Of all the construction disciplines, plumbing is my favorite. It’s quiet—contemplative even. There aren’t so many power tools whining. There isn’t a lot of pounding or hammering. It’s not as quiet as painting, but it’s more cerebral—just the right amount of figuring and measuring without being overly technical.
Plumbers spend their days dealing with issues that the rest of us don’t want to have to deal with. If you aren’t grateful for plumbers, you ought to be.
I spent one summer working for a plumbing company. That summer with the plumbers yielded more anecdotes than five years here in the leafy suburbs. Some of the best anecdotes can’t even be sufficiently sanitized for use in this forum. They involve a running feud with a tribe of roofers who refused to accord plumbers the respect they deserved. I would say “use your imagination,” but your imagination is probably no match for these roofers or these plumbers. Or, I should say, your imaginative energies are differently directed than these guys’. I hope they are, anyway.
There is a hierarchy among plumbers. Those who have paid their dues get to do the new construction. It’s clean work. Pleasant work. You run brand new pipe in fresh-dug trenches and into spanking new houses that smell of sawdust and sheetrock. The gleaming toilets might as well be great porcelain soup tureens.
“There is but one sin,” wrote G.K. Chesterton: “to call a green leaf grey.” Which is to say, every kind of sin derives from a willful refusal to see and enjoy the beauty, the glimmers of transcendence that surround us. The serpent, remember, stood with Eve in the beauty and abundance of Eden and said, in effect, “Can’t you see that God is holding out on you?” To refuse to see beauty—to call a green leaf grey—is to say that God is not good.
Beauty is a kind of grace. It comes from outside and changes something on the inside, and it usually comes as a surprise when it does. When I experience beauty I am very aware that something is happening that I could have never ginned up within myself. I feel gratitude. I feel longing. I feel that there is more going on than I can account for. But I can’t feel pride as a result of experiencing beauty. Consider by contrast other aspects of religious experience—truth, say, or morality. When I understand truth (or think I do), I am in constant danger of considering myself better than those who don’t understand that truth. When I practice morality, I am in similar peril. I don’t wish to belittle either truth or morality; beauty wouldn’t be much good without them. I mean only to suggest that when it comes to understanding what grace is and how it works, beauty is a pretty good guide.
Beauty is sneaky like grace, fulfilling desires and healing hurts we didn’t even know we had. It slips past our defenses. Beauty isn’t quite irresistible (we all make ourselves blind to beauty from time to time), but even the hardest heart would have to be vigilant indeed never to be affected by a wide sky or a bright eye or a well-turned poem.
In the end, however, the real work of earthly beauty isn’t to fulfill our longings but to stir up longings it could never fulfill. Beauty sidles up and whispers, “What do I remind you of?” Then it slips away and leaves us wanting more.
A while back a couple of little girls came into my wife’s library and asked, “Do you have any sad books?” What a great question. There’s a lot to love about sad stories. For one thing, sad stories remind us what really matters to us. We feel sadness at the loss (or else the absence) of things we value.
I don’t suppose they knew it, but the girls who asked my wife for sad stories were looking to affirm the things that mattered most to them by feeling what it would mean not to have them. By looking to enter into another person’s sadness (even a fictional person’s sadness), they were looking to experience their own lives more fully. That’s why I love sad stories.
In children’s fiction, nobody does sadness like Kate DiCamillo. The same ache haunts The Tale of Despereaux, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Magician’s Elephant, and Because of Winn-Dixie (I haven’t read her other novels). In each of those stories, the hurt, the loneliness, and the sadness nourish the souls of characters and readers alike.
As you may have heard by now, Farrar Straus & Giroux recently published the prayer journal of a very young Flannery O’Connor. William A. Sessions, an old friend of O’Connor’s and, deo volente, her official biographer (he’s been working toward an O’Connor biography for twenty years or so) found a black-and-white marbled composition notebook among her personal effects. That notebook, as it turns out, was a prayer journal that O’Connor had kept while she was earning her MFA at the University of Iowa, from January 1946 to September 1947. She was twenty years old when she began the journal and twenty-two when she gave it up (“There is no more to say of me,” she wrote on the last line).
I’m deeply ambivalent about the publishing of this journal. Of course I am fascinated by the insights that it offers. The Habit of Being, O’Connor’s collected letters, includes very few letters from her Iowa years, so this prayer journal paints an intimate portrait of her inner life at a time of life from which we have few other sources. On the other hand, the portrait is so intimate that it often feels like voyeurism to look. I was discussing this with my wife last week and she remarked, “You sure are protective of her.” Maybe so. But I have a journal I kept when I was twenty, and if I had any reason to suspect that anybody might publish it when I’m dead, I would go burn it right now.
A while back I was in the library checking my email on the public computers. The patrons of the library’s public computers constitute what may politely be called a cross-section of humanity. At my library, they don’t just let you sit at whichever computer you like. They assign you one, and it’s right next to the person who sat down just before you did. Which is to say, there isn’t any of that natural spacing of the discreet whereby two people in an elevator stand in the back corners and the third person stands in the middle right by the door. No, at the library computers you’re spang up against the next fellow.
The fellow I was spang up against was managing his account at an online dating site. He was a white-haired, paunchy old boy with a long, straight nose that bulged off to the left just at the tip-end, putting me in mind of a train that derailed right before pulling into the station. Every half-minute or so, he chuckled at something some dating prospect or other had written in her profile, wagging his head each time and cutting his eyes over toward me. Clearly he hoped I would ask him what he was laughing about or otherwise engage him in conversation. I was determined not to. I was in a bit of a hurry–just trying to check my email and get out of there–and I wasn’t up to it anyway.
Moby Dick is one of those books that everyone knows about but very few people have actually read—though, for some reason, people feel that they ought to have read it. I wish I could release you, dear reader, from the belief that you ought to read any novel. Read novels because you enjoy them. And if you want to read a book just to be able to say you’ve read it—well, that’s a sophomore’s pleasure at best, and too small a return on the investment required to read a book like Moby Dick.
If you can remember one key truth, you can enjoy this book. Here it is: Moby Dick is a book about whaling.
If you can accept this fact, your chances of being one of the people who finish and actually enjoy reading Moby Dick improve dramatically. People sometimes assume that Moby Dick is really about something else—obsession or predestination or something—and only pretends to be about whaling. As if Melville started with some abstract ideas he wanted to talk about and, casting about for a way to talk about them, landed on whaling. The reader’s job in that case is to decode the whaling language to get to the abstractions.
I love that scene in The Three Amigos in which Dusty, Lucky, and Ned encounter the Singing Bush. They’re trying to find El Guapo, and, in classic fairy tale fashion, they get vague instructions: go to the Singing Bush and there summon the Invisible Swordsman. Here’s the scene:
I love Dusty Bottoms’ (Chevy Chase’s) eye-rolling dismissiveness of the Invisible Swordsman. He stands in the presence of a Singing Bush, yet the idea of an Invisible Swordsman—well that’s just ridiculous. His skepticism, his off-hand treatment of things that are too much for him to understand, has disastrous results.
But even if Dusty accidentally kills his own sense of wonder, the wondrous survives.
This is a world of marvels that we live in. We grow accustomed somehow to the wonders that surround us—the pearls that come from oysters’ mouths, the spring that emerges from winter’s bare, the heart that turns from stone to flesh when grace and mercy elbow in. Yet the idea that new wonders await is something that we have to be convinced of every day. We scoff like Dusty and—praise be—are proven wrong in our scoffing again and again.
[Editor's note: This weekend my church, Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, is hosting its annual Festival of Saint Francis, to which I will bring my little dog, Misty, and Father Thomas will pray over and bless her. It sounds weird. The first time I went I had all sorts of doctrinal and theological doubts, but it's actually very simple and beautiful and not in the least bit objectionable. You should come if you're in town this weekend. This anecdote by Dr. Rogers seems apropos.]
A while back I told a story in which my elementary school running buddy Mark, who radioactivated a spider with the intention of giving the boys in Mrs. Crawley’s class super spider powers. Mark’s other claim to fame was the fact that he had baptized his dog. We were in third grade, and the topic was how many people we had in our families.
“Seven,” Mark said.
“Not seven,” somebody corrected. “You have six people in your family. Three boys plus one girl plus two parents.”
“Plus the dog,” Mark said.
“You can’t count the dog.”
“Sure I can,” Mark said. “I baptized him.”
Mark was the only openly Presbyterian person I knew at the time. I understood that Presbyterians were different from Baptists, but I had never known exactly how. Mark seemed pretty much like the rest of us. But now things were starting to come into focus: Presbyterians baptized their dogs.
I was a little resentful. I had tried to get baptized my own self but failed the initial interview. (Preacher: “Can you tell me in your own words why you want to be baptized?” Me: “Because all my friends are getting baptized.” End of interview.) To learn that even Mark’s dog had beaten me to the punch was just too much.
Years later I was relieved to learn that Mark’s position on canine baptism was idiosyncratic and in no way representative of the Reformed tradition.
In The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon imagines a scene in Hell’s war room. Satan asks his chief tempters, “What are we doing to hasten the dehumanization of man?” Senior Vice Presidents and Bureau Chiefs of Envy, Pride, Avarice, Sloth, Lust, and War all give their reports, but Satan is unimpressed. At last, a junior tempter from the Bureau of Desubstantialization speaks up. The problem with devils’ strategy, he says, is that they have focused so exclusively on corrupting human beings’ relationship to God and to neighbor, they have neglected to corrupt their relationship to things.
Things, the tempter declared, by their provision of unique delights and individual astonishments, constituted a continuous refreshment of the very capacities Hell was at pains to abolish. As long as man dealt with real substances, he would himself tend to remain substantial. What was needed, therefore, was a program to deprive man of things.
Capon wrote this in the late ’60s. In the decades since, the demon’s proposal, it would seem, has been wildly successful. The desubstantialization wrought by Internet and smart phones has disconnected us from God’s world in ways that neither Capon nor even that junior tempter could have predicted.
How do we fight against that kind of desubstantialization? How do we reconnect with the world that God put us in? One answer is “focal practices”: ways of paying attention to the world around us—our relationships, created reality, culture-making—in ways that are not mediated by devices.
Kenny Benge, pastor of St. John’s Anglican in Franklin, Tennessee (and the owner of the most adamantly rock-and-roll name in the whole Anglican Church), has put together a conference this weekend that addresses the issues of technology and everyday spirituality. It’s called Forum on Faith and Everyday Life: Restoring Relationship, Recovering Wonder. Here’s a description from the website:
In today’s high-speed culture, most of us can relate to the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time for the people and things we value most. We feel fragmented, overwhelmed by busyness and the tyranny of gadgets. We live in a world where, in the words of Eugene Peterson, “the wonder has leaked out.”
Arthur Boers, the author of Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distraction, will be in Franklin with us for three special events to guide us in hopeful, life-giving conversations about these issues. The overall theme of these events is not that we abandon technology, but that we understand the ways we engage and intersect so we can live with that kind of integrity we long for and for which God has designed us.
One bonus of the conference is the fact that it opens with a Thursday “Evening of Story and Song” with Andy Gullahorn, Jill Phillips, Sandra McCracken, and Buddy Greene. On Saturday, workshops explore the day-to-day practicalities of several “focal practices”:
Visit the conference website for more details on what promises to be a great weekend.
When my dad was in eighth grade, there was an art contest at his school. The winning picture would be displayed in the state Capitol in Atlanta. It was only 137 miles from Chester, Georgia to Atlanta, but it was a lot further than that. I don’t imagine very many of the students at Chester School had ever been to Atlanta; my father hadn’t.
Knowing what was at stake, the students worked hard to make their pictures as spectacular as possible. They drew tornados carrying people off. Car crashes. Earthquakes. Pretty dramatic stuff. My dad, on the other hand, drew something he saw every day: an old sow nursing her piglets.
My father’s picture carried the day. The sow and her pigs may not have had the panache of a hurricane scene, but what it lacked in glamor it gained, I suppose, in realism. The picture was hung on the walls of the Georgia Capitol, and the eighth grade of Chester School piled in a bus and drove to Atlanta to see it. They rode a streetcar too—not to anyplace in particular, from what I understand, but just for the sake of experiencing city life. Mr. Ivey, the local bus driver, was passed over for a driver who had more experience on paved roads. “Also, Mr. Ivey was inclined to put boys off the bus if they got to fighting,” my father said. “I think there was concern that somebody might get put off in the middle of Atlanta if Mr. Ivey drove.”
I’ve known that story all my life. I knew it long before I ever heard the advice, “Write what you know.” Every time I hear that adage, I think about the old sow hanging in the high-domed Capitol, smiling her satisfied, piggy smile.
In an essay called “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “The writer can choose what he writes about, but he cannot choose what he can make live.” A tornado would seem a more lively subject than a nursing sow, but only if you can make it live. If you’re an artist, you do well to ask yourself: what can you make live?