From Inside a Prayer Bead

This weekend my middlest daughter came home to visit. She took the bus from Ottawa to Toronto and my wife and I went in to pick her up. Gwenanne was going to a work Christmas party in Toronto and so after picking up N, we dropped Gwenanne off and the two of us headed over to the Art Gallery of Ontario. There was an exhibit there that I had been hoping to catch, so this was the perfect opportunity.

Mystical Landscapes” is curated by Katharine Lochnan who, of late, is also a student of theology. The art she has drawn together in the exhibit is powerful and includes heavy hitters: Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Georgia O’Keefe, and Munch as well as a number of Group of Seven, Nordic and Western European landscape artists. I was especially entranced by some lithographs of Charles Marie Dulac. His pieces were ethereal and yet intimated an earthen connection that gives the viewer the feeling of being both grounded and floating. This is an artist experiencing something of a revival that is well deserved. The curators wisely set aside what I might call a “side chapel” for his work, which was most helpful in that his art is so subtle that it needs to be enjoyed in its own right/rite in a different light. We moved on a bit altered.

After making our way through the rest of this veritable feast for our eyes, we took in some sights at one of the floors dedicated to contemporary art and then headed off for a bite to eat. On returning we were wandering about, not quite aimlessly but nearly so, coming upon the sign for “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures.” We look at each other, shrugged and entered. I had remembered reading a bit about it in a magazine, and was immediately intrigued as we came upon the first display. Many of the displays were of prayer beads, commissioned rosaries wherein the bead was actually a small “ball” about 4 to 5 centimetres in diameter. The balls open up and illustrates scenes from Christ’s life. These prayer beads, crafted some 500 years ago have details not visible to the naked eye. The AGO has done a remarkable amount of research around these, and in a video we learned of Micro CT scanning that allowed researchers to take the beads apart virtually without dissembling them. It was really quite captivating, and when we reached the end of the display there was a young woman asking if we might be interested in a virtual tour of a prayer bead. Of course we said yes, and then each of us, in turn, was fitted with a head set and a set of googles that allowed us to “see” an opened prayer bead in front of us, seemingly about 4 to 5 metres wide and the same high. A control stick allowed us to expand certain sections, and we were able to “step” right into the ball. From inside we could bend down and look up at features carved into characters mere millimetres in size. I can’t quite describe the experience. It was utterly fascinating. I left the AGO on cloud nine.

On the drive home I thought about my experiences at the art gallery. They covered such a wide range: I was awed by a kind of minimalist art with a spirituality that left me without words, and I was also bowled over by a veritable army of technological innovation that made the impossible possible. These two experiences shared something, and I am still thinking about that. Good art, and the technology that supports it, moves us in ways various and sundry to the end that we live with just a little more awe – sometimes pondering the possibility that we really are making our way, day by day, through the bead that is prayer.

In the Palm of my Heart

With this first fall of
Snow, I felt You
In the spaces
Between these feathery
Fingered flakes:
No two alike
Each sketching another

Contour of you;

Each etching You into

Me, melting

In the palm of my heart.

You are Between.
You are Before and Behind.
You are Below and Above.
And when the cold comes
I cannot but be – by
Grace – as crystal,
As liquid iced
Like lace.

Faith at Niagara Falls

The week before last I spent three days in Niagara Falls. I wasn’t there to see the falls, visit the casino, or frequent the various and sundry quirky stops on Clifton Hill. I was there for a meeting of the Joint Anglican Lutheran Commission. The purpose of the Commission is to monitor the Waterloo Declaration, outlining the intention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada to live in full communion.

This is a committee whose members regularly comment on the deep satisfaction they get from this work. I have been a member for some 8 years. It is a great group and our twice annual meetings are rich indeed. For the last few years we have met in Niagara Falls, chosen for its economic efficiency vis-à-vis travel. In many ways it is an odd choice, with its crass commercialization around one of the most beautiful of nature’s wonders. Yet I regularly find these meetings spiritually enriching, in part because of the group and in part because we meet at the Mt. Carmel Spiritual Centre, a monastery of Carmelite order, which serves as an ecumenical retreat centre. The folk there are so very hospitable, and the food is to die for.

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I learned, this time around, that the Centre is in the midst of developing vineyards: the one seen above and another 7 acres vineyard elsewhere. In due course wine will be available for purchase. This is, of course, a longstanding tradition for monastic communities and a part of its plan for long term sustainability. Yet, learning about it buoyed me in a way. We hear much about the demise of the church in North America in general, and in Canada in particular. But the Carmelites are committed to their vision of setting aside space for sacred contemplation, giving the kind of physical room for spiritual discernment within a stone’s throw of Canada’s version of Las Vegas. I find this most amazing and hopeful.

People in my circles are generally rather jaded about Niagara Falls. I understand this, but whenever I am there, I take leave from the Centre most evenings for a walk down to the falls. The City really is commercial in the worst sense of the word. But whenever I get to the falls proper, I am awed by the majesty of water reminding me of my impermanence. I am always intrigued, as well, by the wall to wall wealth of ethnic diversity chronicling their visit to this otherworldly place: orthodox Jews alongside hijabbed women, followed by busloads of Japanese tourists.

During this last visit, the weather was rather miserable and so my walk along the Niagara Parkway was untypically quiet. Against the dull roar of the water and the patter of the rain the absence of jostling was marked. In some ways it was dull, but differently so in that hope settled as the hype of capitalism receded. The rain washed the excess away for a bit, and I had opportunity to see the falls anew. Hope emerged, perhaps hastened in part, by the realization that spiritual renewal can happen alongside of our most desperate efforts to improve upon nature – a lesson learned from the Carmelites.

The Carmelites know well that hope feeds prayer, and prayer grows hope. They are resolutely committed to this vision in the midst of one of North America’s most desperate attempts to sell the beauty that is freely given. These have been days in which heartening and hope is sorely needed. It has been good for me, this last week, to remember Mt. Carmel, and to know that God’s reign surely comes.

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Arboreal Lessons

Our tree is not ours, but it
allows us to imagine it
so. It has much to
teach us, each
fall shedding
its skin,

leaving a leaf on step,

which when wet plays

the mirror and so

allows me to see my eyes

on its veins. It minds me.

This tree, with its leaf, speaks to me of creation and its end.

It knows intimately
the wager of letting
go: falling from
branch’s security.

It knows of farewells
and weeping
and the beauty of
ochred red against verdant grace.

It knows that this blue
globe we call home is
ocular: God’s seeing us.

Pokégone

Not so many months ago, people were running around local parks looking for this elusive Pokémon or that, jumping fences in pursuit of cyber characters. There was much talk about the genius of this hybrid activity that was getting young folk and others out of houses and into the fresh air. I’ve noticed of late that fewer are on the hunt. It might be attributed to the weather, but still we have had a warm fall and it seems that the rage really has been ratcheted down in our parts. It never really made a big impact on our daughters, who are the age of its biggest fans.

My daughters did not play Pokémon in its heyday. While their friends enjoyed the game, they missed out on it because they didn’t think we could afford it. This was, a conclusion they came to on their own and in part, it reflected our decision in those days not to have cable. Consequently they could not watch the animated shows, nor did we have the Game Boy necessary to support the video games. Interestingly, they never asked about it, and it passed us by.

While it is true that we didn’t have a lot of money in those days – I was a graduate student and my wife was at home with the girls – their self-understanding at that time of our family as poor interests me. In some ways, they were correct. We didn’t have a lot of cash, and we lived frugally. But the girls never went without what they most needed, and we were even able to enjoy summer holidays some years. For the four years of my studies I had a bit of money from scholarships, a part-time pastorate and student loans. Our shekels, when scraped together, kept us above the poverty line. All the same, we lived well and I have fond memories of those days.

I remember, in particular, my last year in my program as a full time student. I split up my time with writing my dissertation, preaching on Sundays and caring for a small community, and teaching a theology class. I recall it as one of the finest years in my life, doing all the things I loved with hardly a meeting to attend. It was a rich life in many ways – at least for me, but one year was enough. It was time to move along.

Eventually we got cable, which we have since ditched. All the same, Pokémon never caught on – perhaps it was too late. Eventually our daughters came to realize that poverty and riches can be measured in diverse ways, and our place in a so-called first world meant that we are too often differently needy. And yet, slivers of light showed us and show us still that God gives us each other, as well as ways to live with some meaning and hope in our world and as well as the divine Self in Word and world. At the intersection of faith and love, hope shapes us into believing that a different way is possible: the coming Reign of justice, kindness and humility gives us something more substantive to seek than cyber characters. It drives us out of our pews and off of our haunches into a world where deep mysteries light our way and holy moments sustain us in dark times.

To Be in this Poem

This poem is not penned for you.
It serves but one purpose: it
stays my soul, purging it of
clutter clanging about
and wearying
me with
din.

This poem is
for my calm
my balm
but I will share it
with you if you need
a distraction, a subtraction
of all musts that
foment in your life, like
mine.

Time.

Now. Time to breathe,
just to breathe, to be
in this poem
exhaling
inhaling
me.