"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

22 February 2006

Art and Discovery

Writing keeps me sane. When I do not write for an extended period (which might mean hours, not days or weeks), I begin to fall into a frustrated, restless irritability which is far more difficult to control than ordinary moodiness. When I begin writing again, a kind of peace spreads in some corner of my soul which allows me to see my world more clearly – including my own failings that need remedy. I have known this for many years, but the following assertion from On Moral Fiction (John Gardner) gave me new insight about it yesterday:

“Art is the means by which an artist comes to see; it is his peculiar, highly sophisticated and extremely demanding technique of discovery.”

Yes. Writing is indeed my way of understanding; and if I am not actively seeking to understand, to discover truth, self, God, neighbor, how can I be sane? This great task is natural to the human mind and soul, and we must be about it in whatever way He has equipped us for it.

Of course, I learn much by reading and listening and studying, without which I could not have the knowledge necessary for discovery. But these only provide the materials. I must process those materials to discover their meaning, the vision they offer me. And if I am not actively doing this, the materials themselves begin to overwhelm me with confusion and their own strident need to be heard and handled, creating that frustrated restlessness that cannot be quieted or appeased except by seeking sight through writing.

21 February 2006

"On Moral Fiction"

Reading John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, I found some ponderings on the purpose of art that strike me as profoundly true:

"Moral art in its highest form holds up models of virtue."

"Great art celebrates life's potential, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love."

"In art, morality and love are inextricably bound: we affirm what is good -- for the characters in particular and humanity in general -- because we care."

"True art [. . .] clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns. [. . .] It designs visions worth trying to make fact. [. . .] It strikes like lightning, or is lightning; whichever."


"We need to stop excusing mediocre and downright pernicious art."

14 February 2006


A marmoreal luminosity in a cloudless indigo sky lights my way this morning. When I emerge from Wal-Mart after shopping for gifts for dear friends, she is still distinct in the lightening sky, but no longer a giver of light herself. By the time I reach the college, I can barely make her out in the white-blue of early morning. In competition with Apollos, Phoebe dims and dwindles, her borrowed light entirely ineffective. Only in the dark does her brilliance bring beauty where otherwise would be only nightmare.

Apollos the giver, Phoebe the reflector only. May I remember this every time I put pen to paper.

13 February 2006

"The Heart's Embrace"

Seeing in the dark has been something of a theme lately and so on my mind. I picked up Scott Cairns' Philokalia again this weekend, and found this poem that picks up that theme in a way.

Having Descended to the Heart
by Scott Cairns

Once you have grown used to the incessant
prayer the pulse insists upon, and once
that throbbing din grows less diverting

if undiminished, you'll surely want
to look around -- which is when you'll likely
apprehend that you can't see a thing.

Terror sometimes sports an up side, this time
serves as tender, hauling you to port.
What's most apparent in the dark is how

the heart's embrace, if manifestly
intermittent, is really quite
reliable, and very nearly bides
as if another sought to join you there.

"Be still and know that I am God" -- I am not very good at being still. But this encourages me to seek that stillness and listen for His desire to join me in it. (Yes, yes, I know that "He is always there" -- but I shut Him out quite effectively by my overactive and anxious mind.)

I like this poem especially, I think, because of the way Cairns uses the heart metaphor. I remember listening to my daddy's heartbeat as he held me close in his lap, that steady, sure, mysterious sound that somehow comforted me. I would like to learn to listen to my own heartbeat, to calm down, be still, just listen until I myself am silenced and able to know that He is God and not fear so much the darkness.

11 February 2006

On Penguins and Purpose

If you have seen The March of the Penguins in the theatre, get the DVD anyway and enjoy the story of how it was made, with much more footage of the penguins and of the landscape. One of the men working on the project is especially eloquent, and his verbal descriptions are in themselves delightful; he refers to the "aerial avalanche" of the storm winds, for example.

If you haven't seen this documentary, it's well worth the time. The amazing marches of these flightless birds, up to 70 miles across the Arctic ice to mate and care for their young, inspires admiration of God's creative work. (And the baby penguins are really cute, too.)

I found the affection of the mating penguins fascinating and their clear mourning for a lost egg or chick saddened me. But the film's main focus -- the marches and the risk of starvation for the safety of the young -- cannot but move the heart.

The penguins leave the sea to walk a full week without stopping to the only safe place to raise their chicks. After mating and finally laying their eggs, they have been without food for two months. The females-- the most at risk because of the toll of motherhood on their bodies -- carefully entrust the eggs (only one per couple) to their mates in an elaborate and careful dance designed to keep the eggs from touching the ice for more than a few seconds and thus freezing. They then begin the march back to the sea for food, leaving the father penguins in charge of the incubating eggs.

In remarkable timing only explicable by a loving Creator's design, the mothers return to the hatching grounds within a day or two of the chicks' appearance. A brief reunion with their mates -- whom they recognize by voice -- and they exchange the chicks as they had earlier exchanged the eggs. The fathers, now having been three months without food, return to the sea. For the next five months, the parents alternate this journey to feed and to provide food and protection to the chicks.

Amazing perseverance and commitment despite the harshest conditions on earth. And they do this year after year. They begin returning to the hatching ground annually after four years of living in the sea, and their average life-span is twenty years. Fifteen years of arduous work for one sole purpose: to give their young the best opportunity to survive.

How often do we complain about the obstacles in our way, the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of our daily lives? Perhaps the problem is not so much an ungrateful spirit as a lack of purpose. If one's purpose were clear and non-negotiable, of a nature so overwhelmingly important that it was worth dying for -- would one be concerned with inconveniences and discomforts? Would petty aggravations be so consuming? Or would one simply do one's work without regard to the inevitable difficulties?

The Christian's purpose is to become like Christ, to serve Him. Within that overarching purpose to love God and neighbor, what is the one specific thing God has created you to do to be a part of His work in the world? As Mary Oliver asks in "The Summer Day,"

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"

10 February 2006

Decisions, Decisions

Conflicting values and desires and needs make decisions excruciatingly painful. Choice A means that x is ripped to tatters, but Choice B, which salvages x, means that y is smashed to bits. And both x and y are good in themselves and of great value and one desperately wishes to hold on to both.

But such choices do have a clarifying value, if one can finally move beyond the agony. Perhaps x and y are of equal value and one desires both equally fervently -- but being forced to choose between them also forces a recognition of which is ultimately -- in the long view -- more important.

There will inevitably be those who look at the choices one makes and think, that's foolish, or irrational, or unhealthy. They may be right, of course. Or they may be seeing from their own values and understandings and even wisdom . . . where these do not apply.

Job's friends didn't speak lies. They spoke truths. One can take statements made by these men and live wisely by them. But they were not true of Job, did not apply to his person and his situation. Perhaps, since God required of Job a sacrifice for his friends, they sinned in not knowing or trusting him as they should have. Perhaps the sacrifice was intended to ensure Job's forgiveness of unintentional hurt by men of good will. Perhaps both.

Mostly, it seems to me, in those excruciatingly difficult times, others will fault one's decisions not out of lack of knowledge or love but simply because those decisions cannot be seen as rational without the voice of the Holy Spirit, Who very well may speak only to the one faced with the choices.

I don't know exactly how the decisions made in the last 24 hours will look in practice just yet, and I have no idea where they will ultimately lead. But I am confident in the priorities I have chosen, and I do not think I will lose a certain blinding clarity that has come in the process (only in the darkness do we see clearly?).

Thanks to all who have been praying. You are precious beyond words, and God will reward your love and faithfulness.

06 February 2006

Seeing in the Dark

"The intensest light of reason and revelation combined can not shed such blazonings upon the deeper truths in man, as will sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom. Utter darkness is then his light, and cat-like he distinctly sees all objects through a medium which is mere blindness to common vision." Herman Melville, quoted by Joshua Schenk in Lincoln's Melancholy.

The people of his day, Schenk tells us, recognized Lincoln as "an able man, a dependable man, a man capable of great work. [They saw his melancholy] and hardly any thought it strange, or inconsistent, or contradictory. They saw him as he was, a full man whose griefs and solaces and talents ran together. [They recognized] someone full, someone real, someone who has lived and suffered as we have and who has come out stronger for it -- willing and able to wield his strength in service."

"Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved," he further states, "cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted for as an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering."

I have come away from this book with more hope than I have felt in a long time, and that hope tied to specific ideas which can be articulated.

Schenk writes, "Lincoln's story confounds those who see depression as a collection of symptoms to be eliminated. But it resonates with those who see suffering as a potential catalyst of emotional growth." The latter is a basic Scriptural principle, but which, in our modern culture, we often forget and flee from.

Yet without this perspective, the one who suffers melancholia will always feel deformed, handicapped, sick, in need of a "cure." But maybe there is not always a cure. And maybe melancholia is not a sickness, but simply a part of some people's lives which can either destroy them or push them toward the great work they were created to do (and by "great work" I don't mean something necessarily like Lincoln's; "great work" can be raising your children to love God and their neighbor).

And making it even better, Schenk is a really good writer. So wonderful to read wisdom expressed articulately and even eloquently.