the other good people in my life, to refuse the work of loving as God loves me. So I work, and hurry, and get awfully fearful at how swiftly my thoughts move and my mind races.

But there is always that core self, the real self, the old self, alive below the bustle, seeking a place of quiet, fighting toward the inner, silent room of my heart where a great Love dwells in unchanging presence. A ceaseless hunger accompanies me throughout the day, that truest self fighting to dwell in peace, to find rest, to live in wonder. And I begin to ask myself if choosing the one thing, like Mary, the one great task of sitting at the feet of Christ, has very little to do with outer action at all. Perhaps that work is more truly the choice of an inner orientation. A choice to remain in the inmost room of my heart with my Beloved, to sit at Jesus’ feet in my interior self, even as the outer bustles about to accomplish all that truly is necessary.

I begin to think that the wondering life of my youth is something separate from circumstance, but crafted in spite of it. Perhaps the contemplative life – that disciplined way of prayer and quiet, wonder and love that has always fascinated me and of whom Mary is the traditional representative –  has little to do with outward quiet. I even wonder if my conception of the contemplative life as a luxury of isolated prayer and unbounded time is a falsehood, a conception essentially centered on self rather than God. The hard, Christ-like, heroic virtue of true contemplatives lies not in the degree of their separation from the work and care of life, but rather in their disciplined inner pursuit of Christ. Their ceaseless choice to dwell in the inner room, whether they work or rest, in crowds or hush, in action or stillness. True contemplation is learning to dwell – that abiding in Christ that Jesus said was the secret, vital life to those who loved Him.

To abide in God is to live Mary’s choice while doing Martha’s work.

And in that understanding, the wondering self of my past, the working self of my present, are united.

But God knows that is a lifelong, excruciating work. Which is why dim, darkling days of angel-wing quiet like this one are always his gift. I do wholly believe in days of rest. I begin to think of them almost as spiritual discipline, a chosen quiet that must be claimed in the very face of incessant worldly action. For rest can be just as vital a work as action. For it is only an inward hush that allows me to travel back to the inner room of my heart when I have strayed, shake off the demon hands trying to keep me away from the door of the room where Christ waits to give me all good things.

So I revel today in every grey, song-haunted minute. I walk in soul, and I will keep on walking until I reach that room in my heart where Christ dwells, until I sit down at his feet, rooted once more in the Love that keeps me quiet amidst every clamor in the world.


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A Difficult Generosity

A Difficult Generosity

Posted By on Jun 17, 2014

Cross-posted at the Rabbit Room.

I’ve come to write today in a downtown coffee shop where books line the walls and the air hums with slow, jazzy music. I haven’t accomplished a single useful thing. Instead, I’ve cupped my coffee close, sipped it slow, and let my sleepy eyes roam over the rim of the mug. Mostly, I’ve spied on my neighbor. A scholarly air hovers about her along with heaps of textbooks, stacked notebooks, and four different kinds of pens. She’s working very hard; eyes down under her fringe of dark hair, pen at a swift scratch, earbuds wedged in tight against the lazy aura of this place.

But every so often she stops. With a distinct sigh, she reaches for her mocha and sets down her pen. And as she sips, she stares. For propped against the nearest pile of books is a vivid photo of Audrey Hepburn. The girl beside me fixes her eyes on that photo, never blinking as she takes a long sip of coffee and chocolate. Then she sets down her mug, wriggles up a little straighter in her seat and sets to work again. I cannot help my surreptitious stare. The strength she obviously takes from that photo fascinates me, as if in fixing her eyes upon it she receives some new shock of courage.

I turn reluctantly back to my own book-piled table and cappuccino. A blank computer screen and a blank notebook are open before me. I ignore them. I open the topmost book on my pile, a series of essays by the poet Denise Levertov. My good friend Ruth is my source for modern poetry and when she tells me to seek out a poet, I go for it as I trust both her taste and also her navigation of the current age of poetry (a sphere of which my knowledge is slight). When she quoted Levertov and I found this book the very next day, I bought it. I am only one paragraph in before I stop, eyes arrested by these words:

“I believe poets are . . . makers, craftsmen: it is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are ‘members one of another.’”

I have studied many facets of the writer’s vocation, but this idea of Levertov’s startles and even stings me. She seems to class writing with spiritual imperatives like loving your neighbor and telling no lies. I squirm in my seat, abruptly uneasy in conscience. I think I do see as she describes—imperfectly and with wandering attention. The scenes and people that brim my imagination, the joy glimpsed like light on a far-off hilltop, the story worlds that come to my mind more as gift than anything else, these compel me to write. But I rarely share them. For every one essay or story I do show the world, a dozen more lurk behind my eyes and in forgotten computer files, unknown to a single other soul. I’ve never thought of sharing my writing as a duty; perhaps I’ve seen my best pieces, the ones I actually like, as glimpses of beauty I simply must pass on, but I’ve certainly never thought of that sharing as an imperative in the same class as adherence to the golden rule. I like the luxury of considering my inner world a private one to be shared only when, and if, I desire.

I sip more cappuccino and feel stung by Levertov’s words. The truth is that writing often terrifies me. Not the easy kind of freelance work and editing projects and countless small jobs. Those I can accomplish with mind alone, thankful to earn my bread, and grateful, I admit, to avoid those clamorous dreams that beg to be told. Because oh, I don’t know how to begin to set the best things forth. I half begin then draw back in fear. My imagination blazes with pictures begging to be written, but my words seem too frail to bear them. I’ve set down countless sentences, cast dozens of hours to typing away only to scrap the whole thing in sheer frustration. My pride cringes to admit that, but Levertov’s words add the sting of conscience to my discomfort. I tell myself I will get to them soon, that when I have quiet or rest I will finally tell that one story that glimmers and sings, unwritten in my mind. The truth? I’m afraid I cannot do that story justice. I doubt my skill. I doubt my vision; I wonder if the worlds I know within myself might be deemed just silly by a reader. I don’t want to be mocked. So the story stays locked in the little room of my head and fear is the bolt on its door.

I glance again at the girl next to me to escape the discomfort now burning in my throat and I wonder. What does she “see,” what true vision does she touch through her contemplation of Audrey Hepburn? Did Audrey know she was embodying an ideal, and did she offer it willingly? I glance down at my own table, and my eyes wander to the pile of books I have toted with me. Again, my heart burns with conviction. For each of the books before me has been the sort of gift that Levertov describes, stories that allowed me to see, to taste, to grope my way forward when I felt blind. I would not have made several hard, defiant decisions this year without the vision provided to me by a few generous writers.

In my moments of crisis, when the landscape of my own mind and soul were fogged and dim with confusion, several writers kept me in hope. I opened their stories in the evenings, when my heart and mind were exhausted with the over-thinking required by major decisions. The worlds they had made and the people they presented were a refuge to me. Wendell Berry’s Port William. The Eliot family and their home of Damerosehay in Elizabeth Goudge’s Pilgrim’s Inn. The artistic grit of Thea in Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. Nouwen’s story of God’s mercy traced through his contemplations on Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal returned.

They sheltered me. When I was blinded by doubt, I journeyed on by the vibrant light of their created worlds. As I struggled toward wisdom, feeling homeless in soul as I teetered between several possible futures, those stories were my refuge. I was nourished by the power of what they presented as possible. I sheltered within their scenes, stood beside their characters, then stood back on my own two feet to reclaim my own vision and walk the long road required to bring it to life.

As I mull this, I pull out my journal and page back through my last months of notes, skimming the quotations I jotted down from those companion books. At one particularly long quotation, I stop, reading again a favorite passage from Song of the Lark. In it, the heroine Thea, like me, feels battered by the wide world in which she is fighting to establish her own vision of life. But Dvorak’s New World Symphony revives and steels her for the challenge. I read the scene again:

Something had got away from her; she could not remember how the violins came in after the horns, just there… A cloud of dust blew in her face and blinded her. There was some power abroad in the world bent upon taking away from her that feeling with which she had come out of the conference hall. Everything seemed to sweep down on her to tear it out from under her cape… Thea glared round her at the crowds, the ugly, sprawling streets, the long lines of lights, and she was not crying now… Very well; they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. She would have it, what the trumpets were singing!

And just like the girl at the table next to me, I sit suddenly straighter in my seat. Here I am, reading about another person sheltered in trial by the vision offered by an artist. Dvorak’s music sheltered Thea (and no doubt Cather, Thea’s creator) when she doubted, renewed her strength to fight, to acknowledge the beauty she knew as the real thing over against the clamor of the world. I flip the page of my journal. There, in like manner are Nouwen’s words about Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son, telling how the color, line, and form so faithfully painted by one man ushered him into the arm’s of the Father’s mercy. Rembrandt’s vision sheltered Nouwen. And that encounter produced Nouwen’s book, whose vision now shelters me. And suddenly I am breathless.

Every work of art reaches out across the centuries, and each is a vision that casts a flame into the darkness. The wonder is that one great light wakes another. The song of one wakens the story of another. The story she told becomes the poem he made that kindled the painting in yet another’s hands. Each is a work of obedience. No artist can cast their flame of vision without a twinge of fear that it will simply fade or even pass unseen. But each is also a work of generosity, precious, private worlds offered in a self-forgetfulness that pushes aside vanity, insecurity, perfectionistic pride.

Levertov is right. The visions set forth in the books (and paintings and songs) we turn to for hope are offerings of love, given in the recognition that we truly are members of one another. We all bear the same hunger for eternity. We all walk forward in the dark of doubt, reaching for something we can’t quite name. We yearn to discover who we are meant to become, what it is we hunger to find in those midnight hours when our hearts will not be sated. But the artists and storytellers and makers of song offer the inner vision they have known as a sign of hope to the hungering world. They invite us into the sacred, inmost rooms of their minds and let us stand at the windows of their own imaginations where we glimpse, ah, wonders we might never have dreamed alone.

I glance again at the girl next to me. She is unrelentingly diligent. Who knows what she is writing, perhaps in response to the beauty she has seen? I brush my hand over the books whose weathered covers bear the scuff and dent of my many readings. The life within them crackles under my hand. I meet the stare of my own silent notebook, blank before me, and my pen sitting lonely on the page. I sigh and wriggle up a little straighter in my chair. I pick up that pen. At the very least I can write what I have just seen. A tiny gift, but a good place to begin.

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Trailer for Nate’s Movie!

Trailer for Nate’s Movie!

Posted By on Jun 14, 2014

In the past year, I have been so proud of my brother Nate as I have watched him create and craft his new movie, Confessions of A Prodigal Son. Nate was always a storyteller with an inborn love of a good tale even when we were growing up. Nate and I were read-aloud friends who savored great books, and when he began to write books himself, I knew he would spin a great yarn. Words poured out of his vibrant mind into stories of courage and bright swords and adventure. It’s no surprise to me that his work now is to make stories come to life. But it sure is a delight to watch.

So here’s the teaser trailer for the movie, complete with music by my other brilliant and oh-so-artist brother Joel. If you enjoy this glimpse of Confessions, it would be the best favor in the world if you would share and post the trailer so we can get the word out as Nate begins to promote this film. And here’s the FB page in case you’re curious.


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