Oct 7 2016

Friday Florilegium

Day 7 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


When I visit the Trappist monasteries near Dubuque or the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford, England, I’m taken aback each time by the grill between the guest area in the chapel and the monastic area. The boundary seems unwelcoming. However, I realize that the grill is a reminder that boundaries nurture their life together.

I love the times when the grill is opened and I am welcomed in–at Compline at New Melleray, at Monday night Mass at Our Lady of Mississippi convent, and at meals with the Oxford sisters. It makes it all the more special.

For life in the Contemplative Cottage to flourish, boundaries are necessary to cultivate sanctuary.

A quote that captures this so beautifully is from Elizabeth Goudge, The Middle Window.* Goudge describes a conversation about the boundaries necessary for beauty to flourish:

“That’s the monastic ideal,” said Judy, “and I’ve always thought it rather selfish—a creeping away from life.”

“Then you have misunderstood it,” Ian said. “The monastic ideal is a core of sanity in a loathsome world, a core of sanity that spreads. Again and again men [and women] have gone into solitude to create beauty, and the beauty, created, has revolutionized a whole country.”

Judy was still unconvinced. “But if nothing can get through the mountains to contaminate your Utopia, how can the beauty you create get out into the world?”

“If you light a bonfire in a sheltered valley the protection makes such a huge blaze of it that those outside see the whole sky lit up.”

Often, I hear monasticism and monastic communities critiqued for “leaving the world behind.” While there are examples of this perspective, there is a much more prevalent life-giving monasticism that offers men and women in the communities a boundaried space to deepen their love of God and their calling to a particular way of life. Historically, many monasteries became centers of learning, the arts, and culture.

In our own time, the Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos created a world-wide musical phenomenon by recording an album of Gregorian Chant. Chant sold over 1 million albums in 1994– its first year. In 2004, the oldest Cistercian monastery Stift Heiligenkreuz, a continuous monastery since the 12th century, released a chant album and has enjoyed a similar popularity. The highly acclaimed documentary, Into Great Silence, gave its viewers over 2 hours of nearly silent video, showing the simple daily lives of Carthusian monks in the Grand Chartreuse monastery.


My professor-monk at St John’s, Fr. Columba, often commented that the boundaries of the horarium and the monastic enclosure allowed for monks to focus on the arts, giving them time and space to grow from amateur to expert over the years. He also talked about how even the monastic boundaries were challenged by workaholism, the 24/7 culture, and pervasive connectivity. It required discipline and vision to maintain the life-giving boundaries.

Monastic communities model what it means to prioritize a vocation and make the choices necessary to see it flourish. And I learned from them that protected sanctuary space is just as necessary for people outside the monastery. Whether a person is called to marriage and family, singleness connected to community, life in a religious community, or other integrations of family, work, and community, each calling has it’s own need for boundaries to flourish.

What are life-giving boundaries that help you flourish in your vocation, art, discipleship, work, or relationships?

Friday Florilegium 1

When medieval monks copied texts, there were often left over scraps of vellum available for the monks to record quotes from scripture or other texts on which they wanted to meditate personally.  These scraps were often bound together into a florilegium, Latin from flos (flowers), legere (to gather): a bouquet of literary flowers.

*Disclaimer: While I love Elizabeth Goudge’s later books, The Middle Window is a earlier effort, uneven in story and writing. If you are interested in reading a beautiful book by her, start with The Scent of Water.




Oct 4 2016

Sacred Spaces

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


“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.


Credit Unknown

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Aug 25 2016

Introducing the Contemplative Cottage

Five years ago, walking up a street on Queen Anne hill in Seattle, I came to a corner house with a second lot as its backyard. I found myself frozen in wonder, standing on the sidewalk, looking at a mature garden, the product of years and tender care.


Little rock paths threaded through beds for flowers and edibles. A fruit tree stood sentinel near a rustic shed. Everywhere, I saw loving touches: stones walls, statues half-hidden, little areas to sit and ponder. Even in its newly budding state, the love that emanated from it was a physical presence. It called up in my heart a longing so sudden and fierce, I found tears spilling down my cheeks.


I took the experience of seeing the garden as my lectio text for that day and let the reflective practice do its work: reading the experience, meditating on the parts that shimmered, and praying.

It was almost immediately clear why it had touched me so deeply. Ten years before, I’d had a little bit of earth behind the church intentional community house where I lived. In that garden, I planted wildflowers and loved watching the columbine bloom. Even earlier, I’d discovered an overgrown garden behind my college rental and felt like Mary Lennox as I worked to uncover it. Over the years, garden and farm experiences solidified my love of tending the earth, enjoying its beauty, and eating from its bounty.


Seeing the hilltop house and garden plot filled me with longing because the possibility of having my own cottage and a bit of earth to grow healing herbs and edibles seemed so unimaginable–at the time, I was a PhD student, working as a house cleaner and a part-time adjunct.

God and I talked about my desire for a real cottage and garden someday, but rather than live in what seemed an impossible future, I set to creating a little garden on my balcony, growing wildflowers, herbs, and inviting hummingbirds to visit. It was enough.




Now, five years later and three moves, including one that took me from my beloved Seattle community to the beautiful river city of Dubuque, I have moved into the cottage of my dreams.

Contemplative Cottage photo

Feeling settled and joyful about life in Dubuque and at the University of Dubuque, I knew it was time to buy, but there was a certain “something” that the many houses I considered lacked. One day, on a trip to a friend’s house, I happened to walk through one of my favorite neighborhoods, a two-minute walk from my campus office, and also near where I attend church. I sighed and prayed, “Lord, it would be so wonderful if there was a cottage in this area.” And there it was. Right there. I had missed it in my online search. Three days later, I put an offer in. Five weeks later I moved in.

Welcome to the Contemplative Cottage in the flesh!

Contemplative Cottage photo


Moving into the cottage has also encouraged me to “move” back into this blog. Over the next set of posts, I’ll be sharing details about the sanctuary space I’m creating and some of the spiritual practices that are aiding me.

Mary with Jesus and cross

I hope you will join me on this journey in attending deeply to life: looking for beauty, practicing peace, and gazing with love.

Min at window

Christ’s grace to you, and peace,


Feb 2 2015


presentation Bénédite de la Roncière

Known by a number of names, Candlemas, or the Presentation, remembers Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple to be offered in service to the Lord as a first-born son.  In Luke’s Gospel, the family is met by Simeon and Anna, who have both longed to see the Messiah:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss  your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Luke 2:29-32

In many churches, Candlemas is when all the candles set-aside for the coming year’s worship are blessed.  At St James Cathedral, Seattle, this is taken seriously: hundreds upon hundreds of creamy beeswax candles are stacked around the baptismal font, enfolding worshippers in their delicious honey fragrance. My mouth waters with the memory.

Presentation of the Lord

But even in the midst of celebration, there is a prophecy of the coming sorrow. The church year begins to look toward Holy Week. In the scripture readings for the day, Mary is told by Simeon that “a sword will pierce her heart as well.”

Today I light my morning candles with a prayer, honoring Jesus, the Light which was foretold, birthed in the stable, held to Mary’s breast, blessed by Simeon and Anna, and presented to God in the Temple. Hope. Life. Love.

“The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word.  The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!— came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.” John 1:1-5


One way to celebrate Candlemas is to light some candles for places and situations or people for whom God has called you to intercede. Where does the light of Hope and Love need to shine?

To paraphrase St Francis, “Where there is no light, place light, and there will be light.”

Candlemas Song by Simon Marshall

I was not there.
I did not dream my way
up prayer-worn Temple steps
as you did, Christ-Mother, that day.

I was not there.
I did not scan the gloom
or clutch a hand for courage
in the Temple waiting-room.

I was not there.
I did not hear the praise
which ancient ones sang of your child
at the midnight of their days.

I was not there.
I did not feel the sting
which bitter-sweet horizons
of your motherhood will bring.

But I am here.
And I would know a birth
to bring Divine Light’s love
into an aching, longing earth.

Yes, I am here.
And I would do my part.
O let a rising blade of Spring
strike fire into my heart.

Aug 20 2014

September 29


The date is lined in bright green (for life) on a handmade poster-size calendar that now hangs in my living room. Six weeks. What has been my constant shadow for four years will be coming to birth as I labor to finish a first draft and turn it in. Under the calendar is a list of things I’m looking forward to, not the least of which is removing the word “dissertation” from my vocabulary for awhile.

But before these hopes become reality, there is a the very real task of writing another chapter and the conclusion, revising and editing, and then defending, all during these next three months. And there is very real fear.

This morning as the anxiety churned, I listened to it, trying to understand its needs, playing the spiritual director with my inner self, hoping to coax some deep breaths and, as my dear friend recently explained, work with the labor pains rather than against them.

“You won’t find the words,” it whispered.

It’s an old fear, a reference to the comprehensive examinations when I feared words would fail me in the 4 hours allotted to each test, that they would evaporate, leaving me with sentences that made no sense, but even more, had no beauty or depth.

I didn’t sleep the nights before those 4 exams and while they were far from stellar examples of writing, I put words on the page, and pages increased, and then it was over. I moved through the experience, but not unscathed. Doubt had entered my process of writing which hadn’t been there before–a crack in my trust of myself, but also in the words themselves and their Source.

Finding words seemed more and more difficult. A vicious circle, the fear the words weren’t there–in their word haven someplace deep in my heart, fled, broken into component letters, devoid of meaning, or beyond my brain’s reach–led to the very thing I feared: no words, as I roughly demanded, begged, or tried forcing their return.

For long now, I’ve viewed my dissertation writing in the light of these blood-stirring words of Gandalf in his battle with the Balrog:

Through fire… and water… From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought him… Until at last, I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.

But the seemingly mutinous words are not my enemy, nor is the writing process. No. Writing, when entered into humbly and reflectively embraced, forms a scholar, providing the boundaried space and time for the deepening of theological thought, to germinate ideas, nurture them in a fertile seed bed before sharing them with the world. Even more, a theologian is formed by the process to practice ongoing reflection; incarnate the reflective process in oneself and share it with others; and be filled with the reflective fruit, that the world may experience more love and justice through its birth.

There is much in my writing process that needed tending and pruning by the Master Gardener. Not the least of which is my shying away from the discomfort of being pruned.

Anne Truitt writes, “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own intimate sensitivity.”

Beautiful words, but not necessarily words of comfort.

Simone Weil describes the patient waiting of pen above paper as we wait for the word. For her, this practice strengthens muscles for prayer, and even more, to attend deeply to the person before us in their need. This is not an image of violent wrestling words to the page, but it is a call to breathe through impatience and discomfort.

Karl Barth argues that those called to be theologians are called into doubt, to always ask the difficult questions–fearful, at times–and live in this discomfort. Facing my doubt and distrust of words is the only way through.

And even as I write this post, even as I’m willing to enter in through the fear and reflect, I find the word haven–O sweet embrace!

Gandalf’s words are not for the dissertation, they are for that which whispers the lie, the haunting doubt that the words have fled, leaving me in front of a blank page and a deadline looming. They are for that which calls into question the Word spoken at creation–the source of all good words–and all life. They are for the temptation to distrust God’s own infinite storehouse of words. God has the cattle on a thousand hills, as the psalmist writes, so God the Logos, is Lord of Words.

Lord, I’m not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. 

May it be so.

As I write these next weeks, as I write in obedience to my vocation, the practice is to remain in this moment, and writing the word for this moment, humbly leaving the words for the next moment to hope and to God. I may not see them, and the lie may whisper they have fled, but moment by moment, they will gently be loved into sentences, paragraphs, and pages.

The only practice is to write and one day (soon), it will be finished.





Feb 2 2014


Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word: For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel. – Luke 2:29-32


Gloucester Cathedral Boy’s Choir – Credit unknown

I love candles, so a day on the church calendar dedicated to the blessing of candles and the celebration of Light holds a special place in my liturgical heart.

icon presentation

Before there was Groundhog Day, there was (and still is) Candlemas, also known as The Presentation of Jesus (when Simeon and Anna meet Jesus in the temple, Luke 2:22-40).

presentation Bénédite de la Roncière

On the church calendar, February 2nd is 40 days after Jesus’ birth, at which time, according to the Law of Moses, a first-born son would be consecrated to God.

Presentation of the Lord

The final day of Epiphanytide, February 2nd is also the half-way point between the Winter Solstice and the beginning of Spring.


The day receives it name because all the candles to be used in worship for the next 12 months were gathered at the church and blessed, a tradition dating back to the 11th century. This practice is still observed at St James Cathedral, Seattle, and many churches around the world.

Candle Church

Candle Church – credit unknown

Traditionally, candles are lit in the windows of homes on Candlemas evening; in France, people celebrate La Chandeleur by eating crepes by candlelight; and in Mexico, Dia de la Candaleriais celebrated with tamales and hot chocolate. Yum!

The Blessings of the Light of the World be with you today and always!

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