Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Journey's Arc - Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21

We are all participants in a sacred story.

We are all participants in a story that begins in that quiet, still place in which we begin to know God, a story that that draws us into engagement with others in God’s great kingdom of abundance, a story that finally invites us into restful recollection of God’s movement in our lives.

Do you remember , back in high school, learning something about the arc of a narrative or a drama? The geometric half-circle that depicts the unfolding of a narrative? A story begins with, well, with a beginning: a place, a situation, a person or some people. And as the story moves forward, complications develop, challenges arise, assumptions are tested, the unexpected happens – until a point of crisis is reached.  And then matters are settled, and tension dissolves. 

It’s an arc of narrative that we know well; we learned it when we studied novels and plays in school, we see it on television and in the movies.  I read a few days ago that Harry Potter is the story which has formed the backdrop of the lives of many of today’s young adults.  The first Harry Potter movie was released ten years ago and the new and final one is filling theatres this month with young adults in their twenties --now there’s an extended story arc! 

Today’s  gospel story is much shorter than the Harry Potter series, and it’s so familiar that it’s hard to hear afresh.  It is, in fact, the narrative of the only miracle, other than the resurrection itself, to appear in all four gospels – which tells us that all four gospel writers and communities, each with a distinctive take on Jesus’ life and its meaning, understood this event, this feeding of the multitudes, to be of great significance.   

It’s important in many ways, some of which we’ll explore together this morning, but one thing it offers us is a vision of the arc of the entire Christian journey – Jesus’ story and, therefore, our own as well.  This short narrative, so compact and so jammed with activity – it tells us the story of our lives in a nutshell. So let’s start at the beginning, the quiet beginning in which God is discovered in the stillness.

Some of you know that about ten days ago I returned from a weeklong silent retreat.  Now, when I mention that I’ve been away on retreat, I usually get two reactions.  First, people look stunned, laugh, and tell me that they could not be silent for seven minutes, let alone seven days.  Last week I mentioned to a friend that some folks make 30 day silent retreats, and she clasped her forehead in her hands and put it down on the table where we were sitting.  The thought of a month of silence was completely overwhelming to her! But after the initial moment of shock passes, people become curious, and ask me what a silent retreat involves.  So let me tell you:

I traveled to a big retreat house in eastern Pennsylvania, one of several such houses scattered around the world and run by the Jesuits. The Jesuits are a Catholic order of priests and brothers, famous for both their schools – here, St. Ignatius High School and John Carroll University – and also for their spiritual companionship and counsel.   There were 40 or so people of many different Christian traditions on retreat, plus maybe ten retreat directors, both women and men, which meant that about 50 of us spent a week together in silence. 

Meals – silent.  Pool – a Godsend during July – silent.  (No Marco Polo!) Grounds, libraries, chapels – all silent, except for daily mass and your daily meeting with a spiritual director, who listens to what’s been going on in your life of prayer, offers some comments, and then suggests a passage of  Scripture or maybe some other possibilities on which you might focus until your next meeting.

Prayer in this context might most frequently be described on terms of conversation with God – most especially, listening to God – although over the course of a week, I suppose, just about every form of prayer is taking place somewhere at some point in the retreat.  But I think that it would be fair to describe it as prayer that is deeply grounding, prayer in which you become very much aware of God’s desires for you.

This, I think, is the kind of prayer in which Jesus often engages on his forays into the silence, something we often see him doing in the gospels.  Jesus frequently steps away from the crowds who surround him to spend time alone with his Father.  He disappears for a night of prayer before he calls his disciples.  He spends forty days in prayer, alone, in the desert, at the outset of his ministry.  And, of course, at the beginning of today’s reading, he has slipped away in a boat to pray, no doubt grieving the death of his cousin and lifelong companion, John the Baptist.

Thus, as we begin our encounter with this passage, we see that the arc of the spiritual journey begins in prayer.  And Jesus – I think that Jesus must emerge from these periods of prayer as one absolutely incandescent, as someone radiating light from within.  How else to explain the hold he seems to have on people, the disciples who were willing to drop everything to be led and taught by him, the crowds who seek him out and follow him? 

As Jesus begins to walk amidst the crowds again, the middle portion of arc becomes apparent:  action.  Prayer grounds movement outward. 

The Jesuits, with whom I spent time in Pennsylvania, are often referred to as “contemplatives in action” – people whose prayer launches engagement in the world and service to others.  

 In our own Protestant tradition, probably the most well-known example of the same set of values is represented by Church of the Savior in Washington. D.C., an ecumenical community  which emphasizes the inward and outward journey.  In fact, COS maintains a website of daily readings called – that’s where I found the quote that appears in our bulletin today.  And it was through COS that I first experienced an extended period of silence, on a week-end retreat that some of its members brought to Cleveland several years ago.

Have any of you heard of COS?  It’s more a community of churches than a church – when people join COS, they become part of – or sometimes even found – a mission group  committed to addressing an issue of social justice.  I have a friend here in Cleveland, a woman in her 90s,  who spent some 30 years as a member of COS working on issues pertaining to homeless women.  Each of these “sub-churches” prays and worships and studies and works together, so that the members’ lives – their arcs of narrative and journey – are fully integrated around attentiveness to God in the context of a critical societal challenge.

Jesus begins his outward movement in this passage by healing some of those who come to him. We are told that “[w]hen he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”  His prayer, his transition from inward to outward, pervades his vision and inspires him to care for others. 

It’s a move we might recognize – when I discussed this passage with a friend this past week, she said that when her children were younger and somewhat troubled, her mother said to her, “Be sure that they’re doing something to help someone else.  That’s the best thing for them.”  Many of us have been the beneficiaries of that kind of advice, and it’s just what Jesus does – he moves out of himself and toward others. 

Now the arc of the story begins to move toward its climax, toward its highest point of drama and contentiousness – and significance.    The crowds are milling around, tired and hungry and no doubt a little cranky -- and the disciples want them to disperse.  But Jesus continues his movement outward; he continues to demonstrate what it means to be a contemplative in action – and in the most profound sense.  Because – did you notice this?  -- he doesn’t just feed the crowds.  He gets the disciples involved in feeding them.  He tells the disciples to feed the crowds and, when they resist, seeing nothing but the challenges of scarcity and insufficiency in front of them, he shows them what to do. 

We are called to do more than serve others – we are called to engage others themselves in service, in the work of God’s kingdom. 

Look at this climax, at the pinnacle of this story.  Look at how many aspects of our sacred story merge as Jesus acts. Look at the kaleidoscope of worship, service, and the call to others.

When Jesus sees what little seems to be available, the five loaves and the two fishes, he takes them, breaks the loaves of bread, blesses them, and gives them to the disciples.  Does this sound familiar?  Of course it does – it’s clearly a foreshadowing of the Last Supper.  What Jesus will do later will mirror exactly what he does here.  In  blessing and breaking the bread, he offers grateful worship and provides nourishment, nourishment which his disciples, and we ourselves, will come to understand is spiritual as well as physical, -- and then: he engages others.  He gives the food to the disciples to give to the crowd.  Because God’s Kingdom is a community of care and service, a community into which we are all drawn by love and from which we are all sent forth with God’s abundant gifts.

Look at the words we use for this event, when we replicate it.

One of them is eucharist, which comes from both the Latin and the Greek eucharistia, and means gratefulness or thanksgiving.  Prayer that reflects gratitude, engagement with God – that’s the contemplative approach. 
Another word is communion, which also comes from Latin, and means exactly what it sounds like it means:  communal, community, gathering. There’s the action, the move outward. 

And finally, our official Presbyterian term is the Lord’s Supper, a phrase which we understand to mean the meal over which Jesus presides, the gift of life which he offers us.  Isn’t it interesting that in the Lord’s Supper the two strands of the arc converge?

– the contemplative and the active,
the inner and the outer. 
Prayer and action. 
Gratitude and community. 
Eucharistia and communion.

Well, we’ve followed the arc upward to its pinnacle, and now what?  What happens as one story in our journey ends and another begins?

I have another tidbit for you from my retreat.  For the last day, my retreat director suggested spending some time “gathering together” my prayer and reflection of the previous week, and the text he referred to was ours of today. (I perked right up, knowing that I might be preaching on this text.) “Remember,” he said, “that when the meal is over, the disciples take up what is left of the broken bread, twelve baskets full. This is a time for you to take up and reflect upon where you have been this week.”  

And what I see is that we are back to prayer: prayer as reflection on what we have done and not done, and on what has happened and what it tells us.  Because our sacred story involves memory, because Jesus always invites us to remember who we are: his beloved people, called to receive in abundance where we once saw scarcity and to share with abandon the extravagance of his love for us.

We are called to gather up and reflect about what we do in worship and in mission – just as we see happening in today’s story.  It seems that a “gathering together” is a spiritual mandate – a mandate to look at what’s left over and to begin to imagine the future.As we move through the processes and cycles in which we engage in the work of God’s kingdom, we should also take the time to pause -- to reflect, to refresh, and to renew. We end as we began and as we will begin anew: in prayer, in reflection and in communion with our God.

And so there we have it: the arc of the Christian journey: prayer  --  action -- prayer.  Contemplation – and then movement outward into worship and service and engagement of the  community – and then reflection. 

This little narrative tells us our own, revealing our lives to us through this episode in the life of Jesus.  As he did, so we are called to do. We plumb the depths of our relationship with God in prayer  -- we move outward in gratitude and  in worship, seeking to nourish others and to invite them to share in the ever-expanding generosity of our loving Creator – and we return to our God in the quiet so that we may be restored and refreshed, gathering and storing God’s surprising gifts, and preparing to begin again.

Amen, and thanks be to God.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Happy St. Ignatius Day!

Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola  in the Roman Catholic Church.

I often wish that we followed a similar practice of celebration in the Protestant Church.  Having attended many Catholic masses in my time, I've heard lots of stories about saints, stories which connect the people of today's church with those of their tradition and history.  

In the Methodist church to which I belonged for a long time, we heard at least a couple of sermons each year about John Wesley.  So I do know about his heart being strangely warmed, and I know a bit about his mother, Susannah Wesley, and his brother Charles Wesley, famous in his own right as a hymn writer. When I went to the boarding school founded by evangelist D.L. Moody, we were all well versed in his life and thought.

But on the whole, we Protestants don't spend a lot of time dwelling upon our forefathers and foremothers in the faith.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that Ignatian spirituality has had a huge impact on me, and so it's a pleasure to honor his day, which just happens to come two days after my birthday!

I have another photo to post in a couple of days, but it's a surprise for someone elsewhere, so we'll have to wait.  The one above is of the statue of Ignatius the Pilgrim at the Jesuit Center in Guelph, Ontario.

Friday, July 29, 2011


 I have some serious stuff to post, but for this week-end, let's go with my brother's FB message:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Moms Still Online

Many, many years ago ~ fifteen, they tell me ~ I read an article in an airplane magazine about a new website called Moms Online.  Later that week, I checked it out, found my way to a column written by a mom of young children and its accompanying message board, and got involved in the ongoing discussion.  With the website's eventual demise, a group of us who had become friends continued our conversations via email, and today we're still together. 

Fifteen summers ago . . .  1996: my boys were eleven and The Lovely Daughter was eight.  I was practicing family law.  During those fifteen years: families have moved, moms have re-entered paid employment and earned new degrees and changed careers, husbands have lost and found jobs, marriages have foundered and survived and ended, children have grown up and gone to college and had various other adventures, one child has died, and one mom has survived breast cancer.

Last week-end, two of the ladies showed up in town  for family reunions, and so we carved out some time for brunch.  Kathryn is an engineer transformed into a high school chemistry teacher, married to an engineer, and mother of two boys.  Laura is the director of music for a huge Catholic parish, married to an athletic trainer, and mom of one very tall son.  Kathryn and I have gotten together several times; this was a first meeting with Laura.
Of course, we had nothing whatever to talk about!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Slow Writing

 A year ago, maybe two, I received a real letter from Michelle.  On paper, in an envelope, with a stamp. 

And thus we commenced an erratic correspondence, one in which the U.S. Postal Service is a partner.

Then I began to receive occasional envelopes from Cindy and from Wayne. Sometimes mail arrives from the Karens East and West.  And from others I am forgetting to name.  And now Fran is threatening to send postcards from her vacation.

What gives?  I communicate with all of these people in a myriad of ways: blogs, Facebook, email, telephone, even in person.  Regular mail is surely the slowest and least efficient option.

There is something about a real letter, a letter that began in the hands of a real person, slipping through the mail slot and onto the floor of the front hallway, which conveys that communication between individuals is a matter of great moment.  There is something evocative and compelling about words formed by hand in ink, something lacking in words that appear on computer screens.  Letters are accompanied by more than the widest variety of software fonts can offer:  I am touched by the texture and weight of the envelopes, and  I delight in the images on the cards, images that convey those little extras about the writers that their words do not entirely encompass.

Three years ago I received hundreds of cards and letters in a matter of weeks.  Some of them still arrive on occasion, from people who have just heard the news, or who needed months (or years) to work their way up to writing.  I have been astonished by the eloquence of those letters.  They are utterly beautiful.  I treasure them all.  (And those somewhat delayed?   Great gifts.  It is genuinely moving and comforting to read that  others were so stunned and saddened that they, too, were immobilized.  Allies.)

I am not the best of regular mail correspondents.  But I am inspired to improve.

If we can write real letters so gracefully during times of tragedy, why not during times of joy, or adventure, or consternation, or complexity, or  just plain ordinary life?

I think that I like this slow mail movement!

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Retreat Begins

 Yes, I've been back for several days, as you know if you've been reading.

And last night, very late, many of the matters which had swirled through my prayer during my week of silence, merging into unexpected and unmanageable patterns, began to disengage from one another, becoming distinct and yet allied streams of . . . well, "understanding" might be too ambitious a word.  But perhaps the potential for understanding.

Thus, with a new clarity of vision emerging, I would say that my retreat is now underway.

When I return from a retreat, people often greet me with words suggesting that they envy my having had such an opportunity to "relax."  That hasn't been my experience.  (As one woman said during the final Mass last week when, in lieu of a homily, retreatants are invited to comment on their experience, "Who ever knew that relaxation could be so hard ?!")

What I have found instead, over the course of the weeks and months that follow, is that my retreats have in fact, been consoling.  (With one major exception.) Ignatius describes consolation as "every increase of faith, hope and love and all interior joy . . . filling [one's soul] with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord."

It's no secret that every dimension of my life has been challenged in every way since my son's death.  And that the disturbing ten weeks of double vision this past spring, although traceable to a physical cause, seemed in their confusion and disorientation to reflect my inner life.

How consoling, then, to find now that after a week of having been challenged, both spiritually and psychologically, the sorting hats are settling into place.

Last night, as I fell asleep, I began to dream about an encounter with a very large bear, and awakened in alarm, only to hear the trail of a voice from my not-quite-completed dream say, "But this is wonderful!  Such power and grace."

I looked at the ceiling for awhile and thought about Faulkner's story of The Bear and concluded, Yes, here I am.  Face to face with power and grace.

Image: Reflecting pond at Wernersville.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


I was about to turn thirteen when I visited Norway with my grandmother, who had concluded that the way to see the world was to grab her grandchildren and go.  What I particularly remember about Norway was the glittering beauty of the fjords, and falling in love with the city of Bergen (pictured).

When you send your children, even your young adult children off to camp (and The Lovely Daughter is at this moment spending her fourth summer as a counselor at the camp of her childhood, and mine), you worry about accidents ~ drownings, climbing falls, bear errors in judgment.  When they are young adults, you worry about human errors in judgment ~ young people on mountain roads after nights off in local bars ~ and, as last year revealed, young people in flip-flops stepping on copperheads stretched out on warm pavement in the night.  I suppose that you don't worry about those things on small Norwegian islands, but there are probably other possibilities.

As my own experience has revealed, you don't worry much about the things that actually come to pass.  A suicide.  A deranged gunman.

I look at the images of those parents, who have to absorb the sudden shock of the deaths of their beloved children, knowing that they died in fear, far from those who love them the most, their futures abruptly curtailed, their presence ripped away, their beautiful shining faces just . . .  gone . . .  and  . . . there are no words.  Their lives are shattered.    Blessed are those who mourn.  Lord, have mercy.  

Are your wonders known in the darkness?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Retreat Vignettes

Morning walk ~ the sun came up at about 5:50 am.

Morning walk ~ Walter Ciszek, S.J.  is one of my heroes, and I spent some time re-reading his book He Leadeth Me. (Click to enlarge and read.)

Morning on the East Cloister walk.

Afternoon wanderings ~ Jesuit symbol on the altar in the crypt chapel.

The pool ~ as is everywhere on the grounds during a retreat week, a place of silence and prayer, afternoons and early evenings.

Late at night.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Visual Treats on Retreat

The first one: a beautiful design made by Wayne that looks like stained glass on paper, which arrived in the retreat house mail ~ well, I don't know when.  I looked every day, as Wayne had instructed me to do, and then on Sunday night at dinner a Presby pastor on retreat hissed at me, "There's mail for you!" 

I have not succeeded in photographing what I received, and I can't find anything like it on Wayne's sites, so you will have to be satisfied with the knowledge that it is a wonderful thing to receive a gift made by a friend when you are far from home and immersed in silence.

The next two:  My director commented one day that I seemed very much oriented toward the visual, and suggested that I take advantage of the art room and maybe make a collage.  I went down there that night, sure that I wouldn't last more than five minutes due to my painful wasp-swollen arm, but three hours later I had made a complete mess of the place ~ magazine pages all over the room and glue stuck here and there and markers tossed hither and yon ~  and produced a collage in response to the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah.  A couple of nights later I made another one as I rummaged back through much of my prayer of the week.  And so ~

The fourth one:  I seem to have purchased card stock in all colors and also glue and extra-thin marking pens, and I seem to have ordered a lot of my Wernersville photos in wallet size.    I have 15-plus  journals in which I've recorded my prayer life in writing  over the past few years, but now I'm thinking art in miniature. Something much more evocative than what I've ever done before.  I don't think my work is going to appear at MOMA or anything, but I do think it might be fun.  And prayerful.

Thank you, Wayne, and Bill SJ!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Retreat in the Heat

I'm back, and feeling quite disoriented as I try to regain my footing in a world in which conversation and television predominate. My prayer this past week brought its challenges, and also some moments of incredible grace.


Two hours of nonstop talk with Michelle, who came out to visit with me before the retreat started.   We barely came up for air!

Hot!  Lots of prayer in and around the pool.  

Full moon and stars ~ magnificent over the midnight countryside.

WASPS, Michelle!  Two trips to the drugstore for remedies for massive welts.  One of those brazen insects attacked me on my raft in the pool ~ such chutzpah!

A skunk, an owl, a doe and her twin fawns on my evening walks.  And, Wayne! ~ bluebirds.

Talking breakfast the last morning.  On either side of me at the table, Catholic women, one a retired teacher and one an attorney turned college development officer.  Across: three other women, all of them priests in the Episcopal Church.  The teacher, who is 76, said afterward that she'd never shared a meal with Presbyterians and Episcopalians before!  I'm glad she didn't wait any longer.

I was invited to do the readings at the final mass.  Much sadness in the air, due to illnesses and deaths among those very close to some of the priests.  But much joy as well, as a small community emerged from a week of sharing God's silence.

Pictures, soon, I hope.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On Retreat

I'll be here.

I might come back in eight days.

(Or I might not.)

Leftover Seeds - Writing Sermons

There was an involved discussion at the RevGals' Preacher Party Saturday about sermon writing ~ which each of us does in her or his own way ~  interspersed with discussions about Sunday's texts.

These days, I usually read through all the texts the week-end before.  Then I go through them carefully on Monday with a highlighter, looking for what speaks to me, and I keep them all in mind as I pray and ponder and do some research and mostly go about the rest of my life for the next few days, waiting for the sermon itself to more or less emerge.

I prefer to do the bulk of my writing on Thursday, which gives me plenty of time for changes of heart, reading what others have to say, and revisions.  I don't read other sermons anymore until the bulk of mine is written.

This past week, as I began to read what others had to say, I concluded that I had not had an original thought in my brain.  My bent was toward the sower who tosses his seeds every which way.  I preached for a congregation which just kind of stared at me, leaving me to push forward through an ever-increasing sense of doom:  They hate it. 

But then: some wonderful post-service comments.  If only their expressions during the service had encouraged me along!

Anyway, here's a bit of it (and feel free just to skip to the final paragraph):


Imagine the path, in the parable as Jesus tells it.  Perhaps it runs alongside the field, or perhaps through the middle of the field.  The sower, walking a straight line in the field just adjacent to the path, casts his seed from side to side and, while most of them land in the field, some of them slide through his fingers onto the path.  The path has been hardened by many feet and baked in the sun into something resembling the solid texture of a brick walk; the seeds that land there have no chance.  They lie scattered across the path for less than a matter of minutes before the birds swoop down, eager for a free meal. 

Imagine that path in your life.  That hard, resistant place against which the kernel of God’s word has no chance.  The place you’ve sealed up tight.  That place from which your capacity to respond with gentleness, with openness and hope, is excluded.  The path on which you walked when someone yelled at you, or hit you, when you were a child.  The path you traversed after your father died, or after your wife left.  The road of unemployment, or school failure.  The trail of ruined dreams, of crushed hopes.

Yeah – that hardened, impermeable path.  The one onto which Jesus tosses seeds willy-nilly, not at all concerned about the likely futility of his labor.
. . .  (Three more sections of the field!)

We know that Jesus sows his word, sows the hope of his kingdom, everywhere, in every possible circumstance available to him, everywhere in the wide, various world.  He doesn’t stop to ask for soil certification, for proof of faithfulness, for adherence to all the rules. Oh, sometimes he gets those things – sometimes the people with whom he pauses are demonstrably competent, kind, faithful -- even holy.  But more often than not, they aren’t.  Often they aren’t any such thing.   Often they are prostitutes and tax collectors, people on the margins, people who wouldn’t recognize a good investment in land from a hopelessly poor one.

And yet he scatters those little seeds; he plants them everywhere he goes.

What does that mean that he is inviting us to do?  How does he ask us to imitate his actions, to get to know his priorities, to participate in his kingdom?
. . . 

Now imagine another sower; it’s you.  Imagine the joy, the freedom, the hopefulness, of a heedless generosity.  Your inheritance, that bag of seeds passed on to you by your lord, is one of abundance, not scarcity, one of extravagance, not limitation.

We all possess all kinds of fields.  We possess within us patches of anger and selfishness, areas in which we hold ourselves back from God and from God’s love out of our own quite impressive limitations.  We also possess fields of great goodness, places filled with the riches of God’s love, love which has yielded great blessings within us.

We look out on all kinds of fields, and what do we do? Do we think for a second that God wants us to turn our backs on the barren places, to withhold God's good gifts from those we judge unworthy, those unlikely to benefit, those whose appearance or actions tell us that God’s love will be wasted there?  Or does God want us to scatter seeds regardless of our own assumptions and preconceptions, trusting in God to produce a harvest in the most unlikely of places?

. . . 

But what Jesus does, what he suggests for the sowers of his kingdom, is not limited to the requirements of farming, whether Ohioan or Middle Eastern.  God looks at hard ground and, as a Father, sends a son.  Jesus looks at potential farming disasters and scatters his words and his gifts of healing and hope.  We are called to do the same:  Think abundance!  Open the fields of your own life, no matter their condition, to God’s infinite love.

And scatter generously!  Let bits and pieces of the Kingdom of God fly out of your hands and sparkle across this earth, onto hard soil and rocky soil and pliable soil and every kind of soil there is.  Because that’s what our Creator gazes upon and what Jesus tends and what their Spirit sustains.  Every kind of soil – thanks be to God.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Spiritual Direction - How I Got Here

With my eight days of silence on the immediate horizon, I've been doing some preparatory reflection, and the discovery of a blog written by a pastor who's about to enter the training program in spiritual direction I completed a couple of years ago has prompted me to write a bit about that part of my experience.

Like many people, I "failed" spiritual direction a couple of times.  I wasn't ready, didn't "get it," found at least one really bad match of a director ~ and generally thought it sounded cool, but had no idea how to go about it.  Then I bumped into the Jesuit who became my first real spiritual director (he had been my professor for a couple of graduate classes) and guided me through the Ignatian Exercises over the course of a year.  They say that when the student is ready, the master teacher appears -- and that's exactly what happened in my case.

During that year of the Exercises, I realized that I was heading for seminary, but I didn't particularly envision myself as a spiritual director. A teacher and preacher, sure.  And I fell in love with the sacrament of communion that year.  And after many years as a lawyer, particularly a family lawyer, I knew that I had developed some listening skills.  

But I saw myself as a problem solver.  There was a reason that I had gone for a law degree rather than a Ph.D. in psychology when I was a young woman.  I like action and solutions.

The space of spiritual listening seemed so holy to me.  The skill of listening to someone for an extended period of time and then making a few suggestions, the sense that the Holy Spirit was abroad -- so not what I was about.  At least as far as I knew.  I was deeply and profoundly grateful for what I had received, for the person who had been listening to me so intently every week for a year, as if my spiritual life were a matter of great significance, but I didn't imagine myself as capable of something similar.  And then toward the end he nudged me a bit (no nudging allowed during the Exercises themselves!) and . . .

I found myself launched into a two year program for the training of spiritual directors.


Year One: A long evening class and a five-page reflective paper every other week; a basically academic year in which we studied the theology and practice of spirituality from an Ignatian perspective.  Two Saturday workshops on discernment and one on communication skills.

Year Two:  The classes and papers were reduced to once a month, and the material was more practical in nature: ethics, spiritual development, another communications workshop.  Most of that year was devoted to our practicums: 50 hours of one-on-one spiritual direction, nine five-page verbatim reports, and monthly meetings with our individual supervisors to discuss our verbatims.  (Those who've completed CPE will recognize that ominous word, verbatim:  a detailed replication of a portion of a conversation followed by an in-depth analysis of your own responses and reflections.)

Was it a little intense?  Well, I was in seminary at the same time, and so one day I tabulated the hours of class and meeting times and the pages of writing, and concluded that it was approximately like adding another class to each of six quarters of school.  It meant a lot of extra driving for me, too, since seminary is in another city and my spiritual direction classes were back here, on (sigh) Wednesdays.

And, you know, my son died in the middle of all of it..  At that time, I'd been seeing my current spiritual director for a year, and he and the head of the program (and my first director as well) were very instrumental in getting me back on track.  I thought they were completely delusional in their gentle suggestions that it might be helpful for me to focus on working with others in their spiritual lives, and expressed my strong reservations ~ but they were right.  It was painful (What wasn't?), but it was exactly what I needed to do.

Seminary gave me a place to retreat into the life of the intellect, field education forced me into the life of a church, and accompanying others in spiritual direction made it possible for me to observe the Spirit intimately at work ~ all during a time in which God seemed to have completely withdrawn from me.


I've had some big conversations with people from my program over the last few months about our training.  We all recognize that our program was an immersion into one tradition of spirituality, and lacked an overview of others.  But I think we've all concluded that we're grateful for that depth of immersion, and feel well equipped to venture into explorations of other traditions from the solid foundation we've gained in the Ignatian approach.  One of the men has told me about the time he's spent immersed in Franciscan prayer, and one of the women has described her involvement with Carmelite spirituality (in which I took a short class last winter).  This summer, several of us are reading Julian of Norwich together.

And you know what?  I was a good enough lawyer.  I was kind and thorough and skilled and got my clients through some tough situations.  But I was never as completely and passionately immersed in law as I have been in ministry ~ in so many dimensions of it.  I look back at the woman who so hesitantly and inarticulately first began to spell out some of some of her hopes and questions to a Jesuit who listened as if God might be doing something worth paying attention to ~ and I can hardly believe how much I have grown and changed in these past six years.  I am so very grateful to have been transformed into a spiritual director, and for all the stories and questions and experiences of prayer that are shared with me in that very quiet and contemplative space in my life.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Summer Fun Friday Five

Here's what Dorcas suggests for today:

So, what's up, Rev Gals and Pals?  How are you spending your summer?  (I know, some of you are in a different hemisphere and it may be chilly...sorry!)  Are you experiencing fire or floods or tornadoes?  Vacationing?  Working harder than ever?  Experiencing change?  Longing for change? 

Share five things that are happening in your life, personally or professionally or some of each, in this season of life.

OK . . . .

1. I'm hoping, wishing, longing for a call that will bring some shape and focus to my life.  There's a tiny bit of movement on that front, but that's about all that I can say about it.

2. I'm involved in the planning for a city-wide commemoration of 9/11 as a new board member of an organization that promotes interfaith dialogue.

3.  I'm doing planning and organizing  and teaching for various retreats and workshops and classes that have little to do with my primary objective but everything to do with where the invitations are coming from, so I'm also being forced to give a lot of thought and prayer to What That Might Mean.

4.  We have a family vacation planned for the mountains of western North Carolina, where we are going to meet The Lovely Daughter in mid-August after her camp-counseling summer.  Here's a view of Camp From Above:

5.  And . . .  next Tuesday I'm off for my eight-day silent retreat, which cannot come a second too soon, here:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Sunlit Absence - I (Book Review)

After months of eager anticipation, I have zipped through Martin Laird's A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation and begun, as of late last night, a much slower and more careful second read.

A Sunlit Absence is a companion volume to Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, upon which Michelle and I reflected  over a period of several months last year. (See tab at the top of the page.)  I think that most readers will find A Sunlit Absence to be more challenging and, without a great deal of attentiveness paced over an extended period of time, less easily satisfying,  On the other hand, of course, perhaps such attentiveness will lead ultimately to a more rewarding experience of reading and prayer over that longer timespan.

Into the Silent Land, using the metaphor of the doorway, provides an introduction to contemplative practice in the sequence of a journey.  Moving from an introduction to Christian contemplation into the methodology of utilizing a prayer word, addressing the difficulties with mental distractions that cause many people to run as fast as possible away from anything that smacks of silence, and providing instruction in how to persist in prayer despite or even in aid of life's traumas and crises, Into the Silent Land eases us into an orderly exploration of prayer.

A Sunlit Absence is more akin to the experience of opening a scrapbook, inviting us to sift through a cascade of images, allusions, and parables in pursuit of the elusive God who need not be pursued at all because we live and move and have our being, always, within God's love.  I've just counted, and I have at least 25 of its 175 pages turned down as indications of material that called out to me for further reflection ~ but I don't yet have a sense of the whole.

The title of  the book comes from a Seamus Heaney poem which begins with the words, "There was a sunlit absence."  I'm not sure that Laird ever addresses the poem (as I said, my first read was a speedy one), but what he does describe in the introduction  is our experience of the God who both envelops and fills us as  that of water merging into water and light merging into light.  As Teresa of Avila says, "love melts into love."

As I pondered some days ago, before the book arrived, I have begun to wonder whether the silence of God is not, in fact, the compassion of God.  When I mentioned that possibility to someone else, he suggested that the silence of God is the patience of God ~ and, perhaps not surprisingly, referred me back to a passage in Into the Silent Land.  

I have been wondering, also, whether the silence of God perhaps reverberates through the universe?

Silence as the compassion of God, the patience of God, the echo of God?  We shall see what this book suggests.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Monday Morning Musings

I'm stealing both title and idea from Terri as I ponder the here and now, sitting on the living room couch with our aging dog stretched out and sleeping next to me.

As indicated by the photo above, for another three weeks the Gregarious Son is in Russia, a destination that would have been most unlikely during my own law student days.  He says that some of the Russian students are going to try to help them find an American celebration. 

The Lovely Daughter is at camp in North Carolina, where I expect that they will have a small display of fireworks tonight in their little cove ringed by mountains.  

Last night we spent the evening with friends, a big group of us out on a porch on a beautiful evening.  The Quiet Husband  has been unenthusiastic about going to the fireworks tonight, so perhaps we'll just stay home.  I don't know that I've ever missed the fireworks, but perhaps last night was enough celebrating for us.

The big topic of discussion these days is the recent appearance of a flash mob of kids toward the end of a local street fair last week-end, 1,000-1,500 of them descending out of nowhere upon a small shopping  neighborhood a couple of blocks from most of our homes and generally wreaking havoc.  Most of the young people were from other places, and our city council has responded with a hasty and draconian curfew for certain areas.  Because we live in an older, inner-ring suburb, our residential and commercial districts are all interspersed among each other, with parks, libraries, and schools scattered all over the place, so public gathering places co-exist, generally peacefully, adjacent to quiet, tree-lined streets of older homes.  Our city prides itself on diversity of all kinds, so racial undertones smolder underneath concerns about businesses, pedestrian safety, and a major art festival in a couple of weeks.  How quickly careless adolescent behavior can become a complex social challenge!

Meanwhile, a pair of flickers have raised a couple of their own youngsters nearby.  The other day as I headed out for a walk, one of the young birds, innocent of feline hazards to its health, rested on the sidewalk until the insistent call of a parent atop the church two doors down encouraged a flight into a tree.  The young ones were not yet able to discern which branches would bear their weight, so there were some wobbly landings.  Last night, though, they zipped skillfully across our front yard, all grown up and ready to go.

So . . .  what's going on in your neighborhood these days?

Image here.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Belated Celebration of Canada Day: Images of Algonquin

Josh - 1999 - Almost 15 and about to start high school.

Brothers - 2002 - Almost 18 and high school seniors.

Josh - 2002 - We convinced my dad that we should stay at one campsite 
for two nights for some R&R.

Loading up for Algonquin - 2004 - My dad and his wife, Jewel, 
and Matt and Josh. That year, the trip was for just the four of them.

Josh - 2004 - Almost 20 and a college sophomore.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friday Five: The Way We Blogged

Kathryn asks us about blogging today:

A friend and I were lamenting recently about the good ol' days of blogging and memes. Certainly there are still some very active blogs around our web ring, but the days of the Friday Five getting 50-70+ responses are in the past. We lamented that the Friday Five is the equivalent of the women's guild of RevGalBlogPals.

I am one of those who went from blogging just about daily to periodically at best. Unfortunately, the number I routinely read has gone down as well. What about you?

1) Have your blogging (writing/reading) habits shifted since the days of yore?

I still blog about as frequently as I did when I got started seven years ago, but I don't read nearly as many blogs as I once did.  In the old days, a real community of miscellaneous-topic bloggers developed on the AOL Journals site; these days, it seems that most of us stick to groups of common interest.  I got started hoping that by writing about my efforts to eat less and exercise more, I would be publicly accountable for the results.  No results.  But I did make friends and discover that writing is the major way in which I process just about everything.  So my blogs have accompanied me into and out of seminary, through the college years and  young adulthoods of my children, into the darkness of Josh's death, and now into this murky in-between period.

2) Do you have some favorites that you miss?  

There is a guy (who shall remain nameless) whose humor and good will in the face of some big disappointments made his writing zing.  He's all but vanished.

3) Are there some blogs you still put in the 'must read' category?

A couple of women with whom I became friends in the beginnings of AOL journaling are still friends, still wonderful writers, and still must-reads.  I have made some good friends among the RevGals, developed some very close relationships with other moms who have lost older children, and discovered some excellent blogs about Ignatian spirituality, so I read all of them every day.  Or whenever they appear.  Michelle of Quantum Theology is hands down the best blogger on spirituality of whom I know.

4) If we gathered at your knee, what would you tell us about those early days of blogging?

Seven years ago, almost everyone used screen names that provided anonymity.  I remember that even though I wrote under the guises of Ocean and Gannet Girl and for what? ~ maybe 50 people? ~ I was startled to see my thoughts appear in print, and not a little apprehensive about the consequences.  Now I find that that seems a bit quaint. 

5) Do you have a clip or a remembrance of a previous post of yours or someone else's that you remember, you know an oldie but goodie?

Oh, too many for the short time span available to me this morning!  But with the new Marty Laird book on contemplative prayer finally out, I wish that folks would read the dialogue that Michelle and I shared over the first, Into the Silent Land (tab at the top of the page).