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


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)


Mar 4 2013

All Things New

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As the birds build nests, as the furry catkins bud on the willow, new bright green leaves open in the sunniest places, and cherry blossoms begin to pink-tinge the trees, I break my two month blog silence with my most favorite quote from the book Christ the Tiger by Thomas Howard:

“Here from this stable, here, from this Nazareth, this stony beach, this Jerusalem, this market place, this garden, this Praetorium, this Cross, this mountain, I announce it to you. I announce to you what is guessed at in all the phenomena of your world. You see the corn of wheat shrivel and break open and die, but you expect a crop.

I tell you of the Springtime of which all springtimes speak.

I tell you of the world for which this world groans and toward which it strains. I tell you that beyond the awful borders imposed by time and space and contingency, there lies what you seek. I announce to you life instead of mere existence, freedom instead of frustration, justice instead of compensation.

For I announce to you redemption. Behold I make all things new. Behold I do what cannot be done.

I restore the years that the locusts and worms have eaten. I restore the years you have drooped away upon your crutches and in your wheel-chair. I restore the symphonies and operas which your deaf ears have never heard, and the snowy massif your blind eyes have never seen, and the freedom lost to you through plunder and the identity lost to you because of calumny and the failure of justice; and I restore the good which your own foolish mistakes have cheated you of.

And I bring you to the Love of which all other loves speak, the Love which is joy and beauty, and which you have sought in a thousand streets and for which you have wept and clawed your pillow.

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Aug 17 2012

Friday Florilegium

God makes every common thing serve, if thou wilt, to enlarge that capacity of bliss in His love. Not a prayer, not an act of faithfulness in your calling, not a self-denying or kind word or deed, done out of love for Himself; not a weariness or painfulness endured patiently; not a duty performed; not a temptation resisted; but it enlarges the whole soul for the endless capacity of the love of God.
E. B. Pusey (1800-1882), Anglican priest and Oxford professor of Hebrew

A new day rose upon me. It was as if another sun had risen into the sky; the heavens were indescribably brighter, and the earth fairer; and that day has gone on brightening to the present hour. I have known the other joys of life, I suppose, as much as most men; I have known art and beauty, music and gladness; I have known friendship and love and family ties; but it is certain that till we see God in the world–God in the bright and boundless universe–we never know the highest joy. It is far more than if one were translated to a world a thousand times fairer than this; for that supreme and central Light of Infinite Love and Wisdom, shining over this world and all worlds, alone can show us how noble and beautiful, how fair and glorious they are.
Orville Dewey (1794-1882), pastor

When I look like this into the blue sky, it seems so deep, so peaceful, so full of a mysterious tenderness, that I could lie for centuries and wait for the dawning of the face of God out of the awful loving-kindness.
George MacDonald (1824-1905), Scottish poet, pastor, and author

And for another Friday literary bouquet, join Kimberlee Conway Ireton.


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.

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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.

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(An edited repost from the archives)


Mar 31 2012

Amazing Love

If this coming week is about anything, it’s about amazing Love.

A practice that I recently read about and started doing sounds a little syrupy, but the results are quite beautiful, I promise: When you see someone, friend or stranger, think “I love you and I’m thankful for you.”

I found that an afternoon spent walking the streets of Seattle and doing this made the pink cherry blossoms more vivid and the sun more radiant. And people seemed…well…more solid, more real…since I was not so lost in my own ruminations. I found myself imagining the lives they were living and praying for them.

But in greeting people I knew, the practice made me realize how little I verbalize my love for people.  I wondered why I’m so reticent to look a friend in the eye and feel the full force of my gratitude, enough to let the words tumble out, in all their shy joy.

God spoke the Word, calling the cosmos into existence.  God spoke Love and it created a vast, pulsing home for a zillion  billion worlds. What could our Word of love create?

I remember a fellow student at St John’s, Walter Kiefer, said that we have no idea the power of love. If we would but delve deeply, we would find its capacity to heal and transform more powerful and solid than anything else that exists.

This week, as you practice silently greeting people with love and gratitude, I invite you to pick one person, allowing the Spirit to call them to mind as you read this, and let them know you are thankful for them. You may be the angel that refreshes them in their Gethsemane.

(Art: Gethsemane, Anthony Falbo)

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