The Creative Spirit: The Human Necessity of ‘Being Moved’

One in bloom, one on waiting. SJG photo

Over the past week, I have been reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’ve seen the B movies and a very good theatrical version years ago at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre, but I’ve never read the book. It was assigned reading this year for all the first-year students at the university where I work, so I thought I would join the throng of readers.

We all read books, poems and sacred texts with different mindsets and personal histories, of course, so these words purposefully and creatively strung together by the authors affect each person differently. As regular readers of my blog no doubt know, I write often on the idea of paying attention to the world around us, of leaving ourselves open to being moved by the things in our lives and, ultimately, by the looming presence of God. So I was delighted to read this passage below, spoken by Dr. Frankenstein about his hike through the woods and mountains, during which he observed the desolation after an avalanche, dangerous and deep ravines, “somber” pines, the distant valley with mist rising off the river and the mountain summits shrouded in clouds. In short, he was paying attention and was deeply aware of the human necessity of being moved. He says:

“Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows, and a chance word or scene that the word may convey to us.”

Mary Shelley was still in her late teens when she began writing Frankenstein, so this kind of insight seems all the more astounding. And then the cheeky girl does a little promotion for her poet-husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, following her own words with some of his poetry:

We rest: a dream has power to poison sleep.
We rise: one wand’ring thought pollutes the day.
We feel, conceive, or reason; laugh, or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away;
It is the same: for, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free.
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but mutability!

Nothing lasts, they both remind us, except for the constant changing of the world around us. And our job is to pay attention. For people who have faith in a creative and creating God, that means being ever on the watch for the stroll of God through our lives.

Coming into bloom. SJG photo.

This weekend, Sue and I are in southern Wisconsin, and yesterday I walked through a broad swath of wildflower prairie adjacent to the place where we are staying. I stopped in amazement of what was before me: a noisy, ever-moving and always changing sea of grass, flowers, bees, birds and shifting light. When we stand in the midst of such natural glory, we stand at the center of creation, and we can begin to find our place in the world. We are human and we are loved by God, and this sets us apart from the “brute,” but nevertheless we need the rest of this to remind us of who we are and from whence we come. For this mutability continues whether we pay attention or not, but it is our calling and responsibility to pay attention. As the poet Mary Oliver writes:

Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still
and learning to be astonished.

Here’s a 30-second visit to that wildflower prairie:

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The Creative Spirit: Conversation and Storytelling

Opening the door to conversation and storytelling. SJG photo.

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll certainly see a few repeating themes, among them the importance of living in awareness and gratitude of God and the critical nature of silent, contemplative prayer to do that. But there’s more, of course. As much as we need our times of silence, we need times of conversation and storytelling with friends new and old.

I received an email from L’Arche St. Louis this morning that helped drive this idea home for me, for the email contained this quote from Henri Nouwen, who lived in a L’Arche community for many years:

“Pay attention to the people God puts in your path if you want to discern what God is up to in your life.”

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Today’s Word: Gasp

Springfield (Mo) Botanical Garden. SJG photo.

“You were within, but I was without. You were with me, but I was not with you. So you called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flared, blazed, and banished my blindness, you lavished your fragrance, and I gasped.” – St. Augustine, Confessions

I am up early this morning sitting on the back porch because, well, I can. Yesterday the St. Louis area was hit with a record 108 degrees, and the ever-present St. Louis humidity made it feel somewhere up around 113. Not fit for man or beast. It was hard to catch my breath and find good oxygen. Perhaps I need to evolve some gills to better snatch the oxygen out of the air. Yet I know this will pass, as this morning it already has…for a while at least.

Heatwaves, snowstorms and other extremes of nature have a way of getting our attention. They smack us across the face and remind us of the power, majesty and unpredictability of the earth. They recall for us of the continuing cycles of nature, of the gentle spinning and revolving of the earth around its axis and around the sun, taking us into and out of our days, nights, seasons and years. If we think we’re in control, we need to stop and think again. We’re along for the ride.

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Today’s Word: Turns

Garden Path near Santa Fe. SJG photo.

There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths.” Mark Nepo

I was talking to a friend recently who is trying to make a big life decision – one of those seemingly huge choices that appear to be riddled with opportunities for both success and failure. In the words of those sage rock ‘n’ roll philosophers from The Clash: “Should I stay or should I go?”

He is going about the discernment process in all the right ways, I believe. He’s talking to trusted friends and advisors. He’s doing his homework on the new place. He’s considering what he will be leaving behind. He’s praying and trying to leave it all in the hands of God, who knows him better than he knows himself. Still, it’s a tough decision. He’s not hearing any voices. He’s not receiving any divine telegraphs. As it so often happens in life, we have to make these decisions for ourselves, hoping and praying that it’s the right one. It can be a scary and confusing time.

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Today’s Word: Discovery

1903 Wright Brothers Flyer, Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. SJG photo.

“Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

This past weekend, Sue and I visited Washington, D.C., taking in some of the sights and museums. I usually enjoy just about any kind of museum, but I am often drawn to history and science museums because they present the discoveries and innovations of the world in such a graphic and accessible way. And whether some man or woman of the past conquered flight or disease, whether he or she discovered a new way of seeing the world, governing its people, harnessing the power of its natural resources or uncovering its ancient past to better understand our present, a museum gives us in a snapshot what a good book does in more depth over hundreds of pages. Both are important, of course, but a museum has the opportunity to grab our attention and nudge us toward the deeper end of knowledge. What we see in an exhibit can and should lead us to read, to research, to create, to think deeply and share with others.

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Today’s Word: Silence

Growth happens in silence. George Washington's apples, Mt. Vernon. SJG photo.

This morning, we are sharing our outdoor space with a doe, who has been feeding herself on our friend and neighbor Gerry’s decorative grass and lying quietly in the shade of two small maples, paying little attention to the two humans behind the screen. Together, we seem to all be enjoying the silence of the early Saturday morning before the rest of the world wakes up and begins mowing lawns and puttering around doing the things we humans do.

It’s not really silent, of course. The birds are a noisy lot, and then there’s the distant traffic. Not much we can do about that. But relatively speaking, it’s pretty quiet. Silence, we sometimes think or come to believe, is a “nothingness.” It is the absence of noise. It is the hushing of talk. It is the musical void and even the quieting of our inner voices. And so it is. But it is so much more.

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Today’s Word: Tempo

Slowing down enough to see this. SJG photo.

On this lazy Sunday morning, Sue and I are sitting on the porch doing “nothing,” although that’s never really true, is it? We are reading and writing. We are listening to the birds and staring at the stems of all our flowers that have been eaten by the deer and the rabbits (argh!) We are enjoying a cup of coffee and some fresh fruit. We are being present to one another even when we don’t speak. We are praying and being present to God. Is all that nothing or something? I think it’s something important.

So caught up in the business and busy-ness of our work and lives, we can all sometimes feel guilty about doing “nothing.” But, of course, it is exactly this nothingness that we need. We need time to unplug, time to refuel, time to remove ourselves from the rest of life so that we can be, in fact, better for the rest of life, better for those who need us, better for the work that needs to be done.

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We’ve Seen It All, or So We Think

Praying the Examen and Leaning into Gratitude

Seeing Ourselves in Our Days. SJG photo.

“To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.”
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Here in America’s Midwest, we are entering a new spring, although the mornings and evenings usually still have the remnants of winter in their cool breezes. Although we have just experienced an exceedingly mild winter, my practice of walking for physical and spiritual benefit has been lax and sporadic, and I am eager to pick it up again, if for no other reason than for the opportunity of putting myself in a better position to be astonished by unexpected glimpses of beauty in the world on a more regular basis. But the high level of pollens in the air and covering every outdoor surface with a thin layer of green has been keeping me and my wheezing cough and watery eyes inside. Hopefully this will subside soon, and meanwhile I’m mostly watching the outside world from my window.

Not paying close attention to what’s going on around us, refusing to be aware of the blessings and presence of God in our everyday lives, and not being willing to “be astonished,” as the French author of Gigi notes above, could all very well be the direst temptations we face as we get older. After all, we’ve seen it all, we think. There’s nothing new under the sun, so why pay attention? Another day is just another day if we don’t watch for something that will make it different.

So we settle into life, yawning at the sunrise, blinking through beauty of garden and field, ho-humming our way through all that we have learned to take for the ordinary and deserved. A meal becomes mere sustenance. The family visit perfunctory. The work of art only decoration or mindless entertainment. Without attention, without presence and purpose (our own and our acknowledgement of God’s) we risk allowing life to sweep over our heads virtually unnoticed. We live without gratitude not because we don’t care to say thank you but because we’re unaware of the gifts we have received.

It’s for this reason that the ancient prayer of St. Ignatius, the “Examen,” has become an important part of my daily prayer practice. It’s a prayer that forces us to slow down and pay attention, a prayer that can only end with that most powerful of prayers: “Thank you.”

Normally prayed near the end of the day, the Examen is an invitation to look back over our day and discover where we may have encountered God. It is an examination of our consciousness; a little different than the examination of conscience that we do when thinking about our sins and failures. This is a chance to review our day and take notice of what has happened to us and our interactions with others. It is a chance, before the day slips away from, to recall (or perhaps to see for the first time) where we encountered God. For when we do not stop and do this, we miss the blessings. We operate on autopilot and we just don’t see. We just don’t know. But when we stop and pay attention, we can begin to live lives of gratitude. We can’t say “thank you” for something we don’t recognize as gift.

A Moment at the Close of Day. SJG photo.

In its simplest form (and there is really no reason for it to be any more complicated), the Examen includes these five steps, and it can be done in as little as five or ten minutes:

Become aware of God’s presence: Ask for God’s help in looking at your day with honesty. Become aware of God being aware of you. See your day as God sees it.

Review the day with gratitude: Notice your blessings. Notice your interactions and opportunities. Don’t forget the ordinary.

Pay attention to your emotions: Savor these moments. Pick one or two emotions that surface and pray from them. Positive or negative, both hold meaning.

Rejoice, praise, seek forgiveness: Rejoice in the times you were drawn closer to God. Ask forgiveness for the times you resisted God’s presence and action. Thank God for the awareness you received, for the awareness itself is a gift.

Look toward tomorrow: Ask God to be a part of your next day. Ask for the grace you need to be more aware. Be practical and specific.

As Rabbi Harold Kushner once said, “Can you see the holiness in those things you take for granted – a paved road or a washing machine? If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.”


Making Sure of God

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

At St. Louis’ Cathedral Basilica. SJG photo

“Pooh!” Piglet whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
- A.A. Milne

On a visit a few years ago to St. Louis’ Cathedral Basilica for a mid-day Mass, I pushed open the massive doors, and the chilly fall wind behind me seemed to almost blow me inside. “Get in there right now,” I could almost hear God say in the gust.

As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit sanctuary, I saw a scattered body of twenty or thirty devout souls who had made their way here from their jobs, their classes, and their lives. I was not a regular like many of them no doubt were, but I did come here occasionally for holy days or, more to the point on this given day, when it seemed like I should. This particular day was the tenth anniversary of my father’s death.

I slid into a pew, removed my coat and tried to breathe normally. I closed my eyes, soaking in the quiet of the stone walls and the lingering aroma of spent incense. In some ways, I didn’t want to be there at all because, when it came right down to it, I was angry. I’m always angry when I try to figure out what happened to my father’s life. His was a life of promise, creativity, and healing cut short by alcohol, cigarettes, and depression. I wanted God’s undivided attention on this point. I wanted to scream and pound my fists on his chest like a bewildered child. That not really being an option, I instead lowered the kneeler and dropped to my knees.

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Finding God at the Center

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

Centered and balanced on God, Missouri Botanical Garden. SJG photo.

During the period of remission between my first and second rounds of chemotherapy, I attended the funeral Mass for the brother of a friend from church. As the Mass ended, the musicians began playing a song I love and know well, and the chorus of the old Quaker hymn flowed over me like a cleansing, refreshing morning shower:

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

As a musician and a singer myself, I have always been drawn to this song for what I guess are obvious reasons. I have always felt a “call” to sing and make music, and this old song always resonated within me. There is nothing, I once thought, that would ever keep me from singing. But I found out over time that that wasn’t entirely true. As I experienced some of the tougher days of my disease and treatment, there were times when singing was the last thing I wanted to do. For me, this was one of the more difficult aspects of coping with my disease. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sing; it was that I just didn’t feel like it.

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