706. Revisiting the mystery at the table - and the desk

Rublev Holy Trinity.jpg

Nearly 7 years ago I bought the icon known as The Holy Trinity, or The Trinity, by Andrei Rublev, brought it home, and hung it above my desk where I could see it every day. Honestly though, over time, I have tended to forget to look at it even though it's right in front of me as I work. After all, there are papers to read and chapters to write and slides to edit. This morning I'm re-reminding myself to look at it, to think about it. So in that spirit, I'm sharing the blog post I wrote just days after I purchased it in February 2010.

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Last weekend I went with a friend to a bookstore in St. Paul that was closing. A bookstore closing is always a sad affair, yet the owner seemed in good spirits and prices were slashed so joy was still to be had. I bought a few books and an icon wall hanging. Since hearing Dr. Roy Robson from the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia speak at The Museum of Russian Art a couple years ago, I've had my eye out for a copy of the Holy Trinity icon by Andrei Rublev, which reflects the story of Abraham's hospitality from Genesis 18. Robson showed a slide of this icon, with three figures seated at a round table. Two of the three figures were robed in brilliant blue. It was so beautiful I could hardly stop looking. The figures represent the Trinity, as its name suggests, and they are seated at the nine, twelve, and three o'clock positions. Left open is the 6 o'clock position. As Robson said, it invites you to "contemplate sitting at the table with the Trinity." I like that sense of invitation and so for that reason I'll hang it near my work space where I can see it.

I want it where I can see it for another reason as well, particularly while I write. In Mind of the Maker, written in 1941, Dorothy L. Sayers examines in great detail the analogic association between the Divine Creator and the human creative process through the doctrine of the Trinity. The ideal literary artist composes his or her works in the image of the three-fold mind comprised of the co-equal and co-substantial Idea, Energy, and Power.

The Idea—or the Father—is the “Book-as-Thought” in the writer’s mind irrespective of any words actually written. The thought precedes the actual activity or material production of the work, but continues on eternally after the work is written and read. The work “is known to the writer as …a complete and timeless whole."

The Energy—or the Son—which “brings about an expression in temporal form of the eternal and immutable Idea,” is the “Book-as-Written." It is the creation that the writer or a reader can witness either as the material form of the work or as the passion and toil of the writer.

The Power—or the Spirit—emerges from the Idea and the Energy. This is the “Book-as-Read” and is the “means by which the [Energy] is communicated to other readers and which produces a corresponding response in them.”

To the writer, the Idea, the Energy, and the Power “are equally and eternally present in his own act of creation…they exist in—they are—thecreative mind itself." To ignore this co-equal and co-substantial pattern of the ideal creative mind, Sayers argued, is to invite failure to a literary work.

Much to think about and be reminded of for 50% off.

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690. The life-changing magic of insignificant things

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Years ago, decades ago, a very little thing changed my life. Sometimes it's worth going back and thinking about this kind of thing. Small, hardly noticeable, seemingly insignificant events, images, conversations, dreams, words, [fill in the blank] that mark a fork in the road that you didn't even realize you were taking. As it happened, I went on a retreat. I’m not really a group-retreat-type person, but for some reason I wanted to go because I had this feeling it would change my life. I can't explain the feeling, but it was there, like a little whisper inside. So I went, but when the weekend was over, I was disappointed. I thought back over all the speakers had said, and it was all good, but for me, not life-changing. No life-changing blast from any direction. What had I been thinking; what had I expected? I felt silly for expecting anything. And so life went on. Time passed, lots and lots of time, years, and from a distance I finally saw the thing that had changed, and why that one thing had in turn changed my life. My roommate at the retreat, a random placement, someone I hadn't known, journaled. I didn't, but after observing her writing regularly in her notebook, I tried it too that weekend. And there it was. The start of a writing practice that would take me on a path I hadn't imagined. I wonder how guidance really works, how many chances we get, what combination of love and grace and knowledge of the inner way of a person is rolled into these kinds of subtle, divine nudges. I don't want to miss a single nudge but fear that I do.

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[Photo: taken of the sky on the last leg of our road trip home from Michigan last week - the only time the faintest whisper of clouds appeared the entire 7 days we were away.]

686. Reading for Holy Week and a conversation with Sarah Arthur

Reading for Holy Week and a conversation with Sarah Arthur.jpg

This week holds Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday. Maundy Thursday. Good Friday. Holy Saturday, then, finally, Easter. Holy Week. I’m reading Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide, gathered and edited by Sarah Arthur. It’s Sarah’s third devotional guide. I wrote about another, At the Still Point, on this blog last summer.

On these pages Sarah brings together Scripture, poetry, and literature for the purpose of prayer, for the purpose of Word informing word and visa versa, for the purpose of sparking imagination in service to truth.

I’ve jumped ahead to the readings for Maundy Thursday with its title “Accused,” the day of the last supper and Jesus’s arrest and midnight trial. From Psalm 35: “Ruthless witnesses come forward…” From the prophet Isaiah: “He was opposed and afflicted yet he did not open his mouth.” From Mark 14: the narrative of the first hours after Jesus’s arrest. From Revelation: an angel delivers judgment. From a poem by Hannah Faith Notess: the images of the blood sacrifice of Passover startle the soothing comforts of bread and wine and a well laid table. From a poem by Jill Peláez Paumgartner: Jesus’s silence before Pilate is “the silence of termites. / It is the silence of the vein of silver / underneath the mountain’s / grimace….” From a poem by Luci Show: “fallen knees / under a whole world’s weight….” From the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: an excerpt from the epic and genius scene of the Grand Inquisitor, a fictitious story of Jesus being brought to trial again during the Spanish Inquisition and challenged for his responses to the three temptations of Satan.

Recently I asked Sarah some questions about the book and her process.

What do you say to readers who have never before considered listening to God through literature, such as fiction or poetry, or who have never thought of integrating literature into their devotional practice?

SA: Well, if they’ve read scripture as a devotional practice, then they’ve already been in the habit of listening to God through literature. The psalms are ancient Hebrew poetry, after all; and meanwhile Jesus’ parables are stories he invented, brilliant little fictions that point to truths about the nature of human beings in relation to God. I sometimes picture Jesus lying on his mat at night gazing at constellations, the campfire burning low, the sounds of the disciples slumbering nearby; and his imagination is playing around with metaphors—seeds and birds, a luminous pearl, a banquet. Or he’s inventing characters: a father with some sons; make it two sons; and make the father loving and gracious, because that’s what our Father is; and the youngest son says…. So that by the time Jesus’ friends are stirring the next morning and have eaten breakfast around the dying fire and set out groggily for the next town, the entire story has unfolded in Jesus’ mind, complete with details like the pigs and the angry older brother and the father running, running hard. All of this to say, that if Jesus could engage in the practice of imaginative storytelling as holy work, then so can we; and so have many, many Christians over the centuries. To ignore that vast spiritual library is to impoverish ourselves as a people.

Within the broader themes of Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide, what specific themes will readers encounter? And how did you select the readings, poems and prayers that are compiled in this book?

SA: Lent is rather famously a penitential season, so as I researched poetry and fiction I looked for works that seemed to speak to the human experience of spiritual poverty: simply stated, we need God. Maybe the main character is terrified of death. Or maybe the poet has sinned, and knows it. Or maybe the author has looked inside himself and found nothing: no reserves of strength or virtue, no therapeutically helpful insight, just the bald awareness that apart from Jesus, he can do nothing. After Easter, however, the themes make the turn toward redemption and healing, restoration, recovery—but not cheap grace: I made sure of that. There’s a long road ahead, and our healing has cost God everything.

When writing this book, what pairing of literature and scriptural theme brought you the biggest sense of surprise or excitement, and why?

SA: When I was in 9th grade my English teacher read aloud to us, over the course of several weeks, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens—but right in the middle of the story my family moved to a different state. And for some reason, though I remembered key details and guessed what was probably going to happen (I figured Dickens didn’t create two nearly identical characters for nothing), I never finished it on my own. So when I began my research for this book I thought, “I wonder what ever happened to Darnay? Did that other guy take his place at the guillotine?” It sounded like an appropriately Good Friday-esque sort of theme. But what I didn’t realize was how powerfully Dickens deals with themes of rebellion and sacrifice and resurrection hope throughout the entire book. When the blood-thirsty crowds of the French revolution treat Darnay like a celebrity one day and call for his execution mere days later, I knew I had my fiction excerpt for Palm Sunday. It’s a harrowing insight into the kind of collective madness that could make both Palm Sunday and Good Friday possible. And we’re all in the crowd. All of us.

In what practical ways do you suggest readers use this book during Holy Week?

SA: It’s tricky because for the rest of the season (Lent, Eastertide) there’s a batch of readings for each week, whereas during Holy Week each day of the week has it’s own selections: four or five poems plus a fiction excerpt. Which means each day you’re going to be doing a lot of reading—good reading, I hope, enriching reading, but a lot. It will require some extra discipline, some intentional chunks of time. Maybe read a little in the morning, a bit more on your lunch break, and the rest before bed. In any case, perhaps you can think of yourself like the disciples in the garden on the night of Jesus’ arrest: you’re being prompted to keep awake, to pay attention, to concentrate. Which is good practice for the devotional life all year round, actually.