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.

Credit: unknown – Mine was similar.

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)



Oct 16 2016


Day 16 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


Taking a Sabbath day is challenging. During some seasons, I’ve had a consistent practice, but much of my life, I have not.

My earliest practice was patterned on the Jewish Shabbat which drew upon the tradition of a Friday preparation, and a complete ceasing (shabbat means to cease) from labor, technology, and consumerism on Saturday. I lived in an intentional community at the time and while my housemates did not practice with me, their presence and encouragement helped me stay consistent. Ironically, this season of practice ended when I took a church staff position.


Another season, I was a teaching assistant for a course on Sabbath, co-taught by a Roman Catholic scholar and an Orthodox rabbi. A highlight of this era was visiting the Jewish community on campus and experiencing their lovely prayer and celebration at the start of Shabbat.

Finally, this past year, I’ve set aside a few hours on Friday or Saturday each week to visit Sinsinawa Dominican Convent. A friend and student at UDTS committed to do this with me, and it has been a wonderfully regular (but not perfect) practice each week.

All of these expressions of the practice have a common characteristic: community.

So often we berate ourselves for not maintaining our formative disciplines, but in truth, many spiritual practices require support from a practicing community to remain vibrant and nourishing.


Sabbath was one of those practices from the beginning, starting with God resting on the seventh day.

God wrote Sabbath into the fabric of the universe and made the community of creation the locus of its practice.

As an expression of it’s centrality to relationship with God and creation, the Lord of the Sabbath made ceasing-from-labor one of the ten commandments. God even expected the farm animals to have a day off each week and the land to be allowed to rest every seventh year.

Creation is restored by rest, both by physical rest, and by abiding in Jesus, our Sabbath Rest (Hebrews 4:9).


What does this mean for those of us who long to practice this rhythm, yet feel alone and fully immersed in the frenetic pace of 24/7 society?

First, God is our community. God meets us in our rest, whether we are absolutely consistent on observing it, or inconsistent. God meets us exactly where we are: I may set an intention for Sabbath, and miss the mark 9 out of the 10 times. God meets me in that first time, and also walks with me even in those 9 times when choices and circumstances get in the way.


Second, we can cultivate communities of Sabbath to reinforce our practice and encourage others. Find others who long for this practice in their lives–friends, colleagues, or family members, and be resolute. In my weekly practice of going to the convent, my friend and I remind each other, sometimes pull each other along. Observing Sabbath time with at least one other person helps  with follow-through.

Finally, discuss the possibility of a church-wide focus on Sabbath, encouraging the community to consider how Sabbath might be practically lived out as part of life together.

Reflection on a community Sabbath would start extremely important conversations on how to support those among us who care for family members and never have opportunities for respite. It would also bring to light the situations of those who must work multiple jobs and long hours to make ends meet. I’m convinced that if church communities truly take on Sabbath, then all people, all creation, would have the regular chance to cease their labor.

How might Sabbath be practiced in your current season of life or in your community? How do you experience the Lord of the Sabbath resting with you as you rest from work?


Oct 15 2016

Praying the Text

Day 15 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


The fourth item I intentionally brought into my new home on the first day was my bible, an NRSV I’ve been using since 2001. It represented my commitment and hope that God’s Word would be foundational to my life in the Contemplative Cottage.


My life has been deeply influenced by the monastic practice of lectio divina (Latin for divine reading), a four-movement pattern of prayerful reflection on scripture dating from the early church and codified in the 12th century by Carthusian monk Guigo II. Used by Benedictines for centuries as part of their daily prayer practice, lectio divina has enjoyed a rediscovery in the past 20 years, especially among Protestants from mainline and non-denominational congregations.

A short scripture passage is read repeatedly and deeply. Words and phrases that capture heart and mind are meditated upon more intentionally. The meditation on the passage at some point turns into a conversation with God about the passage. Finally, one would rest in a contented contemplation of God, sparked by the reflection.

Another way to understand the movements, according to Guigo II: reading is akin to putting food in the mouth; meditation is chewing; prayer is digesting it; and contemplation is the satiation after a delicious feast.

Models of lectio divina place the movements in ladder or circular relationships, but I prefer a tetrahedron. It allows for the connective nature of the practice to be visualized 3-dimensionally. Each movement can shift to any of the other three movements and back, allowing for a complex relationship between the four modes of engaging the text:


I take a psalm or short passage of scripture from the larger book or epistle I’m studying, print it out and then use multicolored pens and pencils to highlight those words and phrases that are calling for deeper meditation. Sometimes, a song, person, scripture, or memory might tug at my attention while I’m reading. This may seem unconnected to the passage, but it may be a Holy Spirit nudge toward the word the passage has for me in that moment.

Prayers can be written in the margins, allowing the scripture to form the foundation of prayer. Contemplation might be expressed by simply sitting with the text and annotations as a whole, letting the yeast of the Word do it’s work in my life. Often, my meditation will include looking up Greek or Hebrew words and engaging commentaries to sharpen my own understanding of the text.


Practicing lectio divina on scripture over the years has seeped into the rest of my life. I find myself reading other texts, such as novels and poetry, art objects, songs, and visual stories in a similar, though less intensive, way. Using the pattern of lectio divina has also affected the way I read situations, conflicts, and contexts, informing the theological method I teach and use for research (my students will recognize this!). Anything can become a “text” to read, reflect, and pray through to God’s wisdom.

If lectio divina is new for you, or if you haven’t practiced it in this organic way, a great place to start is by choosing a favorite scripture passage or psalm and spend 30 single-tasking minutes coloring, highlighting, and praying through the text.

If you’ve practiced it on scripture, I encourage you to try it on a favorite poem (I’ve included one of my favorites below). While I believe that the study of scripture takes a privileged position in God’s formative work in us, I also believe God can use stories, poems, even movies, as means of communicating truth–if we would take the time to enter deeply into the work of art.

Love (III) – George Herbert (1593-1633)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be s/he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Oct 14 2016

Liturgical Time and the Celtic Advent Calendar 2016

2018 Advent Calendar is here.

Day 14 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


The Myrrh-Bearing Women, witnesses to the Resurrection, celebrated on the third Sunday of Easter

I studied for my MDiv at a school embedded in a monastic community. Each day, we gathered for prayer under the guidance of the church calendar. Time itself was caught up like a thread and woven into the recurring round of seasons, feast days, memorials, and observances. Liturgical time became a reminder that the Kingdom was at hand and we could not help but remember the centuries of disciples gone before. And God was weaving each of our timelines into the Story for future generations.

I wondered: what is the design God is weaving with me?

Even the way dates were named changed. Friday, October 14th, would become Friday in the 28th Week in Ordinary Time (or for the Anglicans and Presbyterians among us, Friday in the 21st week after Pentecost). After a few months of hearing the date proclaimed in this way,  my own internal sense of time and seasons began to shift. One day as I began to journal, I started to write the liturgical date, so natural it had become. The relationship between human time and God’s story of redemption intertwined.

presentation Bénédite de la Roncière

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, February 2

At the Contemplative Cottage, the seasons are represented by icons and symbols that call to mind the particular story remembered. The Orthodox tradition brings to the Body of Christ rich gifts of visual images for this specific use–icons honoring the many feasts and observances, windows to the wider reality of Kingdom life. The icons help us remember the great cloud of witnesses and each thread of their lives woven as a testimony to us today. On a particular day or throughout a season, an icon or symbol takes a more prominent place in the house, and a bouquet of flowers or candle might mark it.

mary tells the disciples

Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, July 22

Another liturgical time practice at the Cottage as a way for me to recover a more contemplative and prayerful focus between Thanksgiving and Epiphany. The early Celtic Christians observed 40 days of Advent as a preparation for the Lord’s Nativity, mirroring the 40 days of Lent. This practice begins on November 15. Not unlike Advent calendars which count down the traditional 4 weeks before Christmas, the Celtic Advent Calendar journeys from mid-November, through the Christmas season, and ends with Epiphany. It reclaims the 4o-day practice of Advent, the prayerful “O Antiphons” that countdown the 7 days before Christmas, and the 12 days of the Christmas season, giving a simple activity and/or a scripture verse for reflection for each day.


Yes, it’s a month still before Celtic Advent begins, but I’ve discovered that living in liturgical time, becoming immersed in it, requires some forethought. The observances at the Cottage and shared on this blog come from years of moving through the cycle of stories, rediscovering old traditions, reclaiming their practice, and then sharing them with others. The most challenging seasons are ones that sneak up on me–as Advent and Christmas did for so many years. The rush of the consumer holiday season (now starting with Halloween!) and the academic year often meant I missed expectantly reflecting on Christ’s birth in my life and in the world of human history.

If observing an extended preparation for and post reflection on the Nativity this year resonates with you, I’ve updated the Celtic Advent Calendar for your use, with color. Feel free to share it with others and your wider community.

Happy Friday in the 21st week after Pentecost and the 28th week in Ordinary Time!


If you want more ideas for living the church year in home and life, I recommend Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s lovely book The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year. It is out of print, but you can still get it via her website


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