My (late) New Year's Wishes for You
“I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, he said. That famous, terrible, grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry—sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.”
― Tobias Wolff, Old School
I have always loved this quote from the novel, Old School, a story about a series of writers (like Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, etc.) who visit a private school in the 60s and teach the students there about what it means to write well. This quote by the salty old Robert Frost character burns in my memory and returns to make me thoughtful about the forms of my own existence. What he’s protesting here is the modern mania for free form verse, or even free-form emotion, the idea that form or order or structure confines us, inhibits our truest expression of self. Form doesn’t limit us, he argues, rather it directs and shapes the raw material of our experience so that we come to know it for what it truly is, grief or love, wisdom or conviction, something more than a shapeless cry in the dark.
I think the same could be said of our lives in the modern world. Something that has come mightily clear to me in the past years is the way that contemporary life often feels like a series of manic, fragmented actions as I leap between this project and that distraction, this deadline and that entertainment. Everywhere we look our attention is caught, then caught, then caught again… we express ourselves endlessly on social media but have little power or capacity for the work of presence, reflection, or… form. I think we live with a sense that our lives are increasingly random and fragmented. Where are we going? What is the end and aim of this ceaseless motion, this endless information?
In the midst of this wondering, I’ve been reading a brisk, luminous novel by Rumer Godden, in This House of Brede. She weaves the story of a modern woman who leaves behind the self-importance and frenzy of the world for a life as a Benedictine nun. And in the novel, I have encounter the grace-giving structure of the Rule of St. Benedict. A rule that orders the day by hours of prayer and work, rest and reflection. The nuns submit themselves to this rule of life, vowing obedience and stability, letting the shape of their individual emotion and giftedness be formed by the great, sacred scaffolding of prayer.
And I’m thinking with Bede, and Robert Frost, that form is something we are created for. Our lives were meant to be shaped by the rhythms and cadence of prayer, of worship, of quiet, of rest, the order of Sabbath and work, morning and night, the great, rhythmic music of existence we see at play in the natural world and in the worship of God’s people throughout the ages. We are meant for the forms of fellowship, of home, forms that draw us beyond isolation and into a great and living poem of love.
So when I think of what I wish for my readers, what I urgently desire for myself this year as I consider what kind of story I want to be forming for Lilian and myself and my marriage and home, it is this deep sense of form that I wish for us all. I wish us each a scaffolding of prayer and rest, work and beauty, that help to form our emotion and ambition, our busy days and scattered lives into something that becomes a poem, a living story that images the beauty and grace of God’s luminous reality.
So, friends, even if I’m a little late this year, here are my wishes for you.
I wish you first, form. I wish you a fresh encounter with the great Mind whose wisdom gave birth to your own. I wish you a sense of dark and light, of the rhythm of the world with its appointed times for rest and work, growth and hush. I wish you the knowledge that your life isn’t meant to be spent in a random round of busyness but rather is meant to be formed by the patterns of worship and connection, beauty encountered and love spoken.
I wish you quiet. Quiet, these days, is a radical thing because in order to claim it you have to turn off… the phone, the laptop, the TV, the music, the movie, the countless lines of connectivity. Quiet can feel a threat at first because it requires a somewhat sternly chosen disconnection. But when the furore of our thoughts begins to still in the wide, winter skied presence of silence, it’s chosen, cloister hush, we begin to be present here, now, to our own breath, our own aching soul, and the voice at the depths of our beings telling us who we are and what we are invited to become as we open ourselves to Love.
I wish you wisdom within your quiet, more particularly, discernment. I wish you the difficult grace of choosing what is vital in your life as well as what is not, that which can (and must) be sloughed away so that the real and necessary things can grow. I wish you clear sight as you do this, a mind uncluttered by false guilt or cultural expectation.
I wish you vision. For the form and shape of the life you are called to create. I wish you joy in the freedom we have been given to choose and craft, to act as agents of a Creator God who formed and ordered the world and made us to be his partners in that work. I wish you a clear sense of your own life as a form of great, growing, enduring beauty.
I wish you words to help and quicken the forming. Stories and poetry, prayer and liturgy, words that may become a scaffold for your thought, your action, your contemplation, your prayer.
I wish you, in all this forming and ordering, countless small minutes of pellucid joy.
This is my new year’s wish for you.