How many artists strive for excellence and transcendence?
Recently I heard Bruce Hornsby, one of the best, if not the best rock/jazz/pop/blues pianists in the country, in concert at the Kent Stage. I knew him from his days with his band “The Range” from the 1980’s and love his mega hits “The Way It Is” and “Mandolin Rain.”
At this stage in his career he is exploring different musical languages and creating new sounds and effects. For his latest cd “Solo Concerts” and during the live concert he mixed the modern classical music of Schoenberg and Elliott Carter with New Orleans blues, modal folk, hymnal, and boogie. A few times he began a familiar piano riff from one of his radio hits, but then segued into atonal bars and never returned (as far as I could tell) to the familiar.
The liner notes from “Solo Concerts” says that he is searching for “inspiration, challenges, and new vistas…a search for inspiration and transcendent moments; moments that give you chills, make you cry, laugh, or make your head move.”
Emily Dickinson talked about the power of art (in her case, writing) to take the top of your head off. I admire Bruce’s quest for excellence, for inspiration and big moments. I think sometimes we are so focused on producing clean copy for an editor or an “aha!” for our audience that we don’t recognize the “aha’s” that are there for us as well.
If the artist doesn’t touch transcendence, how will the audience?
In future posts I’ll be discussing what “touching transcendence” means.
Maybe the Biblical promise that when weary we will soar like eagles means more than we thought.
Eagles fly purposefully, with powerful, even strokes that thrust them into the air as they gain and then maintain momentum and altitude. They can fly for miles in search of food. We love to think of the “soaring” image when reading Isaiah 40:31 and its promise that they who wait on God will renew their strength and mount up on wings as eagles. We’re comforted to think of ourselves as “flying above” our troubles here on earth.
But let me offer another view. Outside of dropping to earth to catch prey, eagles spend most of their time in the treetops or the sky. So “mounting up” doesn’t mean they soar above problems because they live their eagle lives high above already. Plus, more than once I’ve seen flying eagles attacked or at least harassed by smaller birds. The eagles seem to shrug them off, but nevertheless have not escaped trouble.
So if God tells us that we will mount up with wings as eagles, we aren’t soaring “above” our troubles. As eagles muscle their way in flight through their lofty world, we spiritually “muscle” our way through our own realm here on earth.
That speaks what we know to be true: God doesn’t give us strength to escape our problems, but like the flying eagles dealing with pesky sea gulls, to successfully live through and beyond them.
I teach the language and skills of critical thinking to my first year college students, emphasizing it is their job “what” they think, mine “how” they think it. I use the “cognitive domain” defined in Bloom’s Taxonomy, which focuses on the “verbs” of learning: know, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate, with dozens, even hundreds of synonyms. Many images, from the simple chart, to a pyramid, to a flower within a circle visualize these abstract ideas.
But the idea of different ways of “knowing” predates even our contemporary educational researchers. A prayer of Thomas à Kempis, the 15th century German theologian, strikes me as a petition for learning how and what to “know,” but in the spiritual sense:
Grant me, O Lord
To know what is worth knowing
To love what is worth loving
To praise what delights you most
To value what is precious in your sight
To hate what is offensive to you.
(May I) search out and do what pleases You, through Jesus Christ our Lord.*
Many centuries before Bloom, à Kempis recognizes different ways of spiritual “knowing.” His “verbs” are simple and few: know, love, praise, value, hate, search, do. He offers no lists of synonyms, pie charts, or colored graphs. We could spend our whole lives focusing on and living out his verbs.
Rather than critical thinking as a goal, à Kempis points to Wisdom Himself as the measure and end of all knowing. As an educator I value critical thinking; but as a Christian I value even more spiritual knowing, of Jesus Himself.
*From Prayers for Today A Yearlong Journey Of Contemplative Prayer by Kurt Bjorklund (Moody)
We don’t use the word “mystic” much in contemporary Christianity. I think a major reason is that “mystical” brings to mind long flights of emotion, even ecstasy, or getting lost in a spiritual moment, kind of like my experience when the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl a few years ago, all except for the spiritual aspect.
OK, back to real mysticism. (You mean football isn’t a religion?) How about trying the Lora Zill definition: getting lost in the presence of God. How do you describe that experience to others, or better yet, to yourself? What kind of words do you use?
Sometimes we have an almost mystical experience when we encounter nature, such as when we see a multicolored sunset or a double rainbow, perhaps, and try to capture and describe our feelings by using the words “awesome,” “cool,” or “beautiful.”
But somehow those words seem totally inadequate when describing an encounter with God. I don’t know that I have an answer, really, because I, too, grasp at straws sometimes even while writing this blog. And I’m not trying to describe a mystical experience, just my own walking on this earth, with some “God” thrown in.
Speaking of mystical and mystics, you’re probably wondering about Evelyn Underhill since I led off with her name. She was a 20th century mystic that I have just recently come to know through her book, The Spiritual Life. A friend “just thought” I would like her. If you call stopping my reading every few pages so I wipe tears from my eyes “liking her”, I guess I did.
So, let this blog serve as a brief introduction to Evelyn Underhill and mystical language. I’ll be sharing more in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. Looks like the 2013-14 football season won’t lead to mystical experiences for Steeler fans, alas, so I’ll have to “settle” for mystical encounters with God.
My central Pennsylvania hometown of Bigler in Clearfield County was built on the spines of abandoned underground clay mines. Behind my childhood home the woods were dotted with sinkholes where the ground had collapsed over those mines. My mother always warned us to stay out of them, citing the dangers, and I think my four siblings and I did—pretty much.
Ancient coal strip mines squatted on the hills around Bigler. In the middle of town sat the coal tipple and a small mountain range of fine, processed coal. The workers swung lunch pails and waved hello under black sooted faces. The dust from the plant and the coal piles settled over the town, blackening our bare feet and laundry hanging on clotheslines. Housewives carefully washed their homegrown vegetables. During the winter dust peppered the snow and we had to dig deep to find enough pure white to eat.
The coal plant and the brickyard that was just down the road handed paychecks to many local men, like Chester, Floyd, John, and Dwight. But folks in town only knew them as Cheese, Cobby, June, and Shorty. Truck drivers and heavy equipment operators shoved their Mom-given first names of Steward, Leo, Marvin, and Doyle under the seat and drove by the new handles of Ditty, Pookie, Snooks, and Spike. Welders named Harold, Arnold, and Clifford sparked Hootie, Shakey, and Bonehead.
Sometimes the names made sense, fitting the individual’s personality. Windy worked on the railroad, and yes, talked a lot. He’d argue with his Sunday School teacher on the proper road to heaven and he’s probably still arguing with God about how he got there. Who remembered his name was Raymond? Other times names seemed randomly assigned. Who knew how Turz ever grew from Irvin? Or cared?
The labor market has shifted from manual occupations providing fertile ground for face-to-face banter and verbal jousting to the more impersonal computer driven information sharing. We’ve moved away from some information that matters, contained in the sounds of the names of people we treasure. A popular TV sitcom from years back –“Cheers”– celebrated a bar where “everybody knows your name.” Nicknames carry rich connotations of a community consciousness, of a private story publicly shared that draws us closer together.
Now names are chosen to create an on-line identity for websites and blogs. Or they’re used to hide behind while posting on online articles. You can even search online for nickname ideas. Fewer are the names arising naturally or spontaneously from the creative minds and lips of close acquaintances and loved ones. Rich as the clay and coal veins the men labored in to support their families, those names were exchanged like currency and backed by the good will of neighbors and friends. If you needed to earn the trust of a stranger, you handed them a name. “Hunk Jones sent me.” Forget Harold!
Perhaps we need a few more nicknames, thoughtfully or spontaneously assigned, gratefully received and enjoyed by the community. Mom will always have her Lloyd, David, and Francis. Friends will enjoy the sound of Skinny, Knox, and Mutt.
When I left Clearfield County I eagerly shed my “given” name, a combo of first and middle, thinking it provincial and small-town sounding. But when old friends or family call me “Lora Jean” I sit back and feel the warmth that rises from its sound, the intimacy of memories it evokes. Recently a hometown buddy I hadn’t seen for years posted on my social networking newsfeed using that old name. I had to smile…my “secret” was out! Then I asked about her old nickname because she was using her “real” name online. “What do I call you now? Can I still call you ‘Punky?’” Her answer: “To the few I can and always will be, Punky!”
A Biblical perspective is, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). When I walk in my hometown’s cemetery I recognize the tombstones of old friends by their formal monikers. God and members of their earthly community remember and love them by their names.
This was first published by The Meadville Tribune July 31, 2013 on the editorial page and reprinted with permission.