Archive for the ‘Soul Stuff’ Category

…in my weakness

January 30, 2012

see Soulwork Toward Sunday: self -guided retreat
Epiphany 5 (year B)
“she rises and serves”

Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law, Byzantine mosaic, Chora Museum, Turkey

…but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  -2 Corinthians 12:9

It is in my weakness that God finds me and transforms me. Perhaps because in weakness I’m vulnerable enough to make room for God. Life is beautiful and exciting and interesting and I’m ambitious and curious and reckless.* But every tragedy I’ve survived (I haven’t survived them all, parts of me lie dead with grief, no resurrection stirring yet)  – every tragedy has given me a gift.

God didn’t cause my griefs. I caused most of them,  co-created them, and naively set myself up for them. Some griefs come simply with the aching beauty of life and some from genetic randomness.  God didn’t cause Peter’s mother-in-law’s illness. My guess is that she was up a bunch of nights with a passel of Peter’s sick children (HE wasn’t around to help, obviously) compromising her immune system. Or maybe something serious settled into her bones.

But something more than healing occurs when Jesus “grasps” her. The word used is the same as the word for Jesus’ resurrection – he “raises her up”. She embodies the Easter mystery of resurrection and the Pentecost mystery of apostleship – of service. Her home, 2,000 years later, is the site of documented healings. She’s a mother of the church. A deacon. A template of holiness.

Had she not been sick, she probably would have served Peter’s friends in any case. But the transformation makes her a full participant in Jesus’ ministry and ongoing mystery of the church. Her weakness becomes her strength, just as my weaknesses continue to create a meeting place for my recurringly impoverished soul and infinite, Divine Love.

* I don’t think any of my friends would call me “reckless”, exactly. But in retrospect I think some of the most “sane,” “expected,”and conventional decisions I’ve made in my life have been rather reckless, quite honestly.

Empathy for the demons…

January 23, 2012

see Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Epiphany 4 (year B) January 29, 2012
“authority and authenticity”

The Temptation of St. Anthony, Mathias Grunewald, 1515, detail

I’ve always felt sorry for the demons in these stories. In Sunday’s Gospel, this demon realizes his danger. “Have you come to destroy us?” The demon recognizes Jesus. “I know who you are, Holy One of God.” Both these traits endear me to the demon. After all, no one else seems to recognize so clearly the danger inherent in letting Jesus, the Light, into their lives. And nobody else recognizes him as the Holy One of God.

But I couldn’t let myself fully understand why I felt sorry for the demons until I found this passage in The Divine Names by Pseudo-Dionysius.

And as for the demons, the Good is their source and the fact of their existence is itself good.  They are evil insofar as they have fallen away from the virtues proper to them.  They have changed in the domain of what was permanent in them.  A weakness has appeared in the angelic perfection suitable to them.   They too desire the Good, at least to the extent that they have a wish for existence, for life, and for understanding, and their desire for what has no being is proportionate to their lack of desire for the Good. Indeed this latter is not so much a desire as sin against real desire.

I appreciate the demons because their dilemma is so like mine. All my life I’ve been trying to desire the Good even beyond the “wish for existence, for life, and for understanding.” But I, too, have fallen from the virtues proper to me.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’ve spent the last few months with an altered routine to make room for meditation, yoga, rest, healing massage, and alternative medicine treatments. I suppose I’m trying to change my brain, my priorities, my ways of thinking, my very “domain.”

“A cage went in search of a bird,” wrote Franz Kafka in his diaries. It’s time for the cage to move on.


Avoiding The Call

January 16, 2012

see Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Epiphany 3 (year B), January 22, 2012
“The Call”

The Entombment of Jonah, Franco-Flemish Illumination, detail











When I was twenty-two, when The Call was new and fearsome, I felt overwhelmed by those famous and simultaneous qualities of attraction (mysterium fascinans) and repulsion (mysterium tremendum) so many people experience. I thought at the time that a threshold appeared before me, and I knew eventually I’d go through, but for now, I fought against that inevitable surrender. A cartoonish image came to mind, a Warner Brothers kind of character – except rather than Wile E. Coyote or Sylvester – it was me comically straddling the door jamb, resisting being sucked into what seemed a featureless, infinite, foggy, nothingness whirlwind beyond.

That was The Call for me – inevitable, but unknown, and, of course, beyond my control.

Finally, exhausted, somehow I took the step, or slid through, or, fell asleep and woke up on the other side.

You’d think that after forty years, faith would get easier. But I still struggle intellectually and morally and spiritually. I resist every threshold of widening consciousness, opportunities to grow and to love and to grow in love. I question, doubt, grumble, guffaw, choke on my pride, revel maniacally in distractions and exhaust myself with avoidance of Divine Presence.

Nevertheless, The Call is renewed every day, and I’ve learned to respond in some way. And all I want is the very thing I resist, that is, to surrender in love.


The Intimate Unknown

January 9, 2012

see Soulwork Toward Sunday :self-guided retreat
Epiphany 2B, January 15, 2012
“to know and be known”

I was complaining to a friend recently about my frustrations with a loved one, and how I can’t seem to communicate the depth of my distress, or how I feel, or what I think, or how this ongoing argument between us affects me all out of proportion to the merely slight irritation it should be.

The wise person listening to me said, “The problem is that you want to be known.”

YES ! That’s it! That’s the core of every argument, I think. Wanting not only to be heard, but understood. To be known. Especially by one you love. (You’ll notice that I’m purposely ignoring knowing and understanding the other person, but, let me just stay on one side for now.)

I think a lot now about my need and desire to be known.

On what seems to be a completely different topic, although they come together later down the page, I’ve been trying this autumn and winter to turn around the giant battle ship of my priorities away from the desk and toward taking better care of my health and body. So, I slimmed down my work and travel schedule, go to therapy to try to get “grounded,” meditate daily, and try to adhere more strictly to a diet appropriate to my allergies. (I seem to be allergic to most everything). And, I’ve begun a yoga practice at a local studio. Intrinsic to my avoidance of exercise is the life-long terror of being bored, heaven forbid. Anyway, I’m not bored at yoga class, because the instructor makes paying attention to what is happening in the body interesting. I already notice better health, energy, strength, and balance. On my way home from the studio I sometimes I hear the brittle little discs in my back singing, “O thank you thank you thank you” like children in the back seat after an adventure movie at the multiplex.

So this morning I had an insight about knowing and being known, and learning to know my body and my limitations. My prayer practice all these years has meant a deepening into the intimate unknown. But I realize my body is unknown, and observing my emotions and feelings is an unknown, knowing myself – at least the parts of my being not related to a very specific and busy part of my brain – is unknown.

Can these new practices of knowing myself lead to a better spiritual practice? Am I learning to work new muscles, so to speak, new ways of intuiting, new ways of observing that which is unknown?  Who better to practice on than myself?

Holy Embrace

December 26, 2011

Simeon and Jesus, detail of Presentation, Fra Angelico 1433-34

see Christmas 1 (year B)

When we have Christmastime at the monastery (as we did this year) I love to rise early on Christmas Day and go to the creche and hold the baby Jesus in my arms. Sometimes I dance with him, like John of the Cross did so many years ago. But yesterday I just held him, kissed him, and sang to him softly while I sat on the floor against the hay. I’m not worshiping the block of wood, of course, but Something beyond, Something behind that piece of folk art from the ’60’s. Something resonating deep within usually inaccessible places in my soul. Something responding to my love. Something loving me to which I respond in this foolish manner.  And once again, I know I have seen my salvation.

While exploring images of The Presentation I found one in which the baby leans toward Simeon’s arms rather than shrink away from them (which is the usual template). So, for your meditation, here are two paintings of intimacy in which the Holy leans toward Simeon, longing for his (our) embrace as much as he(we) long for the Holy…

The Presentation, Unknown Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale, 1372

Portents in the Sky

November 21, 2011

See Advent 1, (Year B)
“watching and longing”

Angel unfolds the world to reveal the golden New Jerusalem, Giotto, The Last Judgement, 1306, detail

At the turn of the new year the church offers scenes of chaos: portents and signs in the heavens, roiling clouds, floods, hail, fire. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken,  And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:24-26)

The Church gives these apocalyptic warnings as a gift, to shake away complacency, to shock into second sight, to awake to the immediacy of salvation wrapped in breathtaking clouds of doom.  Watch therefore – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.  And what I say to you I say to all: Watch. (Mark 13:35-7)

The soul’s journey begins in apocalypse. Cataclysm dims the safe filters of ordinary sight to heighten the view of Reality.  Shock, fear, grief, courage, and then, perhaps, curiosity, opens the door to the mystical life. Once you pass through the threshold of doom, ultimately, you’ll awake to and recognize the beauty of holiness.


burying my talent

November 7, 2011

High School Graduation Day with my Dad and a dictionary.

See Proper 28 (year A)

The glory of God is the human person fully alive. -Irenaeus of Lyons

I’ve been taking a sort of Sabbatical. I’m giving only one retreat this winter and and in March it all starts up again. Although I have projects I hope to do, (including fleshing-out one of my retreats for publication, and, going through bins of old diaries), I’m taking the luxury of working on my health and body predominately. I’ve been participating almost daily in yoga classes at a studio about five minutes drive from where I live.  One month of practice already makes a difference in my strength, endurance and energy.

In September I took a week to organize the first couple of bins of diaries and letters. I sorted (and read sparingly) material up to the age of twenty-one. What I did read surprised me. As a sixty year old looking at my sixteen year old self, I realize my self image then was not at all consonant with the lovely young woman I was.

This isn’t unusual. Generally, young people don’t realize how wonderful they are. Especially after the crucible of middle school/junior high. In my youth, girls especially had nothing much to look forward to or aspire to other than marriage. We took our one talent, buried it, and forgot about it.

One of my best friends got an innovative birthday present from her daughter last year. The daughter contacted friends and family and cajoled us into writing memories of her mother, which she put onto slips of paper in a gorgeous box. My friend enjoyed these one-a-day messages which lasted well beyond her sixtieth birthday. She writes that even at sixty, her own negative image of herself is wonderfully at odds with how everyone else in her life sees her, and that she has a lot to think about as a result.

After coming home from yoga yesterday and hearing the poor neglected discs between my vertebrae sing, “Thank you, MAMA !” I wondered if it is possible to become as fully alive as I felt in those years before turning twenty-one. Until now I thought, “Well, that’s just youth. When you grow up, you don’t necessarily want to be fully alive.” But now, I wonder.

The glory of God is the human person fully alive, said Irenaeus of Lyons.

It’s not too late.

A Gathering of Saints

October 31, 2011

see All Saints Day

I love my study! My desk (a wooden drafting board) faces into the room. Two walls of windows fill the room with light. From my desk I look into the woods. Books line the other two walls, floor to ceiling.  I have a small couch, two easy chairs, a table with my printer and projects on it, some icons, lace curtains, colorful fabrics, and then (an irresistible reference to The Big Lebowski) a rug pulls the room together, as The Dude says.

Among the icons, the “White Angel” points away from my gaze when I walk into the room (“He is not here. He is Risen”). The Transfiguration, the Ascension, the San Damiano Cross, Mary Magdalene, all offer me strength and sense of continuity of time and purpose. In fact, I just noticed that on one wall “the white angel” points to his right, and directly across from him John the Baptist points to HIS right. So if I were ever really really bored I could follow with my eyes and just keep spinning around the room in circles all day. “He’s not here, look that way.” “He’s coming, look that way.”

On one wall a loving display of hermits and monastics, old friends like Francis, Anthony, Romuald, Benedict, John the Baptist and Mary, represent my love of solitude. An icon of St. Xenia helps redeem memories of a broken, unhappy marriage. Leaning up against the printer, the Sinai Jesus looks at me continually.

When I work, I face the wall of built-in bookcases. The middle shelf of the middle panel is a sort of niche dedicated to icons and other treasures. When I look up from my desk I see Carmelites (Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, Edith Stein, Therese of Lisieux), Angela de Merici (to remind me of education ministry and children), Elizabeth The New Martyr (to remind me of war), Andrew (because of a dream early in my conversion), Seraphim of Sarov (because of a dear friend), and Elijah against part of a broom plant from the Negev desert.

St. Anne, Jesus’ grandmother and Jesus as a child sleeping remind me of family. Holy Guardian Angel keeps me aware of my own guards and guides. And I keep some other treasures on that shelf: some shells from Lebh Shomea, a desert retreat in Texas, some bark from the mountain of Mary Magdalene’s cave in the south of France, a small model of a polar bear from a time of ministry when I felt cornered and endangered to remind me not to get into those kinds of situations again, and a little booklet made by an artist friend. Oh, and a hazelnut (for Julian’s image of the world inside the palm of her hand.)

It isn’t that the study is cluttered with icons. Some are very small. But all have meaning. And I do feel surrounded by the help, care, guidance, inspiration of the unseen presences of the communion of saints. The icons symbolize a supernatural reality.

Once, Sister Elise came to visit me. She looked at the titles of my books and at the icons. Commenting on the wisdom and inspiration surrounding my work space she said, “Well, Suzanne. You don’t have any excuses!”

Sister Elise telling me I don't have any excuses...

exposing the hypocrites

October 24, 2011

see Proper 26 (year A)
“humbled and exalted”

Jesus exposes the religious leaders as hypocrites.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats, to be greeted with respect, to have people call them by their titles.

This text reminds me of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale in which a couple of con-artists take advantage of a sovereign’s vanity. The out-of-town tailors “weave” the finest garments in secret, promising that only foolish and stupid people will not be able to see the magic fabric. From time to time the weavers show the emperor their progress, which, of course, the emperor can’t see, but not wanting to let on that he’s a fool, goes along with what he never suspects is a hoax. Nevermind that the foolish will see him naked if they can’t see his garments. Finally the day comes for a great public parade where the Emperor will show off his new clothes. After dressing the Emperor in his fine garments, the weavers, having been paid handsomely, slip away. All the townspeople pretend to admire the emperor’s new clothes as he struts through the crowd, naked, for all to see. But one child, having no fear of being thought foolish, cries out that the Emperor has no clothes! But the Emperor keeps on, although fearful that the child may be correct, and that he’s been exposed for his own foolishness.

The story worried me when I was young, because I rightly assumed I would not be like the innocent, truth-telling child, but I’d go along with the crowd, admiring the non-existent garment on the vain king. Or, worse, I was the king parading around in false finery. But I suppose to my credit, that meant that I “got” the point of the story.

Jesus says directly, you are not to be like the hypocrites. Don’t let anyone call you teacher. There’s one teacher. The greatest among you must be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

The opposite kind of story appears in countless folk tales where the beggar on the road is found to be Christ or Elijah. These stories pour a different fear into my heart; that I will miss the coming of Christ by ignoring the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoners (Matthew 25:31-46).

All I can do is watch warily, knowing what I see, or what I think I see, isn’t necessarily the whole truth.


(both illustrations are from Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of The Emperor’s New Clothes, 1932)

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