Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Love – In Small Doses for the Sin Sick Soul #2

And we are put on earth a little space, 
That we may learn to bear the beams of love
 – William Blake

 

expulsion 2

Leaving Paradise

Trip

fall

splat

face down into

the ground.

Sink into softness

that gives

and for

gives.

Come home

to your loamy beginning

and your end.

For your reflection: Recall a time when you fell, took a hard blow, or were brought down by some loss or disappointment. What awareness did you have of your own brokenness and shame?  Could you forgive yourself? What did you learn in your humiliation? How did you change?

Note to readers:  This blog is part of a series of Lenten “short takes” on the themes of lent, which follow more or less the lectionary Scripture lessons for this season. Like a note you find tucked under the bark of a tree, a lozenge to let melt in your mouth, an amulet to wear around your neck, I hope these little reflections may hold a small dose of truth or comfort  or challenge for your life on the way to Easter.

In the abundance of words which inundate us daily, it is easy for the message of redemption to be buried under the latest disaster, outrage or scandal. Likewise the familiar stories and passages of lent may grow dull and trite to ears and minds already stuffed with words.

I have noticed in my work as spiritual director that it is hard for many of us to take in the goodness and grace, as well as the challenge of the story of Jesus and God’s redeeming love. Perhaps we need to titrate the gospel. Sometimes a well- timed, tiny dose, carefully administered, may be what the Physician orders for our healing. And so, slowly, we build up our tolerance for love and more and more joy finds the faith in us through which to invade our being.

Dose titration:  adjustment of the dose until the medication
has achieved the desired effect

For Fraught Souls

Autumn Invocation

Lord of courtesy, you’ve brought the corn
In, you’ve hung the trees with ripe, rich fruit,
Master of tides,  you’re cooling down the sea,
Watcher at horizons,  you’ll deliver
Most ships securely at home.
But Master of the moon,  this world is dark
With terror,  evil,  not dark like dark of space
And stars.  O God,  save us from our fraught selves,
Put prayer into our minds.  Be in the shrine
Of vivid,  innocent imaginations.
Receive the love there is,  Lord,  help all nations.
Author unknown

In this season of thanks, let us pray for all fraught souls, those heavy laden with sorrow, the oppressed, the lost, and discouraged. May each one reach into the eternal harvest of gratitude that opens to those, who have passed through suffering and loss. Sustain us,  Oh Master of the tides, with appreciation for the simple gifts of life. Amen.

I have loved this poem for years, but somehow lost the name of the author. If you know, please leave the name in the comments. I would like to give credit for this beautiful piece of writing.

How to Pray

Want to learn how to pray? Forget words. Forget about getting the right name for God. Forget fidgeting about how to sit or stand or hold your hands. Forget whatever you have been taught about prayer. Forget yourself.

And go gaze upon something or someone you love. Look long and deeply at something which gives joy or peace –

that penetrating lime green of the spring woods, and the wet black branches like some ancient language of scribbles and runes scrawled all over the forest

the path of the sun, trailing like a golden ribbon across the floor, climbing up the table and tying itself neatly around your tea cup

the sleeping boy in his Superman PJs, smelling of grass and child sweat

Next: Let yourself be held there in your looking and wonder. Do you feel that subtle magnetic force that seems to gently grasp and suspend you before your beloved?

Breathe. Relax.

Notice what wells up in you and what recedes. Various feelings and thoughts – some positive, some negative. Simply observe the play of your inner life as you gaze upon beauty.

Notice the voice which says, “You need to get moving. There is a lot to do. Should I fix potato soup for supper? I really can’t stand that woman.” Keep returning to what you love. Allow your love and appreciation of this portion of the world draw you in to its Creator and Author, that pulse of the Spirit which animates all of existence.

For that is what Holiness is doing in the creation – luring us, catching us up, and reeling us into the Heart of Reality and Divinity through the things of this world. God threads us through and beyond what we love to deeper love and freedom in the realm of Grace that is called God’s kingdom.

Really. God will use anything, anyone to draw us into God’s self, God’s being, and into  truth, into love, into amazement, and wonder. What draws you into this prayer will likely be something uniquely suited to you, your aspirations, your interests, your peculiar, and particular existence. So specific is God’s summons to you. So beloved are you by God.

All that is required is your consent – your yes, your willingness to take the bait, to bite into creation with appetite and hope.

After looking at God in this way for a while, a word or two, a spoken prayer may emerge from your heart. Something you want to say to God. Something you desire from God. Go ahead and whisper your words to God. Then be silent and listen.

A Peace will come and settle over you, a calm, perhaps, a gentleness, an assurance of some kind.

Afterwards, before you turn back to getting things done, do a little self inventory:

Have you changed in any way after this time of gazing? Is there a difference in how you are feeling or thinking? Is there something from this time you need to stay with or return to? What would you like to say to God about this time? What would you like to hear in response from God?

And this, my friends, is a prayer.

This is a way God speaks.

This is a way the Word Made Flesh calls our name.

This is a way we answer.

Other Praying Life posts on prayer you might enjoy:

What Is a Prayer

Contemplation – Circling a Definition

Paying Attention and Taking Your Time

A Calm and Quiet Soul

You can help support The Praying Life by donating to The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer. Just five or ten dollars will make a difference and help pay some of our costs. Your gift is tax deductible. Donate Here. Thank you so much!

Exploring Solitude: Where the Wild Things Are

Come away by yourselves to a lonely place,” Jesus

God then told Elijah, “Get out of here, and fast. Head east and hide out at the Kerith Ravine on the other side of the Jordan River. You can drink fresh water from the brook; I’ve ordered the ravens to feed you.”  Elijah obeyed God’s orders. He went and camped in the Kerith canyon on the other side of the Jordan. And sure enough, ravens brought him his meals, both breakfast and supper, and he drank from the brook. I Kings 17: 2-6 (Msg)

Nothing better expresses the urgent call of the wild for me than John Masefield’s Sea Fever.

I must  go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, . . .
I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; . . .
I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife; . . .

Wild places and wild things invite us to themselves. If not the sea, perhaps, the mountains, the desert, the plains, or the forest draw you. The trout in the stream, the grizzly bear turning in his sleep, the mushroom popping up in the moist woods, the redwood tree dwarfing all else in its magnificence summon us to gaze in wonder and appreciation and share in the communion of all beings.

Shifting from Virtual Reality to Reality
In the wilderness we smell, and see, and touch, and hear, and taste – not a virtual reality, but reality. And here, we are likewise smelled, seen, touched, heard, and tasted. We not only change and act upon our surroundings, we are also changed and acted upon by those same surroundings. In the wilderness, we find again our place as a member of one of the species of beings on this planet. We leave our thermostatically, controlled environments and modern conveniences to feel the bracing chill of  the wind in our face, the tickling blurred vision through snow dusted eye lashes, the heavy ache in our calves after walking several miles.

In the process of wilderness dwelling, we shed the heavy brittle shells of our self importance and settle in with all our relations – brother sun, sister moon, and cousin fox. We discover the deer we are watching are also watching us.


Solitude may occur, of course, away from wilderness in the midst of a noisy crowd, in a beehive high rise apartment, or on the back porch with city sirens screaming past. However, many of us find solitude most easily and fully in a place apart in some natural setting. For over twenty years I found my wilderness solitude in a one room cabin with a stone floor, built into the side of hill on a small lake in northeast Kansas.

The call to the wilderness runs deep in some people, and expresses itself as unappeasable longing, or a palpable need to be in wild places among wild things. These persons often feel compelled to seek out remote spots away from power grids, traffic, concrete, and housing developments. Some struggle to explain and justify their desire to family and friends.

Wilderness as Arena for Spiritual Growth
The Biblical Hebrew word for wilderness is often used interchangeably with desert and includes many varied kinds of terrain, arid and semi arid, pasture land, mountains, and the sea.

The wilderness, a place uninhabited by the human species, is a significant location for the spiritual journey, both in its literal and figurative senses. The Bible understands transformation and spiritual growth as a process, which involves the experience of both physical and psychic dis-location and re-location. The experiences of being lost and being found, of moving from a familiar land to a strange new country appear over and over in the Biblical narratives.

An important aspect, then to solitude and our development in faith, is that exposure to wilderness, both in the physical geographic sense, and in the internal experience of the self. I will set aside consideration of internal wilderness to another post, and focus here on the external physical places and settings in which we find solitude.

As a species and as varied races and ethnicities, we have been formed in part by the land in which we and our ancestors have made our living. The lay of the land itself, the richness or poverty of its soil, the vegetation, wild-life, presence or absence of water, winds, and temperature have shaped our economies, our languages, our diets, our health, what we value, and our religions.

David Abram in his masterful book, The Spell of the Senses – Perception and Language  in a More-than-Human World, writes about this relationship of humankind to the earth and its features and all that dwell upon, within, above, and in its waters.

our bodily rhythms, our moods, cycles of creativity and stillness, and even our thoughts are readily engaged and influenced by shifting patterns of the land. Yet our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses – once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth – become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. (p. 267)

Abram writes of our relationship with the whole of creation as an interpenetration and mutuality in which all parties are affected, changed, and interdependent. The creation is not something I act upon, seek to dominate, or control, but rather the creation is a whole gathering of life with which I may enter into a relationship of mutual benefit.

In the past seven years the consequences of our lack of communion with nature has received attention and comment as Nature Deficit Disorder. The lack of time spent out doors by children and adults is suggested as a factor influencing several illnesses, including obesity.

Starving for the Undomesticated God


Over many years I have observed person after person starving for such connection and communion. Some would trek across the country just to sit in a simple cabin without  running water in a Kansas pasture in order to touch in to such a relationship. With some notable exceptions, namely camp and conference ministries, the church has largely ignored this fundamental need. Though our faith was formed in our ancestors in deserts, tents, mountain tops, sea shores, ship wrecks, storms, and many solitary encounters with the Holy One, we insist that most of our faith be nurtured in buildings and classrooms under florescent lights. We further claim that knowledge of God may be gained by memorizing a set of propositions articulated by theologians, who gained most of their credentials in similar buildings and classrooms.

In contrast, we meet an undomesticated God in the wilderness, an unpredictable, wholly other God, who is neither tamed by sedate doctrines, nor penned up in church polity, nor leashed to political issues. The waves and meadowlark give testimony, the stones hold the stories of the ancient ones, the Spirit hovers over the waters, the prophet emerges from his cave, and hears the still small voice of the Lord.

Most pastors have heard from the person, who apologetically recounts the familiar reason for his Sunday morning absence. “I am closer to God on the golf course or in my boat out on the lake.”  

But can’t you do that on Saturday, wonders the pastor, whose district superintendent keeps count of his worship attendance. He needs to show an increase this year. “You need to worship with the community too, and we need to have you with us,” he tells the fisherman.

Both are right, of course. We need the solitude and nature and we need the gathered  community of believers. Yet, perhaps, rather than feeling defensive, our pastor could become genuinely curious about her parishioner’s life in God and what he is telling her. “Could we get together sometime? I’d like to hear about what these times mean to you and how you experience the Lord.”

A Cabin in the Woods
My brother and his wife recently moved and their first project was to build a small cabin in the woods behind their new home. The one room cabin perches part way down a steep ravine in the woods, above a pond and a river beyond. My brother spends hours down there and confesses, most of the time he just sits and looks out the window, watching the birds and critters, and resting his sore eyes on a vista absent of manipulation by his own species.

Formerly a hunter of deer, my brother is now living in more intimate and complementary relationship with his relatives. He rises early each day to put out food. Keeping track of them, he gives some of them names. He is respectful of the space they need and watches for signs of illness, or overcrowding of the herd. He worries about the invasive mustard grass, which chokes out the native plants.

Likewise the animals of this ravine are more intimate with my brother. They are eating well, unafraid, and willing to share more of themselves with this human. My brother is changing too. He has lost weight and strengthened his legs from making the steep climb down and back from the cabin to the house. He has become an evangelist for the gifts of that little structure. “Solitude is magnetic,” he tells me. Yes, indeed.

He shows me a little book he keeps for guests to write their impressions of time spent in his cabin. I open the cover and read the longing and gratitude in their comments.

The Force which Draws All Things Together
Solitude and the wilderness, where we find it, are magnetic. The wild things and places draw us to them by the force of our common relationship with each other as creatures on this earth. We are drawn by our desire to connect with and to enter into communion with Reality in a deeper, truer way than we find in the glib, sound bite assessments that surround us constantly. Such communion changes how we see ourselves and one another. Thomas Merton writes in his second chapter of Thoughts in Solitude that the wilderness invites us to stand back from our lives so we see things in a new perspective.

We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom. When we let go of them, we begin to appreciate them as they really are. Only then can we begin to see God in them. Not until we find Him in them, can we start on the road to dark contemplation at whose end we shall be able to find them in Him.

 Get the Stink Blown Off
Do you postpone going down to your wild places until the time is right, until you have several days free, until you finish this or that project? I will tell you a secret. You don’t have to wait. Just go with whatever time you have. As Eugene Peterson, paraphrases I Kings 17: 2, “Get out of here and fast!” My mom’s version was, “You kids go on outside right now and get the stink blown off ya.” God receives what little time you can offer, a day, an afternoon, or ten minutes, and turns it into abundance with enough leftovers for you to eat on for the rest of week.

So go on. Get out. Go for a walk. Drive over to the lake or the beach. Take a blue highway home. Look around. Breathe. Smell.  Feel. Gaze into the eyes of a deer. Watch the eagle land and fold its wings on its perch above the river. Be seen by the squirrel, be blown by the wind. Be changed and shaped by the interplay and exchange of the animate world of which you are a beloved part.


Solitude Practice:

  • To what kind of wild places are you drawn? Have you been there recently? What keeps you from going?

  • What happens when you go? What changes or shifts do you notice in yourself?

  • Take some time to pray about your need for solitude and wilderness places. Listen for God’s response.

Next Post in this series on Exploring Solitude : The Wild Things Within


 



You can help support this series by donating to The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer. Just five or ten dollars will make a difference and help pay some of our costs. Your gift is tax deductible. Donate Here. Thank you so much!

Exploring Solitude: Why Bother?

Come away by yourselves to a lonely place,” Jesus

 What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits.
It has a bearing on the whole future of humankind and the world:
and especially, of course, on the future of religion. Thomas Merton

 

Over the next several weeks I will be reflecting on selected passages from Thomas Merton’s little book, Thoughts in Solitude. First published in 1956 the book is a collection of Merton’s musings about time he spent alone in a hermitage at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. Merton had been a monk for a while before he finally gained the Abbot’s permission to spend an extended time alone. An outgoing, gregarious fellow, he struggled throughout his life with finding a balance between his need for solitude and for community. His prolific, engaging writing brought seekers to the monastery and his ability to teach about the spiritual life attracted many followers.

If you have a copy of the book, you might want to get it out and follow along. You can easily find a used copy online, or check your local library for Thoughts in Solitude.

I confess that my relationship with this Trappist priest has been rocky. He has both deeply inspired and deeply disappointed me. There is much I admire in his life and writing and a few things I do not. Just as I decide I am finished with the man, I am drawn back. Like us all, Father Tom, as a friend calls him, has his sin and warts, yet God has used him mightily. We may all give thanks that falling short of the aim which God intends for us (the literal meaning of sin) has never been a road block to the power of God working through human lives.

I choose this book, not because I consider it among the best on the subject. We have over 2500 years of excellent material on the spiritual practice of solitude. I hope you will share your favorite resources in the comments section below, or on the Sanctuary Foundation Face Book Page, or email me. I will be happy to compile your suggestions with others and make them available to The Praying Life readers.

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton (Photo credit: jimforest)

So let’s begin with the Preface. Here Merton lays out what he is up to in this book and makes his disclaimers. He tells us his “thoughts here are simply thoughts on the contemplative life, fundamental intuitions which seemed, at the time, to have a basic importance.” His writing comes from his “relationship with God in solitude and silence and that “interrelation of our personal solitudes with one another,” which are for Merton “essential to his own peculiar way of life.”

Then he launches into a broad societal justification for such peculiarity. A number of internal and external obstacles make it difficult for most of us to develop and nurture a practice of spiritual solitude. I have listened to many people who struggle to claim the “legitimacy” of the practice, to respond to this call of God, and to be consistent in the “coming away to a lonely place” with Jesus.

I feel guilty. Isn’t it selfish? Shouldn’t  I be doing something – working at the mission, helping out at church, serving on committees? My friends don’t understand. My pastor doesn’t get it. I can’t even explain why I do this or even what happens. Am I only fooling myself and being lazy and wasting time?

I hope this series will offer some support for your practice and a rationale which gives permission and value to a pursuit largely neglected in our culture and religious institutions, but sorely needed. In the end, though, you must come to your own rationale and your own “thoughts in solitude.” For each of us will experience solitude in different ways at different times, and God will speak within you the language of the unique nature of the intimacy you share. And each must make his or her own witness to the truth.

Merton begins his book by looking at the larger culture in which he found himself in 1956:

In an age when totalitarianism has striven, in every way, to devaluate and degrade the human person, we hope it is right to demand a hearing for any – and every sane reaction in favor of man’s [ok, from now on in this blog series I will make Merton’s gender nouns and pronouns neutral] inalienable solitude and interior freedom. The murderous din of our materialism cannot be allowed to silence the independent voices which will never cease to speak: whether they are the voices of Christian saints, Oriental sages like Lao-Tse or the Zen Masters, or the voices of persons like Thoreau, or Martin Buber, or Max Picard. It is all very well to insist that people are “social animals” – the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making them into a mere cog in a totalitarian machine—or a religious one for that matter.”

Thomas Merton's hermitage at The Abbey of Our ...

Hermitage of Thomas Merton at Gethsemane Abbey

Society, for Merton, depends for its very existence on the inviolable solitude of its members. This is because, as he writes, “to be a person is to possess responsibility and freedom, and both of these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s own ability to give oneself to society – or to refuse that gift.”

He ends his preface with: “What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits. It has a bearing on the whole future of humankind and the world: and especially, of course, on the future of religion.”

One of my pet peeves about Merton, especially in his early writing, is his penchant for sweeping generalizations and pronouncements. I happen to agree with this one. How might such a claim be true?  Is there really a relationship between the time you take to create some space and time to be alone with God and our future as a race and the future of religion? I think so. And I am not alone.

When there is a crisis in the church, it is always a crisis of contemplation. The church wants to feel able to explain about her spouse even when she has lost sight of him; even when, although she has not been divorced, she no longer knows his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.
Carlo Carretto

 

Might part of our struggle with keeping solitude be because we have our arms around the wrong lover?

Solitude Practice:

  • Ask the lover of your soul to show what you are hugging closer to yourself than the Holy One.

  • Identify competing lovers.

  • What might it take for you rediscover God’s embrace and forsake all others? It might be easier than you think.

As Paul Simon sang to us, there are fifty ways to leave your lover.

Next Post: The Wilderness of Solitude

You can help support this series by donating to The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer. Just five or ten dollars will make a difference and help pay some of our costs. Your gift is tax deductible. Donate Here. Thank you so much!

Where Miracles Occur

Bristlecone Pines, California

The tension in my shoulders is melting. The tightness and ache in my jaw and throat are releasing. The constant, exhausting, mental jabber is growing silent.  The resolute soldiering on, pushing forward without awareness, without seeing anything, but a goal which constantly recedes over the horizon, is giving way to being    here      now.

The tunnel vision squint and laser focus are opening and broadening to a wide spacious plain that keeps revealing more and more. Reality unfolds like an undulating wave continuously turning up complexities, beauties, grace, and both harsh and comforting aspects of what is really going on.

I have been decelerating and decompressing over the past several weeks.  This process is not over, for it is the work of a lifetime. I need more time to shed the brain debris and external and internal clutter. I need to continue to tame the habit of acceleration, and restrain my inner harpy, that merciless harridan of self aggrandizement.

Though I have tried to practice and teach this for years, I feel like a rank beginner. And, as is the way of the Spirit, I am being shown how far I have to go. I am watching my many-faceted resistance, as I begin the slow, groaning, screeching grind to a halt. For ironically, in order to go further on this journey, I have to stop.

Sabbath means, literally, to stop. I am aiming for a Sabbath life, a life lived contemplatively, steeped in the awareness of the presence of the Holy, which initiates, and infuses my work and play. I like the broader definition of Sabbath, which Donna Schaper offers:

Sabbath sense is anything that makes spacious what is cramped. That makes large out of small, simple out of complex, choice out of obligation. Sabbath sense is anything that reconnects the necessities of drudgery to the marvelous uselessness of beauty. Sabbath sense is acknowledgment of the presence of Spirit in the petty and the profound.

In this time of beginning and transition, of halting and rest, I have discovered a different kind of urgency, than the urgency of schedule, production, and accomplishment. This is the urgency of a compass, a magnet, an urgency so primal it is like breath itself. This is the urgent love of the Maker of All honing into each particle of creation, boring into us and drawing us inexorably to itself.

"Tarfala Valley"

I have always been attracted to sparse, barren, open spaces – the high alpine tundra, and the edges of the tree line. There for over five thousand years the bent and twisted Bristlecone Pines dance their gnarled tango with the howling storms and eye the prize for the oldest continuous living residents on this planet. I look at maps for the wind-scoured boulder fields, the isolated islands, and the endless expanse of ice sheets at the poles. These places both fascinate, and frighten the wits out of me.

In a lovely blog, Being Poetry, I came across this quote from poet William Stafford:

Each poem is a miracle that has been invited to happen. I must be willingly fallible in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles occur. 


Stafford, pacifist and formed in The Church of the Brethren, grew up in the semi arid high plains of western Kansas. He was also formed by those windswept plains, where you can see for miles. In these recent weeks I have been unwillingly confronted with my fallibility, my utter inability to live and be all that I desire. I hear Stafford advising, “Forget about overcoming anything. Embrace it all and live honestly from it.”

So I am heading out to the edges of my infallibility, that terrifying point where I and all I can think and do and figure out and hum to myself ends, and God begins.

Today I say that to live a life of prayer, I must go out to the edges of myself and my security. I must go beyond my ego to the outer banks, to my own fallibility, where the edges of the sea of God wash over my toes and beg me to fling myself into that deep Immensity.

I do not want to be safe. I do not want any part of a faith or a God or a religion that is safe. I want to stand in the barren field of the world, strewn with boulders, with only our wounds and fallibility, and without a prayer, a blog, a book, or a penny in my pocket, but the brooding mercy of God.

It is not a comfortable, quiet life of ease that God is calling me to, here in my retirement. It is to a life of surrendered love, where my meat and drink, and every breath are drawn from the grace of God. I am fearfully and gratefully being towed through fallibility to a place in the realm where miracles occur.

You come too.

English: Bristlecone Pines on a spur ridge bel...

Re-tired: Embracing the Call to Solitude

I need to be still for a while.

I need to savor and integrate a month of bounty, a year of gratitude.

I need to listen long

to the captivating resonance of relationships,

that singing bowl of community.

A Japanese rin marks the beginning of moments ...

I recently made a big change in my life and how I will spend my hours in the coming years. I retired. When I hear this word, retire, I see myself driving my car over to the repair shop and saying, “Hoist me up, Mike, and put on some Michelin Pilot Sport Pluses all around this dune buggy. I need something sturdy that will hold me to the road in all weather. Mike, my man, I got places to go and things to see.”


As the old year closed I said goodbye to a community I served for over twelve years and began my retirement from traditional parish ministry. The Sanctuary Foundation, which I founded over twenty years ago, will continue. In the coming year I will offer spiritual guidance, teach a little, and finish a new book.


Most importantly, I will practice what I have preached. I will allow the stillness to feed the hunger of my heart, and offer my life with greater integrity to what I feel most deeply called and what the church, regardless of all its good intentions, seems least able to support.


Mind you, I do not leave parish ministry burned out, beaten down, or resentful as some do. This may be because I worked part-time. I also did not carry the same responsibility, which a head of staff carries. And I continued my long established practice of taking a day a week for solitude and prayer through those twelve years. Besides, even though they work hard and balance multiple tasks and responsibilities, clergy continue to show statistically that they are among the happiest professionals. 


I continue to believe in the church, which is to say, that I believe in the wonder of people stepping out of their daily lives to come together to sing, and to lift their hearts and minds to something beyond their own manipulation and control. I believe in the miracle of people, who seek to love, forgive, and work together in spite of their differences. I believe in the Power that inspires their faith and surrender to One kinder and wiser than they. I believe in the Grace which meets us in vulnerability, admitting failures, and in opening our lives to the scrutiny of a loving God. I believe in the Compassion that leads people to acts of justice and mercy and the Love that empowers them to lay down their lives for each other.


In this sense church is a singular, unique mystery, which has grasped the human species. It startles the wits out of me every time I walk into or stumble upon such church in one of its many manifestations.


To leave parish ministry and my particular community of faith felt like parts of my heart were being pulled out by the roots. So deep was the love we shared and the goodness of God in our midst.


So why leave? Over the past thirty years of my service to the church I have found the traditional forms of ministry, as much as I have loved the work, have always seemed to require a compromise of what I hold most deeply – a life lived prayerfully, mindfully, steeped in the substance of the living God. Too often the church seemed to ask me to live more of the world, than in the world. The church, like each of us, is deeply influenced and captive to the values, practices, and gods of a secular culture. I find it very difficult to stand against that tide of endless production, pragmatism, and focus on self and survival.


Instead of becoming of the world, Paul calls the church to a transformation of its mind, its self understanding as it exists in the world.

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. Romans 12: 2 The Message

I never fit in. My personal tension with the church is not because the church has failed. It is a because I am a monk, albeit a gregarious one. Monk, which means solitary is in direct conflict with church and its sense of gathering. And there’s the rub and the glory.  Service, whether in the hermitage or in the pulpit, on one’s knees or at the bedside of a suffering soul, listening to the pain of the poor or raising money for mission,  always requires a death, a sacrifice of some desire or another. I do not blame the church for this, but, rather, the church has educated and purified me through the very conflicts which tried and tempered my soul.


I, alone, am responsible for following the call of God in my life. I am grateful to my denomination, Presbyterian Church(USA), those intelligent, imaginative, decent and orderly ones, and the Presbytery of Northern Kansas  for making space for their solitary, monkish sister. Now at the end of her service and the beginning of her honorable retirement, she will embrace what called her out of darkness and back to the church thirty three years ago, in a way more congruent with her heart’s deepest desires.


So as you can see, I have some things to mull over. I need time to downshift and decelerate as I make for myself a life more congruent with the word of God as it sings in my heart and speaks to me in the ancient texts. Besides I have a big pile of thank you notes to write, and I need to get over to Mike’s and get those new tires.


I will take a couple weeks off from writing The Praying Life. And I will be back  before you know it. In the meantime I will post occasional thoughts and links here and on the 
Sanctuary Foundation Facebook page.

Holy God,
in your will is our peace.
In this moment is your will.
Here, now.

Let’s hit the road.


With deep love and gratitude to The Reverends Paul Waters, Ron Schultz and Rob Winger and the members and friends of Crestview UMC in Topeka, Kansas.

Dear Reader, I am interested in hearing from you. What do you need? How might this blog speak more directly to the hunger of your heart in the coming year? Email your ideas, questions, and suggestions here , or comment below.

I am looking forward to the journey ahead!

When Hope Fails – Redux

Hope is what gets a lot of people through the Christmas season. And the failure of hope is what leaves some souls shipwrecked on the treacherous rocks of the sin and imperfection of this world.

What is it for you this year? Death of a loved one? Spouse in Afghanistan? Unemployed? House foreclosed? Cancer?

Hope is the presentiment that the imagination is more real, and reality less real, than we had thought. It is the sensation that the last word does not belong to the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression.  It is the suspicion that reality is far more complex than realism would have us believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the present, and that miraculously and surprisingly, life is readying the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection.           Rubem Alves
 

She was fourteen. She sat next to me as we drove home after the Christmas Eve service. Lights sparkled from distant homes across the snow-covered fields. Shattered with pain and trying not to show it, I tried to focus on driving. After a while she spoke out of the darkness, “Mom, things aren’t ever going to be the same, are they?”

That year, our family had been struck by a blow from which we would never fully recover. In spite of  brave efforts, prayer, and sacrifice we could not put back together what was broken and, perhaps, fatally flawed.

During that season of suffering, hope became nearly eclipsed by fear, anger, shame, and pain. Each evening I turned briefly from my grief in defiance of “the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression,” and lit a candle for hope. Even though I felt no hope, I let the candle hold my hope for hope.

In those days I clung to the verse of scripture the minister preached at our wedding. Remember thy word to thy servant in which thou hast made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that thy word gives me life. Psalm 119: 49-50

What an odd text for a wedding, you may think. Yet as the years unfolded it became more and more meaningful. I prayed it, holding God accountable to the goodness promised to me in scripture and whispered to my soul. God’s promise of joy, peace, and love comforted me and gave me the ability to keep breathing in my affliction.

Carmelite writer Constance Fitzgerald writes about the movement in our spiritual journey from “naïve hope to theological hope.”

Through experiences of loss and suffering, naïve hope in a Santa Claus god and other illusions nurtured by our egos and culture give way to a different, richer kind of hope.

We let go of placing our hope in our own efforts, our own goodness, our own “luck” or worthiness. We let go of our “right” to ourselves and our way. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, we numbly watch our way wrenched from our grasp. We face our helplessness and the truth that we are not in control. Hope in oneself and one’s little plans and projects dies on the cross of our life experience.

It is there in that stillness of a drive back home on the worst Christmas Eve in one’s life, while a child’s heartbreaking question hangs in the air, that hope in God is born.

You may miss it at first, especially if the pain is choking you.
But refuse to let the last word be the brutality of facts.
Go ahead and light that tiny candle.
Defy the darkness.
And pay attention.
A baby is on its way.
Something fragile and new and unimaginably sweet
is making its way into your consciousness.

I tell my daughter, “Yes, honey, things will not be the same. But I believe somehow or other, things will be all right.”

And they were.


Special thanks to artist Anne Emmons for her permission to use “Hope” in this blog. You can reach Anne at anneemmons_8@msn.com or on Facebook.

Here is Anne’s story about this painting:  I was trying to think of one moment in the Biblical narrative which captures the theme of hope.  Each year I have made a new image for Christmas since 1997, and in 2000, I was struck by the idea of hope as the source of light. The images in this series reflect the thought that Christ came, the Light of the world, into darkness. So I was thinking about one single moment in the story and I realized the moment Mary heard the announcement from the Archangel Gabriel must be the moment hope found a form, in her face. At the time, my daughter was almost 14, the estimated age of the Virgin Mary, and I suddenly connected with the story in a particular way. I kept her home from school that morning to have her sit for the painting. What struck me, and this has since been confirmed from other sources, most recently Anthony Bloom’s book, Beginning to Pray, was that the Incarnation was possible only through God’s will in union with the “yes” of the young Mary, who became the bearer of the Uncontainable God. Just after I painted this I saw the Pontormo Annuciation in a small side chapel in Florence, and Mary had the same sort of look of wonder I tried to catch.  Now my daughter Claire has a two year old son, Theodore. She is a single mother who said yes to the birth of this child, whose name she chose, not knowing it means “gift of God.”

This is a previously published post (December 2009)  with some light editing.

A Torn Crust of What is So

  Silence and Awareness Retreat

The one journey that ultimately matters is the journey into the place of stillness deep within one’s self. To reach that place is to be at home; to fail to reach it is to be forever restless. At the place of ‘central silence,’ one’s own life and spirit are united with the life and Spirit of God. There the fire of God’s presence is experienced. The soul is immersed in love. The divine birth happens. We hear at last the living Word.   N. Gordon Cosby ( Foreword to Search for Silence by Elizabeth O’Connor)

“Our task here is to pay attention to what is,” our teacher said at the beginning of our eight days of silence.

Not what was, or should have been. Not what might be, or ought to be, or what we hope or wish will be – our task was to pay attention to what is so: the content, tone, and felt experience of this moment, now here, and then gone with each new breath.

One learns a lot from disciplined practice of the present moment. As I watch the fleeting shadows of the mind’s picture show, I encounter my restlessness and my estrangement from my deepest self, where holiness abides.

Day after day I watch my ego stride with a flourish to its pulpit to justify, defend, or convince imagined audiences of its own certainties. Persistent and untiring, it plants its elbows on the podium and tightly grips the sides in its effort to prevail against the horror of its disappearance, its diminishing and dying in the embrace of Love.

All the while, as we sit still as stones, Love stalks us, waiting just beyond the edges of the mind to pounce upon his prey and carry us between his teeth into the divine depths of each moment.

Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor writes that it is human nature to resist grace. So I do what comes naturally, as my mind turns to memory, constructs castles of the past, and walks back and forth among its dim corridors. I note, “remembering,” and then turn to planning lunch, my trip home after the retreat, a writing project, and the next five years. I write fiction and spin yarns. I grow paranoid, making up stories about the people who pray with me. They must think I am too noisy and move around too much. I get the giggles and think, if we were not all so dear and earnest, I imagine God would find what we are up to here hysterically funny.

My chin itches. I watch the irritating sensation and overwhelming desire to scratch it finally disappear. I hurt. My neck aches, my shoulders burn, my leg falls asleep and turns from pricking needles to dull heaviness. I breath and watch the fullness and release of pressure change and muscular contraction that draw in and expel the air.

Paying attention to what is feels like being trapped to most of us artists of the great escape. How dull, how boring, how wasteful of time, how tedious this mind I am burdened with.

Yet we kept at it and didn’t want it to end. For in between the spaces of the mind and the complaints of the body, we supped upon the sweet communion of I Am, the God who said his name was unembellished Being itself, Yahweh, what is. Beyond language and images, beneath the anxious ego, we became absorbed by the murmuring intimacies of the soul and God, an interpenetration and exchange beyond our knowing to which we simply consented.

One day in meditation my mind conjured up this poem, written nearly twenty years before. The poem is about the contemplative practice of prayer, an experience of God which never fails to deeply root me in reality and in the depths of God’s presence within me. It is a practice that changes, heals, soothes, and sets me free for joy and service. And for me it is all about Jesus.

This is my body
peeled back
broken open for you.

In my palm blazed suchness,
a torn fragrant crust of what is so.

O Common One, you are so plain,
so familiar, so simple
that we miss you
in our desire for some other novelty.

We seek you in mystery, ritual,
knowledge, and magic – all the things
we hope will take away our pain and imperfection.
We think that if we can just become enlightened,
then we will be one with you.

And here you are, hurrying toward us,
loving us so much, broken hearted,
risking everything
to be with us in our un-enlightenment.

Jesus, you are things as they are.
Here is where I meet you
in still splendor and completion.

Over and over, as I bump up against limitation and fear,
there you are
grinning,
sanctifying the moment
redeeming
in streaming satin
rivers
of grace
what is so.

Like ripe fruit
I pluck you
from the feast of each new moment.

Special gift for Praying Life readers: The latest issue of Holy Ground,a quarterly reflection on the contemplative life is available free for readers of this blog.
To get your free copy email your mailing address to info@fromholyground.org. We will mail it out to you right away.

A Spare, Bare Love

Spring is coming, maybe. A man, whom much of the world will declare is God, is making his way inexorably to death. He is going to do that ordinary thing people do everyday: he is going to suffer and die.

What makes this different is that it is God, who is doing it, and God overcomes the sting of it all by being God, by being One who attains victory, not by escaping evil or by beating it to a pulp, but by surrendering to it and going right through the heart of it, while remaining God.

As we watch Jesus walking toward the cross, we call out: “Don’t do it. Don’t go that way. And for heaven’s sake, don’t ask us to do it, too.” But he, who has set his face like flint, will not hide from the insult and spitting. No, the amazing claim is that this gray day, this aging body, this meager life, this broken world houses glory. And our reluctant following after Jesus is grounded in the slim hope that somehow, some way, this is true.

Spring doesn’t come from some far distant place like an eagerly awaited guest bringing exotic presents.  Spring recoils, bounces up from the heart of winter, and jiggles before us like a jack-in-the-box. The joke is on us.

We strain to turn the crank that sets free joy, and just when our guard is down and we think life is only a meaningless turning to an idiotic tune, out pops Jesus, winking his eye. “Now, die!” he says. We, who thought we were chasing joy and were hot on its trail, find ourselves swallowed up by Life and dwelling in the inner parts of the God who creates joy.  . . .

Amazingly, God wants to be with us and has gone to great lengths to get our attention, even condensing divinity to fit into a mortal being.  And that is almost more than we can bear. What do we know about being company for God? For thousands of years we have been trying to get it right.


 

 Someone hears a Word from the Lord and says: “Here do it like this. Here are the answers we are seeking.” We give names to Truth. We compose prayers, and rituals. We sew up little suits for Truth to wear. Over time Truth grows beyond the suits. Its legs stretch below the pant cuffs. Shirt sleeves ride up to the elbows. We try to stuff Truth back in its tearing clothes. We sew patches here and there. We get into fights about the right color of patches. We pay more attention to the clothes than to Truth.

Truth condescends to wear the forms we give it, only briefly. Jesus bursts the wineskin of the tomb we called death. The church shudders, draws in its breath and exhales, bursting its seams. Some panic. Some become weary and simply turn away.

When Truth as we have known and cherished it begins to grow beyond the forms which have mediated it for us; that is, language, institutions, and rituals – we may shrug our shoulders and walk away, feeling betrayed.

For a good part of the journey our relationship with the Holy is largely self serving. We seek God for our and others’ benefit. Then during this tedious lent we go seeking help and find a forlorn God carrying a cross.


 

Jesus asks, “How long have I been with you and you still do not understand? I want to be with you – not just to bring you peace, joy and good, but even more, because I need a place to lay my head.  Will you stay with me one hour?”

“We usually begin our acquaintance with God from the outside in. Jesus is external, beyond us.  I learn about God from the historical record, the witness of the church, scripture – through forms, rituals, disciplines, words, symbols. Could it not also be possible to know God from the inside out? To experience God from God’s interior reality, a reality which the forms seek to represent or express?  “Where are you staying?” John’s two disciples ask Jesus. “Come and see,” he says. And they went and saw where he lived and remained there with him that day. (John 1: 38-39)

How would it be for you to live in the place where Christ lives? To eat and sleep and move about in his home?

The shift from knowing Jesus from the outside in to the inside out may be perilous. The structures of meaning, categories for naming and holding one’s experience and truth, begin to disintegrate. They no longer work to contain one’s experience of self and Christ. We may feel confused. What was certain and absolute seems less so. We may feel abandoned by the God of our past experience. We may think we are losing our faith.

Spiritual growth may involve the pain of withdrawal we feel, as God is yanking our cherished means of knowing Divine Reality away from us. Our spiritual sense is still too unrefined and accustomed to spiritual glitz to appreciate the more subtle flavor of pure faith. Hence we may feel aridity and dullness. 

 

As God calls us away from familiar ways of knowing God what is left? Nothing but loss and a cross on hill with a dead man hanging from it? Stay there a bit longer. Wait. Be confused. Consent to not knowing or understanding.

Something you cannot even conceive of is preparing to spring up. Something so new, so radically different your mind cannot name is sending out roots in the silent darkness. Tiny tendrils are thrusting through the heavy earth, threading their way around stones to living water. Wait some more.


Oh, it’s hard to bear the ambiguity, the urge to plow up the soil and rip out the root, to hold it to the light, dissect it, name its parts and feel that secure sense of power and control where we can say this is this and that is that. Yet we can wait. We can trust until it stands before us in the morning sun. Then we reach in joy to touch once more our Beloved.

      “Don’t cling to me,” he says. (John 20:17)

Here is a spare, bare love. All that is left is a man walking alone carrying what will kill him, the merciless weight of mortality. Here is only a naked soul surrendered to God, slung from the pillar of its own predicament.

If God could enter into our humanity with humble love, can it be too much for us to do the same? There is no other way into the Kingdom.

Here this is what is so:  we all screw up. We all are limited and frail. And we can rejoice, because we do not have to lie about it anymore. 

Spring tenses in the roots of the pear tree. And all who were ever carried off in the teeth of jealousy or simply in the way of things, all innocence defiled, all vulnerability exploited sink with a sigh into a white dawn that stretches like a shroud wound round the world.

“Come follow me,” the Dawn whispers. And we are invited to take another step into that place beyond knowing, beyond feeling where everything really is all right.

Excerpted and adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground, by Loretta F. Ross (Ross-Gotta)
The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org,
Contact the author lross@fromholyground.orgwww.fbook.me/sanctuary
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