Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

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Little Elegy

Walking through Cambridge, inspiration is difficult to avoid. My apologies to those on the sidewalk who had to go around me as I stopped to give this poor bird a proper elegy.

“His eye is on the sparrow,” so ’tis sung
But ‘neath some foot or wheel its feathers flung-
Poor claws curled up in pain all that remain
Of this, the least of these, abandoned-slain.

The serpent struck, his head then doomed to crush,
Yet somehow just this little life- this thrush-
Drops down, his sun-stripe yellow turned to grey,
And he who flew now falls into decay.

Though sorrowful surrender stills his wings,
Another takes his tune and still he sings.

*(Poetic disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of AABBCC… but this the rhyme scheme that happened and it somehow seems fitting.)

Pride and Conviction

Well, it’s that time of year again… We find ourselves nearly in the middle of June and, as such, thoroughly entrenched in National Dairy Month, Adopt-a-Cat Month, Safety Awareness Month, and Accordion Awareness Month. We also are (supposedly) to rally together in June to promote camping, candy, roses, and vegetables (https://nationaldaycalendar.com/june-monthly-observations/). However, while I bet very few of us are out marching in celebration of accordions and roses, I am sure everybody is aware that June is also LGBTQIA awareness month. Namely, June has become Pride Month and the rainbow flags are flying thick.

Now – aside from the obvious injustice that accordions are not receiving their proper attention – Pride Month poses as a particular challenge to many, myself included. I am faced with this enormous question: How am I, as a follower of Christ, to interact with Pride Month 2018? 

So many will be quick to speak for biblical – and, I believe – moral, truth. They will declaim any sexual relationships and attractions other than those commended in scripture. However, often these comments are hurtful, unhelpful, or hypocritical.

The other tendency is to lean toward affirmation. However, to praise a lifestyle that we believe to be immoral is to lie to ourselves and others. We cannot tell people celebrating Pride that we are happy for them if we believe they are on a path toward destruction. And, if we genuinely believe this, it does them no kindness to affirm them on their path.

It is better to say nothing than to be wrongfully affirming and better to say nothing than to be purposefully abrasive. My proposal for those who, like myself, are unsure of how to interact with Pride is that we neither falsely affirm nor seek to attack. Rather, we as Believers ought to use Pride Month to be convicted of our own struggles and then to engage in honest conversation with each other.

“What struggles?” you might ask, although I hope you don’t. If you are the type of person who can honestly be baffled as to whether or not you are battling sin, then I fear you have already lost the war. Whether straight or LGBT or questioning, we are all living in a fallen world and our hearts desire that which is not good. The difference is that Christ has overcome these struggles and, in Him, we too might be conquerors, putting to death the flesh and living by the Spirit (Romans 8:12-13).

Ironically, the main problem for all of us is, I believe, pride. This makes June a perfect month to reflect on our struggles. Everywhere we look, rainbows and catchy slogans and personal testimonies are demanding that we celebrate Pride. However, pride is the very problem.

Pride by definition is the state of deriving pleasure or satisfaction from a possession, quality, achievement, or relationship. The dilemma is that this pride becomes a self-focused and temporal source of identity. Possessions are lost or used up. We change our minds, loves, and habits. Someone will always achieve more than us. Even the best relationships will inevitably let us down. Pride Month reminds us that we are, as humans, prone to find our worth – our very identities – in what we are proud of and this becomes dangerous. Rather than immediately celebrating or condemning, though, we ought to find this convicting.

Paul warns of this in Galatians 6:11-14, telling Christians that our physical characteristics and/or our heritage (circumcision or lack thereof) do not have any bearing on our true identity as Christians. Rather, the only worthwhile boast is in Christ, for, as Lord and Savior, He is the perfection of the qualities, accomplishments, and relationships that we seek so desperately. 

Furthermore, this passage reveals that not only are we not to take pride in earthly circumstances, but that they are to be dead to us. We are crucified with Christ and the world crucified to us, therefore, any earthbound identity must be forsaken. Any relationship, quality, goal, etc. (i.e. any source of pride) that is not in accordance with the “new creation” of Christ’s death and resurrection must be abandoned, and, any of these that are permitted by scripture must be pursued within the context of a Christian walk (Galatians 6:15).

In short, pride is focused on the self; it is placing one’s sense of identity and worth in a temporal relationship, role, accomplishment, or characteristic. It is not lasting and it cannot save. As Christians, we are to exchange pride in self for boast in Christ. 

Christians, I fear that during Pride Month, we may find ourselves succumbing to a worse pride than a wayward heart, that of self-righteousness. We might look on those celebrating and feel somehow as if we are smarter or better because of our “traditional” morality. Beloved reader, this we cannot do! We must fight to the last of our strength to resist the allure of self-righteousness, which is simply pride gilded in religion. We cannot honestly scorn those exalting their personal attractions if we are so absorbed in our own righteousness as though it were something we had earned.

The answer, again, is to view pride with a heart of conviction. We are also Pride. We might not be dancing in celebration or changing our Twitter handles to include rainbow flags, but we too demand affirmation. We too cling to what feels right even in the face of what we claim as moral truth. We too seek to justify ourselves and find ways to feel satisfaction in who we are as individuals.

Dear reader, we must recognize that we are all characterized by pride, not that we might all celebrate, but that we might all be convicted.

June is a month where daily we must ask ourselves: Where does my identity come from? Is there an aspect of myself without which I would not know who I am? What is it that I desire and how am I pursuing it?

 

I know these questions are enough to send just about anyone into an existential crisis and honestly I have been feeling that lately. What would I be if I were not a musician? Not a writer? Not a runner or a reader or a quirky blonde with a knack for puns? Even with all these things, am I more than the sum of my parts?

Let me give you an example.

I am a runner and I often plan my entire day around squeezing in a run. A solid percentage of my Instagram is comprised of snapshots from cool trails. Before I  began running, I was an anxiety-ridden teenager battling an eating disorder and, after discovering running, I was happier, not only in the activity, but in the identity it brought with it; the running community is supportive and fun, I like how I feel after a good run, and it gives me a chance to explore new places.

However, this habit-turned-identity became a double-edged sword. I did not run this morning and my first thought was “Well, this day might as well be a lazy one.” Why?  Because I have stacked my identity on top of the pillar of being a runner and, more broadly, an achiever. Being an achiever is who I am: It is a part of me that I cannot escape. 

But this is not right. If skipping a single run (or failing to practice to my best standard or not writing something blog-worthy) can derail my whole day, something is wrong with the hierarchy of my identity. What if I were unable to do these things at all? Where would I find the pride of achievement? Who would I be without this pride? 

Reader, I am sure you have felt similar fears. And, if not, I am sorry if my post has inspired them in your dear heart. But, in facing our fears, we might find our true identity much better than in running to temporal roles and relationships. And, I am convinced, we will find a greater sense of satisfaction, patience, and joy in rightful temporal roles and relationships once we free ourselves to live fully into the enduring, lasting identity we are promised in Christ. 

Running is not immoral, but as soon as it becomes a point of pride, it no longer is an identity in communion with Christ. But, when I use it as an active reminder that I am running the race, pursuing the prize of the upward call, then it becomes subject to my identity as redeemed and beloved by Christ (Philippians 3:14). We must abandon those identities that cannot be reconciled to Christ and find those that can all the more precious for their roots in Him. 

Throughout this month, I want to challenge you to be convicted of your own idolized identities and grow in compassion for those who are seeking affirmation and love where it can only be found on earth. Dear heart, we are dead to the identities that will one day fade, but we are oh so alive in the resurrection of Christ. Look to the love and righteousness promised in Him and recall from whence you were saved. Pride does indeed go before the fall, but from the deepest of wells, the light of the stars can best be seen, and we find our enduring and truest boast when we are most humbled (paraphrase from “The Valley of Vision”).  

One more thought: rainbows. In Genesis 8-9, after the worldwide flood, God places a bow in the sky to be a sign of His promise to Noah (and mankind). My heart aches to see this symbol of divine mercy turned into a banner for desires and relationships contrary to His design. However, it gives me hope to remember that when God sealed His covenant, He promised faithfulness despite the wayward heart of man. As we find ourselves facing countless rainbow emojis, we might reflect on God’s grace in the face of our fallenness; a symbol of God’s used wrongly by man is yet God’s to use for good (Genesis 50:20). Man will fail, desires disappoint, but God is faithful. Let us find our identity in our Savior and glorify our God even and especially during this month of pride. 

We boast in no other love than that of Christ our Lord, born and crucified and raised to life that we might be saved to an enduring relationship with and identity in Him. 

Mirror, Mirror had a Great Fall

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There is a story to be found in anything and, I am finding, that there is also a theology to be found in any story. I feel this poem is an apt example of enjoying the beauty of an old tale reimagined while contemplating a truth that shimmered in the retelling.

Mirror, Mirror Had Great Fall

“Mirror, mirror upon the wall,

Who is the fairest of them all?”

I once was asked from day to day

And in reply I’d always say

“My lady, it is surely true;

The brightest, fairest one is you.”

 

It was my joy, your face to see,

Peering in and out of me.

And mine was whitest complexion

For it was rightest reflection;

To revel was no vanity

For I shone back your own beauty.

.

“Mirror, mirror upon the wall.”

I’d thrill to hear my mistress call

And sing to her worshipful words

That beauty best was only hers,

That there could be another one

Would be to think the moon the sun.

 

Yet still a subtle crack did creep

Out from some secret, smeary deep

And when her face would turn aside,

A self-whisper would soft confide.

The dream I dared not dream when she

Would smile, singing, before me.

.

“Mirror, mirror upon the wall-”

Her song my heart did yet enthrall

For ’tis my nature to reflect

That which I love as first object.

In her dawn’s light, all else soon fades,

Sly secrets flee as shyest shades.

 

But then again as she’d depart

(Though I know she yet saw mine heart)

I’d ponder those sly smudgélings

That obscure honest imagings

And I could not but speculate

What once I’d simply contemplate.

.

  I, the Mirror on the wall, 

Dreamt I was fairest of them all!

And as I answered, said aloud

Those words, so false and yet so proud:

“I cannot say, my dearest queen,

For you’re the only one I’ve seen.”

 

“Perhaps,” I pressed, not to give in,

Enthused by this first spoken sin,

“There is another one dearer

Kept hid within this magic mirror

And if I only can break free,

I’ll find the fairest one is me.”

.

O! Mirror hung upon the wall,

You must have known that you would fall;

To try and see your own self rule

Was to prove only princely fool.

A mirror looking in its glass

Will find nothing but emptiness.

 

In turning to a blank portrait

I chose the broken mirror’s fate;

Bad fortune was my prideful gain,

For nihil gleamed the shattered pane.

I thought not e’er to see again

Bright Beauty,

but, of a sudden- 

.

“Mirror mine, though you did fall,”

Spoke she, most loved and feared of all,

“Your shattered face was made for mine

And I have power to refine,

To smooth and polish, good as new,

Though with a somehow richer hue.

 

“You, shaped to be an image of

The Beauty that shines forth above,

Are raised once more to this high wall,

To see the more-than-fair of all

And hence reflect and emulate

That Beauty ever true and great.”

Books from Abroad

I’m back from a six week tour and study trip to four different countries and, thanks to jet lag, my brain is wide awake while my body is still confused as to whether it’s time for second breakfast or a mid-morning nap.

So I will take advantage of this forced downtime to go on my regular post-travel blogging rampage. Expect more than one post within the next couple of days! To start, though, I will begin with my “Read across Europe” post.

In every city I visited, I did my best to find a bookshop. In most, I succeeded, and with an overweight suitcase, returned home with many new reads to add to my library. I tried to be thematic with my selections and ended with a nice little collection of books from abroad. They served as a second way of documenting my travels and expanding my understanding of the lands I visited, the homes of their authors.

  1. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

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Our first stop was Amsterdam, home of beautiful canals, more bikes than in all of America, a certain district we did our best to avoid, and- of course – the Anne Frank House. We toured it, but I felt that I ought to have read her book first, so I picked it up in the gift shop on the way out and was engrossed in it throughout several train rides and an international bus journey.

I ended up being glad to read the book after having been in its setting. However, I was surprised to see just how roomy the secret attic was; I remember elementary school teachers telling me with horrified tones how the hiding space was probably smaller than my bedroom, perhaps even smaller than my closet. This was no the case, as I found out. However, reading the book I was struck by the brutal honesty of its young authoress. Anne Frank was, well, frank about the too-real trials of their situation and yet she also possessed a wisdom and eloquence beyond her years. I was convicted by her ability to write with such clarity and skill in the darkest of times.

2. Poems of the Great War 

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“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow.”

From the first line, I was stuck by the poignance of these poems; they are full of yearning, mourning, and heartbreak but also hope and loyalty and courage. I picked up this little collection in Ypres after a strenuous bike ride through the surrounding farmlands, where once the poppies grew.

Although few poppies grow among the memorials of Flanders Fields now, the memories of the Great War linger. The museum and the poems in this book keep them alive, reminding, entreating us to never forget and to carry on with wisdom in light of the tragedies of the past.

This book kicked off my love of poetry, which continued to influence my reading choices throughout the rest of this trip.

3. The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory 

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This book caught my eye just as I finished exploring the castle in Edinburgh. In a city so rich in literature and history, it was a no-brainer that I needed to purchase a book. I had been hoping my something by Sir Arthur Conan Dolye or Robert Louis Stevenson or even J.K. Rowling as they all lived in Edinburgh, but this book focuses on a key point in Scottish and English history, so it worked just as well. It turns out the author got her Ph.D. in 18th century literature from Edinburgh University, which is pretty amazing if you ask me.

It was a great book for gaining insight into Mary Queen of Scots and Tudor England. Was it my favorite book? No, but it was interesting and certainly passed the time on another long train ride.

4. Underwoods by Robert Louis Stevenson

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I found this gem in a quirky bookstore in Inverness. Besides a sporting goods shop where I bought amazing running shoes, this bookstore was the only interesting thing in the city. However, Inverness is situated in the Scottish Highlands, which I strongly believe to be the most beautiful place on earth. This collection of R.L. Stevenson’s poetry is not only over one hundred years old, it smells of “ancient Egypt” and is filled with thrilling rhymes and imagery. For instance, “Wine-scented and poetic soul” (from “To a Gardener”) won me over at once.

Update: I read several more poems and am in love with R.L.S.’s ability to marry humor and earnestness within the same stanzas.

5. The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson

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After his poetry, I was on a Stevenson reading trend. In St. Andrews, a beautiful coastal town in Scotland, I found another darling bookstore, complete with ladders and books old and new. There, I picked up this “black comedy” and laughed my way through it all the way from Cambridge to Glasgow on my final train ride.

It was a pleasant way to pass a 4.5 hour journey, though Stevenson made me painfully aware of my limited vocabulary. I ended up having to scribble a list of words to look up later in my journal. Still need to do that…oops.

But, after this, I purchased a Stevenson collection on my abomination (er, I mean, my Kindle) and enjoyed finally reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, shocked that I’d never read it before and astounded at its insights into human nature.

6. Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare. 

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G. David, a bookseller in Cambridge, is one of the most magical places in the world. Unfortunately for me, my wallet did not agree, so all I could afford to buy in the end was this teeny-tiny copy of Much Ado. 

We saw this comedy performed in the King’s College Fellows Garden as part of the 30th annual Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, so it seemed a fitting (and suitcase weight limit-friendly) souvenir. Besides, I think sassy Beatrice might be my literary twin and this is definitely my favorite of the comedies.

 

So there you have it! These are my souvenir books, though I also read a wealth of English and Cambridge authors’ books (on my Kindle…alas, it is so convenient for travel…)

  • Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare
    • Aside from the traumatic Globe experience, I admit that I love this play, not because I make the painful mistake of thinking it is a romance, but because I am fascinated with the way in which it is simultaneously comic and tragic in its plot. Essay on this later?
  • Sermons on Ephesians – Reverend Charles Simeon of Cambridge
    • Wonderful resource to have on hand as I studied Ephesians during my stay in Cambridge. Simeon is concise and insightful.
  • Silhouettes and Skeletons – various
    • This was a weird one and I’m not sure why it was on my reading list for my Cambridge course. It sought to give a character depiction of Simeon and sort of did, I guess… maybe.
  • An Experiment in Criticism – C.S. Lewis
    • This book was incredible and is reshaping how I approach various works of art. I already want to reread it as I know there is a wealth of ideas that I missed.
  • Letters to Malcolm – C.S. Lewis
    • Also insightful, but I wish I could have read Malcolm’s letters to Lewis…
  • Ariel – Sylvia Plath
    • At first, I was shocked and annoyed, considering Plath’s poetry to be nothing more than long and unnecessary sex and suicide metaphors. However, upon closer reading and applying the openness Lewis advises in Experiment, I found a new depth and beauty to Plath’s writing that inspired my own attempts at poetry.
  • The Art of Prophesying – William Perkins
    • This was a nice, concise guide to preaching which, naturally, my honors institute friends and I overcomplicated.
  • Samson Agonistes – John Milton
    • Do NOT make the mistake of skimming this in your head on an airplane. Instead, read it aloud with some literary friends; I promise you will find new meaning and beauty in it this way.
  • Manual of a Christian Knight – Erasmus
    • Rule No. 5 was about the only part of this book that did not make me want to give it up. Yes, it was helpful in some parts as it described our spiritual battle, but overall it was just. so. long. and. wordy. Still, when we discussed it, I – as usual- appreciated it more than before.
  • The Silver Chair – C.S. Lewis
    • This book seemed so straightforward until we discussed it…But it was a relief to read a children’s novel after so much theology.
  • Very British Problems – Rob Temple
    • This had me laughing aloud, but I think a more apt title would be “Awkward Introvert Problems” because all of the so-called “British Problems” are things I too fear.
  • Misery – Stephen King
    • Well this was equal parts inspiring and traumatizing…it’s writing and construction were brilliant and its story had me captivated for nearly all of my transatlantic flight. But now I wonder if I really want to be a famous writer as the plot centers on the kidnapping and torture of one…Still, it was my first King novel and I certainly enjoyed (is that the right word?) it!

 

Well, there you have it! My Euro-trip 2017 summed up in the books I read and purchased. Hopefully it gave you some new reads to check out in the future and maybe some new literary destinations to visit.

In the Image

I just finished reading St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and my heart is full as I ponder the awesomeness of its subject: the Word of God made flesh. I especially am captivated by the beauty of the Son of God as the Image of God and the restorer of humans created “in the image of God.” 

Athanasius uses an analogy of a painter restoring his image on corrupted wood. The passage resonated with my soul and I recommend you all read it in Section 14 of On the Incarnation. 
For now, though, perhaps you might catch a glimpse of this wonderful idea in this little poem I scribbled during class: 

I am an image of myself

Yet formerly One greater.

Soiled, smudged, and shadowy,

An icon turned to traitor. 

Ruined of mine own accord,

In need of Perfect Painter,

Who shall restore with loving skill

The art of the Creator. 

Just a little reflection through rhyme. I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have. 🙂