Oct 9 2016

On Kitchen Counters and Simple Delights

Day 9 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

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For many years, I was a “clean the kitchen counters in the morning” girl. I always felt that I ought to clean them at night, but that habit eluded me. So I let it go. Then, I happened to do it one evening and the next day as I wandered out for morning tea, the peacefulness of the kitchen made me smile and sigh deeply.

Rather than share photos of a clean counter, the quiet interiors of Dutch painter, Carl Vilhelm Halsoe (1863-1935), capture the feeling.

halsoe-tea

I won’t pretend there was any deep, meaningful joy in seeing the counters clean, but there was certainly a positive feeling welling up in my heart. I was delighted. What a wonderful way to start the day.

In that moment, my attitude toward cleaning the kitchen shifted. A little investment of energy at night to clean the counters was returned double with the morning peacefulness, which in turn reinforced the practice to clean the counter each evening.

I’m all about pursuing good habits, but this was different, because having clean counters was not the focus, the positive sense of well-being was. There was no judgment that a clean counter was proper or correct. Having a clean counter stopped being about should or ought or becoming the type of person who keeps her kitchen clean (whatever “type” that is and why it seemed important, I don’t know).

I started to look for other little things that I could invest energy into that would engender a sense of well-being.

When I paid attention to these few simple tasks, the positive feeling rippled through the rest of the day.

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Over the years of this practice, something has shifted. As I consider tasks on my regular to-do list, I realize that there are two ways to approach them. One is to frame them as what I should do or have to do and the other is to focus on the delight after completion. I’m working on choosing the second option more often. The delight might be my own, or for the delight of a person or group of people.

Many tasks that I know will take a lot of time and energy, I can connect them to my heart by asking, “How might completing this lead to a small delight or sense of well-being for myself or others?” Whether it is as simple as clean counters or as large as a completed project, having a vision for how completion looks and feels helps realize the vision.

Kelly McGonigal talks about this in her book, Willpower. Starting the day by imagining the end of the day in as much detail as possible–with tasks completed–actually aids in reaching that vision.

And yes, there are tasks which don’t seem to have any delight to connect with. In this case, I try to focus on the sense of well-being I will have when I can simply cross it off the to-do list. (And fellow list-makers know: sometimes the joy of crossing something off is enough incentive.)

What gives me delight and helps cultivate sanctuary may not be the same as you. I invite you to reflect: What might your “clean counter” task be that would spark a sense of well-being or delight? What is one task whose completion by the end of today would spark delight?

halsoe-cleaning


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.

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

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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


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:

ASLAN LIVES!!

 

(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)


Sep 21 2012

An Autumn Florilegium

As the days grow shorter and the slight chill weaves its way through yellowing leaves, I dream of cozy evenings, firelight, soft woolens, and holiday meals with friends.  A song that always begins this time of year for me is Winter Song by Scottish singer Emily Smith:

The leaves are falling from the trees
Farewell for now warm summer breeze
Weather has been good this year
Now the winter will soon be here
The nights are drawing into shorter days
I hear the old folk and the country people say
Don’t fear the dark, nature has it all in hand
Time to reflect and renew the tired land

So we’ll stoke the fire and light the lamp
Turn our backs in from the damp
Settle down beneath the starry sky
Endure the winter passing by

I see the frost etched upon the glass
In the morning sun he soon moves fast
But he’ll be back to claim the frozen ground
With each clear day he surely will be found
The geese fly south to find a warmer home
While the weary bull he soldiers on alone
Children’s laughter it crackles in the air
Sparks fly high and they catch them if they dare

So we’ll stoke the fire and light the lamp
Turn our backs in from the damp
Settle down beneath the starry sky
Endure the winter passing by

With carols sung, the trees been taken down
We’ve passed a dram and the bells no longer sound
Snowdrops rise with promise of the spring
There’s talk and wonder
At what the year might bring
The blackbird starts to thicken up her nest
While the early lamb, he takes a snowy step
But the north wind’s grip it tightens with his chill
And holds the buds closed against their will

So we’ll stoke the fire and light the lamp
Turn our backs in from the damp
Settle down beneath the starry sky
Endure the winter passing by

…..And you can listen to the song here.

And for another literary bouquet, join Kimberlee Conway Ireton.

Oct 20 2011

{Day 20} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 4

Where there is no beauty, put beauty, and you will find beauty. –Francis of Assisi, adapted.

One of the books I read when I began to explore church and faith more seriously I found on my dad’s shelf. It now has an honored place with others that I “borrowed” from my parents. I love the fact it has the quintessential good book smell, my dad’s signature on the flyleaf, and his underlinings through-out.

Ernst Benz begins the discussion of Eastern Orthodoxy not with doctrines but with the role and understanding of icons. At the time I first read it, there was no internet (hard to imagine now), so I still remember how some of the concepts made no visual sense to me, never having been in an Orthodox church.  But the message was clear: images played an important part in the Orthodox life of prayer. This I understood.

Living in Germany at the time, I was aesthetically and spiritually formed by the medieval cathedrals with their murals and statues, hidden side altars and chapels. As one of my professors at St John’s put it, churches need secret space and shadows for those times when the soul is called into solitude with God, even in the midst of community. I loved those nooks and cranies of sacred space, the life and color of the images, and the warmth of the candlelight.

Benz’ book offered me two things that have stayed with me. The first is that images reminding us of sacred presence are important. In the violent iconoclast controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, icons were burned and the Orthodox church nearly went through a tidal shift in its manner of prayer. But theologians of the day called upon Colossians 1:15 where Jesus is called the image (ikonen) of the Living God, his own humanity as a way for our participation with the Trinity.

Icons are not idols, which demand worship for themselves, but windows for humanity to be drawn into the Kingdom through prayer and remembrance. Idols stop the gaze; icons direct the gaze through and beyond themselves to the Ever-Presence of God.

The second idea Benz offered me was the importance of dedicating a specific area of the home to God’s presence.

In the Orthodox tradition, this is called the Beautiful Corner, usually on the eastern side of the house.

Coupled with my love of the secret side chapels in the enormous cathedrals, Benz’ book encouraged me to create a beautiful corner in my bedroom. My parents, bless them, bought me a little table, white eyelet lace cloth to cover it, and some red, green and purple fabric for the church seasons.  On it I placed various images of the cross, Jesus, Mary, and found-objects from nature. Over the years, I’ve collected many different items and frequently change it depending on the liturgical season or what I’m praying about.

The first real icon of my collection I found when I was 14, the day before leaving Germany for the Pacific Northwest.  Mary icons often find their way into the corner because of God’s call to her to birth the Christ–a call I believe each Christian receives and responds through grace in some wonderful and mysterious way. As a woman, I appreciate her witness.

While a beautiful corner sounds peaceful and lovely, I’ve found that it can be a place of conviction and a call to repentance as well. Sometimes, the last place I’ve wanted to be near is a reminder of God’s presence. As I willfully choose to go my own way and ignore the still small voice, the temptation is to simply take back the space and live forgetful of the sacred.

One particularly difficult season a few years ago, I did just that. I took all the icons and images down and tossed them in a box. I thought, out of sight, out of mind.

I told God, “Enough. I’m through.”

For awhile, I went my way and God let me alone. But then slowly, I realized God was still there, still whispering. I may be able to remove the reminders, but God could not be put in storage. Slowly I took things out of the box and said a small yes again to God’s unrelenting love.

What I meant as tantrum, God used to remind me that his presence is more than my small ideas and certainly beyond my control (Thank God!).

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
 if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
 if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. –Psalm 139:7-12

Practice: Is there a special place, a beautiful corner, that reminds you and your family of God’s loving presence? If not, where would you put it? What would you put there?

If you have a beautiful corner, how long has it been since you changed it? Sometimes what becomes familiar is easily forgotten. I invite you to spend some time rearranging and praying.

If you are going through a season where God is “in storage,” I invite you to wander your house and find one object that calls your heart and thoughts to prayer (photos of little ones always does it for me). Put the object in a prominent location, and slowly, as you feel led, add other reminders to pray or say “thank you”–maybe a leaf from a particularly glorious fall tree, a cross, a verse of scripture that tugs at your memory. Over time, items will be added and you will have a beautiful corner for prayer.

Get young people involved–I think they have a wonderful, playful sense of what makes sacred space beautiful.



Oct 19 2011

{Day 19} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 3

When I think how close I came to not taking my apartment, I marvel at God’s patient persistence and the grace gift of faith.

I’ve moved nearly every year for the past decade and when I moved back to Seattle to write my dissertation, I gave myself a month to find a place, and my constant prayer was…please, a place I won’t have to leave for a while.

But the rental market skyrocketed that summer and rents rose to near Boston levels. I despaired. Slowly my faith in God’s provision was replaced by a willingness to pay more.

Finally, I just had to admit that a higher rent was not the answer and I took the whole project to God in prayer, made a list of the things that I longed for in a living space, things that I knew from experience would be helpful as I worked at home and lived day to day:

From my journal:

1. Below $900 (this is hard, I don’t believe it is possible).
2. A place I can spend my days in without going stir crazy. A home. Peaceful. Retreat. Aesthetically easy on the eyes.
3. A cat
4. Washer and dryer–I really like having a place to do laundry.
5. Trees
6. Fireplace
7. A deck for tea on pretty days
8. Near a bus that will get me to Bethany without too much trouble.

I walked into the place a week later (and no, it didn’t come with a cat, but it did, unlike many other places, allow for the possibility. I wonder sometimes if a cat will turn-up on my doorstep one day–I already have all the supplies).

It also had a view and a dishwasher, things I really wanted, but felt I couldn’t ask for.

It was also strangely, delightfully coincident that that building and street names are the same as my middle name.

The curious thing is that I almost didn’t take it. Every other place I’ve moved, there were no doubts, I felt certain and made the decision. In this case, even with all the rightness of the place, I didn’t have that confidence.

I sat in the apartment–the landlord said I could take a couple days to decide, and visit as much as I wanted. I sat some more until my rear hurt from sitting on the stone fireplace seat. And the next day, I sat some more and finally started to pray. Yes or no? Should I or shouldn’t I?

I asked for prayer from friends. I spent a lunch with my friend Cathee listing all the pros and cons. Then I went back to my temp place and prayed some more. And it struck me: I was being asked to make a choice based on God’s leading, as near as I could discern it, let go of my concerns and my pride, and simply trust HimThis was a gift being held out, I had the freedom to say no, but I was scared to say yes.

It became critical to ask one more question of God: Will you be there, in this new place, no matter what?

(I think there was little bit of a chuckle).

Yes, Susan. Of course.

It is easy to forget that this world is more than trees and soil, concrete and wood, atoms and molecules, that there is a spiritual world woven in and through and around us, and a God who promises presence. As we consider our homes, as places where we are vulnerable, places for rest, love, and laughter, or places of tension and anger, all homes are places of God’s healing and loving presence.

“For in him we live and move and have our being.” –Acts 17:28

Practice: Walk around your home and reflect on how you see, feel, and meet God in this place, and how you would like to know God’s presence in your home, in its atmosphere, among the relationships of those who live there, in the logistics of money and upkeep, in the role it plays as place of hospitality, and in any other ways the Holy Spirit inspires you to pray.


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