1.9.12

Comfort in a Purl

This morning I've felt lazy. And, oddly enough, lazy often takes me to the porch with a book. But it needs to be a book that feels like it's in a different direction than where I've been going for the past week or month.

So I dug out Knit One, Purl a Prayer today, and took it to the side porch. Did you know I have two porches? Side and back.

On the back porch, I've been working hard, in so many ways. Including writing a book that feels both the same and different from what I've done in the past. Because it's fiction, it took a lot out of me. Having never written fiction before, I had to learn as I went along, and I was presuming to actually teach others how to write fiction, so it had to be good. Pressure, pressure.

Now, I always feel a sense of peace on the back porch, but I knew that had been tainted just a bit, because of all the hard work I've been doing there. So I went to the side porch, and here I am.

As you may remember, I've been aching for solitude this past year. And I've honored that ache, and it still remains.

Yet I know there will come a time. A re-entry. I've been wondering what that might look like, and I still don't have a clear picture. To that, this morning I am comforted by two things from Knit One, Purl a Prayer.

The first is a communal knitting project a woman kept in her home. It wasn't pretty; it was useful. Anyone who came into her home could practice on it, no pressure to be good. Just learn.

And so as I wonder about my solitude and my re-entry, I take this image to heart. It is okay to just knit my way, as if in the home of a generous woman with her communal knitting-piece. Did you know God might have such a piece too, somehow? I think maybe God does. We might not need to know exactly where we are going, to put our hands to growing in this life.

The second thing that comforts me from Knit One is the amazing community that apparently exists around the pastime of knitting. There are groups you can join. It's a little like church without the preaching, as some of these groups offer the chance to have spiritual connections with others not only through sharing a craft and stories but also through giving to the world.

It's almost amusing for me to think about maybe someday joining a knitting group. It's been so long since I've knitted. And maybe I won't join such a group, but I am reminded that community and the chance to give-back can be found in the most unexpected places, if we are seeking a chance to belong and bless. To this end, yes, I might even read Knitting for Peace: Make the World a Better Place One Stitch at a Time.

For now, though, I'm just sitting on the side porch. It's quiet here this morning. And, for now, that's the way I'm still knitting-my-way. Taking the quiet into my hands and holding it near.

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5.7.12

Finally, I Wrote the Bible (Sort Of)

Everyday Matters Bible

Today, I opened a box of irony.

It was from Hendrickson Publishers and Christianity Today.

A long time ago, I was a bible major at a small college. I switched out, because it occurred to me that my options in "ministry" were limited. After all, I never liked kids (much) and I wasn't worship-leader material—two classic areas where women can find "ministry opportunities."

My thing was ideas. Writing. Shaping. Yes, maybe even preaching.

But I'm the practical sort, and I could see that my gifts weren't going to make it (much) in a traditional church setting.

Pair that with my strange little feelings of arguing with bible writers as if I really had a seat at the table (much like the rabbis and the theologians do), and maybe you can see why I opened a box of irony today.

Twenty years after I closed the book on working seriously with the bible, I have now written a piece of the bible.

Well, sort of.

See?

Everyday Matters Bible LL Barkat

And, for the record, I'm pretty sure the scribes changed a little of what I put on the scroll. But we'll leave that be.

[UPDATE: I've received some questions via various social media channels, about the use of my work in this Bible, and whether or not I gave permission and so forth. As is standard with many publishing outlets, my contract with Christianity Today granted them permission to re-use the work for later projects, should they ever have need. They did, and that's perfectly within their rights. The question of editing is a fascinating one, but let it be said that all editors do *edit* for their particular needs. Variation exists in whether that editing is passed by the writer. Even with me, in my own job as Managing Editor. :)]

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3.7.12

A Silence of Such Fullness

We think of prayer, often, as words.

And it can be.

But I loved this, from Peggy Rosenthal's Knit One, Purl a Prayer: "[there was] a rich substance in the silence after the monks' chanting of each psalm."

There are silences that are empty. There are silences that are fraught with tension.

But this silence, the kind that Rosenthal describes, was a "pause where the action was."

For me, such silence can come after a living-psalm. Like this past Sunday, when I lay down near the river, and the day felt endless and the water felt forever-deep.

Where do you experience the fullness of a silence? Maybe it is time for some kind of psalm...

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2.7.12

Prayer: The Great Cop-Out

Warning: this post may be hazardous to your dysfunctional prayer life.

There. I said it up front. So if you are feeling uncomfortable, you have time to go elsewhere. I won't be offended. :)

In the past few years, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how our spiritual approaches can sometimes be exercises in condoned dysfunction. Condoned because...who wants to argue with anything that has God attached to it? That just feels too dangerous. So we often accept whatever comes in the name of spirituality (and God), without digging very deeply into the dynamics.

This morning, reading The Education of Millionaires, it struck me that prayer is one of these condoned practices that, in truth, can sometimes be a cop-out and therefore a form of dysfunction.

When did it strike me? This quote, to be exact, which is the opposite of a dysfunctional prayer approach to problems...

"You see a problem in your life or in your surroundings and fix it. You don't count on some higher authority to make things better; you make it better yourself, whether or not you have the authority."

Throughout Ellsberg's excellent book, he follows person after person who approached life as a problem solver, to good effect—not only propelling them towards greater success but also making them more able to give compassionately to the world.

What problems are you (and I) avoiding fixing today, by praying about them instead of actually taking action to effect change? Dangerous question, I know. It is meant to be.

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6.4.12

What I Am Not Doing for Easter

Pink Boa

It is a continuing part of this season for me. The desire to "not do."

So I am not going crazy with preparations and readings and posts and, and, and.

I am simply looking.

Have you seen what Spring is doing?

It's a resurrection, blooming on every tree.

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27.3.12

The Surprising Power of the Image

"A discipline of calling up an image is an old form of contemplation," says David Whyte in The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.

Sometimes it is less a discipline than a must for our wholeness.

Like the time of the white dove.

Oh, thinking back now, I imagine it was a lost New York City pigeon who showed up on my suburban street that day. She stood in the middle of the road, and a big old car came along, and that bird simply would not move. The car slowed, then stopped, honked its big scary horn, and the white pigeon turned its back and kept standing there. Finally, after what seemed like a long time, the car drove around it.

I had been struggling at work, with an older man who was giving me unwanted attention. Lots of whispered talk I won't get into. Graphic stuff that was making me scared. When he told me he'd seen me walking, and seen me driving, I realized he was following me around after hours.

Understand, I'd had a lot of unwanted attention in my life. From age five, when I had to turn away a step-brother who'd overstepped a big boundary, to age twenty-one, when I got fired because someone had said incredibly lewd things to me (and tried to carry them out); he then went to the boss and said I might come and accuse him of something that never happened (and so, yes, I was the one who got fired with no notice). There'd been other situations too. So I had a hard time when it started up in this case... not just mentally, but also because I desperately needed the job. It got to the point where I could barely face each morning.

Enter the immovable white dove.

I watched that bird and I suddenly knew everything I needed to know. Not in an intellectual way, but in an emotional-strength way. The next day I told the older man, in no uncertain terms, to leave me alone, to stop following me, to stay in line.

David Whyte says this too... "It is extraordinary how much of the power carried by the image itself will be present in our voice."

Yes, it must have been.

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26.3.12

Craving the Unhurried

A bath. Some French. Books, books, books. Sometimes a walk or a friendly phone call. That's my Sabbath—a deliberate decision for the day to contain not one ounce of hurry.

Perhaps this is why, for now, I have been taking a sabbatical from attending church. Because... always, *always,* the Sunday-out-the-door routine has been surrounded with a terrible sense of rush and tumble, to the point of absolute irritation. It has represented more work and pressure after a whole week of work.

It occurred to me within the past few months that I have been craving unhurriedness—a day I can look forward to, once a week, that truly slows. And so, I've come to a new kind of Sabbath: quiet at home.

To this, I think about what David Whyte says in The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America:

"Hurrying from one work station to another, we hope the hurrying itself can grant us the importance we seek. Slowing for a moment, we might open up the emptiness at the center..."

I have been slowing on the Sabbath. I am not saying everyone should slow in the same way I am doing it; life has its seasons. In the slowing, I have been holding the emptiness as if it was a palpable thing I could turn in my hands. It is quiet, and I am in no hurry to ask it to speak.

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17.3.12

Saying No as a Path to the Soul

I've been reading along with Lyla. She's delightful.

She said she wished she could have done more with the chapter on Voice, and I see why. So much to consider. Today's bit is about saying no.

It's been a long time since I've felt like saying yes to blogging here, and it amuses me that the very thing that has inspired me today is a small trail that Whyte opened up with these words...

"The via negativa is the discipline of saying no when we have as yet no clarity about the those things to which we can say yes.... In the continuous utterance of the no is a profound faith that the yes will appear."

Just this morning, I'd been thinking about how the Church sometimes sucks up the life of its people, to the point where they no longer live. They simply "do church," and this is the sum of their existence. In other words, the Church does not necessarily teach us the via negativa, any more than any other organization which relies on our ever-presence to make it keep running. It is not the Church's fault per se, but it is terrifically difficult to step back and exercise the via negativa when we're wrapped up in its culture.

Maybe I could say yes to blogging today, because I've been engaged in my own form of via negativa, whether it be in relation to Church or just a night on Twitter. I don't expect anybody to understand. A no can be incomprehensible when people are so used to hearing you say yes. But I do look forward to this possibility, in the words of Whyte...

"We guard the richness of our interior hopes and imaginings even when there as yet seems to be nothing in the outer world that confirms them. When we finally do blossom, we may bear fruit in the most surprising and astonishing way."

---

quotes from The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America

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9.1.12

When Simple Things Speak

Off

It has always been this way for me. The simplest things speak. Last night, tidying up the living room, I saw this Off button my littlest daughter made, for one of her animation projects.

Standing by the coffee table, I stopped moving and stared. Struck, yes, that's how I felt. You'd think I had been visited by an angel.

But I was not afraid.

Just very still.

And the simple red Off button has been speaking to me ever since.

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5.12.11

Knitting Yourself (or Someone Else) into Silent Peace

Knit One Purl a Prayer

"Oh, that's girl stuff—you guys wouldn't be interested. But I do find it contemplative," she said to her husband and their friend Brother Anthony.

Thus opened the moment when Peggy Rosenthal discovered that the Desert Fathers wove baskets while they were at prayer. And, said Brother Anthony, since it was the *process* of weaving the basket that mattered, the Fathers sometimes burned their baskets afterwards.

Peggy finds the process of knitting (a kind of weaving) calming. And, like another woman she heard about, it sometimes helps her "knit herself into the silent peace at the heart of the Divine Presence."

But Peggy doesn't burn the work of her hands. Work has its place too—no less the kind that builds something along the way. This building, it can be touchingly beautiful, as when, she recounts, one Prayer Shawl Ministry group knitted a shawl for a friend facing divorce. The shawl—was it not moments of touch, knitting the hurting woman to other hearts, even as the woman was losing a heart she'd come unraveled from?

I sit here this morning and think that peace is a process. A slow knitting, sometimes of what has come unraveled, sometimes of new yarn, new moments yet to be placed clearly in space and time.

And I think my fingers are their own kind of knitters. Picking up letters and passing them through loops, making shawls for those in need of shelter and warmth.

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17.11.11

Knit One, Purl a Prayer

I "met" Peggy Rosenthal when she did a lovely review of Maureen Doallas's Neruda's Memoirs.

Now, reading the preface to Rosenthal's new book, Knit One, Purl a Prayer, I realize that when I first "met" her I had noticed the Jewish name but not *really* noticed. Peggy reminds me in her Preface: Judaism was the faith of her cradle days, though it was practiced mostly on High Holy Days.

As she lays out an invitation to join her on a knitting journey, albeit not asking us to come with yarn in hand, I am struck that she has found a way to be both Christian and Jewish. By this I mean that though she is now Catholic, she embraces the physical as a way to the transcendent. And that reminds me of the jubilance of Jewish festivals, filled with things to touch and taste, as reminders of the spirit in the surface of things. Of course, that is quite Catholic too, and so it seems fitting that this is where she found her place upon conversion.

I am not a knitter, anymore. Though my grandmother once taught me, and if I close my eyes I can remember the click of the needles, the feel of the yarn passing through my fingers. So the memories draw me, and I think... Maybe I will journey a little with Peggy. Listen in as she puts needle to needle, knits physical to spirit...

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26.10.11

The Age-Old Struggle

As far back as Babylonian literature (which we have some record of), we humans have storied the struggle of life—a struggle variously cast as chaos versus order, good versus evil, freedom versus oppression.

Our most popular films and books today still probe this dynamic. The good guys and the bad guys are the stuff of action, conflict, and triumph.

Some people believe this has arisen mostly from humanity's struggle with forces of nature. And, needing a way to articulate this struggle and feel some sense of meaning within it, we have turned to myths and spiritual stories.

There is some truth to that.

But there is another truth put forward by the bible: the physical is an extension of the spiritual. The "battles" we experience within the world and ourselves are rooted in another dimension.

This is the subject of chapter 8 of Sanctuary of the Soul.

The other day my daughter and I watched a TED talk about the universe. Even the physicist who presented it admitted he could not completely wrap his mind around what I would call the eternal nature of matter and dark matter. Even the universe presents us a mystery and a drama and a wondering: will there be a happily ever after? who controls this, if anyone?

Watching the talk, I suddenly felt how small I am and how large is the mind of God. If Satan is simply an angel, he too is small in comparison. Perhaps this is all we need remember. This, and the practice of seeking the Mind that rules not just this world but all that is beyond it and beyond and within time.

As Foster notes, we might be tempted to consult lesser things, and these might bind us: witchcraft, astrology, tarot, palmistry, spirit guides, Ouija boards. They might give us the illusion that we control our share of the world and the universe.

Why live in that place? When we can live in the Eternal, through the connection of Christ and his Spirit?

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22.10.11

Yellow Flames Flutter

The other night I pulled out my house copy of InsideOut. Not sure why. Maybe because it had somehow turned up at my bedside. And the solitude it had poured from seemed to be calling.

I realize that many of the poems are just glimpses, like this one...

Kale is purpling,
bluing and
purpling.



Or this one...

Little lemon tongues,
wagged off at last.



And this one...

Lightning flashes
and I write
of yellow leaves.



There are longer poems in the book too, but these are the kinds that solitude evoked—a simple focusing on one vision. An awe, if you will, and a willingness to capture that awe in very few words.

So you will not be surprised when I was pleased by Chapter 7 of Sanctuary of the Soul, which suggested poetry (reading or writing it), as a way to embrace silence and release ourselves from distraction.

Foster shares this poem from Robert Siegel...

Yellow flames flutter
about the feeder:
A Pentecost of finches.



Where does Siegel (or anyone?) come up with something like that? First the heart must see... and flutter. Near the feeder, in the yard, perhaps beside a lake or the sea.

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19.10.11

The Voice of God

I know people who claim to hear the voice of God. Sometimes I think they are simply hearing their own wishes.

The human brain has an amazing ability to see patterns, to find or create meaning. We are seekers of symmetry. For this reason, sometimes I have been a person who thought she heard the voice of God, when perhaps I was simply making meaning I wanted to make, when I was collecting pieces for some desired symmetry.

At times I have, therefore, felt very down about the whole voice-of-God issue.

I don't think we will ever get it totally right. Sometimes we are just going to be making stuff up and attributing it to God. Still, if we could even get it right about half of the time, that might move our lives forward in a good way. I would accept those odds, all things considered.

In Chapter 6 of Sanctuary of the Soul, Foster suggests three attributes of the voice of God...

- quality: "a steady, calm force"
- spirit: "peaceful, joyful"
- content: "consistent with [biblical] truths about God's nature and kingdom"

I like these indicators. Maybe it could help me move to the 75% range, if I paid attention.

But even if I never know for sure, I can measure my actions against scripture and church tradition—the voice of God as experienced by a cumulative community over time. It is not all up to me. I can hear through the ears of others who have blessed the world.

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11.10.11

Swallow What You Have Tasted

Gazing on God. If it sounds abstract, then perhaps we need a concrete way to come to it.

In Chapter 5 of Sanctuary of the Soul, Foster suggests three ways...

• behold in Creation
• listen to worship music
• sit in silence

If I were to put deeper words to this, I would take us to the biblical festivals that eventually informed the Church Calendar. I would take us especially to Sukkot.

During Sukkot, the people of Israel built huts outdoors. The huts were mostly open to the sky. And here they spent time eating and sleeping, the very air and its currents reminding them of Spirit breath. Tasty fruits, vegetables, song, silent nights under the stars: it was all there.

My church tradition has very little connection to such ancient festivals or even a modern Church Calendar. And many a day I think this is why we can't, as Foster quotes it, "swallow what [we] have tasted." Or maybe we can't even taste to begin with.

I've done little things with my own family, to try to recapture such concrete experiences of God. But I do wish for a wider community that could teach and support and extend such ways... to help me taste, and see, and swallow the glory of God.

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8.10.11

Collecting Ourselves and Something Else

The poet William Wordsworth defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."

I love that word "recollected." Something about the sound of it.

And it is that word, hyphenated by Foster into its two parts re-collected, that stood out to me in Chapter 4 of Sanctuary of the Soul.

While Foster spoke of psychological relaxing and surrendering, through sitting still and maybe going over a Scripture in one's mind, I was somehow thinking of daffodils, and how Wordsworth once wrote of them...

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.


Thinking of the daffodils, I remembered how psychologically relaxing it had been to spend time outdoors every day for a year. So relaxing, in fact, that my body began to develop a new 4-o'clock sense of longing for solitude and fresh air and my cup of tea. A "pattern of life" (as Foster puts it) had developed, and from it came deep times of collection— collection of images, truths, inner spaciousness. I wrote more poetry during that time than I ever have or have done since. I re-collected the past and somehow came out with a larger sense of love.

I don't sit outside daily anymore. It had its time and place. The other day, in Wordsworth style, I allowed myself to simply lie on the couch. The afternoon sun was warm on my arm and I fell asleep. I woke up filled with so many little epiphanies it was almost overwhelming.

Is it important how we go about collecting and re-collecting ourselves? I'm not so sure it is. Sitting still in a chair, going outside with a cup of tea, lying down on the couch in the afternoon, with a sense of wanting to know anew: each can be a basket into which we gather refreshment, vision, and love.

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6.10.11

Steve Jobs, Time, and the Meadow

"He was an amazing man," I said to my Littlest. She looked into my eyes, knew that I was about to cry, and a sweet "I'm so sorry" flowed through her gaze. I read the obituary aloud. We talked of Apple technologies we love, and she was fascinated to learn about the man who brought them to her life.

Through the rest of the evening I kept considering how time was not Steve Jobs' friend. I thought about others like him, who have been as a "candle in the wind." I thought of one of my favorite story tellers, Flannery O'connor. All those who, so brilliant, have died young, leaving the world wondering what it missed because of their early leaving.

Today I noticed this phrase in Chapter 4 of Sanctuary of the Soul: "time was our friend."

Foster was speaking of an experience at a place called Quaker Meadow—a place where, for a day, time seemed to stand still.

Sometimes I think such moments are a hint of eternity. Time is not really our friend; life can never be long enough. But in our Quaker-Meadow moments we taste a hope that we will live on in the mind and heart of God. And we will not go missing from the world.

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4.10.11

Windows to Heaven

Just when I settled on my way, I found that Foster's text turned; it would be a stretch to try to find a breath prayer in Chapter 3 of Sanctuary of the Soul.

That is fine. In fact, it seems often to go this way in spiritual life. We settle on a process, a path, and something shifts.

The shift in this case was from the cerebral to the creative, from words to visions and connections. Foster discussed three “windows to heaven”: the imagination, lectio divina, and the community of the saints.

Most interesting was the brief discussion of imagination and how, in its way, it also infuses lectio and our understanding of community past and present. This is prayer turned painting (especially through the use of icons), prayer absorbed in pictures and a washing-over, prayer as a heritage we share with generations before us.

My favorite quote was, “allow the Lord to give you many delightful images and pictures of God’s desires for humanity.”

I am reminded of the work of scientist John Medina, who discusses how the lion’s share of our brains is given over to the visual. I’m not sure how this works for someone who can’t see, though I imagine that, in vision’s stead, touch can give shape to some kind of “visual” construction. In this case, it would be one of hopeful connections, grace-full constructions.

So I come to this today: God who sees, let me see. A breath prayer, after all.

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29.9.11

Turning Words into Prayer

I have decided that what I am reading is a devotional. I have to decide this, to frame my experience with it and be sure to take something away. Perhaps this way you'll not tire of me, and I'll not tire of finishing Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer.

As such, I will find a few words from each chapter and make them my morning's breath prayer.

Today, in the silence of this room, sipping my Green Tea Echinacea, I breathe in...

God of beautiful vision

I breathe out...

transform my heart

Transformation of the heart is the concept I pulled from Chapter 2 of the book. Oh, that it would be so simple as to pull heart-transformation from words. And wouldn't it be marvelous if I didn't experience fear in the very praying of such uncomplicated words. Maybe this is part of the power of a breath prayer. With each repetition, we can unwittingly delve into layers of fear, hopes, argument and embrace.

Another sip of tea now, and this...

God of beautiful vision, transform my heart.

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27.9.11

Wishing for the Sanctuary

Spiritual Practice Books

The last book in my little project pile is Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer.

I opened the book a bit hopefully. Such a beautiful cover, and I love the title. But I find myself feeling the opposite of when I started Ravished by Beauty.

After reading just the prologue of Ravished by Beauty I held my breath, hoping the book would continue in the promise it began: to be fresh, informative, lyrical, provoking. (It kept its promise.)

But on this quiet, foggy, silent morning—reading the introduction and the first chapter of Sanctuary—I am somehow feeling like I've gone to hear a church sermon, one that is tired and strung together by bible stories that should be powerful but somehow don't feel powerful at all.

Of course I am partial to Foster's observation that biblical meditation often included "silent reflection upon God's works in nature." And my favorite part of the chapter was a snippet that explains two Hebrew words: haga and stach. Our bibles, he notes, often translate these words as "meditate," but they are more nuanced than that, suggesting...

to mutter, to moan, to whisper, to reflect, to rehearse, to muse and even to coo like a dove. (Is. 59:11)

If the book delves more deeply into nuances like these as it goes along, I will perhaps, after all, find sanctuary in its words.

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26.9.11

A Gathering Art

When was the last time you were "summoned to amazement" by Creation? Do you have natural "remembered places" that astonish you? Are you engaged in the practice of a "gathering art" as you sit outside on a simple day, or hike a mountain, or walk in the woods? Does any of this move you to love and action?

These are the underlying questions of the final chapter of Ravished by Beauty.

Pulling together ideas about "Calvin's God of beauty, mirrored in creation, and Edwards's communicative God, eagerly seeking ways of multiplying relationships [and glory]," Belden C. Lane makes his crowning pitch to those who profess a deep yearning for God: if we are moved by this yearning it will go beyond words. We will develop, as Edwards noted, "a capacity to delight."

Bringing it home with a concrete example of East St. Louis (across the river from his own residence), where Dead Creek teems with chemicals and ugliness, Lane asks us to test the measure of our delight in Creation (and ultimately in God).

Are we willing to let such places remain stripped of their "natural ability to reflect God's glory"? Are we willing to let the Dead Creeks of our world be silenced in their praise? Likewise, if it is true, as Sandra Steingraber argues in Living Downstream, that "90 percent of all forms of cancer may be attributable to specific environmental factors," can we sit by in silence as praiseless places lead to the eclipse of human voices of praise?

Lane's conclusion is sober, "Failing to exercise the consciousness I possess, I too fail to give praise."

Let us, then, he urges, join our words and actions. Let "the desire of human beings...join in God's own deep longing for beauty."

Maybe it can begin with a simple gathering art. Go outside every day. And, there, listen for the heart of God.

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24.9.11

And Edwards in the Woods

First I found Calvin in the yard. Then I found Edwards in the woods.

If you're like me, your most prominent memory of Jonathan Edwards is his hell-fire sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

But Chapter 5 of Ravished by Beauty suggests we might better conceive of Edwards overarching viewpoint as "sinners in the hands of a beautiful God."

As a child, Edwards was known to build prayer huts in the woods. As an adult, says Lane, "he wrote of songbirds, flowing water, and the intricate movement of the stars. He spoke of seeing these things...as the voice of God, glimpsing what is held out to us by the divine hand."

If God can be seen in the beautiful world, as Edwards believed He could, then we humans have a clear role to play. We are what Edwards called "the consciousness of the creation." Lane further explains this, saying, ours is the "responsibility of discerning and articulating the aesthetic/moral character of the cosmos as a mirror of God's glory."

I was most fascinated by Edwards belief that this beauty went down to, as it were, the very bones of the universe. Lane notes that some of Edwards ideas were before their time and we are only just beginning to see scientifically how right he was.

I suspect Edwards would have loved String Theory; he spoke of the world as a "vast orchestra tuning up." I imagine he would have also loved our discoveries about the prevalence of fractals. Even our own brains exhibit this elegant design. Edwards would have called it an image of the glory of God.

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22.9.11

It Ain't Easy Being Puritan & Narcissistic

Did you know we are selling our cities? I heard about that on the news the other day. Cities that can't keep themselves in financial order have been selling themselves to foreign (and domestic) investors.

I am thinking of various kingdoms throughout the ages that overspent on their desires, only to resort to selling parts of their economies and important land (say like that which had oil reserves) to foreign investors. The end result? These countries went down or lost control of their ability to make their own decisions about resource-use.

I do not know a lot about the selling of our cities; I won't be able to engage in any high-level conversation on the topic. I am not bringing it up to be political. It just seems to be a very practical and pressing example of what happens when our desires exceed our mechanisms for dealing with desires.

The Puritans were fairly clear on this point: they stirred up desire (mightily!), but they balanced it with a cautiousness found in the book of Proverbs. It's a hard balance to strike.

Indulge desire too much and we can become narcissistic. And, oddly enough, deprive and constrain too much and we can also become narcissistic.

Chapter 4 of Ravished by Beauty explores how the Puritans tried to keep a balance. It wasn't easy then, and it isn't easy now.

This brings me back to the practical. I am thinking of a friend who cannot control her own spending. She finally told her husband, "Take the credit card. Give me a cash allowance. I thought I could make this work, but I can't. I don't want to sink this family."

My friend impresses me. She balanced her desires with a constraint that she needed. She chose the Puritan way instead of the narcissistic way. And it was a beautiful thing.

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21.9.11

The Surprising Puritanism of Ann Voskamp

I remember well the day a displeased blogger made the indictment: Ann Voskamp had trespassed Christian boundaries by writing of her love for God in sensual terms.

There was a lot of back-and-forth, some declarations of "disgusting!", gasps of shock and groans of embarrassment. Some of those responses can still be seen over in the Amazon reviews of Ann's book.

No question, Ann had been... rather forthright. She spoke of consummation. Spirit skin on spirit skin. No self-respecting Puritan could accept such language. This must be the language of secular Enlightenment, or something like that, yes?

Let Chapter 3 of Ravished by Beauty set the record straight. Enlightenment thinkers were embarrassed by the Puritans. The Puritans, surprisingly (perhaps) spoke unabashedly of their relationship to God in sensual language.

While Puritans like Richard Sibbes looked "to consummated union as the ultimate goal of conversion," pastors like Thomas Shepard spoke in words that might have been stolen from Ann, "he makes love to thee... 'Tis fervent, vehement, earnest love...The Lord longs for this...pleads for this...Take thy soul to the Bride-chamber, there to be with him forever and ever..."

John Cotton said it this way, "It will inflame our hearts to kisse him again, if the kisse be from God." And Francis Rous, in a sermon on Isaiah 54:4-5, encouraged his listeners to "fasten on him, not thine eye only, but thy mightiest love, and hottest affection...that thou maist lust after him..."

[blush]

Ann Voskamp seems almost tame in comparison.

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20.9.11

Praise Creates the World

I hear it this morning: the praise of rain. If you are a Texas friend of mine, you hear it this morning: the lament of moisture-empty air. I myself put down a book to reach for my daughter when she came in the room a few moments ago, so I could show her my delight... that she is here, a gift to me and to the world.

We are made for praise. And it springs from our response to God's creations.

Chapter 2 of Ravished by Beauty explores the intertwined role of humankind, earth, and its creatures in responding to God—either in praise of his providence through Nature, or in lament of the brokenness of Creation.

It was fascinating to read of Calvin's ideas about the world as God's theater, where we are treated to visions of God's beauty and power and tender love. A theater, however, is not complete without an audience. We are that audience. But not we alone. The trees clap their hands, the deer pants for water... desiring God's power in providing it.

We can ignore God's gifts, God's own delight in Creation and our part in preserving it. To do so, Calvin says, is "to burn the book [of nature] which our Lord has shown us, wittingly undermining the order he has established in nature by playing the butcher in killing the defenseless bird with our own hands..."

One of the more interesting ideas Belden Lane proposed as an outflow of these concepts was not just that we stop hurting the earth and its creatures (for it and they are our cohorts in praise), but that we also seek ways to incorporate them into our liturgies. He asks...

"What have we to learn from wilderness retreats and gardens of prayer, outdoor labyrinths...and fruits and vegetables...brought to the communion table on Sundays and shared with the poor?"

I was also reminded of something I discovered when researching for God in the Yard: some church communities of long ago used to release birds during their services, as a symbol of Divine presence and Spirit. Short of doing this, I suppose we could simply hold services sometimes out-of-doors (and not just at sunrise on Easter Sunday).

In all, the point is praise. For One who sustains the world by his own delight, and, according to Calvin, relies on our delight as an echo, in a partnership of continued creation.

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19.9.11

Calvin in the Yard?

Over at Amazon today, I noticed one of the reviews of God in the Yard. It's subject line:

A New Kind of Spiritual Discipline.

I guess it can feel that way. Sitting out in the yard, taking in the gifts of nature (even the mosquitoes, yes :). It can feel like a new thing, to the modern Christian accustomed to a pietistic approach.

It even felt new to me—when I sat under stars in snow or rain—since I come from a church that emphasizes intellectual devotion and abstraction over Creation, the senses, and experience.

You can imagine how fascinated I was this morning, then, to read of the dual-thinking of Calvin and the Puritans, on matters of nature, desire, and even ecology. I hadn't known much about Calvin except the doctrine of predestination. This, I discovered, is owed to some of the theologians who came after him, as they emphasized one side of his ideas over the other.

The best way to share with you my fascination about the lesser-known side of Calvin is to share some of the quotes from Calvin and the Puritans, that were included in Chapter 1 of Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality.


William Lawson, on gardening as an aid to spiritual reflection:

"pause with your selfe, and view the end of all your labours in an Orchard: unspeakable pleasure, and infinite commodity"


Nathaniel Ward, Puritan pastor, in a code of laws for the Massachusetts colony:

"No man shall exercise any Tiranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man's use"


John Calvin

"What a pleasure it is to dive into the secrets of nature.... What a deal of the majesty of the great Creator doth shine in the face of this fabric of the world!"

"If I now seek to despoil the land of what God has given it to sustain human beings, then I am seeking as much as I can to do away with God's goodness."


These are not isolated quotes, but just a few of many that Belden C. Lane shares. His discussion is a beautiful balance of thought that might fascinate you too—whether you're sitting at the desk or in the yard.

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16.9.11

Into the Rockies and the Wyoming Desert

Spiritual Practice Books

Glancing at my little pile, I thought it best to take what looked like the hardest title next. Hardest, because it seemed more focused on religious thought-traditions than I might enjoy and, also, it's the thickest book in the stack.

So this morning I pulled out Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality. I planned to breeze through the Prologue and Chapter 1.

Let's just say I was pressed into a motionless place, my back up against the Rockies and my soul stretched thin across the high desert country of Western Wyoming.

As you might guess, I didn't make it past the prologue.

This is a beautiful book. Woven with sights of Glacier Trails and mountain bluebells, slowed with surprising statements about Calvinism and Puritanism, it will not yield to a quick reading. Of that I am sure.

Of all the quotes next to which I put my little "I love this" dots in the margin, this one seems to capture the main theme, as I understand it so far...

"Calvinism was, in part, the product of a landscape of desire—hardened by affliction, toughened by geography, yet driven by the earth's wild beauty to a God of matchless splendor."

I find myself now piqued with a desire of my own: that this book will continue in the fashion it began. That it will keep its promises and remain as beautiful and thoughtful as the Prologue that opened the conversation about the twin experiences of desire and the "weaning of desire."

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15.9.11

On Whether it Works

The final chapter in A Sunlit Absence is an amalgam of thoughts on whether or not contemplative prayer works: as the best choice for prayer, as something suitable for a variety of personalities and lifestyles, as an aid to forgiveness, etc.

I admit I was disappointed by this chapter; it seemed as if it would have been best folded into the rest of the book, piece by piece. And it ended abruptly with one of the potpourri of thoughts, disconnected from any general drawing back to the whole of the book.

There is a part of me that wants to do something other than end like this—with what feels like a review instead of an entering-in. And I am reminded of how important it is for writers to keep their promises to readers all the way through an endeavor, whether that endeavor is an article, a poem, or a whole book.

It is okay, of course, when we writers forget to keep our promises. But our readers may be prone to remember.

____

On a different note, I wonder if any of you have tried contemplative prayer or plan to try it? The rosary, by the way, can be considered a form of contemplative prayer due to its repetitive nature. So far, my girls and I have made rosaries, but I have yet to teach them how to pray with one. (Of course this will mean I'll need to learn it myself first! :)

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14.9.11

What Voices Are We Hearing?

Now this is one of the trickiest chapters of all.

Chapter 7 of A Sunlit Absence, discusses "sharp trials of the intellect," wherein the person comes to see his faults more deeply—especially faults like vainglory, pride, envy, and judgment.

Why is this tricky?

Because just when we think we are discovering our faults and beginning to "break to pieces" under the weight of them (surely a sign of growth for the Contemplative), we may be doing something altogether different—and that is a kind of codependent acceptance that we are a terrible person, unworthy of people's affections, certainly unworthy of God's.

Is our discovery true?

Christian life carries this risk: we may think we are hearing the Voice of Truth declaring us selfish, unfriendly, arrogant (and as humans, we certainly can be!), when what we really may be hearing are the voices of loss, parental or cultural judgment, or our own self-deprecating fears.

I can think of no good way around this except the Song of Songs and its progression from love, to doubt-and-violence, to deeper love.

In the beginning, the Beloved and her Lover are almost high with love. It is Ideal, each viewing the other as perfect. In the center of the book, there is doubt and violence, as the Beloved has a terrible dream in which she's violated by both her Lover and the world outside their intimate love. In the final scenes, the Beloved comes up from the desert leaning on the arm of her Lover. The language of the Ideal is stripped away, but so is the language of doubt and violence. The Beloved appears tired or weak (as we all are, in the sense that we are "sinners"), yet she is accepted, bonded to her Lover as she leans into him.

What allows this bond? She and her Lover are no longer Perfect, but they do not live in a place of doubt-and-violence either.

Tricky again, here, because our Lover is God, always perfect. But can we see how important it is that we not live in a place of self-deprecation? For in that place, we simply cry in our chambers or wander the night and live assaulted by its terrors.

Becoming the Beloved, truly, is no simple journey. Maybe that is why the last scene in Song of Songs depicts the Beloved and her Lover coming up from the desert. And so the path is one we recognize: vineyard, to desert, to vineyard. A long and winding road.

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13.9.11

Going on a Bear Hunt

One of my favorite children's books, We're Going on a Bear Hunt, has this refrain...

We can't go over it. We can't go under it. Oh no! We've got to go through it.

And then, depending on what the characters are going through—grass or mud or water—a delightful followup sound is inserted, like swishy swashy, swishy swashy, swishy swashy or stumble trip, stumble trip, stumble trip.

Chapter 6 of A Sunlit Absence is what I am going to fondly call the Swishy Swashy chapter. Or, if you prefer a little adventure, the going-on-a-bear-hunt chapter.

At one point Laird notes, about a particular woman he uses as an example, "She could not see why this battle with depression and panic should be happening to her. But the pathless path of prayer knows only how to move through struggle; and the only way through is through—not around, over, under, or alongside, but through."

Like many of the stages in this book, I recognized myself in this got-to-go-through-it one: creative disintegration...manifested in depression, panic, and awareness. I speak of these tender times in God in the Yard, and looking back this morning, remembering the pain, I wonder if anyone would actually choose this for themselves. Would I have chosen it if I had known?

Sometimes our soul chooses for us. Perhaps because, as Anais Nin has said, "There [comes] a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud [is] more painful than the risk it [takes] to blossom."

Almost laughably, Laird speaks of his example-woman being "pinched" by two events. Laughable, not because it's funny, but because I think of how I opened God in the Yard saying, "But it's no fun to live with the pain of pinching. That is why I first returned to the woods."

Reading Laird this morning, I also recognized where the path through leads us. Quoting a Carmelite author, he comes to this: "Let yourself be loved."

Maybe our depression, our anxiety, our panic is ultimately one of fear that we aren't loved. We didn't recognize this fear when we were busy loudly swishy swashy-ing through the woods. When we sat still, it suddenly overwhelmed and threatened to swallow us.

For me, the beginning of feeling loved came, oddly, through a Whitman poem. It did not take the sadness away, but it was the initiation of a hope that indeed there was a "through," and that on the other side lay Love. This is the poem, excerpted in God in the Yard... and further excerpted here...

...now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem;
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.

...

O I could sing such grandeurs and glories about you!
You have not known what you are—you have slumbered upon yourself all your life;
Your eye-lids have been the same as closed most of the time...

The mockeries are not you;
Underneath them, and within them, I see you lurk;
I pursue you where none else has pursued you;
Silence, the desk, the flippant expression, the night, the accustom'd routine, if these
conceal you from others, or from yourself, they do not conceal you from me...

The hopples fall from your ankles...


And when the hopples fall from our ankles, perhaps that is when we've made it through, to Love.

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