Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Feast of St. Jerome, priest, monk, scholar

St. Jerome, of course, is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin (known as the Vulgate) but when I was a little girl I first heard about him through the legend of St. Jerome and the Lion:
One day a lion came limping to Saint Jerome holding out his paw. On examination, Saint Jerome discovered that the lion's paw had a thorn in it. Jerome removed the thorn, cleaned the wound, and bound up the paw. For this, the lion was very grateful to Jerome. As a result, he took up residence at the monastery and even did chores.
This story mirrors, as you no doubt have noticed, the well known Aesop fable of Androcles and the Lion. The stories are illustrations of both compassion and gratitude.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


St Michael, 12th-century mosaic

Remember Maslow's hierachy of needs? They are ususally depicted on a pyramid with our most basic requirements for survival and well being at the bottom. Maslow hypothesized that we must get those foundational needs met before we can access the motivation to address the higher ones such as self-actualization and self-transcendence.

After the physiological needs of food, air, water and the like, our most fundamental need is safety. And here's where St. Michael and All Angels come in to the picture. In addition to being messengers, they are protectors - especially Michael himself. We need the assurance of protection, the assurance that our safety matters (not only to ourselves but to the Most High), in order to do the kind of spiritual work that will enable us to be courageously compassionate and faithful to the end. God knows this. The Church knows this. And so we have today's feast.

My favorite safety prayer is the ancient exorcism from the office of Compline:
Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy. Let your Holy Angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace and let your blessing be upon us always. Amen.
Here's what I want to recommend. Get some holy water (or make it yourself; I think water can be "dedicated" as well as "blessed"). Then walk through your house sprinkling a little water against every window and door reciting the prayer above as you go. It's a wonderful space clearing exercise and, if you let it, will give you a sense of being truly cherished by all the spiritual beings that inhabit creation.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur

"Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur"
Artist: Maurycy Gottlieb

Here is a traditional recitation for the day:
I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, whether deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account. As I forgive and pardon fully those who have done me wrong, may those whom I have harmed forgive and pardon me, whether I acted deliberately or by accident, whether by word or deed. I am now ready to fulfill the commandment of "to love my neighbor as myself."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Becoming a prophet

"The Gathering of Manna"
Artist: Bacchiacca

I have long loved the Numbers passage that is one of the choices appointed for this morning's first reading. Moses declares, "Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!"

What an enlightened view for a religious leader and dignitary. The clericalism so prevalent today often simply supposes that the role of the laity is to "Pray, pay and obey." And so we see documents drawn up regarding our recent "unpleasantness" in the Anglican Communion that do not mention the laity or the laity's contribution at all - as if bishops alone are the Church.

How are we to be prophets, anyway?

When a relatively young priest inquired of a saintly retired priest if there were anything he would do differently if he could start over, this was the answer:
“If I had my priesthood to live over again,” he said, “I would be a gentler with people the next time. I would console more and challenge more carefully. I was one of those people who was taught and who deeply believed that only the full truth can set us free, that we owe it to people to challenge them with the truth, in season and out. I believed that and did it for most of the years of my ministry. And I was a good priest, I lived for others and never once betrayed in any real way my vows and my commitment. But now that I am older, I regret some of what I did. I regret that sometimes I was too hard on people! I meant it well, I was sincere, but I think that sometimes I ended up laying added burdens on people when they were already carrying enough pain. If I were just beginning as a priest, I would be gentler, I would spend my energies more trying to lift pain from people. People are in a lot of pain. They need us, first of all, to help them with that!”
The younger priest comments with this astonishing sentence:
We will comfort the world, and it will be comforted, when we show it that God sees its heart with the eyes of the heart, that God feels for it more than it feels for itself, that God never feels frightened by the assertions of human freedom, that God always opens another door when we close one, that God is not put off by all the times when we are too weak to do what is best, that God understands our complexity, our weaknesses, our anger, our lusts, our jealousies, and our despair, that God never stops loving us even when we put ourselves in hell, and that God descends into all the hells we create, stands in inside of our muddled, wounded, and guilty hearts and breathes out peace.
"Breathes out peace."

I'm going to focus today on breathing out peace. Will you join me?

(The above passages are from a powerful relection by Fr. Ron Rolheiser entitled "Prophecy - Challenge and Comfort".)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Feast of Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester

Perhaps he was our most eloquent preacher ever. Just look:

What will move you? Will pity? Here is distress never the like. Will duty? Here is a person never the like. Will fear? Here is wrath never the like. Will remorse? Here are sins never the like. Will kindness? Here is love never the like. Will bounty? Here are benefits never the like. Will all these? Here they be all, all in the highest degree.

-- Lancelot Andrewes

Maybe it would be good for each of us to ask inwardly: "What will move me?" And then pay attention to our own response.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Feast of St. Sergius, Abbot

A story about St. Sergius:
Six months before his death St. Sergius was granted a revelation of it. He gathered his monks around him, handed the administration of the monastery over to his disciple, St. Nikon, and gave himself over to solitude. Before his departure from this world, he once again gathered his monks and instructed them to remain in faith and unity, to preserve spiritual and physical purity, to have great love among themselves, to refrain from evil desires and passions, to keep moderation in food and drink, to espouse hospitality, to be humble and shun earthly glory and vanity. The saint then partook of the Holy Mysteries and quietly said: “Into Thine hands I give up my spirit, o Lord.” Immediately an indescribable fragrance issued from his body, while his face shone with heavenly rapture. This took place on September 25, 1392.
The advice Sergius gave his monks is good for all people in all times.

Today, by the way, is the anniversary of my first vows as a religious solitary. The year was 1987. I remain grateful beyond all telling for the grace of my vocation. Deo gratias!

Vision of Heaven

"Meeting at the Golden Gate" by Giotto di Bondone

This, then, is the blessed hope. I love the last two lines especially:

And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven
of which we have heard,
where those who love
each other have forgiven
each other, where, for that,
the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.

- Wendell Berry, from his poem "To My Mother"

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Inspiration and consolation

Yesterday I shared with you a quotation by Mother Maria Skobtsova who died in the gas chambers of the Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945. I had not heard of her before yesterday and I have found myself absolutely fascinated by her story and genuinely inspired by her witness. The following quotation was found in an essay by Jim Forest called "Mother Maria Skobtsova: Saint of the Open Door":

“The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

-- Mother Maria Skobtsova

Here's something that was remembered about her by another prisoner at Ravensbruck:

“She used to organize real discussion circles … and I had the good fortune to participate in them. Here was an oasis at the end of the day. She would tell us about her social work, about how she conceived the reconciliation of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. We would question her about the history of Russia, about its future, about Communism, about her frequent contacts with young women from the Soviet army with whom she liked to surround herself. These discussion, whatever their subject matter, provided an escape from the hell in which we lived. They allowed us to restore our depleted morale, they rekindled in us the flame of thought, which barely flickered beneath the heavy burden of horror.”

-- Jacqueline Pery

Reading about Mother Maria these last two days has gladdened my heart and strengthened my own motivation to persevere. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Artist: Joshua Reynolds
Image from Wikimedia Commons

This was sent to me in an email from Sojourners:

I am your message, Lord. Throw me like a blazing torch into the night, that all may see and understand what it means to be a disciple.

- St. Maria Skobtsova, Orthodox nun and martyr (1891-1945)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Happy Autumnal Equinox

Artist: Oldřich Hlavsa
Image from Wikimedia Commons

This is the spirit of contemplation. I suggest we all take the following to heart:

Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn.

-- Elizabeth Lawrence

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist

The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel
Attributed to Rembrandt
Image from Wikimedia Commons

This is from an medieval work known as The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine:
We may note that in Saint Matthew four things are worthy of consideration. The first is his swiftness to obey; for as soon as Christ called him, he quit his custom-house, leaving his tax accounts incomplete without fear of his masters, and devoted himself completely to Christ. This ready obedience has been a source of error to some, as Jerome recounts in his commentary on that place of the Gospel: 'Porphyry and the Emperor Julian find proof therein either of the ignorance of a lying chronicler, or of the witlessness of them that so promptly followed the Saviour, as if they went off after the first man who called them, without any reason whatsoever. But there is no doubt that the apostles, before they believed in Him, had seen the many signs of His power which went before Him. And of a surety, the very splendour and majesty of His hidden godhead, which shone even in His human countenanec, were enough to draw them the first time they looked upon him. For if a magnet has power to attract rings and bits of iron, how much the more can the Lord of all creation draw to Himself those whom He will!' Thus Jerome.
Perhaps we could reflect on what "swiftness to obey" means to each of us in our time and in our current circumstances.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Who's the greatest?"

Artist: Edgar Degas

In today's gospel reading, the disciples are arguing about which one among them is to be the greatest. I simply want to offer you the following:

Leonard Bernstein, when asked what the most difficult instrument was, answered "2nd fiddle". "Plenty of people want to play 1st violin but to get someone to play second violin or second flute, etc...that's a problem. Yet, without them there is no harmony."

Some of you know that before I entered the religious life, I was a musician by trade. And for most of my career I played first oboe -- I guess because that's what I was ususally hired to do and because it fit my "musical personality" (or so I was told). But toward the end of my career I started being offered some very nice second oboe jobs and I accepted them (with my long-term teacher's enthusiastic encouragement because he contended that playing second was considerably harder than playing first). What a wonderful adventure! Playing second (and doing it well) requires much more artistic maturity, much more attention to subtlety and nuance. There is a different kind of satisfaction involved and it's truly very lovely.

Think about it.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Forgiveness as defiance

Artist: Rembrandt

Forgiveness as defiance. Now there's a concept, isn't it? Take a look:

Forgiveness is an embrace, across all barriers, against all odds, in defiance of all that is mean and petty and vindictive and cruel in this life.

Kent Nerburn in Calm Surrender

Worth pondering. With sincere thoughtfulness.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Journey to Reality

Surat Al-Ikhlas - Maghribi script, 18th Century, North Africa

I ventured over to the Spirituality and Practice website today and was stunned (in a positive way!) to find a review of a book entitled It's Really All About God (subtitled "Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian".) I definitely want to read this. The author, Samir Selmanovic, is "the co-leader of Faith House Manhattan, an interfaith 'community of communities' that brings together forward-looking Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists and others who seek to thrive interdependently."

Selmanovic is a convert to Christianity who has experienced distress over the self-serving attitudes and practices of organized religion. Here is something he said that just knocks my socks off:
We can either stay within the Christianity we have mastered with the Jesus we have domesticated, or we can leave Christianity as a destination, embrace Christianity as a way of life, and then journey to reality, where God is present and living in every person, every human community, and all creation.
This reminds me of the part of the baptimal covenent in which we promise to "seek and serve Christ in all persons". We don't have to bring Christ to the person; Christ is already there. Rather, we seek Christ in the person. Big, big difference.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How to find Paradise

"Glimpse of Paradise"

Here are two wonderful quotations about how to find Paradise on earth:

We believe that it is difficult to let go, but in truth, it is much more difficult and painful to hold and protect. Reflect upon anything in your life that you grasp hold of--an opinion, a historical resentment, an ambition, or an unfulfilled fantasy. Sense the tightness, fear, and defensiveness that surrounds the grasping. It is a painful, anxious experience of unhappiness. We do not let go in order to make ourselves impoverished or bereft. We let go in order to discover happiness and peace.

-- Christina Feldman

I like what Feldman says about letting go not being a matter of deprivation at all but rather a way toward happiness.
And here's another obvservation that says much the same thing:

The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.

-- C.S. Lewis

Tightly grasping to what we cannot have or to what we are sure to lose is the most direct way to suffering and unhappiness known to humanity.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Something about struggle

"The Quest"
Artist: Seema Kohli

If, by chance, you are struggling at the time of your reading this, take heart from these words of one of our great preachers:

You may look through the streets of heaven, asking each how they came to be there, and you will look in vain everywhere for a person who is morally and spiritually strong, whose strength did not come to him in struggle. There is no exception anywhere. Every true strength is gained in struggle.

-- Phillips Brooks

Monday, September 14, 2009

Holy Cross Day

Rowan Williams was still Archbishop of Wales when he said this:

All I want to say about the image of the Holy Cross this morning is that the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is where we wake up. 'Awake, sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you life.' Our sin is like sleep, like a bad dream. We are locked in ourselves. The serious tangled insides of the human mind, the human heart, human speech trap us more and more. Here the reality of God stands against the reality of our minds and hearts.

-- Rowan Williams

I found it in a reflection by John Pridmore on Holy Cross Day in the Church Times. I urge you to click through and read the whole thing if you have time. It's all good.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

God's excellence

Lady Wisdom (Library of Congress)

I love today's readings. All of them. But especially the optional reading from The Wisdom of Solomon and the gospel reading (from Mark) about losing your life in order to save it.

Just in case you are not familiar with the passage from Wisdom, here it is:

For Wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in
herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.
She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.
The sentence from Mark's gospel to which I refer, of course, is this one:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
I've long believed that this saying of Jesus is the quintessential Christian koan. A koan is a paradox, a conundrm, used by Zen masters to help their meditation students learn to let go. "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is a famous koan that most people know. Using the koan as a support for meditation is meant to exhaust, if you will, the rational intellect so that it gives up and with it, the person's ego. At that point the person reliquishes his or her obsession with attachment or control and becomes truly accepting. Seems to me that is what Jesus was on about with his teaching on losing one's life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

God's love

Margret Hofheinz-Döring/Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen

God is not only fatherly,
God is also mother
who lifts her loved child
from the ground to her knee.
The Trinity is like a mother's cloak
wherein the child finds a home
and lays its head on the maternal breast.

-- Mechtild of Magdeburg

Mechtild of Magdeburg lived in the high Middle Ages and was a member of the Beguines, a loosely organized group of women who usually lived alone and were devoted to prayer and good works.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The call to be truly oneself

Moses and the Burning Bush
Image from Wikimedia Commons

I have loved the saying quoted below for a long, long time.

Here's my question: Why is it so common in the church today that its members are put under pressure to conform to someone else's conventional idealization of the kind of people they should be?

Rabbi Zusya said that on the Day of Judgment, God would ask him, not why he had not been Moses, but why he had not been Zusya.

~Walter Kaufmann

We need to be genuinely ourselves according to our true nature. The most damaging aspect of the authoritarianism currently present in the church as an institution is the insidious devaluing of many people's gifts while highlighting their faults. No wonder people get discouraged and leave never to return.

It's not right, folks. It's just not right.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Artist: Pietro Cavallini
Image from Wikimedia Commons

What a pity this feast day does not appear on the calendar of the American Church. It does, however, in the Church of Ireland and that gave me much pleasure when I lived over on the Emerald Isle.

Why does it matter? Well, let me ask you this. Have you ever taken note of the fact that, in the Bible itself, every time people are happy about the birth of a baby, the baby in question is always a boy? What do you think that does (consciously or unconsciously) to little girls growing up in the church?

Just think about it. Think about it hard.

Today we get to rejoice that unto us a child is born, unto us a daughter is given. And she will be the God-bearer for us and she will be our own true Mother for all eternity.

Ave. Ave. Ave Maria!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day, 2009

Here's a prayer offered by the National Farm Worker Ministry:

Bless the hands of the people of the earth,
The hands that plant the seed,
The hands that bind the harvest,
The hands that carry the burden of life.
Soften the hands of the oppressor and
Strengthen the hands of the oppressed.
Bless the hands of the workers,
Bless the hands of those in power above them
That the measure they deal will be tempered
With justice and compassion. Amen.
I found it on a little essay about Labor Day by Cathleen Falsani over on Sojourners. I recommend the article.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Canaanite woman

Here's part of a reflection on the first story from this morning's gospel reading:

Surely Jesus of all people should know that God's goodness is bounteous, that there is more than enough food for everyone.

And this is essentially what the Gentile woman points out to Jesus. There's plenty of food for everyone; even once all of those recognized as people, as insiders, are fed, there's still food left over for those who aren't even considered human, the outsiders. And they're all eating the same food; admittedly, some of it is crumbs from the original serving, but it's the same substance. Whether they are at the table or under it, they are all finding nourishment.

And Jesus, apparently moved by her words -- or reminded by her of his own previous miracle -- essentially says, "Good point. You get the same food as all of God's other children anyway, so why not have a seat at the table?" He promptly heals her child, and never again in Mark does he refuse to heal anyone or question anyone's worthiness to be healed.
Jesus understands our initial antipathies to strangers -- after all, he had them himself -- but ultimately there is no one we shouldn't invite to the feast. There is plenty of bread for everyone, even those who have traditionally been relegated to eating crumbs under the table, so we will not go hungry but rather will dine abundantly when we follow Jesus' example and welcome all comers to the table.

-- Karen A. Keely

Welcome all comers. I love those words. There really is no need for us humans to police God's table. Really.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Some thoughts about trust

"The Flying"
Artist: Anchise Picchi

I can only fly freely
when I know there is a catcher to catch me.
If we are to take risks,
to be free,
in the air,
in life,
we have to know
that when we come down from it all,
we're going to be caught,
we're going to be safe.
The great hero is the least visible.
Trust the catcher.

Henri Nouwen

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The gift of Russian spiritual practice

I just had to show you a sample of some amazing 100 year old color photos the story of which is truly fascinating. Here's a description of the church pictured above:
Russian churches featured exterior and interior decoration in the forms of mosaics, frescoes, and carvings, often in brilliant colors. The Church of the Resurrection in Kostroma in the northern part of European Russia was built in the 1650s and demonstrates the exuberant decoration of the exterior characteristic of its period. However, in spite of the dramatic exterior, the church is noted primarily for its interior wall paintings.

Amazingly enough, this picture was taken in 1910.

You can see the entire exhibit right here.

Now let me share with you something for your contemplation that comes from the Russian Orthodox tradition:

The Jesus Prayer is also called the Prayer of the Heart. In Orthodoxy, the mind and heart are to be used as one. St Theophan tells us to keep our "mind in the heart" at all times. Heart means the physical muscle pumping blood, and emotions/feelings, and the innermost core of the person, the spirit. Heart is associated with the physical organ, but not identical with it. Heart means our innermost chamber, our secret dwelling place where God lives.
Someone said the heart is a dimension of interior consciousness, awareness, where we come in touch with an inner space, a space of no dimensions. This consciousness is timeless, the place where tears reside and deep contact with the present moment abide, and from which restful movement comes. Acting out of our heart means to act lightly, with vigor and enthusiasm. When not in that inner awareness, we are restless, agitated and self-concerned.

There is within us a space, a field of the heart, in which we find a Divine Reality, and from which we are called to live. The mind, then, is to descend into that inner sanctuary, by means of the Jesus Prayer or wordless contemplation, and to stay there throughout our active day, and evening. We descend with our mind into our heart, and we live there.
The excerpt above is from an article entitled "Saying the Jesus Prayer" by Albert S Rossi.

There are several forms of the Jesus Prayer. The one I typically use is this: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Three by Desmond

These so utterly represent the way he thinks!

I give great thanks to God that he has created a Dalai Lama. Do you really think, as some have argued, that God will be saying: 'You know, that guy, the Dalai Lama, is not bad. What a pity he's not a Christian'? I don't think that is the case - because, you see, God is not a Christian.
We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.
So people actually, if they want to know, "What is God like?" they would have to look at you and me and see us as being compassionate, because God is compassionate, as being loving, because God is loving.

-- Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A way of looking at art

Artist: Margret Hofheinz-Döring
I rather like this:
Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.