On Becoming a Reed Pipe of the Holy Spirit

(Written earlier this year, this essay is dedicated to the newly baptized handmaid of God, Nina Tauck.)

It’s New Year’s Day morning and human hope abounds. People everywhere are making resolutions or are reflecting on resolutions already made at the stroke of midnight. Some of these will be private—unexpressed intentions to be a better friend, start jogging a couple of days a week, or get a garden in by May. Others, perhaps made with more confidence for success, are being shared as public self-improvement announcements. Photos of freshly minted bullet journals are being shared all over social media today.

For someone who is entering this new year without a single resolution, I am strangely hopeful and lighthearted, something that has to do with a study I’ve been making of the life of St. Nina and with my visit to a monastery last Sunday. A visit that started with confession.

There are times when under the Christ-graced stole of a confessor all the specialness of your failings and weaknesses is lost and they look like what they are: plain, ordinary sin. On Sunday morning I had one of those moments, and far from the frightening experience it sounds, it was wonderful, amazing. I felt dazed when it was over, wobbled a little as I found my way back into the main church, where in my absence the deacon had been censing the congregation. I got myself together just in time to see him give a last flick of his wrist, a final swing of the censor before returning to the altar. He left us cloaked in a swirl of sweet-smelling clouds that soon headed for the dome and heaven. I inhaled deeply, eyes wet with thankful tears. Always in confession I state my intention to be less cavalier with time, more liberal with compassion and tenderness, ultra-conservative with criticisms, among other things. And always I have known God believes me. That day, for the briefest, flashing moment, as I bent my neck for absolution, I had believed myself.

Standing outside after the service, blinking in the stark daylight, I was still somewhat dazed, but also invigorated. Suddenly it seemed that hope was everywhere. It was just down the hill in the monastery cemetery, where bodies sown in the same earth from which they were made lay waiting for the Lord’s return. It was inside the chapel, where monks had just finished singing a moleben to a wonderworking icon. It was behind me in the dining hall, where children sat at tables devouring donuts, eager to be outside on this unusually mild winter’s day, to run and play where saints have walked. It was in the gentle range of mountains that keeps the monastery cradled in an eternal, motherly embrace. That morning the hills lay in dark silhouette, a wide scalloped ribbon on the hem of an overcast sky. Poised, it seemed to me, to move on command.

It has occurred to me to wonder, as the days pass and my elation fades like the scent of paradise from a growing baby’s skin, how St. Nina kept her hold on otherworldly hope, how it became the unfading, mountain-moving kind. The answer, it turns out, can be found in the details of her life, distilled in a few key illuminating words in her troparion:

“O handmaid of the Word of God, who in preaching equaled the first-called Apostle Andrew, and emulated the other Apostles, enlightener of Iberia and reed pipe of the Holy Spirit, holy Nina, pray to Christ our God to save our souls.”

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Handmaid of the Word of God. Preacher. Emulator of the Apostles. Enlightener of Iberia. These small apt titles carry in them some of the large, impressive things we know about St. Nina. But it’s the last title in the list, the one that calls St. Nina, poetically, a reed pipe of the Holy Spirit, that I found significant to my question. This description casts light on the other four, explaining how it is that someone who seems to have her share of self-doubt, referring to herself as a “worthless and ignorant woman”, topples a pagan temple, causing its idols to blast apart on command, and converts the hearts of an entire nation to Christ.

Organs are reed pipe instruments. In organ pipes, air under pressure (wind) is directed towards a brass reed, which vibrates at a specific pitch. But at the time of St. Nina there were no organs. In her day a reed pipe would have been simple, a single, hollow tube with a hand-carved reed. I have not heard the song such a reed pipe makes, but I can imagine it would have a haunting, holy sound, sweet and piercing. The kind of sound to wound the heart of a king and send him in search of the healing love of Christ.

In an essay on the distinguishing traits of saints, theologian Father Dimitru Staniloae says they are people who have reached our full potential. What we can be, they are. The chief difference between them and us is the alacrity with which they give themselves completely to God. Saints are not just willing to be hollowed out, they are eager. Cheerfully, joyfully so. In the oldest record of the life of St. Nina, in the church history by Rufino, it is the novelty of such a joyful poverty that first catches the notice of the pagan Iberians. Word began quickly to spread of the virtue of this humble young captive woman (noblewoman, in the later Georgian version) whose life was one of bright, cheerful sobriety and constant, unceasing prayer, who “nourished herself with fasting as if with food”. Is it any wonder that when we express a longing to go deeper and further in the life in Christ, we are encouraged to read and study the lives of the saints? In their strength is revealed our weakness. And our hope.

The unexpected gift in my brush with otherworldliness that day at the monastery is that it brought me to look closer at the life St. Nina, and to see that in her, as in all the saints, the true nature of hope is revealed. In the saints the hope of Christ shines in all its radiant glory. And seeing St. Nina’s life of unceasing prayer, humility, obedience, compassion, poverty—her eager holy hollowness—stand in stark, gritty contrast to a mountaintop dream, my own hope feels a little truer, stronger and readier to endure.

God is wondrous in his saints.

Holy Saint Nina pray to God for us!

 

 

Lights on the Mountain

The Art of Singing in a Foreign Land

The journey toward Great Lent is well plotted, with lots of markers along the way to tell us how far we’ve come and how much further we have yet to go. There’s one I always sigh over, noting its appearance at Vigil for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and that is ‘By the Waters of Babylon’, the 136th Psalm. In her maternal wisdom, the Church offers this psalm to us as a gentle remonstration. She encourages us to mourn like Israel’s children, weeping in the knowledge that it’s only because of our own forgetfulness, our carelessness, that we find ourselves slaves to an unkind master: the passions. Sorrowful regret stirs in our hearts as we recall and mourn our soul’s true home.

It is the muteness described in the psalm, though, that strikes me this year as especially poignant. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

There’s no doubt this is a strange, strange land we are living in. A skin of veneer is being stripped away, bit by bit, revealing the true nature of a soul-hungry god whose feet are clay. But as followers of Christ, we should know ourselves always to be residing in a foreign land. It’s a new, dark captivity to its lord we should be seeking to escape.

We are strangers in a strange land that is getting ever stranger. Our hearts are heavy, grieved at what the citizens of this land in which we find ourselves do, lawful things our weeping eyes cannot bear to see.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song?

It strikes me to look to America’s African slaves as mentors. Their captivity was not voluntary, like ours, but they were a people for whom the Lord’s song was salvation, who knew the art of singing in a foreign land.

In Slave Songs of the United States, an anthology printed in 1867, a single word, the second in the final verse, of the song ‘Down in the Valley to Pray’ speaks very eloquently of what wisdom is contained in their songs:

“O Mourner, let’s go down, down in the valley to pray.”

You require of us mirth, the slaves said, we will give you joyful sorrow. The song you demand we will sing in a key known only to our true master, the God of heaven and earth, using words you will hear and will not understand.

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O Lord, and Master of our lives, help us always to be homesick foreigners in this land that is not heaven. Take from us all faintheartedness, give us a spirit that is both humble and courageous, help us to see evil clearly, both in the world and in our hearts, and stand against it as we wait on You to make of it good. Our tongues shall not cleave to our mouths, for we shall remember You with longing and sing your song.

 

God is Not in Books (Or is He?)

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By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

There’s a video sporadically shared around the internet that has an attention-getting tagline: “God is not in the books.” It’s a statement made by Father Roman Braga of blessed memory, a survivor of the Romanian communist prison camps, during a talk he gave years ago. “God bless the communists,” he says in the video, crossing himself, “because they put the priest in prison”.  The intellectual class (which included priests) was being systematically destroyed, he explains, and so prisoners were given nothing to read for solace or inspiration, no paper or pencil to express themselves. Confined in a solitary cell for three years, Father Roman had nothing but blank walls to look at. “You have to go somewhere. And,” he says, curving his fingers to point to his heart, “you go inside.”

I can see how, taken on its own, this statement could delight the non-reader. It’s a little less fun for the person like me, a lover of books and reading.  I’m so fond, in fact, that I have sometimes been guilty of acting as though I can read my way to salvation, as if mentally assenting to the truths in Unseen Warfare is the same thing as praying, forgiving, loving and repenting. So I admit that Father Roman’s statement holds the sting of hard truth. And yet, only a day or two after the video has appeared again on my Facebook feed, I’ve run across (admittedly, in a book) what seems to be the opposite counsel, given by the holy Elder Porphyrios:

“Read a lot,” he says, “so that God might enlighten your mind.”

The elder’s stamp of approval on books doesn’t stop there, either. Not only does he tell us to read, and read a lot, he nearly blesses us to sneak off and do it in solitude, using himself as an example. “I would read a lot,” he says. “In fact, I would climb a tree with a ladder I had fashioned and would pull it up with me as I ascended, so that people wouldn’t see me and bother me. I spent hours there in study. ” Hours, he says. Hours of reading alone and studying. These, I might point out, are the words of a man who had only two years of formal schooling.

The thing that stands out to me most, though, about Elder Porphyrios’s advice is that he doesn’t tell his spiritual children to read a lot so that their minds may become enlightened, he tells them to read so that God may enlighten their minds.

This, he seems to be saying, is the benefit for us of books and reading. The hours, if we are blessed to have them, of study. Not that we can know things, but that we can know things God wants us to know. He is, after all, the one who gave us our minds in the first place. Having discovered God without books, Fr. Roman went back to reading them and writing after prison, as if he also believed, if not in their necessity, at least in their ability to open the windows of our minds to the light of truth.

God is not in books. But climb a tree to read in solitude, pulling the ladder of your soul up behind you, and you just might find Him.

My own book: https://paracletepress.com/products/lights-on-the-mountain

Featured photo by hannah grace

Recommended Reading:

Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios

https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Love-Elder-Porphyrios/dp/9607201191

Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of the Contemporary Elders of Greece

https://www.amazon.com/Precious-Vessels-Holy-Spirit-Contemporary/dp/1466214074

Exploring the Inner Universe by Archimandrite Roman Braga

https://www.amazon.com/Exploring-Inner-Universe-Archimandrite-Roman/dp/0964347822/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1544540476&sr=1-1&keywords=exploring+the+inner+universe

On Being an Orthodox Novelist

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Russian novelist Eugene Vodolazkin, author of Laurus and The Aviator and an Orthodox Christian, was asked in an interview if he considers himself an Orthodox writer. “A writer should just be a writer,” he said. “There are no Orthodox writers, just as there are no Orthodox hairdressers. Faith is an intimate thing.”

Faith is an intimate thing. And if your occupation is cosmetology, I imagine it’s possible, maybe even advisable, to keep your faith close to you, to cut and style with skill and unique flair without your clients ever knowing that you are an Orthodox Christian. But the same is not true of the novelist. In fact, it is precisely because faith is such an intimate thing that Vodolazkin is not just a writer, he is an Orthodox writer. As Flannery O’Connor states in Mystery and Manners, “We write with the whole personality, and any attempt to circumvent it, whether this be an effort to rise above belief or above background, is going to result in a reduced approach to reality.” There is nothing inferior, nothing reduced about Vodolazkin’s approach to reality. As a novelist, his approach is fully Orthodox.

So many agenda-driven novels (mostly secular, but sometimes religious) are published each year it’s tempting, even for the writer of novels, to think of novelists as apostles, but they are not. And this may be all Vodolazkin meant by saying there is no such thing as an Orthodox writer. If we are called to be fiction writers, then that is all we must be. The fiction writer who is deeply, honestly, religious will not write novels in order to sell his faith. He will also not change the way he writes or alter the crafting of his novels in order to “reach” a wider audience. To those who look to fiction for “profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused…improved, or encouraged, or frightened or shocked or charmed…” Joseph Conrad said, no. Novelists must “first write from a clear conscience”, or in other words, be free of all these reasons for writing. And if we succeed in our task, he promised, “you shall find all you demand—and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

I’m sure it’s this seriousness toward the art of writing, the belief that in its best form fiction can and should offer a glimpse of eternal truth, that makes Vodolazkin deny the term “Orthodox writer”. We live in a time of quick and narrow organizing, of dropping people into designated slots, and readers of literary fiction today are not believers, for the most part. Encountering faith in a novel today is like encountering a Komodo dragon. It needs a very good reason for being there. The danger for a Christian novelist today who openly admits to having faith (unless you also admit to having lost it in large portion along the way), or writes about characters who have it, is that you are likely to find your book pigeonholed on a bookstore or library shelf as Christian Fiction, which means having your work forever associated with that genre’s evangelical, sinner-to-salvation formula. (Unless, of course, you are Marilynne Robinson, and then people won’t notice, won’t care, that your beautiful novel is laced through and through with your Calvinist theology.) And this alone is reason enough for me to join Vodolazkin in denying the term “Orthodox writer”.

But I can’t help feeling that since I am Orthodox, and a writer of fiction, a crafter of words that deal with the nature and experience of religious faith in America, particularly as I have observed it in Orthodox Christian people, I may be protesting into the wind. Also, I’m aware of something in myself that is not as strong as it should be by now. I’m just a little bit afraid that below all my conscientious objecting, my insistence that faith is personal and not an adjective to be fixed to an occupation and publicly declared, I’ll hear just the faintest, triple crowing of a rooster wafting back to me on the breeze. 

https://paracletepress.com/products/lights-on-the-mountain

 

 

How to Mourn a Nun

(This essay was posted earlier this week on my author website http://www.cherylannetuggle.com, some thoughts I had on the recent loss of a dear nun, and the influence monastics have on our lives as Orthodox Christians living in the world. I’m sharing it here at the suggestion of a reader.)

A nun was buried yesterday, a woman beloved in her community, and one who was dear to our family’s heart. Today I woke up pondering how to consider her death, this human person who lived out her golden years striving to imitate the angels, and I wonder, is there a proper way to mourn a nun? That is, I wonder if nuns (and monks) should be mourned more purposefully than other people are, in a way specific to the monastic life they’ve led. In my twenty-something years of being Orthodox, I’ve learned a great deal about monasticism and nuns, but I don’t believe I’ve ever studied, or been instructed, on how to mourn one. A Google search of Orthodox Christian monastics and mourning was no help and only reminded me of something I already knew: that nuns themselves are in mourning always—not the loss of their former lives, but for their sins.

In all my mostly Pentecostal childhood, I was only around nuns once. That the experience stuck with me is proof, I believe, that there are no accidental tourists on the road to salvation. Our Savior God really does want all to come to the knowledge of the Truth. However far we may wander, or how much we may believe we’re finding our own path, He is always in some way positioning us to better see the way ahead, pointing our toes in the direction of the light.

My first peek at nuns came when I was still small, five or six, and a family friend who was married to a Catholic (a kind, quiet man who sometimes let me tag along with him to mass), took me to visit a convent. It was a busy day in a place devoted to some charitable work, and the impression I took away was a childish one. Because no one stopped to talk to me, I determined that nuns were not much interested in little girls. Nuns were quiet, they wore a neat, spotless, well-below-the-knee dress that was a lot like a nurse’s uniform, but dark instead of white—and with even odder-looking hat—and they stuck to their tasks. I would keep this impression for three decades, because following that visit to the convent my family moved across the country to another state. I didn’t know any Catholics in Oklahoma to take me visiting nuns, so when I did have a chance to observe them again, it would be with adult eyes (my child’s gaze had become that of a woman and a mother) and the nuns would be Orthodox Christians.

When I talk to other converts about their journeys into the Orthodox Church, I get the feeling mine was both similar and different. I had all the usual presuppositions of the faith in which I was brought up, but I seem to have been unusually willing to get loose of them. Though it would shock her to know it, I blame my mother for this. A school librarian, she kept our family bookshelves stocked with books by writers from all sorts of traditions, who therefore helped keep the door of my mind slightly ajar. It was my mother, too, who let me go on outings with people who didn’t watch me closely, who exposed me to the beauty of old liturgical churches and let me rub shoulders with nuns. That beauty, and those nuns, were like marks God left on the trunks of trees as I struggled in a dark wood to find my way home.

But the nuns I saw now, the ones who showed up at the Orthodox church I was attending, were far from the crisp image I had from the day at the convent. Frankly these nuns looked a bit rugged. Their black cotton robes were sun-faded, wilted and creased from driving on a hot day in a car with no air conditioning. As if we were redoing a photo from my childhood, my small daughter turned and watched as they took their place in the back of the church, observing them with dark eyes wide as they arranged themselves to pray.

Those nuns would come to change my life, change all our lives. The girls of our parish would grow up knowing of women so gritty and strong of heart as to spend the bulk of their daily lives in prayer. Which is, as all who have tried it agree, the hardest work there is. And all the while those women prayed, they did lesser work too, we found out. Work like carpentry and gardening and chicken-keeping and honey-harvesting, writing and translating, social work and nursing. In short, through those nuns we were introduced in a very personal, hands-on way to an aspect of the early church that isn’t always easy to grasp. Because most of us have grown up hearing about St. John the Baptist in his hair shirts, surviving in the desert on prayer and wild locusts, or St. Anna the Prophetess, praying continually day and night in the temple, the gospel passages can have the effect of story, distancing us from the reality of what they are: descriptions of monasticism.

Of course, it’s not the purpose of monasticism to teach lay people what humility looks like, but the real men and women who are living the monastic life do show it to us, simply by being in the process of becoming what they have set out to be: holy, women and men perfected in Christ. And when an elderly nun like the one I mentioned at the beginning, who has not only chosen to live the monastic life, but has chosen it again and again, over and over, year after year, day after day, until at last she is given no more days to make the choice and she departs this world, she does it with the same monastic humility. Having no earthly possessions, she leaves nothing. Only, without intending to, she has left us an inheritance: a measure of hope in a hope-parched land.

A friend who attended the burial of our dear nun-friend called me afterward to say that she had been able to “give mother a last kiss”. There was unexpected joy in my friend’s voice as she said this, I could hear it plainly as she spoke.

So, how should a nun be mourned? I still don’t know. There are people who will, but I haven’t yet asked them. I suspect the answer will have something to do with the above-mentioned humility. It may turn out that a nun’s own mourning has been enough. Perhaps all I will have to do is receive the joy.

The Calling Hours

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

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When my husband and I moved to Southwest Missouri from Texas nearly three decades ago, I had to get used to Ozark speech. Many of the words and phrases I found strange then are gone now, but it’s still possible to hear someone say “I don’t care to” as an expression of agreeableness, and an elderly library patron will still occasionally ask if they should return their books at the desk or “put them yonder” in the book drop. In Ohio, my new home since last month, I’m again getting used to familiar words being used in an unfamiliar way. People don’t mow their lawns here, they cut them. The thing on wheels that holds your groceries as you shop the supermarket aisles is a buggy, not a cart. And when a person has passed away, the obituaries do not list the time of visitation before the funeral, instead they give the hours as 5:30-7:30 (for instance) and say that is the time that friends may call. These are the “calling hours”.

Reading it in the newspapers, I find this expression interesting, and evocative. It causes me to think of loved ones long gone and those oddly warm reunions, those moments of coming-together, that take place in time of death, sometimes over meals, when friends are fonder and family closer, more willing to set aside their hurts and differences of opinion. But there is more than nostalgia to what interests me, what moves me, in the phrase. There is in it, I think, a spiritual lesson to be learned. A slight change of heart in the making.

Friends may call.

Reading the gospels, we see that our Lord had friends. And that he called on them. He sat talking in the shade of a tree with them in the heat of an afternoon, walked along dusty roads in their company and took meals with them in their homes. I’m awed to think of these conversations, how when the God-man sat back in his chair after a particularly good meal his hosts—his friends—must have felt bold enough to reveal their deepest thoughts, to ask the questions that had been burning like hidden fires in their souls. This, incidentally, is by dictionary definition, communion. If intimate thoughts and feelings are being exchanged, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level, then communion is taking place. It is not a far journey from that definition to Holy Communion, in which the most intimate exchange of all takes place, the spiritual meal in which Christ, the all-gracious Host, comes to give himself as food to the faithful.

Friends may call.

Again, I can’t help feeling the importance of these words, especially when on Sunday mornings I watch people linger longer and longer at coffee hour or trapeza, hesitant to end the fellowship.

Friends may call.

There’s no arguing the fact that while our offline relationship circles are shrinking, on social media they are growing ever wider. But just as there is no app for communing with Christ in the Eucharist—we must be physically present to receive, there is also no technological substitute for face to face communion with our fellow humans. We were created for intimate exchange. It is not just good and pleasant for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity, it is crucial to our health, both physical and spiritual. If you have ever visited a monastery you have likely been briefly greeted and then offered a little something to eat and drink. This is because monastics know that what you have come hoping to receive: strength, healing, refreshment, begins when you are received in this way. As lay people, hosting one another is just as important. We may “like” the photos of lovely meals prepared and enjoyed in people’s homes that are shared on social media of course, but how much better to be in that home, tasting and seeing for ourselves, breaking bread together, eating and talking, and even laughing, our way into the intimacy that leads to trust, to the place where we can begin to unburden, work out our differences with forgiveness and understanding and, ultimately, to grow like-minded. In other words, the place where what begins with friends coming to call ends in authentic human communion.

In an old Greek cookbook of mine, there’s a recipe for koliva, the cake made of boiled wheat that is served in many Orthodox traditions to commemorate the dead. The recipe is introduced by the author with an anecdote about her husband, who loved the cake and often asked her to make it for him. “I want my koliva while I’m alive,” he said. I think this man was on to something. It’s time to call on our friends while we have them, while we’re both alive to enjoy the visit. And if at times this takes great effort, because there is also no arguing the fact that we are all busier than ever and often legitimately weary, I believe the effort will be rewarded, perhaps with renewed energy and greater strength. Almost always when I’ve roused my introverted self to attend a book discussion or had friends over for dinner—I’ve felt refreshed afterward and wondered why I don’t do it more often.

Friends may call.

Today is the day. Let’s seize it. This moment, and no other, is given for gathering to eat and drink together, to study, to share thoughts, ideas, joys and worries face to face. Now is the time for intimate exchanges to take place on a spiritual level. These are the calling hours.

*Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

 

In Praise of Senseless Acts

By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

I find it interesting that whenever a violent crime is committed and reported to be a senseless act, the media will spend days, even weeks, trying to make sense of it. Senseless, in my dictionary, is defined as “unconscious, having no purpose or meaning”. It is also defined as something that is “lacking in common sense; wildly foolish”.

If the first definition makes irony of the media’s attempts to find meaning in what they themselves describe as senseless, the second definition strikes me as important for the Orthodox Christian. Our faith—from “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty” to “and the life of the world to come” can be called wildly foolish, completely lacking in common sense, and rightly so. Only people who are devoid of all common sense could believe in the self-abasement, the taking up of our cross, that we are called to in Christ.

“I looked upon your Beauty, how shall I speak of what is unspeakable,” said St. Symeon the Theologian to the Lord, Jesus Christ. And as Christ’s adoring followers, St. Maria of Paris insists we are to try to understand every person as an icon of that Beauty, to bow ourselves down in humility before each one, to kiss their feet as we would the Lord’s. Such humility is a call to senselessness, of course. It is absurd. Bow before people who, if not completely bad, are mostly not good? Just as sure as you do that, they’ll step on your neck.

Yet while admitting it does not make good sense, there is something appealing to me, something almost romantic, in the idea of at least attempting to see the face of Christ in the downtrodden, the outcast, the mistreated, the homeless poor. But there is something decidedly less appealing about looking for Jesus in the control freak, the whiner and complainer, the money-grubber, the vain, the proud, the arrogant and the lazy. And the notion that there is in the gang lord, the drug dealer, the tyrant dictator, the woman abuser, the child pornographer, the mass shooter, a look about the eyes that should remind me of Christ’s is nigh to impossible to consider. (Yes, of course, Lord, these are yours. But surely not them.)

A couple of days ago, I opened an empty shoe box and removed the wadded tissue that comes inserted in any pair of new shoes. When I unrolled the first sheet, I found printed on the inside the image of a rose, complete with vine and leaves. It’s possible, I suppose, that the tissue was rolled and inserted by a machine, but it doesn’t matter. At the time, it was personal. Someone had done this thing, hidden this rose on purpose, knowing it made no sense to do so. I took a photo and posted it on social media, calling it an act of senseless beauty. In the days since, the tissue rose has become a personal metaphor, the illustration for that concept I mentioned, the one I find near to impossible to grasp. There is something my spiritual father has been saying to me for years. I’m paraphrasing to suit my purpose, but according to him the only way to overcome common sense—the primal instinct toward self-preservation that keeps you and me from responding to every person without exception as if they were Christ himself—is to commit senseless acts of beauty. To be wildly foolish for Christ’s sake is to open the hand and let go when everything is telling you to keep your fist tight. Senselessness, in this meaning, isn’t the foolishness of masochism, it doesn’t shelter evil and pretend that it’s good. No, this foolishness has only to do with turning against the evil in our own hearts, to begin to actively swim against the swiftly-moving current of self-will and make our way toward the headwaters of holiness. This foolishness is to love and bless when the whole world, and our own being, is saying to us, “curse”.

Very likely all we will ever manage of such acts will not amount to a printed tissue rose in the toe of a shoe, but you and I know from Tradition that even the faintest image of Christ’s sweet face has the power to heal. And if we grow tired of struggling upstream when it would be so much easier to swim down, we have only to think of the Mother of God, to see her gazing up at that face from the foot of the cross, at the beloved features of her son drawn with the pain and loneliness of the whole sin-sick world, and to remember that seeing the foolishness, the Divine senseless Beauty in His condescension, she bowed her head in humility and kissed His feet.

*The icon “Holy Napkin”; image credit: Uncut Mountain Supply.com

Forming the Soul

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

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.