Shaped by the sea

From the beginning wind-breath,

To last moment’s wave-shaped caress,

There you are.

You are their

Wave that rushes back to shore,

Every time it plays run-away.

 

Full power to forge the bolder,

Teeming with shark and scaly life.

Taking all crevices;

No bareness untouched.

Even babies, men are at once lulled and afraid.

 

Fearsome, awesome, and winsome–

Shape my rocky heart!

Over, through, and within,

You are there.

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To Him of the Seasons

Praise

To Him of the Seasons,

That hidden Strength behind wind and thunderstorm.

 

Who hushed the elder birds,

Only that they might be a lively chorus of fledglings.

Who allowed hands to cut back the barren brush,

Only that the uncovered earth might kiss the seeds into fourfold fertility.

Who darkened morning and froze the sandy shores,

Only that the sun might swell in splendor by cracking them open.

 

Who encircles my fragile limbs in everlasting mercy,

That my heart might be free to run home

Again.

“For We Can Only Wonder”

“Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.” –Denise Levertov

Over the years, I’ve heard various private and public voices argue that our culture–the millennial generation in particular–suffers from a need for instant gratification, constant entertainment, and a steady dose of thrills (see here and here and talk to your parents). There is clearly some truth to this, but perhaps there is something more. This hunger may be the blessed antidote for something that frightens me much more: numb minds, lukewarm hearts and the general stagnation brought about by a sleepless society (in almost all senses of the word).

It reveals some important information about ourselves, that we were made to be fully alive every single moment with arms stretched open to receive both the palm branches and lashes of life.

But how do we reconcile this taste for drama with the slushy grey snow and monotonous lectures that surround us most days? I’ve found an answer in the idea embodied by the word open— having open eyes and open ears. Although this will be published later, I’m presently typing this reflection on my personal magical rectangle, as I literally soar through the clouds themselves with a group of friends and many strangers. The experience of flying is almost too easy— only the most self-absorbed minds are not open enough to grasp the thrill and wonder in such an experience.  

Take my pending trip to the grocery store. I will soon drive my warm, fast car to a massive complex (my beloved Trader Joe’s), that is owned and operated by mysterious, unseen faces. There, I will play the fun game of stretching my college budget through bright aisles of exotic bananas, organic and fresh heads of lettuce, and past perfectly-proportioned boxes of Coconut Pancake Mix. Perhaps I will even collect a jasmine candle from Indonesia or a Dutch pink tulip plant— of which I am still always surprised to wake up and find this vividly living thing on my window sill!

And I haven’t even mentioned the glory in every detail of human friendship… I recently enjoyed dim sum with a beautiful old friend, whose fantastical entrance into my life was a generous compliment about my (infrequently) curled hair while we waited in line for lunch. What if I had run out of time to curl my hair that day! What if I had never attended that event, or that party, or made an offhand comment about that mediocre book! Somehow, these beautifully unfolding stories are ever more evident in the presence of this stunning peach sunset, and this momentous music, and the lingering memory of love letters that make up my environment. That is the function of beauty in art forms: the opening of the eyes and ears. They gently shake us awake to see the unfolding stories of which we play a part. Only with open eyes can I fully affirm the truth written by my old friend C.S. Lewis,

“But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work…”

So, hold on to that hunger for excitement, the urge to explore with reckless abandon, and the ache for a good story. It’s making you more childlike.


Perhaps this fascination with the daily details makes me sound like someone in love. Truth is, I am. The joy in being open lies in the fact that it is is a form of the vulnerability known by the lover’s heart. Peter Kreeft has explained it far better than I in this essay:

“We can see the same principle at work on every level: gravity and electromagnetism on the inorganic level; a plant’s attraction to the sun and to water and nutrients in the soil on the plant level; instinct on the animal level; and love on the human level. And within the human sphere there is also a hierarchy beginning with the sexual desire (eros) and affection (storge) that we share with the animals up to the friendship (philia) and charity (agape) that we share with the angels. The universe is a hierarchy of love. This is not a myth. This is the splendid and glorious truth. Look! How can you miss it? It’s all around us…

When Jesus threw open his arms on the cross, he said, in effect: ‘See? That’s how much I love you.’ “

Running Without Arriving

“If one could run without getting tired, I don’t think one would often want to do anything else.” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)

The weather gods have been good to little Omaha, Nebraska this week. We began with classes called off for two “ice-days” in a row and have closed up the weekend with three days that reached the high 40s. Spring broke the rules to speak to our sun-deprived faces. Do you ever sit back and wonder at the weather? Truly miraculous, I tell you.

So, there I was on my jog today, carried away in the game where I imagine where each person is going, and what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. Perhaps you’ve played it before as well. The sun began to set, and my exuberant thoughts turned to where I was inevitably going, formulating a vague gameplan for the evening. I didn’t get very far though, because as I explored the mental catalogue of potential delightful activities, I began to wonder at why I enjoy my hobbies so much. (And now you know why I’m so absentminded 90% of the time.)

What is it about running? What is it about writing? Why music? Why painting? Why reading?

Five strides later, the answer came to me as clear as day: at the end of it all, I never truly arrive anywhere. Whenever I lose myself in my hobbies (a welcome loss indeed), there is a lingering sense of “almost, but not yet.” That’s precisely why I always reach for more– one more beautiful jog, one more enlightening book. Prolonging the runner’s high is like begging that gloriously orange sun not to set, trying to escape the inevitable swallowing-up.  “For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinth. 7:31). All races, essays, songs, artworks, books, hours, years, and even lifetimes must come to an end.

Ernest Hemingway has said it thus: “For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.”

That is how I found myself bumping into yet another paradox of our humanity. Though I cannot (yet?) enjoy the perfect jog or write the perfect essay (and goodness knows every five-year-old is closer to the perfect painting than I am), the fire inside still urges me to pursue these things.  My hobbies cannot teach me perfection, but that can teach me about beauty and goodness. The higher builds upon the lower. As nearly always, St. John Paul II fulfills my reflection by guiding me to the things I knew that I was missing, but couldn’t see clearly enough to name:

“Saint Bonaventure, who in introducing his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum invites the reader to recognize the inadequacy of ‘reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God‘ ” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio)

In other words, I’m not running for nothing. I’m doing it so I can be a better gift.

Only a Stronger Love

There are three poems completely committed to my memory.

The first was academically imposed upon our grumbling class of Catholic middle schoolers, as we were not yet experienced enough to grasp the worth of an inner poetry treasure chest. I’m transported back to that tiny classroom every time the declaration, “Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare,” passes my lips. The second, “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, made its entrance into my life as required reading, but I surprised myself by wishing I could utter it while under the stars one night. A sucker for poetic moments, I worked to memorize the short piece and it has not left since (though nature’s beauty is hard to come by these days… oh frozen tundra of Omaha).

I met this final poem through a friend at Creighton (those eloquent Jesuits!), and it was pure love that led me to commit it to memory. It is a prayer written by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. As my activities become increasingly concrete and materially productive, the wisdom that was instilled as a child has crystallized as well. Love is power, literally. It is the sole force that completely flips our world up-side down (or right-side up as Chesterton would say) as that which was once counted as a cost becomes a benefit. Some folksy prophets (who I happen to know are spectacular in concert) once sang it like this: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”

I’m not very wise, but the fact is, I don’t want my eulogy to be about how much I loved buying dresses or how much I loved to lay in bed and read all day. Those are purposely lighthearted examples, but in the face of inner darkness the truth glows even brighter: only a stronger love, a passion more fierce, can pull me from the things that I love out of proportion. We do not empty ourselves of attachments to remain empty, but to make room for the better wine. To paraphrase Peter Kreeft, who perhaps said it best, the only true cure for an alcoholic is to fall in love with the beauty of a sober saint, and the way to conquer lust is to behold the bloody love of Christ crucified. There is high truth in that.

Entering the fresh year of 2017, renewing our conviction to shake off bad habits, perhaps the best way to go about it is by allowing ourselves to fall recklessly in love with something more good, more true, and more beautiful. The good life is not the boring life. And so we begin searching, and something tells me that none of us will have to go too far.

cs-lewis-quote-we-are-far-too-easily-pleased.jpg

It is good to be small

It is good to be small,
Sparrow declares in his morning hymn;

Dancing lightly on pink-blossomed twig.

It is good to be small,
Baby giggles as his mama

Scoops applesauce into his open mouth.

It is good to be small,
Priest teaches his sheep;

Pointing to the Father’s Love Crucified.

“It is good to be small,”
Wandering woman speaks in her heart,

As 99% of those papers loose
Their meaning
When exposed to
angelic heights.

Sursum Corda

Feet bounce over cloud-grey concrete;

The morning ritual has begun.

Giving them the rhythm of my habitual soundtrack,

I’m lulled into my tiny, selfish circles.

Whatever is true, whatever is noble…

I raise my eyes from running feet to running river,

To panting breeze, to energetic sun, to intrepid shores.

They say God wrote us two love-letters:

The Bible and nature.

Sursum corda.

In a surprise leap, the Missouri River banks transform before my eyes

Into the raging Cliffs of Mohr, then the lay skirts of the Potomac,

And finally, the lapping shores of Cotton Lake.

Oh God, who makes the mountains melt…

Come wrestle us and win.

Surely the Beckoner of the breezes mingles sands and stones into one;

Nature’s natural innocence is more easily redeemed than ours.

But wait! Friend, look at me again with your ocean eyes.

I think He wrote three.

Flowering Forth (For When Prose Fails)

How deeply do the rivers run

In each impassioned soul.

When twins revealed in books begun,

It’s homeward bound we flow.

~~~

So join with mine,

Thy powerful tides,

In seeking Wisdom’s sacred sign.

To wrestle on high,

Hope shall always prevail;

Come, take delight in

Thy sweet surprise again!

~~~

Finally at night, the chaste, cool rivers

May gardens overflow.

Peace to you who firmly plant;

Flowering forth you somehow know.

~~~

Silently looking into your heart,

Hush and receive unanswerable Love.

For in the High Secret

Of head on chest,

The mystery supper’s antiphon sung;

“Find thy rest, for

Now our Gardener has come.”

~~~

Sacrifice praise to our forever Friend,

Beautiful Goodness Ever-True.

At last, when resounding harmony marries:

Behold! He will make all things new.

Sehnsucht in the Library of Congress

Deep calleth unto deep. –Psalm 42:7

It is no accident that lofty thoughts blossom forth in beautiful places.

But the really interesting thing is that man’s monuments and God’s landscapes do not push inspiration from the outside-in; rather, they engender a planted seed. Something already in us resounds and responds in harmony. An easy example is the clarity that emerges from our muddled minds when we find ourselves in the presence of a thundering waterfall, opulent temple, star-speckled sky, or keeping quiet vigil as the baby sleeps on our chest. In forgetting ourselves through contemplation, we feel as if we have returned to ourselves. There is a mystery in that.

It is for this reason that I’ve found myself studying in the Library of Congress lately (…also did I mention that they have a fantastic gift shop?). The magnificent trappings of the exterior and interior are undeniably conducive to good work. While reading (this and listening to this) in the company of new-friend and very-new-friend, I took a pause to look up and noticed eight named figures, History, Commerce, Religion, Science, Law, Poetry, Philosophy, and Art, encircling the dome.

Above each was an inscription:


IMG_2064History: One God, one law, one element, and one far-off divine event, to which the whole creation moves. —Tennyson

Commerce: We taste the prices of Arabia, yet never feel the scorching sun which brings them forth. —Anon

Religion: What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? —Micah 6:8

Science: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. –Psalm 19:1

Law: Of law there can be no less acknowledged that her voice is the harmony of the world. —Hooker

Poetry: Hither, as to their fountain, other stars repairing, in their golden urns draw light. —Milton

Philosophy: The inquiry, the knowledge, and belief of truth is the sovereign good of human nature. –Bacon

Art: As one lamp lights another, not grows less, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness. —Lowell


How marvelous that a cluster of words, written down by a human being long ago, still calls out to us with power. No person enters the channels of time without leaving an impact, but it’s clear that a select few have been gifted with the most eloquent (or frankly boisterous) voices around our large family dinner table. Though the intellectual in me is sorely tempted to add my cluttered commentary to each phrase, I instead want to focus on the small, silent whisper threaded throughout each of them: There is something greater to come.

So the takeaway from this little rumination? Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that this is all there is. There’s a reason you feel more at home in beautiful places than anywhere else.

You were made for something more.