Jun 11 2012

A Dangerous Thirst for Youth and Beauty

To celebrate crossing the one hundred page mark in my dissertation, I took myself to a movie, Snow White and the Huntsman. The previews included the new Les Misérables trailer. Tearful after hearing Anne Hathaway sing I Dreamed A Dream, I felt that no matter how disappointing the feature presentation, I would leave satisfied.

Happily, I left much more than satisfied.

(Spoiler alert: I try not to get too specific, but be warned.)

Snow White and the Huntsman is a curious and mostly successful mix of gritty fairytale with Joan of Arc saintliness.  It unabashedly draws from Lord of the Rings imagery and some of the locations are directly reminiscent of places in the LOTR trilogy; however, the derivative visual aspects are not distracting because the story itself offers some substantial themes on its own.

Charlize Theron sinks her teeth into the role of Queen Ravenna. Both the script and how Theron embodies the role creates a figure of evil with utterly no anti-hero attraction. Instead, her brokenness and desperation is evident from the very beginning: youth and physical beauty are her addictions–possessing them shores up her tenuous sense of self. Theron captures the undercurrent of insanity and unrelenting thirst, reducing Ravenna’s considerable power to an internal hell that sickens everything around her, including herself.

Snow White, well-played by Kristen Stewart (yes, she can act), holds the beauty of heart that not only shines in her behavior, but also affects those who come in contact with her. Stewart’s subdued and melancholy portrayal fits a heroine whose life has seen no beauty since her father’s death. While she begins with a limited understanding of her own destiny, she gradually transforms into a Joan of Arc-savior figure who inspires an entire land to rise up against the Queen’s poison.

Alongside the theme of youth and beauty, though not as prominent, is that of forgiveness. At one point, Snow White prays the Lord’s Prayer, an interesting, though fitting, choice. While she keeps the traditional language of the King James version, she says “forgive us our sins and as we forgive those who sin against us.” The change to a modern translation is subtle, but it makes the point immediately clear. This simple line provides a context for other moments in the film where Snow White expresses her forgiveness for the Queen’s sins against her and exhibits forgiveness as one of the main differences between them.

In contrast, the Queen’s drive to maintain her youth and beauty is fueled by resentment and unforgiveness. Ravenna’s hatred is played out equally on men and women. Trapped in a cycle of destruction, she drains the life of beautiful women to gain youth and beauty and destroys men to take vengeance on the man who cast her aside–which, in turn, drains her. I so wanted her to step out of the cycle and find redemption.

Caught in his own cycle of addiction and destruction, The Huntsman, played by Chris Hemsworth (he can act as well, redeeming himself from Thor), provides the contrasting redemptive story arc.  Neither the Huntsman nor the non-essential Prince play the romantic lead in any traditional sense and that is a mercy. Realistically, a woman who has just escaped after years in a tower prison, and a grief-stricken man who drowns himself in alcohol are not in the best place to start a romantic relationship.  The downplayed romantic elements fit well, as the story acknowledges the pain and distrust of the characters and doesn’t devolve into flimsy infatuation or desperate lust.  Instead, the implicit love brings life where there is death.

Of course, Snow White and the Huntsman has its problems and while it attempts to be epic, it falls short in most cases. Some story points could have been developed more deeply and other bits should have been left on the editing floor. But, even with these imperfections, I admit to leaving inspired.

Now, I’m looking forward to the new Pixar movie, Brave, whose becloaked-wild-red-hair-Scottish-archer heroine makes me laugh every time I watch the trailer.

Oct 20 2011

{Day 20} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 4

Where there is no beauty, put beauty, and you will find beauty. –Francis of Assisi, adapted.

One of the books I read when I began to explore church and faith more seriously I found on my dad’s shelf. It now has an honored place with others that I “borrowed” from my parents. I love the fact it has the quintessential good book smell, my dad’s signature on the flyleaf, and his underlinings through-out.

Ernst Benz begins the discussion of Eastern Orthodoxy not with doctrines but with the role and understanding of icons. At the time I first read it, there was no internet (hard to imagine now), so I still remember how some of the concepts made no visual sense to me, never having been in an Orthodox church.  But the message was clear: images played an important part in the Orthodox life of prayer. This I understood.

Living in Germany at the time, I was aesthetically and spiritually formed by the medieval cathedrals with their murals and statues, hidden side altars and chapels. As one of my professors at St John’s put it, churches need secret space and shadows for those times when the soul is called into solitude with God, even in the midst of community. I loved those nooks and cranies of sacred space, the life and color of the images, and the warmth of the candlelight.

Benz’ book offered me two things that have stayed with me. The first is that images reminding us of sacred presence are important. In the violent iconoclast controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, icons were burned and the Orthodox church nearly went through a tidal shift in its manner of prayer. But theologians of the day called upon Colossians 1:15 where Jesus is called the image (ikonen) of the Living God, his own humanity as a way for our participation with the Trinity.

Icons are not idols, which demand worship for themselves, but windows for humanity to be drawn into the Kingdom through prayer and remembrance. Idols stop the gaze; icons direct the gaze through and beyond themselves to the Ever-Presence of God.

The second idea Benz offered me was the importance of dedicating a specific area of the home to God’s presence.

In the Orthodox tradition, this is called the Beautiful Corner, usually on the eastern side of the house.

Coupled with my love of the secret side chapels in the enormous cathedrals, Benz’ book encouraged me to create a beautiful corner in my bedroom. My parents, bless them, bought me a little table, white eyelet lace cloth to cover it, and some red, green and purple fabric for the church seasons.  On it I placed various images of the cross, Jesus, Mary, and found-objects from nature. Over the years, I’ve collected many different items and frequently change it depending on the liturgical season or what I’m praying about.

The first real icon of my collection I found when I was 14, the day before leaving Germany for the Pacific Northwest.  Mary icons often find their way into the corner because of God’s call to her to birth the Christ–a call I believe each Christian receives and responds through grace in some wonderful and mysterious way. As a woman, I appreciate her witness.

While a beautiful corner sounds peaceful and lovely, I’ve found that it can be a place of conviction and a call to repentance as well. Sometimes, the last place I’ve wanted to be near is a reminder of God’s presence. As I willfully choose to go my own way and ignore the still small voice, the temptation is to simply take back the space and live forgetful of the sacred.

One particularly difficult season a few years ago, I did just that. I took all the icons and images down and tossed them in a box. I thought, out of sight, out of mind.

I told God, “Enough. I’m through.”

For awhile, I went my way and God let me alone. But then slowly, I realized God was still there, still whispering. I may be able to remove the reminders, but God could not be put in storage. Slowly I took things out of the box and said a small yes again to God’s unrelenting love.

What I meant as tantrum, God used to remind me that his presence is more than my small ideas and certainly beyond my control (Thank God!).

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
 if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
 if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. –Psalm 139:7-12

Practice: Is there a special place, a beautiful corner, that reminds you and your family of God’s loving presence? If not, where would you put it? What would you put there?

If you have a beautiful corner, how long has it been since you changed it? Sometimes what becomes familiar is easily forgotten. I invite you to spend some time rearranging and praying.

If you are going through a season where God is “in storage,” I invite you to wander your house and find one object that calls your heart and thoughts to prayer (photos of little ones always does it for me). Put the object in a prominent location, and slowly, as you feel led, add other reminders to pray or say “thank you”–maybe a leaf from a particularly glorious fall tree, a cross, a verse of scripture that tugs at your memory. Over time, items will be added and you will have a beautiful corner for prayer.

Get young people involved–I think they have a wonderful, playful sense of what makes sacred space beautiful.

Oct 18 2011

{Day 18} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 2

I’ve always been a “I’ll do it in the morning” kind of person. Dishes stayed in the sink and on the counter until I shuffled out into the morning dark to put on water for tea. While the water boiled and the tea steeped, I’d clean up from the day before and then take my tea in for some quiet moments of reflection and prayer.

One evening, I cleaned up before I went to bed, not really thinking too much about it.

The next morning I walked into a delightfully clean and orderly kitchen–the counter, bare and ready for possibility. Muffins? Bread? Or simply time to wander out and look at the sunrise while my tea bag soaked.

I smiled that morning–and while I’m more of a morning person than an evening, smiling is usually beyond my capacity before tea. The clear counter made the day feel spacious and ready for creativity (though my sleepy brain was not thinking about it so eloquently at the time).  And, the rest of the day did go better, and from that point on, I began to practice life as a “I’ll do it now, for the joy of later” kind of person.

Do I always keep my counters clear now? No. But I know that when I do, that same early morning joy awaits me.

This is one of the ways contemplative living–paying attention to the present moment–can lead to little changes without much drama. If you take the time to notice how something subtly changes your internal mood or thoughts positively, this energy can be used. It’s a much better way for creating a new habit than teeth-clenched willpower. In fact, Thomas Aquinas, a major medieval theologian, was convinced that the best way to learn how to live virtuously was through experiencing the delight that was the consequence of the virtuous action, not guilt from, or punishment for, wrong-doing.

Cleaning a counter isn’t a virtue, but the underlying motivation may have some similarities. After I was awake enough to reflect on my experience of joy that morning, I realized that I’d always cleaned my counters because I thought I should. This was the first time I made a clear connection between the action and its joy-full consequence.

We’ll delve into this more next week as we consider challenges to contemplative attention, ways we can purposely distract ourselves from the joy-full consequences of paying attention to the present moment. But for now, let’s return to the home.

Considering our homes an an important companion in our family’s life may help create new awareness in two ways. First, it helps in dealing with the space as it is, rather than as you wish it would be, and second, it underscores the reality that your daily living space has an impact on your thoughts and mood, and the climate of your family life. This leads to both flexibility and initiative–flexibility to make compromises for where the space falls short, and initiative to make changes in how you interact with the space for the joy of later.

If you walked around your home and took some notes in the Day 17 practice, consider the areas that cause an energy drain. Maybe every time you go into your bathroom, you feel tired. Maybe the dining room is a place of arguments and tension. Maybe the bedroom doesn’t invite you to rest. Or maybe the closet feels like it’s hiding the weight of everything on your to-do list.

Ok. Breathe.

One little change could transform how you and your family live the rest of the day, and over time, daily joy accumulates.

Practice: Pick one space, or a part of one space, that you interact with daily and set your clock to a pomodoro (25 minutes). Single-task your attention as much as possible–though listening to some favorite music might be helpful.

Work with the objects in the space. Move them around, neaten them up, sort them. Sometimes, taking everything out and cleaning is enough to get the energy moving. As you work with the space, imagine what would give you joy in that space. Follow your joy, for the joy of later. It may be something simple, like a clean counter, or organizing one shelf of a linen closet.

Get the munchkins involved–getting to set the pomodoro clock can be part of the fun.

If you are feeling energized, do another pomodoro after a 5 minute break (and be sure to take the break!)

Artwork by Carl Holsoe

Oct 15 2011

{Day 15} Color Your Prayer

When I began doing Sabbath Space with the theology grad students, I simply put out crayons and play-dough and anything else I thought might tempt them to play or pray for a moment.

I also filled the air with yummy candle scents and had quiet corners set aside for peaceful reflection.

But people need a little guidance when they hold a crayon in their hand again after many years, so I went looking for something like a coloring book for adults.

Instead, I found hundreds of mandalas on the internet–fun, intricate, geometric shapes just begging to be colored.

Within the Christian tradition, the use of geometric designs as a part of prayer and reflection has a rich history. Among the Celtic Christians, monks copied the scriptures and illuminated the text with intricate designs, shapes, and creatures, showing that they had a love for the written word, amazing focus and skill, and a sense of humor. One of the greatest of these Gospel books is the 9th century Book of Kells.

In the 11th century, a nun and abbess named Hildegard of Bingen, writer of plays, music, and handbooks of medicine, designed complex mandalas based on visions she had during prayer.

While the ones I found were much less complex than Kells or Hildegard’s, I printed a set of mandalas and strew them on the art table, never expecting what would happen.

The mandalas became the favorite activity. Students took extras home to color during study breaks, some took them to class saying that coloring helped them pay attention better to the lecture.

Soon, they started appearing on bulletin boards and walls all over the theology school.

One student came back each Sabbath Space session for a few weeks, painstakingly working on one extremely detailed design. He said it was helping him reflect on vocational questions.

Some students prayed for people while they colored and then gave the finished mandala to the person with a note.

Others simply let their brains breathe in color and shapes for a time, taking a break from words.

Practice: Select one of the mandalas above (or search for your own) and color it while praying for a person or situation. The act of coloring will focus you in the present moment, but it will also create a visible expression of your prayer time. Consider giving it to the person you prayed for, or putting it up someplace to remind you to continue praying.


Oct 14 2011

{Day 14} Friday Florilegium

Yesterday, I read a fabulous children’s story aloud to Jane and Jack, The Bootmaker and the Elves. I loved the story, the Texan twang of the dialogue, and the captivating artwork. I also loved the creative transformation of the main character, all captured in just a few pages.

In the spirit of that story, I got out one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems that also celebrates paying attention to the small and unnoticed, and its invitation to mystery.

“Just a minute,” said a voice…

Just a minute,” said a voice in the weeds.
So I stood still
in the day’s exquisite early morning light
and so I didn’t crush with my great feet
any small or unusual thing just happening to pass by
where I was passing by
on my way to the blueberry fields,
and maybe it was the toad
and maybe it was the June beetle
and maybe it was the pink and tender worm
who does his work without limbs or eyes
and does it well
or maybe it was the walking stick, still frail
and walking humbly by, looking for a tree,
or maybe, like Blake’s wondrous meeting, it was
the elves, carrying one of their own
on a rose-petal coffin away, away
into the deep grasses. After awhile
the quaintest voice said, “Thank you.” And then there was silence.
For the rest, I would keep you wondering.


Aug 12 2011

Friday Florilegium

On a recent visit to the Seattle Art Museum, I enjoyed their exhibit, “Beauty and Bounty,” featuring 19th century west coast landscapes by artists such at Albert Bierstadt, George Inness, and Frederic Edwin Church. These paintings were instrumental in gaining support for conservation projects and the formation of national parks.

Mountains Albert Bierstadt

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. –J. Lubbock


Happiness is sharing a bowl of cherries and a book of poetry with a shade tree.  He doesn’t eat much and doesn’t read much, but listens well and is a most gracious host.  –Terri Guillemets


Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly. –Thomas Cole


A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship.  But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.  Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves.  No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself. –John Muir

puget sound bierstadt

Friday Florilegium 1

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