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A Fellowship of Burning Stars: The Hidden Beauty of Creative Community

Track two on the album was an enigma to me. I didn’t understand some of its lines and never had the time to unpack them, so whenever “Every Star Is a Burning Flame” came around as I played Andrew Peterson’s The Burning Edge of Dawn, I skipped over it—at least mentally. 

But in April of 2017, the song began playing again, and this time I didn’t want to tune it out because I was hearing it live. I was in a dim, spacious sanctuary of a room, attending the final event of a conference hosted by the Anselm Society: an evening concert with Andrew Peterson.

As an organization whose mission is “a renaissance of the Christian imagination,” the Anselm Society had been gathering people for lectures, concerts, and discussions about faith and art for a few years by that point, and it had also established a small guild so that local artists could engage with each other. Because I’d begun serving as assistant director for the guild, I knew a few faces at the conference, but it had still been an overwhelming day. I was glad to simply rest and listen.


To learn more about the Anselm Society, visit


Sitting at the piano, Andrew prefaced “Every Star” with a story. One day, after stopping in downtown Louisville to have lunch with Buddy Greene, he came upon a historical marker. The sign stood at the site of Thomas Merton’s “Fourth and Walnut Epiphany,” which took place on March 18, 1958. 

In Merton’s own words in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, the experience that struck him at that spot changed his perspective of people forever: 

[I]n the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . .  And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . . 

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.

Of all the storied images from the concert that night, this picture of countless walking stars and suns lingered. 


I began to play “Every Star Is a Burning Flame” on the way to the monthly guild meetings. I thought the music and the words might calibrate my perspective in the right direction —and perhaps lend me a dram of courage—before I walked through the door of whatever location we had managed to borrow for that evening.

For the little guild was growing, bringing in visual artists, musicians, and writers who spanned a wide spectrum of personalities and life experiences, and our three-member staff was beginning to figure out our focus. We wanted the guild to be a place where artists felt comfortable to share their work, their struggles, and their triumphs with each other. We knew we didn’t want the group to replace the role of the local church in the artists’ lives. How could we help each one grow? In what ways could we equip them with deepening roots in orthodox theology and provide room for them to become resonators while cheering on their efforts to express beauty and humanity and joy and pain? 


"We often ended up talking about what we were mourning and what we were making side by side, and somehow that mix of our mortality with our creativity made the grace and the brilliance of life gleam out like the noonday sun."


When I joined the guild in 2015, I thought I was entering a cordial network of people who liked to be creative. I felt about two inches tall when I attended my first meeting—I had read the accomplishments and profiles of all these Real Artists on the website—but I also thought it wise to tread carefully; one could never be sure what eccentric geniuses might do, after all. I supposed Christian artists would have to be in sync on doctrines and issues in order to have genuine fellowship. Perhaps, in time, this group might be a safe place to solicit feedback (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course). Mainly I expected to nod politely and hoped to sharpen my writing skills by watching the example of others in my field. 

Two years in, as mentioned above, my questions regarding the guild had changed drastically. What I witnessed in the next seven years altered my view further still. 

As the guild grew, so did the range of our skills. At the start of almost every meeting, each person said his or her name and art form by way of introduction—and the latter did not always come easily. We learned to wrangle words like “writer” or “poet” or “painter” out of our mouths without disclaimers; we cheered on the day that one of the members finally introduced himself as “silversmith” without hesitating. One evening, seated around a table on the semi-private patio of a Mexican restaurant, we shared our answers to the question, “What would your magnum opus be?” Each one of the works described helped me understand what its artist was trying to do through the pieces he or she shared month after month. 

Our feedback for each other often revealed our breadth of viewpoints, whether we had five or twenty attendees at a given meeting. We were military spouses, lawyers, parents, recent graduates, grandparents, third culture kids, gardeners, video game enthusiasts, seasoned musicians, portraitists, cat lovers, polite dog allergy sufferers, exvangelicals, evangelicals, clay shapers, fiction world builders, nonfiction essayists. Our conversations wove together our backgrounds in addition to our specialties, and sometimes these intersections presented a challenge. After I moved from being assistant director to co-director, I worried about facilitating the meetings, wondering if we were spending more time commiserating about rejections and artist’s block rather than creating, or if we were drifting blithely into heresy in some side discussion. Some temperaments seemed to chafe at the presence of others; some ventured to join a meeting or two and did not return. 

But one evening, the husband of a member artist joined her to tell us that she had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. This was not the first hard situation we had shared within the group—early on, it became clear that we were all familiar with depression and anxiety and broken relationships—but this particular news seemed to reveal a special trust that had built up over time. 

That moment stands out as a turning point in my understanding of the guild. We continued to share and to listen to one another, but though I hardly know how to explain it, I began to catch snatches of what I can only describe as intimations of wholeness—flashes of what each person was like in the hidden center, of what he or she might be like someday in an unbroken, remade world. I saw it in the unwavering, earnest graciousness in one musician’s eyes as he asked for comments on his song, in the hard-won endurance on a visual artist’s face as she worked through past trauma one canvas at a time, in the stilled and listening openness of a writer whose pen went silent for a season as grief did its work. Even now, these remembrances bring me a sense of solemnity and beauty undimmed by time. 

Maybe these stood out more clearly because it was an arts-centered group, distinct from a church small group or a cluster of friends. Our purpose for gathering, combined with the updates we shared, meant that we often ended up talking about what we were mourning and what we were making side by side, and somehow that mix of our mortality with our creativity made the grace and the brilliance of life gleam out like the noonday sun. We lost three members to cancer in five years, but what I carry with me is the extraordinary kindness that rang in S.’s voice as she presented a few guild members with garden seed packets bearing their names. The sight of K.’s exquisite tea bag paintings and haiku, and the generosity with which she gave away her art supplies when she could no longer use them. The enthusiasm that still shone in H.’s eyes as he taught a mini-seminar on notable films, and the perfectly straight posture of attention he brought to every meeting. They continued to create as long as they could, in a way that seemed not so much their last burst of strength but the quiet confirmation of a purpose that came as naturally to them as breathing. That purpose bore fruit through all of us, even those who were not grappling immediately with death. Suffering cracked us all open at the seams; it made the work of the Redeemer visible between the ragged edges. 

My fellow director Christina and I kept our original questions in sight as we tried to encourage the artists, particularly through the long and isolating drought of the pandemic. I am one hundred percent sure we failed many. But for this writer, the main answer to the “why” behind creative community no longer lay in having a sounding board for drafts or forming professional relationships; it was simply the regularity of my exposure to these living, breathing makers. 

The “secret beauty” that Merton spoke of, which I had the privilege to glimpse, reminds me of what other theologians and writers have said about mankind bearing the image of God. His image is “too rich for it to be fully realized in a single human being,” In his book, Herman Bavinck notes; “[i]t can only be somewhat unfolded in its depth and riches in a humanity counting billions of members.” Hence Merton’s “billions of points of light”; hence Andrew Peterson’s “million suns” rising. In The Remarkable Ordinary, Frederick Buechner candidly points out that we cannot sustain the kind of vision that sees these lights all the time: “because if you listen to everybody and you look at everybody—seeing every face . . . how could you make it down half a city block? You couldn’t. . . . But we can do more than we do—more than we do, surely we could do that.”

“More than we do,” in attention, in perceptiveness, in grace: this is a good phrase, I believe, to pray on the way to a meeting. 


Tonight, we are gathering again. I “retired” from guild staff in 2022, but I still try to arrive a little early sometimes, and the atmosphere in the room is as generous and welcoming as ever. A modest but tantalizing spread of cheeses, meats, crackers and chocolate anchors our small talk as artists trickle in; throughout the room there are snippets of news and exclamations over workplace woes, children’s antics, and deadlines. A few writers revisit the idea of keeping a scoreboard of rejections, with a prize for the winner. One of the leaders invites us to sit down, merrily threatening to yodel to get our attention along the way, and soon we are all seated in a rough circle. 

“So, who’s brought something to share for this month’s prompt?” Christina asks. 

I glance around the room at these familiar faces, and I see how wildly these art-makers and subcreators have upended what I thought a guild of artists would look like nine years ago. They have expanded all my prior notions about what it means to display the gospel and glory of Christ. I know now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that unsettling ghost stories have a place in the Kingdom. So do middle-grade novels about dinosaur riders—and earrings made from WWII planes—and Cubist paintings with philosophical symbolism—and mini memoirs—and Irish tunes played on the hammered dulcimer—and sgraffito pottery. Their individual ways of looking at the world have added new layers and dimensions to mine, so that the world itself is a richer and more wondrous place, teeming with the marks of an impossibly prolific and attentive Creator.

In this way, the guild has changed my writing. Meeting with its people has helped me envision the people who might come across the pieces I write, so that these readers are no longer faceless consumers but humans with dappled stories of their own. Constructive suggestions from my guild peers have helped me to clarify both my written words and my faith—for while we don’t always agree on minor doctrinal matters or a given approach to a topic, their comments have often led me to examine what I believe, and the kind of posture I should take as I hold that belief. 

Their feedback has also taught me to examine my own. If I don’t understand the intention behind a work or the disposition of an artist well enough to respond without snuffing out the desire to create, I need to learn those things first. As a part of the Body of Christ, the best service I can render is to be someone who is for the artist long before I open my mouth. 

But most of all, the guild has wrought a permanent change: they have made it so that I can never view a person in front of me with contempt ever again. Every time I read C. S. Lewis’s admonition that “[i]t is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours,” I know it to be true from my time in this community. The smallest, quietest, most gregarious, or incomparably irascible people I may meet—these hold a potential for nobility that is worth watching for. 

In Susanna Clarke’s novel Piranesi, a character who has lived among splendid and mysterious mythical statues in a splendid and mysterious house comes into our world. He enters a quiet park just before twilight, and looks around:

"People were walking up and down on the path. An old man passed me. He looked sad and tired. He had broken veins on his cheeks and a bristly white beard. As he screwed up his eyes against the falling snow, I realised I knew him. He is depicted on the northern wall of the forty-eighth western hall. He is shown as a king with a little model of a walled city in one hand while the other hand he raises in blessing. I wanted to seize hold of him and say to him: In another world you are a king, noble and good! I have seen it! But I hesitated a moment too long and he disappeared into the crowd."

His words and their urgency move me whenever I think of them. “I have seen it!” Such is the company we keep, as we walk up and down the ordinary paths of our neighborhoods and social circles. 

A summer wind rushes sideways as I leave the meeting. The gray and violet striations in the sky and the brightening pools under the streetlamps create a quiet sanctuary in the parking lot, and I stop for a minute to look up. I cannot see the stars overhead at first, but slowly my eyes adjust enough to pick out one – two – three points of light. 

I was taught many years ago that to stand in the presence of God now would be to perish. I believe this; I know the discrepancy between who He is and who I am on this broken earth, and the hope that keeps me going is that I will someday be the person I have been created and ransomed to be, and see Him face to face. 

But tonight I can feel that my expression still holds some warmth from meeting with people who have for a time let themselves and the work of the Spirit within them be seen. Perhaps this is how the great mystery of transformation works, at least in part: we are all navigating our way toward a future fellowship by the reflections in each other’s faces as we follow the

Light of the World. From small sparks burning in humble spaces, this collective luminescence tells us something about all the light we’ve missed noticing—and all the light we’ve yet to behold. 

Within this guild and its art, within its artists, winks a glory that foretells the radiance of the coming world: “noble and good,” mirthful and quirky and altogether unforgettable. 

I have seen it.


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