The art of words, eleven years on

On January 31st, 2011, I posted my very first piece on this blog. After much consideration I chose the name innerwoven because it seemed to capture what I believe to be true about all of us – we are beloved creatures kneaded into the dough of earth and eternity by God. An often-nasty business requiring much punching and bending and mucking about that constantly shapes our raw material into something warm and nourishing to be served up to a world starving for its goodness. And, although true spirituality is a two-way street – impulses and experiences, ideas and trouble, ecstasy and environments – moving in and out of us, the work of God is largely an inner one. God, at the very center of us, pushing His/Her way out like radiating circles of magma to the mouth of our volcano, ready to burst out upon the world.

This blog then was originally designed to be a catch-all spiritual notepad upon which I could scribble a few ideas about the nature of the soul, the shape of my emerging life, and in so doing, build a little community. Writing about all that required poetry which is what happens when words make love. They impregnate the page with something remarkably sweet and real. Robslitbits became the creative writing arm of the blog which I later portioned into a separate entity. At first, however, it was all right here.

To celebrate eleven years, I repost one of my earliest blog entries. This one was originally early February, 2011, but it still says the kind of thing I’d typically say. Thanks to all of you for taking this journey of spirituality and literature with me. You make life fun, interesting, and just…better!

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Gerard Manley Hopkins. John Donne. Wm. Shakespeare. Christina Rosetti. Emily Dickinson. Paul Simon. Bono. Since I was a very young lad growing up in Calgary, Canada, I’ve had a love affair with language; specifically the art of words. Words spoken. Words written. Words read and re-read, like ingesting food for the eyes that gets digested in the heart.

In the holistic sense of the term, words are sensual. They are meant for more than simply corralling ideas or channelling information. They can and should be beautiful for their own sake. Carefully chosen and meted out in gradual succession like adding the correct ingredients in proper order to the perfect meal, words are part of the whole and greater than the sum of their parts. They massage meaning into our spiritual skin, perking up our inner ears to hear what our unseen lover whispers in our unguarded moments.

The Christian life is more poetry than prose; more a wild garden than suburban lawn. To that end I share this brief poem:

Photo by R. A. Rife, Edinburgh, Scotland

Thanks, Bruce…

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“All through my life I have embraced and questioned the night, and loved its random light: the aurora borealis, the starry reaches of the cosmos, streetlight ricochet off car metal and darkened windowpanes…the light of friends and lovers.
 
We are on a great journey, through darkness and dawn, across time, though sometimes I fear that our journey is about to end. We must not succumb to fear or avarice; we must continue to embrace life, seek light, and gather in the charity of night. This is what God wants from us and for us. Mirrors of the past shine with the hue of unborn days, just as stars glitter in the dark night to light our way.”
 

I love metaphor. I appreciate the multitudinous ways it invites us to consider really big stuff. Night and day, dark and light, doorways and highways – all of it in pursuit of understanding that which can be never be fully understood. 

Longing, as I’ve written many other places, is a condition most endemic of the hungry human spirit. If we are anything as humans, we are spiritually starving. Like the blessing of pain to a body out of joint is that of longing to the soul under duress, or even just at rest. We long not because we’re broken necessarily, but because we want either to be unbroken, or, in my case, to experience the proximity of God as God when last I WAS broken.

However, there’s a danger implicit in longing for its own sake. It can easily become an obsession, a drug without which we feel we can never really be whole. For too many years, in the name of contemplation, I lived in what could only be described as wallowing. It was often a cottage industry of self-pity in the guise of discerning depth; “look at me suffer and enjoying it” rather than the healthier pursuit of gratitude-in-darkness while praying for light. Persona incognito.

I’ve learned since then to notice the subtle differences which exist between genuine longing and a self-imposed spiritual subterraneanism posing as such. Nowadays, whenever longing arises within me, a few questions arise with it. First, where is this coming from? Why is it there and what is it telling me? Is this genuine heartsickness or just indigestion?  Does my spirit need something or am I falling into addictive thinking once again? 

As beautiful, daring, mystifying, and thirsty as the human soul can be, it is also fickle and will play tricks on us. What presents as darkness might just be ennui, the listlessness which is part of being human. What presents as sadness might better be described as an insufficient attention to the light of Christ always burning in our deepest places.

The Bible and, by extension, the great tradition of Christian spirituality have aligned the parallel barrels of mystery and metaphor as their formational crosshairs. The immense enterprise of God’s program of cosmic reclamation remains unsuited to the quaint and glib prognostications of “systematic theology”, or as I like to see it, the detached mechanics of straining eternity through an eye-dropper. Protestantism in general, evangelicalism in particular, are guilty of this diminution.

All of the above has been the experience of my hero, Bruce Cockburn. I recently finished his memoir. A favourite person. My favourite genre. The chance to devour, even absorb, the fascinating lives of fascinating people. My life grows from the experience, every time. What’s not to love? Ah, but this is not just any memoir. 

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It is impossible to understate the impact Cockburn has had on me. My music. My approach to the guitar. My songwriting. My ongoing love for literature and words. Especially, my spirituality, infused with longing as it has been. Even my personality exudes a certain whiff of Cockburnesque mystique, much of it intentional.

He doesn’t know it (yet), but I credit him in large measure for my career in music, songwriting, and for my journey of faith. While he was still pursuing something beyond the pale for himself, he speaks of “the speech of stones.” It was probingly pagan but sufficiently poetic to peak my interest. There was something out there worthy of seeking.

Bruce (may I call you that?), if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.

It still is.

Building Our Poem

“…in thy voice I catch

The language of my former heart…”*

“The Bud,” 1987

I love poetry. I love its exactitude, its wide-eyed innocence wed to unflinching honesty. The unforced rhythms of perfection, like Grandma’s gaze over well-worn glasses. It is the art of lovers, the science of thinkers, the wisdom of doers.

Poetry gives up her secrets cautiously, altruistically, slowly. Every word, like every note of a great symphony, is fully intended, placed unequivocally in its place with an eye, and ear, to building something remarkable out of simple things, something well beyond the sum of its parts.

In a thousand ways, we are the amalgam of our carefully written words; each one added to the emerging poem of our lives. In this process, there are no real mistakes. There is only the discernment asked of us in the changing turn of phrase that will ultimately become our voice in the world.

For me, Rosebud was one such word. Perhaps an entire stanza.

Although my active period in Rosebud was limited to a few months in 1987, her existential tattoos continue to reveal themselves in enduring ways. A tiny, easily missed oasis in the Alberta prairie percolated in me an entire life thereafter committed to several things: the transformative realities birthed in the canyons of friendship, great things can come from wee places, the pursuit of art wed to faith, and the kind of community possible only through probing, and honest, creativity. Family, lived best in and through, story. Our stories now connect in ways both obvious and subtle.

Rosebud Opera House, 1987
Rosebud Opera House, 2021

Our digs
The diminutive Akokiniskway

On the About tab from my spiritual life blog reads the following statement of purpose: “my life is dedicated to those places where life, liturgy, theology, and the arts intersect to promote an authentic spirituality – who we are becoming.” These values existed in me long before I ever made it to this place. But they were stoked by shared inspiration, fireside laughter, broken stage lights and fumbled words, splinters and spoilers, relational fugue and fatigue, the prayers and tears of young lives navigating their way to maturity; to wholeness. To become both passionate and com-passionate, all writ large in the art of our story. The Story.

On the Rosebud Fellowship homepage can be found the following statement, one of the six “objects” that articulates its purpose: “To promote the fellowship of people whose lives have been affected by the Christian mission of Rosebud School of the Arts.”

Friends, I am one such person.

My daily Rosebud prayer walk, Canadian style.

In the short time I spent here I found lasting friendships, a deep gratitude for the quality of connections that exist around creativity rooted in spirituality, and a way of living, boldly illustrative of the kind of “Christian mission” to which Rosebud has always been committed, both spoken and unspoken.

However, the vision of this place was never one for kitsch or the quaintly derivative “evangelism through art” which has damaged both evangelism and art in so doing. Sadly, what begins as evangelism can become nothing more than jingoistic cheerleading or public relations. What begins as “art” descends to something diminished and pale, akin to cultural babysitting, the low hanging fruit of the accessible and “relevant” to the demise of beauty, the archetypal perfections to which God, wide-eyed, once whispered, “it is good.” When beauty and story are the goal, both art and God win. For me, this is Rosebud’s greatest victory.

Table minstrels

To witness the leadership, serene but definitive, directive but collegial, of LaVerne Erickson has always been a wonder to me. A man of endless stories (and not a few impressive name-drops), tireless energy, and towering vision inspires me as much now as it did in those pre-Cambrian days of 1987. I’m still shedding the pounds added from Arlene’s unforgivably good cooking. More than a few good words (and some less so!) were knit to my story through the relentless humour of Royal Sproule, the passionate guidance of Doug Levitt, the sanguine wisdom of Lyle Penner, the many towering women of faith and creativity who helped put Rosebud on the map. And, of course, the big-heartedness of Akokniskway herself, calling us all deeper into her welcoming bosom.

My daily outdoor show

I am as Canadian as the day is long, complete with an undying love of trains. I grew up in a blue-collar home, the son of a brewery worker and homemaker. Our 900 square foot bungalow in the quaint but rough-around-the-edges southwest Calgary neighbourhood was poised right next to tracks, now LRT, but once host to regular trains through town. So, when I moved into my room in the Rosebud Hotel, the nightly train arriving just past midnight was like a well-worn pair of jeans. Her whistle neither haunted nor annoyed. It sang to me of prairie goodness, rich in the Canadian story so much my own. Our own.

The poetry of my life is ongoing. Rosebud has faded well into my rearview mirror. But she has never stopped whispering to me of what could be, those places where my past collides with my present to hint at a future.

Rife crazies – Rae, Graeme (25), Calum (30), Me

Now, after decades of Christian ministry, a life dedicated to music, writing, poetry, spiritual formation, and the arts, two boys (both professional musicians), together with my wife Rae (Rosebud incubated our love!), we are planting new words in our emerging poem. This newest word takes us across the Atlantic to begin life and ministry in the UK. We invite as many as we can to join us on this journey. Our poetry improves with every letter added, every nuance of word, phrase, and metaphor.

All of you are all of that.

Rosebud, thank you for being a cradle, an incubator, a muse and sage, a friend. Your poetry is now, and will always be, my own. I take you with me, with us, into a new horizon. Our emerging poem.

Word for word, words for Word.

1987-Rae Kenny and I were married the following year.

Same people, almost 30 years later.
2016, Peterborough Cathedral, England

A poem

When muscle, bone, and sinew can’t find heart

and listening and looking. Then, severed in time

from the wishing well of wonder, we wander

through rushes and slivers of our moments, bent

over mirrored water, haunted.

There is a wrinkle in the hour’d fabric of

our days when tender grows the minstrel’s

song. It rings across golden fields of

shimmering wheat – milled hopes, rolled and real.

Bardic but breathless it sounds, reveling in tremors

of songs still sung to handmade candles.

They shine to our hopes, ablaze with just

a hint of what could be.

There is a certain moment, beholden to itself,

in which ghosts and gazes meet to discuss

their future. Still, birthed

from the ashes of forgottenness

an ember yet lurks, small but waiting, patient –

alert to any movement or sounds of humming.

Catch it if it sings.

©R. A. Rife, 2016

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* Quoted from his famous work, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798 by Wm. Wordsworth

The Saving Power of Beauty – A Navajo Blessing

You can find this gorgeous prayer here. But, innerwoven requested a special backstage pass as well. Enjoy.

Chaco-Canyon-NM-Photo-Philip-Greenspan.jpgWalking in Beauty: Closing Prayer from the Navajo Way Blessing Ceremony

In beauty I walk

With beauty before me I walk

With beauty behind me I walk

With beauty above me I walk

With beauty around me I walk

It has become beauty again

Hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shitsijí’ hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shikéédéé hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shideigi hózhóogo naasháa doo
T’áá altso shinaagóó hózhóogo naasháa doo
Hózhó náhásdlíí’
Hózhó náhásdlíí’
 Hózhó náhásdlíí’
Hózhó náhásdlíí’

Today I will walk out, today everything negative will leave me

I will be as I was before, I will have a cool breeze over my body.

I will have a light body, I will be happy forever, nothing will hinder me.

I walk with beauty before me. I walk with beauty behind me.

I walk with beauty below me. I walk with beauty above me.

I walk with beauty around me. My words will be beautiful.

In beauty all day long may I walk.

Through the returning seasons, may I walk.

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.

With dew about my feet, may I walk.

With beauty before me may I walk.

With beauty behind me may I walk.

With beauty below me may I walk.

With beauty above me may I walk.

With beauty all around me may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.

My words will be beautiful…

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Linguistic Note: The word “Hozho”  in  Dine’  (roughly translated) Concept of Balance and Beauty. Consideration of the nature of the universe, the world, and man, and the nature of time and space, creation, growth, motion, order, control, and the life cycle includes all these other Navajo concepts expressed in terms quite impossible to translate into English.   Some Navajos might prefer the term: “Nizhoni” meaning  ‘just beauty.”

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Written by Robert S. Drake, for Tom Holm, PhD, University of Arizona American Indian Graduate Studies Program, Native American Religions and Spirituality.

“Your honest, sonsie face…”

Robert Burns, given his widespread fame (and infamy) to Scottish and English literary crowds in the eighteenth century, one would think him even better known than he is. He is heralded by an annual recognition of his life and work on this very day, January 25th. The great irony of Burns was the praise lavished upon him by both Edinburgh and London poshies despite his very tongue-in-cheek poetic invective against the same. He was after all a product of his era. A fiercely nationalistic Scottish socialist who wrote comical and approachable poetry for everyone. 

In honour of dear Mr. Burns, I post here one of his most famous works, “Address to a Haggis.” It is, in essence, a socio-political statement meant to solicit a laugh or two at the expense of those uppity French, and others, whose social delicacies were no match for the beefy Scots.

Enjoy, and happy Robbie Burns Day!

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Address to a Haggis

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race!

Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye wordy of a grace

As lang ‘s my arm.

(Good luck to you and your honest, plump face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.)

The groaning trencher there ye fill,

Your hurdies like a distant hill,

Your pin wad help to mend a mill

In time o’ need,

While thro’ your pores the dews distil

Like amber bead.

(The groaning trencher there you fill,
Your buttocks like a distant hill,
Your pin would help to mend a mill
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distill
Like amber bead.)

His knife see Rustic-labour dight,

An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

Like onie ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm-reekin, rich!

(His knife see rustic Labour wipe,
And cut you up with ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm steaming, rich!)

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:

Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,

Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve

Are bent like drums;

Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,

Bethankit hums.

(Then spoon for spoon, the stretch and strive:
Devil take the hindmost, on they drive,
Till all their well swollen bellies by-and-by
Are bent like drums;
Then old head of the table, most like to burst, 
‘The grace!’ hums.)

Is there that owre his French ragout,

Or olio that wad staw a sow,

Or fricassee wad mak her spew

Wi’ perfect sconner,

Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view

On sic a dinner?

(Is there that over his French ragout,
Or olio that would sicken a sow,
Or fricassee would make her vomit
With perfect disgust,
Looks down with sneering, scornful view
On such a dinner?)

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,

As feckless as a wither’d rash,

His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,

His nieve a nit;

Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash,

O how unfit!

(Poor devil! see him over his trash,
As feeble as a withered rush,
His thin legs a good whip-lash,
His fist a nut;
Through bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit.)

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his walie nieve a blade,

He’ll make it whissle;

An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,

Like taps o’ thrissle.

(But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his ample fist a blade,
He’ll make it whistle;
And legs, and arms, and heads will cut off
Like the heads of thistles.)

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,

And dish them out their bill o’ fare,

Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware

That jaups in luggies;

But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,

Gie her a Haggis!

(You powers, who make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery stuff,
That splashes in small wooden dishes;
But if you wish her grateful prayer, 
Give her [Scotland] a Haggis!)

Soon, but not yet.

As you have seen, I am a fish on the shore right now, flipping and gasping for words to write. About anything. I’ve learned at these times to read until my eyes fall out. Others are not in this place. They’re producing page-turning material worthy of our consumption and consideration. 

One such soul is fellow blogger and faith-er, Laura Jean Truman. In a writer cop-out for which I seek neither escape nor make excuse, I share her better words here. Go, read in pride as I did, how Advent is a time uniquely prepared for both the prophet and the artist. For the artist-as-prophet.

They speak the same language. Maybe that’s why so much of the bible is poetry? Yup. I think that’s probably it.

Laura Jean, thank you. My readers will too, I believe.

Morning Pages, or something like that

I’m new to Julia Cameron’s idea of Morning Pages. Her best-selling book, The Artist’s Way, has changed many lives and continues to do so. Lately, it seems to be the case for me as well. Through so much of what I write or compose, I am seeking to link the deepest places of my soul to the creative spaces in my head. To put it another way, I am happiest whenever my deepest longings meet my best gifts (thank you Frederick Buechner!).

But Ms. Cameron does this so much better, so here we are. I love the idea that art can create wonder from boredom, peace from turmoil, full from empty. It’s supposed to be that way with our spiritual practice as well. Creating light from dark is what the gospel intends to do in all of us. 

But we so easily entangle ourselves in all that is quick, convenient, or potentially euphoric. We shelf the best stuff for the fast stuff. It robs us of what our creative and spiritual selves want to share, with us, and with the world.

My interest in Cameron’s book has been piqued for many years now, but only got taken off the book shelf recently. Procrastinator you ask? Um, hell yeah! Nevertheless, we’re there now and she is guiding me into my own well by means of writing as meditation. It remains my intention to write my book from this well. 

But, I gotta find it first, relearn how to lower the bucket, and not be afraid to see what comes up. So, here goes. These were my Morning Pages from today, Friday, June 30th. Hopefully they find you whole and happy.

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My typical morning spot. It totally works.

Morning has again crept with typical stealth onto the broad, brown land. This is a hopeful time of day for me. It’s as though I’ve been granted another twenty-four hour run at this thing. Life may have been a jolly cock-up yesterday, but morning comes again and says “Fuck it. Let’s give this another go, shall we?”

For someone like me, prone to shadow, turbulence, and chaos, this comes as welcome invitation indeed. The equally broad landscape of my life needs this daily reimagining. They are little reawakenings as it were to all the yummy goodness just below the surface of things.

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Typical of our regional semi-arid hills and dales

In this desert, although appearing brown and dusty dry on the outside, there holds within it all the possibilities of the world’s first day. If God can step back, clap His/Her hands, and with a smile proclaim, “it is good,” then surely I can do the same.

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That should be a regular meditation for each new morning to which I have the good fortune to see. Step outside, listen, take a deep breath of its newness, and, together with my Creator proclaim, “it is good.” Perhaps with such an outlook, every day can be experienced for the next-chance-to-grow it really is.

Besides, if God could create something new every day and say these words at every one, then it behooves me to do the same. Even if I can’t quite get to that level of optimism, sometimes it is enough to say “well, I fucked up a lot less this time. That’s good, right?” The icing is to rest at the end with feet up, heart full, proverbial Gin and tonic in hand (well, tonic water for this problem drinker!)

What could be better?

One can hardly be surprised then to know that St. Augustine’s favourite passage of Scripture was the creation narrative. He elucidates upon it in depth in his Confessions in a way only a genius philosopher can (beautifully unintelligible). He sees things in the creation not readily available to mere mortals like you or me. But, in my ongoing pursuit of contemplative creativity, there is here a wonderful challenge; a holy dare.

I have before me then a challenge to see, truly see, what lies right in front of me. Where I see a sparrow, God sees the perpetual renewal of all things. Where I see a rose, God sees something magnificent from humble beginnings. Where I hear a crow caw, God hears a virtuoso in training. I taste dirty water, God tastes the banquet, spread out with delights borne of its nourishing goodness.

In the brooding darkness that so often smothers me, a good long look at a morning like this one acts as reminder that it is truer than me. It is the darkness that is askew. The brilliance, colour, and cacophony of sound is the real. And it is before me now, insistently mocking all sadness and doubt.

If God is so capable of seeing perfection in the imperfections and incoherence of each new day, then that is what I am called to see. What we are all welcomed into.

So then, step outside with me, stretch, yawn, blink, breathe in deeply, and stare into the day. Then, together, with He/She who built it, say…it is good.

Peace, dear souls