Faith on Friday: God For Us—John and Jesus Awaken Our Souls

41qqCponGlL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Just over a year ago I did a post, “God For Us,” where I introduced a wonderful book I had discovered by the same name. My friend, Scott Cairns, is one of the authors, which drew my interest immediately. And one of the editors, Greg Pennoyer, is Orthodox. But the book is a blend of Eastern and Western spiritual writings to help us through our Lenten journeys. Interestingly, I didn’t know who Richard Rohr was at the time, and he’s also a contributor, so I’m looking forward to reading his chapters this year.

In the Preface, Pennoyer says:

In Lent we learn that the meaning of life is not dependent upon the fulfillment of our dreams and aspirations. Nor is it lost within our brokenness and self-absorption.

I love that. In an email I read from our pastor this morning, he shared a list of things to fast from and feast on during Lent (which came from a Greek Orthodox priest, Father Milton Gianulis, formerly at Annunciation Church here in Memphis). Pennoyer’s words remind me of this one item in Father Milton’s list:

Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.

With Pennoyer’s book—as with Father Milton’s list—the emphasis is on positive actions and attitudes rather than rules. It’s about preparing our hearts to receive good things. As Pennoyer continues:

Lent cleanses the palate so that we can taste life more fully. It clears the lens so that we can see what we routinely miss within our circumstances.

Today’s reading, “First Friday of Lent,” is by Richard Rohr. Each reading has Scriptures at the top, so I read them first. They aren’t the same scriptures on the Orthodox “list” so I’m following a more Western tradition on some days. He reminds us that Deuteronomy (10:12-22) promotes a worldview where “the possibility of love of God with whole heart and soul is perhaps first spoken of.” And then he moves to the passage in Hebrews (4:11-16) saying:

Anyone trying to combine good therapy with good spiritual direction and ‘judge the secret emotions and thoughts of the heart’ would love this passage.

John Baptist

 

And finally he moves on to the passage in the Gospel of John (3:22-36) that contains some of the teachings of John the Baptist, whose icon is portrayed at the beginning of the chapter. (I do love the artistic elements in this beautiful book.) In the Orthodox tradition, the priest blesses our homes just before the beginning of Great Lent. As my husband (who is a priest) sprinkled our walls with holy water last week and we sang, “When Thou O Lord wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest,” and then he sprinkled me with some of the holy water, I felt our dwellings preparing for the spiritual journey ahead—our physical dwellings being our home and our bodies. Because we’re not just spirit; we are physical beings.

Rohr summarizes the day’s reading:

The interior and transformative journey that the first two readings point towards—the awakening of soul, the circumcision of heart, the baptizing of body, the release of spirit—has now met it mark in this world. The economy of this world has become an economy of grace, and both John and Jesus are here to wash away any remnants of merit, atonement, or animal sacrifice. The bridegroom instead inaugurating a wedding feast.

Writing on Wednesday: Poetry for Writers

51V7XR6BRML._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Today I’m going to share a couple of inspirational poems by a talented poet from Little Rock, Arkansas—Mary N. Waters. I discovered Waters’ books of poetry at a little shop in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock a few years ago and find myself returning to them over and over. Many are spiritual. Some are humorous. Most inspire something in me. These two—both from Other Stars Waiting (2002)—are  for my writing buddies and reprinted here with permission from the author. Enjoy.

 

Voyeur

 

I am reading a book

of someone else’s poetry,

thinking the “I can do this,”

thoughts,

followed immediately by

all of the “buts”

of not having enough

time, talent, passion,

and the “what ifs”

of people hating it,

laughing at it,

thinking me crazy.

Buts and What Ifs,

my twin conspirators,

which, for so long

have kept me a voyeur

of others’ writings,

not my own.

 

Accommodation

 

When I first began to write,

I thought that nothing much

would change;

one more activity,

added to my days.

I would accommodate it;

the writing,

give it

the extra bedroom.

But I was wrong.

This was my lover,

wearing muddy boots

upon the neatly

polished floor, and sleeping

where he pleased.

So all those other things

began to change, to

give him space;

and since he didn’t fit

the me I was,

I chose to be

transformed,

in ways I can not name.

And here I am,

a writer of poetry,

and those who thought

they knew me,

wonder,

and sometimes,

so do I.

 

Mary N WatersOther books by Mary N. Waters:

 

Into the Universe

Private Rooms

Sandpaper Blankets

Thoughts From a Vast Right-Brained Conspiracy

Mental Health Monday: Joy… Bring It!

5fa036e8f4222373091e2b3613572f02Last Monday I posted my first in a series of reflections on Joan Chittister’s book, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. If you missed it, you can read “The Twinges of Regret” here. Today I’m continuing with another chapter in Chittister’s book, this one simply titled, “Joy.” It follows on the heels of “Ageism,” the chapter that precedes “Joy.” Both of these chapters address the choices we have to make as we approach retirement and beyond.

The reality is this: several of our close friends have retired recently. Yes. They are no longer gainfully employed. Several of them are under 65. My husband is 66 and still going strong. I’m turning 64 in a few weeks, but “retirement” will look different on me. After all, I’m a writer, and I can’t really imagine ever not being a writer. And the truth is, I’ll probably continue writing as long as my brain doesn’t get too twisted and tangled. But my reflection today isn’t so much about what to do with these coming years as it is how to be in them. Chittister says:

We can decide to live with joy…. If we decide to live this new, unscripted time with joy, then life will come pouring into us, almost more fully than we can sometimes bear…. This is the period for allowing ourselves to rejoice in the past that brought us to this point, as well as to revel in the possibilities that are present.

Oliver SacksThere was a terrific article in the New York Times last week by Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine and the author of many books, including Awakenings. It’s called “My Own Life” – Oliver Sacks on learning he has terminal cancer. At 81 Sacks has already lived with cancer for nine years. But now he has a new incurable brand. And so he says:

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can…. I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

4993001010_bd4d5f97deThe whole essay is like this—full of joy. And, like Chittister, full of choice. Although health and circumstances may dictate some limitations in our twilight years, we still get to make choices. His short essay is filled with words like, “gratitude” and “love” and “detachment” and “adventure.”

As a writer, I am of course especially impressed that Sacks published five books between the ages of 65 and 80, and has completed an autobiography to be published this spring, so that will make six. Reading this makes 64 sound young and full of hope and promise! Some of the things Chittister says we can choose to do:

We can simply sit and watch a sunset, since we are not rushing home through traffic as the sun goes down.

We can decide to smile at everyone we meet, to play with children, to talk to seniors, to ask questions of youngsters—and this time to listen to their answers.

We can decide to give ourselves to those who have no one else but us to count on for quality of life themselves.

Yes, Birthday #64: bring it!

Faith on Friday: I Saw God Today #Lent2015

LentMadnessMy friend Ellen Morris Prewitt—who also happens to be a gifted writer and published author and anthology editor—has a wonderful Lenten practice. Every day during Lent she posts a short paragraph on Facebook that begins, “I saw God today.” And then she goes on to explain where she saw Him. She ends the post with the hash tag #Lent2015, so folks can follow the thread on Twitter if they so desire. Ellen is in rehab for hip replacement surgery, so she published this post from the waiting room at her doctor’s office yesterday:

I saw God today

in the patients patiently waiting in the waiting room, trusting that whatever pained them would be alleviated, believing despite the fact that ultimately it is only ever a reprieve #‎Lent2015

Her first Lenten post was on Wednesday:

I saw God today
in my husband’s hands as he pressed into place the covering to protect my incision. “Let’s get out all your bubbles,” he said, gently checking his work. The covering crackled. His palms smoothed, done. ‪#‎Lent2015‬

I decide to join her. For Ellen, Lent began on Ash Wednesday, as it did for most Western Christians. I’m Eastern Orthodox, so our Lent begins next Monday on “Clean Monday.” But I began my God-sightings yesterday, posting this from my iPhone while waiting to get my hair done:

I saw God today

in the face of a young semi-homeless man I’ve known since infancy…. Saw him waiting at a bus stop. #‎Lent2015‬

I visited that young man when he was in prison last year. And before that I helped him with a few things he needed for his (temporary) apartment. I pray for him whenever I remember. And now when I see his face, I see the face of God.

EffiewlapguardToday is my mother’s birthday. She is 87, so she just outlived her mother—who also had Alzheimer’s—by one year. I’m going to visit her in the nursing home in Jackson (MS) tomorrow and take her some new clothes I got for her yesterday. She won’t know who I am or understand what a birthday is, but hopefully the bright-colored blouse and the visit will cheer her. Rubbing lotion on her hands and kissing her forehead and singing to her also seem to get through the twists and tangles. Who knows. But this much I know: when I see her I face, I’ll see the face of God.

We see God in the faces of all of his creatures—especially when they are in need, or when we feed them, clothe them, shelter them, or show them love in any way. The Scriptures teach us that, but so does simple human compassion.

6045f7d0c2ac5b11ed4cd03c6331fb84We also see God in the faces of those who participate in those same acts of mercy towards us, as Ellen shared in her first post. I saw God every day during the months following my car wreck in 2013 when I slept in a hospital bed and couldn’t do much of anything without the help of my husband and friends. I saw Him in the untiring care my husband gave to me. I saw Him in the cheerful faces of those who visited, sat with me, and brought us meals.
George Strait saw God today.

Did you?

Writing on Wednesday: Enchanters

Little girl walking up stairs to the magic book landCorey Mesler has a wonderful article in Change Seven (an online journal) called “Why Iris Murdoch?” Corey loves Murdoch… says she’s his favorite writer. That’s big praise from this prolific reader, writer and owner of the oldest independent bookstore in Memphis, Burke’s Books. One thing that I keep returning to in this short piece is his description of the place of “enchanters” in her writing:

Murdoch usually inserts an enchanter into the action, into the semi-mundane lives of her characters, an enchanter, who, by necromancy or perversity or strangeness or boldness, changes things for everyone. They are narrative catalysts.

I immediately emailed Corey when I read this, excited to suddenly see “enchanters” in books I’ve read recently. Like Robinson Davies’ book Fifth Business. Mary Dempster is surely the enchanter in this story, as she propels the story forward even from her place in the background over many years. And in Marilynne Robinson’s Houskeeping—where Sylvie serves this purpose in the narrative.

My writing group is having an email discussion right now about what one member of the group calls “the importance of intentional reading” for writers. She wrote this in response to a section another member quoted from a Walter Mosley book as an example of some pretty amazing prose. I haven’t read Mosely, so I quickly looked at some other sections of his work and was immediately captured by his words here in The Further Tales of Tempest Landry:

“It was true. The hegemony of the divine hung by a slender thread, dependent on the whim of Tempest Landry’s errant soul. After being shot down dead in the streets of Harlem, he refused to accept his sentence to eternal damnation. His ability to evoke his free will threatened all that has ever been known as true.”

Mary_of_Egypt_icon

Icon of Saint Mary of Egypt at St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church, Murphreesboro, Tennessee

The editor I’m working with on revisions feels that Neema isn’t as fully realized as the other main characters. My task is to integrate her into their lives more fully. I’m struggling with how to make this work, but I understand that she needs to be a “narrative catalyst” if she is to lay claim to her place in the book. She needs to change people either by “necromancy or perversity or strangeness or boldness.” I think it’s by strangeness. But also by necromancy, as she connects the lives of these contemporary women who discover their common bonds.

As I continue work on the book, I’m so thankful for the insights of the gifted writers in my group and for the generosity of authors like Corey Mesler, from whom I continue to learn. It’s so important to sit at the feet of those who are paving the way.

Mental Health Monday: The Twinges of Regret

Regret is something I’ve struggled with for many years. Many people do, evidently. Much has been written about it, even in the lyrics of popular songs like Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Almost Home” where she sings, “There’s no such thing as no regrets.”

208

 

Let’s look at the word, regret, which is both a verb and a noun:

First the verb: feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity.

And the noun: a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done.

Whether we are actively regretting (verb) something, or looking at our present or past regrets (noun) there’s much to be learned from this powerful word. All of us who have regrets (who doesn’t?) share some common emotions:

Sadness. I am sad because many of my actions have hurt others or myself, which can either lead to depression and despair, or to…

Repentance. A healthier way to respond to the bad choices I’ve made—especially the ones that were deliberate.

Disappointment. This is probably the most common emotion I attach to regret. I am disappointed in myself, in others, and in the situations that arose from missed opportunities and bad choices.

2935683This morning I started reading a book (another one of those that I can’t remember who recommended) by Joan Chittister, OSB called The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. Sister Chittister is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, and the executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for
contemporary spirituality. The author of over 50 books, Chittister currently serves as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the UN. All that to say she’s quite accomplished and speaks and writes with authority on many subjects. But I was attracted to her book on aging because that’s where much of my focus is currently. The Gift of Years contains 40 short chapters, and I’m looking forward to reading all of them—perhaps I’ll take a chapter a day, like a devotional meditation on aging. Or perhaps I’ll devour them more quickly. I’m not making any rules. But I do find it interesting that her book of one-word chapters like Joy, Transformation, Mystery, Freedom, Memories, Spirituality, and Faith begins with a chapter on Regret. Well, after an introduction titled “The Purpose of Life.” Chittister was 70 when she wrote this book, so she had seven decades to reflect back on her life as she wrote.

She calls regret “one of the ghosts of aging” that prods us to question everything we’ve ever done. Not a healthy practice, as she says:

This compulsion to look back, to explain to myself, to others, why I did what I did—or, worse, to justify why I didn’t do something else—is one of the most direct roads to depression we have…. The thought of what could have been eats at the center of the heart. It pretends to be reflection, a kind of tally of the years. But down deep it feels more like failure than it does like understanding…. We find ourselves beginning to rethink everything we’ve ever done.

This practice isn’t something I’ve only recently begun. I’ve been at it for a couple of decades now. Some of the regrets I deal with:

Not finishing college.

Staying in a cult-like group for the first 17 years of my marriage.

Cutting myself off from friends—and sometimes family—during those 17 years.

Being an overly-controlling mother.

Not continuing art studies after college. (Iconography was a substitute.)

I could go on, but I think that’s enough for a public confessional. And speaking of confessionals, it’s interesting that when I look at those regrets, only one of them is something I have ever felt I needed to repent of—the overly-controlling mother part. The rest aren’t “bad” things I did, just choices I regret. So how can I get over those feelings? Chittister says:

Regret is a temptation. It entices us to lust for what never was in the past rather than to bring new energy to our changing present. It is a misuse of the aging process. One of the functions—one of the gifts—of aging is to become comfortable with the self we are, rather than to mourn what we are not.

This is helpful. There are many things in my life to which I am bringing new energy—my writing, hosting literary and women’s salons in our home, my marriage, renewed relationships with my children and grandchildren.  And maybe I wouldn’t have that new energy without tapping into some of the positive sides of regret. Yes, positive, as Chirtister explains:

The fact is that the twinges of regret are a step-over point in life. They invite us to revisit the ideals and motives that brought us to where we are now.

In revisiting those ideals and motives in my own life today, I find that I still have the drive to continue my education, whether or not I ever get that college degree. For the past fifteen years I’ve participated in dozens of workshops and conferences (I’ve even organized and directed several) involving art or writing. And although I’m still not thankful for the 17 cult-like years, most days I’m thankful that they landed me in the Orthodox Church where I find my spiritual home. And yes, that part of my journey definitely feeds my writing. I’ve made efforts to repair the split with some of those old friends and family members, and maybe more importantly, I’ve made new friends who enlighten the path I’m traveling now. I’ve asked my children’s forgiveness for my failures as a mother and I’ve watched them become amazing, loving, patient, creative parents of their own children, with whom I have fallen deeply in love.

So now I’ll move forward living with the twinges of regret, not focusing on what might have been. Stay tuned for more of Chittister’s wisdom on future Mondays.

Faith on Friday: The Great… Love

Anthony the Great-Fast-Coptic OrthodoxThe season of “Great Lent” (link goes to the Orthodox Church in America’s web site) begins soon for Orthodox Christians… on Clean Monday (February 23.) It’s also commonly known as the “Great Fast.” This coming Sunday is called the Sunday of the Last Judgment, affectionately known in most Orthodox parishes as “Meatfare Sunday.” Why? Because it marks the last day for eating meat before the “Great Fast” begins. Our parish always has a potluck meal after Liturgy, and as you can imagine, the tables are laden with lots of meat dishes. I don’t know if there’s a relationship between this tradition and “Fat Tuesday,” but I always think about the partying that goes on during Mardis Gras at this time of year. But that’s a rabbit trail. Where am I going with this talk of fasting? You KNOW this is not my favorite subject. But in case you’re new to my blog—or unfamiliar with the Orthodox custom of fasting—an article in the Greek Orthodox web site says this about fasting:

Fasting in its religious setting is abstinence from food, always in relation to a religious event or feast. Fasting in itself has no meaning in the Christian Church, but has a role the attainment of Christian virtues. It is not to be accepted as a mere custom without a spiritual purpose. Fasting is understood as a means of temperance and sobriety, especially in relation to prayer, devotion and purity. It is also understood to be related to giving alms to the poor. 

The Antiochian (another jurisdiction) Orthodox web site also addresses fasting. One small snippet from this site:

Fasting is not an end in itself. Our goal is an inner change of heart. The Lenten Fast is called “ascetic.” This refers to actions of self-denial and spiritual training which are central to fasting.

crapSo that’s a primer on fasting. Sounds pretty straight-forward, doesn’t it? Until you try it. Keeping the Orthodox Lenten fast to its fullest involves abstinence from all meat and dairy products for forty days leading up to Pascha (Easter) and abstinence from fish and alcohol (and even cooking oil) for most of those days. It’s a strict vegan fast. Granted, many Orthodox Christians don’t embrace the fast to the letter of the law—I certainly don’t—but it’s still there. Like a goal to be reached or a standard to be achieved. And the difficulty is compounded for folks like me with a lifetime history of eating disorders.

great_lent_bwIn much Orthodox literature fasting is grouped with two other virtues—prayer and almsgiving. These three are taught together, with warnings that any one of them without the other two can be ineffective. And yet, the season of Lent isn’t known as “Great Prayer” or “Great Giving.” I’d like to rename it “Great Love,” since doing any of these things without love is meaningless. And besides, fasting has such a negative ring to it—it’s about something we should NOT do, whereas prayer and almsgiving are about something we SHOULD do.

Much ado about semantics? I don’t think so. But while I’m trying to pray more and give more and love more—not only during Great Lent but all year long—I’m always struggling with the fasting thing. Each year during this season I look for help with this. This week I found something that might help. It’s from Father Stephen Freeman’s blog. Father Stephen is an Orthodox priest in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This is from his blog, “Glory to God For All Things.” It’s called “Boundaries: Borders and the True God”:

Fasting is learning to eat with boundaries. There must be some times when I cannot eat some things so that I might learn how to rightly eat anything. The calendar is time with boundaries. There must be some days that are different from other days so that I might learn how to rightly live each day. The rules do not exist to protect certain foods or because one day differs from another. The rules are only for us as a medicine for our boundless egos. It is a very good thing to learn that you are not God. It is only there that we will learn what it means to truly exist.

fast_edited-1A medicine for our boundless egos. (Read the entire article to learn more about what he means by the ego.)

This is surely something I need for my soul. Maybe if I focus on loving God (something I struggle with greatly) and others more than myself I can embrace those boundaries of fasting… maybe a little bit.

Meanwhile, I’m renaming the season. For me it’s going to be “The Great Love.”

Writing on Wednesday: The Right to Write

John-Geddes-Quotes-Authority-670x426Last night I met with my writing critique group. In addition to “workshopping” manuscripts, we discuss all sorts of related (and unrelated) topics that swirl around our writing lives. One that came up last night was blogging. Why it’s a good thing for some writers and not for others. There are four people in our writing group who blog. There are lots of reasons for not blogging (time-consuming; can eat up your creative energies) and plenty of successful authors don’t have blogs. But for me it’s a way to be connected with others while pursuing the lonely work of writing. Not only connected with my readers—although that’s the number one benefit to me—but also connected to other writers through their blogs.

Nancy Nordenson

Nancy Nordenson

I can’t remember how I discovered Nancy Nordenson’s blog. Maybe on Twitter. Nordenson is a freelance medical writer by day, and by night she blogs and writes books. One has been published so far: Just Think. A second book, Finding Livelihood, will be out in April. One of her recent posts addresses the issue of authority—the author’s “right to write” about a certain topic. I think the writer’s authority comes into question more often with nonfiction than with fiction, but it’s also important that the fiction writer either writes from personal experience or observation of the events she describes, or that she does lots of excellent research. In my novel, Cherry Bomb, both are true, and I’m pleased that the editor I’m working with recognizes this, as she comments in the feedback she sent me:

The novel seems well-researched, and there’s a sense of authorial confidence in writing about these subjects.

Some of what the editor references is the result of my research, especially into the worlds of graffiti and Abstract Expressionism. But some of it comes from my own life experience. I was sexually abused. I was part of a cult-like group. I did go to icon workshops at monasteries and learn to write (paint) icons. I have seen weeping icons. And Saint Mary of Egypt is my patron saint. Although it’s certainly not necessary to creating a good book, we often do “write what we know.” But if we don’t “know” everything, do we have the “right to write?” Nordenson addresses this:

Writers who write from the position of expert, those who make promises of new and improved lives for their readers, do have a high burden of proof to meet. Evidence must support claims. Writers who write from the position of being shoulder-to-shoulder with readers have a different kind of burden of proof to meet, but perhaps just as high: that they’ve thought deeply about their subject and written honestly and with eyes open.

indexI love this. The expert does have more at risk—a reputation to protect. Something to prove. But the writer without the PhD at the end of her name also has the burden of sharing her story (especially with fiction) or her memoir or her plan for self-improvement or enlightenment (more so with nonfiction) with her readers. She has the burden, but she also has the right. As Nordenson (who has a Master of Fine Arts degree in nonfiction writing) says:

I hope that gives you readers of this blog encouragement or permission, if you had any doubt and need that, to write about whatever topic is calling to you, whether or not you have a PhD – or MDiv or BA – at the end of your name.

 

Mental Health Monday: Ebony and Ivory… Brain Food

MikeSusanPianoMarch1960I took piano lessons for seven years when I was a kid. My teacher was old school—we were only allowed to play classical music. But of course I saved my pennies and bought contemporary songs to play just for fun. I especially loved the songs from Broadway musicals like South Pacific and The Sound of Music. But I also had fun learning to play the latest popular music of the ‘60s. It’s too bad I don’t have any of that sheet music any more. Or the piano I learned on—the one my brother, Mike, and I played duets on when we were in elementary and junior high school. When we sold a large house in 2001 to scale down, we gave the piano to the young couple who bought the house. They had two little boys who wanted to take piano lessons, and the piano fit just perfectly in the front “parlor.” So we left it. And I haven’t had time to miss it until recently.

I’ve been busy these past fourteen years since giving that piano away. First I got cancer. Recovery was swift and a few months later we sent our youngest child off to college. Empty nest. What to do? I spent the next seven years learning to write (paint) icons and teaching icon workshops and doing commissioned pieces. Finally I began to “play” around with some simple abstract pieces. But in 2006 (I know the dates overlap with the painting) I embraced writing seriously and poured myself into writing and publishing essays, and drafting novels and memoirs. This is where I am today, and it’s my one true passion.

kayboardBut like most folks with (self-diagnosed) ADD, I’m restless. And I need a “fun” creative outlet as a break from the writing. Listening to some piano music on Pandora recently, I began to miss playing and started considering how to get the music back into my life. I mentioned this to my husband and since my birthday is coming up, he agreed that I need an electronic keyboard. (We’re back in a large house, so it’s tempting to get a real piano, but we’re not looking for that type of investment right now.) So I started researching and asked some musician-friends for advice. Then I headed out to Guitar Center and I’m already back home with my new Williams Allegro keyboard, stand, bench, and two books of piano music! Can’t wait to get it set up!

benefits-of-playing-piano-5-638Meanwhile (you’ve been waiting for a “Mental Health Monday” segue, right?) I found this article, “7 Ways Piano Playing Benefits Your Brain.” All 7 benefits are interesting (some are predictable) but I found this one the most intriguing:

The analysis of musical passages and learning the theory involved is another mental exercise when you play piano. It’s brain food at its finest. Chords, melodies and changes are all rooted in complex musical theory. It pays dividends to learn and understand how music is put together.

Who knew playing the piano was brain food? I just thought it was fun!

sheet music

keyboard etc

Faith on Friday: The Mystery of Art

23654271I’ve been reading the book my husband gave me for Christmas this week. (It finally made its way up the queue.) The book is The Mystery of Art: Becoming an Artist in the Image of God by Jonathan Jackson. Five time Emmy-award-winning Jackson first caught my attention because he’s an actor—he plays Avery Barkley, an up and coming musician, on the TV show “Nashville.” Jackson began his career over twenty years ago on the soap opera General Hospital, and he’s been in many feature films, most notably The Deep End of the Ocean, Tuck Everlasting, and Insomnia (with Al Pacino). He’s also lead singer in the band Enation. He and and his wife and three children are active members of an Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee.

When I learned that Jackson was Orthodox (like me) I was intrigued and immediately became a fan of “Nashville.” The Mystery of Art has only increased my respect for him as an artist—musician, actor and writer. He grapples with so many of the same things that fill my reflective hours. From the Introduction:

Is the life of the Christian antithetical or complementary to the vocation of an artist? Are they hostile to one another or deeply connected? The purpose of this book is to open a dialogue between the Christian Soul and the mystery of art.

SusanwMoOlympiaAbout twenty years ago I was in what I’ve come to call my “radical convert” spiritual phase. For several years I cut myself off from “the world’s” culture—from television, movies, and secular literature and art. I had become convinced that these things were dangerous and counter to my purpose as an Orthodox Christian. But the artist inside was screaming to get out of the prison in which I had placed her. My only outlets for those desires were “Christian” art (I became an iconographer) and writing (I published our church newsletter and wrote and directed children’s Christmas plays.) The only music I listened to was liturgical—mostly the Byzantine and Slavonic music of my church.

 

MareOnce I came out of that radical phase of my life I made several abrupt changes. I quit writing icons (I wrote about that here.) I began to listen to secular music. I dabbled in abstract art. And I began writing seriously. Over the next eight years I published a dozen or more essays—three of which appear in anthologies. I wrote four book-length manuscripts—one of which I’m now revising for publication. And I fell in love with the art of acting. Not for me (my last dramatic performance was in our high school’s production of Our Town back in 1967) but for the enjoyment of watching the artists bring the stories to life on television and in the movies. I appreciate the writing of those stories as much as the acting.

Jackson talks about the spiritual life throughout this wonderful book, making it clear from the beginning that “the true artist within must be the Holy Spirit.” He talks about the power of the artist to affect culture (as opposed to running away from it, as I did):

Politicians can write as many laws as they wish, but they will never change the heart of the culture. This belongs to the artists—and we do battle in the heart for the soul of society…. An artist is one of the caretakers of the spiritual health of humanity.

He explains that this power can be used for good or for evil:

Producing films in which pornography is depicted in a comedic manner or in which the systematic slaughter of innocent people is glorified changes the culture. The artist is placed within this cultural dynamic to bring about the return of the prodigal world to the beauty of life.

That’s a high calling. But one I’m listening to as I work on revisions to my novel. There are sections which the editor (and a couple of trusted early readers) felt are too graphic/explicit. I didn’t create those scenes (of sexual abuse) to distract the reader from the story, but evidently they do. As I revise them now I’m keeping in mind Jackson’s words:

The artist is not a prude or a fundamentalist—he is not afraid to show the depths of darkness or the honesty of life. But when he is called to portray the ugliness of humanity, he will not glorify it…. He will weep as he paints and tremble as he sings. The spiritual artist will pray for the life of the world as he portrays its desperate need for healing.

Wow.  I know I’m quoting a lot here, but his words are inspiring me even as I type them:

When he creates, the artist seeks to transform the atmosphere. He seeks to affect the heart and infuse the mind with glimpses of beauty and darkness.

JONATHAN JACKSONGlimpses of beauty and darkness. I can do that. I can chose to use my art to glorify God and His creation rather than glorifying sin and suffering. And although Jackson agrees with the common thinking that most artists are somewhat mad, he says that the artist has a choice:

Will he create for the glory of his small story or for the eternal glory of God? Will his art be an offering for his own ego—or for the life of the world?… Story is man’s participation in the brilliance of God.

I’m only half way through with this book, so this isn’t a full “book review,” and I’m sure I will discover more wisdom and inspiration in the second half. I’ll close today with one more nugget:

The artist must transcend, or he will die…. Everyone, whether in joy or sorrow, imagination or intellect, wisdom or naivety, holiness or nirvana, crucifixion or law, all must break through some shadow or wall, look beyond, above, or within… gaze past a visible horizon, an altar, or a trend, wound something, tear something, or mend… all must become something in the end…all must transcend.

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