Tag Archives: Poetry

A Paschal Poem: Christ’s Guests

The Adoration of the Magi Morris & Co. tapestry design by Edward Burne-Jones
The Adoration of the Magi. Morris & Co. tapestry. Design by Edward Burne-Jones

When Love was hid within the crib
Wise men Heaven’s call did heed
Beneath the Star they traveled far
To seek the King of which was writ
That He should come to rule the world.
The Infant’s fingers lightly curled
About His mother’s drooping veil
As the old kings did gently kneel
Amidst the straw, to here adore
The Messiah, and implore
His solemn benediction
Proffering a sweet oblation
Of frankincense for the true God
And purest gold for our one Lord
With myrrh to spice the Sacrifice
They built for Him an edifice
Of profound praise within their hearts
And reluctantly, depart
Holding in sweet memory
The innocent visage of He
Who was to bring
Through suffering
The reign of Peace.

"Why seek ye the living among the dead?" St Luke 24 v5 Painting by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908)
“Why seek ye the living among the dead?”
St Luke 24 v5
Painting by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908)

When Love had sprung from the cold tomb,
The women came to anoint His wounds
Bearing myrrh; their hearts were gold
With sheer courage – they were bold
Enough to brave the guards
If fight they must with their pot-shards
They would not be unduly kept
Away from Him for Whom they wept.
As prayers like incense rose on high
In silence through the darkened sky
They found to their deep dismay
The body gone, the grave forlorn
Who had stolen Him away?
The angels came, in light arrayed
And as the women bowed and prayed
They turned to them, and softly said
Why seek ye the living among the dead?
He is not here, He is risen.
Cease ye now thy sad orisons.
The women rose, and brought the news
To brethren hiding from the Jews
Who did not believe their words
But Peter ran, with John ahead
And stooped to see, with bated breath
If Christ had truly conquered death
No words were needed then, their eyes
Saw He had opened Paradise.

So now we sing, to our God-King,
Let all earth and Heaven ring
He has triumphed evermore!
Let us bow down and adore
The Infant, Man and God in one
The Father’s sole obedient Son
Who for us Life has dearly won
‘Tis Love alone, when all is done
Who will call to us, and we
Should now strive ever to be
Worthy of the price He paid
And deliver ourselves undismayed
Into His presence, and adore
In profound peace forevermore.

___

Images: PD-US

The Security Peg: Virtues vs Sins

No man can enter into the house of a strong man and rob him of his goods, unless he first bind the strong man, and then shall he plunder his house.
– Mark 3:27 (cf. Matthew 12:29)

A few Fridays ago, my friend invited me to exit the house via the garage since she was driving out. This created a problem when I returned home from work, because nobody had unfastened the security peg of the front door. Since my friend was away for the weekend, I had to seek lodging elsewhere.

The security peg was just a tiny bit of metal, but it kept me out of the house. It made me think about ways to keep Satan out of the house of one’s soul. He may steal the key from you in a moment of temptation, but he still won’t be able to enter if you have a strong security peg and window grilles in place.

What pegs would work for you? It depends on your weakness, since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Fortunately, we have been granted the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to live holy and virtuous lives.

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (AD 348 – 410), a Christian Roman governor, composed an epic poem entitled Psychomachia, or Battle/Contest of the Soul. Practicing these virtues is the remedy against the Seven Deadly Sins: humility triumphs over pride, kindness over envy, abstinence/temperance over gluttony, chastity over lust, patience over anger, liberality/charity over greed, and diligence over sloth.

Be sure to securely peg the door of your soul with the virtue it needs most, lest our tireless adversary break in and defile the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16).

____

Image: PD-US

God as Poet

By guest writer LeighAnna Schesser.

Recently, a friend wrote to me saying, “I’m skimming Jesus of Nazareth and Pope Benedict XVI mentions all the mountains in Jesus’ life (temptation, teaching, prayer, transfiguration,) and it just struck me as, well, really poetic. Do you have any thoughts regarding God as a Poet or something similar?”

Perhaps because I am a writer myself, the idea of God as a poet delights me. My first articulate thought was that, of course God is a poet; He is a craftsman and an artist, and we and the universe we inhabit are His great work. But something else came immediately to mind as well, and it was only in writing a response to my friend that I began to elucidate the connections:

Let me begin to reply to that question with another question: have you read the last paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy lately? Allow me to refresh your memory; it’s one of my all-time favorite passages:

“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers whoever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

If God is a poet – and of course He is, as He is all good things – then this is the best encapsulation of how and why that I can think of.

Jesus, the first and final Word, is the foundation and fulfillment of all communication. The universe and everything in it was spoken into being through and by the Word of God. The Source of all poetry and all that with which poetry concerns itself is both Poet and Poem – and reader/audience. 

Poetry is distilled, refined, artful communication. Even if the poet, speaker, message, and audience are a single person, the author, it is genuine communication between parts of the self, ideas, and (usually) an imagined audience. (If that sounds trinitarian, it absolutely should.) All that poets do, in their minds and in their output, is a dim reflection of the self-contained communion of the Triune God, and His awesome creative process recorded in the first chapters of Genesis and the Gospel of John. Thus Tolkien’s word for the artist’s labor: subcreation. Like a nesting doll, our efforts to create – in our souls and in action – are within and depend on the Creation.

Creation of Adam

There are few more potent landscapes within that Creation for encountering sublimity than the mountaintop and the desert. The mountaintop and the desert are archetypical locations, liminal places in reality and imagination, intimately familiar to two very similar types of people: the artist and the mystic. Those who seek Art, find God; those who seek God, find Art. Art, perhaps especially poetry, is – metaphorically – a kind of alchemy. At one time alchemy was understood to be primarily a spiritual process: what one did with metals and physical transformations was only an aid to, and a sign of, the purification of the soul. That’s an apt image for how art works, especially when one understands that the essence of art, especially poetry, is refining: as Chesterton put it, the essence of every painting is the frame – the limitation – where one draws the line. It’s the cutting away and the framing that makes the art. Just so, the mountaintop and the desert are places where the world is refined, reduced, delineated: the extraneous is stripped away in the landscape, and so, in a kind of alchemy, that landscape helps strip away the extraneous in our outer and inner selves, leaving us primed, open, and ready to encounter the elusive Divine. 

On the mountaintop or in the desert, we leave behind the company of the world for the privacy of an intimate relationship with the ultimate Other. But the thing about the poet, often more so than the mystic (though not always), is that urge to communicate which prompted going out and up to begin with, is also the desire to return to the rest of the world – to bring back what one has learned and experienced and sing it out. (In the mystic, this is primarily an evangelistic urge, though art can be its fruit – St. John of the Cross comes to mind – whereas for the poet that is reversed.) Yet even in that return and openness, there is something personal, something private, something kept to oneself, that belongs only to and within that Divine relationship. Chesterton sees that private element of the relationship between the Son and the Father as mirth.

The best poetry is, as Robert Frost so famously said, the kind where the poet learns something by writing the poem; there must be surprise. Whether a new insight, the revelation of something we didn’t know we knew, or the fresh perspective offered by juxtaposition, this surprise is, I believe, the same kind of surprise that is the essence of mirth. When you examine what makes something funny, one or more of those three ways of surprise are usually at the heart of it. 

We have an unfortunate cultural preconception that poets must be black-clad, brooding, and Always Very Serious; it’s tied into the sharply mistaken notion that angst, unhappiness, and suffering are the only worthwhile fuel of art. The concept of the funny in poetry is almost completely restricted these days to “light verse” and doggerel. We similarly conceive of the truly religious person and the mystic as grave. In secular parlance, that would be conflated with joyless and mirthless, solemn. Yet as the world mischaracterizes happiness, so too it does not understand what lies in the depths of “solemnity.”

Here we really come down to it: joy can be painful. Joy and happiness are separate from pleasure. (Whereas the world says only pleasure is happiness.) What should be equally yoked to this concept of “Catholic joy” but is often forgotten, is this: mirth can be solemn. Something serious can be very, very funny, and something that causes laughter can be weighty and awe-full.1

Jesus is the God who weeps, who rages, who suffers. Emmanuel, God-with-us, means not just that he walked the earth but that he shares fully in the human condition (save sin, of course.) In Chesterton’s image of His hidden mirth, I see the sharp outline of His humanity, and, veiled from our weak sight, His Godhead – the surprise of divinity, the divine surprise, the final, satisfying twist and fitting conclusion at the end of the poem. The Triune God, revealed in the person of Jesus, is and delivers the surprise, the whole picture, the final punchline, the definitive communication; the part that takes our breath away, moves us to tears, and delights us. 

Is God a poet? He is the Word who comes to us and goes from us, in continuous dialogue; the Word that seeks the mountaintop and the desert and then returns, to bring us to them, and them to us; He is the Word that absolutely reveals, yet remains mysterious in His essence; the Word that is so beautiful it wounds us,2 and yet, in the wounding, makes us whole.

1 It is important to distinguish this idea from the way it’s appropriated by some comedians. There’s a world of difference between the breathtaking union of the mirthful and the solemn, and laughing at something tragic or making a joke of – stripping the dignity from – something that should not be made light of.
2 Pope Benedict XVI elaborates in several places on the concept of God as the beauty that wounds in order to heal, including in an address at Rimini in 2002, and in his 2009 address to artists from the Sistine Chapel.
Image: PD/US

____

LeighAnna Schesser is the author of Heartland, a poetry collection exploring identity, love, and faith through place and landscape. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Virga, Kindred, Peacock Journal, and elsewhere. She holds a B.A. in Theology from Benedictine College and an MFA from North Carolina State University. LeighAnna lives in Kansas with her husband, three children, half-wild garden, and many overstuffed bookshelves. Find her at leighannaschesser.wordpress.com.

Learning by Rote: Creativity and Discipline in Life and Prayer

One day, a home-schooled Anglo-Australian made a rather ill-informed statement on Asian education to his house mate, despite my presence: “Asians can’t be creative because they go through rote learning.”

Interiorly, I thought of all the great poems I was expected to memorise in primary school back in Singapore: immortal lines by Wordsworth, Shelley, Stevenson, Benet – poems which we copied out and illustrated. I can still recite them today, and I still own that cherished personalised poetry book. Then I thought of the poetry I have been composing since I was eight. (One poem garnered a college prize last year.)musicrose

I also thought of a primary school classmate, whom I have not seen for almost two decades. She was a virtuoso pianist, her nimble hands flying over the keys, producing marvellous, magnificent music. She could not have created those magical sounds without hours of persistent practice.

Incidentally, the ubiquitous USB thumb drive was invented by a Singaporean.1 It was also a Singaporean company which invented the mp3 player interface, way before Apple came along with its iPod.2

Recently I attended the annual Spirit in the City conference in Brisbane. Fr. James Grant SSC, the founder of Chaplains Without Borders, remarked upon the high attrition rate of Pentecostal communities. They run on emotion, and they can’t sustain it, he explained, whereas the rate of conversion to Catholicism is slower, but most converts remain for the long haul.

The transmission of the Catholic faith is a combination of rote learning and personal encounter which together bear fruit in true joy and creative love that lasts through the vicissitudes of life. We memorise the devotional prayers of the Holy Rosary, which sustains us in the contemplation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, deepening our relationship with God by the recollection of salvation history. We memorise the liturgical prayers and actions of the Mass, which conforms us to the Person of Christ through the Holy Eucharist. Without these anchors of a shared prayer life steeped in scripture and tradition, the Church would fragment into individualistic, emotionally-driven sects. At the above-mentioned conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane declared, “The Church is not a sect.” We are Catholic, which is to say, universal.

rosary_plane-fultonsheen

From this rich deposit of faith, saints and musicians through the ages have been able to compose exquisite prayers and hymns which we continue to use today, such as Aquinas’ Adoro Te Devote (“Godhead Here in Hiding”) or Tantum Ergo (“Down in adoration falling”). Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin, Palestrina and Vivaldi were inspired to compose sonorous Mass settings which are still being performed in secular concert halls.

Discipline is required for disciples to become truly creative – it is the paradox of saints, that they are at once fully themselves as unique unrepeatable individuals, and fully conformed to Christ, living life to the fullest (John 10:10) in the image and likeness of God the Supreme Creator. Love is creative, and love is the discipline of the Cross. Jesus took His time – 33 years – to grow and mature into a man strong enough to bear the Cross; we too take time to develop habits which mould our characters so that we may bear Christ to others, bringing a breath of Heaven into the most hellish situations. St. Damien of Molokai was thus able to minister to a colony of lepers, dressing ulcers, building a reservoir, homes, furniture and coffins, and digging graves. St. Maximilian Kolbe was thus able to lead condemned Auschwitz prisoners in singing hymns of praise while they starved to death. Love continues to create and renew life even in the face of destruction.

Returning to my original conceit, it is necessary for all students to memorise the alphabet, then master grammar, vocabulary and syntax, and remember phonemes, in order to communicate effectively. It is the discipline of rote learning that enables masterful creativity, whether in literature, music, science or prayer. Just as we may strengthen our bodies through a series of set exercises, so we strengthen our minds and spirits through habitual learning and spiritual exercises. The more we exercise, the easier it becomes to keep doing so; let us then rise to today’s challenges, and carry our crosses together on this narrow path to life eternal, remembering the example and teachings of those who have gone before us, not least God Himself. For it is things we learn by rote, that is, by heart, that we can draw on to fashion into a new expression of love. Only God can create ex nihilo, out of nothing.

Let us be who we are, and be that well, so as to honour the Master Worker, whose handiwork we are.
—St. Francis de Sales

How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints!
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Images: Pinterest; Allison Totus Tuus Family.

_

1 Bernice Tan, “ThumbDrive inventor out to prove he is no one-hit wonder”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 2010.

2 Arik Hesseldahl, “Apple Vs. Creative Tech”, Forbes; “Apple pays Creative $100 million in iPod-related lawsuit”, MacTech; Anton Shilov, “Creative Awarded with MP3 Player User Interface Patent”, Xbit Laboratories.

They Call Today “Good”

Every Triduum, starting with Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday, I re-read T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”. It is four of his best poems, and for anyone who only knows his poetry ala in “The Hollow Man” or “The Wasteland” (critiques of modernity, not praise), his words may be surprising.

For instance, it is in “East Coker”, the second of the quartet, in which Eliot wrote,
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Crucifixion Icon by Olga Christine

How can this Friday be good? Today Jesus was denied, whipped, humiliated, crucified. And why? In today’s gospel, John remind us that all this happens to fulfill the Scriptures. Jesus accepted the cup his father passed him – he accepted, fully, what must happen. Did he have the power to prove himself, as Satan tempted him to in the desert? Of course. But the hardness of the high priests should not be softened by might, but by truth.

What is truth? asked Pilate; a question so modern still that audiences cannot help but relate. Good Friday is the day when Jesus seems the most human. He is condemned and he dies. We are reminded in the second reading that “we do not have a high priest/ who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,/ but one who has similarly been tested in every way,/ yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Indeed, as the reading continues (Heb 5:7-9):
In the days when Christ was in the flesh,
he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears
to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard because of his reverence.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
and when he was made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

The goodness of this day lies in Jesus’ very passion for us all; a love to conquer death, a truth that “I AM” is a witness as well as a declaration. Today, the veil has been torn and we enter Golgotha, the place of skulls. The King of the Jews is dead, and so Eliot finishes his poem: “In the end is my beginning.”

Today was hard. Today was terrible. Today was good. We wait. The tomb is close by…

On Sloth and Wonder

Every Christian shares in the universal call to partake in the Beatific Vision.  His baptism gives him this vocation.  The Gospel calls all men to be contemplatives.

Sloth and dissipation distort modern connotations of leisure, which formerly meant contemplation in rest.  The Greeks called leisure schole, whence we derive “school.”  School provides the place where teachers invite students to contemplate, to enjoy, to wonder.  It trains the heart to love aright.

We can take this meditative disposition into all of life.  A person who enjoys a sunset for its own sake participates in contemplation.  A parent delighting in the mere sight of his child partakes of wonder.  This principle helps to distinguish between drinking to get drunk and loving the taste of wine.  One tends toward gluttony, the other toward a love of beauty.  Rest for Christians should aim not at amusement but at musing.

The vision of beauty has elements of both fear and joy in it.  James S. Taylor writes of “the precise moment suspended between wonder (fear) and possession (joy), for the be-hold is to possess, to hold with the cognitive sense of the sensory-emotional response of near-simultaneous, fear-joy: the sensation of one’s heart leaping up in the chest” (Poetic Knowledge, 50).  He speaks of a knowledge which sees the essence of a thing and delights in its existence.  This vision of the world draws the gazer into union with the things which he sees and loves.  When the wonderer glimpses the gratuitousness of the universe, the fact that God did not have to create, but He did, his soul leaps in appreciation.  The one who muses walks a fine line between poetry and philosophy, as Josef Pieper observes: “The philosopher, [Aquinas] . . . says, is related to the poet in that both are concerned with mirandum, with wonder, with marveling and with that which makes us marvel” (qtd. in Poetic Knowledge, 79).  The eyes of the poet-philosopher see the world “as a vibrant arena of visible and invisible reality” (35).  Through faith we glimpse the spiritual meaning of the material world.

St Thomas Aquinas 2

When we make “linking earth to heaven” the goal of our thoughts, we transcend time (40).  Taylor points to “the time lost in childhood play; the time that seems to vanish when lovers are together, alone; the hours that have simply slipped away during a meal where there was wine and lively conversation” (76).  When we approach life from a place of rest and gratitude, we will be able to see the truth, beauty, and goodness of everyday life.  Taylor observes that “we learn to love what is beautiful and in this way know also the true and the good” (75).  Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.  Where charity and love are, God is there.

Hear the Gospel in Spoken Word Every Sunday

voxetveritaswidgetThere is great power in words, especially words laced with passion and creativity. For today’s world, the art of Spoken Word is equivalent to the modern parable in that it has the ability to reach people, especially young people, in ways homilies and regular catechesis cannot.

For that reason, I am very happy to announce a new project that I am taking on called Vox et Veritas. It is a weekly video series via YouTube in which each Sunday’s Gospel reading is turned into a spoken word performance.

Check out the most recent installments!

“The Law and the Mosaic”:

“Dust in Your Eye”:

)

Want updates when new videos go live?? Subscribe. Like. Follow.

Singing Over Me

I wrote this in my journal a while back, and thought I’d share. It might be a poem–I’m not sure. Saint Cecilia was obviously here! I hope you enjoy!

It’s inspired by this Bible verse:

The LORD, your God … will exult over you with loud singing …
Zeph 3:17, RSV

God is always singing over me.

What is the song of God? It’s the rustle of leaves in an autumn breeze. It’s the rush of water traveling down a stream. The birds singing praise every sunrise. It’s the buzz of a bee, and the sound of pouring rain. This is how He sings over me.

O! How great is His love for us!

God’s song is never far. You need only step out the front door, and there it is—familiar, unlike anything you’ve ever heard.

Best of all, you can feel the song of God in your own heartbeat. The heartbeat itself is proof of God’s plan for us…each heartbeat is a gentle whisper.

“Don’t give up yet, My child…I have plans for you…yours is a happy ending.”

Your ending fills the Father with such gladness, He sings a song of it.

He’s singing melodies of joy and hope. He sings because He loves you. What better way to comfort a broken child than with a lullaby?

Listen for His voice: He is always singing over His creation, for He is full of love.

The Ship of Joy

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. – John 15:11

Joy is like an old ship that was headed for some adventure, but sunk instead like a slow rock under the heaviness of life, waiting to be unearthed.

Divers, plunging in on the breath of prayer, found my ship a while ago, full of Spanish gold.The treasure laden ship has started to rise to the surface on the current of contemplation. But I am reluctant to let it. I have just enough of the joy currency to coast.

I don’t really want to strike it rich. If I throw my money around everyone will think I am one of those annoying nouveau riche Christians. And they will either roll their eyes or expect way too much of me. They won’t realize of course that the money is not mine, I inherited it a while back.

The marine trust fund has been discovered, but it could disappear underwater again at any time. So, instead of facing the constant fear of sinking, I simply keep my hand on the ship of joy, watching as it bobs underwater, struggling to surface.

Too much joy after all is just not something most people can handle. It causes unrealistic expectations and I am deathly afraid of smiling for the rest of my life. Joy and sanctity are so intertwined. Too much sanctity, now that is even scarier than the never ending smile. So I have decided to keep this joy boat under wraps.

It seems proper.

After all, like most people, I prefer to waver just above average in the sanctity business – just enough so people will admire me but no more. With anything more than slightly above mediocre comes the hassle of consistency. God knows, it’s the consistency that makes a saint. And then the adventure is all over from there.

Or is it?

I forgot it’s the ship of joy that carries us on the adventure in the first place.

Cultivating Beauty

With the election season heating up and the usual sins threatening to conquer us, it’s time to talk about… art.

Eve Tushnet makes a penetrating observation* in an upcoming issue of First Things magazine: If you (a sinner) cannot imagine a different way of life, if you do not see virtue as a real and vital possibility, then you cannot experience conversion. And without the conversion of individual souls, there will be no conversion of the culture, no renewed respect for the human person, no communal solidarity or self-sacrifice.

Yet the best method to communicate these needs usually does not lie in philosophy. A person’s openness to logical argument is half-determined before the argument begins. Molding his perception of what is possible and what is desirable is the culture that surrounds him — the paintings, films, poems, photographs, TV shows, books, stories, songs, and plays that have shaped his imagination. If the good and the true do not appear beautiful in these works of art, they will not seem good or true, either.**

In brief, art tends to normalize what it portrays. If in art the human person is degraded, the vulnerable are treated with contempt, and life is chaotic and meaningless, then the viewer may conclude, even if only unconsciously, that the best worldview is “every man for himself.” But if art portrays beauty, order, friendship, and the sacred, honoring the dignity of the individual, then the viewer may look for more in his philosophy.

So how do we cultivate a more beautiful culture? Simple: If you’re an artist, create things of beauty; if you’re not, then go out of your way to find, treasure, and share beautiful things. Here are a few ways to start.

1. Visit museums! So many beautiful pieces of art languish in museums, yearning for visitors. Give them some love. This is easiest, of course, in major metro areas like Washington, D.C., and New York City, but many colleges have small art museums. Get a list of museums by state here. (Granted, museums don’t always do much for contemporary artists, but they do foster an appreciation for art.)

2. Attend concerts, plays, movies, recitations of poetry, and other cultural events. Sure, it’s possible to rent movies, to listen to CDs, to read poetry online, but beauty is best experienced in the flesh. This is harder to do if you’re not in a major metro area, but colleges, high schools, and community groups still put out some beautiful work.

3. Buy books, artwork, photography, magazines, CDs, etc. Free access to art (via the Internet) is awesome, but in the long run, there will be little new art if no one is willing to pay the artist. So, where to find contemporary art, music, and texts worth paying for…

Artists: I’m partial to Michael O’Brien (though his work is out of my price range), Matthew Alderman (website, flickr), and Daniel Mitsui.

Writers: I’ve listed some great Catholic novels here before. My favorite contemporary writers are probably Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Mark Helprin, and Michael O’Brien (the artist who also writes).

Poets: Dana Gioia, Wendell Berry (the novelist/essayist also writes poetry), A.M. Juster, Brian Doyle, and Sally Thomas (yes, this Sally Thomas) have all written some lovely poetry. A fellow Hillsdale alum has praised some other poets that I’m not yet familiar with — Averill Curdy, A. E. Stallings, Steve Gehrke, and Roddy Lumsden — for defying today’s “poetry-about-poetry house-of-cards garbage.”

Publishing houses: Ignatius Press may take the top spot; also keep an eye on Our Sunday VisitorSt. Augustine’s Press, Franciscan Media (includes Servant Books, St. Anthony Messenger Press), and the Sophia Institute Press.

Magazines: Naturally I must recommend my current employer, First Things (essays and poetry). Via St. Peter’s List, you can find fiction, art, poetry, essays, and more in Image, Dappled Things, and Pilgrim. I’ve also enjoyed The Christendom Review.

Movie studios/directors/films: You can’t go wrong with Grassroots Films. Icon Productions is behind a few good movies of recent years. I am dreadfully ignorant about film, though. Who else is good?

Musicians: My ignorance of movies is only outweighed by my ignorance of contemporary bands and musicians, so you’ll have to help me out here. I like Scythian, for one. Conductor and composer Richard Proulx, who died in 2010, put out some wonderful sacred music in recent years.

So, what great artists or promoters of art did I miss? Share in the comments!

Further reading:

Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists

Pope Benedict’s Address to Artists

*Eve Tushnet makes this point in a totally different context, namely that of Catholic sexual morality, but I wanted to credit her for the basic insight.

**I haven’t distinguished here between Catholic/Christian art and secular art, though my specific recommendations emphasize the former. Some secular art better communicates Christian truths (that life is sacred, etc.) better than some Christian art does, though obviously that’s not to say that there’s no need for explicitly Christian art. But this point, the related exploration of didactic art’s many pitfalls, the question of portraying vs. glamorizing sin, and many other related issues are beyond the scope of this post. The image is “Flower Beauty” by Cornelis Vreedenburgh, via Wikipaintings.

Farewell, My Dear

This is a poem I felt compelled to write when I was thinking of one of my mom’s uncles, her godfather at baptism. I don’t know why I was thinking about him. We only ever had one conversation, back when he was sick, a few months before he died. He had so many books that the reader in me was going crazy. I asked him about those books, and he told me the topics were about history and religion. Those are the only words we ever exchanged, but this particular April night my heart felt like he was here.

It’s actually a song. I played with the piano app on my mom’s iPad and worked out the notes. It can be read as a poem, too. I think this is something a lot of people need to hear from their loved ones who have gone to Heaven, and I’m excited to share them with you. God Bless!

Farewell, my dear.
So long! Don’t fear,
Your God is here
tonight.

His love is grand
So He’ll take your hand
and with Him you’ll be
all right.

He sings like the ocean kisses the sand
He counts every step you take.
His eyes always on you! He is the King
Whose promises He never breaks.

So be strong, my love–
I’m always near,
with Jesus in your heart.

Wait in hope
for that glorious day

we’ll no longer be apart.

Farewell, my dear.
So long! Don’t fear,
Your God is here

tonight.

His love is grand
So He’ll take your hand
and with Him you’ll be
all right.

Lessons in the Chinook

Man’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint–“

Today was a jump day. I had to jump out of a Chinook. This is one of the occupational hazards of my day job, that periodically they require me to parachute from an aircraft while in flight. It is one of my least favorite parts of the job. I hate heights. I’m also bigger than the average guy so I fall faster and I always hit hard. Jump days also suck up a lot of time.

Today for instance, we started at 0800, with rigging our rucksacks. Then the prejump brief, a quick break to get measured for some new gear, and before you know it, it’s eleven and we are rushing to the hangar to hurry up and get our chutes on so we can make our hit time. Hurry up and rig, then, Oh, wait, someone forgot to do some paperwork so everyone sit down for an hour in harness and ruck. Then hurry up again to get out to the bird that’s spinning up on the tarmac. We take off and start heading to the drop zone, but wait! The pilot and crew have some trainees on board so they are going to do some certification tasks. So we land and sit for thirty minutes. Then we take off and fly nap of the earth, zooming along a river bed, up over the banks and the treeline, down into the clear, banking, turning, diving and climbing like a rollercoaster. Then finally we level off and begin the pass over the drop zone. Everyone goes into the familiar routine, “Standup, hookup, check static line, check equipment, sound off for equipment check.” We got all the way to “Standby!” before they called the winds at 15 knots. So we circled and checked again. Still 15 knots. So we circled again. Still 15 knots! So we all sat down while we circled once more, or maybe twice more. Then “Standup, hookup, etc. Again.”

This time we jumped. I came screaming down fast as a load of bricks again, but landed in a nice, soft muddy patch so it didn’t hurt too much. The winds were high enough that my chute didn’t deflate and actually dragged me for a few inches before I popped both of my releases.

Then we jumped back on the bird, they buttoned up the ramp, and we took the scenic roller coaster route back. I had missed lunch because we were sitting in harness all day, so my stomach was already empty and queasy. With the ramp shut it got hot and stuffy, and the stale air smelled like diesel fumes and hot metal. I could feel my stomach bouncing around and my cheeks going pale. The other guys said I looked “even whiter than usual”. The whole flight back I was focusing on not throwing up. It’s all about breathing, and trying to relax.

It was on the return flight, I think, that the quote at the top of this post came into my head. It is from T.S.Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”. (The Dry Salvages, lines 199-203. No, I didn’t know that from memory. I looked it up when I got home.)

I admit that I was pretty frustrated today. I couldn’t help but think about all the other places I wished I was, the other things I wanted to be doing, the other people I would rather be spending time with. The frustration continued on the way home, with every traffic light, speed limit and even the other drivers adding to that sense of loss. I wanted to get home so I could begin doing other things that I actually care about. But T. S. Eliot’s line kept returning to my mind. “The point of intersection of the timeless/ with time, is an occupation for the saint.”

My mind was in New York, in South Carolina, In Virginia, in Panera Bread or Pho’ Tai in Tacoma. What was on my mind was the past (the fun I had last night) and the future (upcoming weekends, get-togethers, leave, even the fact that I’m getting out of the army in a couple of years.) I was not in the present, which is the only point of intersection of the timeless with time. So I was not living as a saint would live.

Over the course of the day this has been my ongoing battle, to be present in this time, because this time alone is real. God is found only in the present, never in the past or the future. Leave time in September, as much as I look forward to it, is not what I have been given. It does not exist. I have been given this moment, with the smells, the heat, the headache, the noise, the nausea. The thick, numb feeling of my whole body from hours of bombardment with rotor noise is the gift I have been given. This is my calling, this moment, right here and now. The infinite presence of God is an intolerable notion sometimes, because it means there is no mistake. If I have been following Him, then here is where He has put me. And He did it on purpose. Dwelling endlessly on phantasms of where I wish I was is a sheer waste of precious time, time given me to become a saint. That time spent in discontented grumbling is time horribly unredeemed, unredeemed because I refuse to surrender it for redemption. Time is the stuff of which my eternity will be formed. Let me think twice before I spend my time grumbling.

Here and now and nowhere else is sanctity to be found. Here there are rosaries to be said, praises to be offered, petitions to be made, and redemption to be shared in. I have been given these inconveniences as a share (infinitesimal, but all I can handle) in the suffering that Jesus undergoes for the redemption of my family and my friends. As my mother used to say, “Offer it up!” Offering it up is nothing more than allowing Jesus to make you a partner in His redemptive suffering, a little co-redeemer if I may use the phrase. But to do that I must be present.

So while on the outside the story of my day went much like the paragraph above, a series of routine delays and inconveniences, interiorly my day was pretty much a volley of my mind, bouncing back and forth between irritation and resentment, and peace and gratitude. Going all in an instant from impatient muttering to prayers of thanksgiving, maledictions upon my fellow-man grudgingly reforged into prayers for my loved ones. A long, constant effort to drag my mind back from where it drifts to the call of God in this moment.

An occupation for the saint–
But no occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us there is only the unattended
Moment…”