Dancing Through Visions of Vocation

Judi Daniels began reading our offerings in the last year or so, and this past fall came to a retreat where I was speaking at the Laity Lodge in Texas. See this for more on that.
With a friend, she has been reading the Visions of Vocation, taking it to heart, even writing reflection questions for a deeper pondering. Her friend is a dancer, and choreographer, and they have drawn on some part of the book to bring a new dance into being. This is the letter that Judi wrote. For so many reasons, it is tender, and poignant, and beautiful.

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Steve,

I hope this will be of interest to you. The process of working through you last book together was so valuable for my friend Kelly and I that I wanted to tell you about it. We used Visions of Vocation as a study text to help her think through the foundations of intent as she starts her new dance company with the changed vision God has given her.

Before proceeding, I want to tell you that yesterday, I got to go watch the filming of a dance she choreographed that was based on my own life circumstances and my understanding of the importance of embracing both joy and sorrow in our lives.

image1The dance is in four parts, and the first part is based on a concept from Chapter 3 in Visions of Vocation: the potential to become overwhelmed and/or numb in response to the complexity of the postmodern world that seems to negate moral imperatives. The main dancer’s programmed robotic movements in front of a screen projecting swiftly shifting numeric patterns generates a sense of purposelessness, an inability to connect with the eyes of the heart to the world outside the self. It is so beautifully done.

Then character two (Sorrow) enters and the two dancers become interdependent. There is a sense of comfort that leaning into sorrow brings, which makes perfect sense in response to the first section. The third movement introduces the character Joy, and I found myself smiling with it, burbling over with it! I wish you could see it! And then comes the final movement, in which Joy and Sorrow accompany the self on the journey towards whatever end awaits.

Of course, for me, that was all about living in concert with illness, and as the dance came to its inevitable conclusion and Joy and Sorrow released the main character gently to the ground, all three seemed to raise up towards their Creator, and I saw myself and my life and it’s conclusion in her incredible art, and I was so greatly moved by it . . . humbled, grateful, blessed.

I’m including a snapshot of the final freeze pose for you. The self on the left, Joy in orange, Sorrow in blue. Of course, the conclusion of the piece will ring true differently for each viewer within his or her own frame of experience as art always does. It was such a gift to me to be able to see Kelly’s amazing gifts unfold and to know that God is allowing me to be a part of this artistic vision he has given to her.

But that is actually a side note. What I thought I would share with you, hoping you will find it to be of interest, is how we used Visions of Vocation as a study text specifically geared to the foundational reflections necessary to enter in to a God inspired vocational mission involving the art of dance. For some of this to make sense, you need to read Kelly’s mission/vision statement for the new dance company. You’ll see in this how she fits in the category of the people you wrote about in your book. So I’ll start with that:

To cultivate renewal, reparation, and restoration in a broken world, through intentionally and well crafted art in the media of movement and dance. To stand in the world as it is, and through the aesthetic of dance, engage in the conversation about what the world should be. Through transcendent choreography that cuts to the heart, stirs the soul and is thought-provoking, to essentially “stand in the ashes of the barn burned down and point to the moon. One half in suffering and one half in hope.” (Lauralee Farrar)

To provide training to artists in order to empower them to be able to not only cultivate the art of dance but to also make something new, that no else but them can create, and to encourage them to tell the stories that they feel compelled to through the vocabulary of dance and movement. To provide training that is grounded with a strong emphasis in technique, allowing these dancers to find their artistic voices in order to be relevant.  To facilitate training that enables dancers to craft movement that is excellent, intentional and brings something of value into our world, encouraging them to become beacons of hope through bringing transformative art into the world that is healing.

We worked through a chapter a week via email, and we both answered the questions I posed, then each responded to the initial answers of the other. We both took it very seriously, and there is such deep trust between us that we were able consistently to deal with the real, sometimes painful, sometimes joy-filled, but alway meaningful. Here are the questions we covered chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1

1. How might the following quote connect to the callings and life God has given you specifically?

Weil also calls this kind of seeing [seeing in which one has “learned to pay attention, to understand what he sees and why it matters”] sacramental, because it is a kind of learning that connects heaven and earth. Sacraments . . . allow us to understand that the most ordinary elements of life can be made holy–even our learning, even our labor, even our love. (27)

2. Speaking to students in a college forum, Garber asks if their preparation for their chosen fields has formed a foundation that will enable them to engage with the world, to step “into the mess of the world, understanding it and choosing to serve it.” He writes:

I asked the students to consider the connection between education and vocation, in particular wanting them to ponder if what they were learning about the world had the intellectual substance that years of living in the world would require of them. Were their ideas strong enough, real enough, true enough, for the complex challenges of the world? (22)

My question: Reflecting on your education, internships, training and life-learning, how would you respond to the question above? What factors and experiences justify or exemplify your answer?

Chapter 2

Consider the following quote:

“Most of us cannot and do not live extraordinary lives. Instead we live in families and in neighborhoods, working and worshipping week by week in rhythms that make the sum of our lives, season after season, year after year. Life cannot be other than that” (54).

But whether we live within this family and neighborhood construct or we live and work in a more global capacity, like Walker Percy or Gary Haugen, we are still faced with the same question and the same dilemma. “We know in our deepest places how hard it is to keep our eyes open to the complexity of the broken world around us, to keep feeling the pains of a world that is not the way  is supposed to be and, knowing the difficulty, choosing to engage it rather than be numbed by it” (53). And the question, of course, is “What will you do with what you know?”

Let’s make that the second half of our question, though, because I think the first part might lead to some insight. Walker Percy is said to see human beings as “‘pilgrims in the ruins’ . . . glories and shames at the same time” (50). The Walker Percy section reveals how the wounds of the world in our own lives shape us and make us who we are. So the two part question becomes, “Knowing what you know about yourself and the world, what are you going to do? (51)

1. What do you know about yourself and how the wounds of the world have shaped you?

2. Knowing this, what are you going to do to engage a broken world?

Chapter 3

In general terms, Chapter 3 establishes the dilemma of Postmodernism, the overwhelming complexity of modern life in our technological world that seems to allow no absolutes, no moral imperatives, a world in which we often become numb in response. Garber rephrases the question from the previous chapter: with this understanding in mind, how does one learn to see with the eyes of the heart, to see oneself as responsible for the way the world is and isn’t. 

“As cultures have coursed their way through the centuries, time and time again artists feel things first, artfully sensing what a culture is, what matters most and where the culture is going.”

” . . . movies, like every art form, both reflect and promote certain visions of the way life is and ought to be. They can never be neutral. Someone is always communicating something–and not always because its creator is intentionally making a statement, but more so because the dynamic of reflect and promote is implicit in the act of creation itself.”

I’m interested in any thoughts these quotes bring up for you, and in particular, with the second quote, I would like to ask you to outline a specific example of a dance you have choreographed to communicate some truth. What was the truth about the way life is or the way it ought to be and what was your selection of movements (your text and subtext, if you will) to accompany the music and communicate that truth?

Chapter 4

Consider the following quotes from Chapter 4 for specific consideration:

A mind without a heart is nothing. (86) [from The Chosen, by Chaim Potok]

To know and understand and love. Woven as strands, they become a tapestry of the way to be holy and human. . . (89)

Always and everywhere, the revelation requires a response. (94)

If we lose God in the modern world, then we lose access to these four great ideas–meaning, purpose, responsibility, accountability. (97)

 . . . true learning is learning to pay attention, seeing things as they really are. (108) [Simone Weil’s concept of sacramental seeing]

Let’s see if we can connect these ideas and relate them to your vision of vocation specifically. Consider these questions, please, but do not feel you have to have a response to each one. I’m including questions to hopefully get the your thinking flowing about the connections between how we are made as creative beings in his image, his revelation and his call, and our response.

1. How does your personal vision connect head and heart? 

2. How does it promote a life that combines holiness and humanity and also allow for a response to God’s revelation of himself to you?

3. How does your call to vocation keep alive the four great ideas of meaning, purpose, responsibility, and accountability in the modern world, and how will the vision you carry help you in that quest?

4. What will it mean in your life and your work to fully realize the concept that true learning is learning to pay attention?

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 suggests that if there is not a greater story to make sense of my story, then there is little point to life. The quotes I am going to extract this week are these:

“Stories do matter, and believing the true story of human life under the sun will give meaning to our vocations, as denying it will prove the implosion of our vocations” (127).

“But is in [Wendell Berry’s] assumptions about life and the world, the way he sees who we are and how we live and even the way he understands God that his deepest beliefs are manifest. Characteristically then, these make their way onto the pages of his work, as they do for every writer, for every artist” (132).

Which of your assumptions about life and the world (about who we are and how we love and even about the way you understand God) form the foundations of your work?

That’s the question this week. Another way to express it is this: “What do you want the audience to understand when they leave the performance space?” I imagine that you may have a list of responses, but maybe not. Maybe it all comes under one unified statement of an idea or concept for you.

Chapter 7

I’ve pieced together a couple of quotes from the book and combined it with a comment Garber made repeatedly at the retreat for our considerations for Chapter 7:

“Walker Percy offered the illusive image, ‘hints of hope.’ Not a very grand vision really, and yet it is a vision that is true–for most of us most of the time. In the daily rhythms for everyone everywhere, we live our lives in the marketplaces of this world: in homes and neighborhoods, in schools and on farms, in hospitals and in businesses, and our vocations are bound up with the ordinary work that ordinary people do. We are not great shots across the bow of history: rather by simple grace, we are hints of hope (189) . . . people who have vocations in imitation of the vocation of God: knowing the worst about the world and still loving the world. . . . People who learn to live in the tension of life, living with what is and longing for what will be–keeping clear of the great temptations, for the sake of the world. Simply said, they become hints of hope” (193-4).

The temptations, it seems, would include becoming either apathetic or cynical–disengaging because the task is too hard to bear in such a fallen world or cutting corners and putting out an inferior product because there seems little reason to swim upstream in such a corrupt world. Garber points to Dorothea in Middlemarch, and says that like her, “we live hidden lives, [but are] still called to have an ‘effect’ on the world around us, that things might not be ‘so ill.'”

At the Laity Lodge retreat, one of Steve’s key ideas, repeated several times, was that “faith shapes vocation which shapes culture.” How would a vocation that imitates the vocation of God do that? What do you think he means by the vocation of God? How will your dance company–the way you run it, the themes and concepts you choreograph, the venues you select, and the way you interact with your cast, crew and audience members–reflect this concept? How does your faith shape your vision, and how might your vision shape culture? (These considerations may well be pragmatic as well as artistic.)

Chapter 8

Section 1: On joy and suffering and pointing to the moon

They have suffered, and that is never far from any conversation–even as they have been surprised by joy in their life together. Early on they learned that childhood dreams do not always work out. Too early their young loves were lost. This is their story, and our stories are ours, similar and yet different. When we find that all that we hope for does not happen, what then? When we discover that our best hopes have been disappointed, what then? (200)
. . .
Is it possible to honestly account for the ruin of the human heart and still live with hope? (203)
. . .
” . . . It is clear to me that Karma [the idea that what you put out comes back to you] is at the heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet along comes this idea of Grace to upend all that . . . Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions . . .” (Bono, 218)

Question 1: What do you know in your deepest heart about the world, the human condition and about our God that informs your artistic vision and your choreography? What ideas and stories do these quotes bring up in your heart and your spirit that you believe God is calling you to tell? Where will you find your themes? Your stories? What are the sources of your inspiration? What commitments will you make to actively seeking God’s direction to tell stories through the gifts and talents he has granted you?

Section 2: On the tensions that must exist in the human story (and thus in the stories you will tell)

Through the corpus of his writings, Augustine argued that human beings are story-shaped people, stretched between what ought to be and what will be. In our imaginings, in our longings, at our best and at our worst, we are people whose identities are formed by a narrative that begins at the beginning and ends at the ending–the story of Scripture itself, of creation, fall, redemption and consummation–and from beginning to end we are torn by the tensions of our humanity, glorious ruins that we are. (202)
. . .
Living our lives between times is the human experience. Deep within us is the hope that it was not always this way, and equally deep is the longing that it will not always be this way. We cry out against the pain and the sorrow, against the injustice and the evil. And with the promise of all things being made new, on the one hand, and the wound of the world felt so painfully in every human heart on the other, we are in poignant conflict over the now-but-not-yet of history. (202)

Question 2: How does the tension Garber describes play out in dance? How would you describe the tension between what ought to be and what will be? Or between the promise and the wound? What is your vision of Garber’s paradoxical image of human beings as glorious ruins? Can you imagine choreographing that image? What would it look like? What would it sound like? What words in the two quotes above would you highlight as you prepared to choreograph that dance?

This third section is more of a question of how to keep going when the challenge feels so overwhelming . . . how to find motivation and courage and energy . . . how to lean in to God and his promises and his strength and his love, all in a world of barns burned down.

Section 3: On living in a world of barns burned down and living out a vision of vocation committed to the common good nonetheless

If we are going to be honest, we have to learn to live with what is proximate. (201)
. . .
Berry is right: there is “a greater economy,” a covenantal cosmos where revelation, relationships and responsibilities shape each other, creating the conditions for human flourishing. (217)
. . .
Duty only takes us so far; at some point we must delight in what is ours, in the relationships and responsibilities that are ours. It is duty and desire together that make for a good life, not only knowing what I should do, but wanting to do what I should do.
But how do we work this out? What does it look like in life? Simply said, it is in and through our vocations, committed to the common good–with gladness and singleness of heart–where this becomes real.  (222)

Question 3: What exactly do you think Garber means when he says that we have to live with what is proximate? Please put that in your own words. Can you give an example or two of what that has looked like in your own family life or ministry work or outreach efforts?  And when you have experienced times of tiredness living and working amidst the barns burned down, times when the best you can do is push through out of duty, how have you come back from that place to one of delighting in your call and your portion? What would you imagine God saying to you in that place of struggle? What might be his words? Please write a paragraph (or at least a couple of sentences) that you can imagine him saying to comfort and encourage you.

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Steve, I wish you a New Year filled with good health, rest, peace and joy. And I thank you so sincerely for the gift of your willingness to share yourself and your ability to communicate truth into the lives of so many, who, like me, have been able to be more clearly “in the Light” as a result.

Judi

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