Category Archives: Prayer

Inscrutable Things With Us

You are always doing great and inscrutable things with us, glorious and wonderful, and without number.

[For the full prayer, click St. Basil’s Prayer: Lent 2024 above.]

Inscrutable – impossible to understand or interpret; impenetrable; incapable of being analyzed or investigated.

I don’t think this means that God is doing things in a devious way, or with the intention of keeping us ignorant of divine actions. I think it’s more a matter of scale and depth. I can no more comprehend the great things that God is doing with us than I can view the entire state of Vermont from my living room window. I can only see a part of it because my life is held in its geographical embrace. What I see is real and true, but the view is limited and my understanding equally limited. I’m in no position and in no shape to claim anything I experience as universal or all-encompassing.

I hope I remember this when I am tempted to discount the ideas and vantage points of others.

I hope I remember this when I am tempted to limit God’s great doings with us to God’s great doings with me.

My Vermont View

Praying with Basil

Lent begins early this year. Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day are coming in less than a week. It’s time to pare down and choose a focus – in daily life and in writing. In my blue and gold copy of Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians I found a guiding prayer for this year’s walk to the tragedy of the cross and the joy of Easter:

We bless you, O God, most high and Lord of mercy. You are always doing great and inscrutable things with us, glorious and wonderful, and without number. You grant us sleep for rest from our infirmities, and repose from the burdens of our much toiling flesh. We thank you, for you have not destroyed us with our sins, but have continued to love us; and though we were sunk in despair, you have raised us up to glorify your power. Therefore, we implore your incomparable goodness. Enlighten the eyes of our understanding and raise up our minds from the heavy sleep of indolence. Open our mouth and fill it with your praise, that we may be able without distraction to sing and confess that you are God, glorified in all and by all, the eternal Father, with your only begotten Son, and your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever, to the ages of ages. Amen.

I hope you will pray with me on this Lenten journey.

[Saint Basil, Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, was born in 330AD, and died at age 49 in 379AD. He is remembered as a powerful theologian and orator, who helped define and defend what became Orthodox theology from Arianism. He worked for the uplifting of the poor and needy, and is remembered for his pastoral work. His feast day is January 1st or 2nd, depending on the tradition.]

The Starting Place

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 131, NRSV. A Song of Ascents. Of David? [Some scholars believe this psalm was written by a woman, regardless of its being attributed to David. I don’t think it matters much, but the imagery is definitely feminine – God as mother, human soul as child.]

I hadn’t really given much thought to the image of the soul as a weaned child, one already moving toward adulthood and able to survive without a mother’s milk. It isn’t hunger for food that moves this child to seek its mother; it’s the desire to return to the source of life, and the recognition that life begins and is sustained by the loving presence of another. None of us are self-created. That simple truth can be accepted and celebrated, or it can be denied as a weakness. If denied, the truth of our very existence is lost, and we will seek in vain to replace it with all manner of complex knowledge and difficult tasks – all of which will have no foundation or ability to ground us in what is true and real.

There’s no shame in being still in the presence of the one who brought us into life. It’s the one place in the universe that offers a glimpse of who we are, and how very much we are loved. This and no other is the starting place of wisdom.

Praying

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Ps. 130:1

The children lit the vigil candles. The cantor sang a wordless song simple enough for even those of us unfamiliar with the melody to join in.

Lamentations biblical and spontaneous were lifted to God. Prayers of hope and safety chanted in Hebrew joined them. People stood and named friends and family members in Israel; some accounted for, some lost, some who died violently.

My husband and I added our prayers and presence, part of the gathering at the synagogue last night. For our neighbors, Alison and Michael, for their family, and for all whose lives will be forever changed because of hatred and the desperation of the soul that generates it.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!

Lost and Found

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. [Psalm 121:8, NRSV]

There were no streetlights near my home when I was in my teen years. On cloudy nights, or ones when there was no moon to light the way, darkness covered everything. One such night, I was walking back from a friend’s house after neighbors were in bed, lights off. About a third of the way home, before I made the turn and could see my house, my friend shut off her porch light. In that moment, a thousand yards from home, everything disappeared. After a moment or two of standing still, I continued on my way. Instead of seeing, I listened to the sound of my feet on the road; when the sound of my steps changed, I knew I had strayed off the road. I tapped my toes against the ground until I found pavement again, then kept on walking. Eventually, I rounded the corner and could see the porch light of my own home.

It’s this lost in the dark experience that I think of when I read this psalm. When I find myself in a dark place – in the existential, spiritual, emotional sense – I remember that night. Finding my way didn’t require sight, just enough trust to put one foot in front of the other until I rounded a corner and the light reappeared. My life is kept by God, coming in or going out; I may lose my way in the dark, but I’m never lost to God.

Whence?

I life my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 121, NRSV

[Note: In the King James translation, the first verse was changed from a question to a statement – a beautiful statement of faith, but not what was written in Psalm 121. This is part of an ongoing series. For more information, click A Song of Ascents above.]

Where do I look for help when I’m in trouble? Whence cometh my help, to put more of a King James spin on it. Whom do I trust with my very life, in all circumstances? It’s a critical question, and the answer is always a statement of faith, even when God’s presence has sustained me through past difficulties. I will trust in God when I need help, just as I trust in God when things are going well.

Once I give my answer in this psalm, I find myself in good company. All of a sudden, there’s another voice, assuring me of God’s faithfulness. Someone else is with me in all of this, someone else is telling me that God will keep my life: I won’t be alone through any of it. I’m not the only one who cries for help, and mine isn’t the only life held by God. My neighbor in faith is with me, and we are both beloved children of the one who created and sustains this universe.

God, self, and neighbor in this mysterious and holy creation. Bound together in all circumstances. Not a one of us alone.

Marvelous.

Psalm 120

In my distress I cry to the Lord,

that he may answer me:

“Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips,

from a deceitful tongue.”

What shall be given to you? And what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?

A warrior’s sharp arrows,

with glowing coals of the broom tree!

Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,

that I must live among the tents of Kedar.

Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.

I am for peace;

but when I speak, they are for war.

Psalm 120, Psalm of Ascent, NRSV

The same emotional state that causes a child’s tantrum can also take hold of an adult. Reason and offers of compromise, even apologies, won’t resolve it – in fact, they may have the opposite effect, causing the one throwing the fit to ratchet up the anger. Destruction becomes the goal, damn the cost. And the cost is high.

What happens when it takes hold of a group, when words and actions cannot redirect the swell of damaging energy and emotion? When mob mentality takes hold and directs violence outward, aiming at specific individuals or groups? Large scale or small, that’s war.

Sometimes, in this emotionally charged and divisive age, it feels like peaceable words and actions are useless. But that’s not true. As individuals, we may not be able to put an end to the thirst for war and destruction, but we can certainly make sure we don’t add to it. Maintaining a state of non-reaction, of peace, bears witness and has its effect. Who knows – it may be the way God answers our prayers for peace. And it just might keep us sane and hopeful.

Keep speaking peace.

[This is the first in a series on the Psalms of Ascent. For more information, click above…]

Songs to Walk By

Psalms 120-134 are walking hymns, sung by pilgrims making their way toward (and up) to Jerusalem for one of the three yearly festivals. Who knows if they were composed for this purpose, for priests ascending the stairway of the Temple, or written for different purposes and assigned this role?

I live in a valley between two mountain ranges, and my home is at the top of one steep hill. Ascending and descending are part of every walk I take out my door, no matter the direction I go. I can’t think of a better place to be to sing these songs…

[For more on this series, click A Song of Ascents above.]

Quiet Neighbors

On a walk by the Battenkill yesterday, my companions and I stopped to read this sign.

They are our quiet neighbors, fostering life all around us with little to no fanfare, asking very little in return.

If I can’t stop to appreciate the majesty and beauty of trees, my soul is diminished.

In all seasons, they remain a steadfast presence.

What a wondrous blessing to walk among them.

Thanks be to God for the green life of trees.

Pity or Mercy

Jesus, the Blessed Child of God, is merciful. Showing mercy is different from having pity. Pity connotes distance, even looking down upon…Mercy comes from a compassionate heart; it comes from a desire to be an equal. Henri Nouwen

[Nouwen, Henri J.M.; Bread for the Journey; San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985, May 28th excerpt.]

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have Mercy. Lord, have mercy. [Kyrie Eleison]

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

If Henri Nouwen is right, then asking for mercy is a request for more than forgiveness of transgressions: it is seeking the company of someone who restores our dignity and fragile sense of self worth instead of stripping it away from us. This is a revolutionary request that can transform our inner lives as we seek to make amends for our shortcomings in our outer ones. We expand instead of contract – and perhaps we will dare to show mercy to others so that they may expand as well.

[This is one writing in an ongoing series. For more information, click Daily Meds above…]