Sing the Laughter of God

The communion table pictured here was collaboratively created in December 2012 by the community at Emmaus Way Church: Durham, NC. 

You're afraid. I know that's a bold statement, but I fear I'm right. The discovery that most people are deeply -- perhaps even fundamentally -- motivated by fear has been the single biggest epiphany of my adult life. I see it everywhere now. Behind my even-tempered, rational approach to conflict: abject fright at the possibility of being considered illogical, unworthy, gender-stereotypical, dramatic. At the core of the more free-spirited folk I know: a terror of commitment, of mediocrity, of conformity, of failing to conform to the surprisingly narrow definition of "free spirit." I could go on. Pick your poison; it picked you a long time ago.

I'm being ominous for ironic effect, of course -- a sort of homeopathic hair-of-the-dog. Gallows humor can be sword as well as shield. Besides, conflict management skills and free spirits are wonderful. Sometimes I wonder if we'd really do anything outside of amusing ourselves if fear's motivational properties evaporated along with fear itself. But maybe that's just it. Maybe fear isn't itself so much the problem; rather, the problem resides in how we so often fail to filter fear. Unprocessed fear might make us fight or flight, but it inevitably makes our inner selves curl up like a pillbug poked by a child, at once protecting who we are now and crippling our progress toward where we should be tomorrow. Acknowledged fear, on the other hand, is the raw material for freedom.

The idea that artists channel their negative emotions into the process of creation would be totally cliche if it didn't also feel utterly profound. I know; it happened to me this year, and I'm still trying to sort out why my response to anger, pain, and fear has been an almost overwhelming rediscovery of creativity. Bono once wrote that "the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty." I find that compelling not only for the refinement of perspective it invites, but also for the implicit hint that part of finding freedom is determining which of our binaries are false. What is the opposite of fear?  One would not be wrong to say courage, but what of love, joy, faith, artistry, community? Apart from these there is no courage. 

My church, Emmaus Way in Durham, NC, delights in celebrating creativity within community. During Advent, a season of waiting in sober reflection before the angel says "be not afraid," we collaboratively painted a new communion table. The original design featured concentric circles embracing a point of light. The circles were purple because that color of both mourning and royalty represents the season. It was a lovely concept, yet early in the process something interesting happened that sent us on a new direction. Someone painted a little circle off on its own. I was so impressed with how generously the table's original designer, Katrina Williams, relinquished control and encouraged others to join in casting the vision. Soon the scene was laced with rings in interlocking orbit. Many of us see planets in a great solar system, and for me it calls to mind the old hymn that revels in "the music of the spheres." Together we painted the paradox of a universe that is characterized by darkness and yet bears all the light in existence. One could see that without ever knowing the table's origin story, but those of us who were lucky enough to wield brushes know that sealed in its very genesis is the truth that love and trust freed us all to make something new.

Last Sunday was the first time I got to see the finished table, and Pastor Tim Conder read a prayer that expressed much of how I feel about it. It was originally written in the eighteenth century by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (how's that for a title?), but Tim altered it from first person "I" to second person "we." 

Let us be weary of the dark voices crying doom;
let us be weary of the fearful voices crying only for their nation;
let us weary of the disinherited voices crying in hopelessness;
let our voices sing the laughter of God;
let our voices sing good news to the poor;
let our voices sing restitution of the oppressed;
let our voices sing healing of the violated;
let our voices sing the return of the banned;
let our voices be the laughter of God. Amen.

Praising the Mutilated World

Photographs of oil slicks grace both my SLR gallery and my iPhoneography collection. "Grace" may seem like a strange word for pollution, but it is precisely what I mean. With a flick and a click in an image editor, spilled oil is shockingly beautiful.

I feared for awhile that if, by finding beauty in even these small degradations, I was ratifying them. Art often glorifies destruction, but I'm not sure it ever should. An exception might be in catharsis. I don't think it is actually destruction that is glorified in destructive catharsis, however. At any rate, spilled oil reminds me of the paradox that keeps me happily rooted to my Christian tradition: the notion that grace takes something broken and makes it stronger and more beautiful than it was before. This is the concept of felix culpa I've written about elsewhere. But it goes even deeper. Look at these two versions

Unsharp mask applied:

Original lens blur:

I could fix the softness of the pavement, but in doing so, I lost the glow, the light, the gentle gradations of color. This edit actually looks marred by pixelation, though it isn't. Even if there had been no lens blur to remove, I'm not sure sharpness would have enriched the image. In this case, "perfect" isn't perfect. Of course you may prefer the sharp edit, or you may have good advice for me on how to restore the positive attributes of light and color while keeping the unsharp mask, or you just might think I'm crazy for photographing and (over)saturating spilled oil at all. That's not really the point. Regardless of the relative merits of either image, my concept of perfection itself needed to change. Most photographers would consider overprocessing to be the mark of a rookie editor, but perhaps there is another, deeper case against it. Overprocessing is an assertion of control. It leaves no room for happy accidents or movements of a spirit outside of the artist. There's no humility in it.

When it comes to control, I'm guilty as charged. Yet here's another happy accident, whether you call it subconscious association, synchronicity, or the still, small voice of a Creator guiding the creativity of the created. I just realized that in cropping the oil slick into four bars, I'd echoed two great traditions of religious art: stained glass and mosaic. All this is grace: things broken and spilled, set together like gems in a new, unexpected, and more glorious whole.

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"
by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 

Poems From Thin Places: Nativity

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruined abbeys are my favorites. As I type that, however, I feel a pang of guilt; I'm fearing I might be falling into my old trap of valuing the natural sublime over the messier beauty of community. Can I defend myself? I think there is actually a special sort of community at a ruined abbey. The one at Whitby teeters at the edge of England, on a high cliff battered by the North Sea. Its roofless arches point straight to the majesty of the sky. Underneath all that glory, however, the comic effects of wind and the abundance of climbable stonework allow something just as worthy as awe or meditation. Whitby's ruins make an exhilarating place to play.

Whitby's most famous story reminds us just how vulnerable and sacred the act of play can be. The Venerable Bede -- he of that loveliest of names -- tells us that once upon a time, when the abbey was just as windswept but still had a roof to its credit, all its denizens would gather of an evening to pass around a harp. Caedmon, the lowly shepherd, could not sing or rhyme. Ashamed, he would creep out and sleep with his sheep rather than reveal the terror these entertainments induced. One night, an angel came to the stable, expressly demanding he sing. How frustrated he must have been! If one can't squawk out a tune for a bunch of unwashed monks and farmers, isn't it a bit cruel for a member of the heavenly host to demand a command performance? And what was he to do but try? Yet one would hope an angel always knows what he or she is about, and this one surely did. That night Caedmon, the first English poet, found his voice. 

Nativity 
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

In Whitby,
where the ribs of the ruined abbey 
card sea mist like wool, 
I think of the shepherd Caedmon 
going early to bed in the barn 
for fear that the harp would pass to him.

I think of him lying in the musty hay 
away from the warm light, 
the laughter, and the honey-colored mead 
inside, where he longed, but could not bear, to be.

Beside him the herd jostles quietly, 
steam rises from manure,
and wind seeps through the cracked door.

Then sudden crush of whiteness, 
chaos of animal screams,
and the voice of the angel
slicing away all other sound.

"Sing, Caedmon."
"I cannot!"
"Sing of all Creation."
So we lift our heads 
and sing.

Felix Culpa

Castlerigg Stone Circle. Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved.

I was quite literally shooting from the hip. The moment I saw the older couple at Castlerigg Stone Circle in England's Lake District, I started trying to nab an image. Near the end of the human lifespan, they were nevertheless infants next to the stones of that prehistoric human-made monument. The scene was at once an analogy and an a juxtaposition. It was also entirely sweet.

The results were plagued with all the technical problems one would expect from clandestine photography. I painstakingly sharpened, cropped, and brightened the picture, and I even removed several tourists who were lolling against the stones. I could fix the composition, but I was asking more of those pixels than they could bear. At its full size, the image looks like it narrowly survived the smallpox.

I still love it.

Honoring flawed work is rather a proud moment for one who thinks her perfectionism renders her far from perfect. I don't like it because it is flawed, though -- only in spite of that. Yet I do wonder if some art is improved by its flaws. 

Like many teenagers, I once had a bulletin board full of quotations. One read "Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Google reveals that these lines were by Henry Van Dyke, who wrote the lyrics most commonly set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Aesthetically, he did a better job with the latter. However, Van Dyke's sentimental and hackneyed bird quote is in some ways brilliant. Its tortured meter embodies its message.*

Examples of perfection through imperfection, or what Gerard Manley Hopkins might call "pied beauty," remind me of the medieval concept of felix culpa -- the fortunate fall. If humanity had remained in Edenic innocence, the rather unusual logic goes, than we would never have experienced the wonder of divine redemption. 

Maybe I can actually love my stone circle photograph because of its flaws, rather than in spite of them. If these flaws help me overcome my perfectionism, they're fortunate. If, like Hopkins' marvelous poem, they invite me to a definition of beauty that transcends narrow aesthetic rules, they're fortunate. If snatching a permanent record of a moment in time resulted in technical imperfections, well, that is very  fortunate. It embodies the paradox of human mutability, and -- lucky me -- the paradox of human mutability just happens to form the central motif of the scene.

*In a similar vein, I typed and deleted the final prose lines of my post on the Book of Kells many times before I decided to let a really a bad pun prove its own point. It still makes me feel vulnerable, though.

Poems From Thin Places: Incarnation

Only a green velvet cord separated me from case after walnut case of exquisite volumes. Marble busts gazed self-contentedly at the fourteenth-century oak harp that symbolizes all Ireland. A barrel-vaulted roof crowned what some say is the most beautiful library in the world. Nearby a different page of the gloriously illuminated Book of Kells is exhibited every day.  

Folio 201 Recto:  The Genealogy of Christ.  Book of Kells.  Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Folio 201 Recto:  The Genealogy of Christ. Book of Kells. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That is what Google Image Search tells me I saw at the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin.  

I do remember it. I do. But you know how the impression you take from a long-sought experience is rarely the impression you expect? There's generally a gift in that. We're patterned to expect a gift in that. Thomas C. Foster tells us that in a quest narrative, the real purpose for the journey is never what the quester initially seeks.* There's a reason why "expect the unexpected" is a cliche;  Western culture tends to breed quest narrative junkies, and after awhile, everything starts to look like a journey.

I'm pretty sure I've already tripped your convention sensors. Now all I have to do now is fill in the blanks.

What I remember most about the library at Trinity College Dublin was not the oak or the marble. It wasn't really evenThe Book of Kells, though I can tell you that the going Medieval rate for blue ink was pretty steep. What I remember most was a hole.

There is a tiny hole in The Book of Kells. In fact, there are many, and there always have been. The book is vellum -- calfskin -- and very good vellum too. It is just that vellum can't help but be perforated in places, because vellum was once alive. I looked closer. I saw hair. Hair and the faint branches of bloodless vessels. Hundreds of calves died for that incarnation of the gospel story. These were violent and sacrificial deaths, in which flesh became word.

Well, of course I had to write a poem then. I later heard that Billy Collins, at the time my favorite poet, had the same idea. I haven't seen his version yet, but I'm sure it is better. That's okay. We all have to create meaning with the substance we have. We all have to play with that convention that the journey itself is the destination, and that the destination is never something we can expect or control. We all bear in our flesh stories that are not our own, and then we make them our own. We are full of holes. Holy.

Book of Kells
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

It's the colors they worry about:
crimson, purple,
costly blue.
Mustn't let you fade.
Just turn, turn
turn you--
a daily mass
for gawking pilgrims.

I love
the unpainted places of your skin:
faint branching of empty veins,
straggling hair
they could not scrape away,
the holes from blade

or pen--
Did it hurt when your flesh became word?

Did they feed you a last supper;
one-hundred eighty-five voices lowing
over fragrant, final grain?
Perhaps you brushed noses over a fence.
Perhaps you only met
afterward.

*Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor:  a Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York:  HarperCollins, 2003. 3.

Poems From Thin Places: an Introduction

Iona From the Ferry, September 2012
Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) would memorialize moments of great significance in his journal with the phrase "I mark this day with a white stone." He said it on the golden afternoon in which Alice Liddell inspired his most famous character. One of my own white stone days  a day that has forever changed how I view the world  happened when visiting with an Englishwoman in Durham, Northumbria. Her name was Mrs. Baggott, and she told me about thin places.

"Oh, I see you're going to Iona!"  she said, looking at my itinerary. "That's a thin place, you know."

"A what?"

Maybe you know the term, but I didn't. Mrs. Baggott proceeded to explain that because of the tiny Hebridean island's rich spiritual history, Celtic Christians believe that the veil between heaven and earth is almost incorporeal on Iona. Some describe it as a place where the meetings of earth and sky, sea and land smooth away the tension of  our compartmentalized modern lives. Flesh and spirit, sacred and secular, earth and heaven  these dualities do not feel at odds on Iona. Mrs. Baggott told me to expect this, but of course I was skeptical. She was right, and then some. My three Iona days were some of the most saturated of my life, and all I did was walk around and eat.

"All I did was walk around and eat." It is tempting to claim that is the point — I cut out the noise of postmodern life and was thus able to experience existence at its essence. That is true, yet it seems at once high-blown and trite. It also tempts one toward a pattern to which I am vulnerable:  making everything into an abstraction that helps me sort out my own psyche. Abstraction is, after all, what Eric Weiner writes in his New York Times piece on thin places. What constitutes a thin place, in Weiner's argument, varies somewhat from person to person. It is the internal experience of being a traveler that matters. I like Weiner's point, yet it seems to plunder the places themselves. Thin places, as the Celtic tradition defines them, are not our journeys, our moments of transcendence, our escape from a cliched but real cultural paralysis. They're places. The literal nature of their "place-ness" is probably what smooths our tensions, and these places will go on existing in close connection with the numinous whether or not we visit them. They're not about us, and that's why they're so freeing to us. Then we (or at least Weiner and I) turn around and figure ourselves in reference to them anyway. What gives?  

I'm rather shocked by how literal I want to be right now. I'm less shocked that I'm not doing a good job. I'm not sure Weiner does either. He concludes his article by stating that  "Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked."  Did you see that? Weiner's celebration of semi-subjective travel epiphanies just turned to outright and earthbound essentialism. The language with which people  myself and Weiner included  often describe thin places seems at once unusually objective and hopelessly navel-gazing. Likewise, when one waxes transcendental about an out-of-body experience, one relishes the memory of a departure from self that is nevertheless all about the self. Perhaps the most beguiling aspect of thin places resides in the fact that they allow us to inhabit a paradox. In a thin place, one can have an objective and subjective experience at the same time. But in talking about "us," I'm again defining objectivity in terms of my subjective experience. After all, humanities scholars like me make our living out of narratives of transcendence, even as we affirm that there is no such thing as a truly objective human experience. Where do we go from here?

When I set out to write this introduction to a forthcoming blog series on thin places, I thought I knew what I wanted to say. Now I'm left with questions. That's not a bad position, but it won't do much to tell you where this series is headed. Here's what I know. It was 2002 when I met Mrs. Baggott, learned about thin places, and first went to Iona. I was in my last year at Whitworth University, and when I returned to college I wrote a series of poems called "Notes From Thin Places." They've been moldering in their own mediocrity and the back of a filing cabinet, but I like some of them enough to trot them out for my blog. Like most writing, they're as much about the writer as they are about the scene. They can't themselves be thin places, because they're not places, and because they only amplify the tension between subjectivity and the longing for objective experience. I just hope that somehow these tensions can resonate. I'd love to hear your thoughts.