Science, Poetry, and the Imagination Online

February 6th, 2021

Join me Wednesdays in March for the Inaugural L’Engle Seminars featuring poets, scientists, and mathematicians from both sides of the Atlantic. Details and registration here.

How not to talk about what happened

January 7th, 2021

Much has already been written or said about yesterday’s violent assault on the US Capitol building. Some have noted the date, January 6, celebrated by Catholics, Orthodox, and several Protestant traditions as the Feast of the Epiphany. The word, “epiphany,” comes from the Greek meaning “to make manifest or reveal.” The feast is meant to commemorate the revelation of Christ to all nations, the latter embodied symbolically in the magi as recounted in Matthew 2:1-12. Yesterday’s attack did nothing to change that, though it served as a secondary, perhaps unintentional revelation – namely, the sickness at the heart of a politics of fear and resentment.

Much more will be said and written about the causes and consequences of yesterday’s deadly and destructive events. Some of it will be true. For those who care about words, however, especially people of faith, careful thought must precede utterance. Certain words and phrases should be used, if at all, with a measure of suspicion.

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For the Time Being

January 5th, 2021

Christmas comes to an end. Tomorrow is Epiphany. Those who still have a tree up can’t but notice the dry needles. The shopping malls and radio stations for whom Christmas is all consumption and sentiment packed up the glitter and kitsch days ago, where they’ll gather dust until next Halloween – or earlier if there’s profit to be made.

Our revels now are ended. Now is the winter of our pandemic and political discontent. There are dark days ahead and long COVID nights. There will also come days of warmth and light, evenings of light breezes and clear, starry skies. Now comes the in-between time, some of us still imagining our New Year’s resolutions might last until Groundhog Day, others firmly in the grip of old habits, both good and ill.

Did Christmas come and go with any lasting consequences? Was all that talk about peace and good an exercise in mass self-consolation? How will you keep Christmas in the days to come? What might you return to from these days of reflection?

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Living Toward Yes

January 4th, 2021

There is all this untouched beauty
The light the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone?

-Karin Bergquist

In an earlier post in this series, I hinted at two versions of freedom. Standard contemporary understandings of freedom center on the power to choose among alternatives. A second, older view locates freedom in the giving of consent. Consent freedom doesn’t mean passive acceptance of evil or injustice. These must be named and opposed. Consent freedom involves reckoning with human and earthly limits, living responsibly, and acknowledging we control almost nothing in life save how we respond. It requires constancy in a world where the chief constant is change. It means finding goodness in the shape of what’s given and saying “yes.”

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Tending Your Legacy

January 3rd, 2021

While leading a recent online course on movies, the ever-gracious Gareth Higgins suggested that the well-intended advice, “Live every day as if it’s your last,” puts a bit too much pressure on the imagination. “Better to think of how you might live each day if you knew you had only six months.” In response, a participant wondered aloud how we might live if we treated everyone we met as if it were their last day.

It takes a gifted teacher like Gareth to draw such a vision from his students and say, as he did, “That’s putting it better than I did.” How carefully might we attend to the truth and kindness of our words if there were no tomorrow to mend fences? Would we act more thoughtfully if there were no “later” to repair the damage, no “next time” to reveal our heart’s deepest longing?

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own

January 2nd, 2021

In his book, Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie recounts how he was talking to African-Americans theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, about what the world needed when Thurman interrupted him and said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Thurman, who knew how much it had cost to do what made him come alive, would undoubtedly bristle at the ways his words have since been sentimentalized by American therapeutic individualism. Left to the self-help gurus, Thurman’s wakeup call becomes, “What the world needs is a better, happier me.”

A helpful corrective, perhaps, is to read Thurman’s advice in light of Frederick Buechner’s observation that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What if serving the world’s deep hunger is the key to my salvation, however one might define that last word? Happy are they who know and abide at that meeting place. Some have yet to find it. Others have forgotten, lost the way, or wasted time on seductive distractions.

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The Duty of Delight

January 1st, 2021

Intending to look for beauty and hope in a dark season is admirable, but how does one sustain the practice? Short cuts and how-to recipes don’t last. Sheer willpower eventually becomes grim determination. Imagination, honest work, and genuine delight are needed to break the chains of apathy and despair.

Consumer culture offers countless ways to narcotize body and mind with the promise of more and better things. Not that this is entirely new. In 1804, William Wordsworth wrote, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Perfected over the next two centuries, that system now functions much as T.S. Eliot said of history, “She gives when our attention is distracted/And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions/That the giving famishes the craving.” It’s a vicious circle all the more cruel in a time of selective economic hardship, festering racial injustice, and ballooning inequality.

Politicians and profiteers make their living by playing on resentments and fears. Freedom is reduced to pursuing the next treasure or experience and adding it to a closely guarded private hoard. Happiness becomes the absence of pain. Truly joyful people, in contrast, don’t seek to escape the world’s burden of suffering. They cultivate active compassion. Compassionate people face suffering and adversity with confidence and grace, having made a duty of delight. Freedom is found in consent, not consumer choice. Some call it madness, but joy is meant to be shared, thrives in community, grows when given away.

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Hidden Hope

December 31st, 2020

Thomas Hardy’s life had its share of contradiction. Best known today for his novels, he considered himself first and foremost a poet. Long estranged from his first wife, Emma Gifford, he realized after her death in 1912 that he had, in fact, truly loved her. A passionate critic of class based social restrictions, he died a wealthy man in 1928. Adamant that he be buried with his wife in the village of Stinsford, Dorsetshire, his ashes were instead interred at Poets’ Corner in Westminster. Yet in a compromise between his executor and his family, his physical heart was buried in St. Michael’s churchyard, Stinsford, near Emma’s grave.

Raised in the Anglican tradition, Hardy maintained an emotional attachment to church ritual while abandoning his belief in God. His novels’ main characters, doomed by fate to tragic ends, embody Hardy’s dark vision of life. He was keenly interested in ghosts, desperately sought evidence for life after death, and wrote of overpowering and indifferent forces controlling human lives by chance or whim. This odd assortment of disbelief and credulity, not unusual among late Victorian writers, afforded Hardy space to entertain doubts about his doubt.

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Not Left Comfortless

December 30th, 2020

Jane Kenyon’s luminous poem, “Let Evening Come,” isn’t a winter poem, nor is it – as it as is often used – a funeral poem. I read it as a standing invitation back to the beauty of the real, a call as welcome at year’s end as at close of day. The dark settles as it will, but we aren’t left comfortless. There’s no reason to fear. What we call “nature” or “the environment” – as if these words name something that doesn’t include us – teems with creatures that need no such reminder. Humans apparently do.

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Broken and Beautiful

December 29th, 2020

December 29 commemorates the assassination of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury cathedral in 1170. Thomas was a political insider (and allegedly something of a scoundrel in his personal life) whom King Henry II named Archbishop to serve as the crown’s reliable yes-man. To Henry’s dismay, Thomas took the new role seriously, a personal and public transformation that ultimately resulted in his politically motivated murder. Whatever else one may take from his biography, Thomas reminds us not only that deeply flawed humans can become saints, but they are the only ones who ever do.

In the northern hemisphere, with winter just getting started and memories of a dark and troubling year weigh heavy, it’s a balm to remember that each successive day from now until June grows imperceptibly longer. The worst of the weather and the pandemic may yet be ahead, but that’s never the whole story. For all that humanity does to mangle our one and only planet, we remain broken and beautiful people in a broken and beautiful world. Focusing too often and too long on the brokenness blinds us to that beauty. Eyes open to beauty are vaccines against apathy and despair.

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