What My Elder Told Me About Lent
It’s Lent. If there’s one time of year that causes fear and rejoicing at the same time, it’s Lent. Last year was my first time. I asked my friend who has been my spiritual elder for many years what I should do for Lent–how I should approach it. I went over to his house in the first week of Lent, and we shared pita bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and chased it down with Arabic coffee sweetened with maple syrup (east meats west–I’ll leave the typo as a pun!).
“So, how do I approach this time of fasting?” I asked, dipping a torn off piece of flatbread into my speckled puddle of olive oil and vinegar.
“How do you fast?” He asked, rolling up his sleeve and adjusting the black wool prayer rope that dangled from his wrist.
“How do I fast?”
“Ya, how do you fast?”
“Um . . .” I had to think about this one. My mind raced to the various Wednesdays and Fridays when I tried desperately to fast during the day, only to binge on snack foods at night. “Well, in actuality I’m probably the worst faster in the world. Is it a good thing to have indigestion before bed on a fast day?” He laughed.
“Ok, so first of all, no one is a worse faster then me,” he qualified. “I know exactly how you feel. And to be honest, Lent is really hard for me. What you need to try to do is just not eat–to go hungry.”
“Not eat . . . At all?”
“That’s right. You need to really feel the hunger. Christ says to hunger and thirst for Him. He is the Bread of Life; He is the Living Water–right?”
“Ok . . . I thought it was just vegan . . .”
“It is, but the whole point of it is to go hungry; to make hunger your friend; to fend it off for as long as possible, and ultimately to make room in your heart for Christ, and prepare for His death and resurrection.”
I dipped another piece of bread into the puddle, and took a swig of my coffee feeling the fine grounds like chalk across my teeth. “Befriend hunger . . .” I thought.
The Pitfall Of Comfort
I think it was Solzhenitsyn who said that there is nothing worse for a writer than comfort. A writer who is comfortable has to conjure up scenarios to write, which typically leads to prose that is shallow or bourgeois. This is the case in all areas of life–we like to engage those who are the work-horses; we love to cheer for the gritty underdog who gets knocked down but gets back up again. It’s like the story in the Bridge of Spies of the Jewish man who in the concentration camp was beaten down; but each time he was beaten down, he stood back up again.
For a writer, we need to have that steely-eyed tenacity; we need to have the hunger, the eye of the tiger, whatever it is. Without it, we’re done! Maybe this is what happened to Philip Roth. Why else would you walk off stage, retire as a writer in your seventies? He lost the hunger, the will to fight, the steely eye of the tiger. It’s a sad thing. It makes me wonder if he had the eye of the tiger in the first place (though his prose would answer in the affirmative). Incidentally, before hanging up his hat, he read all of his books, then those by his favourite authors, one of whom is Dostoevsky.
To Be An Artist Is To Hunger
To be an artist is to hunger. To befriend hunger–same as the spiritual life in pursuit of God. See how these things are so intertwined?
This is where writing is an ascetic practice–an ascesis. To practice asceticism is to deny yourself (your will, your agenda, your ‘style’, your past, your present, your future), and cleave to God–to give Him everything. It is to hunger and thirst for Christ. It is to befriend hunger and allow room in your heart for Christ to pray and fast through you. To write, then, becomes a way for the Lord to speak through you to your readers; to convey a message, to open a window, to create an opportunity for the Lord to speak through your words to the reader. And so your life as a writer and your life as a seeker after God, after Truth, are one and the same. I will write more about this because it is something I have only recently caught a glimpse of. It informs everything. And it is here that we are more than just writers–we are human beings; we are icons of God, for we bare his image.
The pursuit of Beauty and Truth, and the desperate hungry pursuit of God are one and the same.
The friend who gave me advice last year, whom I was able to spend a day or two of Lent with, is spending this year in a monastery in Alexandria Egypt. He was ordained this past week as a Coptic priest. It’s amazing to me how the grace of God can radiate from one person to others even thousands of kilometres away. He will spend 40 days and 40 nights there, fasting, praying, performing liturgy. He rises at 4am. There is only one meal a day–the same meal every day. My imagination says it’s bread, water, and salt, but who knows. I’ll have to ask him. His name is Father Joseph.
He wrote me a text the other day that I can’t stop thinking about.
Everything I’ve Read About The Saints Is True!
“Look–” he said, “You won’t believe it. Everything I’ve read about saints and monks and these monasteries is real! If only you could be here and take part in liturgy and see the monks whose faces literally radiate! You would weep for hours, then write like never before!”
He gets it.
Art, the pursuit of Beauty and Truth, and the desperate, hungry pursuit of God are one and the same.
So tomorrow I wake up to my prayers, and then I scribble out my lines for 30 minutes. The rest of the day, I try, desperately try in this consumptive over-abundant western world, to go hungry. I will fail. I will eat. I will fall. But in the falling, I will remember that the point is not to fall, but after having fallen, to get back up. By the grace of God to fall forward.
May the Lord grant us all a desire, a hunger, for Him, and the courage and strength to get back up.
This is a very interesting interview with Art Historian and philosopher, Boris Groys. Here he claims that it is everyone’s responsibility to be an artist, which is, essentially, self-expression: to create oneself in one’s image.
However, as I’ve maintained in an earlier post, there must be something more to that, unless one thinks of ‘self-‘ as one’s authentic self. As a Christian, I believe that one finds one’s authentic self through the redemptive work in Christ, and the creative dance between oneself and God through the long and arduous process of repentance (or, in the Greek, ‘metanoia’.).
And it is on this point that I believe Groys’s statement to be correct (though he most likely would not agree with the context): That as human beings created by God, we are to seek out and live our true selves as our primary responsibility on this earth, and thus, as Groys maintains, become artists; but not creating ourselves in our own image, but rather being molded in the image of God, as we’ve been truly created.
This, however, does not mean that we become conformists to some kind of Christian gestalt particular to a denomination, but rather that as we live according to Christ’s redemption in our lives and thus become more of our selves, we become more truly and fully unique–as God created us. Hence, the life of art is not only to live authentically, but also to live in freedom–freedom to become truly ourselves.
And as much as Groys seeks to eliminate the soul from the definition of what art is, while still ironically seeking that which is ‘transcendent’, the Christian seeks to bring more of the work of the soul–that process of smithery–out into the materiality of his/her particular art.
Regardless of what one’s inherent beliefs might be, there are always things we can glean from the thought of others. In an article, titled “Immediations” from the The Research Journal of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Groys is posed a question about his suggestion that philosophers have a naturally closer relationship to art than do art historians, to which he makes this, to me, insightful reply:
We can look at art in two ways. First as if we were biologists trying to construct a neo-darwinian story of ‘our species’: how artists develop, how they succeed, failed, survived. In these things, art history is formulated like botany or biology. The second way of of considering art is part of the history of ideas. . . . So the question is whether we consider art history more like botany or more like the history of philosophy–and I tend more to the latter, because the driving force of art is philosophical (Vol I. No 4, 2007, pg. 4).
This explains how I became interested in art in general, and literature in particular. A friend of mine, who is now a professor of philosophy, once told me many years ago at the beginning of my philosophy studies at the University of Toronto that the best modern philosophers were found in literature. It took me a while to figure out what that meant, until I worked through and landed on some of my favourite 19th/20th Century writers (Joyce, Eliot, Dostoevsky, Beckett, Camus, name a few), and began working at fiction on my own.
What I draw from when writing is this history of ideas that I have been indoctrinated in, which as such remains a blessing and a curse: the former simply because new ideas and the dialectical approach to bringing numerous together and finding a new one, comes rather easily; the latter (namely a curse) because as a Christian writer, I find much of the history of ideas to be of a certain kind of citadel called ‘the history of reason or consciousness’ that I believe Christianity attempts to push us beyond–to very dramatically liberate us from. This requires a great deal of explanation, but I will say this of the matter: That in spite of all the talk of ‘soul’ and ‘reason’ and even ‘conscience’ one finds in philosophy, it will not teach you to love more, to become less self-centred, and, ultimately to give yourself to God. It may speak of those things, gloss over them, or bring them under some kind of straw-man judgment, but it will not give you love for God and your fellow human being. You may even read all the Kierkegaard you want, but, and he too would say this to you, it will not save your Soul–you must reach rock bottom and assent to God yourself. He will be there when you leap, but there’s no elevator, no automatic switch that you can simply intellectually dally with in your mind.
And what I attempt to write about is this very tension between the rational and salvific (I avoid using ‘absurd’ for those not versed in Kierkegaard and would thus interpret the connotation of that word as somehow subservient to reason), drawing out the existential struggle in pursuit of God within the overbearing ambiguity of existence itself. And the contexts I draw from are those closest to that history of ideas mentioned by Groys; those ideas held most dearly by the great thinkers whose works have shaped our western collective (un)consciousness.
Prefaces are about beginnings–and I have had, and continue to have, many of them. In the Christian life, our Way is made up of many false starts, detours, crash landings and stalled engines, all of which require some kind of re-entry into Life through the Grace of Christ, and some of which lead to the telling of one’s story–a way of prefacing the new life or beginning: “Well, things have been getting better these last couple of months, but you should’ve seen me a year ago at this time–man was my life a mess!”
For new books, I always read the Preface–it’s the best way to get inside the author’s head, or heart, and have a good thumbnail print of the work itself. One of my favourite prefaces is Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation in which he suggests to the reader that if he or she doesn’t like the book, then it can be easily set upon a coffee table and used to hold a cup of tea (or something to that extent–the book’s not with me). So this blog is about prefaces, new beginnings, and the narratives that accompany and often precede them. Sometimes the ‘old life’ is simply one’s absence from church for a period of time spent gorging oneself on too many episodes of House MD in a row; however, there are other ‘old lives’ that are full of the rawness and grittiness of life itself–and those tend to be the stories I am interested in, both writing and reading about.
Are there Christians who seek out literature that draw the bow tautly between, as it were, the sacred and profane? Or, has fiction been bifurcated into a Christian stream that simply draws neat little parallels to scripture and blithely answers all of life’s questions, and, conversely, that of ‘secular’ fiction that enters into the funk of life, but with little in the way of redemption?
What does it mean to be a Christian artist anyway? I resonate with Tolstoy’s What is Art? in which he designates art as that which involves a struggle with the divine, with one or more transcendent topics that one must toil to get out; and it is in the toiling, the existential struggle, the dance with the Divine, that the product can be considered art. With this as my operative definition, I feel comfortable actually scrapping the ‘Christian’ and simply call such experiences ‘art’. Indeed, Merton talks about this as some kind of creative process: that as we give God our gifts (our writing, oration, visual art, etc) that He gives them back to us, and it is in this dance with God that we create. This creative process, this art, then, is the artist’s struggle with life, existence, despair, anxiety, guilt, and the redemption he or she finds in Christ.
What I want to know is if there are Christians out there who want to read such literature, and thus are not shaken or driven away by prose that is steeped in the funk of life; art that draws out the tension between the profanity of life and the redemption found in Christ.
If you are interested in this, please post me some feedback, whether you agree or think I’m way off.