Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Value of Visual Arts

This morning's Daily Reflection from The High Calling is entitled "How Art Helps Me to Be Still." I am reproducing the reflection in its entirety here, or you may click on the Daily Reflection title above to read it on the website.

How Art Helps Me to Be Still

Our God says, “Calm down, and learn that I am God! All nations on earth will honor me.” 
Being still has never come easily to me, and I know I’m not alone. Whenever I ask friends how they are doing, the answer is inevitably some variation of, “I’m so busy!” Busy with work, busy with family, busy with looking for work, busy looking for the spouse with whom to have a family—we are all so very busy. Yet God says, “Calm down…” Or, in another well-known translation, “Be still and know that I am God.” How does this happen? How can we help one another to “calm down”?
At the end of 2013, I was, of course, busy. Despite the fact that I had taken the months of November and December off from work in order to observe a sabbatical, somehow my life was as hectic as ever. It is so ingrained in me to be doing things—writing, creating, and producing results—that to stop, to calm down, seemed impossible for me. The more I tried to be still, the antsier I became to be active and to achieve something.
There was one thing during those two months, however, that helped me come to a full stop: looking at art. During my two months off, I made it a practice to visit art galleries and museums regularly, not in order to attend openings or to research opportunities for the artists I represent, but rather to simply experience the gift that fine art is.
Over the Christmas holiday, my husband and I visited the National Gallery of Art. The museum was crowded with tourists, noisy with a cacophony of different languages being spoken, and docents trying to talk above the din. Yet, as I made my way through several galleries of impressionist paintings and stood before Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge” series of three paintings, it was as if the noise did not exist. I stopped and stood, transfixed by the beauty, inspired by the breath of God’s Spirit right there in Gallery 87. In those moments, things that had weighed me down for months seemed trivial and unimportant. Encountering the beauty, skill, and inspiration in these works lifted my eyes away from myself and toward the glory that was before me.
Art—good art—can give us busy people a huge gift. It can help us stop and be still. You simply cannot rush through the experience of looking at art. Viewing art—experiencing art—demands that we slow down and set aside the cares of the world for a few moments in order to see—really see—what is before us.
A life of worship is a life that includes times of being still. While many find stillness through meditation, or prayer, or sitting quietly in a room surrounded by stained glass, I find stillness in the sanctuary of the gallery. It is there, the awe I feel when I experience great art, inevitably that leads to a sense of awe for the One who created all things, and from whom all blessings flow.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What comes to your mind when you consider the admonition to “be still and know that I am God”? Have you ever been transfixed by a painting or sculpture? Take a moment and reflect on what it was that so captured your heart and mind. Was it the color palette? The forms on the canvas? The textures? The scene itself? When, or in what circumstances, do you feel most able to “calm down” and consider God’s God-ness? 
PRAYER: Creator God, how difficult it is for so many of us to quiet our hearts, calm down, and be still as we consider your majesty and wonder. Help us to identify the places where we are able to be still, so that we may be among those who know that you are God and among those who honor you. Amen.
As a busy homeschooling mom with two graduated young people and two still at home for school (grades 8 and 11 this year) and an instructor at Brave Writer and at Heritage Christian School's co-op Class Days (not to mention my own business of grading essays via e-mail and copy editing/proofreading), I struggle with busy-ness. Big time.
Especially during this Lent, a time a year in which I try to instill a new way of drawing closer to God, I am focusing on morning and evening prayer times. I use an app on my phone called Prayer Popper which "pops" four times a day with daily prayers for Keith and the kids, extended family, friends, myself, etc. I use my morning and evening devotional time for worship. 
In the mornings and evenings, I use the Book of Common Prayer 2011 (which I helped to edit; we just published our second printing which is gorgeous!!). I pray through Morning Prayer, including the Lectionary Readings for Morning Prayer (one Old Testament reading and one New Testament reading) and the appointed Psalms for the day. (The Psalter, which uses the ESV Bible, divided the 150 Psalms into morning and evening readings for 30 days, i.e., for each month.) Today I read the selection for Day 22: Morning Prayer which was Psalm 107. I pray through the various canticles which are mostly straight Scripture (again, all ESV), pray the Apostle's Creed and The Lord's Prayer, then the Collect for the week (a collective prayer for the entire Anglican Communion, the second largest global Christian denomination after Roman Catholicism) which changes each Sunday, then the various Morning Prayer and Family Morning Prayer Collects. This one is my favorite:
For God's Blessing This Day
O GOD, we ask your grace and protection for this new day; Keep us clear-minded in all things and focused on our calling; Grant us patience in our difficulties; Give us grace to be just and honest in all our dealings, to be calm, peace-filled, and full of compassion; Make us ready to love others, according to our ability and opportunity; Direct us in all our ways; Defend us from all danger and trouble; Keep us and those who are dear to us under your fatherly care and protection; As you know our needs before we ask,send us your help; Through the sacrifice of your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. Psalm 145.8; 1 Peter 3.11; Psalm 119.105; John 10.29
(Book of Common Prayer 2011: Family Prayers: Morning Prayers 57)
The Scripture references at the end of the Collects show the Biblical basis for each particular Collect and is a new aid in this BCP. At night, I pray through both Evening Prayer and Compline, again adding the Collects from Family Prayers: Evening Prayer. 
In addition to using the BCP 2011 for my times of being still with God, I also pray through the Morning and Evening prayers in John Baillie's Diary of Private Prayer. I have been using this prayer book off and on (and more on than off) for over fifteen years and have yet to tire of it. The prayers are beautifully worded, focused on our relationship with God and our worship of Him, and are short and to-the-point.   
Also, in the mornings I am using The Magnificat Lenten Companion, a .99 cent e-book from either Magnificat or Amazon. This little devotional book reminds me a great deal of the evangelical booklets Our Daily Bread. Actually, I'm using the 2013 version which I purchased last year and didn't finish--so why purchase a new one? ;) In the evenings, I've dusted off The One Year Book Of Hymns: 365 Devotional Readings Based on Great Hymns of the Faith. (Amazon states that there are 70-some paperback copies of this book starting at only $.16--yes, that's sixteen cents!! (plus shipping, of course). Still, that's an amazing book for less than a latte at Starbucks!) The left page has a hymn, the right page the back story of the hymn followed by a verse or two of Scripture for meditation. 
I also take time to copy Scriptures and quotations from my prayers and readings that seem especially significant to me into my Quotation Journal/Commonplace Book. 
So while art is a wonderful way to "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46.10), I find that my Lenten readings and prayers are doing the same thing--and beautifully. 
But I do still find myself turning to art to calm my mind, heart, and soul. A slow stroll through The San Diego Museum of Art and the neighboring Timken Gallery (the latter of which is free!!) does help me to still and center myself in the Artist of All Creation. Here are my favorite pieces from each museum:
I love both the subject matter and the rich colors in this painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, (link includes information about the painting) by the Italian artist Guernico, painted in 1654-1655. The attention to detail and the amazing SIZE of this work are draw me in; I can hear the Scripture whispered in my ear as I peruse the facial expressions, the depth of color, and the overall emotion. 
Return of the Prodigal Son by Guernico (1654-1655)
It's difficult to choose only one work from the San Diego Museum of Art as I have many paintings there that I love. But Keith and I chose only one to purchase as a print; it hangs above our piano in the living room. The Young Shepherdess (link includes more info on the painting) was painted by the French artist, William-Adolphe Borguereau in 1885. The peaceful pastoral scene behind her, the stillness of the shepherdess, her calm expression with the exception of the restlessness in her eyes all quiet my very soul. It's a remarkable painting, drawing me in with the subtle use of color and the lovely details of Realism--along with the sheer size: this painting is over five feet in height and two feet in width, making her nearly life-sized. I can sit and watch her for hours, wondering what she's thinking and dreaming as she watches over the sheep in her charge.  
Young Shepherdess by William-Adolphe Bourguereau (1885)
I won't take the time to share a great deal about two of my favorite non-San Diego-based paintings as they aren't really works that encourage calm meditation, but I'll post links for you, anyway. Both were in London, are HUGE in size, and simply mesmerized me; I sat before each of them for over half an hour, absorbing them fully, especially the use of light and dark and the richness of color: 
So let's find our own path to combat busyness of body, mind, heart, and soul through artwork and through our daily time with God. However you center yourself contemplatively, we need to take the time to focus on a creative outlet, a way to draw close to our Creator, the original Artist who created the heavens and the earth.   
Wishing you peace, this day and always,

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: Perry's Dorchester Terrace

With my busyness lately, teaching classes at Heritage Class Days and at Brave Writer, not to mention homeschooling two teen boys and writing my third novel (which is coming along far too slowly, thank you), I haven't kept up with one of my favorite authors, Scottish mystery writer Anne Perry. While some readers enjoy her William Monk series of mysteries, they're a bit too dark and hopeless for me.

Instead, I prefer her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries which are set in Victorian England, mostly London. I was delighted the other day to check Goodreads and find that Perry has not added one but two new books to the Pitt series since I read the last one, Treason at Lisson Grove (which was one of my favorites!).

So I ordered both new books from the library and just finished the first, Dorchester Terrace. I plan to start reading Midnight at Marble Arch tomorrow. ;) My only worry is to return the latter before it's due as I had to get it through the county library circuit (actually, it's from the San Diego Public Library), and thus it cannot be renewed.

I appreciate seeing Thomas and Charlotte's relationship develop over the years, from their first encounter when Pitt seeks a serial murderer in Charlotte's neighborhood, one who kills her older sister, Sarah. Pitt, the son of a gamekeeper, and Charlotte, a young society miss, do not hit it off right away--but they slowly grow closer and Charlotte marries him, despite her step down in society by becoming a mere policeman's wife.

They become a team, Pitt the detective and Charlotte, often with her younger sister Emily, their mother, plus Emily's Great Aunt Vespasia, helping with societal connections from time to time in order to solve a case. Perry's writing is rich, complex, and beautiful--she keeps the writing out of the way of the story yet every word resonates. All of these elements combine flawlessly to form the recipe for a wonderful mystery series, and Perry always leaves me guessing until the very end.

My Review: Spoiler-Free
The 25th book in this series, Dorchester Terrace gives us another incredible Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mystery. Pitt is now Head of Special Branch and faces his first real threat: the possible assassination of a visiting Hapsburg duke from Austria. It's definitely a mystery that keeps one guessing until the very end--to the second-to-the-last page, in fact.

I do miss how active Charlotte's role used to be in helping Thomas to solve the various murders he came across, but now with his appointment as Victor Narraway's successor, he cannot share the various threats with her--or his trepidation that a gamekeeper's son and policeman holds a place usually given to a member of the nobility, or at least the upper class.

But Charlotte does get drawn into the case in her own way, of course, as do Emily and Jack. Plus, Aunt Vespasia and Narraway are very much involved behind the scenes in this mystery--which is really two different crimes/potential crimes which link together about 3/4 the way through the book. Dorchester Terrace is yet another brilliant success for Perry!

So the books in my library stack (several of which will need to be renewed):
Midnight at Marble Arch by Anne Perry (Thomas and Charlotte Pitt #26)
Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale (sequel to Austenland)
Why Shoot a Butler?  by Georgette Heyer (in progress when the Pitt mysteries arrived and set aside until I finish them)
North by Northanger and The Matters at Mansfield by Carrie Bebris (Mr. & Mrs. Darcy mysteries--oops, they're overdue! I'll have to renew them immediately!)
Getting over Garrett Delaney by Abby McDonald

So, happy reading to all!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lent Begins Wednesday!

Lent is a precious, precious time for me--I look forward to it with even more anticipation than Advent and Christmas.

Don't get me wrong--I adore Advent and Christmas: the family traditions, the Christmas carols (especially the carols!!), the snugness of the house as winter approaches, the scent of cinnamon and baking wafting from the kitchen, and the anticipation of unveiling the secrets wrapped under the tree.

But while Christmas is an amazing time of year, I admit that the excessive busyness and the hype get to me, robbing me of the joy I should be feeling in celebrating Christ's Incarnation...which is why I look forward with such anticipation to Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday.

There is little hype and full concentration on living out God's Word in our lives, of God-at-work in the Spiritual Spring Cleaning which is Lent.

(If you'd like to read more about the practice of Ash Wednesday and Lent, see my page "On Lent," a talk I gave to a women's Bible study at Lake Murray Community Church in 2010.)   

Several years ago I read an incredible post about something dear to my heart--written by the wonderful Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience (my favorite blog). She shared about the process of making Easter as meaningful in our lives as Christmas.

That's a convicting thought, isn't it?

If we invest all this effort, time, money into Christmas, celebrating the Incarnation, how can we not do at least the same, if not more, to celebrate the Resurrection?

Ann writes:
And Advent completes at Lent.

When Christ completes what He came to do.

She continues:
We call it the “spirit of Christmas,” the spirit of giving, and we try to contain it to holly and poinsettias, when it is holy and it is more. The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of Easter, the Love that so loved the world, that He gave.

And the words that stings heart and motivates soul:
The Incarnation of Christ was meant for the Crucifixion of Christ and we never incarnate Christ until we abdicate self.

And "abdicat[ing] self" is the whole meaning behind the practice of Lent.

And I think it's perhaps why Lent feels so precious to me. For in the abdication of self, we may gain the merest glimpse of His glory--the swirl of His cloak, His whisper in the wind, His hand on our shoulder as He nudges us onward in His holiness.

And thus Lent is one way to join Christ on His journey to Calvary. It's a gift, really--to become one of the weeping women of His beloved city, the city He wept over, clad in dusty garments and worn sandals, the women of Jerusalem whom He took the time to greet and to warn despite searing pain and the weight of the world on His shoulders--beaten raw, seeping blood.

"Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming...." (Luke 23:28-29, ESV)
Lent allows us to join Jesus on the Road to Calvary, sharing a minuscule bit of His pain as we follow in His footsteps, only imagining what He willingly bore for us--the agony, the betrayals, the sin of past, present, and future generations--of all humanity. Even the mere visualization stabs my heart...much less the real experience of Christ's obedient suffering.

After poking around online for a bit, looking for some new additions to my Commonplace Book, I've chosen two quotations about Lent for this week (see sidebar):

"The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare."

~Pope Benedict XVI

"The Lord measures our perfection neither by the multitude nor by the magnitude of our deeds, but by the manner in which we perform them."

~Saint John of the Cross

During this Lent, may we walk with Him as He stumbles forward, humanly-weak but divinely-strong, as "he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8, ESV).

And may we be so obedient in our Lenten disciplines, empowered by Christ and not ourselves as He molds us into His image, cutting away the sinful dross that accumulates in our lives all-too-easily.

Stumbling ever onward in His sacred footfalls,

(Partially from the Archives....)


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