Category Archives: Prayer

Finding Ourselves

A few years back, the book club I joined read two books by women whose first books had sparked marvelous discussion and admiration. One was autobiographical in nature, the other fictional; both were full of pain, difficulty, and loss – but infused with a hope that difficulties can lead to greater understanding and love. The same could not be said for the second books by the same authors. Both were autobiographical, but without a larger love that could offer generosity to the great wide world. Both authors “woke up,” convicted by the belief that only by putting their wants first could they mature into the people they wished to be. Families were left, temporarily or permanently. Friends and lovers were notable for their shortcomings, not their attempts to overcome them. Women who grew in different ways were discounted as immature or sleepwalking through a world not of their own making. Neither book ended on a particularly good note as neither women seemed to feel embraced by their own lives.

Many of the book club members saw the authors as only selfish, self-promoting, and defined by anger. The writing was admired, the women’s conclusions contested. The conviction both authors professed – that women whose life paths went a different way were immature or somehow inferior in their understanding of the world – didn’t set well. Many decided they wouldn’t bother reading any more works by either author.

I understood how the book club members felt, and I also understood the authors’ newfound acceptance of the importance of their own stories and voices. The world is not a fair place, and women’s contributions have been undervalued and suppressed. Waking up to the injustice of it is not an easy experience. The question is whether this waking up inevitably leads to a single interpretation or stance for all women (not much is said about men in either book).

I believe the authors were women who were growing into their potential, and that their second books were autobiographies of a transition rather than of a final resolution or destination. Rejecting what demeans the self and limits the soul is necessary, but not something that can support a good and holy life by itself. The next step must be taken: loving the brokenness of others as much as our own shortcomings. Unless and until love and joy define how we see self and others, we aren’t yet where we need to be. Or, as Joseph Brackett put it:

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

Lord, help me love everyone who comes my way – and love the person you made me to be! Amen.

Elder Joseph Brackett, Simple Gifts, The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection; Windham Hill Records, 1996; Liz Story, performer, recorded at Luna Recording Studio, Prescott, AZ, 1996

Cruelty and Kindness

Those who are kind reward themselves, but the cruel do themselves harm. Proverbs 11:17 NRSV

 

Another way to say the same thing: kindness is its own reward and cruelty is its own punishment. Perhaps it’s because kindness is fostering whatever lives and moves in this time and place and cruelty is putting every effort into maiming or killing it. Either way, it is sure to rebound on the person who is its source.

The Source and the Message

Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching. Proverbs 1:8 NRSV

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching. When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother’s favorite, he taught me, and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments and live. Get wisdom and insight: do not forget, nor turn away, from the words of my mouth. Proverbs 4:1-5 NRSV

If you want to see good parenting, look in the grocery store or the public library; if you want to see atrocious parenting, do the same. In any number of shops or schools you will see parents ignoring their children, or speaking to them in ways that demean and humiliate. You will also see loving glances between parents and their children, and hear patient and respectful dialogue even in difficult situations. The power these words have to foster or maim the spirit isn’t immediately visible most times – it’s five, ten, twenty, forty years down the line that it’s revealed in the beauty and the ugliness, the soundness and the brokenness that mark the men and women the children grew into.

What happens when a parent says to a child: listen to me! What happens when a mother or father tells a son and a daughter that life and wisdom comes from listening to what is said? I think the answer depends not so much on the exact words as much as the actions of their source. If love and respect are offered to a child, parental mistakes and shortcomings will be forgiven and advice will be experienced as an offering of love. If fear and insulting judgement are offered, parents will be unable to admit mistakes and faults, foisting whatever is imperfect upon their child’s narrow shoulders – a burden rather than a blessing. It doesn’t matter how good and true the words used might be – they are weaponized, harming the child and even the child’s child.

The source and the message are never truly separate either way. For this reason alone, it should make us think very carefully and deeply before we say these three words: listen to me! Because our children will…

Between Garden and 10th Avenue

It’s now the High Line Hotel. Before that, the Desmond Tutu Conference Center; right before that, the Chelsea apartment I called home for a year. It stretched the width of the building, wrapping around the grand marble staircase leading to General Seminary’s vaulted refectory. Windows on one side revealed dumpsters, a dilapidated parking lot, and the 10th Avenue municipal maintenance facility for Manhattan’s trash and utility trucks. The window on the opposite side offered a leafy view of a quiet garden alive with birds, butterflies, squirrels, and brown rabbits. This gothic building, along with several others, formed the wall that surrounded the entire block along 9th and 10th avenues, between 20th to 21st streets. My older son learned to walk on its painted wooden floors and its hosta-lined garden paths while my husband learned how to be an Episcopal priest and I wrote my dissertation.

It’s a curious space to occupy, the residential barrier betwixt garden and city traffic. In recent years, I’ve come to see it as an image of the spiritual life. Cultivating a quiet space of reflection and communion with God on the inside while living in the world of noise, opportunity, strife, and beauty. Without the larger world as a reference point, my spiritual life can become disconnected – something that only has to do with me and my particular understanding of God. Without a quiet space of reflection and worship, the noise of everyday life drowns out angel song and prophetic vision alike.

There were a lot of inconvenient things about living between garden and avenue – car exhaust sprinkled fine black powder on the window sills every day, the closest exit to the street was a half block walk, and there were three keys necessary to get from street to my front door. But I am grateful for all of them: a deeply faithful life that connects inner peace with the broken, beautiful world isn’t lived at my convenience – nothing true and sacred ever is, was, or could be convenient.

[For images, go to www.thehighlinehotel.com or gts.edu.]

Prudence and Excess…the final couple

Where there is Mercy and Prudence,

There is neither Excess nor Harshness. St. Francis,  The Admonitions XXVII

[The Message of St. Francis, New York: Penguin Studio, 1999, p. 9]

Prudence: 1. The ability to govern oneself by the use of reason; 2. sagacity or shrewdness in the management of affairs. 3. Skill and good judgment in the use of resources; 4. Caution or circumspection as to danger or risk [Merriam-Webster online dictionary www.merriam-webster.com]

Being prudent isn’t the same thing as being a prude (a person who is excessively or priggishly attentive to propriety or decorum, Merriam-Webster). A prude fulfills the letter of the law for its own sake, or to feel morally superior to those who don’t. He or she may feel a smug sense of satisfaction by avoiding mistakes or pointing out the transgressions of others, but there’s no real life or love involved. Ironically, excessive focus on doing things properly in all times and places is also blindness to the rest of this life-giving world – the very opposite of prudence.

The virtue of prudence is sound judgment, a grasp on the bigger issues involved in daily actions, respectful and effective use of resources, and the good sense to stay out of danger. Self control isn’t for its own sake, nor is it a means of shaming others. The whole point is to live in a way that brings good things to self and others, to bring self and neighbor together.

I rarely think about the word prudence, but I do my best to practice it in my daily living. I don’t want to judge others harshly to feel good about myself and I don’t want to use more than my share of the world’s resources. I want to live a good, rich life with a minimum of worldly goods; I want to help others do the same. I can’t be prudent and a prude at the same time – if I can remember that simple truth, my blessings won’t be at the expense of others.

Mother and Child

 Picture by Jared Fredrickson

It’s Mother’s Day, and I’ve been up for almost three hours. I called my sister a few minutes ago, wishing her a good day. I’ll call my mom in another hour to wish her well and to say thank you for the life and love she’s given me – and for the prayers she continues to say for me.

The first time I laid my newborn sons in the crib at home, I gave them over to God in prayer. I said that same prayer every night, and still do with some modifications (For most of the year, it’s a long distance prayer for my older son). At sixteen and twenty years of age, they often stay up later than I do, so it’s now part of my going-to-bed prayers rather than a putting-them-to-bed prayer. I think it’s made being a mother more of a joy than an anxiety, and I’m sure it’s given me the strength to let them grow into their holy lives. I don’t own them and I don’t know what life holds for them. I do know that God loves them even more than I do. Perhaps I say this prayer to remind myself of that…

Gracious God, this night I give my son back to you in faith and hope. He is yours even more than he is mine. May you return him to me in the morning, to love and to raise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 Row house by Colin Fredrickson

[St. Francis’ Prayer will return in a few days…]

My True Dwelling

Where there is fear of God to guard the dwelling,

there no enemy can enter. St. Francis

Admonitions XXVII

[The Message of St. Francis, New York: Penguin Studio, 1999, p. 9]

I’ve never been a fan of the “fear of God” language. I think it’s too easy to mistake its true meaning for the false idea that God will harm anyone and everyone who makes a mistake or behaves in a less than morally perfect manner. My definition of the  “fear of God”:  Yikes! My life is laughably brief and limited compared to the age of the universe and scope of God’s creative action within it. Time didn’t begin with my birth and won’t end with my death. After all, I am a very small person in a very big cosmos. 

At the same time, knowing my relative size and duration within the universe is not a commentary on my value or significance. There is no such thing as an insignificant life. Every single one is unique, precious in the eyes of God. You and I may only take up a speck of space and moment of time, but such specks and moments change the very nature of this whole universe. 

When I accept my limited existence and my unique place in the grand scheme of things, then I claim the blessing of God’s love for me and every other being that ever has or ever will grace this vast universe. No one can take my place or steal God’s love from me. I dwell in God’s love, so do you, so does everyone else. Who can steal what is freely given? Where there is enough love for everyone, how can there be enemies? And with God, there is more than enough.

Peace is hard (non)work

VIRTUE AND VICE 

Where there is Love and Wisdom, there is neither Fear nor Ignorance.

Where there is Patience and Humility, there is neither Anger nor Annoyance.

Where there is Poverty and Joy, there is neither Cupidity nor Avarice.

Where there is Peace and Contemplation, there is neither Care nor Restlessness.

Where there is the Fear of God to guard the dwelling, there no enemy can enter.

Where there is Mercy and Prudence, there is neither Excess nor Harshness.

St. Francis, The Admonitions, XXVII

[The Message of St. Francis, New York: Penguin Studios, 1999, p. 9]

Peace isn’t something that happens automatically, at least the inner kind. It isn’t mental numbness or the absence of conflict. For me, it’s recognizing my place in this beautiful, broken world – and knowing in my very bones that it’s a beautiful, holy life I’ve been given. Not a perfect life, and not a life lived perfectly; instead, an imperfect self in an imperfect world, perfectly loved by the one who created it all. But this awareness, and living at peace with the rest of the world in all circumstances, takes a kind of effort quite different from almost all of my other endeavors. That’s where Contemplation comes in…

Contemplation is practicing prayer by quieting my thoughts and resting in the truth that I’m not the center of the universe. It is also the experience and awareness of who is the center and boundary of creation. De-centering my small self – the one that insists on everything being about me, my wants, and my needs – is the only way to re-center on what is true and real: God’s sustaining presence. All the little annoyances and worries have no room in this most gracious and profound reality.

This letting go of my limited perspective and my small opinions isn’t easy, but it’s not something that comes from intense effort. It’s unclenching my fists and releasing the stranglehold I have on reality, because it’s not saving me from a tumble as much as it is choking the life out of me. It’s a spiritual truth and an ironic twist of fate that letting go is the hardest (non) work I could attempt. It’s such a simple thing, but it sure isn’t easy.

A de-centered and re-centered life isn’t without difficulties or challenges – they are part of the human condition. But fretful care and spiritual restlessness are things I lose when I no longer require the world to revolve around me.

 

There is neither Cupidity…

Where there is Poverty and Joy,

there is neither Cupidity nor Avarice.

St. Francis, The Admonitions, XXVII

Merriam-Webster has one of my favorite websites – Word of the Day, language games, and access to a world class dictionary and thesaurus. There are also short essays so well written that just about any subject is made interesting. As an avid reader and habitual writer, www.merriam-webster.com is a verbal playground. So as I was pondering what to write about Cupidity, I took a look at Merriam-Webster’s definition. The first one: inordinate desire for wealth. The second: strong desire, lust.

When I first read Francis’ words, I paired poverty with avarice and cupidity with joy – an instance of chiasmus, with the word pairings making an “X” when connected by lines. In that case, it’s the second definition of Cupidity that serves as Joy’s opposite. Lust is desiring someone as an object for fulfilling sexual desires; it turns the desired person into a thing rather than honoring that person as a companion in an intimate physical expression of joy. God knows the news is full of cupidity these days – sad tales of women and men intimidated and threatened if they refused to submit to unwanted advances. Such actions are harmful, draining joy from future relationships as well as bringing pain in current circumstances.

I think that first impression is right, but incomplete: all four words relate, either as companions or as contrasting qualities. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of Cupidity is about seeking wealth without thought for its consequences or its true worth. With no thought to what is necessary and life-giving, cupidity is the absence of poverty just as surely as it is joy – and avarice is cupidity in action.

Why is it that sex and wealth, such powerful forces, can lead to a life in ruins or a taste of heaven on earth?

Poverty and Joy

Where there is Poverty and Joy,

there is neither Cupidity nor Avarice.

St. Francis, Admonitions XXVII

I’ve never considered poverty and joy natural companions, but I can see how Poverty and Joy are. Poverty is the ability to separate what is necessary from what is not, and Joy is the gift that comes with choosing the necessary.

Why is it that I’m willing to spend so much time and energy chasing after the unnecessary things when they cost me Joy?

Dear Lord, give me the wisdom to know what is necessary and what is not – and the common sense to choose Joy over unnecessary things. Amen.

[For the complete prayer, click “Walking with Francis from Easter to Pentecost”]