Dec 25 2009

Welcome Little Child


From a Christmas sermon by St John Chrysostom (349-407 AD):

“What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. God Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger…

For this God assumed my body, that I may become capable of God’s Word; taking my flesh, God gives me his spirit; and so God bestowing and I receiving, God prepares for me the treasure of Life…I take my part, not plucking the harp nor with the music of the pipes nor holding a torch, but holding in my arms the cradle of Christ!

For this is all my hope! This is my life! This is my salvation! This is my pipe, my harp! And bearing it I come, and having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels and shepherds, sing:

Glory to God in the Highest! and on earth peace to all of good will!”

Dec 19 2009



As I look at the beautiful Christmas tree here at my parent’s home, hung with 40 years of memories, I’m struck by how this tree is like memory itself.  Hidden among the branches and tinsel, illuminated by twinkle lights or lost in shadows, little ornaments of past delight wait to be rediscovered, re-remembered, and enjoyed anew.

St Thomas Aquinas wrote that joy is delight remembered.

Reading about the human brain and how memory is formed, I have been surprised by its fragility.  Barring the painful memory loss that comes with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or injury,  normal events making the trek from experience to working memory into long-term memory require certain key conditions or the brain will not store the information in any retrievable fashion.   Even strong memories can still be lost as long-term memory remains in flux for over a decade. The more sensory and emotional connections made with an experience, the greater the chance it will stick around; the more it is actively recalled and in a sense, re-experienced, the greater the chance it will solidify into long-term memory.

Some people spend more of their time thinking about the future or the present, I tend to think more about the past, and I often return over and over to certain memories.

As I’ve been rediscovering prayer this past year and asking difficult questions about vocation (and the future), God has been gently, yet insistently, showing me that the majority of the memories I frequently revisit are marked with sadness and shame, rather than joy or grace.    While I often find joy in the present, it doesn’t seem to make it into my long-term memory.  With a tinge of Jonah-like frustration at God, I complained, “Well, this is what I remember, so help me remember something else!”

The word anamnesis came to mind. Not exactly a word I would casually…well, remember.

Liturgically, it refers to the part of the Eucharistic prayer recalling the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me.”

Anamnesis means more than to simply remember or reminisce, it means to remember something forgotten.

To remember what was forgotten seems paradoxical and feels impossible, so I figure it must only be possible with the help of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus described as the Comforter, who will “bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (John 14:26)

As I walk this journey of Advent and come to the end of 2009, I long for a loss of forgetfulness, to remember (maybe even for the first time) all the many times God spoke grace, love, and joy in experiences and through others, and to feel them as deeply as I feel the not-so pleasant memories.  I long to stop traveling the roads that lead to feelings of sadness and shame. Even better, I want to remember whole stories from the past, not just the difficult parts, and pray for insight into how grace, God’s “I love you,” was present even in painful times.

A way I’d like to begin this exploration of the fragile, wonderful, complex gift of graced human memory and memory-making is to create a weekly blog practice called Anamnesis, and invite you to join in.  If you have remembered a forgotten moment of joy or grace, and would like to share it, include your blog link below or add a comment.

Peace to you on your journey through Advent!

Dec 14 2009

A Thousand Gifts

Winter Morning

Winter Morning

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10

A year ago I stumbled upon a blog called A Holy Experience. The captivating poetry of Ann Voscamp’s writing, photos of her life on a farm, and the background music of David Nevue’s piano playing, created a soothing and healing world. It was one of the blogs which inspired me to start The Contemplative Cottage.  Yesterday, as I took some time to lose myself in its many pages and Advent meditations, I discovered Ann’s gratitude practice, One Thousand Gifts, which has created a “gratitude community” of folks and bloggers who have taken up the practice themselves.

The practice is simple: list what you are thankful for and thank God for them.  Keep adding to the list over time until you reach 1000.  List 10 things a day or spend a quiet morning or a Sabbath day making a longer list once a week.  Take the nearest scrap of paper and start writing.

What brings you joy today? Makes you laugh? Whose presence are you thankful for? What beauty do you notice and take delight in? Who or what touches your heart and mind?

Ann describes these gifts as God’s “I love you” and our grateful response as a practice of worship.  She says that making the list made her want to look for more of these grace-full experiences.  Knowing from my own practice of paying attention to the beauty in nature, intentional looking leads to seeing more and more of what would have been unnoticed.

The word that comes to mind is abundance.  Rather than seeing a glass half full or half empty, this practice suggests that the glass is overflowing, just waiting to be noticed.  I am going to take up Ann’s challenge and start making my list.

“When in all gifts we find God, then in God we shall find all things.” George MacDonald.

photo: Susan Forshey

Dec 8 2009

Salty Speech

Good Morning

Good Morning

I often wish I knew how to respond with life-giving and healing words, so as I read through Colossians the past two days, Colossians 4:6 jumped out at me. During lectio divina, a key moment is when a word or a phrase seems to come off the page and my own heart answers with a little flutter, “Yes, I want to know more.”

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.

The English translation is curious, because the direct suggestion “Let your speech…” seems to be followed by an effect, “so that you…”  This didn’t make sense to me—how could I practice a certain kind of speech that would in turn provide knowledge about how to speak?  But looking at the Greek, I realized that I was interpreting “gracious” as a human quality,  akin to cordial or courteous, or hospitable. These are good qualities for conversing, yet knowing how to practice them appropriately in a given situation is tricky.  

Gracious in this context is actually grace, or charis–a divine influence upon the heart.  For me, grace is not an obligation, or something earned, or a gold star for good behavior, but the gift of God’s own presence saying, “I love you.”

The text suggests that the first step of speaking is my heart listening to God’s love for me and for the person with whom I am conversing; that speech flowing out of conversation with God, flowing out of a heart itself salted by God’s “I love you,” will be life-giving and tasty.

Dec 5 2009

Advent Beauty

Winter Blossom

Winter Blossom

Where there is no beauty, create beauty, and you will find beauty.

Twinkling tree lights against a darkening jewel blue sky greeted me as I walked across the village green this evening.  I paused along the path and took a deep healing breath.

In the hustle and bustle of the season, it is easy to miss simple moments of beauty.

What is something you’d like to do this upcoming week to cultivate your awareness of beauty or bring a bit of beauty into the life of someone you know?

This week, I’d like to:

1. Send a hand-written thank you card for a lovely dinner.

2. Read a non-school book with a cup of tea and lighted candles.

3. Give a friend flowers.

Now it is your turn!  I’d love to hear from you!

Dec 2 2009


Silent All These Years by Susan Forshey

Silent All These Years by Susan Forshey

The irony of my life-long interest in prayer is my constant wrestling with prayerlessness.

At times it has been simply the result of not making time or taking time–which really means just being focused elsewhere without bringing the “elsewhere” into prayer.

Other times it has been due to the loss of a name for God, feeling that the three-letter word was too small, too human, too burdened by centuries of baggage.  Prayer at these times began will an abyss of absence, where God’s name should be, which I couldn’t cross, so I didn’t pray.

For the longest time, prayer has been weighed down by a reaction against personal petitionary privilege–why should I pour out to God my fears and desires for such and such, when three billion people have trouble finding food and clean water?  Why ask for healing when others ask and are not healed? What then do I do with scripture which encourages me to bring my whole self and requests to God?

And then the harder times when prayer has simply not made sense, beyond a sort of self-therapy, because it suggests that there is a loving Someone who is not only listening, but who also cares to listen and act in response.

This past summer, I realized that these reasons not to pray would never go away, and the only way through the difficulty was either to decide that prayer was unimportant or to live as if…live as if prayer and life are better when integrated, as if the abyss of who God is can be crossed by prayer, as if God does care about my fears and hopes (and also the other six billion people on the planet, and all life forms everywhere), and as if there is a God, and not only one who listens with love, but can act and does act through my prayer in daily life.

In trying to live as if, I have realized how theology-laden prayer is.  Practices of prayer bear an internal theology, answering certain questions–who God is, how God acts, how prayer works, why pray in the first place.  Living at the intersection of  worldviews and theologies in contemporary theological education, I am seeing how prayer practices cannot function divorced from the theological worldviews which nurture them, and may not be able to be practiced at all if their practice-specific worldview is lost.  In the Christian tradition, this is not a new insight by any means.  The early theologians talked about lex orandi, lex credendi, a Latin phrase meaning as you pray, so you believe.  It can also mean the reverse: as you believe, so you pray (or don’t pray).

So I now am asking these questions:  In what theological worldview did my prayer practices once function?  How has my worldview changed and how have these changes affected my prayer practice? What images of God and humanity (and their relationship) affirms prayer? How can practices of prayer function (and be nurtured) in academic theological education, at the intersection of multiple worldviews and theologies?

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