Thursday, March 31, 2011

Batter my heart...

Today is the feast day of John Donne - certainly the greatest of the metaphysical poets. A reluctant priest, he was nevertheless powerfully eloquent in devotional expression and passionate, I suppose, in all the ways a human being can be passionate.

These have long been my favorite of his lines and I have prayed them, actually, for many, many years now:
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
They are from his Holy Sonnet number fourteen.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The tiniest house of time

Artist: Paul Klee

It's a wonderful poem about finding God. About not needing to find God because God is not lost:

Are you looking for me?
I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas,
not in Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues,
nor in cathedrals:
not in masses,
nor kirtans,
not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly —
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.

- Kabir

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dying to a deadness in our lives

Artist: Francisco de Zurbarán

I had the wonderful privilege of hearing Dr. Marcus Borg speak when he visited Tulsa a few years ago. As scholars go, he is delightfully accessible and I've both valued and sincerely enjoyed everything of his that I've read. Here's a little something he said about the current season in which we find ourselves:
This is what the season of Lent is about, about being born again, about following the path of death and resurrection, about participating in Jesus' final journey. To become somewhat more concrete, some of us may need to die to specific things in our lives--perhaps to a behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional, perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad, perhaps to an unresolved grief or to a stage in our life that it is time to leave, perhaps to our self-preoccupation, or even to a deadness in our lives (you can die to deadness.) It is possible to leave the land of the dead. So, the journey of Lent is about being born again--about dying and rising, about mortality and transformation.
I particularly like the notion of dying to deadness. There's a lot of material for reflection in that little turn of phrase.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Feast of the Annunciation

Artist: Alexandr Ivanov

Hello, dear people. I do apologize for being out of commission for several days. I've come down with a dreadful cough which has interrupted my sleep and made it difficult for me to carry out my normal routine. I also have a house guest at the moment and so I haven't had my usual time available for blogging. I hope all the usual readers who check in here are well and continuing to give attention to contemplation.

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Think about it. Today is exactly nine months before Christmas.) On this day we celebrate both the great mystery of the Incarnation and the central role of consent in the life of the Christian. It was Mary's great fiat - her "let it be" - that made it all possible.

So will it surprise you that I offer the following as our quotation for today?
When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree,
there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is still a chance that they will see,
there will be an answer. let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light, that shines on me,
shine until tomorrow, let it be.
I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

-- The Beatles (Lennon/McCartney)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower"

Are you familiar with the American Public Media radio program Being with Krista Tippett? Today, she interviewed Joanna Macy whom I've known about as a scholar of Buddhism and ecology. I did not realize until today that she is a translator of the poety of Rainer Maria Rilke. Here's one that Macy recited on air today and it moved me deeply:

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

- translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The core of all prayer

Artist: Vasiliy Polenov

Our culture has sadly conditioned us to believe that time is only appropriately spent if we are using it to be productive in some measurable way. Here's something about that outlook that we would all do well to ponder:

We need quiet time in the presence of God. Although we want to make all our time time for God, we will never succeed if we do not reserve a minute, an hour, a morning, a day, a week, a month, or whatever period of time, for God and God alone.

This asks for much discipline and risk taking because we always seem to have something more urgent to do and "just sitting there" and "doing nothing" often disturbs us more than it helps. But there is no way around this. Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer.

In the beginning we often hear our own unruly inner noises more loudly than God's voice. This is at times very hard to tolerate. But slowly, very slowly, we discover that the silent time makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God.

Then, very soon, we start missing these moments when we are deprived of them, and before we are fully aware of it an inner momentum has developed that draws us more and more into silence and closer to that still point where God speaks to us.

-- Henri Nouwen

Friday, March 18, 2011


Artist: Georges de La Tour

Think of what starlight
And lamplight would lack
Diamonds and fireflies
If they couldn’t lean against Black. . . .

-- Mary O'Neill

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thoughts for reflection

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Today, I want to give you three very short quotations by Philip Yancey, all of which really speak to me:
When I pray for another person, I am praying for God to open my eyes so that I can see that person as God does, and then enter into the stream of love that God already directs toward that person.
Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.
Christians get very angry toward other Christians who sin differently than they do.
That last one is rather snarky, isn't it. It also makes a good point regarding our own need for self-examination, doesn't it?

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Indwelling Christ

Artist: Nikolay Ge

I've long been concerned that the Church has cultivated a religion about Jesus rather than encouraging us to adopt the religion of Jesus. No one, really, expresses this better than Henri Nouwen:
I know that I have to move from speaking about Jesus to letting him speak within me, from thinking about Jesus to letting him think within me, from acting for and with Jesus to letting him act through me. I know the only way for me to see the world is to see it through his eyes.
When you think about it, Nouwen is actually communicating a high theology of the Indwelling. Perhaps this Lent we can ponder that teaching more seriously.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Being a good human

Artist: Nikolay Ge

Most weeks, I check out a web post entitled "Sermon Nuggets" put together by Lindy Black. She offers illustrations, humor and quotations that go along with each Sunday's lectionary readings. Here are a few for today:

Turning stones into bread = material temptation
Throw self off cliff = security temptation
Have dominion = power temptation

The following three are all on the same basic theme:

These scriptures are about the temptation not to be a good human being. I think they are about the temptation not to be a human being at all. As far as I can tell, what Adam and Jesus are both tempted by is the chance to play God.
In many churches, Lent begins with a sooty forehead, as believers kneel for the Ash Wednesday reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. it is not meant to depress or frighten us, but simply to remind us who we are: human beings, mortals, not God.
The point is, God drew a line in the garden of Eden and said, "Human beings on this side, God on this side. Tree of life on your side, tree of the knowledge of good and evil on my side. Stay on your own side of the line if you know what's good for you."

- Barbara Brown Taylor

To all readers: May your Lent this year be a truly blessed one.

Friday, March 11, 2011

And did you see it, finally?

Artist: James Audubon

An important function of Lenten disciplines is to help us cultivate awareness. It's so easy to go through life on auto-pilot if we never deliberately and intentionally do something to interrupt our routine, our habitual tendencies.

Today, I want to share with you a Mary Oliver poem and I also want to recommend really paying attention to the last two questions posed at the end. Our change in routine this Lent (whatever it is) can help us come to the kind of awareness that will make exploring the questions more accessible:

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Muted music

I'm not really sure when it was that I first came upon the works of Caryll Houselander. I just know that I'm glad I did.

Here's something that resonates very powerfully with me. I really can't say more about it than that:
There are people who do not find it necessary to use words or ideas for meditation. We know that we can hear a song, sung in a language of which we know not one word, but of the rhythm, the melody of it finds an answer in our heart, it echoes from our own soul. We can understand it without being able to translate a word of it into our own speech. For some, prayer is like that. The muted music of the human, suffering Christ touches a responsive chord in their own being. They do not require words and images, and indeed cannot use them. They cannot explain. They have no words, even for Christ. Perhaps they do not understand the music themselves. Perhaps if they uttered it aloud it would only confuse the world. It would not sound in their voice as it sounds in their souls.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

"Ash Wednesday" by Julian Fałat

I really can't do much better today than to quote Lady Julian of Norwich:
Sin must needs be but all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.
There's a very thought provoking blog essay about this assertion that you can find right here:

'All Will Be well' - Polyanna Platitude or Responsible Mystic Theodicy?

There are also some interesting comments to that post.

A blessed Ash Wednesday and Lenten season to you all.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A redemptive recognition of reality

Artist: Henri Rousseau

Someone in crisis phoned me today and we talked for a while about reality testing. In the following passage, Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman asserts that questions - not anwers - help us in the recognition of what's real and what's not:
Unlike answers, questions attract and hold our attention. They are irresistible, like a half-open door. Answers, especially wrapped in dogmatic certainty or claiming to be right in this form for all time, soon come either to bore or oppress us. Even the best answers can be as unwelcoming as a door banged in our face when they exclude alternative responses. Rather than giving answers and making rules Jesus called people to experiential knowledge. By asking questions or telling stories he invited his hearers to a personal discovery of truth, a redemptive recognition of reality. Throughout the gospels it is his questions which magnetize and capture our attention. Often they also deftly turn the attacks of his hostile critics back on themselves. It is by questions that he leads his disciples into a deeper understanding of who we are and who he is. These are the inseparable twin insights of his gift to humanity.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Something about idolatry

Artist: Felice Giani

I would assert that idolatry is far more seductive than most of us realize. For most of us it is not about exotic statues with many arms but rather about concepts, attitudes, entitled convictions. I think a disciplined spiritual life certainly includes being on the lookout for the idolatry within ourselves on a regular basis:

Men are idolaters, and want something to look at and kiss and hug, or throw themselves down before; they always did, they always will; and if you don't make it of wood, you must make it of words . . .

-- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Friday, March 4, 2011

About not resisting our own true nature

Artist: Alexander Francis Lydon

My experience has been that many people who come to talk to me about their spiritual lives are actually trying to resist their own natures - trying to be who and what they aren't. And so the following really resonates with me:

A fish cannot drown in water, a bird does not fall in air. In the fire of creation, gold does not vanish: the fire brightens. Each creature God made must live in its own true nature; how could I resist my nature, that lives for oneness with God?

-- St. Mechthild of Magdeburg

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Where our feet take us

Some time ago, reader Deacon's Wife sent me the link to a blog post entitled "The feet of a grasshopper without a leg". It starts off this way:
One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, once wrote that "if you want to know who you are, if you are more than simply academically interested in this or that mystery, you could do a lot worse than look to your feet for the answer. ... When you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because, where your feet take you, that is who you are."
The entire post is quite touching and I recommend that you take a look.

Let's also, shall we, consider looking to our feet.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Small piercings of beauty

Artist: John William Godward

I think when I was a little girl I kind of saw the soul like the pilot light mentioned here. Somewhere along the way I think I came to favor seeing it as "all the small piercings of beauty". What about it, dear people? How do you view the soul?

Soul. The word rebounded to me, and I wondered, as I often had, what it was exactly. People talked about it all the time, but did anybody actually know? Sometimes I'd pictured it like a pilot light burning inside a person--a drop of fire from the invisible inferno people called God. Or a squashy substance, like a piece of clay or dental mold, which collected the sum of a person's experiences--a million indentations of happiness, desperation, fear, all the small piercings of beauty we've ever known.

-- Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A task to perform

I want to pay my respects here to The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes of Harvard University who died last night and whom I admired hugely.

Here's an excerpt from a sermon he delivered in 2008 as a guest preacher at Washington's National Cathedral:
Often I have said to my congregation, “If you have had problems with Easter, I can’t wait to tell you about the problems of the Ascension. People will sit around speculating as to the mechanics of it, the physics of it, and how it could be, when the real burden of the Ascension is how we now do Jesus’s work.” At Pentecost we will celebrate the empowering of the church to do that very work by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and I will not anticipate what the preachers of that day will say. I will say that we have a task to perform, we have an opportunity to perform it, and we are required to perform those tasks in the name of Jesus Christ, whose commission to us as he leaves us is to do the work his father has given him to do: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, wage peace and not war, love our enemy, take care of those who are on the margins and fringes, be salt in the world, be light in the darkness. Because we have heard it all before doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, and because we have heard it preached from this and thousands of other pulpits does not mean that it is not still good news. It means that these are our responsibilities, and that now that Jesus has left this world, all that remains of Jesus in this world is us. What an awesome responsibility, that we are meant to be the Christ-bearers in this world! We are not meant only to own his name, to pray to him, to be objects of devotion. We are meant to be Jesus in the world, not simply performing tricks or doing good works. People who have never seen Jesus Christ are to see him in us. What a responsibility! What a frightening task! What a glorious opportunity! I would say that we are meant to be Jehovah’s witnesses.

That might scare some of you, for you have encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses, I know, and you’ve had nothing to say to them. Never argue with a Jehovah’s Witness, for you can’t win. The only way to deal with them is to say, “I too am one of Jehovah’s witnesses, I too bear Christ in the world, and let me tell you about my Saviour…” What an extraordinary thing it would be if, when a Jehovah’s Witness knocked at the door of an Episcopalian the Episcopalian witnessed to the Jehovah’s Witness—the Witnesses would never come back to that house, I can assure you! Everybody would be saved by such an enterprise.
I can just imagine the howls of laughter that this suggestion surely prompted! I wish I had been there.

May he rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon him.
(Note: I was intrigued to find the 15th century miniature of the Ascension posted above. Notice that Christ is not depicted. Rather the angel is asking that marvelous question, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven?)