Tag Archive - Truth

Letting Go

I realize I am holding my breath as I make the cut. Red leaves are just unfurling on the tips of the limbs, full of promise. And I am lopping them off. It hurts my heart a little, and I feel like I owe my roses an apology. But I hold my breath again and make the next cut.

Because I love them.

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Roses need air. When their limbs become all tangled, they suffocate. They stop blooming. They become vulnerable to disease. Even death.

So every spring I choose a sunny day (to strengthen my heart), I give myself a little pep talk, and I ruthlessly cut away the excess. I gather up bundles of limbs with their tender new leaves, and it’s all I can do to not cry.

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It is an inescapable irony that all this cutting away happens smack dab in the middle of Lent, when I myself am feeling the slice of the pruning shears. And I wonder if my Father has tears in His eyes as He cuts away at my excess, giving me room to breathe. Strengthening. Restoring me to health.

Instead of freedom from possessions, O Savior, I have pursued a life in love with material things, and now I wear a heavy yoke…I have discolored with the passions the first beauty of the image, O Savior. But seek me, as once Thou sought the lost coin, and find me.

Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me.

~The Lenten Triodion, Canon of St. Andrew

As I feel hunger in my belly; as I make prostrations; as I borrow words of deep repentance from those wiser than I; I wear this letting go, this cutting away, inside my body. And sometimes it hurts. I see my own tender leaves fall to the earth, and I am too much attached to them, sure that I cannot be me without them. But I hold my breath, and stretch my arms out to the Gardener as He makes the next cut.

Because He loves me.

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Jesus said, “I am the true Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser. Every branch of Mine that bears no fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit….” ~John 15:1-2

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Collision…

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It is an unforeseen serendipity, really. In Orthodox practice, there are intersecting cycles of worship. Some are fixed and some float according to where Easter falls (and it falls really late for eastern Christians this year: May 5th). But, somewhere in this seemingly random whirl of rubrics and such, two observations collided this year. The Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Annunciation. And I can’t stop thinking about this.

In the early church, an iconoclastic faction arose, a group that contended that to use images of Christ or of the saints in worship amounted to idolatry. It is an opinion that some might support even today. The church council called to consider this ultimately decided that the use of icons is appropriate because since Christ became man in the flesh, it is reasonable to depict Him in images. These images facilitate our worship. This decision is what we celebrate in the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”.

Of course, without the Annunciation there would be no Incarnation and Christ would not have become man. Therefore, the two are already intertwined in theme. But last night, they were intertwined in practice.

In a beautiful vesper service, members of several different Orthodox congregations in the Nashville area converged upon our church. We sang and prayed together. There was singing and commemoration in Greek, Russian, Serbian and English. We processed with icons. We broke bread together afterward. And woven all through this evening was the celebration of the blessed moment when the angel gave the news to Mary that she was to be the sacred vessel that would contain the Son of God.

I cannot tell you what it meant to be in that place. To experience a foretaste of the Kingdom where all tongues and tribes will sing together. To remember the great condescension in which God became like us so that we might one day be like Him. To commemorate the purity and the devotion of Mary, of her willingness to be the handmaiden of the Lord. The very first to welcome Him into her heart. Into her body. Into her life.

This morning we will celebrate liturgy for the Feast of the Annunciation. And we will remember the moment when Christ began His physical movement toward us. To step into our lives. To be God with us. To redeem us so that we might be with Him…

Thanks be to God!

 

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Lifted by Angels

I read the whole book in one day. I just could not stop reading. In language potent, precise, and poetic, Joel J. Miller crafts an enthralling narrative supported by impeccable research on a topic that most of us know precious little about.

Miller begins by inoculating us against our sentimental, but erroneous, misconceptions about angels. He paints a picture, “...using the pigments provided by the Scripture, art, services, hymns, and teachings of the ancient Christian church. The image that forms from these sources is, I think, more exciting, more frightening, more humbling, more inspiring, and ultimately more real than our popular conceptions.” Yes! Oh, yes!

The following chapter tells the ominous story of the “light-bearer”, that radiant angel Lucifer who, because of his great arrogance, becomes “ring leader of the apostasy” (Irenaeous of Lyons). He then seeks to use that pride as his primary weapon against humanity. “As Augustine understood it, pride is the source of all sin, and envy flows from it like a fetid stream.”

Chapter three shows us angels interwoven all through the story of Israel. Joel’s masterful storytelling kept me greedily flipping one page after another to see what happens next, even though I mostly know what happens next. A promise to Abraham, courage for Gideon, nourishment for Elijah, and a celestial army to protect Elisha, are only a few of the angelic errands explored. Then the chapter takes a sobering turn as Israel herself becomes arrogant and rebels against God. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel will all have powerful interactions with angels as God prepares them to speak on His behalf. Angels will also have the regrettable task, at times, of carrying out God’s judgement against His beloved, but recalcitrant people. By the end of the chapter I am crying out with the rebels and exiles for deliverance. As the author tells us, this time God will not send an angel, or even an army of angels, but the Lord of the Angels Himself.

Chapter four wrecks me. “The story of Christ is shot through with angels,” Miller begins. He then threads these divine appearances through the narrative of Christ. When Gabriel begins to speak to Mary of the child she will bear, I am undone. Even now, reading it again for this post, my heart burns with his words. By the time the “skies erupted over the birthplace in Bethlehem” I can hardly breathe. Then he show us the story from the vantage point of Revelation 12 with a woman travailing in birth and a great red dragon who would devour her child, and my heart pounds. We continue to see angels ministering to their Lord at his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, as he heals and casts out demons, at his crucifixion, and finally his resurrection and ascension.

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us.  ~Shakespeare, Hamlet

Chapter five is a beautiful and illuminating treatment of our guardian angels drawn from Scripture and the teachings of the early church fathers. My favorite passage is this, from the lips of Christ, “See that you do not despise these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father.”

Chapter six is an exciting reminder that when we worship we enter into a service that is already underway, joining the angels and the saints who have gone before us who perpetually offer their praise to the Father. We get tastes of this in Isaiah chapter 6, as well as John’s vision in Revelation. Also, God instructed that cherubim be depicted both on the tapestries of the tabernacle as well as the ark of the covenant as symbols of this. The early church followed suit by adorning their places of worship with images of the angels as well as the saints, a practice which continues in many churches today. Included in the chapter is this beautiful version of the cherubic hymn, from the liturgy of St. James, sung as the priests process with the gifts of bread and wine.

Let all mortal flesh be silent and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself: For the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Fittingly, the final chapter looks at angels as our “guides from one world to the next“. The chapter concludes (or nearly so) with this passage that I mean to commit to memory and perhaps recite to myself daily.

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

Lifted by Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians is a remarkable book. Compellingly written and replete with good theology about far more than just angels. I commend it to your attention.

*All quotes in the post are from the book. Unattributed quotes, Joel J. Miller.

 

 

The Soft Seduction of Silence…

Silence is an urgent necessity for us. ~Martin Laird

We all experience it, even if we do not know how to name it. The restless frenzy. The onerous availability…to everyone…all the time. The constant barrage…of NOIZE.

And inside it

our souls crave

stillness

silence

space

Perhaps we are aware. Many of us are not. But the need is there nonetheless. Unheeded, it drives us to medicate, to escape, to make horrible, selfish, destructive choices. And still, we hunger, our insides a jumble of confused nausea.

Today I offer you a deep breath. An invitation. To be still. To breathe slow. To listen. From voices more capable than mine. A poem, a proposition, and a portal. Do with them as you like.

Poem

The Moor

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

~R. S. Thomas

Proposition

In the New York Times, of all places. An article from some months back. Pico Iyer, The Joy of Quiet. Compelling.

Portal

I am in my second reading of Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land (Thanks, Ian). This time I am reading it with friends. And we sit around the table and groan as our hearts resonate with his words, and with those of the saints and mystics who populate the work.

He tells us we cannot manufacture interior silence and communion with God any more than a gardener can make plants grow. But, like a gardener creates receptivity to growth by tilling the soil, providing fertilizer and water, removing weeds and guarding against marauders, we can cultivate practices that welcome this silent communion. It is one of the most inviting and instructive books I have ever read on the subject. I commend it to your attention. Laird is a worthy guide.

Praying that stillness and silence find you (and me) today.

Shalom.

Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice

It is, I believe, a stroke of genius to give the task of defining a crafter of words to a crafter of words. His profound respect for language…his awe and delight…translate as well as anything he will actually say. So, I am glad that William Tyndale found David Teems. It is a match made in heaven; a literary pas de deux that says as much in the spaces between the words as in the words themselves.

He writes with tenderness, with paternal authority and warmth. His voice is immediate, scintillate, penetrating, translucent. His text has a like-there-is-no-tomorrow desperate kind of charm that is both intense and weightless at the same time…

Biographical details of Tyndale’s life are sketchy and suspect at times. So Teems elects to piece together a life–as Tyndale would probably have it–from his own words. The letters, the treatises, and, above all, the translations.

I have decided to write this review in much the same way. Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice is a vast, complex, wonderful work and I can hardly do the whole of it justice. I will give you a few of my favorite bits as a taste. An enticement. And commend to you the rest.

Of Exile:

England had refused him. He would never see her again…Playing Pilate, she washed her hands of him…And once he set sail, he no longer belonged to England. He belonged to all English. And there is a difference.

[The] state of exile is the deepest memory in man. Beneath the surface of the Scripture, in its quiet heart, is the call to come home…For the Jew and the Christian, diaspora is an inevitable part of the inheritance.

Sing or go silent. Transcending exile will ask one or the other.

Of an art forged through fire:

Between imagination and faith there exists a kind of twilight…in the divide between them, eyes are irrelevant. Sight comes by another method, by a deeper more reliable sense.

And David was known as the sweet singer of Israel, her true king. To understand this is to understand the nature of the lyric itself, that mystical expressive afterglow–the inward life suddenly emancipated by an ecstasy that flows upward, forward, as from a deep gulf. David’s joy was ever as large and imprudent and unrestrained and electric and shameless and weeping as his sorrows.

Art demands intensity from its makers, complete possession. It is a kind of bright madness, one that often begins as an unrest in the artist’s center, the chaos from which order must be imagined.

The artistic, the prophetic, the headstrong, the expatriated, the exiled, all these come together in a confusion of living elements that render a single inimitable creature. It was such a creature that gave us our English Bible.

Of the lyric:

Maybe the young Tyndale was enchanted by the strangeness of the Welsh tongue, by the music it made, a kind of jazz…the carnival it made in the mouth…there exists in the Welsh language a whole system of mutations where two words “rub against each other and soften each other”…the transaction between words has a kind of romance in itself, submissive and aesthetically pleasing as great romances by nature must be.

By a passion that was “never purely academic,” we might say Tyndale’s wordcraft was a form of prayer. The result is a transcendent text.

His text possesses a kind of practical beauty, an accessible magnificence. It speaks well. It also sings well.

Par exemple:

Where the Spirit is, it is always summer.

Who taught eagles to spy out their prey? Even so the children of God spy out their Father.

And they heard the voice of the Lord as he walked in the garden in the cool of the day.

Entreat me not to leave thee

Let not your hearts be troubled

Take, eat, this is my body

In Him we live, move and have our being

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light

The Lord bless thee and keep thee
The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be merciful unto thee.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

All quotes, save the last section, David Teems. Those at the last are William Tyndale. May his memory be eternal.

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.

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.

Favorite Literary Encounters of 2011

It always makes me a little nauseous. Sitting down to make a list of favorite reads, I mean. Because there will be books I love that don’t make the cut. And they will sit there on the page imploring and asking me how they failed me. And I will want to cry. Because yes, they were very good. And I will remember some exquisite passage and exactly where I was when I read it and what it awoke in me. And I will feel like a traitor.

But the fact is, I have found my most memorable books from the recommendation of friends. And we have time to read only so many books before we die. Therefore, I feel a moral obligation to tell others about wonderful books I read, even if the process is excruciating.

Here are standouts from this year’s crop:

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas  This is one of those novels that demand revisiting. The plot is complex, with subtleties and nuances that will require a lifetime to sort out. A disturbing, redemptive, provocative meditation on justice and grace.

Thirst: Poems, Mary Oliver  This book lies on a table in my bedroom. I can not tell you how many times this year I have picked it up, searching for just the right words. And finding them. Mary Oliver has proved a very good friend. Her poems give voice to rumblings in my soul. Yearnings. Delicious joys.

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.

~Mary Oliver

New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton  “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being…” Is it any wonder that I love Merton so? His exploration of the interior life continues to compel and instruct me.

Peace Like a River Leif Enger  I recall with vivid clarity the moment I knew this story was not going to have a happy ending. Could not have a happy ending and be true. I almost dug my heels in and refused to finish it. But I could not not finish it. I had invested myself too deeply in these characters and I had to follow it through. The best books are very like life. Messy, painful, but relentlessly tinged with hope. Even when all circumstances prescribe against it. This is such.

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts, Ian Cron  Too fantastic to be true, yet absolutely true. A story filled with intrigue, heartbreak, and renegade joy from a fabulous storyteller: winsome, funny, poignant. Read my full review HERE.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand  Hillenbrand weaves an enthralling narrative around the true story of Louis Zamperini whose plane was shot down in the middle of the Pacific during World War II. We follow his terrifying weeks aboard a life-raft, the horrors of life as a prisoner of war, and the surprising challenge of returning home. It is a survivor story to be sure. But it is also a story of going beyond just survival. Highly recommended.

Stained Glass Hearts: Seeing Life from a Broken Perspective, Patsy Clairmont  Patsy Clairmont, humorist extraordinaire who can captivate a whole auditorium with her stories, reveals her softer, poetic underbelly in this lovely ode to the beauty in brokenness. Contemplative. Poet. She who has a deep ache for beauty, transcendence, truth. Weaver of words who can turn a phrase with a delicate, fragile loveliness that pierces the heart. Read the whole of my rave HERE.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough  While many Americans were heading west to find their fortunes, another group headed east to Paris to study. Art, science, and industry were still in their infancy in 19th century America. But Paris was a cauldron of idea and audacity. And the people who spent time there would return to shape the America of the future. McCullough carries us there with fascinating stories of people whose names will be familiar, though I’ll wager the many of the stories will surprise you. I did not write a review of the book, but you can read a post inspired by it HERE.

A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver  “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.” Yes indeed. Pulitzer prize winning Oliver has much to say about the craft of writing. I found much inspiration and nourishment here.

Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition, John Oliver  O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord. Father Oliver builds his remarkable illumination of the Holy Spirit around this portion of the Trisagion prayers. It is one of the most stimulating books our Tuesday study group has ever read. You can sample a bit of his teaching in this post, inspired by one of the more difficult chapters for me personally.

Hannah Coulter: A Novel, Wendell Berry It is, perhaps, because she seems so familiar. Very like someone I have known. Or, perhaps it is simply Berry’s winsome telling of her story. But this was a comforting, sustaining read for me. More thoughts HERE.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard  I dragged out the reading of it out over a couple of months. Very unlike me. Because I dreaded being done with it. Not walking with her through the woods, over the pond, across the meadow. I miss her directing my gaze to something I would surely have missed. I miss her quirky observations and her detailed explanations. Mostly, I miss her words.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee  I can’t believe I read it for the first time at 45. A rich exploration of life inside the mind of a young girl growing up in the rural south. Some of her experiences very like my own, some completely other. Whimsy, superstition, intrigue, honor, courage, pain. All of these in generous measure. One of the best books I have ever read.

*Honorable Mentions: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury I found both of these to be terribly troubling. Mostly because the disturbing worlds they predict have so very much in common with the world in which we are living. Worlds where reading is banned and thinking for oneself is a thing of the past. Where we are spoonfed beliefs “for our own good” and for the “benefit of society”. I find it difficult to call them favorites when they made me so uncomfortable. But I haven’t the least difficulty calling them important.

What books did you read this year that rankled, inspired, or captivated?

Christmas in Appalachia…a Remembrance

I run my fingers over the velvet cloth of my dress. Hand-stitched by my mother. Like all of my clothes. It is a wonder to me; this cloth. Like fur. So delicious under my hands. Dark blue. Too wonderful to be real.

I click my black patent leather shoes together and listen to the squishy sound they make. It will scuff them, I know. I can’t not do it.

An excited hum fills the church as everyone scoots together to make more room. So many people. Some of the men pull out folding chairs to put at the end of the pews, and I know that this night is not like others…

The fragrance of cedar mixes with a scent I can only describe as colored light and tinsel. Warm. Artificial. But good. Very good. Delicate icicles sparkle against the lights, and I know someone very like my mother (it might have been my mother) has hung them. One at a time. Draped carefully over the end of the branch. Personally I always favored the technique of throwing them against the tree and letting them find their own place. I usually got two handfuls thrown before my mother very unceremoniously put an end to that mess.

In my mind, I rehearse the words I have practiced over and over. A poem. Short. About a box. A gift box that folds out to form a cross. It is clever. I know that. But I am not really sure why.

The singing begins. My dad always fusses about the crazy harmonies of Christmas carols. They don’t behave properly. And men and women who know nothing of the shaped notes in the hymnal…who find their pitches “by ear”…will be chasing these chords all night. But I like them. These strange songs. These only ever at Christmas songs.

I couldn’t tell you what is happening inside me. I only know that it is other. A flirtation with something beyond my little world. I know it in that most important knowing…the inside knowing.

Without words.

In abject defiance of language.

The time comes for our class to mount the stage. My heart pounds. I search for the words like they are floating in the air somewhere. I feel sick at my stomach. My aunt Janice looks at me. My turn has come. Marvelously, the words find me just in time. I say the poem. Words in a pattern. Words I do not thoroughly understand. Yet they strum against something inside me. Stoking a fire of wonder…of mystery.

It is beginning.

It is more important than I could know.

I don’t remember what happens after the poem….until…brown sacks are retrieved from beneath the tree. Every person will receive one. There is an orange, an apple, several unidentifiable nuts in their shells (these I will give to my dad),  fragrant peppermint, and vanilla cream drops cloaked in chocolate.

And everything that is this night coalesces in a jumble of impression and awe. It is old-fashioned, perhaps. But it very capably says to a little girl of the mountains that this night is like no other. That everything you think you know is being undone. That the miracle of Jesus in the world has the power to transform ordinary into extraordinary.

I have worn it. I have breathed it. I have eaten it.

And the reality of this plants itself deep inside me. And I will never be content in a world without wonder. I will spend the rest of my life chasing that which I first tasted in a simple, ordinary, extraordinary Appalachian Christmas.

A gift for you. A remnant of my little girl Christmas in the mountains. A song we sang every year. One that has proper harmonies. 🙂 Enjoy.

The Way

It is the last place he ever expected to find himself. He comes to St. Jean Pied de Port to claim the dead body of his only son. A son he hardly knew. Who refused to fit his mold. Who left his doctoral program in anthropology to travel the world and live among the people who were just faces in a book.

How many times had Daniel begged him to join him? To be part of his world?

It had seemed so reckless. So irresponsible.

He sifts through Daniel’s belongings. Bits and pieces of a life. Photographs from far flung places. Of a young man fully alive. A young man worth knowing.

Tom decides he will accompany Daniel on his final journey.  The one he had only just begun. A pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. He will carry Daniel’s ashes, leaving them all along the way.

“I’m doing it for Daniel,” he says to the gendarme.

“You do not walk the Camino for another,” he replies. “You walk it for yourself.”

It will ask more of him than he can imagine. He will come to know his son. He will come to know himself. He will not be alone in this. There will be a motley assemblage of comrades. Who find one another. Who need one another. More than any of them realize.

Yorick “from Amsterdam” is here to lose weight for a wedding. This, despite the fact that he seems to know the culinary specialty of every region through which they pass, and insists upon sampling it. But there is another hunger in Yorick. A sorrow. One that can only be shared with those who have walked long and lived deep with one another.

Deborah is bitter, belligerent, and guarded. She walks the Way to stop smoking. She says. But she too is fleeing dark demons. She has forgotten how to trust, to be safe with others…how to forgive…how to forgive herself.

Irish writer, James, is brash and loud. He has some serious problems with the Church, who has been the cause of much bloodshed in his homeland. He has writer’s block. He is here to find a story. The story will find him.

The Way is an artfully made film from Emilio Estevez. The story is compelling and rich, with characters who get inside your heart. The cinematography is stunning. And the invitation…to slow down, to breathe deep, to open ourselves to God and to others…is for all of us.

I implore you to see the film. It will be gift to you. You will laugh. You will cry. You might dare to dream big dreams. And with your ticket, you will cast a vote for the beautiful and the true.

Buen Camino!

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