"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

28 March 2010

Set Down in a Miracle

My beloved daddy has gone into hospice care, which may mean anything or nothing. His health is declining rapidly since a recent bout of pneumonia, however, and I am praying that he will still know me in early May. This is a meditation set off by a comment my brother made the other day when we were talking about the wonder of our parents' 67 years of marriage and profound love.

Set Down in a Miracle

The essential trait of Daddy’s life is his ever-consistent love, all of it founded in his love for his Lord. Love of country led him to sacrifice his hearing in the cockpits of transport planes in World War II and spend his intended wedding day in a Brazilian jungle where he’d had to make an emergency landing. Love of community drew him into the devastation of Waco, Texas, after a tornado strike to search for survivors and to remove bodies from the rubble. Love of his church placed him on boards and committees and sent him to a sister church in Mexico to teach horticultural techniques and help with construction work.

But the heart of his love has always been family. He met the love of his life in college, and his love for her has only grown stronger and deeper in the 68 years since. Mike and I both recall very vividly learning at quite young ages that the one thing Daddy would never tolerate was sassing our mother. The only spankings my own children ever received from him sprang from the same source: “I’ll put up with a lot,” was the message, “but don’t sass my wife.”

Theirs was a match made in heaven, and I don’t say that as a cliché. No doubt there were occasional tensions we knew nothing of, and growth in those first years that all couples must experience, but mostly we saw two people who desired above all else to serve each other, not to be served. Daddy was perhaps rare among men in his generation in his willing help with child care, including diapers and drool. Each has said of the other so many times, meaning it fully, “What would I do without him, without her?”

Mike and I grew up bathed in this love. For years, of course, we were mainly aware of its benefits to us, of how we ourselves were loved. Daddy teased us, taught us, disciplined us, encouraged us, made us laugh. He and Mike hunted and fished and canoed and fixed cars and built a house. For me, his introverted and bookish child, Daddy listened with seriousness, gave me a horse and riding lessons, a correspondence course in writing, a college education with a trip to Spain thrown in, and simply showed me every day that I had a protector and advocate. I felt safe, always, no matter where I was. My gravest fear was to disappoint him.

But when we grew up, Mike and I began to realize that the reason Daddy loved us as he did, showed his love so richly, was because he loved our mother first. She truly has been the heart of our home, because she is the heart of Daddy’s love. He loves her so much that his love for her could do nothing but flow over to the children given them as a result of their love.

Because he has always put Mother first, we learned to respect as well as love her, our love enriched by being not merely sentimental. Because he has loved Mother first, we have seen sacrificial, unconditional love every day. And Mother’s return of that same sacrificial love, putting Daddy first, serving and loving him and therefore serving and loving us, the children of their love, strengthened the lesson into a compelling picture of how we should then live.

Mike and I were talking about all this on his recent birthday. Sixty-seven years of love lived out so beautifully, without regrets or acrimony of any sort, giving and giving to each other and all around them – a miracle, surely. So I said, “We’ve had the privilege of seeing that” – but Mike corrected me. “No,” he said, “We were set down right in the heart of it” – set down in a miracle that has sustained us all our lives, even in those moments – or years – when we’ve rejected or disbelieved its lessons for ourselves, always drawing us back and reminding us: love is real.

Daddy will be leaving this earth in the next months, but his love will never leave. It will live on in his family, from his beloved wife to his twenty great-grandchildren, who will know his love through their parents, the children of his children, whom he has also loved. Love is never lost, and I am eternally grateful to have been set down in the miracle of its reality for all of my life.

14 March 2010

"Caged Bird" redux

I read Luci Shaw’s poem “Caged Bird” in a talk I gave on suffering recently. Unable to spread his wings to the sky, forced to “sort millet” instead of seeking and delighting in “the sun-filled / film and fire / of insect wings, / [or] worm's wry / juice,” his “trinity of claws” gripping the cage’s steel perch instead of tree’s rough bark, the bird still sings. In fact, he discovers how to


his stunted


in one long,



airborne, sun-

colored wing

of song.

He creates beauty from his suffering – perhaps because of his suffering.

Someone asked if the poem wasn’t rather existential in nature, the song surely meaningless because it doesn’t liberate the bird from his cage – therefore it must be an exercise in futility, no matter how beautiful. I responded as best I could on the spot: the point isn’t to escape from suffering; we can’t escape suffering in this life. The point is what we do with the suffering: do we give in to it in bitterness or do we create beauty – allow God to create beauty in us – from it? Do we draw closer to Him and thus love others better; do we offer beauty to the world that invites them to look to our God in their own suffering?

A suitable response in the moment, and true. But as I reflected on the question later, I realized a more profound answer: the creation of beauty in suffering does indeed liberate us – it liberates us from the prison of self-pity and self-absorption. It cannot, however, liberate us from the cage of circumstances – of the suffering itself. Of course, particular occasions of suffering end; but they don’t end because we create beauty from them. After all, many occasions of suffering never end in this world; they only end when we come into Christ’s presence in the next. And suffering ends as often for those who hate God as for those who love Him. Yet extraordinary beauty is created by many who suffer continually until the freedom of their death. They create beauty not because they have been freed from suffering, but because they have been freed from self.

I keep thinking of my mother-in-law. The painting I chose to hang in my office tells her story: gloriously flaming canna lilies burst from swirled purple-black soil, as the painting itself was born from the twin sufferings of cancer and heartache. She suffered to the moment of her liberation in death. Yet she created profound beauty, in her art and in the art of her life, because of that suffering – not in spite of, but because of. Oh, it’s true she had always loved well, but in those last years her love became focused, poignant, every detail sharpened in a joy that attended to the littlest things – a loaf of just-baked bread, a glass of freshly squeezed juice – as cause for delight and care, that drew us to her as moths to the flame to be warmed and then invited, in our turn, to offer warmth to those around us.

Sonny, in James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues,” says of a street singer in Harlem, “It struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through – to sing like that. It's repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.” Yet he finds eventually that this is the calling of the artist – and, ultimately, of all of as we create, by the grace of God, the art of our lives. Suffering can’t be avoided, and it is indeed repulsive – it is a result of the Fall – but it won’t drown us if we step into it in faith and make something of it, something of beauty that touches the lives of all who experience it and reminds them that joy and triumph are realities, too, even within the suffering itself.

The cage of circumstance cannot be torn away; we cannot liberate ourselves from suffering. But we can – by God’s grace – be liberated from the prison of the self when we decide to create a psalm of praise.

06 March 2010

Intellect and the Love of God

Dr. Anthony (Tony) Esolen visited the college for three days this week, speaking in chapel and classes, giving a poetry reading, and talking to many of us one on one. We have seen in him and his work the beauty of the intellect informed by devotion to Christ, and some of us will never be the same.

Tony’s first chapel talk challenged us to consider the loss of a true “popular culture” – one which emerges from the people themselves based on a common identity and values. Because entertainment today is done for and to us, we no longer know how to create such a culture, nor do most of us even believe that we should – like so many other things, entertainment – culture – should be left to the experts. Tony got at this concept through a discussion of the morality plays popular across Europe and Great Britain for three centuries – plays produced by the people of their own towns for the Christian festivals such as Corpus Christi. He narrated the “Second Shepherd’s Play” to show the depth of the people’s knowledge of human nature, its depravity and its possibility for redemption. He kept us laughing and in the midst of the laughter reminded us of the need for grace and compassion, forgiveness and love. It was challenging, compelling, true excellence in which love for the Lord and the people He has created shone.

The second chapel talk was brilliant. Tony drew us through The Tempest, Shakespeare’s lovely tale of betrayal, correction, redemption, and reconciliation, showing us how obedience and love are intertwined. I can’t summarize it at this point; so many images swirl in my mind: Caliban, who – though half-witch and hateful – can feel wonder and so has hope for redemption; Ferdinand and Miranda, whose love shows the spirit of self-abnegation and purity; Prospero in his God-like role of judge and profferer of the means of grace and forgiveness: repentance and obedience. All bound up in the capacity for wonder, for seeing that which is beyond and above ourselves – for without wonder there can be no acknowledgement of God, of love.

In the Renaissance Lit class, Tony discussed with the students the courtly love tradition through the story of Virgil’s proper response of instant obedience to the heavenly lady Beatrice, to carry out her wish that he guide a lost soul in the first stages of his journey back to truth – as contrasted to the improper story of the adulterous couple Paulo and Francesca, who fall in love at first sight and pursue their own desires. The second day, he took us through contrasts in the image of the journey: Dante sets off on a journey to find God; within the rings of hell are many who, because they refused to journey anywhere but for and to the self, are condemned to be always moving while going nowhere. Throughout the discussion both days, the contrast between love of God and love of self – the need to abandon ourselves completely to God in childlike trust, to practice the divine madness of love.

Tuesday night, Tony read poetry to us: Milton, Browning, Hopkins, Herbert. He blindfolded himself to play the part of the blind poet, and in some cases blind Satan, and quoted passage after passage from Paradise Lost. He recited Browning’s monologue “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s” and Hopkins’ sonnets, and Herbert’s passionate poems about his journey with the Lord of life. After an hour and a half, which amazingly seemed like fifteen minutes to a group of college students in mid-term week, we knew that we had heard the gospel from someone who lived it, through the poets he loves. And we walked away desiring a better love for God and man alike.

I have known one other true genius in my life. He is a good man who practices the Christian virtues without knowing the One by whom they exist; he has that capacity rare among the truly intellectually brilliant of being able to articulate ideas at any level. This week I saw what that man would be if he turned to his Creator and embraced the One who makes his life, his love, his goodness possible. I saw the deepest devotion to Christ, flowing from a man who has given heart, mind, soul, and strength to love Him, and I was challenged as perhaps never before to make that kind of life mine.

And that is the most important thing that happened at our college this week. We saw that brilliant intellect can exist integrated with unabashed, flooding love for God. Praise Him for His work in Tony’s life so that ours might be challenged and changed to more and deeper love.

03 March 2010

Signs of Spring

When I got out of the car in the parking lot this morning, the air was a bit warmer and birds sang hopefully of spring. In the heavens, an almost-full moon shone, fragmented clouds floating through her brilliance but not over her face. Another reminder of beauty always ascending.