Category Archives: The praying life

Advent Manna 2: On Mute

Advent Manna – Short Takes on the Themes of Advent

Being Silent

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.

 

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 in Collegeville, Mn. 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 you 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 within 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 way
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: 67-7

John Baptist 5

 

 

 

___________________________________

Advent Manna are short pieces taken from my writing over the years on the themes of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. This essay about Zechariah and John the Baptist was previously posted in 2015.

It has been a while since I have written here. I have been busy moving from Kansas, where I have lived for 37 years to Iowa City, Iowa. It has been a time of challenge and transformation for me. I will continue to  do the Sanctuary ministry from my new location. I  am offering spiritual guidance, teaching, leading retreats, and will continue to publish Holy Ground – Quarterly Reflection on the Contemplative Life. See the summer issue below.

Summer 2018 Holy Ground x

Subscribe to Holy Ground here. And it it makes a great Christmas gift for a friend!

 

Feast

don’t wander down the dim halls of memory
lost in a musty maze of dead
ends

don’t launch out into the future
on the treacherous sea of pulp
fiction

trust this pulsing moment
tawdry, tattered, or bright
let things come to you

in the marriage
of your yes
and the outstretched hand of now

sit down at the feast
of what is so
savor swallow

eat it all

steaming-bowl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

it is in the being of the days a thing makes sense
the clear, confusing, giddy, dull, and tearful passing of the time

 

 

For Heaven’s Sake, Calm Down. Topeka Gives

TCF Topeka Gives logo final

” Hey! Calm down, for heaven’s sake,”
                       say Jean Luc and Elijah.

Here we are. Send us!

We are just a couple of wild and crazy guys, who want you to . . . 

  • Stop by The Sanctuary Foundation’s table at Topeka Gives on Tuesday, June 7, 2016,7:00-6:00, Fairlawn Mall, Topeka, Ks.
  • Get your free stress square and measure how calm you are 
    from “slightly stressed to screaming ninnie.”
  • Find other tools to relax and nurture inner peace.
Elijah, the Lab, Holding a Place for You

Elijah practicing meditation.

The Sanctuary is an interfaith center for spiritual nurture, which helps people find deeper awareness of God, self and others. Please join us in expanding our work for inner peace.   Your gift of $25 or more at Topeka Gives will be percentaged matched by a generous donation from the Topeka Community Foundation.

Do you see unmet needs in our community? Are you are weary of political stalemates, name calling, stalling, and denial? Do newspaper headlines make you angry?

Come down to the Fairlawn Mall ( 21st Street and Fairlawn) and discover grass roots, homegrown hope, hard work, love, wisdom, and imagination in action.

Look for our table with the blue and gold balloons. Stop by and say Hello! Get free stuff and a hug.

While you are there –

  1. Pick your favorite organizations – Please include the Sanctuary!
  2. Make a donation of $25 or more to each organization. Then watch your gifts GROW through the $73,500 matching fund given by the Topeka Community Foundation.

I can’t wait to see you and tell you about how your dollars make a difference to some of your neighbors. Please give us your support this year. There are many people who need safe spaces to explore their souls and nourish their spirits.

REMEMBER that to participate in the Topeka Community Fund match you must bring your gift in person to the Topeka Fairlawn Mall on Tuesday June 7, any time between 7:00 am and 6:00 pm.

Elijah 3 months 2

If you would like to support The Sanctuary and can’t come to Fairlawn Mall in Topeka on June 7. You can donate online here. Your gift will not be matched by the Topeka Community Foundation in this case, but even small gifts can do amazing things!

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

Don’t Hit Back

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks

Update, Latest Issue of Holy Ground, 1984, and Other Matters

 

“I am thinking of the guy out on Croco Road sitting in his cold house with his gun across his lap, waiting for the furnace repair truck to drive up. I am thinking about the woman who walks into the Quick Shop and shoots the clerk to get fifty dollars.”

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.
If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.
Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do.
“I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”   
Romans 12: 17

Read more about the guy with the gun and refrigerator violence here:
Holy Ground Summer 2015

What’s up at The Sanctuary  …. 

Shopping my new book, What Is Deep as Love Is Deep, to publishers and agents. If you have literary connections, let me know. (It is so good! You are going to love it.)

Welcoming several new Spiritual Direction clients this  fall. If you would like to work with me,  I use a sliding scale for fees and first exploratory 30 minute session is free. I work on phone, Skype, and in person. 785-354-7122, email lross@fromholyground.org

Took a Poetic Memoir class at Washburn University in early summer. I loved it and my teacher, Dennis Etzel, who encouraged, praised, and pointed me beyond old limits toward fascinating new territory.  I look forward to sharing some of my manuscript with you in the future.

In the meantime you, you will find Dennis Etzel latest book of poetry, hot off the press here.  Dennis Etzelbook

And Dennis says: “By the way, if anyone sends me the receipt showing she or he ordered through SPD, I will mail a special 1984 thank-you package to her or him out of my deepest appreciation.”  How about that? You get treats!! Send those receipts to Dennis here: dennis.etzel@washburn.edu

Listening to the most amazing and beautiful people who share their journeys and their souls with me.

Daily – holding you and this tormented, brilliant world to the Light as best I can.

Cedar berries and light

Thank you so for much for your prayer support, subscription renewals, and donations! You allow Holy Ground to happen in so many ways.

Special Notice: Wichita, KS area readers check out this opportunity for spiritual deepening in your own back yard.

Our time cries out for people of wisdom, depth, and vigorous faith.  Experienced and trusted spiritual guide, Carol Mullikin, is offering a great opportunity to help you sink your roots deeper into living water.

Check out the flyer here- Companions on the Way – A Way of Prayer for Every Day

Justice and the Buoyant

rushing water

A River Named Justice

thunders down canyons
pounds cliffs
crashes rock
collapses sham
shatters monuments
scatters compassion
seeps past storm doors
up dusty floor vents
splashes into bath water
cradles the buoyant
in mercy’s
harboring
stream

As I listened to the debate, it was clear that each side held deeply sincere beliefs. The speakers were from the same country and spoke the same language. But a great chasm yawned between their contrasting understandings.

I saw how a word and its meaning had taken root in the soil of each person’s life. A myriad of associations, memories, and feelings of comfort and assurance were attached to those words like a vast network of tough vines woven together. How dense and impenetrable is the garment, which clothes the assembly of still lines and curves we call letters.

“So sad,” my friend texted with her nimble fingers. “So sad,” said my other friend, as I hugged her when it was over.

When will the reality of our person-hood,
whole and holy, a trembling blossom,
carry more worth
than the brittle ideologies pacing stiffly
up and down mind’s dusty corridors?

God, make me buoyant.

_____________________

Holy Ground issue
New Issue of Holy Ground !

Put Down Your Weapons

I felt diminished, hurt and defensive. His voice grew in intensity,
as he argued to prove his point.

The latest issue of Holy Ground takes a look at  how we respond to those we disagree with. In a world of adversaries, enemies, and extreme views is there any way we can see each other as persons? How does our prayer enter into the deep divides and extreme polarities of our day?

READ IT:  Holy Ground Vol 25, No 4 Winter 2015

______________________________________

Contemplative prayer
with Fr. William Meninger

Fr Meninger2

REtreat

9:00 – 3:00
Saturday, June 13, 2015
$25.00 registration includes box lunch

Christ the King Catholic Church
Topeka, Kansas

Learn More Here
Register at Eventbrite Here

Made of Yearning and Rumors of God

In the past year I have lived deeply into two books. I returned over and over to taste and savor their wisdom, as though I were sucking on a bone, which had simmered all day long in a crock pot.

In my writers’ group, The Topeka Writer’s Workshop, I marvel at the swiftness of the group’s feedback, their pithy responses, useful suggestions, and on point critique.   My cohorts are all “real poets” in my mind and more knowledgeable about literature and the craft of writing than I am. At our workshops, they leave me in the dust, reading and rereading the rich words on the page.

I am  still at the third line rolling the author’s word choice or images in my mind, chewing at the wonder, and licking the juice off my fingers, when they are ready to move on to another poem or story. I feel the same way at public readings. As the audience softly murmurs admiration and claps politely, I want to holler and whoop, rise to my feet, pump the air and shout: “Wait a minute here! Please stop and let us all think about what you just read! This is magnificent.” And then turn about in a little dance.

Thus, you may understand how taking a year to read one or two book s of poetry suits me well. When I am not dawdling with poems, I devour mysteries, fiction, and spiritual/theological nonfiction. To be honest I am getting my fill of the spiritual/theological/what-should-we-do- about- the-church nonfiction, and plan to branch out into zombies and urban fantasy this year.

Here is one of the books of poetry I lived with last year: Mark S. Burrows’ translation of Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet . I will share the other book with you in a later post.

orthodox monk

As the seasons of last year passed,  I looked over the shoulder of a young monk composing his prayers to the  Dark Mystery who courted him in his small cell. I watched his struggle for words to name the Unnameable, and for color and line to write an icon that might lift a corner of the curtain that covered his shy Beloved.

I followed the poet/monk into the forest and onto the ever expanding heath, as he entered into the secret intimacy of the One who would not let him go. I sat up with him late at night and tasted that ache of loneliness that borders solitude and finally becomes the gate which springs wide open onto union. The key to the gate is losing that pesky self, which seeks always to assert its primacy to grasp and to possess. I watched the monk’s continual surrender to and reverence for the holy beauty of his own weakness and deep need, where, wonder of wonders, the vast and luminous Dark Mystery makes its home.

It is true that half of what Rilke writes I do not understand, but neither do I understand God. Burrows beautiful translation of Rilke’s poems opened me to the passion and nakedness of soul of the young monk, which Rilke creates for us. The monk, smitten with what he cannot fully contain in his prayers, or comprehend, enlarged my appreciation of the ultimate hidden poverty  of God in the human soul.  I am more comfortable now with my own inscrutable self. And  I am more trusting of the exquisite beauty and uniqueness of God’s presence in the lives of those I counsel.

Here are some lines from the poems in this book I take with me into the new year:

But through it all rumors of God wander
in your dark blood as if along dark alleys.       p.73

Carry that that line around in your pocket for a week or two. Or  write the ones below on a scrap of paper and tuck it under your pillow:

He teaches you to say:
You my deeper sense
trust that I won’t disappoint You;
there’s so much clamoring in my blood –
but I know I am made of yearning.       p 74

And this from the young monk’s letter to his superior:

I live a pious life. I don’t call upon any court,
and my prayer with which I sometimes exalt myself and which I sometimes speak and sometimes live
is: “Make me simple
that I might become ever more whole in You.”  p. 101

In this new year may you be met by the the Mystery of Love in the alleys of your own dark blood.

We all are made of yearning
and the Yearning Itself is Holiness
aching for wholeness in us all.

   Oh, Great One, make me simple, make me little, make me small!                 

                                                                                                                          Loretta +

carthusian nus

 

For any who would like to read the latest issue of Holy Ground, here it is :Autumn 2014 – Let Go and Keep at It  It is about the ongoing task of the spiritual life: surrender. What do you need to let go of and leave behind in the new year?

Your gifts to the Sanctuary Fund and subscriptions to Holy Ground keep us going and are deeply appreciated. Thank you!

Singing Holy Songs in Strange Lands

  541696_by-the-waters-of-babylon

By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?    Psalm 137

O God of Seeing, after we have swallowed the knowledge of good and evil and our eyes are opened, how can we sing your song? When the scales have dropped away, when the clay has been washed off, when we put on the soft garments of grace you made for us, we stumble dazzled by the light, hearts aching for home.

Wayfaring strangers, exiles, we wander here in these soft skins yearning for a better country. We had bit down and tasted, chewed and swallowed that fruit. Our eyes were opened and we had seen. We had witnessed something that we could not speak of, yet must tell. We really weren’t absolutely sure what it was we had seen, but we thought most of the time that it was God. It is true we asked for it, prayed for it – to see God and live, that is. Perhaps it would have been better to have died. Perhaps there are very good reasons why persons who see God rarely live to tell the tale.  For now how could we sing a song in this strange land – this earth where gravity weighed hearts to the soil; and mind lay flattened between the pages of time?

What happens if you do not sing? What happens if your eyes are blinded by the light, and it all unfolds before you? What happens if you know the Lord’s song by heart yet do not sing it? Does it rankle in your soul, turn sour, spoil and grow soft mossy mold? Does it take on a parasitic life of its own, feeding on your body, stealing your joy, eating up your hope?

______________________________________

 Diana, 32 years ago when you were born, they brought you with swollen eyelids, wrapped tight in the swaddling cloths for the first feeding.  When I put your mouth to me, you shuddered. For two days you shuddered as I held you, as one exposed to a chill or some horror. “Lambie pie,” I called you then.

It is too much for us. It is all too much for us. To have eaten what we have eaten. To have seen what we have seen. To know what we know. One day I prayed for hours and could only pray: “Yes, Yes, Yes. Yes there is light. Yes there is hope. Yes there is love.” Even though I felt none of it.

How do you sing a sacred song in a strange land? Maybe you just sing it. Maybe you don’t attempt to be understood. Maybe you just sing what is so, because it is so. For the song’s sake, for the singing’s sake. Could I sing for the song’s sake – for your sake, my sweet Lamb of God? Could I sing you a lullaby as you lie cradled next to my heart shuddering in your mortality?

Once, Diana, you brought me a gift. “This is a prayer stick, mom. I made it for you.” It was a large stick with flowers woven round the top. Could I let the stick pray for me? For I do not know how to pray aright. I lean the stick against the old trunk. “Pray stick,” I say. “Pray now.” I go off to other things, while the stick holds the offering pointing toward heaven. Dare I trust creation to pray for me, to bear my prayer? Here stone, pray. Here river, pray. Here moon, pray. Just by being what you are, a maple branch salvaged from last fall’s ice storm, wrapped round with pink petals, transformed by the touch of a child’s hand into something sacred.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? That is the question. For our hearts are heavy, and we, captive by this mortal flesh sit down and weep.

 

I believe that
always
in the face of Noes
the Song must begin with Yes

yes
body
like
a tube
a culvert
carrying
the
earth’s
refuse
twigs
garbage
whines
knotted, clotted, congealed evil, wads of anguish, passing
through the yes into eternity, cleansed and free. The yes
like a filter, a rinse of spray. You can look at the sin or you
can look at God. If you look too long at the evil, you will
freeze
mesmerized
by it.
So head
on into
perfect
and
funnel
the defiled
to
the undefiled
by virtue
of
your
yes.

Not my will but thine.

 

Link to Sweet Honey By the Waters of Babylon

This post is excerpted from a chapter in my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are. Some of these phrases and images have been returning to me lately. As a culture, as a global society, as families, and as individuals we may find ourselves in various contexts of alienation, estrangement, or even captivity. This sense of dislocation and disorientation may be experienced both externally and internally.

Reflection Questions

Are there ways you feel like a stranger in a strange land, taken to a place you did not wish to go?
How do you express your grief?
How do you sing a holy song in alien places and times?
How do you consecrate and make holy the strange lands in the heart and in our world?
Of what does your song consist?

Together we plow the light.
So much love in my heart for all of you.
loretta

Irony and Bliss

 

TrinityIcon

On Trinity Sunday I arrived early at First Congregational Church, a block from where I live, and settled into my pew to contemplate the glory of the Holy Trinity. Yes, I know, who does such a thing? But the Trinity is something I can actually get carried away by. Before I left for church I read the beautiful prayer to the Trinity by Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. Her prayer begins with these words,  O my God, Trinity whom I adore; help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in You as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity.(You can find her prayer below. Be careful, if you read it, though. It is pretty hot stuff for Protestant non mystical types.)

First Congregational United Church of Christ is a denomination, whose Reformed roots I share, and I feel gratitude for.  United Church of Christ folks hired me,  a young Presbyterian minister, fresh out of seminary, and pregnant to boot, to be interim pastor of one of their churches here in Topeka, Seaman Congregational Church. That baby she was carrying, whose footprint you can still see in the sidewalk behind the church, turned 32 last month.

Sheep

As my imagination was roaming around the abyss of God’s greatness with Elizabeth, the good Rev.Tobais Schlingensiepen was moving about the sanctuary checking on his sheep as they arrived.  He passed along the rows in his robe, sleeves billowing, shaking hands, and patting shoulders like a benediction. No skinny jeans and sport coat for this pastor. Nor was he busy checking his twitter feed.  He spoke to the sheep by name, asked questions, looked for nettles, matted coats, signs of infection, injury, illness.  Had any wolves slipped into the fold over night? Were the pregnant ewes eating well? The lambs coming along okay? He checked the weather and the flock’s energy. What do they need from him today? Is what he has planned on track with what he is seeing this morning?

Arriving at my row, he reached to shake my hand. “Hi, how are you today?”

I responded with something like, “Splendid, just fabulous,” all smiles. (Because I really was in that high dazed state of the fullness of love for God that comes upon me sometimes.)

He smiled, looked in my eyes. And asked again, “How are you…,” leaning in a bit more, waiting. He knows how sheep lie.

“I am great!” a little embarrassed by my own high spirits. “Sometimes I feel people shouldn’t be this blessed.”

“I just wanted to be sure you were not being ironic. People use irony so much.”

Let’s take a moment to let this sink in. Is this the world, the church, we find ourselves in? A place where bliss and ecstasy are so rare that they may be mistaken for irony?  Or has irony, that sarcastic twist of reality into its opposite, created a world of smoke and mirrors, where what one says rarely matches with what one means?

Without irony the psalmist shouts, “I was glad when they said, ‘Let us go into the House of the Holy One!’ I among many others have carried a  heavy heart with little or no joy into the house of the Lord on some occasions. And on those days I also know how very much it matters that someone notices, shows concern, and checks for any irony in my voice.

Yet are really happy sheep, saturated with love and joy, rare? I do not think so.

“The kingdom of heaven will come when men and women are willing to be penetrated by bliss.”

Years ago in a very unhappy season of my life I read these words by poet and potter, M.C. Richards.   Richards’ words opened my eyes to my own freedom and responsibility for the joy in my life. I knew deep down that her words were true, absolutely, and I have been wriggling my way into such a reality ever since. I believe that joy awaits us and is ours by virtue of our willingness to open the door, receive it, and to offer that willingness on the altar of the messes in our lives and this world.

Meninger mic

The Sunday before I went to First Congregational Church, I was on retreat listening to Father William Meninger, a Trappist Monk, and one of the leading voices in the conversation on Christian contemplative prayer. We had gathered at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. Meninger is now 81, and an unfettered, jubilant soul, if I ever saw one.

He began the retreat and introduced himself with the Buddhist saying, The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. Meninger said the way (method, creed, practices, and means of revelation) to God is not God. The way (your way, my way, the Presbyterian way, the bumblebee’s way) is a finger pointing beyond itself toward ultimate Truth.

Meninger might have been channeling the German theologian, Karl Barth, who said that the Bible is a whole gathering of people pointing up at the sky. The Bible is not God; it points us in the direction of God. The particular mode through which God reveals divinity is less than the reality to which it gestures toward. For God is always beyond any particular description, form or conception of God, which we can reduce, carry around in our minds, and try to shove down somebody’s throat as The Way.

Speaking of contemplative practice in the church Menninger addressed the group of 140 lay people, nuns, pastors, and priests from a wide variety of Christian faith traditions, including Assembly of God and Evangelicals. The group included one or two young people under thirty. Meninger is quite clear that contemplative practice arrives for most people in the second half of life and did not gnash his teeth over the lack of young people in attendance at the retreat. “They are not ready yet. They have other things to do first.”

But he refuses to let us off the hook when he says, “Our churches today take their people to the door, but we hold them back. We don’t lead them into the silences.”

At First Congregational we had some silent time.  The worship leader took us to the door and gave us some time to check it out. The bulletin said:  Silence (30 seconds). I would have liked 30 minutes, but I figured that was all that the sheep here could tolerate; and that it helped them to see a time limit in print; and that, further, this silence thing was not going to go on and on and leave them sitting there stewing in their own juices forever.

I think Meninger is right. We do take people right up to the door to the deeper mystery and beauty of God, but we stop short. I see this often. Why is that? I wonder – failure of nerve and lack of faith, or maybe because some pastors do not spend much time on the other side of the door – simply surrendered to Christ in love, being in union with all there is – and want to get through the next point of the sermon and the sheep home before noon.

Old Woman Praying (Prayer without End) Nicholas Maes

Our problem is not that the sheep have never crossed over to the silences. You know how sheep are. They will poke their noses anywhere. They know and have experienced union with God, that shimmering silence and peace which rises up in their hearts, but they will call it something else. Day dreaming, sitting on the deck, holding their grandchildren, looking at a sunset… We all have moments where words fail, time stops, and a moment brims over with beauty and joy.

What the church may fail to do is give us time, space, and permission to savor, taste, swallow, and deeply enjoy these moments and value them as holy. Instead we get anxious, feel we are wasting time, need to stick with the agenda, or are being lazy. We worship the relentless, mean, crushing, 24/7 gods of consumerism and production instead of the endlessly abundant, overflowing goodness of the Trinity. As neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson writes, we have a serious problem in our brains and in our culture with our ability to take in, soak in, and absorb the good in this world which is constantly pouring itself out upon us.

On Trinity Sunday the Holy Spirit at First Congregational kept opening the door and I am sure quite a few of us there that morning went over the threshold to  communion with the Trinity.

The sublime guitar and violin duet did it for me.

Pastor Tobias did it too.He swung a door wide open in his thoughtful probing of the creation story in Genesis 1 as he invited questions and observations from his flock. He gave us some history and asked us to see beyond the story to the minds that told this story and found incredible hope in it in a time of their captivity. In this poetic account of the beginnings of things we find a God who stands outside, beyond the fingers of time, space, creation, and history. Here is a God who is sovereign over all that I can possibly imagine and not subject to anything that has been made or thought by the creation. Here was a God who was more than my little piece of history and present suffering who had made a world that is good, surely a God worthy of my hope.  Such a wide open door inspires a long silence, a bent knee, and a prolonged dwelling in the wonder of this God.

So I say, be bold in leading ourselves and others into the silences! Encourage ourselves to take more than a tentative sniff.  Take us gently by the scruff of our necks and say, “Come on, try it. I will go with you.”

Holiness likes to camp out in those nooks and crannies of time and space, for which we tend to have such disdain. We even call them “dead spaces.” Look again. Such unscripted moments are empty tombs resonant with the echoes of a risen God and the swift beat of wings.

Go ahead. Take a chance on bliss.

 

More about fingers and the moon

More about William Meninger

Elizabeth’s Prayer

Note to Topeka Area Readers
Father Meninger is interested in offering a retreat in Topeka next year.  Any persons interested in helping to make that happen please comment or contact me. lross@fromholyground.org