Oct 23 2016

Sabbath Day

Day 23 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

I’m taking a day for worship and fellowship. Here is a lovely 30-minute sung Compline by Clare College Choir, Cambridge, to end your Sunday.

Oct 22 2016

Think Small

Day 22 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


A forgotten butterfly, found on a walk.

In chaos theory, small changes in the initial stages of a pattern are believed to have large effects. One of the first metaphors describing this theory uses weather: a butterfly flapping its wings could set into motion a hurricane at a later time in a different place, thus it is called the butterfly effect. While this is a negative effect, small changes could also have a positive effect in distant times and places.

I often think of those moments when I know that, had I made a slightly different decision, life would have been quite different. Sometimes reflecting on those small changes can be helpful, other times they can become “if onlys” and best left to God’s redemption.

A small change now can affect our lives in the future. Annie Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our life.” The ordinary, quotidian, seemingly small, details shape our lives. Even one small change could have a large impact.

While this might sound terrifying, it can also be encouraging.

Yellowstone National Park brought wolves back to the park in 1995 after an absence of 69 years. In reintroducing them, the wildlife specialists had no idea the sanctuary-creating cascade of events they were setting in motion. Here is a breath-taking 5-minute video that takes you through the amazing outcomes (turn off the Music for Dreaming > before watching):

Cultivating sanctuary is not about making big, complicated changes, but making the small, simple ones.

How do we know what change? Through prayer and listening to God’s word, to your heart and hopes, to those who love you and who share home-space with you. No large moves. No drastic changes. It’s the small change the Holy Spirit whispers to you through your longing, joy, or tears. It may not even seem that important, or it may seem too easy, but God’s grace and love and power shine through.

What is the smallest change you can make toward cultivating sanctuary?



Oct 21 2016

Friday Florilegium

Day 21 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


Ah, the lovely cadences of 19th century prayer! Taken from the daily devotional, Prayers Ancient and Modern, collected by Mary Wilder Tileston.


Friday Florilegium 1


Oct 21 2016

The Idol of Perfectionism

Day 20 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


Allegro Harp

Writing daily on the blog has produced it’s own set of challenges. It takes about 2 hours from start to publish for a post. With my intention of keeping the house free from internet, this has meant staying late at the office. But some days, it has meant (gasp) using my phone as a wifi hub. The limited data and speed means anything beyond posting is impossible, but it still breaks the intention of an internet-free Cottage.

Surrounded by and formed by a perfectionist culture, I used to believe that a practice not done perfectly was a failure, with all the feelings of incompetence and guilt piled on. However, if this were true, then learning a musical instrument would be impossible.

One of the 8 intentional items I first brought into my house was my harp.

In the late 90s, my parents gave me a Celtic harp for Christmas and I began to teach myself to play. While I played at church in the praise ensemble, not having a teacher put me at a disadvantage. Ultimately, with school and moving around the country a few times, playing the harp was forgotten.

Moving to Dubuque, the desire to start playing returned and I began looking for an instructor, to no avail. Then one Sunday evening, just before last Christmas, I decided to walk down to Mass at the Cathedral, just 5 minutes from my then apartment. As I entered the church, exquisitely played harp music filled the space. Making a beeline to the pew next to the harpist, I drank in the beauty. After Mass, I introduced myself and asked for lessons.

That was 9 months ago and the weekly lessons continue.


Crescendo Harp (new to the Cottage) – Minerva approves.

Perfectionism in practicing the harp has no place. In fact, the harp has taught me that mistakes, missed notes, and the mental struggle to read bass clef (slowly, so painfully slow!) is at the heart of good practice.

If I demand perfection when first learning a new fingering or song, I short-circuit the process. The drivenness to “get it right” gets in the way–my hands tense, become clawlike; the sound is constricted, choppy; good technique disappears; and confidence plummets, especially when playing for an audience.

I play better when I’m not trying to play better.

I play better when I am caught up in the joy of playing.

It is not an absence of control, but a relaxation of control into a sense of trust in my fingers, the music, the instrument, and the mystery of creative process.

This same drivenness can haunt spiritual practices. The desire to “get it right,” to practice perfectly, becomes the focus, rather than God.

Instead, we relax through the practice, trusting the Spirit, into awareness of God’s presence.

Setting an intention or writing a rule of prayer that describes our hopes for a season is an excellent practice, as long as the intention or rule is held lightly, in the grace of the Spirit. The mistakes, missteps, inconsistencies, are opportunities for renewed practice, a time for figuring things out, rather than getting stuck in feelings of failure and guilt.

Deliberate practice is a term used in the new field of expertise studies. Malcolm Gladwell has popularized some of the research when he talks about the 10000 hours required to become an expert. What is often left out of popular interpretations is that this practice is not random or rote, but deliberate. It zeros in on the mistakes, understands why they occurred and then works through them intentionally into incremental improvement and learning.

Rather than getting stuck by the idol of perfection, spiritual practice can be an icon inviting us into the wider reality of God: love, beauty, joy, and peace.

So, even in blogging about sanctuary practices, I’ve had to revisit the intentions I set for life at the Cottage and understand how to live within them. Practically, this has meant switching to morning posts, so as not be at the office late in the evening; working toward leaving the phone at the office more and more evenings; and being okay with (and honest about) the messiness of it all.

As you consider ways to cultivate sanctuary in your own life and home, where is perfectionism getting in the way? In your life with God, how does the idol of “getting it right” get in the way of relationship? In what way can your practices be icons inviting you into the joyful reality of relationship with God? 


Oct 19 2016

The New Desert

dscn0137Day 19 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


Glendalough, Upper Lake. Kevin’s Cell is on the right up the mountain.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries men and women left the cities of Egypt and Syria and created communities in the desert. The desert was both a physical location, as well as a metaphor. Most of the hagiography (stories about holy people) from this era describe the man or woman leaving society behind to live on the margins–edges of towns, burial places, deserts–in order to focus their lives on God’s call for them.

As a student of monastic life and movements through-out history and in the present, I was at first dismayed by what I perceived as a retreat from service and love of people in society into a self-protective bubble or echo chamber. And there are certainly extreme examples, always pointed to by critics, of monastics who went too far away, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, from the world God loved enough to send his Son.

However, in reading the texts from the desert fathers and mothers, this desire to move to the margins and away from habits and practices antithetical to discipleship, seems more like self-care or even survival. Simply, they fell in love with God and sought ways to nurture that love, and God’s call for them specifically involved moving into the desert. Thousands heard this call in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The impact of desert monasticism swept from Egypt all the way to the distant Celtic lands, and its impact continues to this day in monastic communities around the world.


Inishmore, Aran Islands, looking toward Dun Aengus.

The desert represents both a physical place of pared down life–simple, bare, minimal–as well as a mental, emotional, and spiritual experience. In this place of near solitude, stripped of the formative habits of society, the monks came face to face with themselves.

And there was no hiding, no comforting escape into distraction from themselves, before God.

Rather than reading their choice as a judgment against their culture, I’ve become convinced that their pursuit of the desert says more about them. They were aware of their addictions and their distractions. Moving to the desert was a way admit their weakness and pursue building habits of discipleship.


Inishmore, Aran Islands, looking toward Enda’s monastic lands

The desert might also be a place of beauty and peace, far outweighing the discomfort.

We look at what the monks gave up to go to these barren places, yet they might have received much in return. Monastic historian Derwas Chitty in The Desert A City describes the many village kitchens where bread was baked everyday (imagine the smell) and that during the prayer times, one could stand in the middle of villages and hear the monks chanting the psalms from their respective homes, prayers rising to God. People visited from the cities, seeking spiritual counsel. Monks visited each other and hospitality was a prime practice, especially for those poorer than them. The stories handed down to us from the monks–little parables of wisdom–capture humor, practicality, and the simple beauty of the life.

The past years, I’ve co-led trips to Ireland for high school students and churches. We visit places like the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, a place deeply influenced by desert monasticism. Since there are no “deserts” in that part of the world, the early monks chose the rocky island as their place of discipleship. The 6th century founder, Enda, built a monastery which trained missionary monks to take the Gospel throughout the mainland, and to what would be Scotland, England, and the continent. This rocky expanse, where people had to make their own soil from sand and seaweed, was well-loved, even before electricity, consistent heat, and running water. Cormac mac Cuilennáin, a 10th century Irish king, wrote these words, “No angel who ever came to Ireland to help Gael or Gall returned to Heaven without first visiting Aran, and if people understood how greatly the Lord loves Aran they would all come there to partake of its blessings.”


Teampall Bheanain, Aran Islands, part of the monastic community

We also visit Glendalough, just south of Dublin, the ruins of a monastic village founded in the 6th century. Kevin, the founder, chose to place his little beehive hut far from the village, up the side of the mountain. It is a daunting walk to get there. But when I reached the spot, I realized that he had a full view of the lake and mountains, and the sunrise. Kevin chose a spot of incredible beauty, and somehow, I doubt he cared how far he had to walk for meals.

The witness of the monks has influenced my sanctuary practice.

Moving into the Contemplative Cottage, I made a choice to create a little desert of my own. Those of you who have followed me for awhile know that I often take fasts from shows, movies, and social media. While I love popular media and use it heavily in my teaching, I found that I could no longer turn off all access in order to focus on other pursuits. This is not a judgment on the media, but my own lack of willpower, especially after a long day of work.

The Cottage does not have satellite or cable internet. It has a basic land-line for local calls. When I leave my cell phone at the office, which I’m doing more and more, the house becomes an internet-free desert.

I am connected at work, but this leaves the evening, night, and early morning free of the temptation to check work emails or watch a show when I know reading a book, practicing harp, writing a snail mail letter, or going to sleep would be a better choice.

The benefits have been multiple and surprising. There is more time. Getting away from screen input gives my mind and heart a rest. Waking in the middle of night does not involve falling down the rabbit hole of my cell phone. I go into the office well-rested for having the early morning free for reading, journaling, and praying.


An internet-free home has been something I’ve longed for, yet never felt I could do. Now in my third month of this experiment, my worries about being unconnected for a few hours each day have not materialized. The sun still rises if I don’t know exactly what is going on in the rest of the world from 6pm to 8am.  And as to my love of shows and movies, I’ve incentivized my watching: if I go to the campus gym, then I can take my tablet and watch as I pedal. So far, I haven’t missed the shows enough to go.

Of course, my life allows for being internet-free at home. Many of you do not have that freedom due to work or family needs. If entering an internet desert sounds heavenly to you, I encourage you to try it in small ways that fit your life. My drastic practice, not unlike the desert monks, says more about my own lack of boundaries around technology and media. You may not have trouble carving out some connection-free or media-free time by just turning off the phone, TV, or computer.


Here are more photos of Glendalough and the Aran Island of Inishmor.


Oct 18 2016


Day 17 & 18 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

Taking a pause to breathe after being away at a conference in Chicago. Here is a sanctuary practice repost from the archives.

An example, mine was not as ornate.

While in Boston, one of the many places I lived was in a lovely old building in a long-standing Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.  Originally, the apartment complex was occupied by Jewish families who needed to live within walking distance of the near-by synagogue since cars were not used on the Sabbath.  Ownership of the building had shifted over the years and it now houses mostly students, but a remnant of its past and location remains: many of the apartment doors still have a mezuzah affixed to the frame.

I didn’t notice mine until after I moved in–it was so painted over, the four inch long tube was almost lost against the frame.  But one day, I saw it and knew instantly was it was–the Hebrew letter shin (short for shaddai, or Lord) just slightly raised on its small surface like braile.

Inside the mezuzah lives a scroll with words from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, the Shema prayer, which begins “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One.”


With care, I removed it, cleaned off the decades of paint, and replaced it. The shining metal was now a visible reminder to pray every time I walked through the door.  It was a particularly difficult and lonely season of my life, and my sense of God’s presence was next to nothing.

I made a point of touching the mezuzah, as is the Jewish custom, whenever I passed it.  It became for me a visual anchor, reminding me of God’s presence through the ages–a connection, a quiet memory, a way through, a path forward, a blessing.



The mezuzah speaks

of years touched

by fingers of faith or


or habit.

Painted over in ignorance

pryed at, forgotten–

hidden scroll still and


like G-d’s voice to Elijah.

My fingers long to seek

connection in

metal and letters, a tie

to a deeper hope

across years and many lives and cosmos.

I reach out with hand, eye, and ask it,

Are You still there? I miss You.

It answers simply

with presence.


(Susan Forshey, 2007)



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