The Creative Spirit: Mary’s ‘Yes’

Williamsburg silversmith shop. SJG photo.

Today I begin a new series of reflections about the role of the Spirit and of spirituality in the life of the creative person. Whether you are a professional artistic type, an occasional poet/artist/craftsperson or someone who just thinks that maybe there’s something deep inside them waiting to come out, I hope you’ll find in this series some inspiration that will move you toward recognizing the ideas germinating within you and putting down words and images that will enable you to share them with others.  For that’s the role of the artist, to bring ideas to life.

I am up before the sun today, waiting to greet a busy day in these waning days of December, trying to latch on to an early-morning idea that will spur my brain into its creative mode. I’m trying to conceive, looking for a spark of something.

The gospel reading for today is one we all know. We’re only a few days from Christmas here in 2014, but this story from the very beginning of Luke’s gospel finds Mary before her child has even been conceived, confronted by an idea and a voice saying:

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.”

And she replies: “Really? I don’t think so. I’m not really prepared for that and, by the way, I’m a virgin, so…thanks anyway.”

But this voice is calm and insistent and is having none of her initial hesitance: “Ah, but this isn’t about you. This is about God in you. It may seem impossible, but nothing is impossible with God.”

And Mary answers with a simple, “yes.”

Smith's shop in Williamsburg. SJG photo.

It’s the beautiful beginning of the story of the Incarnation, and as I read and reflect on it this morning I am reminded that Mary’s “yes” to this conception serves as the perfect model for the creative process, for all of us who sense something moving and growing inside us. I will never conceive and bear a child, and yet I must be willing to accept and nurture the fruits of the Spirit that have been planted deep within me. The creative and artistic process requires a willingness to move beyond “I’m not really equipped for this and don’t yet have all the right experiences” to a simple “yes.”

The incarnation of Christ in the form of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and born to a virgin is the ultimate metaphor for all who create. It’s unexpected and new. It’s a bit dramatic and filled with poetry and startling images. It’s unbelievable and yet contains the truth. As we sometimes say when astonishing things happen in real life: “You just can’t make this kind of stuff up.”

That the nativity is a great metaphor for the creative process doesn’t make it any less real, and the incarnation (the word becoming flesh) of Christ didn’t stop when Mary gave birth. The incarnation continues in all of us, and it’s a particularly vivid reminder of the responsibility of all who create.

As we arise each day and search for ideas and meaning and insights, as we face empty screens and journals and canvases and sketchbooks, the Word (co-present with God since before the creation of the world) moves around inside us and kicks us like an unborn child aching and yearning to see the light of day. We give birth because of his birth. We create because we have been created.

Speaking of light, it’s starting to fill the world around me. I’ve turned an hour or so of darkness into something new. That’s all God asks of us.

Ask yourself in silence: What’s inside me that’s aching to come out?

Today’s Word: Broken

Looks like an A-minor. Photo by Jon Givens.

It is perhaps a bit cliché to speak of “grasping the moment,” but like all good clichés, there’s some truth and wisdom at the bottom of this one. Especially right now, as we enter the third week of advent, we are reminded that “now” is our time. We may be “waiting” for Christmas, but God and Jesus are here and available to be experienced right now — no waiting required.

And so it goes with the moments that come and go in our lives, waiting to be truly recognized and experienced by us. This is perhaps especially true of the difficult times when we feel lost, broken, abandoned or alone. The Christmas season is a time of joy for many, but for others, it can be a tougher period. As some struggle to get by, as they see what so many others have (and buy, buy, buy…) and as they cope with the memories of those no longer with them, advent can be a time of just waiting for it all to be over. Advent can be a season of sensing our brokenness.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Christmas stories — the tale of how that most beloved of all Christmas carols came to be written. By some accounts — we can’t be sure of the truth here, however — “Silent Night” was created out of brokenness. The story goes that a young priest, Fr. Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria, wrote the lyrics to “Stille Nacht” in 1818 and gave it to a friend and local musician, Franz Gruber, asking him to compose a simple melody to be played on guitar, as the organ in St. Nicholas Church was broken. The song was first performed on Christmas Eve and the rest, as they always say, is history. From brokenness springs beauty.

Me and Jenny. Photo by Jon Givens.

Here’s a simple guitar and voice recording that my daughter Jenny and I made a few years ago:

01 Silent Night

As we near Christmas, we recall both the woundedness of our lives and the joy of the birth of the Christ, who came to bind up our wounds, heal our brokenness and fill the empty spaces. This is the Christ who heals, who forgives, who makes whole. A child in a manger, yes, but more importantly the Word of God set in the midst of us not just 2000 years ago but even today. Especially today. This is ours to grasp, this is our moment to seize. This is heavenly peace for our lives right here.

Ask yourself in silence: Where am I broken? What beauty can spring from it? Where is my peace?

My blog turns five today: Looking backward and forward

Sundial at Bruton Parish Church, Williamsburg, VA. SJG photo.

As I awake on this cold, snowy Thanksgiving morning and begin to move about the house, I am immediately grateful for a few days away from the university to have some quiet time to read, write, pray and, of course, cook, eat and spend time with family. There will be a good balance of communal life and solitude this weekend, and I am reminded how important both are to the richness and fullness of life and faith. I thank God for both.

There’s a murder of crows somewhere outside raising a ruckus, which makes me think of my very first blog entries, two of them on Thanksgiving Day, 2009. You can read both of them here and here. (The crows make an appearance in the second post). As I re-read these words, I am grateful for all that has transpired over the past five years, including my times of disease, treatment and healing. However worrying and painful at times, these moments are all part of the one same story, a journey that led, shaped and changed me along the way. I have deep gratitude and joy for the journey and for all of those who have walked it with me.

Five years ago, a similar group of noisy crows helped me kick off the part of this journey that I chronicle here on this website. It’s just a small part of my life, if we measure life in the amount of time we spend doing any one thing, but it’s the place where I have continued to turn to help me make sense of the rest of life. Hopefully, as I write to clarify for myself what this “God stuff” all means, I’ve been able to help you think about your own journey, encouraged you to “ask yourself in silence” how God is moving and working in your life. That’s always been my goal, and I pledge to continue along that good and well-tread path.

As I re-read those first entries, I’m reminded of my original intent, which was to take a special look at the intersection of that place where spirituality and creativity meet. I think I’ve done that to a certain extent, but in the coming year I intend to spend a little more time at that intersection, reflecting on my own creativity as well as that of others, searching for and pointing out the inseparability — at least for me — of those two concepts and practices. Spirituality and creativity, as ideas and as ways of living and acting, both point to the same place, back to the Creator and Spirit that moved across the abyss and created everything out of nothing.

Detail of study desk at George Wythe House, Williamsburg, VA, where Thomas Jefferson studied as a young man. SJG photo.

I know that many of you — I would say all of you — are creative people yourselves, involved in writing and art and music and other forms of expression. And if you’re not, I’d encourage you to ask yourself if there might be some work for you to do. As I move forward into the new year, I’m going to encourage that creativity in those of you who read my blog, even as I encourage you to look deep within for the source of that good work.

For we are, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien:

Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

I’ll continue to suggest that you “ask yourself in silence,” but I’m also going to encourage you through creative “prompts” to delve deep into that silence and come back with something to share. Share your thoughts, prayers and poems with me through the comment button so that everyone else can see them, too. From time to time I may choose some of those to share in one of my posts. If your creative expression takes you to the more visual worlds of art and you wish to share, you can send files or links to me via email to for consideration to be shared with others via the site. I can’t and won’t share everything, but I look forward to seeing and hearing about what you are finding and creating from the deep and silent places where the breath of God lives within you.

Peace to you all.

Ask yourself in silence: What’s God saying to me today? What “voice” do I have to share that with the world?

Today’s Word: Other

Me and my shadow. SJG Photo.

“You are loved / and so are they.”
(From Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, by Douglas Wood)

This is what we so often forget, even if we don’t consciously realize it. This is what we need to remember and rekindle. This is the kind of life to which we are called, one in which we walk and talk and act and plan as if the other is as loved by God as we are.

But we forget. Sitting in the comfort of our homes (here I am on an early Saturday morning with a laptop on my lap, a cup of coffee in my hand and a fire in the hearth), we can feel safe, warm and content. If we are people of faith, we can feel loved by the God we think of as Creator and Lord. If we are Christians, we can feel loved by the grace and peace of Jesus. All’s good, we say. I’m loved, we think. I have everything I need right here, we feel deep inside.

And that’s a good thing, to be so secure in this love that God has for us. This is as it should be.

But we need to be careful. For sometimes, in our assurance of our own belovedness, we begin to think that we (our group, our tribe, our church, our denomination, our country, our race) has a monopoly on God’s love and we begin to create in our minds “the other.”

The other lives far away, or maybe just in another part of the city. The other looks different than we do. The other prays and worships differently, or maybe they don’t pray or worship at all. The other speaks a different language or with inflections and accents strange to our ears. The other is darker or lighter than us. The other sometimes laughs and cries at different things than we do. The other is too loud or much too quiet. And we begin to fear the other because the safety of our own sense of belovedness begins to falter and crack.

If we’re so loved by God, we say to ourselves, how can the other, who is so different, be loved too? So we build fences and walls and otherwise put distance between ourselves and the other. We build up armies to protect ourselves from the armies of the other and, indeed, these are often necessary.  For the other fears us as much as we fear them.

The thing is, we’ve got this all wrong. We don’t get to choose who God loves.

Ask yourself in silence: Who is my other?

Today’s Word: Planted

SJG Photo.

Richard Rohr has written that, “The whole point of religion is to let you know that what you’re drawing upon is already planted within you.” And I retype those words fully aware that, for many, the whole problem with the idea of God — that which is already planted within them — is, in fact, the whole religion part. The challenge of modern faith, it seems, has become for many the problem of finding God in organized religion because organized religion (of all different sorts and sects) has often let so many people down.

God can certainly be found in religion and religious practices, just as God can be found in quiet moments of solitude and prayer, in walks through the woods and in times of joy and ecstasy as we experience glimpses of God in art, nature, loving relationships with others, in the poor and in the sacramental moments of our own religion, if we have one of those.

But what’s most crucial, it seems, is that we don’t flip-flop the equation. We don’t draw upon what’s planted within us to find religion; we draw upon religion to find what’s planted within us. Even that well-worn phrase, “he’s found religion,” seems to be missing the point. It’s not religion God wants us to have but rather the deeply found relationship of looking within ourselves and finding God there waiting for us, so deeply implanted that we might not even have seen him there…nurturing, gently leading, making our lives richer and fuller and whole.

To give up on a religion that has let us down — or that never attracted us in the first place because of the imperfect people who make up that religion — makes perfect sense, it seems. Gandhi once said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

If we are Christians, it’s our call then to look inside to find this deeply planted God, to resurrect in our lives what it means to be like Christ, and present that to world when it comes looking for a reason for our faith. Maybe they will even come to like our religion. It’s on us, not them.

Ask yourself in silence: What’s most deeply planted in my life?

Blessing: For Those Who Create Art

In a garden in Marshfield, Mo. SJG Photo.

May the gifts of the Creator-created world, which never cease to amaze and silence the noise within and draw us close to the source of all, give power and inspiration to those of us who try to make sense of a sometimes senseless world through art, music, movement and the written word;

May the blessings, tragedies, challenges and intricacies of our lives and histories feed our imaginations and bring to others a sense of the Divine that lurks in the sunlight as well as the shadows, a God who can sometimes only be seen through the painter’s strokes and impressions, the composer’s trills and silences, the dancer’s angles and speed, the writer’s sense of story and character and rhythm and truth;

May the presence of God in every living thing, in every color, movement, flow, sparkle and whisper be the divine spark that is captured and reflected back to the world by the humble servant of the art, who hears and responds to a call that cannot always be understood and yet continues the response as if driven by the very air she breathes, the very flow of the blood that courses through his veins;

"Pickers" at Antique Archeology in Nashville.

May we see our work as merely a small measure of all we have received, the first fruits of a greater harvest returned to the Lord of the land, an offering back of everything we hold close and sometimes covet too dearly — our liberty, memory, understanding, will, possessions and passions.

May we take our work seriously and ourselves with a grain a salt, with a growing knowledge that we are only instruments waiting to be played, apprentices under the guiding hand of a master craftsman, young players in need of the maestro’s baton, glimmering pieces of shiny glass and refracted light in search of focus and unity, sparkling moments of inspiration awaiting meaning and purpose, self-knowledge that we are moons, not stars capable of our own energy and light.

Today’s Word: Mystery

The mystery of life and death. Williamsburg, Va. SJG photo.

A couple of months ago, my friend Fr. Gary asked, “why haven’t you written about the word “mystery” on your blog?” I was flabbergasted. Surely, I thought, I’ve used that word as one of my chosen words before (this, by the way, is my 101st entry in the series). But he was right. I’ve written about mystery and around mystery and have been inspired by mystery. How could I have not? As a person of faith who tries to live a contemplative and aware life, mystery lies at the core of all I am and believe. For in mystery, God resides.

Fr. Gary (easily the most gifted preacher I have ever known) wrote in an email: “Mystery: Wow. Some of the every day events I come up against that bring me into Mystery include birth, death, evil, love, vocation, suffering, the human person.” Indeed, there’s a lot of fertile, mysterious soil in in the stuff of our everyday lives.

The mystery of suffering. SJG photo.

Read the rest of Today’s Word: Mystery »

Blessing: For Those Searching for God

A measured blessing. SJG Photo.

May the God we search for make himself known to us, allow us to find and hold onto him as we would a trusted friend, a mother and a father, a confidant and unmoving rock in our moments of confusion and weakness and suffering and everyday busy-ness;

May we be committed to opening up a space and time for God in our lives, finding in precious times of quiet and solitude the still, small voice of God that whispers just loud enough that we may hear him;

May we have the courage to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment as he works and moves in our lives, reach out with the confidence of knowing that his spirit and healing flows from him to us just as it did when he walked in Galilee, healing the sick and giving strength to the weary, for we, too, are sick and weary and in need of his touch;

May the bread and wine of the Eucharistic meal – the body and blood of Christ poured out for us on the cross – become a living sacrament in us, our real and holy sharing in the resurrected Christ…the source and sustenance of our lives and the sacred reminder of our connection to all who share in and become the body of Christ as church; and

May we be present to God and God to us, may we find as we search for God in our daily lives that we have already been found, have already been chosen and called, have already been marked as his own. May we come to know that we are known by name by the maker of all.  May we find that through and with and in him…all things are possible.

(This was written for the Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church community in Mascoutah, Illinois for the mission I presented October 25-27, 2014).

Today’s Word: Pattern

Getting ready for winter wheat near Mascoutah. SJG Photo.

When we live a more reflective, contemplative life, filled with a greater awareness of the “more” that is all around us, we begin to see the patterns in our existence. We create some of these ourselves, to be sure. Over time, we develop personal rituals — repeating patterns — of work, play, love and prayer. We create patterns in the way we approach the world, for that helps us meet each day with a sense of something bigger, a knowing that we do not need to “recreate the wheel” with each passing day. That’s the beauty of ritual and disciplined practice of any kind.

But I was reminded in a recent daily email from the writer Richard Rohr that there’s something even bigger going on here. We may create our own patterns but, as he writes: “Only if you trust such a ‘Someone’ will you eventually know that you do not have to create all the patterns nor do you have to solve all the problems. You are in fact being guided.”

SJG photo.

There are, indeed, patterns in our lives that exist whether we recognize them or not, whether or not we give them even a passing nod or sing to them a hymn of gratitude. The passing of seasons and years, the rising and setting of the sun, the pulsing of the waves and the flowing of rivers and creeks and streams, all these point us to the Someone who is guiding us on and home. For God exists in these patterns and flows, as sure as the moments in our lives somehow add up to a day, a month, a year, a lifetime.

It is in stopping occasionally (hopefully often) to ponder and appreciate the moments — and so recognizing the complexity and enduring nature of the patterns — that we find God and offer ourselves the blessing of gratitude for it all. For gratitude to the Maker is a blessing that comes back to bless us all the more.

Ask yourself in silence: What are the patterns in my life (physical and ritual) that point me to God?

Photo by John Pettinger

Speaking of Gratitude: This past weekend I presented my first-ever parish mission at Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church in the beautiful small town of Mascoutah, Illinois. I spoke over three evenings (with some wonderful help from my Nathanael’s Creed bandmates on the first night and my musical collaborator Phil Cooper on the other two nights), and the title of my mission was, “Groping for God and Reaching for Others: Living a More Contemplative Life.” My thanks again to all the organizers and all who came out to pray with me.

Today’s Word: Green

Blue for the sky, and the color green. SJG photo.

This morning I almost decided NOT to go on the long Sunday morning walk around Creve Coeur Lake that has recently become my habit. It was gray, dreary and a bit cold after raining much of the night, although it wasn’t raining at the moment as I stared out of my bedroom window at the deck and the yard and the woods beyond. What the heck, I finally thought, the worst that could happen is that I’ll get a little wet. I got dressed and drove the quick few miles to the park.

My soundtrack for much of the walk was Rich Mullins’ wonderful and eclectic “A Liturgy, a Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band” album, which begins with the late-Mullins mumbling into the studio microphone: “Bear with me everybody, I’m barely ready to do this…” I felt sort of the same. But let’s move on, I thought.

The first part of the walk was as dull as the steel-gray lake surface reflecting the cloudy and overcast sky above. “Just keep your head down and walk,” I thought to myself, “it’s good exercise, but not so much about the view today.” I circled my way through the woods along the back stretch, walked the length that runs under the highway overpass and finally came to the long homestretch about three-quarters of the way around the approximately 4-mile loop.

About that time, Mullins’ “The Color Green” came in through my ear buds. It is perhaps my favorite song for walking through nature and includes these picture-painting lyrics:

Be praised for all Your tenderness by these works of Your hands,
Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land.
Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made
Blue for the sky and the color green that fills these fields with praise.

No blue sky today, I thought. But then I looked, perhaps for the first time that day, at the green. The green of the grass and the trees exploded into my vision and I was taken aback by the utter beauty and contrast of the wet green against the coldness of the rest of the landscape. I woke up, it seems. It’s not drab, I thought, it’s just God telling me to remember that beauty lies all around us, all the time, if we’ll only wake up and pay attention.

And then, as if on cue from the great director in the sky (and I kid you not nor do I exaggerate the perfect timing on this), there was a flash of brown and white in the corner of my right eye. I turned my head just in time to see a bald eagle gliding to rest on a tree branch not 50 feet in front of me, clutching in its talons two (two!) approximately two-pound fish, obviously and recently pilfered from the lake. My hand went to my chest. I could not move. Seriously, God?

“Seriously, Steve. This is what I do, day in and day out.”

Ask yourself in silence: When was the last time you were totally caught off guard by the wonder and power of God?

Note: As I was writing this, I searched online for the lyrics to the song to double check them, and while I was there ran across this video of Rich Mullins singing the song while walking through a drab, gray Irish landscape, with contrasting scenes in black and white and vibrant color. Great minds and all that. Enjoy the video by clicking on the highlighted text above.