The cover features British photographer Louise Fago-Ruskin, whose photo essay inside ruminates on leaving the religious community she belonged to from her teens through her thirties. Also inside: Amy Leach’s lyrical meditation on the pros and cons of materialism and immaterialism. Khaled Mattawa on groundwater pollution, Syria, and Japanese formal poetry. Extremely short stories by Diane Williams, master of that form. Fiction from the Gulf War by Christopher Notarnicola. Amy Peterson on the literature of the Anthropocene. Martyn Wendell Jones on the faith of fictional teenagers. Kirstin Valdez Quade on faith, family, and revision. Egyptian sculptor Armen Agop on why he loves granite. James K.A. Smith on why we need mystery. And poems by Maggie Smith, Allison Adair, Shannon Nakai, and more.
Three stories by Diane Williams, master of the form.
To sing of origins is to set a course
to anoint a present where cows and angels
cowherds and shepherd kings
all shine in heaven’s light
That first morning, I remember
clinging to a table’s edge—
both legs jackhammering the white
linoleum floor tiles—praying for
my benzodiazepine to finally,
finally kick in.
The American self contains multitudes: believers, unbelievers, the proudly heterodox, the meekly agnostic, conscientious objectors, freethinkers, vegans, and still other varieties of spiritual aspirant too obscure or holy to name. In this country’s perpetual adolescence, it can feel impossible to bring these ways of being together into a single whole . . .
. . . faith in the faith that the way the story ends
is not the story—
May some mercy find them both.
Deacon Nkosi, a member of the church, told the newspaper,
“The pastor taught us about faith on Sunday last week.”
I don’t exist independently of the world around me, that all the boundary lines I like to think keep me separate from others are in some sense imagined and temporally bound. I can’t exist without others. And I may not be the hero of my story.
Maybe I was too bus-lagged to haggle over
the price of a portent, much less a cheap
souvenir. . .
Bible open. On her lap. Same page for years.
Her white hair. Spooky red ink. Deuteronomy.
There are so many ways to fly and walk
in place I never move.
I’m lucky to know a lot of really good, generous people, but they don’t fall into any of those standard narratives of saintly lives. They’re people who just keep on trucking and being good in the face of a lot of injustice and ingratitude.
In my absence, one sprig of English ivy
has crept through a crack
under my window.
All at once the stillness breaks
into a great applause of wings, the mounting up
in doxology, the downsweep then
of many heads in prayer.
Objects, rituals, and sites make the spiritual present, function as witness or proof of the miraculous, and turn individual perceptions into collective convictions.
Nomadic art in Mongolia naturally tends toward the spiritual, toward nature and one’s connection with it. Where some painters might want to incorporate shamanistic elements, these evangelical artists say the country’s Christian roots provide more than enough connection to God.
There will be thousands of warm nights
like this one, millions of the beetles, this whole darkened face
of earth erupting in brief constellations.
Praise the mockingbird,
unashamed that he is alone, praise the beetle,
the hornet, all night’s shy & vicious ornaments . . .
when I was young, his voice a low path through nightmare,
reading so that I wouldn’t dream of dying . . .
I read of a man a thousand miles south who heard a large crowd passing by.
He laid down his shears on his father’s land and joined the northbound caravan.
Sometimes, to comfort myself, I think of myself as a city, not a woman, but a city that can be rebuilt again.
If there is
a God, is there such a thing
as holy regret for what he’s made?
This is terror
and this must be how it happens—how need
alchemizes into belief.
not in weakness, but in tender
resolution to give way, be broken. . .
The kettle begins to sing
the one note of its one song.
The day becomes itself beyond
the glass of the kitchen window.
This silence before
love pulls itself
the current of its own
longing, is the most terrible
silence I know.
Of course complicating considerations can occur with the immaterial, too, as you might be into time and gravity but not augury or angels—or you might be into some angels, like the six-winged amber ones, but not the messenger of death.
When I tilt the cup
it drains like a face.
We’re the seeds our mothers have been planting. If
X marks the spot, let’s dig up the whole alphabet.
Why pray for the dead if not for this,
for God’s speed on their journey, home,
beneath the burden of the proof they bear.
The shooter was a loner—they always are—
but to the bullied and confused, he just
might be the one who understands . . .
When photos of a million horrors
made the papers, a million eyes stopped
and stared, the way a glass of water stares,
and the railcar around it coming to rest.
I used to ask myself why humans go through sacrifices and insist on creating things that no one asked for or cares about. But not anymore. I realize that, in my case at least, it is simply an instinctive drive to do, and that’s my way of being.
I am underground,
on a path through small rooms
lit only by delicate chandeliers
of finger and knuckle bones
wired together, shedding a soft
light on the group of worshippers
who tiptoe through.
When will I have time to do
that which I desire,
that which I can’t make
myself do, ever?
What I lost in my exit from a fundamentalist faith movement, I found inside the closed chamber of my camera.
The boy inside me is watching, frowning.
But something else is watching him,
saying, sweetheart, saying, it is so hard.
Come up behind me. See through my eyes.
Suffering, I once believed, was a human privilege,
but in that moment I watched as God
died, as God witnessed.
We watched from behind ballistic glass and mounted guns and steel doors with hinged openings large enough for a rifle barrel or for a bunch of contorted fingers to press through and wiggle return greetings, muted waves, as we rolled on and up the mountain. We engaged with no enemy combatants.
Unknowing might be a way to relate to God anew. You might call this mystery.
In our information age, we need spiritual exercises of ex-formation.