Oct 6 2016

The Daily Office

Day 6 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

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Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen. – from Evening Prayer, Book of Common Prayer

Observing times of prayer through-out the day sanctifies time and daily life, and helps cultivate a place of sanctuary. It orders work around prayer, rather than prayer around work. It can help express the integration of life and prayer: all tasks, responsibilities, life itself, happens in the context of relationship with God, which is the context of prayer.

The daily office, from the Latin officium, “performance of a task,” is prayed according to an horarium, Latin for “of the hours.” This monastic daily schedule organizes the day into times of prayer, work, eating, relaxation, and rest. The office is mostly psalms, scripture readings, and intercessory prayers prayed on behalf of and for the world. Cloistered monasteries gather for prayer 7  times each day, sometimes waking briefly to gather in the middle of the night. At St John’s Abbey, where I studied, the chapel bells would ring the monks, staff, and students to prayer 3 times a day, morning, noon, and evening. Even now, the sound of church bells quickens my step and turns my heart to prayer.

In my own life, as a single person not living in community, the daily office finds different expression depending on the season. The practice is a regular part of my week, whether morning prayer, evening prayer, or compline, and sometimes all three. I don’t seek monastic consistency as an ideal. It is enough that my office book waits patiently on my kitchen table, easy to open while water boils, tea steeps, or a meal cooks.

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An extensive version of the daily office is found in the Roman Catholic tradition. In four volumes, it provides psalms and prayers 7 times each day, based upon the the church year. This version also includes daily readings from early church fathers, sermons, theological essays, and a wonderful collection of seasonally appropriate poetry. On the Protestant side, Presbyterians have the Book of Common Worship Daily Prayer (which is now an phone app as well); the Methodists have an order for daily prayer in their worship book; and the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer offers yet another version. You can also find online options of the book versions, such as the Episcopal office, or the full Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. In the past decade, many new versions of the daily office have been published by individuals or communities, such as Common Prayer, The Divine Hours, and Celtic Daily Prayer.

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While I began with the Catholic version 20 years ago, I’ve been using the Episcopal Contemporary Office Book more recently as a beautiful and simplified option. It takes the office sections from the Book of Common Prayer and makes it easier to follow. The prayers repeat more frequently, encouraging memorization, and the psalm translation is beautiful. It also includes the daily psalm & scripture readings on a two-year cycle. I supplement it with a book of Anglican daily readings called From the Fathers to the Churches. It mirrors the readings in the Catholic office, but adds Anglican saints and women’s writings.

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I am the first to admit that prayer is challenging. It is a practice that requires trust that even though it may seem that nothing is accomplished by it, and that it may feel that no One is listening, it is still enjoined upon disciples of Jesus to pray as an expression of our relationship with God.

Prayer is often the first practice to be forgotten on busy days. But God does not forget us. Finally stopping and praying the daily office on such a day is a sanctuary moment. Even as I write this, listening to the St Mark’s Cathedral Compline Choir sing night prayer, a tight place relaxes in my heart as I breathe deep for the first time since this morning.

The dailyness of the office is like a river flowing. Each time of pausing invites me to enter in. I may not choose to stop and pray, but now, after so many years marked by this practice, I know that it is an option. The river continues to flow and God’s invitation never ceases.

Maybe this is the most basic fruit of the daily office–simply remembering God is always present with us day or night so any moment can become a sanctuary of prayer.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen. – from Evening Prayer, Book of Common Prayer

 

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Oct 5 2016

The Feather Duster Way

Day 5 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

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Another item, one of eight, which I intentionally brought into the Cottage the first day was a feather duster. This is not just any store-bought duster, but a French antique from the 1940s. It symbolizes a particular approach to life and time I want to practice.

My academic training provided many wonderful experiences and opportunities (not the least of which is to work in a teaching position I love more everyday), but it also chilled my love of whimsy. The Susan who didn’t-always-know-what-profound-and-polysyllabic-thing-to-say was dismissed as not enough. Yet, this dismissal was more based on my own understanding of what it meant to be a scholar, than anyone else’s demands.

I learned a lot of words and read a lot of books, but oddly, words now fled whenever I went looking to write about joy or love or simple pleasures.

In giving up whimsy, I lost the capacity to be delighted.

One of the saving graces these past years has been my dear friend Kimberlee, who loves words, and writes them beautifully. Our weekly Skype call is not complete until she says, “Oh, let me read you this amazing line…” and she grabs a book and reads aloud to me. Her delight reignited my own, and I began to include a steady diet of beautiful writing back in my life–words that invite the reader into them: to play, love, laugh, weep, cheer, or just simply stop for a moment in silent awe.

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The ability to enter into this experience as a reader, learner, or scholar, requires a playful whimsy–not taking myself so seriously, not holding learning in a death-grip, not demanding a text divulge its secrets, not pretending to be profound as I teach. It is a posture of open-handed gratitude, more willing to get out of my agenda and get into the joy of the topic and the students before me.

For me, the symbol of this gentle whimsy and playful scholar is a feather duster, and the story is best told in a poem:

Years ago, I entered a new world of desks
in straight rows, bells, and tasks like
see-jane-run and
m is for mr munching mouth.
I loved mixing more
paints and colors with gooey glue
all over hands and
paper blue birds with beak and tongue
(Birds need tongues too)
Time was everywhere at once yet now
smaller
faster
marked off by things to do
read. listen. repeat. write.
a start-stop world.
When Time-to-Clean-Up arrived
I always chose my favorite feather duster
to-ing and fro-ing far from the flurry to finish
unworried by missing mittens or colorful gluey messes made
and teacher let me be, for a moment
free

So many moments now seem divided by internal distraction, no longer doing one thing, but doing one thing while believing that 10 other tasks are more important; or being in one place, while believing there are 10 other places I should be. Sure, at times we need to be paying attention to multiple things, but this isn’t just external demands, it has become an internalized way of life. When feather dusting in first grade, external and internal coincided. I was in one place, doing one thing, and it was okay.

Living out the feather duster way means cultivating enough time-spaciousness to actually enter into the task, place, or relationship at hand–be it reading, baking, cleaning, talking to students, praying, welcoming guests, writing, or teaching.

It means days have margins around activities–time for feather dusting in-between–without the perpetual drive to produce or be efficient, to linger a moment longer and savor a simple joy or glimpsed heart.

While I looked for and found a duster for the Cottage, I did not expect to have my whimsical symbol confirmed in the most surprising way. Left on a shelf in my new seminary office, the only object besides phone and furniture: an old feather duster.


Oct 4 2016

Sacred Spaces

Day 4 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

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“Do you want to do the honors?” asked my realtor, Kelly, offering me the keys. We were standing at the front door of the cottage on closing day, about to do the final walk-through.

I nodded and then reached into my bag. “This might seem a bit odd,” I began hesitantly, “but the first thing going into the house is my icon of Jesus.”

“That’s not odd at all, Susan.” She smiled, held my bag as Jesus and I went in to the house together. For the next few weeks, the icon remained on a shelf in the main room, reminding me that Jesus was with me in the midst of the chaos of the move.

The icon of Jesus was the first of 8 important symbols I brought into my new home (I’ll share more in future posts), each representing something that I wanted to be welcomed into the life at the Cottage.

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As a child, my memories of visiting the churches of Germany–small or large–are ones of color and warmth, the faces of bible people and saint people seemed to welcome me into their stories; the flowers on the altars; the hidden beauties of side chapels, crypts, and chapel gardens; the smell of old stone, old wood, wax, and incense; candles, candles, and more candles; and the deep, resonant silence, where I could hear God’s whisper. It is not surprising that crafting homey versions of these spaces in the Cottage is important. Creating sacred spaces remind me what atmosphere I want to cultivate–a place of prayer, joy, beauty, welcome, delight.

In Orthodox homes, the sacred space is called the icon corner, or even more lovely in Russian, beautiful corner, and is located in the main room.

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If creating a space for prayer and reflection is something that draws you, start with three objects that capture your desire for God and arrange them on a table in the kitchen, counter, end table, or as a dining table center piece. The psalmist in psalm 84 writes, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty.” What speaks to you of God’s beauty? Flowers? Candles? A child’s drawing? A letter from a loved one? The bible? Nature? It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to draw your eyes and invite you into the Love it represents.

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For many years, I’ve had a lectio table, (lectio means “read,” from lectio divina), a physical representation of my current prayer. I’ve collected found objects over the past 30 years and create a little tableau of prayer for a particular intention, person, or thanksgiving. This kind of sacred space can be a tactile and wordless option for when spoken prayer is too difficult.

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A lectio table is also a wonderful way to include little ones–wordy prayer may be beyond their understanding, but having them bring an object to the lectio table helps them find beauty and offer prayer in their own way.

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Sacred spaces that are beautiful and capture the eye as well as the heart remind me that I am part of a wider, larger, more magnificent multi-dimensional creation than what my senses experience. We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses; the Kingdom of God is at hand, even now, even when we don’t feel it. The little homey Kingdom places of candles, icons, and images remind me to look beyond momentary trials or my limited through-a-glass-darkly vision to the reality of God’s presence.

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Oct 28 2011

{Day 28} Friday Florilegium

We often ask what disciplines will help us to live more contemplatively or prayerfully. The following quote is some of the most profound wisdom on the topic of spiritual disciplines I’ve ever read. It is by an anonymous 14th century spiritual director and author, most known for his (or her) book The Cloud of Unknowing.  The Cloud author also wrote a letter of spiritual direction in response to questions about contemplative living, The Assessment of Inward Stirrings, from which this quote is taken:

You are well aware yourself that neither silence nor speaking, extraordinary fasting nor ordinary diet, solitary living nor company–none of these in themselves, nor all of them, are the true end of our desire. But they are to some people, though not all, true means which help to the end, as long as they are used lawfully and with discernment; otherwise they are more a hindrance than a help. Hence I do not intend to counsel you here simply to speak or to be silent, simply to fast or to eat, simply to live in company or alone. And why? Because perfection does not lie in any of these…

When then you see that all these things can be both good and evil in their use, I beg you to leave them both alone; that is the easiest thing to do if you wish to be humble. And leave off this detailed introspection and searching of your mind to find out which is better. Rather do this: Set them both aside, one here and one there, and choose for yourself something which is hidden between them. When once you have this third thing, it will permit you to take up and to leave aside either of the other two in freedom of spirit, at your own good pleasure, without incurring any fault.

And now you ask what this third thing is. I shall tell you what I understand it to be: It is God.

For him you must be silent, if you are to be silent; for him you must speak, if you are to speak; for him you must fast, if you are to fast; for him you must eat, if you are to eat; for him your must be solitary if you are to be solitary; for him you must be in company if you are to be in company; and so for all the rest, whatever they be. For silence is not God, nor is speaking God; fasting is not God, nor is eating God; being alone is not God, nor is company God, nor yet any one of every such pair of contraries. He is hid between them; and he cannot be found by any work of your soul, but only by the love of your heart. He cannot be known by reason. He cannot be thought, grasped, or searched out by the understanding. But he can be loved and chosen by the true and loving desire of your heart. Choose him then, and you are silent in speaking and speaking in silence; fasting in eating and eating in fasting, and so with all the rest.

Art by Louise LeBourgeois


Oct 27 2011

{Day 27} Vegging Out and other Habits of Distraction

Over the past month of considering contemplative living, I’ve invited you to reflect on your activities and start to make cause and effect connections. I would imagine that you’ve discovered that some activities encourage your intention to pay attention to the present moment, and some distract, escape, or numb you–heart, mind or spirit–to now.

Anything can be used as a distraction to contemplative attention. As I suggested in an earlier post, sometimes the present moment is simply too much and we have a desire to take shelter, to feel safe or “get our mind off” something. It’s an understandable response and often a self-protective skill.

Today, I’d like for you to consider that response without judgment.

When used occasionally, sheltering activities are often enjoyable and allow us to relax. But they can over time and practice, become habits of distraction. Then, whenever the troublesome feeling or weariness or need to escape arises, we distract ourselves. Rather than exploring, gently and patiently, what may be the cause of the unpleasant emotions or thoughts or physical feeling, we choose to focus attention elsewhere.  I have a theory that people who are drawn to contemplative living often face stronger temptations to escape the present moment.

Let me offer an example from my own life of how a common activity can easily become a distraction from the present moment.

I’ve always loved stories–I easily get caught up in them. I’m also an introvert. For me, screen media offers the enjoyment of adventure, people, places, ideas, and relationships, all from the safety of my own desk. I need only watch.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a growing conviction of mine that screen media had encroached upon my ability to pay attention to reading, academic study, and people around me. I had given away my TV years ago, but found that the time I was spending via the internet, involved in the story lives of so many characters were taking a toll. I was no longer simply enjoying the experience, but using the screen stories to distract myself from dealing with my own life. At one point, I asked God about some of my struggles with living a contemplative life and his response was clearly, “Are you willing to do what it takes?”

What it took, initially, was a 40 day fast from all screen media. I told my dear friend Kimberlee and asked her to hold me accountable. For good measure, I put internet blocks on websites like Hulu and cancelled my Netflix account.

The first week was difficult, especially when I was tired. At one point, I found myself pacing my apartment, wanting to escape the silence, wanting desperately to get lost in a story.

What God showed me is that these stories were only a substitute to deeply paying attention to my own.

By the second week, I found my thinking clearer and the sense of resistance that I’d always felt, but could never figure out its cause, disappeared. Everything seemed more real. I had more mental and emotional energy.

Rather than getting lost in a story, I sat with what I was feeling or thinking. Gerald May, in Addiction and Grace, suggests that the way out of attachments is not to find a replacement attachment or addiction–something healthier, yet just as much an idol–but to sit in the spaciousness of what was once present, in all the scary vulnerable openness.

Or I simply rested, since most often the desire to watch a show or movie came when I was weary.

After the initial 40 days, I completed two more 40 day periods.  It didn’t become a permanent change in my life, but I did learn to stay in the moment more often than escaping. I’m currently allowing myself some screen media each week, but very aware that (for me) it is just shy of becoming a distracting activity again. I will most likely be doing another fast for the 40 days of (Celtic) Advent.

What is important about paying attention to our distractions is that, while anything can become a distraction, nothing really is. Just by paying attention to the coping mechanisms you’re using, just by noticing, “Oh, I check my email when I’m craving human interaction,” or “I click over to Facebook when my work starts to bore me,” transforms the distraction into food for contemplative reflection.

Sit with the craving. Sit with the boredom. Let it share its wisdom. Let God meet you exactly where you are.

While the distraction can take you out of the present moment, paying attention to the distraction (and the vulnerability it is masking) brings you right back in.

And, whenever we begin to pay attention, we can asked the question, “Where is God with me right now?”

Practice: You probably already have some ideas about an activity that has become a distraction for you–TV, movies, internet, social network, exercise, shopping, cell phone use, work, a relationship, the list could hold anything.

Choose the one that you are most likely to do when you are tired–the “vegging out” activity.

I invite you to let it go for a time. Instead, sit with your weariness, frustration, sadness, loneliness, whatever it is you’re wanting to leave behind.  Listen to it, don’t leave.

Bring how you are feeling into your conversation with God.


Oct 26 2011

{Day 26} The Contemplative Body, Part 3

The third challenge I find to contemplative awareness and the body (mind, heart, spirit) is that we often continue to do things that we know from past experience will lead to discomfort, pain, or other signs that an activity or behavior is hurtful.

This behavior, often called a besetting sin, is something that we feel powerless to fight against, even with awareness of its consequences.

We know it causes ill-being or dis-ease, but we can’t seem to stop.

And often, too, there is a lot of guilt built up over the years. Lots of should and ought and self-contempt, visions of perfection crumbling into the dust.

Guilt is a terrible motivation for transformation.

Transformation will only happen with love.

And it isn’t your love that’s going to do it.

One of my favorite passages of scripture–a passage that stirs my blood (oh, I can feel it stirring even as I type!) is Revelation 12:10-11:

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.

(I invite you to read it aloud.)

While I’m normally not a person to talk much about an incarnate evil, I have no doubt it exists when I hear the horrible accusations that often fill my thoughts, or hear the stories from so many men and women of their own accusing voices.

There is an Accuser and it’s sole intent is the dismantling of our hope, beauty,  love, and trust. The voice tells us we are failures, not good enough, not lovable, not capable, powerless, ugly, empty, lacking, and worthless. You probably have your own word that the accuser uses at the worst possible moment.

And I think that often our besetting sins are our way of drowning out that voice. We look for some way, any way, to escape.

But let’s look at the rest of this amazing promise:

The Accuser has been hurled down.

And what did it was not the latest self-improvement project or some act of willpower. Willpower has its place, but only when the focus is off ourselves and the besetting sin.

What hurled the Accuser down was the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ who loved us so much that he walked the path of death to life for us. The first love is not our love, but God’s love for us, and experiencing this love, even in the smallest way, changes everything.

The word of our testimony is our response to this Love: small, ordinary stories about how we’ve experienced the Lamb-who-Loves told to our sisters and brothers, friends, parents, co-workers, neighbors, children, spouses. And especially to ourselves. We tell about the Love who, while the Accuser was hurling its accusations to the throne of God, was willing to become human. We tell about the Love who, while we were yet sinners, was willing to die and be raised to Life for us.

And I bring you to the Love of which all other loves speak, the Love which is joy and beauty, and which you have sought in a thousand streets and for which you have wept and clawed your pillow. –Thomas Howard.

Practice: Extend your contemplative attention to your body–heart, mind, and spirit. What are the accusations you hear? What are your besetting behaviors you know are not life-giving? How might they be connected to the accusations?

I invite and encourage you to set them aside and turn your attention elsewhere. I’m sure that you have confessed them over and over.

How and where do you experience love? Soul-sustaining, creative, hope-full love, without any shoulds or oughts. Follow that feeling in your body–feelings, thoughts, memories, and spirit, and bring it into conversation with Jesus Christ. How is God present in your experience of Love?

I invite you to tell a loved one about one small, ordinary experience you’ve had of Jesus’ love.

Artwork by Sieger Koder

 

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