Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Buried Treasure

August 2, 2010

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Jesus (Luke 12:34)

I remember gazing at a drop of dew clinging to the underside of a branch on a little peach tree my boyfriend had given me. For an extended time I watched how the sunlight broke into rainbows within that single drop and how multi-faceted lights burst forth again from the drop, like another twenty new-born suns.  At the idealistic age of seventeen I decided that I’d never need a diamond ring, and that as long as I stayed close to nature, I’d never need to buy anything beautiful.

When I was young I couldn’t have imagined a time when I could not lose myself in nature. Sitting upon the giant branch of a great oak, losing time, myself, my body; watching, listening, absorbing and becoming scents and birdsong, insects, light, ambient sound and air moving dust and leaves, becoming ONE with all that I saw and heard and felt. I became the catbird’s throaty cry, my heart fluttered with the silent golden swallowtail, my body swayed imperceptibly in the far branches touched by breeze, my soul shaped into thousands of unique leaves.

Life’s batterings gave me coats of mail, of steel, of ice against all feeling. I wonder if the task of these latter years of life is to shed those layers and find my self, the self born to love the blossom and the scent of oak loam? Can I possibly enter once again like an acrobat into the pan-pipe call of the wood thrush? Can I become once again the light and the shadow at play upon the dewy lawn?

Emerson said, To the dull mind all nature is leaden. To the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light. But it is my heart that’s leaden. My mind overactive. This life of prayer we live: chanting, gardening, enjoying the fruits of our labor in the rich soil, we live a life of reparation on behalf of the poisoned planet. The farm is “growing us”. We mean to help heal Earth. Mother Earth, help heal me.

(photo by Bill Consiglio: luna moth)

Everybody knows…

November 23, 2009

Advent begins (thematically) in Apocalypse.  There’s no better way to get in the mood for the Apocalypse than listening to Leonard Cohen.  My daughter Grace took me to Cohen’s 2009 concert tour at Madison Square Garden a few weeks ago. 

The old man on his 2009 concert tour

I loved Leonard Cohen’s poetry before Judy Collins made “Suzanne” famous sometime in the sixties.  Boys serenaded me with “Suzanne” in high school and college, but my life’s sound track took on the colors and images of Leonard Cohen’s songs at every phase of my life.  And so, in a way this concert played my own life.  Surprisingly, a gazillion other people in Madison Square Garden clearly thought the same thing.  When invited to sing along – all gazillion people sang every word, including my daughter.   I cried several times.  Grace and I clung to each other more than once.

So getting ready for Advent, I’m singing “The Future” (Get ready for the future: it is murder) and “Everybody Knows” :

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded.  Everybody
rolls with their fingers crossed.  Everybody knows the
war is over.  Everybody knows the good guys lost.  Every-
body knows the fight was fixed: the poor stay poor, the
rich get rich.  That’s how it goes.  Everybody knows.

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking.  Everybody
knows the captain lied.  Everybody got this broken
feeling like their father or their dog just died.  Everybody
talking to their pockets.  Everybody wants a box of
chocolates and a long-stem rose.  Everybody knows.

Everybody knows that you love me, baby.  Everybody
knows that you really do.  Everybody knows that you’ve
been faithful, give or take a night or two.  Everybody
knows you’ve been discreet but there were so many
people you just had to meet without your clothes.  And
everybody knows.

Everybody knows that it’s now or never.  Everybody
knows that it’s me or you.  Everybody knows that you
live forever when you’ve done a line or two.  Everybody
knows the deal is rotten: Old Black Joe’s still picking
cotton for your ribbons and bows.  Everybody knows.

Everybody knows that the Plague is coming.  Every-
body knows that it’s moving fast.  Everybody knows
that the naked man and woman – just a shining
artifact of the past.  Everybody knows the scene is dead,
but there’s going to be a metre on your bed that will
disclose what everybody knows.

Everybody knows that you’re in trouble.  Everybody
knows what you’ve been through, from the bloody
cross on top of Calvary to the beach at Malibu.  Every-
body knows it’s coming apart: take one last look at this
Sacred Heart before it blows.  And everybody knows.

So why sing this stuff?  Because it’s cathartic.  Everybody knows – don’t they – about the dangers of monoculture, patenting seeds, chemicals and pesticides poisoning farmland, the threats to our food security?  Everybody knows – don’t they – about the world-wide financial crises caused by corporate greed?  Everybody knows about climate change and irreversible threats to life on this planet caused by human beings.  Everybody knows  how our policies and exploitations breed terrorism … 

Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll implode carrying what I know.  Living with the sisters can be hard, because they make it their prophetic Christian business “to know.”  Knowing begets a sense of apocalypse, not just in Advent.

Last verse of “The Future”

Things are going to slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure any more
The blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said REPENT
I wonder what they meant.

But that’s the second week of Advent.

My apocalypse-defying geraniums in the kitchen window of Saint Aidan's House, Bluestone Farm.

Coming Home

September 28, 2009

I’m on the North Fork of Long Island, surrounded by the scents of sea and tidal marshes, familiar vegetation (scrub oak, cabbage fields, sedge, marsh grass, bayberry), wood shingled dwellings, and overall, the unique Long Island light of my childhood.  One day last week I  gathered “wampum” (smooth thick shards of shell) on the beach as I did when I was enamoured of the Long Island Indians as a kid. And, as I did as a child, I look out over the water, longing for some unseen, unknowable sense of home.

I’d ask myself even then, how could I not be “home”?  We had family movies of my coming home from the hospital in my mother’s arms. I’m squished and red in the face with orange  downey hair, crying, crying.  In the movies I’m being doted over and certainly I was loved as a child. 

Heading to Long Island on the Bridgeport of Port Jefferson Ferry

Heading to Long Island on the Bridgeport/Port Jefferson Ferry

Still, I longed for “home,” and when I was old enough I’d go out into the woods to weep, “I want to go home!”  That feeling transferred into a symbol of my looking out over the water to the horizon, from a painting I once saw of a little Dutch girl looking out over the sea.  I even set a musical score to the image, a plaintive piece my older brother played in his junior high school band.  I hummed the music and longed and longed for home. I’ve lost this tune but I remember the sentiment. Occasionally I encounter it in adult forms, and in prayer.

So here I am, on a two week writing retreat at The Ink Hotel in Southold, choosing to go to this home-like spit of land surrounded by sea to write the Eucharist part of my Book of Hours.  Eucharist, the ultimate longing for home.

But here’s the irony. By the end of a Eucharist, you are turned inside out, and instead of going home, you’re sent out, integrating home with your own fragile set of unique bones and blood and brain tissue and, heaven help us, personality. You are commissioned to engage fully in daily life, going out to seek danger, wield justice, bring the Love you have just taken into yourself to the broken hearted, the sick , the hungry, the displaced, the mentally ill, the violent, the unlovely and unloved, to BE home to the homesick in a broken world because you have just consumed home.

Toddlers and Truth

September 14, 2009

One of our sisters believes we’d be a lot better off with toddlers running around the convent.  Other sisters look at her in horror when she sighs like that.  Yesterday a little girl coming out of the Melrose School pointed to this sister and said, “Mommy, Look!   A Grandma!”  Our sister beamed all day.  She is, in fact, a grandmother of three and misses terribly “her babies” living far away across the country.

Bill just became a happy grandpa.  I don’t have grandchildren yet, but I feel the grandmother hormones erupt when I see certain children.  I amuse myself composing long nonsense songs for my children’s not-yet-conceived children.  I understand our sister’s sense of longing and loss.  The most endlessly fascinating part of my life was playing with, observing, and just generally being enthralled by my own four children.  I still miss each of them from each childhood age.  So I miss them exponentially, four times however many ages.  However, I don’t possess any unrealistic maternal after-glow or a selective memory of how difficult and exhausting and heartbreaking it was to be their mother.

ChristBlessingTheChildrenMaesNicolaes1652-53CROP2When I found the Nicholaes Maes painting I used on the Edge of Enclosure website this week, I laughed aloud.  The child in the foreground enchanted me.  The hand of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Light, the Word, the Good Shepherd, the Gate, the Resurrection and the Life, The Paschal Lamb, son of the Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, Ivory Tower, Ark of the Covenant, rests upon her head. 

Her mother dressed the child up in Sunday best clothes and fussy little church offering purse for the occasion.  Nevertheless, at this supreme sacramental once-to-every-man-and-nation moment, the child’s uncompromising distraction lures her from the event at hand toward something glittering beyond our view.

Yes!  And look at the child in the background, thrust toward Jesus, but going limp in protest.  Yes!  Finally, an unsentimental look at children and the child as symbol of  innocence and spontaneity.

Well, I simply loved that child because she’s me at prayer.  Every day.  Toddlers keep you honest. 

Here’s my Saturday Morning prayer, after keeping the child in the Maes painting in my mind this week.  ( When I refer to the “Chicken Parade” it means this: Bill opens St. Eggburt’s House in the morning and the chickens jump out one at a time by rank, first the eight matronly Black Stars, and then the flock of nine adolescent golden brown Red Stars.  They stretch their wings and run to the corn, clucking amongst themselves and hastily get to work scratching up the night’s offering of grubs and worms.  I love the morning chicken parade.)

Saturday Morning Prayer

I’m empty.  I’m hungry.  I love this quiet early in the dark of the morning.  No noise from the road or school or house.  The clattering rain abruptly stopped.  Now, only the invasive sound of my quiet keyboard, padding, like a guilty cat sneaking across the counter-top.

I hiccup twice.  The de-humidifier kicks in.  Soon the windows will brighten, Bill will get up, the microwave will roar, the toaster ping, the scent of cinnamon and English muffins ascend the stair, the dog’s long nails clacking along the floor overcoming her age in her quest for crumbs and attention.  The chicken parade will thrill me for a moment and soon the traffic will speed along the road.  My brain will distract me.  I’ll know NPR news is on and I’ll want to take it in – after all I might need to know something.  My mind will sound like the chicken parade and the microwave and the dog’s long nails on the wood floor and Weekend Edition Saturday. 

O Holy One!  Do not abandon me to my distractions.  I love your chivalry, but I’m mesmerized by the glamour of the crowd and ‘thralled to the contests, and I somehow overlook your gentle hand, reaching for a token of my love.

Chrsit Blessing the Children, Nichoaes Maes, 1652-53

Chrsit Blessing the Children, Nichoaes Maes, 1652-53

Desert Wind

February 9, 2009

A picture can become prayer – just look at icons, illuminations, countless paintings.  But can you take a picture of prayer?  No, I don’t think so.   

palmtree1cropI wanted to take a picture of the palm tree outside the San Antonio house where I lived with my then husband and our two oldest children who were little in the late 70’s.  The house held many memories, joyful, revelatory, puzzling, grotesque.   This visit, I was not interested in the house – those kinds of memories adjust with times and outcomes – children grow up, friends die or move somewhere else or disappear into another social sphere.  Oddly, the memory of prayer remains in the moment.

I drove to the old house last Wednesday evening on the first evening of my visit to San Antonio. The tree was gone.  I found one like it on another street to listen to, to take a picture of.  

I used to pray the air of San Antonio – the quality so different from any place I’d ever lived before or since – warm, alive, an icon of the Holy Spirit making music in dry branches.  I walk in the reddish twilight, a nearly full moon muting the stars and  illuminating the rushing clouds, the wind rattling the giant magnolia leaves with a sound like turning pages of a book.   That warm wind off the deserts beyond the city, ruach, the timeless breath of G-d embraces my fragile flesh –  the same as it was when I was young, the same as it was before the San Antonio missions, the same as it was before any human habitation.   Prayer, unlike the swiftly moving clouds and swiftly passing time-bound lives,  prayer “so ancient and so new” remains in the moment, just outside the flat chronological-plane, waiting for an open soul to serenade.

Why Lauds is good for me

January 10, 2009

Silvery light shimmering img_22521through myriads of branches.  The full moon magnified on the western horizon.  Bitter cold.  The crunch of my boots along the crusty ice I make my way to the convent for Lauds before dawn.

I have heard monks and nuns say, “I HAD to be a religious.  I couldn’t discipline myself to pray any other way.”  What they don’t say in this self-efacing admission, is that they possess or somehow acquired the poverty of spirit to value prayer.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  The New English Bible translates this beatitude, “How blest are they who know their need of God, the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

I don’t always show up at Lauds.  But because we have Eucharist right after Lauds and being the only priest here at the moment, I need to be there early anyway.  But I show up out of good form rather than any genuine perception of my need to praise God.  I show up for my respect for the sisters who have already put in a half hour of silent meditation BEFORE Lauds.

I do intend to pray first thing every morning.  I begin well.  As soon as I sit up in bed I make the sign of the cross on my lips and say, “open my lips O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”  That’s been my practice since the age of twenty-two. I make coffee, and then… if I stumble toward my computer before lectio, thinking I’m being efficient to get a few emails out of the way, I frequently get caught in the tasks demanded by the emails, or find myself diverted by headlines.  (To give myself some credit, it’s been my habit for twenty five years always to check the news headlines before celebrating Eucharist.  It avoids the pastoral complications of not knowing news  already pressing heavily on a congregation.  Here, the sisters have checked their computers even before silent meditation and Lauds … so they already know weather, the night’s crises, and bring the burdens of the world into their intentions for morning prayer.)

The word “Lauds” comes from Middle English laudes (plural), from the Medieval Latin, plural of laud-, laus = praise.  icetrees31The office of Lauds (not counting Matins which occurs in the middle of the night and not observed in this convent – teaching and running schools for children made Matins an imprudent burden) is the first of the canonical hours of the day.  Lauds consists of psalms with antiphons, scripture sentences, traditional monastic hymns, canticles (often heart breakingly gorgeous), the Benedictus with seasonal antiphons, and a collect. 

When I chant Lauds with the sisters, I know it’s good for me.  Lauds orders priorities.  Just getting there in the biting cold already puts the body in the right posture.  “Open my lips O Lord” is only one phrase from Psalm 51 which is almost always part of Lauds.  We sing Psalm 63 reminding us of our desperate thrist for God.  The office creschendos as we sing the Laudate psalms – the last few psalms of the Psalter.

The Benedictus (Zechariah’s ecstatic prophecy when gets his voice back nine months after his encounter with Gabriel – Luke 1:68-79) calls me personally.  And you, my child, ..will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.  In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. 

This is about the time I wake up.   My daily conversion, my response to the call to be faithful, unfolds gently, subtly, compellingly from this text.  Everything I’m called to do today, if I am faithful to my vocation, is expressed in this father’s commission to his baby son, John.  The church sings this canticle for me, for us.  And YOU, my child … 

At this point, the sisters have already been praying in the chapel for an hour.  Someone rings the Angelus, and we begin the Eucharist.

The Rebbe of Tsanz was asked by a Chasid: What does the Rabbi do before praying?  I pray, was the reply, that I may be able to pray properly.

When I don’t go to Lauds, I lose the capacity to remember who I am, I misplace my priorities, trip clumsily over the day’s challenges. Everything I do takes longer and seems harder. It’s worth making my way through the darkness upon the icy paths, to praise God, and wake up.

(photos by Sr. Catherine Grace)

Moody on Monday

December 15, 2008
Simone Martini, 1333, Annunciation

Simone Martini, 1333, Annunciation

It’s Monday, and I’m exhausted from a full week of commitments, community events and meetings, a due date for Christian Century, and an overnight at the Convent of Saint John the Baptist in Mendham, NJ.  For her ordination, Sr. Eleanor Francis CSJB asked me to play flute on “A Simple Song” from Leonard Berstein’s Mass.  That piece, sung by the “celebrant” right after the chaotic and disturbing opening “kyrie” foreshadows the anguish this idealistic priest will encounter in his loss of faith.  A magnificent 17 year old singer ( a friend of Sr. Eleanor Francis) chose and sang this piece of music.  Katie wants to be a priest and musician and writer etc.  Oh, my Dear! 

Katie and I played the Bernstein piece at the end of the preludes – the last “word” before the procession rumbled toward the inevitable “I believe I am so called.”   Did Sr. Eleanor or Katie understand the significance of “A Simple Song” for an ordination – especially as an introit?  I doubt it.  Maybe the irony pierced me a little too deeply. 

We made Sister Eleanor a priest – all of us priests converging upon her during the veni creator spiritus.  Confined by the altar rails and narrowness of the sister’s chapel, we apparently pressed ourselves into the shape of a cross as we lay hands upon her.  A good enthusiastic crowd, a happy day, if a bit wistful for me.  But I met lots of old friends, as one does at these sorts of events – people from every decade of my adult life.  That seems an extraordinary part of the work of the spirit…

Today’s my ordination anniversary – next year will be the silver jubilee.  And, today I’m doing what I suppose I ought to be doing – I’m working the first stage of preparing this week’s post on the website linking the liturgical year to the “path of grace,” as my teacher Massey Shephard called it. 

During today’s gathering of material I searched The Web Gallery of Art for a couple of good Annunciations which might lend imagery to this week’s topic (the soul’s state of “passive purgation”).  I found this excellent scene: an Annunciation by Simone Martini (above) which expresses another important imagery of prayer: Leave Me The Hell Alone! 

Rogier van der Weyden, detail c. 1440

Rogier van der Weyden, detail c. 1440

I offer this picture to you on your journey.  Surely Martini’s Mary evokes how you feel when the spirit comes upon you – shattering a very finely crafted set of denials, spilling a goblet of vintage plans, or merely interrupting a good read.

Advent Pilgrimage

December 8, 2008

Bede and I led our annual Advent retreat this weekend, assisted with soundscapes and musical reflections by Sr. Helena Marie.  Because people  loved a “pilgrimage” feature last year, we decided to expand the theme for the whole of this year’s retreat. 

What is a Pilgrimage?  A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place.  Ironically, the arrival at the shrine or spring or rock or church or grave is hardly the point.  (The destination might be shockingly ordinary – what did the shepherds or Magi see that first Christmas?  An ordinary newborn baby, yet, they didn’t go away disappointed.)   

First, a pilgrimage requires separation from the ordinary. For the duration of the journey you are neither there nor here.  The no-place between there and here is a liminal place, where you are vulnerable to the sacred.  (On the way to the cave in Bethlehem, the shepherds and magi had been prepared by angels and portents to see through the ordinary.)

You arrive at your pilgrimage destination with gifts to give, and you receive your token of success, a scallop shell, a cross, a “boon” to bring back. You turn around and go home.  But having been in the liminal place, having allowed yourself to open to the Holy, you return to the ordinary to find that you are changed.  And that is the point of going on a pilgrimage: to be changed.

The heart of the retreat was about the pilgrimage in sacred architecture. 

Monastery Church

Monastery Church

How from ancient times (Egypt, the tabernacle in the Sinai desert, the Temple of Solomon) the proportions and spaces of a holy place evoked modes of consiousness.  Grand cathedrals and ordinary churches also offer corners and alcoves and tricks of light, small spaces and open spaces for multiple moods and modes for prayer and meditation.  Bede guided us and let us experience these themes and feelings in the monastery church.

Our Advent pilgrimage acknowledged these middle days of Advent: the call to separation, of repentance, of conversion and change.  We thought about something in our lives we needed to separate from and wrote them and burned them (in the monastery church).  We washed ourselves with refreshing water (in the chapter room). We looked at the mysterious series of arches, leading from the chapter room to the dark hallways, saying “yes” like Mary, to the Unknown. We processed by candlelight to a cresche scene we set up in the enclosure library, enclosed in fabric and darkness, but lit from within with fairy lights and to which we brought our own light.  We rested there, absorbing the shocking ordinariness of this scene.   

Nobody said, “Hey these figures are only wood!”  Like children, our faces reflected the sheer delight of an inner revelation projected onto the scene.   You come on pilgrimage to be changed, and … surprised.