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 Facebook Page, or email me. I will be happy to compile your suggestions with others and make them available to The Praying Life readers.
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.
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.”
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?
• 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
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 egotistical 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.
This brings me to Sabbath, which 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.
I have always been attracted to sparse, barren, open spaces – the high alpine tundra, where for over five thousand years the bent and twisted Bristlecone Pines dance their gnarled tango with the howling storms and nail 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.
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.
In these recent weeks I have been 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 going to head 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.
So 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 and mystery to a place in the realm where miracles occur.
You come too.
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.
I recently made a big change in my life. I retired. When I hear this word, retire, I picture myself driving my car over to the repair shop and saying, “Hoist me up, Mike, and put 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. In the coming year I will offer spiritual guidance, teach a little, and finish a new book. The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer, which I founded over twenty years ago, will continue.
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, in a large part, 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. This may be because I worked part-time. I 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 throughout those twelve years. Besides, even though the work is difficult and requires a multitude of skills, and the hours long, 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 mystery, which has grasped the human species. It startles the wits out of me every time I stumble upon such a 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 that the traditional forms of ministry, as much as I have loved the work, required 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, as each one 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 because I am a monk, albeit a gregarious one. Monk, which means solitary is in direct conflict with church, which means 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 one desire or another. I do not blame the church for not being a haven for monks, mystics, and hermits, but rather I have been educated and purified 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 Kansasfor 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 in harmonious 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 to 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.
in your will is our peace.
In this moment is your will.
Let's hit the road.
With deep love and gratitude to the Presbytery of Northern Kansas, 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!
Joy: Our Chief and Highest End [Part One]
Once there was a man who played with Jesus a kind of peek-a-boo and hide and seek, asking to see him while he walked. I go now where the man prayed and Jesus is everywhere, sitting in the trees, hanging upside down from the hawk's nest, swinging his arms up ahead along the cow path, turning in wide circles in the heavens, glinting under the silver wings of geese. "Jesus, get out of here," I say. "I have work to do, prayers to pray, fears to nurture, pain to bear, miles to go before I sleep."
He just grins, riding down the back of the willow leaf. AYou bet," he says, "who do you think is in charge here anyway? I came that you might have life abundant."
"Yes, but there is so much suffering and sorrow in the world. I have survivor's guilt."
"Deal with it, sweetheart. Joy is your burden to bear." Then quoting scripture, "'Do not be like a horse or a mule without understanding, who must be curbed with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.' (Psalm 32: 9) Daughter, you are forgiven for being happier than some of the others. In your joy is my joy made complete."
What is the chief and highest end of humankind?" asks the Larger Catechism.
Humankind's chief and highest end is to glorify God and to fully enjoy God.
A friend of mine died after a long debilitating illness. Before he died he told me, "Life is funny. You know, I used to say life is messy. Now I say life is funny. God must be laughing his head off at us, saying, 'Don't they get it?' I have no complaints. Life has been very good to me. I just try to enjoy."
To enjoy: to put into a state of or to be in joy - to indwell rejoicing. Joy is the emotion provoked by well-being, success, or possessing what one desires.
How strange that little teaching in the church has to do with helping us to be faithful to our highest end. We know how to read and interpret scripture. We understand the dynamics of church growth. We can conduct things decently and in order. We can do mission. We are even beginning to understand our spiritual life and prayer. But how many of us can state precisely how it is that we glorify and enjoy God as individuals and as a community of faith? When many of us start to enjoy we feel guilty. To claim that anything I might do actually glorifies God may sound arrogant. To seek enjoyment of God seems hedonistic and wrong.
It takes courage to risk joy. The older we get, the more we know of the ravages of life and sin, and the woeful limitations of the flesh. My dying friend, weak and suffering, says, "I just try to enjoy." Perhaps that is when joy is born the truest, when we are firmly fixed in the limits of humanity, held by the teeth of our extremity with no illusions. Maybe you won't get better. Maybe your friend will die. Maybe your heart will be broken. Maybe the divorce will be final. Maybe the worse that can happen will happen.
Now here, just when you thought it was all over,
where the star has stopped
and let joy in.
It will take a mile if you give it an inch. Watch how it eases a hand and foot through the crack - pushing in a shoulder and hip, and flinging the door wide open on bliss.
What did you think would make the star stop, if not the sad song of mortal need?
A lot depends on the way the yellow willow leaf swims like a slim minnow downstream to rest in the musty shallows of earth. Now it turns, spins in circles, now it dips and glides, now stops, still in the air, then drops like a sigh. A lot depends on such surrender, but even more depends on someone noticing.
Jesus, help us to love you
more than the search for you.
Give us hearts of merriment and gratitude.
Teach us to tolerate goodness, to stable delight.
And Merciful Savior of loss and defeat,
bestow upon us the wit to trust
and to consent to contentment
that your joy and our joy be made complete.
Excerpted and adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta Ross (Gotta), Sheed & Ward, 2000, chapter 23.
Joy: Our Chief and Highest End [Part One]
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them,
went the star that they had seen at its rising in the east, until it stopped
over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy. — Matthew 2:9-10
The star stopped.
Did they slam into one another like dominoes - camels, gifts, magi all in a scrambled pile before the manger?
They had been seeking joy for so long; and they knew more about traveling than arriving, more about need, than about fulfillment.
The star stopped.
The momentum of the journey, the habit of search, sent us lurching forward even as we beheld the prize. Like ones on a long auto trip riding over the flat stretch of prairie, we lie still at night in our beds feeling ourselves hurtling along phantom highways, our flesh imprinted to motion.
So we arrive at our destination, yet act as if we are still on the way. We shuffle on unsteady legs to the doorway where the light glows, the breath of cattle steams, and something makes a low choking coo. We are overwhelmed with joy, a sublime apprehension of the beauty and perfection of what lies before us under the stars and that we need travel no longer.
It doesn't get any better than this:
the glad dog bounding gleefully after the yellow cat in the sun
the clutter in the child's room - a still swirl of hairbrushes, dirty socks, ribbons, Tootsie Rolls, and crayons
you and your friend laughing over lunch in the cozy diner
your own wrinkled hand and all it has grasped and caressed, pushed, smoothed and manipulated
You think you need to get busy. Accomplish something today. Wild-eyed John in his camel's hair is out in the pasture yelling to get with it. "Bear fruit worthy of repentance, you brood of vipers," he shouts. There is so much to do, so far to go. You think this or that thing has to be done. You think joy is up ahead, when you have reached some goal, satisfied that hunger.
We ought not to pray for things, as to pray to live as though we had the things we pray for. We ought to discover just what it is we think these things will give us, to consider carefully what is the sub text of our desire.
The star stopped. Did they pile into each other like keystone cops? Was a screeching cosmic brake applied? Or was it so silent as was hardly noticed in the din of rising galaxies and earth teeming with the shrill frenzy of life and death? Perhaps it was a gentle slowing pressure in the heart, an impulse to do something unfamiliar, maybe a sudden press upon the shoulders to bend the knees and halt midway down the stairs absorbed in joy.
The star stopped and cast its radiance like a neon arrow: Exit now. Food. Gas. Lodging.
Here this is it. You need go no further. The star stopped and they were overwhelmed with joy, writes Matthew.
Well, how long did that last? How long before they began to fret, to glance anxiously at their watches and their bank balances, and worry about the future, recalling Herod and their disturbing dreams. There would be the trip back home by another road, and how they would explain the dishes still undone, the laundry piled upon the floor, the unpaid bills.
How long before they would begin to doubt their own eyes - that they had seen what they had seen? "Perhaps I was mistaken, it all seems so unreal. It was long ago. I was ill, or grieving, young and foolish. We'd better keep on looking, just in case."
O immaculate tenderness, O sweet hay in the wind, ground of our beseeching, joy of our desiring, we meet and greet you, kneel to adore and leave our gifts, then what? You are too much for us - you in your completeness, sufficiency. We, overwhelmed with joy, cannot bear the light and back out of the radiant stable to return to the familiar world of anxious fear and endless seeking.
The tension of incompletion fuels our lives and impels our action. Consummation is hard for us to take. People shouldn't be so happy. "I'm sorry mom, but I just can't keep my smiles down," confides the eight year old apologetically on her eagerly awaited trip to the ice skating rink.
If we get too satisfied, won't there be no striving, no invention, no creativity, no urge to improve, discover, move on? Won't it be boring? Won't it be dull? Our capacity for satisfaction is much less than our capacity for hunger. Who dares to take a vow of stability? Who dares declare that this is it - this broken down stable of a life - this very life in shambles shelters Joy?
What most characterizes American culture, poet Richard Wilbur has said, "...is not unity, but rather a disjunction and incoherence aggravated by an intolerable rate of change."
I gaze in bewildered nostalgia at old photographs of myself and loved ones. Motion is an essential property of things. Everything at one level of its being or another is in motion and change. Is there anything in the universe that is absolutely still? The earth heaves, crumbles, splits, powders. The flesh pulses, sighs and dies in the slow dance of decay. Electrons careen around nuclei. Five-flavored quarks flash in kinetic quick-step.
A lot depends on the way the willow leaf turns in the wind and curls to a dry crisp under the bird feeder, but even more depends on someone stopping to notice. Our awareness gives birth to Christ. Seeing that the star has stopped and climbing down from the camel to kneel before the holy child dwelling in the heart of matter with innocence and salvation is what opens the door for God's entry into our world.
The child yearns to be noticed. The child waits in the crib of creation for us to stop and pick it up and deliver it to the world by virtue of our own seeing. Christ is born by our consent. It all depends on someone saying, "Let it be to me according to thy word." Then a still small soul magnifies the holy one, and, like a mirrored prism, bends light into multicolored beams of joy.
to be continued in next post
Hope is what gets a lot of people through the Christmas season. And the failure of hope is what leaves 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 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 deservedness. 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.
"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!" Isaiah 64:10
It begins with a cry
a muffled sob at midnight
a “Help me!” filling the dark the alley with terror
a fist banging on the door
a numb, blank stare
a hand, clenching and unclenching a ball of tissue
a sudden lurch and collapse, facedown in the open field
This is how it begins, what we call Christmas.
Salvation is summoned by its negation.
The Savior is called forth by the raw expression of the creation’s need, the howl that rises from the shattering collision of what is with what should be.
Christmas begins when God hears
And God heard the voice of the boy… Gen 21:17
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Ex 3:7
Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Luke 1:13
Christmas begins when God sees
I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. Ex 3:7
My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees. Lamentations 3: 49-50
She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her, “You’re the God who sees me!” “Yes, he saw me; then I saw him!” That’s how the desert spring got named God-Alive-Sees-Me Spring. Genesis 16: 13-14
Christmas begins when the earth turns, writhes, and lifts up its lamentation. When the protest of the human heart joins its sorrow with the heart of the One acquainted with grief,
you step out of the forest
and into the clearing
to place in our hands
wet and wild.
Here is my answer, you say.
And the name of the child is
Some links to learn more about the author: www.fromholyground.org
Not enough time, not enough energy, not enough hope, not enough money, not enough jobs, not enough room, not enough love, not enough peace …
not enuf nuthin !
So goes the lie.
As the holiday season of plenty, hope, and generosity opens its arms to us, some of us brace ourselves, suspicious of the season’s glittering wares. The family, who lost their home to foreclosure, the unemployed factory worker, and other despairing and heartsick souls may feel plenty is beyond their reach and scarcity their new normal.
The media depictions of holiday cheer play on our insecurity and sense of lack. They insinuate that no matter how much we have, we do not have the latest and greatest. Advertisers lure us with promises of more. We may find ourselves stumbling after ghostly phantoms in the desperate hope that this year we might find that illusive wholeness we are seeking.
How does one feel whole and fulfilled, when one is more aware of scarcity in one’s life? Perhaps abundance in the midst of scarcity occurs for us as it did for Jesus, when he fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two small fish.
We welcome what we have,
We give thanks,
and watch it multiply.
Practice a Miracle: The Welcoming Prayer
Here is a simple, yet demanding, exercise to practice such a miracle in your own life. It is called The Welcoming Prayer. It was developed by Mary Mrozowski, one of Thomas Keating‘s closest associates and a prime mover in the development of centering prayer. She based the Welcoming Prayer on the 17th-century French spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade as well as Fr. Keating’s teachings and her own lived experience of transformation with its underlying attitude of surrender. There are a number of variations on this prayer. Here is one.
FOCUS AND SINK IN:
Become aware of what is troubling you or occupying your mind. For example, your sadness, anger, or fear regarding scarcity of some kind in your life. Focus on your feelings, both cognitively and physically, noting how and where the feeling affects your body.
Instead of resisting, or feeling ashamed or denying, welcome the truth of what is troubling you. Welcome the feelings with curiosity and compassion.
LET GO: (here is the hard part)
Let go of your desire for power and control over the situation. Release your desire to be “right.”
Let go of your desire for affection and esteem from others.
Let go of your desire for survival and security.
Let go of your desire to change the way things are.
Allow yourself to sink into the abundant flowing love of this moment.
“The present is ever filled with infinite treasure; it contains more than you have capacity to hold. … The will of God is at each moment before us like an immense, inexhaustible ocean that no human heart can fathom; but none can receive from it more than he has capacity to contain, it is necessary to enlarge this capacity by faith, confidence, and love…” French priest, Jeanne Pierre de Caussade
You may find the letting go section of the prayer difficult to do. One or two of the desires may be harder to release than others. Think of this as useful information about what things, other than God, are of primary importance in your life. Notice which desires might be getting in the way of your freedom in Christ. If you find you cannot release one of these, you might simply pray that God give you the desire to desire to let go.
The Welcoming Prayer invites us to trust in God’s presence and providence and to discover the infinite wealth of God available to us in each moment. “The divine will is a deep abyss of which the present moment is the entrance. If you plunge into this abyss you will find it infinitely more vast than your desires,” writes de Caussade.
I believe this is absolutely true. Over and over in the midst of distress, I have wrung my hands about there not being enough of one thing or another in my life. Yet as I have focused and welcomed the feelings and my present reality, let go of my ego’s desires, and rested in God, my need has been supplied with an abundant depth and power that swept away all my grasping and anxiety.
I heard the geese honking at dawn last week. My dog halted at the door and cocked his head and we listened together in wonder. I love the sound of them moving over head, giving themselves to the skies. Trusting in their ancient faith they make their way.
In spite of all appearances to the contrary, I believe there is enough.
The Wild Geese
Abandon, as in love or sleep,
Holds them to their way
clear in the ancient faith:
what we need is here.
And we pray not for new earth or heaven,
but to be quiet in heart
and in eye clear.
What we need is here. Wendell Berry
I trust in you, O Lord. You are my God.
My times are in your hands. Psalm 30:1
This post is a lightly edited version of a previous post. May this season of gratitude fill your cup with overflowing goodness and a steady supply of all that you need!
“There’s a limit!” Mom yells up the stairs. My brother and I are throwing plastic race cars at each other. It is bedtime, and we have been arguing and annoying each other for half an hour. Mom yells again. “If you kids don’t settle down, I am coming up there with a stick with a bee on the end of it.”
That usually did it. The thought of the miraculous power of our mother, who could coax a bee, stinger and all, onto the end of a stick, and stride up the steps, wielding the buzzing weapon, aiming it at our bottoms, sobered us right up.
Mom, ninety eight, now lives at Pleasant Manor Care Center and chuckles when I remind of her ability to settle us down.
Her words, there’s a limit, have been coming back to me lately. As I watch the news, listen to the pundits and politicians, and observe my own little world, I hear her saying in that no nonsense way, “There’s a limit!”
There is a limit – to what people can stand, when their boundaries are violated. There is a limit to what people can bear, when their basic needs are unmet, or they are unable to meet them themselves. There is a limit to the foolishness, whining, blaming, and fighting people can take. There is a limit to what the seas, rivers, forests, and the creatures who make their homes in them can survive. There is a limit to human ability to repair, mend, and change. There is a limit to how much suffering, how much trauma a person can endure before he loses hope, meaning, and his mind.
There is a limit. And limits are good.
There are places in creation which dare not be plundered, usurped, or penetrated. These virgin territories of purity and goodness, by definition need to remain separate, apart, and whole in themselves. There is a holiness, which dwells in the core of individuals, communities, and the creation itself. Respect for the singular distinctions of creation lies at the heart of reverence for life itself.
IN PRAISE OF BOUNDARIES
Glory be to God
for bounds and limits.
Thanks be for fences
and for barbed wire
pad locks, bolts
and abrupt unmoving
for stop signs
margin, hedge and rim
shore, bank and brow.
Blessed art Thou
and for shalt nots
for oughts and shoulds
I praise Thee
corral and coop
hutch and manger
paddock, cote and stall
for palisade and parapet
trellis, enclave, wall.
"To be properly bound
is to be properly free,"
said Luther of his God.
So blessed be Thee
for bindings, wraps
and swaddling cloths
for all quilts, covers,
comforter and counterpane
for lids, roofs, tents
hulls, shell, and pod
and all that partitions
holy from profane.
kind and gentle God
for edges, parameters,
and the delicate beauty
of borders thin
that separate this
yes from no
from the juice
and Thou, sweet Trinity,
Oh Mighty Fortress,
glad hosannas raise to Thee
for the secret custody
of houses, stable,
shrine and temple
for garden locked
and fountain sealed
where Love tabernacles
under Thy bright wing
in shielded sanctuary.
Praise and laud
forever unto Thee.
Oh Thou art
a most exalted Canopy!
In thy strong shelter
sleeps the virgin
safe and free.
All creatures great and small,
The kingdom of Heaven will come when men and women
allow themselves to be penetrated by bliss. -M.C. Richards
I cannot for the life of me
how people who love God
are able to spend so much time
talking about God
reading about God
and running here and there
doing God’s work
and not have to stop.
Lost in love.
Every five minutes or so.
I know well the sweet seduction
of anxiety, power, and that little harlot,
I have fallen for their whispered lies,
and empty promises.
I have wakened from a night
in their arms,
unsatisfied, restless, and fretful.
But, I ask you,
do we not have a clue
that the Beloved is in the room
right before our eyes?
How many epiphanies are omitted
from the minutes
of last month’s meeting?
How can we go on pretending
that Holiness is not breathing
shivers of ecstasy
down our necks?
Am I crazy?
But I am also sick and weary of sitting on this Wonder.
Don’t be surprised then,
when I rise up and prostrate
during Carl Mitchell’s report
on the cost of replacing the pews
with movable chairs.
I just couldn’t go on pretending any longer,
and this hungry Love has taken me