Sunday, March 18, 2018

sane and ebullient

I spent Saturday at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center, for an Art & Spirituality retreat.  The hill was home to a private mansion in the late 1700s and in the wake of the Civil War was claimed by 6 Sisters of the Visitation, whose mission was to pray for healing over the city of Richmond.  The sisters established a school but later closed it with the decision to embrace a contemplative life, producing communion hosts for the diocese and running a print shop.  When the Sisters moved out in the 1980s, an ecumenical group assumed the Sisters' mission, and in 2004 Richmond Hill opened its doors once again to pray for the city below.

The day had a schedule but we were encouraged to wander the gardens 
and visit the chapel and library.

A grandmother-mom-daughter trio participated.  
The mom's artwork represents the 3 generations plus her grandmother, 
whom she has never met, but whose attributes she feels are represented in the other 2.  

This woman was inspired by the chapel's stained glass.  
She is deciding whether to place a silhouette of her friend holding the phone taking a photo of the window.

I was curious to explore the library, where I came across The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery, by Henri J.M. Nouwen.  The book read as a journal and seemed appropriate given the setting.

Here is an entry.  It reminds me of the response attributed to famed mountaineer George Mallory to, "Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?": "Because it's there."

'If I see three oranges, I have to juggle.  And if I see two towers, I have to walk.'  These remarkable words were spoken by the tightrope-walker, Philippe Petit, in answer to the question of the police as to why he had walked (at 7:50 A.M.) on a rope shot with a crossbow from one tower of the New York Trade Center to the other.  When Phillipe had seen the two spires of Notre Dame in Paris, he had done the same.  'L'art pour l'art' is this highwire artist's philosophy.

I have been thinking today, off and on, about this beautiful man Philippe Petit.  His answer to the police is priceless and deserves long meditation.  We always want answers to impossible questions.  Why do you love her?  Any answer to such a question is usually ridiculous.  Because she is beautiful?  Because she is intelligent?  Because she has a funny pimple on her nose?  Nothing much makes sense.  Why did you become a priest?  Because you love God?  Because you like to preach?  Because you don't like women?  Why did you become a monk?  Because you like to pray?  Because you like silence?  Because you like to bake bread without being bothered?  There are no answers to those questions.

When they asked Philippe Petit why he wanted to walk on a slender wire strung between the two tallest towers of New York City, everyone thought he did it for money, for publicity, for fame.  But he said, 'If I see three oranges, I have to juggle.  And if I see two towers, I have to walk.'

We don't believe the most meaningful answer.  We think that this man must be insane.  In fact, they took Philippe to a city hospital for psychiatric examination but soon found out that Philippe was as healthy as could be.  'Sane and ebullient,' says the newspaper.

His is the true answer.  Why do you love her?  When I saw her, I loved her.  Why are you a priest?  Because I must be a priest.  Why do you pray?  Because when I see God, I must pray.  There is an inner must, an inner urge, or inner call that answers all those questions which are beyond explanation.  Never does anyone who asks a monk why he became a monk receive a satisfying answer.  Nor do children give us an explanation when we ask them, 'Why do you play ball?'  They know that there is no answer except, 'When I see a ball, I have to play with it.'

The police who arrested Philippe Petit seemed to understand this because they dropped the original charge of trespassing and disorderly conduct in exchange for Philippe's promise to perform his aerial feats for the children in Central Park.  That at least brought some real humanity back into the picture. Meanwhile, I keep saying to myself, 'If I see three oranges, I have to juggle.  And if I see two towers, I have to walk.'

I loved these oil colors.  
This woman works in an office, finds time for art precious, and has a goal of painting a portrait of each of her grandchildren.  

My product.  Tuscany, not Ireland, though it was St. Patrick's Day.  But the top 1/3 is reminiscent of the Irish flag, eh?  And it's done on cardboard backing so you could say it's green. :)

I wonder how it was that each of the participants found solace in art to the extent that they would treasure setting apart a day to fully engage with it.  I imagine some of the answer may be that unknowable response to the supplies and blank canvas that, like a tightrope or a mountain, beckoned. And that may be all the answer needed.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

16x20", acrylic

I hadn't done any acrylic painting in a while, but was inspired to take to the canvas after my coworker introduced me via instagram to Paolo (, a woman who lives life with flair.  From Haiti originally, she catalogues life in NYC and a recent move to Austin.

Paolo's work (her husband's photography of her) most often features herself in bold colors.  One of her mantras is "Be the Color You Wish to See in the World." 

This painting is the combination of 2: the first an ocean view in Maine (see the remains of red boats?), which I liked parts of but not the whole, with an overlay of Radio City Music Hall featuring Paolo.  Laziness won out in recovering the entire canvas, so behold, you might call it artistic

Thursday, March 8, 2018

in time to plant radishes

"...The spring of 1928, Dorothy and Tamar returned to the beach from yet another dismal apartment in the city in time to plant radishes on Tamar's second birthday."

Planting radishes is one of the thing Dorothy Day does, as described by her granddaughter in Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty.  

"Love, motherhood, religion--how many of us on finding ourselves embraced by any one of these would have stopped, rested, and remained?  But this is the mystery of those forces that led her to go one step further, and another step, and another...

Isn't this that in-between time, that liminal space cherished by the Irish, that mysterious time of waiting and wandering?

...In coming to this part of the story, I feel I'm holding in my hands my mother's most treasured memories and her most vulnerable self."

I'm into Part 1 of the memoir, but Hennessy does a superb job describing the winding path of Dorothy's growing years, her loves, her struggles, her hopes, her starts and false starts, her uprooting and new planting.

Monday, February 19, 2018

by way of this contact

Recently I've enjoyed the lyrical music of 
The Innocence Mission (Bright As Yellow: 

I've also been perusing Brain Pickings (, which is where I came upon the above quote.  Here are a few unassociated thoughts by Maria Popova, the blogger, which she gave in an interview.  Emphases are mine.

"And I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. I mean, the true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. And the only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. There is no shortcut for the conquest of meaning. And ultimately, it is meaning that we seek to give to our lives."

"Well, there are certain core beliefs, I guess. I think a lot about the relationship between cynicism and hope. Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. I try to live in this place between the two, to try to build a life there. Because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation, of which cynicism is a symptom, a sort of futile self-protection mechanism. But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation, because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking with hope."

"We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. I think it was William James who said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shape my mind.” And so in choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world, our inner world, our outer world, which is really the only one we’ll ever know. And to me, that’s the substance of the spiritual journey. It’s not an exasperating idea but an infinitely emboldening one, and it’s taken me many years to come to that without resistance."

It's true that there's much for us to attend to.  Joyful people I know often seem to be able to be interested in a myriad of things.  But, maybe able to do all this without being fragmented by it.  

In The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser defines the human universal of desire as "an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia.  A dis-ease."  Spirituality is our response to desire.  It's what we do with that madness.

He uses the example of how 3 women channel desire differently: 
Mother Teresa fits Soren Kierkegaard's definition of a holy one: someone who can will the one thing.  She poured out her eros for God and the poor.
Janis Joplin, also possessing a rare energy, willed many things, eventually exacerbating her restlessness and tiredness. Rather than achieving integration, she encountered dissipation.
He compares Princess Diana to most of us who wrestle with choice and commitment, sin and virtue, some of her choices creating greater integration and others that tear at body and soul.

He identifies 3 things that challenge our interiority today:
narcissism (excessive self-preoccupation)
pragmatism (excessive focus on work and achievement)
unbridled restlessness (excessive greed for experience)
and casts them as the source of our heartaches, headaches, and insomnia.  

We all have finite energy and finite time.  As Maria Popova reminds us, we do not lack choice, our mode of being in the world.  Including choosing what to attend to.

Innocence Mission, Brotherhood of Man (

"and he smiles through the limbs"
"though I did not learn her name, amid the subway din, a stranger lit my way"

Saturday, January 20, 2018