Empty Walls

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

It was oddly emotional when the realtor suggested I remove all the art from the walls before we show the house. With our bid accepted on a property with more space and more opportunities, I pressed her for details on how to prepare our current home for the market.

I felt I was putting my heart in a box. Turning my friends -my art- away and hiding them in the box. Evenings would pass without musing on that painting. Mornings pass without looking at those wedding photos. My eyes hold their own rituals traveling the well-known paths of my decor as I walk around the home. It is comforting, calming, and fills my heart with joy. Why was I stuffing all the things I find beautiful in a box? What would I do without these things?

Now, the walls are clear, much of the furniture removed, clutter cleared away. It is still my home, but now the home speaks for itself.

 

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Instead of resting my eyes on the antique frames and personal mementos, the scenery rolls by and from contemplating my surroundings, I turn inward and see what thoughts I can produce.

It is not much, to be honest. I mentally decorate our next home. I review what areas I can pack up next. And then I am stuck. After a day or so, the thought dawns on me, “oh, I could think about my writing.”

Distraction and stimulation come in different forms: sixteen computer tabs, message alert chimes, the screaming if bickering siblings. I learned to contemplate, to fix my mind on something and take it in, the ancient and non-denominational form of mindfulness when my thoughts would ruminate on thoughts too painful to bear.

Much of psychology draws on spiritual traditions. In ancient times, healthy practices developed that helped people. Without a psychological or scientific vocabulary, these were often defined and interpreted in a spiritual tradition. The practice now is to take the technique for its physical or psychological benefits and leave the religious aside. Thus, talk of mindfulness without Buddhism; yoga without Hinduism, meditation without Christianity. We ask how does this practice just on its own, apart from religion?

In the Christian tradition, there are three types of prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, contemplation.

In the first, we find praise, thanksgiving, and petition. From petition, we extrapolate the power of naming our needs and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to ask for them. In thanksgiving, the practice of gratitude. In praise, the awareness of something greater than ourselves at work in the world, in the universe.

Meditation translates to actively using one’s imagination to explore a concept, an idea, or a story. It is mental work to discover some truth contained in the tale.

Contemplation, like mindfulness, lets the thing to be discovered come to me. I allow myself to just be, and in being, I become more open to that which there is to be discovered.

Although the three types are traditionally placed on a hierarchy, they ought not to exist in isolation. All three are necessary for wellbeing.

I listen to podcasts, then to artsy music. But can I sit in silence? Can I take the time to explore those conundrums presented, abstract ideas that are not pressing at all?

Someone presents an idea, as I saw happen on Facebook: government-sponsored home visits for new mothers, perhaps. Reactions abound. But sit and parse through it: my perspective, their perspective, my needs, needs of others who are not like me, practical concerns, how would it look, how would it work, if there was a better way- how would that work, what would it cost, would the powers-that-be be willing to adopt it.

The practically minded around us may say it is a waste of time to explore one idea so deeply. The busy among us will find little time to explore. But Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

It is the stuff of philosophers through the ages. It is the stuff of boredom. It is the stuff of empty walls.

A Girl and Her King: Into the Desert

The story of A Girl and Her King, joins the young protagonist as she grows in her commitment towards her good king. She is young and he is old. He teaches, her watches over her, protects her. He has taken her to the battlefield, the arena, and now asks her to find her place inside the calm environment of her old home, where challenges abound to test her dedication to him in even in the smallest matters. She does not yet know what form their love will take, if he will one day bring her to live with him in the palace, or request she stay in that quiet home forever. But willing to wait, she receives the lessons he has in store for her.

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He took her to a small palace to rest. Why did he take her, she wondered. So many many possible reasons. What were they? It was a great distance they traveled. Why? Philothea felt separated, relaxed, so able to be quiet, so able to be tired. She was happy. There was no pressure; there were no commitments. Even away from the king and his throne room, the girl wrote him letters.

In this little castle, it was beautiful, with red, purplish skies, clouds streaming across them, old fashioned lamps, two fountains, and four palm trees. How stunningly beautiful. Philothea spent her time inside but wanted to take the time just to be out in this beauty.

She was with children. Philothea did not fear the creatures that followed her and hid in cluttered places. Children frighten them away.

Philothea loved rain. So she loved fountains or any place where water fell in streams, in little drops. She remembered, back inside the walls there were baskets of flowers: too high to see the flowers, but when they were watered it poured out from the bottom, straight down in a line. How beautiful it was.

Philothea considered this weekend in the little castle as she sat beside the fountain. She had become very sensitive to noise, so the king gave her silence. He put her near six children but he gave her silence. He gave her two long conversations and one note filled with love and friendship while she was away and all in one day. They had yet another day to fulfill.

The water fell and the light reflected through the drops. Philothea was gay; she was pensive, resting. It was good to rest, good to be quiet.

Philothea made observations of one companion. What should she do with this information? She was so aware of it while with him. The king kept her in company older than she. She was an adult now, but still very much a child. Philothea saw many eager to marry. She watched it, in love with her king, knowing it would take something mighty to complete her the way he did. But if there was someone he thought was for her, so she would serve him better and one day reach his palace more perfected, he would show her. And they would also have love, a different love, but it would be full and always new.

For once, Philothea rested from these reflections. For once, she did not care. This weekend, she simple loved the king and let tomorrow take care of itself. Once she worried so much. Philothea could now look at her faults and see the good, even in them. It was okay to have faults. It meant she was real. She needed her king terribly. She was always doing little things that were not right. How to fix them? Philothea supposed by allowing the king to teach her, and for her to listen. Clean the inside of the cup first, accept the faults inside her. If she simply swallowed them, kept it inside, what good would it do? She had to expose it, be honest, not hide it, not delight it, but expose it in order to make it clean. This was the way of love and growth in virtue.

Yes, Philothea was very tired. Perhaps, she should go to sleep.

 …

Even though it might have been coincidence, she took the liberty of telling her king that if he gave her a rose, what each color rose meant for her and in effect, what message he would convey to her through them. It was presumptuous of her, she knew that, and she told her very good king that the “marry-me” colors (red) and the “wait-for-me” colors (white) and the “fight-for-me-I’ll-give-you-glory” colors (yellow) might very well be flexible, but when she saw the pink roses in his arms for her, she knew it was for love, a very sweet little treasure from him to her. No, those were non-negotiable. They were for her. Once she walked into the palace, she had to double take and see that he was handing her several dozens of pink roses. Some things were so simple as that.

 

Of course, her good little friend from the court explained the love of a father to a child who removes the stones from the path before the child could trip on them. Should the child find out all such effort, would he not be even more grateful than the child who trips and is always so gently picked up by his father?

So in all reality, her king had protected her and she was only unaware of it; unaware of the mud she collected from the rocks, unaware that the moments he cared for her. He was carrying her over rocks she would have somehow managed to trip over no matter where they were on the path. She saw only after the battle that he hated the presence of those creatures, frightening and tormenting his beloved, keeping her from him. He hated it so much, but he loved her still and stood by doing all that he would to keep her safe. Until the day he delivered her all together from danger.

Oh the fights that took place while she slept! Little did she know he had appointed a guard to protect her at night. Indeed, those hideous beasts would crawl out from hiding and creep very close to her in bed. How many nights had the guard saved her? She would never know because she had been asleep. Yes, in the future one might tell her and it would only add to her amazement at the King’s concern. So she had always been protected, only now he allowed her to see him move the stones away. She looked at the ground while he lifted her over them.

Beside the fountain the king sat beside Philothea. He gave her little miniature pink roses. She looked up at him. He was wearing his golden crown. He looked very high and majestic. But she knew he was her same little king. She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. She felt so far away from him. He reassured her, “you’re not.” As he said it he brushed a lock of hair back behind her ear. “It seems like it, doesn’t it?” Philothea nodded. The love overwhelmed her. She walked around laughing and smiling. Her life was dedicated to him. He filled her. There seemed to be more traffic inside the walls. “You were scared of many things,” he told her.

“I still am,” she told him.

“Yes. Yes, you are. They’re very little though. You’re scared of very little things.”

The king explained to her, “I’ve given my heart to everyone.”

“I know.”

“It doesn’t hurt like you think it will. There’s a different balance to it.”

“I know.” She waited for him to tell her what it was.

He continued, “You’re learning a lot right now and you already know the answers. You know how to grow closer to me and you know how to protect yourself. They are very small walls for you to climb over, not even three feet tall. You’re doing fine. I am your heart. Remember. It is not like it once was. Your heart is mine. See, you don’t even recognize it anymore.” It was true. Every time she looked at her heart all she could see was his.

Her mother once asked her how she knew the king was the one. “When I look at his heart,” she said, “I see mine there with it.” Now, his saying “I am your heart” was true because as she looked at her heart she could see that it was a little drop of water. It had fallen and disappeared into the vast stretch of the ocean. Only his heart remained inside her.

Reflection on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 5, Talk 3

We come to the final section of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings, a series of reflections on art and contemplation. Follow the links to read my reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. Below is my reflection on the third talk of this final section.

Vita Contemplativa—The Contemplative Life

Contemplation, c. 1875 by Thomas Couture (French, 1815 – 1879)

What is contemplation?

“It’s immediate and direct meaning indicates seeing, beholding, perceiving some reality

“…To contemplate means first of all to see—and not to think!

“…Also contains a special intensified way of seeing. – The gift of retaining and preserving in one’s own memory whatever has been visually perceived.”

“…it certainly perceives more than mere appearances.”

To see and not to think. Thus are more of the Church’s mystics women rather than men. There is something in the nature of woman that enables her to simply sit, to enjoy, to delight. She does it most naturally with her children, perhaps in a quieter age. So this features opens her up more easily to contemplate, to actively receive, to see the divine. Man is able as well, but woman has a particular inclination to simply sit and watch and see. Typically, man would analyze, and act.

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See how she delights in nature, while he is actively destroying it.

I am not so simply made that I think this is always the case. My incredible levels of energy cause me to do quite often. But I see between my husband and myself a difference. Although I am the achiever and one more likely to want to discuss, between us, I am the one who can more easily sit with the children, just sit, not think, just be and watch.

This piercing of the word contemplation also calls to mind my work, as in an earlier section. I must sit and contemplate the information and the person presented to me.

“The eyes see better when guided by love; a new dimension of “seeing” is opened up by love alone! And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance!”

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Vincent VanGogh, Women Miners Carrying Coal, 1881-82

“And yet, nothing in this affirming closeness to reality smacks of false idealization, nothing is embellished as if all reality were wholesome and without rough edges.”

I think back to an earlier reflection on the art of the work I do, working with people. I must see them as they are, with love, in order to give them what will really help them. It is not uncommon for me by myself to take a moment after meeting with a troubled client to contemplate the story they have shared. I do not analyze it. I take it in, I let it “simmer” so to speak. Inspiration comes.

“Those who have seen enough…who are satisfied with the outward appearance of things, may easily be content with contriving some smooth and crowd-pleasing yet shallow fabrication.”

 I hear stories often about therapists who have not been helpful, who have rambled or given simple strategies but not fully entered into the story the client has shared. I suppose they have seen enough.

We cannot contemplate in a crowd. It calls for silence, for us to be alone. I have always needed to see art alone. I am an extrovert. I am too inclined too talk, too inclined to awareness of the feelings of those around me. When I am alone, I could stay and look and remember that the art evokes. I could really take time for prayer.

the mission:

If we grant Pieper the truth of his statements, art becomes a teaching tool for children. If children are surrounded by beautiful art and given space from technology and media, they will have the opportunity to recall, to allow the great art to resonate inside them before they even have words to recognize it. They will be too young to sit and contemplate. But if we believe it to be true, opportunities will create a greater facility to contemplate and to love, to understand deeper mysteries of the universe. It is a tall order, but if we believe it to be true, it can do great things.

It will do great things if we allow our senses to be restored to the real. First, the church’s were stripped of their art, their tactile and aural references to the divine. Second, technology came about to help facilitate active participation by project song lyrics on the blank wall. The artist in me recoils at the thought! When people desired some color or change to the building, they hung plain banners, for art had grown too foreign and expensive in the culture. Or too ugly.

But art has great power. Harnessing that power, bringing art and beauty back into the life of the Everyman, we can re-awake his consciousness to the divine. He can see again and be reminded that life is more than simply the task at hand or the news on the screen. There could be hope. There could be joy. There could be a festival.

Reflection on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 5, Talk 2

We come to the final section of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings, a series of reflections on art and contemplation. Follow the links to read my reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. Below is my reflection on the second talk of this final section.

Those “Guests at the Festival”

In the first section of Only the Lover Sings, Pieper explores the nature of a feast and the ability to celebrate a feast. He described the “festive contemplation of universal realities and their sustaining reasons” as the key to leisure. In this section he tells us, the festive character is “at the same time the remembrance of primordial bliss and the anticipation of future fulfillment.” It is for this task we need the poet and the artist. Understanding the celebration of feasts, Pieper finds the “connection between fine arts and festival becomes evident. Both build on a loving acceptance of the world and of human existence.”

“What good are poets in barren times?” he quotes. Indeed. This line strikes me, as Pieper interprets these barren times to be those times when we have lost the ability to celebrate a feast, to be at leisure, to contemplate our original state, the purpose for which we live, and the promise that lies before us. I feel myself living in these barren times.

In a rural land, little time is spent in such leisurely pursuits. The questions seem superfluous to many, as do the arts. Why would you drive a distance, spend two hours listening to an orchestra when you could be home, doing something? Music in the liturgy becomes utilitarian, meant for people to participate, rather than an instrument to lead us to contemplation. Barren times. When one is struggling to fulfill the bottom levels of the hierarchy of needs, he cannot see any benefit to those spiritual pursuits which seem so distant from his immediate needs.

And yet, we are not so rural here. We go to grocery stores, have neighbors within fifty feet, do not own livestock. Yet the mindset persists. It can be so difficult for an artist to find their place in a town, where neither religion or community tradition occupy the central space of culture, only existence, one step to the next, one click to the next, mindlessly, numbingly walking through life without stopping observe the flowers in bloom or the warmth of the sun. Barren times.

The hierarchy of needs it not fully accurate because we are made by God. Therefore the spiritual can imbue each level with life, making up for deficits. Suffering at each level becomes filled with meaning and is then bearable. So art and beauty at any level are a benefit to man, they can remind him of a life worth fighting for.

Chinese peasant painting, Lantern Festival, kids
Watching Lanterns by Wang Jinxi

 

 

 

Reflection on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 5, Talk 1

We come to the final section of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings, a series of reflections on art and contemplation. Follow the links to read my reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. In my attempt to finish this reflection, I come to realize I need to divide my posts it into two separate reflections.

Three talks in a sculptor’s studio

On a special occasion, Pieper presents this series of three talks in the studio of a sculptor. In his first talk, he considers the mythology of the Muses, who inspire remembrance. Remembrance of what?

“Something that all too readily is ignored and “lost”—precisely because it is ‘different’ —yet must not be forgotten if our existence is to remain truly human.”

Giovanni Strazza’s Veiled Virgin

Art evokes a memory in us of paradise, of what it truly means to be human. As there are “large areas of reality in danger of being thus forgotten” the role of the artist is revealed with greater depth.

“Here we somehow sense the artist’s inner relationship to the priest, who is called, above all, to keep alive the remembrance of a face that our intuition just barely perceives behind all immediate and tangible reality—the face of the God-man, bearing the marks of a shameful execution.”

Goethe refers to the artist as “someone called to be the custodian and eager herald of an avowed sacred reality.”

First, the artist:

What a massive undertaking! The risk of distraction, losing direction and aim arises. An artist may have great technical skill, but if the artwork lacks substance, “such a product, above all, contains no remembrance nor any power to elicit remembrance, and thus has nothing to do with the Muses.” The artist must shield himself from the numbing of thought and attention that occurs when one takes in the culture and the life on the internet and the endless onslaught of images. A good artist would have to take to the hills or to the sea; to seek solitude as Anne Morrow Lindbergh reminds us, in order to reach that quiet place inside oneself, where one can breathe and create again. We cannot remember in constant noise. We cannot create. We must retreat. The artist will not find his muse without the quiet of his studio, his interior hide-a-way.

What if he does not? What is the danger other than banality? Ugliness. And I don’t mean modernity, but the kind of image that makes one desire to turn away and erase it from their mind. Because art is a powerful thing. The ugliness by an artist who has ceased to believe that life matters, that there is purpose and meaning, invites the viewer into his emptiness and says “you belong here too.”

I think there is devastating art by artists full of despair, but their art reveals a longing for something greater.

Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity) by Vincent van Gogh

It is that art which has no longing that hurts us, that I refer to. Sigrid Undset is a beloved author of mine, author of Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken. Before those novels, before her conversion, she wrote a novel called Jenny. I would describe the plot as watching the deterioration of a young woman, and it is devastating. Undset’s insight into the person is remarkable, but at the end I am shaken. I experienced a similar feeling after watching Revolutionary Road, a film about the deterioration of a marriage.

Second, the viewer:

Turning from the ugly to the banal. We can recognize such art. If one is sensitive to this sight, or remembrance, he or she will find that art without substance evokes nothing. It leaves us empty, without reaction.

Our Lady of Grace Painting

It’s nice, but does it leave us with any other feeling? Doesn’t our Lady look bored? I imagine the church goers who feel the same. They simply sit. Nothing stirs them. Some preachers simply speak louder and for a moment might have their attention. But when the preacher’s speech is banal, the viewer settles back into his pew.

When in town to interview for graduate school, I wandered around the Smithsonian museum. I happened upon a replica of this piece, The Kiss. I was so struck by it, I paused and took it in. Oughtn’t I be embarrassed by it? But I was not. It was beautiful, striking, and spoke to something deep inside. The passion with which she holds him, the delicacy of his hand which slightly touches her, but will not grasp. The artist, inspired by his muse, whether he realizes it or not, recalls the original innocence and self-gift John Paul II illuminates in the Theology of the Body. I do not think I have ever seen a more beautiful statue, and this photograph hardly does it justice.

The Kiss, marble sculpture by Auguste Rodin, 1886; in the Rodin Museum, Paris.

I should use a closer comparison to the bored Virgin Mary, now. Below is Bouguereau’s Piet, which you can see in San Francisco’s Legion of Honor.

Bouguereau’s Piet

Great art must be view in person. It is only in person that can you can be drawn into the depth of her suffering in her eyes, into the largeness of her suffering by examining the weight of Christ upon her. This is art with substance, which recalls, which invokes.

 

Reflections while reading Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 1

 

 

 

As a child, there was just something different about me, different from the rest of my family and the people I met at church or at school. I hardly knew what that difference was. I enjoyed play outside, like any child. I had a deep imagination and richly patterned tapestries put together during that play. In 5th grade, a friend received attention in class for writing a poem. Desiring the same attention, I began to write poetry. I wrote and wrote and wrote and the thing became something I desired for its own sake. In 6th grade, I began to write stories. I fancied myself a great novelist, destined to be famous. This was an important development from my days of singing loudly in the front yard while I swung on my play set, imagining a radio producer would drive by and discover me.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. Deep imaginative worlds. Richly patterned tapestries. My play dissolved, as is common, in junior high; the writing continued. I did not see at the time how much of myself I put into the main characters of these stories. The stories had to reach 100 pages, because that was the predetermined length I set for myself that would make it a real novel.

In 7th or 8th grade, while staying over at my best friend’s house I stayed up late speaking with her brother, a year or two older than she, who was two or three years old than me. There was something about that conversation, which I can no longer remember, that changed forever how I wrote. I learned about detail and description in that conversation. Now my tapestries were no longer patterned only in my head but on the computer screen as well.

With my conversion came an inclination to scruples and rather than my visions of grandeur, I pictured writing as a gift bestowed by God, an emotional outlet, a fantastical escape, a gift which he might choose to take away at any time. Each story I finished, I feared it would be my last.

One day it was my last, a story I began while serving as a missionary, which, if you have been reading this blog are familiar with. Called A Girl and Her King, it follows my adventures in prayer, not much else. It is neither descriptive nor imaginative, I think, but felt inspired as I wrote. I’ve not written any fiction since, though I have since learned that God is not the type of giver I once imagined him.

Beyond that story, which is a treasure to me, there are only three stories I would care to look back on. The first is called Mary’s Fairytale, about a girl who has no family and whose young brother whom she cared for died suddenly. She is alone and searching for meaning in the world. She finds Christ.

The second is Velveteen. The main character, also a girl, also lonely, at odds with her sister, who seeks meaning and purpose, a place in life where she is wanted and useful. She longs to see again a girl the family fostered for a short time who ran away. The girl represents everything the main character wants, the freedom to think and dream in a world where reality has made dreams unbearable.

The last is The Story of Marin. This story was an enigma to me for a long time. I find genuine ugliness in it, hopelessness, and sin. I shared the storyline with a fellow missionary, admitting that I had no idea how to finish the story, it seemed hopeless. I discovered the potential of relationships while serving that year, and in that sisterhood, I discovered a fulfilling relationship much needed by the main character. That relationship became a place of hope to lead her out of the darkness of her life.

In that year of missionary work, I also encountered people, in Oregon, who opened my eyes to the possibility that there were others like me: artists, poets. What is it exactly? That ability to see the world differently that makes some tasks others like so un-fulfilling and other tasks which bore to some to tears utterly engaging?

 

Josef Pieper seems to have some answers. In our book club we have begun reading Only the Lover Sings. In the first chapter, or essay rather, better yet, reflection, he explores the meaning of leisure and the claim by Aristotle “We work so we can have leisure.”

 

“For nothing less it at stake here than the ultimate fulfillment of human existence.”

 

“There do exist activities that are meaningful without being either work or mere respite (from work, for more work).” These are the liberal arts which are meaningful in themselves. Leisure is not mere play. It is the thing that sets us apart from animals. He does not say this here, but it is the thing that comes after the first few levels of the hierarchy of needs are fulfilled. It is the purpose for which we continue to invent machines to ease life’s burdens. It is art, as he calls it first, the liberal arts and they are the work that is meaningful in itself, not work done out of usefulness, to serve some other good.

 

He gives us two preconditions for work to be meaningful in itself.

  1. Receptive openness and attentive silence (unlike the concentrated exertion of work).
  2. Man’s willing acceptance of the ultimate truth “awareness of being in harmony with these fundamental realities and surrounded by them.” This acceptance enables man to celebrate a feast, to engage in leisure.

 

“Wherever the arts are nourished through the festive contemplation of universal realities and their sustaining reasons, there in truth something like a liberation occurs: the stepping-out into the open under an endless sky, not only for the creative artist himself but for the beholder as well, even the most humble.”

 

This was my experience writing. This was art for me. Though my imagination has cooled and the fantasies calmed, I still look at the world, look out my window and see the spiritual interwoven with the physical. I can sit and gaze, it does me no harm to do so, causes me no boredom. I decorate to create an interior space in which I can do this, gaze at the wall and take in the beauty of a particular color, or the shape of an arrangement.

And I write again. I photograph again. I look for the image, wait for the word to come, seek to find that inner voice which spills so willingly out my fingers while I type. It comes too quickly for my typing skill and so my words are usually riddled with errors. Oddly enough, the same happens when I write by hand.

I do not know if I should share more of my writing. I look back on it as child’s play, as I do the games with imaginary horses I played during recess on the playground. I’m not plagued with those visions of grandeur. Rather, it is a blank slate; I do not know what to think about it, except that it is special to me. Your responses are helpful. Your comments welcome. It is a pleasure for me to spill some digital ink before you, and I hope a welcome gift for you.