CLA Conference 2022 and Superbloom!

Tuesday, July 26, 2022


Superbloom at the Tower of London!


Earlier this month, I traveled to London to present a paper at the conference on Catholicism, Literature, and the Arts, hosted by Durham University and the University of Notre Dame. It was a wonderful week of personal and professional flourishing! I’d never traveled on my own to a foreign country before, and I’d also never given a paper outside of a seminar classroom.

Throughout the week, I delighted in designing my own schedule (i.e. spending as much time wandering museums, strolling through gardens, and sipping tea by the Thames as I desired), and in developing my ability to navigate a professional context with curiosity and gratitude, rather than fear and trembling. I discovered that the best way to approach a conference, when I’m anxious about making a good impression on everyone, is to flip the focus and think instead about serving others. “How can I give to others here?” was a much better question than, “What will I receive from this?” because it allowed me to look for ways to affirm the research others are performing, and it freed me from my own cramped expectations of how the conference should go.

With that perspective in mind, the conference experience opened up for me. The delegates were excited to share their research, and I learned so much from conversations that happened over tea and lunch breaks. And everyone was so friendly; they were happy to get to know me, too! When it came time to share my own paper, it felt like just that: a sharing of my work with new friends, rather than a fretful desire to please.

The conference was an absolute feast for the mind, and with a focus on all kinds of art (music, visual art, poetry, prose, dance) it was a feast for the senses, too. The parallel paper sessions and plenary events were thoughtfully designed to incorporate the conference theme of “the poetics of liturgy and place” and at times, it felt more like a spiritual retreat than an academic conference. Just wonderful all-around!

Regrettably, the week had to come to an end at some point, but not before one last adventure at the Tower of London on my final morning in the city. In honor of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the Tower moat has been bedecked with English wildflowers in a lavish display called Superbloom. For a small fee, you can purchase a ticket to walk around inside of it… and also, if you’re feeling especially adventurous, slide into a field of flowers (that might have been my favorite part). It was like a fairy tale come to life! The colors were so vibrant, the scents so sweet, the music – for they had tucked speakers streaming gentle yet soaring strings into the landscape – utterly transporting.

It was also a prayer. Perhaps it’s no surprise that I came off a conference about liturgy and place thinking hard about the transcendent significance of this place in which I now found myself. And as I wandered and pondered, delighting in the display, I felt the Lord speak two truths into my heart, truths that I would like to share with you now:

“You are worth more than many wildflowers.”


As I immersed myself in the cheerful landscape of flowers, stopping to admire glistening pearl dewdrops on pastel petals, and glittering traces of dappled gold on white flowers, I felt simultaneously delighted by the beauty of what I was enjoying, and in awe of the perfection with which each of these tiny flowers had been so intricately designed. My mind darted to Matthew 6: “Learn from the way the wildflowers grow. They do not work or spin… If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will He not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?”

If God delights in creating these wildflowers, how much more does He delight in each one of us! How much more intricately designed are we: masterpieces that stir the Lord’s own heart with delight at every moment! As beautiful as I found those flowers, we are infinitely more beautiful and radiant to Him. And if He takes care to fashion each one of those little flowers in exquisite detail, how much more is He designing our own hearts and the circumstances of our lives?

Which brings me to the next truth He whispered among the wildflowers:


“This is what I want to do in your heart.”


As I meandered through the fields of flowers, I picked up a short leaflet sketching the moat’s history. Though built to protect the Tower from attack, the moat silted over time and became a health hazard, so it was emptied and grassed over in the mid nineteenth-century. It’s been that way ever since – until now, of course, when Superbloom has given it new, beautiful life.

I was struck by the way the moat’s history sounds like the story of my own heart. I realized that I have often built my own moats to protect myself from vulnerability and attack, and subsequently closed down the parts of my heart most in need of healing. I have put up defenses to keep people – and sometimes even God Himself – from getting inside. And over time, those defenses, well-meaning as they might have first seemed, have become hazardous to my heart.

Can anyone else relate?

But here was the Lord, saying beside me, I can give you new life even here. I can turn this grassed-over moat around your own heart, which you have created to cover what you perceive to be dangerous waters, into a lavish display of My love. I can redeem it into something more beautiful than you can imagine.

Indeed, He has already begun! There was a time when I would have closed myself off at a conference, when I would have let past wounds keep me too afraid to talk to anyone, when I would have felt sure that they all thought I was stupid. I would have let myself think that I don’t know what I’m doing and that I really didn’t belong there among so many people clearly more practiced than me.

I did have a moment on the first night where I felt all of those things, but I didn’t let myself dwell there. More likely, it was God’s strength that saw me through. That I was able to let go and see so much good in the experience is a testament to the work that God is already doing in me to redeem what has been broken, to plant fields of wildflowers in my own heart, and to give me new life.

And He wants the same for you, dear friend. What brokenness can you surrender to Him today?



A Promise for Troubled Times.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

 



“I am with you always, until the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:5

***

I was reminded recently, by a number of sources (isn’t it funny how a revelation will repeat itself, gently but insistently, until you claim it as your own?) that the goal of the Christian life is quite simply this: union with God.

Everything that we do as believers should draw us to that end: Union with God. Divine intimacy. A heart like His because it has learned to rest in it.

This unity with the Lord isn’t something that we achieve, earn, or accomplish. It’s more like a romance, a drawing ever deeper, an unfolding. I have to make the choice to seek Him out, but the fact is that He is already with me, making the first move, inviting me to blossom into the fullness of myself, and tending the garden of my heart, if I but assent to be with Him there.

God with us is the glorious good news of the Gospel, our greatest hope. And it also means that we don’t have to be afraid.

I once heard a priest say that Christianity is unique among the world’s religions because, while others tell the story of humans trying to reach the divine, Christianity is the only one that tells the story of how God did everything to come to us, even entered into this broken world Himself, in human flesh, to give Himself up for us and fill our suffering with Himself. So that we might find meaning in this weary, broken, wounded world. So that we might live with Him forever. Christianity is the great story of God’s “with-ness.” He comes to us. Every minute, every hour, without fail.

God with us means that we are never alone in our suffering. It means that He is here among us still, very much alive.

I know this, of course, but I never stop needing to be reminded of it.

The world is once again tiptoeing on the brink of catastrophe, and the unthinkable has already happened to so many. I stare into the terrifying unknown and increasingly find that the only thing I can cling to is the knowledge that God will be there.

Last week, when I was unburdening some of my anxieties on my sister as she drove me to the airport, she quoted my great-grandfather, who lived through the Great Depression and World War II: “It will be okay, because what other choice do we have?”

He meant that we would endure whatever we survived to see, that life would go on and we would figure out how to persevere. But there is a greater truth here:

It will be okay because the Lord will be with us.

In her new book Aggressively Happy: A Realist’s Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life, Joy Clarkson reflects that feeling like the world is about to end is in fact nothing new, and that our fragile existence has always been threatened by some type of tragedy:


I have come to expect the end of the world. I think it’s only reasonable to do so when all the generations before me have done it too. When I look to the future, I see the manifold ways the world could end, and when I look to the past, I see that the world has always been almost ending. (195)


In other words, our fears for what tomorrow will hold are merely the latest in a string of them that is as long as human history itself. But for Clarkson, the precarious fact of our existence isn’t a reason to give in to despair. Instead, it’s a reason to stare unflinchingly into “the finitude of the material universe” (196) and of our own lives with the knowledge that the Lord has vanquished death, that light will always triumph over darkness, and that “death is not the truest thing at the heart of the universe, but life, beauty, joy” (199). The most sensible response to a world that is falling apart, she argues, is to put it back together again with acts, no matter how small, that proclaim this truth.

Amen.

Zach Vinson’s song “Hold My Son” is an anthem to these small, courageous acts of love and creativity in a world that would have us believe that death gets the final say: “…I will pray that death is small beside the light,” he sings. And I will, too.

I like to think of it as turning to my sphere of influence and loving the people in that space as fiercely as I can. I can’t control what is happening on the other side of the globe, but if I want to see a braver and more loving world, it starts in my house. In the classroom. In the Writing Center. With small acts of kindness, tiny sacrifices, and my whole attention given as a gift in love to the person or task in front of me. It starts, too, with beauty and creativity, poured out in new melodies on the piano or words on a page.

These are the acts that make death seem small. These are the acts that affirm that life, beauty, and joy are the heartbeat of this world.

In a world that is still so unsure, I know this with absolute certainty: God will never leave us alone in our suffering. He is not going anywhere. He will always be with us, until the end of the age.

That is the promise. That has always been the promise.

And in the promise that the Lord will be with us is this animating truth, pulsing through our existence: Love will always have the final word. This is not an abstraction or a clich├ęd aphorism or an empty platitude. It is the surest thing I know.

I don’t know what tomorrow or next week or next month or ten years from now will hold. But I do know that He will be there. That the Lord is still very much alive in this world, that the Holy Spirit is everywhere, and always will be. Turning darkness into light. Breathing life into death.

Press on in hope, dear friends. We are not alone.

God is with us.