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The Mystery of Art

MysteryThere is a fairly good chance that you know Jonathan Jackson as an Emmy award winning actor from television shows like General Hospital and Nashville, or from films like Tuck Everlasting and The Deep End of the Ocean. You might even know him as part of the band Enation. What you might not know is that he is also a philosopher poet, a budding theologian, and an Orthodox Christian. All of this coalesces in his new book, The Mystery of Art, a beautiful and compelling articulation of what it means to be “an artist in the Image of God.”

Following in the tradition of artists like Flannery O’Connor, C.S Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Makoto Fujimura and others who have spoken insightfully about the intersection of art and faith, Jonathan stitches together wisdom from saints, authors, filmmakers, and friends with stories and observations of his own to clean the lens of our perception.

This is one of the most thought provoking books I have read in a long time. I frequently find myself recalling passages and ruminating on them even though it’s been two months since I read it. I wanted to include more than twice as much of the author’s content in the post than is here. Whittling it away has been excruciating. So, I will keep my remarks brief and mostly let the author speak for himself. I hope you will be intrigued and read the book so that you too may be nourished and inspired.

Whoever wants to become a Christian, must first become a poet. ~St. Porphyrios

In the introduction, the author invites us to remember a Christianity that “experienced Christ by means of a holistic, sacramental, and artistic reality” and to embrace art’s unique ability to penetrate to the heart of things.

Whenever an artist brings someone into the presence of meaning, in that moment his work becomes incarnational instead of ideological…he awakens the heart to a deeper significance.

Art as Beauty:

Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Because we are made in the image of the Creator, we ourselves are creative, regardless of vocation. “We are artists in the way we love. We are poets in the way we pray.” In this, we operate in concert with the Trinity:

The artist is never more himself than when his heart is united with the Holy Spirit; when he approaches his craft as a kind of symphony with God.

Art as Mystery and Madness:

Man is at once glorious and broken–magnificently radiant and deeply wounded.

We are all familiar with the image of the suffering artist. This suffering can be “destructive, narcissistic, and tormented” or “therapeutic, selfless, and holy“. Dostoevsky is given as an example of one whose “inner illumination” made it possible to “transform his suffering and give it meaning.”

Art as Prayer and Intercession:

The artist is to become a living prayer.

With personal examples of roles that brought him close to the sufferings of others, Jonathan explains how these became unique opportunities to intercede on behalf of these people; to stand with them in their pain.

The artist’s performances are destined to become not only seamless acts of prayer but also holy acts of intercession. The spiritual artist creates from a place of wounded love and humility–like Christ.

Art as Listening:

If there were a little more silence, if we all kept quiet…maybe we could understand something. ~Federico Fellini

Silence teaches the artist to listen–it creates space inside of him to discover secrets and encounter mysteries. To be silent before anything or anyone is an act of humility…Humility has no reason to hide or falsify itself. Therefore, silence teaches the artist how to tell the truth.

Art as Belief:

The most brilliant artists possess the gift of faith, whether they are conscious or subconscious participants in this grace.

Art as Prophecy:

Creating is meant to be a form of prophecy…To be prophetic means to live in communion with the Spirit. His intentions become the artist’s intentions, through ceaseless prayer, love-filled repentance, and the transformation of the mind…When an artist abandons the illusion of autonomy, he becomes a vessel of the Divine Flame…

Contrived art for the sake of preaching to people is an offense to the mystery and sacredness of creation. Beauty and honesty are the primary inspirations of the artist: he trusts the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit to lead hearts into the truth. The prophetic artist is one who breaks open the remembrance of humanity, creating an atmosphere for the Spirit of God to breathe new life into creation.

Art as Sacrament:

Poetry is unhindered paradox and contradiction. It seeks to communicate something mystically before that thing can be apprehended cognitively. It is the music of words.

We have become a dualistic society, opposing the physical world to the spiritual. But this was never meant to be. We were created to be fully integrated beings. There is a physicality that is absolutely essential to faith. “Human beings are, in a very real sense, symphonic creatures.”

Art as Offering:

It may seem strange to portray events and characters that are not holy and beautiful or to write songs about troubled souls. But, in reality, it is not strange at all. Who better to prophetically enter into the depths of humanity than those who are living in ceaseless prayer with God?…The holiness of Christ brings us closer to humanity: closer to our true beauty and fearsome darkness. Any talk of Christianity that displays a haughty distance toward the brokenness and vulnerability of humanity has nothing to do with Christ.

Rejoice, O Artists:

Our society seems to think that joy is a conflict-free, lucid state of contentment. It is not. It is an act of rebellion: a holy and sacred rage…It is not placid, passive or docile. It is the madness of love.

One of the lovely gifts of the book is the inclusion of several original poems and prayers. I close with a short excerpt from one of those (from the chapter Art as Mystery and Madness).

O Spirit of Grace, you are complete and utter bliss. You are the ecstasy of a thousand kisses beneath the ocean. You are the rain of restoration and hope. You are the trembling inside my frame. You are the tears that have no end. You are the lightning of inspiration within my temple of wanderings. You are the heart of desire and the warmth of intimacy…Wisdom is your presence. Salvation is your embrace. Heaven is to be seen by you. I fall into your arms of love…

*All quotes in the post taken from the book. All unattributed quotes: Jonathan Jackson.

Regarding Oscar

The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.

A well made film has a remarkable ability to carry us deep inside the life of another person, another time, another place. It enables us to share the grief and the delight, the heartaches and dreams of persons very unlike us and, in the process, to know ourselves. Some films make us uncomfortable. Some of them help us imagine a world that is nobler and more whole. The very best of them leave us better than they found us.

Eight of these are Academy Award nominees this year for best picture. This is a diverse company, each outstanding in its own way. Though I am unqualified to make predictions about winners, here are my strictly personal viewing notes.

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American Sniper is a modern day hero tale. In Chris Kyle, superhuman vision and marksmanship are wed to a strong sense of loyalty and honor. He finds himself in a place that is more dark and difficult than most of us can even imagine, but for a moment we are there with him. Through his eyes, we taste the terror, the incessant tension and necessary vigilance, the impossible life or death choices that are his every day. We share the whiplash of moving back and forth between the relative safety and ease of life stateside and the horror that is life on the battlefield. And we see its terrible personal cost.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this film.

At every service in the Orthodox Church we pray for our armed forces in defense of freedom everywhere. I never hear those words now without a catch in my throat and a picture of what it is costing them every day to be there on my behalf.

Bradley Cooper gives an astonishing performance in this film. He is a worthy contender for best actor.

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Birdman:

A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

This quote on Riggan Thomson’s dressing room door sets the tone for the film. It is, at heart, an exploration into what gives us worth. Michael Keaton plays an actor who became famous in the role of an iconic superhero some twenty years ago. His fans are not the only ones who have a difficult time separating the man from the myth. Birdman seems to have become an alter ego. A voice he can’t get out of his head. Riggan’s hold on reality is tentative at best.

But he is trying. Trying to shake off a false self he has worn for far too long. Trying to make up for some of the mistakes of the past. Trying to say something worthwhile with his life.

He is not the only one. His daughter Sam is fresh out of rehab and is struggling to stitch together the fragments of her life, while working in the unenviable position of production assistant to her father. Emma Stone gives an extraordinary performance in this role and is hands down my pick for best supporting actress. Broadway darling and diva, Mike Shiner, who is a last minute addition to the cast, adds to the whole existential dialogue, confessing to Sam that the only time he feels like he is telling the truth is when he is on stage.

Michael Keaton is utterly believable in this film, even when he is doing unbelievable things. A stellar performance. And Zach Galifianakis is a great surprise, rendering the role of best friend and tether of sanity, Jake, with dramatic intensity.

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Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years using the same cast. It is impossible to overstate the impact of watching these same people evolve, year after year after year. Sometimes, just watching the character appear on screen with a new haircut (or new piercings) tells something about who he has become before he says anything.

Life is less than perfect for Mason whose single mom is stretched to her limits providing for two kids, and working to improve their situation. Dad is frequently absent, but is all in when he is around. They move too much, and there are a couple of drunken, abusive step-dads along the way. But there is a lot of wonderful too. Baseball games and camping trips, bowling, and bed time stories, and good friends.

This is a coming of age story, with all the best and the worst of what it means to grow and change, to win and lose, to leave and come home. These people become so real that sometimes I feel like I am watching home movies and not an award winning film. And Mason and his sister are not the only ones growing up before our eyes. Mom and Dad are also finally growing into themselves.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is an absolute delight. The language, the cinematography, the subtle humor, and the lavish ostentation are a veritable feast. Monsieur Gustave H is the consummate hotel concierge; genteel, precise, punctiliously polite. This wins him many admirers and friends. But when a fabulously wealthy admirer leaves to him a very valuable painting in her will, he finds himself accused of her murder.

Thus begins a great adventure which includes, among other things, a daring escape from prison, a snowy pilgrimage to an alpine monastery, a deadly encounter with the henchman employed by the deceased woman’s family, and a shoot out in the upper gallery of the hotel. In all of this, he is aided by his protege, young Zero Moustaffa, the lobby boy. He is vindicated in the end, but alas his life is cut short by an encounter with militants aboard a train.

This is not a film that will change the world. But, it is quirky and compelling and nourishes that part of me that loves the creative and the beautiful. I have seen it twice already and am not done yet.

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The Imitation Game:

Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Alan Touring has always lived on the outside. He has a brilliant intellect, but little understanding of how to interact with others. Yet, untold thousands owe their lives to this outsider.

He becomes the unlikely leader of a team tasked with breaking the enigma code. This unmerry band of confederates will fight and claw and mistrust one another.

And accomplish the impossible.

However, it is decided that it would be a tactical error to let the Germans realize that their code has been broken. This leads to the excruciating task of deciding when to intervene and when not to. Who lives and who dies? It also means that these genius code-breakers will not be properly recognized for their extraordinary contribution until many years later. But this is not the greatest trial Touring must endure.

Early in the story we realize Touring is gay. He experiences a very difficult loss at boarding school when a young man who has become very dear to him dies. He experiences loss again when he realizes it would be selfish to marry his colleague Joane, even though he loves her, because he can not be in all ways a husband to her. But the most tragic loss comes at the end of the film. When, following an investigation into a break in at his home, Touring is found to be homosexual, he is prosecuted for indecency. He is forced to endure medical treatments for two years, intended to reverse his condition. They destroy his health and his mind and eventually drive him to end his own life. It is an outrageous tragedy.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives a compelling and sympathetic performance, complete with all the necessary idiosyncrasies of genius. A challenging and ennobling film.

Are you paying attention? Good. If you are not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.”

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Selma

If I have been able to see further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” ~Sir Isaac Newton

Selma introduces us to some of these giants. From the intimate portrait of Dr. King and his lovely and courageous bride, to the snapshots of ordinary men and women who risked everything to make the world right, this film allows us to step inside their lives for a space. To feel the anguish of being dehumanized and unheard. To feel trapped by a system that every day betrays the ideals it espouses.

These were men and women with the audacity to imagine a world that did not yet exist, and with the courage to make it be so. Many of them did not live to see their dreams come to pass. But they believed in the inevitability. Knowing them, being with them, makes each of us more human.

Every day you and I live in a grace purchased for us by the courageous acts of those who have come before us. May their memories be eternal.

theory

The Theory of Everything

Three things I have “known” for some time about Stephen Hawking: Brilliant physicist, pernicious atheist, physically challenged.

Labels. Categories.

“The Theory of Everything” makes him real.

In this film he becomes curious and funny, quirky and disorganized, and vulnerable. I was surprised to like him so much. His relationship with Jane is sweet, and terrifying, like all relationships are at the start. But in her he finds a partner of great fortitude and persistence who pushes through the hardest trials, and in the process, calls out the very best in him.

While I certainly disagree with a good bit of his philosophy, I must admit that his story is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.

As acknowledged by the Golden Globes, Eddie Redmayne gives an outstanding performance in a very demanding role. And Felicity Jones is lovely. (Though I am still rooting for Emma Stone)

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Whiplash

If you have ever given your sweat and blood to something you love, especially if that something is music, if you know that anything worth having comes at a price, you will find yourself in this film. It is visceral and intense. I literally found myself feeling nauseous at times.

The pin-ups on the wall of Andrew Nieman’s room are drummers. The greats, like Buddy Rich. Someday, he wants to be one of them. And to make it be so he practices relentlessly, til his fingers bleed. When we meet him he is a first year at Schaffer Conservatory of Music.

Enter Terrence Fletcher, prestigious (and feared) director of the studio jazz band at Schaffer who invites Nieman to take the position of alternate drummer. Nieman quickly discovers that Fletcher employs a vocabulary of terror and intimidation to push players past their perceived limits and to their ultimate potential.

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.

The film is shot mostly in tight frames: in practice rooms, at a table with not enough air, in a crowded theater. This contributes to the palpable feeling of entrapment. There are plot twists aplenty, and just when you think you know where it is going, you don’t. But everything fits. And it goes where it should in the end, whether that’s where you wanted it to go or not.

J.K Simmons is extraordinary in this film as a bad-ass masochist whose conducting hand conveys just enough tender, artistic underbelly to make him human. If he does not win the Oscar for best-supporting actor, it is a travesty.

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It has been a good year at the movies, and  I am grateful to artful storytellers who give us all the opportunity to see the world through their lens.

May your tribe increase.

The Cash Legacy

I had the great good fortune to be born into a family that sings. All the time. Rare is the family gathering without guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, piano, or at least a hymnbook. The afternoon after we laid my grandmother to rest, we crowded into the front room of the farmhouse on the hill, still so full of her presence, and sang with my grandpa. The old familiar hymns were balm to his aching heart. And ours.

Maybe your family doesn’t look like that. But you can get a little taste of what it might be like. Of course, in this case, your family will be made up of Broadway caliber vocalists and Nashville front line players. And the songbook: all Cash.

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The Cash Legacy: A Musical Tribute to the Man in Black is the newest original offering from Studio Tenn. Billed by its creators as a “theatrical concert”, it has the ease of those family gatherings. One song moves fluidly into another without the intrusion of dialogue. Now a rip-roaring hand-clapper with everybody piling in. Then a ballad that is so tender, so personal, all you can do is listen and let the hurt of it, the beautiful truth of it, seep into those places inside you that need it.

It is an evening of memorable moments, but here are a few that have been playing themselves over and over in my head all day…

The evening opened with “Daddy Sang Bass”, plus a little taste of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. It was a lovely invitation to all of us to enter in. My brother and I liked to sing this one when we were little, so right from the get go I had my first personal connection. In a poetic turn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” came back round at the end, except by then we had cried and laughed and sat in this rich music together so that we had grown into one another and all felt part of that circle. I don’t think anyone wanted it to be over.

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Carrie Tillis sat on the edge of the stage with an autoharp in her lap and brought her easy grace to “I Still Miss Someone”. Others began to add harmonies so gentle that I was not sure when they began. Ridiculously talented guitarist, Jake Bradley, showed us his vocal side when he joined Tillis for “Long Legged Guitar Pickin Man”. Their exchange was so playful and fun to watch. Clearly both were having as much fun as we were.

One of the most compelling ensemble pieces was the bluesy “Five Feet High and Rising” where they sang into and out of each other so seamlessly I swear they were breathing together.

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The first time Griffin House stepped up to the mic, my mouth fell open. He sounds remarkably like Johnny Cash. Not in an affected way. Just a tone that is so very like. He and Laura Matula joined forces on the iconic “Ring of Fire”, and both honored it and made it their own, their voices a delicious pairing.

House made me laugh til I hurt, not once, but twice. First on “Busted” which he began singing and strumming while lolled out on the couch. His facial expressions while he poked fun at his ill fortune were priceless. But even better was “A Boy Named Sue”. Sitting on the steps with a bottle in his hand and confiding to his listeners his ironic story in rapid cadence with the most hysterical faces, he had us all laughing out loud.

Laura Matula broke my heart with “Give My Love to Rose”. Truth is, I might have teared up just writing about it. It was a powerful moment. She poured herself out in this song and sang it with such empathy I could see her kneeling at the railroad tracks with this dear, dying man, holding his face in her hands. I have included a video of her singing the song at Sun Studios, where Johnny made so many records, so she can break your heart, too.

I have seen Matula in several Studio Tenn productions, but last night she was dazzling. Girl got some pipes and when she is singing all out, I feel it in my chest. Because she is also a gifted actress, she is captivating to watch. Especially fun was her sassy delivery of “Cry, Cry, Cry”.

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Patrick Thomas was one of my favorites in last year’s The Hank Legacy, and he did not disappoint last night. His powerful voice was just right on “I walk the Line”. And when he sang “The Man in Black”, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. But I especially loved seeing him with Matt Haeck on “The Unclouded Day”. Face to face, guitar to guitar, they sang this favorite hymn from my childhood like they meant it, and it was all I could do not to sing along.

Sara Jean Kelley showed considerable range, from the quiet, plaintive “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to the lively and playfully vindictive “Jackson” (a duet with Haeck).

All three girl singers gathered round the piano for a sweet and spare trio setting of “Flesh and Blood”. Do you remember those albums Dolly, Linda and Emmylou recorded a number of years ago? Their exquisite harmonies reminded me of those. I kept forgetting to breathe.

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When Matt Haeck stepped quietly into the spotlight with only his guitar and began to pick broken chords, slow and purposeful, I knew it was time for “Hurt”. I had been waiting for it all night, but wasn’t ready for it. Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords. And every heavy, sorrowful day was in that moment. When you can barely put words to the grief. Then the grieving builds and you feel like you are dragging an impossible weight and everything is so loud and the piano is pounding those incessant octaves and it builds and builds until you think your heart will burst.

And then…

Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords.

And the silence hangs after.

And still it ends too soon.

I beg you to do yourself a favor and see this show while you can. It plays til March 6 (including Johnny’s birthday, Feb. 26). Get your tickets HERE.

*All photographs and videos in the post copyright Anthony Matula www.ma2la.com

Steel Magnolias

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I’m crazy about the new venue. So intimate, it feels like you are all mixed in among the characters. It was true during Fiddler on the Roof. The actors began to wonder onto the stage a few at a time and it was like arriving in a new town early in the morning and watching it come to life around you.

And it was especially true during Steel Magnolias. So far as I knew, I was sitting in Truvy’s shop, among that lively bunch of wild and familiar women waiting for my own turn in the chair.

From the time Truvy walked into the beauty shop, adjusting her more than ample bosoms, slathering a new coat of lipstick over the old one, and varnishing her bleached blonde locks with enough Aqua Net to create her own personal ozone hazard, I knew it was going to be a fun evening. She dished up plenty of wisdom with her beauty treatments, just like most hairdressers I’ve known, but she also had the good grace to laugh at herself, and pretty much everyone else. :)

And boy did we laugh!

We laughed at Annelle whose every action screamed the fact that she was uncomfortable in her own skin. Over the course of the next couple of hours, she would blossom, in fits and starts. But that hunger to fit in, to be liked and accepted was ever a palpable reality. So much so that I was astonished to see the actress afterward and observe that she was nothing like her character.

We laughed at Clairee whose polish and good manners, confidence and subtlety, did not for a minute hide her vivacious interior. Instead, it gave it precision and potency. Her humor always took me by surprise. A truly elegant Southern lady AND an untamable spitfire.

We laughed at Shelby who we first met on her wedding day. Shelby who arrived in curlers with a bag of baby’s breath and a magazine picture of Grace Kelly. Shelby who, for all her lithe, sweet, pink prettiness, possessed within her the iron will she had absorbed from these strong women. Shelby whose wedding colors were blush and bashful. Feisty, mischiefmaking Shelby.

We laughed at M’Lynne whose matter-of-fact humor frequently bordered on sarcasm, but was too Southern to dip over the edge. We laughed at her husband who was out that morning shooting all the birds out of the trees.

We laughed at Ouiser before we even saw her. At dinner, friends and I predicted that Nan Gurley would incarnate Ouiser. And we laughed just imagining how she would play her. It was so much better than we imagined. Ouiser with the outlandish fashion sense and psychotic dog. Ouiser who has been in a bad mood for forty years. Ouiser who people are nice to only because “I have more money than God.” Ouiser who decides to go have her colors done?! Ouiser who will be offered as a punching bag in a moment when we all really need a good laugh.

Woven all in and through the laughter are strands of memory and difficulty and hard things that have been weathered and walked together. There is a love and a belonging. There are the things that don’t have to be said because they are understood by all.

Some of the most poignant moments came at the mirror. A mirror is a very vulnerable place. In this production the audience sat just back of the  “mirrors”. So when one of the women had the moment of considering herself, the way she looked or who she was (and maybe those are too tangled up most of the time) we saw it. For a space, I had this feeling it was only she and I in the room. It was raw and exposed, intensely intimate and tender.

If you know the story, you know that it takes an excruciating turn. This was powerful in the extreme. It was played with restraint, not manipulative or sentimental. But deeply honest. And the honest wrestling, the yearning to make it somehow make sense, the uncomfortable place of not knowing what to do or say or be was so true that it pierced me to the heart. All the sorrow and longing I have ever known seemed to be connected to that moment.

Steel Magnolias is a profoundly human story. Southern women, to be sure, are their own peculiar brand of human. :) But anyone who has lived life, truly and deeply, will find parts of their story in here.

I highly commend to you Studio Tenn’s performance of this wonderful work. It is intimate and artistic, cleanly and beautifully articulated. I have seen a great deal of theater in my life, and this was, without a doubt, one of the most moving experiences.

You have nine more opportunities this weekend and next. Buy tickets HERE.

The Hank Legacy

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He sits alone in a hazy shaft of spotlight, his fingers tenderly pulling a woeful tune from the strings of his guitar. A voice heavy with anguish begins to sing, “Did you ever see a robin weep when leaves begin to die? Like me, he’s lost the will to live. I’m so lonesome I could cry…” And my heart hurts. And all the lonely in my life seems to be wound up in this moment, this song, the lone singer and mournful strings.

She takes the stage like she owns it. “Hey, Good Lookin'” has never been so sassy, so strong. I feel the power of her voice reverberate in my chest and I wish, just once, I could know what it feels like to make a sound like that. Then the song becomes a duet and he gives it back to her line for line and it is the most playful, musical sort of flirtation and rivalry and fun.

Her voice is clean and clear, sweet with an unexpected warmth. And when she lofts into the high notes it is almost too beautiful to bear. The accompaniment is uncluttered. Simple. As it should be. “Please, don’t let me love you, cause I know you’ll be untrue.”

He can barely stay aloft on the bar stool. Sometimes he leans his head against the body of his guitar for support. He drags and slurs through “There’s a Tear in My Beer” while the whole cast tries to speed him on and we laugh until our sides ache and when I am sure it can’t get any funnier, it does, and it seems wrong to laugh at another’s misfortune and maybe I could stop except that the other guy starts playing the harmonica and it seems he is almost having to chase it down to play it and he is apparently as drunk as the other fellow and if they don’t stop soon I will probably wet my pants….

Four women exchange lines about love lost, then the instruments drop out, and their voices find harmonies and sail round our heads like wind and we are all wrapped up in it. “Alone and forsaken by God and by man. Oh Lord if you hear me please hold to my hand. Oh please understand.”

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These are just a few favorite moments from “The Hank Legacy: The Songs of Hank Williams”, an original musical review from Studio Tenn Theatre Company in Franklin. Hank sang a variety of styles and Studio Tenn honors this with their varied interpretations. The show includes everything from down and dirty blues, to rip roaring country bluegrass complete with pedal steel guitar, banjo, autoharp and a half dozen guitars, to tender acoustic ballads, to gospel tunes that make the heart soar.

Everything is artfully done right down to the set design. The show takes place, appropriately, in a honky tonk (where you can buy libations before the show and during intermission). I especially love the pendant lights made from Bulleit Bourbon bottles. The band is situated on a platform that amplifies the stomping of their feet when things get especially rowdy. And, there is a honky tonk piano in the corner that gets a real workout, especially on the heart wrenching “Lost on the River”.

Something must be said of the violinist who truly makes her instrument sing. It races and rollicks on the lively numbers, and it laments and very nearly weeps on the tragic ones. And her body is all one with the instrument and the playing is like dancing and I can’t not watch her.

The evening culminates in a gospel sing. Hank Williams loved gospel music. Like Elvis, he seemed to find a reverie there, an escape from his crazy life, a hope for redemption, peace. Everyone piles in on “I Saw the Light”. Guitars wail, the violin saws as though it will break, and  sweet gospel harmonies have our hearts throbbing with the palpable joy of it.

This is one of the most enjoyable shows I have ever seen. It was interrupted by no less than 8 standing ovations the evening we attended! It is that exceptional. At the end, I wanted to beg them to do it all over again. If you live anywhere close to the Nashville area, I strongly encourage you to see The Hank Legacy. In fact, even if you don’t, it merits a road trip. :) It plays for two more weekends. Get tickets HERE. Just to tempt you, I offer this:

Photographs and highlight reel by ANTHONYMATULA. Sample more photos HERE and get a look behind the scenes HERE.

A Ballade of Place…

We almost missed it. Many people do.

It was our last morning in Paris, and we had seen everything on our list. We had one ticket left on our City Pass. Sainte Chapelle. A church. We had a little time to spare and it was near by.

Sainte Chapelle was built to house relics brought back from the Holy Land, including what was purported to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ. It was constructed at the pinnacle of the Gothic age when architects had perfected the flying buttress system to an art. Hence, the church is filled with windows. Three walls of her are very nearly windows only, beginning a few feet of the floor and soaring into the heavens, separated by only the finest ribs of support.

It is made even more dramatic by the fact that you reach it by climbing a dark, close spiral staircase. You wind your way up and up through the darkness until you are suddenly turned out into a magnificence you could never have imagined.

Standing in that place was, and still is, one of the holiest moments of my life. God was a presence that could be touched and breathed and worn there. His grandeur leaked from every pane of glass.

I have never explained that moment to my satisfaction, though I have tried. My latest attempt at giving it voice was inspired by a creative lectio experience with my beautiful friends Nita and Patsy. It is, perhaps, the closest I have come. Yet.

Sainte Chapelle

The steps have been hollowed out
by centuries of use. Still they spiral
upward through the dark, close
column of stone till they spill me out
into the upper chamber.

I am assaulted by color.
Jeweled windows hang
suspended from the sky.
Sunlight scatters the jewels across the floor
and in my hair
and on my skin.

And I find that I have forgotten
to breathe. And my face is wet.

And I think of poor, hungry peasants
who gave of their meager means to build
great edifices for God, and how I scorned
their impracticality.

And I realize I would gladly starve
to stand, just once, in a place
where holiness rests
like jewels
on my skin.

 

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sainte chapelle ceiling

List of Candidates 2013

I will die with a list of books I meant to read, but didn’t.

This thought disturbs me.

Terribly.

So every year I whittle away at the books I know to be on that list. A little at a time. And every year I learn about other wonderful books. So I add them. And every time I finish reading a glorious novel, a delicious bit of poetry, or an inspiring biography, I pray a little prayer of thanks, not only for the author who penned the words, but for the friend who introduced me to them. If you are reading this, there is a good chance that person was you.

The list is not static, but grows all year through. However, I do make a deliberate effort in January to sweep together all the leavings of the previous year’s list along with titles jotted onto scraps of paper and in margins of books, or plugged into my phone, and begin again. I get so excited I want to read everything all at once. But life intervenes and I will have to tuck them in here and there wherever I can carve out a wee bit of space.

My list of candidates has improved considerably since I began soliciting help from you, my readers. So once again, I am giving you a look at what is already on my list, and asking you to help me fill it in. What have you read recently that rocked your world? What is that book you come back to over and over? Tell me about it. Please!

Here is what I have thus far…

Silence by Shusaku Endo*
Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry*
Waiting for God by Simone Weil
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho
Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok*
On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit by Saint Seraphim of Sarov
The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell*
Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom*
The Poetry of John Keats
Story by Robert McKee
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier*
The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus
The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho*
The Liar’s Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr
Matisse Picasso and Gertrude Stein by Gertrude Stein
Behold the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen*
Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris
On Writing Well by William Zinsser

*Indicates book has been completed

Favorite Literary Companions of 2012

A good book is like a good friend. It helps you to see the world more clearly. Perhaps it makes you laugh. Or cry. It nourishes your dreams. Very often it reveals to you a bit of yourself you did not know was there. And, as in the case of a good friend, I am sad when we come to the end of our time together, and I continue to think of it fondly in days, and years, to come.

Here are some of the more memorable encounters from the past year, in strictly chronological order as they came to me.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s wordcraft is a cauldron of conundrum, brilliant characterization, and truths so deep they defy reduction. Her stories have a meandering way of taking us inside ourselves, preparing us for “almost imperceptible intrusions of grace“.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

His words are sumptuous. His descriptions of Paris in the 1920s with her rain-washed cobblestones and sidewalk bistros and cafes are perfectly delicious. And his intimate reflections on the literary luminaries who were his friends, priceless. I found myself dreaming of living in a little garret in Paris myself with daily strolls through those same avenues, the gardens, the museums… And, always, I love peaking inside the creative process of genius. I remember him speaking of how he could not write about Paris while in Paris. He needed distance to see it properly. This, I understand.

The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky said of this novel that he wanted to write one character who was completely without guile; innocent and good. Gentle Prince Myshkin allows himself to be thought foolish so that he may make others wise. It is a beautiful, redemptive story. An elegant counterpoint to Crime and Punishment.

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson

A chronicle of genius. Albeit eccentric, unwieldy, arrogant genius. A man who thoroughly changed the face of communication in our time. Isaacson weaves an engaging narrative about his enigmatic subject. I found myself laughing frequently. Deeply saddened sometimes. But mostly awed by this man who so often saw the not yet as though it already was. And as I have watched my one year old granddaughter navigate my iPhone over the past few months, it has been clear that his passion for intuitive design was spot on.

 Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultra-marathon Greatness, Scott Jurek

Scott Jurek is one of my heroes. Partly for his freakish ability to run obscene distances really fast, but also for his practice of foregoing a shower and sleep to hang at the finish line for hours congratulating finishers who have been on the trail far longer than he. This book tells the story of a spindly legged kid from a family with its fair share of challenges who grows up to be one of the most remarkable ultra runners the world has known. Jurek writes with great good humor and a deep sense of gratitude. He also includes some of his favorite (vegan) recipes.

Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios

Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet…The soul of the Christian needs to be refined and sensitive, to have sensibility and wing, to be constantly in flight and to live in dreams, to fly through infinity, among the stars, amidst the greatness of God, amid silence.

Do you see why I love this man? This is one of the most significant books I have ever read. I know I will revisit it often. Elder Porphyrios’ writings on love have been both nourishing and challenging. It was his belief that if we pursue love only and our hearts become filled with love–for God, and for others–that everything else takes care of itself. This is a very pedestrian reduction of his beautiful words. I invite you to come to know him yourself.

Lit: A Memoir (P.S.), Mary Karr

Liar’s Club, the story of Mary Karr’s rough and tumble childhood in Texas, is credited by many with starting a memoir revolution. This third in the a series tells of Mary all grown up. Of her ‘fairy tale’ prince, of the son she adores, and of the demons that will not leave her alone. It is raw and honest, tragic and hilarious. Ultimately it is a compelling, marvelously crafted story of perseverance and grace.

Lifted By Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians, Joel Miller

“This is the staggering asymmetry of God’s goodness. There is more grace than envy, more love than hate, more heaven than hell.”

I read the whole of it in one day. I just couldn’t stop. Joel Miller’s narrative is enthralling, his theology is sound, and his subject matter fascinating. Read my review in its entirety HERE.

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver

I bought it on Kindle. For my phone. So it is always with me. I can’t tell you how often I pull it out. Just a poem or two. Or all of them at a go. Gift. This voice. That penetrates to the very essence of things. And renders them in such lovely expression. Par example

I HAPPENED TO BE STANDING

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self purpose.

This is the line that caused me to buy the book. (Thanks, Karissa) The Night Circus is an enchantment. Mysterious. Beautiful. All done out in black and white. It is a feast of imagery and imagination. Read it for the artist in you. The part of you that still traffics in magic. Or wants to.

The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse

“Our art and our humanity are inextricably entwined, and within these pages I hope to–through story and reflection–examine the soulish ground from which creativity arises.”

Elder Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” A poet has a way of seeing that is cleaner, purer, more acute than most. One of the compelling poet voices of our age is Michael Gungor. He and his compatriots are creating art that is deep and rich, beautiful and true. Art that is born out of stillness and out of communion.

In his remarkable new book, which releases today, this poet/prophet explores thoughts about art, about the roots that shape our art, and about nourishing our soil so that what we create is life giving and worthy. He’s a great storyteller, and the book is filled with vulnerability and good humor. I have had to resist the urge to bombard you with a zillion quotes because his wordcraft is gorgeous and the ideas so important. Herein is a sampling. I strongly urge you to read the book for yourself.

Part 1: Art

“Art is the body’s pronunciation of the soul.”

“The book of Genesis begins with a poem about a Creator who took a universe writhing in chaos and formed it into something cohesive, visible, and beautiful…” Gungor reminds us that as images of the Creator, we are called to do the same. He also alerts us that how we go about that says much about who we are,

“If you want to know what is in the heart of a culture, look at its art. Read its poetry, listen to its music, and you’ll begin to know the tree from which it fell.”

Part 2: Roots

Noise

“The world is getting so loud. We are over-stimulated. Numb. Bored….We consume our art like moths. We gather, momentarily, around wherever the biggest, brightest light seems to be. The danger of art created to rise above the noise is that it may end up being noise itself.”

Technology

With auto-tune, anyone can sing “on pitch”. With self-publishing anyone can be an author. But are we cultivating a culture of mediocrity? And are we robbing our art of its humanity? He speaks of their sometimes pianist John and how his humanness infuses his playing,

“His hands carry stories, emotions, doubts, and passions, all unique to John. A man cannot spend thousands of hours sitting at a piano without having some of his soul soak into the wood.”

First World Mindset

Indolence has destroyed the arts. –Pliny, ancient Roman author

In a comparison of the cultures of ancient Rome and modern America he sounds an ominous warning about where the sensationalism we demand could lead us, and about the insidious crippling of entitlement and luxury.

Capitalism

“Art’s primary value system shouldn’t be monetary. Art is too soulish, like love or sex, to be treated like a mere commodity.”

“Money is not the root of all kinds of evil. The love of money is. It’s also the root of a lot of bad art.”

Celebrity

“The crowd’s affection, with all its adrenaline-inducing power, is a fickle and shallow drug.”

Religion

“All art is an expression of the soul, an expression of faith. All art is sacred. All art is religious. And no art is Christian.”

“There is a humility in faith, a hope, an acknowledgment of the possibility of error and the need for growth and change. This openness
leaves room for creativity.”

 

Part 3: Soil

Faith

Gungor speaks of how faith is formed of the stories we tell ourselves. And he speaks of the power of the one story. Of Body and Blood. Of community and the Table…

“So I listen to this story again and again. I let it do its work in the places that I can’t reach on my own. In a culture numbed and indifferent from overstimulation and noise, this story begins to infuse life and feeling back into my limbs, awakening my senses with the anticipation of new creation. It begins to enliven my dulled imagination with new color and possibility.”

Doubt

“Doubt asks questions that need to be asked to make our faith pure and healthy.”

Hope

“This is why people have long turned to practices like solitude, prayer, study, and meditation. These disciplines help us find our breath; they help us become more human. They help us hear the Voice.”

Love

“Faith, doubt, and hope are the stuff of good soil for creating and cultivating, as are honesty, integrity, patience, courage and any number of nutrients. But all of these only find their true value when they are made consummate in love.”

He closes the book with a benediction of such exquisite loveliness that I would like to include the whole of it here. That seems to be taking a bit too much liberty. So again, I offer you a taste. It is my fervent hope that you will give yourself the gift of reading this book. Whether you consider yourself a “creative”  or not, you are leaving your imprint on the bit of earth that has been entrusted to you. This book probes the heart and invites us to be intentional about the imprint we make. May it be so.

“…May your heart be opened to the love that formed you and everything else, the love that holds all things together and shall make all things new in the end, and may that love that was broken and poured out for you impel you into the world to break your own self open to be poured out for the world that God so loves. Poured out in acts of justice and mercy, poured out in good and hard work that brings order rather than disorder. Poured out in songs and liturgies, business plans and water colors, child-rearing and policy-making.

May your life be a brush in the very hand of God—painting new creation into every nook and cranny of reality that your shadow graces. Be courageous. Be free. Prune that which needs pruning, and water that which thirsts for righteousness…”

*All unattributed quotes in the post, Michael Gungor, lifted from the book.

Deep Calling to Deep…

I wish you could know my friend Kendra. She is a remarkable young woman. Heart wide open. Generous, courageous, curious. I walk away from every encounter with her encouraged and challenged.

So when she made a request of me, a couple of weeks ago, I took it very seriously. She asked for suggestions for some creative, inspiring, heart-and-eyes-wide-open reading. As I began to compile my list, it occurred to me that I would have you know these books. And I would LOVE to know what would be on YOUR list.

Here are some of the authors and books that call to deep places in me. That rankle and provoke, that compel me to dream better dreams, that stoke the fire within.

Mary Oliver, especially Thirst  Oliver sees the world with extraordinary eyes, and she paints it with lovely, evocative words that allow us to see it, too. Her writings on longing and prayer and the life within are some of the most excruciating and exquisite I have ever read.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

P.S. I love hearing her poetry in her own voice. Listen to three poems here. The first will surprise you, I think. The second, one of my favorites, will leave you undone. Marvelously undone. The third will nourish and delight.

Thomas Merton, especially The Seven Story Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation. Also, the Book of Hours offers a lovely sampling of his work. Thomas Merton is an Anam Cara. A soul friend. One who sees the world in a way very like, only more so. I can pray his words and feel as though they are mine, just more elegant. More piercing and concise. More thorough. I crawl into them and travel through them to a place I want very much to know.

“You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence, but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires.  My mind is crucified all day by its own hunger for experience, for ideas, for satisfaction.  And I do not possess my house in silence.

“But I was created for Your peace and You will not despise my longing for the holiness of Your deep silence.  O my Lord, You will not leave me forever in this sorrow, because I have trusted in You and I will wait upon Your good pleasure in peace and without complaining any more.  This, for Your glory.”

C.S Lewis, especially The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces  Well crafted stories carry profound truths to deep places in our hearts. I have read the first title 6 or 7 times, and the second twice. Once each with friends. I still see these characters regularly before my eyes. Lewis’ insight into the meandering of the human psyche and his ability to convey these are unmatched. *Note, The Great Divorce starts slowly in my opinion. Persevere! It is SO worth the effort. Soon you will be reading so fast you forget to breathe. And re-reading. I promise.

Chaim Potok, especially My Name is Asher Lev I have read three books (thus far) by this author, all excellent. But this is my favorite. Important questions about talents and gifts, about faith, and most especially about where (or whether) one can live at peace within the other. Excruciating. Riveting.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho An evocative tale about a young man seeking his “treasure”. He finds far more than he could have dreamed. Something richer, deeper, better. Something MORE…

“When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible…”

Madeleine L’Engle, especially Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art I happen to know Kendra already loves this one, but it is most essential. This is a sweet washing of life and imagination and God and story and creativity and everything that makes us truly alive in the world.

Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God When I am lost; when my soul is terribly troubled and I do not know how to say what is happening, I rush to Rilke. Almost always, I find the words I need here. His was a turbulent, hungry, desperate, ecstatic journey with God. And he wrote it all down. So I borrow his words. And say what is already in my heart.

In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet….

My hands are bloody from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree.

Reaching, these hands would pull you out of the sky
as if you had shattered there,
dashed yourself to pieces in some wild impatience.

What is this I feel falling now,
falling on this parched earth,
softly,
like a spring rain?

John O’Donohue, especially Beauty the Invisible Embrace and Anam Cara  O’Donohue’s lyrical prose reads like poetry. (It doesn’t hurt that I heard him read before I read him.) I can always hear him now. A rich, Irish brogue that sings the words. Words about the beautiful. About love and kindness and spirit and God.

“…beauty is so quietly woven through our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky’s world can be dark at times, but his characters are nuanced and layered. No villain is without hope of redemption, and no protagonist is thoroughly without vice. All are pilgrims. We see more of ourselves in them than we might care to.

Lilith by George MacDonald  The path to resurrection will ALWAYS lead through death. But none of us wants to die. Really. This is one of the most difficult books I have ever read. Mostly because at the time of my first encounter I was digging in my heels and refusing to die to all the things I had used to define “me”. I felt like letting go of these would be death, NOT figurative but LITERAL death. This book, this fantasy of the highest order, helped me get inside that dark place. It gave me courage to do the hard work of becoming, by first being willing to walk into the terrifying darkness of being nothing.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield  This is one of the most important books I have ever read on pursuing your calling, whatever that calling may be. I re-read it frequently because I so need the kick in the pants it delivers. Here is an example of what you will find within:

If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

Julia Cameron’s  The Artist’s Way: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice  Cameron is a successful writer, but she remembers all too well what it is like to be silenced by fear. In this book she teaches us how to break through barriers to our creativity. Barriers we are not even aware of that are blocking our art. It is highly interactive and requires homework. But it is so worth it.

Thanks, Kendra, for giving me a reason to revisit old friends. Pick and choose whatever seems right to you. It is a worthy start, I believe.

To all of you, friends near and far, who is it that fans the flame of your passion, your creativity?

 

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