sculpting in time

“Art is a meta-language, with the help of which people try to communicate with one another; to impart information about themselves and assimilate the experience of others.”

-Russian film director Andrey Tarkovsky, from the book, Sculpting in Time

sketch by lynn

parting the curtain

drawing by lynn

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

good conversation

“16 questions” by lynn

What makes for a good interview? I think Dr. Rachael Kohn has it nailed. I had the privilege of being interviewed by her on the Australian public radio ABC show The Spirit of Things, which aired on March 26. She is an exemplar of how we can help good conversations to happen in our daily lives. We can ask questions that bring out the other person, and sometimes stretch them in an accepting context. We can take time to listen to the answers, rather than thinking about what we are going to say next. We can find out about the other person, and engage with them, not use them as a vehicle to press our point of view. When in the course of research, I  interviewed people about the practices that were important for compassionate love, ‘really listening to the other person,’ was one of those practices.

Rachael engages in conversation with a perfectly lovely voice, and that helps this too. She sets the person at ease through her respectful and honest attitude. She gently asks probing and sometimes hard questions, which enable interpersonal connection and understanding to happen. Of course, a conversation that is designed to be broadcast, and happens between continents, can never be like one over coffee or at home, and because it was an interview I didn’t get to ask her questions, but nevertheless, this same kind of asking and listening can happen in our own living rooms or when we are in a variety of social situations.

The show, which includes a poem and quotes from the Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book, is now up on the ABC website, where it can be played or downloaded http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/are-you-spiritually-connected/8376242  Her balanced approach provides a model for us all for how to make a space for truly good conversation.

Contour drawing as a spiritual practice

contour self-portrait by lynn

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.

arresting attention

art by lynn

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

listening to birches

Poets can open our hearts and touch us. Robert Frost does this for me in his poem ‘Birches’.  The complete poem can be found at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44260 or in The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969).

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

And then after Frost digresses about how ice storms bend the trees downwards, he continues:

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

 

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Each of us may be touched differently by this poem. The full poem can transport us into the woods, the natural world. The description of the boy can take us back to the sense of adventure and freedom of swinging and climbing as children, and even our adventures as adults. But the poet also gives a way to think of our desires to be free of the constraints of the world, when our faces ‘burn and tickle with the cobwebs’ and ‘one eye is weeping from a twig’s having lashed across it.’  Yet, he reminds us:  ‘Earth’s the right place for love.’  We launch out in this wild world that is the right place for love.

the master and his emissary

art by lynn

art by lynn

One of the most eye-opening books I have read in the past few years is The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009) by the psychiatrist and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist. The title is taken from a story about a wise spiritual master who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, his domain grew in size. He then had to trust others, emissaries, to ensure the well-being of the more distant parts. He had to delegate to these emissaries. He nurtured and trained them, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious emissary, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s balanced temperament and patience as weakness, not wisdom. So the emissary became contemptuous of his master, and considered himself in charge as he did his work. So he took over, and his tyrannical approach cause the domain to ultimately collapse in ruin without the wise ruler being in charge.

This story, says McGilchrist, represents how the two sides of the brain need to work together for our success as people and as a civilization.   Although he takes the two sides of the brain as his starting point, he assures the reader that the way ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ have been used in popular culture are simplistic and do not adequately grasp the complexity that he sees existing, and I agree about the simplistic take on left brain/right brain.  His deep and thoughtful book stretches beyond these simplifications and can inform the way we see the world and ourselves. From his introduction:

“My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture….

One of the more durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy, since words [more left brain] are processed serially, while pictures [more right brain] are taken in all at once. But even here the potential significance of this distinction has been overlooked. Anyone would think that we were simply talking about another relatively trivial difference of limited use or interest, a bit like finding that cats like to have their meat chopped up into small bits, whereas dogs like to wolf their meat in slabs. At most it is seen as helpful in making predictions about the sort of tasks that each hemisphere may preferentially carry out, a difference in ‘information processing’, but of no broader significance. But if it is true, the importance of the distinction is hard to over-estimate. And if it should turn out that one hemisphere [the right] understands metaphor, where the other does not, this is not a small matter of a quaint literary function having to find a place somewhere in the brain. Not a bit. It goes to the core of how we understand our world, even our selves, as I hope to be able to demonstrate.…The relationship between the hemispheres does not appear to be symmetrical, in that the left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on, one might almost say parasitic on, the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact. Indeed it is filled with an alarming self-confidence.”

In the book he describes the Left Hemisphere (as a symbol as well as an aspect of the brain itself) as being the more verbal, analytical, breaking things down into parts, attending to details, not necessarily in context. But because it is so verbally quick and facile, it is able to shut down the right side of the brain, sending constant inhibitory signals, that enable the way it acts and envisions the world to ‘take over’ both in our minds, and in our culture. He goes on to say:

“…I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.”

His suggestion for the world is that we need both aspects of our minds, and the world needs both. And we need to envision ways for the right brain to be empowered to be the “wise ruler” and the left brain serving those ends in the world.

For me, the ultimate wise ruler would be a meta-view of all. McGilchrist’s descriptions of how we function biologically can enable us to recognize the biases that might exist in the world today, that need our correction. We can see how the aspects of our brain that describe the world in mechanistic and fragmented ways can take over, even though they are better designed to serve rather than dominate.

the new year

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”

art by lynn

Joy in hard times

 art by lynn

art by lynn

I am involved in a project at Yale University on joy, considering what science might have to contribute to our understanding of it. I have also been doing more work and writing on how dire circumstances can help us dispel certain delusions of thinking. These words speak to both:

The basic assumption of the happiness mentality—in spite of considerable hard evidence to the contrary—is that if one lives one’s life correctly one will be happy. The corollary of this assumption is that if one is not happy, one is doing something wrong. These two beliefs form the foundation of a system that has become so rampant in recent years that many people now feel any sign of unhappiness in their lives is a symptom of psychological or spiritual disorder. People who believe this strive to resolve or repress unhappiness as quickly as possible….

The happiness mentality causes people to repress or deny many of their own negative feelings. It prohibits the rich experience of living through painful situations, of fully feeling and being in the sadness, grief, and fear that are natural parts of human existence. It fosters a pastel quality of life, with limited ranges of emotion. Some shallow conditions of ‘happiness’ may be achieved in this way, but joy is altogether out of the question. Most of us know that prohibiting agony in the experience of life must also prohibit joy. To try to accomplish one without the other is to dilute both the experience and the meaning of life. But the happiness mentality can overcome this knowledge, convince us that sadness is unhealthy, and cause us to bridle all our feelings. At best, this watered-down existence takes on a ‘Pollyanna’ atmosphere, denying the negativity of life. At its worst, it sinks into apathy, denying life itself.

Human beings who adhere to the happiness mentality are continually attempting to deprive themselves of the rich dark side of life, the leaven, the creative complementarity without which happiness is empty. If these attempts are successful, life’s experiences become as flimsy as tissue. If the attempts fail, people feel that something is deeply wrong inside them. Neither way allows the precious beautiful, awesome possibilities of accepting the richness of life as it presents itself in each moment.

Perhaps the greatest inherent defect of the happiness mentality is that it prohibits sensitivity and responsiveness to the suffering of others. The happiness mentality maintains that one must first organize one’s own life toward the absence of discomfort. Even if a person manages to accomplish this for a brief period of time, the terrible pain in the rest of the world still exists. One then has an extremely limited range of options in responding to this pain. One can deny it, shut it out of awareness through ‘selective inattention,’ or one can engage in brief sophomoric attempts to rationalize it. But the fact remains: private happiness can exist as a permanent condition in the midst of public suffering only if it is based on delusion.

(This is of course not to say that one must carry the world’s burdens on one’s shoulders with constant morbidity. In fact, the happiness mentality is in large part a rebellion against precisely this kind of puritanical pessimism. It was not too long ago that people in our culture were looked upon with suspicion if they appeared too happy. Many puritanical-pietistic themes of Middle America maintained that life was hard, that each person had to bear the cross, and that suffering was good for the soul. It was believed that something was morally wrong with people who did not seem to be struggling with the pain of life. It is not surprising that generations of such somber sobriety would eventually bring rebellion. As usual, however, the pendulum swung too far. Now, instead of happiness being seen as a moral impropriety, unhappiness is seen as a psychological defect.)

Whenever one is preoccupied with happiness, the possibility of joy is pre-empted. Poets, contemplatives, and some philosophers have long maintained that a fundamental qualitative difference exists between these two states, but our society is just barely beginning to appreciate how radical that difference is. Happiness has to do with Freud’s old pleasure principle: the satisfaction of needs and the avoidance of pain. Joy is altogether beyond any consideration of pleasure or pain, and in fact requires a knowledge and acceptance of pain. Joy is the reaction one has to the full appreciation of Being. It is one’s response to finding one’s rightful, rooted place in life, and it can happen only when one knows through and through that absolutely nothing is being denied or otherwise shut out of awareness.”

May, Gerald. (1987). Will and Spirit. Harper and Row. pp 14-16

being completely

singlefacelynnunderwood There is always

a certain peace

in being what one is,

in being that completely.

-Ugo Betti

memo to self

on the bulletin board in the kitchen

acceptquotecomprLynnUnderwood

light through the crack

cohen2lynnunderwoodcrop

drawing by lynn

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

how to fight

If you feel like fighting fire with fire, remember real firefighters use water.watercompressedlynnunderwood

the human eye

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

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

to everything there is a season

finalsquashesLynnUnderwood

drawing by lynn

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.

weeds?

Some people say that crpweedslynnunderwoodweeds are just plants that are growing in the wrong place. I recently drew some plants of indeterminate nature outside our front door. A final burst of flowers before autumn hits.  I often have trouble telling weeds from flowers. It is the same in my life too – sometimes those things I am sure are weeds, end up with beautiful blooms.

 

 

reason and the heart

art by lynn

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.

Animals at the fair

sketch by lynn

sketch by lynn

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.

 

good glue

Brush it on, rub it off,comprcropgluelynnunderwood

under or over,

Rub-ber ce-ment.

What keeps us together?

What pulls us apart?

Strings of sticky.

Separation– no tearing.

Closeness– no wrinkling.

Together–apart–together.

the dog days of summer

comprfarmersmarketllynnunderwoodcomprbeachlynnunderwoodAs 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.

Capturing the essence

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.

drawing of eric by lynn

drawing of eric by lynn

truth better than fiction

art by lynn

art by lynn

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.

still life

art by lynn

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

Grinding gently

Freeing flavour

what’s it worth?

sketch by lynn

sketch by lynn

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

ahhh strawberries

rvsdstrawberries2016Lynnunderwoodcomprcrpd

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.

reverence

“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

sketch of dove by lynn

sketch of dove by lynn

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.

 

one reason that work can feel bad

“Work without love is slavery.”

–Mother Teresa

drawing by lynn

getting ready to work

means to a means

Well Water

What a girl called “the dailiness of life”watercompressedlynnunderwood
(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.

exactly

Exactitude is not truth – Henri MatisseLynnUnderwood

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.

essence

art by lynn

art by lynn

to see what we see

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”        –Charles Peguy

milagros

I found myself trying to find words and image to convey something of this tiny arm and hand full of promise.

Milagrosdrawing by lynnb

 

Loose

in the breeze of the holy

spirit

draw near

flow through

unclench –

no need.  New

power now.

Will of good pleasure

through my body

my arms

my hands.

 

 

listening with my pen

maialynnunderwood 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 wordsmithlynnunderwoodcomplex way, to hear them beyond their words or silences.  Here are a few sketches of lovely people from a recent meeting.ftzcm2lynnunderwood 1

juicy

art by lynn

art by lynn

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.

seeing better

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

art by lynn

art by lynn

dog blessings

art by lynn

art by lynn

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.

valentine days

photo of my daughter by lynn 2015

photo by lynn 2015

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.

 

 

the beautiful unknown

drawing by lynn

                                      

 

There will be something,

anguish or elation,

that is peculiar to this day alone.

I rise from sleep and say:

Hail to the morning!

Come down to me, my beautiful unknown.

 

Hail to the Morning, by Jessica Powers, from The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, ICS Publications,1999.

Animated film: ‘Mother’

from "Mother" animation https://vimeo.com/126077901

from “Mother” https://vimeo.com/126077901

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.

Here is a link to it on vimeo.

play and wisdom

art by lynn

art by lynn

One thing I especially enjoy during my yearly retreat at the monastery, is the celebration of the divine office at 3:15 AM. In the dark, in the middle of the night, half awake, I gather in the huge quiet space with the monks to celebrate the beginning of the new day. Once there was a reading from Thomas Aquinas, “The Contemplation of Wisdom.” As the new year begins, I find myself returning to this piece. And I always find it lovely that Wisdom is described as female.

“ ‘Run ahead into your house and gather yourself there and play there and pursue your thoughts.’ (Ecclus. 32.15-16)

“The advantage which the study of wisdom has is that it is to a greater degree self-sufficient in pursuing its business with us. When we are engaged in outward activities we need many things to help us, but in the contemplation of wisdom we work all the more effectively, the more we dwell alone with ourselves. So, the words cited above call us back to ourselves: ‘Run ahead into your own house,’ that is, be anxious to return from external things to your own mind, before anything else gets hold of it and any other anxiety distracts it. That is why it says in Wisdom 8.16, ‘I will enter my house and rest with her’, with wisdom, that is.

“The first requirement, then for the contemplation of wisdom is that we should take complete possession of our minds before anything else does, so that we can fill the whole house with the contemplation of wisdom. But it is also necessary that we ourselves should be fully present there, concentrating in such a way that our aim is not diverted to other matters. Accordingly the text goes on, ‘And gather yourself there,’ that is, draw together your whole intention. And when our interior house is entirely emptied like this and we are fully present there in our intention, the text tells us what we should do; ‘And play there.’

“There are two features of play which make it appropriate to compare the contemplation of wisdom to playing. First, we enjoy playing, and there is the greatest enjoyment of all to be had in the contemplation of wisdom. As Wisdom says in Ecclus. 24.27, ‘My spirit is sweeter than honey.’

“Secondly, playing has no purpose beyond itself; what we do in play is done for its own sake. And the same applies to the pleasure of wisdom. If we are enjoying thinking about the things we long for or the things we are proposing to do, this kind of enjoyment looks beyond itself to something else which we are eager to attain. If we fail to attain it or if there is a delay in attaining it, our pleasure is mingled with a proportionate distress. As it says in Proverbs 14.13, ‘Laughter will be mixed with grief.’ But the contemplation of wisdom contains within itself the cause of its own enjoyment, and so it is not exposed to the kind of anxiety that goes with waiting for something which we lack. This is why it says in Wisdom 8.16, ‘Her company is without bitterness”(the company of wisdom, that is) ‘and there is no boredom in living with her.’

“It is for this reason that divine Wisdom compares her enjoyment to playing, in Proverbs 8.30, ‘I enjoyed myself every single day, playing…’ each single day meaning the consideration of some different truth. So our text goes on, ‘Pursue your thoughts,’ the thoughts, that is, by means of which we obtain knowledge of the truth.”

There are many good suggestions in this piece, such as the need to “take complete possession of our minds before anything else does.” He describes the spirit as sweeter than honey… not something heavy to lift. And I am personally finding the centrality of play as he describes it, a helpful one in my own life right now. We often think we have to be serious, and somber, in order to pursue things that are worthwhile. But in this passage, Thomas urges a playful attitude. I am finding that this kind of attitude is necessary in my life just now. A new year of play and hopefully some wisdom – sounds good to me.

our bodies, ourselves

Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” —James Joyce, Dubliners

We so often forget our bodies, ignore them, and even treat them badly. Bodies are literally wonderful, even when they are not behaving in ways that we like. Even in sickness, or when causing us grief. One of the reasons I love the Christmas season so much, is its reminder to me that the spiritual and physical aspects of our lives are linked. The Christmas story of the divine entering into the messiness of the human condition reminds me that the divine is also involved in my messy condition. The story does not describe some pristine scene, with everyone in their best clothes, pretending that challenging feelings are not there. It is a story where a pregnant woman arrives in a strange place, there is no room in the inn, and she ends up in a stable with dirt and animals and has her baby there. Having a baby is very physical – not clean and tidy. And the first visitors are the local shepherds, probably with some sheep. The whole scene connects with physical bodies and situations and messy emotions. There was lots of worry and pain and puzzlement, as well as joy and amazement.

During the Christmas season I sing with my body, eat good things with my body, hug and am hugged with my body, worship with my body. I suffer when things are not going so well – with people or physically. I find myself suffering on behalf of others less fortunate than I am. I feel the pain of this in my body. And the Christmas story keeps bringing me back to the reality of the divine in my physical being. Reminding me that if I leave my body out of the equation, I am not truly living life.

You will be entering this holiday season in your body—there is not much chance of doing without it! Can you think of how your whole being engages with the various aspects of the holiday season? In relationships, with food, with consuming, in giving, with music. Pay attention to signals that your body sends: of grief, distress, need – but also of joy, affection and delight. Don’t let your body just go on autopilot, but welcome it into the mix. Enter into the complexity of the holiday season with your whole being and see where that takes you.

drawing by Rembrandt

drawing by Rembrandt

roses in season

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,

birthday flowers from eric- drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

peace

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

Deer often sleep in our front yard. They are not disturbed by me heading out the driveway, or the dog barking from inside. They are vigilant, however and can burst up and out on a dime if necessary. One of the Daily Spiritual Experience questions (DSES) that I developed is “How often do you feel deep inner peace or harmony?” (many times a day, every day, most days, some days, once in a while, never). A recent study looked at various factors that predicted survival for those with congestive heart failure, and more frequent experiences of deep inner peace as measured by the DSES question was one of the things most predictive of living longer. (Park CL, Aldwin CM, Choun S, George L, Suresh DP, and Bliss D, 2015. “Spiritual Peace Predicts 5-Year Mortality in Congestive Heart Failure Patients.” Health Psychology, doi:10.1037/hea0000271.)

To have these experiences in our lives is not dependent on whether we are feeling happy or depressed or anxious. Although it may be easier to feel this in certain circumstances, this sense of deep inner peace or harmony depends more on our attitude or orientation in the midst of things. When I described themes in the Spiritual Connection book, the sense of deep inner peace or harmony was linked to “Saying Yes”, being at ease in our own skins, knowing that somehow good is present even though it may be invisible in the midst of tough times. This sense of deep inner peace and harmony can keep us feeling more balanced and calm. This can affect our physical being and our relationships with others. I am blessed by the peaceful presence of the deer in our yard, munching on the plants. They contribute somehow to feelings of peacefulness in me.

welcoming

rentcolor3LynnUnderwood

from Scaffolding: Selected Poems, by Jane Cooper, Tilbury House, 1993

Our relationships with others challenge our sense of ourselves, and our perception of the spaces we live in. How do we listen? How do we make space for each other? How do we envision the places we live in together?

art and love

…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

painting by lynn

painting by lynn

love remains

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross”

wrote the modernist poet Ezra Pound in Canto 81.

drawing by lynn

                                                                                 drawing by lynn

Limited descriptions in the media and by others about the way the world is structured frustrate me. Pinning dead butterflies to a wall, scientists and those describing science so often remove the vibrancy from concepts and the rich tapestry of life. Science is very useful – informing our understanding of the world in practical ways that can make life so much better. I spent years doing cancer research and public health work, and the result, even of my work, was that some lives were saved, through earlier detection. But to frame everything up in scientific terms, to give reductionism and determinism the high ground, is a mistake. Science can inform our understanding of love – illuminating some of the situations and circumstances that might promote love – and in other ways such as helping us understand some of the psychological and biological impediments. But in the end, there is something about self-giving love centered on the good of another, that is just amazing, and cannot be reduced to equations, and mechanical and chemical flux. A transcendent element of a full life.

art and receptivity

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)

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

 

Ode to Things

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.

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

I love things with a wild passion,

extravagantly,

I cherish tongs,

and scissors

I adore cups….

I love all things,

not only the grand,

but also the infinite

-ly

small.

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.

to live is to change

I like stability, and I often stick with something too long because I don’t want to wimp out. This quote from John Henry Newman is good for me to hear. He changed from one church to another, and also knew that all religious institutions need to change to be alive. Change is an important part of being alive. The world is not static, and we cannot be either. It may be uncomfortable to change, but if we do not remain open to change, we are just not going to be able to engage fully in this wild world.

drawing by lynn quote by newman

drawing by lynn quote by newman

resolving through art

“I like the feeling of being able to confront an experience and resolve it as art.”

—Eudora Welty, novelist

Do you have an art form that you enjoy? If not, is there one you want to try? Photography, Music, Sketching, Writing fiction or poetry? Your creative path may even be in your garden or your kitchen.  Doing art can increase our awareness of the beauty and coherence of the ordinary.

snacks by lynn

snacks by lynn

finishing things

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.

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

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).

peaches in love

peaches from michigan by lynn

peaches from michigan by lynn

useless?

photo by macrina wiederkehr

photo by macrina wiederkehr

Useless

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu:
“All your teaching is centered on what has no use.”

Chuang Tzu replied:
“If you have no appreciation for what has no use
You cannot begin to talk about what can be used.
The earth for example, is broad and vast
But of all this expanse a man uses only a few inches
Upon which he happens to be standing.
Now suppose you suddenly take away
all that he is not actually using
So that, all around his feet a gulf
Yawns, and he stands in the Void
with nowhere solid except right under each foot:
How long will he be able to use what he is using?”

Hui Tzu said: “It would cease to serve any purpose.”

Chuang Tzu concluded:
“This shows the absolute necessity of what has ‘no use.’”

(From The Way of Chuang Tzu, transl. by Thomas Merton, 1965)

six impossible things before breakfast

art by lynn

art by lynn

At the farmers market in Michigan a few weeks ago, I bought a punnet of sweet carrots. On arriving home and unpacking them, I discovered these. Sometimes things we think are impossible are possible after all.

write right rite

art by lynn

art by lynn

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.

miracle

Miracle

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)

summer

flowers from the farmers market by lynn

flowers from the farmers market by lynn

birthday

art by lynn

art by lynn

too many

art by lynn

art by lynn

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.” – Thomas Merton

songs

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

art by lynn

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?

http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/675

representing reality

art by lynn

art by lynn

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.

‘God’?

For many people the word ‘God’ is the perfect word, and others are put off by the word and head towards the hills.  I came across this provocative passage by Wendy Beckett that seems to grasp some of the issues so well.

…I am wary of using the word ‘God’. Essentially, this is a meaningless word. No thoughts can encompass God. There is no box into which you can put Him. He, or for that matter, She, completely transcends any human concepts. When we say ‘God’, we are doing no more than pointing a finger. It is a directional word. Forced to give a definition, all I could say is that God is Reality so absolute that all other realities are relative.”

And she goes on to say later in a section entitled ‘Admirable Atheists’: “Sometimes I blush for those who think themselves Christian, and yet the God they worship is cruel, suspicious, punitive and watchful. Who could love such a God? If that is your idea of God, you are obliged by all the rules of morality and common sense to become an atheist.   I have the greatest admiration for atheists, because by definition they have rejected a false ‘God’. The true God, if you have the privilege of knowing, you cannot reject. Anybody who truly understands what God is cannot but believe and love.  There are no lapsed Catholics, no lapsed Christians, but there are very many, far too many, who thought they were Catholics, or Christians, but did not have the good fortune to be taught the truth about God. They looked at this hideous image and said that if it was true, they refused to believe. Too few move on to the next stage and wonder if, in fact, their image of God is not true, or to the stage beyond when they realize that, in actuality, it is not true. If they could accept that the picture they have is wrong from the start, it would bring them to search for the truth.” (Sister Wendy on Prayer, W. Beckett, Harmony Books, 2007, NY. pp 77, 83)

Religions, religious teachings, have much to be held accountable for, in the way ideas are presented.  But each of us also have responsibilities. We have taken easy shorthands or caricatures to represent reality. They may have worked at one time, but do not hold over the long haul.  And then we are disappointed when they do not work, and get fed up with the whole thing. We need to be willing to throw out the dirty bathwater, but save the baby.

hands

Harold Wilke was a stately older man, and I was having a lively and personal conversation with him and others over cocktails before a meeting at the National Center for Rehabilitation Research in Washington DC years ago. I continued the conversation as I sat next to him at dinner. We had been eating for a while and chatting, and then I suddenly noticed that his fork and knife were being held by his white-gloved feet. He had no hands or arms.

The relaxed graciousness of his presence impressed me. If I did not have arms and hands I would miss so many things. Shaking hands with people on meeting them. Hugging those in distress. Touching with my fingers those I love. Playing the piano. And all of those things don’t even address having to find other solutions to opening doors, taking notes, cooking, using a computer or texting. When I think of blessings that I am thankful for, I do not usually think of my hands. If I did not have arms and hands, I would hope that I would have the quiet gracious presence of Dr. Wilke. It was as if he was more fully human.

spice of life

art by lynn

art by lynn

“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.

 

good friends

Good friends have been such a blessing in my life. The notion of friendship mines the deep content of mutuality that stretches beyond tit-for-tat and natural affections, and duties. I have been reading a book by Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monk of 12th century Britain. He puts this so well:

“…[F]riendship among the just is born of a similarity in life, morals, and pursuits, that is, it is a mutual conformity in matters human and divine united with benevolence and charity.”

And later he goes on in more detail: “…[F]riendship bears fruit in this life and the next. It manifests all the virtues by its own charms; it assails vices by its own virtue; it tempers adversity and moderates prosperity.”  And he describes how important it is to have someone “to rejoice with him in adversity…to unburden his mind if any annoyance crosses his path, or with whom to share some unusually sublime or illuminating inspiration.”

He continues: “What happiness, what security, what joy, to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need to have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in the spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans! What therefore is more pleasant than so to unite to oneself the spirit of another and the two to form one, that no boasting is thereafter to be feared, no suspicion to be dreaded, no correction of one by the other to cause pain, no praise on the part of the one to bring a charge of adulation from the other.  ‘A friend,’ says the Wise Man, ‘is the medicine of life.’ For medicine is not more powerful or more efficacious for our wounds in all our temporal needs than the possession of a friend who meets every misfortune joyfully…. who carries his own injuries even more lightly than that of his friend….’[F]riends,’ says Tullius, ‘though absent are present, though poor are rich, though weak are strong, and – what seems stranger still- though dead are alive.’

from Spiritual Friendship, by Aelred of Rievaulx (translated by Mary Eugenia Laker) Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI 1974, pp. 61,73-75.

My questioning was my attentive spirit

My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty.

seashells, drawing by lynn

seashells, drawing by lynn

-St Augustine, Confessions X.6,9

Art that changes

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:

Samaritaan by VanGogh

Samaritaan by Vincent Van Gogh

“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…

 

The House at Rest

How do we create the space for silence in the midst of the busy-ness of our thoughts, our activities, our feelings – a space of deep rest within, where we can draw strength for our actions and our effective presence in the world? So often our days consist of constant reaction to various things without a sense of a center from which we act. How do we hush the busy house of our minds and bodies so that our actions flow out from that inspired core in good and effective ways? This poem by Jessica Powers, from The Selected Poems of Jessica Powers (ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1989) captures this imaginatively.

The House at Rest

On a dark night

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh, happy chance!—

I went forth unobserved,

My house being now at rest.     

– Juan de la Cruz

How does one hush one’s house,

each proud possessive wall, each sighing rafter,

the rooms made restless with

remembered laughter

or wounding echoes, the permissive doors,

the stairs that vacillate from up to down,

windows that bring in color and event

from countryside or town,

oppressive ceilings and complaining floors?

 

The house must first of all accept the night.

Let it erase the walls and their display,

impoverish the rooms till they are filled

with humble silences; let clocks be stilled

and all the selfish urgencies of day.

 

Midnight is not the time to greet a guest.

Caution the doors against both foes and friends,

and try to make the windows understand

their unimportance when the daylight ends.

Persuade the stairs to patience, and deny

the passages their aimless to and fro.

Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.

How well repaid that tenant is, how blest

who, when the call is heard,

is free to take his kindled heart and go.

 

 

difficulties

By now I think I ought to have what it takes to do what I am doing, to deal with the various challenges of life.  But so many things still feel like an adventure (that is the more optimistic term) and I need to find new resources and develop new skills.  I like the poem “Transcendental Etude” by Adrienne Rich, from the book The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974 – 1977  (Norton, 1978). Here is an excerpt:

fly magified lynnunderwood comprNo one ever told us we had to study our lives,

make of our lives a study,

as if learning natural history or music,

that we should begin with the simple exercises first

and slowly go on trying the hard ones,

practicing till strength and accuracy became one with the daring

to leap into transcendence, take the chance of breaking down the wild arpeggio or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.

–And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on everything at once

before we’ve even begun to read or mark time,

we’re forced to begin in the midst of the hard movement,

the one already sounding as we are born….

don’t forget to breathe

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

breathe face cpd cmps lynnunderwood

drawing by lynn

“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.

compassionate love

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

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

delusions about perfection

“Our delusions about perfection are obstacles to joy,” writes Wendy Beckett (a woman with prayer at the center of her life, but also an art historian with her own BBC series on art) in her simple book “On Prayer.”  I have read a lot of books on prayer, and there are not that many that I really feel have spoken to me over the years. So often they are just a distraction from getting down to the real business of silence, listening, being truly open, all of me, to the divine light, warmth, and challenges, while standing in who I really am. I loved what she has to say about perfection:

“To be perfect is to be complete….We are all human in different ways. And for us, perfection – to me a rather off-putting noun – can mean only becoming completely what we were meant to be.  Each of us is called to an individual fulfillment, that only God understands. Because we are all different, “perfection,” which I would prefer to call ‘holiness,’ will be different for each of us.  It will take into account our genetic weaknesses. It will allow for the areas in which we will never be objectively admirable, though we may have subjectively striven to the full extent….”

I would add that our particular perfection, or holiness for each of us, will also take into account our particular psychological issues, the gifts and problems put there by our upbringing, the constraints of culture and social situations. We need to be merciful with ourselves as we think about just what is perfect for me, for you.

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

marvel

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.

musical communication

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:

 

 

 

anniversary

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

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)

Everything we miss

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

While looking through the little notebooks that I keep when I travel, reviewing jottings from this past year, I discovered notes on a graphic novel called Everything We Miss by Luke Pearson in the Fruitmarket art gallery in Edinburgh.  The back blurb reads,  “Have you ever wondered what goes on in your life when you’re looking the other way? Perhaps you’re so drawn into what’s going on with you that you fail to notice the events taking place in your periphery—or even right under your nose?”

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to pay attention to the little things around me, and appreciate them…those treasures that I so often miss. Hidden glory.

Star

Joseph Brodsky, Nobel laureate, wrote a poem for Christmas each year for 18 years. When asked if he was a religious person, Brodsky, a Russian Jew, responded: “I don’t know. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” He once referred to himself as a “Christian by correspondence.” As the poet Michael Collier wrote, “Brodsky’s religious uncertainty keeps his Nativity efforts clean of tinsel and commercialized sentiments.” These poems can bring us closer to what it means, no matter what our actual beliefs, that God took on human form and really knows how it feels to be like us. Here is one of them.

Star of the Nativity by Joseph Brodsky from Nativity Poems (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2001)

 

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than to cold,

to horizontality more than to a mountain,

a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;

it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast,

the steam out of the ox’s nostrils,

Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.

He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray clouds, upon the child in the manger,

from far away—from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star

was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.

 

melted joy

art by lynn

art by lynn

Last week I went into the attic to find the decorations for the season. This candle was a gift that has been a household fixture since the children were little. But this time it has brought more joy than ever as we continue to laugh at it, as it sits there on the table.  Is it dancing, or is it totally exhausted? It was definitely melted from the heat of the attic and shaped by its cramped position.  Like we all are at times.

Jolly and “fine” are not ideal goals, and they are subject to melting in the heat.  I look at the world around me, and there is so much suffering – so many are facing heavy challenges. Me too, in my own way.  Joy cannot be plastered on. Joy is challenged by relationships that are not going smoothly, by health problems, by grief and mental distress. But the kind of joy that feeds us draws on a deeper well. That joy helps us to laugh in the face of difficulties and keeps us going.

art by lynn

asleep?

 

Every so often, I awaken and find

lynnunderwood.spirconnect-flame2dThe 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

dumb luck….

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)

Tools for life

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

If you ask yourself how often you have felt deep inner peace or harmony recently, it can call to mind those places, people and situations that promote that sense in you, and that can help you to seek them more.

When I developed the set of 16 questions in the DSES it was originally for the purpose of research and evaluation. More frequent Daily Spiritual Experiences have been shown to be connected to many good things in life in over 200 research studies. But asking the questions has also become a practical tool for people – helping to notice the presence of the transcendent in daily life. When I ask myself if I have found strength in my religion or spirituality, that reminds me that strength can be found there, and reminds me to look for it and draw on it.

I am presenting at a meeting at Harvard School of Public Health in a couple of weeks on how one might research the role of spirituality in large scale studies of health in diverse populations, seeing if and how it might influence gene expression. (Not all 16 questions speak to everyone, but the average of the set addresses the variety of ways we experience the spiritual, the transcendent, in our lives and provides a number score.  They provide a wide variety of questions that address the depth and diversity of our spiritual experiences.)  At Harvard I have been asked to present on my 16 questions, the DSES, as ones that might help in studying the relationship between spirituality and gene expression and health in diverse populations.  One of the reasons the DSES questions are good for research is that they show statistical correlations with good things like relationships and well-being; and it is also then reasonably easy to enhance this aspect of spirituality, giving us a tool for enriching our lives in significant ways.

the effect of our being

 “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – the final sentence of Middlemarch, by George Eliot

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

I just returned from a few days consulting and speaking with those who work for and lead a social services organization. The people they serve, many of them young people, are in such difficult situations in life. Those that work in these settings give ‘water from their well’ again and again, and I hoped to provide them with some ways to fill the well and find ways of caring for themselves and communicating about things they value.  I found myself feeling so respectful of the work they do, and so thankful that they are doing this work, and being who they are.

 

delusion of total self-sufficiency

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

It is delusional to think that we are fully self-sufficient. Last Saturday I led an all-day retreat on “Flourishing in Difficult Circumstances.” One thing we  talked about was how the sense of total self-sufficiency is a delusion, one that is prevalent in our western culture. One of my Power Point slides was this drawing I did long ago….I found it folded up in my files, and I recently hung it up in my study. Of course the importance of personal responsibility cannot be undervalued, but difficult circumstances can vividly remind us of how we all do need help.

value

judgeseyesphtolynnunderwood

art by lynn

I had the privilege last week of presenting/facilitating a day-long workshop for professional caregivers on the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale and the ideas in the Spiritual Connection book in Michigan. It provided a space for them to reflect and share, and nourish their own lives.  These many men and women are working in areas such as hospice, addiction services, ministry, counseling, nursing, prisons, hospital administration, hospital chaplaincy, and long-term care. I came away so appreciative of these individuals, and thinking how glad I am that they do this much needed work. The value of what they do far exceeds the remuneration they receive. I thought of the poem, Higdon Cove, from the book Gourd Song by Coleman Barks, about a man who helps the author get his car out of a ditch with his tractor, and quietly refuses any praise or payment, especially the final few lines…

There is a huge holly tree next to where I glided to a stop,

A solid thigh-trunk white-splotched

And stretching deep under the ditchwater.

Beauty, but not such as this man is,

beyond any tree.”

If any of the many who were there happen to read this blog. Thank you for what you do, but even more, for who you are.

listening to the evening

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.

happiness and contemplation

“Contemplation does not rest until it has found the object that dazzles it.” – Konrad Weiss

photo by lynn

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.”

Presence

Assumption by Ron Zito

Assumption by Ron Zito

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.

uniqueness and things in common

irisLynnUnderwood

drawing by lynn

How wonderful that we are not all the same, and that we can still understand each other so often.

It seems normal to assume that the person I am talking to, or trying to understand, is basically like me.  And of course we do have a lot in common.  But this sense of our commonalities gets in the way if I do not step back, again and again, and consider our differences. People have different genetics that even shape things like our physical responses to stress. We each have had different life experiences that influence our responses to events and people and culture. Each person I encounter, from those I am close to, to new people I meet, is different from me, even though we have things in common.

I continue to be amazed at how different we all are. Without attention to our commonalities, medical and social science could not make discoveries, and art could not speak widely. But we all need to fully recognize our individual differences again and again, in order to make progress in understanding—understanding generally about the world, and practical understanding that helps us to relate to others in our ordinary lives. When I developed the 16 questions of the DSES scale of ordinary spiritual experiences I interviewed many many people of various ages, cultures, beliefs, genders, and ethnicities.  And when asked to describe their experiences, each person’s responses were different. The 16 questions group those experiences, and help people see connections with others. That commonality is so important, but recognition that the other person’s experience is valid, and different in some way from my own is essential too.  It is challenging to keep both in mind in our days.

 

opening endlessly

Tourists have crowded into… the half-dark of the enormous Romanesque church. Vault opening behind vault and no perspective. A few candle flames flickered. An angel whose face I couldn’t see embraced me and his whisper went all through my body: “Don’t be ashamed to be a human being, be proud! Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly. You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.” Tears blinded me as we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit piazza, together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini; within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.

-from ‘The Half-Finished Heaven’ by Tomas Transtromer,
Winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature

It must be somewhere

Study-of-Clouds-largeMUSIC
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,
that music?

Translated from the Estonian by H. L. Hix and Jüri Talvet  Source: Poetry (June 2011) http://bit.ly/kxfS8D

dorothy sayers wrote:

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.’

photo by Ron Ables

photo by Ron Abeles

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.

art and seeing

art by lynn

art by lynn

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.

resting places

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

We find rest in those we love,

and we provide a resting place in ourselves

for those who love us.

-Bernard of Clairvaux

messy yet glorious love

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/JayDeFeodefeo_the-rose_Whitney museum

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 and Music

cello drawing by lynn

cello drawing by lynn

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Kk-FJe43Aw

roots dangling

roots on_lynnunderwood

It is so much easier, when we speak to a group of people, to pretend to be someone we are not, taking the stance of the totally confident and sure expert. It takes courage to be who we are, warts and all. We think somehow if we seem perfect, then what we say will be more compelling, that people will take us more seriously. But it is when we stand with the mud adhering to our hands, and the roots dangling, that we speak authentically. I did this drawing to remind myself of this. In these days with airbrushing of photos and massaging of images on the web and in broadcast, “polished” seems to be the norm.  But who we really are, with roots dangling, mud clinging, imperfections sparkling in the eternal sun – that is real beauty.

Freedom

jean vanierJean Vanier inspires me. He started the L’Arche communities. They bring people who are marginalized and restless from lack of community and care, together with those who learn to care for them. They especially create small caring communities for those who have developmental disabilities.

I met Jean Vanier over 30 years ago while living in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  A small room of about 20 people had gathered to hear him speak and talk with him. Meeting him made a strong impression on me, and I followed up by reading anything by him I could get my hands on. He was from an important political family in Canada, had served in the Navy in WWII, and then pursued a PhD in philosophy.  It was after this that he came to establish the L’Arche communities. As he spoke of the gift that those who had mental developmental disabilities were to him in his life, it helped me to see that what I had most valued in myself up to that time, my intellectual abilities, were not the most important thing in my life. The communities he started were based on mutual respect – those with developmental disabilities have things to share with us, things they can teach us, things they can give us. His life demonstrated how he really valued all people. We all have different gifts, and discovering those is an opportunity for each of us.

In addition to his writings on disability and community, he has also described human freedom in ways that I have found worth pondering.  In his book, Being Human, he wrote:  “Aristotle talks of our passions as being like a horse which has a life of its own.  We are riders who have to take into account the life of the horse in order to guide it where we want it to go.  We are not called to suppress our passions or compulsions, nor to confront them head on, nor to be governed by them, but to orient them in the direction we want to go….We set out on the road to freedom when we no longer let our compulsions or passions govern us.  We are freed when we begin to put justice, heartfelt relationships, and the service of others and of truth over and above our own needs for love and success or our fears of failure….”

music, time and spirituality

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.

Moving towards resting places

abstrlynnunderwood2011brsrsz

drawing by lynn

“A body tends by its weight towards the place proper to it – weight does not necessarily tend towards the lowest place but towards its proper place. Fire tends upwards, stone downwards. By their weight they are moved and seek their proper place…. Things out of their place are in motion: they come to their place and are at rest. My love is my weight: wherever I go, my love is what brings me there.”

– St Augustine

 

Splendor

out my back window

out my back window

Let us come alive to the splendor that is all around us, and see the beauty in ordinary things.

-Thomas Merton

Silence and light

AWindGeth2012

photo by lynn

Simone Weil, a French philosopher and activist from the mid-twentieth century commented that one major, if not the major failure, is “our inability to feed on the light.”  I have just returned from my yearly weeklong silent retreat, something that has been a mainstay of my life for 15 years. I really needed it. I am much better able to feed on the light now, than before I left. And so many subtle and not so subtle changes have happened inside me. I know that for me the time in solitude and silence in the context of a monastic setting, routine, spiritual readings, nature and rich liturgy, not only revives and renews me, it re-sets my compass. Swaths of time in silent prayer/contemplation and hikes in the hills, are important parts of my retreat too. The effect continues to amaze me. Aaaah.

The Smile of the Soul

patience_ lynn underwood 2010In the Yes theme chapter (8) in the Spiritual Connection book, one of the things I reflect on is how we need to receptively allow life to unfold. In many ways, I think of myself as a patient person, but when I carefully look at my attitudes, I see impatience with myself in abundance. I did this piece of calligraphy a while back, a saying by Philippe Obrecht – “Patience is the soul’s smile…”  We can say yes to life as it is, ourselves as we are, as we wait in preparation for what is to come in its own time.  I am getting a strong message of patience right now – loud and clear.  I hope I can listen.

People on a parallel way

young man_lynn_underwood_cropcondensed

art by lynn

“There are people on a parallel way. We do not see them often, or even think of them often, but it is precious to us that they are sharing the world. Something about how they have accepted their lives, or how the sunlight happens to them, helps us to hold the strange, enigmatic days in line for our own living.”—William Stafford

One of the things I have found over the years in interviewing people about their ordinary experience of spirituality in daily life, is how different and varied each person’s experience is, even though there are definitely common threads.  Yet just being aware that others are feeling and experiencing the same light in different ways than I can, somehow illuminates my days.

Eternal moments

flowersgertrudecompressed_lynnunderwood

art by lynn

 
This Much I Do Remember
by Billy Collins
 
It was after dinner.
You were talking to me across the table
about something or other,
a greyhound you had seen that day
or a song you liked,
 
and I was looking past you
over your bare shoulder
at the three oranges lying
on the kitchen counter
next to the small electric bean grinder,
which was also orange,
and the orange and white cruets for vinegar and oil.
 
All of which converged
into a random still life,
so fastened together by the hasp of color,
and so fixed behind the animated
foreground of your
talking and smiling,
gesturing and pouring wine,
and the camber of you shoulders
 
that I could feel it being painted within me,
brushed on the wall of my skull,
while the tone of your voice
lifted and fell in its flight,
and the three oranges
remained fixed on the counter
the way that stars are said
to be fixed in the universe.
 
Then all of the moments of the past
began to line up behind that moment
and all of the moments to come
assembled in front of it in a long row,
giving me reason to believe
that this was a moment I had rescued
from millions that rush out of sight
into a darkness behind the eyes.
 
Even after I have forgotten what year it is,
my middle name,
and the meaning of money,
I will still carry in my pocket
the small coin of that moment,
minted in the kingdom
that we pace through every day.

From Billy Collins, Picnic, Lightning. University of Pittsburg Press, 1998. (This book is full of gems like this.)

Holidays, holy-days, wholeness

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art by lynn

The word ‘holidays’ comes from holy-days.  That’s hard to believe, as so much of the seasonal pressure and frippery seems the opposite of holy. Holy and whole in English are derived from the same root word.

The bustle of the holidays can be fragmenting, pulling us apart rather then enabling us to exist in an integrated whole.  What do you do during daily tasks and demands to “pull yourself together”?

I find that music helps.  Unfortunately the repetitive and commercial use of music at this time of year has weakened its ability to draw us towards unseen yet vital aspects of life.  But we can reclaim the music, find pieces that inspire us to see the holy, and feel whole in the holidays.

For many, the religious aspects of the holidays are not relevant, and the language of many of the songs does not speak to everyone in a literal sense, and can provoke reactions of alienation. But can you nevertheless find, sniff out, pointers to a wider mystery in some of the music? Many of the writers and performers are coming from a deep place within, beyond theological and religious and cultural constructs.  Notes of peace, joy, love, generosity, in the midst of ordinary life. Can you allow the music to wash over you and stir where it will?

I play music of the season on the piano from books that are dissolving with wear. My book of international carols especially connects me to the past and other parts of the world at this time of year. Participating in making music and singing stirs my heart.

Does some music of this season help you to find transcendent wonder buried in your days? Reminding you of wholeness, reminding you of the holy, here, now.

Joy

glassberrieslynnunderwoodcomp

art by lynn

I am easily able to see problems and flaws.  This can be a strength, and it has saved me from falling into some big holes.  But for some of us, problems seem to speak louder than beauty. Our attention is so often drawn to the one thing that is out of whack. It can take extra effort to notice the beauty shining in the midst of our days.  After an ice storm, this little branch was lying on the ground and I brought it home with me. This is a much needed reminder to me.

There are so many things during the holiday season that can seem not quite perfect:  family, travel, finances, not enough time for this or that.  I know that I need to give extra attention to the light on the snow, how cosy my warm sweater feels, the best of the music, good memories, the smell of good food, the people who are here now with me.  Question 14 in the Spiritual Connection book asks how often you experience joy that lifts you out of your daily concerns.  There is enough of our day dedicated to the flaws and problems – doesn’t joy deserve some of our time?

Stained Glass

art by lynn

We,
people
are living stained glass windows
Beautiful in ourselves.
Meant
too
for
light;
for color-bathing others.

Marlene Halpin OP

Healing Balm

In the midst of famine in Sudan in the 1980’s, everything was dry – grasses and foliage. To keep from focusing on hunger and distress, the women began to weave baskets from the dry grasses, beautiful baskets.  This weekend I heard, live, a beautiful piece of music. The Famine Song, by Vida, arranged by Mathew Culloton, that describes this. I find listening to this song deeply soothing somehow. It touches within me places of injury and distress and provides a healing balm.

Here is a link to a group singing this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKZN3JeyCPc

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Some of the beginning words of the song are :

Ease my spirit
Ease my soul
Please free my hands from this barren soil

Ease my mother
Ease my child
Earth and sky be reconciled

 

And at the end :

Weave my mother

Weave my child
Weave your baskets of rushes wild
Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain