Oct 15 2016

Praying the Text

Day 15 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

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The fourth item I intentionally brought into my new home on the first day was my bible, an NRSV I’ve been using since 2001. It represented my commitment and hope that God’s Word would be foundational to my life in the Contemplative Cottage.

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My life has been deeply influenced by the monastic practice of lectio divina (Latin for divine reading), a four-movement pattern of prayerful reflection on scripture dating from the early church and codified in the 12th century by Carthusian monk Guigo II. Used by Benedictines for centuries as part of their daily prayer practice, lectio divina has enjoyed a rediscovery in the past 20 years, especially among Protestants from mainline and non-denominational congregations.

A short scripture passage is read repeatedly and deeply. Words and phrases that capture heart and mind are meditated upon more intentionally. The meditation on the passage at some point turns into a conversation with God about the passage. Finally, one would rest in a contented contemplation of God, sparked by the reflection.

Another way to understand the movements, according to Guigo II: reading is akin to putting food in the mouth; meditation is chewing; prayer is digesting it; and contemplation is the satiation after a delicious feast.

Models of lectio divina place the movements in ladder or circular relationships, but I prefer a tetrahedron. It allows for the connective nature of the practice to be visualized 3-dimensionally. Each movement can shift to any of the other three movements and back, allowing for a complex relationship between the four modes of engaging the text:

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I take a psalm or short passage of scripture from the larger book or epistle I’m studying, print it out and then use multicolored pens and pencils to highlight those words and phrases that are calling for deeper meditation. Sometimes, a song, person, scripture, or memory might tug at my attention while I’m reading. This may seem unconnected to the passage, but it may be a Holy Spirit nudge toward the word the passage has for me in that moment.

Prayers can be written in the margins, allowing the scripture to form the foundation of prayer. Contemplation might be expressed by simply sitting with the text and annotations as a whole, letting the yeast of the Word do it’s work in my life. Often, my meditation will include looking up Greek or Hebrew words and engaging commentaries to sharpen my own understanding of the text.

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Practicing lectio divina on scripture over the years has seeped into the rest of my life. I find myself reading other texts, such as novels and poetry, art objects, songs, and visual stories in a similar, though less intensive, way. Using the pattern of lectio divina has also affected the way I read situations, conflicts, and contexts, informing the theological method I teach and use for research (my students will recognize this!). Anything can become a “text” to read, reflect, and pray through to God’s wisdom.

If lectio divina is new for you, or if you haven’t practiced it in this organic way, a great place to start is by choosing a favorite scripture passage or psalm and spend 30 single-tasking minutes coloring, highlighting, and praying through the text.

If you’ve practiced it on scripture, I encourage you to try it on a favorite poem (I’ve included one of my favorites below). While I believe that the study of scripture takes a privileged position in God’s formative work in us, I also believe God can use stories, poems, even movies, as means of communicating truth–if we would take the time to enter deeply into the work of art.

Love (III) – George Herbert (1593-1633)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be s/he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Oct 1 2016

31 Days on Cultivating Sanctuary

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In December 2008, I published the first post to my blog. At the time, I was living in a large apartment building in the Allston/Brighton neighborhood of Boston :

Living in the midst of the city, I often dream of a cottage at the foot of a mountain with herbs in the garden, a cat in the window, tea kettle on the hearth, and a much-loved friend coming for a visit. This vision includes handwritten cards on Crane stationery (fountain pen, of course), delicious home-cooked food, close community, and spacious time where relationships can deepen and love can find a restful, quiet intimacy I rarely experience in the age of iPods.

The dream of cottage life can either be put off to some distant day that may never arrive, or it can be lived out in a land of cell phones, emails, subways, and where trees rent space from concrete. The source of this vision eludes me, but its magic returns again and again to remind me of what is most important, to ask the question: How might I live the ‘cottage life’ now, today?

My hope then was to build a contemplative sanctuary on the internet, where I could write about my attempts to practice a life of paying attention to God in the urban world, looking for the beauty in daily life, simple hospitality, and deep community. At the time, I called it a “cottage life,” with the cottage being the symbolic home of simple, sustainable practices–creating a sanctuary space both for me personally and for all who crossed my threshold.

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Now, having joyfully found and moved into a physical incarnation of the contemplative cottage, I’d like to share some reflections on these practices for cultivating sanctuary, one for each day of October. Many of these practices have been joyfully part of my life for years, even decades. Others are still practices-in-practice, as I struggle to live contemplatively: disciplines I keep coming back to, no matter how many times I fail, and see fruit even in my failures.

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Because these practices are personal–ones that have found a place in the contemplative life I feel God has called me to live in my particular situation, you may find some resonate with your own life, others intriguing, and some downright impossible. My only hope in sharing them is to provide possibilities–like some many writers and bloggers have for me–not prescriptions.

Even sometimes a completely impossible practice invokes a powerful longing for what it represents. Paying attention to the longing and laying it before God in prayer is the key, not so much the mechanics of the practice. I have no doubt there are an infinite number of practices, done with attention and intention, that can nurture the vision of life God has called each one of us to live.

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So, I hope you will join me these next 31 days, and that in the short daily posts, you will find inspiration to craft your own practices for cultivating sanctuary, in your own life and situation.

And, as always, wherever you are, I invite you to journey with me in attending deeply to life: looking for beauty, practicing peace, and gazing with love.

Christ’s grace 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 >>)


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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Aug 20 2014

September 29

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The date is lined in bright green (for life) on a handmade poster-size calendar that now hangs in my living room. Six weeks. What has been my constant shadow for four years will be coming to birth as I labor to finish a first draft and turn it in. Under the calendar is a list of things I’m looking forward to, not the least of which is removing the word “dissertation” from my vocabulary for awhile.

But before these hopes become reality, there is a the very real task of writing another chapter and the conclusion, revising and editing, and then defending, all during these next three months. And there is very real fear.

This morning as the anxiety churned, I listened to it, trying to understand its needs, playing the spiritual director with my inner self, hoping to coax some deep breaths and, as my dear friend recently explained, work with the labor pains rather than against them.

“You won’t find the words,” it whispered.

It’s an old fear, a reference to the comprehensive examinations when I feared words would fail me in the 4 hours allotted to each test, that they would evaporate, leaving me with sentences that made no sense, but even more, had no beauty or depth.

I didn’t sleep the nights before those 4 exams and while they were far from stellar examples of writing, I put words on the page, and pages increased, and then it was over. I moved through the experience, but not unscathed. Doubt had entered my process of writing which hadn’t been there before–a crack in my trust of myself, but also in the words themselves and their Source.

Finding words seemed more and more difficult. A vicious circle, the fear the words weren’t there–in their word haven someplace deep in my heart, fled, broken into component letters, devoid of meaning, or beyond my brain’s reach–led to the very thing I feared: no words, as I roughly demanded, begged, or tried forcing their return.

For long now, I’ve viewed my dissertation writing in the light of these blood-stirring words of Gandalf in his battle with the Balrog:

Through fire… and water… From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought him… Until at last, I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.

But the seemingly mutinous words are not my enemy, nor is the writing process. No. Writing, when entered into humbly and reflectively embraced, forms a scholar, providing the boundaried space and time for the deepening of theological thought, to germinate ideas, nurture them in a fertile seed bed before sharing them with the world. Even more, a theologian is formed by the process to practice ongoing reflection; incarnate the reflective process in oneself and share it with others; and be filled with the reflective fruit, that the world may experience more love and justice through its birth.

There is much in my writing process that needed tending and pruning by the Master Gardener. Not the least of which is my shying away from the discomfort of being pruned.

Anne Truitt writes, “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own intimate sensitivity.”

Beautiful words, but not necessarily words of comfort.

Simone Weil describes the patient waiting of pen above paper as we wait for the word. For her, this practice strengthens muscles for prayer, and even more, to attend deeply to the person before us in their need. This is not an image of violent wrestling words to the page, but it is a call to breathe through impatience and discomfort.

Karl Barth argues that those called to be theologians are called into doubt, to always ask the difficult questions–fearful, at times–and live in this discomfort. Facing my doubt and distrust of words is the only way through.

And even as I write this post, even as I’m willing to enter in through the fear and reflect, I find the word haven–O sweet embrace!

Gandalf’s words are not for the dissertation, they are for that which whispers the lie, the haunting doubt that the words have fled, leaving me in front of a blank page and a deadline looming. They are for that which calls into question the Word spoken at creation–the source of all good words–and all life. They are for the temptation to distrust God’s own infinite storehouse of words. God has the cattle on a thousand hills, as the psalmist writes, so God the Logos, is Lord of Words.

Lord, I’m not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. 

May it be so.

As I write these next weeks, as I write in obedience to my vocation, the practice is to remain in this moment, and writing the word for this moment, humbly leaving the words for the next moment to hope and to God. I may not see them, and the lie may whisper they have fled, but moment by moment, they will gently be loved into sentences, paragraphs, and pages.

The only practice is to write and one day (soon), it will be finished.

 

 

 

 

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