like a Sunday alms-box

like a Sunday alms-box

I was recently introduced to the Polish poet Anna Kamienska. As I walked the streets of Rome, post-crepe from a nearby shop, I read a poem she wrote about St. Edith Stein. It was providential because I have rather recently become quite intrigued with the life of Edith Stein. By all accounts, we have little in common and yet I can identify with her unasked for period of waiting for her desires to be fulfilled. I can only ask that I endure all future waiting with the hope and attentiveness to the present moment that she did.

So I read the words about Edith Stein, someone whose life overlapped Anna Kamienska’s, and wondered about this poet. I like poetry that uses surprising yet fitting word choice, poetry that paints rich pictures, poetry that points to a deeper truth in a perhaps unconventional way. I don’t like poetry that confuses me or seems to not make sense or offers no beauty. Reading through Anna Kamienska’s selected works in Astonishments, I have found several poems that I believe I will ponder, appreciate, and re-read during the upcoming days and weeks.

The one I’d like to direct your attention to is called “Gratitude”–something I am certain I will need to return to once the fall semester starts all-too-soon.

Continue reading “like a Sunday alms-box”

Holy Homesickness

Holy Homesickness

`My grandmother,’ I said in a low tone, `would have said that we were all in exile, and that no earthly house could cure the holy home-sickness that forbids us rest.’

Manalive, G.K. Chesterton

Sometimes, life feels a bit like a long exile. No place, regardless of how grand or beautiful, seems to work as a perfect home.

When I graduated from college (or maybe it was even before that point), I remember realizing that never again would all the people I love be in the same place. Friends scattered across the country in post-graduation searches for jobs. My heart had experienced profound beauty in multiple places around the world. It produced the aching reality that many places could be home and yet no one place or group of people were entirely home.

Walking the Camino a few years ago, I lived physically what I seem to live internally. I was a wandering pilgrim, looking for the end of the road and a consistent place to rest. So much of me aches and longs for Heaven because I desire a resting place, the place where there are no tears or separations or unfulfilled desires. A place of contentment, communion, and constancy–a home that can never pass away or be divided.

Holy homesickness.

In Chesterton’s Manalive, he speaks about a man who leaves his family in order to re-discover the joy of loving them again. He leaves home to discover home. It does seem to be the case that too often the familiar becomes overly ordinary or commonplace. When I was in Switzerland, I wondered who wouldn’t gape with awe at the majestic mountains that formed the backdrop to the hostel I stayed in for a couple days. Probably the Swiss.

Continue reading “Holy Homesickness”

A Beauty Filled Life

A Beauty Filled Life

As I walked the Camino, I found within myself a longing for beauty.  Mile after mile passed beneath my feet and I made commitments to myself about how I would like to live my post-Camino life.

Read poetry every day.
Look at new artwork.
Listen to classical music.

All of those commitments and ideas didn’t translate as neatly into my reality as I had hoped.  In the rush of the daily grind, it is difficult to intentionally set aside time to experience beauty.  Most days, my taste of beauty happens when I remind myself to take in the fall foliage before winter sets in.  But an intentional pursuit of beauty?  Generally, that is non-existent.

Last night, I flipped through a book of poems entitled Poems You Ought to Know.  My English degree (with a concentration in British and American Literature) meant that I recognized most of the names in the table of contents.  Some of the poem names even sounded familiar, but few were ones I could stop and say, “Oh, I love this one!”

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” was there and I recalled that in college I taught a lesson on this to a classroom of high schoolers during an education class.  It is a beautiful poem, I think, even with the natural morbidity found in Poe’s works.  The poetic devices that I had reviewed with the class came to mind dimly.

It makes me wonder why I don’t read poetry like my heart desires.  Why do I not sit down and read a Shakespearean sonnet in the evening?  Why don’t I learn about the famous classical composers?  Why don’t I use the gift of the internet to virtually explore art museums and learn about the different periods in art history?  I desire it.  Why don’t I do it?

Because it is easier to not.   Continue reading “A Beauty Filled Life”

Wonderful Awe

Wonderful Awe

A couple of weeks ago, I sat at my dining room table with a couple of friends and discussed with awe the world around us.  In the midst of busy lives and increasing advancements, sometimes it is easy to take for granted things that should be amazing to us.  For a few hours, my friends and I moved from topic to topic, considering the world with great awe.

Wonder is the normal response to splendor.

Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty

This event struck me because of how easy it is to view the world in a tired, jaded way.  While I know a decent amount of theology, my knowledge in so many other areas is small and incomplete.  In day-to-day interactions, I take many things for granted.  Things that would astound me, if I paused for just a moment to acknowledge them.  So we conversed with wonder about the internet, smart phones, suspension bridges, wind turbines, time, and solar power.  It was a joy to consider what the human mind has conceived and how it is possible for us to create things.  A couple of months ago, I read a book about a watchmaker who would travel by train to another town simply to get the correct time from an astronomical clock for his town’s clock tower.  We were amazed that now we could just look at our watches or phones to know the time.

I have had multiple situations where I have discussed with others the beauty of things I do not fully understand.  The complexity of a single human cell, the vastness of the universe, and the splendor of mountains have all, at one time or another, been a topic of conversation and awe.  Yesterday, I flew across half the country in less than three hours.  The fact that flying is even possible helps bring wonder into a situation that can be consumed by impatience with security and airline rules.  I looked with curiosity at the mountain ranges that looked like large creases on a landscape far below me.  A patchwork quilt of farmland and mile after mile of straight country roads soon greeted me as I neared my destination.  I spent much of my flying time reading a book, but every now and then I would look and marvel at the world below and this plane far above.

It is troubling that in a universe replete with mind-boggling fascinations masses of people live dull and drab lives….Fully jaded men and women, old or young, marvel at nothing….To be listless, dull, bored, and lifeless is not only a miserable condition, it is an illness, a fact obvious to anyone who is intellectually alive.  To respond to reality and to appreciate it are normal; not to respond is abnormal.

Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty

This world that surrounds us is quite magnificent.  It is beautiful beyond understanding.  People laugh a bit at me when I profess the beauty of South Dakota.  And when I was in high school, I probably would have laughed at myself, too.  It was only after traveling around Europe during my semester abroad, that I began to see beauty in a multitude of places.  The scenery became glorious because everything was surrounded in a golden halo simply because it was European.

When I came home, I found myself wanting to pull over to the side of the road to take pictures of scenery.  I was surprised that a field of corn filled me with joy or that wide open prairies seemed as beautiful to me in South Dakota as they had in Austria.  My eyes were opened to see the beauty that can be found anywhere. Continue reading “Wonderful Awe”

When the Ordinary Prepares the Way for the Extraordinary

When the Ordinary Prepares the Way for the Extraordinary

Kids are really good at living in the moment.  It is what gives them the ability to swing from laughter to tears in a matter of seconds.  They can have great joy eating an ice cream cone and then become distraught with five minutes in time out.  Right now, right here is the most important thing for kids.

My niece is a prime example of both sides of this.  I gave her a mermaid tail blanket for a belated Christmas present.  She was enthused as she slipped it around her legs and then flopped along on the floor.  Coming to me, she grabbed my legs and exclaimed, “I look exactly like a mermaid, Trish!”  Contrast that scene with several weeks prior when she fought against the injustice of being forced to sit at the adult table while her two older brothers sat at a kid table.  “Not fair!” she sobbed, pointing at her brothers, “They get to sit at the little table!  No fair!”  A few minutes later, having switched places with one semi-willing brother, she was more than content.

Adults can be similar, but we also are more prone to live in the past or the future.  Sometimes we can forget that the present is all we really have.

Precious moments can slip away because they don’t come shrouded in the extraordinary.  Everyday moments, ones that are ordinary yet give life beauty, are some of the most treasured once they have passed.  I’ve heard it said that people often miss the ordinary moments when they lose people close to them.  I have found that to be true in my life.  My paternal grandfather died a few years ago and one of the things I miss most is giving him a hug before leaving his house and hearing him say, “Come again.”   Continue reading “When the Ordinary Prepares the Way for the Extraordinary”

Unnecessarily Beautiful

Unnecessarily Beautiful

Beauty is unnecessary.

I thought about how unnecessary beauty is as I sat in the Cathedral and listened to an orchestra play.  Although an amateur lover of beauty, I was able to see the magnificence of the architecture and the glory of the music coming from a variety of instruments.  Providence placed us nearly as close to the orchestra as we could be without holding an instrument ourselves.  Yet several times throughout the evening I would think about how unnecessary this all was.

If the world came from chaos and all of life means nothing, I am struck by the existence of the beautiful.  Beauty is unneeded for life to exist.  It is entirely extra and unnecessary.  Yet while unneeded, it is the joie de vivre of life.  While we could live without it, we would not want to do so.  It enriches life ten-fold and I think that is as the Lord wanted.

We have a place in our hearts for the beautiful.  It is why some people spend so much time staging pictures.  We are drawn toward the beautiful.  Although any mug would work for coffee, I am far more likely to choose the ones I deem more beautiful in some way.  It is beauty that makes me notice the trees etched in silver or the special smile on my niece’s face.  Beauty bypasses the need for reason, although we can give reason for why we find something beautiful, if pressed.

The Lord is the one of which all the beautiful, transitory things on earth reflect a glimmer.  My heart is being prepared to encounter Beauty Himself when I take in the toothless grin of my nephew or the majesty of the Sistine Chapel.  When I encounter Him in the simplistic beauty that surrounds me, I am widening my heart to receive more of Him later on.   Continue reading “Unnecessarily Beautiful”

Pierced by Beauty

Pierced by Beauty

Nearly all of my students disagree with me, but you cannot convince me that beauty is not one of the most compelling arguments for God’s existence.

I understand, at least in part, the seeming flaws of the argument.  They protest that beauty is subjective and that nobody would believe in God simply because someone says there is lovely music or they saw a sunset.  Perhaps, perhaps most people would not listen to Bach and then profess belief in God.  But, perhaps some would, perhaps some have.

When I was in middle school, I read the book A Memory for Wonders.  It was by a French woman who was raised in Morocco because her parents, staunch atheists and communists, didn’t want anyone to speak to her about God, filling her mind with such superstitions.  Despite her parents’ best intentions, her initial experience of God took place when she was three years old.

“Suddenly the sky over me and in some way around me, as I was on a small hillock, was all afire.  The glory of the sunset was perhaps reflected in the myriads of particles of powdery sand still floating in the air.  It was like an immense, feathery flame all scarlet, from one pole to the other, with touches of crimson and, on one side, of deep purple.  I was caught in limitless beauty and radiant, singing splendor.  And at the same time, with a cry of wonder in my heart, I knew that all of this beauty was created, I knew God.  This was the word that my parents had hidden from me.  I had nothing to name him: God, Dieu, Allah or Yahweh, as he is named by human lips, but my heart knew that all was from him and him alone and that he was such that I could address him and enter into relationship with him through prayer.  I made my first act of adoration.”   A Memory for Wonders, Mother Mary Francis, p. 30

My parents spoke freely to me of God while I was growing up.  So this experience of seeing the beauty of a sunset and being unable to name the author of it, isn’t something I can share.  Yet I can share, in part, the feeling of piercing beauty at different sights and sounds.

It was during a semester studying abroad that the power of beauty become real to me.  Surrounded by history and architecture unlike any in the United States, I was continually amazed at what I saw.  In Switzerland, my heart ached as I walked around a lake and soaked in the beauty of mountains.  I was nearly in tears as I surveyed God’s handiwork, and I kept thinking, “No atheist can live in Switzerland.  How could you deny God in the midst of such splendor?”

I climbed a radio tower on a mountain in Austria and watched the sun rise.  As the light spread across the mountains, I felt fully alive.  My heart was in awe at the magnificence, at a beauty that did not need to be there even if the sun was necessary for our survival.  The glory of a sunrise is entirely “extra.”

gaming sunrise2

My awareness of the power of beauty began during my European adventure, but it has continued ever since.  Probably three times this week I have been near tears as I watched the sun rise or set.  My heart cannot stop itself from aching and expanding, my mouth uttering the briefest of prayers, “Lord!”  Beauty is not always warm and delightful.  Sometimes it aches: it is a blade, a spearing of the heart, a breaking into my world, and an unearthing of the hidden wellspring within.

For most, beauty may never transform their hearts of disbelieving atheism into ones of faith.  Yet for me, beauty is one of the most potent reminders of God’s presence.  It is a sunrise offered to millions and I look at it, bold colors covering the expanse of the prairie skies, and I think, “For me, Lord?”  For a little girl in Morocco decades ago, it was a sunset that started a relationship with the living God, one that grew into her conversion to Catholicism and her entrance into a religious community.

A heart that is able to see beauty is one that is more fully alive.  Beauty opens us up to an experience of something outside of ourselves.  It places us in a feeling of smallness at such majesty and yet a feeling of greatness to glimpse such sights.  You must be open to such beauty, however, to be transformed by it.

So, perhaps my students are right.  Beauty will never force people to believe in God.  It cannot overcome your free will.  But beauty, if you are open to it, can seize your heart, providing the ineffable conviction that the Creator of all this splendor must be worth seeking, following, and loving.

melk abbey

Where is Jesus in it?

It is painfully beautiful to be alive.

I’ve experienced the piercing blade of beauty.  It makes you wince and feel more alive all at once.  The delicate blanket of fog that covers the lake nestled amidst the Swiss Alps.  A sunrise view atop a radio tower on a mountain in Austria.  Glorious fields of grain stretching to the horizon.  The crinkled eyes of a loved one when they are smiling.  Late nights spent talking with a friend you haven’t seen for too long.  In these moments, the beauty strikes our hearts and it is easy to see, take in, and embrace the glories of being alive.

Sometimes the emphasis seems to fall more on the side of pain as opposed to beauty.  Yet in most moments (I’m not certain if I can argue for all moments yet), one can find beauty in the pain, if one is willing to look for it.

The beauty found in the pain of: waking up early for work, a morning run with a dear friend when talking takes far too much effort, a heart overflowing with all sorts of emotions, and speaking difficult words that later bring peace.

And then there are the moments where life seems to blindside you, where the pain is evident but the beauty is masked.

A young person I barely knew recently died.  I guess I am uncertain what type of response I expected to have.  My heart ached and a heaviness filled it.  At one point, as captive tears broke free, I wondered if this is what it means to have a mature heart, one that can feel pain even when the tragedy doesn’t really change one’s life.  The pain didn’t just last for a few moments but seemed to linger, clouding my thoughts and casting a pallor over the next couple days.

It was uncertain how he died, but I kept imagining the different scenarios I was told.  At Mass on Saturday, I couldn’t help it.  My brain insisted on replaying the possible options, my heart aching with each dramatic death I imagined.  I hoped that maybe I would be able to speak to my spiritual director about it and gain his perspective.  Then I realized that I already knew what he would say to me.

He would ask, “Where is Jesus in it?”

So I tried it.  “Where is Jesus in this tragedy?”  I replayed the awful images but inserted Jesus into the mental video.  There He was–walking right beside the boy, tears coursing down His face, gently whispering his name.  It was a painfully beautiful experience as I watched Him carry him.  Soon I was including a guardian angel and the Blessed Mother into the picture.  It was transforming the scene.  The tragedy was still there, but the beautiful pain was making an appearance.

This truth that I had learned before was once again re-impressed on my heart: Christ never leaves us.  Regardless of what we do, how far we try to run, or what we tangibly experience, Jesus is always present, gently whispering our names, and desiring to enter into the wounds we try so hard to fill with insufficient medicine.

Throughout life, none of us walks or falls or lives alone.  Christ is always there in the midst.  And that is what makes life painfully beautiful.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us.  There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered.  There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us.”     -St. John Paul the Great

El Cuerpo de Cristo

Setting: June, Rabanal del Camino, Spain

We are upstairs in the pilgrim house dorm room when piano music reaches our ears.  The playing is beautiful and my sister and I guess who is responsible for the beauty.  I guess one of our fellow pilgrims, Michael, and my sister guesses Fr. Javier, our beloved priest.  Curious, I creep down the outside garden steps and past the window that looks into the conference room with the piano.  It is Fr. Javier playing.

I leave for the chapel across the street for Confession.  When I return, the lovely music is still filling the house.  I peek into the room and my two traveling companions are there, listening.  I join them.  Sometimes I watch Fr. Javier play, glancing between his fingers and the music.  Other times, I sit with my eyes closed, simply delighting in the sound of classical music washing over me.  He finishes, we clap, and he smiles.

“What else?  Something by a Spanish composer.  Ah, yes.  This one.”  He finds the page.  “I’m a romantic.”  I want to chime in, “Me too!”  Fr. Javier continues, “This one is called “Eva and Walter,”  It is very nice.  Very simple.”

It is both.  As he plays, I am picturing Eva and Walter sitting on a bench or walking through a park.  At one point I believe I am in the perfect moment in time.  Fr. Javier is filling the house with music, a gentle but steady rain is pouring through the opening in the garden roof, and Patricia (the hospitalera) is it the kitchen preparing supper.  Here we are–a lovely family that eats together and prays together.  This is “El Cuerpo de Cristo.”

                                                   A little “Eva y Walter” for you to enjoy!

God is in the detail

“The Devil is in the detail” is a phrase I’ve heard but never really used.  It came to mind today and I thought, “Actually, God is in the details.”  Turns out, “God is in the detail” was the first phrase and the devil one is a spin-off.  Just like him, too.  Never being creative, simply sloppily redoing something of God’s genius and trying to pawn it off as his own invention.

God is found in the details of everyday life.  The other day, I was driving back to my house and took a moment to look around the road I was on.  I mean–to really see.  I noticed the pieces of icy snow alongside the road, the way the sun was shining on the cars driving under the bridge, and the lines of watery dust dried on my windshield.  It was a moment where I stopped and saw.  Too often I skim over the details.  I’m lost in my thoughts as I drive or I will drive past the exact same scene and never notice it really.

Today I went to Mass at the hospital, and I was absentmindedly staring at the stained glass at the front.  For as many times as I’ve seen the window, I should be able to draw it from memory.  But I couldn’t, even though my mind has often wandered to finding the different patterns in the window.  Or the other day, I was driving to the interstate ramp and noticed that the trailer court extended much further than I realized.  The stoplight consistently forces me to read the entrance sign for the trailer court, but that day as I drove by, I glanced back and saw how far it extended.  It was an entire community that I had only thought of as a handful of trailers settled near a busy road.

I realize that it wouldn’t be possible to notice all of the details all of the time.  With the rows of houses and flashing digital signs, I would be inundated with too much stimuli if I truly took all of it in.  However, I can do a better job at noticing my surroundings, of taking the time to pause, look around me, and truly see.

God is in the details of my daily life and maybe I am just not truly seeing Him at work.  My goal is to slow down and see the beauty that is found simply in the present moment and place.