Give me this one warm, sappy, Thomas Kinkade kind of day; one moment of respite from the bombardment of strident media voices that blast endlessly about everything that’s apparently wrong with this country, and instead, let me ponder the outdated notion that there might be something right with it. Let me relish the unassuming arrival and the fragrant, cinnamon-scented lingering of this very special American day, and do it without guilt. Give me Thanksgiving Day.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Jean Hoefling
In his book of meditations on the icons of 15th-century Russian artist Andrei Rublev's, theologian Henri Nouwen says this about the iconographer’s famous “Christ the Redeemer:”
When I first saw… I had the distinct sense that the face of Christ appears in the midst of great chaos. A sad but beautiful face looks at us through the ruins of the world.Read More
I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well.
—Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
A few years ago, in the interest of honing a short story that I considered decent (which it turned out not to be, particularly), I attended the legendary Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico—that annual summer gathering at St. John’s College of Christian (or not) poets, painters, musicians, and budding screenplay and fiction writers. That year, prolific novelist Bret Lott facilitated the fiction workshop. Every morning before our class began the round of shock therapy euphemistically called “peer critique,” Professor Lott offered short, helpful lectures on writing while we all drank coffee and breathed in the signature Santa Fe scent of burnt brick and piñon that wafted through the open windows of our classroom. All his teaching was good, but these years later I don’t remember much of what the good professor said.Read More
My mother died on a snowless January morning high in a hospital room from whose window one could see pretty much into forever. Sudden failings in her body’s systems had taken hold—imbalances of blood and bone and lung. Frailty won the day. Fresh in our shock we gathered, reeling from the cruel slap of this impossibility.Read More
Fast advice to new writers who bemoan the intensity of the discipline sometimes includes throwing around that Hemingway quote about the typewriter and the bleeding. It’s pithy and ironic and makes the more seasoned writer quoting it sound like they know something Hemingway did. It also inspires hilarious imagery: to each writer, his or her own brand of macabre.Read More
In MacDonald’s classic story, the chronically neglected child, Phosy Greatorex, sits alone in church while the vicar preaches that God manifests his love by correcting human souls. Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth, he quotes from the heart of Scripture. In her lonely desperation, Phosy pines for this chastisement, if that be the proof of love—any love. When the bitter pallor of an unfathomable loss visits the child on Christmas morning, her innocent acceptance of love’s visitation is so complete that she does not recoil, but gazes full-faced into the heart of her grief, embracing what she must.Read More
The truth is that man’s horror of the skeleton is not horror of death at all. It is man’s eccentric glory that he has not, generally speaking, any objection to being dead, but has a very serious objection to being undignified. And the fundamental matter which troubles him in the skeleton is the reminder that the ground-plan of his appearance is shamelessly grotesque. - G.K. Chesterton, "A Defense of Skeletons"
In his quirky essay, Chesterton writes of walking through woods where the forest folk kept apologizing that it was winter and the trees were bereft of foliage. “There was evidently a general feeling that I had caught the trees in a kind of disgraceful dishabille and that they ought not to be seen until, like the first human sinners, they had covered themselves with leaves.” We’re a lot like those peasants regarding our own souls, trying to appear more clothed and commendable than we are, knocking around with planks sticking out of our eye sockets while we swipe at someone else’s dislodged eyelash with a bony phalange and hope no one mistakes us for a character in Saint-Saëns tone poem, Danse Macabre. (See St. Matthew 7:3) Yet deep down we know that when death strips us of the pretty outer wrappings, our “shamelessly grotesque” frame will be exposed by the likes of devouring worms.
How little of grace we understand. For if our hearts were more gripped by grace, we might not only be less shy about our undignified skeletons, but waste less energy in denial about the inevitable core of our human nature. Who knows, laughing at our souls’ bare bones might be just the thing that begins to heal our poorly disguised pride.
As an example, I give you my recent preparation for the Sacrament of Confession. I wrote out my tiresome, amateurish sins on a 3x5 card as usual, using a pencil (badly in need of sharpening) so that I could tweak my wording. Somewhere down the list I wrote, “I’ve been jealous of another’s life.” What nonsense. It isn’t the other’s life I’m jealous of; I have one of my own. And who is this ambiguous “another?” I forced myself to erase and rewrite the embarrassing truth: “I’ve been chronically jealous of a close friend’s wealth and opportunities.” How petty the words looked on paper, how undignified. Still, I felt a twinge of elation in my brute honesty, blurted out the next day at church before the icon of Christ while the priest stood by. For in my insistence on specifics I had momentarily conquered that eccentric glory Chesterton talks about, that tendency to grope for coverings to hide the truth of what I am. And I take heart that someday I might be comfortable enough with my skeleton that I can boldly dash off concise sins of omission and commission with an expensive pen that doesn’t skip ink, and without hesitation. “Let our sins be strong,” Martin Luther said. And let our willingness to admit them for what they actually are be stronger still.
Afterward, I turned from the icon and went my way, vaguely amused. I forgot to look into its glossy surface to see whether a reflection of my own skull was grinning back at me.
Though I am as dismayed as anyone by the current election year antics, I take comfort in remembering that bald-faced lunacy exercised in high places is nothing new. But I still have the sense that this election cycle is in a league of its own. Hopefully the bilious clouds of insanity swirling around us this fall will one day coagulate to something Americans can still recognize, once the whole thing is relegated to the history heap.
But the fact remains that we’ve got this crazy-making situation with us for a few weeks longer and I shudder to think of the mean-spirited political tirades on social media yet to come before voting day. The cringe-worthy blurring of vice and virtue we’re daily fed by the media won’t abate either, and the differences between our lead presidential candidates will continue to be measured only in degrees of goofiness on a sordid, subjective moral continuum.
It’s this rigid, linear continuum that bothers me, this seemingly endless road that, God help us, doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere very cool. If politics were geography, I picture a bleached-out, sunken old highway that meanders through topography yet unknown to planet Earth. You can’t tell what season of the year it is, either, and overall there’s just nothing to warrant getting out the camera. Worse, there’s no reward after miles in the car, like a cozy roadside diner where waitresses call you Hon and serve up great patty melts. Beyond the diner that isn’t there, there isn’t a single fun and crazy roadside attraction where they sell fur ashtrays or charge $10 to see the world’s biggest cement prairie dog—something, anything to make you believe the drive is worth it. As to your destination, the road signs on Route Twilight Zone have been tampered with. If you thought you were en route to some pristine Florida beach, you’d be wrong. You’ll end up in a deserted gas station in Nome, Alaska and be told to be happy about it because wind-scarred Nome is the future of America.
It’s in this world-weary frame of soul that I’m drawn in a new way to that most famous icon painted by Russian monk and iconographer Andrei Rublev, his Trinity. A mounted copy of this icon hung in our house for years until one of our daughters spirited it away in a cross-country move. Art critics extoll the 15th century icon for its exquisite aesthetics: the rare translucence of the colors, the ethereal mood and composition of circular unity that comprise a powerful visual representation of the Triune God. For those who seek the spiritual lesson, the attraction goes deeper. These days I gaze hungrily at an online Trinity, feeling an irresistible draw toward the peacefulness even a cyber copy manages to embody. Where else will I find an unbroken circle of fellowship amidst the absurdity around me? Have I forgotten that God is the source of humility and perfect deference, of loving intent that transcends every earthly point of view? This God is at peace with himself. He does not aggressively parade his views on Facebook. Sit before this icon with its nuances of body language between the three Persons who mutely speak of God’s seductive unpretentiousness, as each leans toward or bows in the Others’ direction that they might be affirmed. We forget God is always inclined toward the other, no matter how they’ll be voting in November.
May each of us rise above the fray in these worrisome weeks ahead and choose to incline ourselves humbly toward all we meet. Dostoevsky claimed that beauty will save the world. Perhaps peace of heart may do the same.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay. – Robert Frost
It was the first grown-up poem I burned to memory. I was seventeen, and Mr. Hunt's poetry class was a lifeline in that unhappy season of affected hippie clothes, a tumultuous first romance I still believe probably killed me, and a month of March that gives new meaning to the word bleak.
The passionate Mr. Hunt read poetry aloud to us—all his favorite sonnets by Donne and Shakespeare, and lots of Plath, Hopkins, Dickinson, and many others. O for a muse of fire… Glory to God for dappled things…I died for beauty…That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me… I’d watch our teacher’s mouth form each word and phrase, then place those exquisite nuggets of expression into his students’ hearing as though they were sacraments intended to bless and heal. And somehow, they did. There seems to be a given about most good poetry: it is true. Even if it’s harsh or vulgar, it’s still true. And where there is truth, there is power and mystery and healing. “The truth shall set you free.” Poetry’s aching bluntness gives us something to hang onto as we struggle to grow up over the course of a lifetime.
Maybe that’s why I took Frost’s haunting poem about life’s transience so seriously. I memorized it for life within minutes of my first reading. I lived inside that poem for years while I healed from the sinking Edens of my junior year of high school—the dawns that had too quickly turned to garish midday and the golden things I did not have the maturity to manage before they subsided forever. “Nothing Gold” gave me hope by expressing a sorrowful reality in a gracious and beautiful way.
Many years later, I think of this poem in light of the western theological term, felix culpa: happy fault. In felix culpa is the paradox of Eden’s calamitous fall as a necessary and blessed catharsis for the appearing of the One who, in Christian eschatology, will one day restore lost Eden; who is himself that paradise. Frost’s job as a poet was to point out the heartbreaking fact that in this world, nothing gold can stay. Faith takes it one step further: In the next world, gold will never pass away.
In a handful of the sky and earth, In a handful of God, We cannot count All the ecstatic lovers who are dancing there Behind the mysterious veil.
True art reveals there is no void Or darkness.
There is no loneliness to the clear-eyed mystic In this luminous, brimming, Playful world. –Hafiz, nineteenth century Persian poet
Artist Andrew Wyeth painted “Pentecost” in memory of a child in his Maine community who had been washed out to sea during a storm. “They couldn’t save her. I was thinking about the young girl’s body floating there underwater, and the nets became her spirit.”
Painting in the heyday of the mid-20th century fad of abstract expressionism, Wyeth was often criticized for the politically incorrect, dogged realism of his work. “More real than reality,” as one journalist of the day put it, referring to Wyeth’s intricate representations. The journalist is right without realizing it, for who can take in an exhibit of Wyeth’s paintings (which I had the privilege of doing on a white-white day last winter) and not be drawn in by the insistent expression of the unseen spirit breathing in all of them—whether tangled in the sparse grass of an ocean dunescape, glancing through diffused light on a stoic New England face, or coaxing our sense of wonder in the haunting way Christina on her hill leans upward toward… what, really?
“The wind blows where it pleases,” Jesus said. The Spirit is as real as anything we can see, swelling fishing nets and billowing through white curtains and drawing our eyes skyward for no reason at all. Its presence at our back can makes us turn around once again (compulsively and against our better judgment), to try to discover Who it is that persists in walking in silence at our elbow.
In a handful of God, all eternity resides, and the poet is right in saying that true art reveals there is no void or darkness. All the earth is a container for the divine, and Wyeth understood instinctively—as an artist though perhaps not a theologian—that for the innocent, drowned child, death had opened up to life. Ordinary, humble things are the first to fill up with the splendid, so that we might see and be reminded of what reality actually is.
I pretty much went back to work. Nothing beats reality. —Sixto Rodriguez
It isn’t really his music, though to my mind, this talented musician holds his own against any modern artist, thanks to his potent lyrics and Dylanesque voice and aura. It isn’t even his unusual story, though the course of his life journey is the kind of Cinderella tale that just doesn’t happen in this calloused world, but only within the mythic cosmos of our wildest dreams.
It’s something else that makes me want to be like Sixto Diaz Rodriguez when I grow up, and that is his attitude after mysterious casts of fate prevented what should have been a rocket ride to stardom. Instead of the American dream, the Detroit native went back in his home city for the next thirty years, doing demolition work, living in relative poverty, and trying not to wonder too much what went wrong. The highs and lows of this magical tale are told in the award-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Though the film is not the full account, by any measurement except the most cynical this is still a refresher course in miracles.
The world is rumored to be full of celebrities. Attitude alone sets Rodriguez apart as a great man and genuine grownup. When all was obscured and shadowed, he had the grace to accept his reality as good and acceptable instead of growing bitter over what could have been. At some point, he went from “being the outcast to… who he really was,” and this is where his story becomes our own. Every human being knows instinctively that what he appears to be in this transient life is far from the whole truth. The Christian faith is crammed with compelling arguments about just why this is so, and the apostle John lifts us out of our finite grasp of ourselves to remind us of what lies beyond the shadowed present:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:2)
Until that appearing, I look to people like Sixto Rodriguez to remind me that the temporary struggle is as much a part of the Big Picture as any eternal outcome will prove to be.
Kiss me, and you will see how important I am. —Sylvia Plath
I sit on a worn chair in the waiting room of the local government-funded mental health center—our county’s Medicaid destination. Will comfort be found in such a place? The lone potted plant languishes, badly in need of water. A wall poster of a fierce-looking young woman with tattooed biceps admonishes victims of abuse to find a Safe Zone. Patients check in and quietly sit and leave the room as therapists summon them. They seem overly careful of every step, as if falling down is a contingency they are not prepared to handle. Most wear broken-down shoes and odd clothes. No-money-for-luxuries shoes and clothes. I glance into the streaming eyes of a young man with a red, oddly twisted face. My eye contact seems to wound him. Someone else implores his caseworker to understand how really fast he used to be able to run. An old man clutches multiple zip-lock bags of medications in his lap while a nurse asks personal questions within sight and sound of the entire room. The man’s face twitches at every juncture of orifice and skin. His mouth kneads his tongue as though trying to coax moisture from it—the incessant thirst of the medicated. I need more Lexapro, I can hardly function right now, he says. I lose interest in my book. I pray for the patients—for blessing, stability, something. What would Jesus do?
The tasteful outfit of one of the caseworkers catches my attention as she stands at the counter. She returns my look, a bit too long. A swell of panic hits my throat: She thinks I’m one of the patients. I look down. My Mary Jane flats are old and scuffed, my outfit mismatched. I got up too late to pay attention. Broken-down shoes, like the man with the zip-lock bags wears. My note pads and books are spread across three seats. Wads of paper, a caved-in water bottle—my morning life splayed out. Clearly, a patient without boundaries, the caseworker is thinking. I resist going to her and saying, I’m here because I drove a friend. I’m waiting for her. I was in the driver’s seat. I drive them and pray for them and feel bad for them. But don’t make me identify with them, kissing and mingling my healthy juices with their sick ones. Don’t think I’m a mess myself. God forbid I be a mess—lowly, disturbed, poor. One of those last and least who might one day be first and most.
Why all this talk of the Beloved, Music and dancing, And Liquid ruby-light we can lift in a cup?
Because it is low tide, A very low tide in this age And around most hearts. We are exquisite coral reefs, Dying when exposed to strange Elements. God is the wine-ocean we crave— We miss; Flowing in and out of our Pores. —Hafiz
The tide is low around our hearts—deadly low. Things haven’t changed much from the fourteenth century when the Persian poet Hafiz penned his poem, “Why All This Talk?” The craftiest thieves of our souls are safety and mediocrity, spiriting away the cup of ruby-light that is our birthright before we’ve had a chance to take a sip. Yet how to access the high tide that buoys us into the arms of the Beloved, that wine-ocean we crave? Tides can kill. They purge and roar and threaten to drown. Sort of like God. So we live the spiritual equivalent of children of five or six who still wear helmets to ride their scooters down the sidewalk. Dang we’re good at getting through life without sustaining a single head injury.
Not so the Celtic saints, who from all accounts operated on one speed and that was high. Christ himself said that the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force (Matthew 11:12). Those Celts seemed to actually believe that, wrestling out their sanctification in ways that astonish today. They built their churches and beehive cells as close to the roaring coastal waters of the Hebrides Islands as possible in order to feel closer to God’s power and, dare we say it, his danger. Their prayer caves were so proximal to the surf that during bad storms the sea sometimes pushed its fury into these caverns where men and women of mad faith were praying as though their souls and the spiritual future of the British Isles depended on it. Yes, the Celtic monastics chose to be cornered by God, and they loved it.
A fellow monk once observed the saintly prior Cuthbert standing all night in the sea with the water up to his neck. When asked why, Cuthbert is said to have replied, “If I’m not facing death when I pray, I’m not really praying.” The applications to our own scant spiritual pursuits won’t be lost on most of us. Why we don’t get out there in the deep water is anyone’s guess. After all, Aslan isn’t particularly safe, but he is good.
He wanted to think of words that would make some difference but there were none in any language he knew that were sufficient to the moment or that would change a single thing. —Kent Haruf, Eventide
Since award-winning Colorado novelist Kent Haruf died late in 2014, plenty of people have eulogized his memory and the stories he wrote about ordinary people in a nondescript fictional town in eastern Colorado. I didn’t discover Haruf’s books until a few years ago, but worked through most of them in a few weeks, thanks to an e-reader that let me raise the font size as my eyes disintegrated from ridiculous overuse. Day and night I was at it, like a ten year-old with a flashlight devouring just one more chapter of Little Women under the covers.
What kept me reading was Haruf’s unpretentious style. His uncomplicated, laconic narrative passages are well suited to story arcs that are as subtle as the rise and fall of the American prairie where those stories take place, where artless pragmatism rules and stillness is at a surplus. A Denver native, I love that “other Colorado” out east, where the sky dominates and the horizon is uncluttered and people sit in small-town cafes on Main Street. There’s “not much to see” out there, nothing fancy happening, and that’s what makes it lovely, like the simple satisfaction of having everything crossed off your to-do list. Haruf’s writing is like that land:
Often in the morning they rode out along the tracks . . .where there was a stand of cottonwood trees with their leaves washing and turning in the wind, and they ate lunch there in the freckled shade of the trees and came back in the late afternoon with the sun sliding down behind them, making a single shadow of them and the horse together, the shadow out in front like a thin dark antic precursor of what they were about to become. [Plainsong]
Someone has described Haruf’s novels as pleasantly underwhelming. To write about underwhelming places and people is the author’s genius. He’s created a world as prosaic as our own, yet in his stories Everyman is as interesting as any Jason Bourne type could be. And the words he drapes his stories over are utterly sufficient to the moment, reminding us life doesn’t have to be extraordinary to be satisfying.
. . . But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, King, husband— that is quite another matter. —C.S. Lewis, Miracles
Christmas: God breaking the Second Law of Thermodynamics to snatch the cosmos from its ultimate decay. In other words, a miracle of upward mobility. The Orthodox icon of the Nativity teems with the theology and symbolism of this upswirl, this “redemption of the universe:” the ascending pull of light over the landscape; the bright celestials straddling the razor edge between time and eternity; the ethnic diversity of the Magi, God’s redemptive scope encompassing all peoples and all creation. And in the postures of Mary and Joseph we see the full gamut of human response to this event that couldn’t happen, yet did.
Here the figure of the Virgin is appropriately spacious and central. Mary casts her eyes not toward the babe but away from this one whose swaddling clothes and cradle resemble grave wrappings and a sarcophagus. Her restraint is a reminder, for who can look upon the face of God and live? Yet any minute Mary will pick up that normal looking baby and stare into omnipotent holiness, her soul taut with paradox. Mary’s power of belief is organic to who she is, a chemical and spiritual grace.
Yet in the figure of Joseph the Betrothed in the lower left we witness the other effect of miracle, the Church’s concession to the difficulty of grappling with blissfully mangled universal laws. A study in body language, Joseph slumps in the throes of mental torment, questioning the baby’s alleged origins. He’s under direct assault from Satan, come to once again sow his tedious doubts, this time in the guise of an aging shepherd. The shepherd’s short tunic and rigid profile symbolize duplicity and gross inadequacy—this father of lies who would keep Joseph’s eyes in the dust with no reference to the divine. (See: “Becoming Two-Eyed”)
In the battle to make peace with mystery, the human mind has a remarkable capacity to see blank sky where in fact shines a sight-giving star. The downward drag of psychic inertia is ever present here among the shambles of the Second Law. Yet though God may approach with “infinite speed,” his home is no longer a manger, but our embrace.
With nothing but the big morning star to light his way, Van Gogh managed to see it all: the spire-like cypress bridging earth to heaven; the mute, squatting church he added—perhaps a symbol of that other, failed vocation; the moon dazzling as a comet among the lesser lights—all of them, ironically, as wide open as morning eyes. Of the dark hours, Van Gogh claimed they were, “more alive and more richly colored than the day.” Perhaps "The Starry Night," this most well known of the artist’s night studies, is a plea not to miss what’s there when the lights go out.
Van Gogh learned to suffer, to accept his life of ambiguity, to live by the light of the diamond chips that rule the night as he wandered the shadowy landscape of mental illness and poverty and loneliness. The imbalances of his brain chemistry brought flocks of blackbirds to peck at his eyes, yet he still saw and painted with flawless inner vision. He produced hundreds of starry nights, some of which survive as established masterpieces. It’s perhaps the extreme turbulence of this most famous of them, the sense of perpetual, romantic chaos there, that makes things move inside for most of us in its presence. I viewed it at 17 in the New York Museum of Modern Art on our senior trip. I’d like to think the pounding of my heart had mostly to do with the emotional vibrancy of that painting and less with the proximity of a dark-haired boy in a green sweater. Yet I must attribute the pounding to both, for to view Van Gogh is a haunting, just as love is. We can speculate that Van Gogh may have been hard wired to go at life by the light of one trembling inner morning star. There may not have been another way. Yet to walk in the dark cost him dearly. It will cost anyone who accepts the night on its own terms.
See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. Matthew 18:10
The first grade art assignment was simple enough: draw our mothers working around the house. I went with a laundry theme; as the oldest of four kids I probably saw my mom beside that front-loader a lot. But to draw it? I was an abstract-leaning kid even then, and this exercise in visual realism apparently escaped me. I managed to produce a spindly specter with sea urchin fists inside a swishy enclosure whose boundaries pushed against the edges of the paper. While my classmates’ drawings yielded Mary Tyler Moore moms next to sensible blenders and ironing boards that looked like the real thing to me, my own mother was caught in an appliance nightmare. I simply could not visualize her anywhere but wedged inside that washing machine. I remember my tears; I still feel the moment’s helplessness and shame.
My mother saved the drawing. And now I know—because I know the rest of the story and a whole lot more about the psychic wisdom of young children—why I created what I did. I knew intuitively what grownups wouldn’t admit for years more—that Mrs. Johnson was desperately, clinically depressed, with no way out of the spin cycle there on Meade Street.
Child psychiatrist Robert Coles remembers his mentor, poet-physician William Carlos Williams, encouraging him to trust the psychic acuity of young children as they drew or painted their symbolic concepts of reality: “Look at them, looking, their eyes meeting the world. . .“ In Coles’s book on children’s art, Their Eyes Meeting the World, Williams tells him, “A youngster drawing is . . . a youngster telling you a hell of a lot. When will we know that?”
When indeed will we know that? A child dying of leukemia says little but paints a girl floating on a river of blood (her transfusions no doubt) toward a verdant, healing island. Then she dies. She doesn’t need anyone to tell her either how things are or how they ought to be. When will the chattering, arrogant world lose its appeal and we turn to the uncluttered expressions of the least of these and pure in heart who see and hear things we no longer can? Wasn’t it Christ who claimed God forms perfect praise in the mouths of children?
As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground. – Nineteenth century French author Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle)
Rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion, even hallucinations: just a few of the colorful symptoms that manifest in Stendhal Syndrome. Though the medical “disorder” was named after the famous author for his description of experiences while visiting Florentine churches and art galleries, Stendhal’s occurs with surprising regularity when people are exposed to extraordinary artistic achievements, especially the Renaissance art of Florence. After a lifetime of grubbing in American strip malls, there’s nothing like a sudden, blinding jolt of connection with the transcendent to prove to be more than some folks bargained for.
I get why these people’s hearts beat fast and their legs give out. I remember an afternoon watching light make sapphires and rubies of the air around the stained glass in the Florentine church of Santa Croce. I stood with a crick in my neck and an ache in my heart before the same Giotto frescoes that made Marie-Henri swoon two centuries ago. As to fear of falling, I could easily have sunk down among the pigeon guano outside some of those jewel-like basilicas and wept my eyes out over the gray blast of the world that hit me on the other side.
Living this far from paradise, extreme beauty is just plain dangerous. It smacks of God and we’re wary of it. Psychosomatic symptoms are the mind’s perfect deflection tactic. Still, we get our milliseconds, our sparkling glimpses of what’s beyond all this, “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” as C.S. Lewis put it in “The Weight of Glory.” Whatever keeps us starving for what lies beyond the pigeon poop. When Prince Vladimir’s pagan emissaries visited the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they readily admitted, “we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this.” What a tragedy, if they did know how to tell.
Go ahead and fall hard, Marie-Henri. I’m right behind you.
One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends. – St. Nikolai Velimirovich (1881-1956)
The noted novelist who taught the fiction writers workshop I attended said this a lot: “Assume your reader is smarter than you are.” As a reviewer of self-published works for an online indie book review site, I see a lot of writing that makes me wish every author kept this in mind. Too often I have to sit down with a heavy heart to write a far less than glowing review for a book that’s somewhere on the continuum between lackluster and disastrous, sometimes (though not always) because it wasn’t properly worked over by a ruthless professional editor who’s trained to see what that writer couldn’t. Did the author of the repetitive, structurally weak self-help book riddled with disjointed and patronizing narrative, confusing syntax, careless typos, and myriad formatting issues think his readers would be that oblivious, that willing to settle for mediocrity, because after all, this guy wrote it, so it must be great? It seems obvious, but apparently isn’t to some, that before the glorious final unveiling of one’s chef d’oeuvre, serious dues must be paid.
Then I wonder: What if in my personal life I’m as disjointed and uninspiring as that book? What would happen if I sat down with a good friend and asked her to hit me with my greatest character flaw, the one that might break me in the end if I don’t get a clue? Alas, our brains are hardwired to pretty much see perfection in ourselves, which is part of why writers often can’t detect the weak story arc that’s going to doom their novel if they don’t take a hard look at things, much less spot their own typos.
They say the devil’s in the details, but so is God. A writer determined to be stellar will endure even a brutal editor if he senses the guy is on the money. The lure of a glowing end product makes temporarily wounded pride worth the wait. As to life, the Serbian bishop Nikolai Velimirovich was so receptive to refinements of character that he called his torturers in the Dachau death camp “cruel friends” because he claimed their evil ministrations enlarged his capacity to love others. With that kind of humility, imagine the novel he could have written.
Whatever you want to be, you’ll be in the end. – The Moody Blues
Subdued and faded to sepia tones, this 15th century Byzantine-style icon of John the Baptist portrays the Forerunner beseeching Christ in heaven while his own severed head lies haloed at his feet—a grim reminder of the cost of commitment to a person’s deepest convictions. At face value, this scene is out of chronology, since Christ wasn’t in heaven at the time John was beheaded, and we’re not sure where in the story the man is here. But of course the meaning is layered, certain elements symbolic of something more enduring. So though the icon portrays the essence of the most defining event of the Baptist’s life, the overarching message is about the “supreme moment” of kairos at work in John’s life. It’s about who he became in the eternal realm, not the chronos, the chronology, of his beheading. And the icon is about each of us in that moment when all is said and done and we’ve become whatever we are in the end.
We need whole paragraphs in English to adequately explain what kairos does in one brilliant, ancient Greek word. When Greeks used kairos, what came to mind was something elastic, qualitative, an undetermined measure of an unseen substance that intersects with the present, chronological moment in some cosmic way that makes a difference. It referred to that exact moment an archer must release the arrow from his bow if it is to accurately pierce the moving target in his aim. The ancient god the Greeks named Kairos was said to be “ever running.” Like the old god, kairos is that magic that races through our moments as opportunities worth seizing, noble choices worth making. Kairos is about bringing a new creation out of rubble, something that endures out of the rough material of crisis each of us faces continually living in a fallen system.
We’re no different than John the Baptist, who lost his head to principle. Each of us will eventually lose ours to something, too. The Greeks had it right all those centuries ago, inspiring the ancient world to consider what looks a lot like the dynamic of human free will intersecting with the grace of Providence. Whatever we choose to call it, the beauty of kairos will be around long after every postmodern notion of nihilism is in its grave.