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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Sep 30 2016

Friday Florilegium

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Eilean Donan castle, credit unknown

On my playlist this week has been a cover of Rachel Platten’s global hit “Fight Song” by The Piano Guys. Not only is it an instrument version with piano and cello, it also includes a Scottish bagpipe and drum band, and is filmed on location at the stunning Eilean Donan castle.

(Before listening, please pause The Music for Dreaming in the sidebar >>)

While I appreciate the original song because of the story behind it–a singer/songwriter’s struggle to keep committed to her craft no matter what the response, The Piano Guy’s version is a mash-up of the song with Amazing Grace.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already to come.
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far

and grace will lead me home.

Lines from the hymn opens the video along with a quiet introduction of the hymn melody. Later, the hymn returns in a poignant reprise, and finally the two melodies are seamlessly woven together for the finale.

Platten’s lyrics, while not sung, are expressed by the fierceness and determination of the Scottish bagpipers and drummers, as well as the beautiful, passionate playing of piano and cello (Steven Sharp Nelson’s joy when playing is delightful to watch):

This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song
My power’s turned on
Starting right now I’ll be strong
I’ll play my fight song
And I don’t really care if nobody else believes
‘Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me

But with Amazing Grace gently offering a counterpoint to Platten’s melody, the song is grounded in an everlasting source of strength. The hymn anchors the song brilliantly in the grace and power of God and turns the words into a declaration of perseverance in the face of trials.

Enjoy!


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


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 >>)


Jan 5 2016

The Epiphany Blessing: 20+C+M+B+16

Adoration of the Magi, a Beuronese painting at Conception Abbey

Adoration of the Magi, a Beuronese painting at Conception Abbey

Epiphany (Greek for epiphaneia, manifestation) is the holy day remembering Jesus Christ’s revealing to the world and has been celebrated since at least the mid-fourth century on January 6th. It remembers the revealing of Jesus as King and Messiah to the magi (and thus, to the Gentiles); the revealing of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism; and the revealing of his ministry with his first miracle: turning water to wine at the Cana wedding.

Ethiopian Magi, Patrick Comerford

Ethiopian Magi, Patrick Comerford

Since the Middle Ages, people would go from home to home singing and enjoying each others’ hospitality. Using chalk, they would write the letters C+M+B on the doors or lintels of houses, blessing them as places of Christ’s hospitality.

CMB Epiphany

The initials represent Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, traditionally the names of the three Magi, as well as the Latin phrase, Christus Mansionem Benedicat, May Christ bless this house. In the Anglican tradition, Epiphany begins its own season, Epiphanytide, focusing on the ways Christ is revealed to the world. The season ends on February 2nd, with the celebration of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple.

Auch diese drei Heiligen Könige sind gestern durch Sölde gezogen.

In researching the practice, I found out that there is whole tradition in Europe that celebrates Epiphany and the CMB blessing. It is called the Star Singers, or sternsinger. Over 300,000 boys and girls in Germany alone dress up as the Magi and sing from house to house raising awareness and money for issues regarding the suffering of children globally. Last year, they raised $48 million. This German movement is now in its 58th year and for 2016 is highlighting poverty in Bolivia under the motto “Respect – for you, for me, for others.”

If you are looking for a way to close the Christmas season, and look ahead into the new year, find some chalk and write the Epiphany blessing 20+C+M+B+16 above your front door as you pray for God’s blessing on your home and all who enter. Even more, gather some friends, kiddos, and family and chalk each others’ doors, praying and singing as you go! I will be inviting my seminary students to don crowns and carry stars, pray and sing, as they chalk the doors of the classrooms and offices. Maybe we can start Star Singing in our communities, bring some beauty, fun, music, and blessing, while raising awareness of the needs of children worldwide.

Adoration of the Magi, Russian icon

Adoration of the Magi, Russian icon


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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