Tag Archives: beauty

Let the Beauty We Love Be What We Do

PalmSunday-06

The children also greet Christ with palm branches and lay their garments on the ground honoring Him as King.

I kept Holy Week and Pascha with Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox church this year. The Orthodox Christian Church celebrated  Pascha (Easter) on May 5. I did not make it to all of the holy week services. There were seventeen, beginning with the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the Saturday of St. Lazarus, the Righteous.  The people and their priest, Father Joseph Longofono, offer their gifts and talents with generosity and devotion. They are warm and welcoming to this awkward Presbyterian who comes among them to pray and learn more about a faith tradition she has long admired from afar.

On Palm Sunday, (April 28 this year) at the end of the service we processed outside with our palms, songs, incense, and other regalia and holy items for which I do not know the words.  I can tell by The Services of the Great and Holy Week and Pascha, the book of Holy Week liturgies I purchased, that most of these words are Greek. I learned enough Greek in seminary to pass the class and my ordination exams. Since then translation is an afternoon’s ordeal involving a concordance, Greek grammar book, Kittle’s ponderous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and trying to remember the Greek alphabet.

A few startled sparrows rose out of the shrubbery as we poured out onto the lawn.  Cars buzzed by heading East on one-way Huntoon Street. Along our path I smiled to see at my feet a little shrine of twigs overlaid with narrow strips of green moss.  Easy to miss, barely a foot or two in height, the shrine was a small construction of sticks stuck at various angles in a patch of moist bare ground.  Tucked in the crotch of a branch was a white spirea blossom.

The happy procession wound back inside the small sanctuary, its walls alive with glowing icons of the saints. You can feel them all looking tenderly on from heaven, adding their voices to our prayers and songs and benediction. I read that Orthodox draw no distinction between the Body of Christ in heaven and those on earth. They view both parts of the Church as inseparable and in continuous worship together of God. Orthodox worship therefore expresses this unity of earth and heaven in every possible way so that the earthly worshippers are continually reminded through all their senses of the heavenly state of the Church.  Wikipedia

It is as though for the Orthodox, worship is a continuous act since the beginning of the church. Everyone in heaven is there and we show up to join in the perpetual praise and leave and return as our lives allow. When we return we merely pick up where we last left off. And unlike many churches I am familiar with, nobody here is in any hurry. After all we have eternity.

The church was packed with more children than adults this day. Older children stood quietly with their parents, toddlers sat on the floor, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and aunts held babies crooked in their arms and nestling against their shoulders. Some kids sat on the few pews.  (Orthodox Christians stand for worship. The pews are reserved for the elderly, children, and fainthearted visitors.)  Toddlers wandered about. There was an ease about their presence, parents taking them in and out of the service as needed. The occasional cries, thumps, or exclamations formed a descant of baby babble to the chants and songs sung in four part harmony throughout the service.

After church I chatted with a little girl, admiring her cute flip-flops, and on the way to my car came upon the twig shrine with a red haired boy kneeling before it. The twigs and blossom had been kicked over.

I said to the boy,” Oh did you make this? It is very beautiful.” Nodding yes, he told me that his sister knocked it down.

“I am sorry. It is a holy thing,” I said.

His sister joined us and said, “Luke doesn’t like to sing the holy songs.”

“Hmm,” l said, as Luke worked on rebuilding his shrine, “sometimes people prefer to make holy things than to sing holy songs.”

“He doesn’t like to come to church,” she said in the irksome manner of sisters who broadcast a brother’s private life to strangers.

“Yes, there are people who feel that way,” I said to the little girl as her brother struggled to get the blossom to stay in the crook of the twig. I thanked Luke for making a holy thing and repairing it, and walked to my car.

His sister, shouted after me, “He is hypert,” as she, appearing a little hypert herself ran racing around the church yard in a holy dance of her own.

Luke, kneeling in the dirt with his offering, as brothers everywhere have learned to do, ignored her.

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Hundreds of Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground
The impulse to worship and to express the beauty and awe of our souls to the author of our being seems nearly universal in human experience. I believe this desire is placed in us by God in the core of our being, like a magnet, which draws us through our life experience to reach out and connect with the one who put it there. We may spend a lot of our lives seeking ways to express this sublime impulse. Yet if we trust our hearts, we will be led to places and forms of worship, as though guided by a God-given implanted GPS device.

There are many ways to worship God.  Sufi poet, Rumi tells us, Let the beauty we love, be what we do.  There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. I believe that our efforts at praise and worship are like building little shrines in the mud, each dear to God, each delighting the heavens, each precious.

When the beauty we love, becomes what we do, even the mundane may hold the potential of sublime worship: Lucille’s macaroni hot dish; the green and pink chintz curtains Elsie made for the ladies room; the deacon holding the door for you; your desperate prayer; a pile of rocks in the desert; your garden. In all kinds of ways we gather sticks, find a blossom, and put it out where someone will see it. Praise will be offered.

To be human, made in the image of the Creator, is to pour out our hearts on something we love which is greater and beyond ourselves.  Our responsibility is to discover ways to kneel in reverence, which will express our deep yearning and connect us to what is good, true, beautiful, and free. For me that is worship of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ.

Luke’s Palm Sunday act of worship reminded me of another child’s offering. When she was around six or seven, my daughter, Diana, brought me a stick with dandelions, grass, and pink phlox wound around it. I wrote about it in my book Letters from the Holy Ground,

“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 my altar. “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.

Loretta Ross (-Gotta), Letters from the Holy Ground  – Seeing God Where You Are, Sheed & Ward, 2000, p 67

How shall you sing the Lord’s song? Find that gps device in your heart and let it point you in the direction of the worship of your soul. I would love to hear about the things which lift your heart to God in the comment section below.

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Pear Blossom Blessings

It snowed pear blossoms here in Kansas this week. Tiny white petals floated down like confetti and drifted into the corners of my patio. They festooned the back of my black lab, Elijah, and rode into my kitchen stuck to the soles of my shoes.

The pear flurries crept up on us quickly and then were over. All week I planned to stand under the tree and gaze up through that lacy veil to the branched blue sky above. When I finally went out to behold this beauty, the green shoots of leaves were already pushing off the petals and the moment was over.

Dripping with blossoms, the tree was stunning in the sun, lifting her arms like a bride to her beloved. Then, impetuously, she dropped her gown, sending her skirts floating past my windows.

Watching the petals fall on the lawn, I remembered the poem my mother read to me one spring, years ago.

The Pear Tree
In this squalid, dirty dooryard,
Where the chickens scratch and run,
White, incredible, the pear tree
Stands apart and takes the sun,
Mindful of the eyes upon it,
Vain of its new holiness,
Like the waste-man’s little daughter
In her first communion dress.
        Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1919

Spring comes like a sudden lump in the throat, a sharp stab to the heart, a pear blossom falling too soon. Beauty does that to us. Beauty, a thing we cannot possess, or control, belongs, finally, to the Creator. The waste-man’s little daughter will outgrow her communion dress. She will move past her vanity and grow into holiness, as her girlish charm gives way to the inner radiance of the Bread of Life she takes between her lips.

Like the woman of Bethany, hastening through the streets with her perfume for the beautiful Savior, soon to die, spring spills her treasures over us, and then is gone.  The pear tree blooms for a week. Too soon her splendor falls softly, grows transparent, yellows, and dries in the cracks of the sidewalk.

Last week I saw a man with a pear blossom petal caught in his eyebrow. He wore it, perched like a tiny cap, over the arch above his spectacles.

I would like to be so baptized with pear blossoms. May you each have your transcendent moment in the sun, and see yourself as the stunning beauty you are.

Ought we not always be pouring the priceless gift of our attentive love on every particle of this world? Ought we not be running recklessly through the streets and fields, smitten and ravished?  We, here so briefly, so soon to be released and blown to rest in the softly greening grass, are surely born to be pierced through by such beauty and spendthrift love.

Are not we here for this above all reasons:

to lift our arms like brides,
and to wear the kiss of God upon our brows?

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”        Matthew 26: 6-13 (NIV)


The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
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Gone Fishing

gcarpI couldn’t take my eyes off them. Thirteen years before I watched the eight grass carp slip out from the plastic bags from the fish farm and slide into the lake. Since than I had not seen them. I had heard their splashes growing louder over the years, and glimpsed an occasional fin. Some visitors spoke of the Lake Holy Ground Monster. A few saw one feeding close to shore.

 Now I stood on the shore enthralled. With no rain for weeks the lake was as clear as glass. From the shore west of the hermitage I could see through greenish yellow water to the bottom. An old lawn chair sat half submerged in the shallows. A few mossy sticks lay in the soft mud.

Then a movement caught my eye, something slowly waving. First one, then another and another – six huge grass carp swam lazily into my view. Some were over four feet in length. Moving slowly in a wide circle, their bodies shimmered with iridescent diamond scales, silver dappled in the sun.

Lifting the curve of their open pink mouths like soup ladles, they gulped the willow seeds and cottonwood fluff floatingcottonwood fluff 2 on the surface. Skimming off the white fuzz, the giants wove in and out in a dance of mesmerizing beauty. A large open mouth would break the surface and scoop the fluff. Then the mouth, water running from its corners like an overflowing pitcher, would close and sink into the lake. The fish scooped and sank, swimming silently, smooth and easy like the hawks riding the wind currents above us.

Later when I got home I cherished the memory of those fish swimming so self contained, whole in themselves, flowing through the water like cream in coffee before it is stirred. For days after I would close my eyes and see them swimming, a secret vision of grace. Here was beauty free for the seeing. And somehow the best gift was their creatureliness – that they knew nothing of me, or a world beyond the lake, that what I did or did not do mattered not to them.

I practiced floating that summer. I learned how my breath increases my buoyancy in the water and to relax the muscles in my neck and shoulders. I learned that water will hold my weight when I resist the least.

grass carpMarshall McLuhan said, “We do not know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” Could we overcome our ignorance of the very substance in which we live and move and find our being? Could we float in grace and swim in love, dipping our jaws and opening our throats to taste salvation?  I hope so.

A priest observed a peasant man coming daily to the church where he knelt and remained in prayer for some time. One day the priest approached the man and asked, “What do you say to our Lord on your daily visits?”

 “Oh, I don’t say anything,” the man replied. “I look at him and he looks at me.”

Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
when I get home.   ~St. Francis

A lot about the spiritual life has to do with where you look, what it is you pay attention to and see. The prayer of the peasant man is sometimes called the prayer of the simple gaze or simple regard. In our time of incessant naming, describing, evaluating, where a daily deluge of words pours over us from radio, television, internet, mail and highway billboards, a prayer without words can be sweet refreshment to a word numbed soul. The wordless communion of the gaze is a potent and underrated form of prayer.

Go find something that fills you with wonder and look upon it with love for a while. Go swimming in beauty. It is your natural home, you know. Then wring out the light and pour it over the world.

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Poem by St. Francis from Love Poems from God by Daniel Ladinsky

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Beauty and Making Cookies

42-15885238On the afternoon of the day my friend died in a hospital bed in Iowa City, my daughter and I made cookies. In the Kansas kitchen overlooking the finch feeder, while seventeen finch gobbled two pounds of thistle seed (95 cents a pound at Allen Farm and Feed), we measured flour and brown sugar, butter and ginger, and mixed them in the yellow bowl. Patting out the dough on the cookie sheet, we stopped to taste. “Umm, very good!” she said.

There, while she stood on the orange chair with a brown apron hanging to her ankles, I saw for the first time how the smooth curve of her cheek presses against space with such exquisite beauty. 

How is it that we linger for days and weeks over the latest atrocity and evidence that evil is afoot and keeping steady employment? As a nation, we dissect and examine sin and evil from every angle, as we are seduced into complicity through our own fascination with it. We ask the best minds of our day to analyze and respond to iniquity yet rarely consider intently the nature of beauty and how to create and sustain it in our lives and world.

Many seek beauty, but it is more often to possess it than to appreciate it.  As I impose my will on beauty, as I shape and prune it, cage it in my heart, and bow down and worship it with my reason and my money, it becomes a god, something I look to for my well being and satisfaction. Then beauty turns on me with its shrewish demands and shrivels into something harsh and burdensome which sends me off scurrying to polish it, insure it, buy more of it. No more is beauty a source of delight and joy. I have diminished it and myself by my lust, greed, and envy.

A young nurse stammered to tell me of the beauty she had seen last week. “I went for a walk with the dog down by the pond and I have never seen anything like it. After all the rain, the pond was brimming, spilling over the sides. I heard the water roaring through the drainage ditch. I saw God’s power, and everything was so green.” Tears glistened in her eyes.

True beauty is free. Our spendthrift God scatters it with lavish prodigality over the universe. The Trinity ceaselessly dusts us with beauty like pear blossoms sifting in white drifts on the lawn.

Would that we could approach our lives like kids on an Easter egg hunt at dawn – our world drenched with wonder and surprises nestled under every bush. When Moses was on the far side of the wilderness keeping his father-in-law’s flock, he turned aside to see the great sight of a burning bush. What amazes me about Moses is that he turned aside. He stopped doing what he was doing, turned his attention away from his work, and risked letting a sheep wander from his protective gaze, to see why the bush was not burned up. (Exodus 3)

Think of it. The liberation of the Hebrews and the rest of salvation history rested on this man’s freedom to wonder. The capacity for wonder and curiosity are essential to spiritual growth as well as to justice. A lot of prophets and saints knew how to dilly dally, how to daydream, how to poke along and stop and sniff the odd, the curious and find the hidden treasure under the lilac bush. The expectation and consent to be dazzled and amazed set the stage for God’s entrance into our lives.                 

                                    Diana and easter egg

May you discover the courage and grace this day to dilly dally,
to wonder, and to be astonished.

       

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This post is excerpted from a book I wrote, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Sheed & Ward, 2000. pp 192-194. https://theprayinglife.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php You might like it.