Divine Cartography: Dreams and Memories at the Close of 2020

St. Andrews in a radiant purple dusk

After Elizabeth made a joyful prophecy over her, Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” (Luke 1:46b-48, ESV). I am no Mary, but after this long year and a semester in Scotland, I marvel at God’s goodness to me this year – through a pandemic that shut down the world, through civil and political turmoil, through visa applications and loneliness and quarantine and study. 

Three years ago, I commuted 50 minutes each way to my first job, through New Hampshire farm country. I would use the morning ride to pray and arrive at my last requests just as I turned left at the last stoplight onto a quiet road lined with oak trees on one side and cattails on the other. Once, I saw a beaver emerge from the rushes and ponder the road (don’t try to cross! I begged him); another time, I stopped and waited as two Canada geese and their goslings waddled across in a solemn line. One of my last prayer requests would be about my dreams for grad school: that God would help me find a good program where I could learn more and grow into a better writer. 

His guidance was so gentle. That first job had its challenges – gray cubicles with high walls, humming fluorescent lights, dull work in front of a white computer screen – but established job skills I didn’t know were essential for anyone who produces any kind of content, including copy editing. Other jobs since then opened my mind to the imaginative possibilities in the business world, the energy and creativity of corporate life, which has more potential than I think many people realize. The world of software is a wonderland of human subcreation, as it’s created out of language (like the physical world is!) – and software developers are basically wizards: quirky, brilliant, and witty people who are a delight to work with.

God gave me loneliness – a precious gift that broke me out of the prison of shyness and taught me to seek community and find ways to love people. He gave me boredom, another gift that motivated me to create beauty and adventures where there were none: Spotify playlists for work that made my heart dance, mountain hikes on weekends, books and literary journals and conferences that filled my mind with wisdom and mystery. 

After all that – God the Giver, the Divine Cartographer, led me to the gift I had asked for, a year in grad school, in one of the hardest years anyone can remember. A few weeks ago, I turned in my last paper for the first semester of my Theology and the Arts program at St. Andrews. (I also published a short and wild Christmas story in my program’s blog, Transpositions, called “Flight of the Gift-Giver.”)

These past few months have been a glorious carousel ride, a snorkel through a rainbow reef, a telescope-view of dazzling constellations. Quarantining for two weeks and surviving on egg-and-mayo sandwiches and fruit in September was difficult, and the visa process confirmed my hatred of paperwork and red tape, but I survived – and found that the Gray Havens had all the magic promised to us and more. 

Our professors took us on a straight path through the mythical zoo that is the growing Theology and the Arts field: we studied Dante’s Divine Comedy and Jeremy Begbie’s work on a musical analogy of the Trinity, re-enchantment, the emergent church, kitsch, Greek Orthodox icons, and other works of scholarship and art. Much of our work focused on epistemology (different ways of knowing) contrasting the rational, intellectual epistemology of reason, logic, and argument which makes up a lot of theology with the emotional, affective epistemology of narrative, poetry, visual art, music, film, and other art forms. We looked at the arts as a means of praising vs. understanding God, an area of orthodoxy or transgression, as a fountain of joy and wisdom vs. distraction or idolatry.

I’ve explored some of Scotland. We can’t leave Fife yet, but staying here has motivated me to find hikes and little villages and ruins I may not have found otherwise. I’ve hiked up a windswept hill that once housed a Pictish fort; through the shadows of a golden sunset in pine woods; on the coast where rainwater made rivers across our path; past a solemn stone church and castle among gray-green hills. Scotland can be radiant, ominous and dark, shimmering with puddles, wind-brushed, or crystallized in frost. 

I’ve discovered academic areas I want to explore. A Master’s degree does not get you anywhere near mastery of a subject; even a PhD only gives you a narrow sliver of human knowledge. The best you can do is learn the major names and areas in your field of study so that you can choose where you will delve deeper. With my eclectic range of interests, I still have multiple areas I want to explore, including: 

  • Theology of play – I heard of this in my undergrad, but now know a few more names and specifics: some theorists think that play may be a better means of worship, of knowing God and glorifying Him, then we realize. 
  • Metaphor theory – One of my papers examined how metaphors (such as “poetry is a snowstorm”) can open your mind to multiple layers of meaning, as opposed to the more direct representation of allegories or some types of symbols. However, metaphor theory is a huge field, with links to poetry and philosophy.
  • Paradox – Christ is God and man; the Kingdom of heaven is here already and not yet; good works reveal the state of the heart but do not earn salvation. Christianity is a country of paradoxes, or seemingly contradictory statements, that we need to hold in tension, and the arts are an excellent means of grasping paradoxes.
  • Re-enchantment and sacramentality – The word “re-enchantment” gives me a shiver of delight, but after reading a small portion of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I feel that the medieval worldview may have its own theological problems – for example, believing that the “white magic” of church sacraments and saints’ relics counteracts the “black magic” of demonic activity. I want to research the medieval worldview and how art can bring a spiritual renewal and healthy re-enchantment.
  • Poetry and faith – I feel myself falling deeper in love with poetry as a way of gesturing towards the ineffable, of expressing the infinite, including the realm of faith. I listened to a discussion by the poet Malcolm Guite in which he quoted George Herbert’s “Agony Poem,” which concludes: “Love is that liquour sweet and most divine, / Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.” Poetry can use metaphor and simile, rhyme and meter, image and description to embody spiritual truths we struggle to articulate in any other way. I want to research this truth-bearing aspect of poetry further.

There are so many worlds to study and create. I want to join the academic conversation in Theology and the Arts, but my creative side also yearns to Make, to spin these insights into stories and poetry that reawaken people to wonder and mystery and delight. Lord willing, I can explore both in what remains of this winter break – as snow settles on the hills across the bay, blue dawns creep back from 8:44 a.m., and ice stills the tidepools below the cliffs.

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