Intrusions of Grace

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.

A whole family shot to death by the side of the road. A little boy who hangs himself so he can be with his dead mother in the stars. A Bible salesman who steals a girl’s wooden leg.

Flannery O’Connor takes a hammer to any illusion that we are evolving.

Friends and I have been reading A Good Man is Hard to Find together. It has been tough going at times. O’Connor creates conundrums, then refuses to solve them. She exposes the dark underbelly but does not clean it up. She makes us uncomfortable. And leaves us that way. What is she up to? Is her view of life this bleak? This desperate?

Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.

O’Connor was convinced that we had come to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. And she understood that an arrogant, self-satisfied heart has no room for grace. Her stories show us that need. And here is the genius; we may find her characters grotesque, ignorant, prejudiced, cruel, yet we can’t help but identify with them. Their selfishness is our selfishness. Their pride our pride. Their cruelty helps us see that far too often we ourselves are cruel.

It is terribly uncomfortable.

It is terribly important.

Jesus told a story once of two men who came to the temple to pray. A Pharisee and a tax collector…

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:11-14)

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Mr. Head had never known before what mercy looked like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now…He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. ~Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

The art of Flannery O’Connor is sumptuous and grand. It is filled with luminous phrases and deliciously evocative descriptions.  But mostly, her works help us see ourselves aright. They create a space in us for almost imperceptible intrusions of grace.

*The two unattributed quotes at the top of the post are from the remarkable Mystery and Manners, a collection of her essays on writing, and on life.

**Photograph at the top by Marc Yankus.

Waiting…

“You don’t grow anything,” he said. This after he had asked which of us were gardeners and what we grew in our gardens, to which some had replied roses and others tomatoes or herbs… It was, apparently, a trick question. “You choose the sight. You cultivate the earth. You plant, fertilize and water. Then you wait. The growing is up to God. Your job is to create conditions in which the waiting is likely to be fruitful.

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It commemorates the day when Mary and Joseph take the 40 day old Jesus to the temple for the purification rights. There they are met by two people who have been expecting him…

Simeon

Simeon is described by Luke as righteous and devout. God had promised him he would not die til he had seen “the Lord’s Messiah”. He is moved by the Spirit to come to the temple on this very day, and he recognizes the child at once. He takes him in his arms and speaks prophetic words over him, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel…the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” He acknowledges his wait is gloriously at an end with the beautiful words that form the benediction of our vesper services:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Anna

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Today is a day of encouragement for all those who wait. A reminder that, though you may not see it yet, God is at work. That your job–my job–is to create conditions in which the waiting is likely to be fruitful. Perhaps we should take our cue from Anna. Worshiping, fasting, praying….

Hold on, dear ones! Spring is coming. Be on the look out for tiny shoots of promise.

*The garden illustration is borrowed and paraphrased from Father Stephen’s homily last night. The story of the presentation can be found in the second chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, beginning with verse 22.

Loving Humility: a Terrible Force

Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.
~Fyodor Dostoevsky

The whole page is filled with underlines and little stars and notes to myself in the margins. I have read it over and over. It seems such a radical idea. “Loving humility is a terrible force…” Really?

…whenever we give up anything or suffer anything, not with a sense of rebellious bitterness, but willingly and out of love, this makes us not weaker but stronger.

It should not be so surprising to me. I have, after all, experienced it…

If you are a regular reader, you know that Mike and I have had our share of challenges. During the worst of it, one of the things I most despised about him was his humility. I told him he was weak. That he did not have enough self-worth to assert himself. I was horrible to him, yet he persisted in loving me. I could not understand this. It did not fit my picture of strength.

By loving or hating another, I cause the other in some measure to become that which I see in him or her. Not for myself alone, but for the lives of all around me, my love is creative, just as my hatred is destructive.

Mike’s love….which at times I did not even want…created a safe place for me to deal with my own demons. To learn to allow God to fill the empty places inside me, instead of demanding that of others. Though he could not fix me, his love WAS creative. His relentless faith in who I could be nourished me, even when I was unaware of it. For this, I am profoundly grateful.

[Christ’s] suffering love has a creative effect upon me, transforming my own heart and will, releasing me from bondage, making me whole, rendering it possible for me to love in a way that would lie altogether beyond my powers, had I not first been loved by him.

When I see my children, my family, my friends making destructive choices, I want to fix them. But this usually lies beyond my control, even if I knew what was best for them, which I often do not. So I will love them. Without arrogance. Without manipulation. Humbly and generously. As I have been loved. And I will trust in the creative power of love.

Love is strong as death…Many waters cannot quench love, rivers cannot wash it away. ~Song of Songs 8:6-7

*Unattributed quotes in the post are from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way, page 82 (the page with the underlines and stars and notes and such…).

 

Surrender

I am told that life guards are trained to keep clear of a swimmer in distress, so long as that swimmer is attempting to save himself. A panicked swimmer can sink himself and his rescuer. The life guard is told to stay near, but out of reach, and observe. Once the swimmer is exhausted, then he can be saved.

I spent much of my life striving to apprehend God. Chasing Him. Trying to please Him. Serving. Doing. Giving. Begging. Cajoling. Bargaining. Flailing and grasping. And always, a distance remained.

A line I could not cross.

An intimacy I could not find.

Until….

I quit.

I despaired of EVER being good enough. Of ever doing enough. I was exhausted. Spent. And more than a little angry.

And I told God so.

I told Him I was done chasing Him.

I gave up.

Sometimes, I like to imagine Him in that moment….

Long, deep sigh.

Fatherly smile.

“Now, my child, we may begin….”

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?

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Regarding Oscar…

Usually when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its nominees for best picture, I commence a movie watching frenzy to catch up on all the ones I missed. One year, I had not seen any of them. But this has been a great year at the movies. This year I have seen all but one.

I possess no peculiar aptitude for film. But I do LOVE a well told story. For your consideration: viewing notes on eight of the nine.

The Artist A visual feast. A poignant tale. Storytelling without words. Gorgeous. Read my full review HERE.

The Descendants Life is messy. It is wonderful and awful and confusing and ecstatic and funny and crazy and good. This film has all of that. Provocative and painful. Humorous and healing. I hurt for Max and his family. I grieve over terrible choices and deep hurts. But I also cheer them on as they refuse to give up. As they carve a way forward. As they become family all over again. Redemption. Unexpected, but beautiful.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close One of the better book to film translations I have seen. In fact, and this will surprise you, in some ways I believe the movie was even better. Partly because of the genius of young Thomas Horn. He articulates the eccentricities of our quirky, brilliant little hero with an artistry that would be exceptional in someone twice his age.

Oscar Schell loses his father on September 11th. He keeps him close by fulfilling a secret mission his dad left for him. The mission will push him to do things that terrify him. It will people his life. It will be a bridge to his mother. It will make him brave. And it will give him one last chance to hear his father say he is proud of him.

There was audible sobbing in the theater when I saw this film. Oscar’s grief is our grief. He teaches us how to speak it. How to share it. How to keep breathing, even when everything seems extremely loud and incredibly close.

The Help Another admirable adaptation. Casting is superb. It is remarkable to me how like these women are to the women I saw in my head as I read. The storytelling is clean and uncluttered. And this story is very important. It takes us inside a world that many of us barely begin to understand. And it reminds us that some of the most courageous work in the civil rights movement (as in every work that has changed the hearts of men) is done by ordinary men and women whose names you will never know.

Midnight in Paris What if the things we taste and see and touch are not the truest things? What if there is a world more real than this one if only we knew how to find it? This film is a luscious, whimsical arabesque though an extraordinary city, in the company of extraordinary persons. Magic! More thoughts HERE.

Moneyball It is a great story. One of courage and tenacity. The acting is very good. But as a whole, I do not find the film to be remarkable. It seems somewhat disjointed, with random scenes that contribute little to the overall story. Just my opinion…

The Tree of Life Life is not tidy. It rarely ties itself up into neat little packages. Not surprisingly then, art that lingers in my brain and pricks my soul is art that reflects this. More questions than answers. Willing to live with mystery. Paradox. This film is such. More HERE.

War Horse An extravagantly beautiful film. The cinematography is genius. Even stark, desperate scenes are framed with such an exquisite eye, such deliberate artistry, that it gives me chills. It is a heart warming story, to be sure. Do not hate me if I admit that it seems a bit contrived at times. But, we meet some heroic and generous characters, and witness noble graces. And those are in lamentably short supply.

I have yet to see Hugo. It is not playing in my town at present.

I would not presume to predict which of these will win. There are others far more qualified to do that. I can tell you that if I were choosing I would place Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close at the top with The Descendants a close second. I will also say that, though I purchase only a few films, I will buy Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life because I am not nearly done with them yet.

Which films have you loved this year? Do you have an Oscar pick, prediction or preference? Which film should have been nominated, but was not?

As a Man Thinketh…

As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. ~Proverbs 23:7

We all know that person…

She walks into the room just as everyone is celebrating someone’s good news: A job promotion, a college acceptance letter, a new baby. Her response is predictable. Something along the line of:

“That’s SO not fair! Nothing like that EVER happens to me. Must be nice…”

How is it that some of us simply cannot rejoice with those who rejoice? Why must their good be a source of jealousy and bitterness?

We all know that person…

His cancer is incurable. The pain is intense. He is a good man. A loving husband and father. He has given so much. It is not “fair“. And yet… Those who come to encourage him are encouraged by him. He radiates a renegade joy that defies explanation. His last days on earth are a continual giving of himself to those who will soon walk without him.

How does he do that?

As a man thinketh…

Maya Angelou tells of a difficult time in her life. She is a single mother, barely making ends meet. Desperate. Hopeless. She meets a man who challenges her to make a list of things she is grateful for. It seems ludicrous at first. But she is just desperate enough to try it. She pulls out a yellow legal pad, and excruciatingly digs for some small grace. She scratches the first thought across the paper. Then the next. All of a sudden, she can’t write fast enough. She is still adding to that list today. That single act was a turning point in her life. Nothing was ever the same.

In her beautiful book, One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voscamp writes of a similar challenge. Grieved and embittered by life experiences that seem too much to bear, she just wants out. But she too is challenged…first by a friend…then by this: On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it.” (I Cor. 11). The challenge: to give thanks. In the middle of the hard. For ordinary, extraordinary things. Specific things. Things like…

1.  Morning shadows across old floors.
54. Moonlight on pillows.
243. Clean sheets smelling like wind.

It. Changes. Everything…

We tend to find what we are looking for. When we believe life is sacramental and that God has given us every good thing, we expect to find our days filled with gifts. And they are. When we are cynical and suspicious, and constantly on the lookout for those who will cheat us and take what is ours, we find that too.

It is easy for me to see this in others. It is more difficult to recognize when I myself am doing it.

You wanna know something crazy?

I have been doing it about this very thing.

I am grieved because someone I love often sees life through suspicious, cynical eyes. Unable to rejoice in the good gifts that have been given to her. Unable to rejoice in the good gifts given to others. My grief becomes frustration. Then anger. And suddenly I can only see her through my own bitterness and suspicion. I am blind to the best in her. Arrrggggh!

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. ~Philippians 4:8

Incidentally, I do not advocate some Pollyanna naivety about what is true. But all of us pass “truth” through filters. If those filters are clean, we will find the true and the beautiful even in the most agonizing situations. But if our filters are polluted by self-interest, suspicion and greed, we will be unable to see good even when it is handed to us on a silver platter. With chocolate on top.

Father, please wash my heart and my mind. Help me to see as You see. Help me to filter the atmosphere around me with the atmosphere of heaven…

The Kingdom of God creates within us an atmosphere of heaven, as opposed to the atmosphere of hell that is radiated by a person when hades abides in his heart. The role of Christians in the world is to filter the atmosphere on earth and expand the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God. ~Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

May it be so.

The Artist

Our collective imagination is flabby. Atrophied, I fear, from disuse.

Many of us would rather wait for the movie than read the book. Incarnating a character in our heads is too much work. We have an appetite for car chases, and explosions, and skin. These seem more accessible than subtle beauty or complexity of story.

Every now and again, a work of art comes along that challenges our imagination. That calls to that creative spark deep inside each of us. A work that nourishes us along the way with such excruciating loveliness that we are helpless to refuse.

The Artist is such a work.

It is a story without words. Nearly. A silent film about the end of silent film. In fact, until George Valentin has a nightmare in which he is surrounded by sound but unable to speak, I am unaware that even environmental sounds are completely absent. No shuffle of shoes against the floor. No honking horns. Only music. And image.

It is enough.

Sometimes the images are so exquisitely framed, it is painful. Two figures at table. Back to back. The falling star and the supernova. In stark relief. Both so graceful and elegant. So captivating. Alas, she is coming into her own just as his world is disappearing.

But somewhere inside this passing of the torch is a respect…an honoring of the one who made place. Who had faith. A loyalty that is right and good. And Beautiful.

Go see The Artist. Give yourself the gift of an hour and a half without words. Let the music carry you. Feast on the scrumptious images: the clothes, the hair, the cars. The elegance and refinement of a world too unfamiliar to most of us. And trust your imagination to help tell the story. It is more capable than you think.

For the Good Times

My dad used to drive a 1969 Chevy pick-up truck. Bright blue with a white top and orange cab lights. And a gun rack. It was not unusual for there to be a whole passel of kids in the back, especially if we were headed to the swimming hole.

Two or three times each year, my dad would attach a tall, black metal frame to the bed, and we would take cattle to market. The whole family piled in the cab. The truck would sway back and forth like a ship at sea when the cows moved from one side to another. It was delightfully terrifying.

The am radio picked up WECO, the local station, and that was about it. The mountains were not friendly to radio signal. The country and bluegrass music that poured out of that radio (and the 8 track player my dad eventually installed) formed the soundtrack of my childhood…

This week I have had fun revisiting some of those songs on a fabulous new album by The Little Willies. For the Good Times has a very organic feel…like a few friends (extremely talented friends) got together in somebody’s living room and just started playing. And we have all been invited to eavesdrop.

Norah Jones and Richard Julian are exquisitely paired on Hank Williams’ Lovesick Blues. Their harmonies are so delicious I couldn’t bring myself to sing along the first four or five times I listened to it. (I have gotten past that. :))

I remember singing Dolly Parton’s Jolene as a little girl, before I completely understood all that the song was about. The haunting desperation of it captivated me. Jones’ vocals are warm and solid…and urgent. They make my heart hurt.

If You Got the Money Honey, I Got the Time is just about the most rip roarin’ pick up line ever. So. Much. Fun!

Foul Owl on the Prowl plops you down in the middle of a steamy, southern honky-tonk. I can almost hear the laughter, smell the sawdust and sweat, and see the sultry dancers strutting across the floor. Mmmm…

The guitar work on Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves is ridiculous! And the storytelling is brilliantly executed. Good, good stuff.

Remember Me, Permanently Lonely, and the titular For the Good Times make heartbreak poetic. And I have to say, I appreciate Jones and Julian leaving the third harmony part open for me. We wail a pretty mean lament…the three of us. 😉

Jones gives Loretta Lynn’s scrappy Fist City elegant sass.

Delia’s Gone is new to me. A surprisingly…frolicsome…homicidal ballad.

Good storytelling, superb musical artistry, and loads of fun. I have not been able to stop listening to it. I commend it to your attention. Enjoy.

You’re welcome. 🙂

For the Sake of Your Great Mercy

I am deeply grateful that saints who have gone before us left their words for us. Especially the prayers. This is how I would pray if I were wiser. More humble. More true.

I carry several in my phone. I added this one yesterday after my friend Margie shared it on Facebook. I have another by the Metropolitan already that I pray nearly every day.

I offer this one to you today as a Sabbath meditation…

O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You.
You alone know what are my true needs.
You love me more than I myself know how to love.
Help me to see my real needs, which are concealed from me.
I dare not ask for either a cross or consolation.
I can only wait on You.
My heart is open to You.
Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy.
Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up.
I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways.
I offer myself as a sacrifice to You.
I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will.
Teach me to pray.
Pray You Yourself in me.

~Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

List of Candidates 2012

Life is too short to read bad books.

So, I pick and choose literature with the utmost care. This I do largely based on the recommendation of literary friends whose taste has proven impeccable. Sometimes I add books mentioned as favorites by a writer I respect. Or I chase down additional titles from an author whose work has captivated me.

All of these I add to a running “list of candidates”. I learned this practice in Steve Leveen’s tiny treasure of a book,  The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life. When I finish a book, I peruse the list to find a selection just right for just this moment. It is a marvelous resource.

Here are the books that are currently crowding to the front of my list. Please, PLEASE, let me know which books I MUST add. Last year was one of my favorite reading years ever, largely because of the great books you told me about. I am counting on you.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor *
A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography by Egon Wellesz
Mother Gavrilia: The Ascetic of Love
by Nun Gavrilia*
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway *
Silence by Shusaku Endo
Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron*
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky*
Waiting for God by Simone Weil
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson*
The Trembling of the Veil by W.B. Yeats
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh *
Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok
The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell
The Poetry of John Keats
Story by Robert McKee
Wild Iris by Louise Gluck *
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris
On Writing Well by William Zinsser

*List items read thus far. For a full listing of all this year’s reads (as well as past years, and favorites), click on the Bookshelf tab above.

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