Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Monastery Dog: A Brief PhotoEssay

Yesterday I wrote this post which was in part about a monastery dog. 

Here is a picture of the dog at the retreat center where visitors stay. 

And here's a picture of the dog at the labyrinth.  Does he walk the labyrinth when we're not around?

Notice that the monastic vow of hospitality extends to dogs.  Someone built this stray dog a house, complete with a welcome mat:

If it was a week ago, I'd have already been on the road for several hours on my way to the monastery. I am grateful for this place, which extends hospitality to stray dogs and wayfaring strangers and fellow monks and anyone who comes to them.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Monastery Dog and the Coffeemaker that Speaks to Satellites

This week, I thought I'd write a poem about the monastery dog.  At first I felt sorry for the monastery dog.  She seemed so eager for attention.  I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.

Yet as my week-end at the monastery proceeded, I decided that the monastery dog was lucky.  She had a never-ending supply of visitors who would likely pet her.  The monks would take care of her.  Not every community has taken a vow of hospitality, after all. She could have been abandoned to a much worse fate.

And she had vast fields at her disposal.  No cooped up back yards for her.  Her joy at racing across the grounds made me happy too.

So, did I write that poem?  No, not yet. 

Instead, as I was catching up on old NPR shows, this line leapt out at me:  "My coffee maker is texting me again."  The rest of the show talked about technology and smart appliances (meaning wired and communicative) and smart houses. 

I thought, oh great, just what I need, inanimate objects announcing their needs.  Get in line, inanimate objects.  I thought about the coffee maker, who assumes its needs should take priority, and its bleating of its needs by way of text--a metaphor for modern life, to be sure.

I thought about Mepkin Abbey and the new retreat center:

The roof is made of copper.  The guestmaster monk said that an unexpected benefit of the roof is that copper blocks cell phone signals.

All of these items converged in my brain this morning.  The quote above starts my poem:  "My coffee maker is texting me again."

And I end this way:

I dream of draping every roof
in copper to block connectedness.
Once it seemed miraculous to speak to satellites.
Now I long for silence.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Vow of Stability

I've been thinking about the value of returning to a monastery for the past 11 years. 

Even before I made my first pilgrimage to Mepkin Abbey, I was besotted with monasticism.  Blame Kathleen Norris.  Blame all those people at the time who were exploring ancient-future practices.

I remember going to a grocery store with a group of friends, and one of them asked me which bread was best.  I chose a bread that was called something like Monk's bread.  It had the most fiber, which is why I chose it, but one of my friends rolled his eyes and said, "Oh, sure, if it's made by monks it must be the best."

I returned from my first trip to Mepkin in October 2004 more besotted than ever.  I would have stayed, if I'm not such a practical, sturdy girl.  I realized that as a married, Lutheran woman, I couldn't make a permanent home there.  I realized that I have commitments that I cannot shirk just because I fall in love.

Sure, some women fall in love with dark, mysterious strangers.  Leave it to me to fall in love with an ancient practice and a monastery.  I've always been different.

When I was at Mepkin this time, I felt more tired than usual.  I didn't sink into the liturgy, the chanting of the Psalms, as easily.  I felt vaguely resentful about going to church multiple times, even though it wasn't required.

I confessed my feelings to the friends who always meet me there.  One of them said, "Imagine how the monks must feel."

I've tried hard to avoid idealizing the monks.  I've assumed that they must wonder about paths not taken.  I've assumed that if daily life wears me down, that monks, being human, must also experience that.  In fact, a few years ago, the monks instituted desert days, one day each month, days where they worshipped less and tried to avoid doing much work, so that they could rest and refuel.

I'll continue to return to Mepkin.  I expect that I'll feel rapturous again at some point.  I also expect that I'll feel that "Oh, what's the point of all this?" feeling again. 

I have experienced these highs and lows throughout my life.  I experience them as a writer, when some years I love my work, and other years I can't imagine why I keep putting words to paper/pixels.  I feel the same way about my job and about my friends and about my family and about my spiritual communities.

There's that line from Seinfeld:  "It's not you, it's me."

Monasticism shows us a way through and out of the despair.  Monks commit to place and practice.  Those of us similarly committed learn to avoid panic when we feel existential despair.  We have been in this valley before.  We shall move out of it eventually.  We know to savor the times when despair isn't nipping at our heels and freezing our faces. 

I would have learned this lesson even without my Mepkin trips.  I'm glad to know it as I consider my past trip.  I was fighting off a cold, and I was overly tired from a month of stress at work.  It's no wonder I felt more frazzled than usual.

I shall return to Mepkin again--but perhaps not at Lent.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 1, 2015:

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm: Psalm 22:22-30 (Psalm 22:23-31 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25

Gospel: Mark 8:31-38

In this week's Gospel, we have an interesting portrait of what it means to be the Messiah: to be rejected, to be hung on a cross, and to die in a humiliating way.
Jesus makes it clear that just because we believe, we won't lead charmed lives. We will still suffer any number of losses, and perhaps we will suffer even more losses, precisely because we do believe.  Some of those losses may challenge our faith.  We may discover a depth of faith or we may realize that we have shallow reserves.

Over the last 50 or so years of the 20th century, many people came to see Christianity as just one more way to self-enlightenment or self-improvement. Many people combined Christian practices with Eastern practices, and most of them showed that they had precious little knowledge of either.

Or worse, people seemed to see Christianity as a path to riches. We see this in countless stories of pastors who took money from parishioners and, instead of building housing for homeless people, built mansions for themselves. We see this in the megachurch which is held up as an optimum model, the yardstick by which we smaller churches are measured and come up lacking. The bestseller lists are full of books which promise a Christian way to self-fulfillment or riches, while books of sturdy theology will never be known by most readers.

Yes, there are many ways to deny Christ.  My childhood belief system imagined that the worst thing I could do would be to renounce God in a public way.  I loved stories of people who resisted evil, often in the form of Nazis, people who would die for their faith.  As a child, I didn't realize how many ways a mature faith can be challenged and found lacking.

Think about the number of ways that we deny God in our regular daily lives. For example, many of us don't give our money away because we don't really trust that God will provide for us, as God has promised to do. We don't believe in Christ's vision of a redeemed world, because our senses (and our news media) tells us otherwise.

What does our behavior say to the larger world?  We may be willing to proclaim God with our mouths--do we proclaim our faith with our behavior?

Like 3 year old children, non-believers (and shaky believers) are watching everything we say and do. They will say, "If _________________________ claims to believe in God, and yet behaves this way, then I'm certainly not going to believe in God." And so God stands betrayed and abandoned.

The season of Lent is a good time to do some self-inventory. How have we betrayed our core beliefs? How have our behaviors and thoughts betrayed our Creator? How can we change to avoid any future betrayal?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mepkin Sojourn in Brief

I am back from Mepkin Abbey--let me capture some thoughts before I hurl myself back into the world of work:

--Some years, the drive doesn't seem too bad.  Not this year--the miles seemed long and endless.

--Some years, the landscape has more color.  This year, the winter has been tougher, leaving not much color to be found.  I only saw one patch of pansies at the Abbey.  One year, the azaleas were still blooming.  On my last day there, I did see a jonquil, which cheered me.

--The weather was very strange--it didn't get above 34 degrees on Friday, but by Sunday, it was in the 70's.  And as I drove south yesterday, the weather forecast included ice, snow, and freezing rain--it made me want to speed up, even though I was in no immediate danger.

--The liturgy is more austere, which one might expect at Lent.  But did the monks sing the hymns more slowly on purpose, or was the organist (who wasn't there last year) one of the less-sprightly types who would slow every hymn down?

--We wondered if the monks might have a more austere Lenten diet, but it seemed the same.  We had dessert twice on Sunday, for example.  And they have a non-vegetarian option to eat each day.

--I took my laptop, but never plugged it in. 

--That's not to say I did no work.  I did read through my memoir.  It holds together well.  I was worried it might repeat the same ideas over and over, but it did not.  And I had worried that even the longest essays would seem too short, but they didn't.

--I devoured two books:  Gail Godwin's Publishing:  A Writer's Memoir and Meghan Daum's The Unspeakable, perhaps not the best book to be reading as I'm working on my own nonfiction.  Daum is an amazing writer.  Godwin is too, but her book didn't tell me a lot I didn't already know.  Still, it was pleasant, like visiting an old friend.

--I'd have been much more interested in Godwin's memoir if it had included more about her religious life.

--We walked the grounds a lot.  I saw a beautiful sunset over the river.  In all the years I've been going to Mepkin, I've never made it to the river to see the sun set.

--The moon was also breathtaking.  A tiny sliver of waxing moon.  And the first night, the stars were brilliant--the rest of the time, clouds obscured the view.

--The monastery has a dog!  She wandered in as a puppy, and apparently, it was obvious that she didn't have owners who would miss her.  So, she gets to stay.  I shall write a poem about how the joys of being the monastery dog are abundant recompense for all that she won't experience in suburbia.

--Every time I saw her running across the grounds, I smiled.  And she always seemed happy to see us.  We left the last service at the end of the day, Compline, where the Abbot sprinkles us each with water from the baptismal font.  I feel so complete.  But this year, the dog waited outside with a wagging tail--twice blessed!

--Two friends from my community college days make the retreat with me.  It's great to catch up. 

--One friend had just finished organizing a dissertation retreat for the Writing Center at the university where she works.  Perhaps hearing about the retreat explains my dream that I found out I was pregnant and my first reaction was to say, "I better get my dissertation done by the end of summer."

--My friend has said the project I need to work on getting to publication is a collection of photo essays that I've been creating since last year's trip (here's an example).  I think I still need some additional material, but her passion for this project is something I want to remember.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Monastic Poetry Week-end: Thinking about Habits

While I am away at Mepkin Abbey, I'm leaving some poems inspired by my time there:  one per day.  And in case criminals read this blog post, don't think about breaking into my house; you'll meet my spouse, and it will not end well.

Back to poems!

Tomorrow it will be time to reenter the world, to wear the less comfortable clothes of the workplace.  Long ago, I wrote this poem which reflects on the differences between the life of monks, particularly in the area of clothing, and the life of women in the weekly world.  I originally titled it "Monk's Habits," but I think I like "Monastic Habits" better.

Monastic Habits

To put on a robe that would forgive
her for a heavy meal, so unlike
her tailored suits. A robe made of rough
material, no need of special laundering.
Goodbye to astronomical dry cleaning bills.
No worrying about matching accessories.
Always a drab color, day after day.

That robe could buy her anonymity,
invisibility in the world,
no eyes disrobing her, no leers.
That robe declaring her off limits.

And housework, those boring tasks, always renewing
themselves, would confer spiritual
discipline, instead of complaints about her ineptitude.

Even silence, that vow which mystified
her teenage self, more so even than chastity,
now calls to her. She sees herself enshrouded in silence,
no carping, complaining, or criticizing.
She sees herself surrounded by like-minded companions,
rising early in common pursuit, breathing
air perfumed by incense and rising bread dough,
as prayers rise to the heavens.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Monastic Poetry Week-end: the Autumn Poems

While I am away at Mepkin Abbey, I'm leaving some poems inspired by my time there:  one per day.  And in case criminals read this blog post, don't think about breaking into my house; you'll meet my spouse, and it will not end well.

Back to poems!

For the past few years, I've gone to Mepkin Abbey in February.  Before that, I went in the fall.  Below, you'll see two poems that came from the same week-end.

One year, my annual trip to Mepkin Abbey coincided with Veteran's Day, which was first Armistice Day.  It also happened to be near All Saints Day, the first All Saints Day after Abbot Francis Kline had been cruelly taken early by leukemia.  Part of one of the services was out in the monks' cemetery, and all the retreatents were invited out with the monks. I was struck by the juxtapositions, and I wrote this poem:

Armistice Day at the Abbey

The monks bury their dead on this slight
rise that overlooks the river
that flows to the Atlantic, that site
where Africans first set foot on slavery’s soil.

These monks are bound
to a different master, enslaved
in a different system.
They chant the same Psalms, the same tones
used for centuries. Modern minds scoff,
but the monks, yoked together
into a process both mystical and practical,
do as they’ve been commanded.

Their graves, as unadorned as their robes,
stretch out in rows of white crosses, reminiscent
of a distant French field. We might ponder
the futility of belief in a new covenant,
when all around us old enemies clash,
or we might show up for prayer, light
a candle, and simply submit.
I was also struck by other images, and I wrote the poem below.  Some years, I like it, particularly as I tried not to explain too much, to just collect images.  Some years, it feels unfinished to me.

Autumn at the Abbey

I drove seven hundred miles from the tip
of Spanish speaking Florida to the Gullah drenched
lowcountry marsh.

I arose in the wee small hours of the morning
to drive up the spine of the state
with truckers and other insomniacs.

I saw the flaming
orange fields, the flickers
of light across the river.

I have eaten eggs from the chickens
raised by monks and been sprinkled
with holy water before bed.

I saw the baby Jesus
created from a
cornucopia of materials.

I harmonized with monks
and chanted my way through a quarter
of the Psalms.

I watched the monks at sunset
walking under Spanish moss draped
trees, ghosts from a different century.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Monastic Poetry Week-end: "Liturgy of the Hours" and "Horarium"

While I am away at Mepkin Abbey, I'm leaving some poems inspired by my time there:  one per day.  And in case criminals read this blog post, don't think about breaking into my house; you'll meet my spouse, and it will not end well.

Back to poems! 

I have come back several times to the way the monks worship, the liturgy of the hours, a liturgy of chanted Psalms, that weaves through each day.  Below, you can see two poems that explore similar territory.  To me, they're different enough that "Horarium," which came later, doesn't feel like a revision of the early "Liturgy of the Hours."  What do you think?

Liturgy of the Hours

The monks rise while the rest of the world sleeps.
In the darkness, they pray.

The single mother stares at the clock and calculates
costs. The newspaper carriers start
their rounds. Truckers cross
state lines, and a woman writes poetry by candlelight.

The farmer feeds the animals as sunrise
stains the horizon. Early morning exercisers lace
their shoes and retrace their steps. Parents prepare
breakfast, and the monks pray again.

Students rush from class to class.
The housekeeper starts another load of wash.
Frazzled workers everywhere break
for coffee while the monks celebrate the Eucharist.

At noon the world eats lunch.
The monks pray, and then they eat, and then they pray again.

No one leaves work early these days.
As the dark grows close, everyone sits alone
in their cars watching the pavement
and concrete barriers. The monks pray.

The world watches bad television chosen from a host
of options—hundreds of stations beamed
from satellites, and not one satisfies.
Children chat on phones and stare
at screens. Adults wonder
how they got so far behind. The pets settle
into their sleeping spaces.

The monks gather again in darkness pierced
with candle light. Watched by statues
of Mary and the Crucified Christ, they chant Compline.
The Abbott sprinkles each man with holy water
and sends them to sleep in their cells.


The monks get their morning
news from the Psalms. We brew
coffee and scan the TV stations
for news we can use:
diet tips, a weather report,
the quickest way around the traffic jams.

We sit in our coffin
like cars and watch the sun rise
across sluggish traffic. The monks chant
to each other across the chancel
as the morning light shifts
across the sanctuary.

Chained to our computers,
we undo the work of past days
and create documents to be dismantled
tomorrow. The monks tend
the chickens and mulch
the seedlings. We shred
documents while the monks
welcome visitors to a meal.

At night, we click through cable
channels, our glazed eyes focusing on nothing.
The monks light candles
in a darkened chapel and wait
for the final blessing
of the day, a splash
of holy water and a benediction.

(published in Poetry East)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Monastic Poetry Week-end: "Lectio"

While I am away at Mepkin Abbey, I'm leaving some poems inspired by my time there:  one per day.  And in case criminals read this blog post, don't think about breaking into my house; you'll meet my spouse, and it will not end well.

Back to poems!

My life at work is so often noisy, and it makes me yearn for a vow of silence for us all--or some phone-free zones.  It also reminds me of a poem I wrote, "Lectio."  It first appeared in The Innisfree Poetry Journal, an online journal. 

I got the idea for this poem when I was at Mepkin Abbey. I read a brochure that asked us to consider turning our cell phones off--not just to vibrate, but completely off. The word cell leapt off the page, and I immediately thought of the biological definition. Since I was at an abbey, I also thought of the definition associated with monasteries and abbeys. This poem was one of those that came easily to me. Enjoy!

Some monk once said that we should return
to our cells, that our cells
would teach us everything we need to know. 
She thinks of that monk
every time a cell phone interrupts
her class, that jarring, reproduction
of a ring tone, the student's rush
to return to the hall to take a call,
leaving the class behind to try to gather
the fragments of their scattered attention
to return to the task at hand. 
She thinks of that monk
as she tries to declutter.
She chooses a different closet
each month.  She tries to be ruthless
as she sorts, but she lapses
into sentimentality and maudlin tears.  
She thinks of that monk
each month as she returns
to the doctor to do battle
against her own traitorous cells.
The doctor shows her scans of her invisible
insides.  She sees the clumps that will kill
her.  She thinks of terrorists plotting
their dark revenge, of a coven practicing
dark arts, of all the ways a cell
can go bad and destroy all it touches.  
She returns to the church lit by candles.
The smell of wax and chant
of Psalms sends her back to childhood,
that original cell, still so much to learn.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 22, 2015:

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-9 (Psalm 25:1-10 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

We begin Lent back in the country of baptism. Once again, we hear the story of the baptism of Christ. Didn't we just cover this material a few weeks ago?Indeed we did, and it should remind us of the importance of this sacrament. It gives us a chance to notice what we might not have noticed before.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus, too, is just a baby of sorts. God proclaims love for Jesus even before Jesus has done anything substantial. God is pleased with Jesus before his ministry even begins.

It's a rare concept in our modern, first world society, where children are enrolled in activities that will improve their worth to future judges.  We spend many of our days at work trying to prove that we are valuable.  We may return to families where we feel we need to show that we're valid members.  We are bombarded with ads designed to make us feel like we're lacking so that we'll buy something.  Whether we make the purchase or not, it's hard to feel good about ourselves at the end of the day.

Perhaps we should return to this Bible passage periodically. It's important to remind ourselves that God loves us. It's also important to remind ourselves of how much the world cares about God's love.

Look at the end of the Gospel lesson: John the Baptist has been arrested. We can't say we haven't been warned about what might happen to us when we do God's work in the world.

But we're not excused from doing it. The Gospel ends with Jesus continuing his mission, preaching the gospel of God.

Lent is at hand. Many people think of Lent as Spring Training Camp (or Boot Camp) for Christians-these images aren't mine, but I've seen so many people use them, I'm not sure who should get credit. Lent is a great time for us to get serious (again) about our faith journey. Lent is a great time to spend some contemplative time to consider the ways that we're living out our Christian faith and the ways that we could improve. Many people will give up something for Lent. Many people will add something, like more Bible reading, more prayer, more devotional reading, more charitable work.

We've just celebrated Ash Wednesday, the holy day that reminds us that we're not here for very long. We just do not have time for most of the self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors in which we engage. Now is the time to turn off our televisions and to focus on something more important. Now is the time to give up our self-loathing and to focus on our God, who is well-pleased with us.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Remember that You Are Dust

Another Ash Wednesday is here.  Another chance to open the ash pots and smudge the ashes on our foreheads.

Another chance to remember the ancient wisdom:  Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.

And yet, there is work to be done between birth and the grave.  Bills must be paid.  Work must be done.

And there is time for joy.  Every day God tries to get our attention.  But the messages are written in chalk, and our attention spans are as short as dust.  Today, pay attention.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, and Our Lenten Disciplines

Today is the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent begins. The holidays of Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Mardi Gras have their roots in the self-denial of the Lenten season. My students are always amazed when I tell them about the fasting traditions of Lent and the need to get rid of all the ingredients that you'd be giving up during Lent: alcohol, sugar, eggs, and in some traditions, even dairy foods. They see Mardi Gras and Carnival as convenient reasons to drink and have ill-considered sex. They've never made the connections between these holidays and Lent--and frankly, most of them don't even know what Lent is.

Mardi Gras and Carnival, holidays that come to us out of predominantly Catholic countries, certainly have a more festive air than Shrove Tuesday, which comes to us from some of the more dour traditions of England. The word shrove, which is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to seek absolution for sins through confession and penance, is far less festive than the Catholic terms for this day.
Today is a good day to think about our Lenten disciplines.  The other day in the locker room of my little gym, two women talked about what they planned to give up for Lent.  I couldn't resist.  I said, "Or you could add something for Lent, something that would enrich your life."

A different woman chimed in to say, "One year, I decided to give a compliment to one person I didn't know once a day.  It was really neat."

We talked about the other ways to add instead of subtract for Lent.  So many of us want to give up chocolate or alcohol--but why not add an extra serving of veggies each day?  Why not add some daily nourishment for our souls or brains by adding more devotions or more reading?

I've done variations of it all throughout the years.  I'd like to do more with art.  I will always be writing.  I'd like to do more with photos, more with collage, more with fiber art and small sculptures.  My hands want something more tactile.  I have a small sketchbook.  Maybe I'll start carrying it with me.

Of course, all of these Lenten disciplines are ones I try to adopt periodically throughout any given year.  Lately I've wondered if I should be focusing on something a bit more rigorous or something that I wouldn't ordinarily try.  Maybe next year.  The time to choose for this year grows short.

I so often begin Lent with good intentions.  Why is it so hard to follow through with those good intentions?  Why does 6 weeks seem so long?

I will be wrestling with those questions as I write a blog post for the Living Lutheran site, a post which will appear in March.  This year I am feeling blessed to be part of that site.  The site has changed editors, and I feel particularly lucky that the new editor likes me as much as the old editor did.

Ah, gratitude, that most ancient discipline!  If I could choose only one discipline, I'd like to remember to slow down and appreciate more throughout the day.

In this season of impending ash and penitence, I wish us all well as we prepare for Lent, in whatever way makes sense to us.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Transfiguration 2015: the Photo Essay

We long to be transfigured, from the soles of our feet on up.

Maybe we feel like this old abandoned house.

We are hoping to be transformed into something useful, like a pottery studio.

We want someone to come close enough to us to realize that there's a pottery wheel on the porch:

We want someone to see our inner glow, even though from the outside, we look like a chunk of concrete"

Ash Wednesday will be here soon enough, all of our flowers curling and brown:

For now, let us linger in the land of light, the glow from those transfigured.

Let us remind ourselves of the message that God sends us over and over again.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Valentine's Day, Transfiguration Sunday, and Ash Wednesday

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, which in Protestant churches always comes the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  But it doesn't always come the day after Valentine's Day.  It's a juxtaposition that swirls in my brain.  Let me capture some thoughts:

--I think of Peter up on the mountain top, Peter, who wants to build booths, to turn Christ into Carnivale.  I think of that urge towards capitalism.  I feel the same weariness when I saw all the ads for flowers and diamonds and gifts.

--I also saw how that urge towards capitalism turns shabby late in the day.  We stopped by the CVS to pick up some cold medicine for my poor spouse.  I saw the flowers that weren't chosen, the candy that will go on sale this morning.  I don't want to see it as a metaphor about love.

--I also have Ash Wednesday on the brain, especially after a year of hard losses and the foreshadowing of losses to come.  Does all our love just come to ash?

--Well, yes, in one sense it does.  But Transfiguration Sunday reminds us that God has other plans.  God can take dust and create a world.  God can take the dust of all our dashed hopes and turn them into a creation of glowing wonder.

--These holidays and high holy days should also remind us of God's example of ultimate love.  God knows us truly and completely--and God loves us anyway.

--We are called to show that kind of love too, and not just to our loved ones.  It should be easy to love those people.  We also need to show that kind of love to the people who are difficult to love.

--In this way, we help to transfigure the world.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Feast Day of Saint Valentine

Here's one of those strange feast days, a feast day that's more popular in the general culture than it is in the church culture that pays attention to saints and their days. 

 Those of us in religious circles might spend some time thinking about this feast day and the ways we celebrate it, both within our religious cultures and in popular culture.  I've often thought that marriage at its best is sacramental:  it demonstrates to me in a way that few other things can how deeply God loves me.  If my spouse's love for me is but a pale shadow of the way God loves me, then I am rich in love indeed.

I use the word marriage cautiously.  I don't mean it the way that some Christians do.  I mean simply a love relationship between adults that is covenantal and permanent in nature, as permanent as humans are capable of being.

I realize that this day is fraught with sadness and frustration for many people. I went to elementary school in the 1970's, before we worried about children's self esteem. If you wanted to bring Valentines for only your favorite five fellow students, you were allowed to do that. So, some people wound up with a shoebox/mailbox full of greetings and treats, and some wound up with very little.  I was in the middle, but instead of focusing on how lucky I was to have love notes at all, I compared my haul to those of my prettier friends.  I'm still working on remembering the wisdom a yoga teacher told me once:  "Don't compare yourself to others.  It won't help your balance."

I still worry about how this day might make people feel excluded.  I worry that as with baptism, we don't support people in their covenantal relationships in all the ways that we could.

To me, this feast day is essentially a manufactured holiday, yet another one, designed to make us feel like we must spend gobs and gobs of money to demonstrate our love.

Every day, ideally, should be Valentine's Day, a day in which we try to remind our loved ones how much we care--and not by buying flowers, dinners out, candy, and jewelry.  We show that we love by our actions:  our care, our putting our own needs in the backseat, our concern, our gentle touch, our loving remarks, our forgiveness over and over again.

And sustained by the love that sustains in our homes, we can go out to be a light that shines evidence of God's love to the dark corners of the world.  Every week, we are reminded of the darkness, and some weeks it intrudes more than others.  We must be the light that beats back the darkness.

On this Valentine's Day, let us go out into the world, living sacraments, to be Valentines to one another, to show a weary world the wonders of God's love.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Monks, Marriage and Valentine's Day

Yesterday's post linked to poems (mine and others) for Valentine's Day.  Today, a different sort of writing for Valentine's Day.

In yesterday's post, I wrote about the theology in the poem, "Is it my theology?  No.  I didn't intend it as theology--I save that writing for other outlets."  And today, you can see an example of that theology.  My post about monks and marriage is up at the Living Lutheran site.

The post admits the salacious sound of the idea:  “'All I need to know about marriage I learned from a monk!' It’s a bad movie, just waiting to be made. But in all seriousness, the monks have much to teach us about deep commitment. It’s a similar commitment to love that we see from our creator."

Here are some more quotes to whet your appetite:

"Our larger culture sets aside a day to buy chocolates, champagne and cards – but every day should be a day that we celebrate love of all kinds. God, who came to dwell with us, showed us many examples of how to live a life committed to love."

"It’s only been lately that I’ve been reflecting on marriage as a similar vow of stability. Cloistered monastics take a vow to a specific monastery or abbey. In many ways, the vow of stability is also a vow of commitment to a larger sense of religious institution.

Likewise, those of us who have taken vows to a partner have taken a similar vow of stability, a commitment to place, where place is a person. But in many ways, marriage is more than just a pledge between two people. We commit not just to a relationship but to a larger vision of what a marriage can and should be. By that commitment, we’ve closed the door to other decisions. In a way, life becomes easier."

"As our culture races toward Valentine’s Day, it’s a good time to consider what our church communities do to help those members who have taken vows. It’s a good time to consider what we can all do to celebrate a deep commitment to love."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Poetry Thursday: Poems for Valentine's Day

A few years ago, a group of us at work met to compare poems and art.  And now, one of those poems is up at Escape into Life:  go here to read it.  You'll need to scroll down to get to my poem.

It's part of a great feature, poems and art for Valentine's Day.  Last week's installment was wonderful too.

When I think about the writing process of that poem, I don't think about words.  I remember it as the time when our Pam Reagan, our visual artist friend, showed us a mask.  When she said mask, I thought Mardi Gras and two dimensions.  She told us that she had broken glass Christmas ornaments, but I thought she had laid them flat.

I was not prepared for this:

When I read the poem, I see the elements of the piece in the poem, particularly in these images:

"You envisioned the Mardi Gras mask"

"the glittered borders"

But I no longer remember how I came to use the idea of a rosary, of deconstructing sacred relics to repair a heart: 

"You didn’t realize you would need to deconstruct
your rosary to have a sturdy
thread to stitch your heart
back together. But here you sit embroidering
fancy patterns with beaded embellishments."

It feels somewhat sacrilegious to me, yet I know that it's sound theology of a sort. 

Is it my theology?  No.  I didn't intend it as theology--I save that writing for other outlets.  But I do love the imagery, and I don't feel that I've used it in a profane way.  It may not be sacred, but it's not intended as a desecration.

The poem does what I want for all my poems:  it makes me look at a subject differently.  In this case, it takes images that have a powerful potential for banality that comes from overuse and makes me think about them differently.

This morning, I'm thinking about poems and symbols and parables and all the ways that good theology also makes us think about the world differently.  Does my poem make us think about rosaries and repair differently?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 15, 2015:

First Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 50:1-6

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9

I often approach Transfiguration Sunday by thinking about ways to transfigure myself. In just a few days, we enter the season of Lent, that season of ash and penitence. Lent gets us ready for the joy of Easter. Lent gives us the perfect opportunity for self-exploration, to analyze our behaviors and beliefs that keep us from being Resurrection People.

Many of us will embrace our desire for transformation by giving something up.  Often it's something we should have given up anyway.  Some of us will adopt a Lenten discipline that adds something to our days.

Some of us are too tired to even come up with a transfiguring plan.  Maybe we envy the Peters of the world, with their shaggy enthusiasm.  Maybe we wish that Jesus would call us the Rock upon which he will build his church, even as Christ has to correct Peter again and again.

Maybe we are feeling like sand, the former rock of faith abraded away by the difficulties of life.  We know that a house built on sand will wash away with a big storm or with the daily movement of the waves.

But take heart:  concrete mixed with sand will be stronger.  And where do those of us who are sand find concrete?  Often we don't even have to look.  Often our family and friends are in their concrete phase when we're in our sand phase.  We strengthen each other, even when we're unaware that we're doing it.  But how much stronger we could be if we were more intentional.

Jesus knew the value of community. He knew the human tendency to rush towards transfiguration.  We yearn to be different, but so often, we shun the hard work involved.  We might embrace transformation before we stop to consider the cost.  But if we are surrounded by community, the work transforms into something more festive.  If we stay on top of the mountain after the light fades, we may come to feel stranded.

Jesus reminds us again and again that the true work comes not from telling people what we’ve seen, but by letting what we’ve seen change the way that we live. Our true calling is not to be carnival barker, but to get on with the work of repair and building of the communities in which we find ourselves.  

We can be the rock, the concrete, the sand.  Christ's vision is big enough to transfigure us all.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Foreheads: Crosses of Ash, Crosses of Oil

Last night, I talked to my pastor about Ash Wednesday.  He said he planned to do the final planning this morning.  I said, "Can I be an ash smudger?  I really love being the ash smudger.  I'd do it year round, if it was liturgically appropriate!"

We were at a church council meeting, so my enthusiasm wasn't completely out of line, although not exactly shared by my compatriots.  However, it surprised me, and I've been puzzling out why I like it so much.

I think about the other time we put crosses on each other's foreheads:  during our monthly healing service, for example.  Why don't I feel the same pull to do that?

I do, but it's a different feeling.  As I smudge the oil, I can often sense the brokenness and the yearning for healing.  And even though I know intellectually that it's not about me, that I'm not the Messiah.  If there's healing to be done, my fingers, words, and the oil, are a very miniscule, non-essential part.  But my emotional side feels fretful about the disappointment that might lie in wait for the bodies connected to these foreheads.

In short, so much hope is riding on that cross of oil . . . but the cross of ash isn't carrying the same weight.  Yet I feel the same tenderness as I approach each forehead.

I've written before about how I used to hate, hate, HATE Ash Wednesday as a child.  But as an adult, it's become one of my favorite high, holy days.  It's partly about the symbolism, which marks a shift to the liturgical year.  It's partly about the chance to do something different. 

But the older I get, the more I am aware of how we are but blades of grass, so quickly withered and blown away.  I like that reminder.  I think of my friend's Hindu priest, who smudges ash on his face every day as a reminder of mortality. 

Once I thought that we'd all be better off if we did the same.  Lately, I need no such reminders.  My Facebook feed is reminder enough of how quickly life can change.

It's also the time of year that my inner visual artist perks up and wants to play.  We could do so much with ash.  I am yearning to paint, yearning to stitch.  Let us see . . .

Monday, February 9, 2015

Modern Prophecy and Writing in the Margins

Paul Elie has a fascinating blog post about Flannery O'Connor.  He's been traveling in Africa, and he sees that region, the Global South, as very similar to O'Connor's South, the U.S. South of the middle of the 20th century, so different from the U.S. South of today.

This part sticks with me.  First he quotes himself from an earlier lecture that he gave:  "Her work will make sense when the “Protestant South” is the territory of Central and South America. It will make sense when the admirable nihilist, the practitioner of a do-it-yourself Christianity, is an oilworker on a derrick in Nigeria or a “house Christian” in Beijing. It will make sense because she looked forward, not back—looked forward imaginatively through the “realism of distances,” another term for prophecy."

And then he continues:  "Well, to travel in southern Africa is to know that this is true already – or rather, that it has become more true in this part of the global South while it has become less true in Atlanta and Louisville and New Orleans.  The coexistence of races, and the separation of the races; the busyness and disorganization and drama of public life at streetside and open market; the do-it-yourself churches with their creeds handpainted on the walls outside; the constancy of poverty; the sense that life is precious, because life is dangerous, and one’s own survival is not assured – all these are recognizable in the big cities, the villages, the townships of South Africa."

He talks about writers who speak to the periphery and how the periphery is larger than we imagine.  I have spent much of my life thinking about writers who either choose to depict life in the margins/periphery or writers who have been marginalized, which can be a different group.

I have been thinking about writers who are trying to create work that builds bridges between cultures who haven't often talked to each other.  I've thought about my own work, as I've been creating a query letter for my book that is a memoir and a collection of essays.  Could my work, that's coming out of a Christian tradition, appeal to my atheist friend?

I don't always think of myself as writing from the periphery, but I am working at a for-profit school, a marginalized place in some ways for people from a traditional academic background.  I am a Christian in a world that feels indifferent to faith--and I feel fortunate for the indifference, as I am well aware that in many parts of the world, I wouldn't be just marginalized but under threat of death.  And I am also an artist making my way in a capitalist world, an immigrant/pilgrim of a different sort.

In a way, I feel I'm claiming a title that I don't deserve by claiming my status as writing from the periphery.  After all, I'm solidly middle class, with resources that many middle class people don't have.  I have multiple degrees.  I exercise and eat sensibly most days.  I have a rather boring life, where I go to work every week day and return at night to a loving husband. 

Can this be the world where prophetic visions are birthed?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Saturday Gratitude: for Strong Backs and Strong Arms

I expected to be more sore today.  Yesterday, after a vigorous spin class, I popped by the house of friends.  They were getting 2 pallets of mulch and 2 pallets of river rock delivered.  As with many an item, the delivery stops at the driveway, so they planned to spend as much time on Saturday as it took to get the mulch and rock to the backyard, behind a fence with a lock.

I planned to help.  I thought I would stay for an hour.  But it was such a nice day, and the work went fairly quickly, and it was so strangely satisfying.  My spouse was out of town, so my day was completely my own.  After the week I had at work (shredding, sorting, 3 hour long HR meetings, sad/angry people), it was so WONDERFUL to feel like we were making progress and to feel like I was truly helping.

It was also wonderful to realize that my body works in this way.  We were 3 women age 49 and over, and we could move 4 pallets in less than 2 hours.  Each bag of rocks weighed 40 pounds, and I moved at least 20 of them.  We all work out, but we don't do a lot of manual labor. Although I wouldn't want to do it every day, and certainly not for a living, it was good to know that I can do it.
In fact, we stopped at one point about halfway through and all looked at each other.  One friend said, "Let us now give thanks for strong backs."  I said, "Let us now give thanks for strong backs and strong arms."  It felt like a holy moment of prayer.  I don't know if they felt it too.  I do feel that the work continued to go smoothly, when it could have fallen apart at any moment. 

I did feel like we were sincerely giving thanks.  I was thanking my maker, and it wouldn't surprise me if the other two women were too.  We were also thanking ourselves, for getting to the gym and keeping ourselves strong.  And I was thankful to live in a society, where 3 women can be outside for several hours without being threatened.

Today I'll offer prayers for all those who are not so lucky.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Work in Progress: An Idea for a Retreat

My mom and I have been asked to lead a retreat for her church.  Because I view this blog as a repository of ideas to share and a way to look for feedback and a way to record this kind of work in progress--for all these reasons, let me post my initial ideas.

Let's say that the retreat will be a study of parables, both some parables in depth, and the larger idea of parables:  why did Jesus use them?  What can we learn from them that we don't already know?  If the group needs a blurb, here's one:
 Parables comprise 40% of the Gospel of Matthew, 36% of the Gospel of Luke.  But we rarely study the parable as an art form.  Join us on this retreat to learn how Jesus used parables and what we can learn from them.  We'll dive deeply into some of the more famous parables to see what we might have missed.  Maybe we'll even write some parables of our own.  And we'll learn how we can be living parables.  
A catchy title . . . hmmm.  Would the title Living Parables catch your attention if you didn't already know me?  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Existential Crises

Some weeks, I feel good about what I'm doing with my life:  good about what I can do as an administrator, good about my teaching, good about my writing.  During really good weeks, I also feel like I'm a good wife, a good friend, a good daughter/sister/aunt.

This week has not been one of those weeks.  This week has been a week where I think back to grad school days:  I had such promise then, and I didn't even realize it!

This has been a week where I sorted through boxes of old assessment artifacts, carefully collected, dutifully analyzed, the subject of many reports, stored for years, and never asked for, reports never read.  It's been a week where I'm asked to create spreadsheets of information that already exists on other spreadsheets.  And then, because my existential crisis wasn't deep enough, I went to a mandatory, 3 hour HR training session on how to discipline and document misbehaving employees.

Our church will be spending the next two weeks with Matthew 16:  13-28, and I found it a refreshing read this morning.  In this Gospel reading, we find Jesus asking some of the basic questions. “Who do men say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a curious exchange that has Peter proclaiming Jesus as Lord, and Jesus instructing him not to tell anybody about himself.

Hmmm. Is this a basic existential moment? Surely, of all the humans who have walked the earth, Jesus would have the least reason for asking these questions—depending, of course, on your view of Jesus. Many of us believe that Jesus understood his purpose from babyhood, or at least during his childhood, when he disappeared only to be found in the Temple, teaching the priests (that story appears in Luke, not in the other Gospels). On the other hand, some scholars speculate that Jesus didn’t understand the full scope of his mission, that Jesus, like many of us, spent his days asking God, “Am I doing what you want me to do?”

We see in this text Peter getting the kind of affirmation that many of us crave. Jesus tells Peter that he will be the cornerstone, the rock.

I think of Peter and imagine that in times of frustration, he must have looked back at this moment with Christ. What a comfort that memory must be.

I spent much of my younger years longing to be sure that I was doing what God put me on earth to do, as if I had only one destiny, and I might be missing it.

My parents, in their wisdom, kept reminding me that God can use me no matter where I am. God is the original collage artist, taking bits and pieces that don’t seem to go together, and creating them into a cohesive whole.

During weeks like these, I remind myself of the multitude of small acts that I make each and every day to make life better for those at our school.  I listen to distressed colleagues, and if I can try to solve problems, I offer a solution--but I remind myself that sometimes, all I am called to do is listen.  This week I helped a sick student who was scared she was dying--but I convinced her that her flu was simply reasserting itself.  I helped a student with all sorts of complicating issues find his classroom which had been moved.  I managed to find a few extra classes for our adjuncts.  I helped a student who needed syllabi from 2008-2009 when she attended, plus credential information for the faculty.  Yes, I have those files on the computer!  I helped a student who needed transfer credit for classes she took in Germany.  This list could go on and on.

As we head away from Candlemas and towards Transfiguration Sunday, I do find myself haunted by the questions of light and our mission on earth.  Are we transfiguring the world?  Do these small acts of compassion make a difference?

I have to believe that they do.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015:

First Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31

Psalm: Psalm 147:1-12, 21c (Psalm 147:1-11, 20c NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39

Again we see Jesus early in his ministry, which at this point, seems to consist of healing and casting out demons. The issue of rest, or lack of it, speaks to me in the Gospel this week.

Notice that Jesus heals Simon's mother-in-law--and what is the first thing that she does? She gets up and serves them. Maybe she shows the appropriate response: what to do with a miraculous healing? Why, cook dinner, of course. But the story reminds me of many female friends I have who will get up from their sickbeds, even when they're burning with fever, to do things for the family, like cooking dinner or doing the laundry. What's behind this busyness?

Also this story faintly foreshadows the story of Mary and Martha. Martha can't stop her frantic rushing around, getting the meal ready. Mary takes time out of daily tasks to listen to Jesus.

Look at Jesus, later in the chapter. He's been on a whirlwind tour of preaching and healing. He gets up early in the morning, "a great while before day" (verse 35), and he retreats. He goes to a lonely place.

It's getting harder and harder to find lonely places. In graduate school, I used to get up at 4 in the morning to get some writing done--it was wonderful, because all the stores were closed at that hour, everyone slept, and because we couldn’t afford cable, there was nothing on TV--no distractions, in other words. I still often get up early to enjoy the lack of distraction.

We could learn a lot from Jesus--turn off the TV, don't answer the phone, disconnect from the Internet, stop our busy chasing after we don't even know what anymore. In short, we need to go to a lonely place.

Notice, too, that Jesus doesn't just flop on a rock and zone out. Jesus spends his down time praying. He uses this Sabbath Time to get in touch with God. We daydream about a lot of things to recharge our batteries: trips to a spa, a super vacation, early retirement. But the way Jesus shows us is simplicity incarnate.

God calls us to a servant's destiny. We are put on earth to be of service to others, doing the same things that Jesus did: preaching, feeding, teaching, healing. People who scoff at the idea of service often fail to understand what wonderful community can be formed during these times of service. Through our service and community building, we become more connected, which heals us—and the world—in all sorts of ways.

But God doesn't expect us to do these things without periods of rest. We need times of retreat, even if we can only schedule short times. We need times of prayer. We need time to listen for God, because the cries of the needy can drown out the still, small voice of God. We need time to refresh, and the easiest way to renew ourselves for the tasks ahead is to pray. The world, with all its aching yearning, will still be there after we emerge from our time of retreat.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Candlemas: Holding the Light of the World in Our Hands

On February 2, the season of Christmastide comes to a close.  This sentence might mystify those of us who take the Christmas decorations down on December 26.   Maybe we smugly wait until January 6, thinking that we know the true meaning of the Christmas season.

I, too, hadn't really celebrated Candlemas until a few years ago--it was a trip to Mepkin Abbey that enlightened me in more ways than one.

Over at the Living Lutheran site, I've written about a post about that time at Mepkin Abbey and the larger meaning of Candlemas.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Candlemas celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after his birth. Simeon holds and blesses the baby Jesus. During a Candlemas homily, one of the Mepkin monks asked us to imagine Simeon who got to hold the light of the world in his hands."

"Today would be a good day to light a candle and to think about our own lights. Are we dimly burning wicks? Take heart – the Bible promises that we can still be useful! Does our light burn pure and true? Take care to protect that flame."

"And for those of us who feel like it’s been too long since we saw sunlight, be of good cheer. The holidays of early February (Groundhog Day, Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day, Imbolc and Oimelc) remind us that the light hasn't really left us. Spring will be here soon."

Go here for the complete post.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Feast Day of Saint Brigid

Today is the feast day of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland.  She is one of the early Christians who stood at the intersection of Christianity, Druidism, and the other pagan religions of Ireland.  She is also one of those extraordinary women who did amazing things, despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived.

Like so many of our early Christian church mothers, she felt called by God from a very early age.  She resisted attempts to get her married:  one account has her scooping out her diseased eye in protest of an impending marriage--and later, healing her dangling eyeball by putting it back in her head.  When we go back to read about the lives of women in medieval times, it's amazing that more women didn't fight harder to go join the cloistered life.

St. Brigid founded some of the first Christian monasteries in Ireland, most famously the legendary one in Kildare.  She also founded a school of art that focuses on metal working and illumination.  The illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kildare, was created under her auspices.  Unfortunately, it's been lost since the Reformation, so we know it by its reputation only.

She's also famous for her generosity, especially to the poor.  She showed this compassion early on, giving away all of her mother's butter to a poor person--and then, by her prayers, the butter was restored.

As a 21st century woman, I'm amazed at what she was able to accomplish, during times that are much more difficult than mine.  Founding numerous religious orders, motivating artists, compassion to the poor, devotion to God--she seemed to have had no trouble leading an authentic, integrated life.  Why does it seem so hard to me?

Of course, I know Brigid across a space of centuries, through the gauze of hagiography and legend.  If Brigid could speak, what would she say?   Would she tell us of the sleepless nights where she wondered how she was going to find enough food, enough contributions, to keep her religious orders afloat?  Would she bemoan all her administrative duties, which sucked away so much energy, when all she really wanted to do was to illuminate manuscripts?

What do our lives say about our beliefs?  If centuries from now, a middle-aged woman read about your life as you're living it, would she be inspired?  Are we leading authentic, integrated lives?  Are we building concrete institutions that will outlast us by centuries?