Hail Mary full of grace,
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.
As I made my way through congested traffic to finish up my shopping, this simple prayer started up, unbidden, inside of me. The Hail Mary or Ave Maria is one of the prayers and scriptures on my inner playlist. It is part of me like an internal organ, quietly fulfilling its purpose and helping to keep me alive. In odd moments I overhear this interior worship. As I step away from my self preoccupation, I find myself occupied by the Spirit with its sighs and groans too deep for words.
I have always loved this prayer, which is a part of the devotional life of many people. The first two lines are the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary as found in Luke 1: 28-30. I recall memorizing it, as I walked along the sidewalk of the campus at the University of Northern Iowa in 1966.
This entreaty to Mary as Mother of God is for some Protestants a "Catholic accretion" and considered unbiblical and theologically unsound. Some will say that we do not need Mary's intercession, when we can go directly to God on our own. Such views ignore the power and influence of mothers throughout the Bible, as well as their privileged status before God as persons of God's particular compassion and love. Those who write doctrines tend not to be poets or comfortable with metaphor and mystery.
The scriptures contain numerous images of God as feminine. The Hebrew word for Holy Spirit in Genesis is a feminine noun. My seminary teacher liked to translate Genesis 1: 1 as, In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void, and as for the Spirit of God, she was moving over the waters.
Of course God is much more than what we may consider as feminine or masculine attributes. God is beyond gender. Yet Christians believe that two thousand years ago God came into our midst for a time dressed as one us with gender. God condescended to enter into our cultural biases to bring truth and freedom and radically change the world. If the form God chose had been a woman’s, would the outcome have been the same? Given the culture then I doubt if a woman would have ever received the same attention or regard. Instead God chooses a woman to enable God’s self to become one of us.
No matter how hard some scholars may have tried to stamp them out, the feminine dimensions of divinity in whose image both men and women have been created make their way into our consciousness in one form or another and seek expression in our faith and worship.
Personally, I like the notion of God having and/or being a mom, a generating source. I know it makes no sense for some, but I like the image of God as a fecund nurturing womb, engaged in creative, life-bearing activity, a Spirit “brooding” over the waters like a hen. Acknowledging the feminine in God is an important balance to patriarchal images and wholly masculine notions of Holiness, which leave some women feeling excluded, and have been used as a rationale for the disregard and abuse of women for centuries.
I learned this prayer in college, when I converted to Catholicism. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was looking for feminine imagery and feminine gifts in the expression of my faith, which were largely absent from the rational Presbyterian worship of my childhood. I was Catholic most of my young adult life and found there opportunities to worship with more than my mind and my voice. Incense, kneeling, bowing, colorful statues, many of which were women, saints, guardian angels, rosaries, a veil perched on my head, a small prayer book to carry – all allowed the imagination and passion of my young soul to find expression.
Yes, my Anabaptist and Quaker ancestors were probably turning over in their graves. Yes, it was patriarchic. The singing wasn't the best and Biblical study nonexistent, but I arrived with plenty of that preparation. To find a woman, no matter how sentimental and passive she may have been depicted, prominently figuring in worship allowed me to feel that this was a place, where I belonged. Remember this was sixties.
So out shopping, I pondered Mary being full of grace? What does it mean to contain nothing, but grace in one's being? The people I encountered seemed full of many things instead of grace – anxiety, impatience, and weariness. There were some exceptions, like the insurance salesman who works on weekends at Orscheln’s, paying off medical bills and some credit card debt. He had a lot of grace inside himself. Some of it spilled out on the receipt he handed to me, and I have carried it in my purse all week.
Mary is full of grace, because her womb is full of Christ, who offers grace to all. Parking in front of Best Buy, I decided to take a look at what in me might be crowding out the grace of God.
Here is what I found:
• That deep wound I get out sometimes and pick at
• The steady current of mindless, slightly hysterical, anxiety which makes me critical, paranoid, and assume things about people which are not true
• That nagging expectation of catastrophe that hides under perfectionism
• A to-do list telling me I am way behind, lazy, and going to be counted tardy
• Insecurity and self-doubt making pronouncements about how I am too old for this or that and how my writing sucks
What in you is not graceful, kind, forgiving, loving? How do you delete these freeloaders from your inner playlist?
We handle the negatives in ourselves gently with kindness, mercy and forgiveness. Love the little boogers. Say, “Hello, To-Do list! Come here. It looks like you need a hug.” Here’s the secret. It takes grace to be full of grace. The way to make room for grace in our lives is by being graceful to ourselves first. Then grace naturally flows from us to others. To forgive others we must forgive ourselves.
What would it be like for you to be full of grace – stuffed to the gills with mercy and forgiveness? Why not try it? See what happens, what you notice. So little grace is present in our national discussions and relationships with one another. We hold grudges, harbor resentments, and take a perverse delight in the missteps, failures, and sins of one another.
In an NPR interview Rabbi Shaul Praver, who spoke at the anniversary observance of the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, offered these words:
We have found the cure for the social disease of violence, hatred, and bigotry, and that cure is good old-fashioned loving kindness. When everyone practices that it does change the atmosphere of a room, of a town, or a community, of a state and a country. And so, it is not of only local value, but it is of universal value.
Grace – unmerited, undeserved, unearned. The hope, the first budding of such kindness is growing in Mary's womb.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, may it be so for all us sinners.
Learn more about the Hail Mary prayer on Wikipedia.
At the woods’ edge I wait for you
to come heal the violence in me.
I look and look at the trees,
framing the plum stained sky.
I look and look at the fawn in the clearing,
the cedar with blue berries,
the red sun sliding under the horizon.
I look and look at the dark
creeping over the countryside.
At vespers you
peer in windows,
meow at the door,
home into my heart.
I cannot get enough
of you filling my senses
with sweet awareness.
You, the Word
in whom our wordiness dissolves,*
As leaves loosen and float to the earth,
we tumble over, lay our bodies upon the path.
You come, finger over your lips – Hush, be still –
to take back territories in our souls,
lands occupied by greed, fear, envy.
It is 5:28 pm, and I am weary of words,
the fury of opinions, righteous indignation,
and ideas clanking in the mind like heavy coins.
The vain prattle cannot muffle the murmur
of Herods plotting to kill innocents,
nor the hiss of evil waiting under every rock.
Yet I do believe that all we say and do
counts as nothing next to you,
into us from on high.
His father opened his mouth
out came Jesus.
His mother squatted over cold stones,
pushed, out came an infant
The child gazes into our faces.
A hand reaches toward us.
You – absorb our isolation,
sponge up our misery –
a soft warm cheek
to hold against the dark.
Freedom and the Electric Fence
The brown and white English spaniel sits erect on the broad green lawn. Elijah, trotting along beside me, halts, stares, and sniffs the air. My black lab and I look at the dog sitting still as stone. He wears a small box at his throat. Elijah has seen stone dogs before and stone rabbits too. Once he went up to sniff a stone deer standing in someone’s front yard and barked and barked at it. Giant inflatable Halloween yard ornaments, jiggling and bowing in the wind, scare the wits out of him.
Elijah scents the air again, nostrils dilating, inhaling the meaning of this mystery. Then he tilts his head, wags his tail, tugs at the leash. This dog is not stone! Yet the spaniel remains still, forlorn before this large house on its immense, immaculate sweep of real estate, free of unsightly fences.
Elijah bows and barks. The dog sits, unmoving. I walk closer and say, “Hello, little dog. How are you today?” He gazes into my eyes with a soulful intelligence and silent pleading, which take my breath away. When I speak again, he replies in a whimpering yelp.
As Elijah and I move on, the pup rises and silently follows us along the line of his invisible fence.
Anymore, I have less and less stomach for keeping things in cages – dogs, rabbits, people, theories, truth, God. They won’t stay anyway. When you force them to remain, they wilt, turn gray, and whimper.
We become what we love
and who we love shapes what we become.
If we love things, we become a thing.
If we love nothing, we become nothing.
Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ,
rather it means becoming the image of the beloved,
an image disclosed through transformation.
This means... we are to become vessels
of God´s compassionate love for others.
~ St. Clare of Assisi
Many years ago I deliberately chose a path of what I called “downward mobility.” I chose to become a minister and made a subsequent choice to become the sort of minister for which there were few or no models, namely, to consider prayer as the heart of what I offered. I took up work which I knew would not reward me financially and might well require other sacrifices. Instead of remaining on a career track of higher education administration and teaching, I followed a Love that would not let me go anywhere else, but into its heart.
I was naïve. I thought ministry would be different from the stressful, competitive world of higher education and academia. I thought I would be able to focus on prayer and help others who were struggling with their relationships with the Holy One. Of course, I brought along all of my own unfinished business and the issues that had plagued me in that other world were all waiting for me on the doorstep of the church.
And, yes, this is where ministry and personal/communal growth always occurs: right in the midst of a stressful, competitive environment, with a lot of personal unfinished business.
Downward mobility includes more than lesser income, status, and pension benefits. Downward mobility includes the inner life as well. Over and over, my attachment to lesser gods, my selfishness, my controlling ego, and my pride are exposed, as Jesus invites me to come down off my high horse and revel with him in the lowly, fertile ground of humility.
In the midst of the muck Love seems always to meet me with a different agenda than my own. I call it Love’s way and it haunts me day and night, as I both resist and plead to be conformed to this path of humble trust in God. Love’s way, which is described extensively in scripture, is accessible, freely available to everyone, and is being offered to us moment by moment. And in Love’s way is where I long to dwell all the time.
I fail over and over. When that happens I am like a child lost in a dark woods. A kind of desperate panic comes over me, until I fumblingly discover where I got off the path and make my way back to joy and peace. I need at least an hour a day of contemplative prayer to maintain this deep abiding in Christ. If I want to work with others and help them in their prayer and relationship with God, I need more time. If I want to deepen and grow in knowledge and understanding of God, I need still more time.
I do not for the life of me understand how faith can deepen and flourish in the hearts of people without a serious commitment to spending time alone with God in prayer. And further, while I am on this rant, the internet is insidious in the way it cheapens us, makes us shallow, feeds surface hungers, plays upon and manipulates our opinions, self-understanding and understanding of the world.
Let’s take a deeper look at the way of Love. Here is how Jesus described it:
“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30, (CEB)
I especially like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase of Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
To put on Christ’s yoke and learn from him is to become gentle and humble and to find rest. To become an image of Christ is to put down our heavy loads and bend our necks beneath a yoke, which is easy and light.
Peterson enriches Matthew’s words with the beautiful phrase unforced rhythms of grace. That’s it! How would it be if what characterized our lives was not harried, stress-filled days, constant multi-tasking, distracted, pushing and shoving, controlling and anger, but rather the unforced rhythms of grace?
I suspect many of you know those graceful rhythms, when you find yourself in step with the Spirit and your day unfolds with beauty. I also suspect such days do not occur as much as you would like. How would your life look if you put on Jesus’ easy, light yoke more consciously and deliberately? What might change or what would you do differently?
What if your goal was not success and achievement, but gentleness and humility?
How do we do this? Is it even possible in the world we live in? Matthew tells us how. Jesus tells us how in these verses. Go back and read them again.
Quite simply, becoming like God and wearing the easy yoke, has to do with the company we keep. “Come to me,” Jesus, says. “Keep company with me.”
The only return Love asks for the gift of living in its way is our love – not our money, time, talents – but first and foremost, Love desires our love. This always slays me. The Love that animates life, binds the whole universe, flows into our hearts with joy and delight wants our love! Love wants to be loved. Jesus affirmed this divine desire in the greatest commandment:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
I know how important it is to me to be loved by my children and family, my dog, and my friends. Here is what we may miss: God finds it very important to be loved by us. God desires our attention.
Perhaps, this is because, as St. Clare has written, we become what we love.
It is true. We are not going anywhere.
"Stabilitas loci" as the monks say.
How boring you think.
But have you seen willow dance?
Letting the wind have his way with her
whooshing up her dress tail
bending her backwards in his arms
shimmying her long trembling limbs
in that torrid way?
Stabilitas loci: to remain in one place; monastic vow of stability
Is the digital age affecting our ability to think and live contemplatively and creatively? A serious look at how digital communication affects our prayer, attention, and theological reflection in this issue of Holy Ground
Free sample for readers of The Praying Life:
Heaven is declaring God’s glory;
the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.
One day gushes the news to the next,
and one night informs another what needs to be known.
Of course, there’s no speech, no words—
their voices can’t be heard—
but their sound extends throughout the world;
their words reach the ends of the earth.
Psalm 19: 1-4
I have been posting little reflections on what I hear trees say. Yet "say" is the wrong word, for, of course, trees do not speak the English language, which is the only one I know well.
Language is a rather recent invention in the story of life on earth. With or without words, communication occurs with and among all species. We affect each other deeply - interpenetrating, colonizing, living off, consuming, giving ourselves away, and taking in each other in an intricate network of dynamic, everchanging relationships. Our destinies are connected to each other and together we form the body of life on our shared planet.
Yet our species has been steadily backing away from many of our cousins. Cities, industry, and technology have increasingly allowed us to dissociate ourselves from our dance of interdependency with fish, fowl, insect, animal, vegetable, and mineral - dance, which we can never really escape.
For many humans language has become, not a tool of communion, understanding, and edification, but, rather, a knife which separates our experience of reality into sharp, hard slivers of "meaning," with which we stab and poke each other. Words, mere symbols, which only point toward reality or ideas or emotions, become swords of power to weld against the powerless and attempt to force our view on others. We build idols of abstract constructs and tottering paradigms of what we believe is The Truth, which we then feel constrained to defend and guard against all contradiction.
I do not know how to listen to trees, to frogs, to polar bears, or whales. I do not know how to listen to the woman who has lost her home and family in the flood, or the old pastor who told me I was not ready to be preaching and needed to read a lot more books, and then walked out of my presentation. I do not know how to listen to my friend who has a tumor growing in her brain and has chosen to forego further treatment.
I only know I have to try. I believe that language is only secondary- a pale, feeble gesture - bound to miss its mark much of the time. Primary is that inexpressible intimate connection, where I am touched by and touch into the miraculous life of this spider on my windowsill, the old preacher I offended, and the aspen leaves twisting in the wind.
It is there - as life meets life and bows before and honors this mysterious, energetic vitality of Being in all that is, that I know once again that I belong. Here is my community. I see how we have been created to need one another and are bound together by a strange and marvelous Love.
Even when my words and efforts fail, and I suffer the isolation and estrangement of broken communication or connection, I am grateful. That pain shows me how we are wedded and welded as one in the very formation of the universe. When that bond is broken, we will always mourn. The pain reminds us that there is more, that we could be more, and that love is refined through its failures.
Moreover, some bit of life is always sending out roots or tentacles or tendrils or a claw or a paw or a hand. We have only to open our fists in order to make a new connection.
I have a been telling you what trees said to me. For this post it is your turn to tell me and those who follow this blog what you hear from the trees.
Here is how:
Watch and walk among the trees in the video below. Or go outside and listen to some trees where you live. Receive what they are "saying." Take your time. Do not hasten to come up with words. Just be open and expectant. Allow the words to come as they will. Then share in the comments what you "heard," so we all may learn from you and know the joy of our connection.I may also be connected with your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org I can’t wait to hear what the trees tell you!
Come and See for Yourself For best viewing of this video set your device on full screen mode.
You can find out more about the fellow who made this and other wonderful nature videos and photography here: Colorado Guy Oh, and he does spiritual direction too!
The Dallas zoo has sent in a black lab puppy to calm their two new eight week old cheetahs. The zoo's creative means of comforting the newcomers got me to thinking about the untapped potential of dog diplomacy.
We already know dogs sniff out drugs, improvised explosive devices, and cancer. They find injured and lost people in disasters. They comfort the sick, the dying, and the grieving. They listen to little kids learning to read. They round up criminals, protect property, and their companions. They help the blind see, the deaf hear, and the disabled accomplish many tasks. They dive into water and retrieve whatever we tell them to bring back. They lower our blood pressure, make us laugh, and love us unconditionally.
So here is a proposal for the US response to our intractable problems and never ending crises: form a Labrador Diplomatic Corps.
Just imagine what parachuting pups might do for the state of world peace? These guys do eat a lot. So the LDC would need to be followed by a shipload of chow. My plan would still be cheaper and way more fun than any of the other options I’ve seen put on the table.
I say put a few pups on that table. Let em run around between the legs of world leaders and chew on their shoes. Let the pups fall asleep in their laps and wake up and kiss their faces. Let the doggies run off with all those piles of papers, attaché cases, and hand held devices. Let them rip and tear all that diplomatic gear and fussy protocol into tiny bits and then pee on them.
I think the whole world might breathe a vast sigh of relief.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them. Isaiah 11:6
flutter among our leaves
settle in the crotch
where eagle builds her nest
cushion and cling
to the little talons of her brood
who carry them off to towering
cliffs, broad rivers, wetlands, tundra,
borne on ascending thermals
to deliver your hearts’ longing back
to your frail lives
A bald eagle’s weighs on average 1000 pounds, but can reach up to 2000 pounds.
We have missed you
What I know of the divine sciences and the Holy Scriptures,
I have learned in woods and fields. I have no other masters
than the beeches and the oaks. Bernard of Clairvaux
Spiritual Practice - Find a tree you like. Place both palms upon its bark. Feel the rough bark surface against your hands. Listen. Lean your weight against the tree. Look.
I am tangled up in heritage and ancestor – those tough ties to blood, tribe, family, and gene – running through scripture and ancient traditions like twisting roots.
Long scattered to dust, hidden, yet flowing through our veins, tenacious forebears animate our lives.
Stop slouching and grow for pity’s sake!
Do you know where you came from and who is still feeding your soul?
After writing this post I was stunned to come across this passage from Isaiah, translated poetically by David Rosenberg, author of the masterful, A Poet's Bible, Rediscovering the Voices of the Original Text.