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.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Summer Thoughts, from my patio reading- Teresa and Underhill

In the summer I spend a lot of time outdoors; my morning prayer time moves out onto the patio, where I love to admire the green-ness all around me, and listen to the birdsong, which tends to take precedence, in my attention, over the beltway noise. It's also a chance to return to a practice of "morning reading"in spirituality and theology, which tends to fall away during the academic year. I've been rereading Evelyn Underhill's The Mystics of the Church -- not her big book on Mysticism, but her smaller book, written in 1921, which focuses on the mainstream of mysticism in Christianity and shows how these people who pursue, according to their own temperaments, their yearning for God, wind up enriching the corporate life of the church. Underhill is great for debunking the general view of the mystic as someone lost in his/her own little world and would be deeply skeptical of contemporary claims that one can be "spiritual but not religious."

Underhill's reflections on Teresa of Avila, in her chapter on "Spanish Mysticism," shows me clearly how much Teresa was a spiritual mother/grandmother for Underhill. What she admires in this ardent, deeply emotional mystic is the way that Teresa grew into the mystic life -- recognizing (and teaching her spiritual sisters) that the fruit of the ecstatic spiritual union that she experienced is work, work for the spreading and deepening of God's will for the world. For Teresa that happened through her administrative work, reforming her order and founding new convents and teaching new groups of sisters. And in her writing, especially her Life, written at her directors' request, and her later classics, The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle (clearly a favorite of Underhill's, who offers her own version in a little book called The House of the Soul). Underhill, living four centuries later, seems to have experienced this same call to channel profound experience of God's presence and call into an incredibly busy life of teaching, retreat work and writing. Though neither Underhill or Teresa had children to raise, I realize that I last read this chapter on Teresa when I was in the thick of childrearing, and found it encouraging to see how they both saw spiritual and practical life as connected and bearing fruit in ordinary experience. It is interesting to see this again, from a new stage of family life (when I actually have time to sit on the patio on a summer morning and read Evelyn Underhill!)

For both of these women, it wasn't ever about "how busy they were," though their lives were incredibly busy and drawn in many different directions, but about what God might want in the situations where they found themselves, and how their gifts for prayer and contemplation might be "for" God's purposes.

I have always been drawn to Underhill, because of her preaching and modeling of a "practical mysticism." It is interesting to see how she sees Teresa -- often caricatured as an ecstatic out of touch with life -- as the pattern of a healthily developing spiritual life, and as an example of how that life bears fruit, through discipline as well as through giftedness.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Church - A Sermon in Stone

(Also posted on Episcopal Cafe)

In 1965 I visited Washington DC with my girl scout troop, and was taken on a tour of the Washington “National Cathedral, which was then a work in progress. I don’t actually have a visual memory of what we saw – except a sense that it was confusing and hard to picture. I was from a New England Presbyterian background where not much emphasis was placed on aesthetics, so at that time I didn’t see the point of putting so much energy and labor into a church building. But I remember hearing that it might be completed by the 1990’s, and thinking that sounded like ages away. I could not know then that by 1990, when the cathedral was completed, we would be living in Washington, and that later in the 1990’s that cathedral and its schools and choral program would become a central part of our family’s life, and the beauty of that space would be formative to my life of worship and prayer. I thought of this recently when I had the opportunity to visit the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) temple in Barcelona this past month, and walked through a nave under construction, watching stonecutters at work on massive columns in a space still open to the sky.

Officially called the “Temple Expiatiri de la Sagrada Familia,” this fascinating building is a work in progress whose history and architecture embodies the vision of a generations of deeply committed Christians, both artists and donors, The project began in the late 1800’s, in an era of rising industrial prosperity and cultural burgeoning in Barcelona. (“Expiatory, ” I understand, means funded by the alms of the faithful: the project is entirely privately funded). The architect, Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) was a brilliantly original artist and a devout Roman Catholic with a deeply mystical sensibility and unique vision. He worked on this building over most of his career, making it the focus of his work during the last four or five years of his life. Gaudi died suddenly in 1926, run over by a streetcar, and work on the building was interrupted and thwarted again by upheavals in Spanish politics and the suppression of Catalonian culture at various times in the 20th century. But his plans and vision for the Sagrada familia were the focus of his life throughout a brilliant architectural career, and the artchitects of succeeding generations have taken up that vision, shaping it with their own voices and styles and with a continuing faithfulness.

Jacques Maritain said somewhere that if you want to be a Christian artist, you should be a Christian, live your faith, and then put all your energy into the perfection of your art work. The artists involved over generations in completing the Sagrada Familia have been faithful to the vision that Maritain describes . The result is a work with many distinct artistic voices, speaking of a common faith. It is something hard to put into words, but you experience it in the space, the stone carving and the architecture.

Over the century and more that it has been in progress, the Sagrada Familia temple has come to reflect a Christian vision uniquely suited to the 21st century, the century in which it is expected to be completed. The Nativity Façade depicts with great gentleness and humanity the story of the nativity and the mystery of Incarnation. It celebrates the virtues of faith, hope, and love in its 3 porticos. The stone carvings on this façade are lush and lavish and baroque, the human figures reflecting a gentle and beautiful humanity, amid depictions of nature – flowers, animals, and trees, which are Gaudi’s hallmark. Looking at this portal, which is now on the UN list of World landmarks, one experiences the connection between the Mystery of the Incarnation and our Creator-God’s love for the beautiful, material, bodily world where we live and the. Contrasted to this, the facade of the Passion, sculpted in the 1970’s by Josep Maria Subirachs, conveys the stories of Passion Week in carvings that are stark, linear and impressionistic, conveying the stripping-down of everything. The Resurrection portal and window bring this all together, and the projected towers that will top this building when it is finished will focus on the risen Jesus. So it is, as the guidebooks say, a “sermon in stone.” Like the medieval cathedrals, it re-tells the core of the Christian story. There are also details everywhere that speak to our time. We noticed a gargoyle on one capital in the cloister that depicted the devil handing a bomb to a terrorist! Elements of the creed and of church governance are also incorporated into the building, but the representations of the life of Christ, the focus on Jesus as the heart of the story, and the interweaving of all of this with natural imagery, remain striking to anyone who visits this building. In a post-Christian Europe, where people still appreciate beauty but are increasingly secular in orientation, this temple will preserve the story, and the artists’ belief in the truth of the story comes through, somehow, in the quality of their work.

Gaudi is known for the colorful ceramic tile work and the organic, non-linear shapes on his most famous buildings – especially the Casa Battlio, the Casa Mila and the Park Guell in Barcelona, and the turrets and roof ornaments of the Sagrada Familiia are among his most striking works in this medium. The colorful parts of the building are almost entirely reflections of natural objects – fruits, birds, trees. Inside the building, the huge, 5-part nave is now under construction. In keeping with Gaudi’s original vision, the huge columns that hold up the vaults of the nave are shaped like trees, and it really does feel as if one is walking through what one guidebook called a “mystical forest” inside that nave, -- which is still open to the sky but will one day be a high-vaulted space, illuminated by both natural light and stained glass.

This is the part that struck me as so contemporary. The Sagrada Familia tells the Christian story in a building that also celebrates the beauty and strength of the earth, and our connection to Creation. In the century that will have to address global warming and our stewardship of the earth, Gaudi’s vision is even more compelling than it was in his time – when natural images were a more or less standard part of the “modernista”/ art nouveau vision. I do not know if I will get to see the completed Temple of the Sagrada familia in my lifetime – it looks as if they still have years of work to do. But remembering my first visit to the National Cathedral, I believe it will be finished one day, and I’m glad that this vision is being carried forward, embodying in space and stone the faith of generations of Christian artists.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Julian of Norwich and World travel

There's a lot to be learned from traveling, both inwardly and outwardly, close to home and abroad -- besides caution about watching out for thieves (see previous post). And there were many insights from the recent traveling in Spain. The week before I had spent some time on retreat and had occasion to reread Julian of Norwich's famous writing about her vision, in which she saw "a small thing, the size of a hazel-nut" which turned out to represent "everything that is". The revelation was that God created, loves, and preserves or "keeps" that "small thing". On retreat, in a place filled with birdsong, green leaves and abundant rain, I was aware of all Creation as held and beloved in this way -- and of God as greater than, and outside of all that is. It's quite different from saying that God is "in things" or "in nature" -- rather it's that we, with all Creation, are held in God's love. To say that God "holds" all that is is also to acknowledge that what we know as the Love of God is beyond anything we can really conceive of or imagine, and yet that sense of being "kept" -- held, preserved -- abides, and connects beyond ourselves.

A transatlantic flight, with people from all over the world, speaking all different languages, is another occasion for reflecting on how we are held in the mystery of God's love, and how big the world is. Crammed together for 8 hours, in a cramped space made as hospitable as possible, we are human together. There is something sweet, endearing, about seeing people trying to get comfortable and sleep for awhile on an airplane, as lights are dimmed and meals are served in an effort to acknowledge some kind of circadian clock. I recognize in myself a very human vulnerability and need, shared with my fellow passengers, as I try to settle down to sleep, even as others are sitting up, watching movies or otherwise trying to distract themselves.

Then we get to the airport, awake but jet lagged, and are surrounded by activity and new spaces (we flew to Spain via Munich, with a fine view of farmland at the foot of the alps). The world is huge, there are so many people, all headed in different directions (and those I was observing are at the top of the economic order, able to afford this journey). And yet there is more - and we still do not exhaust "all that is," created, preserved and mysteriously loved by a God who is beyond it all, and yet , in Julian's vision, somehow cherishes all.

How far this journey was from anything Julian could have imagined from her cell, or from the simplicity of my retreat, and yet on this journey I saw the implications of her vision in a new way. I am grateful for this!

Here's the full passage from Julian of Norwich

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut , lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus,'It is all that is made.' I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that he loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially oned to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

This little thing that is made, I thought it might have fallen to nought for littleness. Of this we need to have knowledge that it is like to nought, all things that are made. For to love and have God that is unmade.

For this is the cause why we are not at ease in heart and soul, for we seek rest here, in this thing that is so little where there is no rest, and knowing not our God who is all mighty, all wise and all good. For he is true rest. God will be known, and he likes us to rest in him. For all that is beneath him cannot suffice us. And this is the cause why no soul is rested, until it is noughted of all that is made. And when he wills to be noughted for love, to have him who is all, then he is able to receive spiritual rest.