Interview with David Bannon, author of Wounded in Spirit

I posted a (p)review and giveaway of Wounded In Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations early this week, and congratulations to the three winners:

  1. L. Jackson
  2. Melanie Turner
  3. Diane Roth

I hope you find reading this book meaningful and receive a measure of comfort in the coming season!

David Bannon was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his new book via email. Here are his responses:

The season of Advent is both a season of hope and joy and one which touches our pains and longings. How do you think Advent makes space for those of us who are hurting and grieving?

We live in a society that has a tragic “get on with it, get over it” attitude toward grief.  Yet Advent teaches us a different lesson: the importance of accepting our sorrow exactly as it is each moment; the validity of our yearning and pain; the communion of placing our grief in a God who mourns with us; the unexpected consolation of light coming into darkness despite all reason. For those who know loss, our joy is tinged with sorrow. I think of Anna in the Gospel of Luke. A widow of many years, Anna surely felt the weight of loneliness and heartbreak: her gratitude at the sight of Jesus in the temple was hard-earned. In the same book, Simeon concluded his celebratory hymn with a realistic word for Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  In our grief during Advent, we seek rare moments of peace, an assurance that our hope is not ill-founded, and to know that we are not alone.

Bartolome Estaban Murillo, Holy Family with a Bird, c. 1650
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

You lost your only child. In what ways do you find this season hard? What brings you joy in the midst of sorrow?

We all find ways to make peace with our loss.  I  pray for one happy memory each day. Another bereaved parent wrote that she made it a daily goal to find one thing for which to be thankful.  This is not a glib “positive attitude” antidote. Rather, it may well be a prescription for survival.  I am reminded of William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  He lost his wife and four of his five children yet the majority of his work is deeply joyful.  We sense in his paintings an assurance of peace.  His religious pieces, however, are steeped in profound sorrow.  Modern research tells us that Bouguereau’s persistent grief was normal; that the continuing bond he felt with his loved ones is healthy and to be expected.  He did not deny his mourning, he expressed it, just as he expressed the moments of joy he found in each day.  This is typical of bereaved parents.  We experience life as we live it, rejoicing in each happy memory, pausing over the simplest pleasures with gratitude.  Sorrow will return unbidden, it is inevitable. We are changed. Our souls have taken harm. It is in this harm that I experience the silence of God; it is in His silence that I find true peace.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888
Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

The art chosen for your book is beautiful and I love hearing snippets of the artist’s stories. You speak of these artists as providing for you a ‘communion of grief.’ Are there pieces that particularly resonate with you?

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jeanne, 1888
Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

William-Adolphe Bouguereau waited some twenty years after his daughter’s death to paint her portrait, Jeanne.  In it, we sense his longing, tears, joy, memory, and hope. BartolomĂ© Esteban Murillo and Karl Thylmann have vastly different stories: Murillo was orphaned and found peace in creating a family of his own; Thylmann was color blind yet found a way to give us stark, incisive religious imagery that lives on today. The self-portraits of one of the great masters, Jean-SimĂ©on Chardin, reflect brutal honesty.  Before his son took his own life, Chardin’sportraits were robust, energetic, intriguing. After his son’s death, Chardin described his inconsolable grief and regret in Self-portrait Wearing Glasses. Today the work holds pride of place in the Louvre.  We who have experienced loss recognize that look in Chardin’s eyes: ineffable yet wholly and completely known to those who mourn. 

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Self Portrait Wearing Glasses, 1775
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The artists you chose name the darkness, but some also experienced peace and light. Others were haunted by hard circumstance and accepted no easy answers. There is a quite a variety. How did you decide which artists to include in this devotional?

In their religious work, great artists expressed the truth of their wounds. I am reminded of French historian Marc Bloch’s injunction: “When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies. . . . ‘Understanding,’in all honesty, is a word pregnant with difficulties, but also with hope. Moreover, it is a friendly word.” I selected artists whose lives speak to me, that gives me pause, that resonates with recognition and communion. In the end, I chose those artists for whom I felt a surprising friendliness.  

How has writing this book affected you? How have you experienced God’s healing in the midst of this project?

Bereaved parents who have contracted cancer, or lost a limb, report that losing a child was far more difficult. The loss defies comparison. We rarely tell an amputee that he lacks faith: that if he only believes his leg will grow back.  To say such a thing would be thoughtless and unrealistic.  The death of a child is permanent. Our wounds will be healed the moment we hold our children in our arms again.  In the here and now, our healing is to make peace with that.  I believe that God hears us in our grief.  In communion, we may find meaning and reasons to go on.

What is your hope for those who readWounded in Spirit?

Our wounds are our own. No one can understand our individual grief yet surely many of us travel the same dark paths, stumbling and crawling through the same shadowed valley.  Somewhere in this book, there may be a hurt, an artist, a painting or a bit of grief research that resonates with us, that makes us think: “Oh yeah, I know how that feels.”  These artists were broken and wounded, as many of us are, yet they found ways to speak to us across the centuries, to assure us that we are not alone. 

__________

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (Manchester University Press, 1954): 118.

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You can order Wounded in Spirit from:

Lenten Reflections.

In addition to book reviews, I also use my blog as a place for spiritual reflection. This is especially true, in the liturgical penitential seasons (think Advent and Lent) or when I am feeling vocationally angsty.

Tomorrow Lent begins and I am feeling vocationally angsty. You will get new Lent reflections here. In the meantime here are some past Lenten series I’ve published here, that still drive a bunch of traffic (each link below will take you to a separate list of links or posts):

From 2017:

An Alphabet for Penitents

 

From 2016:

The Sour Faced Evangelists of Lent?

Good News Lent: Baptism

Good News Lent: Wilderness Introduction

Good News Lent: Wilderness Temptation Part I

 

From 2012:

The Seven Sins

And my popular blog series of all time:

The Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross

 

 

Michael Yankoski’s Sacred Year: not a book review (just initial thoughts).

Michael Yankoski is a friend I knew from Regent College, He has a new book coming out in September. He was nice enough to send me a review copy and I intend to review it here. But this is not a review. I am not far enough along to write one yet. These are my initial reflections.

I wouldn’t say I was ever really ‘close’ to Michael. We spent a semester or two in the same community group at Regent, Micah 6:8, a prayer support group themed around the area of social justice. It wasn’t long before I realized how smart, thoughtful and charismatic he was. Michael is tall, he has better hair than me (not hard) and an infectious smile. I remember an early conversation where I subtly tried to inform him of my significant role in the (Regent) community. Actually. it was a bald attempt to make myself seem important. Michael was gracious and thanked me for ‘my work.’ This was before I realized that Michael was a published author whom I had read appreciatively. Of course I wondered later why I was so insecure that I felt I needed to prove myself to a virtual stranger. I can probably even dig up a prayer journal entry on that conversation, though I’d be surprised if Michael even remembered it.

I don’t think I really ever felt ‘jealous’ of Michael, perhaps just a little over-awed. I had numerous conversations  with my wife about how impressive Michael and Danae  are (Michael’sÂ ĂŒber talented and delightful wife).  But when I opened up the Sacred Year and read I discovered that in the years that I knew Michael he had  undergone an existential crisis. In his introduction he tells the story of meeting up with a fellow Regent student for coffee. This student expresses the same sort of admiration for Mike that I felt. As he confesses this to Michael, Michael reveals his existential crisis and the journey it set him on (xii). The rest of the book reveals the journey. The first chapter shares Michael’s ‘jadedness’ after travelling around to Christian conferences and events to share his experiences from his first book, Under the Overpass. One over-the-top Christian conference causes him to question whether he was “just another pawn in the brightly lit song-and-dance called ‘American Christianity'”(7).

This leads him to make a week-long-retreat to the local Benedictine abbey near Vancouver. There a spiritual director, Father Solomon, challenges Michael to a year long exploration of spiritual practices. At first Michael balked at a spirituality of trying harder, as if that could earn salvation. The wizened old monk  replied:

The God that called you into existence ex nihilo–out of nothing–is the same God who holds your existence this moment and every moment. Were he to withdraw his hand, you would vanish without memory. All things would. No you can’t make Godlove you.  You can’t make God like you. But nor do you need to; he already does. Never forget that is why he made you–because he wants you to exist. And not just exist. He wants you to live life in all its fullness.(13).

This sets Michael on a journey of exploring spiritual practices which deepen his daily walk with God.

From the outset, this book intrigues me. I have read more than my fair share of books on Spiritual Disciplines. But in lots of ways, my spirituality is still more informational than ‘formational.’ What excites me about this book is that Michael makes a real attempt to live this out. He doesn’t present himself as a Christian super-saint but as someone seeking to shore up what is lacking in his own faith. I am reading this book with interest, because this has been my struggle as well.  I too have have had my run-in with the shallowness of ‘American Christianity’ and have sought something deeper and more life-giving. I also am reading this book as someone who knows the author (a little) and so feels invested in his journey. I am predisposed to like this book because I think Michael is reaching for a deeper place than he did in Under the Overpass (which is still a great book!). I am eager to see the places Michael’s journey with spiritual practices takes him.

Keeping the Feast: a book review

Keeping the Feast: Metaphors For the Meal by Milton Brasher-Cunningham

As I sit and write this review the scent of two freshly baked pies fills the house and my hands smell of orange,curry,  mace and ginger (remnants from my cranberry sauce). Tomorrow is thanksgiving and  we are looking forward to our Turkey dinner, complete with all the fixings–stuffing, mashed patatoes, yams, brussel sprouts, green beans, and gratitude.

In Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal Milton Brasher-Cunningham draws on his gifts as a writer, chef, minister and teacher to explore the meaning of ‘the meal,’ relating his reflections on food (and cooking) with the central meal of the Christian faith, Holy Communion. Brasher-Cunningham presses into what the meaning of community is and how community is built around a table. He also opens up the meaning of ritual (not a lifeless act, but as a meaningful routine which shapes us through our practice). Preparing food and eating a good meal around the table show us what the Eucharist is; the Eucharist makes our daily meals sacred.  Each chapter opens with a poem and closes with a recipe and Brasher-Cunningham shares lots of stories of his experience as a musician and lyricist, an apprenticed chef and as a UCC minister.

The focus of these essays is the Body of Christ gathered around the table.  Often reflections on communion either talk about communion as a sacrament (a means of grace) or as a memorial (do this in remembrance of me). What Brasher-Cunningham writes seems to accommodate both views but he doesn’t delve too deeply into theology (his own movement from the Baptist tradition to a mainline denomination signals a shift away from a mere memorial view). Instead he focuses on the experience of gathering as a community and the effect communion has on us.

I enjoyed these essays a lot and found that they appealed to my inner-foodie. My inner-theologian wanted more robust reflection but these are well written and thoughtful (not fluff).   I love the way poetry and recipes punctuate this book and give it shape. It is beautifully written and well crafted. Through reviewing this book I discovered Milton’s blog at www.donteatalone.com and his recipe blog. I recommend this book to fellow foodies and for those of us who find communion meaningful and those of us who wonder what all the fuss is about.   There are a couple of recipes in here I will try (cooking the brussel sprouts recipe tomorrow).

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  Keep the Feast (Eucharist means thanksgiving so if you do your Thanksgiving right, you also will re-member Christ).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

 

Truth Told Slant: a book review

i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson  by Kristin Lemay

Emily Dickinson is a poet warmly appreciated for her wit and insight, remembered both for her prodigious output (mostly published posthumously) and her eccentric  manner. She lived to age 55 but never left her yard after her late thirties.  When she passed away her sister found nearly eight hundred poems in the bottom drawer of her dresser (as her poems were collected, nearly 1800 were discovered).  Her poetry is colloquial–punctuated with dashes,full of slant rhymes, irregular meters and unconventional capitalization.  A cursory read of her poetry does not reveal their full meaning. Her poems were meditations on various themes and therefore require a slow meditative reading.

But what are we to make of Emily’s spiritual life? Her poems touch on God, on Christ, on death, on immortality,  on beauty. She is sometimes claimed as a doubter and skeptic but her poems show her as a an occasional believer who did not so much eschew faith as easy faith and formulaic spirituality. Emily is more complicated than her portrait as a rebel, spinster waif. Her faith is also more complex than it may seem at first brush.

In i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson, Kristin LeMay explores the nature of Emily’s search for God. Emily claimed that she ‘could not pray,’ but LeMay mines twenty-five poems to see what they show us about the spiritual life as they relate to five broad themes: Belief, Prayer, Mortality, Immortality, and Beauty. LeMay is both analytical and intuitive in her reading of Emily and intertwines her exploration of theses poems with pieces of Emily’s biography and her own.

In discussing Emily’s Belief, LeMay explores Emily’s ‘conversion’ which meant for Emily letting go of her own life. She failed to have a ‘conversion experience’ but her poems reveal the process by which she continued to wrestle with God and the ways that her poetry were her working out her  own salvation. Likewise LeMay  delves into the way Emily wrestles with her understanding of Scripture (the Center not the Circumference), the way Doubt is a form of Faith, and the way that belief brings understanding.

As LeMay explores the theme of Prayer, she observes that while Emily claims she cannot pray, her poems are a means of prayer (what Emily eschews is prayer as a scientific experiment).  LeMay also reflects on the influence of hymn meter on Emily, the way she addresses the Divine and her understanding of God’s presence.  When so much prayer is technique and formula designed to force God’s hand, Emily’s critique is a good one.

Emily is sometimes described as overly morbid and obsessed with death. But Dickinson was surrounded by the death of loved ones and LeMay argues  that  Emily’s poems plumb the depths of human experience. And she does not regard death as a grim finality but holds out the hope of Immortality. However it is her exploration of Beauty where Emily speaks most profoundly about the ineffable.

I appreciate LeMay’s exploration of Dickinson and the homage she pays to her poetry.  LeMay is a teacher of writing and adept at analyzing these poems(i.e. the way Dickinson uses meter to enhance meaning, and her unique syntax and vocabulary).  While LeMay is sometimes intuiting what she feels is the best explanation of Emily’s faith, her observations are based in a detailed reading of Emily’s poems. She finds a kindred spirit in ‘saint Emily Dickinson’ as one who has struggled to come to terms with belief, Christian creeds, the experience of faith and the church. That being said, her own story and experience of faith is somewhat different from Dickinson’s and she is more forthright in sharing her own journey.

This book is a good introduction to the spirituality of Emily Dickinson and bears a certain similarity to Susan Vanzanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson (Cascade Books, 2011). Dickinson was not an orthodox Christian and it is unclear how much of the creeds she could affirm. However, what Dickinson models is the honest struggle with faith and doubt. She doesn’t resort to pious formulas but asks hard question and irreverently balks at tradition which she cannot square with her own experience. But she isn’t so much a mocking skeptic as an honest seeker.   I would commend this book to those who are interested in exploring Dickinson’s faith or to her fellow strugglers. May we wrestle with God and not let go.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.  Below is a link to a book trailer for this book, which has a reading from a chapter called “Grasped By God” in the Beauty section of this book.