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I once got a chance to do an all-day retreat with one of the sister Apostles of the Interior Life. Naturally, I wanted to discuss the role of leisure in the formation of persons! As usual, I prayed about the upcoming event, and God brought together several threads of my contemplation to weave this talk.
That same leisure that is so necessary to the formation of persons is also a critical component of artistry. Just try writing poetry without a good bit of leisure time in which to hold the contrary elements in juxtaposition. A mind jangled and busy and distracted is probably not writing poetry.
Enter my own poem, The Race, about my own tendency to jump out of bed and let necessity drive me through a day of must-dos and can’t-not-dos and distractions. Actually, that was really the old me, as I’m much less inclined to let that happen after these wonderful years of growth and holy leisure.
But I know that gal, and she’s a mess! Every woman at the retreat knows her, too, and so they moved through that poem with real interest, seeing themselves and elbowing one another.
Next we discussed how a poet writes a poem – in the context of Ephesians 2:10, where we are told that WE are poema – God’s workmanship, carefully crafted in much the same way. We all see ourselves imaged in the woman who ‘races past herself’ and sometimes past her loved ones, past her own needs and longings, past her Lord. But we may not see ourselves as works of art, as a place of encounter with Christ, as living prayers.
A poem has the capacity to be a place of encounter, and as such mirrors the human person in his fullness.
Holy leisure is the key – to being, to freedom, and to creativity. When I wrote Souls at Rest, I saw how much more needed to be said about the gift of holy leisure…hence, the trilogy that, after Souls at Work, will be finished with Souls at Play. My talks aren’t plugs for these books, and the books aren’t plugs for my talks, but somehow they all go together organically and keep enriching each other.
I’m so enjoying the adventure of watching it all happen. I wonder what’s next??
Here’s a collection of my talks that feature poetry, poems, or poetic formation.
I enjoy sharing some of G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on art (did you know he was trained as an artist?) – the whiteness of chalk, the value of doing things badly, the importance of framing, whether poetry should rhyme, learning to bear the tension of paradox, etc…. So many people know other facets of his thought, or enjoy his fiction without delving into what he thought about art-making, being a creator, or the role of the artist in the Church and society.
Chesterton is a great example of a truly playful soul – one who romps around in a universe made of building blocks and filled with toys enjoying it almost as much as its Maker does. His character Innocent Smith, in Manalive, is an artistic embodiment of this fresh, childlike, world-overturning spirit.
For all his fictionality, he’s a real and true example of what it means to be a Christian adult, fearfully and wonderfully made and gloriously free. Chesterton’s Gabriel Gale solves mysteries with poetic insight and his Father Brown solves them with more of a dramatic sense, placing himself right into the character of the unknown killer in order to know him well.
It’s delightful to read Chesterton’s own comments about art in the light of what he accomplished through art himself.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”…the artist is a person who communicates something…the moment of creation is the moment of communication. It is when the work has passed from mind to mind that it becomes a work of art.”[/su_pullquote]
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”What is now needed most is intensive imagination. I mean the power to turn our imaginations inwards, on the things we already have, and to make those things live. It is not merely seeking new experiences, which rapidly become old experiences. It is really learning how to experience our experiences. It is learning how to enjoy our enjoyments.”[/su_pullquote]
The artist has in common with his Creator a desire to realize ideas in form. Those ideas may be inspired by observation of nature, life experience, Liturgy, other works of art, pain and suffering, hopes and dreams, but ultimately spring from the touch of the Holy Spirit. What we observe about the process and results of our own attempts to create forms gives us new insight into the human person, as the highest of God’s creations.
In this talk for fellow artists in the Contemporary Religious Artists Association, I reflected on the Catholic understanding of form in music, poetry, architecture and personhood, and the experience of art as a spiritual practice. The arts can in-form our spiritual lives, and our faith is expressed in creative forms that draw radiance from the Liturgy.
It was interesting to get feedback from listeners that they had indeed felt a sort of wall between Being a Catholic and Being an Artist. I felt grateful that this talk helped them better integrate those aspects of being. The full text is available on the CRAA site.
Souls at Work also deals greatly with the glories of form – looking through form, entering into and understanding form, and creating form. I love to use the word ‘form’ instead of ‘art,’ because most people don’t consider themselves artists, and need to learn that they still are makers-of form. When we organize a gardening club, or make a quilt, or write a letter, or offer a courteous gesture, we are making forms that hold meaning and potentially have beauty. You’ll find me ranting about this a lot!
I consider Mystery and Manners must reading! I have discussed different aspects of this work with parent educators, spiritual seekers, the Catholic Creatives Salon, and as a book study overview. It is a rich source of insight into the life of the artist, of the human person, and into literature’s capacity to be a vessel for truth. Everything Flannery (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis now) says about approaching a book is a lesson about how to approach other forms, people, created things.
Souls at Work continues the discussion of the way we approach form, art, people and creation. I’m sure it couldn’t have been written without my understanding of the difference between art and propaganda. If you get nothing else from Mystery and Manners, you’ll be way ahead of most readers just by avoiding flat, simplistic, propagandistic literature in which characters and story are used as vehicles for Truth Delivery and have no life or truth in themselves.
What we think about literature matters deeply, as it reflects what we think of ourselves as creations of a divine Author in stories that have an eternal trajectory. We live and move and have our being within the greatest story ever told, yet what do we understand of story, character, dramatic necessity, truth in art, and of the incarnation of Truth in lowly, concrete forms?
I suggest to potential writers, to teachers of literature, and to anyone who reads stories that they will improve their understanding of story itself, and of their own task as artists, audience, or teacher, by reading Mystery and Manners. As Flannery teaches us about the art of storytelling, she touches on such themes as the operation of grace, free will and determinism, maimed souls and broken personalities, and the responsibilities of one who would communicate Christ to others. All this, and my favorite quote has nothing directly to do with any of it!
Describing the cry of the peacock, which most people would think awful to hear, she says, “To me it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade.” To me, that speaks volumes about her own capacity to receive mystery through sometimes ‘grotesque’ form.