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In “Stour Valley and Dedham Church” (select link for large image in new window) Constable has painted the Vale of Dedham – a familiar and beloved area of his native England. In the foreground, men shovel compost from a dung heap. The landscape behind them is groomed – tidy and clean, in comparison with the random, blowsy growth on and around the dung. That the manure pile is tucked away from view – actually behind a separating hedge – is emphasized by the artist’s use of light and shadow. The untamed fecundity of the sprawling vine (front, center) that emerges from the manure is a contrast to the expanse of land tamed by man, which fills the middle ground.
Seen in the distance is the church which, though quite small and slightly off-center, is the center of organization for the village, the surrounding fields, and even the workers, whose presence in the center-foreground points directly ‘upward’ in a straight line to it. The skyscape that fills the upper third of the canvas emphasizes the extent of man’s domains even as it seems to flatten and limit them – perhaps a suggestion that, for all his mastery of the things of earth, man is still dwarfed by Creation and its Creator.
The tower of the church just barely ‘touches’ the sky at the center of the far horizon, and draws attention more to itself as a center of human activity than as a meeting place for man with the Divine. This reflects, perhaps, a bit of the English, Protestant ‘humility’ by which the form of ‘church’ was emptied of its sacramental power. Since both the dung area and the cleaner field-and-stream area are painted evenly – similar colors, balance in space and lighting, connected organically – the artist seems to sense the beauty of both areas, and to appreciate the dependence of the more ‘noble,’ or ‘glorious’ landscape on the humility of hummus, and human labor. The workers, though handling the lowest of elements, are dignified by their central, forward position, by the link to the church, whose Sabbath days crown their labors with rest, and by the beauty of the lands to which they make a vital contribution.
The heavens look on the whole scene with a calm detachment that seems to place all that lies beneath into proper subordination and peaceful proportion. Constable has used diminishing size, faded color and decreasing detail to create the perspective of great distance. The size and sharp detail of the wagon in the foreground, if compared to the small, less sharp image of the church in the middle-ground, might suggest, in addition to spatial proportion, the proportion of six days labor to one of Sabbath worship and rest. This is certainly God’s created world, but man deserves credit for working it with the sweat of his brow.
The flat gray of the sky, reflecting the green fields below, seems continuous with the landscape, rather than an overarching and distant, celestial heaven. The artist is clearly proud and fond of this view, and the men whose nobility is represented in it. His frank approval seems to echo God’s own pronouncement that what He sees here is good!
Monteen, from the French for ‘mountain’. That’s my mom – a tower of strength to all who knew her, but barely over five feet tall. Her mother shaped her life much differently than she, in her turn, shaped the lives of two daughters. A dark, and mentally unstable woman with a brooding, sometimes violent ill will toward Monteen, Grandmother was no model of nurture and compassion. Yet, my mother dedicated her life to understanding and helping the mentally ill. Instead of hardening her heart, she was moved to give the kind of help her mother had so desperately needed.
Supported by a deeply loving father, she poured herself into her studies and then into her work. She gave herself to patients and to students with remarkable energy and effectiveness. It often took great courage for this little mountain to stand up to violent patients with psychotic strength: drug addicts threatening to kill the next person who walked into the room; confused and deluded people who might take a nurse for a hated enemy, or an attempt to help as a threat against their lives. Even to go to work sometimes was to take risks on their behalf in gang-infested, high crime neighborhoods.
But who would there be to bring help to such needy ones if not for those, like her, with servant hearts, a sense of the dignity and worth of those so difficult to love, and a vision of hope for their wholeness? Such people as my mother follow the example of Christ, who brought light into the darkness and set captives free.
Until her death, she continued her ministry of shedding the light of understanding on the problems people face in difficult relationships and in the challenges of aging. Always teaching, part of her mandate from heaven must certainly have been to multiply herself and the value of her experience a thousand-fold. She took her message, “Don’t be afraid to get well!” seriously – allowing God to cleanse and heal her own deep wounds, and becoming over the years more and more beautiful to all those who loved her.
Monteen took, as her life’s promise, the Scripture verse Romans 8:28 : “We know that all things work together for good for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. (NRSV)” By the time she died, she still was no saint, but she left me and my children a beautiful example of courage and faith in the face of death. Even in death, she’s a ‘little mountain’ to me now, giving me courage to “Take a risk!” and “Give it all you’ve got.”
Happy Mother’s Day to all the little mountains in all the families I love!
Catherine De Hueck Doherty’s Apostolic Farming is the perfect stocking stuffer for the farmer, or farmer-wannabe, organic gardener, sustainable agriculture buff, or nature-lover in your life. It’s tiny, but so chock full of beauty and wisdom it deserves to be read very slowly. I suggest it as a stocking stuffer so that you’ll have time to read while looking at seed catalogs during the winter. [Read more…]
One of the most fascinating books I’ve read: Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning. Waitzkin is the chess champion (once a child prodigy) who was the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer (also good). As an adult, he moved from chess into martial arts and chronicles the correspondences he finds between the two disciplines. [Read more…]
Did you know YOU are a poem? Check out Ephesians 2:10, where the Greek ‘poema’ is usually translated ‘workmanship’. I like ‘poema’ better, as it implies beauty and artistry, but ‘workmanship’ is nice.
I’ve discussed the importance of poetry, poetic education, poetic imagination and poetic reading in many different venues (many of the talk topics you see here relate to this theme). I’ve also used my own poems as lenses through which to view aspects of the spiritual life.
For several years, I hosted a Living Poem Society get-together during which we poets shared our current works and discussed the motivation, layers of meaning, word choices and life experiences that helped form each poem.
I hope to re-animate that group one of these days, but, until then, I’m working on a small volume of my poetry, for which I’ll include notes about that sort of background material that can help readers understand each poem more deeply. The title for that work-in-progress is A Destiny to Burn. Here’s the story behind that:
Artist Rose Shopen Klassen gave me an intricately carved candle and, when I said I’d never light it (because it was so beautiful), she told me “A candle has a destiny to burn that will not be fulfilled unless you light it.” That phrase became a poem of mine (Destiny to Burn), and I still love to say it over and over, it so resonated with me!
If an artist has to learn anything, it is how to be utterly spent on the doing of one’s work. Granted the skill to do it, there is still the mountain to climb of learning to pour out the self into works of art, most of which will be given away freely. This candle (I did and do light it, briefly…still hard to let it disappear completely!) reminds me to let myself be burned away in the living of my life, in order that Christ might somehow shine through all that is me, all that I do, whatever I create.
Here’s a collection of my talks that feature poetry, poems, or poetic formation.