A Craftsman’s Legacy, by Eric Gorges

Craftsman's LegacyMy husband actually read this one, but he read so much of it aloud to me and we discussed it so thoroughly that I feel as though I read it myself. Based on the PBS television show of the same name, the book’s subtitle, Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning, was the catalyst for me to bring it home from the library for David.

Gorges worked in the corporate world before opening his motorcycle shop, Voodoo Choppers, and becoming a master metal shaper. After considering the changes in his life because of his creative work, he decided to visit craftsmen in other disciplines to examine the influence their handwork wrought on their minds and souls. Deep stuff for a biker.

Camille scarf 2
For my sweet daughter-in-law.

David and I have been diving into the spiritual aspects of handwork lately, as well, and this book really helped to drive some of our conversations. David has been continuing his generations-long family tradition of woodworking with small and large projects, and perhaps a future of entrepreneurship. A year and a half ago, I checked off a box on my bucket list by learning to knit. Since then, I have become an avid fan of this needlecraft, my favorite in a long list of needlework throughout my life. Each project has taught me a new skill, along with knowledge of the fibers and the history of the stitches. The tactile pleasures of working with wool, silk, and cashmere while crafting warm garments with Celtic-knot cables or open lacework are soothing and satisfying. I liked it so much that I committed myself to knitting five Christmas presents this year, which I will never do again.

Shawl backWorking with one’s hands does absorb the same time that could be used for reading and writing, and I am only so fond of audiobooks, so I will have to take that into consideration in the future. However, David and I both found that handcrafts moved us away from technology and slowed our thinking in ways that were healthy for us. We both believe that God created people in his own image, and part of that image is our innate desire to be sub-creators, as Tolkien expressed it. The growing joy that one feels as a project begins to take shape under our hands, gradually assuming the image that we had in our minds, is a delight that makes us return to our craft again and again. Each time, we also have grown and learned new skills and are able to bring more complex and beautiful works into being. A bit of ourselves is woven into each product, and inanimate objects take on meaning that survives beyond our human lives.

Celtic cables on needles
King Edward’s Knot

As Gorges visits each artisan, he tries his hand at their craft. Pottery turns out to be much more difficult to throw than he expected, and he marvels at the bulging muscle on the engraver’s carving hand. Glassblowers, woodworkers, and sculptors all have skills developed over years of labor. I was especially interested in the chapter on calligraphy, since that is next on my list of artistic endeavors. I made a stab at it years ago, but my Christmas list this year included split-nib pens, ink, alphabet books, and a light table. We are fixing up a craft room right now, and I hope to have ink-stained fingers in no time. But first, I owe David a scarf.

 

Many needles mitts
Too many needles!

 

Karen's mitts with tag
Mitts for my sis. Tags from AdKnit on Etsy.

If you have an itch to create, Eric Gorges will show you how your soul will be enriched by the work of your fingers. Oh, and download an audiobook from your local library while you work.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and my husband’s and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. This column is reprinted at www.TheReaderWrites.com, with additional photographs.

Ellen

ellenNext door to us in Milledgeville lived a pair of twins, Alice and Ellen. As teenaged girls, they were like Patty and her cousin Cathy on the Patty Duke Show, for those of you old enough to understand that reference. Alice lived out loud, partying and having fun. Ellen was everything refined and lovely, just what an upper-crust parent would desire.

Their parents, Mike and Bea, were my parents’ closest friends. She was old money; he was new. They owned the only radio station in town, had a full-time, live-in maid, and kept the local parish priest in their back pocket with large donations. Like my dad, Mike was an Irish Catholic, and his religion was a large part of his identity, which helps to explain why their world came to an end when Ellen became engaged to a Protestant.

Mike forbade the priest from marrying Ellen in her own church. He could do that; he had the power. When Ellen— who was completely in love with Don, a fine young man from a good family— married him anyway in his church, her parents closed their doors to her and vowed never to speak to her again.

As their friends, this whole situation was very uncomfortable for my parents, especially my mother. She had declined to attend her own brother’s wedding, because it was held in a Protestant church and Catholics were forbidden to enter non-Catholic places of worship. As time went by, and especially since she had had time to observe this sweet young woman and her beautiful love story, Mom had begun to rethink and regret her decision.

Within a year or so, Ellen gave birth to her first child, as young brides are apt to do. When she showed up at her mother’s door, aching to share this joy with her, Bea sent a message through the maid to say that she refused to see her. Stricken, Ellen came to our house, where my mother took her in and let her cry on her shoulder. I remember riding in the back of Don and Ellen’s car, caring for the baby, who was laid on a blanket in those days before car seats. Ellen was in the front seat tearfully asking Don, “What should I do?” My mother grieved for her.

Years later, when I married a Protestant myself, as did my sister after me, we were married in our own Catholic church. My father was unhappy at the time, but as our husbands became Catholics, he relaxed. My mother never spoke of the issue; she was a wise woman who learned from the suffering she had seen. Within five years, I left the church, and as a decades-old Protestant now, I have seen the same spirit of division from the other side. It’s as if we always think that 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 was written for other people, as if the Lord is only upset with division in the church if other believers disagree with us and our beliefs. Otherwise, surely we would find a way to avoid these thousands of denominations. As Jesus prayed in John 17:31, “May they be one, as you and I are one.” Not “may they be correct.”

Within a few years, Ellen had two more children, and her parents never saw them. She brought each and every one to her parents’ door, but always ended up crying at our house. She was still a young woman with little ones when she was struck with appendicitis and rushed to the hospital for what should have been a routine surgery. No one knew that she was allergic to the anesthesia, and by the time they realized it, she was dead. Don had called her parents to tell them that she was going to have surgery, and when her father arrived to find that she had died, he began shouting at the medical staff, threatening to sue the doctor and the hospital and demanding an autopsy. Quietly, Don said, “No, she will not have an autopsy, and we will not sue the doctor. It was an unfortunate accident. You would have no part in her life, and now you will have no part in her death.” Mike and Bea lived for many years after Ellen’s death, but they were broken people who never recovered.

The day after Ellen died was Mother’s Day. Bea loved flowers, and she delighted in the rarest blooms she could find. Ellen faithfully sent her mother flowers every year on Mother’s Day, even though they had not spoken in a very long time. Of course, she had ordered them several days earlier, so when the doorbell rang on the morning of Mother’s Day, Bea received a thoughtfully chosen gift from her dead daughter: a rare black orchid.

Behind the Mask

When Allan was a teenager and I was a little kid, he held a Halloween party in the cellar. We didn’t have a basement in Milledgeville; we had a dirt-floored room under our house that had to be accessed through an external door: a cellar. While the teenagers rocked around the clock down below, one of my friends showed up at the front door with her mother. Mom came to get me, and I followed her into the living room and stared at the costume with wide eyes. Everyone could see that I was afraid, and so my friend cried, “Look, Cheryl! It’s me!” and ripped off her mask. I screamed and ran back to my room. My mom could never get over the fact that I was more afraid when she showed her real face than when her scary mask was in place.

Even though I went trick-or-treating all through my childhood, that fear of masks stayed with me. I was so relieved when the rest of the world finally admitted that clowns are really creepy. We all share that uneasy feeling when the smiling face that you see is not the real person underneath. It is a nightmare sensation that blurs reality and illusion and renders you powerless to keep yourself safe.

When I started working in the children’s department in a library, the kids’ reactions to puppet shows fascinated me. Even though they could see the librarian walk behind the puppet stage, or even when she held a puppet on her lap and they could see her mouth move, the puppet show kept them simultaneously thrilled and terrified. I’ve had more than one child plead with the puppets, almost in tears, trying to help them out of their little fictional problems. Occasionally, a child had to be carried out of the room because they became so distressed by puppet antics. The kids know that the puppets are not real, but the line between reality and illusion is so thin sometimes, and the inability to hold onto it upsets something deep in our psyche.

When I was a teenager in New Jersey, my boyfriend was friends with one of the employees of Great Adventure amusement park. One day, we had the special treat of going “backstage” to see the workers transform into their park characters. Our friend stepped into a gorilla suit, laughing and chatting all the while. Hours later, after riding roller coasters and having a blast, we saw him heading toward us through the crowd. My knees went weak and nausea began to roil in my stomach. I tugged on my boyfriend’s hand. “Let’s go somewhere else.” “But don’t you want to see him? He’s heading this way, and he’ll probably goof around with us and make people laugh.” I knew if he caught up with us, I might faint. Even though my mind told me that a friend was underneath that mask, my body couldn’t escape that fight or flight reflex, which was definitely tuned to “flight.”

Fast forward twenty years, and my husband and I were spending a leisurely Saturday afternoon in lovely Clarkesville, Georgia, drifting in and out of the many antique shops in its quaint little downtown area. After a couple of hours, we stepped out of yet another peaceful store and almost walked into a KKK member in full regalia. I stifled a scream. They were on every corner, handing out flyers in their white robes and hoods, but with their faces exposed. I had never seen a KKK member in person before, and I didn’t even know that they still existed. So many thoughts swirled through my head, and even though our car was just on the other side of them, I asked my husband to take me in the opposite direction. I was already knocked flat by the costumes, which were a symbol of pure evil. Why did they feel confident enough to show their faces? Why weren’t they ashamed? David put his arm around me and said, “But we can get to our car a lot faster if we go this way. They’re not going to hurt you.” True, but I’d never get past them on these noodle legs. Again, that confusion of two people existing in one body: the friendly local insurance agent and the dangerous madman encouraging others to join him in his acts of hatred. How can they both be the same person?

When we choose a mask, are we concealing or revealing? It’s fun to try on another identity for a while, to escape our boring routine and be a fairy princess instead, or to defy our powerlessness and put on a superhero outfit. Perhaps a gorilla suit allows someone to run around and make people scream and laugh, and lords and ladies might hide behind simple black masks to engage in naughtiness, as did the revelers in Much Ado About Nothing. No one, however, puts on a white hood to be silly; it’s far too revealing, and is meant to be so.

C.S. Lewis’ favorite of his own works was Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in which he shows that we all have expectations of people based on their appearance, and how the distortion of those appearances can cause the wrong response, which is perhaps unfair, since we do not always control the way we look. So which is out of joint, the appearance or our reaction?

We await the day when we have our true faces, and all will be revealed.

Beeswax & Dust

Sacred Heart MilledgevilleScientists tell us that the most powerful trigger of memory is the sense of smell. When I catch a hint of a certain aroma, it transports me back to my childhood at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Milledgeville. It’s a warm combination of beeswax, old wood polished many times, dust in the carpet, and a lingering vapor of incense. To me, it is the smell of holiness.

Our church was tiny, the only Catholic church in this small, southern town. The congregation was filled with Yankee transplants and Cuban immigrants. We were the former. The church was hushed and quiet, and so crowded that we were often in the parish hall, which joined to the side of the sanctuary. Mass was still in Latin in those years, so there was plenty of time to look around and let a child’s mind wander. I dearly wanted to wear a beautiful mantilla like the “Spanish ladies,” but my mother said no. I had to wear a hat.

There were candles on the altar, of course, but also votive candles in a bank of red holders off to the side. A person had to put some money in the box to light a candle, and then their prayer was supposed to go up to God for as long as the candle lasted. I thought they cast a lovely glow, but when I later became a Protestant, and my family visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, I eschewed them as pagan, since there’s nothing in the Bible about prayers in candle flames, and because they were often lit to pray for someone’s soul to be released from Purgatory, another unbiblical notion. Besides, they were often in a little alcove in front of a saint’s statue.

My mom was not a spiritual person. She was glamorous, gregarious, and efficient. She was a Protestant before she married my father, so she went to Mass and said her prayers privately, avoiding the more mystical aspects of the faith. She didn’t deny them; she just didn’t care for showiness in religious matters. Mom spent decades of her life caring for sick and dying relatives, pouring out her precious days in service to those she loved, while never going a minute without eyeliner and lipstick. I mistook her practical faith for shallow belief. Two days before her death, her Birkenstock-wearing parish priest came to her hospital bed to give her the last rites. He said, “Margaret, do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died on the cross for your sins?” She looked full in his face, eyes wide and childlike, and said, “I do.” This is one of those moments in my life that is forever fresh and crystal clear. I visit it occasionally to consider what it says about my mom and about myself.

Votive candles redA year or so ago, my brother and I had a day together in Manhattan, and we trekked down to the 9-11 Memorial and St. Paul’s Chapel, and then we went further down the island to the oldest church in New York, Trinity Episcopal on Wall Street. Whereas St. Paul’s Chapel is more tourist site than church these days, Trinity was quiet and filled with worshipers. We strolled the historic graveyard and quietly admired the beautiful architecture and pipe organ in the sanctuary. Off to the side, there is a little chapel room with a sign asking for complete silence. I sat down and spent a little time with others in prayer and meditation. Coming out, I saw a bank of glowing red votives. I lit a candle.

In Jewish tradition, it is usually the woman who lights the candles at the beginning of religious ceremonies, symbolizing the fact that women bring life into the world. Messianic Jews further interpret this ritual as a symbol that a woman brought forth the Light of the world. In any case, it is, as they say, a mitzvah.

Most evenings after dinner, around seven o’clock, I head out to my back porch to read my Bible and spend some time with the Lord. My porch has become a holy place. David will usually join me a half hour or so later. But before the Bible is opened or any prayers are said, I light a candle.

The Benedict Option Wrap Party

Benedict OptionLast week, the few of us who persevered to the end of our meetings to discuss Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option had a little party to sum up what we had gleaned from this important book. We gathered on the porch, and there were calories and perhaps a little wine involved. With candles lit, we shared favorite parts and even a few criticisms.

We all agreed that Dreher forced us to get serious about our personal spiritual lives. We are more diligent to set aside certain times for scripture reading and for prayer, and we desire to pray more deeply, rather than abruptly addressing the Creator of all the universe with a checklist of our requests. On a related note, we have all attempted to ratchet back the amount of time we spend with technology. For some of us, that means being more deliberate about our television viewing, both the content and just the pervasiveness of the noise. For all of us, it means social media use and the brain-fracturing effect of smartphones.

One member pointed out the lack of scripture in the book. We have been aware throughout the study that Christians cannot base their lives on any movement that came about after the book of Acts. We can learn from church history, but all people have had blind spots, even monks in the Dark Ages. On the other hand, Dreher’s history of philosophy and culture encouraged us to rip off our contemporary American glasses and attempt to turn our minds to a time when Christians saw every atom and every moment of their lives as soaked in God’s presence.

Dreher writes from a post-Christian perspective, and here in the American South, we have not quite arrived. Almost, but not quite. Therefore, when he writes about community as taking place only within the church, we are still more in the mind of The Turquoise Table, working hard to bring our neighborhoods and towns into community together. Even over the course of the few months that we have spent on this book, however, we have seen still more movement to silence and isolate people of faith, and so we discern that Dreher writes prophetically.  Perhaps we will soon see a day when we should board those little arks of which he writes in his excellent New York Times article, just as the boats rescued the soldiers at Dunkirk so that they could regroup to fight another day.

Unlike many of the books written within the past couple of decades decrying the collapse of religion in the West, The Benedict Option is refreshingly non-political. Rather, Dreher’s work is spiritual and ecclesiastical, pulling the church back to a deeper understanding of living as the people of God on earth.

Portions of The Benedict Option would be even more valuable for young families, particularly the wide-ranging chapter on education. Furthermore, pastors and church leaders would be in a position to put at least some of these ideas into practice within their congregations. One member of our group plans to suggest this book as a small group study in her church. Whether read alone or discussed with others, this title will awaken American Christians to our current status in our country, while offering thoughtful ideas to strengthen our spiritual lives, our families, our churches, and our communities.

Benedict on the Porch 2

The Church

Benedict Option A couple of weeks ago, our group met again to discuss Rod Dreher’s insights on the church and community. Please see my earlier post, “Benedict on the Porch 1,” below, and the review of the book, The Benedict Option, on EatReadSleep, here.

Dreher believes that, just as everything that we do in our personal lives should be an outgrowth of prayer, everything that Christians do in the world should start in the church.

Our session started off with an energetic conversation about Bernie Sanders’ interrogation of Russell Vought for Deputy Director of the White House Office of Budget and Management. In case you really didn’t believe that the church is under attack, Senator Sanders will undeceive you here.  He concluded by saying that Mr. Vought was ineligible for any post in the government because he truly believes that human beings are only saved by faith in Jesus Christ, and that therefore Muslims are condemned. The senator did not, however, inquire as to whether Muslims believe that Mr. Vought is condemned because he does not believe as they do. Following the senator’s logic, only those who do not have any real beliefs are eligible to serve in the government, although claiming a religion as ethnic identity can be charming. We all know that really nice people are secular.

Tradition and Liturgy

Rod Dreher argues that “we are seeing the collapse of Christian civilization because Christians in the West have badly neglected sustaining their own distinct culture.” (pp. 100-101) The very word “culture” comes from a Latin word that means emerging from the common worship of a group of people. Our traditions are important because of the wisdom our ancestors had in creating them. One suggestion that our entire group agreed with was Dreher’s call for a return to worshipping with the whole body. We are physical creatures, and ancient worship services, now preserved in liturgical churches, used motion and all of the body’s senses. Changing positions in appropriate ways—kneeling, standing, sitting, even prostrating oneself—built muscle memory into the entire church at once. Incense, ringing bells (“smells and bells”) appealed to the senses, just as beautiful artwork, traditional prayers, and songs will do. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were given to us because they are tangible signs to earthly creatures, and our current worship traditions should follow that pattern.

On the other hand, we were not as convinced by Dreher’s firm stance on the superiority of liturgical worship over lower-church services. We had some interesting discussions about the meaning of liturgy, and the point at which an order of worship crosses over into liturgy. I took the opportunity to share one of my favorite Annie Dillard quotes, from Holy the Firm.

The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.

My problem with this chapter is that Mr. Dreher seems to see Christianity and Western civilization as either the same thing, or at least inextricably intertwined. Although I am very concerned about the disaster taking place in the West, and I consider European culture to be extraordinarily valuable and foundational to our own nation, I fear that only a white person would believe that Christianity itself could only be saved through European and American institutions. The church is growing fastest today in southern Africa and Asia, and the roots of Christian faith are in Asia, not Europe. As I’ve said before, Mr. Dreher takes us back to 600 AD, while 100 AD would be so much more supportable. So, while I would enthusiastically join efforts to save Western civilization, one must think even more deeply to purify the church.

Asceticism and Discipline

The author also advises entire churches to practice asceticism together as a regular Christian discipline. Greek Orthodox believers, like Dreher, fast every Wednesday and Friday, all year long. In addition, he feels that churches should practice biblical church discipline. If the church is truly an organism, as Paul calls us all members of one body, should we not remove diseased parts of the body if we wish to be healthy? Discipline of any kind is anathema to Americans, especially when imposed from without, but church discipline, properly applied, is a bracing tonic both to the members inside, who can breathe more easily without fighting evil on an individual basis, and to the observers on the outside, who may be surprised and heartened to find authority exercised righteously in a culture with no absolute standards.

Goodness and Beauty

The church should draw people in with goodness and beauty. Art is a tough one. True art may be in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t see a lot of great art coming out of the church today. The church that once produced Bach and Dürer now puts out “Got Jesus?” bumper stickers based on a secular ad campaign for milk. When we do find writers, musicians, or other artists producing great work, let us support them!

Finally, goodness should be the mark of every Christian. “The greatest of these is love,” as Paul says in the famous 1 Corinthians passage. However, the wider world may not see goodness and love from us these days. Let us repair that breach. If, as Dreher believes, we may increasingly experience suffering, let it be while we are serving others in the love of Jesus, in goodness and self-sacrifice.

Next time: Community. It wasn’t what we thought.

Running the Race

Today I had my annual physical. Decades of my life went by without much care for this irksome event, but now I’m grateful when my doctor lets me go for six months without seeing her. Everything went very well, but I still need to visit a bevy of specialists, since this is The Year of Many Tests, so I will see my radiologist, optometrist, and, alas, gastroenterologist within the next couple of months. Once again, my doctor talked to me about a Living Will, and for the first time, I paid attention.

A few months ago, our life insurance agent contacted us to let us know that our term life insurance would expire next year. When you’re just starting out, life insurance seems like your Get Out of Jail Free card in case of some extraordinary catastrophe. A stay-at-home mom with young kids needs to able to stay in her house if she suddenly becomes a single mom. Now that David and I have buried all of our parents, though, we have a very accurate picture of the expenses incurred at the end of a life in America. It’s obscene. Between the cost of critical care at a hospital and the funeral director’s horrifying ideas of a decent burial, including a medallion with the dearly departed’s fingerprint (yuck!), your loved ones can be left with staggering bills. Keeping up one’s medical insurance is essential, but carrying huge life insurance policies is crazy, so we are figuring out the ethics and necessities for a time when we won’t be here.

David and I had a conversation recently in which I fretted that I would die before I figured everything out—life, death, afterlife, the universe, why we put vegetable scraps into the compost pile every single day but never get compost—all that stuff. Perhaps I am the only one, but I never feel spiritual enough or wise enough for someone who has lived for almost six decades. With all the reading, studying, and praying I’ve done, surely I should be floating through life a few inches above the ground, looking serene and spouting philosophical gems. Instead, I am increasingly aware of all that I don’t know, all the books I haven’t read, and all the time I didn’t spend serving in soup kitchens but instead did laundry.

At the same time, I don’t “think” old. Sometimes I feel old, but not much. This is the secret of old age: you are still the same person. I read a lot of children’s and teens’ books, so maybe my brain stays in that space. Furthermore, I don’t have anyone calling me Grandma—yet. I still listen to the same kinds of music that I have for years, which grows ever more raucous, even though people seem to think that your music should get quieter with age. I even thought of a tiny, little “righteous Hebrew tat” that I could put in a discreet place. Then I took a good look at the state of my skin and thought, “Ew. No.” I do wish that more people would consider this. I recently saw a woman in a parking lot who had obviously lived a rugged life under the sun with a full-sleeve tattoo on one arm. It needed ironing.

It is boringly responsible to take care of the practical details that aging brings, but there’s no reason stop living with gusto. I have not been able to save the world yet, but perhaps that’s not why I’m here. However, being an excellent wife to my husband is something no one else can do, so I will do that. Tomorrow, I can go to work and choose brilliant new books that may improve the lives of thousands of children whom I may not know personally, but still care about deeply, and I will do that. I can find ways to show love to my wonderful family and friends and to the people in my little community, so I will do that, too. And of course, I will keep on praying and listening to what the Lord has to tell me. From what I hear about the afterlife He has planned, the future is looking bright.