My continuing passion is to part a curtain, that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.
-Eudora Welty, author
Our experiences of the arts can be spiritually enriching, opening us to a more full appreciation of who we are and all of life. A contemplative approach to the arts can enhance our understanding our ourselves and the world around us. Doing art – music, film, visual art, creative writing – can help us to communicate with others about topics of importance as well as informing us about ourselves.
My continuing passion is to part a curtain, that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.
-Eudora Welty, author
One of my favorite ways of sketching is to do blind, or semi-blind, contour drawing. In it, you try not to look at your paper at all, and not lift your pen, while you draw. You look at the subject, not the paper, and feel your way around and within your subject, as you draw with your pen or pencil. I was first exposed to this method in a studio drawing class in college and found it marvelous. When I do this while drawing a person, it connects me with the interior feelings of the person. It reminds me that the visual nature of the person is not just about ‘looking good,’ and that the success of a drawing is not in its photographic likeness. It also draws my attention to how we can perceive some of the complex life of a person even through outer appearance. It is, for me, a kind of spiritual exercise.
You may wish to try it. All you need is a pencil, paper, and a subject. The easiest to start with is yourself in a mirror. More details about this method can be found in a book by Kimon Nicolaides, A Natural Way to Draw.
I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.
Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966, The Paris Review
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice…. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
T.S. Eliot “Little Gidding”
There is always
a certain peace
in being what one is,
in being that completely.
The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be….
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
These lines are from the song, Anthem, by Leonard Cohen, a great poet who expressed his words in song deep and resonant and spiritual. The words of that song, “forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” are so potent.
In an interview on his creative process, he said: “It’s very hard to really untangle the real reasons why you do anything. But I was always interested in music and I always played guitar. I always associated song and singing with some sort of nobility of spirit…. I always thought that this was the best way to say the most important things… I don’t mean the most ponderous or pompous things. I mean the important things — like how you feel about things, how you feel about someone else — and I always thought this was the way to do it.”
He struggled with depression all his life, and he commented on the effect on him of the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca, “the loneliness was dissolved, and you felt that you were this aching creature in the midst of an aching cosmos, and the ache was OK. Not only was it OK, but it was the way you embraced the sun and the moon.”
Here is a link to a performance by Cohen in Ireland of the song Anthem : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4U4lXgvorU
The human eye is not the camera eye. Vision takes place in the depths of the mind, with the assistance of emotion, knowledge, and belief.” – Flannery O’Connor
Autumn has arrived here in the middle of the US. I am a lover of sun and warmth, but somehow this year, I am finding myself loving this season. As leaves leave the trees, they burst into such glorious colors. And this is also the time of apples and squashes and onions – such marvelous fruits of the earth. This morning it is rainy and cold, but I look outside and see the colors, and smell baked squash and apples, and I think, there is something wonderful happening in this time and place.
The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…We know the truth not only by reason, but by the heart.”
Blaise Pascal, the author of these quotes, lived in the middle of the 17th century. He was a mathematician, physicist and Christian philosopher. He made important contributions to the study of fluids, pressure and vacuums. He invented an early mechanical calculator and did major work in probability theory. He also wrote in defense of the scientific method. I find it fascinating that he wrote the statement quoted here. One of his most famous works was in philosophy and theology, Pensées.
I am frequently engaged in academic discussion and writings, and before you know it, subjects are reduced to a series of logical steps and desiccated prose. Topics like joy, goodness, flourishing cannot ultimately be reduced to logical patterns that we can dissect into tiny pieces. They are alive in the lives of people in ways that our words or neuroimaging machines can never fully explain.
My inability to explain what is in my heart does not mean that it is less valid. And when I attend to another person, it is important that I listen analytically to what they say, but it is also so often important that I listen to what is in their heart, beyond their words.
At the county fair last week there were farm animals to touch, lots of children, and even a pig race. We passed an exhibit of bales of hay that all looked the same to me, yet one had a blue ribbon attached to it. Turkeys roaming around that almost were my size. Cows being milked. The badge of this little dog belonging to the local sheriff read ‘deputy sheriff.’ This all had me reflecting on our relationship to animals – in farming and as pets.
As I feel the first nip in the air, summer is coming to a close, but there are still memories of many things that made this summer wonderful – including the farmers’ markets and the Lake Michigan beach. And opportunities to draw them, from life and from memory and imagination.
I love drawing faces. It feel so good when I actually feel like I have touched the essence of the person and it also actually kind of looks like them. There is something about the way we see a person that can help us to capture the essence. Ubi amor ibi oculus, where there is love, there is sight.
These peppers grabbed me at the farmer’s market. It is hard to believe that these colors are real, and not made up. And they tasted better than I could imagine too.
Reflecting on the words ‘still life’ I thought of great artists I admire. How Matisse and Chardin and Cezanne see so much ‘life’ in groups of objects. I bought this jar of mustard because I loved the container. The idea of “Löwensenf” appealed to me, and I loved the shape and colors of the jar. I was also fascinated by the shape of this wooden gizmo that is used to release muscle tension.
Lion soft and strong
Mustard bites and warms
Pressing muscles till they melt
Someone has said that the lives of most persons are like jewelry stores where some trickster has mixed up the price tags. The diamonds are priced at next to nothing and some worthless baubles at thousands of dollars. Unless we stop business as usual and take stock, we are likely to end up in bankruptcy. So long as the store is crowded with people, there is no chance of taking inventory and putting things to rights. We must close the doors and take the time alone. Then we can check with the stock list, our list of priorities, and give the right value to the right object.
-Morton Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence
I have been to the Michigan farmers market again this summer. These strawberries were fresh and delicious – my fingers smelled of them too. I had forgotten what real strawberries were like.
“To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is an act of reverence not only toward the tree, but also to our human connection to it. It gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness.” Alan Lee
For me, spiritual connection with God (or the divine or holy as expressed in other words), is part of why making art gives me such joy. I keep doing art for a variety of reasons, but one of them is definitely, for me personally, this spiritual connection that I see more clearly in the process – to the world, to God, and to the holy immanent in the world itself.
My friend loves looking at disintegrating buildings, and in paying close attention to those, something resonates deep within him. It is not just the obviously beautiful that can bring this sense of connection to us, but often things that do not look so great on the surface. When we look at other people with reverence and respect a sense of spiritual connection can be especially present. All of us are a mixed bag of the obviously lovely, and things that do not look that great. How miraculous that we can have reverence for one another nevertheless.
What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up . . .” Making you a means to
a means to a means to) is well water
pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
and hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
a sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
the wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.
(by Randall Jarrell, Vintage Contemporary Poetry, pg 65-66, Discovered in the notebooks of Gertrude Beversluis)
Immanuel Kant, not my favorite philosopher, was adamant that we should treat people as “ends in themselves”, not only as means to an end. Some people try to manipulate us, flatter us, and basically see us as means to their ends, ways to get what they want to happen. This is demeaning for us, even if we don’t consciously realize what’s going on.
We even do this to ourselves in our daily lives. And this is what this poem reminds me of. I so often slip into putting myself on the “squirrel-wheel”, pushing the wheel, getting only rusty water. When I treat myself as only a means to an end I demean myself. Instead I want to see daily life like the author does at the end of the poem, and gulp from the clear fresh water of the dailiness of life as I do tasks, relaxing with pleasure into the flow of life.
Exactitude is not truth – Henri Matisse
Currently I try to spend time most days doing and studying art. I get better in many ways through practice and study, but I will never get to a photographically accurate image I expect. I do hope, however, to get close to the truth — of the subject, or idea, or myself. I did this self-portrait yesterday of me in the sunshine, using a hand mirror. It has ‘mistakes’ in it, and it is not exact. But I still hope that it gets at some truth of me.
If you do a creative activity of some kind, can you be pleased when you capture some feeling or express something imaginatively? Cooking or woodworking may be a creative activity you enjoy, or you may play music or write fiction. I hope my ‘mistakes’ can encourage you to continue be creative even when you are not exact.
We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.” –Charles Peguy
I found myself trying to find words and image to convey something of this tiny arm and hand full of promise.
in the breeze of the holy
no need. New
Will of good pleasure
through my body
I have spent a lot of time in various meetings over the last couple of months. When I am not speaking, there is lots of time for listening. I find that by drawing people, it helps me to focus, and also to ‘get’ people in a more complex way, to hear them beyond their words or silences. Here are a few sketches of lovely people from a recent meeting.
I have asked people what kinds of things they thought of, when they felt ‘thankful for their blessings.’ One lady replied that after recovering from a bad cold, she really appreciated the taste of tomatoes. So often we just don’t notice wonderful things until we lose them.
Ubi amor ibi oculus
A new dimension of seeing is opened up by love alone. And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance.
–Josef Pieper, Three Talks in a Sculptor’s Studio
I have been trying to draw more regularly. I am not a great person for Lent, the time of year before Easter, as I find the liturgical year somewhat confusing, but these past years I have been taking the opportunity to add something into my life in these weeks that I feel needs to be added. This year it has been an effort to do art each day. It gives me joy, and is definitely something I feel called to do, and yet never seems to have a deadline, so often slips off the plate. This drawing is of my daughter’s rescue dog, Professor Pudding, who is a blessing to be around.
I received an email from a counselor/researcher in Kenya last week. He was researching what makes for flourishing marriages. And it reminded me of a study in the Science of Compassionate Love book that reported predictors of good marriages many years on. When people began their relationships with both a global adoration of the other, and an accurate picture of their flaws, they had a better chance of the relationship still being strong and good years later. Being loved by someone who knows our flaws, our weaknesses, and still thinks we are wonderful, ‘the bee’s knees,’ is so great. I think it has a divine source, a source that is ‘more than’. Some of us do not experience this kind of love in romantic relationships, but taste it in other human relationships and/or our relationship with God. To receive this kind of love requires vulnerability on our part.
In my Perspectives: Art, Science, and Spirituality class, one assignment is to select a piece of art — film, poetry, visual art, fiction — that represents compassionate love. One young man brought this one in. When he read it to the class, this poem gave most of us a taste of a kind of love that is truly nourishing. It transcends the romantic, helping us to inhabit eternal love.
Gate C22 by Ellen Bass
At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like satin ribbons tying up a gift. And kissing.
Like she’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
she kept saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning
of a calm day at Big Sur, the way it gathers
and swells, taking each rock slowly
in its mouth, sucking it under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching–
the passengers waiting for the delayed flight to San Jose,
the stewardesses, the pilots, the aproned woman icing
Cinnabons, the guy selling sunglasses. We couldn’t
look away. We could taste the kisses, crushed
in our mouths like the liquid centers of chocolate cordials.
But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still
opened from giving birth, like your mother
must have looked at you,
no matter what happened after–
if she beat your, or left you, or you’re lonely now–
you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off and someone gazing at you
like you were the first sunrise seen from the earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
each of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse,
little gold hoop earrings, glasses,
all of us, tilting our heads up.
From Mules of Love, by Ellen Bass, BOA Editions Ltd., 2002.
I have been a fan of animated films all my life. This recent student film is a gem. It articulates themes of the flow of love, compassionate love, in ways that words so often fail to do. It is not too sweet, and is nested in the complexity of life.
I heard the Canadian singer Feist singing a lovely and wide-reaching version of a song for the holidays from the 16th century, during this past week. Here it is on YouTube: Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,
…To see in contemplation, is not limited only to the tangible surface of reality; it certainly perceives more than mere appearances. Art flowing from contemplation does not so much attempt to copy reality as rather to capture the archetypes of all that is. Such art does not want to depict what everybody already sees but to make visible what not everybody sees….
To this end we have to consider a certain aspect of the term “contemplation”…. The ancient expression of the mystics applies here: ubi amor, ibi oculus — the eyes see better when guided by love; a new dimension of ‘seeing’ is opened up by love alone! And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance…affectionate affirmation.”
-Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, Ignatius Press 1990. pg 74
Trying to externalize experiences by painting, writing, etc. helps us to understand them and to be more receptive. Being receptive and willing to change and grow makes one most alive I think – more vulnerable to both pain and joy. – John Busby (Drawing Birds, Christopher Helm Publishers, 2004)
The objects in our lives are made up of particles of the universe, and they can also unite the past and present for us. The most ordinary things can speak of life to us. How can we tune in to feel, taste, or see the ‘more than’ in the mundane objects around us? Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist, geologist and priest, said that his first ‘feeling of God’ was when he held a piece of metal.
I love things with a wild passion,
I cherish tongs,
I adore cups….
I love all things,
not only the grand,
but also the infinite
Ode to Things, by Pablo Neruda, from Neruda’s Garden: An Anthology of Odes, selected and translated by Maria Jackett, Latin America Literary Review Press, Pittsburgh Penn,1995.
In the end, it was as his old neighbor Lucio was always telling him: Lucio, who had lost his arm in the Spanish Civil War. The problem, Lucio would explain, wasn’t so much the missing arm as that when it happened he had a spider bite on it which he hadn’t finished scratching. And seventy years later, Lucio was still scratching away at the empty space. Something that isn’t finished with properly will irritate you forever.
I am very fond of the detective stories by the French anthropologist Fred Vargas. I enjoy her characters and the tone of her writing. This quote is from the latest one out in English, The Ghost Riders of Orderbec (Penguin paperback 2013).
Critique is necessary, but so often it can get in the way. Sometimes those most in need of critique are least likely to hear it. And those who are overly hard on themselves, seem to find criticism hidden everywhere.
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in –
Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
in their backs, the stretcher handles
slippery with sweat. And no let-up
Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
and raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
for the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
to pass, those ones who had known him all along.
By Seamus Heaney from Human Chain (Faber and Faber, London 2010)
A song is unfixed in time and place (as distinct from the bodies it takes over). A song narrates a past experience.
When it is being sung, it fills the present. Stories do the same, but songs have another dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song, whilst filling the present, hopes to reach a listening ear, in some future somewhere. It leans forward, further and further. Songs lean forward. Without the persistence of this hope, songs, I believe, would not exist.
The tempo, the beat, the repetitions, construct a shelter from the flow of linear time. A shelter in which future, present and past can console, provoke, ironize and inspire one another. Most songs being listened to across the world at this moment are recordings, not live performances. And this means that the physical experience of sharing and coming together is less intense, but it is still there, it is present in the heart of the exchange and communication taking place.”
This is a quote from a BBC Radio 3 Documentary program essay by John Berger (I have an old book on my shelves by him: On Seeing.His writing has been described as “a listening voice”). Other art forms do what he is describing here, but music has special qualities. It can surrounds us in a way that can be like an embrace, or touch us directly like the most intimate words of a friend.
The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
By Wendell Berry
My favorite line in this poem is the final one. Most of the beautiful music of the sound of water is made when it is impeded, obstructed somehow. Music made from what seem like obstructions in my life. But the other lines of the poem are important for me to hear too. Think of those people who are always totally sure of what to do next. They are not usually the wisest ones. What do we do when up to our hips in the mud?
I have been reading a great book by the artist Ben Shahn, written in the 50’s entitled The Shape of Content. I find myself these days wondering why I do art, and what I am trying to do with it. What is its purpose? Shahn was a wonderful graphic artist and his words inspire me. When I was helping to find cover art for a book on the science of compassionate love, I offered this piece. The visual image on the cover was important. To pin compassionate love to the board like a butterfly was impossible. Visual art can stretch our thinking. It was a necessary complement to the scientific and analytic content of the book. I think somehow art can make a difference – that is one of the reasons I still do it.
“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature…. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” – Robert Henri
I am currently doing an ‘every day in May’ drawing challenge together with others. They suggest ordinary objects and challenge you to draw on one a day. Doing art seems to always slip to the bottom of the pile, even though I know it is vital to me. I started the challenge late, so I was catching up by combining the blossoming cherry tree out my window and two spices – one a jar I made up of cinnamon sugar – yum… and the other a bottle of spiced salt from time in Madrid that I have saved from a grocery store expedition years ago. As I drew and painted, I found that bits of my life and the wider world opened up and came together in the midst of my adventure with watercolor and ink.
My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty.
-St Augustine, Confessions X.6,9
How do we view visual art, and what happens to us when we view certain works in a contemplative way? Sometimes art with religious themes can transport even those who do not agree with the faith tradition of the artist. Pelagia Horgan wrote about the art of Fra Angelico and others. She refers to a photograph in the article, a photo of the inside of a monastic cell in Florence. Fra Angelico did frescos on the walls of this monastery, and the photo is of the inside of one of the monastic cells, of its walls, its window, and the fresco. Horgan in her article grapples with the apparent incongruity of being touched by religious art when she does not hold a set of cognitive beliefs that are the same as the beliefs of that particular religion. She writes:
“It struck me that this is what faith is – not a set of propositions you hold to be true, or a set of rules you follow, but an atmosphere you live in, that changes your experience of the world, your sense of what and how things are.” http://aeon.co/magazine/culture/how-should-secular-people-approach-sacred-art/
This is an enriching view, it seems to me. Not that beliefs have no value, but I spend a lot of time in the borderlands of those who assert set beliefs and those who disagree with them. Certain art can step beyond those boundaries if we let it, changing our experience of the world, our sense of what and how things are…
When listening to popular music I sometimes take in the words in an abstract way, and lines just stick with me, rather than the ‘meaning’ of the song. A song just works its way into me in unexplainable ways, the poetry in musical form. This song by the Scottish singer Alexi Murdoch has worked its way in. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCEzoOpG1zQ
“Keep your head above water….and don’t forget to breathe.” And the sound of his voice and the instrumentals somehow ground me in good ways too. How often all we can do in situations is just ‘keep our heads above water.’ But don’t forget to breathe! The past few weeks I have had bronchitis, and it brings home to me once again how linked our minds and bodies are. We are not disembodied spirits – we live in our bodies. And that is good.
The gutsiness of music can remind us that we are gutsy. Often our bodies don’t seem cooperative, they limit us in various ways. But while we are alive, these sometimes frail or recalcitrant bodies are essential to living a complete life. And the only place to be is in them, and thankful to be able to breathe.
St Kevin and the Blackbird, by Seamus Heaney is part of Chapter 6, “The Flow of Love”, in my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book. I wrote:
I think about love for my daughters and how it feels. I wonder about how it influences their obvious care for others. Where did it come from? What keeps it going?
An Irish legend about St. Kevin forms the basis of a poem by Seamus Heaney. The poem describes St. Kevin kneeling in his monastic cell, praying with arms outstretched, one out the window through the bars of the cell. A bird settles in his outstretched hand and makes a nest there. Because of his compassionate love, Kevin just stays in that position until the eggs hatch. It must have been very hard, and he would have become very tired and wanted to stop. Not even reflecting on the logistics, where did he find the energy to continue holding the nest while the eggs hatched? Heaney in his poem touches on the eternal and rooted wellspring of love in the midst of difficulties, and how care for the bird allows that wellspring to flow through Kevin.
Are you holding any birds that have begun to nest? Do you ever find yourself stuck in the midst of commitment and care, in distress yet still desiring to love? Do you find yourself overextended in some way or another? And then what do you do? How do you sustain this love and care? How does that feel? ….”
This drawing of mine was inspired by the wonderful poem. Here is a link to Heaney reading it with his soft Northern Irish accent. http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/st-kevin-and-blackbird
What is a spiritual experience after all? Sometimes we can have a sense of what it ought to be and that can get in the way. I find that this poem, Veni Creator, by Czeslaw Milosz, a Lithuanian-Polish poet, from the book, Collected Poems, 1931-1987, speaks to me.
Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards,
or when snow covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a human being: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well,
that the statue in church lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore, call one person, anywhere on earth,
not me-after all I have some decency-
and allow me, when I look at that person,
to marvel at you.
How does music express so much?
The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of it, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.” – Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review Interviews IV
Like in this modern cello music by Zoe Keating:
Wedding by Alice Oswald
From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions . . .
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.
This poem, Wedding, by Alice Oswald, is from The Thing in the Gap-stone Style (Oxford University Press)
Every so often, I awaken and find
The world both vivid and lit, each element
–far as I can tell—lit from within. And yes,
like you, I may have assumed this radiance
to be a trick of morning sun upon the sea,
or the fortunate effect of ambient or
of manufactured light, of dumb or less
I may have been jogging, or
yammering on before a yawning class,
writing something or other on the blackboard.
I may have appeared more or less awake
right along, but suddenly, with little warning, I become
for the moment more fully awake, and I see
that there—along the path, among the bracken
or the pine, or just there, only now opening
within each forlorn face before me—a glistening,
a quality, a presence of light so profound
I can’t but close my eyes to see.
Excerpt from the poem Somnambulant, by Scott Cairns, from Idiot Psalms: New Poems (Paraclete Press, 2014)
I went to a concert by some local musicians outdoors with a friend. The music was not the kind I might seek out on my own. But as I found myself looking for things to appreciate, I found them all around. Creative piano improv, enjoying how the double bass sounded and looked, some great trumpet riffs – moments of beautiful gutsy female voice. And then the summer clouds were this glorious pink on the walk home. The atmosphere in the convenience store filled with so many different kinds of people. The feel of the soft ice cream on my tongue. Hearing the details of my friend’s life and enjoying the congeniality of being together. Divine messages.
“Contemplation does not rest until it has found the object that dazzles it.” – Konrad Weiss
I am currently reading a book by the philosopher Josef Pieper. In the middle he writes that it is in perceiving reality fully, in contemplation, that happiness is found. I was recently at the shores of Lake Michigan. The evening was glorious. This photo I took only begins to capture what was there, the fullness of reality.
Pieper writes in Happiness and Contemplation:
The ancients conceived the whole energy of human nature as a hunger. Hunger for what? For being, for undiminished actuality, for complete realization—which is not attainable in the subject’s isolated existence, for it can be secured only by taking into the self the universal reality. Hunger is directed toward the real universe, and the universe in its literal sense, toward the whole of being, toward everything that exists…. The word “hunger” should be understood in its most drastic and literal sense. In so far as he exists spiritually, man desires satiation by reality, he wants to “have” reality; he hungers for “the whole,” longs to be filled to repletion….
“Knowing is the highest mode of having because in the world there is no other form so thoroughgoing. Knowing is not only appropriation which results in “property” and “proprietorship.” It is assimilation in the quite exact sense that the objective world, in so far as it is known, is incorporated into the very being of the knower….One’s existence as a spiritual being involves being and remaining oneself and at the same time admitting and transforming into oneself the reality of the world.”
When taking a week-long life drawing class a couple of weeks ago with Barry Moser, I had the opportunity to see the work of one of my classmates, Ron Zito, during the open slide night. Ron talked us through a series of images of his large oil paintings, some with religious titles. But the images themselves were not literal in any way. His presentation reminded me of Beckett’s book of contemporary art, The Gaze of Love, that I have sometimes used for morning contemplation. Ron’s images of empty rooms, unpeopled spaces, draped cloth, and concrete barriers along a riverbank were not what we usually think of as religious images. But they were very touching, and that touch took me by surprise. A young woman sitting next to me began to cry on seeing one of them and hearing his description. You can view them on www.ronzito.com under the Oil Paintings drop down menu, and they merit slow appreciation. Some of my favorites are The Assumption, Within and Without, Still Point and Leap. He brings out spiritual qualities in ordinary things through his way of seeing and his realistic skills with luminous oil paint. His paintings somehow describe the impressions left on spaces by those who have inhabited them, and then we can inhabit them too in some way. The notion of eternal time.
Every day we see things that have the power to draw our attention to the presence of the holy, the divine, God, in our ordinary days. We can miss the transcendent speaking through the ordinary. This direct communication can often happen in the midst of brokenness, or in places that seem empty at first glance. Ron Zito’s paintings remind me in some ways of apophatic theology– no words or images are adequate to describe the spiritual aspects of our lives. We wave our hands and try – and some of us come closer to success than others.
By Juhan Liiv
It must be somewhere, the original harmony,
somewhere in great nature, hidden.
Is it in the furious infinite,
in distant stars’ orbits,
is it in the sun’s scorn,
in a tiny flower, in treegossip,
in heartmusic’s mothersong
or in tears?
It must be somewhere, immortality,
somewhere the original harmony must be found:
how else could it infuse
the human soul,
Translated from the Estonian by H. L. Hix and Jüri Talvet Source: Poetry (June 2011) http://bit.ly/kxfS8D
In the image of [the artists’] experience, we can ‘recognize’ the image of some experience of our own…. When we read the poem or see the play or picture or hear the music, it is as though a light were turned on inside us. We say: ’Ah! I recognize that! That was something which I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I didn’t know what it was, and couldn’t express it. But now…I can possess and take hold of it and make it my own and turn it into a source of knowledge and strength.’
This is really true for me. Listening deeply to certain poems, or viewing visual art, or listening to certain music can provide nourishment in my morning time of silence and contemplative prayer. It continues with me into the day. In a recent public talk, I was amazed at the deep hush that came over the room while I was reading the poems (by Heaney, Levertov, and Collins) . When I wrote the Spiritual Connection book I found myself constantly reaching for poems by good poets to illustrate ideas and experiences of the ‘more than’. And recently when doing a day of retreat for professional caregivers, reflection on the poems opened up conversations, and provoked us in new ways. Visual art, music, drama, fiction and dance all have the capacity to do what Sayers describes.
As I get ready to attend a workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to revive my life-drawing skills, I was reminded of the following excerpt from the book Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation by the German philosopher Josef Pieper:
“How can man preserve and safeguard the foundation of his spiritual dimension and an uncorrupted relationship to reality? The capacity to perceive the visible world ‘with our own eyes’ is indeed an essential constituent of human nature. We are talking here about man’s essential inner richness…. To see things is the first step toward that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality, which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual being.”
One of the things Pieper suggests is that we become active in artistic creation. ”Before you can express anything in tangible form, you first need eyes to see. The mere attempt, therefore, to create an artistic form compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation. Long before a creation is completed, the artist has gained for himself another and more intimate achievement: a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, an eye for things previously overlooked. In short: the artist will be able to perceive with new eyes the abundant wealth of all visible reality, and thus challenged, additionally acquires the inner capacity to absorb into his mind such an exceedingly rich harvest. The capacity to see increases.”
In one of the classes I teach we end each semester with an art project – they have a chance to express something that reflected the spiritual and/or compassionate love, through a piece of art they would make (music, poetry, fiction, film, photography – one person even chose to create a meal for us). They are graded on effort and conception rather than skill. I wish I could share them all here, as most of them were so inspiring. Although many of the students initially resisted doing the project, most of them really enjoyed it in the end, and especially sharing their creation with others in the class.
We all have the capacity to create art – maybe some of it is pretty primitive- but the process of doing so can greatly enrich our capacity to see, and this can help us clearly perceive the world as it is in all its depth, spiritually infused, and that can enrich our lives.
Is there some kind of creative activity that you can begin to develop, or one that you have already developed but can continue to do more of? When we loosen the constraints of excessive critique, joy is there for us, and in the process we can become more in touch with reality.
This sculpture is by Jay DeFeo, a beat artist from the 50’s/60’s/70’s, and I am sharing here a photo of it. The original of this work is approximately 11 by 5 feet, three-dimensionally rendered in oil paint with wood fragments and mica. The piece weights nearly 2,000 pounds and took over 8 years to complete, building layer upon layer, and is in the Whitney Museum in NYCity. http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/JayDeFeo
When it came time to pick a cover for a book I co-edited for Oxford University Press, I wanted something that would capture the ineffable and spectacular nature of altruistic love – giving of self for the good of the other – in close relationships and with strangers (and even in relationship with ourselves as “the other” that we want to flourish). My editor asked me to find something good. It was in the days before easily accessible art resources on the web, so I went down to the local art institute library and spent a happy afternoon going through art books and thinking about love. Images were either only about particular kinds of love, or too sentimental, or had other problems. I wanted something that captured the transcendent nature of this other-centered love in many situations. I finally discovered this piece of art and we ended up using it on the cover. The abstract touched the particular for me in a more universal way, and it has seemed to do so for many others.
This piece for me expresses much about compassionate love, love that facilitates flourishing, as it happens in the midst of our messy lives. Transcendent beauty shining over and through rough chunks and bits and pieces. If you look at this piece, and allow it to speak to you directly, what does it speak to you, what does it stir in you? Is there any resonance with the way love is expressed in the midst of your life? My students have had to write a page of reflection of their emotional response to this piece of art, and many found it a useful exercise. You may be surprised what emerges if you just let yourself experience the piece and respond emotionally.
Mercy is a word that unfolds endlessly for me. Mercy touches me in ways that I cannot fully explain. I think some of it is the quality of acceptance in the midst of flaws and problems and mistakes and harms and hurts and difficulties. This mercy is there for all of us. I recently encountered this piece entitled “Mercy” by Max Richter, composed at the request of the violinist Hilary Hahn. Music can often speak in ways that words cannot. Tastes in music vary so much, but when students in my classes shared pieces with each other that touched them spiritually, I was impressed by how much communication could happen even if tastes were different. This music brings a restful peace to me, heightening my awareness of the presence of intense and all-embracing mercy.
In my Art Science and Spirituality course I share an interview with the South American composer Oswaldo Golijov. He describes the effects of certain kinds of music on spiritual experience in his life, and describes his response to Monteverdi’s Vespers. One of the concepts I address in that class is how both the arts and the sciences inform our understanding of time. How we envision time has a practical effect on us. Do we leave space for a more nuanced and eternal view of time? This interview is only seven minutes long and is well worth listening to, and it contains excerpts of the music. http://www.studio360.org/story/106875-osvaldo-golijov/
He also describes inhabiting music like a cathedral, and how the way music and words are combined can enable the words to penetrate more deeply.
“The encounter between two people which leads to mutual recognition and the serious exchanges of friendship or love abolishes between them the third person which is the normal form of regard for another, and each becomes for the other a second person, a thou, and thenceforth they are together in the first person, a we. Each is present to the other and promises to be with the other always. The intimate being of each is present to the other, and fidelity is the active cultivation and enjoyment of that presence always. Absence and even death does not destroy this presence, but is rather the proof of its veritability. For when one dies whose presence I have enjoyed in friendship or in love, either he becomes less than an object or else his presence (not a mere image or memory) remains as active within me as before. It depends on my willingness to continue to be truly present to him.”
Blackham, H. J. (1983). Six Existentialist Thinkers (Reprint.). Routledge. Chapter on Gabriel Marcel. P 76. Artwork Lynn Underwood
I noticed these leaves while out walking today, and picked up these two from the grey pavement to take home. I drew and painted them to help the beauty stick with me longer. As they sit here on the table together, I also find myself thinking about my relationships with those I am close to.
“Art in the spirit opens a window onto these transcendental realities of which the ancients called the Passio Entis, the “accidents of Being.” They are the Holiness of all that is. And from these transcendental involvements flow all the other humanizing values of our existence: love, compassion, simplicity, fidelity, forgiveness, freedom, justice, peace. For you see it is the function of art to open the human heart.”
Some food for my morning contemplative time these past weeks has been a beautiful book, Creation out of Clay: The Ceramic Art and Writings of Brother Thomas
(Ed. Rosemary Williams, Pucker Art Publications, Boston 1999, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids)
It is a large book full of luscious pictures of Brother Thomas’ pottery that make me want to touch them, and full of his essays, which include wisdom that feeds me.
A high spot of summer for me is going to farmers’ markets. When I get there I become quite focused: What I will buy for what meal plan? But despite this focus I usually find that I get lost in the visual beauty of the fruits and vegetables and in taking in the smells. I bought these beets that looked rather ugly, yet when I got home, it was the beets I felt drawn to draw. At first they just looked brown and muddy, but as I painted/drew them, I detected the subtleties. I thought about the Yes! Chapter in the book, about how things that do not look great on the outside in our lives, can reveal beauty nevertheless. And I haven’t even cooked them yet.
The first of the 16 questions my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book explores is, “Have you been spiritually touched by the beauty of creation?”
A favorite poet of mine, Seamus Heaney, died last week, and it seemed a good time to offer this excerpt from my book, which includes part of one of his poems.
“Experiences of wonder are there for the taking. They are around us every day. Awe-inspiring colors and sounds and touch-sensations. Signs of and pointers to the transcendent. When we have these experiences, we touch the transcendent as obviously as we touch the chairs we sit on. It may seem even more real. These feelings can provide encouragement to us. When I look out over a lake, watch a sunset from a balcony, see the bud of a flower in a vase in my apartment, watch the flame of a candle, there can be for me a vivid sense of the “more than.”
“What do you see as the beauty of creation? Can you see it in tears? In faces? In the rough and the smooth?
“Poetry, through expert use of language, can capture this well, and call our attention to these experiences.”
Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript,” is a great example of this, and I quote it in the book; you can read it now here on line.
After Heaney’s quotation, I continue in my book,
“If we live in the countryside or near water or spectacular scenery, this can seem easier. But even in an urban environment, evidence of this is there for the taking. Parks, the sky, plants in our apartment, the sound of water, the beauty of people’s faces. And on the other hand, we can miss the chance even in the midst of the obvious. While living in a village on a mountainside in Switzerland, the Alps were usually in view, but I could be so consumed by my own preoccupations that I just did not notice this awe-inspiring beauty. These experiences are not defined by the setting, although it may be easier to feel in some places. You may want to go somewhere that helps you to see this beauty. Do you find space in your life for “wow”? There is something about the very substance of life itself that can inspire us, keep our hearts from drying up. When are you aware of it?”
There is a lot of poetry available on the web, but having the hard copies of the poems in book form can be good as it can separate you some from the attentional tugging of the interweb. Here are some collections you may wish to explore.
The Redress of Poetry, by Seamus Heaney
A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz
Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation ed. Roger Housden
The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks
Ballistics: Poems by Billy Collins
Twenty Poems to Nourish your Soul by Judy Valente and Charles Reynard
Collected Poems of WH Auden
The Collected Works of W.B.Yeats – Volume 1: The Poems ed. Richard Finneran
T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909-1962
Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy
Poetry as Prayer: Gerard Manley Hopkins (Pauline Books and Media)
Poetry for the Spirit ed. Alan Jacobs
Honey and Salt, Carl Sandburg
Selected Poems: Galway Kinnell
Gourd Seed by Coleman Barks
The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers
Human Chain by Seamus Heaney
Philokalia by Scott Cairns
Yevtushenko Selected Poems Penguin Modern European Poets Series, UK
Wislawa Szymborska Poems New and Collected
New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems ed Louis Untermeyer
Life is Simpler towards Evening, Ralph Wright
Seamless, Ralph Wright
Prayers from the Ark by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, trans. Rumer Godden
Grooks, by Piet Hein
The Book of Psalms
Everyman’s Poetry: Four Metaphysical Poets
Everyman’s Poetry: George Herbert
The Way of Chuang Tzu translated by Thomas Merton
There are lots of references in the book to websites: music, poetry, articles and essays, art work. This page gives you those links live, so you can click on them and get to the referenced site.
Page 10 Title: Had I Not Been Awake Author: Seamus Heaney
Page 33 Title: Hubble Photographs Author:
Page 34 Title: Postscript Author: Seamus Heaney
Page 38 Title: Dust Author: Dorianne Laux
Page 39 Title: Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey Author: William Wadsworth
Page 47 Title: Longing Author: Stevie Smith
Page 48 Title: Even in the Quietest Moments Author: Supertramp
Page 48 Title: Hymn 101 Author: Joe Pugh
Page 49 Title: There Is Some Kiss We Want Author: Rumi
Page 52 Title: Our Lady of Vladimir Author: Theokotos of Vladimir
Title: Patience Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Page 78 Title: Vespers Author: Monteverdi
Page 78 Title: Trío para piano, violín y violonchelo en Sol mayor K496 Author: Mozart
Page 78 Title: King without a Crown (Live from Stubbs) Author: Matisyahu
Page 78 Title: The Cave Author: Mumford and Sons
Page 78 Title: 2080 Author: Yeasayer
Page 78 Title: In the Morning Author: Nina Simone
Page 79 Title: Landscsape: Wheatfields under Thunderclouds Author: van Gogh
Page 79 Title: Kadinsky Art Author: Wassily Kadinsky
Page 79 Title: RichD Dancing in the Rain Oakland Street Author: Yak Films
Page 86 Title: Spiegel im Spiegel Author: Arvo Pärt
Page 86 Title: Claire de Lune Author: Debussy
Page 86 Title: Köln Concerts Author: Keith Jarrett
Page 121 Title: St. Kevin and the Blackbird Author: Seamus Heaney
Page 125 Title: Mercy Author: Jessica Powers
Page 130 Title: In Our Talons Author: Bowerbirds
Page 134 Title: 3055 Author: Olafur Arnald
Title: On Being Called to Prayer While Cooking Dinner for Forty Author: Patrick Donnelly
Page 135 Title: Ubi caritas et amor Author: Maurice Duruflé
Page 135 Title: Ubi caritas et amor Author: Taizé
Page 136 Title: Shoveling Snow with the Buddha Author: Billy Collins
Title: To the Mistakes Author: W. S. Mervin
Page 146 Title: Wrong Day-Go Back Author: Richard Tipping
Page 155 Title: How to Truly Listen Author: Evelyn Glennie
Page 156 Title: A Spiritual Journey Author: Wendell Berry
Page 165 Title: Dear God Author: Monsters of Folk
Metaphor and the Self: A Role for the Arts in Understanding Suffering and Treating the Person in Distress, Lynn Underwood, International Neuroethics Conference, Brain Matters 3: Values at the Crossroads of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Psychology, October 24-25, 2012
Research shows that the metaphors we use affect our behaviors and attitudes in significant ways. (Holding a cup of hot coffee rather than a cold drink can cause us to have a more friendly attitude towards those we meet; Boroditsky’s work showing how reading about a description of crime as a virus rather than a beast can influence our decisions on the best ways to control the same criminal behaviors.) These effects usually happen implicitly – we are not aware of them. The machine metaphor recurs in our descriptions of the brain and the overall functioning of the body and has become an automatic default. It can be useful in simplifying complex systems, and medical training encourages this. Even efforts to promote humanism in medicine slide in this direction, as communication, empathy and ethical decisions are formulated in mechanistic terms.
This kind of thinking can get in the way when we treat conditions for which no “physical” cause can be found. Self-reports made by the person and their experiences of suffering are essential to the identification of the roots of the problems and opportunities for treatment. However if one buys into the machine metaphor too much, the experience of the person is given less weight in the overall assessment, while objective features such as brain scans, blood chemistry and physiologically evident symptoms are given the final say. Measurements based solely on a machine model lead to interventions that presuppose a kind of person that is incongruous with the way we live our lives, and what is most important to us.
Visual art, film and literature can give insight into the nature of the human person that offers alternative metaphors for the human person, and opens opportunities for creative approaches to treatment and evaluation of outcomes. This presentation would elaborate on those, and give specific examples of how they can help yield more effective treatments and decisionmaking.
Enhancing Spiritual Connection through Poetry in a Secular Context. Lynn Underwood. University College London. Institute for Advanced Study, Senate House, June 29, 2012.
Poetry can open the mind to better grasp the complexity of the divine, the holy, and help make connections in down-to-earth ways, integrated into daily life. The language of poetry and the use of metaphor and apparent paradox can expand our conceptual understanding. The concreteness of poetry can also help ground this in the substance of our days. This paper will give examples of specific poetry from Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Rainer Maria Rilke, R.S. Thomas, Jessica Powers and others, and point to specifically religious poetry from a variety of faith traditions, describing how they have been useful in the classroom for enriching capacity for sense of communication with the divine for those from specific faith traditions and those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Poetry provides words that can open doorways without reducing the spiritual to a meaningless common denominator – leading instead to the depths and richness of religious traditions.
Poetry can help those of faith and those not comfortable in a religious tradition to enhance sense of connection with God and become increasingly aware of that connection in daily life. It can bridge traditions and beliefs and has been used effectively by the author of this paper in a variety of secular college classroom settings and in small group work. Approaching poetry in a contemplative rather than analytic way facilitates this engagement, and journaling encourages direct encounter with the poems themselves in written conversation. Structured group discussion of personal responses to the poems can also provide mutual illumination of contexts and invitation.
Neuroethics, the Arts and the Nature of the Human Person. Lynn Underwood. Medical Humanities Conference, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, September 29-30 2011.
The arts and humanities are essential to effectively grapple with the questions that arise from advances in neuroscientific technologies and treatments. They are essential for medical practitioners as they make treatment and policy decisions. But even those not professionally involved with health care need the arts and humanities as we make decisions about what kinds of pharmaceutical and neurosurgical interventions are appropriate for ourselves and those we care for, policy decisions regarding issues such as human responsibility within health care and criminal justice, and decisions about how to regulate and respond to marketing of neurotechnologies of various kinds.
Also, neuroscientists and interpreters of neuroscience make claims about how ethics operates and the nature of the human person. The humanities can provide us with tools for doing the kinds of reflection necessary to effectively accept or discard these claims. The arts can help to reveal qualities and issues in novel and useful ways.
This presentation will lay out the scope of the problems, and highlight some particularly thorny issues. Also, it will outline some of the ways to engage students, those in the health sciences and others, with these topics using the humanities and arts to better equip them for the particular challenges neuroscientific knowledge and technologies have brought to the fore. In this context the presenter will draw on four years of classroom experience teaching both Neuroethics and general medical humanities using these methods.
Examination of how we envision the nature of the human person is essential to adequately address many of the issues that increasing knowledge and technology in neuroscience has raised. Film, memoir and poetry, as well as insights from philosophy and religious studies, can usefully inform our decision-making and attitudes. The visual arts, particularly portraiture and self-portraiture can give us special insight into the nature of the human person. The emergence of popular and scientific appreciation for the complexities of decision-making enable us to see why approaching a complex topic through the arts can give insight that can complement and enhance other kinds of analysis. The arts can enable us to enter into situations in ways beyond merely speculating on how we think we would feel in a given situation. Empathic engagement as well as enhanced sensibilities can result from the inclusion of the arts and humanities in these discussions.
The presentation will outline some of the issues and give specific examples of humanities and art resources that have been effectively used in teaching situations.
The Human Person: Possibilities for Flourishing in Dire Circumstances. Lynn Underwood. Hellenic Research Foundation, European Research Network. Athens, Greece, September 21, 2007.
Even in the midst of suffering there can be opportunities for the human person to flourish. Of course we do not seek suffering and continually seek to relieve the suffering of self and others. One positive aspect of dire circumstances is that various false illusions and assumptions do not hold up once exposed to situations such as disability, chronic disease, extreme suffering or experiences at end of life. These include various assumptions about apparent self-sufficiency, functionalism (seeing ourselves as “human doings” rather than “human beings”), the place of suffering, our delusions of control, and the fact of mortality. The exposure provided by dire circumstances illuminates the actual situation in such a way that the core or “heart” of the person can be more fully revealed. Science, the arts, theology, philosophy, personal experiences and relationships with others can also provide insights into the nature of the human person when in extremis that can not only help to bear the burdens found in these situations, but actually help to enable human flourishing. There emerge implications for actions that we might take to improve the lives of those in dire circumstances, help us to learn from these situations, and also better handle dire circumstances when we encounter them ourselves.