Oct 15 2016

Praying the Text

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


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.


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:


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.


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 6 2016

The Daily Office

Day 6 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen. – from Evening Prayer, Book of Common Prayer

Observing times of prayer through-out the day sanctifies time and daily life, and helps cultivate a place of sanctuary. It orders work around prayer, rather than prayer around work. It can help express the integration of life and prayer: all tasks, responsibilities, life itself, happens in the context of relationship with God, which is the context of prayer.

The daily office, from the Latin officium, “performance of a task,” is prayed according to an horarium, Latin for “of the hours.” This monastic daily schedule organizes the day into times of prayer, work, eating, relaxation, and rest. The office is mostly psalms, scripture readings, and intercessory prayers prayed on behalf of and for the world. Cloistered monasteries gather for prayer 7  times each day, sometimes waking briefly to gather in the middle of the night. At St John’s Abbey, where I studied, the chapel bells would ring the monks, staff, and students to prayer 3 times a day, morning, noon, and evening. Even now, the sound of church bells quickens my step and turns my heart to prayer.

In my own life, as a single person not living in community, the daily office finds different expression depending on the season. The practice is a regular part of my week, whether morning prayer, evening prayer, or compline, and sometimes all three. I don’t seek monastic consistency as an ideal. It is enough that my office book waits patiently on my kitchen table, easy to open while water boils, tea steeps, or a meal cooks.


An extensive version of the daily office is found in the Roman Catholic tradition. In four volumes, it provides psalms and prayers 7 times each day, based upon the the church year. This version also includes daily readings from early church fathers, sermons, theological essays, and a wonderful collection of seasonally appropriate poetry. On the Protestant side, Presbyterians have the Book of Common Worship Daily Prayer (which is now an phone app as well); the Methodists have an order for daily prayer in their worship book; and the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer offers yet another version. You can also find online options of the book versions, such as the Episcopal office, or the full Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. In the past decade, many new versions of the daily office have been published by individuals or communities, such as Common Prayer, The Divine Hours, and Celtic Daily Prayer.


While I began with the Catholic version 20 years ago, I’ve been using the Episcopal Contemporary Office Book more recently as a beautiful and simplified option. It takes the office sections from the Book of Common Prayer and makes it easier to follow. The prayers repeat more frequently, encouraging memorization, and the psalm translation is beautiful. It also includes the daily psalm & scripture readings on a two-year cycle. I supplement it with a book of Anglican daily readings called From the Fathers to the Churches. It mirrors the readings in the Catholic office, but adds Anglican saints and women’s writings.


I am the first to admit that prayer is challenging. It is a practice that requires trust that even though it may seem that nothing is accomplished by it, and that it may feel that no One is listening, it is still enjoined upon disciples of Jesus to pray as an expression of our relationship with God.

Prayer is often the first practice to be forgotten on busy days. But God does not forget us. Finally stopping and praying the daily office on such a day is a sanctuary moment. Even as I write this, listening to the St Mark’s Cathedral Compline Choir sing night prayer, a tight place relaxes in my heart as I breathe deep for the first time since this morning.

The dailyness of the office is like a river flowing. Each time of pausing invites me to enter in. I may not choose to stop and pray, but now, after so many years marked by this practice, I know that it is an option. The river continues to flow and God’s invitation never ceases.

Maybe this is the most basic fruit of the daily office–simply remembering God is always present with us day or night so any moment can become a sanctuary of prayer.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen. – from Evening Prayer, Book of Common Prayer



Oct 4 2016

Sacred Spaces

Day 4 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


“Do you want to do the honors?” asked my realtor, Kelly, offering me the keys. We were standing at the front door of the cottage on closing day, about to do the final walk-through.

I nodded and then reached into my bag. “This might seem a bit odd,” I began hesitantly, “but the first thing going into the house is my icon of Jesus.”

“That’s not odd at all, Susan.” She smiled, held my bag as Jesus and I went in to the house together. For the next few weeks, the icon remained on a shelf in the main room, reminding me that Jesus was with me in the midst of the chaos of the move.

The icon of Jesus was the first of 8 important symbols I brought into my new home (I’ll share more in future posts), each representing something that I wanted to be welcomed into the life at the Cottage.


Credit Unknown

As a child, my memories of visiting the churches of Germany–small or large–are ones of color and warmth, the faces of bible people and saint people seemed to welcome me into their stories; the flowers on the altars; the hidden beauties of side chapels, crypts, and chapel gardens; the smell of old stone, old wood, wax, and incense; candles, candles, and more candles; and the deep, resonant silence, where I could hear God’s whisper. It is not surprising that crafting homey versions of these spaces in the Cottage is important. Creating sacred spaces remind me what atmosphere I want to cultivate–a place of prayer, joy, beauty, welcome, delight.

In Orthodox homes, the sacred space is called the icon corner, or even more lovely in Russian, beautiful corner, and is located in the main room.


If creating a space for prayer and reflection is something that draws you, start with three objects that capture your desire for God and arrange them on a table in the kitchen, counter, end table, or as a dining table center piece. The psalmist in psalm 84 writes, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty.” What speaks to you of God’s beauty? Flowers? Candles? A child’s drawing? A letter from a loved one? The bible? Nature? It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to draw your eyes and invite you into the Love it represents.


For many years, I’ve had a lectio table, (lectio means “read,” from lectio divina), a physical representation of my current prayer. I’ve collected found objects over the past 30 years and create a little tableau of prayer for a particular intention, person, or thanksgiving. This kind of sacred space can be a tactile and wordless option for when spoken prayer is too difficult.


A lectio table is also a wonderful way to include little ones–wordy prayer may be beyond their understanding, but having them bring an object to the lectio table helps them find beauty and offer prayer in their own way.


Sacred spaces that are beautiful and capture the eye as well as the heart remind me that I am part of a wider, larger, more magnificent multi-dimensional creation than what my senses experience. We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses; the Kingdom of God is at hand, even now, even when we don’t feel it. The little homey Kingdom places of candles, icons, and images remind me to look beyond momentary trials or my limited through-a-glass-darkly vision to the reality of God’s presence.


Sep 30 2016

Friday Florilegium


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.


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 >>)

Nov 9 2014

Celtic Advent: 40 Days of Joy, Love and Gratitude

Please see the 2018 updated version of the calendar 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!


(a yearly updated post from the archives)
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