Nov 14 2015

Celtic Advent Calendar


For each day, from November 15 until Epiphany, I’ve thought of one thing I can do to practice joy and gratitude, and to give love, putting it on a calendar that draws on ancient Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany traditions.

In the 6th century, the Celtic Christians celebrated Advent during the 40 days before Christmas, as a mirror to the period of Lent before Easter. In this age of  blurring of holy-days and consumerism, I like the idea of starting Advent earlier, so that Thanksgiving is included, but also so there can be a longer, more intentional preparation for Christ’s coming.

Another tradition from around the 6th century (and probably earlier) is the “O” antiphons. An antiphon, from the Latin antiphona, meaning sounding against, was a repeated line of scripture used as bookends to the psalms in daily prayer and the Eucharist. The antiphon was a prayer “sound-byte,” capturing the most important aspect of the reading, helping those gathered remember through repetition.

Trinity Episcopal Church, Myrtle Beach - O Antiphon Banners

Credit unknown, Trinity Episcopal Church, Myrtle Beach – O Antiphon Banners

The “O” antiphons highlight a scriptural name of Christ and offer a jumping off point for reflection. Most people would recognize a version of these antiphons as the verses of the Advent carol O Come, O Come Emmanuel. They are still prayed in many churches–as they have been for more than 1500 years–from December 17 to December 23.

Christmas seems to end abruptly on December 26th in our consumer-culture celebration. Another lost tradition marks the Twelve Days from Christmas to Epiphany.  Epiphany means appearance or manifestation and remembers the Magi visiting Jesus; Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan–the public revelation that he is God’s Son; and the first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana.  The period from December 25 to January 6th is an ideal time for reflecting on the Light that has come into the world with the birth of Christ.

Auch diese drei Heiligen Könige sind gestern durch Sölde gezogen.

On January 6th, the celebration of the Magi visiting Jesus, children dress up as the three magi carrying a star (the Sternsingers) and go singing from house to house. This practice is most popular in Germany and Austria as way of raising awareness and money for global children’s needs, but has been widely practiced in the church since the 16th century. The singers also chalk the lintel or door of each house with the blessing 20+C+M+B+16, which notes the year and carries a double meaning: CMB stands for Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar, the traditional names of the three Magi, and also a house blessing: Christus Mansionem Benedicat (Christ bless this house!). You can read more about this tradition here.

Pulling these four traditions together, I’ve created a calendar of ideas for living each day intentionally and joyfully. Here is a PDF version. Please feel free to make copies and share with your friends and church. If you need any other document versions, please email me at susan(at)contemplativecottage(dot)com.

The ability to give and experience love and joy doesn’t just happen, it needs to be stretched and strengthened. And over time, the capacity to love and to joy increases.

Let the Holy Spirit lead!

(a yearly updated post from the archives)

Nov 22 2013

Deeper Magic

Hungry and tired, she waited for the campus bus, the visible world reduced to the lamp light’s reach. The chill made her burrow deeper into her jacket, the library’s warmth only a memory in the foggy twilight.

Decisions yet to be made pressed in upon her. She worried at all the questions as she worried at her frayed sleeve, plucking threads and watching the fabric unravel. A familiar sting pricked her eyes.

Clenching her teeth, she shoved her hands back into her pockets, roughly setting her thoughts against the ache and her eyes to look for distant headlights.

And there, on the sidewalk, she saw them, just at the edge between sight and obscurity:

Paw prints.

Large paw prints, like some gigantic creature only meant for the wilds had stepped through paint and then sprinted into the darkening fog.

She half-turned away. It was cold. Late. I’ll take a closer look tomorrow, she decided.

Pinpricks of bus lights cut through the fog. Supper and bed beckoned. Warmth and sleep wooed.

Yet her eyes kept finding their way back to the prints. She could just make out more, faintly marking a path into the distance. A little spark of adventure flickered to life in her heart. A little less weariness weighed down her limbs.

She hardly noticed stepping out from the certainty of the stop.

She followed, up and around, down and back, street lamps lighting her way, one moment certain she had lost the trail only to find it again further up and further in, until the paw prints finally stopped.

And she stopped, breathing deep from the chase, hope of a deeper magic rising in her heart.

At the end of the trail, scrawled joyfully on the pavement, were two shimmering words from her childhood, catching her up in the Story, breaking past all her doubts, filling the ache, until her heart spilled over in laughter and tears and laughter again:



(And repost from the archives, in honor of the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death, and based on Deborah Smith Douglas’ mention of finding paw prints on Duke University’s campus and following them to the joyful words.  She writes: “I simply, with all my heart, recognized the transforming truth of the affirmation. Aslan is alive. Resurrection happens. Christ is risen.  In a single leap, Aslan had bounded past the watchful dragons of my mind and all the intervening years to return…Because my whole childhood rose up to greet the Lion, my tenuously sophisticated young-adult self had no defenses against the saving “allelujah!” truth of that moment.” –Weavings, Jan/Feb 1997, 21)

Aug 15 2012

Lost and Found


For many followers of Jesus, today is the Feast of Mary. Rarely do I find stories that do her justice, but this one, a meditation on Jesus gone missing by Christin Lore Weber, never fails to constrict my throat, moisten my eyes, and open my heart.

It is not just for mothers, but for anyone who has lost what is most precious.


Our boy is gone. I looked in every tent, asked every child, pleaded with our kin. Old Phanuel was bedding down the beasts and told me not to fret. Jesus is a boy, he laughed, and boys will do what boys will do. I wept, hiding beyond my veil. He could be dead. What about the bandits of the hills? He could be captured, enslaved, like Joseph of the tale we tell on winter nights circled round the fire. He would not have run away. Not my child.

I have lost a lot of things. The first veil made by my mother’s mother when she was a girl. It was rough spun stuff and woven crooked just a bit. I left it in the sycamore outside the village where I played when I was young. My mother wept and sent me after it, but it was gone. A string of lapis beads from Joseph when we were betrothed. I wore them like a promise everywhere and always. It was in Egypt they were lost, somewhere along the road where we spent a night without a moon. I’ve lost much simpler things: my favorite needle made of bone, the clasp that Joseph carved to hold my cloak in place when it was cold and I am drawing water from the well, a pale blue cup, a clear carnelian stone. Tonight my hands hunger to touch these things. I would lay my head on the rough weave of my grandmother’s veil and again and again, through my tears, whisper the name of my child.

Tonight we can do nothing. We listen to the wind. We wait. Joseph paces past the fire. While I watch he stops; he turns his gaze to the invisible hills and his body bends against the fire’s light, like that of some abandoned God whose image stands broken where once the young men danced. He looks to be the ruin of a man. After this night he will never not be old.

I will not sleep. The nightbird calls;  a desert lion prowls the outer circle of the camp. The watchman listens for a child’s cry, but not as I listen. I have schooled my heart to Jesus’ every breath so that for thirteen years I have rested only in his breathing. His dreams awaken me so I am kneeling by his mat the moment that he starts from sleep and calls my name. How can he be lost? I would have felt him go. Such absence would have split my soul. I cannot sleep tonight; I will sit facing East listening for the breathing of my child. Wherever he may be I will surround him like a lullaby and he will sleep in peace.

When I lost the lapis beads we retraced our steps to where I last remembered wearing them. Each round pebble seemed a clue. Beads scatter from a broken cord. I searched in clumps of grass and broke my fingernails digging in the sand one place I thought I saw a glint of blue. We walked, zig-zagging back along the road, our eyes sweeping every inch of ground. If I could have found just one blue bead I would have treasured it like the midnight sky for all my life. As the sickle of the moon fell beneath the twilight we returned to where we began. Joseph looked at me as if to say, “The beads are gone but you will wear my promise always as earth wears the lapis sky.”

At dawn our kin spiraled outward from the camp calling Jesus’ name. Rebecca thought she heard him whimper from behind some rocks. She cried, “He’s here!” and we followed her, scrambling up a stone outcropping toward the sound. It was but a lamb caught in a bramble. Young Asher saw a speck of red appear and disappear across the plains and thought it must be Jesus’ coat. We found just a tattered blanket blown here and there by desert winds. I lost him more that twenty times today. Whenever I close my eyes tonight to rest from hope and fear I see him in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s towers and sprawling streets lie just below. It is the third day. I want to run to the temple. I want to cry his name. I know that he is here. He would be sheltered by the temple like a womb. But my heart is tight with unwept tears. If he is in the temple could God have wished it so? When Sarah lost her only son because his father heard the voice of God, she also must have wondered and wept. How she must have run across the burning sand to meet him when he stumbled down the mountain with old Abraham blinded by fire. That night she must have arisen from her sleep a hundred times to look at Isaac and she must have asked the darkness, “Why are mothers not consulted in these things?”

I saw him first as any mother might, simply safe. He looked at us and smiled as if we’d never been apart. “We’ve sought you, sorrowing,” said Joseph and his voice was weighted with the desert nights and millennia of desert sand. I saw my son. I had not seen him quite this way before. “Why did your seek me?” His inquiry was innocent and wise. He had expected us to know. I saw our future in him then, the truth of all our lives. We all live in one another’s love. No one can be lost. I turned within, listened to the voice of my heart and he was there as he had always been.

He came with us. I had looked into the eyes of my son and seen God. Now he came along like any other little boy.

All that was years ago. Our son returned to Nazareth to learn wisdom from simple things of earth. Joseph taught him how to work with wood, respect the natural grain, rub it with the wax of bees until it glowed. With our cousin, Nathaniel, Jesus learned the art of growing grain to yield a hundredfold of fruit. He reaped at harvest-time and brought home riches from the earth from which we made delicious bread. He carried the basket for me when we observed the Feast of Loaves, sharing our riches of food with those more needy than ourselves. We go to synagogue and he learns the wisdom of the law. He also listens to the birds and asks me, “Where is the beginning of the wind?”

His eyes are lapis, deeper than the night and clear. All my life when silence wraps me like a shawl I will close my eyes and wonder at these things. I will gather bright blue beads wherever they are scattered in my heart and join them on a cord.

What I have sought is in my heart. I wear it like a promise.

Glory to the One who loves us with a mother’s heart. Glory where our life begins and to the home from which we walk to seek our names. Glory that our lives are scattered beads around the world. Glory to the One in Whom nothing is lost.

(An edited repost from the archives)

Aug 2 2012

Every Thursday, Thanksgiving

Counting thanks to 1000 and beyond…

784. Meerkats at the Woodland Park Zoo. I love this one, surveying her domain!

785. Visiting with my friend Heidi and her daughters in a Kenyan hut (at the Zoo!)

786. Hydrangea  blue and pink glory.

787. A reorganized prayer room. The great things about this room are it’s comfy couch and peaceful silence. So grateful for my friend Julie, who took me to Ikea for lamps and candles!

788. Jack’s amazing creativity and detail: a set of miniature weapons. The sword even has a sheath made from the hollow quill of a feather.

789. Candles and icons encouraging me as I work on my dissertation.

789. Pink amazingness!

790. A blueberry picking adventure.

791. While Kimberlee and the kiddos picked berries, I read about the medieval approach to reading: lectio divina. In between words, I saw a hummingbird, a noisy hawk, and lots of young bespeckled robins. The air was scented with eau d’fresh-cut-grass.

792. But the highlight, of which I have no photo, was 2 year old Ben, full of joy as he fed the  goats at the farm. A wonderful day!

What are you thankful for this week? Might you share with us 1 or 2 gratitudes in the comments so we can rejoice with you?

Join Kimberlee and I as we give thanks together.

And the inspiration for counting gratitudes:

Jan 18 2012

The Child of Tomorrow

When I was seven, I walked into an empty church and was struck by the silence and peacefulness. There was a Presence in that silence I longed to know. A few years later, my family moved to Germany and the rich silences of the ancient churches and monasteries fed my young spirit.

Today I read a poignant New York Times article called The Joy of Quiet.  It both disturbed me and encouraged me to think about how Christ might respond.

The author began with describing an advertising conference whose focus was on how to market to the children of tomorrow.

I was horrified, though not surprised.

What did surprise me was what the marketers decided would be the needs of tomorrow’s child:

Stillness. Silence. The ability to unplug from ubiquitous virtual connection.

The article described “black hole” resorts where people paid for the privilege of no TV, no internet, to go off-grid and disappear, then went further and discussed internet Sabbaths and monastic retreats. One story was about the  author seeking out a Benedictine monastery to walk and think and unplug.

As a student of both monasticism and contemplative living, the article reminded me of something I first considered a few months ago:

The next wave of desert monasticism will be a technological one.

Rather than thousands leaving the cities to seek God and prayerful community in the desert, as Christians did in the 3rd and 4th centuries, I think that we will begin to see thousands unplug for similar reasons from all but the most critical connective technology.

I’m not judging technology as evil, or denigrating it’s ability to connect people across the miles. I am fully enamored with the latest and greatest apps and productivity tools. I facebook and tweet and blog and skype and pin. But I also feel the seepage of energy and a lessened ability to focus and pray after too long in front of a screen. I feel the compulsive thrill of connection when the reward centers of my brain see a “like”–yet must question whether that is a mark of relationship or simply marketing. I feel ambivalence when I try to reconcile my on-line presence and the call toward a contemplative life.

Connective technology is not only all pervasive, but like the root system of bamboo, it’s nearly impossible to curtail, let alone dig up. It often grows over and around any boundaries against it, and cannot be eradicated.

I find, even living alone, that silence, solitude, and stillness is not a foregone conclusion. I have to actively choose it or every moment can be spent listening, watching, surfing, connecting, doing.

The article also pushed me to ask a question:

How might the children of tomorrow be introduced to the stillness and silence of contemplative life, even monastic life?

I’m reminded of my own childhood experience, encouraged and supported by my parents. How often they took me into the churches and let me wander, unhurried, and soak up the prayerful peace.

I’m reminded of Seattle’s St Mark’s Cathedral Compline service, every Sunday night at 9:30pm. Thirty minutes of ancient sung prayer, the service gathers hundreds of people of all ages,  armed with pillows and blankets, to lie in the aisles and up around the altar. Oh, I would have loved it as a kid.

I’m reminded of Godly Play, a liturgical Sunday school curriculum which invites children into prayer, story, and silence for reflection.

I’m reminded of the awe I’ve see on a young girl’s face during the Eucharist at St Paul’s–when Mother Melissa, in her beautiful robes, lifts the bread and breaks it, pausing for a holy and rich moment of silence.

Here is Mystery. Here is the presence of God.

Children need to run and laugh and play.  Children need to bang on pots and yell and impact their environment. But in a culture that offers non-stop visual and auditory engagement through activities, virtual worlds, TV, radio, music–

How can we balance the noisy and fun running around times with dedicated spaces and experiences of stillness and silence?

How can we give them an experience of a different rhythm, a different decibel level, a different way of spending time, a different way of seeking and experiencing Christ?

Monasteries are not commonly known for being a place of retreat for the whole family–I’ve only visited one which embraced that vision. But I would love more such places to open their doors wide and provide child-friendly experiences alongside their adult-centered retreat offerings.

Have you found child-welcoming contemplative or monastic centers where silence and stillness is part of the experience? I would love to hear about them, and your own thoughts about this topic.

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