December 24, 2012

This is from a series of short meditations I’m presenting tonight (Christmas Eve) at Holy Cross Monastery.


The shepherds, dully
keeping watch over their flocks by night
are terrified by the sky breaking open and heaven pouring forth
with strange sounds and incomprehensible lights.

Adoration of Shepherds, Guilio Romano, c.1533, detail

Adoration of Shepherds, Guilio Romano, c.1533, detail

A little apocalypse takes place over that rocky field
and they are sore afraid.

But the lights and sounds fade away and the stars return
And the sheep, living fully in the moment,
forget the recent chaos and find themselves grazing
in the middle of the night.

“Let us do over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, 
which the Lord has made known to us. 
And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, 
and the babe lying in a manger.”

What did the shepherds expect to see?

If they expected to see something extraordinary,
worthy of the sky breaking open and angels singing,
were they disappointed to see the familiar squalor,
dung and fleas and sour hay?
Perhaps they saw the baby sleeping in a feeding trough
or nursing at its mother’s breast,
lovely images, but more likely they saw him
wailing over his discomfort in the cold, of being hungry, of the rigors of learning to digest food, or being wet and sore, skin chafed raw on his bottom, frustrated from sheer helplessness.

Nevertheless, the text tells us, the shepherds saw this and returned glorifying and praising God.
To me, the shepherds represent my instincts,
which, over a lifetime I’ve tried to thoroughly repress.
They knew this birth was extraordinary
not just because the angels told them so.
But because every birth is extraordinary.
Who needs a mystical path to tell you that?
Because of my own lack of such an instinct,
my journey is long.

I can do worse than visit the shepherds once in a while,
and accompany them to this cave or that birthing room
to see miracle after miracle,
the universe bringing forth life to be transfigured again and again.


Full of Grace

December 17, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Advent 4 (year c), December 23, 2012
“Prepare Him Room”

Mercy, photo by Patrick J. Paglen

Mercy, photo by Patrick J. Paglen

Something happens when I visit the cows that makes me think of the Visitation (Luke 1:39-55). Early in her pregnancy, Mary travels to the hill country of Judah to see her cousin Elizabeth. The Angel Gabriel had told Mary that Elizabeth in her old age had also conceived a child. As the two women approach one another, Elizabeth’s son leaps in her womb. The future John the Baptist recognizes womb to womb One Who is to Come: the Christ.

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

It is at this moment that Mary, in a state of ecstasy, improvises that great subversive hymn of praise, the Magnificat.

The moment of the womens’ greeting is portrayed movingly in art and literature. But lately, the Visitation comes to mind when I greet the cows.

I’m not involved with the care of the cows. I’ve never milked them. I’ve never given them hay or treats. I only bottle-fed Mercy once. I don’t even visit them every day. And yet, Silmarill, Jiffy, and Mercy respond to my visits with full attention. I feel a connection that evokes a strong sense of Presence that reminds me of deep prayer. An interior shift happens when I am with them that moves the same part of the soul that quickens in meditation. We recognize one another.

Recognition implies a knowing, an acknowledging, a perceiving of truth. What truth emotes from those huge, warm, graceful creatures that fills me with a sense of calm and connection? What sacred thread unites us in that silent and tender mutual acknowledgment? What do we know together that makes me feel at one with them in so short a time?

The answer is probably as complex as the milky way and as simple as prayer. No matter. Something in me leaps for joy, and I leave the pasture full of grace, as the cows return to grazing.

Here is the link to an article I wrote an article about Sister Carol Bernice and the cows for Christian Century earlier this fall.


Brood of Vipers

December 10, 2012

Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Advent 3 (year c), December 16, 2012
“What must I do?”

Ax laid to the root of the tree, detail of the Baptism of Christ, Unknown Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale, 1372

Ax laid to the root of the tree, detail of the Baptism of Christ, Unknown Illustrator of Petrus Comestor’s Bible Historiale, 1372

John the Baptist says to the shallow and cynical side of my soul, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  (Luke 3:7b-9)

John the Baptist speaks forcefully to my unconscious collusion with the oppressive powers of my culture and society and our collective and my personal degradation of the environment. I can’t ignore that I live a certain life style at the expense of exploited people around the world who I do not see, who receive our garbage, our toxic waste, who supply us with cheap goods and services, working in slave conditions. I’m implicated in the powers that promote consumerism, monoculture, and unending short term gratification at the expense of earth and peoples and generations to come and even life itself.

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” (3:10)

But John speaks gently to the humble, even the most hated inhabitants of his country. The sinners, including tax collectors and soldiers who nervously listen to John’s condemnation of the hypocrites, ask, What should I do? To tax collectors he says, “Don’t cheat.” To soldiers he says, “Don’t bully.” (Luke 3:10-14). To me, he says, “Just try.”

He invites me, and the tax collectors and soldiers and sinners to the Jordan for a ritual cleansing. He says,The One who is Coming, who is mightier than I, whose sandal I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie, will call you to leave your tax collector’s booth, he will forgive you as you pound his flesh into the wood of the cross, he will baptize you with fire.

Repent. Begin again. Do what you can. Now.

Vulnerability in the Soul’s Desert

December 3, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Advent 2 (year c), December 9, 2012
“How Long?”

The following is an excerpt from the text “A Geography of Grace” a slide show of the Christian Year, a new retreat I developed this past summer. If you are interested in my giving this retreat to your parish or organization contact me –

Advent II (excerpt)

El Greco, 1577-79

El Greco, 1577-79

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Luke 3:2b-4

Having entered the Portal of the Last Judgment,

rather than finding myself the narthex of a great cathedral,

my Soul finds herself in a desert wilderness –

a dangerous place, a place of spirits, wild beasts and demons,

of hardship, of testing.


Master of the Life of John the Baptist, 1330-40

Master of the Life of John the Baptist, 1330-40

A place I am utterly vulnerable, like a child.

I come here, away from distractions of my life,

to come to know myself at the core.

I am not alone.

John the Baptist, in a parallel to the mythic hero’s journey,

is the threshold guardian here.

Clothed in camel’s hair, living on “locusts and wild honey”

John lives on whatever the wilderness provides for him.

Carravaggio, 1607-08

Carravaggio, 1607-08

He is utterly vulnerable, dependent upon God.

In this I want to be like him, in his humility, his trust in God.

The desert is a landscape I need to get used to

and learn to love

and come back to again and again.

Here I learn to avoid distraction,

learn to begin the process of continual conversion toward God.

Domenico Veneziano, c.1445

Domenico Veneziano, c.1445

Here I confront those things that get in the way of my loving God,

and God’s love for me. 


My Deepest Fears

November 26, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Advent 1 (year C), December 2, 2012
“The Portal” 


detail, Russian Icon, Novgorod School

And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25

Why does the new year begin with dread, darkness, portents in the sky: the sun darkened, the moon obscured, stars falling, the heavens shaken? Why does the new year begin with the ultimate ending : the end of life, the end of the world, the end of time itself?

A beginner in faith might come to church on the first Sunday in Advent expecting to catch an early glimpse of the baby Jesus. Instead, the sky roils with doom, earthquakes shaking us until our bones rattle. Why begin the liturgical year with the end of everything?

Keep awake! says the Church on the First Sunday of Advent. The very warning cuts to the heart of my deepest, unnamed fear. This fear lurking at the edges of my being arises from my implicit worry about existence itself. If I exist, I can be annihilated. Dread is the twin sister of consciousness. As soon as I realize I am awake, I know that I can die.

Surely I can choose to wake just a little, and stay oblivious to larger questions of the puzzle of existence. Surely I can fill my life with distractions and glittery things and a thousand lesser worries, to keep that one great worry in the shadows behind the lesser ones. But the church asks me right from the first day to enter my dread, my fear of death, my existential anxiety.

On the first Sunday of Advent the church says, Look! Keep awake! Face your profoundest fear, and then, my Love, I have something wonderful to show you!

I was not particularly thrilled when I realized that I was on a Christian path forty years ago. But at least I knew from the beginning that the Church kindly acknowledged my deepest fears.


At the Heart of Apocalypse

November 19, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
The Reign of Christ (year B), November 25, 2012
“Drawn Toward the Kingdom”

detail, The Last Judgment, Giotto, 1306

The Sacred Cycle of the Church year ends with apocalypse in the last Sundays of Pentecost. And the sacred cycle of the Church year begins with apocalypse on the first Sunday of Advent. Between apocalypse and apocalypse is the Feast of the Reign of Christ.

To begin and end the year with apocalypse reveals a profound and loving psychology. Face your deepest fears, says the Church. Unless you undertake the journey through your deepest fears, the shadows of the things you depend upon, the questions of existence and annihilation, you won’t approach the Real at the heart of reality.

Apocalypse (apokalypsis), although associated with the sun darkening, the moon not giving its light, the stars falling, earthquakes, and fire and destruction, literally means “unveiling.” The lifting of the veil, opening the curtain. Revealing. Revelation. (Ah, but there are so many veils to cling to!)

At the heart of the apocalyptic season Jesus reigns from a cross. It is the end. It is the beginning. His death is the catastrophic end that begets new life. Jesus is the High Priest of the Temple. A temple not made with human hands but through the spaciousness of his own self-sacrifice. Through the curtain of his flesh, he opened a new and living way. (Hebrews 10:20)

On either side of this revelation of Christ enthroned, not in suffering, not in glory, but in the human heart, every person must undergo great upheaval. The Church helps us practice year by year for the unveiling of the Real at the heart of the heart.


The Day is Approaching

November 12, 2012

Please See
Soulwork Toward Sunday : self-guided retreat
Proper 28 (year B), November 18, 2012
“Nothing Left But Love”

Detail from the Bamberg Apocalypse, The Fall of Babylon, c.1020

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  -Mark 13:1-2

People on the East Coast of the United States have had a fore-taste of apocalypse recently. For many, the horror continues. Homes washed away or burned to the ground. Having to negotiate stairs in high rise buildings in complete darkness, no elevators, no heat. Hospitals evacuated – neonatal and ICU units with complicated equipment for each patient, the post-op patients getting themselves down flights of stairs, or the comatose, sick and immobile being slid gently down on plastic sleds. Back-up generators flooded, or run out of gas. No gas or oil. No deliveries. No sanitation pick-up. No credit card use and no ATM machines to get cash, no traffic lights, no public transportation, no food in the few markets that remain open. Cell phone and internet disrupted – so communication of distress is almost impossible. How very fragile our civilized life!

Stress brings out the best and worst of people. Heroes emerge from obscurity – wading through chest-high muck to ferry people to a waiting fire truck, or walking long distances to get to hardest hit areas to bring food, water, to clean up, to get prescriptions filled for the infirm. Occupy Wall Street dissidents use their organizing skills to become emergency care workers. Perfectly respectable people fight in gas lines and loot and cheat and hoard.

And thankfully governors and mayors publicly acknowledge that the infrastructure of our cities and shores have to be re-designed to accommodate climate change – waking up to an apocalypse of our own making. Will the rest of us rise to the challenge of the radical change in life-style required of us?

“Watch. You do not know the day or hour…”. The Day is approaching.


Foolish Love

November 5, 2012

Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Proper 27 (year B), November 11, 2012
“The Widow in the Temple”

detail, Old Woman Dozing, Nicholas Maes, 1656

I know it’s too easy to get angry with the widow for giving her money to the Temple. But I always get angry anyway. The Temple was corrupt. Surely she knew this. What did those pennies matter to the Temple anyway?

Where did she get the pennies? Does someone give them to her so that she might take care of herself, however temporarily? Does someone give her the pennies to help relieve the burden of similarly struggling relatives or neighbors who can’t afford to add the concern for her health, her food, her shelter to their own impoverishment?

Does she find the pennies? If so, maybe she reasons that God gave her the pennies. So, in her holy fool sense of irony, she gives God the pennies in order to let God know she knows God gave them to her. “Here, take these ! I found you out! These are yours!” The pennies are love-tokens.

The old widow trusts in God. The old widow loves God. Jesus, a holy fool himself, understands this foolish love. In the economy of the sacred this love is reckoned to her as righteousness.


‘The Little Way’ of Love

October 28, 2012

Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Proper 26 (year B), November 4, 2012
“The Great Commandment”

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” -Mark 12:28-31

As you can see from the website, the first thing I had to do was pull apart what I thought I meant by God, neighbor, and self. Whenever I manage to complicate spiritual life too much, I turn back to Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) and her “Little Way.”

Therese, a 19th century cloistered teenage nun with intelligence, creativity and passion, burned with spiritual ambition. She wrote that she longed to be an apostle, a martyr, a missionary, a priest, a warrior for God. But even if she had lived outside her strict (and, to be honest, very dysfunctional monastic community) her gifts would have been thwarted in late 19th century France. After years of frustration and fantasy she had a revelation about her own limitations, both those imposed upon her by her surroundings and those of her own character. Her insight? “Love is my vocation!” To simply love. She most craved love herself and love was the one thing she knew she could give.

Furthermore, Therese realized that her childishness was a weakness she could use as a portal to a mature faith. And so, with childlike trust, she sought to bring love to every annoying, tragic, pitiful, petty act and encounter for the rest of her life. She brought this love and an intensely hard-earned spiritual maturity into her harrowing experience of dying of tuberculosis. After unconscionable and unnecessary suffering, death came mercifully to her at the age of 24.

Ironically, the publication of her short autobiography made her a best selling author, theologian, doctor of the church, and deep influence on millions of people who love her, including me. (Which, honestly, I could not have done without the interpretive lens of feminists like Dorothy Day and Monica Furlong.)

The following paragraph is from Monica Furlong’s biography of Therese.

The Little Way meant trying to get on with life as it actually was, living it with kindness, unselfishness, detailed care – ‘always doing the tiniest thing right, and doing it for love’. It was, in some curious way, the reversal of everything she had been taught, the inflated form of Christianity with its dreams of sanctity and martyrdom. Now she saw that all you were asked to do was to follow the will of God, whatever it might be, and to give yourself unreservedly to that life and to no other. In a moment of revelation she realized that instead of trying to be something she was not – a crusader or an Apostle – she was now free to be Therese with all her little problems, including the babyishness which she had begun to recognize in herself as a kind of permanent imprint. It was as if she had scraped away years of nonsense and found a fundamental truth which had eluded her by its very simplicity. ‘It’s love I ask for, love is all the skill I have.’ It struck her that her very poverty of gifts and of opportunities might make her a kind of representative of all who were poor and inadequate in the world, but who strove to love God. ‘I implore you’, she says to Jesus, ‘to look down in mercy on a whole multitude of souls that share my littleness.’ Praying for those souls, working out the ‘Little Way’ in her own life were, she saw now, her true vocation, and it was one that filled her with joy. She no longer dreamed of dreadful martyrdoms because she saw that, in the present, without manipulations on her part, her life was already a ‘burnt offering’ for a purpose she could only dimly understand but knew that she had chosen.

-Monica Furlong
Therese of Lisieux p.96-7

Have an inspiring All Saints Day (November 1). May love inspire you in the way of sanctity!

Changing Clothes: A Spiritual Excercise

October 22, 2012

See Soulwork Toward Sunday: self-guided retreat
Proper 25 (year B), October 28, 2012
“Blind Bartimaeus”

detail, Crucifixion, Van Eyck

In the first chapter of Gordon W. Lathrop’s Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, he discusses the story of Bartimaeus, Son of Timaeus. Here is an interesting line of thought in which clothing plays a part:

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and follows Jesus “on the way” to the passion in Jerusalem. (Mark 10:46-52)

A young man slips out of his garment and runs away naked as a soldier grabs at him in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Mark 14:51)

A young man dressed in white (baptismal clothes?) witnesses to the resurrection of Christ at the sepulcher. (Mark16:5)

Lathrop writes, “These latter two figures have been linked in recent exegesis of Mark, and the single ‘young man’ has been seen as a type of the newly baptized, of those who are immersed in the death of Jesus in order to be clothed in his life and made witnesses of the resurrection.”

Here’s a suggestion for meditation this week.
Imagine four scenarios.

First. What does your cloak represent? You call out to the Beloved. The Beloved responds with an invitation. You know instinctively to throw off your cloak and whatever your cloak represents.

Second. The Beloved is taken away. You are left, naked, vulnerable, in danger, in utter not-knowing.

Third. What does the white garment represent? And the empty tomb? What are you doing there?

To bring the exercise to completion follow through to the inevitable next scene. Christian life truly begins after folding the white robe. (Perhaps saving your baptismal gown for grave clothes as many Christians do, symbolic of birth into heaven) and putting on work clothes.

The Christian life matures through seasons of penance and purgation, of illumination and nights of the soul, of union and being sent out. Not only does the Christian evoke this life ritually in the liturgical year, but cultivates this movement in a transformative inner life.

-Have fun,