About Me

My photo
I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Discipleship and the Creative Process

My teaching this week, at various places, is inviting me to consider together discipleship and the creative process: what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ, to somehow participate in the realization of the "dream of God" (AKA "the kingdom of God") but also what it means to be a part of an ongoing creative process and to participate in that process, as part of who I am as a human being. The two things go together, and I've been trying to find ways to talk about that.
Reminded in my reading today of one of Evelyn Underhill's wonderful homely analogies -- this one from The School of Charity, her book on the Christian creed. Here's what she writes:
'The Kingdom of Heaven,' the supernatural order, is like yeast. And we are required to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven: sons and daughters of God. That means that we too have our share in the creative process. We live and die within the workshop, used as tools if we are merely dull and uninterested, but accepted as pupils and partners with our first movement of generosity in action, prayer of love. The implications of that truth must be worked out within each separate life; beginning where we are, content if our handful of meal can make a cottage loaf, not indulging spiritual vanity with large vague dreams about ovens full of beautiful brioches. Most of us when we were children managed sometimes to get into the kitchen; a wonderful experience with the right kind of cook. A whole world separated the cook who let us watch her make the cake, from the cook who let us make a little cake of our own. Then we were filled with solemn interest, completely satisfied, because we were anticipating the peculiar privilege of human beings; making something real, sharing the creative work of God. We, in our measure, are allowed to stand beside Him; making little things, contributing our action to His great action on life. So we must use the material of life faithfully, with a great sense of responsibility, and especially our energy of prayer, with a due remembrance of its awful power.

"the peculiar privilege of human beings; making something real, sharing the creative work of God." Walking with this thought today. Will have to see where it takes me.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ash Wednesday and the Christian journey

I was very moved by this livejournal post I found, from a college student I know and love. Posting it with her permission.

07:51 pm - Ash Wednesday
It's strange sometimes, how college can feel so much like high school one minute, and so much not like high school the next.

Today's Ash Wednesday, and I went to services because I don't know how not to go. I wouldn't feel whole, or complete, or Christian or whatever. And I sat in a chapel with stained glass windows and a bunch of people my own age listening to a vaguely boring sermon by a person with a weird accent. Then I got the dust to dust schpiel and got my ashen cross, and got sent into the world to observe a holy lent. And on the way out, I talked to a teacher of mine and a couple of friends who were also cross-laden, and then I went to class.

But when I came outside, I was the only black-crossed kid. the only one that I saw all day. And I spent the day with a couple of jokes and ubiquitous questions, like "hey, you've got something on your forehead" and "I totally didn't know you were Catholic." (Picture me screaming in my head I'm not Catholic! I'm not! I'm not! I'm an Episcopalian! We're spiffy and like women!)

And then I got a couple of "you actually believe that shit?" questions, and a bunch of confused looks, and I felt alone. A couple people looked at me, and in some vague hearkening to their life with their parents, would say "oh, I'll go to services later." And I realized that I was alone. That I was among a very, very small group of people around who actually, in the words of one friend, believe this shit. And I never realized how nice it was, how comforting, to not have to explain that to people on this day, back in Hearst Hall.

Every Ash Wednesday, they read the passage about "do not pray in the streets so others may hear you" and "do not moan and groan when you fast". I always have interpreted that as a reason to wash off my cross after church. To leave it on has felt like I was bragging, or advertising. Today I left it on, in an act of twisted penance, knowing that some of my atheist friends will honestly never really get me, now that they know that I truly do believe all this shit. I've kept it hidden, to protect myself, to pretend that I'm normal, and show the same distain for organized religion that all college students are somehow supposed to show for authority. But I'm not that kid, and now everyone knows.

Duke Street and St. Teresa

I know I am irretrievably a "choir nerd," from all those years singing in church choirs, when I drive past the freeway exit for "Duke Street" and find myself launching into the hymn tune by that name (the Episcopal hymnal - and others -- gives names to the tunes of the hymns: this one is known by normal hymn-singers as "O God Beneath thy Guiding Hand" or "Jesus Shall reign, where'e'er the sun" but a choir nerd remembers the tune name. I can't help it.) Anyway, driving by Duke Street I often find myself singing an inner verse of the hymn about the reign of God:
"Blessings abound where e'er he reigns
The prisoner leaps to loose his chains
The weary find eternal rest
And all who suffer want are blessed."

What strikes me in this hymn, always, is that healing and the "reign of God" seem to go together -- there is no "you have to believe this first in order for this to happen." Rather, it happens. It is happening. We know that the reign of God -- the dream of God (see my post in January 07 under "What I Believe") is happening when we see freedom, relief from suffering, blessing. When what is broken is made whole. This hymn goes well with the gospel of Luke, where Jesus sends his disciples "to preach the kingdom and to heal" -- it's not a conditional thing: you have to accept this belief system to be healed. No. It is waking people up to what is always, already happening: The God who made us and loves us is always trying to open up a new way. But first, as people who are coming to believe in the reality of this God, we have to notice what is happening ourselves: that is the first step in faithful "discipleship" -- which is the topic I'm supposed to be teaching about in a lot of places, this Lenten season. And meditating on myself.

So how do we notice the places in the world where God's dream is already being fulfilled? Or the places in need of healing? Three places to start:

1. Practicing the discipline of attentiveness: this is advocated in many religious traditions: Esther de Waal's little book called Lost in Wonder:Recovering the Spiritual Art of Attentiveness is a lovely invitation to the practice of paying attention to what is around us: when we do, we notice both the beauty of creation, which sustains us, and the brokenness of human relationships and human activity, which will break our hearts.

2. Praying the brokenness: Paying attention, and bringing to prayer, the brokenness we see when we pay attention. This reminds us of our dependence on God, and usually, if we pray sincerely, it also leads us to ways, large or small, that we can be agents of reconciliation, healing, wholeness, starting where we are.

3. Deepening: Learning who we are in relationship to God and to our particular place in the world: our circumstances, makeup, and special gifts. This is the first step toward discerning the "call" to discipleship that is unique to each of us as individuals -- the unique way that we participate in the community of believers, called to be a part of the healing of a broken world. This is God's work, and ours as we grow into relationship with God. It is always a call to return and reconciliation (see "What I Believe" post again)

Reflecting on Healing and proclamation, driving by Duke Street, I try to put together that hymn's vision of the reign of God with a prayer of St. Teresa of Avila. She says

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
Yours are the only hands with which he can do his work,
Yours are the only feet with which he can go about the world,
Yours are the only eyes through which his compassion canshine forth upon a troubled world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Much to ponder here.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Some wisdom from Evelyn Underhill

Some people find her prose a little stiff, but I always find myself fed by Evelyn Underhill's wisdom and realism about the spiritual life. Here are some words to ponder -- yesterday's entry in a little book called Lent with Evelyn Underhill that I am returning to this year.

The spiritual life is a stern choice. It is not a consoling retreat from the difficulties of existence; but an invitation to enter fully into that difficult existence, and there apply the Charity of God and bear the cost. Till we accept this truth, religion is full of puzzles for us, and its practices often unmeaning: for we do not know what it is all about. . . . We pray first because we believe something; perhaps at that stage a very crude or vague something. And with the deepening of prayer, its patient cultivation, there comes -- perhaps slowly, perhaps suddenly -- the enrichment and enlargement of belief, as we enter into a first-hand communion with the Reality who is the object of our faith.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Call to Discipleship I: Try again. Go deeper. Don't be afraid.

Someone (GK Chesterton?) said that Christianity hasn't failed, it just has never been tried. I think of that when I go to teach or lead forums about Christian discipleship. It's one thing to be a church member, to say we believe in the message Jesus brought. But to be a disciple: that's another matter. We can point to a lot of abuses by people who have used the name of Jesus in the service of other things: power, control over people's lives, retaining a sense of order and security, assuring people that they are good people. But when we think of people who have actually practiced Christian discipleship it's another matter: usually they're less interested in doctrine than in practice, more interested in serving those outside the church or institutional structure than on maintaining the institution, or, if they're in the institution, more interested in calling its people to be disciples. Verna Dozier challenged people to "follow Jesus" rather than being content "only to worship him." I've always had a little trouble with that because I think worship is a part of the practice of discipleship -- but it's only a part of it. But the call to discipleship is a call to be open to real change and transformation, both within ourselves and in a world in deep need of healing.

So I've been reflecting on the story in Luke's gospel about the calling of the Fishermen (Luke 5, 1-11)-- especially the experience of Simon Peter. Luke is a great writer -- he really develops the story of the Holy Spirit bursting in on human history, in the first four chapters of this gospel (with the familiar stories of the Annunciation to Mary and the shepherds and the stable), as well as other moments when the poor and marginalized are the first to see that God is coming to transform a broken and oppressed world. Then Jesus turns up in his hometown (in Luke 4) reads the prophetic promise from Isaiah "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to set at liberty the captive, to proclaim the day of the Lord's favor". His hometown neighbors nearly run him off a cliff for claiming that this Scripture is being fulfilled. What I hadn't noticed is that it's right after this run-in with the people of Nazareth that Jesus enters Simon (Peter's) house and heals his mother-in-law. So Simon, in Luke's telling of the story, actually knows Jesus before the "call" story that comes in Chapter 5. What he witnesses here is another, quieter "spirit-inbreaking" moment. Jesus heals Simon's mother-in-law, the fever leaves her, and she serves them (Luke 4:38-39). She is healed, and her response is to serve - a model for discipleship there, too.
In the very next chapter,(5:1-11) Jesus is meeting Simon again -- this time climbing into his boat, asking him to put out from the shore, and teaching the crowds from this boat. A lot in this passage is striking my imagination as I dwell with it a bit:

First, the crowds -- so many people -- a sense of urgency, of people feeling that this man has something they really need to hear, something that will change their lives -- and his eagerness to get somewhere where they can hear him -- evidently it was easier to hear him teaching from a little out into the lake than from the shore. The abundance of people at the opening of this story parallels the abundance of fish at the end of it and Jesus's "henceforth you will be catching people" (5:10 NRSV) ties those two themes together. Great storytelling. I like that about Luke.

Then - Simon's experience; He's rowing, or keeping the boat in place while Jesus is teaching from right there in the boat with him -- so presumably he is taking in everything Jesus says -- and he has just heard him, in Nazareth, preaching, and seen him heal. So he knows what this man has to say, and what he is about -- and he seems to be growing more and more fascinated, and interested in just being around Him. Is this perhaps like many people who keep coming back to church or inquiring about Christianity - because there's something in it that appeals to them and inspires them, and they want to be a part of it? There is a lot to be said for just sitting there in the boat and listening for awhile. But Simon can't stay that way forever.

When he finishes speaking, instead of going back to shore and on his way, Jesus says to Simon, "put out into deeper water and cast down your net." And Simon says, in essence -- "we already tried that, and it didn't work." OR any of us faithful churchgoers or inquirers might say, "Aren't I doing something like what you say I should be doing? I'm already doing the best I can to make sense of all this and to begin living by it." That's the argument. But Jesus says, "Try again. Go deeper." And the nets come up full to overflowing. Frighteningly so.

There's more to the story -- Simon is frightened, moved to contrition, Jesus tells him "don't be afraid, from now on you'll be catching people." Whatever Simon was doing before has been transformed, and he has been shown that abundance will follow. There's more to ponder there.

But what I'm focusing on at the moment is the moment of call in this version of the story -- in the other versions (Mark 1:16-20 and Matthew 4:18-22) , Jesus simply says "follow me." Here he says, "Try again." "Go deeper." "Don't be afraid." And the result of obeying THOSE commands is the decision to follow him. That's where it starts -- over Simon's excuses and protests.

I'm going to continue reflecting on this version of the call to discipleship. In Luke, it is the beginning of a transformed life, and of participation in a mission of healing and restoration.

"Try again. Go deeper. Don't be afraid."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Art, Life, Discipleship

I'm giving two talks this week and need to brainstorm about them. The first one is on Work, Art and Life and how those things connect, in particular, with my nearly 20-year inner conversation with the work of poet and artist David Jones. The main thing about Jones is that he sees art as a "sacramental" practice. That is, whenever we make a work of art we are also "showing forth" our nature as people who make signs, who say " look: this thing I'm holding up IS something else, too -- it has more meaning than simply itself, and yet is also itself. This has the effect of always pointing toward what Rowan Williams has called an "excess of meaning." That is what art and poetry do -- they remind us that there is more meaning than we apprehended, always more to know and explore in the mystery of life. That is also why art implies the sacred, according to David Jones -- and that is something I have long believed. Viewing a work of art, we are seeing the experience of a human being engaging with something greater than him/herself. Reading a poem, we get a concentration of experience that somehow catches fire and illuminates our own experience. That is my experience with both making and enjoying works of art. 4 other points that I make when I talk about creativity and sacramental life are
1. The artist is a creator, participating in the work of her Creator. Part of how we know we are in the "image of God" is by this urge to create, which we share with the One who created us. So when I'm engaged on writing a poem, or making a work of art, I am in a special kind of companionship with the divine life. I love this idea. I've experienced it myself but I also find it in writings by Dorothy Sayers, Madeleine L'Engle, and David Jones.

2. There is something sacramental about any work we make, because we are using "material" (paint, stone, words) to point beyond themselves to an "other" that always contains more meaning than we can capture. "A sign must be significant of something," David Jones writes, so of some 'reality', so of something that is 'sacred.' That is why I think the notion of sign implies the sacred.

3. Each work of art is a new thing with a life of its own. Part of what I learn as a poet is to let my words go their own way, take on their own shape. I know a poem is finished when it "talks back to me," says something that I didn't know I was saying.

4. A finished work of art is a deep communication between human beings, sharing the mystery of our common experience and of our uniqueness: it is the language of the heart, unmediated. The response of a viewer to a finished piece of art is, "Yes, I see now -- something more than I saw before. "

I think it is also true, for artists, that art is a spiritual discipline: the way we work with our materials also affects how we deal with life.

Enough of this for now. These are the ideas I keep coming back to when I'm asked to talk about art and creativity and what they have to do with the spiritual life.


Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Retreat Notes

I'm including this photo of the sunlight on a bare tree to remind me of the beauty of this past weekend's experience of retreat. There is something quite wonderful about the winter sun in Washington DC -- it has the brightness of mediterranean sunlight in an impressionist painting, and yet the branches and leaves are all dull colors -- greys and browns and deep evergreen. Something about the sun this weekend seemed to bring all the winter colors to life -- sparkling on boxwood leaves, creating streaks of silver and crystal light along the edges of branches and tree trunks. The light of the stained glass windows inside the Washington National Cathedral was also extraordinarily clear and bright this weekend -- a real gift.
I was at the Cathedral College for a weekend of retreat, led by Martin Smith and Esther de Waal, two well known and truly gifted writers about the classic traditions of the Christian spiritual life. Large parts of the retreat were spent in communal silence, in this lovely big old stone building, with a garden at its heart, that feels like somewhere in England or Europe. I felt very far away from home. I wrote pages and pages of journal notes about what was said but the thing that most stays with me is that everything about what we call the life of faith is grounded in our deepening experience of a God who longs to be in relationship with us. The image of God as a lover seeking us as beloved, which runs through so much of the mystical tradition and especially in traditions of interpretation of the Song of Songs, really stayed with me and grew in the silence. This is the personal experience that goes with what I called the "dream of God" in an earlier post. It's about deepening our awareness of a Love that is really beyond our understanding, but that is available to our experience, because in some mysterious way the God we seek is also seeking us. The retreat reminded me that everything we are called to be and do comes out of this core of experience -- something to keep returning to. It is an inexhaustible mystery. The long times of silence and the retreat addresses that connected in practical ways to the mystical tradition helped me to experience this afresh, and more deeply because of the long times of silence. It was refreshing indeed.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Me at a peace march

Last Saturday I participated in the peace march in DC. I've never liked peace marches because there are so many different messages and agendas and there is, even within the peace movements, a lot of what approaches "hate speech" about those who disagree or are following wrongheaded policies. But I had to do something after the, to me, totally surreal account of the war in Iraq in the State of the Union address and particularly the way the President characterized as "our enemies" a whole group of people who oppose us for varying reasons -- some of whom are out to kill us, yes. But we have gotten ourselves into so much trouble by oversimplifying the complexities of the Middle East. And we need some kind of radical new way of looking at it.

I came early and attended an interfaith service on the Hill sponsored by a group called the Network of Religious Progressives. I heard about them through the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. What they stand for, I can get behind: an insistence that the politics of domination and control are not the right direction for this country or for humankind. That the values that we express by "generosity" and "love" -- though those words get trivialized -- point the right direction. It was a good gathering -- some helpful reflections from the Scriptures of different faiths, chanting, a variety of worship styles, but mostly just a sense of shared commitment to seeking a way forward and believing in what politicians say is impossible. I'm still exploring this network: their website is http://www.spiritualprogressives.org/ -- I'm going to sign their Iraq peace ad, which calls for: an act of repentance: the President admitting that we were wrong in Iraq and seeking the support of the world community for a way forward; a process of "drawing back" our troops while other countries in the region step in to protect civilians caught in sectarian crossfire; and a commitment to stay engaged through something like the "global Marshall plan initiative". We may argue about practicalities, but it is a vision for a way forward that is about human engagement and a hope for healing in a broken world. Spiritual Progressives leader Rabbi Michael Lerner, who has a good statement about what the day was like for him on line, reminded us at the service that the precedents for the kind of the thing the network hopes to get out there are the faith community's support for the abolition of slavery, the end of apartheid in South Africa (and the "Truth and Reconciliation" model developed afterwards), the Women's movement, the Civil Rights movement. All of these began with people of faith joining with others committed to social justice and insisting that we can pursue the impossible. A wise woman in the church has been quoted often as saying "the Power behind you is greater than the power in front of you." It was good being with a large group of people who believe that, or want to. And it was good, and inspirito have this perspective offered as the opening to the rally on the mall, though very disappointing that that opening appeal to spiritual values got NO coverage in the media that I could see.

I'm slow to sign up for things, but I am watching with interest how this message gets out -- I wonder how it strikes others.