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.
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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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.
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.
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.
A hotel bathroom mirror struggles to squeeze in both of us – primping, priming, prepping. The struggle ensues to strike the balance between post-modern cool and age appropriateness (whatever the hell that means). Final touches, a stupid-slow elevator, and an underground tram ride find us deep in the heart of Washington State’s coolest city. Her oceanside tongue beckons us deeper down her salty throat.
In a quirky irony, a street preacher screeches through a megaphone, “REPENT AND BE SAVED FROM THE COMING WRATH.” Frankly, he seems mad enough for all of us. He shouts himself hoarse, pointing us to some tiny, angry “god” – while we wait to hear from a different God – In the name of love.
We are perched high above a stage that renders everything on it no bigger than our thumbs. From this height, everything seems atomic. Only the stadium is large. There is a palpable expectancy in the aether. Other grey hairs like me mix with kids much younger than our own – a testament to artistic legacy.
The stage is dark except for a few peripheral lights. What seems like hours for an event we’ve waited a lifetime to experience dispels in smoke as a tiny figure makes an appearance. He walks slowly, deliberately and sits at his drum kit. The crowd numbering in the gazillions boils over the brim in collective excitement. A kick drum and snare shots with military precision thunder in the dark. It is one of the most recognizable riffs of a generation. Sunday, Bloody Sunday. I weep in gratitude…
This day is ours, it is our Sunday, blessed Sunday.
May 14, 2017.
The wife of my youth.
Twenty-nine years married.
It is a small handful of events or experiences that earn the well-used primer: “I remember where I was when…” I remember where I was when the Berlin Wall became a gate, the Soviet Union became just a bad dream, when the U.S. dumped “shock and awe” on Iraq. When twin towers of glass and steel crumpled like paper on 9/11.
And I remember the first time I heard the mythic cries of Bono. Raw and pleading. He preached heaven and justice to the world’s hell and woe.
I would never be the same.
Every person can point to at least one thing, one person, book, place, experience that has so deeply touched them they’d not be the same person were it not for that thing. To describe, we use words like impactful, influential, unforgettable, foundational, formative. We say, “I am the person I am today, because of….” Our hearts brim at every remembrance. Conversations always veer in that direction. We return to it again and again rebooting it in our emotional hard-drives.
As a musician and writer, my influences bleed, albeit imperceptibly, onto every page or song I write. Words get strained through my inspirations: Gerard Manley Hopkins, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris – even as I sing in the shadows of Bruce Cockburn, The Chieftains, Dan Fogelberg, Stan Rogers, Paul Simon, and – you guessed it – U2.
Their musical impact is undeniable. Masters of melody, nuance, and the prophetic power of poetic art done well, I am pried open, exposed. Their un-theology is more impassioned activism than easy-to-swallow hallmark messages wrapped in bumper-sticker Christianity. I am the hungry canvas, they my nourishing paint.
Precious few cultural icons are so readily accessible as U2. But they represent much more than memorable music. Their message is not for the faint of heart. It yearns for the alternate reality of what is possible in a red letter arena; the dangerous stage of self-sacrificial love. They are wick to a candle burning brightly in praise of peace and justice, one that cannot blow out. They are cornerstone of a movement that pictures a world better than the one into which we were born.
This is not just the message of a generation played on guitars. This is a message for all time; ever new, always fresh, never-ending – Good News as it was always intended. My throat, tightened from tears, hoarse from singing anthems to peace, will only find rest when I find what I’m looking for. With my life partner beside me, the girl whose heart-strings are also touched by these same forces, I am closer than ever before.
Until then, I want to run in the name of love, in God’s country, where the streets have no name.
This blog has been kind of a one-stop shop for all things spiritual; the stuff life throws my way and what, by God’s grace, I get to hurl back. Much of that is intimately tied to my Celtic DNA. A Canadian by birth, an American by address, a Scot by history, bloodline, and luck – I gain much from this tossed salad of personal ingredients.
Perhaps none more so however than the joy and pride I take in being a Highland Bagpiper.
Now, I recognize that many out there might consider it an oddity for such a thing to be a point of pride. Well, to those misdirected naysayers, I share the following excerpt from a delightful book I’ve been reading entitled A Celtic Miscellany. It is a varied, and utterly delightful collection of literary bits ‘n bobs, all masterfully translated from early Celtic literature by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson.
From a section on humour and satire (something in which the Celts took great delight and did astonishingly well), I give you “Welsh Harper and English Bagpiper.” It describes the self-pity of a self-congratulatory Welsh harper at being upstaged by, you guessed it, a bagpiper.
Enjoy (he says, trying unsuccessfully to rub the silly grin off his face).
“Last Sunday I came – a man whom the Lord God made – to the town of Flint, with its great double walls and rounded bastions; may I see it all aflame! An obscure English wedding was there, with but little mead – an English feast! and I meant to earn a shining solid reward for my harper’s art. So I began, with ready speed, to sing an ode to the kinsmen; but all I got was mockery, spurning of my song, and grief. It was easy for hucksters of barley and corn to dismiss all my skill, and they laughed at my artistry, my well-prepared panegyric which they did not value; John of the Long Smock began to jabber of peas, and another about dung for his land. They all called for William the Piper to come to the table, a low fellow he must be. He came forward as though claiming his usual rights, though he did not look like a privileged man, with a groaning bag, a paunch of heavy guts, at the end of a stick between chest and arm. He rasped away, making startling grimaces, a horrid noise, from the swollen belly, bulging his eyes; he twisted his body here and there, and puffed his two cheeks out, playing with his fingers on a bell of hide – unsavoury conduct, fit for the unsavoury banqueters. He hunched his shoulders, amid the rout, under his cloak, like a worthless ballad-monger; he snorted away, and bowed his head until it was on his breast, the very image of a kite with skilful zeal preening its feathers. The pigmy puffed, making an outlandish cry, blowing out the bag with a loud howl; it sang like the buzzing of a hornet, that devilish bag with the stick in its head, like a nightmare howl, fit to kill a mangy goose, like a sad bitch’s hoarse howl in its hollow kennel; a harsh paunch with monotonous cry, throat-muscles squeezing out a song, with a neck like a crane’s where he plays, like a stabbed goose screeching aloud. There are voices in that hollow bag like the ravings of a thousand cats; a monotonous, wounded, ailing, pregnant goat – no pay for its hire. After it ended its wheezing note, that cold songstress whom love would shun, Will got his fee, namely bean-soup and pennies (if they paid) and sometimes small halfpennies, not the largesse of a princely hand; while I was sent away in high vexation from the silly feast all empty-handed. I solemnly vow, I do forswear wretched Flint and all its children, and its wide, hellish furnace, and its English people and its piper! That they should be slaughtered is all my prayer, my curse in their midst and on their children; sure, if I go there again, may I never return alive!
As I deepen, glacially but surely, in the Way of Jesus I am finding freedom in the manner, frequency, and creativity of spiritual intercourse. There are a number of factors in these discoveries. I am getting older – a fact, apparently, applicable to all. The passing chronos lends a certain gravitas to the focus of kairos. And, the slow-cook crockpot of my formation adds fewer ingredients every year to an already complicated soup. Sometimes it’s not more, or even better, ingredients that are required for the quintessential meal. Sometimes it’s the right ones at the right time that leave the palette happy and wanting more.
As I’ve written numerous places, the past few years have been richly experimental in regions of contemplative prayer. Learning to love silence. Seeking out solitude. Making friends with simplicity. Studying the nuanced coup d’etat of lectio divina. Prayer walking. Being enriched through congregational liturgy. Journalling the works.
All these and more continue to contribute to whatever Rob, slightly enhanced, may be forthcoming off the stove.
But something is changing. With the increasing 20/20 available through the grace of kairos and the experience of chronos, I’m latching more and more onto the fluidity and ubiquity of unceasing prayer, specifically as it has come to be associated with who I am more than an action to which I commit. If in fact it is true that God is omnipresent, theologically, and an unceasingly constant spiritually, then it should come as no surprise that prayer can and perhaps should be, everything.
There is a state of being available to all persons everywhere that is readily found in that which most thrills the soul. For some, the ticking clock, counting the passing hours immersed in good literature. For others, it is the choir of smells united in one explosive song on a nature walk. For still others, it may be culling from the raw ingredients of the earth, something rich and flavorful with which to delight the tastebuds of friends and family.
For me, it was music and writing.
As a teen, and a budding musician, I would often sit for hours on the front step of our house simply playing my guitar. The notes, some of them good, others lined up for the shower, collided together to produce more than just music. They created space; a kind of generous openness to whatever the universe was at the time. A particular kind of peaceful “zen” or as Thomas Merton might call it, “contemplative awareness” resulted, leaving me just where I needed to be. This was true even as I spent countless agonizing hours learning impossibly difficult melodies (I certainly thought so at the time!).
In recent months, as more conventional understandings of contemplative prayer have waned a bit, I’ve had a certain yearning to resurrect this practice. And resurrection has been the result. To plant myself on a lawn chair a few feet from my rose bushes (such as they are) and play music inspired by the same, in tune with the wind, has once again ushered in a holy Presence. It has centered me like nothing else lately.
It has also brought a much cherished simplicity and deepening unification of all I am into pulsating notes, maybe not always in tune, but always tuning. Music, once again, has become for me the changing face of prayer, changing me.
She was slightly chubby with a pinkish, round face, and dancing eyes that squinted a bit when she smiled. She had a way about her that was at once bracing and dangerous while at the same time hospitable and kind. She felt…comfortable. Our afternoons were often spent talking about all manner of shared interests: music, art, nature, beauty – often while lying side by side under our crabapple tree in the backyard gazing at the summer sky. It was heavenly. We held hands. We kissed. Often.
We were ten.
I was elated. It was summer. It was hot, and I was slicing through cool, choppy wake churned up by the boat behind which I was waterskiing – upright – for the first time in my life. My friend Darrin was driving, his dad beside him, and his younger brother watching me in case I came into difficulty. Silly, thought I. What could possibly go wrong? As is often the case with cocky, self-assured fourteen year olds, with over-confidence I over-compensated for over-reaching and found myself suddenly bouncing headlong over waves (surprisingly hard while cheese-grating along their ragged tops at forty miles an hour). By the time I finally pulled myself up from under the smug water, I was out of breath, bleeding from my side and completely naked.
It was exhilarating.
I saw my ever stoic and unyielding father cry only three times. Once during a heated exchange with my younger brother in which he loudly proclaimed that dad was an imposter (all three of us were adopted). Once, when my mother screamed at me so violently it made me cry out all manner of things I now wish I hadn’t. His hand, placed over mine at the kitchen table, is etched forever in the not-to-forget section of my memories. And once when he got back his biopsy results. I had driven him to Rockyview Hospital so that someone was with him should the news not be good. It wasn’t. At all. He came out of the room, face a pall of grey, and trembled out a few words in his roughneck Saskatchewan farm boy manner, “well, looks like I got a touch of the cancer.”
I miss him still.
I looked out the airplane window to a sight I’d waited seventeen years to see. The tightly woven, ancient and ragged hills of Scotland, huddled together in green beyond imagination danced a jig before me. If there’d been a seat on the wing, I’d have taken it in a heartbeat just to be that much closer to the land of my soul. Although Canadian born and raised, I have always been Celt to the core. My genes are kilted, my blood tartan, and my chromosomes play bagpipes proudly, up and down the hallways of my DNA. Best of all, I was there with my Welsh-Canadian wife of less than a year. Two Celts touched ground in Prestwick on a chill April day in 1989 and have never been the same.
“O flower of Scotland…”
The din was almost deafening. Bagpipes everywhere. It was August, 1991. Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It was a “second first” related to this place. A bagpiper from the age of eight, I’d dreamed of making my way there to compete with the world’s finest since barely in double digits. Now, as head instructor for an up and coming junior pipe band, I was again on old country soil. This time, for the World Pipe Band Championships. To say it was dreamlike would be understatement akin to calling Mt. Everest a quaint, country bump. We were called up to the line. The pipe major barked his command, “by the right, quick march!” Two three-stroke rolls from the snare drums, drones, chanters, then – seven minutes of music, practiced and polished for two years.
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…
“ALTARWORKis 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.”
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.
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.
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.