Tuesday, February 28, 2012

...touching places

Into the instant’s bliss never came one soul
Whose soul was not possessed by Christ,
Even in the eons Christ was not.
And still: some who cry the name of Christ
Live more remote from love
Than some who cry to a void they cannot name.
—after Dante
by Christian Wiman, "By Love We Are Led To God", Harvard Divinity Bulletin

Christian Wiman's words are worth a read:
For many people God is simply a gauze applied to the wound of not knowing, when in fact that wound has bled into every part of the world, is bleeding now in a way that is life if we acknowledge it, death if we don’t. Christ is contingency. Christ’s life is right now.
Despite the value and absolute necessity of spiritual solitude, Christ comes alive in the communion between people. When we are alone even joy is, in a way, sorrow’s flower: lovely, necessary, sustaining, but blooming in loneliness, rooted in grief. I’m not sure you can have Christian communion with other people without these moments in which sorrow has opened in you, and for you; and I am pretty certain that without shared social devotion one’s solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of the self.
What this means is that even if you are socially shy and generally inarticulate about spiritual matters—and I say this as someone who finds casual social interactions often quite difficult and my own feelings about faith intractably mute—you must not swerve from the engagements God offers you. These will occur in the most unlikely places, and with people for whom your first instinct may be aversion. Dietrich Bonheoffer says that Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own, which is to say, first, that we depend on others for our faith, and second, that the love of Christ is not something you can ever hoard. Human love catalyzes the love of Christ. And this explains why that love seems at once so forceful and so fugitive, and why, “while we speak of this, and yearn toward it,” as Augustine says, “we barely touch it in a quick shudder of the heart.”

Click HERE to read an excerpt from Wiman's essay and watch a clip from Bill Moyer's interview.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

...reflection on ashes and mercy

Merton’s Voice 
Let my trust be in Your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope be in Your love, not in health, or strength, or ability or human resources. If I trust you, everything else will become, for me, strength, health, and support. Everything will bring me to heaven. If I do not trust You, everything will be my destruction.
Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux). 29,30
Psalm 51: 3
Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love; in your abundant compassion 
blot out my transgressions
Contemplative Pause 
Throughout this day, pause, take a breath, and listen with your heart. How is God's mercy unfolding in your life?

Ash Wednesday. The day when complete strangers walk up - in their most polite fashion - to stare at my forehead. And wonder about my personal hygiene. The lady in front and the gentleman behind me walk away from the sanctuary with proper markings. But my ashen smudge seems never to look like a cross. A few have tried to wipe away the stain. 

Wipe away the stain. William Blake’s poem, Songs of Innocence, evokes strong opinions in literary critics. They argue about the theme and the imagery. But I think of Dr. Oscar Stembridge when I read this poem. Of one particular morning in his college class, when I lifted my hand - not unlike Hermoine Granger, alas - to comment on a single line: “I raised my rural pen, and I stain’d the water clear.” Interpretations point to baptism, Christ’s blood in the water that washes away all sin. That day I questioned whether we are bound by a single interpretation - even one offered by the author - or if the power of poetry lies in its evocative nature.

Dr. Stembridge asked what stirred when I read that line. Here is my response: Water is, of itself, transparent. The silica of glaciers gives a turquoise glow to northern lakes. We add substances to create ink and with this give form to ideas. Much like stained glass windows. Glass allows what is outside to enter our view. But stain the glass and the colorful bits woven together into a mosaic tell a story. When I cry, the salt in tears that stream down my cheeks to my lips, speaks to me of sorrow and regret. A Blake critic would rip my thoughts to shreds rather quickly. But I take my “aha” moments where I can get them. 

Back to the stain. Shorthand for “no cheap grace.” How is God’s mercy unfolding in my life? Constantly. In the quiet whisper of the Spirit that convicts and gently moves me. In the presence of family and friends whose love and hugs, whose struggles and fears, grow me. Here is a specific example that relates to my oft-mentioned aching back. I will spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say, I’m not supposed to sit for long periods. My definition of “long periods” is quite different from that of my physical therapist. Bill. To whom I am married. 

I am a pig-headed, mildly incalcitrant creature. My interests are far-ranging. Many - writing, graphics, etc. - take me to the computer. I am currently writing this while flat on my back. My goal is to write for thirty minutes, then get up, walk a bit. Stretch. This part involves draping my body over a large rubber ball. Balance, in all its forms, is not my strong suit. And Bill actually cringes when he sees me lurching wildly before rolling onto the floor with a thud. 

I'm on the ball, sweetheart. Don't quibble about photo quality.
It's hard enough to stay on the thing
much less take a picture with my iPhone.
I'm impressed.

Banned from the living room after nearly pulling a table down on my head, I’m now limited to the bedroom where I can get leverage against the bed frame. 

have a plan to increase my productivity. And sometimes I adhere to it. But I relapse: cross-legged on the sofa, head bent forward, pecking away on a keyboard.  In the kitchen, I stand with weight on one hip, one knee hyperextended, while I stir.

So what does my doctor/therapist/husband do? Does he throw his hands in the air and rant? No. Does he lecture? No. Sunday he walked past me in the kitchen and lightly touched my leg. A quiet reminder of my stance. This morning after we talked about our respective plans for the day, he texted a photo. One that he took Saturday when I wrote my last post. Cross-legged on the sofa, head bent forward, pecking away on a keyboard. Again. Just a quick and dirty get-thoughts-on-”paper” moment, or so I thought. I wrote the whole post that way. 

Bill put the paper down while I was writing and stretched himself over the ball. “Boy, I needed a good stretch. That drive last night left me tight.” That’s all he said. Those words and the photo this morning didn’t scream guilt. Just a quiet, mercy-filled reminder. When I self-correct my stance, he praises me. Makes me giddy with delight. [I think I'm part Labrador or Rottweiler. The good part.] 

I watch Bill treat everyone this way. Because he treats people who can no longer stand upright. Whose feet are turned in so badly they can barely walk. Postural habits wreak havoc on the spine over time. The needless suffering breaks his heart. Much like choices and habits wreak havoc on the soul. And God weeps.

Mercy from my Creator
Not the crushing judgment I deserve
from Bill, from the kiddoes, from complete strangers
Not the harangues I invite
Are my actions, my words, an unfolding as well?
Do they nourish and encourage?
Something to think about today.

Portia speaks in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. . . .
. . .
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, [Shylock],
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Monday, February 20, 2012

...reflection on violence

The delicate action of grace in the soul is profoundly disturbed by all human violence. Passion, when it is inordinate, does violence to the spirit and its most dangerous violence is that in which we seem to find peace. Violence is not completely fatal until it ceases to disturb us.

Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux). 114

Thought for the Day
The peace produced by grace is a spiritual stability too deep for violence - it is unshakeable, unless we ourselves admit the power of passion into our own sanctuary. Thoughts in Solitude: 114

Every Monday, the Merton Institute sends a reflection for the week: an excerpt from Merton's writings, a thought for the day and a contemplative pause. Something to think about each day. I have long loved and practiced lectio divina (read, pray, meditate, contemplate). These week-long meditations are an extension of this daily practice, along with those from Sacred Space. Links to these are at the bottom of this post.
One thing came immediately to mind when I read this morning's email from the Merton Institute: recent chats with my sisters. An only child, I am blessed to claim several “gift siblings”. A recent conversation with them unlocked one of my “stuck” places. Merton touched on the same subject. I take such repetition as confirmation that this is a lesson I need to learn. Or re-learn.
Last weekend I encountered a man at Trader Joe’s who took offense when he heard me speak. My southern accent carried him to a place of great anger. An anger so profound as to be malevolent. Think "smoking crack". The fear that rose like bile in my throat was as irrational as his contempt. 
Sometimes an assault on the spirit comes in a pretty package. Perhaps this is the most insidious. I thought of both incidents during a conversation with Bill's sister (and mine), Bonnie. She said that she regularly prays for us (all of us) to be delivered from evil. So do I. But this prayer has to go beyond words...to discipline and practice.
I do not think of myself as a violent person. But thanks to the man in the produce section and the pretty, peace-less package, I had a little epiphany. I assent to violence upon my spirit when I give space to the upset of others. And I play a part in deliverance from evil. Until I let go of the memory, peace is impossible. As long as I harbor thoughts, I am party to a violence on my own being. In every moment, I choose. I thought I had learned this lesson. Perhaps I fight the humility of playing the hand I've been dealt. I want to be smart-er, pretty-er. Sometimes I live in that place Andy Stanley calls "The Land of Er", the comparison trap. How many choruses of "Just As I Am" does it take for the truth to sink in? Love is not dependent on my "ers." Any more than peace is dependent on the assent of others. It's a game only if I play. 
During Lent, I am going to return to these reflections in my posts. Thank you for sharing this journey.

Contemplative Pause:  
Throughout this week, pause, take a breath, and listen with your heart. 
How do peace and violence manifest in your life?

After writing this, I read the latest post in Gladsome Lights. Gretchen Joanna opened with "By the Waters of Babylon"...so fitting:

Psalm 137 

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down, 
yea, we wept, 
when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps
upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive 
required of us a song; 
and they that wasted us
required of us mirth, saying,
 Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

Merton Institute:  
Weekly Reflections (a link to receive these by email can be found below the reflection)

During Lent,a selection from Thomas Merton's writings and a reading from the Psalms is emailed daily. To receive the daily lent reflection please email Elizabeth at ecaskey@mertoninstitute.org

Sacred Space:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

...be a bright spot for Stephen, please

Yesterday my precious friend, Mark Nichols, posted a plea for help. Not for himself. For a friend, Stephen Phillips, who is thankfully recovering from emergency heart surgery following a massive attack while traveling from New Orleans. Multiple arterial bypasses and a valve replacement. Stephen will be in the hospital for at least a week, followed by at least two months of at-home recovery. Mark writes: 

Being self-employed and uninsured, Stephen is facing the very high cost of live-saving cardiac surgery and a lengthy recovery period. Stephen will be unable to work during this time. In lieu of balloons, cards, flowers or food, his family and close friends are asking for your financial support. Please consider this...what would you do if you were in Stephen's shoes? Stephen has opened his heart to so many of us over the years. Stephen now needs that same kindness, love and support extended to him. Any and all funds raised will go directly towards deferring Stephen's medical expenses and loss of income. In fact, the instructions below have been created so that you can send money directly to Stephen's bank account. If you would like to provide financial support to Stephen during this difficult time, please follow the instructions below to SEND MONEY FOR FREE directly to Stephen. You can choose how to donate funds - directly from your bank account, by credit card, or from your PayPal account.

 1.   Go to https://www.paypal.com/
 2.   Click on the "Send Money" link
 3.   Enter the amount that you would like to donate
 4.   Select the "Friends and Family" radio button under "My payment is for:"
 5.   Click the "Continue" button
 6.   Enter Stephen's e-mail address = bamastephen7@aol.com
 7.   Enter your e-mail address
 8.   Click the "Continue" button
 9.   Log in to your PayPal account, or create one for free

If you have any technical issues at all, please contact Mark W Nichols on Facebook or at mwnichols91@gmail.com.

Stephen's Valentine's Day was a heart-breaker. But we have an opportunity to shower him with a love that trumps Hallmark.  I know that he would appreciate hearing from you during his convalescence. Leave him a message in the comments below. Or go to 



Dear Stephen,
I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting you. But yesterday, when our mutual friend, Mark Nichols, posted your story on FB, mine and countless other hearts joined yours. What a long list of friends you have. I figure one can never have too many, so I am lumping myself into the new-but-prayin’-and-payin'  category. 
Six years ago, I became ill, Stephen, and lost my insurance. I thought I had "sickness” insurance. Silly me...the policy clearly said “health” in bold caps. Poof!  While my needs pale next to yours, they were significant to me. Mel, Mark, and many others reached out in countless ways. Thanks to God and all these helpers, I have lived to tell the story. What a relief to pass forward in some small way the undeserved but greatly appreciated gifts I received. Mercy and grace, love and forgiveness...that’s my theology. Amen.
Your job is to heal. If you so much as think about not following doctor’s orders, I will know. Just ask my kids. Re-read that “if you so much as...” sentence and picture this: my left eyebrow is in an upright and locked position (Under my bangs. Trust me) 

[Note to Mel and Mark: report if Stephen so much as begins to worry.] 
Your family, your friends - and, I daresay, anonymous strangers - have your back and your bills. We want to anoint you with love...and cash, checks and credit cards. I wish I could tell you that loads of people will leave you messages in the comments section below but my readership numbers are not that impressive. What IS important is that the great good God has spoken. And the message is real personal: 

I have called you by name, Stephen, and you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, Stephen. 
       When you cross rivers, Stephen, you will not drown. 
When you walk through fire, you, Stephen, will not be burned, 
       nor will the flames hurt you, Stephen. 
       ...You are precious to me, Stephen, 
Do not be afraid, Stephen, because I am with you. 
from Isaiah 43

I’m old, Stephen, and don’t ask for signs. 
But sometimes God just likes to put on a show. 
With a twist.

He didn’t just send a rainbow. 
He sent a double-wide over the Wal-Mart. 
Honey, you’re as good as well. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

...a journey to belonging

Christina and Colleen came bearing gifts: roses and a Sunday newspaper.


Full communion in the church doesn't mean what it used to.

Even those who belong don't belong if they don't have the rights
and privileges of the others.

The list of non-belonging belongers is long.
If you're included in the list (which means you're excluded), you know it,
even though you've been assured that the belonging believers
have compassion for your plight.

Fortunately, you know from the scriptures and confessions
that you belong where it counts.

You options include turning the other cheek 
and assuring the belonging believers
that you have compassion for their plight.

Blessed are the poor in privilege,
for they belong to God.

Ann Weems

A visit to my parent’s house twenty-odd years ago remains vivid.  The weekend got off to a rocky start. Mother had invited a neighbor for tea and bragging rights. My life didn't flash before my eyes. Oh, no. It unfolded very slowly and in excruciating detail as told to that poor unsuspecting woman. I mercifully lapsed into a coma of mortification but roused when Mother ended with, "I don't know how Celeste does it all."
Silence would have been the better option but I erred on the side of wit. "Well, it certainly is a challenge." I turned toward the neighbor and continued, "You know how housework goes. You vacuum and then, six weeks later, you just have to do it again." Two of us laughed.
Like a child whose perfect world is shattered by the arrival of a sibling, I had grown to loathe my mother's ever-growing collection of African violets. Huge racks of them had taken over what had once been my room.  My sleep pattern didn't coincide with the timer on the daylight-spectrum fluorescent lights.  I was awakened the next morning by a sudden, blinding glare as the serious business of growing show plants began at six a.m. On Saturday.
My husband groaned and tugged a pillow over his head in a vain attempt to block the glare.  But I surrendered, staggered to the kitchen, and poured a cup of coffee. While my mother mixed a bloom elixir at the sink, I stared into my mug and wondered if coffee applied systemically would kill the encroaching jungle.  I decided not to risk an opposite, steroid-like effect lest we be strangled out like Bermuda grass in dandelion season.  
Years later, after Mother’s death, I found a box full of blue ribbons with pictures of all her winning plants.  I  thought about how hard she had worked for recognition, approval, attention.  And I mourned that she carried her story to her grave.  How ironic that the chasm between us was not the neatly dug hole where her coffin rested but rather a pit of fear . . . her deep fear of being fully known, of possible disapproval.  She wanted so dearly to belong that, in her striving, she missed the invitations.
I knew her gifts and talent.  The pile of blue satin ribbons were - for me - sad reminders  of the void within her. So I let them go and whispered, “Mama, I'm not afraid. You purchased this gift for me with your pain.  Thank you for loving me.” No emotion or sentiment, just awareness that I could choose a different path: the rocky road to an authentic life…filled with potholes and grand vistas and  many "re-calculating" moments.
Mother, you remain a mystery to me. Your fears grew with the passing years. Sweet moments were increasingly rare and fleeting. But the truth I glimpsed set me free. For you, outside of time, a healing. I wish you could have known in life that you were supremely loved. As is. Even if your plants developed root rot. You surely know this now: you belong. The great good God loves each of us as if we were the only. There is always room at his table.


In a world torn by dogma, doctrine and theology...where buildings, monuments and places of pilgrimage are worshipped...where plans trump the patient waiting with one whose map is lost...where love for another - an[unknown, unkempt]other - is an unwelcome interruption:

What if the new temple is built not of brick but of vulnerability?

What if - in this present life - we are stripped bare, laid open, crushed? Dying countless small deaths until only shards remain?

What if one brilliant jagged piece catches light, kindles a spark, births a flame?

What if - weeping tears of incense - we rise from ashes of refining fire into a broken land filled with lonely souls waiting to be heard?

Spare us, please, from becoming belonging belongers.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

...thoughts on edges and cows

Early eastern light reflected on coastal clouds, from the galley of FOREver AFTer

There were hints of sunrise on the rim of the sky, 
yet it was still dark, 
and the traces of morning color 
were like goldfish swimming in ink.  
Truman Capote, The Muses Are Heard: An Account

I met such a morning as this in June while on the boat.  Mug of tea in hand, I watched color morph into shape. The bright light of morning brought the details. So many dawns, each a promise. If the start of the day is a preface, then sunset is a punctuation mark, a counter of sorts. Ticked off another day. Reset button, please.

One particular thought has stirred - and recurred - in recent weeks: life on the edges. Especially as we drove up Highway 1 on Sunday, along the headlands of the northern California coast, then out to Point Reyes. Past herds of Tule elk, deer, and cows. Lots of milk cows, mostly Holsteins. I scanned the fields, looking for an elusive breed I encountered in Ireland. Right there, in the middle of a field, lo and behold, I saw them. Not milk cows but big, beefy critters. The breed’s markings fascinated me when I first encountered a herd on the way to Killarney: black, curly coats swathed with a wide white band around the mid-section. When I searched in 2007, I found nothing. Yesterday I typed "black cow with wh" and Google populated the search window with "black cow with white band around the middle". Oh, yes. Finally, I can assuage the doubts of all who thought I was hallucinating heifers. I have found my beloved Belted Galloways. The following description is from the nice people at Oklahoma State University (http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/cattle):

Yes, sir, that's my baby...the Belted Galloway.
Gotta love a cow that knows how to accessorize.
[Galloways are] a very ancient [breed], with obscure origins shrouded in antiquity and its name derived from the word Gallovid or Gaul. The Gauls were the native inhabitants of the regality known as the Province of Galloway. This province once comprised six shires (counties) in the very southernmost extremity of Scotland's Lowlands. The cattle of the region were said to be dark, smooth-polled, wavy-haired with undercoats like beaver's fur and for centuries they went unnamed, referred to only as the black cattle of Galloway. From this coastal environment of winds and damp cold, combined with an undulating terrain of moors, granitic hills, heathery mountain ranges and fertile glens ... emerged the Galloway breed of cattle.

William McCombie, (pioneer Scottish Angus & Shorthorn breeder) said, "The Galloway undoubtedly has many great qualifications. On poor land they are unrivaled, on land so poor our Aberdeens could not subsist upon it. There is no other breed worth more by the pound weight than a first-class Galloway." "Galloway cattle are generally very docile," quotes William Youatt, (English researcher, scientist, veterinary surgeon, historian & standard writer on cattle in the early 1800s.) He goes on to say, "This is a most valuable point about them in every respect. It is rare to find even a bull furious or troublesome." Galloways are very courageous however, and if annoyed by dogs or wild animals, they will act in concert, by forming a crescent and jointly attacking. There are claims that one or two Galloways in a field of sheep prevent any danger from dogs.

There you have it. I celebrate the edge of day, the rim of night, much as I did my brand-new box of Crayolas and pristine Blue Horse notebook on the first day of school. Inside, the promise of a clean start, along with the allure of perfectionism’s seductive but deadly dance.  I dearly love sharp tips of color, clean paper with no pockmarks of last Monday’s theme pressed into the surface. But it was in dog-earred notebooks scribbled with dull nubs of crayon bits that I met my metier. And daily I find my mettle in life’s rocky fields, in the glare of harsh light, in the depth of dark moments.

When I land dead-center in the morass, when I long for edges and drama, I try to remember that I am a temple under construction. Like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, I am unfinished. What a generous man of faith, Gaudi...how many architects do you know who would willingly, yea willfully, pass along an incomplete vision to unknown others? I daresay that far too many skyscrapers populate our cities, fully built and occupied, yet incomplete in both form and function. Would - or could - Capote have written as he did without the full realm of his experience?

And when I depart this earth, I will leave my incomplete human form, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Lessons yet unlearned. Promises dangling. Humility still not my strong suit. Yep, there I’ll be, trailing dust bunnies, not clouds of glory...how fitting.

I am drawn to beautiful, dramatic edges where land meets sea. And aware of life's approaching edge as well. Thank you for my green fields wherever they are, for those places I do not choose to visit but where my center is rooted. Here's to the indwelling.

Oh, my darling Belted Galloways, preach on. Not with words but with every plodding, docile step. Meek: powerful in submission to a master, peaceful. Whisper to me, remind me, "Over the next hill, Celeste, lies a coast, but this present spot is quite good, too." You're my people!