Conversatio Divina

The Arts as a Means of Grace

Luci Shaw in Conversation with Jeannette Bakke

Luci Shaw & Jeannette Bakke

Luci Shaw is a prolific poet and essayist who has been the president of a publishing house, an English style consultant for three versions of the Bible (The Living Bible, The Message, and Today’s International Version), retreat leader, and teacher of poetry workshops. The subject of numerous feature articles and guest appearances, she is a lay eucharistic minister of the Episcopal Church. Her most recent book, The Crime of Living Cautiously: Hearing God’s Call to Adventure, was published in 2005.

Luci’s love of God and God’s creation infuses her life, work, and words. She is a passionate advocate for the role of the arts in the formation of faith and describes the arts as one of the avenues through which we perceive and respond to God. This conversation with contributing editor Jeannette Bakke explores some of these themes.


Jeannette:         How were the arts a part of your history?

Luci:      I was born to British parents, and British culture was a large part of my upbringing. As children, my brother and I would listen as our parents read to us from good books—not just kids’ books, but serious literature. We didn’t always understand them, but I think that what came to me out of that experience was an understanding of how good language works, and how the rhythm of words has a music of its own. This left a deep impression on me. My father was not a poet himself, but he loved poetry. I don’t think my mother really ever understood what my poetry was about or why it was important to me. But my dad did. He would carry my poems around with him and share them with his friends.

I decided on my own that I wanted to learn piano, so music became very important to me. I took three years of piano at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. Music could have been my vocation almost as well as poetry, and I was always interested in graphic art. So I think my senses were awakened early to the beauty and meaning of the arts.

JEANNETTE:    Where did faith fit in this?

LUCY:     My father had this tremendously powerful and intimate relationship with God. He lived in an area of mystery that couldn’t be described in words. He would wake every morning at 4:00 and pray his way around the world in intercession. He would be transported into a holy arena that was quite apart from ordinary life. When my brother and I would bring existential questions about the meaning of life and the actions of God in the world, Dad would simply say, “This is how I feel God in my life.” That wasn’t satisfying because we weren’t feeling it for ourselves. So it was a time of great searching. I’ve been a searcher all my life—searching for this sense of union. I’m not a mystic; I’m a seeker. I have epiphanies from time to time. But what I have come to believe is that it is the very lack of a deep sense of spiritual union that’s drawing me towards heaven. It’s a void in my life that I know will be satisfied only when I’m face to face with God—like a magnet pulling me along, shaping my destiny and molding my thinking.

In my growing up years, I was interested in the arts for themselves. I didn’t really make a connection between them and God until a lot later. That began at Wheaton College. I began to see. I developed a sort of metaphysic of the universe and how it tied together, how we who are created in God’s image are meant to be creators. And that takes many different forms. Every person has a distinct outlet for those divine impulses. Sometimes those impulses are quenched and not allowed to flourish, and other times, given opportunity and companionship of good teachers and friends, these things bloom and take over our lives in a very redemptive way.

I never set out to be a poet, though I knew that poetry was important to me. I think that was a gradual process of freeing myself to consider things, to take their measure, to test, to experiment, to explore. Gradually, God revealed himself to me in ways I would never have expected.

JEANNETTE:    How would you describe the interweaving of faith and art in more recent years?

LUCY:     Well, I have to tell you right at the start that I’m not very disciplined. I was brought up to believe that a daily quiet time with God was essential and that you were really a failure if you didn’t do that; as a result, I often felt very guilty. One of the ways that I’ve found some freedom is to work from enthusiasm rather than discipline. That’s certainly true in my writing. I’m not the kind of writer who sits down and writes every day. That would ruin my day! When an idea takes over in my mind, you can’t stop me from writing. But it’s an up and down process. And so is my prayer time. I do have a wonderful prayer group that meets every Monday morning. We’ve shared our lives together for eight or ten years. But my own personal prayers are not disciplined. Often, they are more cries for help or shouts of gratitude. I find it hard to sit and meditate and just be in silence. When I do that, it’s always rewarding, but it’s hard for me to set aside other urgencies and actually devote myself to Christian meditation.

JEANNETTE:    So in both your devotional practices and your writing, you are open and waiting for the Spirit. You respect God’s invitations and timing.

LUCY:     Yes, there has to be an inner stirring. One of the themes of my life has been to notice details, to be aware. I’ve often quoted something Annie Dillard said: “We are here to abet and to witness it, to notice each thing so that each thing gets noticed, and creation need not play to an empty house.” That is one of the great things I have learned: to pay attention because it’s the detail of life that brings us in contact with reality. That, for me, is often where the Spirit is growing. It’s in the concrete details that are not always pleasant, but they contain messages for us.

JEANNETTE:    That’s reflected in your poetry. Do you notice that your writing influences your faith life?

LUCY:     Oh, yes! When a poem is coming, and it’s coming right, I feel its authenticity. I know that the Holy Spirit is working in me—that’s one of the evidences of the reality of God in my life. As Dorothy Sayers said after completing one of her novels, “I feel like God on the seventh day.” That’s exactly how I feel when a poem has taken shape and become itself. There is a sort of inevitability to it. This is a gift that has come from beyond me. It’s mysterious, but here it is, and this is what it was meant to be. There is a divine impulse in that. I can’t deny it.

JEANNETTE:    It sounds like a mixture of serendipity, grace, and hard work.

LUCY:     It’s art and craft. The art is being able to recognize when something of meaning and significance is arriving—an idea or an insight or an image or a phrase. And the craft is in taking that and building it into a structure that will have meaning for other people as well as for oneself. So I affirm the whole idea of form with freedom. Another theme that I feel I’ve followed all my life is trying to bring some kind of meaningful order out of chaos, in the way God did at the creation of the universe. God brought order and beauty and meaning, and that’s what I try to do.

JEANNETTE:    You said that when something of significance is arriving, you take it and build it into something that has meaning for other people. Can you say something more about creative partnership with God that might be helpful for people who are not poets?

LUCY:     I’m convinced that metaphor lies at the heart of all our lives. Look at the way metaphor is used in Scripture—parables, visions, comparisons, word pictures. The Bible is at least one-third poetry, even in the part that’s not deliberately poetical in form. Think, for example, of the illustrations St. Paul gives us of the Christian life. We are stones built into the house of God. We are athletes. These are pictures that bring that life into reality for us.

The Omnipresence

Reminders flicker at us from

odd angles, nor will he be ignored;

we sight him in unlikely places,

oaths and dates and empty tombs.

God. His print is everywhere,

stamped on the macro- and the microcosm.

Feathers, shells, stars, cells speak

his diversity. The multiplicity of

leaf and light says God. Wind,

sensed but unseen, breathes the old

metaphor again. Seasons are his

signature. The double helix

spells his spiral name.

Faith summons him, and doubt

blows only the sheerest skein

of mist across his face.

Luci Shaw, 1990

JEANNETTE:    So even though everybody isn’t called to be a poet, everyone has been spoken to through metaphors.

LUCY:    I think so. Most people are not educated to look for those metaphors or to recognize them. That’s where the arts can be enriching—broadening people’s horizons and helping them see things never seen before. I see myself as a bridge builder—writing a poem and revealing facets of human experience not previously seen. I can’t tell you how many people have heard me reading poetry and then said, “I’ve never understood why poetry is important, but you’ve shown me something I’ve never seen before.” Education is needed, particularly in the church, about how to grasp the riches that are available in literature, music, art, and drama. The desire to make beauty out of the ordinary is an impulse that’s absolutely universal. It’s in every period of history; it’s in every culture of the world.

JEANNETTE:    How do you notice the arts interplaying with your faith when life’s circumstances are difficult?

LUCY:    I’m convinced we all need dark passages in our lives. This is what gives life a third dimension. Renaissance painters used something called chiaroscuro technique—dark backgrounds that contrast with bright fabrics and faces so that the two played off each other. The darkness highlights the light, and the light gives dimension to the darkness. This kind of contrast is one of God’s greatest teaching tools. When things are going well, and everything is success and relative peace and harmony, we can become independent. We feel as though we don’t need God so much. In the dark times, when we have to cry out to God for help because we’re desperate, we’re learning things we need to know. This is the way God gets our attention, brings us into a different dimension, and connects us with people in the same place of darkness.

Man Cannot Name Himself

Man cannot

name himself

He waits for God

or Satan

to tell him

who he is

Luci Shaw, 1976

JEANNETTE:    Do you think the arts have a place in those dark circumstances?

LUCY:    I do. The poetry of the Psalms, for example, speaks to deep, deep places in us.

JEANNETTE:    Do you write a lot of your own poetry when you are in dark places?

LUCY:    I write in both dark and bright places. My journal is what keeps me going in the dark places; it keeps the flow of thoughtfulness and questioning and prayer going. That happens on the pages of my journal even if I’m not writing for anybody else but myself and God. What has been a chaos of anxiety and fear tumbling around in my head assumes a form that I can touch and see and feel once I have put it into words. That’s part of the work of God for these times of depression or darkness or struggle. Poetry written out of dark places on the journey becomes an act of redemption because it is turning something difficult into something meaningful. The darkness gives us contrast. The dark times give us a sense of appreciation for the opposite.

JEANNETTE:    I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but when you were talking about the dark, I was thinking how helpful it has been for me to read your questioning poetry. It frees me to be more truthful with God and, therefore, to be open to being redeemed—because I have recognized and acknowledged my true condition.

LUCY:    You can put those words in my mouth; I believe that. That’s a wonderful thought.

JEANNETTE:    Shifting our focus a bit, I wonder about your understanding of the notion of calling. What does this mean to you?

LUCY:    I believe there is a calling for every Christian, but to identify it is often difficult. I could have had a number of callings. I would have loved to be an artist. I did a lot of painting at Wheaton and loved it. But eventually, you have to make choices if you are going to do work of excellence. I chose writing. I love what Frederick Buechner said: that we will find our vocation where our deep joy and the world’s deep need come together. That resonates with me so strongly. I do feel this deep need to bring a greater understanding in the culture of the importance of the imagination, of metaphorical rather than linear thinking—not just viewing things from a pragmatic point of view, but being willing to make leaps in logic to arrive at new conclusions, to enter areas of mystery.

I’ve been meditating on that verse in the epistles where we’re told to provoke one another to love and good works. That word provoke means to call out vocation within each other. Perhaps we can see in others where their gifts lie better than they can, living as they do within themselves. We can serve each other that way. I think it’s important to provoke one another not just to love but to good works—good works that encompass everything God created us for.

JEANNETTE:    At times, people are timid about the fact that they are called to be artists.

LUCY:    That is a strange thing about art. You want more than anything else for other people to see your work and to appreciate it, yet you’re afraid to share it more than anything else because it might mean rejection. It’s not always an easy gift to be a poet. I think of the Old Testament poets and prophets and how hard it was for them to deliver their vision messages. People think of poetry as having to rhyme and scan, and a hymn qualifies for them as poetry. Many hymns are truly poetic, but a hymn is not a poem. A greeting card verse is not a poem. It does not have to be uplifting to be a poem. Many of my poems are very dark. They reflect what’s going on in my life at the time. This might be questioning, doubt, struggle, or need, and the result may not qualify as poetry for a large segment of the church.

Art has been considered almost frivolous, and people’s response to poetry is often total indifference. They think this is unnecessary in a functioning world. But when I look at beauty, I look at what God created, and it’s not just functional. It has aspects of the aesthetic that appeal to something deep within us. I call beauty an aspect of grace. When I see the clouds turn pink in the sky over me in the evening—and everybody looks up at them and says, “Isn’t that beautiful?”—I want to elevate that God-given sense of the beautiful, the meaningful, in the world in which I live.

JEANNETTE:    What do you think needs attention in the church related to the arts?

In Reverse

Turn it all backwards. Turn time.

Unravel the half-knit sweater in

the knitting bag. Restore the spilled

wine to the rug, then the color of dark cream

to its fibers and take them back and back

to the sheep’s back before shearing.

O God I want my life over. To do it

the way that would give me who I want to be

now. To have again chances I didn’t take,

and take them.

Make me innocent. Sluice me of

infractions and give me soft

pink skin and a soul so fresh that

my mother may love me again.

Luci Shaw, 2005

LUCY:    Oh, my goodness! The present generation in Christian congregations doesn’t understand the literature of the Bible. I don’t like to say this, but there’s a lot of superficiality in the worship of seeker-friendly churches. They are attracting people. And they’re giving them milk, but not the meat of the great hymns and thoughtful sermons that reach the head as well as the heart. Spiritual practices such as contemplation, meditation, solitude, silence, and waiting are simply unknown. Protestants by and large have ignored the whole area of spiritual direction and faith formation. They are yearning for something like that, but they don’t know what it is. If we truly believe in the Incarnation, we have to see that everything is sacred. I’m not sure that there’s any one answer unless it’s the Holy Spirit. I think we need revival.

JEANNETTE:    What role might the arts play in that?

LUCY:    Increasing our awareness. The imagination is something programmed into us by God. We need to be in touch with the imagery and power of the natural world, which is one of my primary sources of poetry and of wonder. We need to readjust our focus and allow God to surprise us—to be open, to be aware of the surprises he is sending. In Christian culture, we need greater exposure to the arts. People who have never been to an opera or a ballet have no idea what grandeur and significance they can find in just experimenting with different art forms. It’s a sensitizing process. The more you know about something, the more interested in it you grow. You have to make that leap to begin to learn about it. For people who can’t see the point in poetry, I say, “Come to some poetry readings. Hear poems read aloud by the poet, who knows what to emphasize and how to intone in a way that has meaning.” It can be the beginning of a lifelong process of education, sensitization, and appreciation. We need prophets and visionaries in the Christian church. I believe they’re out there, and we need to pay attention to these messengers of God. Passivity, apathy, is the greatest enemy we have—being unable to open ourselves, make some of these things happen, and make them happen in our own lives.

Footnotes

Jeannette A. Bakke is the author of Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction. She
teaches spiritual direction in seminaries, retreats, and training programs and is part of a cross-denominational group that is exploring the role of contemplative prayer in seminary education.