Category Archives: Advent

Lullaby for the Little Ones

Dear ones,
I first wrote this when my daughter was around a year old. She is now 34. I posted it here in 2012. It is a lullaby worth hearing again in these times of continuing uncertainty and suffering. May you find comfort here and deep assurance in the steadfast love of the One Who Is Greater than All.

marymotherofgod

My heart is not proud nor my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters or things too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul. As a weaned child clinging to its mother – like a child that is weaned is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 131)

The little one stood waiting. Its whole life had led up to this moment. While the One Who Is Greater than All, most gracious, almighty, mother and father, reached down and down and through and through, lifted and kissed the little one and held it tight. The little one nestled into the arms of the One Who Is Greater Than All and lay back, gazing into the dark face with starry eyes. And the two began to rock.

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Like babes, we cling to the earth’s smooth furrows with tiny fingers, as it makes its daily rounds. We feel the beat of creation’s pulse against our cheeks.

What child is this? Whose lullabies are these? Whose nursery is this – this universe of spattered fire and splashing water? Souls, spilled across the Milky Way, find their way in a manger, and sway swaddled in the earth’s sweet clothes of winter snows and summer hay.

Who rocks us here, while our eyes, transfixed by Love’s pure light, discover our image reflected in the holy face? The little one stood waiting while the One Who Is Greater Than All spoke:

Come sit with me and rock a while and I will sing you lullabies that Sarah sang to Isaac. I will tell you stories, wondrous tales of adventure, danger, miracles and love. For these songs must be sung, these stories told. Not kept on shelves like jars of pickles in a darkened cellar. No spice can preserve us, but these stories can save. In the telling is new life. In the singing is good news.

How did we come to this place, this rocking on God’s lap and listening to these stories? Go back to the beginning of the beginning, before we were intricately wrought in the depths, before the forming of our inmost parts, before we were knitted together in our mothers’ wombs to when our unformed substance was first beheld. For we were held before we were even something to behold.

We began babes in Christ, smacking, sucking infants grasping and gasping at the source of life, gulping in the Spirit’s breath like ones nearly drowning in the rushing waters of the world:

O Lord, get me through this, help me, heal me, save me, free me, show me what to do! We lift to you our many hungers and concerns – our budget, our new addition, the middle East, global warming, the economy, the droughts, the poor,  those in prison, those who mourn, the sick and lonely, the persecuted and enslaved – Lord, hear our prayer – and don’t forget the little children!

And God continued to hold us, while Mary held God’s squirming son. The nursing infant is too weak to hold onto its mother. She must lift the child and support its back. She must turn its head and draw its fingers from its mouth and place it on her breast. It knows not how to feed itself.

So we rocked with God under a cloud of violence, whose mists seeped into our lives as ghostly fears. Life, never a certain thing, seemed like a runaway kite in a storm, while we grasped frantically to its frayed and thinning string. We denied and argued and pleaded and bargained with the menacing cloud, until spent and weary with making peace with death, we learned there is no peace with death and we did not go gentle, but wore out our rage in colic screams. All this while our patient God walked us in our dark nights and bore against our stiff-legged kicking.

Then came the weaning.

The Hebrew word for wean means also to ripen and repay. Wean is not a sudden loss of sustenance, but a ripening toward greater fulfillment and profound nourishment.

O Lord my heart is not haughty, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with ambitious desire or things which are too marvelous for me.

Done with getting and spending and proving and earning.
Done with seeking and striving and the thin piercing whine of urgent need.
Done with bawling hungers and waking in the night with stomach cramping and the terror screams that know no hope nor appetite appeased.

Blossoms on Branch

Then came the weaning, the ripening.

An early evening rain splashed gently on the apple blossoms, sending white petals sifting to the glistening grass. We heard the wet whistle of the cardinal and watched a robin listen, head tilted, for the rumble of earth worms. We saw the drops slide down the glass. “The window crying,” you said. It was dusk, the color of plums. Teddy slipped from your lap. You gazed into my eyes and smiled. And before I offered you to suck, you fell asleep. And thus you ripened. And so we rocked all night, past striving, past approval seeking, past demon whispers of ambition. And in the morning you bit into the Spirit’s fruit.

The weaned child has attained strength and muscular control. It climbs onto its mother’s lap without help. It pats her face and nuzzles its head against her shoulder. It delights simply in the mother’s presence.

Like a weaned child on its mother’s breast is my soul.

No longer consumed with consuming,
no longer gulping and choking on life,
but content
content to rest in God.

An awareness – childlike, simple, accepting –
came to the psalmist who sings to us today,
an awareness that came to Job,
when God spoke to him out of the whirlwind:
there are some things too wonderful, too marvelous for us

that mere knowing will not save us, that understanding will not end suffering, that strategies and master plans and mission statements cannot ease our pain, that psychological acumen, administrative expertise, and a panorama of pretty programs with flashy learning centers and lesson books printed in three colors will not root out the evil in our hearts

that dedicated scholarship, facile exegesis, brilliant preaching, flashing memes, a new economy, and all that we may do and strive to produce will not ease our pain.

The way is in the manger.
Come, lift the child and hold it close to your heart as Mary did.
Hush. Speak softly. Walk on tiptoe.

Tree in the Winter Mist

What is needed is persons with quiet souls who cling to Holiness as the trees cling to the earth.

What is needed is persons with humble hearts who will mother the Christ within them, who will speak gently to all they meet for they know that each of us carries Mary’s sleeping boy.

Our work is of such utter simplicity and ordinariness that we shrink from it. Surely there must be more – than to be a friend, to share another’s burden, and to be in love with Grace.

We rush about anxious, agitated, and oh so busy. Our plans and prayers are ill-conceived and sloppy. Our eyes are raised too high. We are occupied with ambitious desires. We presume to be absorbed in things too marvelous for us.

Climb on God’s lap and rest. And a multitude of persons will find God’s rest near you.

Fall deeply in love with the Christ child, care for it ever so tenderly, and your simple presence will nurture the Christ child in others.

At that time they came to him and said: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus took up a little child and placed it on his lap and said: “Unless you  turn and become like this little child, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The little ones snuggle closer:
the humble singer of the psalm, you and I, and Eve and Moses and Sarah and Peter and Martha and that littlest one of all with the holes in his hands and feet.

The curve of time turns in on itself, bends back and threatens to disintegrate. Apocalyptic whispers and end time sonnets play in bars and senate chambers. Death watches on the TV news announce more violence, more battles, more destruction.

“We like the old songs best,” the people tell the pastor. “I sang ‘Whispering Hope’ at my mother’s funeral,” the gentle man tells her on his way out. “Thank you for letting us sing it again.”

Hope
a whisper so soft,  we must be stilled and quieted to hear it

Hope
a whisper so soft, we must be clinging close to hear it

Hope
soft as the voice of an angel breathing a lesson unheard.

Like a child that is weaned is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

marymotherofgod

May your year ahead be blessed with holy rest and whispers of hope, gentle delights and profound joy.  May you gather the strength and courage for whatever you face, secure in the knowledge of a love that will not let you go.

                                                                                                    Loretta F. Ross

Whispering Hope, hymn by Alice Hawthorne, copyright 1924 by the Standard Publishing Company

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Sighs Too Deep – Bruised Reed

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.
                                                                               Romans 8:26

bruised reed

i am so little

grasping this white rag
yearning on tip toe
waving down grace

so threadbare
this prayer
wind blowing through
a bruised reed

hear our cry

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A bruised reed he will not break,
a smoldering wick,he will not quench.
In faithfulness He will bring forth justice. Isaiah 42:3

maryjesushands

Please do not trample the tenderness
lying in the crib of the world.

Holiness did not abhor the Virgin’s womb,
nor should we.

Sighs Too Deep – On mute

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.
                                                                               Romans 8:26

You have to get past the miraculous son of Zechariah to get inside. The tall, gaunt figure looks down on you from his hollow eyes as you enter  St. John’s Abbey Church. Lean, muscular, and Spirit-haunted, the Baptizer brandishes a cross and is scary as all get out. He gestures with a gnarled hand toward the Baptismal Font.

John Baptist 4

If you think you are coming in here, wash up first. Repent!
Go under the flood. Die before die.

The old priest, John’s father, did not believe the angel who showed up when Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies to burn the incense. The lot had fallen to him to step into the place so sacred that one might easily be consumed by the Furnace of Love. Gabriel’s wings fanned the smoke. His voice penetrated the old man’s mind, that rickety cupboard, where he kept jars of truth, possibility, impossibility,  reason, and a near empty cruse of hope.

“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

His barren, wizened, Elizabeth have a child? The priest quibbled, doubted, split hairs, as those trained  as religious professionals often do.

So Gabriel tied his tongue to the floor of his mouth and sewed his lips shut. This fellow could not be trusted with the truth of God. Hard to say how he might mess up the whole plan of salvation.

Messengers from God often do this to the people they visit. They press the mute button and enforce silence for a while.

Six months after Elizabeth conceives, Gabriel makes an announcement even more incredible to Mary. She asks one question, then tells Gabriel okay, whatever you say. I am God’s servant. Pondering the angel’s words, she holds her tongue, and departs to speak with her old cousin, Elizabeth. Joseph is left to get the news on his own through a dream.  Mary remains with her cousin for three months in the hill country of Judah.

Advent invites us to withdraw and close the door on distractions and doubts. Will you allow yourself to be bound by silence? This ability to tie up all the strife, hunger, gossip, and turbulence, and keep one’s mouth shut is required of servants of God. One needs to allow ideas, projects, and seeds of new growth incubate and ripen. Talk may dissipate the necessary accumulation of energy and unconscious incubation to bring actions to maturity and achieve God’s fullest purpose and intent for our lives and work.

One must be discerning about to whom and when to speak of the visions we see, the words we hear, and what grows within us in order to protect both ourselves and the promise within us from exposure to threats to its development.

Do you have a bright idea or a promise developing with you?
Don’t  prematurely tweet your transformation.

There will be plenty of time to raise a ruckus after the truth gets out, as old Zechariah soon found, when the Holy Spirit opened his mouth and he burst into song for his son:

… and you, child, will be called the prophet
of the Most High;
for you go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
through the tender mercy of our God,
when the day shall dawn upon us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet in the way of peace. Luke 1: 67-79

John Baptist 5

 

 

 

The most beautiful thing a person can say about God would be for that person to remain silent from the wisdom of an inner wealth. So, be silent and quit flapping your gums about God.

– Meister Eckhart (1260-1329) translation by Matthew Fox.

 

Sighs Too Deep – Like a Cat

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.

                                                                                                         Romans 8:26

Like a cat

on soft pawsSeal on lap
you come
turning
settling.
The weight
of you
silences me.
Words scatter
fall apart
crumbling leaves
at my feet.

The refrigerator hums.
We breathe.

 

I find I am increasingly drawn into silence in response to the latest outrage, injustice, violence, or suffering, which lifts its terror, anger, and sorrow for a day or two, until it is drowned out by other cries, other horrors.

This silence, like a cat, is neither retreat, nor numbness. It is not denial, nor shrinking fear. Rather, it is a persistent and irresistible summons.

The silence owns me, abides in me, and will have its way with me. So I consent. I stop trying to be efficient and productive. I stop trying to understand, to explain, or defend.

I surrender.
I hold silence.

 

Perhaps you will find yourself similarly drawn and join me in holding silence in this season of waiting and hope. Some of us need to do this. That kitten is just waiting for you to sit down.

The Father spoke one Word,
which was his Son,christ-icon-mt-athos
and this Word
he speaks
always in eternal silence,
and in silence
must it be heard
by the soul.

–  St. John of the Cross

Mary Full of Grace

annunciationlily

Hail Mary full of grace,
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.
Amen

As I made my way through congested traffic to finish up my shopping, this prayer started up, unbidden, inside of me. The Hail Mary or Ave Maria is one of the prayers and scriptures on my inner playlist.  In odd moments I become conscious of it. For a moment I am lifted out of my self- preoccupation to discover myself occupied by the Spirit praying within.

I have always loved this prayer. The first two lines are the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary as found in Luke 1: 28-30. I recall memorizing it, as I walked along the sidewalk of the campus at the University of Northern Iowa in 1966.

This entreaty to Mary as Mother of God is for some Protestants a “Catholic accretion” and considered unbiblical and theologically unsound. Some will say that we do not need Mary’s intercession, when we can go directly to God on our own. Such views ignore the power and influence of mothers throughout the Bible, as well as their privileged status before God as persons of God’s particular compassion and love.

The scriptures contain numerous images of God as feminine. The Hebrew word for Holy Spirit in Genesis is a feminine noun. My Hebrew teacher liked to translate Genesis 1: 1 in this way:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void, and as for the Spirit of God, she was moving over the waters.

Of course, God is much more than what we may consider as feminine or masculine attributes. God is beyond gender. Yet Christians believe that two thousand years ago God came into our midst for a time dressed as one of us with gender. God condescended to enter into our cultural biases, racism, sexism, bigotry, and sin to bring truth and freedom and radically change the world. If the form God chose had been a woman’s, would the outcome have been the same? Given the culture then I doubt if a woman would have ever received the same attention or regard. Instead God chooses a woman to enable God to become one of us.

No matter how hard some scholars may have tried to stamp them out, the feminine dimensions of divinity in whose image both men and women have been created make their way into our consciousness in one form or another and seek expression in our faith and worship.

Personally, I like the notion of God having and/or being a mom, a generating source. I know it makes no sense for some, but  the image of God as a fecund nurturing womb, engaged in creative, life-bearing activity, a Spirit “brooding” over the waters like a hen expands and heals  my soul. Acknowledging the feminine in God is an important balance to patriarchal images and wholly masculine notions of Holiness, which leave many women feeling excluded, and have been used as a rationale for the disregard and abuse of women for centuries.

469px-Wga_Pompeo_Batoni_Madonna_and_Child

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace?  ~Meister Eckhart

I learned the Hail Mary prayer in college, when I converted to Catholicism. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was looking for feminine imagery and feminine gifts in the expression of my faith, which were largely absent from the rational Presbyterian worship of my childhood. I was Catholic most of my young adult life and found there opportunities to worship with more than my mind and my voice. Incense, kneeling, bowing, colorful statues, many of which were women, saints, guardian angels, rosaries, a veil perched on my head, a small prayer book to carry –  all allowed the imagination and passion of my yearning heart to find expression. I am very grateful for the gifts of the Catholic church.

Yes, my Anabaptist and Quaker ancestors were probably turning over in their graves. Yes, it was patriarchic. The singing wasn’t the best and Biblical study nonexistent, but I arrived with plenty of that preparation. To find a woman, no matter how sentimental and passive she may have been depicted, prominently figuring in worship allowed me to feel that this was a place, where I belonged.

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So out shopping, I pondered Mary being full of grace. What does it mean to contain nothing, but grace in one’s being? The people I encountered seemed full of many things instead of grace – anxiety, impatience, and weariness. There were some exceptions, like the insurance salesman who works on weekends at Orscheln’s, paying off medical bills and some credit card debt. He had a lot of grace inside himself. Some of it spilled out on the receipt he handed to me, and I have carried it in my purse all week.

Mary is full of grace, because her womb is full of Christ, who offers grace to all. Parking in front of Best Buy, I decided to take a look at what in me might be crowding out the grace of God.

Here is what I found:

  • That deep wound I get out sometimes and pick at
  • The steady current of mindless, slightly hysterical, anxiety which makes me critical, paranoid, and assume things about people which are not true
  • The nagging expectation of catastrophe that hides under perfectionism
  • A to-do list telling me I am way behind, lazy, and going to be counted tardy
  • Insecurity and self-doubt preaching that I am getting too old and that my writing sucks

What in you is not graceful, kind, forgiving, loving? How do you delete these freeloaders from your inner playlist?

Not by being mean and harsh.  I think we need to handle the negatives in ourselves gently with kindness, mercy and forgiveness. Love the little boogers. Say, “Hello, To-Do list! Come here. It looks like you need a hug.”

Here’s the secret. It takes grace to be full of grace. The way to make room for grace in our lives is by being graceful to ourselves first. Then grace naturally flows from us to others. To forgive others we must forgive ourselves.

What would it be like for you to be full of grace – stuffed to the gills with mercy and forgiveness?  Why not try it? Pretend! Imagine you are full of grace.  We  cannot achieve what we cannot concieve. So conceive grace, see yourself full of grace. Got it pictured? Feel it in your body? Let it it soak up and soothe all the ungraceful parts of yourself.

Next perform some task , errand, or if you are really brave, spend a whole day committed to being full of grace. See what happens. What do you notice and learn about yourself and grace?

So little grace is present in our national discussions and relationships with one another. We hold grudges, harbor resentments, and take a perverse delight in the missteps, failures, and sins of one another.

In an NPR interview Rabbi Shaul Praver, who spoke at the anniversary observance of the school shootings at Sandy HookElementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, offered these words:

We have found the cure for the social disease of violence, hatred, and bigotry, and that cure is good old-fashioned loving kindness. When everyone practices that, it does change the atmosphere of a room, of a town, or a community, of a state and a country. And so, it is not of only local value, but it is of universal value.   Newtown Rabbi Offers A Cure For Hatred : NPR

Grace – unmerited, undeserved, unearned. The hope, the first budding of such loving kindness is growing in Mary’s womb.

 Holy Mary, Mother of God, may it be so for all us sinners. Amen.

marymotherofgod

 Learn more about the Hail Mary prayer

Dear Praying Life readers,

Thank you so much for your support. Your donations and subscriptions to Holy Ground – Quarterly Reflection on the Contemplative Life help make this blog possible. Please consider subscribing to Holy Ground and making a donation today here.

May your Christmas be full of grace, as my heart is full of gratitude for each of you!

Holding you in the womb of God’s love,

                                         Loretta F. Ross

Word – Eventide Psalm of Longing Love

The Father spoke one word, which was his Son,
and this word he speaks always in eternal silence.
 St. John of the Cross.

Sundown

At the woods’ edge I wait for you
to come heal the violence in me.

I look and look at the trees,
scrawled limbs
framing the plum stained sky.

I look and look at the fawn in the clearing,
the cedar with blue berries,
the red sun sliding under the horizon.
I look and look at the dark
creeping over the countryside.

At vespers you
peer in windows,
meow at the door,
home into my heart.
I cannot get enough
of you 
filling my senses
with sweet awareness. 

You, the Word
in whom our wordiness dissolves,*
silence us.

As leaves loosen and float to the earth,
we tumble over, lay our bodies upon the path.
You come, finger over your lips – Hush, be still –
to take back territories in our souls,
lands occupied by greed, fear, envy.

It is 5:28 pm, and I am weary of words,
the fury of opinions, righteous indignation,
and ideas clanking in the mind like heavy coins.

The vain prattle cannot muffle the murmur
of Herods plotting to kill innocents,
nor the hiss of evil waiting under every rock.

Yet I do believe that all we say and do
counts as nothing next to you,
inexorable Word,
bearing down
into us from on high.

His father opened his mouth
spoke mercy
out came Jesus.
Jeshua. Hush! 

His mother squatted over cold stones,
pushed, out came an infant
wailing, wrinkled.
Hush!

The child gazes into our faces.
A hand reaches toward us.
You – absorb our isolation,
sponge up our misery –
a soft warm cheek
to hold against the dark.

image

*The phrase, Word, in whom our wordiness dissolves, appears in the poem, Without Ceremony by Vassar Miller.

Black Friday Still Life

teaandtoastMy 96 year old mother
dozes in her chair
toast half eaten on the tray.

Frost last night,
morning sun streams
through icy windows.
Refrigerator hums.

Outside gnarly cedar
silvered bark
thick trunk
when did it get so big?
spreads shelter
like a heavy old quilt.

The dog stirs, turns on his side,
inhales deeply, exhales long and slow.

Memories –
laughter, faces,
snatches of conversation,
four dogs romping in the backyard,
mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie –
twinkle, ignite, and go out
on the mind’s firmament.

Only twenty eight days  ‘til Christmas.
No rush here. No need to shop.

In the house on Madison Street,
whatever it was we thought we needed, or must do
has given way to being,
to watching leaf shadows dance on the  brown grass
and peering long into the deep blue sky.

 This is a revised version of a blog previously posted in 2009.

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Keep your eye out for holiday Still Life works of art 

My mother, who died in 2012 was raised as a Quaker on a farm near Salem, Iowa. Here are a few words from Thomas Kelly,  American Quaker mystic, to put on your refrigerator door to help you not miss the tender, mild moments of grace unfolding right before your eyes. 

This amazing simplification comes when we center down, when life is lived with singleness of eye, from a holy center, where breath and stillness of Eternity are heavy upon us and we are wholly yielded to Him. 

Some of you know this holy, recreating center of eternal peace and joy and now live in it day and night. Some of you may see it over the margin and wistfully long to slip into that amazing center where the soul is a home with God. Be very faithful to that wistful longing.  It is the Eternal Goodness calling you to return home, to feed upon green pastures and walk beside still waters and live in the peace of the Shepherd’s presence.  It is the life beyond fevered strain.

We are called beyond strain to peace and power and joy and love through abandonment of self.  Thomas Kelly,  A Testament of Devotion

Please share your “Still Life”  in the comments  here, or with your  photos on The Sanctuary Facebook Page . Let’s gather a whole gallery of “the amazing simplification where the breath and stillness of Eternity are heavy upon us.”
Tender peace and love to you in the season of gratitude. 
                                                                                                Loretta