Walking on Water
Cosmos from Chaos
The apple trees in the orchard at Crosswicks are growing old. Last winter the beautiful green pie-apple tree died during the ice storms. This summer I notice that the leafing of some of the others is thin. A neighboring farmer friend tells me that these trees have been “winter killed.”
When the children were little we used to tie presents, presents and balloons, on the trees for summer birthdays. This year the willow by the north meadow was hung with balloons and a big basket of blooming ivy-geraniums as we prepared for a spring wedding. A lot of water has run under the stone bridge of the brook since the birthday trees. The pebbly shoreline of Dog Pond, where the children learned to swim, has been tarred for motorboat launching, so that the utter stillness of the lake is often broken. But there is still a pattern to the summers which I hope will never change, a lovely kaleidoscope of family and friends coming and going. Quite a few of the photographs taken at the time of this spring’s wedding show me in a typical position, standing at the stove, stirring something. In the summer I seem to spend my days between the stove and the typewriter, with time out for walking the dogs to the brook, bearing the big red clippers which help to clear the paths.
I sit on my favourite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busyness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.
This spring I was given two posters which I find helpful in reminding me to take being time. (Both givers must have known I needed the message.) A few weeks before the wedding I ran impetuously out to the dark garage to turn on the outside light and rammed into a cardboard cat carrier--mere cardboard, mind you!--and broke the third metatarsal bone in my foot. I have frequently taken mammoth, crashing tumbles without breaking a bone. What a way to do it now! Humiliating, to say the least, and my children rub it in by emphasizing the cardboard.
“Can you stay off your feet for six weeks?” the doctor asked.
“No, I’m off day after tomorrow for a ten-day lecture tour all over Ohio. Then we have the wedding, and then I get my grandchildren for a week . . .”
So off I went, leg in cast, via wheelchair and crutches and elegant pre-boarding on planes. The first poster was given me on my second stop, the Convent of the Transfiguration near Cincinnati, where I was conducting a retreat. The poster tells me: Listen to the silence. Stay open to the voice of the Spirit.
The second poster came a month later, when I was out of the cast but still on crutches, sent me by Luci Shaw, who is largely responsible for my struggling to write this book. It shows a covered bridge in the autumn, very much like the covered bridge we drive through en route to Crosswicks, and it echoes my need: Slow me down, Lord.
Good messages. When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you.
This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying and being, is behind the telling of stories around tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animals on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn. It is part of the deepest longing of the human psyche, a recurrent ache in the hearts of all of God’s creatures.
So when the two messages, Listen to the silence. Stay open to the voice of the Spirit, and Slow me down, Lord, came, I was forced to listen, and even to smile as I heard myself saying emphatically to Luci, “No, I most certainly do not want to write about being a Christian artist,” for I realized that the very vehemence of my reaction meant that perhaps I should, in fact, stop and listen. The Holy Spirit does not hesitate to use any method at hand to make a point to us reluctant creatures.
Why is it that I, who have spent my life writing, struggling to be a better artist, and struggling also to be a better Christian, should feel rebellious when I am called a Christian artist? Why should I feel reluctant to think or write about Christian creativity?
It’s more than just that I feel the presumption of someone like me--wife, grandmother, storyteller--attempting such a task. I wouldn’t even consider it had I not already struggled with it in talks which Mel Lorentzen, Bea Batson, and others in the English department at Wheaton College have pulled out of me. It was some of these faltering lectures which caused Luci and Harold Shaw to ask me to expand my thoughts into a book. And then came Ayia Napa.
Probably it was Ayia Napa that clinched it. When Dr. Marion van Horne asked me to come to Ayia Napa, in Cyprus, for two weeks, how could I resist? I love to travel. My brief trip several years ago to Greece and the Greek islands made me love the incredible blue and gold air of this land where Apollo drove his chariot across the sky, where John brought the mother of Jesus, where Pythagorus walked on the beach, and where Paul preached a message of love even more brilliant than the sun.
Who could resist a trip to Cyprus? To teach at a conference on literature and literacy for delegates from twenty-two underdeveloped and developing countries all over the world, delegates whose only common denominator was Christianity--every denomination and brand and variety of Christianity. And what was I being asked to lecture about? The Christian artist.
Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. If it’s good art . . . and there the questions start coming, questions which it would be simpler to evade.
In college I read some aesthetics: Plato, Aristotle; a great chronological jump to Lamb, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Pater, Ruskin. Plato spoke of the necessity for divine madness in the poet. It is a frightening thing to open oneself to this strange and dark side of the divine; it means letting go of our sane self-control, that control which gives us the illusion of safety. But safety is only an illusion, and letting it go is part of listening to the silence, and to the Spirit.
Plato also wrote--and I lettered this in firm italic letters and posted it on my dorm-room door--All learning which is acquired under compulsion has no hold upon the mind.
I’m not sure he was right there. During my school and college years I learned a good bit under at least moderate compulsion. I’d never have taken math or science had they been optional (but I enjoyed the poster on my dormitory door!).
What I remember from Ruskin is the phrase the cursed animosity of inanimate objects, which I mutter under my breath when I get in a tangle of wire coat hangers. I also wonder if there is any such thing as an inanimate object.
From Coleridge comes the phrase the willing suspension of disbelief, that ability to believe which is born firmly in all children, and which too often withers as we are taught that the world of faerie and imagination is not true.
Aristotle reinforces Coleridge when he writes, That which is impossible and probable is better than that which is possible and improbable.
Not long after I was out of college I read Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art? I approached it with reverence and hope. Surely this great writer would provide me with the definitive definition, would show me all the answers. He didn’t, and I was naive to expect him to. Generally what is more important than getting watertight answers is learning to ask the right questions.
What do they have in common, all these people I read in college and thereafter? All men, and all dead. Their distance from us in chronology seems to give them overwhelming authority. But they were not dead when they wrote, and they were as human as the rest of us. They caught colds in damp weather and had occasional pimples in adolescence. I like to think that they enjoyed making love, spending an evening with friends, tramping through the woods with the dogs. The fact that they were men simply speaks for their day when women may have been powers behind the throne, but they were kept behind it.
Whatever possessed these writers to sit down and write their views on the creative process? Maybe they were prodded, as I have been, and maybe at least a few of them hesitated at the presumption of it.
All right. So it’s an impossible task. But thinking about it may open new questions, new insights. And as I listen to the silence, I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory. It is what makes me respond to the death of an apple tree, the birth of a puppy, northern lights shaking the sky, by writing stories.
Recently I picked up a New Yorker on a plane trip and saw a cartoon of two men at a bar, one a great muscular hulk of a man, and the other half his size, scrawny and ineffectual looking. And the small man is saying, “. . . but I repeat, this is only my very, very, humble, humble opinion.” Just so, I offer my very, very, humble, humble opinion on the vast topic of the Christian and art.
I go to the dictionary, and it isn’t much help. Both Webster’s Collegiate and the Concise Oxford report that a Christian is a person believing in the religion of Christ. As for art, in both these dictionaries it is limited to skill, as “skill, especially human skill as opposed to nature; skill applied to imitation and design, as in painting, etc.; a thing in which skill may be exercised; those in which mind and imagination are chiefly concerned.”
Skill may be learned, and if art is merely a skill, then it can be acquired by anybody, and being a painter would merely be the equivalent of being a good dentist’s technician or a practiced butcher.
It is an honourable thing to be a dentist’s technician or a butcher, but neither would claim to be a creator.
Leonard Bernstein tells me more than the dictionary when he says that for him music is cosmos in chaos. That has the ring of truth in my ears and sparks my creative imagination. And it is true not only of music; all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. At least all Christian art (by which I mean all true art, and I’ll go deeper into this later) is cosmos in chaos. There’s some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words. As far as I can see, the reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian.
e. e. cummings lauds the beauty of cosmos as he sings,
i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday, this is the birth
day of life and love and wings; and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
now the ears of my ears are awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened
And the psalmist sings, “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is: blessed is the man who trusteth in him” and “The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament showeth his handiwork. . . .”
And I rejoice. But I have no idea what “denomination” or “brand” of faith cummings professed, if any, and the psalmist who wrote those lines died long before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. So perhaps the reason I shuddered at the idea of writing something about “Christian art” is that to paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity. The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birth-giver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary, who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.
Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.
As for Mary, she was little more than a child when the angel came to her; she had not lost her child’s creative acceptance of the realities moving on the other side of the everyday world. We lose our ability to see angels as we grow older, and that is a tragic loss.
God, through the angel Gabriel, called on Mary to do what, in the world’s eyes, is impossible, and instead of saying, “I can’t,” she replied immediately. “Be it unto me according to thy word.”
God is always calling on us to do the impossible. It helps me to remember that anything Jesus did during his life here on earth is something we should be able to do, too.
When spring-fed Dog Pond warms up enough for swimming, which usually isn’t until June, I often go there in the late afternoon. Sometimes I will sit on a sun-warmed rock to dry, and think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus. As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.