Nov 28 2014

Friday Florilegium

Carl Vilhelm Holsoe (Danish artist, 1863-1935) Standing on the Balcony

Carl Vilhelm Holsoe (Danish artist, 1863-1935) Standing on the Balcony

Cup of tea and book in hand on a snowy Iowa morning, I’m celebrating the first deeply quiet day after months filled with moving and teaching and finishing the dissertation. The draft has been given to the committee, and in a week, I will be flying to Boston to defend it. While I’m thankful to have the draft behind me, I’m holding onto the comfort and hope of this quote:

‘What a strength and spring of life, what hope and trust, what glad, unresting energy, is in this one thought: to serve Him who is “my Lord,” ever near me, ever looking on; seeing my intentions before He beholds my failures; knowing my desires before He sees my faults; cheering me to endeavor greater things, and yet accepting the least; inviting my poor service, and yet, above all, content with my poorer love.

Let us try to realize this, whatsoever, wheresoever we be. The humblest and the simplest, the weakest and the most encumbered, may love Him not less than the busiest and strongest, the most gifted and laborious. If our heart be clear before Him; if He be to us our chief and sovereign choice, dear above all, and beyond all desired; then all else matters little. That which concerneth us He will perfect in stillness and in power.’

— Howard Edward Manning – (1808 – 1892), English cardinal, Archbishop of Westminster


Friday Florilegium 1

After monks copied texts in those days before press or xerox, they would take left over pieces of vellum, copy down 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), creating a bouquet of literary flowers.

Each Friday, I’m going to offer a digital florilegium of a quote or three from books I’m reading, or a longer review. These texts could be from scripture, 19th century devotionals, contemporary and historical authors, dissertation reading on prayer and education, music, movies, or just some random-quote-goodness! My dear friend, author, and lover of children’s books, Kimberlee Conway Ireton, will also be doing the florilegium each Friday. She writes:

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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)

May 22 2012

Your Brain on Stress

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the Bethany Presbyterian Church’s Women’s Retreat on spiritual practices, the brain, and living in the unforced rhythms of grace.

One of the main practices I encouraged was breathing deeply.

Little did I know that my own practice would get a serious testing just a few days later.

Recent advances in neuroscience and brain imaging has radically expanded our understanding of how the brain works.

God has fashioned our brain with two important systems, the one we are most familiar with, fight or flight, and the second lesser known companion, pause and plan.

We know what fight or flight feels like. Historically, the saber-toothed tiger would give chase and the much slower human would call upon an instinctive burst of energy to run like hell or stand her ground and fight.

The brain in fight or flight mode suspends all future considerations in favor of immediate escape from death. No planning is necessary unless it’s the instantaneous calculations for running to a safe tree or cave, or taking good aim on the attacker.  Immediate gratification options that would dispel the threat and fear are valued, as well as risk-taking behavior that might increase chances of escape.

Fight or flight narrows the world to a pin-point of focus: survival.

The problem is that the brain cannot tell the difference between a physical life or death threat from a hungry tiger, or a metaphorical threat in a  stressful work situation, family conflict, gridlock traffic, overwhelming to-do lists, or worries about finances, health, or family members.

And even more challenging: these stresses are not dependent on the hungry tiger losing the scent or getting tired of the chase. The human brain was built to jump into fight or flight mode for brief periods. Now, we are a nation constantly running or fighting.

A person under constant stress finds it incredibly difficult to plan for the future, because the brain is focused on the present perceived danger. Instant gratification–choosing anything that promises to dissipate the stress– will win out over choices toward long term goals.  Willpower becomes non-existent. Risky behavior becomes the norm.

The other, lessor known system, pause and plan, is the brain’s long-range vision. It encourages and supports choices toward future goals. It says no to instant gratification and strengthens willpower.

How can we move from fight or flight into pause and plan?

Take a few deep breaths.

It may seem simple but breathing deeply and slowly for a few minutes will shift the brain into the pause and plan system. The stressor will still be there, but the brain will be able to move from a focus on surviving a predator’s attack to figuring out longer term strategies for dealing with the situation.

A few months ago, I realized I needed to move from my lovely apartment into a less expensive living situation. Jobs are scarce these days and I decided I’d rather start living creatively now, than get into a difficult position down the road. I’ve been incredibly blessed to find a room with a family from my church.

Leaving the Contemplative Cottage (at least, this incarnation of it) has been painful.  Just after the women’s retreat and  a few days before a wonderful bunch of friends came to help me move, I paced my half-packed apartment fearfully and couldn’t decide what to do next. My brain had taken off-line any ability to plan or make long-range decisions, and all I wanted to do was hide under the covers. The moving tiger was in full chase.

Once I became aware of what was happening, I sat down and spent ten minutes just breathing, slowly and deeply. The shift was striking. Suddenly, I could plan again. The future didn’t seem like a black hole. My heart rate slowed. My anxiety lifted. There was still sadness that I needed to move and concern over not having a job, but it was coupled with a feeling of confidence that I could face it and whatever comes next.

I was also able to feel connected to my community and to God’s presence.  In fight or flight mode, I often find the world becomes very lonely, narrow, and small.  Whatever is chasing me seems bigger than God. Shifting into pause and plan opens up the world, reminds me I’m a friend, well-loved daughter, and member of the Body of Christ, and helps me trust God’s provision and redemption of my circumstances.

The next time you find yourself chased by a metaphorical tiger, stop and breathe deeply and slowly for ten minutes. At first, you will probably think it will do no good, but that is just the fight or flight system at work, negating long-term strategies. Give it time, and the tiger will slowly fade back into the jungle.

For more about the brain, willpower, and the challenges of living under constant stress, read The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal.


Feb 10 2012

Friday Florilegium


Do not be discouraged at your faults; bear with yourself in correcting them, as you would with your neighbor. Lay aside this ardor of mind, which exhausts your body, and leads you to commit errors. Accustom yourself gradually to carry prayer into all your daily occupations. Speak, move, work, in peace, as if you were in prayer, as indeed you ought to be. Do everything without excitement, by the spirit of grace. As soon as you perceive your natural impetuosity gliding in, retire quietly within, where is the kingdom of God. Listen to the leadings of grace, then say and do nothing but what the Holy Spirit shall put in your heart. You will find that you will become more tranquil, that your words will be fewer and more effectual, and that, with less effort, you will accomplish more good.–FRANÇOIS DE LA MOTHE FÉNELON.

If she falls into some error, she does not fret over it, but rising up with a humble spirit, she goes on her way anew rejoicing. Were she to fall a hundred times in the day, she would not despair–she would rather cry out lovingly to God, appealing to His tender pity. The really devout woman has a horror of evil, but she has a still greater love of that which is good; she is more set on doing what is right, than avoiding what is wrong. Generous, large-hearted, she is not afraid of danger in serving God, and would rather run the risk of doing His will imperfectly than not strive to serve Him lest she fail in the attempt. –JEAN NICOLAS GROU (pronouns changed)

God has brought us into this time; He, and not ourselves or some dark demon. If we are not fit to cope with that which He has prepared for us, we should have been utterly unfit for any condition that we imagine for ourselves. In this time we are to live and wrestle, and in no other. Let us humbly, tremblingly, courageously look at it, and we shall not wish that the sun could go back its ten degrees, or that we could go back with it. If easy times are departed, it is that the difficult times may make us more in earnest; that they may teach us not to depend upon ourselves. If easy belief is impossible, it is that we may learn what belief is, and in whom it is to be placed.–F. D. MAURICE.


Jan 17 2012

Suffering as Idol or Icon

I won’t mince any words. The past six weeks have run the gamut from delightful to downright awful.

In early December, I woke up with heart-pounding, stomach-clenching anxiety like I haven’t had since comp exams.

And it continued. And continued. I finally called my dear friend Kimberlee and she packed me up to her house, put me on the couch, and fed me dinner.  Jack and Jane drew me pictures, which I have taped above my sink. A few days before all hell broke loose, I had waxed poetic to Jack about the Book of Kells and showed him pictures of the illuminated manuscript on-line. He drew me an illuminated picture of my name. I could not see it for the tears.

Later, Kimberlee and I sat by candle-light late into the evening and talked about dreams and regrets and hopes. A healing, holy moment. For awhile the panic abated.

Yet over the next weeks, I continued to lose sleep, have migraines, and stomach aches.  The fear and trembling would strike at the oddest times, then disappear.

At one point, pacing around the living room where I’d had the worst of the panic, I kept saying, “I don’t want to go there again.”

But as clear as can be, I sensed a surprising response: “But Susan, it is a door to your heart, to love and compassion for others. Don’t look at it like a pit you can’t escape, but a door to my redemption.”

Pit or door. Idol or icon.

Suffering can become an idol. We flee from it in terror or sacrifice to it in hopes of relief.  We don’t want to ever go through it again, so we build the walls to keep it out. We move away, or hide away. We offer it tokens to buy an uneasy peace. It can become a petty god, demanding our lives in submission. Idols stop our gaze at themselves–there seems to be nothing more to life.

Or, suffering can be an icon. Never as an end in itself, never to be sought, but when experienced, walked through as a door into a wider reality, a reality where hearts of stone can break and reveal the flesh of Christ’s own love.

A heart that feels grief can also find love painfully present. When I focused on the love, the door opened wide.

I stopped at the exact spot on the carpet where, the night before, grief had filled me,  a beige shag abyss of panic, and realized that I never need flee or appease the suffering again. I could simply step into it…and through. I continued to feel the panic in my very marrow and cry out of the depths with the psalmist, but I did not fear it. God could and would redeem the experience. Every experience. No matter what. And not for me alone, but for others, too. The icon beckoned me beyond.

“God comforts us, not to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.” –J. Henry Jowett

Or as scripture tells us:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” –2 Corinthians 1:3-5


(Not long after this, I got on a plane, weary and spent, to visit my parents for Christmas. During the two wonderful weeks there, my heart began to ease through their loving care and conversation. And a trip to the hospital revealed that, whatever else may be going on, I have acid reflux, which can have very similar symptoms to heart-pounding panic. The treatment helped and I finally slept. Thanks be to God!)


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