Monday, April 25, 2016


Agreeable responses to sermons have a salutary effect on those who preach, and Sunday I received perhaps one of the best responses to any sermon I’ve delivered since I began preaching seventeen or more years ago. I’ve mentioned Peanuts and his gang in previous sermons, but yesterday when I brought up Snoopy as an example of what Robert Short calls “the little Christ,” the small crowd in the chapel at St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, TN, became instantly alert. I apologized for seeming irreverent but went on to explain that, according to Short, Snoopy may be lazy, sarcastic, a coward, and quite weary of being a dog, but he also possesses love, loyalty, watchfulness, and courage. Furthermore, Short advises that before we can become a good Christian who loves well, we have to take on the dog’s lowliness of complete obedience and humility at the feet of the master and in service to others. When I said that Hegel, the German philosopher, recognized the dog as the most religious of all creatures who loves with complete dependence, the congregation seemed to be on the edge of applause. It was a memorable moment, and Penny, the Convent dog, who was curled under Sister Madeleine Mary’s feet, awoke from her usual nap in the sanctuary during church service and looked around for recognition.

I received a similar response when I went down to Grace Fellowship Church on Garner Road to deliver the same sermon. The response both gladdened and saddened me because I love dogs but cannot withstand too much exposure to them as I’m allergic to animal dander. Of course, Sophie, the Convent cat, isn’t as polite as Penny and insists on following me around, hiding under the table when I share breakfast with the Sisters in the refectory. Yesterday I was informed that the Sisters were up late vacuuming the chair on the altar where I sit before delivering a sermon because perverse Sophie had been lining it with animal dander all week in preparation for my arrival.

Sunday afternoon, we went down to the valley in Cowan, TN, to view an exhibit of the work of Carolyn Tocco who is one of the members of Grace Fellowship. Although Carolyn owns several dogs, I didn’t find any renderings of them; however, one wall of the Artisan Depot in Cowan featured a beautiful display of her oils that depicted wildlife and nature. Carolyn works in a studio of her home at Winterberry in the woods near Sewanee that we had visited last fall before we left Sewanee. We had come away from the visit with two small depictions of bugs and berries now hanging on the walls of the cottage here on The Mountain, and yesterday I added a painting of butterfly weed to our Tocco collection. I also left the Artisan Depot with two ceramic tea bag holders by Gretchen McCance who has a kiln at her home in Tim’s Ford, TN and another in Blue Ridge, Georgia.

The Artisan Depot just moved into a new facility on the main thoroughfare of Cowan and is a part of the Franklin County Arts Guild, which features fine art and crafts from Franklin County and surrounding areas. The Arts Guild is an organization of local artists and friends who promote the visual and performing arts for all ages in Franklin County. It also provides a scholarship for a promising high school senior who plans to study art or education at the university level, and an annual Sweet Tooth Theater, which is a musical act accompanied by coffee and dessert. The Artisan Depot is one of those galleries found in small communities throughout the Appalachians that promote venues for artists to sell their work.

It was a Sunday filled with “glad surprises,” as Thomas a Kempis says, made more pleasant by a Mexican dinner at the Fiesta in Cowan where the walls are decorated with another visual experience —the work of Sewanee artist, Edward Carlos.

Monday, April 18, 2016


In 2014 I reviewed a book entitled Adventure of Ascent: Field Notes From A Lifelong Journey by Luci Shaw, an account of a woman getting older that recorded the challenges and opportunities of “the stages of aging and as a mountain-climbing experience.” A few days ago I received another book entitled Thumbprint in the Clay by Shaw in which she explores the idea of finding thumbprints in creation – explorations in faith, art, and creativity. She discovers God’s presence in “imprinted adventures" and records, in essays and poetry,  her awareness of the Creator in her physical surroundings and in “living clay.”

Her ruminations about poetry and its imprint on humans speak to me as she writes that our senses allow us to observe, sort out and differentiate, and poetry brings them into clearer focus. Shaw’s delight in the ordinary is contagious. She devotes an entire chapter to coffee mugs, hand-thrown pottery such as fruit bowls, salad bowls and jugs, trays – vessels for storing, serving, holding and pouring. Each of her vessels have a history, but it is the look and feel of their shape and texture that enchant her, “combining earth and human eye and muscle with individual design, skill, and intense heat…” Fascinated with the art of pottery making, Shaw once enrolled in a ceramics class and found that manipulating clay on the wheel was sensuously satisfying. She refers to each of the pieces of clay she has collected as “examples of a kind of incarnation – a unique physical expression of the potter’s skill and artistry…a reflection of the artist’s soul… embodied in the individual’s creation…”

In an outstanding chapter of Thumbprint in the Clay, Shaw focuses on “Beauty,” and covers terrain showing God’s thumbprint that has always inspired me – the landscape of Big Sur, California.  At a monastery high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Shaw spent retreat time to recover after assiduously pursuing her writing career. She felt unsatisfied because she had experienced a disconnect with her spiritual life; however, in the monastery she gained fresh insight and was able to open herself to wisdom from beyond, finding God’s imprint in her surroundings that pointed her back to him…and to her work.

Shaw encountered Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was provided with an elemental example for enlarging her contemplative life. While she and Rohr sat at a table, gazing out a dining hall window and focusing on a poplar tree in front of them, Rohr told her that he could sit for hours and contemplate the tree. “‘Those leaves. Even that one leaf in particular’ (he points). He suggests to me that when my mind complicates or questions what I believe, I might choose an object – rock, leaf, a pool of water – for quiet contemplation. When your mind wanders, as it will, return to focusing on what is there in front of you. Let your gaze stay with the awareness that God is in you and in this object that you are both part of a universe that is an ongoing creation of love. He called this a long, loving look at the real.” This chapter resonated with me and evoked my memory of sitting in a chair on the patio of a small motel in Sedona, Arizona, gazing up at the cliffs of red rock that mark this area. I sat there for several hours, in one of the most non-thinking times of my life, enfolded in the texture and color of this particular “thumbprint” and feeling at one with my surroundings.

One of the last chapters in Thumbprint in the Clay, “God-Printed People,” includes a portrait of Madeleine L’Engle, renowned author of children and young adult books, and both fiction and non-fiction books regarding the spiritual life. Shaw and her husband befriended L’Engle and published her first book of poetry, The Weather of the Heart, and Shaw writes of how a friendship burgeoned, despite differing theological views – L’Engle was a liberal, left-leaning Episcopalian, and Shaw was a conservative, right-leaning evangelical. “Somehow, [by] the grace of God, we met in the middle, learning much from each other, influencing each other and being enriched in the process,” Shaw writes. Later, Shaw Publishers became L’Engle’s publisher for eleven of her religious books. When L’Engle moved into a nursing home in Litchfield, Connecticut, Shaw flew out from Bellingham to see her and was dismayed that her author friend seemed locked into herself; however, a month later, she was able to connect with L’Engle before she died and wrote a poem honoring her, a poignant tribute to a woman who had created a lasting impression in the world of spiritual writing: “…Fog has rolled in,/erasing definition at the edge. Walking/to meet it, she hopes soon to see/where the shore ends. She listens as/the ocean breathes in and out in waves./She hears no other sound.”

Luci Shaw is an inspiring co-creator whose thumbprints in poetry and prose help readers to see the marks of beauty and inspiration everywhere in the Creation and to ruminate on the markings of human artistry and skill. She is the author of ten volumes of poetry and other books, and co-authored three books with Madeleine L’Engle. Her papers are housed in the Luci Shaw Collection at Wheaton College. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.  


Thursday, April 14, 2016


When I received and read a copy of Pinyon Publishing’s recent release of a volume of poetry, Only The One Sky by Dabney Stuart, I kept thinking about another book of poems entitled Call and Response, an exchange in poetic form written by Louisiana poets Darrell Bourque and Jack Bedell. Both books represent a kind of counterpoint and harmony that flows between two poets to create a spiritual synthesis, embracing past and present in a medley of poems. In the case of Only the One Sky, Stuart has a conversation that focuses on joy and loss with an ancient poet from the Tang Dynasty of eighth century China.

Stuart names his connection “the old poet,” and transcends the boundaries of time, reaching back to antiquity for his subject, Wang Wei, who once wrote to his friend P’ei Ti about walking “hand in hand, composing poems as we went…down twisting paths to the banks of clear streams.” Although the poets have diverging personalities and sensibilities, they share communications that complement each other and in their listening and speaking, the reader is treated to meditations on nature, breath, family, Stuart’s musings about “the filtering years, ineffable ways/that have gentled us to this life: magic,/ grief and error, the lifting of veils./ Gratitude. Elation./ A butterfly, an unfolding shadow.”

In the old poet’s poem “Something Like That,” Stuart likens his feelings about longing to a passage from a Conrad novel, lamenting “I have no idea what I long for. /The old poet shifted on his dinghy seat./Only that I long for it./I don’t long for it because it’s impossible/ to attain, but because it’s impossible/for me not to long for it, whatever it is…”  I was reminded of the Sehnsucht of Simone Weil’s passage in Waiting for God: “When we possess a beautiful thing, we still desire something. We do not in the least know what it is. We want to get behind the beauty, but it…like a mirror sends back our own desire for goodness. It is a…mystery that is painfully tantalizing.” In Stuart’s passage there is a sense of the poet remembering fleeting joys, yet he is aware that we seem to be separated from that which is desired, as Corbin Carnell points out in Bright Shadow of Reality, “a ceaseless longing which always points beyond…” Stuart masterfully uses the “old poet” to personify this quest for the secret that remains hidden to us.

Stuart captures the images of wandering and nature in an exquisite poem, “Not the Same,” as the old poet ruminates about his life by the river. “It is always, the same and not the same./The cluster of willows at the near bend/turns yellow in autumn. Its bare branches/flow in the small breezes. He dreams of them./ Sometimes he wakes, uncertain in the darkness,/lies quietly on his cot, listening/for the silence to break, an owl leaving,/the river bearing itself, the willows shushing.”

Using a more contemporary voice, Stuart roots us in his home place with “Porch Screen,” providing the reader and his old poet friend a glimpse of domesticity: “Once your hair fell across your face, tilted aside./My finger to your chin, a brushing kiss…/Someone to talk with, to share the rabbit stew,/the porch screen flaring with late afternoon sun.” The poet crosses the divide in time between the old poet and the younger one with dialogue featuring affection that connects both poets in the shared blessing of an evening meal.

In Only The One Sky Stuart speaks to poets, living and dead, who have transported readers into a spiritual dimension, creating his own inscriptions about a journey filled with the sight of  radiance everywhere, the sacrament of poets’ connections, and the “atmosphere of infinite suggestion.”* 

Dabney Stuart has been a resident at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy, has held a Virginia Artists Fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2006 he won the Library of Virginia Poetry Prize. His work is in the audio and video archives at the Library of Congress.

Only The One Sky is available from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, Colorado 81403 and from

*A.C. Bradley. Oxford Lectures on Poetry.