No Thanks Necessary

When you’ve done well and another has benefitted by it, why like a fool do you look for a third thing on top – credit for the good deed or a favor in return? Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.73

One of the main differences between icons and other paintings: icons are never signed. The person who writes an icon is creating beauty as an expression of prayer and faith – an expression that is designed to foster the prayers and faith of the ones who stand before it. An iconographer is creating something that is meant to be moved through – a beautiful means to a holy encounter with God. Signing it, taking credit for it, might impede that moving through and defeat the purpose of the icon.

If I think of everything I do as creating something beautiful as an expression of prayer and faith, I won’t need to claim credit or expect recognition and thanks. Seeking that third thing just might defeat the purpose of the act – and it certainly won’t help it.

[Quote from The Daily Stoic; Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman; New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2016, July 15th; Icon of Saint Matthew]

Learning For A Reason

The Daily Stoic; Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman; New York: Penguin, 2016, p. 204

The difference between learning in a way that leads to a fruitful life for self and the world and learning that doesn’t go that way is the difference between wisdom and knowledge. A genius may use her or his knowledge and skills for irrelevant or harmful ends; a wise man or woman uses his or her skills in a way that deepens the spirit and gladdens the world.

There are evil geniuses, but no evil wise ones. Something to think about…

A Second Look

We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe – life is complicated enough as it is, after all. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves… Buechner

Years ago, I worked as a chaplain in a Trenton, New Jersey, hospital. Part of the work: pick an encounter with a patient or staff member and write it up, word for word. These verbatims were designed to raise awareness of how our own assumptions and histories influenced how we interacted with others. Generally, most of us chose encounters that were particularly difficult or meaningful.

One week, my supervisor changed the rules. Pick an ordinary interaction – a quick hello in an elevator, a brief conversation at the nurses’ station. Something forgettable. And so I did. I doubt there were more than fifty words altogether, and none of them remarkable. But there was a holiness to it that I could only see because I took a second look at it.

A mystic is someone who sees that holiness at first glance – or at least knows it’s there, seen or unseen. And a mystic is willing to admit it.

[Frederick Buechner; Listening to Your Life; San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992, p. 168]

For Whose Benefit?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22

For most of my life, I assumed that the reason Jesus told Peter to forgive another was for the benefit of the other person. It seemed like a lot to require of anyone, and it still does.

The older I get, the more inclined I am to see how forgiveness benefits the forgiver as much or more than the one forgiven. To be released from that acid gnawing away at body and spirit that corrodes the very heart of my being until I forgive is a grace bordering on the miraculous.

Is releasing another from a burden of guilt, of restoring another’s inner peace, too high a price for the reprieve from my own suffering?

[Daily Peace: Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2015; photos by Marek Minch and Elena Alyukova-Sergeeva. For more on this series, click Daily Meds above.]

With age…

[Author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail; excerpt from Daily Peace; Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2015]

What is unforgivable? It’s an important question that arises whenever harm comes into our lives. And an even more critical question: who cannot be forgiven?

The older I get, the more I am convinced of this: when I assign someone to the land of the unforgivable and unforgiven, I end up living there, too. Only by the grace of God can either one of us find release.

What We Deserve

There are countless people who sit in church pews throughout the world, hearing words of love that they cannot bring themselves to accept or believe. Love freely given gets mistaken for benefits that must be earned, and that is no love at all. Why is it that harsh judgement is accepted as deserved, but love is not?

Stephen Chbosky is a novelist and film writer. Judging by the words above, he’d make a decent theologian, too.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love. I Cor 13:13

[Daily Peace: 365 Days of Renewal; Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2014. Stephen Chbosky is the author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, among other things. Photographer: Steve Schindler]

Clearing A Path

March 15, 2023

It took almost two days for the storm to wind down to a few floating flakes. Twelve hours into it, I took a shovel to the four inches of snow piled up on the front porch and the ten inches on the walkway. When another half a foot accumulated a few hours later, my husband cleared the porch and walk. The next morning, the walk was buried in another foot of snow. I pushed through the snow blocking the door and went out for round three of shoveling.

It took a lot of bending and heavy lifting to clear a path the first time, and all that work disappeared as the snow continued to fall. All that was accomplished with three rounds of shoveling was the restoration of a way in and out of the house. Such work is usually only noticed when it hasn’t been done, and the path is blocked.

I experience centering prayer in much the same way – a lot of work without much in the way of discernible accomplishment. But it keeps the way clear, getting me beyond my own small internal world and allowing me to welcome others into it. And that is no small thing…

The Path Through

Letting go of what doesn’t matter: some tangible gain for my every effort.

Loving what does: anything that gets me beyond my own small world – and allows others into it.


We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore live in him, and he in us. Amen.

I say it at least eight times in the typical worship service. Recently, I’ve been thinking of different ways of saying Amen, ways to help me mean it when I say it: I’m in! Sign me up! Absolutely! Thinking of Amen as a verbal way of raising my hand rather than a place-holding word to keep the rhythm of the service on track keeps me from thinking I am merely a passive observer rather than an active participant. It also brings to mind what I’m in for…

Do I want to see love transform this world into a place where everyone knows they are unique and sacred? Absolutely!

Am I willing to give up the partial identities that drain joy from my daily life? Sign me up!

Will I join with others to serve those whom Jesus loved – the poor, the needy, the desperate? I’m in!

And the hardest one: will I let go of my preferred way of seeing and acting in the world to bring about God’s kingdom? Am I willing to follow in the footsteps of Jesus? Let’s hope I can say with conviction and joy: I’m in!


Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

[For full prayer, click Humble Access above.]

Exactly what are we doing when we take part in communion/eucharist/mass? Remembering, honoring, participating in Jesus’ last meal with his disciples? Are the bread/wafers and wine/grape juice symbolic, connecting us to something larger? Do these common elements somehow change into the body and blood of Christ? Our answers to such questions depend on our particular traditions and our life experience. There is no single correct answer because there is no single way to experience communion with God and with the people who join with us in this sacred act.

It matters how we approach the bread and wine, but not because our theology needs to be affirmed or corrected. It matters because we are seeking something much bigger than a correct understanding. We are seeking what God in Christ offers: living in the love of God, and the love of God living within us.

Indwelling – God in us and us in God – is the point. The theological particulars of how we understand this can provide a doorway into this indwelling, or they can be a wall that keeps us out.

Bow and Bend

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

and when we find ourselves in the place just right,

’twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d, to bow and to bend we will not be ashamd.

to turn, turn, shall be our delight,

till by turning, turning we come round right.

[Simple Gifts, traditional Shaker hymn by Joseph Brackett]

Wiping down the tables. Sweeping up the paper scraps. Checking glue sticks and markers to see if they still work. Sweeping the pine needles off the back patios and keeping the chocolate mint plants in check. Wiping a nose, holding the hand of a toddler navigating a step. Such tasks weren’t the main focus of my work as the gardener of the learning library, but they were all necessary elements of the program. Practically anyone could do them, but it fell to Marcia, the children’s librarian, and me. Every summer for many years, Marcia and I returned to these most basic of tasks because they were ways to create a welcoming and engaging space for parents, grandparents, and children of all ages.

When we describe our program, none of these tasks are included. Goals, attendance, the garden-to-story-to-table pieces are highlighted in annual reports for the trustees and the greater library network; these crucial elements remain unrecognized. Perhaps because elements that anyone can do aren’t valued as highly as the elements that require special skills or education – writing curriculum, selecting meaningful stories, noting knowledge and maturity gained by participants.

Perhaps it’s because I’d rather be known for the complex things I accomplish more than the simple. If so, I’ve forgotten a couple of fundamental, spiritual truths:

Simple and easy aren’t the same thing.

More complex doesn’t mean more worthwhile.