Art and Spirit - A Vamp on Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, writing of his conversion to Catholicism in The Seven Storey Mountain, underscores his realization that the creating of art is a contemplative act as one of the primary reasons he converted to Catholicism.

He thanks his study of William Blake’s poetry for this realization; specifically how ‘Blake rejected literalism and naturalism in lieu of the mystical and the supernatural.’ Merton expanded this reflection to the people in his life, especially his own father:

“I had learned from my own father that it was almost blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to reproduce some kind of a sensible pleasure or, at best, to stir the emotions to a transitory thrill. I had always understood that art was contemplation, and that it involved the action of the highest faculties of man.”

The artistic process, as Merton sees it, is integrally entwined with the artist’s spiritual practice. The artistic process IS the artist’s spiritual practice.

This sentiment, the conjoining of the artistic and the spiritual, has always made ready sense to me, and although I do a poor job of synthesizing the two regularly, the devotion that creating art requires draws on the same soul-source that my spiritual practice (a practice that is admittedly loose and haphazard) also employs.

I can’t at this point separate the two practices.

To vamp on Merton’s ideas, though, I would add a couple of clarifications/realizations.

One: thanks to good old American commodification, we often expect a product from art, a ware that can be sold to the world as some end-result of our artistic efforts. Although I respond to this like any American would (maybe MY novel will be discovered, and I’ll make a gazillion dollars) this notion is demeaning to the act of creating art as a spiritual practice where the art is as much in the doing as it is in the artifact being made.

Two: Merton’s own vision of having once wanted to be known and validated as a novelist—a desperate validation I am familiar with—portrays art as a singular, myopic act. As a younger man, I often held in great esteem those writers who sacrificed family, health, sanity for the pursuance of their art. Merton, who eventually lived a monastic life away from the temptations and the messiness of day to day America, is making art sound like a singular process when it is multi-faceted, raggedy, personal and public – much like the pursuance of spiritual matters.

These ideas—that artistic and spiritual work must produce something, that there is only one God, one religion, one way at the exclusion of all else—reduces and diminishes the many routes, the many small acts, that we all have available to us to go beyond the literal world before us and enter into the mystical, the supernatural.

The Spiritual Life Made Manifest - Larry Gordon, In Memoriam

Larry Gordon was a pivotal innovator in the southern California surf culture of the late-1950s and earl- 1960s. He was also my uncle. Along with Floyd Smith (also my uncle - San Diego was a small town back then, if you can believe that) Gordon and Smith developed some of the first foam and resin surfboards, which, to make a long story very short, transformed the sport.   

He was also a man of deep Christian faith. Although he and I never aligned on the specifics of our belief systems, we did have many interesting discussions--and arguments--about the nature of living as a spiritual person.  

Larry Gordon was diagnosed with Parkinson's over ten years before his death. How he conducted himself--with strength and with dignity--during an illness that mocked that strength and spit on that dignity is one of the most profound models of how to live one's belief's that I have seen. 

Below is a piece I wrote for my aunt and cousins when my Uncle Larry passed away a couple weeks ago. I find it interesting that despite the religious ideas that he and I used to talk about, it was his actions as a father that have left the deepest impression. 

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According to the writer Adam Gopnik, we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.

Larry Gordon--my Uncle Larry--was that contrarian figure who was drawn to faith while practicing faith. He lived by his beliefs, and those beliefs lived in him, infusing everything from surfing to running a business. But it was Uncle Larry’s practice of faith as a father that has left the deepest impression on me.

I have the bad habit of realizing life-lessons long after they’re applicable. Sometimes I find myself mimicking my role models without realizing who those role models are. And although I’m a terrible surfer, a poor scientist, a distracted searcher of spiritual truths, Larry Gordon is a role model for the kind of dad I want to be.

My own father left when I was six. It seemed at that time as though the world of my childhood was divided between those children whose dads had stayed and those whose dads had left. There is in this an uncomfortable feeling of exposure, that you are somehow undeserving, that you are somehow to blame, that the absence you feel so acutely is a detectable flaw in you or on you.

During that tenuous time just after my dad left, perhaps sensing that I needed guidance, the Gordon family took me to their church and included me in their community. And what lingers more than anything else about that time was how being accepted by a family where the father was present and engaged, where the father wanted nothing more than to be right there with his wife and his children, was quietly powerful and beautiful and something that I desperately needed to experience.

I couldn’t have a father like Larry, but I can try to be a father like him. Or, to put it in a way that Uncle Larry might appreciate, I will be the dad I would have wanted whether my own children like it or not.

Make no mistake, I fail more often than I succeed. I’m frequently humbled. I spend much of my parenting time practicing doubt.

In my better moments, though, I try emulate Larry, and the example he established: let your beliefs guide you, seize each swell as a new possibility, be there in the moment, be present, whether you’re stoked or whether you fall, and always, always be ready to paddle out one more time no matter what the ocean throws at you. 

Although I certainly have doubts about my own performance as a parent, thanks to his example, I have absolute faith that the act of being a good father can be done and it can be done gloriously.

Faithfulness

Maria Popva’s fantastic website Brain Pickings culls her myriad obsessions (literary, artistic, aural, spiritual, etc.) into a constant flow of enlightening posts.

Her piece on Parker Palmer’s recent Naropa University address showcases what makes Popova’s blog a must-read: she channels a nearly obscure current of would-be internet ephemera and siphons it in order to pique our own obsessiveness.

I had been ignorant of Palmer’s work, although I realize I heard him on an On Being podcast without having connected name to message. But given that the theme of this blog--Begin Again--is the overlap between the persistent and repetitive cycles of both artistic and spiritual work (the same but different and both as mundane as they are mysterious), the themes of his teachings are necessary to echo here.

Specifically, what struck a chord is Parker’s talking-point about parsing the difference between the ‘effectiveness’ of taking on the necessary and nagging tasks of our lives (those nefarious but essential to-do lists) and the overarching passion projects that inspire and drive what we often consider our ‘true’ work. While acknowledging that managing tasks effectively gets us short-term results, we also must return to and attend to those grander notions of what Parker refers to as faithfulness:

‘…(being) faithful to your calling, and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care.’

Surveying where I am right now, I have been emphasizing my day-job, which at present is a wild ride of travel-intensive IT project work and the constructing—along with my colleagues—of a business. It’s obvious why my focus is here now: the job pays, and it provides, and frankly, it’s fun, exciting, risky, scary. Creativity comes into play quite a lot in my day-to-day – much more than I would have guessed.

Still.

Lately I’ve been more effective than I have been faithful; or more accurately, I’m more aware of being effective and less aware of being faithful. And when I am aware of being faithful, I’m faithful in unexpected ways. Where I once relied on being myopically faithful to my artistic pursuits, I’m now spreading that faithfulness to my relationships, to my health, to my spiritual work, and, as noted above, even to my day job.

As Popova’s recap of Palmer’s address underscores, it’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in living a paradox: we know less and are less certain the longer we live. 

If Any Church Would Have Me as a Member….

“You can’t eat the bread if you haven’t accepted Jesus as your savior.”

This was from my grandmother, who had turned around from the pew in front of me in order to make sure I hadn’t gulped down the saltine wafer and grape juice—the flesh and blood of Christ—as they were passed before my pre-adolescent appetite.

I loved and love my departed grandmother; my relationship with her is one of those foundational emotional bonds that girds my being. And yet, this woman who was so important to me had no trouble reminding me that I was an unredeemed sinner who was pedaling his way to the smoldering gates of Hell.

My brain was quick to make the obvious connection: My grandmother, an otherwise endless source of love and support, had transformed into my Condemner because we were in church.

I am one of those born with that chromosomal kink who, despite all efforts to the contrary over many years, can’t seem to shake loose from an inclination toward the religious. Not the spiritual, which I define as the essential gut-feel that the Universe operates by erratic divine providence, I mean religious – holy scriptures, rituals, preachers, and yes, church.

I am also one of those born with that _other_ chromosomal kink who can’t get comfortable with two important components of the religious life: settling into a single religious discipline and attending church.

Sigh.

So…by default, my tribe is the pastiche of spiritual, religiously-inclined humanist artists who wander and ache and rebel and mourn and joke and indulge and imbibe and who otherwise feel like we’re missing out on something grand but who also feel like we’ve dodged a boulder-sized bullet. My tribe is the ‘Cafeteria Plan Believer’ – the group who uses whatever spiritual teachings pass the transom of our pre-occupied brains and cobble themselves together into a belief system.

Imagine a Frankenstein monster sutured together with religious iconography.

This serves me well as an artist (or at least it keeps my creative engines rumbling), but I can’t know what it’s doing to my spiritual development, which is, to my mind, integrally entwined with that self-same creative development.

I do know that during these past few and difficult years, probably some of the hardest years of my life (he wrote vaguely), I have turned to spiritual texts and teachings more than ever before. I have brought a daily practice into my hours. I have been remarkably serious about it. And as much as I long to tell my grandmother that I am now able to chew the wafer and drink the juice, I still just…can’t.

But, if there were a church out there I could belong to, the one that comes closest to my ideal is Nadia Bolz-Weber’s. The combination of disciplined adherence and open-armed admittance, the emphasis on tradition and resurrection and redemption, speak to me and my sense of what the religious should be.

I can’t know what my grandmother would have thought Bolz-Weber’s congregation, but I like to think that, in another reality, we could have broken bread there together. 

When the Drummer Wants to Be the Singer

No one wants to be Ringo.

It’s nothing against Ringo, per se (although Ringo gets a lot of crap for not being as good a musician as the rest of the Fab Four—and while I admit I once thought this, too—I now recognize that his unique, melodic drumming was the perfect compliment to the Beatles’ music). And it’s not really even about the Beatles and their media-fabricated ‘personalities’ – smart, sarcastic John; romantic, dreamy Paul; quiet, spiritual George.

It’s about the role of the drummer.

So let’s pretend that our complex, individual and multi-faceted lives can be distilled into the configuration of the classic four-piece rock band. In that archetypal arrangement, the drummer is the worker, the drone, the time-keeper (the job is different if you’re drumming for Jimi Hendrix or if you play jazz, and there are hundreds of exceptions, but we’re talking about the rule here – in rock music, drummers keep time). On stage, the drummer is pushed back behind the band, and although s/he has the capacity to be the loudest and most distracting member, s/he is the one whose presence you’re made aware of by her or his absence.

In other words you should only notice a good drummer when the music demands that you do. More than anyone else on that stage, the drummer’s job is to maintain the song’s structure, its volume and its speed, while the other members are free to emote, to solo, and to stand in the blare and brightness at the center of attention. As the drummer you are in the ultimate support role.

This is why drummers want to be singers. Why be a support player when you could be the star?

Ego, though, is a quirky, fickle and demanding little beast. Using myself as an example, I often have two conflicting narratives running inside my head at the same time:

I’m better than this; I’m not good enough for this.

I’ve centered my spiritual work of late on my ego. I’m one of those people who denies the insistence and existence of his own ego because I sense that being ego-driven is spiritually stifling, but then I unconsciously operate out of my own self-interest despite myself. One of the most valuable recent lessons has been realizing how much I pin on outcomes. How much of my life I put on hold until X or Y is accomplished. Right now, I’m having to wrestle with my career goals (goals I didn’t even know I had) while at the same time nurturing my creative and familial needs.

What role does ego play in this? What role should ego play in this? I don’t know anything more than I can’t change and grow without some ego-investment. I can’t write books or contribute to my family without some sense of ego-investment. I’m beginning to equate being egoless with being fearless -- being fearless doesn’t mean we live without fear; it means we acknowledge the fear and do what we must. Is it the same with ego? That rather than negate ego, we should acknowledge our ego-involvement, recognize ego’s role in what we’re doing, and then act?

Going back to the rock band, and to the Beatles, and to the roles we all ultimately play in the stage production of our lives. We’re all here to serve the music. Yeah, we also back up the other members in our band, and yes we also perform to the crowd, but ultimately, it’s the music that we serve. Ego becomes a problem when we fixate on the attention that the singer is getting, or when we obsess about the crowd’s reaction. But when we focus on the music, on the music-making, ego finds its rightful size and role and context.