Oct 19 2011

{Day 19} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 3

When I think how close I came to not taking my apartment, I marvel at God’s patient persistence and the grace gift of faith.

I’ve moved nearly every year for the past decade and when I moved back to Seattle to write my dissertation, I gave myself a month to find a place, and my constant prayer was…please, a place I won’t have to leave for a while.

But the rental market skyrocketed that summer and rents rose to near Boston levels. I despaired. Slowly my faith in God’s provision was replaced by a willingness to pay more.

Finally, I just had to admit that a higher rent was not the answer and I took the whole project to God in prayer, made a list of the things that I longed for in a living space, things that I knew from experience would be helpful as I worked at home and lived day to day:

From my journal:

1. Below $900 (this is hard, I don’t believe it is possible).
2. A place I can spend my days in without going stir crazy. A home. Peaceful. Retreat. Aesthetically easy on the eyes.
3. A cat
4. Washer and dryer–I really like having a place to do laundry.
5. Trees
6. Fireplace
7. A deck for tea on pretty days
8. Near a bus that will get me to Bethany without too much trouble.

I walked into the place a week later (and no, it didn’t come with a cat, but it did, unlike many other places, allow for the possibility. I wonder sometimes if a cat will turn-up on my doorstep one day–I already have all the supplies).

It also had a view and a dishwasher, things I really wanted, but felt I couldn’t ask for.

It was also strangely, delightfully coincident that that building and street names are the same as my middle name.

The curious thing is that I almost didn’t take it. Every other place I’ve moved, there were no doubts, I felt certain and made the decision. In this case, even with all the rightness of the place, I didn’t have that confidence.

I sat in the apartment–the landlord said I could take a couple days to decide, and visit as much as I wanted. I sat some more until my rear hurt from sitting on the stone fireplace seat. And the next day, I sat some more and finally started to pray. Yes or no? Should I or shouldn’t I?

I asked for prayer from friends. I spent a lunch with my friend Cathee listing all the pros and cons. Then I went back to my temp place and prayed some more. And it struck me: I was being asked to make a choice based on God’s leading, as near as I could discern it, let go of my concerns and my pride, and simply trust HimThis was a gift being held out, I had the freedom to say no, but I was scared to say yes.

It became critical to ask one more question of God: Will you be there, in this new place, no matter what?

(I think there was little bit of a chuckle).

Yes, Susan. Of course.

It is easy to forget that this world is more than trees and soil, concrete and wood, atoms and molecules, that there is a spiritual world woven in and through and around us, and a God who promises presence. As we consider our homes, as places where we are vulnerable, places for rest, love, and laughter, or places of tension and anger, all homes are places of God’s healing and loving presence.

“For in him we live and move and have our being.” –Acts 17:28

Practice: Walk around your home and reflect on how you see, feel, and meet God in this place, and how you would like to know God’s presence in your home, in its atmosphere, among the relationships of those who live there, in the logistics of money and upkeep, in the role it plays as place of hospitality, and in any other ways the Holy Spirit inspires you to pray.

Oct 17 2011

{Day 17} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 1

My first place I called home after college was also called The Hedge among those in my college Christian fellowship.

I’ve lived in many places and had the freedom to decorate many bedrooms over the years–my pink and white frills in elementary school, my high school room with a Rapunzel window high up in the lofted ceiling above the living room (my family called it the Zugspitze after the tallest mountain in Germany), my first college dorm room.

But The Hedge was a place I had complete freedom to pick. Some would question the wisdom of that decision. It was a spooky Victorian mansion painted gray with black trim and surrounded by an intimidating 10 foot hedge. The landlord told me not to look at the wiring and if a fire started, to just run. My mom cried when she came to visit, before I and my roommates had cleaned it up.

Clean it up we did. Previous tenants had left trash mouldering on the back porch. The walls needed cleaning and touching up. The windows had decades worth of spiders’ webs between the inner and outer glass.  The garden was a mass of vines and bamboo.

But it had a huge mantled fireplace and bay window in the living room, 14 foot ceilings, crown-molding, and enough character for 10 gothic romance novels. The buried garden had a stone bird bath, flag stone paths, and rose bushes. All I could see was possibility and the year I lived there, I sewed poet’s blouses and long skirts, listened to Vivaldi, and was adopted by an abandoned blue Siamese kitty I named Earl Grey.  Every night he would take a running leap from my bedroom doorway to my bed, curl up and go to sleep.

The house came to life at Christmas. In Bellingham, there was never need to buy pine boughs. Just wait for a wind storm and take a walk on Sehome Hill with a trash bag, Mother Nature never failed to provide ample branches. I decorated the windows and mantle and we had a party. The house was loved and it shone again with warmth and magic.

Since The Hedge, I’ve done similar things with many different homes.

A basement Seattle apartment with a lovely window to a secluded garden. It boasted the most, and largest, spiders I’ve ever seen outside a zoo and required three hours of vacuuming just to see the color of the carpet. Once it was clean and decorated, I loved the evening light on the windowpanes, shining through the hedge rose bush.

The Howe House, a lonely, but lovely Craftsman, right next door to and owned by Bethany Presbyterian–oh, the fun of those years!

A little studio on Queen Anne which I waited 9 years to live in.

A 200 year old house in Massachusetts  with crazy wallpaper that nearly knocked me over with it’s busy pattern.

An urban studio above a bar in Boston. I called it The Anchorhold after Julian of Norwich and her small cell right at a noisy, major (for medieval times) intersection .

And the list goes on.

I learned this home-loving skill from my mom. Over our years moving with the Army, she was a master as taking a tired, drab and spiritless place and making it a home.

Now, I live in a 1962 apartment, the first official Contemplative Cottage, and while it does not boast a century-old pedigree, it has become one of the most gracious homes yet.

The past two weeks we’ve been considering Contemplative Living–paying attention to the present moment, and engaging with how God might be present in life right now. We’ve practiced listening and looking, taking Sabbath rest and coloring, single-tasking and the pomodoro technique, now I’d like for us to reflect on our environment, and specifically where we live.

Practice: If I tell you that your home is alive, you might think me odd, but for just a moment, look at your house or apartment with the eyes of love, as if it was a living, breathing companion in your life. What makes you smile? What areas draw you? What areas drain your energy? No need to make any changes, just notice. Walk through your home and take some notes about what your see, feel, hear, sense. While you are at it, pray for each room and that God would reveal himself in this gift of shelter.






Oct 3 2011

{Day 3} Noticing Thankfulness


What is a memory for which you are grateful?

Take a moment to put yourself back into the memory, see the colors, hear the sounds, feel the emotions attached to the recollection.

Be there, just for an instant, stretch your imagination back to that moment. Breathe in the thoughts and feelings.

A precious memory I have is from when I was 8 or 9.  My family was living in Kentucky, at Ft Knox. If you are familiar with the area, you know that there are many little civil war cemeteries in the most unusual places. Some are forgotten in forests or sit lonely on top of hills. My dad and I loved to go on walks or bike rides together, exploring, and we’d pour over local maps to find these hidden pieces of history.

One of these little collections of stone monuments sat on top of a hill, right above the Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tallest obelisk poked out from tall grasses and my little historian imagination would go wild every time we drove past.

The problem was getting to it.

Kentucky wasn’t a place you went treading in grass above your head. Critters of the slithering kind were often minding their own business there. But I was not deterred, pestering my dad repeatedly, until one day, he agreed and we forged our way up the steep slope and unkempt path back in time to the 19th century.

The cemetery was small, less than 10 monuments, worn with weather and years. I was thrilled. The forgottenness of the place just made it more mysterious and separate from the commercial strip below.

And that my dad was willing to take me still makes me smile. I am grateful for this, one of many wonderfully clear memories of my dad’s love.


Three years ago, I stumbled upon Ann Voscamp’s A Holy Experience blog where she challenges her readers to count gratitudes to 1000 and beyond, small and large. Since then, thankfulness has changed my life and my relationships. When I want to enter deeply into the present moment, especially with people close to me, I count gratitudes. Alongside paying attention, it is one of the foundations of contemplative living and makes any moment a moment of  worship.

Gratitude Journal

Gratitude Journal

When we look for what we are thankful, our hearts expand, hope is near, and love over-flows. We stop consuming life and start living it, with and through the presence of God.


Practice: Write down 5 things you are grateful for. Not what you think you should be grateful for, but the people, places, memories, sights, smells, sounds, feelings, that make your heart and mind sing, “Oh, yes, thank you God!” I’d love to hear what’s on your list.

And visit Ann’s blog for some printables to start your own list of 1000 gifts.

31 Days

Feb 23 2011

Telling Time

Sun Cat

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



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 featherduster

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


(an edited repost from the archives, Susan Forshey, 10/2009)

Sep 22 2010

Seeing Presence

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.

An example, mine was not as ornate.

An example, mine was not as ornate.

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)

holy experience

Aug 25 2010


We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” TS Elliot


Moments of inspiration are powerful landmarks on the geography of life.

I write this listening to a song by Loreena McKennitt called Dante’s Prayer.  I still remember when I first heard it over 13 years ago, how the strains of Russian Orthodox chant gently drew me in, then the piano, her voice, the poetry, and I was transfixed.  I played the song again, and again, and again, lying on the living room floor with the lights out, next to the speakers. I’m sure my housemates wondered what was going on.


So many years later, Dante’s Prayer remains my very favorite song and is never off my playlist.  I was thrilled to hear it performed in concert a few years ago, 1st row seat, and meet her afterwards.  The only thing I could say in my shyness as I shook her hand was, ” Thank you for Dante’s Prayer, it has meant so much to me.”


Loreena McKennitt writes a travelogue for her CDs–where she was in the world when she wrote a song, and what she was reading.  For Dante’s Prayer, she was riding the Trans-Siberian Railway, reflecting on Dante’s Divine Comedy.  On her travels, she heard the haunting tones of Orthodox worship, incorporating “Alleluia, Behold the Bridegroom,” as bookends for the main tune.

Thirteen years ago, ordering a CD of Russian Orthodox chant at the local music store was a bit unusual (and this was just at the beginning of Amazon), but I persevered.  I also got out my dusty college copy of Dante and read it while I listened.  The wideness and depth of life, literature, history, spirituality, and travel, all things I had already loved, opened before me more deeply.  Art beckoned to be created and I painted a series of canvases on the crucifixion and resurrection for a chapel.  My bedroom had a deep walk-in closet with a little window.  I painted it to look like a forest and created a little anchorhold with candles and fountain and comfy chair, dreaming of distant lands and times. I decoupaged a large old steamer trunk as a “hope chest,” and it has now made a number of cross-country journeys.  And I read…so many books, especially on the mystics and monastics, the Celts and medieval Christianity.  It’s not surprising, looking back, that within three years, I embarked on my own train adventure to study monasticism at a Benedictine monastery.


Why now? Why does this song newly speak to me? What brings these memories back so clearly now? In Revelation, one of the churches is told, “You have forgotten your first love.”  I know in context it refers to Jesus Christ, but I keep hearing those words with a different twist:  “Susan, you have forgotten your first love: history of other lands and peoples and distant times, prayers of the great communion of saints centuries in the mist, poetry, literature, beautiful words…beautiful lives lived, which will still speak today if given voice. And you have forgotten how I met you in this love.”

Many days I wonder what I did with my 30s and whether theological education was really worth a decade of my life.

If it was just to get a degree, the answer is no, I can think of a number of vocations I’d have preferred.  But I’m not sure they would have been loves.

To spend one’s life and have it transfigured, it must be no less than a love affair. To give one’s life to any journey or any person, and not have it end in disappointment or despair, Love can be the only reason.


This past month, now that I’m settled, I’ve been trying to (read: playing at) work on my dissertation (cue Yoda saying: “Do or do not, there is no try“).

It simply will not get done without love.

I believe the song and memories of that season so long ago are a landmark reminding me to return to the Love that began the journey.

So today, I say yes, to this life the Love has crafted.


Dante’s Prayer

by Loreena McKennitt

(listen here)

When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone

I did not believe because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Then the mountain rose before me
By the deep well of desire
From the fountain of forgiveness
Beyond the ice and fire

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Though we share this humble path
alone how fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars

Breathe life into this feeble heart
Lift this mortal veil of fear
Take these crumbled hopes, etched with tears
We’ll rise above these earthly cares

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Please remember me

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