Forming the Soul: Part Two

quino-al-110318-unsplashHere is a website with an excerpted version of the article I mentioned in the previous post:http://www.hagiasophiaclassical.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Literature-Culture-and-the-Western-Soul-The-Sisters-of-St.-Xenia-Skete.pdf

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by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

When my children were young I received from a friend a copy of an essay written by a nun titled “Forming the Soul”. The essay explained the importance of good quality fiction in the spiritual education of a child. I’ve lost it, unfortunately. Or, I can’t find it temporarily. I do, however, remember the nut of the essay:

As parents we find it important to feed children good food to ensure their bones and brains are forming well and growing strong. We should find it just as important, if not more so, to feed their minds in a way that considers their taste buds and interests their pallets, and yet ensures they are forming strong, healthy souls. We laugh to think of children choosing their own diet. It’s not hard to imagine the empty calories that would be eagerly consumed at every meal. The analogy is clear, I won’t press the point further because this post is about the forming of an adult soul: mine.

In an email discussion the other day, I mentioned to a writer friend that fiction had played (and continues to play) an important role in my spiritual journey. That friend asked if I would share a few titles. Below is the list of books that emerged from our conversation.

When I considered fiction that in some way changed or helped to form my soul, certain books leapt to mind. These are the titles I decided to include, with no other criteria. There aren’t any political or dystopian novels—no Ralph Ellison or Elizabeth Atwood. You might also notice the lack of titles usually found on lists of spiritual novels: no beautifully written sermons by Wendell Berry or Marilynn Robinson or C.S. Lewis, no Walker Percy or Flanner O’Connor or Toni Morrison prodding the darkness to expose the light. This is not because I don’t admire or respect the work of these authors, but when I thought about them I had to admit that they simply had not pierced the tough skin of my soul, however much they challenged my mind and pricked my conscience. So this, again, is a personal list, a sampling not of books that should have, but of books that did. Most are classics. A few are more recent (growth, hopefully, continues). All are novels that have what I call “the gospel spark”, stories (mostly told in traditional style) with characters who through their fictional struggles and triumphs illustrated for me the Resurrection—the joy unspeakable and full of glory that comes only, incomprehensibly, from accepting to shoulder my cross and follow Christ.

I’d love to hear from you. What titles would be on your list? Which stories or authors have helped form your soul?

The Dollmaker by Harriet Simpson Arnow

Nickel Mountain by John Gardner

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein

Tales from a Greek Isle and The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamandis

Wonderful Fool by Shusako Endo

Bleak House and Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

The Sojourner by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Middlemarch and Silas Marner by George Eliot

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Promise by Chaim Potok

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Crime and Punishment and The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

Laurus by Eugene Vodalazkin

Forming the Soul

Art, Technology and the Shape of Life

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Because I can’t manage time with much of anything to distract me, I’ve sometimes had to remove myself from technology to write. Two months ago I signed back into social media after one of these breaks, having done it enough times to know that it’s a little like hopping a merry-go-round as a child. You stand still for a moment, letting the wheel go around a few times as you get up your nerve, then take a deep, bracing breath and jump on. Even the shouts of your friends welcoming you back is the same, and the feeling that they are only just now realizing you were gone.

A bonus of the break, after taking it, is having a different perspective, the distant point of view compared with the close. Up close technology-based life looks like regular life. From farther away, it looks to be making of life what art does, an imitation.

There is a difference, though, it seems to me, and an important one, between the imitation of life that goes on in the tech-social world and that of art. Such “sharing” often has a charitable motive, dish up a slice of your life, offer a taste of friendship. The sense of being part of a community is one of the many fine things about social media and the main reason I miss it when away. But I am uneasy to see that in my absence there’s been an increase in staging, to use a real estate term, a clearing away of the clutter and mess of ordinary living so life looks more attractive, more Pinterest-worthy to Facebook friends and Instagram followers. There’s no harm, of course, in setting up a photo so the sink of dirty dishes doesn’t show. The danger is subtler than that, I think. It lurks in the careful consideration of how our private selves, or in other words how we, will appear to others in a public post. Psychologists are studying the phenomenon, offering theories that explain why technology has us unconsciously posing, but spiritually speaking, the danger is not lessened because the posing is unconscious. The need to connect, be seen, be cherished, is natural to us, God-given and strong. But let any need become passion-feuled obsession and we are all, even the most honest of us, capable of resorting flim-flam and fakery to satisfy it.

Not so with art, and here is the difference in the imitation. True art, whether it be a sculpture, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a hand-carved iconostasis, inspires. It moves the soul toward God. It generates growth. To grow in the presence of art a soul needs only disposition—a heart that lists in the direction of the divine, and discipline—a willingness to do the work that brings about change. In other words, we are challenged by art to live in a way that changes us because art purposely forms within us the ideal of our humanity, makes us long to have faces that resemble God’s. Technology does not do this for me. The internet is a brightly colored feeder and I am the hummingbird, lazily sipping at sugar water. No work needed, I merely fly in for a nip anytime I like. And if the syrup is a little too quickly gotten, substitute sweet, who cares? I’ve almost forgotten by now what a real flower looks like anyhow, let alone remember the taste of its nectar.

There is a nub of conflict, E.B. White says, between, “The careful form of art, and the careless shape of life itself.” In the conflict, so he claims, lies our destiny.

photo of plants on the table

Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

Tech-social society has its place, the sincere cheers of welcome from both old friends and new remind me of that, lifting and encouraging my heart. But it will be good to remember, I think, as I snap an Instagram photo, post a meme on Facebook, that if the thing is not art, it is also not quite careless enough in shape to be life.

Faithless Fiction: Imagine

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

A few weeks ago I discovered an essay, published in 2012 in the New York Times by resident writer Paul Elie. The title asked, ‘Has Fiction Lost its Faith?

It’s a good question, and sparked another for me: What if? I tried to imagine a world in which literature never had any element of religious faith. Not the world of Fahrenheit 451, mind you,  in which books are illegal. No, this world has plenty of literature, just none with the slightest element of religious faith, no God-seeking. It’s a world without Jane Eyre, Monseigneur Myriel and Uncle Tom. There has never been a Binxs Bolling or a Reuven Malter, a Calpurnia, or an Atticus Finch. A world, I argue, less interesting than ours.

In modernist fiction there seems to be an idea that to be serious a novel must be devoid of any element or reference to faith in God, especially in the Judeo-Christian sense, unless the element is pejorative or comical. In other words, serious fiction must be atheistic in all its aspects. With some bright and shining exceptions, such as Eugene Vodalazkin’s ‘Laurus’, or Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Abide With Me’, a new canon of literature is developing out of this assumption, literature that is not only paler and flatter for the most part than its vibrant, multi-faceted predecessor, it has become conscious of itself in a way some readers find frankly juvenile.  As one novel-loving friend expressed it to me: modernist fiction is largely dark and depressing, its characters are sullen and sex-obsessed. Hearing this description, I couldn’t help smiling, thinking of the moment in the movie ‘Harvey’, when Veta, Elwood’s sister, feels similarly about her world, and asks, “Why don’t they get out? Take walks!”

Literature, fiction as art, has always been born of the desire to discover, to find out the how and why, to learn by creative means what evil exists in the human heart, and what good. The novelist is a spelunker, an explorer of caves, moving through the labyrinths of the human experience, seeing what can be seen by the light of a headlamp’s beam. I can’t help but see fiction without faith as dishonest discovery, which in my mind is no discovery at all. For the novelist who refuses to acknowledge the crucial role of serious faith, noble faith, in the human experience, is one who trains their gaze on a small corner of the cave and keeps it there. That novelist will never know, or be able to show us, what lies out of reach of the headlamp’s beam. It might be a vein of pure gold. Meanwhile, the reader is left to stare at a wall of stalagmites and wonder, however vaguely, what lies just out of the light. And this is where my writer’s heart begins to hope. For as long as the wondering continues, I believe there will be faith in fiction.

*Thank you to David Haigh and Marianthe Karanikas, fellow members of the Good Seed Literary Society, who so generously and thoughtfully considered this subject and shared their ideas with me.

Dancing Through Holy Week

Jessby Michele Latham

“This is the sad part.”

These were the words spoken by a cherub-faced toddler in a second hand pink tutu; a happy, spoiled child who hadn’t known a day of sadness in her three years on this earth. And yet…as the minor chords of a Vivaldi concerto flowed from our CD player, she swayed and danced in the saddest way. Her eyes were downcast, shoulders slumped and each step and movement seemed heavy and labored. She may not have personally known a deep sadness, but I feel sure Antonio Vivaldi did, and it translated from the instruments to her tiny soul. She was feeling it.

Then, two things happened. The movement ended and I could hear a new, more upbeat melody forming. At the same moment, my daughter looked at me with a sparkle in her eye. She didn’t have to say the words, I could read it in her face and movements. The happy part was coming! As the strings sang out a light, joyful melody, I saw her jump and twirl, smiling from ear to ear.

I’m always reminded of my daughter’s words when Holy Week arrives. There are some really tough services ahead. You might even say, “This is the sad part”. We, as modern day Orthodox Christians weren’t actually present when our Lord suffered and was nailed to the cross, but we experience it through the words and melodies of our divine services. We hear the events of Christ’s last days as a man on earth. We attend His funeral and lament along with his beloved followers. The sadness almost seems unbearable…

But then, we hear hints of what is to come and we know the sadness won’t last. Christ will trample death. He will rise from the tomb on the third day.

And that’s when we remember the joy. We will feel it in our bones and in our spirits. And at midnight on Holy Saturday, we finally get to the happy part! We may even jump and twirl because we know for certain that Jesus Christ Conquers and He is Risen!

Real School

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

gardener_gardening_gardenAt times, while thinning out an iris bed or hanging my granddad’s work shirts on the line, my grandma used to get a certain far away look. It put a fence between us, that look, and I wanted a gate. I didn’t know the phrase “penny for your thoughts” or I would have used it, would have taken a hammer to my piggy bank and paid whatever toll it took to follow her into that country behind her blue, blue eyes.

I’ve got my own country, these days, and travel there often. Perhaps too often. Just last week I caught myself driving down a road I couldn’t see because I was on a different one, in a different car at a different time, having a conversation with my son. A high school senior, he had enough credits for early out. His own car was in the shop, so I had picked him up and was driving him to work. After answering with his usual brevity my questions about his own day, he asked how things had gone with his sister, who was on her second week in a new school—a school that was not just new to her, but new to everyone involved. Held in a century-old house belonging to a couple of teacher friends of ours who had been schooling their children at home for years, it was a homeschool cooperative-slash-one room schoolhouse experiment. In answer to my son’s question, I said, “Well, she was pretty excited this morning when I dropped her off. Apparently, yesterday each of the kids got to dig their own bed in the garden. She had a bag of tulip bulbs she couldn’t wait to plant.” For a moment after my reply there was silence, not unexpected. He was a quiet boy (now a quiet man) who rarely spoke without first pondering.  At last, when he was good and ready, he said, “Sounds like a real school.”

So, there I was, driving down a road in the present, thinking about that day in the past, remembering those four words, and it struck me that there was a deeper wisdom in them than I’d grasped at the time That day, I’d only been gratified, felt bad for folks who were still languishing, educationally speaking. Because, honestly, that school was a beautiful thing. A sort of greenhouse, if you will, for rooting children in a style of education which makes them curious to know things, turns them into independent learners. Even just two weeks in, I had reason to feel our choice to send her had been the right one.

Real school. Those words, I saw now, weren’t about school at all. Not about a garden bed, soft, dug dirt, waiting to be planted by small, eager hands in tulips. Not about a large old rambling frame house with private corners for curling up to read, big wide rooms for acting out Shakespeare or plays from stories you’ve written yourself. They were about life itself. God-given. Divinely sustained.

If there are times when it seems you’ve been enrolled against your will in an institution of hard knocks, curriculum designed to teach you to take it all on the chin, all the heartbreak, disappointment and loss, you’re not alone. Some of us are the type to endure, complaining only when things seem especially difficult. Others of us find it so unbearable we plot to run away, like children escaping some terrible Dickensian boarding school. Because, as the songwriter says, “it’s better than sittin’ here waitin’ around to die”

This ain’t heaven. There’s no escaping the hard. It will find us, even on the run. But the Lord Jesus Christ, who has suffered all we have and more, is with us, ready to teach us the ways of love. His is not the school of blind endurance. Not the school of escape. His way brings peace. And joy so sweet…well, there aren’t words.

We just can’t drop out.

 

The Way I See It

By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

mosaic tile

I have these odd times when what seem to be unrelated experiences will suddenly arrange themselves, like the tiles of a mosaic, into a pattern I can see. And with a flash of insight I am certain there is a Big Picture and all that puzzles my mind to weariness can somehow be fitted into it.

Such moments pass swiftly. At the speed of light, you might say. From where I tend to stand most days (myopically close), I have no such clarity. Ordinarily a moment that has brought me sorrow has a singular jagged edge, so sharp it pains my eyes to look at it. Joy, too, is a broken thing and not to be trusted. However bright it may appear, however much it glints like a ruby in the light, it is still a shard of glass and liable to leave a wound.

But, the mosaic.

I believe it is possible, by simply stepping back a few feet, to see all the fragments of shared experience being worked into the scene by the Artist’s patient hand. My eyesight is not good, though, and I soon grow tired of working to see from such a distance. A glimpse of the emerging pattern is about all I ever get before I’m standing with my nose to the wall again, peering intently at slivers.

I believe, Lord. Help Thou my unbelief.

 

Love: 10 Uses You May Not Know

Love you! Love you, too!

These words are heard everywhere. Between friends at the shopping mall or school parking lot as they take leave of one another, spoken into cell phones (loud enough for all to hear) or typed in the comment section of a million facebook posts. When this “Love you!” trend first started, I was disgusted and vowed not to partake of the casual, insincere tossing about of the word “love”. It seemed to trivialize the meaning.

However, I have lately changed my mind. Maybe the addition of the word “love” to our everyday vocabulary isn’t a bad thing.  Maybe we need all the love tossed about in this world we can get. Because love is a thing. A real thing. It’s powerful and mighty and is one of the last defenses we have against despair. Why not pass it around to as many people as we can?

It was many years ago when my husband and I were in the midst of parenting our young children. Back then, it seemed that as a society, we tried to shelter children from too much adult information or ideas which would confuse them during the tender stages of becoming people. I held to thisbutterfly_flower_02_hd_pictures belief and still think that parents should be the filter through which young children learn important life lessons. That being said, communication is tricky, even with one’s own children. During this fledgling stage of our family, we were friends with several couples who were in the same boat. We always shared the happy news of expected babies and celebrated recent births with our children. Things got a little complicated when an unmarried friend got pregnant, the kids were curious how this worked since she wasn’t married like the other parents in our lives. It was too early for “the birds and the bees” or any other weighty  discussions, so I told them that she and her boyfriend loved each other…therefore, a baby. My youngest son apparently latched onto this theory, because he applied it later when trying to understand another new situation. We had a friend who miscarried when she was 6 months along in her pregnancy. My son knew she had been pregnant and when we told him the grievous news, he immediately questioned, “why would the baby die?”. As my mind worked to choose the right words, I saw the look of sad realization dawn in his eyes. He thought he had the answer. “The mommy and daddy stopped loving each other?”

 

 In his mind, it was love between the parents that created that new baby and without the love, the baby couldn’t live.

 

It was actually sound logic. After all, I told him that babies were brought into the world as a result of the parents’ love. So it would only follow that without the love…the baby couldn’t survive. I assured him that the parents did indeed still love one another and that there were reasons couples sometimes lost beloved children, but I’ve thought about his theory often throughout the years. How many other things have trouble surviving without love? Families? Relationships? Peace? Compassion? It is evident all around us. Love is so powerful, that the lack of it is making a mess of our world. What makes love so powerful? Simply put:

Love is God. And God is All Powerful

Anything is possible with Love. So I say, let’s hear more voices proclaiming love! Love everywhere, love in all things. Let’s rack our brains to come up with new uses for love…

as a lifeboat,

as a shield,

as a cocoon,

as a butterfly net,

as a remedy,

as a beacon,

as an answer.

Let’s hold one another up with love and send it shooting through throngs of strangers!

Let’s remind our children that they were created by love and that love from God will never, ever stop.

God is Love.

Love is real.

Part Two: Interlude from “A Road to Laurel”

by Donna Mills

The followiDonnang is part two of an interlude in the book, “A Road to Laurel,” which tells the story of a black man’s trial for alleged rape of a white woman.  Although the story is about my father’s defense of the man, I included interludes that spoke of my own experience with race and prejudice. This one includes my experience in the Orthodox Church, with Fr. Moses as my priest.  His oversight of my striving to shed any of my own prejudices was mostly silent and non-judgmental, which gave me the room in which to grow and a perfect model to follow.

 

Interlude III – cont’d

 

In the book “Black Boy,” written in 1943 by a native Mississippian, Richard Wright, about his life as an African American raised in the South, he bemoans the fact that the white culture experiences such different day to day life from the black. He wrote that the white culture has no idea how the black man has to adjust his nature to fit in. From his perspective, while he had “All my life…done nothing but feel and cultivate my feelings,” the white youth had “all their lives done nothing but strive for petty goals, the trivial material prizes of American life. We shared a common tongue, but my language was a different language from theirs.” It was true that he had suffered in certain ways, while it appeared that they no suffering at all. In fact, it may have been true that the shallowness he saw in their souls, which he described as “…like the syllables of popular songs,” was an accurate comparison of their experience compared to his – a life filled with hunger and disappointments, a life of fear and unwarranted reproach. As a young adult, Wright joined the Communist Party and felt that it had the answers for living in peace in this nation. Even there, however, he found himself to be misunderstood and finally, an outcast. After finding himself utterly alone, watching a Communist march he had been thrown out of, he wrote:
“My thoughts seemed to be coming from somewhere within me, as by a power of their own: It’s going to take a long and bloody time, a lot of stumbling and a lot of falling, before they find the right road. They will have to grope about blindly in the sunshine, butting their heads against every mistake, bruising their bodies against every illusion, making a million futile errors and suffering for them, bleeding for them, until they learn how to live.”
Wright spoke of a spiritual blindness, and hoped that his words would “…create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”
Fr. Moses, whose great-grandfather was a slave, taught our congregation that the fathers of our Church spoke of suffering as the way to follow Christ, to win the freedom, peace and joy our souls hope for. He also told us that the old gospel tunes that the slaves sang held a deep spirituality that came from their suffering. He displays in his African American Heritage Museum in Ash Grove, Missouri an iron neck clamp that had been passed down in his family, as well as slave dogtags for remembrance of the cruelty that took place.
Yet, the Socialistic or Communist approach, which seemed to promise suffering for none and appeared to champion the minorities, in the end yields only empty surfeiting and enslavement to its system. I puzzled, as my Dad must have, to determine how to find the “True North,” until I found the saving Grace of faith.
Attempting to convey the substance of this lesson to my children, I read to them from “Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry,” by Mildred Taylor. They cuddled beside me to hear a nightly chapter of the tale of a black family in Jackson, Mississippi whose children walked to a school just down the way from my elementary school, both named “Jefferson Davis Elementary,” but one was for black children and one for white, who were privileged to ride the bus. My three children found it hard to understand why, and wondered at the family’s plight. The words of wisdom from the family’s mother gave perspective:
“Baby, we have no choice of what color we’re born
or who our parents are, or whether we’re rich or poor.
What we do have is some choice over
what we make of our lives once we’re here.

If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

by Donna MillsDonna

The following is part one of an interlude in the book, “A Road to Laurel,” which tells the story of a black man’s trial for alleged rape of a white woman.  Although the story is about my father’s defense of the man, I included interludes that spoke of my own experience with race and prejudice. This one includes my experience in the Orthodox Church, with Fr. Moses as my priest.  His oversight of my striving to shed any of my own prejudices was mostly silent and non-judgmental, which gave me the room in which to grow and a perfect model to follow.

 

 

Interlude III

I surprised the family in my young adulthood by making a 180 degree turn and committing my life to spiritual discipline. It looked as though the seeds of influence planted by my grandmother had somehow survived and taken root, saving me from the road to perdition I had earlier started on. I converted to Orthodox Christianity and joined myself to a church whose African-American Priest, Fr. Moses, I greatly admired. I prided myself on the lessons learned from my Mom and Dad, and I believed myself to be non-prejudiced. Ironically, the small congregation was mostly white, as was Fr. Moses’ wife. The differences in our color of skin made no difference to me, but I ran into troubles with one of the few black ladies in the church.

Shelia had a propensity for getting under my skin, as she seemed to have a chip on her shoulder, and would engage me in conversations with what I considered a cynical and opinionated view.  I wondered if her attending an all-white women’s college in Mississippi precluded her cynicism, or it had been inbred through a family who desperately wanted to infuse self-esteem into their intelligent girl, who would otherwise have been vulnerable to the lack of opportunities she would find for herself in the society of the South. Whatever the case, I must have symbolized to her the privileged Southern white girl, and it may have been hard for her to see me as anything different.

I went to Fr. Moses to confess my irritation and lack of ability to love for my sister in the church. He kindly suggested that we go out together and have some fun – just get to know each other.  Easy enough, I thought. However, Sheila was not delighted at the prospect to get to know me. Either she didn’t think I was really worth the time or money for a frivolous outing – she was a single mother with tight funds – or she was as timid about what the intimacy might bring to light as I was. Then there was the deciding of what we should actually do. Watching a movie together sounded non-threatening. She suggested Spike Lee’s new movie – “Do The Right Thing.” Thinking I would be caught up in a heated racial discussion, I hedged.  I offered to see “Dead Poet’s Society,” only because of my admiration of the comedian, Robin Williams. Her equally oppositional reaction to seeing a movie about a rich white boys’ private school took me by surprise. Both offended, we decided to put the outing on hold.  After some time she called back, possibly after talking to Fr.  Moses herself, and we agreed to go to a local Indian concert she had seen in the paper.

On the way, we chuckled as we realized that we didn’t know if we were going to a concert of Native American people or folks from India. The issue was cleared when we saw the women in their beautiful saris and the sitars carried under their arms, I felt somewhat awkward and out of place as those dressed properly for this event paused at our jeans. Sheila was used to being a minority, however, and returned my nervous glance with a stoic one of her own. We eventually found our way to the auditorium and took our seats. After a brief welcome and introduction of the musicians, the room darkened. The first performer, a young woman, walked on stage and seated herself on a pillow.  With sitar in lap, she began to play to a hushed audience – one string at a time. The reverberation of the music seemed to stun the crowd and as we heard deeply felt utterances from the people around us, we glanced sideways at each other to catch some understanding of what everyone seemed to be so in awe of.  Sheila shrugged at my questioning eyes, and we turned our attention back to the performance. Although we were used to listening to flowing music with a little action and melody, we attempted to open our senses to the mystical sounds of this strange instrument. Truly, there was beauty in the sounds, but when the crowd once again began to ooh and ahh in amazement at the twang of a single string, Sheila and I again looked at each other for a clue of what we should be amazed of. She was the first one to let a laugh slip, and I, too, failed when attempting to conceal mine.  We were instantly corrected by the frowns of those seated in front of us, who turned to see who could be so impudent.  We silently mouthed an agreement after a few more compulsive chuckles to leave after the performer had finished a set.

The laughter and conversation that followed brought Sheila and I closer together than we had ever been, though we never really acknowledged that this bond came about by our mutual lack of understanding of yet another culture in our midst.  At least we had learned an unspoken lesson together of what it is like not being able to relate to another race outside the mere black/white split.  We understood that being a part of our cultures alone had a great impact on our inability to communicate another culture’s “language,” no matter if our words were the same, or if we both bought our groceries at the same corner store.  There were generations behind each of us whose cultural nuances were unconsciously carried in the makeup of our thoughts as well as our genetics.  There were values and goals that had their own familial roots, traditions and foods which might seem strange to others.  How would we learn to be truly unprejudiced?