About Me

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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.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmastide musings

I love Christmastide - the 12 days of Christmas, when things calm down a bit around the house, the season of preparation is over, presents have been opened, returned, re-gifted, enjoyed -- some who have come for the holidays have gone home, others are still here. But for the Mom of the house, much as I love -- and I do love it-- the season of preparation and the celebrations of Christmas, there is a quiet, deepening restfulness about this time of year. I usually make a point of spending time on the couch by the Christmas tree with a good, light-read book. And sometimes I also find it's a time when I can sink in a little more fully to the mystery of this season -- the claim that it's about God becoming human, out of love. This year I've had time and space to let that sink in and I have to say it's not totally what's you might call a "Christmasy" experience -- but I think it speaks to the depths of what we celebrate in this season, and "ponder in our hearts."

An idosyncracy in my Christmas-decorating practice takes on more meaning for me when I have this Christmastide-time to ponder it. Years ago, when I needed some "straw" for the manger scene, I decided that the closest thing at hand for making it was a dried out palm frond from the previous year's Palm Sunday. So in the creche on our mantlepiece, the straw around the manger is made of palms from Passiontide. I like this symbolic connection. It points to the part of this whole mystery of Incarnation that is beyond words: the manger and the Cross as parts of the same story, and it reminds me, as I take my sabbath time in the living room, surrounded by decorations, of the invitation to ponder what difference it makes to me, to us, to the world, our claim that God became human, became poor, eventually suffered and died, all out of a deep and mysterious love that is at the heart of everything. There is beauty there and harshness. And it's all in the same story. You can't have one without the other.

This year I've also been paying attention to liturgical observances for each of the 12 days of Christmas, and it's interesting to me that they're pretty grim. The day after Christmas honors St. Stephen, deacon and martyr. The 28th of December is the feast of the Holy Innocents, a recollection of Herod's slaughter of Hebrew children, in his pursuit of the baby Jesus -- a story that is all too close to home in these times of genocide, famine and refugees. And today, the feast of Thomas a Becket, commemorates a politically motivated murder in Canterbury Cathedral. In honor of today, I made some of my on-the-couch reading a little heavier and rereadT.S. Eliot's verse drama"Murder in the Cathedral." A passage from that play is sticking with me, because oddly, though it's not what you might call "Christmasy", it gets to the heart of Christmastide, and this whole mystery of Incarnation that we celebrate. I'm putting it out there because it "speaks" in its own way in a way I can't paraphrase. The chorus speaks at the beginning of Act II, looking ahead to the coming martyrdom of Thomas, in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170

What, at the time of the birth of Our Lord, at Christmastide,
Is there not peace upon earth, goodwill among men?
The peace of this world is always uncertain, unless men keep the peace of God
And war among men defiles this world, but death in the Lord renews it,
And the world must be cleaned in the winter, or we shall have only
A sour spring, a parched summer, an empty harvest.
Between Christmas and Easter what work shall be done?

Back to Lessons and Carols in church tomorrow, and that's good too -- but I'm glad of today's reminder of the depth of what we are proclaiming as we sing "Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. O come, let us adore him." Much to ponder here.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

On the Way to Bethlehem

As we move very quickly from Advent IV (“Purify our conscience, O Lord, by thy daily visitation, that our Lord Jesus Christ may find in us a mansion prepared for himself “) it is hard to feel “ready” for Christmas. But the Incarnation is never something we are “ready” for. After trying unsuccessfully to put some thoughts about this into prose, I went back to a poem I published a few years ago, and found that the poetry says this better. The poem was originally from my book, Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture (Edwin Mellen Poetry Press, 2003). Here is a slightly revised version

On the Way to Bethlehem

The timing could not be worse
But it’s the law. My husband has to go,
Even though I’m well along.
You are lively within me, moving and kicking me.
Your kicking hurts. It wakes me in the night,
Reminds me, as I walk
More and more laboriously,
You are coming soon.

I suppose we are safe enough
After all, it was an angel who came.
Looking back, I have never doubted that.
My husband has been tender, despite my disgrace.
He is sure, too, about the angel.
So I suppose we have no cause to worry.
It’s only my aching back
The sharp pains from your tiny feet,
The smell and press of crowds, and all the delays.

The only thing that matters now, is bearing you safely
Into this messy world
And now even that I cannot control.
I did what I could do, but it’s all left behind.
At home, we had a place prepared for you.
I longed to see you soon.
Then I hoped you would come later, after our return
But now I know for sure that you will be coming
To a place we did not know.

I catch my breath at a sudden squeeze of pain.
My body recognizes the agony,
Already begun.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Redeemer and Judge - Advent Musings

I was listening, this afternoon, to the service of 9 Lessons and Carols for Advent Sunday, a lesser-known choral service that is very rich and beautiful. I don' t know how many times I've heard or sung it. But this time what is really giving me pause is the closing collect of the service (which I must have heard many, many times in my life but I'm noticing it this year. That happens: one of the riches of a liturgical tradition.) The prayer goes:

O God, who makest us glad with the yearly expectation of thy coming, Grant that we, who with joy receive thy only-begotten Son as our Redeemer, may without fear behold him when he shall come to be our Judge, even thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

Redeemer and Judge together -- we've been talking about that in my "Ideas of God" class, but now I'm pondering. What might that mean to "behold him without fear when he shall come to be our Judge?" It seems to be connected, in this prayer, to the joy with which we greet our Redeemer. Surely the fearlessness before our Judge would not come from having made ourselves perfect or gotten it all right. No. It can't be that. Because if we were perfect all by ourselves why would we be so joyful about having a Redeemer?Some more demanding spiritual realism is called for here.

This makes me think of something I often say when I teach Flannery O'Connor's haunting short story, "Revelation," in seminary classes. I sometimes say to students that it's partly about how the experience of knowing oneself to be "under Judgment" turns out to be a radical experience of grace, because it brings us into greater honesty before God, and perhaps makes it more possible for us to cooperate with God in the redeeming and purging/purifying work that needs to be done on us, work that we can't even see needs to be done. The protagonist of O'Connor's story, Ruby Turpin, sees this grace for a moment. To us, the readers of the story, she is deeply, obviously unattractive and self-deceived, but she doesn't see this. She spends most of the story congratulating herself on being one of the good people, someone who knows how you're supposed to live, someone who is better than most. At the end of the story she is given a revelation: a vision of all the people of the world going into heaven, with most of those she thought of as her "inferiors" going in ahead of her. The people like herself, she observes, are marching at the end of the procession "with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away." ("Revelation," by Flannery O'Connor, as published in Peter Hawkins & Paula Carlson's anthology, Listening For God:Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith (Augsburg Fortress, 1994, vol. 1, p. 35)

"Even their virtues were being burned away." That's got something to do with this strange theme, in the prayer, about welcoming our Redeemer and beholding our Judge without fear. We don't even know ourselves, but the good news is that God does -- sees us and this broken world as we are and gives us exactly what we need to be whole: a Redeemer. AND a Judge. And the grace to greet him joyfully and without fear.

I think it was Teresa of Avila who defined humility as total and complete realism about ourselves, in God's presence God. I think that is what this prayer is about.

Humility. "Even their virtues were being burned away." I'm going to ponder this for awhile, this Advent. It seems to be one of those prayers that could lead to new insight if I listen afresh. . . .