Archive for the ‘Repentance’ Category

Shadows of Evil

August 27, 2012

Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Proper 17 (year B), September 2, 2012
“from within the human heart”

When I was four or five years old I was playing outside with kittens on a farm belonging to our Michigan relatives. Twilight turned to night and the only light came from the kitchen window. One of the kittens scratched me. I was so angry I grabbed the kitten and ran into the darkness and threw it in the well.

Fortunately, the well had a cover on it. That evening, and for days and years afterward, I thought about how it was possible that I’d almost killed a kitten. Even before I went to kindergarten I discovered the evil just beneath the surface of my good little girl self.

I’m not at all shocked when Jesus says, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

All these things cower just below the surface of a good life. If you don’t think so, ask yourself what shadows of evil are you projecting onto other people or vulnerable populations? Who do you hate? And why?  If you do not know that you are capable of evil, it is much more likely that you’ll act upon it.


Cain and Abel, Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1425-52, bronze doors of the baptistry in Florence

Love as strong as death

July 9, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Proper 10 (year B) July 15, 2012
“calls and consequences”

I feel an uncomfortable affinity to Herod in this story. Not over the creepy lust for his step-daughter, obviously, but in his being torn between truth and self-interest. What draws Herod Antipas, the power-hungry ruler, Tetrarch of Galilee, son of Herod the Great, to the preaching of repentance, forgiveness of sins, turning in conversion toward God? Something inside of him must resonate to John’s message, and later, incites his eagerness to meet Jesus.

Drawn on the one hand to the messages of Jesus and John the Baptist, on the other he’s also enthralled by the ambitions of his wife, Herodias. Herodias means to help Herod Antipas realize his full potential. Her first husband, Herod’s brother Herod Philip, (with whom she had a daughter Salome), did not share her love of power. She met Herod Antipas, in Rome, about 28 A.D. and they fell passionately in love. Both obtained divorces and married each other, which created public scandal and family resentments.

Herod’s birthday dinner party reveals the cynicism of Herodias. Playing upon her husband’s lust for her daughter, she uses Salome to exite Herod into a promise he will regret. He admires his wife’s cunning. It mirrors his own cunning.

Jesus, attuned to this very craftiness calls Herod “that fox” when Herod sends Pharisees to warn Jesus to leave Galilee. Herod does not want to kill Jesus, but clearly wants him out of the neighborhood. Jesus sees through the murderous threat. And the close observer gets the sense that Herod nurtures a fascination with the message of the one Pilate will ambiguously name “King of the Jews.”

Herod will finally meet Jesus. In the night hours of the Passion, Pilate sends the prisoner to Herod who happens to be in Jerusalem at the time. Because Jesus is a resident of Galilee, perhaps Herod can save Jesus, thinks Pilate. One gets the sense the Pilate is reluctant to have Jesus killed. “What is truth?” he asks philosophically, washing his hands of guilt. Once Herod sends the prisoner back, however, Pilate acquiesces, “wishing to satisfy the crowd,” not unlike Herod in front of his guests at the banquet when Salome danced for the head of John the Baptist.

The long anticipated meeting between Herod and Jesus ends in fury and frustration. Jesus simply refuses to speak to him.

When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length; but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then, arraying him in gorgeous apparel, he sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other. Luke 23:8-12

Pilate appreciates Herod’s clever humor in dressing Jesus in an elegant robe. The execution takes place.

The sign “King of the Jews” Pilate has placed upon the cross adds another ironic twist to Herod’s story. Herod himself wishes to be King of the Jews.
Herodias’ ambition in that direction ultimately undoes them both. When Caligula grants her brother Agrippa (I) the title “king” she sends her husband to Rome to petition for the same title. Agrippa in the meantime presents accusations of Herod’s disloyalty to the Emperor which Herod can not disprove. Herod is removed from Galilee and exiled to a remote Roman outpost, Lyon, in Gaul.

Herodias, by virtue of her own connections, is exempt from this exile. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, she chooses to stay with Herod, and both of them disappear from historic record. Herod and Herodias play out their love story to the end and perhaps this one sacrificial gesture ennobles her at last.

The drama of John’s beheading and the crucifixion of Jesus are minor events in the passionate love story of Herod and Herodias.m disappear from historic record. Herod and Herodias play out their love story to the end and perhaps this one sacrificial gesture ennobles her at last.
“What was it about the Baptist and that Jesus person that fascinated you so?” asks the comely Madame Herod in the courtyard of their villa in Lyon.

“I don’t know,” replies the old man, puffing on his pipe. “Something interior, I think. Passion. Passion, that’s it. Those men loved God the way I love you, my Dear. But imagine, loving without the comforts of your scented breasts, your thighs like jewels, your belly a heap of wheat encircled with lilies, the ivory tower of your neck, and I, your king held captive in your tresses. What I admire about those men was that their love was stronger than death. I recognize the same thing in myself.”

“You’ve always been in love with yourself,” Madame Herod observes. “I hear there are followers of Jesus in Marseilles. Friends of his, apparently. Two sisters and a brother. They say one sister tamed a basilisk and the other lives in a cave. I’d love a few weeks on the Mediterranean, wouldn’t you?”

“The warm sea air would do me good,” says Monsieur Herod. “But this infernal Gaulish weather exacerbates my rheumatism. I can’t travel right now. Do you know what’s playing at the Lyon Coliseum this afternoon?”

And so their conversation drifts toward more immediate and sensate concerns.
Here is where my awkward sympathy lies with Herod. Are Jesus and John the Baptist footnotes to my own passions and the dramas of my own personal history?

Do I not make choices every day like Pilate and Herod, appeasing others, acquiescing to my culture, societal expectations, and to maintain my standard of living? Do I accept the way things are with such studied ignorance and self-interest? Is my love for God, for justice, for the kingdom, as powerful as my devotion to distractions, glittering things, and self-preservation?

Will I end my days torn between two loves – one worldly and the other drawing me toward the eternal heart of the universe? This eternal love calls to me in the wilderness of my soul – repent, forsake your sins, and prepare the way for the Holy One of God.

Is my love for God as strong as death?


note: in legend, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha fled to Marseilles after the crucifixion. Martha tamed a basilisk plaguing a nearby village. Mary became an ascetic, living in a cave at St. Baum, where angels lifted her into heaven seven times a day to pray the office with the heavenly host.

Lingering in the Light

February 13, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Last Epiphany, The Transfiguration, February 19, 2012
“the soul becomes all eye”


Brueghel, Temptation of St. Anthony, detail

I love Epiphany, the season of befriending the Light. I love the liminal days between the Transfiguration and Ash Wednesday. I can linger on the mountain as the light fades. Soon, too soon, I have to confront those grayish shapeless lumps in my character that obscure the Light from radiating throughout my soul. In Lent I must tend to the lumps.

An Orthodox teaching posits that hell consists of the unmitigated Light of God, like heaven. However, the torment of hell involves the slow burning of all that ego residue, unrepented sins, unformed lumps of deficient character, unresolved conflicts clung to in life. So the lumps of sin-stuff burn in the Uncreated Light of Presence.

Wednesday I’ve got to get to work on my heavy gray lumpish sins and wickedness, things done and left undone, the devices and desires of my own heart.* But lingering in this Tabor light, just for these few days, the last of Epiphany, reminds me why I need and want to work so hard in my Lenten repenting.

Lingering in light,

*phrases from the wonderful penitential resources of The Book of Common Prayer

Living in the Vestibule

October 3, 2011

Proper 23 (year A)
“the wedding garment”

Narthex, Vezelay, Pentecost Tympanum

Rabbi Jacob said:

“This world is like a vestibule before the world to come.
Prepare yourself in the vestibule for the meeting in the banquet hall!”

He used to say:

“One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world
is better than the whole life of the world to come;
but one hour of comfort in the world to come
is better than the whole life of this world!”

Mishna, Abot 4.16-17

Is life on earth the narthex or “vestibule” for the kingdom to come? And do we create heaven in a metaphysical sense by what we do with life on earth?  Imagine a kingdom of consciousness created by our choices and patterns today and in the moment, not just individually, but collectively. It’s why we need prophets who look at the whole of a trend of a culture, (say, greed), and draw attention to it, (say, from a park near Wall Street).

Repent. The Kingdom of God is near!  Are we co-creating the kingdom as a place of peace and justice and beauty? Or more like the environmental disaster we’re creating in the vestibule while the Holy One weeps over the Beloved’s wasted vineyard?

Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence. -Wendell Berry

The Late Laborer

September 12, 2011

See Proper 20 (year A)
The Edge of the Enclosure

I began: “Peter was a low-down, goddamn, son-of-a-bitch.”
The congregation sucked all the air out the church. Then, a titter. Then a breath of relief. Then laughter.

I was telling the truth.

“Peter said, ‘You’ll get me into that church over my dead body!’ Well, we had a nice party in the narthex last night around your coffin, Peter! And we laughed a lot!” Thus began the funeral homily for Peter.

Peter was so mean he was lovable.

When I first met him, he was smashing a low brick wall in front of the cottage he shared with his wife Sheila. “Oh, he knocks it down and then he builds it up. It’s how he deals with his anger,” said Sheila.

Peter and Sheila had AIDS.

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, Johann Christian Brand, 1769, detail

One of the several times we thought he was dying, Peter rallied enough to chase away the priest Sheila had summoned. But I often came to sit with him, although I knew enough not to pray with him.  Once, when I thought he was unconscious, Peter suddenly responded to a TV news report highlighting Joey Buttafuoco, the lover of ‘Long Island Lolita’ Amy Fisher. Grasping his oxygen mask and tearing it off his face Peter barked, “That guy’s full of shit!” then replaced the mask and went out cold.

Peter and Sheila fought often. But Sheila counted out his pills, never-mind that Peter often stole and abused them. He was a drug addict, after-all. He was angry with the world. Angry that he was dying. Angry with everyone. He was a genius at anger. And swearing.

But Peter got to see heaven. One day, the space beyond the television, beyond the wall and ceiling, opened into a billowing heaven. He saw dead relatives. He saw angels.  Peter described in detail to his family what he was seeing. In the next death crises, Peter allowed the priest he’d previously thrown out to hear his confession. And Peter died in peace, having seen heaven in the eleventh hour.

Some of us, who’ve worked in the vineyard of the Lord all our lives, have never seen heaven. Not once.

So Sheila and I chose the parable of the workers in the vineyard for Peter’s funeral.

… ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” -Matthew 20:12-16

This parable is now one of my favorite, hopeful, and most necessary of stories.

thought experiment

August 29, 2011

see Proper 18 (year A)
“what you bind on earth”

Contemplating the war in heaven

I sometimes wonder if heaven, if there is a heaven, is created by our consciousness, our actions, our love, our self-sacrifice. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Our polluted, exploited earth begets a barren, poisoned heaven. Our humility and awe and cooperation with nature creates our paradise. Our war-making or peace-making here determines the state of being there. Our exclusion excludes us and our inclusion includes us all. If so, our actions, cooperation, sacrifices, and love binds and loosens consequences more far-reaching and vital than imagined. Even the smallest moral victories and heroics of daily life may link each of us to the unfolding plane of consciousness, unleashing forces of good and evil.

So here’s a Thought Experiment: Imagine what it means to co-create heaven as part of earth-consciousness. How do you contribute day by day to the great evolution of the sphere of heaven unfolding beyond time?


Apocalypse, Unknown Weaver, French, c.1380

If I had to choose one story…

May 9, 2011

See Easter 4(A)

Tell me, you whom my heart loves, where you pasture your flock?
– Song of Songs 1:7

If you were given an opportunity to tell only one Christian story, what would it be?

Christ as the Good Shepherd, Mosaic from the Entrance Wall of the Mausoleum of Gall Placidia

As a Christian Educator I found myself in this position from time to time; plopped into a parish for a single Sunday guest appearance in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants church school program. (Actually, some fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants programs can be better than slick, expensive, fancy, well-organized ones… but I’m getting off topic.)

My “one story” is the parable of the lost sheep.

   Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable:
   “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them. ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
   “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” – Luke 15:1-7

Everyone will be lost at one time or another. Or many times. Some of us chronically wander into narrow canyons where paths stop so abruptly you can’t even turn around and go back out. Only a shepherd’s crook from an overhanging ledge above can haul you up to safety.

The story of the Lost Sheep can also help cut through some of the density of the Johannine material for Good Shepherd Sunday. This Lukan story needs no explanation – the story works on levels simple and complex, personal and corporate, literal and allegorical, metaphorical and anagogical.

Anagogically and simply yours,

While looking for quotes this week I found this hymn by Elizabeth Clephane (1830-1869). (She also wrote the hymn Beneath the Cross of Jesus.) 

There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold;
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold.
Away on the mountains wild and bare;
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.

“Lord, Thou hast here Thy ninety and nine;
Are they not enough for Thee?”
But the Shepherd made answer: “This of Mine
Has wandered away from Me.
And although the road be rough and steep,
I go to the desert to find My sheep.”

But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through
Ere He found His sheep that was lost.
Out in the desert He heard its cry;
’Twas sick and helpless and ready to die.

“Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way,
That mark out the mountain’s track?”
“They were shed for one who had gone astray
Ere the Shepherd could bring him back.”
“Lord, whence are Thy hands so rent and torn?”
“They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn.”

And all through the mountains, thunder-riv’n,
And up from the rocky steep,
There arose a glad cry to the gate of heav’n,
“Rejoice! I have found My sheep!”
And the angels echoed around the throne,
“Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own!”

Elizabeth Clephane  1830-1869  
The Ninety Nine

Welcome dear feast of Lent

March 7, 2011

Welcome dear feast of Lent, says George Herbert.

Velaszquez, St. Antony and St. Peter the Hermit, detail, 1635

I can’t count how many people have said to me over the years, “ I just LOVE Lent!” But Lent, in the Northern Hemisphere, is when you’re running out of the winter stores and the greens have not yet sprouted in the earth and you’re half starved. It’s a fast imposed by the land and climate. We were wondering a few days ago what our own stores at the farm would be like if we didn’t use freezers (which use energy). Trying to live close to the land and reflecting on food this way opens to us the fragility of life and the abundance we take for granted. I mean, we could just go to the A&P and pick up all sorts of wonderful foods at any time of year if we wanted to.

But just thinking of the A&P and how overwhelmed and disoriented I get in big grocery stores, reminds me of the larger majority of people in the world for whom a grocery store like this a decadent dream. Fasting widens the boundaries of compassion, stretches the heart, makes room for love.

Mother Teresa on her speaking tours in the United States was always quick to point out that the obscene abundance of the West fostered malnourished souls.  Maybe so many folks love Lent because it’s time to set aside other things in order to tend the starving soul.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast 
           As may our faults control:

That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
            And among those of his soul.*

And the starving soul responds like a desert flower, the seed quickened by the spring rain, shooting up quickly and blossoming radiantly, it’s face tracing the sun’s path through the day, and closing modestly in the cool of the night. Look at the wildflowers! Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!

But another reason for both fasting and nourishing the soul is to prepare for the Great Feast of the Resurrection. I was interested in the Orthodox teaching about Tabor Light, (Last Epiphany A) and that hell is simply encountering the Presence of the Divine unprepared, thus the unbearable anguishing burning of Reality.  Lent is the time of soul-searching, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, for seeking and facing truth. Sins are simply those things which obstruct a loving relationship with God and neighbor. And so, in Lent you expose your sin to the Light and let it burn. Better a lot of little burnings and taking in growing increments of Divine Light than one terrible shattering blast of Reality.

And the snow will melt, the hens will warm up, they will scratch around the ground and fill up the egg boxes again. And my soul will stretch and give more love than I thought possible even after the last Lent.


* George Herbert
    Lent (excerpt)

invite the enemy to tea

February 14, 2011
Pogo, by Walt Kelly

Epiphany 7 (year A)
“give, pray, love”
Matthew 5:38-48
(love your enemies) 

I went to the Rubin Museum (  recently for a tour and talk on the exhibit Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. In one corner a large map of Samsara showed souls ascending through the realms of becoming, only to slide swiftly down slippery ramps all the way to hellish regions after embracing, say, Pride. The Samsara painting was paired with a Christian Icon of a ladder of St. John Climacus, with demons pulling at souls ascending the ladder toward heaven and dragging them into hell. The guide pointed out that in Buddhism you have many lifetimes to get off the wheel of becoming, that is, to reach Nirvana, and that in Christianity you have only one chance. She also said that the demons in Buddhism are the demons within yourself, and in Christianity, the demons are external.

Well, the lecture was not a time to argue and I had a train to catch.

But on the way home I thought about St. Anthony and his loud battles with demons, trampling, purging, wrestling and singing Psalm texts at them. And I thought about my inner demons and the story of Milarepa, the Tibetan yogi and poet. Milarepa began his life training as a sorcerer impelled by resentment and the desire for revenge. After killing his mother’s enemies during a wedding party, he repented, attached himself to spiritual teachers, and, according to legend, became the only sage to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime.  Several stories of demons attacking Milarepa in his cave exist, but I like the way my friend Brother Bede tells the story.

“How kind of you to come,” said Milarepa. “You must stay to tea. And you must come again tomorrow. And from time to time we must converse.”
Like everyone, I have enemies: people who have injured me deeply either deliberately or passively.  But my worst enemies dwell in the cave of my own heart. “Love your enemies,” said Jesus. “Pray for those who persecute you.”

So for the past few days, when my demons show up, I mindfully invite them to tea. Surprisingly, the bad spirits are less chaotic when I pay attention to them than they are when I ignore them.

The great Lynda Barry encourages her readers to find their demons through playing with ink and brush or pen and shares some of her own in her brilliant book One! Hundred! Demons! based upon a Zen exercise. She writes, “Discovering the paintbrush, inkstone, inkstick and resulting demons has been the most important thing to happen to me in years. Try it! You will dig it!”

page from One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry

please wait until I repent…

November 22, 2010

From Sunday’s Gospel Reading: Advent 1 (year A)

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Matthew 24:42-44

Come, Lord Jesus, but let me repent first…My soul wallows in its long habit of sleep: of disregard, of thoughtlessness, heartlessness, a psychic hibernation against feeling and against knowing for fear of pain. My soul reclines, suspended in a torpor of uncaring, I’m not ready to greet either the horrors or wonders of the dawning of the Great Day. My body stands dumbly looking at the sky, but my soul lies dormant like a rodent deeply buried in its underground nest in darkest winter, far from my cold heart.

Come, Lord Jesus. But wait until I’m ready…wake me gently.

(How can I repent? Who will teach me to repent?) 

How conveniently the Church places a figure –  coming forth from the boundaries of my desert soul. What is this –  a shaken reed? A man dressed in fine clothes? Some fancy prophet?    Next week … John the Baptist.

In the meantime, if you havn’t read Yeats’ The Second Coming recently (or even since high school) it’s worth a look. But for the theme of the last trump in a more playful mode, enjoy Edith Sitwell’s Solo for Ear Trumpet.

Meanwhile, here at the farm the gardens have been put to bed. We’re entering into what one of the sisters call “dream time”. And we’ll be spending Thanksgiving Day with the sisters in the city at the NEW CONVENT !!!
– Have a deep and wakeful Advent.

The Second Coming
W.B.Yeats, 1919

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand;
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

 picture: detail of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, William Blake

Solo For Ear-Trumpet

The carriage brushes through the bright
Leaves (violent jets from life to light);
Strong polished speed is plunging, heaves
Between the showers of bright hot leaves
The window-glasses glaze our faces
And jar them to the very basis —
But they could never put a polish
Upon my manners or abolish
My most distinct disinclination
For calling on a rich relation!
In her house — (bulwark built between
The life man lives and visions seen) —
The sunlight hiccups white as chalk,
Grown drunk with emptiness of talk,
And silence hisses like a snake —
Invertebrate and rattling ache….
Then suddenly Eternity
Drowns all the houses like a sea
And down the street the Trump of Doom
Blares madly — shakes the drawing-room
Where raw-edged shadows sting forlorn
As dank dark nettles. Down the horn
Of her ear-trumpet I convey
The news that ‘It is Judgment Day!’
‘Speak louder: I don’t catch, my dear.’
I roared: ‘It is the Trump we hear!’
‘The What?’ ‘THE TRUMP!’ ‘I shall complain!
…. the boy-scouts practising again.’

Dame Edith Sitwell