Oct 8 2016

Snail Mail

Day 8 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

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Snail Mail – Credit unknown

Only for a culture that values speed above all is snail a negative description.

Back in 1998, the movie You’ve Got Mail came out and everyone was in love with AOL (though I think I was on Earthlink). Remember the dial-up sounds? Or the cheery “You’ve got mail!” This new instant communication had finally taken the world by storm, and in a few short years Hollywood was already capitalizing on it.

Around that time, I bought my first laptop, an IBM Thinkpad, because my new church position only offered an ancient Macintosh. After moving from a software company into ministry, it was a shock.

Getting emails at work was not new for me, but after another pair of years I felt something had shifted in my life. Now I could get emails at home. Now I could take my computer to the local cafe and work.

And my postal mail box was more frequently empty.

I have an old fashioned suitcase that contains all the letters and cards I’ve received over the years from my parents and friends–it makes me cry with joy and gratitude when I read them. In a lovely wooden chest, I keep all the letters from past loves, tied with ribbon, not because of regrets or sadness, but because they are beautiful gifts from dear people and memories I cherish.

In one of my software jobs, I received letters from all over the world about product ideas. My job was to pass the letter on to the appropriate department for review and send a printed letter in response to the sender. Many of these letters were handwritten in lovely script, and I wish I had hand-written responses back to their earnest inquiries, answered their human contact in kind. Rather than throwing away the stamps, I was given permission to keep them and today, still marvel at their beauty.

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Personal letter writing is a practice that gifts a bit of beauty, and very often brings others joy and comfort. Nothing says, “I remember you, I’m thinking of you,” than a hand-written note. And these notes, letters, and cards are not pixels, possibly lost in a hard drive crash or easily deleted in a moment of pain, or forgotten in the cloud or the email archive. These three-dimensional bits of love and care create a landmark in our memories, to that moment, or that birthday, or that loved one, and the heart remembers again, like it was yesterday, yet with a new deeper layer of joy and poignant gratitude.

I want to be quicker at answering emails. But I’d love to be better at crafting letters.

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The best practice I’ve found is to have all the materials for a beautiful letter in one place–ready to go. For some reason, my kitchen table has become that place. Maybe because the kitchen feels like the homiest and most welcoming room, maybe because having the postage stamps and cards and sealing wax in such a public place creates a visible reminder. I found a lovely mail sorter at Hobby Lobby and each slot keeps cards ready for that particular month. There are also ink stamps and dipping ink, paper presses and stickers ready.

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Picking out stamps at the post office is such a classic errand and I love doing it. The postal clerks love when you ask what stamps they have. They bring out the view book and comment on the collection. I try to pick a variety of stamps–kids, professional, love, art, Christmas–so that I can try to match the stamp to the recipient. (This was difficult during the Harry Potter collection–who wants to get a letter with a Voldemort stamp!)

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But all the frills and fancies make no difference–the plainest, blankest card is enough, as long as it bears your words in your hand to the person you care about.

A number of years ago I was in a cafe and I watched a woman in her late 60s writing letters as she drank her coffee. She had a stack of notecards and envelopes and over the hours I was there, she filled them with brief hand-written notes. I decided to ask her about them, expecting that they were thank yous for a recent wedding or event. In fact, writing notes was her calling, she said. She enjoyed writing notes of encouragement to people far and wide that she had met over the years, keeping in touch with them through snail mail.

I want to be her when I grow up.

If this practice resonates with you, I encourage you to get a simple piece of paper or note card today and write to someone you care about–just a few sentences of encouragement. It will be meaningful for them just to receive it.

It will probably take longer to collect the paper, envelope, address, and stamps, than to write, but once it’s done, there is no obstacle to writing another…and another. And the next thing you know, you’ll be visiting the post office to pick out stamps!

Happy Corresponding!

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Oct 7 2016

Friday Florilegium

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

 

 


Aug 18 2016

Rhythms of Grace

As we begin a new school year at UDTS, I made a short video exploring rhythms of grace for our incoming students: holistic ways to think about our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits, in the midst of the busyness of life. This is first video I’ve made, with the lovely Sinsinawa Dominican Convent as the backdrop. While it is addressed to our incoming cohort, I believe there is much that can speak to people in different contexts.  May it provide a moment of retreat and encouragement in your week!

(Before playing, I invite you to pause the Music for Dreaming in the right column >>)


Sep 6 2015

Creating a Scripture Study Legacy

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This past summer, I shifted my approach to studying scripture on an extremely practical level in hopes of finding a way to capture my engagement with a specific book or passage each time I read it, and keep that study for future reflection.

For years, I’ve simply used an NRSV pew bible with minimal notes and a journal to record insights. In the bible, I note the date each time I read a passage, giving me a wonderful record over the years. My three bibles record dates from 1988 to 2015, and for some passages, like Proverbs 31 (describing a most fabulous, creative, diligent, wise business woman), dates upon dates.

The book of Ephesians, which the Holy Spirit has kept me anchored in for the past five years, is another one that shows consistent engagement.

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While my two previous study bibles finally fell apart due to poor bindings, my current one is still intact, yet has become uninviting for new underlinings and notes.

The journal record of my study is also not easily organized, as they are mixed in with the days’ musings. My goal was to find a simple way to collect my study notes, commentary gleanings, Greek word studies, prayers, and insights with the text itself, and in a way that can be filed for future reflection.

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While I love the latest and greatest technology and know that software, such as Logos, offers digital ways to study, the price tag is daunting. Even more, I know that I learn better when I have a physical text to work with. Color is also important–making the page a creative, prayerful reflection as well as a reasoned meditation on the Word.

Research in cognitive studies also suggests that our brains learn by textual landmarks–where something is on the page, even where it is in relation to the whole book. The act of writing can further embed learning–physically writing out an insight in a journal or margin is more likely to remain in long-term memory, than one that is typed.

After some research, I discovered pre-printed KJV and ESV loose-leaf bibles. The wide margins seemed exactly what I hoped for, yet the price tag of $70 and the negative reviews of the thin paper stopped me. I use fountain pens and gel pens, so the paper needs to hold ink without feathering or bleed-through.

To create my own loose-leaf bible for study, I found a free Word doc of the NET bible. Other than the King James Version, the NET bible seems to be the only version on the internet that allows full printing, rather than just copyright-limited sections.  (If anyone finds others, please let me know.)

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Using a 28-pound paper with an incredibly smooth surface, I printed each book that I’m currently studying and put them in a binder. There is no need to print the whole bible. While it doesn’t allow for cognitive landmarks of where the text is in the entire canon of scripture, it still allows for mental page mapping within the context of the specific book.

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With a free resource like BibleHub.com, I can look at the interlinear Hebrew or Greek, recording key words with the text, have any number of commentaries open on my desk, and capture everything in one place, all the while staying close to the text itself.

So far, the experiment has been a success. One unexpected thing I’ve discovered using this format is that that blank margins invite insights and commentary–it actually encourages me to study. It allows me to approach the passage fresh, to hear what the Spirit is saying today.

I still love my well-loved and marked up bible–it’s a record of God’s faithfulness to speak through His word for 15 years.  I still use my current bible for church and to record dates when I wrestle with a passage (it’s especially powerful when a verse comes to mind and find that I had looked at it on the same date years prior.)

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I still have my two falling-apart former bibles on my shelf and occasionally take them down to smell their pages and go back in time through the notes of a young college freshman just falling in love with scripture. At the times in the past decade when I’ve lost my love of scripture, prayer, even God, God has called me back through their witness.

A bound bible is a legacy, but this new approach offers me a different form of legacy: to study, file away the notes, and over time collect multiple readings for comparing, contrasting, and deepening my personal experience of the text, and making it easier to share in teaching and discipleship.


Nov 22 2014

A 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…

 

ASLAN LIVES!!

 

 

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A re-post from the archives, remembering the death of C.S. Lewis on this day in 1963. The story is 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.”

May you experience the Deeper Magic today!

 


Nov 9 2014

Celtic Advent: 40 Days of Joy, Love and Gratitude

Please see the 2015 updated version of this post here.

 Celtic Advent 2014

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 and Christmas 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. 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.

Finally, 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.

Pulling these three 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.

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!

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(a yearly updated post from the archives)
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