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

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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.

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 is a Weakness

loveisaweakness

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Submission. It’s the first thing a writer wants to know about when querying an agent or publisher with a manuscript. What are the submission requirements? How do I submit? And while submitting a short story or a few chapters of a novel is a wonderful and desirable thing to be invited to do, the actual process is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, the submission guidelines for lots of literary agencies refer to a work of writing its author wishes to submit as “a piece”. A very fitting term, I say, for what is about to be exacted is no mere manuscript, but a pound of the writer’s rib-flesh, carved deep from the bone with a dull knife.

Pretty twisted stuff. Nevertheless, it goes on in the literary world all the time. Just not nearly so often as many hopeful writers, myself included, would like.

If submitting sounds hard to do, that’s because it is. Not only for fiction writers, but for saner folks as well. There’s a certain humility, a lowliness, a bending of the ego required and usually we need some motive for doing it. The writer wants to be published, of course, will nearly grovel to make that happen. But there are lots of other reasons people allow themselves to submit. Employees submit to company policy because they want to keep a salary coming in, further their careers or earn a raise. In the hospital patients submit to tests and treatment because they want to be cured. Teenagers submit to peer opinion because they need to fit in, to know they belong.

There are those, too, who submit for reasons of the heart. Fans of the movie “The Princess Bride” will recall the scene with Westley and Princess Buttercup in which she gives him several commands in succession, addressing him with the rather humiliating title of “Farm boy”. To each command, Westley replies, “As you wish”.  The rest, of course, is cult classic history. Had Westley not answered the way he did, had he handed Buttercup an extend-a-reach tool instead and told her to fetch down her own pitcher, there would be no happy ending. No perfect kiss.  But Westley does obey when Buttercup commands and so the story proceeds.

The scene of Westley’s compliance is not written into the movie’s screenplay to convey a message of feminine triumph over the weaker male psyche. Not at all. We the viewers immediately understand that there’s something much more important going on between these two characters than dominance and subservience. Westley is being weak on purpose. For the sake of true love.

Love, then, is the best reason one can have for bending to the will of another. And it’s the only motive that comes anywhere close to pure.

It is love, after all, that motivates the Virgin Mary to submit, to take on the role of being Christ’s mother.  Out of adoration for God, pure and simple, she replies to the archangel’s incredible announcement with, “Let it be”.

Love is the reason, too, for Christ’s miracle at Cana. There is evidence of this in the command his mother gives just after Christ has told her that his time for working miracles has not yet come:”His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.”  Not only does Christ demonstrate filial love by turning the water to wine, Mary seems to know before he does it what his action will be, no doubt because for all his earthly life she’s been loving him.

The highest expression of this submission that is love is seen in the relationship between the three persons of the Holy Trinity, most beautifully illustrated in Rublev’s icon. With skill belonging to the other world, Rublev uses color, light and composition to evoke the perfect harmony that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Taken from the Old Testament story of the hospitality of Abraham, the three angels are shown, each with head inclined to another, seated in an intimate circle around a table on which sits a single vessel.

holy_trinity_-rublev (2)

For me, the great gift of this icon is in its movement. Gazing at it, I have a sense of perfect, selfless love being infinitely exchanged. I can almost see it happening before my eyes. Each bends to the other and gives the eternal answer, “As You wish.”

The Lingering Scent of Kindness

chicken farm sign (2)

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

When I was small my mother had what she called an “egg route”. With baskets of fresh hen eggs—washed and stacked into cardboard flats or single-dozen cartons—filling the back  of our station wagon, she drove over roads that twisted like pretzels from our farm in the small borough of Prospect, Pennsylvania to the larger nearby town of New Castle to deliver her wares. Many of Mom’s customers were homemakers, wives of men who left in the dark each day to work in the steel or coal industry. These were strong, capable women in middle-age who did not seem to know they weren’t supposed to love their jobs. With their wide, apron-wrapped waists and wider smiles they seemed to me as inseparable a part of their kitchens as did their flour-dusted tables and busy steaming stoves.

I always liked riding along with Mom on a delivery day, but never more than at Christmas or Easter time, when these women would be slow roasting meats and baking sweetbreads stuffed with dried fruits and scented with anise and icing dozens of cookies.

“You must come in. Come in,” they’d command, in heavily accented English, when we knocked at their back doors. And Mom always obeyed, to my great delight. Not only did those egg buyers’ houses smell like I imagined heaven would, but I knew from experience that for the next fifteen minutes to a half hour, while she visited over a cup of strong coffee, my brother and I would gorge ourselves on sweets. (We were the youngest in a family of five at the  time—all boys, except for me.  A platter of anything never lasted long on our table.)

lingering scent of kindness

The extra minutes we spent visiting with  Mom’s customers could be seen as wasted, especially since they extended our delivery day considerably.

But they were not wasted.

Throughout my life I’ve kept the memory of those women and the gift of their warmth, recalling the effect their neighborliness had not only on my brother and me but on my mother. Young as we were, we could tell that Mom enjoyed our visits in those homes as much as we did. Although she wasn’t the type to complain, I think her customers knew she had troubles. In their kind kitchens the pain and fatigue that came with her rheumatoid arthritis seemed to lift for a time. Refreshed by their friendship, her brow would smooth, her spirits would lighten, and she’d break into song or entertain us with a story from her childhood as we drove up and down the hilly streets of New Castle, finishing the day’s deliveries.

There have been other moments like those over the years, instances in which other human beings, other children of God, showed a bit of generosity or did me or my loved ones a kindness. And it strikes me that a few of those gestures—an encouraging grin, a sympathetic glance on a difficult day—could be considered so ordinary, so commonplace, so slight, as to be downright insignificant.

They have in truth all been earthquakes, changing the landscape of my life.

It’s an amazing thing, and awfully humbling, to consider how huge a small offering—just a plate of cookies and a bid to sit a while—can be.

 

Of Soil and Hearts

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Reading is one of the ways writers hone their craft. And there is no literature better for this than the Holy Scriptures. The parables of Christ are especially rich in imagery and contain some fine examples of literary device. Probably because I was raised on a farm, I’m particularly drawn to the allegories that have agrarian themes. When our Lord talks about dirt, barns, grapevines, or sheep and goats, he’s speaking my language. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”.

Where I go deaf is in the lesson.

 Luke 8:5-14 paints a typically vivid picture: “A sower went out to sow his seed”.

 Here, I’m all ears and inner eyes, seeing the planter setting to his task. I’ve never been to the Holy Land, so the sower of my imagination, heading into the dawn on a misty morn, is wearing—not a tunic—but overalls, and the burlap sack slung across one thick shoulder bulges with cotton seed.

Jesus is a great storyteller. Character and setting are established in a single opening sentence. The scene building continues and just three sentences later the tale has a beginning, middle and end.

“And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up it withered away because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.”

The next line caused me to roll my eyes when I read it as a young girl:

“And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?”

I was unimpressed with the disciples at that point. Anybody could see the Lord wasn’t just spinning yarns for the fun of it. I don’t remember now what I thought the meaning to the parable was at age 7 or 8, but I recall thinking them awfully slow for not grasping it. Those poor fellows just hadn’t been steeped in fairy tales and folklore like I was, I figured, or they’d have gotten the message right off. Being God in the flesh, Jesus is of course more patient in his answer than I would have been. He even gives his disciples special status as receivers of the mysteries of God before saying, “Now the parable is this.

The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are they that hear; then comes the devil, and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”

sprout (2)

That child, so adept at gleaning the moral from a fairy tale, is gone. As an older adult I seem to be growing denser by the day, more lesson resistant. According to our parish priest, who gave a homily on this parable not long ago, my difficulty is a common one and chronic. With the passing of childhood, so goes openness and simplicity. Children might fib to each other and on occasion to adults but, unlike us, they do not lie to themselves. The key, then, to restoring spiritual childlikeness to a soul grown stony and hard, to giving it the freshness of new-turned earth, must lie within the last passage of this gospel reading, the line our priest stressed his homily. In it, Jesus defines good ground:

…“they which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it.”

Wayfaring Strangers

ozark mountain sceneby Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Orthodox coming to our church from another country are often surprised at the number of converts and seem shocked that Americans, especially Ozarkians, can show such zeal for traditional worship. “You drive so far, and seem happy about it,” a woman from Moscow once remarked. She had just moved with her husband and daughter to Branson. “It’s very hard to be an Orthodox Christian in America,” she said. “Here it takes effort to go to church. In Russia it’s easy. There’s one on every corner.”

I remember thinking that none of us was exactly happy to travel so far, especially when we also had churches on every corner—our family passed up a veritable buffet of them every Sunday morning to get to Unexpected Joy—but I also knew what she meant. We live in the Missouri Ozarks region, the buckle on the Bible Belt. Our joy at having an Orthodox church within a two hour drive must have been to her a thing almost tangible. And it must have seemed very odd too, so deep in the Ozarks, to find a wooden Russian-style church topped by onion domes and filled with American converts lighting candles and fervently crossing themselves.

Although I spent my childhood in Western Pennsylvania, I’m an Okie, born into a family of Christians of various evangelical flavors, a fair portion of whom are now Orthodox. But the Ozarks have been home for a very long time. And the sight of a man born and raised in these hills serving like an angel at the holy altar can still move me to tears.

I am moved because Ozarkians are by nature shrewd, independent, self-reliant and cautious, characteristics that should make it almost impossible to desire the mystery that is Orthodoxy. Almost. Each of those traits also allowed Ozark people to endure poverty and hardship and together form the rocky, top layer of a deeper, richer character. No matter how young, within the chest of any Ozarks native beats an old, longing heart. To the ear of such a heart, Orthodox worship can strike a familiar chord.

Ozarkians, like all humans, yearn for paradise. Naturally, heaven is the soul’s true home. We are all strangers and pilgrims. But while modern music tries to numb the pain of that knowledge, to distract us from our homesickness, traditional American folk music—the music of the Ozark Mountains—did the opposite.

I know dark clouds will gather ’round me
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie out before me
Where God’s redeemed, their vigils keep.

For the people of this region, lush green hills hid a hardscrabble life and an often bleak future. Death was real and close at hand. Heaven was realer, and the hope of life.

I’m gonna tell God all my troubles
When I get home.
I’m gonna tell him
the road was rocky
When I get home.

Hardship and struggle fosters deep faith. And deep faith, like death, is a great leveler, equating kings with beggars. Cosmopolitans with hillbillies. Sometime around 987 AD a Kievan emperor’s emissaries entered Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople to observe Christian worship. More than a thousand years later a handful of curious Ozarkians happened into a tiny Orthodox church in rural Missouri.

All found heaven.

Feather Chase

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

On a rain-soaked day, not long ago,
I sat at the table in my kitchen,
tired of myself and tired of the world,
and read cover to cover
a book I’’d borrowed from the library.

I devoured it, really,
that book.
The collected sayings of saints.
Pearls abbas and ammas of the African desert
had strung in ancient times.
Those men and women who—
all skin and bones and dry as dust—
exchanged the world in return for their souls.

It was the sort of book to change your life.

Next morning I woke up alive.
(I had not been for a while.)

Weightless I rose, like an angel, from my bed.
Joy is an ether, I decided.
For while I slept the marrow had left my bones
and finding them hollow,
this sweet, buoyant substance had replaced it.

Back in the kitchen I gazed at the book
and wondered if by simply reading about detachment
I had somehow attained it.
Next I wondered how best to live (no deserts here)
in this new, enlightened state.

The day was sunny, if cool.
And because wooded land makes a fine venue
for any serious consideration,
I went for a walk.

Not five yards from the house I spied
a tiny feather lying on the ground,
the iridescent jetsam of an indigo bunting.

The feather crooked a blue finger and beckoned.
But when I bent to grasp it danced away
on a willy-nilly path determined by the breeze.

I followed, of course,
in a fever now to claim it.

A Death in the Family

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

My husband wants to know if I’m going to church. No, I say. It’s too soon. (Exactly four hours and 23 minutes short of 48.) I’ll just stand there and cry. He stops shaving and looks at me. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, I hope. I’ve soaked a handful of  tissues and we’re just singing the beatitudes. They are. I’m sobbing. Blessed are those who mourn. An audible, involuntary groan escaping the depths of my belly and inward parts. My godmother peers over her service book at me. A little brown bird in a silken sari. Exotic and warm. Stretching out a blue-feathered wing, she touches my shoulder. For they shall be comforted. A surrogate mother. I have a treasure trove of them here. In bone and flesh—my soul-sisters and brothers—and in spirit—the saints and martyrs alive in gold and wood and paint. Even my priest is a kind of mother, his faith in me beyond my ken. Through a veil of tears I watch him pray, his arms raised to heaven. Lightning rods for the Holy Spirit. I shift my gaze to wall on his left and catch sight of God’s mother. She holds to her breast the slack, lifeless body of her son. Do not lament me O Mother. But she does lament. She is weeping. A sword pierces my heart.