Finding light in dark faith

Sometimes writers are confronted with unique opportunities to write; that is of course if one dwells, as I do, among lit-nerds and poetry-geeks. One of the best places of which I’m presently aware, exploring the intersection of faith and the arts, is Transpositions UK. It is based at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. For those like me, who seek a deeper understanding of this crossroads, it simply does intriguing work.

P01519-200x300My first published book review for this organization may be found here. In it I spend time interacting with the wrestling of others who do so with Flannery O’Connor’s enigmatic and richly metaphoric novel, “The Violent Bear It Away.”  If you’ve never had the dark pleasure of reading O’Connor’s novel, do it as soon as possible. Then, pursue “Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away” as a resource for a broader, more tactile understanding of it’s dark depths. And you thought you wouldn’t have homework. Ha!

At such moments of personal celebration I might otherwise have been enjoying a Scotch and a good cigar. But, alas, as a teetotaler now for over twelve years, I shall head to the kitchen for my third cup of coffee and some Cheerios instead.

Cheers, R

ALTARWORK dot calm

These are those delightful, though humbling serendipities that add such a glow of grace to life. Please check out this wonderful initiative of which I am honored to be a part…

ALTARWORK is delighted to present a sample of Rob’s poetry – eight poems in all. Rob has a unique voice and style – eclectic, uniquely profound – and is unafraid to stray beyond convention with regards to his subject matter, point of view, and wordplay. Rob is a highly enjoyable read.”

— Jason Ramsey, ALTARWORK Founder/Editor

A Celt in a kilt and the beautiful mundane

This was originally posted as a guest post on a favorite website of mine, Abbey of the Arts (thank you Christine Valters-Paintner!). What a delight to be given opportunity to share one’s life among kindred spirits in the grand dance that is our eternal redemption.

Please, please, please, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to visit Christine and the rest of us Monk-Artists at the Abbey. Come visit/like the Facebook page as well. You’ll be so glad you did. I promise.

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A Celt in a Kilt and the Beautiful Mundane

I-You-Holy Ground
By Robert Alan Rife

I am the dusty ground, low and dry
thirsty for the imprint of holy feet.
Despoil with radiant prints, this virgin ground.

You are the rain, falling deftly
upon my brown soil. Now is left
your footprint on this ground.

I am the ashen leaves, curling and broken
awaiting but a whisper. For only then
can I fall on solid ground.

You are the soundless wind, howling, still.
You creep up behind me and
exhale me to the ground.

I am the snow, disembodied worlds of cold
and chance encounters with hand, or tongue,
eye-lash or palm needing ground.

You are the frozen air in which I am held
aloft, drawn slowly down
to meet with others on the frozen ground.

I am the waning autumn death
soon to give way to the long silence-when one Voice
becomes the loudest ground.

You are the Voice that speaks
heard best in dying, power given for
rising from this shivering ground.

I am the distant hours, the midnight passing-
the refusing minutes, trapped in hours,
running from the years of ancient ground.

You are the many, and the one, and all time
and nothing and everything from nothing
where time has no ground.

I am the weeping, the squalid groaning,
the unrequited miseries of misery’s company
laying crippled and diffused in the ground.

You are the end of tears and years, the question
and the answer, the sutured nerve of joy, not suggested
but present, here, on this Holy Ground.

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For me, the term ‘monk’ used to mean ‘one safely cloistered away from the cares of normal life in dimly lit, echoing stone hallways where hooded men sing hauntingly beautiful music and basically float just a bit off the ground. A single, piercing glance from their crystalline eyes means healing, they have superpowers, can read your thoughts, never need to eat, and speak once a year whether they need to or not.

Since leaving behind my roots in evangelicalism for headier waters elsewhere I’ve since discovered that monks often have the sauciest senses of humor, the bawdiest stories and, not surprisingly, the deepest delight in the world around them. My kinda fellas. They’re as non-dualistic as they come; a life to which I aspire. Apophatic meditation one moment. Bodily noises the next. Welcome to my world.

I am a dreamer; a philosopher-poet capable of romanticizing even the most mundane banalities. To a guy like me, cutting the grass has the potential to be a portal into the nether regions of the universe, awash in liminality, where mythic faeries ride unicorns on their way to Celtic slumber parties. But, I’ve been known to overstate a little.

Clearly, I’m a favorite among type-A corporate headhunters (tongue super-glued to cheek). Rather, stereotypical songwriters, tree-huggers, poets, unfocused A.D.D. artsy-fartsies, and contemplatives love to love me. They’re my peeps. My homies. They know my psychic address.

These overly romanticized sensibilities haven’t always promised smooth sailing for me. In fact, more often than not they’ve brought more than their fair share of woe and disillusionment. The world has precious little patience for those like me, preferring instead the multi-tasking, power-doers with ambitions larger than the moon upon which they hang their coats (but generally not their egos). It’s a challenge in our super-charged, winner-take-all culture to prove real value in lighting candles and pursuing silence when time is money and money is god and god keeps shrinking or running away.

My earliest recollections of spiritual awareness contained the following simple elements: surprised by joy moments, generally unasked for and seldom expected; a sudden awareness that the world was not really as it seemed – that from God’s perspective all was well. Specifically, I was drawn to all things ancient, mystical and Celtic. As a bagpiper/Irish whistle player who has toured extensively it makes sense that, for me, the world is seen through green colored glasses, smells just a little peaty, telephone poles were meant for tossing, and “ladies” is misspelled on the restroom door (insert look of shock and consternation here).

Although a mystic from a very early age, despite a decided lack of language to articulate such things, my fate was forever sealed when, for the first time I heard the Great Highland Bagpipe. I was seven years old. I was gobsmacked. Mere weeks later, in the basement of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, I started learning to play the pipes. I have played ever since.

Something else happened however. It christened a liminal journey of my inner mystic and forever sealed my fate as a lover of all things Celtic, monastic and artistic. It also began an almost unassuagable thirst for the monastic realities of thin-place living. Puddles become holy water. All time, whether singing, snoring or snacking, can be wrapped up in a ball of quivering holiness. It is the essence of Celtic spirituality. It is my essence (especially if we had haggis the night before).

Now, a gazillion years and as many prayers later, to be an artist, a mystic and a monastic-wannabe is for me to see myself less as a dreamer and more as a waking dream. Life is to find the holy in the banal; the glorious mundane. The perfect, daily moments of nothing-special that, simply by virtue of noticing them, become possibilities of inherent wonder. The greatest gift I’ve received in the past few years, something particularly attributable to the Celts, is that of awakening to these shimmering possibilities in the blasé and dull. How brightly they shine under the light of the God of order and magnificent delights.

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Nanaimo

robertrife:

A little piece from a trip to Nanaimo, B.C.

Originally posted on Rob's Lit-Bits:

Nanaimo at night

Nanaimo at night. Photo: Rae Kenny-Rife

Layers of green-backed mountains muscle their way through bruised-blue ocean. Hovering always beside us, they serve as our constant reminder to look this way, west, when lost (an hourly occurrence with me at the wheel). The air is grey, merging as one with the sky that frames it. Those, like us, whose weather experience is unyielding, unnecessarily hot, desert sun, often boast of the abundance of light. But, unlike the pushy, insistent sunlight of eastern Washington, the light here is complex, nuanced, shy and non-committal, like a teenage girl not quite ready for a boyfriend’s advances. Colors and textures are more discernible; faces, buildings, and backgrounds more sophisticated, not blanched and obvious from the brash directness of a boastful sun. This light is earned and, as such, even more deeply appreciated for its whimsical scarcity.

Rain here is currency, making this a rich place…

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Grief, Observed

Today, August 16, 2014, marks the twenty-eighth anniversary of the death of a woman I never met, my mother-in-law, Nina Barkus. That event, combined with the death of my father almost one year earlier, sparked the meeting, the love affair, and subsequent twenty-six years of marriage (so far) between my wife and I.

This is for her and her mother (mam), Nina Barkus.

 

Rae and her mom, Nina

Rae and her mom, Nina

Grief changes a person. Grief, along with it’s drinking buddies: pain, shame, anger, betrayal – they have a way of reducing a person to his most elemental place, her lowest common denominator. A human being stripped to that bare minimum of barely surviving/survivable raw material. It can push us to become someone we don’t even recognize.

Like a persistent toothache on steroids comes grief; some unimaginable carnivore of light, a predator of hope. It is no respecter of persons. It makes its entrance like a bull in a china shop, impolitely and destructively unexpected. All one can do is stand by, hide somewhere they think to be safe from the onslaught, and observe the damage unfolding before them.

Grief is shameless. It cares not how it comes, undressed and brazenly free of restraint. Like being forced to watch one’s own daughter perform a pole dance, grief strips itself and its participants to places well beyond their own humanity, well below self-defined limits of propriety. It can haunt our conscience as much as our consciousness.

Grief is the chameleon of human experience. It lays in the center of our lives, taking the shape of its container, the color of its environment, so that it becomes maddeningly insouciant, invisible to either scrutiny or even identification. Once identified it shape-shifts again, leaving us now both to grieve and shrink from the exhausting process it is in the first place. It is the never-ending injury to its own insult.

Unlike hope, which, like water, undergirds our elusive oil refusing to mix with the more delicate undergrowth, grief kneads itself into the dough of our lives, leaving us to bloat and swell but with no vision of what might arise in its place. It is a ruthless bully, intent on bruising the softest places where lasting scars are most likely.

Grief most often accompanies a death: of a loved one, a lover, friendships, self-confidence – the list is long. It offers little other than the ominous sense that someone is watching from the shadows, leaving us unnerved as we fumble for the car keys. Just when it seems we’re safely inside, a hand grabs us from behind, refusing us the safety of ‘elsewhere.’ We do not run from it. It runs to us. We do not hide from grief because we end up hiding right behind it. Grief hears our labored breathing every time and quickly finds us out.

Grief is the Goliath of our inner experience. It stands, boasting and blethering on impudently as we soil ourselves before its not inconsiderable size and bully demeanor. “It has killed others greater than I”, we say, as we look way up to find the faceless monster bearing down in full strength upon our pitiable frame.

One could speak as well of the pitiful awakening to one’s own flawed behaviors; ways of seeing things that hurt others and oneself. Poured on top of this kind of grief is the scalding gravy of shame. It is perhaps the worst grief of all since it is often accompanied by a raking internal self-awareness of the negative kind that is seldom polite and never constructive. In fact, it generally becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nothing shapes our grief quite like the knowledge that we may have been the cause of it in another. It has a baldness about it, a merciless fait accompli that, if not well discerned and graciously attended to, becomes our very demise. It flattens the soul, kicking the air out of our spiritual gut in ways we never thought possible.

Having lost my father and both in-laws to cancer (among any number of friends and colleagues) I can confidently attest to the groaning maw of emptiness that accompanies such an ignominious demise. ‘Tis true faith indeed to smile into the great oblivion, unfairly bestowed, and sing.

Well, that was dark, one might fairly say. And they’d be correct. Is there any corrective?

Indeed there is. Having one’s heaviest grief tossed into the lap of another, whose measure of personal pain could never be fully known, but whose faith, unflinching; whose love, unwavering, produces the only known antidote: hope. Grief, be gone, for (s)he who has hope, has everything.

And that hope has a name…

The bricks in our walls – chapter 2

brickwall1

Her name was Susan. She was my first “official” girl friend. I was 13. She was tall and shapely and smart with the sexiest braces I’d ever seen. Her reddish brown hair careened off her shoulders like a gentle waterfall. She, like me, was caught in that strange vortex of too-smart-to-be-cool-but-too-cool-to-be-a-nerd. It made her good company. Besides, she was as awkward as I at this whole “going steady” thing. Our conversations were peppered by silences and repeated questions, more silence, then making out. I mean, what better to fill a gaping Junior High School silence? Our romance lasted an epic five weeks.

His name was Rob. That’s where the commonalities ended. He and his family had moved from somewhere in South Dakota to Calgary, into a house a couple blocks from us. He was a rough and tumble kinda guy. I hated how he could always get me to do stuff I wouldn’t normally do. Egg houses. Give wedgies. Terrorize neighborhood pets. Pull out plants and bushes. All manner of man-boy evil. He holds the record for most days missed from any school year at our Junior High. In twelve years of public education, I skipped school, on purpose, twice. I was caught both times. Both times were with Rob. I kind of miss the silly bastard.

It was my first practice with the Beaumont Pipe Band in Calgary. I saw her from across the gymnasium among a crowd of her peers. Her blue-green eyes could have split atoms and her gentle curves, spiky blond hair, and pointy, Joe Jackson shoes (it was 1982) settled that this was a girl to know. I guess I had been staring a little too long and she looked up and saw me. A gleaming smile framed in blood red lipstick against her pale, white skin sealed the deal. I was smitten. We knew then we’d be close. Close enough that, four years later, we were engaged and poised to send out our wedding invitations.

We didn’t. Her name was Vanessa. She died of bone cancer in 1992.

I always thought he had the coolest name. Lazarus Cornelius was East Indian. He was a dapper ladies man and an amazing guitarist. We were friends at College where we sought to study both of the former along with regular classes we stuffed in the cracks of our busy social calendars. He came from numerous generations of pastors from Mussoorie in the northern Indian province of Uttarakhand. Even though he was thoroughly Canadianized (meaning primarily he was a hockey fan, knew the lingo, cared little for politics and bitched about Americans) I thought it cool to have an Indian friend. It made me feel…cosmopolitan and a little chic.

And when you lived in a cow town like Calgary, that was saying something.

 

 

Picture found here

One Stop Shop Blog Hop

robertrife:

If you’d like, come join me on my other blog for a fun game of global “blog hop.”

Originally posted on Rob's Lit-Bits:

So, this is part of a fun blogger’s initiative called a “Blog Hop.” Here’s how it works. I was invited by writer/poet friend, Lesley-Anne Evans, to join what amounts to a writer’s pyramid scheme. The rules of the game? Tag three other bloggers, all of whom will answer four questions about writing and the writing process. We post two weeks after the previous crew. Therefore, every two weeks, the number of bloggers posting grows exponentially!

The goal is simple – to connect writers who blog in a tighter community and hopefully, enrich others looking for answers to their own writing questions.   Lesley-Anne is a gifted writer and poet who spends much of her time beautifying neighborhoods, cafes, street corners…wherever really, with poetry “installations.” She also does a fun thing called “Pop-up Poetry.” To see her contribution, click here.  

We begin:

1) What am I working on? 

Light Write, June 26/14 Light…

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