Jewels from Festival of Faith & Writing

The Festival of Faith & Writing was short on tulips this year, but still rich in jewels from writers of many kinds.  Some glints from the riches:

“Make friends with really accomplished dead people.”
“Looking for truth can look like looking for trouble.”
“When you write about what you know, you point to an object– you elevate what you know. Instead, create a scene that provokes a way of knowing.”
Poet Scott Cairns

“Don’t try to write about your faith directly. Live your faith. Then write about your life and your faith will come out authentically.”
Comic book writer Gene Luen Yang

“Books are a military of reason and discourse.”
“I don’t need to spend time remembering my mistakes– other people will do plenty of that for me.”
Author and musician James McBride

“When we give our thinking to petty things, we become small souls.”
Author Richard Foster

“They sit down and get up. They sit down and feel put-upon. They sit down and feel victimized. They sit down and feel superior about feeling victimized. That’s what it’s like for the people whose work you admire– that’s what it’s like for everyone.”
Anne Lamott

“Fidelity to the facts is an aesthetic pleasure.”
Essayist Amy Leach

“Reference to transcendence is not dependent on religious impulse– the impulse toward transcendence is a structural restlessness in human nature.”
“There are culturally-conditioned captivities. We need to listen to our brothers and sisters of other places and eras if we hope to be released from those captivities.”
“The Golden Rule means if I want a right, I have to grant a right.”
“The enemy of Christianity today is not atheism but sentimentality.”
Yale Professor and theologian Miroslav Volf


We know the first verses. The midnight clear, the deep and dreamless sleep, all calm, all bright. The velvet, star-glittered cosmos wheeling over the snug, sun-warmed stones. The vast ancient neighboring the humble ancient. The seam of far dawn cerulean on the horizon. The diamond-white flare; heavenly light cracking through the prism of the singular star. The smell of hay. The wind in the dark, fresh as cool water, eddying the pattering olive boughs. The silence.

We know the first verses. Childhood Christmases of gaze and wonder, footed pajamas and noses on cold, silhouetted glass. Teenaged Christmases, like water tumbling into a burned-out chest, filling the vessel exhausted by the fires of intensity. Twenty-something Christmases strung by mental contortions; wiring and soldering theologies to complete circuits— striving for something that will conduct the currents of joy, ground and insulate peace.

Along the next advent days, the chorus enters, intermittent, counterpunctual:

Alto[1]: “What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall.… The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly back up, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here?.…It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air….”

Baritone[2]: Theotokos, the God-bearer. She is the one who suffers unprecedented and unmediated contact with the Holy Presence.

Alto: “I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear…. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”

Mezzo-Soprano: “The angel said, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’ And Mary said, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

Tenor[3]: “Human beings are dehumanized by fear…But they should not be afraid…. There, look to him in your fear. Think about him, place him before your eyes, and call him. Pray to him and believe that he is now with you and helps you. The fear will yield and fade, you will become free through faith in the strong and living Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Soprano[4]: “When we say we’re looking for a spiritual advisor, we’re really looking for someone to tell us what to do with our bodies…. While some are motivated by love (those who choose), most are motivated by fear (those who choose by not choosing).… But [there’s] something else instead, much less simple—a dissonance—like grief, whose pain is love.”

Mezzo-Soprano: “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.”

Alto: “The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart.”

Bass[5]: “God being born as a baby is his way of saying, ‘You don’t need to be afraid of me. You don’t need to be afraid of me.’”

Caesura: A silent pause, during which time is not counted. Caesura. Caesura. The prayer we desire and fear. The infant we can only wrap in swaddling clothes, must soon lay in a manger because we cannot bear this embrace. Dense as a black hole; brilliant as a supernova. Lethal to hold so close to the heart: consuming, addicting, perpetual.

He could never have come as anything other than an infant. A babe in arms—unable to will harm but utterly demanding; consuming you to exhaustion, feeding you to overflowing. Powerless but irresistible. Can you walk away from the crying child? Even as hate and frustration strangle your breath, can you walk from the cradle without murdering a part of yourself? The child demands it, but you must choose what to sacrifice. Self or self? Once the child has arrived, he cannot be undone. For all the pain (the labor) the cost, you cannot imagine unexisting him. And even so, there is nothing to fear. Walk away, abandon and starve the child, and—still—when you return, forced back hardened and burning, threatened by infection, he will gladly receive, will place his hand over your heart, will meet your eyes with nothing but gratitude. He is incapable of grudge, retaliation, judgment. He has not chosen this; it’s his nature. All choice is yours. Will you crook your arm or lay back your head, still everything but your beating heart, so the child can give the only gift he has to give? Will you make of your body a place he can rest? You will not otherwise rest; set him down and the demands will begin. Caesura, caesura: during which time is not counted. Can I nurture this child? One I did not create, but who creates me?

“God being born as a baby is his way of saying, ‘You don’t need to be afraid of me. You don’t need to be afraid of me.’”

Now we begin to learn the second verses. We find we know them by heart, but have never heard them, never noticed:

Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains, they bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.

O ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours, come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

We have never noticed: Every carol is a lullaby.

[1] Annie Dillard

[2] Scott Cairns

[3] Dietrich Bonhoffer

[4] Anne Michaels

[5] Greg Boyd

Encounter: Scott Cairns

“The Entrance of Sin” by Scott Cairns, from Recovered Body

Yes, there was a tree, and upon it, among the
wax leaves, an order of fruit which hung plen-
tifully, glazed with dew of a given morning.
And there had been some talk off and on—
nothing specific—about forgoing the inclina-
tion to eat of it. But sin had very little to do
with this or with any outright prohibition.

For sin had made its entrance long before the
serpent spoke, long before the woman and the
man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy
flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite with-
out flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of
an evening stroll, when the woman had
reached to take the man’s hand and he with-
held it.

In this way, the beginning of our trouble came
to the garden almost without notice. And in
later days, as the man and the woman wan-
dered idly about their paradise, as they contin-
ued to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food and
drink and spirited coupling even as they sat
marveling at the approach of evening and the
more lush approach of sleep, they found within
themselves a developing habit of resistance.

One supposes that, even then, this new taste
for turning away might have been overcome,
but that is assuming the two had found the
result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was
this: Every time some manner of beauty was
offered and declined, the subsequent isolation
each conceived was irresistible.