When our much-loved guinea pig died, I wrote Piggy in Heaven to help us grieve for him. The story made us laugh, and it made us cry all over again. But story-telling opened a mental window, and we could “see” Piggy again, playing in the grass, wheeking, hopping, waiting for us somewhere in eternity, with love. In the coming weeks, you’ll be able to hear the wonderful Dr. Chrissi Hart sharing Piggy in Heaven on her podcast, “Readings from Under the Grapevine.” Dr. Hart is a psychologist who works with grieving children, and she kindly shared some wisdom with me about helping your child come to terms with death.
Melinda: At What age do children understand death?
Dr. Hart: Children discover the unpredictability of the world when a pet dies. Age and developmental level also determine how a child experiences grief. For example, younger children below age 6 years, do not understand the finality of death, which they see as temporary and reversible. They do not understand the pet is gone and is not coming back. They may have many questions, like how the pet will breathe, play or run in the ground. At around age 6 years, children develop a concept of death and that it is permanent. They understand then that their pet is not returning.
Melinda: How does a child’s experience of losing a pet compare to grieving for a family member or friend?
Dr. Hart: The death of a pet is usually a child’s first experience of death and loss. The grief is similar and can be as profound as losing a family member or friend. Children experience similar stages of grief as adults do after the loss of a pet as they would for the loss of a family member or friend. The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Kubler-Ross). Children may get stuck on the sadness part or may have alternating anger and sadness.
Melinda: What are some ways that children use their imaginations to handle grief?
Dr. Hart: Young children often express their grief through play and in their drawings or paintings. They can use their imagination by thinking of the pet in a happy place like dog or cat heaven, or with God, playing, eating and running around in wonderful places. One of the best ways for children to use their imaginations to handle grief is by reading books on the subject. This can not only be therapeutic, but also an opportunity for parent-child discussions about feelings, anxieties and fears and answering the child’s questions.
Melinda: How can parents and caregivers help their children grieve in healthy ways?
Dr. Hart: Talk to your child about how they feel, listen to their responses and observe their behavior. Read books together on the loss of a pet. Have a ritual for the burial which may include a prayer. Keep a memory box of photos. Understand the grief process and where the child is at present and know that children are generally resilient and can recover quicker than adults.
Children between the ages of 2 and 7 years may have magical thinking about a loss and may feel responsible in some way, believing they caused the loss. They can be reassured that the pet’s death has nothing to do with anything they thought or did.
Melinda: What are some warning signs that a child may need extra help with grieving?
Dr. Hart: Look for changes in behavior, such as sleep problems, nightmares, irritability, anxiety, sadness and crying, and verbalizing struggles. Regressed behavior such as toileting problems, clinging and separation anxiety are other warning signs.
Melinda: Tell us about some pets you’re hoping to meet in heaven!
Dr. Hart: I hope to meet my cats Flopsy, Ellie and Natalia again one day!
Dr. Chrissi Hart is a Licensed Psychologist in York, Pennsylvania where she lives with her husband, adult son and daughter and their orange cat Ginger. She has a private practice with her husband, helping children and adolescents with anxiety, psychosomatic disorders, loss and bereavement. She has publications in child psychology, is the author of several Orthodox Christian children’s books and hosts the popular children’s podcast, Readings from Under the Grapevine, on Ancient Faith Radio.
This week’s blog is written by Melinda Johnson, author of “Piggy in Heaven,” coming soon from Paraclete Press!
“When Jesus is my portion, a constant friend is He. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” – Civilla Durfee Martin, His Eye is On the Sparrow, 1905
We don’t take small animals seriously. If you’re an adult who owns a hamster, you’re probably the only one you know. At the movies or in the library, it’s easy to find a horse or a dog saving the hero’s life or demonstrating wisdom and loyalty. Epic tales about small herbivores are hard to come by. We expect to find these little creatures in cartoons and picture books or serving nobly as the comic relief. In a serious story, you might find a canary or a perky rat accessorizing a character the author hopes will be eccentric.
I have been the fortunate human guardian of, at various times, two bunnies, seven hamsters, a rotating selection of fish, and one guinea pig. All of these animals are considered children’s pets – small, adorable, and inconsequential. Yet I learned important things from each of them, and these epiphanies built on each other into a staunch belief that the tiniest members of creation are as precious and intelligent as the largest and most obviously heroic. Caring for these little pets through their lifetime and at the moment of their death has taught me beautiful lessons. I will share three with you here.
God is in the details.
Two of our tiny friends were dwarf, or miniature, hamsters. These hamsters are less than 3 inches long, and yet they are complete living creatures, with exquisite little eyes and hands, tiny beating hearts, and downy fur. When you hold one in your hand, she feels light and warm. Her fingernails and whiskers tickle equally and seem about the same circumference. If you can keep your eyes on the shy, busy little animal and let your mind leap outwards to the edges of the cosmos, you can begin to see what a miracle she is. Think of the painstaking attention it took to create one hamster. Think how many hamsters have graced our planet since time began. And that’s only hamsters! What about bunnies? Birds? Caterpillars? Lemmings? Think of every little voiceless creature you pass without seeing every day. They are all testaments to the infinite, loving creative Essence who could invent life in such diversity and detail.
Words are not the only measure of intelligence.
One of the first ways a child learns to distinguish between humans and animals is language. “I love my doggy, but he doesn’t talk.” Animals are a long step up from toys, which don’t talk or move, but that absence of words is a disappointment.
We grownups publish books and articles about animal intelligence, and we consider it newsworthy because it surprises us. Who would think a crow could make a tool? How amazing that dolphins use their own language! What if dogs can discern right from wrong? I believe our surprise results from our strong tendency to perceive animals as lesser editions of ourselves, rather than as separate and inherently mysterious creatures. Little by little, we are learning to ask how an animal expresses its inner life, instead of assuming it does not have one. We hamper these efforts by anthropomorphizing, often with the best intentions. We’re likely to offer mercy to an animal that seems “almost human” to us, and mercy is a good gift. But I hope we can stretch ourselves to admit how much of the world and its creatures may be outside our knowledge or in need of our kindness.
Pets are not replaceable.
I overheard a conversation once between a child and an adult. It went like this:
Adult: “I’m sorry about your hamster. Your mom told me it died.”
Child: “That’s okay. I’m going to get another one.”
I don’t blame anyone in this scenario. We all comfort our children as best we can. The words stayed with me because they reflect the way we gloss over the individuality of small animals. If no two snowflakes have ever been alike, no two hamsters have ever been alike. Every animal is a single instance.
Every death leaves an empty space, even the death of a miniature hamster, a bunny, or a guinea pig. You are left with love that has no outlet, and your heart hurts. A new pet is wonderfully healing, but it is a new pet; it is not the old one back again. We lessen our ability to understand and treasure life if we reduce it to a mass-produced commodity.
So when I think of that old hymn about the sparrow, and I reflect on the beloved little animals who have shared our home, I remember that not one sparrow falls to the earth outside the Father’s care. Yes, Jesus says we are “of more value than many sparrows,” but in the same moment, He is telling us that He loves the sparrows, too.
Today marks the sixth anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Our youngest author, Tain Gregory, and his mother and co-author, Sophfronia Scott, were deeply affected by the events of that day, and wrote about their experiences and their faith in the book This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World. Tain is 14 now, and today he shares some thoughts on how he has grown since that day six years ago.
This past October, I stood with my mom in front of a crowd of people of all ages at Trinity Church in Asheville, North Carolina. We gave a speech about our book, This Child of Faith to an audience of 160 people. Many people in the meeting asked me questions about my experiences and my strong faith, but it was really nice when I got to talk to a younger boy named Collin. Collin was very energetic, and asked questions as fast as a cheetah. We talked to each other after the speech, and he asked questions about people who act mean to others. I think I really helped him a lot. My mom and I have been giving speeches in other churches in many different states. We’ve been doing this for about a year. When I started writing This Child of Faith I was only in 7th grade. Now it is almost the 1 year anniversary of the book, and a lot has changed since then.
I find it amazing that I have been going to church for nearly 8 years! I’ve gone from being a novice in the children’s church choir to being the crucifer leading the church service. I have just started confirmation class, and I have been enjoying it. Confirmation is when you confirm your faith in Christ. We are learning about ways to connect with God, and we are also learning more about Christianity. I have some really nice teachers, and really nice classmates who are there to help me on my confirmation journey. In one of our meetings, we talked about things that society wants us to believe. For example, you should listen to specific types of music and wear specific types of clothes. We wrote these on a big sheet of paper… and burned it in a fire. Then, on another sheet of paper, we wrote things that we believe. Things that no one else tells us to believe, but that we choose to believe ourselves. This was a really good exercise to show that we control what we believe, and that you can expand your faith by believing what you want. I know that believing has helped me expand my own faith a lot.
I’m thinking about this now because this week is the 6th anniversary of the shooting at my former school, Sandy Hook Elementary, and the death of my friend Ben. Ben was very close to me, and losing him was really hard. But I think that the experience of the shooting brought me a lot closer to God. When it happened, I began praying to God a lot more often because I felt sad. But God was helping me with what I was going through because he was there for me.
Today Ben reminds me of the character Asriel Dreemurr, a child, from a video game called Undertale. Both of them had a very innocent nature, and they were both very kind and friendly. And the main thing they share is that they were both killed. Recently when I was playing through Undertale, I noticed this connection between Ben and Asriel. I started to cry during Asriel’s speech at the end of the game. It was a sad speech. He died for no reason, like Ben. But I love playing Undertale anyway because I like seeing Ben and so many of my friends in the game’s characters.
Asriel is still a powerful character. Ben was also powerful and he still has the power to be here. Even though he’s gone, I feel his spirit is still here and still determined to make us happy.
And God is always there for me, and I know that he always will be there for me. Whenever I am feeling worried about myself, my family, or any of my friends, praying to God is always helpful because I can always ask him to watch over the person I am praying about. I can always trust God to watch over my friends and family because I know he will always find a way to make things better.
All you have to do is ask him for help. It’s like what Dumbledore says in the film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “You will find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” This is the same with God. You can always ask God for help. I have learned more about talking to God. There is one part of my book where I talk about places that I am able to pray. It explains that you can pray to God wherever you are. You don’t have to be in a church kneeling down at an altar. You can talk to God at your house, at the supermarket, even at a gas station! God is always free to listen to you because he cares about you.
Tain Gregory is a freshman at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven, Connecticut, and co-author with his mother Sophfronia Scott of the book This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World. He enjoys watching anime, playing video games, and making Minecraft Hacks.
Blessed Advent! We invite all of our readers to enter this holy season with these words from David Bannon, author of Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations. As David notes: Some text portions of this article were excerpted and edited from Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, which features ten Rückert poems not printed here. As with those in the book, the Rückert poems in this article are original translations that have never before been published in English.
“Your hurts, small as a child”
Communion in Friedrich Rückert’s Songs on the Death of Children
Text and translations by David Bannon
Friedrich Rückert was a compassionate man. Visitors often commented on his enthusiasm, whimsy and humor.1 Hailed by The Atlantic Monthly as “the last of the grand old generation of German poets,”2 many of his lieder, or songs, were set to music by the great composers of the day. But for three decades Friedrich hid from view his most personal work.
The day after Christmas 1833, Friedrich’s youngest child, three-year-old Luise, showed symptoms of scarlet fever. She died on New Year’s Eve. His son Ernst died on January 16, twelve days after the boy turned five. Friedrich’s four remaining children survived. He was kind and attentive to them, grateful for each moment, yet his grief for Luise and Ernst was unassuaged. “That I should drink and eat, eat and drink,” he wrote, “forgetting all the while that you are lost to me!”3
Over the first six months of 1834 Friedrich composed hundreds of poems on loss and mourning. “Spare me these delights!” he cried. “They cannot fool my heart, adding grief to grief.”4 He averaged 2–3 poems each day. Some are his finest, others less so; none was intended for publication.5 He kept Luise and Ernst’s pastel portraits with him for the rest of his life.6 Six years after Friedrich’s death, in 1872, his son Heinrich compiled 425 of the poems in Kindertodtenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).7
Your hurts, small as a child,
you brought to me, mother-like,
for consolation and care.
Now my hurt, not so small,
I bring to you:
Oh my child, console me!
So we exchange love for loss:
a heart full of care;
a hurt inconsolable.8
Friedrich’s life resonates with me. He was a scholar, translator and professor. We both taught college for years; both published on Asia extensively; both translated from Asian and other languages. We both lost children on the same day: his son died on January 16, 1534; my daughter died on January 16, 2015.
Rückert had a gift for understatement and a penchant for allusion. Before my daughter’s death, the depth and breadth of his sorrow would have been beyond my grasp. Now I find communion and solace in his poems. Occasionally I’ll come across a piece that defies literary analysis; that dares me to capture in translation a moment many bereaved parents know well:
Here rests in this chest
much that was yours;
sacred and silent:
like you, undisturbed.
Your dress in this chest,
camisole in your coffin.
Your little shoes
never to remove.
Each day from this chest
I lift dress after dress;
seeking sorrow, perhaps:
or solace or mercy.9
Friedrich chose a double entendre for this poem. Truhe, meaning chest or trunk, is also a word for coffin. It took me a year to finally go through all of my daughter’s things. Her chest is here with me as I type, carefully preserved in my office closet.
Research shows that fathers who have lost adult children are at the highest level of grief for men in every bereavement category except guilt.10 Such comparisons are useful to counselors and medical professionals—may in fact be necessary and helpful—but to the bereaved, they seem obscene. Friedrich’s children were young, my daughter was an adult; he lost two of eight, I lost my only child. A moment’s thought reveals how such measurements lose all meaning. In Rückert’s songs, I stumble through the same dark valley he walked 180 years ago. Friedrich and I share something else: an affinity for the waldesgrund. Literally translated as forest ground or floor, the term is seldom used for a glade or park; only the deep wood:
Deep in the wood
and the rocky valley
my heart and voice cry
a thousand times:
Children, are you there?
Where is here? ‘Here! Here!’
Dark wooded brush
stands between us,
I do not see you;
tell me, are you
How near? ‘Near, near!’
Do you want to draw near
from where you are?
Always mine, the one
joy in this pain?
Mine? No? Yes?
Always yes? ‘Yes, yes!’11
Gustav Mahler later set five of Rückert’s poems to music; his Kindertotenlieder premiered in 1905. Gustav’s interpretations are moving but his most profound work was still to come. In 1907 his four- year-old daughter, Putzi, died of diphtheria and scarlet fever. As a musician, Mahler may have appreciated Rückert’s subtle tonality, cadence and repetition. Now in his grief, Gustav knew the harm and hope Friedrich put in each song:
You were the slightest:
are you, then, unharmed?
Your country, that fineness,
are you, so, unspoiled?
Your country, your slightness:
preserved, then, in
such purity, so
preserved and saved?
The slightest, dearly loved;
brightest now, and gone,
radiant once, always:
Will I see you there?12
Mahler’s next composition, Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth), speaks of life, death, parting, and redemption. 13 It was Gustav’s masterpiece.
Some text portions of this article were excerpted and edited from Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, which features ten Rückert poems not printed here. As with those in the book, the Rückert poems in this article are original translations that have never before been published in English.
1 fancy and humor: Bayard Taylor, Critical Essays and Literary Notes (Putnam’s Sons, 1880): 97
2 The last of the grand: Bayard Taylor, “Friedrich Rückert,” Atlantic Monthly, 18(105) (July 1866): 33; collected in The Atlantic Monthly, v18 (Ticknor & Fields, 1866).
3 That I should drink: from “Daß ich trinken soll und essen,” Kindertodtenlieder [Songs on the Death of Children], ed. Heinrich Rückert, trans. D. Bannon (Sauerländer, 1872): 69.
4 Spare me these delights: from “Rathet mir nicht zum Vergnügen,” Rückert, 142.
5 Some are his finest: see Peter Revers, “Kindertotenlieder” in Karen Painter, ed., Mahler and His World, Revers section trans. Irene Zedlacher (Princeton University Press, 2002): 174.
6 pastel portraits: Friedrich had the portraits made in autumn 1833.
7 Six years after: In 1881, after Heinrich’s death, Marie Rückert rearranged 241 of the poems according to Friedrich’s diary in a new edition, Lied und Leid [Song and Sorrow]. See Friedrich Rückert, Gesammelte Poetische Werke, v12, ed. Conrad Beyer (Sauerländer, 1882): 477.
8 Your hurts: “Wie du sonst dein kleines Leid,” Rückert, 173.
9 Here rests: “Hier lieg’ in der Truhe,” Rückert, 279.
10 highest level of grief: William Fish, “Differences of Grief Intensity in Bereaved Parents,” in Therese Rando, ed., Parental Loss of a Child (Research Press, 1986): 223, 417, 426.
11 Deep in the wood: “Tief im Waldesgrund,” Rückert, 206-207.
12 You were the slightest: “Weil ihr wart die Kleinsten,” Rückert, 279-280.
13 Mahler’s four-year-old daughter: Maria Anna, called Putzi, 3 November 1902 – 5 July 1907.
Cheryl Anne Tuggle is a librarian, a freelance writer and a novelist, the author of Unexpected Joy: A Novel (Anaphora Press, 2011). She is a member of the Good Seed Writers Society and a featured writer on the blog Orthodox in the Ozarks. Today’s post is written by Cheryl Anne about how she came to write her latest novel “Lights on the Mountain.”
It’s a thing people ask when you’ve authored a novel: how and why it came to be written. Answering the question, though, is a bit like trying to relate the dream you had last night. You know how it went, but just try and tell it that way.
Usually I say it started with a scene I saw through my car windshield one morning in late October. It was a cold day and raining and I was parked behind the library, waiting for my daughter to finish a vocal audition at the high school next door. As I sat watching the rain coming down, I had a sort of waking dream in which the car’s windshield changed into a farmhouse window and I was peering through it into a large kitchen. Inside the kitchen, sitting across from one another at a table were a husband and wife. No doubt because of the rain and the chill in the real air and the dark sky above my car, I sensed the air in the day-dream room was thick with tension and the atmosphere, melancholy. I needed to know, of course, what was going on in that kitchen and knew there was only one way to find out. I would have to write my way inside it.
So that’s what I say, that Lights on the Mountain began with this scene I saw through the rain. But just like the person telling that dream, as soon as I’ve said the thing, I begin to doubt it. There is after all, my own memory, confirmed by a photo my brother sent me, of a bleak, wintry-looking day on the farm of my childhood.
And there are the memories I’ve kept of the multi-colored splendor of the Pennsylvania hills in autumn and the people, with their various accents and religious faiths and their rich-tasting foods, that lived within them. Looking at the photo, pondering my recollections of the Western Pennsylvania landscape and its people, there is a question of how I knew, as I began to set the story down, to put the couple on that farm (or something like it) and in those hills. I begin to wonder which came first, my memories of the photo and the hills, or the couple and the scene. The chicken or the egg.
Also like a dream recounted is the way I realize, while trying to explain how it happened, that it’s entirely possible to lie about it without being dishonest. All I can really say is that after two drafts in which my farmer’s problem was unsatisfactorily (to me) written, I was working on a third and happened to spot Walker Percy’s Moviegoer on my bookshelf. That book, if you haven’t read it, is about a worldly man who lives in what some people say is the real sin city, New Orleans. In the midst of his everyday, city-dwelling life, Binx Bolling embarks on an somewhat loosely organized, but definitely existential, quest, what Percy has his character call “the search”. Suddenly I had my “what if”? What if I took a natural man, a quiet-natured farmer who loves his land and his work and his wife, and instead of the stereotypical salt-of-the-earth simplicity, gave him a deep, yearning heart and a wondering mind. Oh, and an otherworldly experience. And once that was done and I had given him a past and put some challenging characters in his path, I set him to working out the world’s oldest mystery, the great, divine Who-done-it. What if I did that? I asked myself. And then I did it. And that’s the somewhat true story of how this particular novel came to be written.
Come November 13, 2018, you can read the story for yourself. Feel free to share your thoughts on it here, or on Amazon and Goodreads. I look forward to reading them!
When I find myself with a free day in a major city, I often look for an art museum. I wander the galleries, lingering mainly among the Impressionists and European Masters. Many museums offer listening devices that give background details on the important paintings, but I have little patience with the headsets or with the clumps of visitors that block the view of the paintings themselves. So, I move from painting to painting, reading the one-paragraph placard by each one, and leave the museum feeling nourished in some subliminal way—yet hardly enlightened.
I suspect that I am not alone in my naive approach to the visual arts. One of G. K. Chesterton’s witticisms sums up an all-too-common bias: “In the MiddleAges we have art for God’s sake, in the Renaissance we have art for man’s sake, in the nineteenth century we have art for art’s sake, and in the twentieth century we have no art for God’s sake.” A trained artist himself, Chesterton was stereotyping for effect, but in truth Christians have shown an ambivalence toward art of all kinds.
Unrivaled as a patron, and responsible for many of the finest creations, the church has at times undergone spasms of counter-reaction: whitewashing images during the iconoclasm controversy, banning and burning books, and destroying church organs. Though we moderns tend to demonstrate more tolerance, artists themselves often feel unappreciated and even estranged from the church.
Daily, art nourishes my own faith. As I write, classical music plays in the background, and I feast on books in my library. And as I’ve mentioned, I feel a strange gravitational tug toward art museums. What draws me? Beauty, of course—yet I sense something more. The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge put it this way: “Only mystics, clowns and artists, in my experience, speak the truth, which, as Blake was always insisting, is perceptible to the imagination rather than the mind.” Artists communicate with a different, and often more penetrating, style than preachers and theologians.
The Bible itself demonstrates this principle, for God’s acts get the bulk of attention, given far more weight than the dogma that later emerged. The apostle Paul’s left-brain exegetical passages are the exception, not the rule, easily overwhelmed by passages devoted to narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, parables, prophetic visions, and, yes, the Pentateuch’s meticulous descriptions of the visual arts.
If I hope to enrich my faith through the visual arts, I need a guide. When I enter museum galleries devoted to religious art, the paintings testify to a different era, with different principles of aesthetics at work. In this book, David Bannon’s explorations show by example what makes art worth our effort and what it can do for the person of faith.
First, art offers an unexpected vantage point. For example, one does not expect a book of Advent meditations to bear the title Wounded in Spirit. As the season approaches, upbeat Christmas carols blare from speakers in the shopping malls, and the store clerks may offer a “Merry Christmas!” greeting. From where comes this melancholy counterpoint about wounded spirits?
From the Gospel of Luke, to be precise. The old man Simeon, assured he would live to see the Messiah, and having grown gray and frail waiting for the consolation of Israel, seasons his congratulations to Mary with these words: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Somehow, in the midst of joyous celebration, he foresees the shadow looming over the Incarnation: the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, the tragic ending on an executioner’s cross. Decades later, Paul would interpret these events for the Philippians through a theological lens: a member of the Godhead stripping away the prerogatives of divinity to become a human being, and not only that but one who came in the form of a slave, even one subject to death, yes, even that most ignoble death on a cross. Christmas Day was only the first of many humiliations that Jesus would undergo.
Depression and suicides spike at Christmas, as loneliness and the memories of lost loved ones invade the background cheer. My own father died in mid-December, before his twenty-fourth birthday, an untimely death that forever cast a pall over our family’s Christmases. We know, all of us, the dissonance of which Simeon spoke to Mary: of love splattered with blood, of consolation that proves diffused and fleeting. Art brings that dissonance to the foreground, with a poignancy that wounds the spirit like a sword.
Second, art renders something unique to the artist’s own experience of that dissonance. I know the author of this book: his own griefs, mistakes for which he has paid dearly, his inconsolable loss. It surprises me not at all that David Bannon would write an Advent book with such a title. I did not, however, know before reading these pages the personal trials of Tissot or Murillo or many of the artists discussed here.
Wounded in Spirit has become my guide, revealing what no one-paragraph summary in a museum could possibly make plain: the creator’s internality that gets projected on a canvas for the rest of us to contemplate. For the artist, bringing hidden wounds into the light may become a move toward healing—although, paradoxically, complete healing might also dry up the font of creativity.
A depressed Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “Art is superfluous. . . . Can art heal wounds, can it take the bitterness away from death? It does not quiet despair, it does not feed the hungry, it does not clothe the freezing.” Yes, art has its limits, but I would answer his rhetorical questions more positively. Art does at least contribute to the healing of wounds, by awakening a sense of companionship in those who receive it: I am not alone. More, art may present the needs of others in such a way as to arouse the very compassionate response that Rilke doubts: think of van Gogh’s portrayals of peasants and coal miners, or the AIDS quilt that toured the nation, or photographs of refugees fleeing famine and war.
Great art operates on us at a deeper level than the rational. It conveys truth rather than arguing for it, and presents reality implicitly rather than explicitly. After seeing Hans Holbein’s realistic painting of Christ’s tortured body, Dostoevsky was haunted by it, and included the scene in his novel The Idiot. Thomas Merton, a self-indulgent dandy, became captivated by Byzantine mosaics on a visit to Rome; from them, he later said, he first learned the mystery of a God of infinite power, wisdom and love who had yet become man. Reciting the poem “Love” by George Herbert led to Simone Weil’s conversion: having committed it to memory, she repeated it almost as a mantra during violent headaches until somehow, without her willing it, the poem became a prayer. “It was during one of these recitations,” she writes, “that Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
Finally, art forms a bridge between the artist’s soul and our own. Every artist, regardless of the medium, wants someone to see or hear or read or otherwise receive the result that emerges from creative labor. The literary critic Cleanth Brooks observes, “In making us see our world for what it is, the artist also makes us see ourselves for what we are.” In the process, art invites a form of meditation.
David Bannon widens the bridge of connection for me. His references to literature—Tolstoy, Byron, Shelley, Longfellow, Tennyson, Emerson, Shakespeare— enrich what I learn from the visual art he discusses. And in these pages I also meet familiar mentors of thought and theology: Buechner, Merton, Tillich, Heschel, Kierkegaard, Baillie, Rilke, Nouwen, Lewis, and of course the authors of the Bible.
Among all these mentors, some familiar and many new to me, I encounter art in a more restful, meditative way than if I were standing amid a buzzing museum crowd with a headset clutched to my ear. Within these pages I find much to contemplate, applying something of what took place in the artist to my own life. I am no longer staring at strange art in a museum in a new city. Now, the images come to me, held in my hands, along with the resources I need to understand and interpret them.
According to James Baldwin, “Every artist is involved with one single effort, really, which is somehow to dig down to where reality is.” For the artist of faith, such as the representatives in this collection, reality includes the realm of eternity. Our modern, materialistic culture considers eternal matters as peripheral, not nearly so urgent as, say, making money and achieving success. The noise of surrounding culture tends to drown out a God who prefers to whisper, and we need prophetic prods in order to reorder our world.
Art freezes the moment, quickening the senses. “I am attempting to express what I saw in a flower which apparently others failed to see,” explained Georgia O’Keefe. In doing so, art nurtures that most human act, our ability to transcend the immediacy of time and space. The ordinary can become extraordinary, the instantaneous can become permanent—a form of lectio divina that requires no words.
Even as I write these words, my CD changer has made mechanical noises announcing a new disc under the laser. Instantly the room fills with the throaty sounds of a Russian male choir chanting prayers in a language I cannot understand. I stop typing, shove aside the papers on my desk, and close my eyes. Memories of a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, come flooding back, including a visit to an oniondomed cathedral when I heard such sounds in person as they reverberated off the magnificent icon-covered dome above.
The following day I visited the Hermitage Museum. I walked into a room containing one of the world’s largest collections of Rembrandt paintings. His massive rendition of The Return of the Prodigal Son was the first to catch my eye, a painting so evocative that Henri Nouwen spent two days sitting before it in a folding chair, meditating—and later wrote a book with that title about his encounter. The German siege of Leningrad imperiled all these paintings, which were saved only by a heroic rescue effort. Rembrandt’s biblically themed portrayals survived not only that war, but also the atheistic frenzy of Bolsheviks who demolished churches and murdered forty two thousand priests.
Art endures. Later, a Christian convert from the darkest days of Stalin’s reign wrote, “The task of a writer is to select more universal and eternal questions, the secrets of the human heart and conscience, the confrontation of life with death, the triumph over spiritual sorrow, the laws of the history of mankind that were born in the depths of time immemorial and that will cease to exist only when the sun ceases to shine.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn devoted his life to honoring, by making permanent, the sacrifices of those who clung to such beliefs in a world gone mad.
Great religious art strives wordlessly for something similar. The paintings reproduced and discussed in these pages have become devotional for me in the best sense of the word: they inspire and inform my sense of devotion to the One who is eternally worthy.
INTRODUCTION : PROPHETS & POETS
With feet in two worlds—the earth-bound reality and the unseen but utterly real transcendent sphere—Biblical prophets were specially chosen individuals. As commandeered by a divine call, they spoke to the people from God, and to God from the people, inhabiting the tricky threshold between heaven and earth. Their calling was to hear divine words, see divine visions, and then speak the prophetic message to their listeners, linking the transcendent and immanent. As a poet I have felt drawn to a somewhat similar task. Having ideas that seem to come from beyond me, and writing about them, seeing “pictures in my head,” images and words to describe them, have haunted me from early childhood, encouraged by my writer father. As an adult I pray and dream that the words and ideas given me might say something true and meaningful to a reader, a listener.
Presented with visions, permitted to see what others could not, prophets in Scripture were called to proclaim in human language what was “un-seeable” to their audience. Some of the most lasting and vivid poetry in Scripture came from the mouths of these prophets. Throughout biblical history there were many of them, nearly always sent by God to speak words of correction, warning or foretelling.
Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Isaiah were known as the Major Prophets because of the length, complexity, and duration of their prophecies, containing as they did image after image of blazing intensity. The so-called Minor Prophets also had this gift of perception, these glimpses of unseen reality, to be conveyed in words and actions. Habakkuk’s vision was called “a burden,” something so heavy with portent that expressing it, living it out, was a divine message on which the welfare of God’s people depended. Being called as a prophet was not an easy assignment. It set the seer apart from and often against those he was required to challenge. Presented in the language of the people, using earthy metaphors to express divine realities, many visions were written in the form of Hebraic poetry, with brilliant imagery reflecting their own settings and cultures.
The young boy Samuel, with his responsive spirit, woken from sleep three times by God, was the one chosen to call out the high priest Eli, who had grown old and tired and had forgotten to listen and obey, to the detriment of the people he was meant to lead. The proverb says it: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Through Samuel, the vision came alive and real in the lives of the people.
Perhaps this is where I find myself, like young Samuel responding as best I can to the voice, listening for messages clear enough to transmit, recording them in their primitive forms in a notebook, then in my computer where they call for revision, revision, revision. I read them aloud to catch the rhythms I hear in my head. I have done this all my life. It is my greatest joy, for which I give glory to the Great Poet who created me as part of his universe, a shard of his seventh day.
These biblical prophecies bristle with colorful imagery reflecting the settings and cultures of the hearers. Much of it follows the forms of Hebraic poetry in couplets that reiterate or contrast. Take Isaiah, whose words describe what he saw of the Mighty One: “I saw the Lord. He was high and lifted up and his throne filled the temple.” The exalted vision that follows is pure poetry. (Somehow it reaches me most powerfully when expressed in the King James Version with its grand sonorities.) Many of the prophecies were more earthbound than Isaiah’s. Think of Jeremiah’s dream of a basket of rotten figs, inedible like the people whom he was castigating. Think of Ezekiel, who literally lived his metaphor, required by God to lie, bound with cords for months, to illustrate the bondage of the people of Judah. The prophetic vision was often heavy, a prediction of imminent destruction and calamity. In Jeremiah’s time, his message of doom so angered the people that they put him in a deep, muddy pit to think it over.
At Saul’s conversion on the Damascus Road, God flung him from his horse and claimed him in unmistakable terms. The vision was blinding and unspeakable, the lifechange of the man who became the apostle Paul dramatic.
In the Revelation John the Divine, exiled on Patmos, saw the blazing image of “One like the Son of Man” who transmitted to him prophetic messages for the Christian believers in seven communities of the early church. He was told, “Write what you see.” “Listen to the windwords,” is how a contemporary translation puts it. With its brilliant and mystical metaphors, John’s vision continues
with some of the most arresting and high-flown language and imagery in the Bible. It is both daunting and beatific.
In our own day, in a mechanistic society trammeled with political conflicts and a waning consciousness of the sublime, I believe poets—and particularly poets of faith— have a similar mandate. I suggest that writers who cultivate the gift of perception and awareness will make connections with what they see in imagination and how they write about it. It is a kind of translation in the hope that something of what they see and hear will open a fresh understanding, will somehow illuminate their readers. It’s like taking someone by the arm and saying, “Hey. Look this way! Have you noticed . . . ? Can you see what I am seeing?” It doesn’t have to be earth-shaking or exalted or profound, but it must speak into another human mind, building a bridge from writer to reader. It’s as if a poem hasn’t fulfilled its purpose until it makes a connection in someone else’s imagination, and enlarges, by increments, that companion mind.
We earth-bound mortals, with a cultivated consciousness, may have access to possibilities, or invisible realities. We have a connection with the seen and unseen by way of spiritual insight and our words suggest that, like John the Revelator, we “write what we see.” As we live in a creative world of beauty and terror, delight and disruption, we are called to notice the contrasts and linkages that fascinate and compel us into truth-telling and metaphorical language. As it was for Habakkuk, burdened with a prophetic vision (or a compelling image for a poem), our insights and language may burden us with something not to be gainsaid.
Not everyone in Scripture was called to be a prophet, not even the righteous. Not every human being will see reality through the eyes of imagination and vision. Yet in our own time we may also have access to the transcendent as our imaginations receive “pictures in our heads.” Rhythms and phrases take hold of us. Individual words and phrases will call to us from the pages of contemporary novels and journals, demanding to be written into poems. Ideas take shape and color and meaning. Rhythmic phrases hum in our minds waiting to be expressed in rhyme and meter. Or not.
Poets and prophets may not always be at the center of a social structure. Rather they are on “the edge of inside,” as Richard Rohr has said. We stand on a kind of threshold looking out, and in, and then, using the magic of language, we may open a window, point at a landscape and ask: “Can you see what I’m seeing?”—an introduction to enter our vision, an invitation to make a connection.
November 2 & 3, 2018 — Paraclete Press and Elements Theatre Company have a lot in common, including a passion to spread the Gospel through the written and spoken word, and offer encouragement to those of us ordinary folks hoping to get one step closer to heaven every day. This All Saints Day, Paraclete and Elements join in our mutual love of sacred literature, to present an ecumenical celebration of the Saints portrayed through the lens of theatre.
Elements Theatre Company (Orleans, MA) and Paraclete Press (Brewster, MA) present Battered and Bright: Celebrating the Saints: November 2, 7:30 pm, November 3, 3 pm & 7:30 pm, at the Church of the Transfiguration, Rock Harbor, Orleans. For tickets call 508-240-2400, visit elementstheatre.org, or purchase at the door. $35 General; $30 Senior; Free for Students and Youth 18 & under; Group rates available for 10 or more.
Meet revered Saints—Peter, Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, Patrick, Catherine of Siena, and Francis of Assisi—whose stories will come to life through narratives and live music. Fire-lit basins, background projections, and a large book set the stage, allowing the audience to step into the radical world of the Saints through the ages.
Jon Sweeney, Paraclete Press’s Editor-in-Chief, will moderate post-performance discussions with Artistic Director Danielle Dwyer, CJ, and Dramaturg Brad Lussier. Guest speakers include Paraclete Press authors Bert Ghezzi (The Angry Christian), Susan L. Miller (Communion of Saints: Poems), and Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle (Feeding Your Family’s Soul); St. Peter’s Lutheran Church pastor Christian Holleck (Harwich, MA); and others. Click here to meet the Casts & Panelists.
“As actors, we must take on the whole person of the character we are playing. As we charted the Saints’ journeys of spirit, walked through their lives, explored their vibrancy of faith and commitment, we found hope. There is no shame in being human—once we accept this gift, there is actual peace.”—Sr. Danielle Dwyer
October 4, The Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi — As the world celebrates its favorite and most unifying saint, Francis of Assisi, Paraclete Press announces the release of the first title in its new San Damiano Books imprint, St. Francis and the Animals: A Mother Bird’s Story (October 4, 2019 • ISBN 978-1-61261-973-6 • $17.99 • Hardcover).
Phil Gallery’s inspired words from the perspective of Mother Bird, paired with Sibyl MacKenzie’s vibrant, beautiful illustrations, give readers young and old an entirely new angle on Brother Francis – the boy who grew up in Assisi, ventured out as a brave knight, turned aside when he heard God’s call, and became the gentle monk who loved the Creator and all of creation with his whole heart. The familiar stories take on an even more profound meaning when told from the perspective of Francis’s brothers and sisters, the birds – and one little bird in particular who takes flight for the first time thanks to the kindness of Brother Francis – showing how all the parts of God’s creation are connected.
Praise for St. Francis and the Animals: A Mother Bird’s Story
“This is an enchanting tale of St. Francis’ love of all creatures that shows how religious tales, in engaging prose and elegant illustrations, can guide us in the most important project of our lives: connecting with God, the Maker of all good things. This will become one of the favorite books of childhood!” –Fr. David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., Director of the Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure University
“This book is great! It is a wonderful depiction of the story of the life of Saint Francis as told with amazing drawings.”
–Bob O’Connor, Author of A House Divided Against Itself
“These stunning illustrations and the engaging text describe how Francis related to a great variety of animals. This book is sure to spark valuable conversations.”
-Fr. Pat McCloskey, OFM, Franciscan Editor, St. Anthony Messenger
“Simply stunning! This is guaranteed to stir your heart with a rousing love for God, His Saints, His Creation, and all creatures—great and small. This tender story is magnificently illustrated and a very engaging expression of the life of the beloved Saint of Assisi. I highly recommend it for children and adults alike!”
–Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, award-winning author of many books including Angels for Kids and My Confirmation Book
Phil Gallery is the author of four books in the award-winning “Can You Find” series that sold more than 140,000 copies. He lives in the hills of eastern West Virginia, where he and his wife Shari raised their four children.
Sibyl MacKenzie graduated from Columbia University with a degree in German Literature and has exhibited in galleries all over the US.
St. Francis and the Animals: A Mother Bird’s Story is the first book in Paraclete’s new San Damiano Books imprint for Franciscan spirituality. San Damiano Books will publish for children as well as adults, fiction and nonfiction, spirituality and practical theology, books by vowed Franciscans and laypeople/writers—all with a passion for the spirit of Saints Francis and Clare.
For interviews with author Phil Gallery or for review copies, please contact Director of Marketing Laura McKendree: email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 800-451-5006 ext 316.