After Martinmas and Candlemas

“Her name’s Hazel,” he said, gesturing to the huge owl perched on his left arm. She was the size of my torso, with enormous orange eyes in a face covered in light gray feathers. The rest of her feathers were black, white, and brown. Her pointy ears were turned back like a disgruntled cat’s. “Here, you can pet her with these.” He gave us feathers – I got a raven’s feather – and my friend, a couple of other tourists, and I used our feathers to stroke Hazel. She stared at me and blinked.

Edinburgh felt huge, fast, and busy after being in St. Andrews for nine months. The stone buildings, ornate scrollwork, Gothic spires, statues, and castles give it a medieval feel, but blinking traffic lights, blue and gray buses, and colorful storefronts mix in the neon of the twenty-first century. Pink cherry trees and tulips were in bloom in the city; yellow gorse made the surrounding hills glow.

Edinburgh Castle towers about the city like a dream in the sky.

It has been a stormy spring of cold rainfall, dark clouds, and winds that shake the blossoming trees. I’m not sure how I survived April’s pileup of assignments: an essay on Joy Davidman’s poetry and the theology of nostalgia; the relationship between faith, reason, and imagination in the works of Robert Kirk, James Hogg, and George MacDonald; a presentation on L.M. Montgomery and Dorothy L. Sayers’s contrasting perspectives on Christian doctrine; a class introduction for Part II of C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces; an exam on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale,” and Wagner’s “The Valkyrie.” I found cross-currents of beauty and wisdom in all of these works and my non-academic life:

  • The joy of new life, pain of growing, and mystery of resurrection as represented by Spring
  • The relationship between epistemology (the study of knowledge, or how you know what you know), truth, the natural world, and the supernatural
  • Love as a way of knowing
  • The paradox of surrender, grace, and continued effort in the life of faith

I have discovered that I am tireder, but more inspired and efficient, when I mingle fellowship and travel-adventures with study. Despite the weather, I have explored red sandstone clifftops and geos (sea inlets); the grounds of a castle surrounded by green woods full of white wild garlic; meadows of bluebells and cow parsley overlooking the harbor; a garden of purple-black, red, white, yellow, and pink tulips. Wandering through the hills and looking out over the sparkling ocean makes me feel like I’ve walked into a dream of paradise. Running through gray streets while trying to follow complex and contradictory GPS instructions to catch buses in the nick of time makes me feel like I’ve created my own nightmare. Travel is freeing, and wondrous, and so fun after months of lockdown, though I need to control my longing to go completely rogue as I still have a dissertation and part-time job to do.

This year has gone by so quickly. As I’ve said before, one Master’s degree does not even give you intermediate knowledge of a subject – just a cartographer’s view of your field of study, and not a detailed map, either. However, after two semesters of classes, I’ve discovered a few interesting things about Theology and the Arts and myself:

Academic vs. artistic thinking

I think my mind and skillset are better suited to a researching-artist’s life than an academic one. Academic thought requires absorbing an ocean of complex and diverse information (tons of books, articles, and lectures), meditating on it, and then synthesizing evidence to create a new perspective that will expand the field and spark new conversations. I can research and craft an argument, but my analysis tends to oversimplify and condense too much, ignoring the complexities of a subject. I still love learning, but I may be able to contribute better by creating stories than persuasive arguments.

The interrelation of doctrines and disciplines 

In our “Christian Doctrine and the Arts,” course, our professor emphasized the unity of all the doctrines of Christianity. It’s difficult to speak about the doctrine of God the Father (patrology) without explaining His relationship with God the Son (Christology) and God the Spirit (pneumatology), but then you probably should define the Trinity, and the nature of the Trinity explains how salvation works (soteriology), and then you should explain how humanity fits in (Christian anthropology) and then perhaps how the Church matters in all of this (ecclesiology) and how all of time is rushing towards the final revelation (eschatology) . . . you get the idea. The creeds are unified, as the Trinity is unified, and the true Church is one. 

I think disciplines of study are the same way. While it’s difficult to maintain both breadth and depth of knowledge, specializing in the humanities or the sciences means you neglect the wisdom of the other house. Interdisciplinary work is truly fascinating. One of our readings by Eleanore Stump, for example, drew on an analogy from math into theology by comparing the book of Job to a fractal (“The Story of Job: Suffering and the Second-Personal” in Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering, pg. 220-21). Judith Wolfe, one of my professors, is working on a research grant now called “Mapping the Imagination” which combines psychology, philosophy, and phenomenology to examine how the imagination shapes what we perceive.

As a writer, I want to diversify my knowledge so that I can draw wisdom and analogies from many disciplines and create rich, complex, and fascinating worlds and stories. I will probably have to choose breadth of knowledge over depth.

The relationship between theology and the arts

In a previous post, I talked about the difficulty of defining the relationship between theology and the arts. In discussing religion and literature (I think this applies to the rest of the arts as well), John May describes a few perspectives: heteronomy (literature as the “handmaiden of faith”), autonomy (literature judged by its own norms), or theonomy (literature and religion both grounded in ultimate reality, God) (John May, New Image of Religious Film, 20).

My faith tradition is very Scripturally-focused: Plymouth Brethren/Baptist. I believe that the Word of God as a means of divine revelation comes first, before Church tradition, wordly ways of knowing, or personal experience. I am passionate about orthodoxy, or staying true to correct Spiritual teaching – hopefully in the truest sense, so that I am as fierce about living with grace, loving-kindness, and humility as I am about righteous behavior and beliefs.

For these reasons, my view is closer to heteronomy or “the arts as a handmaiden of theology,” demonstrating, exploring, discussing, or illustrating theological concepts, because I see theology or the study of God as the first thing, the pursuit that all other disciplines fall under. I see the arts as a means of glorifying God through human making, singing a “new song.” I don’t like overly simplistic, melodramatic, poorly-crafted artwork that tries to hammer morals into people’s heads by deception or manipulation. I love and want to create work that explores difficult questions, creates beauty, exposes ugliness, and seeks to love the artist’s audience through masterful craftsmanship and complex, thought-provoking techniques.

As an artist with academic interests, I have a new set of directions to explore as I work on my dissertation this summer and return home in the autumn, including protology (the study of Creation), ecclesiology (the study of the Church), mythopoeia (mythmaking art), and the folklore of Scotland and other parts of the world. This year’s coursework has given me enough to meditate on for a long, long time – but first, I have to finish it.

And, in the meantime, drink in all I can of Scotland as vaccines roll out and restrictions loosen: ruins dappled in golden afternoon light and shadow, hilltops shrouded in fog, sea caves echoing with the crash of waves, and cafes that serve interesting varieties of hot chocolate.

Springtime, the Sea, and the Good Life

I am learning to read the winds and sky: to check the temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover to see whether it is warm and still enough to walk the cliffs, or whether I should stick to the sheltered woods. I know now that any wind above 15ish mph is too chilly for studying in a grassy meadow if the temperature is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit; that rain here is light and usually doesn’t last more than a few minutes; that the sea turns shades of royal blue, marine green, and blue-gray depending on the tides and rain patterns.

Spring comes earlier in Scotland, thank God. The white snowdrops are fading now, giving way to daffodils of bright yellow or cream; green buds pop up on the prickly beach roses and hedges; flocks of honking geese make Vs in the sky. You can smell thawing earth now (one of my favorite smells). It is warm enough for adventures again: stargazing on the pier under a golden crescent moon surrounded by haze; study sessions on grassy clifftops thick with gorse; wanders through a green park beside a huge brick mansion with boarded-up windows and KEEP OUT signs.

These past few weeks have been like treading water amidst huge waves; I have managed to keep track of everything, I think, but spring break came just in time. Classes have continued to be fascinating, so good that I can only drink in the richness: the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, our suffering and triumphant Messiah; Resurrection, transhumanism, and artificial intelligence; ecclesiology (theology of the Church), religious syncretism, and graphic novels/comics as a medium of theological insight; Henry Ossawa Tanner’s mesmerizing painting of the Annunciation; love and theatricality in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”; oaths and love and power in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I am reading George MacDonald, James Hogg, C.S. Lewis, and others for various papers and presentations. I am inundated and enthralled, joyful and very tired.

The Transept artists’ group, which is connected with ITIA (my program, the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts) is also hosting an online exhibition that just started on Friday. Putting it together has required much more emailing, scheduling, Google Drive manipulation, spreadsheets, and checklists than I realized, but we are starting to see the fruits of our labor. We chose “In/break” for the theme (thinking of God breaking into human history and the world breaking out of the COVID pandemic, among other things) and artists have taken it in such fascinating directions. Barbara Davey’s set of five poems, “Interruptions and Intrusions,” has some sections that haunted me:

Barbara Davey, “Interruptions and Intrusions,” part 3

There are some real treasures coming over the next two weeks: a meditation on walking the Fife Pilgrim Trail, dramatic sketches of each of the four Gospels, a modern retelling of the birth of Samuel, and many more. The artworks will be posted on the Transpositions blog here.

On Saturday, I celebrated the freedom of spring break by hiking down the Fife Coastal Path to the Cambo Gardens, an estate with a walled garden full of blooming purple and white and green, glasshouses, woodlands full of daffodils and snowdrops, and a very large ginger pig named Lawrence. (Ginger in color, to be clear.) The coastal path is alive with tiny yellow flowers, dark green seaweed, rocks for scrambling, stone steps carved with crisscrosses to give walkers more traction. We broke our mileage record for one day: about 17 miles, give or take. We traded sore joints and tired muscles for glorious views of the royal blue sea, gray-blue mountains, and St. Andrews shining like a jewel in its cove.

How do you live a good life? I’m surprised that that question continues to haunt me over the years; it began just after finishing my undergrad. Sitting in traffic on my commute, counting up savings paycheck by paycheck, scheduling coffee dates, trying to fill up lonely Saturdays, I kept thinking: am I doing this right? How is everyone else choosing to live? How do I live for the kingdom of God in this time, this place, with this soul and these gifts? This adventure-year in Scotland was supposed to solve that question, somewhat. I saved, planned, strategized, dreamed, and prayed, and God gave me a way to incarnate hope into reality. But I still wonder now, as I read poetry and fantasy and plan hikes and picnics through lockdown, how to choose where to spend time, money, and energy in the light of Genesis and the Gospels, Ecclesiastes and Paul’s letters . . . and Revelation.

The wheel of the year turns again toward Easter. I have written before about how this holy feast feels different from Christmas because it has the grief of Good Friday, which is not the full story, but cannot be ignored. Waiting, feasting, lamenting, rejoicing, and hoping all belong in the divine narrative. I want to live well in the shadow of the cross and the sunrise of the empty tomb: in studies, adventures, art, work, and fellowship. In this silver-blue citadel, in the remaining months I have left, I hope I can continue to figure out how.

Easter 2019 and 2020: Willow Trees and the Water of Life

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

I wrote this post last year, but didn’t finish it in time to post it by Easter 2019. I post it this Easter with a few edits and an extra section.

Easter 2019

On Friday night [last April], as a [now former] coworker and I walked to the parking lot, she pointed out a willow tree whose leaves were beginning to come out. They were a bright yellow-green, hanging with a long, curtain-like elegance. “You can always tell where water is, when you see a willow,” she said. “You would not believe how much they need.”

A few years ago, I attended a women’s retreat in which one speaker walked through Jeremiah 17:7-8 (ESV):

Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit
.

The speaker emphasized how the tree spread out its roots to the water before the season of drought, so that when suffering came, it was ready.

When I studied the book of John in a women’s Bible study [two years ago], Jesus’s words in John 7:37 had a sweet ring to them: 

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’

It’s Easter Sunday: the natural companion of Christmas Day, but with a special grief and joy Christmas only promised. Christmas is a blaze of joy in the dark of winter, Christ entering the world as a child; something to be wildly excited over, as children usually are. Easter is the beautiful, terrible time when Christ entered suffering and death as an adult, something to grieve about (that He suffered) but glory in all the more. Easter is Christmas grown up.

I’m more and more assured of one thing: the only way to live a good life (good – but no life is perfect) is to love God, trust Him, and obey Him. If I can be deeply rooted in His goodness, drawing on the wellspring of living water, then I can survive anything.

Easter 2020

Where there is a willow, there is water. I am a year older than when I drafted the words above, sitting here in awe of all God has given me in 12 months. Now, I think the water metaphor I used above was somewhat simplistic, underdeveloped, but I’ll continue it: God has led me beside still waters, this year, shepherding me to a greener valley than I imagined.

Now, I can give you more context for last year’s post. Last Easter was an uncertain time:  I was considering either moving up to Portland, Maine, changing jobs, or applying to grad school. I was tired of my long commute, tired of being lonely and isolated, longing for community and meaningful work and direction.

One morning, light rain fell as I started driving up 95 North to Portland. At one point, I changed lanes and felt my car slide a little: the light rain was slowly turning to ice as I drove north. Eventually, I reached a row of red tail lights slowly shifting into the right lane: we finally crawled past a semi truck lying on its side, blocking the two left lanes, the guard rails between the sides of the highway smashed into curves beside it. A few minutes later, I passed a white minivan lying on its roof on the right side of the road.

I was an hour late to work and had a stress-headache. Over the next few hours, big, wet snowflakes fell on the city square outside, muffling the gray pavement and statue in the center. I typed the day away, prayed, and waited.

Three months later, at the end of July, I drove down a highway lined with golden black-eyed susans with a new job, new apartment, new roommate, and a new life.

I don’t write this story because it proves that God always wants to make us happy. This is Resurrection Sunday, when we remember the Messiah making peace by the blood of His cross. Our ultimate purpose is His glory – but He glorifies Himself in acts of grace to us in our present lives (like new jobs) as well as in eternity.

Where a willow is, there is water. In Scripture, water does two things: it represents life (eternal life) and cleansing. The Resurrection is Christ giving Himself for us so that we can be cleansed and have eternal life.

Living water…Good Shepherd…Savior. These eternal truths reveal themselves in my small, brief, mortal days as blessing and guidance; I am sustained by the wellspring of the author of Life, who died, was buried, and rose again. 

As believers, we are willows. Glory!

Watch the Trees

Pink sunset over a river.

A few months ago, in February, the snow made the roads too slick and visibility too dim to drive to work. I worked from home at my dining room table, tapping away on my laptop and laughing at some plump robins I saw out the window. They hopped from branch to branch in the crabapple tree, gobbling up the small red fruit. The sun melted the snow into shining drops that hung and then fell beneath the robins’ feet.

Now, the earth hovers between wild, wet snowstorms (like this morning) and clear days when the air’s bitter chill softens. The bare tree branches, brown and gray, are gold in the radiance of early morning and evening. Like all seasonal transitions, this time of waiting feels special to me: as if we’re waiting for something that’s never happened before, that we’ve only dreamed about before.

In my school years, spring was the season of deepest, most painful yearning for me. Though I love learning, my shyness and laziness meant that I never enjoyed the schedule, work, and social demands of school. I connected summer with heaven: perfect rest (sleeping in), perfect peace (no scheduled schoolwork), perfect beauty (the maple trees all green, the peonies blushing pink), and perfect joy (playing, biking, swimming, or reading books all day). When warm breezes carried the smell of fresh earth and new growth, bright green leaves softened the trees, and deep-souled purple crocuses sprouted up, I ached for summer and grew increasingly grumpy in the classroom.

This is my third spring after finishing college, and I no longer connect summer with heaven. I’ve learned to love fall, the season I used to hate as the summoner of ugly yellow school buses, dead leaves, and the renewal of imprisonment in school. But spring is still a season of waiting.

“Watch the trees,” my college roommate and I used to warn each other solemnly. We joked about how quickly the buds on the trees burst into Scottish green leaves and fragrant blossoms, as if the trees conspired to surprise us every year. We tried to watch the bare branches carefully, every day, to catch those quiet signs of transition before the change.

I no longer expect the summer season be heaven and fulfill my dreams of rest, peace, beauty, and joy. But the uncertainties of young adulthood have replaced the feeling of being trapped and suppressed that I had in school. I longed for freedom, but sometimes it feels like I have too much: too many choices, too many opportunities.

As C.S. Lewis said in The Screwtape Letters (letter XXV), seasons are the perfect pattern of permanence and change, God’s perfect gift to fickle humans who long for both. I’m slowly awakening to the truth that life’s seasons, like nature’s seasons, have beauty and pain – and underneath, the bedrock of God’s promises, His goodness, His life.

I’m watching the trees. I’m waiting – with uncertainty, with impatience, but knowing that God’s joy outlives all seasons.