There is a scene in the film Wild, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, where the protagonist finally reaches the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail after a very confusing time of loss and addiction. She takes some steps on the path, and very soon after those steps, she looks behind her, and then forward, realizing how far she’s come to get to this point, but still how far she has to go.
I too took a pilgrimage once. After devastating blow, after devastating blow, I found myself in the refuge of a Benedictine monastery, next to a monastic library, finally reading all the books I had forbidden myself to read before that time. I told myself, ‘because they weren’t theologically astute enough’, but really it was because I was afraid of what they might open up for me. That the dam built on the flood of my own true soul would burst, and there would be no telling what would be left of the “me” guarding that soul.
On the grounds of that monastery is a very old tree by the river. And although I was surrounded by good grandmother energy with the all the sisters, I was trying to be a “good steward of my pain”, as Fred Buechner wrote, I think in his book, Telling Secrets. So after I was finished working on the grounds, I would climb that old grandmother tree, and let her hold me as I wept. She was very tender and had the natural and wise capacity to absorb my suffering and hand it back out to the Infinite. It was like her roots were drinking from the river, to absorb my austerity, and let it flush away into the great Wholeness that could bear it.
While at the monastery, as I struggled to make sense of all that was happening, I also began to make plans to take a journey by myself, from Newfoundland to New Orleans, looking for music that came more from life than from the industry of music, along the way.
Partly this pilgrimage was a way to reconstruct some semblance of an identity. But it was also a way to move the story forward. It was also a way to feel at “home”, because I had spent many years on the road by that point, that it was sometimes more home than home was in those years.
In some ways, looking back, it really was my own internal ancestral wisdom telling me it was time to become a grown up. But there was no one around that could name what I needed. A ritual. An initiatory ceremony, with elders that could sit with me in that liminal space with no answers. And in other ways, it was the distance I needed to give myself permission to name my own trauma and not to feel like I was letting people down no matter how guilty some people made me feel.
I had a very small amount of money, got in my 1996 Passat Wagon with a questionable transmission, and left Winnipeg one day, with really no farewell, and drove 4,222kms to reach my beginning destination at Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. From there, I slowly continued south, for the next 6 months, all the way to Louisiana. Along the way I was the minstrel on a tall ship for two weeks, I worked on a farm, helped to scrape and paint a farmhouse, and played music with many people from all walks of life. I was in the heart of the Mississippi Delta at juke joints in the middle of the night. I slept in my car most of the time, or on beaches, or off the beaten path in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Identifying wholeheartedly with the Orphan archetype, so I could eventually come to parent her, like we all must do.
Inside, I could feel almost nothing. Looking back, I think it is because I was tired of feeling too much. Slowly but surely, I was healing, although at the time, it looked like confusion on steroids. I wonder sometimes how many of us would heal more deeply if we were given the gift of it all falling apart. To sit in the belly of the whale with all but a few left you might call ‘friend’. To give yourself the freedom to make mistakes, and fumble your way through.
This reflection is not going to culminate with an answer. It is not going to wrap up neatly. The song for today is about those times in life when there are no answers, but we find our footing one day at a time, in the process of healing and growing and letting go.
I’ll end with the spoken word in the song from James Finley:
There comes a time in this process, where a person comes to realize that it was just as bad, or maybe worse than they thought it would be, to go through all this. But they also know that they’ve come to a point where there’s no turning back. They also know that they can’t force their way to closure on their own terms. And therefore, I’m betwixt and between two worlds. I’m so grateful I’m no longer as confused and thoroughly lost in the suffering as I used to be, but oh how I wish, that glimmer of freedom that I see could be realized. It’s a time where I need to be patient and prudently courageous, and let myself transform one day at a time. This is where I really learn to trust that I’m on a path, not of my own making, and I’m being transformed in this.
Thomas Merton once prayed to God, “Oh how far I have to go to come to rest in you, in whom I’ve already arrived. I only wish it were over. I only wish it were begun.”
Resist your temptation to lie
By speaking of separation from God
We might have to medicate
In the ocean
A lot goes on beneath your eyes
They have clinics there too
For the insane
Who persist in saying things like:
"I am independent from the
God is not always around
- Hafiz (tr. Daniel Ladinsky)
O guiding light!
O night lovelier than the dawn!
O night that has united the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
- John of the Cross
As we excitedly begin springtime preparations for the holy embodied work of growing food, I have also been holding in my heart the ancient relationship between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In light of last week’s white nationalist terrorist attack in New Zealand and in light of developing news in Syria, and recent excruciating violence in Gaza, I have been allowing myself to go through the roller coaster of emotions that come up, and letting them be what they are before I let them go. First as a mother, because children are dying at the hands of extremism, then as a Christian, and then beyond my emotional tendencies, as someone drawn to the teachers from these traditions who graced this world with a unifying vision.
Fundamentalism loves the front page, and it would seem, most of us do too. Or as I heard Scilla Ellworthy say on the podcast Cracks of Light, “if it bleeds, it leads”.
Not that we should be silent in the face of ideological violence, but there are also remarkable stories taking place everyday where folks from these traditions share space, share heritage and even share monuments and saints, but we’re addicted to the drama of extremes, so we often fail to broadcast the beautiful connections.
Last week in my reflection on Christchurch, New Zealand, I was clear that it is important to name white nationalism and islamophobia and the roots of Christian fundamentalism in the West. This week, I want to highlight some of the shared beauty of Islam and Christianity. So I am including two films, and a song from my album Behold, I Make All Things New, called Every Breath is Yours, that was written by Michael Scott, of the Waterboys.
The films are each in their own way, utterly remarkable. In Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, when they’re standing by the cave of St Anthony, I could feel the history there through the screen. And in the film Sufi Soul - the music of Islam, the music consoles and ignites and connects. To see the Eastern Orthodox Christian convent of Saidnaya, as a shared pilgrimage point for both Muslims and Christians, with the Mary icon, named Shaguoura, as a shared saint, is profound to witness. (This convent has since suffered damage from the Syrian civil war, as have so many UNESCO sites dating back to the 2nd century BC.)
Let's get back to connections. The medieval Christian mystic poets had the rich, highly developed Islamic poets to thank for inspiring romantic, erotic metaphor, in relation to spiritual love with God. And the early European troubadours/bards were inspired by the various themes of Arabic poetry, including satire, eulogies, lampoon/insult poems, war poetry, hunting poetry, and so on.
John of the Cross’s famous metaphors of eros love in God, may have never been, had it not been for this kind of metaphor developing first in Islamic poetry. The poetry of being utterly, willingly overtaken by God in body and soul. The Canticle of Canticles, or Song of Songs may have influenced both, but there was something remarkable happening in those years between the 12th and 17th century that were often overlooked by "enlightenment era" eyes. The Hindu poet Mirabai penned her love songs within this time period too. But my favourite is Rabia al-Basri, who preceded both Rumi and Hafiz by 700 years, and who also went into the desert in her homeland Iraq, to become an ascetic, around the time Sufis were populating the Syrian desert after the Muslim Conquest of Levant. Remember, Syria had been under Roman rule for 7 centuries, before this conquest, so there is so much more going on than one religion vs another.
Likewise, in the film Sufi Soul, they show how the repetition of the Jesus Prayer chanted in the Syrian desert by the early desert Abbas and Ammas, inspired Sufi music and in part, the channel held open through embodied repetition of the Whirling Dervish. And when it comes to the roots of chanting itself, all indigenous traditions have some form of it, and chanting the Psalms, especially the Hallel, would have been a custom practiced by Jesus. It is thought by some, that he chanted the Psalms from the cross. But this particular repetition found in the Syrian desert, was developed by the Christians who fled the corruption of civilization and sought to find a prayer practice that could aid them to "will the one thing".
So, we know that Christianity and Islam have a shared history of the crusades and that the ramifications of this reverberate in very painful ways today. We all know about that. But what about these lesser known details about what we have shared, and the alchemical richness we have developed together?
In 2015, when I recorded the song Every Breath is Yours, I stood in front of the microphone in the tradition of the Islamic and Christian mystic poets, along with the author of the Song of Songs, whose fearless intimate metaphors, brought God closer to us.
Closer than we are to ourselves.
When we are at a loss for what to do about fundamentalism, may we move to the connections, the shared metaphors and elements - Silence. Music. Art. Poetry. Story. Movement. Taste. Chant. Love. Fire. Water. Earth. Wind. This is where we have our kinship in and through our shared Creator.
PS- additionally, I sort of assumed most of you reading this would have an understanding of the Abrahamic connection all three traditions share, but someone shared a wonderful, far more scholarly but very heartfelt lecture by professor Robert Baum speaking on Children of Abraham: The Shared Traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Click here to watch that lecture!
In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?
- 8th century Muslim poet Rabia al-Basri
Your task is not to seek for love,
but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself
that you have built against it.
We are connected now, not just by the invisible lines of the energy at the heart of all things. This "heart of all things" connection has always been, even as groups encountered each other, clashed, made war or peace, and lived in their place and time which shaped their cultural and spiritual expressions. Today, we are now connected by the internet, and the global summit of the world of ideas, and… ideologies… is available to anyone who is able to log in.
On March 15th, 2019, the very same day that 15-year-old Greta Thunberg led a worldwide skip school protest for climate justice, a 28-year-old man chose to enact a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, claiming his actions were anti-immigration in intent.
I have never had the honour of visiting New Zealand, but I have had the honour of knowing a number of folks from New Zealand, and I have always felt there is an innocence and beauty carried in the culture, that is palpable in the presence of the people I have known.
Today, as I held my youngest, who is nearing his 3rd birthday, I longed for little 3-year-old Mucad Ibrahim to be okay. To be safe and with his family. My heart stretched all the way to the families in Christchurch, grieving and in shock, and then, to the Ummah around the world.
Words are powerful. The energy behind our words are powerful. It is clear that a grassroots movement for the things that make this world beautiful is growing. But it is also clear that an alt-right neo white supremacy movement is growing. And I’m going to be clear about something: the degree to which we can suffer and mourn with our Muslim brothers and sisters about this massacre, is the exact degree to which we have faced the brunt of our own addiction to overconsumption, fundamentalism, power, and white privilege. Now is not the time to say “what about” anything. As Saint Francis wrote, "O Master, let me not seek as much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love." We must put the parable of the Good Samaritan to work now more than ever ... to see the highest and the good in the "other", and to look at our own corruption. Let's not kid ourselves... and as Christians, let's call it out... this white nationalist terrorism rearing its hideous head has its roots in slaveholder Christianity, and in an Islamophobia forged in great part by Christian fundamentalism.
The song I want to share today, Heart and Heart, comes from the new Meditation With Children album (to be released April 27th, 2019). There is a beautiful line I worked with, from a poem called Reality, by one of my favourite poets, the 8th Century Sufi mystic Rabia al-Basri.
The line I used from her poem is:
In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
This line brings us back to the heart of all things, that I mentioned at the beginning of this reflection.
But here’s the tricky bit. Unitive or nondual consciousness is not uniformity. It is not homogeneous. We don’t get to skip innocently over this line of Rabia al-Basri’s, this week of all weeks, and begin to feel good about how we’re all connected and how there’s no separation between us and God and the world. While that is true, we are also in the physical realm and we walk around in the skin we’re in.
We must plant Rabia’s line in the most diverse, symbiotic garden you could ever dream of.
As the global summit of online ideologies continues to embolden entitlement, there is a Oneness that is not superficial, that is not cheaply relativistic, and it is in-building an awareness and a love here in our corporeal state, for far-off places and people who are different from ourselves. As more and more awaken to inborn delusions of entitlement and the lie of exceptionalism... that diverse garden has a chance to grow into a beautiful, cacophonous, balance.
PS- Lastly, there is a petition speaking out against the white nationalism behind this shooting, and it is being organized to gather names and messages that will be bound into books and delivered to the families effected by the massacres in Christchurch.
To sign the petition and send your message, click here.
PPS- And men... all of you... go and get initiated through either the Mankind Project or Illuman and then start a men's group in your area when you get home. Love needs all hands on deck, so if it is your tendency to sleep your way through these violent events caused by angry young men, arise and be counted, Elders. The world needs you.
Last year, Ash Wednesday landed on a day many of us consider to be the most saccharine and the least “ashy”of all feast days, Valentine's Day.
Like most songwriters, I see paradox as a great cowriting partner, so I wrote a song sitting in the tension between such apparently contrasting days, called When Love Meets Dust. Then at the end of the 40 days of Lent, somehow magically, Easter Sunday landed on April Fool’s Day, so I wrote a song called Holy Fool.
2018 was a lot of things, but those serendipitous expressions in the calendar were fun to play with.
Having entered into Lent now in 2019, I thought I would share the song When Love Meets Dust, which in part was influenced by Fr Ron Rolheiser’s book Holy Longing.
Holy Longing suggests that there really is only one flame and that in the spiritual journey, “getting burned” is really what happens when aspects of our false selves fall away through life’s descents.
Belden Lane has called this a "misplaced yearning".
The verses in the song When Love Meets Dust are really just different aspects of each one of us, although they are also respectively inspired by: Janis Joplin, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, who Ron Rolheiser illustrates with, in his book.
I hope it is clear that when I wrote the verses, I wasn’t using Janis, Diana and Mother Teresa as some cheap polemic for chastity and “being good” (and neither was Fr Ron in his book!). It is about seeing the immensely beautiful, heart-wrenching, holy longing in the rebel, in the noble princess and in the “nobody”.
If I’m honest, I relate most to Janis.
There is a story from the teachings of the desert Abbas and Ammas, that Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Along the journey of descent, there is a point where the flame doesn’t burn you anymore, because you have realized that your own fire, and the great Flame, are one.
This idea that all fire comes from the same place, but only burns us or others if we are in our ego state, or false self state, is a remarkable way to reconstruct our idea of hell. In the chorus, the line “it can destroy or it can trust, but it’s what happens when love meets dust” is to say that the literal energy, the building blocks of life, can also be inverted to destroy life (think of atomic energy).
Finally, because I’ve been speaking mostly about flame, or love, it is important to also mark our earthiness. We airy “spirituals” don’t do that enough. We don’t often willingly go into the bear cave and feel the damp womb of earthly discomfort. We don't lie naked in the soil, with the sun greening us like nettles, because we feel safer in the esoteric, or at the very least, in the theologic.
But don't worry! Cosmos is tied to dust. You and I, all of this, originated in the heart of a star. So it comes full circle, anyway.
It is at this point, where stardust meets soil, that I want to make a very special mention to the very recent death of Australian Eco-theologian Fr Denis Edwards, whose book Jesus and the Cosmos deeply influenced my album Behold, I Make All Things New. His ability to hold the earth and the cosmos in balance through seeing the whole of reality as incarnate, was remarkable. I mentioned him briefly last week in the final paragraph of my reflection and just a few days later, I saw it announced that he had passed.
Denis and I communicated a few times via email, when Behold, I Make All Things New came out, and I was honoured to know he heard the level at which I wanted to deliver that project, because he said:
"Behold, I Make all Things New sings of the Love that is at the heart of everything. The galaxies and stars, the animals and trees of Earth. The album tells of the Love come to us in an unthinkable way in Jesus, and celebrates the transformation already at work in new creation. I have always loved those words: "behold, I make all things new", now I hear them in your voice."
His life and work will always mean a great deal to me. His fidelity to seeing the incarnation in Earth and the Cosmos changed me forever. It is my prayer that folks who write down books I mention will spend time with Denis Edward’s work. He truly was a man who saw Christ in all things… he had the eyes to see… where love meets dust.
This one's for you, Denis.
I’ve thought for some time now, that the text “be wise as serpents and soft as doves” is very similar to saying “be active and be contemplative”.
Although much more cerebral and less contemplative statement, Karl Barth said it this way: “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need - according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper.”
This little chant, Eyes Open, Heart Open, recorded for the upcoming Meditation With Children album, (to be released on my son Francis’ 3rd birthday, April 27th, 2019), was written in the context of... chanting into balance, being street smart and being vulnerable enough to be kind.
I believe this fits into the world children live in, too.
As a songwriter and as a writer, sitting at that meeting point of “eyes open, heart open” is a lovely tension for creative energy to surge forth, and for imagining the "impossible", as all paradoxes tend to allow for.
We all struggle most, however, with keeping our eyes open and heart open, when looking at our own selves. Often what comes with the work of deconstruction, is a failure to see that what we are deconstructing is a part of how we too are programmed. We may have changed our political perspectives, or are working out how to name something wrong, but as Einstein famously said, "no problem can be solved at the same level of consciousness that created it". If we haven't begun to hang out in our own paradoxes, we can be pretty self-righteous. Or, as I've heard James Finley say many times, "it's true that all prophets are a pain in the neck, but it's also true that not everyone who is a pain in the neck is a prophet."
As we shift our perspective that God is not “out there”, we must also shift our perspective that the shadow is also not “out there”. In Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 4 is about “taking a moral inventory” of one’s own life, which is to say: look at your own shadow. So, this would be keeping our eyes open toward our own selves. And if anyone is familiar with those steps, as you spend time with them, there comes a moment of serenity, that moment when the heart opens in tenderness, even after facing powerlessness (which is not the same thing as disempowerment) and our own shadow.
Here is a sample track from the brand new master finalized this week from the Meditation With Children album. My collaborator Noel Keating, the author of the book Meditation With Children , did such a wonderful job speaking on this album. We both very intentionally sang and spoke, sort of holding mysteriously, the heart of each person who might hear it. It felt very precious and I look forward to sharing more of it with you.
And finally, many of you will be aware that Richard Rohr's new book The Universal Christ comes out on March 5th. I have been LOVING the podcast, Another Name for Every Thing, and all the wonderful content on the site built for the book. Watch all the videos. They're so wonderful. The video where Fr. Rohr is speaking to a group of young evangelicals reminded me of when I first heard him speak about Christ. Along with Denis Edward's wonderful book Jesus and the Cosmos, (which is chock-full of Karl Rahner's insights), Richard's insights inspired me to write the album Behold, I Make All Things New and to seek out great poets to collaborate with, as I put music to that hymn he mentions in Colossians. I am anticipating this book!
Last summer I was approached by Irish author Noel Keating, who asked if I would be interested in recording an album of music for the purpose of encouraging meditation with children. Noel's background reaches back over 40 years in the education sector, and after his retirement, he dedicated 5 years of teaching meditation in classrooms across Ireland. He wrote a book called Meditation With Children that gives a rather tender glimpse, not only of the practical benefits of meditation, but remarkably, of the interiority the children naturally intuited as they sat in meditation.
I have since been recording and producing an album called Meditation With Children to compliment Noel Keating's work, that also includes spoken word from Noel. We are in the last stages of finalizing mixes and the master, and it will be going to press in the coming weeks with the hope that I will have all the pieces in order to release it in April.
Below is a final mix of one of the tracks from the project.
These days, as I wrestle with the history of things... with the vast history of empire making and violence... there is something profoundly comforting in hearing what hidden things surfaced from these children, who have been sitting together in silence.
They reveal that there is more to us, and more to this sacred creation than meets the eye.
When I decided I wanted to make an album telling a seeker's journey, the story of Thomas Merton in song, I knew I must work in direct lineage, and with someone who heard Merton at the heart level. So, it made sense to work again, with my friend and teacher James Finley. We had already made the album Sanctuary: Exploring the Healing Path, which distills in simplified segments, the great work James Finley has done in imagining how spirituality and the contemplative path can compliment depth psychology.
James Finley is one of the great "wounded healers" of our time having survived trauma himself.
I wanted to share this song because I have been needing it myself.
I am in process - probably approaching midlife crisis.
I know I'm going to die eventually.
The word "fleeting" is beginning to enter into my mind and although I remember writing the following lines in my early 20's, I am beginning to witness it before my very eyes...
Like a honeymoon
A premature "Ecclesiastes moment" on my part. Trust a 4 on the enneagram to long to bring the whimsical days with her young children back, before said children are even conceived!
Nostalgia drives us to a kind of purgatory in the flesh. And that is one of the many reasons why "the moment" is so useful and so meaningful. It is also why being able to exhale... and to trust in the Big Picture... is so useful.
Many of us grew up being told that God loved us, but the rest of the picture didn't match up. It was not a benevolent universe, nor was God a benevolent, loving God.
History has been riddled with strategizing Christian kings and bishops, who found hell very useful. But not just hell... a castigating, shaming God was possibly even more helpful.
Somewhere in there, many Christians and deconstructionists are still deeply afraid to meet God. Or simply, afraid to die.
All this separation from God. All this isolation from God. All this disconnectedness and rugged individualism. "Every man for himself."
This week's Daily Meditation sequence from the Center for Action and Contemplation was so well done and was like vitamin D to this sun-craving, winter-cloaked, ice-dweller. I love where I live, but winter can be long! I recommend sitting with this summary of the week.
The song To Disappear into God is exegeted so beautifully by James Finley that I want to share the text of his spoken word. These lines from Merton can be interpreted by a more literal ear, as escapism or "annihilation". What if they're actually the opposite?
Here is James Finley's spoken word text:
As intimacy deepens between two people, it can deepen to a point at which they mutually
disappear as dualistically other than each other, neither one can find a place where one stops
and the other begins and they’re not inclined to try. So that point of zero variance, that point of
the overcoming of otherness is a point of solitude because there’s no observer there to take
notes on it.
In a way Merton is talking about this trans-subjective communion in which we and God, we and others, we and the earth, start disappearing, and otherness is overcome.
This is why when people die, they don’t go anywhere. When we die, we disappear. We don’t
see the dead for the same reason we don’t see God. There’s no more otherness, between
themselves and this infinity. And since they don't go anywhere, we’re all right here!
Thomas Merton once wrote, “Where do candles go when they go out? If the question fills me
with an alien chill, it gives witness to my heart that I have not begun to understand the
I pray away the alien chills that try to inhibit our trust and vulnerability.
May we risk being loved. May we risk loving big.
"You would not cry, if you knew that by looking deeply at the rain you would still see the cloud."
- Thich Nhat Hanh
As I’ve pondered the announcement of Thich Nhat Hanh awaiting the end of his life, I have begun to wonder if my Sunday Song and Rumination should be called Eulogies to the People We Need Most.
It was Martin Luther King day last week and since the announcement about Thich Nhat Hanh, I have been thinking a lot about something I learned in my research for Point Vierge - Thomas Merton’s Journey in Song.
In March 1968, a Quaker couple from Atlanta, June and John Yungblut, were organizing a retreat that was to be held at Gethsemani Monastery, with Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh. The retreat was delayed due to Martin Luther King going to Memphis, where he was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. The retreat never took place, and Merton died 6 months later.
Since I learned that, I have often wondered what sort of dialogue could have been recorded at that retreat. What sort of innovation might have been masterminded, or at the very least might have been picked up on in future generations. I’ve even thought of considering each of them and what they might have said, to construct some sort of conversation in my head that could give further clues to the evolution of love.
Each truth tellers to be sure, but also each with an ability to name sickness and disease of violence and hatred, bigotry and systemic racism, while standing in a higher level of consciousness.
This week, as I went about my days with my children, and experienced a bit of an ache for my husband to finally be home (he got home just hours ago), I examined my own heart. I have been haunted by a story that James Finley tells about Thich Nhat Hanh. James told me that when Thich Nhat Hanh saw the infamous photo of the young man putting a flower in the barrel of a gun of a National Guardsman, he said, “that person is doing violence to that soldier, because the soldier is doing his duty. And the person is mocking.” James Finley goes on to say “you can have the ideology of peace and use it to do violence with it.”
For me, this is why I think that it is a damn shame that the arts and comedy are continuously sacrificed first in dualistic times, before other more practical needs. It brings dimension to flat places of only needing story for allegory. Of only needing to draw on the ancients, to make a thin, moral point in the present. Love in action is an art form, and good art can never be rendered to the literal. The art forms must hold!
For me, making art makes me dig deeper and work harder to make shapes out of the intangible. To speak the ineffable. To let myself be a “child of the unknown” and let that great mystery find its way into the music. So MLK and Thich Nhat Hahn showed us an art form, already forged in part by Mahatma Ghandi who famously, when asked if he was a Hindu, said “yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” This is not wishy washy, shallow relativism, friends! He had reached the point of seeing what Jesus meant when he said “love your neighbour AS yourself”. Not as much. But as.
So, this week’s song lyrics are a line from Thomas Merton's Turning Toward the World (page 325), and is especially dedicated to Martin Luther King and to our beloved Thich Nhat Hanh.
Here is something Christian in the history of our time.
I am in gratitude to this art form of love in action that challenges me exactly where I am.
Solo parenting small children, for 15 days, in a 1970 trailer, keeping a wood stove going, above the 49th parallel, in a cold snap in January, has its contemplative learning advantages.
The temperature has been consistently dropping from -25 Celsius during the day, to the -30’s every night with extreme cold warnings that with the windchill it is really in the -40s. Every day, I bundle my kids up in their snowsuits, their toques, mittens, boots, snow shoes, scarves and we blaze trails through the woods, trying to stay out of the wind, so we can get some fresh air and exercise. This very act of winter outfitting, and the patience that it takes, is a contemplative practice of such magnitude that it would challenge the most ultra-enlightened people on this planet. Most of the time, I fail miserably at doing it without losing my inner cool, and then I remember how James Finley says “the poverty of the practice is the richness of the practice”. So then I surrender into that poverty, (which is another way to say, fall into the eternal source of love), and somehow put that last impossible mitten on, with a love beyond what "I" could conjure.
We’ve driven into town to get the mail once, but because I don’t really like being out on the roads with such small children in this kind of cold, we just turn around and come right home. Also, we try not to use fossil fuels for no good reason.
We’ve been to our dear longtime friend’s (a family down the road) for supper, and will be doing a sleep over at my sister’s, but this week has otherwise so far, been a very real, challenging time, to bunker down and simply live out our days. We draw pictures of our garden together and we sort our seeds. My 2 and 3/4 year-old has announced he is going to have a booth at the farmer’s market this year, to sell magic beans like the one from Jack and the Beanstalk. My 5-year-old has announced that he is planning on being way more cooperative when he turns 6.
This week, as you will know, one of the world’s great poets, Mary Oliver, died at the age of 83. I have to say, that although losing a poet like Mary Oliver leaves a grievous void in the world, hope rose in me, as I watched how many people shared and posted what her poetry meant to them. Even people I wouldn’t have guessed. The flicker of what’s real, behind the smoke and mirrors of our time, shone more brightly than I’ve seen in awhile, as folks revealed their secret. That they read poetry. Good poetry. Life-altering poetry.
There have been many Mary Oliver poems, scribbled in the journals, and on the very hearts, of questers around the world, who’ve carried them like guides, out into the woods, the desert, the wild, back country. Those seekers who awaken out of the pathologies of urbanity, and hear the call, the primordial yearning, to come home, to really belong to this earth and to the mystery that gives it breath. (Normally, I would capitalize “mystery” but I’m currently rereading The Life of Pi, and laughed out loud when Pi observes how much Christians love to capitalize words! A telling trait I will probably continue on with, but for this bit of writing.)
I have been such a person. Once, in the Colorado back country, I cast off the chains of the need to ask for permission to live my own life, and the words of Mary Oliver were there to see it done.
There are some grudges, some ancestral coils, to be released and unbound, in the presence of a magpie and an old cottonwood tree, that can never be liberated in the presence of tall buildings. It grieves me that nature should be either parochial or gentrified. Vinyl pressed on a billboard, an idea of it, that exists in the mind of someone who hunts for sport, or someone with a pocketbook for elaborate hiking gear and cautionary guidebooks on regional fauna… but never touches, never tastes, never vulnerably indwells.
As my children sleep under their warm blankets and the heat-powered fan rattles on top of the wood stove, loaded with dead-fall poplar, I am reminded that I walk in the world of contemplation through the lens of dwelling in nature. Contemplative practice erases the false lines of separation between me and God and others, and asks me to be attentive to unnoticed things. Through embodied, country dwelling I am taught attentiveness and simplicity, and out of this place, there are clear calls to action that take shape.
Much of the time though, it seems that contemplation and nature are not necessarily in authentic unity. We haven’t reconciled all the threads that lay deep down in our psyches. The ancient earth powers, when our same wild God hadn’t yet been put in a book. The great first axial iterations of higher consciousness that miraculously stayed swords and then, all of them, fell into bloodshed, split after split. The off-by-a-mile trajectories that led to rigid, disjointedness, and eventually to literalism, and then eventually up again to a sold-short kind of myth-telling. But there are stories and mysteries that still quiver in each of us, under the surface of things, that are too incarnate to be metaphor. Or to say it differently, God has dwelt among us in the flesh as a human metaphor. Sacred has the last word, down to the smallest quark and beyond the farthest reaches of the universe.
The song for this week is We Do Not Attend, from the album Point Vierge. The lyrics belong to Thomas Merton, and my dear friend and teacher James Finley, does the spoken word at the end.
Merton was drawn to nature. To the solitude of fire making and walking in the woods. He could see the neurosis of power and greed infiltrating and controlling the lives of all of us, and he grieved that we can be so distracted by all of our many plans to be great, that we blunder the opportunity to pay attention to God’s most profound gifts.
In one flock of birds is a hundred words of God in full flight. In one smile from a child in your life, is an opportunity to mirror them, which multiplies the smile into laughter upon laughter, echoing all laughter that ever was or will be.
I continue to pray for a me, and for a world, in which being attentive to these purportedly small things becomes valued beyond the measure of all our extractive, plundering ignorance. And so we might honour the poems of the poets, with our offered service, at home in our “place in the family of things.”
On a good week, Friday night gets to be “date night” for me and my husband. Which consists of putting the kids to bed, making tea and then popping corn, and choosing a film to watch together without putting extra hours into being artists.
The film we chose to watch this week was Springsteen on Broadway, an intimate storytelling and acoustic music performance by Bruce Springsteen held at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City. It is breathtaking in its simple depth.
I had noticed that Oprah recently mentioned she went to see his live performance three times, and now that I’ve watched it, I can see why.
Because of the demands of everyday life, the moments where a couple can weep healing tears together are quite rare. We got to do that with this film.
In the way Bruce Springsteen tells his story, you can tell he’s gone the distance in his healing, because it is not the kind of storytelling that passes the buck and scapegoats, but it is the kind of storytelling that has become a sort of sacrifice for the listener and the viewer, to be mirrored and healed, almost by proxy. And there was no oversharing - a lost art form that I long to emulate.
The way his face contorts just a little bit when he speaks about his father. The way he implies how, if our story still haunts us, those in our bloodlines, become our ghosts. But when our stories are transformed, the ghosts become our ancestors.
The way he walks through the stages of life, really brought me some centering, and helped me to look at the journey I’ve been on as a songwriter too.
In the mid 2000’s, I had the opportunity to stand stage side at a Bruce Springsteen concert in the UK, but I declined the offer with thanks, saying that I was also on a concert tour, albeit much smaller. The night he was playing for probably 80,000, I was playing for about 60 people in a beautiful little venue outside of Liverpool.
In the early days of my time in the music business, I had a lot of youthful naiveté and more attitude than I care to admit. At one point I was described in the papers as “having the exuberance of a young colt” (I still recognize that performer’s clamouring tendency to stand out, in me, but it has been tempered by time, age and contemplative practice). Later, an Irish paper music reviewer said I was “maturing like a fine malt”.
Watching Bruce look at his 20 year old self, I couldn’t help but remember my own rock star complex when I was younger.
The performing arts are a tricky business. You need to showcase your gift in an embodied way. You really need to be present to deliver the goods. And sometimes what that takes is a whole lot of drive, and tireless effort, and the willingness to be witnessed. In her 2009 Ted Talk on the elusive creative genius, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the dancer in North Africa, lit up, on fire with divinity, and the people watching the dance, knew it for what it was, and would chant “Allah!”.
When I think of how many transcendent performances Bruce Springsteen has delivered in his lifetime, and how I know he needed that youthful egoic, edge to give himself to the music, there is something new here in his performance on broadway, that should be observed. And that is, that in this performance, we are witnessing what a rock star looks like when they become an elder. Tempered by time, he still has all his moves, but he can sort of laugh at his own moves and love his young self with the tenderness of an aging father.
In a beautiful sermon recently delivered by Matthew Wright, at one point he reads this brilliant parable by Niko Kazantzakus:
"A man came up to Jesus and complained to him about the hiddenness of God. “Rabbi,” he said, “I am an old man. During my whole life, I have always kept the commandments. Every year of my adult life, I went to Jerusalem and offered the prescribed sacrifices.
“Every night of my life, I have not retired to my bed without first saying my prayers. But . . . I look at stars and sometimes the mountains—and wait, wait for God to come so that I might see him. I have waited for years and years, but in vain. Why, Why? Mine is a great grievance, Rabbi? Why doesn’t God show himself?
Jesus, in response, smiled gently and said: “Once upon a time there was a marble throne at the eastern gate of a great city. On this throne sat 3,000 kings. All of them called upon God to appear so that they might see him, but all of them went to their graves with their wishes unfulfilled.
“Then, when these kings had died, a pauper, barefooted and hungry, came and sat upon that throne. ‘God,’ he whispered, ‘the eyes of a human being cannot look directly at the sun, for they would be blinded. How then, Omnipotent, can they look directly at you?
“Have pity, Lord, temper your strength, turn down your splendor so that I, who am poor and afflicted, may see you! “Then—listen, old man—God became a piece of bread, a cup of cool water, a warm tunic, a hut and, in the front of the hut, a woman giving suck to an infant.
“Thank you, Lord,’ he whispered. ‘You humbled yourself for my sake. You became bread, water, a warm tunic and my wife and son in order that I might see you. And I did see you. I bow down and worship your beloved many-faced face!’”
There is something here in this text, that pertains to witnessing a rock star who has experienced many times what being a porthole of divinity is like, on a massive, liminoid scale. But now he wields himself like a covert mystic, where he “turns down the splendor” and humanizes the music and the man, so that we can step into it with him.
I decided to cover Bruce Springsteen’s song Land of Hope and Dreams for this Sunday Song and Rumination because I understand him when he sings:
I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion
For this part of the ride
He is singing those words to each listener he gets to serve.
For the songwriter, we love writing many kinds of songs, but perhaps our very favourite are, at least for me, and I daresay for Bruce, songs for the journey. What might be called, Psalms of the Ascents. The songs that will help you feel heard… that will help you to take another step, and be a light for you when it is hard to see in the dark. Songs that can help you feel ok, about being human.
There is something about the descent from the stadium show into the small theatre that symbolizes a god coming down from the heavens, to enter the world as a real human being. Something to watch for these days, as so much can appear shapeless and without poetry.
PS: a friendly language warning for the film. Personally, I am far more offended by hypocrisy than a few well-placed f-bombs but I thought I'd let you know :)
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on an aspiring permaculture farm on the Canadian prairies.