As I write this post I am thinking about several things that might appear disparate at first glance—like oddly matched fabric scraps. But stay with me as I try to show the thread that’s woven through all of them. We might end up with a crazy-quilt—ooops, my roots are showing again. But here goes…
These musings all started with the September 3 issue of Time Magazine—the one with “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa” on the cover. I was in Little Rock visiting a friend when the magazine came out, and she and I talked about the blessing these private letters of Mother Teresa could be to the world, as she gives us all permission to be human. (The fact that she asked that the letters be burned and never made public is another issue altogether, and it sounds a warning bell to all of us who write. My mother gave me a shoebox of letters she found at my grandmother’s house twenty years ago… letters I wrote to Mamaw from the time I was five until after I was married. I told her everything … because she was a “safe place”… or so I thought! I never have asked my mother if she read those letters before giving me the shoebox….)
Anyway, I’m anxious to read Come Be My Light (Mother Teresa’s letters) when it’s published, for a number of reasons. I’m hopeful that what we’ll find there is a woman who continued to serve God and others even in the spiritual droughts she experienced. As an Orthodox Christian, I’m familiar with the Church fathers’ teachings on how we experience God’s grace in our lives… and its absence. And I’m personally familiar with times of great awareness of God’s grace in my life as well as the times when I feel that He has removed His grace. Once when I was distraught about this, a wise spiritual person told me that God does this so that we’ll seek Him, and not just His gifts. Otherwise, His gifts (ecstasy in prayer, abiding peace in our hearts, freedom from depression and addictions) can become our reason for seeking Him. They can become replacements for other things that make us feel good, like food, sex, drugs, material things, the praise of men, etc.
Thinking about Mother Teresa reminds me of a women’s retreat I gave a couple of years ago at a church in Texas. My topic was “The Middle Way: Finding Balance in Our Lives.” One section of the retreat was about saints. Not to set the bar so high we can never reach it, but rather to encourage us to see what they saw… as artists and poets and writers often do in their crafts as seers—showing us what’s beyond our view. In the prologue to Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, a book about saints edited by Tomas Spidlik, we read:
There is a crowd of wings fluttering in our hearts: the holiness of the Holy One, of God, and the holiness of Christians sanctified in their faith and in their love. We have 20 centuries of the Church’s life in our blood. We are its heirs…. We are dwarfs; they are giants. We ought to know them in order to know ourselves better. We ought, as they used to say in the Middle Ages, to climb on their shoulders in order to see further.
Dwarfs on the shoulders of giants—that’s us… those of us who want to know ourselves better and see further. And what is it that we can see, standing on those shoulders? A way to holiness? A way to happiness? Are those goals in conflict with each other?
Dedicate (donate, give all) your life to something larger than yourself and pleasure—to the largest thing you can: to God, to relieving suffering, to contributing to knowledge, to adding to literature, or something else. Happiness lies this way, and it beats pleasure hollow.
This certainly describes what Mother Theresa did. And many of the saints. But also what each of us can do, whether we are writers or artists or poets or teachers or parents or businessmen or [fill in the blank]. It behooves us all to remember why we do whatever it is that we do. And to bring our whole selves into our work—our human selves, made in God’s image, and yet often covered in the dirty residue of doubt, loneliness, fear, and pain.
Which brings me to the final squares of this quilt—icons. I’m working on an article for a spiritual publication. I have titled the article “Icons Will Save the World.” They can save the world because they are incarnational art. They are visions of what we can become if we allow God to penetrate every aspect of our lives. They encourage us to take our humanity seriously, and not scorn the physical, materials things.
Taking our humanity seriously means being concerned about our responsibility to the world around us. John Chryssavgis (Beyond the Shattered Image) says that our generation is:
Characterized by a behavior that results from an autism with regard to the natural cosmos: a certain lack of awareness, or recognition, causes us to use, or even waste the beauty of the world…. We have disestablished a continuity between ourselves and the outside, with no possibility for intimate communion and mutual enhancement. The world of the icon, though, restores this relationship by reminding us of what is outside and beyond, what ultimately gives value and vitality.
Dostoevsky said beauty will save the world. I think the beauty of which he spoke includes art and literature and selfless giving by people like Mother Teresa, and icons. Sometimes when I’m writing (painting) icons, and even when I’m contemplating them, especially in church, I experience a psychological dimension as the icon invites my response to its spiritual beauty. The icon sanctifies our vision. It lifts us up—up onto the shoulders of giants—so that we can see. Icons are called “windows to heaven.” We could all use a little window-shopping.
*Lee Gutkind, the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is leading a Creative Nonfiction workshop at the University of Mississippi on September 29. The deadline to register is September 15. You can register online. Leave me a comment (click on “comments” at the end of this post) to let me know if you’re going. Or you can email me at email@example.com. Hope to see some of you there!