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Ash Wednesday

It’s better to see a sermon than to hear one.”  Have you ever heard that?  I’ve heard people who don’t like to come to church, or who have been wounded by the church say this.  And they are right, aren’t they?  This is really what St. Francis was talking about when he famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”  That’s another way of saying it’s better to see a sermon than to hear one.  Preaching is about how we live, our actions.  These sayings echo Isaiah, who in today’s text calls Israel not just to go through the motions and do the right things outwardly, but to live them in what they do:  that’s really what fasting is, Isaiah says.  It’s not doing without; it’s going beyond and doing something more – it’s not just doing without food, but it’s giving food to someone else.  It’s seeking justice and freedom; it’s sharing with others, give, caring for one another.  And Jesus’ words in the gospel remind us of the same thing – beware of turning to God outwardly but being very far from God inwardly.

We stray from God’s path – that’s what sin is.  Sin means that we miss the mark.  We store up all the wrong treasures:  wealth, power, status.  Greed and fear and self-righteousness drive our actions all too often.  Lent invites us to reframe, to find that closet to go in to pray –that is Jesus’s call, to go inward, to find that quiet, inner space – where we can again hear God’s message:  I love you; come home; be with me.

And so Ash Wednesday probably looks a bit anachronistic to most non-Christians. Smearing a cross of black ashes on our foreheads, with talk of “lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness,” probably strikes most outsiders as positively medieval.  Nowadays, people laugh (or sneer) at sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” And we do too; we don’t want to hear about hellfire and damnation.  All this talk of sin, ashes, sackcloth and penance (Joel 2) is most people’s idea of what is wrong with religion. Why not just stop?  Dispense with it? After all, the psalmist reminds us that God is love (Psa 103), not a punishing, angry taskmaster.  Haven’t we moved beyond this primitive view of God as a vengeful Victorian father?  Let’s quit putting people on a guilt trip, right?

The problem, of course, is not an angry God. The problem of sin is not on God’s side, it is on our side. God is not holding sin against us. Rather, we are the ones who are holding back from God. We are the ones who often carry the deep sense of shame over who we have come to believe we really are.  We have lost sight of who God created us to be, and we often believe deep down that no one would really love us if anyone really knew us.  We are the ones who think hateful thoughts in the line at the grocery store and someone dares to cut in front of us.  We are the ones who are the hardest on those closest to us, who likely would be ashamed for anyone but family to see us whining or yelling or cursing the way we do at home or in the car or after we leave church.  We are the ones who pass by suffering people every day and do not help.  We don’t like to talk about sin because it makes us feel bad about ourselves.  And we don’t like to feel bad about ourselves because we start remembering that we keep turning away from God, turning ourselves into sinners, too embarrassed, too angry, too hurt, too resentful and (yes) even too guilty to let any human being truly love us, much less Eternal God.

And so the ashes do not put some arbitrary label of “sinner” upon us. They do not paint a picture of human beings as miserable, horrible, worthless creatures.  They simply display a tendency to wander away from love, reveal a potential for darkness that is so deep and painful that we rarely look it in the face.  And it displays that darkness in the sign of the cross, a sign that we had placed there at our baptism, a sign that God always sees and that shows we are loved by God, even in our wandering, our darkness, our shame, our guilt; we are loved and forgiven and redeemed.

The cross is a sign that God is with us, even in the midst of our wandering and in our deepest darkness (2 Cor 5).

The sign of the cross is the sign that God, in Jesus Christ, willingly joins us in our worst pain we can imagine.  That cross in ash on our head is a sermon others can see about God’s love; no words needed.  And it is a sign that the darkness does not have the last word.  In the end, we see Easter.  We see that the cross, that God’s love poured out, redeems us, calls us back, forgives our sin, and that light overcomes darkness.

*This sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday 2014 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.  I am indebted to Dan Morehead for much of this sermon; thank you!

On poetry and God and creating, Part III

There is another world but it is in this one.

Paul Éluard

My own struggle to know God and be known by God has led me to a particular kind of life, a life devoted to ministry.  In this world I inhabit, language can often fail me, both in the sense of not having the words to adequately name the deep truths I find in serving and in the lives of those I meet on the journey, and in the sense that religious language is too often vacuous and meaningless to the vast majority of people.  Part of my calling, my vocation, is to translate the language of theology and epistemology and eschatology and pneumatology and lots of other ‘-ologies’ to the real, lived experiences of the people with whom I live and move and have my being.  And part of my job is to help makes sense of life as it relates to God, to see the becoming and potentiality in life as God being present and active, calling forth the best and truest self from each of us.

In his book The Pastor as Minor Poet, Craig Barnes’ picture of the pastor as poet resonates deeply with me.  For Barnes, and for me, the image of poet offers a way to work in ministry that is biblical and truthful.  He writes, “Poets see the despair and heartache as well as the beauty and miracle that lie just beneath the thin veneer of the ordinary, and they describe this in ways that are recognized not only in the mind, but more profoundly in the soul.”  Like the prophets, those of us in ministry are called to have vision, to see beyond what is to – there it is againsomething more.  Poets, in Barnes’ articulation, remind me of Don Quixote, always seeing beyond, never taking what is as the last word.  “Poets are devoted more to truth than to reality; they are not unaware of reality, but they never accept it at face value,” writes Barnes.  “The value of reality is only found by peeling back its appearance to discover the underlying truth….they value the reality they see primarily as a portal that invites them into a more mysterious encounter with truth.”  Perhaps ministry is a quixotic endeavor all around, and especially because we always seem to see two worlds:  the world as it is, and the world as it should be, as it could be, as it yearns to be made together with God.  And that is the calling I answer: to reveal the deeper truths that we all know are there and that so often seem to be beyond us, just beyond our reach.  We do indeed see another world, and it is in this one.

I’m not exactly sure what French surrealist Paul Eluard intended by his quote, but to me it speaks to what happens at the Eucharist.  As a person in ordained ministry, I look for the intersection of my understanding of theopoesis and the work I am called to do.  And at the Eucharist, I find a model for how to understand my own theopoetics as embodied and lived.  In the Eucharist the intersection of God and humanity meet; all are present and accounted for.  Richard McCall explores the notion that “the liturgy reveals the very symbolic, dialogical, and inter-subjective nature of reality which…can only be encountered in a concrete sacramental mode.”  McCall touches on ideas already mentioned:  the symbolic and its translucence, and the relatedness of God, which is both dialogical and inter-subjective, shared and based on our experience.  In liturgy, all this becomes tangible and real.  The actions, the sights, the sounds, the words, the flow and movement – all these work in concert to make something; this is theopoesis.

With liturgy as a central place to dwell in Mystery, two aspects become important in the work I’m call to do, to my own theopoesis:  language and beauty.  Language is important.  Through it, the pastor or priest opens up the Mystery in a new way.  Barnes writes, “As a poet the pastor speaks in language that is neither descriptive of what is happening (the text) nor prescriptive of what should happen (the desired text), but evocative of the startling mystery God is making happen (the subtext).”  The subtext is the thing that often goes unseen, which the pastor/poet is called to name, to call forth.  Sometimes this is done through relationship, in the daily rounds with parishioners as ministry happens – in weddings and funerals, in hospital rooms and at soccer games, in the parking lot and the grocery store.  And especially it happens when we gather together around God’s table, reminding ourselves again of the divine Mystery that dwells in us every day, all day.

Words become the tools of the trade.  This certainly happens in the sermon, that place where I can paint pictures and use images to show truth.  Barnes quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, who points out the there is a lot of ‘beholding’ in the gospels, and that the deep truths are often found in the beholding:  Behold, the Lamb of God; Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.  Part of my job is to make a case for the beholding, to use images to help illumine the way, and let the truth seep in over time.  As McCall points out, “It seems we cannot transcend words without using words.”

The sermon is not the only place that words carry weight in liturgy.  McCall draws on Aristotle’s Poetics to help understand the action that is happening in the Eucharist.  Like drama, the actions matter, and language is part of that action.  McCall writes, “What is important in Aristotle’s theory is the realization that any enacted form operates on the level of Plot structure, and that in ignoring it we run the risk of missing, of remaining unconscious of, the real organizing principle of the enactment.  In the case of liturgy, this is to remain ignorant not only of the vision of the Church and of God mediated by the structure of the rite, but to ignore the effects which this structure will have inevitably on the participants.”  The words we say in the liturgy matter; the effect they have changes us.  “We become what we are doing,” McCall reminds us.  This is central to an Anglican understanding of what happens in liturgy:  praying shapes believing.  My place in the drama does matter.  As Barnes points out, “in the act of worship on Sunday mornings, the preacher is assisting the congregation in moving deeper into their knowledge of God, which involves a relational experience with God.”  In a liturgical church like the Episcopal Church, worship is a relational experience.

Beauty is also a part of the Eucharist, at least it should be.  To be sure, there is beauty in the words.  Yet worship appeals to all the senses.  Music and art are a part of the whole; the ritual itself can be beautiful.  “Beauty is important in healing people,” Ivone Gebara reminds us.  So our liturgy becomes a place of healing and wholeness, a re-membering of our selves as we put life back together from the brokenness we bring to the altar.

My call, my theopoesis, is to be a poetic priest.  “The purpose of poetry is to reveal the mystery and the miracle that lie beneath the ordinary,” writes Barnes.  This will come to fruition in the intersection of my ministry and the lives of those with whom I share it; it is a labor of love.  Keller reminds me that love is risky.  “We flow into the unknown, the unpredictable….The gospel invites us to risk our best possible response to the irritating neighbor, the scary stranger, the random fellow creature, the immoral society – regardless of whether or when those others will give back.  The metaphor of streaming love makes it possible for us to relate to the unknowable deep of reality.  Its infinite, impersonal mystery gets personal. In spirit and in truth:  we find ourselves permeated in love.  We may realize that we are in Love.  Or is Love in us – inviting, drawing, desiring?”

And so I am left to wonder, to create, to open myself to God’s mystery.  I am a fan of Julia Cameron and her work with creativity and poesis.  She writes, “The creative journey is characterized not by a muzzy and hazy retreat from reality but by the continual sorting and reordering and structuring of reality into new forms and new relationships.”  This captures much of theopoesis as it is lived out in ministry:  relational, experiential, forging new ways.  May it be so.

What Language Shall I Borrow: On poetry and God and creating, Part II

What language shall I borrow?  

What language shall I borrow
To thank thee, dearest friend?

Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux

How do I speak what cannot be spoken?  How can I say with words the very thing that words fail to express?  How can I paint a picture of a beauty which itself pushes the boundaries of color and form?  How can I play notes that capture the sublime?  These questions nag at me, and at so many people who struggle to bring something new into being.  Yet there it is, the truth of the matter:  we keep trying, and in fact we often succeed in touching on the mystery of things.  Our theopoesis is in fact possible.  Why, then, do I so often feel that I’m trying to touch something just out of my reach with my words, with my making?  Because what I can say never says it all; our poesis is never exhaustive.  Ivone Gebara reminds me that “all that we say about God is an approximation, a model for expressing our perplexed grasp of the mystery that envelops us.”

What a lovely way to understand God, one that reminds me of Psalm 139:  O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.  How do I wrap my mind around being known by God, being enveloped by God?  One way, for me, is to turn to language, always remembering that language is not univocal; rather, it is analogical.  I speak about God and life and the heart of the matter truthfully but not fully.  When I read a poem or see a painting or hear a song, and it moves me to the core of my being, I often am dumbstruck, literally moved beyond words.  Whatever moved me resonates with the truth inside, with God present within me.  And sometimes that whole experience pushes me to create: in response, in gratitude, in overflowing fullness.  So part of the life of my theopoesis, my calling forth, my ‘God making’, is finding a basis, a ground for my language, for my making.

If I am to borrow language, I must be a part of life, must speak and hear and read and listen.  My theopoesis, then, must be grounded in life, the grit and grime, the stuff of this world.  And I must start in silence, by listening.  This is at the heart of my epistemology, of how I know.  Rowan Williams writes, “Before authentic re-creation is possible, there must be an entirely committed immersion in the world, a watching and listening in silence; but the deeper this immersion becomes, the less it is possible to translate the world into new words, new images…. The facile use of the ‘linguistic past’ is first abandoned, as the poet learns properly to listen to language, to the world, and what he hears is, ultimately, a speech too vast to be rendered, interpreted, translated in his language, through his person.”  Williams is writing about Job, and I think this is true for us all.  When confronted with the vastness of the world, the many and complex and constant messages we receive render us speechless.  What am I to do?

Gebara points the way for me.  “Knowing is not primarily a rational discourse on what we know,” she writes.  “To know is first of all to experience, and what we experience cannot always be expressed in words.  What we say we know is a pale reflection of what we experience.  What we say about what we experience is no more than a limited ‘translation’ of that experience.  Therefore, what we experience can neither be fully thought through by reason nor exhaustively expressed in words.”  Out of our experience comes our theopoesis.  We know through experience, and there is a fullness to this which cries out to becoming; there is potential here.

My theology is impacted by such an epistemology.  Because I know through experience, God is known through my experiences.  God is present, immanent, in the places where I live life:  the meetings, the daily rhythm, the words we say, the gestures, the driving, the love.  Rather than God being detached, transcendent, un-human, God is present in the midst of this life and this planet we call home.  Kathleen Norris explores this notion, writing that “the Bible is full of evidence that God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things.  But this is not because God is a Great Cosmic Cop, each to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us – loves us so much that the divine presence is revealing even in the meaningless workings of daily life.  It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is ‘renewed in the morning (Ps 90:5), or to put it in more personal and also theological terms, ‘our inner nature is being renewed every day (2 Cor 4:16).  Seen in this light, what strikes many modern readers as the ludicrous attention to detail in the book of Leviticus, involving God in the minutiae of daily life – all the cooking and cleaning of a people’s domestic life – might be revisioned as the very love of God.  A God who cares so much as to desire to be present to us in everything we do.”  Norris is on to something.  Over and over God is depicted in the Bible as being intricately involved with the workings of this world.  It’s just that sometimes, I am out of sync and miss it.  Like Brother Lawrence, I must practice the presence of God.  I can no longer sleepwalk through life.

And isn’t the incarnation itself a sign that God cares about the earth, about bodies, about life lived here and now?  God could be working in the world in thousands of ways, yet God chooses to take on human form, to be human, in the flesh.  Jesus’ very life and horrifying death attest to the importance of the material world.  Emily Dickinson recognized this truth, and she found in religion, and in particular Jesus’ life, an important image of God and the holiness of divinity that was present in Jesus.  Roxanne Harde writes of Dickinson, “Religion gave her the pattern and language with which to make sense of herself, of others, of the world around her.”  Dickinson was especially taken with a Jesus who shares our griefs and sorrows, writing “When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him.  When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is ‘acquainted with Grief,’ we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.”  Dickinson got it; her own epistemology was grounded in her experience, and her faith rested in Jesus’ ability to share in that experience.  The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, John’s gospel reminds us.  What an incredible notion:  my very words find their home in the Word; I touch the divine, speak divinity into being, with words.  In the life and death of Jesus, I can see that God cares about life as I live it, with all its joy and sorrow, daily tedium and moments of the sublime, wondering and wandering and everything in between.  Even my words find a home in the Word that was and is and is to come.

Gebara explores a definition of God as relatedness.  “To call God ‘relatedness’ is to use a word to express something that goes beyond all words; it describes an experience, but goes beyond all experiences,” she writes.  “It speaks of God as possibility, as opening, as the unexpected, the unknown; as physical and metaphysical.”  I like this notion, because it allows me to speak of God in a non-exhaustive way that includes my experience; it takes belief in God beyond the realm of mere intellectual assent and meets me where I live.  God lives in the potential, the possibility, and I become co-creator with God in this present moment.  This kind of knowing is what Keller talks about when discussing truth and relationality.  “We become who we are only in relation; we are network creatures,” she writes.  Keller goes on to discuss the flow of truth and relates it to the Holy Spirit.  “The flow of truth is … the movement of the holy spirit in the world.  Spirit and truth together name the fluidity of a process we cannot possess, neither in propositions nor in practices, neither in creeds nor in prayers.  We belong within it.  It does not belong to us. … It is a way, not an end.”  I am caught up in this flow of truth; it takes me, moves me, keeps me in process, keeps my theopoesis possible.  Again, Dickinson’s poetry comes to mind, particularly these lines.

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

These lines capture the potential that the world offers, the possibility of gathering Paradise.  I, like Dickinson, spread wide my narrow self and receive the Mystery; I live there; the Mystery lives in me.  My theopoesis brings God to the surface; I relate to God as Relatedness.  Gebara captures this, noting that “relatedness is not an entity apart from other beings; rather, it is a mystery that is associated with all that exists.  Relatedness is utterance, word, attraction, flux, energy, and passion, insofar as it is the materiality and spirituality of all that is.  We are all both created within and creators of this relatedness.”  When I make something new, God is present.  I utter the unutterable; I speak the word; I follow the flow of becoming and live in the passion of divine Eros and divine Agape, give and take, ancient rhythm that it is.

On poetry and God and creating, Part 1

I’ve been pondering how poetry and God and life are related.

Both poetry and God are very close to my heart, I guess you could say.  Perhaps that is because the two seem intimately related:  poetry seems to be a way to experience God, a way that God can be present.  Poetry somehow touches God, or is God touching us – that’s the paradox, the mystery of it.  The paradox is that poetry, and God, are both/and rather than either/or:  both spoken and unutterable, both seen and unseen, both heard and silent.  Not just poetry, but art in the broadest sense, in the sense of being that which we make, create, bring to being, whether it be to voice, to pen, to brush, to string or key or horn or beat.  Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara says it this way:  “We are always returning to this ‘something more’ that is both here and there; before us, within us, and outside us; first and last; transcendent and immanent; good and perfect; existent and nonexistent; spiritual and bodily – and enveloped in mystery.”  That ‘something more’ has always been a lure to me, pulling me toward expressions of deep truth that longs to be brought from the depths to the surface, longs to be known, to see the light of day or the dark of night, as is sometimes the case.

From my earliest memories, I have always had a sense of something more, of something elusive, something calling to me.  In college, with the rush of discovery both in classes and out, I began in earnest to explore the voice that beckoned.   I looked everywhere – in the words of songs that touch my soul, in the faces of people I knew, in the words and sounds and movements of Sunday mornings, in the conversations that sometimes challenged and sometimes soothed me, in the voices from long ago that inspired my own lines of exploration.  I explored it in my own writing and poetry.

Even then, I felt a tension between all the human attempts to name, to hold, to bring to life that which is sometimes fleeting or elusive – and the limits of doing so.  Yet there was still the seeking, always the seeking.  And in the many years since, as life goes rushing by, I have come to welcome this tension, because it seems to be that God, the very God that I too often hold at arm’s length or view as ‘out there’ somewhere, is begging to be present in the many and varied parts of my life.  In fact, God is not just out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered, hiding.  Nor is God distant, in the heavens, having set the world in motion, and so far away that we can only hope to one day be in God’s presence.  Instead, God is within our world and within ourselves.  Speaking of God is a way to make sense of ourselves, of life as we know it, of our human plane of existence.  It means breaking out of limits and bringing something new to birth.  We do this through poesis, through making something with the stuff of life, in all its particularity and specificity.  Poesis, as Heidegger names it, is a bringing forth, that liminal moment at the threshold of something new emerging.  And, for me, this is not just any poesis; it is theopoesis, God-making.  Not that we make God in our image (which is all too common in our culture, the desire to force God to be whatever we need at the moment, in an effort to endorse our own behavior and misbehavior in the name of God) but rather, that God yearns to be made present through our humanity, in our humanity – God present, God with us In the process, we find not only more and more of God, but more and more of ourselves.

In the Christian tradition, process theologians speak of the divine lure; this is an understanding of God as reaching out to humanity in love.  We experience this as desire, as yearning, as the reaching for that something more that Gebara and I and so many of us in life try to articulate.  Catherine Keller, expounding on the work of Whitehead and what he calls ‘the Eros of the Universe’, explains the concept as “a cosmic appetite for becoming, for beauty and intensity of experience.  The divine Eros is felt in each creature as the ‘initial aim’ – or the ‘lure.’  It is a lure to our own becoming, a call to actualize the possibilities for great beauty and intensity in our own lives. … The Eros attracts, it calls:  it is the invitation.”  I am drawn in by God, drawn in by the love, the Eros that calls to me.  I find it in poetry, in theology, in music.  I see it when I look at the world around me, in the faces of people I meet.  Beauty that takes my breath away, a song that fills me with yearning – this is God’s invitation, God saying ‘make something of all this; make something of yourself through me, or me through yourself,’ more accurately.  God’s love comes from within us, as we take God into ourselves; the paradox is that God is in me and not in me, is outside me calling, all in the same moment.  Niketas Stethatos, monk at Constantinople, recognized this in the 11th century when he wrote this:

If you seek after God with all your heart

and all your strength,

then the virtues of your soul and body

will turn you into a mirror

of the image of God within.

We become a mirror of God within, a radiance of God’s presence and glory.  That which is God which is outside me comes to dwell with the presence of God within me; deep calls to deep, and something new is born.  This is theopoesis, for me.

There is something about art and the artfulness or poetics of life that is always below the surface, breaking through in mostly unexpected places and ways.  We often speak of these moments as liminal, as numinous, as the moments when we are standing on the threshold, moving from one place or state of being to another, becoming.  Theologians speak of these as thin spaces between heaven and earth; poets live in these places.  Coleridge wrote of symbols in this way, noting that “a symbol is characterized by a translucence of the special in the individual or of the general in the especial or of the universal in the general.  Above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal.  It always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible;…”  This translucence that Coleridge notes is the same thing – the thinness, the nearness of God that is made present.  Our symbols, our metaphors, our parables are ways we speak about the Mystery – translucent and liminal and numinous.  We try to speak of this Mystery in many ways – our theopoesis – and yet it remains something which seems elusive.  The best metaphor or symbol touches the Mystery but never fully contains it.  I think this is what Solzhenitsyn was talking about when he said, “Like the tiny mirror of the fairy tale: you look into it and see—not yourself—but for one fleeting moment the Unattainable to which you cannot leap or fly. And the heart aches….”  And it is that ache that drives us to create.

How can this be? I often ask myself.  How do I create, bring to life that which yearns to be?  Because it sometimes seems that when I am the most creative, the most open to God’s lure and invitation, those are the times when I’m the most out of sorts, when my life seems messy and complicated and out of kilter.  Yet doesn’t that echo the Genesis creation account?  Creation comes forth, making something out of the chaos and disorder of the primordial stuff of life.  Keller sees this as the potential for our poesis:  “Amidst the mess of our past stuff and present inclinations, God calls.  Love lures and lets be.  Our mess becomes our potential.  And we creatures be-come, come forth.  You this moment come forth, a wave freshly breaking on the face of the deep.  In an ocean of overlapping waves, all new, all different.”  Just as Heraclitus recognized, we never step in the same river twice; the flow of life continues, giving us more and more ‘stuff’ with which to make something new.  Or in the beautiful poetry of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;/his mercies never come to an end;/they are new every morning.”  That is the promise of life in God:  every morning is an eternal chance, generated from the very love of God that calls us forth.

Reflection on Isaiah 52

Here is a short reflection for the 4th day of Christmas which I wrote for St. Mark’s Advent and Christmas meditations book, Holy Longing: The Coming of the Light.   You can find all the meditations at the St. Mark’s blog, http://www.stmarkssa.wordpress.com.

Isaiah 52:7-10

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

The lyrics of a well-known hymn capture the tidings of peace and good news which come when Christ is born into our world:

Comfort, comfort now my people;
tell of peace! So says our God.
Comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning under sorrow’s load.
To my people now proclaim
that my pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare now is over.

Here is John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who tells of the comfort that Messiah will bring.  He lived in the desert, a rough and simple way of life – far from what the modern mind thinks of as comfort.

Here is the friend in an hour of darkness, the person who walks along the road with us when life is too full and darkness begins to close in.  We all have those times, when life is too much and comfort comes in the form of solace, even if just for a moment..

Here is the promise of forgiveness when my path leads me in places I don’t want to be -places which take me away from God, which is what sin is, separation.  God’s holy arm is bared for all to see, bring salvation, which for us means reconciliation and wholeness.

Here is Christ, entering life anew and bringing peace and joy, forever.

On the turning of another year

So today is my birthday (just barely still).  And I have lots of thoughts about it, most of which likely will not mean anything to anyone but me, but being that it’s my birthday, I’m indulging myself.

birthday cake

I’m now in the second half of life, I guess you might say.  My best friend told me she doesn’t like birthdays anymore because they mean she is that much closer to death.  Truth.  Yet I find myself strangely freed by birthdays, by growing older.  When I was younger, life seemed to be about letting go, getting rid of things about myself, sloughing off what is unwanted or undesireable, always becoming.  Now, nothing is lost; everything is taken in and is part of the whole of who I am.  This is seen no more clearly than in how God works in my life, in the lives of others, in the world.  God takes the ordinary and transforms it.  One of my favorite hymns points this out:  Lord, You make the common holy:This My body, this My blood.” Let us all, for earth’s true glory, daily lift life heavenward, asking that the world around us share your children’s liberty. With the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry.”  We do this every week, recognize the way God is at work in common things when we gather for Eucharist each Sunday.  So nothing in my life is discarded any more — it’s all grist for the mill, teaching me, informing me, calling me to repentence or joy or sorrow or reflection.  I’m still always becoming; it’s just that the process of becoming happens as God is revealed in the common, ordinary rhythm of my days.

Today I realize that it’s time to tell the truth to myself about my life.  That I drive fast — too fast.  (I’m always safe, but it’s not a good thing when your teenage boys think you drive too fast.)  That I’m finally so at home in my life, finally living into a call God placed on me so long ago, and it is right and good and joyful.  That saying yes to God messes up the other things in life — change always brings that, always disrupts.  That I will likely never be someone who fits very neatly into the box of life.   That I love in all the most unexpected places and all the wrong people.  That I always see life as poetry, always find something more.  That I’m easily hurt but I always hide it.  That snow falling in the mountains makes me cry because of the beauty of it.  That I hate being vulnerable but I want to be known.  That I’m not very good at accepting good things, or praise, or birthday presents and wishes because I know the deep truth of my own frail and tenuous nature.  Like Pope Francis’ answer to who he is, I am a sinner, and God continues to love me anyway.  That the shattering truth of God’s love is the heart of life’s meaning.  That I love plaid and red and thatched roofed cottages and the sound of the ocean as it moves, and moves, and moves my soul.  That I want to dance and sing and shout for joy at the top of my lungs when I see the faces of the people I love, I want to embrace them and tell them how much I care — but I often stop myself.  That I’m a mess.  That I take on too much and do it with such enthusiasm.  That I’m scared of the dark because bad things happened to me in the dark all those years ago, and no matter how much time passes, it still lurks in my psyche.  That I have too many pairs of shoes.  That I wish I had more time to be with people, even irritating people or people who use me or people who are overly needy or people who no one else seems to like.  That it pisses me off to see us Christians pay lip service to justice in the world, crying out to God for justice but failing to do justice ourselves. That I need a community around me to help me remember who I am.

I’m glad to be turning another year older.  What an amazing thing, to wake up every day, to wrestle with God in the dark hours of the night.

Recently I went to the local art museum.  (What a great place!)  I wandered among the galleries, glimpsing the past, the really distant past, things from so long ago, wondering what woman laid her head on the stone pillow stand, or what child held a jug, or what man painted the beautiful, foreign symbols on the wooden panels after someone’s death.  By the time I made it to the Greek marbles, those amazing moments in time captured in cool white stone, the empty eyes looking out, the missing pieces which have been chiseled back in — when I got there, I found myself sinking down on the bench and weeping.  What is this life, this precious moment we try so hard to grasp or understand or just be a part of?  What part of my little corner of the world will go on?  What living, breathing, loving, laughing, restless, tender, poetic souls held these things?  Made them?  Lived them?  What am I, in this constant flow of time and space?

See what birthdays do?  Birthdays take us back to the basics, to lazy days of learning about life and love and mystery on mystery.  Birthdays move us forward, make us just for a moment (if we let them) glimpse what waits for us around the corner.

My favorite songs always float through my head — lines of poetry I carry with me, the soundtrack of my inner world.  And today, well, there have been lots of songs today floating around.  But the one that keeps showing up is about forgiveness and learning life’s lessons.

The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again
I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the Heart of the Matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness

So for the next year, I’m learning again the things I thought I knew — forgiveness, love, joy, grace.  I’m once again opening myself up to fail, falling into the loving arms of God, who promises to love me, to protect me, to cajole me and push me and keep waking me up to this moment, this life I’ve been given.  I’m risking all in giving myself to others, by loving them, by opening my heart and my life to the people I know and have known and will come to know.  And I’m truly thankful for another day, another year, even just this moment.  Amen.

Link

Spiritual but not Religious, Part II

Tonight I return to my ernstwhile blog.  I’ve been cogitating over many subjects, but I wanted to finish the thought that I began in an earlier post, getting back to the notion of spirituality and religiousness.  Don’t know that I have too much more to say on the subject — my mind is wandering to other topics.  But somehow I need to write part II, since I wrote part I.  Weird, aren’t I?

So it seems to me, as I wrote in the earlier post, that there is a difference in being spiritual and having a spiritual life.  Being spiritual is an openness to the Transcendent, to the presence and call of God’s Spirit; having a spiritual life is doing something about it.  What to do, then?

In my faith tradition, having a spiritual life is centered around practice as opposed to theory.  The practices of faith bind us to something beyond ourselves, to the Transcendent that lures us toward our natural way of being, spiritual. Now that is not to say that we are, by nature, spirit alone.  Just the opposite is true.  Our spiritual lives reveal for us a wholeness, an embodied self in which God is present in our bodies, in our actions, in our living.  Being spiritual is more than thought or feeling or idea or urge.  Being spiritual is living into our whole selves and having the ordinary transformed.

When I hear people say “I’m spiritual but not religious,” I often wonder, why bother?  Why all the energy around this declaration?  Is being spiritual somehow better than being religious?   Is being religious a bad thing?  Is this a putdown or judgment of someone deemed ‘religious’?  There seems to be some implicit, unspoken statement here:  I’m a deep person and I don’t need anything outside myself in order to find meaning.  There is also judgment:  being religious is somehow less than being spiritual, somehow artificial or calculated or, heaven forbid, hypocritical.  Is ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ code for ‘I don’t go to church’?  Because it seems like that is what many people are saying.

A recent study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that the boundary between being spiritual but not religious is often far less than clear.  The study suggests that most of the people who identify themselves as SBNR seldom really separate the two in their practices.  Rather, the people surveyed were often using this language to mark boundaries within their own experience.  “The ‘religion’ being rejected turns out to be quite unlike the religion being practiced and described by those affiliated with religious institutions,” notes the study’s author Nancy Ammerman.  “Likewise, the ‘spirituality’ being endorsed as an alternative is at least as widely practiced by those same religious people as it is by the people drawing a moral boundary against them,” she writes.   Spiritual but not religious, then, may be a rejection of a particular kind of religious understanding, but perhaps not religion itself.

For me, being religious may have nothing to do with going to church.  Or it may have everything to do with going to church.  Or, what if it is both?  Being religious seems to mean putting one’s spiritual self into action.  And that action might be being a part of a church.  Yet I know plenty of people who are religious about lots of things that have little to do with darkening the door of a church building.  Good old Websters defines religion as the belief in a god or in a group of gods;  an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods; or an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.   I would say that the last definition is the most relevant in our society today.  Aren’t there many of us who are religous about things in our lives?  Whether it be family, or career/vocation, or football, or society status, or our earning power, or sex, or exercise — sometimes one thing ends up trumping all else in terms of our time, our energy, our thoughts, our hopes, our fears.  No one of these things is necessarily bad in itself; yet each one of these things can begin to dictate the overall shape of who we are and how we live and act and have our being.  And often, that thing becomes our god and has nothing to do with God.

So I’ve outed myself here:  I see spiritual and religious as highly related.  The real issue, perhaps, is whether or not a spiritual person is willing to act on their spiritual beliefs, which might well bring them into the realm of being religious.  We all show what we believe by the way we live our lives, at least to some degree.  I’m not often concerned with the kind of hypocrisy in which someone’s words and their actions don’t always line up — we are all guilty of that on one level or another.  The hypocrisy that I pray to avoid in my life is when my I act in a way that is disconnected from my convictions, and I can’t say why.  Over and over I must return to God to empower me to walk the walk, to let my life show me what I really believe and ask the hard questions of why.

Being a part of a religious tradition, for me, matters.  This is the place that gives shape to my life, to my actions, where I am encouraged and reminded that I am  resurrected each morning to live into the life of God’s Spirit working in me.  This is the heart of hope, for me.  And Paul, in Romans 8, reminds me about hope:  Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. 

What I see when my spiritual nature becomes my spiritual way of living leads me to hope for more, to hope for what I can’t see but somehow yearn for, that something which I can’t quite name but I know is there, within and without me, what I keep reaching for, what I know that the Spirit can and does communicate even when I can’t quite say it.  How I live reveals to me the truth of my soul, a bare and glaring glimpse of the deepest truths that govern my life.

Rise

In the middle of the sky, above the clouds

Above the blue

Sound rushes by, and cold seeps in.

Below, clouds float like clustered cotton, billowing and soft and inviting.

Will clouds catch me as I fall?

  

On the far horizon,

blue below and blue above fade

to hazy gray. No line marks

where obscurity begins and luminous ends.

 

Along the distant floor, pools of water

twist and turn like an ancient dragon in a

silent dance. Dark and murky, the waters call

To me. The waters feel old, old and wise and hidden.

 

 What lies beneath?

Beneath the clouds, beneath the sky, behind the blue?

What beats in the depths?

Is it the heart of the dragon? The heart of a god?

In this cold dark, what is it that calls out to me?

Does it give life, or take it?

  

Who am I, who hears the quiet call of far-off waters?

Who hears the ancient song uncoil from its primeval hiding place?

‘Deep calls to deep’ they say.

And what will rise within?

And what will rise?

 

Spiritual but not Religious, Part 1

Several years ago, my husband went through a kind of existential crisis.  One day, he said, he came to realize that he didn’t really have a spiritual life.  He had a religious life: he read the Bible, prayed, went to church, lived a pious life.  He had studied religion in college and graduate school, could read the Greek and Hebrew, was well versed in the latest theology.  He was a respected lay leader in our church.  But on that day, the truth of his life came to him: he didn’t really have a relationship with God that was fully real, that was his, that went beyond the outward motions.

This caught me off guard.  We had been married for many years, often had deep talks about our faith, and certainly had an outwardly religious life; he seemed to me to be spiritual.  Yet he had a sense that there was something he lacked.  Something wasn’t adding up for him.  Clearly there was a discrepancy between the way he experienced his spiritual life within himself and the way it appeared outwardly.  And it naturally made me examine my own life.  Did I have a spiritual life?  What did that even mean?  I thought I had a spiritual life.  But then again, I thought he did too.  As I began to explore the questions, I too began a new part of my faith journey.

One thing I have learned in the years since that time is that no matter how much time we spend in church or involved in religious systems, no matter how much we engage in causes for social justice, no matter how deeply involved we are in caring for the marginalized in society, it doesn’t mean we actually have a spiritual life.  There is something about the spiritual life that is personal and internal; there is a component that involves inner work and being quiet before God.  Be still, and know that I am God.  But that doesn’t mean we just have a personal Jesus.  I tend to push against the notion of a ‘personal relationship’ with God for several reasons.  For one, it just seems so incredibly selfish — as if the lens of my own life and experience is the only way through which God is understood.  By focusing on a ‘personal relationship’ with God, it seems, I runs the risk of merely creating God in my own image, or perhaps in the image of who I think I should be or who I think God should be.  A ‘personal relationship with God’ is way too easy — who wouldn’t be able to live a good life if all it meant was only to live in the presence of God and contemplate life and all its meaning?  Just me and God, going for long walks and drinking coffee in the morning?  None of those pesky moral questions arise then, do they?  Like how I treat people, or how I spend money, or what I do with my time.  Just me and God.  (Notice who often ends up coming first in this relationship — me, not God.)  God becomes what is familiar, what is convenient, what is least likely to push me or make demands on me or require me to actually change.

Of course, the real acting out of what it means to have a relationship with God is learning to live with and love God in others — not just the face in the mirror, but the sometimes angry face in traffic, the indifferent face in the store, the empty or restless or adoring face in worship, the irritating face of someone who pushes all my buttons.  Over and over, the gospel calls us to be in relationship with God by being in relationship with God’s good creation — friend and foe, comfortable companion and awkward stranger, thoughtful disciple and irrational zealot.  I’m struck by how often I will judge (bad on me) someone’s appearance of spirituality, only to find that there is a whole lot more going on than meets the eye.   So what was it that my husband was lacking?  Community?  Solitude?  The integration of the two?

I also came to realize that, though we often measure ourselves in comparison to others, our spiritual lives are our own.  We cannot really know what another person is experiencing in their own spiritual life. We cannot and must not spend our energy trying to emulate someone else’s spirituality.  Too often, we in the religious world live within a kind of spiritual olympics, competing with one another over who can be the best, win the race, out-serve everyone else.  How many times have I been inspired by my own faith heroes and wondered how I can make my spiritual life more like theirs, only to realize and actually hear the message they keep offering:  live into who God made you to be; embrace it and learn to live in that skin, which will transform how you relate to everything and everyone else.  This is not to say that we live our lives in isolation, just ‘finding ourselves’ and being true to ourselves.  The fact is that we must learn to live in the tension of solitude and silence and stillness before God all the while living in community, because both are essential for us to come to understand what our spiritual lives are telling us.

What, then, is a spiritual life?  It is certainly common to hear people speak of things spiritual.  I have a close friend who, as a child, attended church regularly.  She went on to attend a well know and well respected religious college.  But in her adulthood, she drifted from church structures and from religion in any organized form.  She tells me often, ‘I’m a spiritual person but not a religious person.  I don’t think the two have much to do with each other.’  In exploring this concept with her, I’ve found that she holds a view that seems common to many people in our society these days:  spiritual but not religious.  Being a spiritual person seems to mean various things, like having a vague, sometimes unformed desire for a connection the Transcendent, or having a well formed and rich inner life which reaches toward the Holy; being a religious person seems to mean being tied to structures and institutions.  Spiritual equals longing for something more, however that may look.  So how, then, does my friend feed this spiritual longing?  Or does she?  As I learned from my husband’s experience, the absence of the external religious structures of religion in one’s life doesn’t mean that the spiritual longing will be fed some other way.  Instead, being spiritual is a call to have a spiritual  life.  So is being a spiritual person different than having a spiritual life?

As a Christian, part of having a spiritual life is opening a space in the day to day rhythm of life for God’s Spirit.  And, strangely enough, the opening isn’t just done through our own effort.  In The Source of Life, Jürgen Moltmann points out that “the Holy Spirit is the unrestricted presence of God in which our life wakes up, becomes wholly and entirely living, and is endowed with the energies of life.”  It is this awakening, then, that brings a person into spirituality.  Moltmann goes on to point out that the Holy Spirit acts both from without and from within.  “We continually experience the Holy Spirit as both a divine counterpart to whom we call,” he says, “and a divine presence in which we call – as the space we live in.”   This dual role of the Spirit is God’s action and our response, two parts of the same whole.

Being spiritual is an openness to the Transcendent, to the presence and call of God’s Spirit; having a spiritual life is doing something about it.  These days, it seems to me, many people feel the hunger inside for the Holy.  Yet oftentimes, we are reluctant to do anything about it.  We are like a person who is hungry but doesn’t eat.  And this constant hunger leaves us wanting, restless, yearning.  Perhaps this is why there are many books published about spirituality, why people aren’t afraid to speak of being spiritual but are unwilling to engage in practices or communities to nourish spirituality.  We have settled for being spiritual without truly exploring what that means, without allowing the yearning to lead us forward.  It is like a lingering question with no answer.

Often, people refer to themselves as spiritual but not religious, like my friend does.  What does it mean to be religious, then?  Being religious means adhering to a religion, having an outlook, a worldview that is shaped by that religion. So what is religion itself?  Of course, volumes have been written to answer this question; an exhaustive answer cannot be had here.  But a general understanding will suffice.  Joan Chittister explores the relationship of religion and spirituality in her writings.  Religion, she says, “is about what we believe and why we believe it.  It is about tradition, the institution, the system.”  She goes on to define spirituality as being “about the hunger of the human heart.  It seeks not only a way to exist, but a reason to exist beyond the biological or the institutional or even the traditional. …It seeks to make real the things of the spirit.”  Chittister spends a good bit of time contrasting the two and points out that they are related but not the same.  She sees religion as external and spirituality as internal (such a division might be useful but I tend toward integration rather than bifurcation).  She says that “spirituality is not what we do to satisfy the requirements of a religion; it is the way we come into contact with the Holy.”  Throughout her analysis, Chittister tends to see the limitations of religion that sometimes stand in the way of spirituality.  She rightly points out that “God is greater than religion.”   Perhaps this is why people sometimes say they believe in God but not religion.  When I hear people say this, I wonder if we in the Christian world have allowed religion to get in the way.  By emphasizing the rite, the organization, the structure without including the work of the Holy Spirit, we sometimes allow the wrong ideas to dominate the conversation.  Certainly things are done in the name of religion that most members of said religion find appalling, like acts of terror or prejudice.  It is important to reclaim the positive role and work of religion.  “Religion gives us the structures that weld the habits and disciplines of the soul into one integrated whole,” says Chittister.

Is it possible that, at times, spirituality can get in the way of God?  In reaction to religion, we can turn to spirituality as an antidote for the perceived arbitrary and irrelevant systems of religion.  But that very spirituality can become an end in itself.  When we completely remove all form, all sense of definition, of boundary, we run the risk of becoming an amorphous blob.  In our quest to remain unbound we can miss the Holy, the Transcendent.  Spirituality in a vacuum fails to bring us to a whole and full knowing of ourselves and of the Mysteries.  Moltmann points out that we can relegate spirituality to the extraordinary experience, divorcing everyday life from what he calls vitality.  We create binaries in which spirit is removed from flesh.  “The one is inward, the other external,” he says, “the one profound, the other superficial; the one reflective, the other thoughtless.  But the result is that ‘spirituality’ sets up an antithesis that splits life into two and quenches its vitality.”    Chittister, too, sees God embodied within us, both body and spirit; God’s creative power holds the whole of us.  “Holiness requires the cultivation of the soul, not the derogation of the body,” she point out.   Moltmann affirms this, saying, “The life-giving Spirit must be experienced holistically, with body and soul and all our powers,”

How, then, did my husband respond to his realization?  How did I answer the question of my own spiritual life?  He changed his habits, being quiet before God, through practices like prayer and meditation.  By being still before God, he found a new spirituality that grounded him and enriched his religious understanding at the same time.  And it led him into a transformed understanding of what it means to be in relationship with others.  I think he embraces all of life as a whole and sees the fusion of things rather than the reduction of them (or maybe all things are reduced to what they hold in common — but that’s another discussion of semantics and wholeness and particularity and unity).  Moltmann talks about this too, noting that the “new spirituality comprehends the whole of life, not just the religious sides that used to be called ‘the life of faith’ or ‘prayer life’.  The whole of life as it is lived is seized by God’s vital power and is lived ‘before God’, because it lives ‘out of God’.”   This vital power, from God, is what my husband sought and found, what he continues to dwell in and live into.  For myself, I found that my journey is my own, that I did, in fact, have a spiritual life.  Spiritual and religious are intertwined in my life; for me, it is about wholeheartedness.  And it is a continual process, a daily opening before God, allowing the Holy Spirit to work in me, answering Her call as I continue to listen.  “The God of creation goes on creating us,” observes Chittister.  “The danger is that we ourselves are inclined to call our creation over before its time.”  That is who I am:  God’s constant creation.  And so I join with Moltmann is his eloquent prayer:

God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

triune God,

unite with yourself your torn and divided world

and let us all be one in you,

one with your whole creation,

which praises and glorifies you

and in you is happy.

Amen.


Quotes from Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life:  The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pages 11, 70, 80, 81, 145.

Quotes from Joan Chittister, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir (Lanham, Maryland:  Sheed & Ward, 2004), page 18-21, 23, 181, 197.

Reflection: Of deserts and listening for God

The desert tradition of spirituality holds much attraction to me.  On my own spiritual journey, certain aspects of this rich tradition have been especially important, while other aspects are foreign and unwelcome to me.  There is, then, both a pull and a push that I feel toward those ancient desert Christians and the way they lived, thought, and devoted themselves to God.

For me, many of the reasons that drove these ancient Christians to the desert are foreign.  From very early in my life, I understood the role of my life as a Christian to be in the world.  So leaving the world, either in protest, in avoidance, or in exile, would take me away from the very thing I understood to be important – to be salt, light, leaven.  For a long time, I viewed the monastic life, especially the life of the desert Christians, as a bit of a cop out, and in extreme cases perhaps even as heretical in its failure to live into the call of Christ.  Sure, I thought, it’s easy to find peace and harmony and live without sin if you live away from everyone and everything.  I see now, having actually read and meditated on so many of the sayings, that I was wrong.  The challenge of desert spirituality is in becoming open to God, in focusing on God and one’s relationship with God, in confronting our own humanity, with all its frailty and fear and wonder and beauty.

Evagrius’ stages of the spiritual journey are intriguing.  Purgation by praktike is the surface level, the place most people, myself included, tend to avoid.  Ascetic practices seem to be the hard part, and often I have never gotten past them or I have tried to jump over them, hoping to get to the inner work without the pain, without the suffering, without confronting my demons.  Illumination, that’s where it’s at.  Of course, real illumination doesn’t happen separate from the purgation, from the reality of life and of myself.  Still, in my own spiritual journey, illumination — that glimpse of the Divine, the liminal, thin space when I come near to God, when I have eyes to see what is always there but so often hidden to me — has kept me going, is what drives my willingness to even consider what may be keeping me from God and thus willing to engage hard practices to help me journey closer to God.  Not surprisingly, I tend to get it backwards.

I have had some powerful glimpses which verge on union with God.  Such is one experience I had while on a silent retreat at Lebh Shomea in Sarita, Texas.  Here is the description written while there of a particular experience, a visitation from Mary while we were receiving some teaching from Sister Marie, a hermit at Lebh Shomea.

Upon entering the Roncalli room I was immediately filled with a sense of peace that had eluded me throughout the day.  As I listened to Sister Marie, I glanced and saw the picture of Mary behind her.  And as her words soaked in, an incredible lightness came upon me, a comfort and illumination.  It was palpable and physical.  My heart opened and Mary poured herself into me.  Words fail.  She was full of life, sustaining, generative.  I felt aglow and the room seemed to fade in the brightness.  And yet I was present and wholly there as well.  I was then drawn to Sister Marie and felt sure I was to learn from her in some special way.  Each time I looked at Mary, the light returned and she was with me.  When I left the Roncalli building, the certainty faded and I was filled with doubt and self-loathing.  This experience was amazing, and while it faded quickly, I even now am moved to remember it and, for a moment, to dwell with Mary and her grace.  This happened when we first arrived, so as I moved through the rest of the day today, I struggled to understand.  I felt unworthy.  I was unable to mirror the external silence with any kind of internal silence.  Never, it felt like, had my mind been so loud, just shouting and busy and never stopping.  So I wrestled with why the Blessed Virgin had visited me.  What did it mean?  What was I supposed to do with her?  Anything?  Nothing?with her? Anything

The eremitic life has some appeal.  The offer of living into the image of God, the imago dei that exists within me, calls to me.  Throughout my life, I have always felt an inner restlessness.  Augustine’s saying “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” has been a touchstone for me, a reminder that my restlessness is leading me someplace, is leading me to God.  At Lebh Shomea, as my second day dawned and spread out before me, my inner self settled.  My spirit began to be quiet; I also began to be open to so much:  to Mary and her visitation; to the presence of God in creation all around me; to the sound of God speaking through the lapping waters of the bay as I walked along the sand; to the inner landscape of my soul, sometimes so distant and yet always yearning for God.  Part of my reflection on the heremitic life while on the retreat:

Sister Marie talked about her journey and discernment to the eremitic life.  So much resonated with my own life and call – restlessness, inner conviction, Merton, prayer, solitude.  The quote from Merton was powerful – the birthing image, and the womb of the world.  Inner workings all churning.  The idea of solitude and silence as escape versus as a means to enter into community & life – powerful.  I feel like my heart is breaking.  I fear the quiet, again.  I don’t want to face the hurt I feel.  The reality of facing all that is inside me, of facing my demons, constantly pushes me away from myself.

And yet.  There is always a longing within me for solitude, a desire to embrace silence, a need for stillness.  These impulses – to run from myself or to embrace something deep inside me – always are fighting.  Patience, that virtue we always say we need and never really want, is what I lack so often.  I am forever living elsewhere – in the past or the future, seldom grounded to the present moment.  So in my journey, this is a goal, something I work at daily:  to be present to the now.  More reflection from the retreat:

Went to the beach with a friend; kept the silence.  It’s amazing that there is this little slice of the bay, so close and yet so very distant.  The water was brown & murky, always moving, never the same, yet constant.  Such is the way I feel – murky, dark, moving, shifting.  And God’s Spirit in me is the constancy in the midst of perpetual change.  The eremitic life, Sister Marie said, requires stability.  Now, that really struck me.  What if I had stability in my life?  Maybe that is what I’m avoiding. Maybe constant change is my interior self resisting the inner work that calls. 

As a child, I had a very rich and real spiritual life.  I was a solitary child, for the most part, and I took life quite seriously but also joyfully.  I felt bound by everything I observed and experienced, and I was very earnest in my desire to follow God.  In some ways, I had a desert-like life in those early days, and it shaped me to listen, to be still, to pay attention to the world around me.  Still, I had a lurking sense of something dark in the world and in me.  My child’s mind didn’t know what it was or how to confront it.  I did know that God was very present, very real, very necessary to my young heart.

I remember taking Philosophy in my first semester of college.   The professor, Jack Knight, asked us which we would want, freedom to or freedom from.  Only one other student and I said freedom from.  What would it look like, I wondered?  To be free from the weight of the world, free from the darkness that lurked.  So part of my journey has always been a longing for such a freedom of all that pulls at my soul.  Perhaps this is what the desert Christians found through apatheia; maybe this is what detachment really gives us.  Again, Lebh Shomea led me to reflect on this.

I was struck by the freedom that Sister Marie has in her life, freedom which I don’t have, freedom that calls out to me but is elusive.  Freedom from the reality of my deeply flawed self; freedom from the stress of money; freedom from the constant lure of material things; freedom from the news cycle, the deadline, the worry de jur; freedom to be, freedom to love, freedom to listen and think and play and walk.  Freedom to lay a weary head on the pillow and sleep with ease. I long for that freedom.  There is always something waiting, always more on my to do list, always that thing that paralyzes me.  Fear is killing my soul.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Lift this darkness.  Give me your peace.

External silence is useless if the heart is still babbling.*  This is the truth that drives me to prayer every morning, that keeps me praying in every moment.  Prayer keeps me grounded; prayer keeps me humble.  That restlessness that is so present with me is also what drives me to return, again and again, every new day, to prayer.  For me, the desert is the place where God gets my attention.  And while I don’t live anywhere near the literal life of those desert Christians from so long ago, I do believe that living into the spirituality of the desert is important to my formation.  My heart tends to babble; God calls me to be silent, be still.  As I move into my ministry, this is so very important.  Life often challenges me, sometimes throws me off kilter with the tyranny of the urgent.  That false reality is an ongoing battle, and I try very hard to find balance.  Embracing the desert in the midst of my life is one main way to find that balance.  Silent, in stillness, in solitude:  in this posture, the demands around me take on the proper perspective.  I am free to confront demons, to listen for God and to God.  My final thoughts from the retreat reflect what happens, over and over, when the babbling heart stops and I am present before God.

A peaceful night, restful sleep.  Woke up feeling at peace – a blessing.  The quiet is so welcome, and it has seeped into me slowly.  Really, these days are such a short time away.  Over breakfast my worries return.  I give these to God, knowing God is greater than my worries.  I am ready to go, to celebrate the feast of our Lord and greet the world anew.  It is with a heart overflowing with gratitude that I leave today.  I know I will return to Lebh Shomea.


* One of the desert saying which I read while at Lebh Shomea and wrote it down, but I didn’t note the source and can’t seem to find it.