The Wind Seeks and Sings

pine-treesOne of my favorite sounds in East Texas is the rustle, whisper, and susurrus [what a word!] of winter’s wind through the pine needles far above my head. Every year I am surprised to hear it even though I’ve been looking forward to it for months. Just last week, while walking to the barn, I passed a pine bending slightly in the north wind. A deep pleasure covered me as I heard this favorite sound. It is peaceful yet promises more to come—more cold, more wind, more difficulty. Yet now, and for several more weeks, it is a comfort rather than a portent.

This very sound also transports me back to my youth and my visits to my grandparents. In particular, there was a giant, old pine near my grandfather’s hay barn in the meadows and forests north of Nacogdoches. Daddy Jack called it a “bull pine” since it was responsible for populating the surrounding acres with its progeny. We’d love to play in the hay barn, arranging and rearranging the hay bales (and ruining a few) in a child’s endless quest for fun. And when we quieted down, and lay high among the hay bales, we’d listen to the wind rush through his bull pine. That sound evokes memories of childhood, of play, of comfort, and—of course—of him.

But that same rushing wind can be heard in my granddad’s milk barn, now collapsing from long disuse. It’s filled with junk and broken milking equipment now. The sounds of lowing cows coming in to be milked and the smell of hay and fresh milk are long gone. This same winter wind can be disquieting, disruptive, worrisome, and lonesome. Then, it reminds us of failures, of loss, of disappointments, of past injuries, of missed opportunities for forgiveness and healing, and of almost-forgotten memories of love and pleasure.

I don’t know of anyone who has captures this complexity of the wind better than Christopher Wiman—a very fine poet. In fact, he’d be a fine poet if he had written only this single poem, “Small prayer in a hard wind”:

As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
only someone lost could find,

which, with its paneless windows and sagging crossbeams,
its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,

seems both ghost of the life that happened there
and living spirit of this wasted place,

wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
that is open enough to receive it,

shatter me God into my thousand sounds . . .

The wind of my memory and my experience is like this. A wind that “seeks and sings every wound in the wood that is open enough to receive it”—every wound in my soul. It may be a hard wind, a wind that seems to blow me off course, a wind of heartache, a wind of love. May God bring these things to me…please.

A Selfish Bronze?

 77.AB.30

In 1961, a fishing trawler in the Adriatic Sea lifted its nets to discover an encrusted chunk of bronze that proved to be one of the great finds of Greek sculpture. After removing the deposits of the sea over the past 2000 years, there was an athletic male youth, one of the few Greek bronze sculptures to have survived. He is fully intact, except for his feet, and shows a level of refinement and skill such that it has been attributed to Lysippus, court sculpture of Alexander the Great. The youth stands with his weight on one foot, his right arm lifted as his hand reaches to the olive wreath encircling his head, which he has just won at the Olympic games. Originally, his eyes were bone or ivory with glass irises for color. His lips were covered in a thin layer of copper to make them more lifelike.

The entire sense is that of a stop-motion photograph, and the most intriguing sight is his right hand about to touch the wreath he has just won. It was not uncommon for the winner of these games to crown himself. Has he just done so, and now awaits the glory and acclamation of the crowd? Has he done so in vanity and pride? Or in simple recognition that he is, as a matter of fact, the winner?

But the winners of these games would often take their olive wreath and place it at an altar and devote it to the gods of Greece, in acknowledgment of gods’ role in sustaining the lives of all the people. So, perhaps, instead of his hand reaching for wreath as an act of self-congratulation and insufferable vanity, he is recognizing that the ultimate honor belongs to the gods.

Its fairly obvious how this might link to a Christian and God. When we have a great success, do we “crown ourselves” — pathetically cry out “Did you see me?” on social media, angle for recognition in our conversations, offer a lame humble-brag, or overtly boast of our achievements (sometimes even of our Christian works)?

Or, rather, do we humbly acknowledge that everything we have and everything we do and everything we are is dependent on God. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we have nothing except what we have been given. Our achievements are not really ours; our successes are not really ours. Paul writes simply yet profoundly, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)

Maybe this remarkable bronze youth, after resting two millennia in the sea, is reminding us of a greater love than the love of victory — our love of our Savior.

And John the Beloved, wrote not long after this bronze was cast, “The twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who loves forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’ ” (Revelation 4:9-10)

 

 

Pyrite Corridors

pyriteI love autumn. Who doesn’t? We haven’t had much fall color around our home so far; it’s been too warm and too dry. I love the shortening days as the sun sits low in the sky casting its golden gleam across the field and trees, long shadows, that certain softness of light that photographers love. And then the clouds begin their final change before they disappear into the night.

Charles Wright, a fine American poet, has written so many beautiful lines on these late afternoon pleasures. Consider, from “Body and Soul II”:

Afternoon sky the color of Cream of Wheat, a small
Dollop of butter hazily at the western edge.

And from “Nine-Panel Yaak River Screen”:

Inside the pyrite corridors of late afternoon,
Image follows image, clouds
Reveal themselves,
And shadows, like angels, lie at the feet of all things.

And from “Littlefoot”:

The winter leaves crumble between my hands,
December leaves
How is it we can’t accept this, that all trees were holy once,
That all light is altar light,
And floods us, day by day, and bids us, the air sheet lightning
around us,
To sit still and say nothing,
here under the latches of Paradise?

Sky the color of Cream of Wheat? The slanting light like pyrite? And the certainty that the light of the cooling day is the light of God—his light, shining on his earth and his people. These images make me want to savor the beauty and loveliness of the day. They make me want to be immersed in beauty.

In fact, in some peculiar way, they make me want to be good.

I think this is the striking claim that Wright makes: How can we miss so much? Why are we so distracted? Why don’t we even care that we are distracted? How can we miss the truth—the revelation—of our world? All trees were holy once! All light is altar light! Shining forth on God’s creation, showing it to be holy, to be set apart, for his glory.

Middle Age(s)

chartresOne of my greatest fears is that we have forgotten how to know. Although this questions sounds silly or overly philosophical, it is, nonetheless, one that everyone must answer.

Today, I think it can be safely said, that the general consensus is that our brains function like biological computers. We are enamored with computers and even call our smart phones “accessory brains.” These gadgets allow us to access answers to many questions: packages of data to answer questions while eating street tacos or drinking coffee. We even have hopes of “uploading our brains” into computers so that we might live forever. (This is the old sin of Eden, and if you think I am making this up, check out “transhumanism,” championed by Ray Kurzweil of Google and his plans to do just such an upload by 2045). Thus, we “know” by our ability to recall a slew of facts, then process and analyze them.

That’s only half the story.

But the Middle Ages can set us straight. Those distant times which seem irrelevant to our cool modern world might be able to teach us a thing or two, that is, if we can set aside our chronological snobbery for just a bit. Way back then, human knowing involved the faculties of ratio and intellectus. These Latin terms need not dismay us, for their meaning is straightforward. Ratio is our reason—our searching, analyzing, examining, logic. This ability is what distinguishes us from the other animals. It is distinctively human.

But knowing also involves our capacity for intuition, contemplation, i.e. our spiritual vision (intellectus). Only humans have this characteristic too, but it is actually beyond our material nature, since it is of a spiritual origin. It is given by God for communion with him and understanding of him (Genesis 2:7). How else could a material creature (us) understand the one true God who is spirit?

Thus, we know through our reason and our spiritual vision—both.

Such a view of knowing will obvious reject the notion that the universe is “nothing but” material. Instinctively, intuitively, contemplatively, we know the world we experience is something more. How we know this is via our spiritual vision—some know little of it for they are almost blind; others see more, enabled by God to know. And this sort of knowing is a strange thing: it is accessed by silence, by quiet, by reception—unlike our reason which is honed by constant acquisition of new data and facts, never-ending analyses, perpetual information processing. One is quiet, the other busy. One is received, the other grasped. One is easy, the other is difficult.

This should not surprise us, for He told us long ago, Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

 

The World, As It Is

roseIt has taken me many years to realize how to see. And only now do I realize that I have been partially blind for most of my life. I am not talking about the physical function of my eyes and my brain. I am talking, instead, about something we know intuitively, but have great difficulty explaining.

There is a very great difference between observing and contemplating. It has nothing to do with visual acuity or scientific knowledge of the thing I am looking at. It has nothing to do with daydreaming. It takes time. And in our world—where we are all “so busy” seeking to validate our significance by a continuous snowstorm of activity, projects, hobbies, exercise, and meetings—we simply cannot contemplate. I suspect it is because we are afraid to do so. Afraid, that all the investments of our time and energy will prove for naught. Which, as we know very well, is absolutely true.

Joseph Pieper, in his book Leisure, the Basis for Culture, writes of this distinction between observing and contemplating. Note that he does not even mention “normal looking”—which is the best most of us do: a causal, vaguely disinterested glance at appearances. Does it catch my attention like a bright shiny bauble? If not, then I move on. Pieper wants to talk about something much deeper, and therefore more important:

What happens when we look at a rose? What do we do as we become aware of color and from? Our soul is passive and receptive. We are, to be sure, awake and active, but our attention is not strained; we simply “look”—in so far, that is, as we “contemplate” it and are not already “observing” it (for “observing” implies that we are beginning to count, to measure and to weigh up). Observation is a tense activity; which is what Ernst Jünger meant when he called seeing an “act of aggression”. To contemplate, on the other hand, to “look” in this sense, means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them. There can hardly be any doubt that that, or something like it, is the way we become sensorially aware of a thing. [All quotation marks are Pieper’s]

What Pieper is saying is the same thing that has been said in Scripture for thousands of years. That our eyes function on many different levels: sometime we barely notice the world around us, taking its wonders and mysteries with the same sort of knowing as a pig. Sometimes we rise to the level of our reason: we observe, we analyze, we measure, we calculate, we record data. And sometimes, though all too rarely in our present world, we can contemplate and see the way things really are. This latter ability is rare and, worse, undesired. It is not difficult in the usual sense of that word, since it is obtained by receiving, but it takes time and, most importantly, is takes a certain type of spiritual vision. This spiritual vision is something that we have received from God, but which we usually neglect. We falsely believe that this world is as it appears to be.

In other words, why are we content to live like a pagan?

Burning Bush

fall-sumac2Some of the earliest fall color to appear in East Texas is the sumac and the blackgum. The sumac is especially beautiful, since its leaves turn a peculiar shade of pale translucent green, vivid orange, and deep carmine—all on the same stalk or even the same compound leaf. The sumac clump looks aflame!

Whenever I consider such a sight, particularly as the year and the temperatures decline, I can’t help but wonder what I am really seeing. Is it only the chlorophyll changes that our science tells us? Yes, I know that the amazing chemical chlorophyll traps sunlight and water and carbon dioxide to make sugar and food for the sumac. I know that, in the autumn, as the days are cooler and shorter, the leaves stop this process and the green chlorophyll breaks down. I know that this causes the green color to fade, and the yellow and orange pigments (the carotenes and the xanthophyll pigments), previously masked by the green, begin to appear. I know that additional colors appear due to the development of the red anthocyanin pigments. But, again, is this what I am seeing?

The poets would say, “No.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in Book 7 of her epic poem “Aurora Leigh,” sees something more,

Earth’s crammed with heaven
and every common bush afire with God
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

I, for one, don’t want to sit around and pluck blackberries—or mindlessly fiddle with my cellphone—while the world is ablaze with God! But how do I learn to see the world in this way?

I have long been intrigued by the story of Moses and the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-6), when Moses sees “the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked and, behold, the bush was not consumed.” The obvious question—so obvious that it is never asked—is this: “What changed?”

Did the bush change? Was it an “ordinary bush” that was manifesting the Angel of the Lord in a special and unique once-in-a-lifetime way? In other words, a singular miracle?

Or was Moses changed? Moses—like most of us, blind to the glories of God throughout his creation—had his blindness healed as scales fell from his eyes and he saw the world as it truly is: “Charged with the grandeur of God.” And seeing, he obeys God’s command to take off his sandals for he in standing on holy ground.

It is unlikely that I will have a Burning Bush experience like Moses’. I do not expect to receive such a grand and terrifying command from God, as did Moses. But if I could only see, if I could only see….what would I do?

October Blue

blue-skyLong ago, Hesiod said, “It will not always be summer.” I’ve never known if this was a lament or a rejoicing. For most of us in in the South, after the scorching days of our September summers, it is a relief.

There is nothing quite like a day starting with cool mornings, clear skies, and hot coffee. Those refreshing first hours that almost make you gasp with a bit of unexpected pleasure when you open the door. That sudden rush of a cool caress over your skin which tingles with anticipation.

And what if — as a bonus! — the sky is the brilliant October blue of an East Texas morning? That indescribable blue, unlike any other? Not ultramarine (too dark), not cornflower (too gray), not turquoise (too green), not even sky blue (too pale). There are no imperfections in this veil of blue. Intense at the dome of the sky, and fading to the horizon. It’s a color of wonder, that causes me to gaze upward and offer no speech—just, well…wonder.

Those days, those mornings make me feel like I will truly live forever. Are these days a foretaste of our longing for eternity? The eternity that God has set in the hearts of all of us (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Why do I feel so vibrant, so optimistic, so hopeful? I want this sort of day to last forever, to never change.

Who has captured such thoughts better than Robert Frost in “October”?

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

I’m a Mean O’ Dinosaur

malachi-at-treeMy 2 year-old-grandson, Malachi, has created his first original song—lyrics and tune.

I’m a mean o’ dinosaur, hear me roar!
I get a-hungry, hear me roar!

As you might suspect, these lines are repeated many, many times. In fact, he never seems to tire of it and the song has stuck in my mind for days.

As an adult, we usually tire of this sort of repetition. The same old thing, over and over? Our marketing gurus would not approve. How can we be satisfied with such repetition? How can capitalism survive if we are actually satisfied? In fact, Malachi is not just satisfied, he is positively delighted—smiling and singing and insisting that we clap at the “end” of the song. As we grow older, most of this joy in the ordinary, the humdrum, the so-called monotonous slowly ebbs away. True, this innocence fades and is replaced by the development of other gifts (see last week’s post). But most of us still long for a delight in the “ordinary” kiss, the “ordinary” meal, the “ordinary” day. Maybe we have forgotten the joy of the routine. Maybe we reject the seeming monotony of life, and always look for the next adventure.

G. K. Chesterton, that inimitable Brit, wrote in Orthodoxy,

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Indeed I have sinned and grown old. For many years, I looked at all the new adventures that I could take—the new places I could go, the new people I could meet, the latest reinventions of my imagined life. Only now, I look at those endeavors as “strivings after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14, among others)—foolish efforts and struggles and discontents.

But our gracious God, who delights in the endless repetition of day and night, has finally shown me a hint of his truth. That our days and our loves are to bring us satisfaction in him. Over and over, repeated ad infinitum, we now delight and will delight in his glory. Will I tire of this? I think not, for “our Father is younger than we.”

Trailing Clouds of Glory

 

img_0114When my 4-year-old (almost) grandson, Atticus, plays, I feel younger. Simply watching him play, or—better! —playing dinosaurs with him on the floor, or planting “carnivorous plant” seeds in a plastic terrarium, reduces my felt age by decades. For him, every thing and every day is a wonder. Frustrations, trials and worries are things for later years—for my years. What has happened to me? What have I lost?

William Wordsworth wrote one of my favorite poems on this very question. In “Intimations of Immortality,” he recalls that, as a child,

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight

                 To me did seem

           Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore—

This glory and lightheartedness of childhood, once so very strong, had faded. Considering our origin from the realms of glory, it is no surprise that, as children, we see with a different sort of vision:

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

               From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

But this loss, this former simple delight is not a cause for sentimental longing. True: we should see the world with a deep sense of wonder, but the carefree nature of childhood changes into a strength, a sympathy, an understanding, and a faith that conquers the fears to come.

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

     Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

         We will grieve not, rather find

         Strength in what remains behind;

         In the primal sympathy

         Which having been must ever be;

         In the soothing thoughts that spring

         Out of human suffering;

         In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.

For me, the most vivid memory of this poem is the heart-wrenching movie, A River Runs Through It. In that movie two sons—one younger, rebellious, adventurous and almost child-like in his love of the world, the other, older, quieter, more contemplative, perhaps older than he appears to be—struggle to be understood by their father, and to understand each other. In a brilliant bit of foreshadowing, the older son enters his home to hear his father reading these lines, which they then recite to each other. The movie will resolve on that great theme: the passing of youth, the reflections of the aged.

To see the movie clip, click here. The poem starts at 8:20 in this segment.

 

 

 

Mother Midge’s Jewels

Fifty years ago, Mother Midge died suddenly. She was my maternal grandmother and her unexpected death shocked and shook our family. I was a boy of 10 at the time, and our collective grief was devastating. My brother and sister and I wept when we lost one who had been so very special. She doted on us as all wonderful grandparents do—and we missed her dearly.

img_1644To celebrate her life, my brother and I decided to make a cake at my mother’s house. As they say, “this was no ordinary cake”! It was Mother Midge’s secret Waldorf-Astoria cake, the recipe having been stolen long ago from its namesake’s kitchen, then spirited down to a small east Texas town and into the waiting hands of Mother Midge. The cake takes a long time to make from scratch. It has some odd ingredients: vinegar, buttermilk, salt—at least, these seemed odd to me, a man who never bakes cakes. And as its crowning glory, this cake is a brilliant red, and I mean brilliant. It contains bottles of red food coloring to give it an otherworldly ruby color. Even the icing is unusual, made almost like a sweetened roux topped with coconut. To say it is merely delicious is almost offensive.

Of course, much of this cake’s allure is because it had been made by the hand of my beloved grandmother. But life is like that, isn’t it? Material memories give a very close connection to something immaterial—the love of my grandmother toward me. And the “ordinary” material thing becomes an expression of something extravagant.

And thus each token, each memento becomes a treasure.

img_1659As a boy, she once gave me a small bottle of “jewels.” Now this bottle was an old, cloudy, scarred medicine bottle with a plastic cap. And the jewels, which I have kept for over 50 years might not be found at Tiffany’s. It took me a few hours over the past two days to dig that small bottle out of my “collection” in the attic. And as I opened the bottle, the jewels were actually much as I had remembered. There were two fake diamond earrings, a tiny blue mirror, a button with an inset crystal, and shards of fragmented marbles. That might not set hearts afire, but they were Mother Midge’s jewels! Which she had given to me!

And what memories flood back! To see her standing in her kitchen cooking coconut pie and chicken and dumplings. To watch “Hogan’s Heroes” on her black and white (!) TV together. To play with a plastic Donald Duck shampoo bottle in the tub. To hear her sing “Sweetly Sings the Donkey.” To smell her house and to play in the fallen sycamore leaves in the backyard. All these tangible objects and the attendant memories are physical reminders of something no longer present. But I believe they are something more.

They are an expression of a peculiar truth: that God uses his material creation to communicate and express his transcendent truth. Not just in the form of childhood memories. This world is His epiphany. It is a means of his revelation, his power, and his presence. And I can sense it. And I can know.