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.

Marking Market Day

I made my way yesterday morning to our local farmer market. The goal was to buy some tomatoes for canning. I had a bushel in my sights. Along the way I gathered some goose paté, a half-bushel of apples, Emmental cheese and a piece of Gjetøst. This latter is an especially marvellous find, being a Norwegian cheese not in our supermarkets. I bumped into some friends and we chatted for a time. They told me that they are there every week because the market is where they source their bread. I don’t have that excuse since I make our bread, using a recipe given me by my father-in-law. All the same, visiting the market could be an easily acquired habit; with violins and such humming around a variety of vendors. There is something intoxicatingly humane about a market. Things are scaled differently. Everything is weighed and priced in parcel sized pieces. There are no gross quantities of anything and if I am too slow to take it up, the last New York Times escapes my grasp. For some strange reason I find this comforting. I look people in the eye and they smile back.

I was also on the hunt for Weisswurst, a heavenly German sausage. As I walked around a corner in the indoor part of this market, I saw two young traditional Mennonite children playing at the window on my left, looking out on the world their tradition so carefully navigates. My eyes went right, where Mom and Dad were engaging customers and attending to their nicely stacked counter of organic vegetables, all the while keeping an eye on both Sohn und Tochter. I felt a smile escape me. I turned another corner and a student from school happened past me, and we shared a quick hi on the fly.

Eventually I made my way to the corner where tomatoes were on offer. I landed a bushel and felt both of my shoulders burn with happy burdens. I happened upon a young woman playing the cello with a generous smile on her face. Her cheerfulness was entirely gratuitous, since my hands that would have otherwise gladly applauded her efforts with cash were clearly and utterly occupied. It struck me that she might well be smiling because she enjoyed what she was doing. About half way to the car I passed a young man heralding the the gospel with brochures en français, a seemingly incongruous fact given that an eastern European, or perhaps a tongue from the African continent is more likely to be encountered. But then I remembered that those speaking this latter might also converse in our other official language in their native lands. I happily meandered to my chariot.

Every once in a while, for a blink of the eye or the inhalation of a breath, all seems well with the world. Yesterday morning I had one such moment. I have learned to embrace such instances even while knowing that razored security walls are being erected around the world, and people are finding the mouths of sharks preferable to places they used to call home, and immigrants are being demonized in our midst. It is good to remember that this walk in a market of plenty was what my paternal Grandparents and my maternal Opa and Oma hoped for their Kindern and our generation and so on. It is good, every once in a while, to stop and breathe in the gift, knowing that others paid hard prices for our smiles. And so we smile even while sighing a prayer for still burdened souls.

One Brush Stroke, One Prayer

Last Friday I took my youngest to the Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto. She was on her way back to Halifax to begin another school year in the march toward her chosen career. We were able to get away a bit early, and so avoided the ubiquitous threat of being stuck in gridlock. A turn around trip home immediately after dropping her off would have meant a plunge into the madness in reverse, and so I opted for a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I got there a bit before it opened, and so snuck into a nearby coffee shop for a quick java. The shop hosted an exhibit call “Foot by Foot.” The shop was adorned by paintings 12 inches square with three spots allotted to each artist. It was a great accompaniment to the smell of fresh coffee. I followed my cup, carried by a kindly young woman, into a “terrace” interior to the café. The sky shone from above and four brick walls framed my space, where I read a brilliant article by Rowan Williams before stepping across the street and slipping into the gallery.

I wandered around, from one gallery to the next. I popped in on a few favourites, and met some new paintings along the way. There were many visiting from galleries across the Americas to take part in the exhibit entitled “Picturing the Americas.” Some of these will be remembered by me and others not, slipping over the edge into the black hole of forgetfulness: images enjoyed in the moment and then gone.

After a while I made my way into the AGO Store. There I pondered, for a bit, buying a book on Scandinavian Design, but decided against it. The time didn’t seem right, and so I moved along. I found a little something I had pondered buying years ago, but then lost sight of and now found again. I might describe it as an art device – it goes by name “Buddha Board.” It comes with a water container/stand, a brush and a special board that turns black wherever water touches it. After a short time – one to ten minutes depending on the amount of water used – the image disappears. Slowly lines soften, and a block becomes blob and a blob becomes a fog that fades into nothing. The purpose of the board, according to its makers, is to allow the artist to “master the art of letting go.” It might do that for me. Time will tell, but I think I bought it for another purpose.

I was intrigued by the idea of having an incentive to make art close to hand in my office, either at home or at work. It will serve, hopefully, to give me occasion to use those little bits of fractured time in my day to find some unity. Life, it seems, is often a collage of splintered experiences looking for a narrative. Art might be seen as up to the task, and so is a sister to faith, which also knows of what cannot be proven but surely is worthy of a gesture to, an attempt at wholeness. It pulls together what is disparate; it wagers a narrative. Indeed, memories fade, paintings are forgotten, children fly to their future, but still, still hope announces its presence: one brush stroke, one prayer at a time.

First Ski of the Season

I managed to squeeze in my first ski of the season just before January’s end, with only ten hours to spare. After two snow heavy winters, this year’s in Southwestern Ontario seems a bit odd. My one year old snow blower has earned its keep on only two instances. There was a bit of snow Friday, so I thought yesterday might give me occasion to reacquaint myself with my Nordic roots.

I generally ski on a local golf course. It is only a few minutes’ drive away and a two perimeter rounding of Rockway Golf Course is just right to ready me for an open-faced herring sandwich lunch with Akvavit to chase. The snow was a bit sparse. Here and there sleepy grass was sticking out tentative tentacles sleuthing the air for hints of spring. It will be awhile. In truth the bared bits were without cover because other parts of the greens, fairways and roughs collected snow as a result of the persistent wind from a westerly direction.

The ski-out was downhill and into the wind, and the ski-back was uphill with the wind behind me. On my second go-around, I saw two young girls tobogganing down a gentle slope, laughter at hand. I went around a corner, and as I was making my way up a tedious hill, I noticed a maple-leaf twig skidding across the wind-crusted snow, a bright-red sail running at broad reach. We were making about the same time, although I was having a harder go of it. I suspect that I would have lost the race, had he not slid into my ski track, wherein my worthy opponent met his demise.

I was left to finish the last bit of the round on my own, taking in the peculiar beauty of winter. The trees that grace the course are spectacular in a different way in winter. Nude, they bare their vein-like highways of trunk, branch and twig that bridge heavenly reach and earthly roots. These vulnerable, gentle giants serve as a parable of the mystery that is life: heaven kisses earth and for those with eyes to see, peace slides into view and the world seems well, if only for this instant.

Sometimes this instant is all we have, and the wise make the most of it. Perhaps they stop skiing for a second, and notice the cold air that reminds the lungs that nothing can be taken for granted. Perhaps they look about and notice animal tracks that trace a life that has wrestled out a reasonable peace with winter. Perhaps they release a prayer into the air, for loved ones near and far, and know that life is precious, and beautiful, and best lived in each moment.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

This has been Luther Hostel week at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary – a week with credit and continuing education events, as well as special worship and recreation events.  Last night we had opportunity to see the documentary film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”  This movie is about groups of women, both Christian and Muslim, who worked for peace in war torn Liberia.

 

The story is stark, and difficult to hear: sons enslaved as soldiers, daughters raped by marauding gangs intoxicated with guns and the numbing power of drugs, mothers and fathers forced to see and hear the unspeakable, moments before their death.

 

I do not know so very much about this story.  The film served as a correction, even while alerting me to the fact that there is so much more to learn.  While a film such as this is disturbingly dark, it also came with moments of hope.  Seeing the women dance and sing – each turn, each stanza made into a prayer – was incredibly moving.  Hope shone through in strength of these women who refused to let the devil have the last word in their communities.  Together, in sit down strikes and stand out defiance, they turned faux peace talks into a test of accountability.

 

The film also chronicled the difficult task of facing former child soldiers, now young men, in this post-war situation.  We have the good fortune of having Esther and Lazarus, two church workers from Liberia, with us for a couple of months.  They were able to comment on the work being done in this area by the Lutheran Church in Liberia.  They reminded us that these former child soldiers have had their childhood robbed from them, even as they robbed life, and hope, and community from others.  In the film, some of the victims spoke of the difficult task of forgiving these.  Not all are able to do this.  I can certainly understand that.  But for those who are beginning to see their way into forgiveness, an important step was seeing them again as children rather than child soldiers.

 

I will never forget the strength of the women in this movie.  Their righteous anger echoed the beatitudes proclaimed by an itinerant preacher of a time long ago.  He talked of tables being turned, of the weak taking power, of the meek inheriting mantels, and the mighty being brought low.  Something of this was experienced in Liberia.  A new Reign fell upon this land.  Prayer and solidarity held hands as mercy and truth met in these strong women.  Much work remains to be done in Liberia, where our thoughts, prayers, and solidarity are coveted.  But hope is being enacted in the form of former child soldiers now learning talents and trades to contribute to a new Liberia, to a new kind of freedom.

Dance me a Prayer

Yesterday I spent my Sunday morning at Trinity Lutheran, New Hamburg. The good folk there invited me to speak on the topic of “evil” in the adult education hour, after the Anchor service at 9:30 am. It was a delightful morning. Pastor André spoke winsomely of the passion narrative, making reference to the Greek text in order to reframe the story for us and thereby giving occasion for my heart to be strangely warmed. Pastor Anne presided at Holy Communion. It is always a treat to hear again her voice. I closed my eyes and experienced transport of a sort as she chanted me into a different place, a different time. We sang one of my favourite Lenten hymns: Go to Dark Gethsemane. The journey had just begun.

With coffee in hand I moved over to the education room, where I had opportunity to chat with 30 or 40 people on the topic of evil. It was a rich experience, indeed, as I heard the stories that sustain people, as well as the questions that plague them. We spoke for a time on the topic of evil, and its character as both a philosophical quagmire and an existential pit. We spoke of evil’s irrational character, which seems to preclude making sense of it.

People asked me probing questions, and together we endeavored to imagine a Christian response to evil – looking to lament and a struggle against injustice to assist us in such times and places. People spoke so openly of their trials – it was really very moving. One elderly woman spoke of her strategy for dealing with the dark days that descend upon her from time to time. She told me, she told us all that when a heavy, claustrophobic cloud descends upon her, she pulls out her favourite dancing music and dances – all by herself in her room – despite the fact that she can hardly walk. She can dance herself out of the darkness in vexing moments. It was beautiful to hear her talk of her strategy and the hope she embodies in dancing. It struck me that her dance is her prayer of lament, of faith, of life.

On this, the beginning of Holy Week, we could do worse than imagine ways to dance together through the multifarious modes of darkness that descend upon us here and there, now and then. This elderly dancer spoke to us of the relief that comes as we allow our body to speak what our heart feels. I don’t know about the others, but I came away a little richer yesterday as I was afforded that curious opportunity to be a co-learner as well as a co-teacher.

My prayer for us, Lenten pilgrims all, is that we may take advantage of this week to discern how to dance a prayer through the darkness: from dark Gethsemane to the darker cross and tomb, and then at the last into the glorious splendor of life.