Work in progress (from Sept 13, 2015)

marie howe

In July when I was at a writing conference for clergy I went to a master class taught by a poet named Marie Howe. Marie is a tall, very thin, very dramatic looking woman with wild curly blonde hair that flies in all directions, as if the wind is constantly blowing through it. She looks the way I imagine the female figure of wisdom to look in the eighth chapter of the book of Proverbs, where it says;

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,     the first of his acts of long ago. 23 Ages ago I was set up,     at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,     when there were no springs abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains had been shaped,     before the hills, I was brought forth— 26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,     or the world’s first bits of soil.”

This is intriguing to think about, that the Creator made wisdom, before making everything else. Wisdom is described as standing by with the Creator, as a witness to the work of making, well making everything.

The first thing that Wisdom does is watch, observe God at work. The Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings, advice for living. Sometimes it is suggested that King Solomon, remembered as one of the wisest kings of Israel was either the author, or the collector of the wise sayings.

It is a fairly clever literary device, to include a figure that personifies wisdom, in a book of collected wise sayings. Then it becomes the job of the character, not the author, to say, hey, listen, pay attention to these wise words. In this case, the character is saying, “I am wisdom, and I have been around since the Creator began the work of Creation.”

But back to my teacher, the poet Marie Howe. She came to Kenyon College, as part of the planning team, and as a faculty member, to teach writing to ministers, priests, rabbis, spiritual directors and chaplains from many different backgrounds, and from at least 3 different countries.

She began her master class by telling a room full of preachers that a poem is not a poem, if you are already know what you are going to say, before you say it. I was confused and attracted at the same time by this statement. She was saying the work of creation is actually the work of discovery. You create not just to make something that has not been made before, but to grow, to learn, to see in a new way.

I remember going to the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition, that’s the CLE, which is different from that other big end of summer event that happens in Toronto. In the same building as the quilt competition and the flower arranging show, there was a landscape artist. I wish I could remember his name. My parent actually have one of his paintings above the couch in their living room. He was famous in a Thunder Bay kind of way, a commercial artist who would take a commission to make a painting for your house. You could tell him how big, and what the colour scheme of the room was, and he’d make you a landscape to fit. But that was not what made him amazing.

I stood and watched in the arts and crafts building one summer day as he quickly sketched out a scene that showed a bend in a river, and rocks, and trees, and some mountains and clouds and sky in the background. It was a very typical Northern Ontario, Pre-Cambrian Shield kind of scene. What evoked wonder in me was that after the artist established the scene, he began taking it through the seasons of the year. He was working in oils, and he added layer over layer to the scene.

He began with the barrenness of winter, moved to the bright new growth and freshness of spring, showed the glories of summer, and then, with colour, and light, and shadow, brought the scene to fall. If I’d had a video camera back then, focussed on that canvas, I could have captured the progression of a whole year in that scene. It was genius.

I remember the spring that we had an art class here at Trinity, with David Walker. He was showing us how to work with pencils, and watercolors. It was wonderful to watch him work with water colors. It looked to me like he had something of a plan, before he ever touched the brush to the page, but that once there was colour in the brush, and the brush made contact with the page, anything could happen. Because it was water colour and not oil, there were no layers. David had to respect the medium he was working with, and to some degree, follow where the colors took him, as they spread into the sheen of water on the surface of the page.

I am not a painter. I relate far more easily to working with words. Hearing a poet say that she doesn’t know what a poem is going to say, until she is writing, that feels real to me. She is discovering something as she works.

Another one of my teachers this July was another poet, named Rodger Kamenetz. Rodger is actually much better known than Marie. Rodger is a retired professor of Jewish studies and English literature. He used to teach at the University of Louisiana. In 1990 he was part of a group of Jewish leaders and teachers who were invited to India, to meet with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama was interested to hear from Jewish people about how a religious culture survives in exile. Rodger wrote a book about the journey of these Jewish rabbis from the Western world, to the Tibetan compound in Dharamsala, India. It is also a book about his own re-discovery of his Jewish identity.

In one of my favourite passages in the book, Rodger described a conversation with one of his rabbi friends, about the story of Noah and the Flood. Rodger wrote,

“I wanted to know how God could have made such a botch of things that he had to wipe out his creation with a flood. Zalman (one of the rabbis) answered with a midrash (Imaginative Torah commentary) on the phrase of Abraham’s, “God of my youth.” It so happens the Hebrew can also be read, “God in his youth.”

The midrash says that the flood happened because God used to be younger. When God was younger, he made mistakes.

With that twist, Zalman turned a point of doubt for me into a point of faith. ‘When God was younger’ was a very liberating idea. It meant that God evolves in the Torah—and in our lives. A God who evolves, a God still evolving, a God whose evolution I had a stake in—this was a refreshment.” (p.189, The Jew in the Lotus)

Rodger discovered this was a God that he could believe in, a God who was actively, passionately involved in the making of the world, and is still evolving, still learning.

There is a whole wave of Christian thinking about God called Process Theology, that works with this notion. It kind of rose up as a response to another idea about God that suggested that God the creator is like a clock-maker, who put all the pieces of an enormous mechanism together, wound it up and set it in motion, but really has little to do with it on an ongoing basis. This is an image of a very distant, and almost disinterested creator.

Process Theology suggests God is more like the painter I watched, who is right in there, at every stage, involved in what is happening, in the ongoing process of creation. Creation in this thinking is not just a noun, but a verb. And so is God.

One of the implications of this is that if we are made in God’s image, and God is an active creator, then that is who we are as well, we are being made, to take part in the active work of creating, Our lives, and what we make of each day, are part of the ongoing work of creating the universe. Amen


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