Oct 10 2016

Counting Gratitudes

Day 10 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

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The Contemplative Cottage – Credit Unknown

Every time I walk back from work to the cottage, and I see it perched on it’s little hill, I am incredibly thankful. Thank-full. To the brim and overflowing. I had never really believed that I would own a house, nor one that fit so perfectly my internal image of the Contemplative Cottage. Even photos of lovely English cottages in Oxford, or thatched-roofed cottages in Ireland, do not make me wish for those other houses in those wonderful, but distant, places. They only give me ideas for decorating my house, here, rooted in a community I love.

In 2008, when I was first contemplating starting a blog, I discovered the blog of Ann Voscamp, author of the New York Times bestseller One Thousand Gifts, a Christian, Canadian farmer, and mother of 7. Ann introduced me to a practice that has woven itself into my life now for 8 years: counting gratitudes.

Challenged by a friend to count to 1ooo things she was thankful for, Ann began a list. Every Monday on her blog, she would share her list from the previous week. For her, this practice radically transformed her life, one that had been marked by depression, debilitating fear, and grief over the tragic death of her younger sister. While all that she wrestled with did not suddenly disappear, she found that keeping a running record of her thanks built a habit of thanksgiving, eucharisteo, and changed how she saw her life and the world. She began to see more and more to add to her list.

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Inspired by her practice and testimony, I began a list. After a few months, aware that keeping up the practice in times of stress would be difficult, I created a gratitude journal, as she suggested, one that could be open on the counter in plain sight. A memory for which I’m thankful is making the journal while on a Christmas visit to my parents’, taking over the dining room table with crafting supplies. This past year, on December 31, 2015, I entered the 1330th gratitude on the final page. My new journal began at the start of 2016 and I continue counting.

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The power of the practice, even doing it semi-regularly as I do, shifts my attention from all that is wrong or negative, to all the beauty and love that surround me. It helps me pay attention (the primary practice for so many spiritual disciplines!) to the little graces and gifts that the frenetic pace of life often blinds me to.

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But there is another, even more powerful outcome, one that the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas discusses when talking about virtue. We can be trained in the virtue of moderation by the experience of delight by learning (hopefully) the moment that delighting in something turns into self-indulgence. Delight reinforces our habits, but it does more. Remembered delight–delighting in the memory of the delight–is joy. When I reread the years and years of gratitudes, small and large, I’m not simply delighted, I experience a deep joy, that leads to an even deeper thanks.

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If this practice resonates with you, the easiest way to begin is to write a list 10 things you are thankful for…get detailed, get specific.

It can be something very small, like how the sun light reflects beautifully on a wall, or the smell of baking bread, or the buzzing bees in the garden. It can be thanks for the life of loved one, a specific list of how you are thankful for them. It can be the hindsight gratitude for redemption of a hard or painful experience.

Once you’ve counted ten, make that list the beginning of a longer list. Put it in a visible place–on a kitchen counter or nightstand– and add to it from time to time, until you have counted to 1000. And once there, why stop?

 

 


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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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.

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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.

Why?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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Christ’s grace to you, and peace,

Susan


Mar 22 2015

How He Loves Us

The Woman at the Well - Sieger Köder

The Woman at the Well – Sieger Köder

My playlist song on repeat is How He Loves by David Crowder, sung a cappella by Hallal Music.

(If you want to listen, please first pause the Music for Dreaming in the column to the right >>)

“And we are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If His grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
And Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets,
When I think about the way…O, how He loves us.”

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A few weeks ago I officially graduated from Boston University after nine years working toward a PhD. Those of you who have followed this blog since it began in 2009 know that the road was rocky. At times, the journey felt more like an odyssey than a career path. Yet now, finished, and almost a year into teaching at the University of Dubuque seminary, I understand a little more C.S. Lewis’ belief that in heaven, one looks back on life and sees all joy and gratitude. Even now, it surprises me that I ever doubted whether I should (or could) finish. It is only a matter of God’s love, expressed through the many who supported me, and those unexplained moments of utter grace which only now shine with brilliance in memory. Even seeing so many lessons that took so long for me to learn, I can sing, “I don’t have time to maintain these regrets, when I think about the way…He loves us.”

Julian of Norwich captures it, too:

From the time these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know what was our Lord’s meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding. ‘You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing! Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else ever!’ So it was that I learned that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw for certain, both here and elsewhere, that before ever he made us, God loved us; and that his love has never slackened, nor ever shall. In this love all his works have been done, and in this love he has made everything serve us; and in this love our life is everlasting.

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This past week, I spent a whirlwind few days back in Seattle, meeting the team for the upcoming Museum Without Walls Ireland trip and celebrating my graduation with so many dear friends who have loved and spurred me on to completion. Sitting in the Ladro Caffe windowseat, a place of formation, discernment, conversations, and reflection for nearly 20 years, I catch a glimpse of that same Love, shining through all those moments, some joyful, some painful, but all caught up in this amazing reality of God’s presence.

A new chapter is being written in Dubuque, but it is all in the same Story and it gives me hope that, as I can look back and see this Love, I will be able to remember God’s hindsight gift during future seasons. We may see now through a glass darkly, but in one moment, as Tolkien writes, “the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift-sunrise.”

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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

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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 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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