Topic Archives: the arts

Our experiences of the arts can be spiritually enriching, opening us to a more full appreciation of who we are and all of life. A contemplative approach to the arts can enhance our understanding our ourselves and the world around us. Doing art – music, film, visual art, creative writing – can help us to communicate with others about topics of importance as well as informing us about ourselves.

Is mending art?

Recently I have developed a passion for mending. I was invigorated by reading the books Mend! by Kate Sekules, and Visible Mending, and by Arounna Khounnoraj, that have all sorts of advice, instructions, and inspiration, e.g., for darning socks, or patching holes. While one of my daughters and her husband were visiting I worked my way through their torn clothing, and holes in woolen socks. I have moved on to shirt collars and ripped sheets. It feels so satisfying to me to take something that would be discarded, and make it usable again. Sometimes the item is even enhanced in the process.  Hand sewing is a soothing activity for me. Fabric holds memories visually and through touch, and I revisit those memories while mending, and when wearing the items again. Sometimes I even re-purpose the item for another use. I can do hand sewing while in conversation with others, or while listening to something on audio. I wonder if I can take this approach to my torn emotions, or the ‘holes’ made by grief?

muddy beets

One of the reasons I go to our local farmers market is to get lost in the visual beauty of the fruits and vegetables and flowers. I take in all the smells too.  It is a high spot of summer for me.  I bought these beets even though they looked rather unattractive.   When I got home, I decided to sketch them. At first, they just looked brown and muddy, but as I drew them, I detected subtleties. I thought about how things in our lives that do not look great on the outside, can reveal beauty and goodness nevertheless. And I haven’t even cooked them yet.

Seeing into the life of things


With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deeper power of joy, we see into the life of things.

 -William Wordsworth


space to reconnect

Sometimes we just need to disconnect and switch off in order to re-calibrate ourselves. Then we can fully dive back into the fray, refreshed and reoriented.

Do you disconnect from some things, people and newsfeeds every now and again?  What do you do?

I find drawing and painting helps me. It can be anything from doodling, to playing with colours, to sketching things around me.  When things are pulling me in too many directions, or overwhelming me, I find this gives me space to re-orient myself. Then I am more able to fully engage.

writing a poem for fun

mouse by lynn

Thank you for my limits–

They are gifts.

I do not have unlimited energy or choices

And so much is unknown.

All will work for good.

I can be at peace.


Welcome peace.

Be glad for imperfections and limits.

They are good–

Truly gifts!

The future is unknown,

Not determined or fully controlled by my choices.


Don’t fear choices.

Rest in peace.

Step into the unknown,

Warmly accepting my limits.

Receive them as gifts.

The limitations are good.


I want all to end well and be good.

As I invite grace into my choices,

I expect the future to hold many gifts

And peace.

Today I will embrace my limits

And see adventure in the unknown.


Do not fear the unknown.

Expect good.

Welcome my limits.

Dive enthusiastically into my choices.

There is reason to feel peace.

Thank you for all my gifts.


Look for gifts

in the unknown.

Know peace.

The future will be good.

Have confidence in my choices.

Be friendly with my limits.


Expect surprising and good gifts,

As I make choices when so much is unknown.

Acknowledging my limits can give me peace.


In my last post I mentioned how I was writing sestinas for exploration, playing with words during my morning contemplative time.  The above is one of mine from a couple of days ago.  You can see the structure of repeating over and over the end words, in a set order, and then in the final triplet using all 6 words.  I picked words that I wanted to grapple with, enabling them to sink ideas into me in a mantra-like way., pushing the words to their limits.  I am not a poet, and usually I do not share any poetry I write, but I am doing this to encourage you to dabble too, and see where it leads you.

I suggest that you pick 6 words and try this yourself. They can be very concrete ones or more conceptual, or more feeling words. The structure for the end word repetition is 123456, then 615243, then 364125 then 532614, then 451362, then 246531 – I hope I copied this correctly! – you will detect the pattern as you go.  And then a final three lines using all 6 words, two in each line: 1-4, 2-5, 3-6, or just put them all in there somehow in 3 lines. It may take a few tries to get into the swing of it, but taking a playful approach can make it fun.  And here is an online form that I shared with my students who did sestinas, that can help if all of that seems too much trouble:

You may be surprised what has emerged as you read it after you have finished.

Repairing damage

When we have experienced emotional or physical or relationship damage in the past, it can continue to feel frustrating at best and irreparably harmful at worst.  I so often look at the broken places as problems, limitations, and inadequacies. Or I try to ignore them. But the kintsugi approach actually highlights the beauty in repairs.

The Japanese word kintsugi describes the ancient art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Kintsugi takes a broken piece of pottery, and uses precious and beautiful lacquer to highlight all those places where the breakage happened. The end result is something that many would say is even more beautiful than the pristine original.

Kintsuge treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Reflecting on this is helpful for me. The kinds of damage we can experience can include things like emotional abuse, physical illness or injuries, treatments for cancer, relationship break-ups, or forced relocation.

I have had a laundry basket for decades. The lid has slowly been breaking apart at the edges.  I decided to repair it using raffia pieces that came in some packaging.  I tied the raffia pieces to the edge places where it was breaking to hold them together.  This is a drawing of the result. Someone commented on this drawing, and said that it looks like the raffia pieces are dancing.  I can look at this basket lid, and reflect on the same for my life.  I can react to the injuries, and make beauty, and creatively respond.  Fully acknowledging the injuries, the hurts, the damage, but also reveling in the dance of my responses.


welcoming imperfection

“To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do–-away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart.  You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work, your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work required a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept.

“For Albert Einstein, even the seemingly perfect construct of mathematics yielded to his observation that ‘As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.’

“For Charles Darwin, evolution lay revealed when a perfect survival strategy for one generation became, in a changing world, a liability for its offspring. For you, the seed for your next art work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides–-valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgemental guides–-to matters you need to reconsider or develop further.  It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.”

from the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, Image Continuum, 1993



It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.


From Thirst: Poems
Copyright © Mary Oliver


The poet WH Auden said that the artist feels the impulse to create a work of art when the passive awe provoked is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship. To be fit homage, he said, this rite must be beautiful. We do not always achieve our goal to create something beautiful, but our desire to do so is good in itself.

the spiritual practice of drawing portraits

drawing by lynn

When I draw or paint someone, I find myself exploring the heart of the person, and becoming sympathetic to their fears, their desires, their concerns.  We can never fully understand what another person is feeling or their circumstances or history, but we can stretch into that in our portraits.  We are limited by our skills. But we can still move in love toward the person, and see the fundamental value of another human being, when we draw them. For me, this is a spiritual practice.


I ‘listen’ to poetry to hear what speaks to me.  Each of us hears a poem in a different way.  I have been finding nourishment in these lines from the poem “Somewhere” (from Laboratories of the Spirit, Macmillan 1975) by the Welsh poet R.S.Thomas.

What speaks to you in these lines after reading them slowly?

…the point of travelling is not

to arrive, but to return home

laden with pollen you shall work up

into the honey the mind feeds on.


What are our lives but harbours

we are continually setting out

from, airports at which we touch

down and remain in too briefly

to recognize what it is they remind

us of? And always in one

another we seek the proof

of experiences it would be worth dying for.


…Surely there exists somewhere,

as the justification for our looking for it,

the one light that can cast such shadows?

Where do you find evidence of “the one light that casts such shadows”?  Now that you are spending more time at home, do you find yourself using the pollen you have gathered up on your travels in the past, to make honey for your mind to feed on?

Everything we see

Everything we see is light

-Paul Cezanne


drawing by lynn

“I asked the earth, I asked the sea and the deeps, among the living animals, the things that creep. I asked the winds that blow, I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars….My question was the gaze I turned to them. Their answer was their beauty.” – St Augustine.


Good mistakes

One of the things that holds me back from creating things is the fear of making mistakes.   When doing this drawing, my reddish pen ran out of ink, and then the yellowish ink i changed to ran unexpectedly.  But in the end, something unfolded that I could not have imagined from the start.  Life can be like that too.  Things we think are bad mistakes can lead to unexpected and good outcomes.

Accustomed to the Dark

art by lynn

I have been reading so many good poems over the holiday season. This is one that spoke to me as I continue to write about how tough times can be good.


We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

Emily Dickinson

fighting roosters

I do not like conflict.  But we just cannot avoid some of it in life. Others can be aggressive, we can feel outraged, or we can just have strong disagreements.  The words in this drawing of mine are from a set of translations/interpretations from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton.

are we having fun yet?

art by lynn

I love this season of the year. The music, the art, the feelings of anticipation, the celebrations.  But it is so easy to get swamped. With things to do, preparations, and the other work in our lives that does not stop for the holidays. And as days get darker and shorter up here in the northern hemisphere, that doesn’t help.  I did an advent calendar last year, and I have put up a rerun of it this year.  Today’s window asks about fun.  Even if we are working hard in our jobs or household tasks, can we snatch moments to have some fun? The art here is from the window today, and the link to my advent calendar is:

You can open each little window from now until the end of December if you enjoy advent calendars.

waiting and life

 drawing of giacometti by lynn

Lately I have been meditating on selections from this great collection of poems by Wisława Symborska. This is a gem that continues to speak to me.

LIFE WHILE-YOU-WAIT by Wisława Symborska

Life While-You-Wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.

I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.

I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.

Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.

If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).

You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.

from Map: Collected and Last Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

finding bits of bliss

drawing by lynn

“Follow your bliss” does not always work for me. How do we keep working on projects that we are not that keen on? I feel duty bound to do some things, and there are other things that I just revel in. I find myself mistakenly thinking that if I were a perfect human being those things would always be lined up. But the human condition means that we are often facing things that must be done, yet are not that enjoyable. There are a variety of ways I find for getting me through a tough job, but sometimes I just need to take a break. I like to draw much more than I like to write. When I am working on a writing project, sometimes I just take a break to do a drawing. Then I can often dive back into the world of words with renewed enthusiasm. What do you do that revives you?

A daily choreography of praise

art by lynn

[…] every bole and limb begins to dance;
the universe’s light-fantastic prayer
now lauds a wooer taking still a chance
on just this cosmic ballet’s elegance
where nothing is decided in advance,

where hadrons jiggle in their resonance
while galaxies bebop and flowers blaze;
in cedars and wild animals I glance

a daily choreography of praise.


-from Micheal O’Siadhail’s ‘Five Quintets’Baylor University Press 2018

art and love

Drawing of the artist Felix Scheinberger by Lynn

“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

-Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother.

dancing with joy

I have always loved to dance, and to watch others dancing. There is something about dancing that can express joy in fantastic ways, connecting our feelings of joy to how we feel in our bodies. I have enjoyed a video recently, of the TU Dance Company in a collaboration with the singer Bon Iver, and I enjoyed sketching the dancers, entering into their experience while doing so (click here for a YouTube). Music and dance together can lift us up, no matter if we are participants or those watching.

bless my boots

art by lynn

My people, my objects, breathe in a different way: there’s another core—an excitement that’s definitely abstract. When you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing—if you have an emotion about it, there’s no end.”

-Andrew Wyeth


sestina liberation

In so much of life I see words obscuring truth. Here is something that reminds me that words don’t necessarily hide the truth, but can liberate it.

I have given the assignment to students to write a sestina – not creative writing students, but undergraduates from all disciplines. This was a part of my Perspectives: Art Science and Spirituality interdisciplinary course.  We were exploring the nature of the Self in various ways through the arts and sciences, and their sestina was to be about themselves, exploring who they were.The sestina is a poetic form with a set pattern of ending words and stanza structure. It uses the same 6 words as the end words of separate lines, over and over again through 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, each stanza in specific different set orders. No rhyming or rhythm needed. Then in a final 3-line stanza you use all 6 words mixed in with other words. ( 123456, 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531; 2-5, 4-3, 6-1 ) I gave them the format, and helped with online computerized ways to make it even easier to get started with it (like this). I shared Elizabeth Bishop’s Sestina as a good example.(click here if you want to read it.)

Not everyone liked the assignment to start with, but in the end most enjoyed the process and result. Sharing their final poems in class (but only if they wanted to), let them share who they were with each other, and discover each other, in new ways.

I have returned to this exercise and am currently writing a sestina each day.  I pick the words the night before.  By the 4thstanza most of us tire of the words’ obvious meanings. Stanzas 5 and 6 force us to dig deeper into how these words require unpacking from our subconscious.  And the final 3 lines including all 6 words can lead to a kind of resolution.  It is wordplay, and also loosens me up as well as exposing feelings and giving me insight into ideas, myself, other people, or situations.

I am no poet, and have no illusions that mine will ever be shared or that I have written “good poetry”. But the process itself is freeing. It reminds me that words can be fun, ends in themselves, and that helps encourage my other writing.

flowers and darkness

Flowers grow out of dark moments.  
Therefore, each moment is vital.  It affects 
the whole. Life is a succession of moments and to live each, is to succeed.

-Sr Corita Kent

I am emerging from many weeks suffering from ‘the revenge of the chickenpox’! This quote from this marvelous creative lady seems just right.


art by lynn

…For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven

From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.”

-Patrick Kavanaugh (from Canal Walk, from Collected Poems, 2004)

nighttime and rain

As I reflected on the days here in the northern hemisphere getting darker and darker, this quote from Merton seemed just right. This is from my advent calendar (click here if you want to see the whole calendar).

I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking up the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!

-Thomas Merton, from the essay Rain and the Rhinoceros


an advent calendar

Click here to link to my advent calendar:

The time before Christmas is soaked through with the excitement of waiting, beautiful music, tiny lights, candles, thinking about gifts, good food, good times with other people. When I lived in Germany the Advent calendars fascinated me.  Hanging in the window, light came through from outside through the thin paper images as each little door was opened on the consecutive days leading up to Christmas. When my children were younger I bought a new one each year. I finally found one with art by Martin Erspamer OSB that I have now re-used year after year.

With friends and family spread all over, I wanted to make an advent calendar online that people could enjoy. I wanted to make one to speak more widely beyond the Christian tradition, and I hope this will be a satisfying one for all, and bring with it the Spirit of the season. Each day in December is numbered, and cannot be opened until the day arrives. You may need to hit ‘refresh’ for each new day. Enjoy!

Here is a link to day 1.



unbelievable sunset

A beautiful sunset from the hills of Kentucky. The colors in the sky were unbelievable, but I tried to capture them anyway.


from the poem Still, by AR Ammons

…at one sudden point came still,

stood in wonder:

moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent

with being!

From The Selected Poems: 1951-1977, Expanded Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright © 1986 by A. R. Ammons.

I was on retreat this past week, and I even found the bathroom beautiful.  It seems to have followed me home, together with the many positive effects of the week at the monastery.


St Kevin and the Blackbird


This poem is one of my favorite descriptions of compassionate love. I did this drawing in response to it. This poem continues to speak to me today, to those moments when I find myself in situations where I think I just do not have anything more in me to give. Where do you get the strength to love when you seem to have nothing left in the tank?





“St Kevin and the Blackbird”, by Seamus Heaney,

from The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber, 1996) (c) Seamus Heaney 1996
And then there was
St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling,
arms stretched out,
inside his cell, but the cell is narrow, soOne turned-up palm is out the window, stiff As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, Imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms? Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head? Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

I would rather…

I put a bumper sticker on my car last winter. It reads “I would rather be here now.” I don’t naturally think this, especially in tough times. When I stuck it on, I wondered whether I would always agree with the words: in traffic jams, in the midst of conflict, if I had an accident, in the deep cold of winter. It is a daily reminder to me to whole-heartedly inhabit my own skin, no matter what the circumstances.

There is a chapter “Yes!” in my latest book, that I just recorded in audio. Click here if you want to listen. In it I invite us to reflect on our personal challenges and difficulties, yet affirm the value and wonder of who and where we are. I also write about how we view our past, and how we might see the good in what we might see as mistakes and things that don’t seem at all perfect.

what if i were an oyster?

the oyster persists in filtering seawater and fashioning the daily
irritations into lustre.”




–Ellen Bass, from the poem Reincarnation


drawing by lynn

Drawing can help us uncover distress in someone, and touch them tenderly. 


Can drawing fuel my love?

I had the wonderful opportunity to be in the LA area this past academic year on a research fellowship. During the many meetings and conferences, when I was not speaking myself, I tried to capture something of the essence of people by drawing them—a perfect drawing was not the goal.  Drawing people has continued to enable me to better engage with the topics.

Even more importantly for me, drawing people has continued to be a spiritual practice, stretching beyond the surface of the person and embracing them.  Can drawing people stretch our love towards them? For me, the answer is yes.


small things

“People who place their small time into the heart of eternity, which they already carry within, will suddenly realize that even small things, have inexpressible depths, are messengers of eternity, are always more than they appear to be, are like drops of water in which is reflected the entire sky, like signs pointing beyond themselves, like messengers running ahead of the message they are carrying and announcing the coming of eternity, like shadows of true reality that are cast over us because the real is already very near.”—Karl Rahner (trans. Annemarie Kidder)

art by lynn


art by lynn

“There is a freshness deep down things”, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I am finding myself looking for freshness in each day and moment, and finding it in the most unexpected places.



I have been part of a group of scholars these past few months, discussing suffering from the perspectives of literature, philosophy, theology and psychology. During our weekly conversations I have found that drawing people in the group, as always, helps me to focus. Although ideas are so often the center of academic discussions, it is the human beings that speak to me. Each person has a depth of being, a fullness of life, that I want to capture somehow. Doing this brings me to appreciate them more.

Moving places?

drawing by lynn

When we move to another place, what happens? I had to move a lot as a child, and have had to move as an adult too, mostly due to circumstances beyond my control. I remember wondering as a small child if the towns and houses we moved from disappeared, when we left them. I am heading to Los Angeles in a few weeks for a fellowship at a college there for the academic year, and I am really looking forward to the opportunity. To work on a project that has been on the back burner for so long and spend time with good people will be great. But I love being at home, and leaving it will be hard. I have tried to create welcoming spaces around me for those who visit my home, and even for the wildlife.

What relationships do we form with the things and places around us?  The internet, email, Skype, and phones lets me keep in touch with people at a distance. Maybe there are ways I can take a sense of the place with me too, expanding my sense of place to stretch wider.

Why beauty?

art by lynn

But are these beautiful because we think them so, or because they are beautiful in the mind of nature or the mind of God, beautiful by intention inborn in a world beloved?


Beauty is the crisis of our knowing, the signature of love indwelling in all created things, called from nothing by love, recognized and answered by love in the human heart, not reducible by any analysis to any fact.


–Wendell Berry, A Small Porch, Counterpoint Press, 2016

memory and time

The events of our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order: the continuous thread of revelation. -Eudora Welty

I have a collection of objects sitting on top of my bookcase – with various things inside. Reminders with meaning. One basket bought while living in Belfast, another from Kalamazoo, one a gift from a colleague once full of fresh fruit. A hatbox that has held wide-brimmed hats that I once wore to keep the drizzle off my head or to shield the sun. Peeking out of one basket, a water bottle once full, mercifully purchased for me by my hosts on a car trip from from the airport at Cluj-Napoca to Targu Mures Romania. A box of note cards of leaf photos bought in the village of Einsiedeln, Switzerland at a meeting held at a Benedictine monastery in the Alps. I so often want to get rid of various objects, downsize my belongings, but these objects continue to live as part of a “thread of revelation”. When I did this painting, all of these events came back to me more vividly. The people, the interactions, the experiences and feelings. Perhaps this painting can now take the place of the objects, calling all to mind.

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

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

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

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

being completely

singlefacelynnunderwood There is always

a certain peace

in being what one is,

in being that completely.

-Ugo Betti

light through the crack


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 :

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


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.

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.


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


I have been to the Michigan farmers market again this summer. These strawberries were fresh and delicious – my fingers smelled of them too.  I had forgotten what real strawberries were like.


“To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is an act of reverence not only toward the tree, but also to our human connection to it. It gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness.” Alan Lee

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.


means to a means

Well Water

Well Water, by Randall Jarrell, Vintage Contemporary Poetry, pg 65-66, Discovered in the notebooks of Gertrude Beversluis)

Immanuel Kant, not my favorite philosopher, was adamant that we should treat people as “ends in themselves”, not only as means to an end.  Some people try to manipulate us, flatter us, and basically see us as means to their ends, ways to get what they want to happen. This is demeaning for us, even if we don’t consciously realize what’s going on.

We even do this to ourselves in our daily lives. And this is what this poem reminds me of. I so often slip into putting myself on the “squirrel-wheel”, pushing the wheel, getting only rusty water.  When I treat myself as only a means to an end I demean myself.  Instead I want to see daily life like the author does at the end of the poem, and gulp from the clear fresh water of the dailiness of life as I do tasks, relaxing with pleasure into the flow of life.


Exactitude is not truth – Henri 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.


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


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

Milagrosdrawing by lynnb



in the breeze of the holy


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


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



Animated film: ‘Mother’

from "Mother" animation

from “Mother”

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.

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

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

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,


not only the grand,

but also the infinite



from 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.

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

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.



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)


flowers from the farmers market by lynn

flowers from the farmers market by lynn


art by lynn

art by lynn


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?

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.

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.


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.”

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…


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.

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.


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 the poem, Veni Creator, by Czeslaw Milosz, a Lithuanian-Polish poet, from the book, Collected Poems, 1931-1987, speaks to me.

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:





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)



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)

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.”


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 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.

It must be somewhere

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)

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

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Compassionate Love: I, thou, and we

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

“The encounter between two people which leads to mutual recognition and the serious exchanges of friendship or love abolishes between them the third person which is the normal form of regard for another, and each becomes for the other a second person, a thou, and thenceforth they are together in the first person, a we. Each is present to the other and promises to be with the other always.  The intimate being of each is present to the other, and fidelity is the active cultivation and enjoyment of that presence always. Absence and even death does not destroy this presence, but is rather the proof of its veritability. For when one dies whose presence I have enjoyed in friendship or in love, either he becomes less than an object or else his presence (not a mere image or memory) remains as active within me as before. It depends on my willingness to continue to be truly present to him.”

Blackham, H. J. (1983). Six Existentialist Thinkers (Reprint.). Routledge. Chapter on Gabriel Marcel. P 76. Artwork Lynn Underwood

Leaves on the Ground at our Feet

leavesanna24lynnunderwoodcompressed  I noticed these leaves while out walking today, and picked up these two from the grey pavement to take home. I drew and painted them to help the beauty stick with me longer. As they sit here on the table together, I also find myself thinking about my relationships with those I am close to.

opening windows with art


“Art in the spirit opens a window onto these transcendental realities of which the ancients called the Passio Entis, the “accidents of Being.” They are the Holiness of all that is. And from these transcendental involvements flow all the other humanizing values of our existence: love, compassion, simplicity, fidelity, forgiveness, freedom, justice, peace. For you see it is the function of art to open the human heart.”

Some food for my morning contemplative time these past weeks has been a beautiful book, Creation out of Clay: The Ceramic Art and Writings of Brother Thomas

(Ed. Rosemary Williams, Pucker Art Publications, Boston 1999, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids)

It is a large book full of luscious pictures of Brother Thomas’ pottery that make me want to touch them, and full of his essays, which include wisdom that feeds me.


A high spot of summer for me is going to farmers’ markets. When I get there I become quite focused: What I will buy for what meal plan? But despite this focus I usually find that I get lost in the visual beauty of the fruits and vegetables and in taking in the smells. I bought these beets that looked rather ugly, yet when I got home, it was the beets I felt drawn to draw. At first they just looked brown and muddy, but as I painted/drew them, I detected the subtleties. I thought about the Yes! Chapter in the book, about how things that do not look great on the outside in our lives, can reveal beauty nevertheless. And I haven’t even cooked them yet.

heaney and the beauty of creation

The first of the 16 questions my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book explores is, “Have you been spiritually touched by the beauty of creation?”

A favorite poet of mine, Seamus Heaney, died last week, and it seemed a good time to offer this  excerpt from my book, which includes part of one of his poems.

“Experiences of wonder are there for the taking. They are around us every day. Awe-inspiring colors and sounds and touch-sensations. Signs of and pointers to the transcendent. When we have these experiences, we touch the transcendent as obviously as we touch the chairs we sit on. It may seem even more real. These feelings can provide encouragement to us. When I look out over a lake, watch a sunset from a balcony, see the bud of a flower in a vase in my apartment, watch the flame of a candle, there can be for me a vivid sense of the “more than.”

“What do you see as the beauty of creation? Can you see it in tears? In faces? In the rough and the smooth?

“Poetry, through expert use of language, can capture this well, and call our attention to these experiences.”

Seamus_Heaney Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript,” is a great example of this, and I quote it in the book; you can read it now here on line.

After Heaney’s quotation, I continue in my book,

“If we live in the countryside or near water or spectacular scenery, this can seem easier. But even in an urban environment, evidence of this is there for the taking. Parks, the sky, plants in our apartment, the sound of water, the beauty of people’s faces. And on the other hand, we can miss the chance even in the midst of the obvious. While living in a village on a mountainside in Switzerland, the Alps were usually in view, but I could be so consumed by my own preoccupations that I just did not notice this awe-inspiring beauty. These experiences are not defined by the setting, although it may be easier to feel in some places. You may want to go somewhere that helps you to see this beauty. Do you find space in your life for “wow”? There is something about the very substance of life itself that can inspire us, keep our hearts from drying up. When are you aware of it?”

Some Poetry Collections

There is a lot of poetry available on the web, but having the hard copies of the poems in book form can be good as it can separate you some from the attentional tugging of the interweb. Here are some collections you may wish to explore.

The Redress of Poetry, by Seamus Heaney

A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz

Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation ed. Roger Housden

The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks

Ballistics: Poems by Billy Collins

Twenty Poems to Nourish your Soul by Judy Valente and Charles Reynard

Collected Poems of WH Auden

The Collected Works of W.B.Yeats – Volume 1: The Poems ed. Richard Finneran

T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909-1962

Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Poetry as Prayer: Gerard Manley Hopkins (Pauline Books and Media)

Poetry for the Spirit ed. Alan Jacobs

Honey and Salt, Carl Sandburg

Selected Poems: Galway Kinnell

Gourd Seed by Coleman Barks

The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers

Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

Philokalia by Scott Cairns

Yevtushenko Selected Poems Penguin Modern European Poets Series, UK

Wislawa Szymborska Poems New and Collected

New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems ed Louis Untermeyer

Life is Simpler towards Evening, Ralph Wright

Seamless, Ralph Wright

Prayers from the Ark by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, trans. Rumer Godden

Grooks, by Piet Hein

The Book of Psalms

Everyman’s Poetry: Four Metaphysical Poets

Everyman’s Poetry: George Herbert

The Way of Chuang Tzu translated by Thomas Merton



Web Links from the Book

There are lots of references in the book to websites: music, poetry, articles and essays, art work. This page gives you those links live, so you can click on them and get to the referenced site.

Page 10   Title: Had I Not Been Awake  Author: Seamus Heaney

Page 33   Title: Hubble Photographs  Author:

Page 34   Title: Postscript  Author: Seamus Heaney

Page 38   Title: Dust  Author: Dorianne Laux

Page 39   Title: Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey  Author: William Wadsworth

Page 47   Title: Longing  Author: Stevie Smith

Page 48   Title: Even in the Quietest Moments  Author: Supertramp

Page 48   Title: Hymn 101  Author: Joe Pugh

Page 49   Title: There Is Some Kiss We Want  Author: Rumi

Page 52   Title: Our Lady of Vladimir  Author: Theokotos of Vladimir

Title: Patience  Author: Rabindranath Tagore

Page 78   Title: Vespers  Author: Monteverdi

Page 78   Title: Trío para piano, violín y violonchelo en Sol mayor K496  Author: Mozart

Page 78   Title: King without a Crown (Live from Stubbs)  Author: Matisyahu

Page 78   Title: The Cave  Author: Mumford and Sons

Page 78   Title: 2080  Author: Yeasayer

Page 78   Title: In the Morning  Author: Nina Simone

Page 79   Title: Landscsape: Wheatfields under Thunderclouds  Author: van Gogh

Page 79   Title: Kadinsky Art  Author: Wassily Kadinsky

Page 79   Title: RichD Dancing in the Rain Oakland Street  Author: Yak Films

Page 86   Title: Spiegel im Spiegel  Author: Arvo Pärt

Page 86   Title: Claire de Lune  Author: Debussy

Page 86   Title: Köln Concerts  Author: Keith Jarrett

Page 121   Title: St. Kevin and the Blackbird  Author: Seamus Heaney

Page 125   Title: Mercy  Author: Jessica Powers

Page 130   Title: In Our Talons  Author: Bowerbirds

Page 134   Title: 3055  Author: Olafur Arnald

Title: On Being Called to Prayer While Cooking Dinner for Forty   Author: Patrick Donnelly

Page 135   Title: Ubi caritas et amor  Author: Maurice Duruflé

Page 135   Title: Ubi caritas et amor  Author: Taizé

Page 136   Title: Shoveling Snow with the Buddha  Author: Billy Collins

Title: To the Mistakes   Author: W. S. Mervin

Page 146   Title: Wrong Day-Go Back  Author: Richard Tipping

Page 155   Title: How to Truly Listen  Author: Evelyn Glennie

Page 156   Title: A Spiritual Journey  Author: Wendell Berry

Page 165   Title: Dear God  Author: Monsters of Folk