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.

Friday, October 31, 2008

All Saints Day and the Call of God

(also on episcopal cafe

Once again, teaching my class on the Call to Discipleship at Virginia Seminary’s Evening School, I am struck by the Reformers’ insight that vocation is actually where we experience the grace of God. Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are clear on this: Our calling is the expression of God’s grace in our lives; obedience to God’s call is our faithful response to that grace – not something we have to earn or even fully understand, not even something that makes us “better people,” though technically it is what makes us “saints.” This is hard to grasp but it is a beautiful mystery. Vocation is ultimately less about “what shall I do with my life” than it is about “how shall I respond to the relationship with God that I’m already in, perhaps without knowing it? The stirrings and restlessness that come with that experience of call are really already responses to God’s grace, active in us and in our world and relationships. This is what makes reflection on vocation something different from simply career counseling or self-awareness, even though our feelings and yearnings about work and our understanding of our identity help us in discernment. But vocation is the good news that God invites us to participate in the divine work of transformation in the world. So our honest questions about where our real work and our real heart’s desire lies are a form of prayer, really, “responding to God,” as the prayer book has it.

These thoughts about the grace of call and vocation seem particularly appropriate to me as All Saints Day approaches, a day that used to strike me as one of our most “Catholic” celebrations in the Episcopal Church. My first invitation into the Episcopal Church, many years ago, came in a children’s sermon offered by the Rev. Robert Denig (later bishop of Western Massachusetts) at St. John’s, Northampton MA, where he invited the children, whenever they hear the communion prayers, to “remember the company” – the company of heaven who surround us and have gone before us. Raised as a Presbyterian with the concept of the Priesthood of All Believers, I found it a natural and beautiful transition to embrace this idea of the mystical body of the church and to understand participation in the life of the church as a calling for all God’s people, rooted in baptism. “The saints of God are just folk like me,” we sing in that silly and beloved hymn, “And I mean to be one, too.” And the grace of God makes that possible – as Luther and all the saints have known and taught.

There are several different emphases in our celebrations of All Saints Day. Often we combine All Saints and All Souls, and/or the “dia de los muertos,” praying for the faithful departed and loved ones, and embracing the hope of eternal life that is implicit in the idea of the Communion of Saints. I suppose that’s the “catholic” dimension of our Anglican tradition. But it’s also appropriate that the BCP calls for baptisms to happen on All Saints Day, because that stresses the Reformers’ emphasis on God’s grace expressed in our baptismal identity and calling us, right from that moment onwards, to faithful discipleship and membership in Christ’s “eternal priesthood.” It seems to me to be a day when we celebrate the experience of vocation as the center of our relationship to God, regardless of the particular callings that we discern.

“They loved their Lord so dear. . . and His love made them strong.” What the “saints of the Church” know, and what they show us, is that God is active in human affairs and that we come to know God as we discern the divine invitation, always there, to participate in what God is already doing. Baptism begins a life of companionship with those who have known and know this, a life that goes on beyond the boundaries of life and death, but begins here and now, each moment that we say “yes” to this call to participation, to faithful discipleship empowered by grace. This opportunity for recommitment, together with the celebration of the Mystical Body, continue to make All Saints Day a highlight of the church year for me.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Prayer Vigil

I started my day today helping to lead a 12 hour prayer vigil that my church held today. Its announced purpose was to lay "a spiritual foundation" for our capital stewardship campaign which culminates tomorrow as we bring in our pledges for annual and capital fund. So one might have been cynical, perhaps, about whether this was "praying for money" or some kind of ploy. But what made it a profound experience was that the people who stepped forward to lead it are people in the congregation who are truly gifted in prayer, and take seriously the idea that we can bring all that we need to God. The design of the day was simple: People came to pray for an hour, sometime between 9-9, many signing up in advance, and there was a different leader for each hour. I had the 9AM shift so got to begin but the leaders of the team had already set everything up (including bringing some blankets and space heaters because the heat was off in the church, as it happened (the Heat and A/C system is the at the top of the the list for the capital campaign, so it was telling that the heat was off on this particular day!)

There were 5 of us: We began with a brief prayer, and then we each took a handful of prayer cards, filled out by members of the congregation over the past couple of weeks, and took them with us to places of our own choosing, around our very beautiful and nearly empty sanctuary. We prayed in silence, but the silence was rich and full, and held us together. Daylight, candlelight, and stained-glass light combined in the early morning, with the pale brick and sand-colored stone of our sanctuary to make it an experience bathed in light -- even the need to wrap shawls around ourselves against the cold reminded us that we were wrapped in the love of God, each of us praying from a different part of the church -- our own prayers of adoration and petition, as well as the prayers of our fellow parishioners. I was moved by many of the prayers on the cards -- most of them asking for guidance, deepened faithfulness, help with jobs and financial issues, healing. There is something powerful about being invited to bring another soul into prayer, and particularly in that familiar space where I'm used to worshipping -- the candles lit on the altar, the green altar linens of the current liturgical season, and a sense of love and connection between me and the others gathered at prayer - women I feel I know well, even though we know each other mainly from worshipping together on Sundays for many years, and from the meeting or two that we had together to prepare for this day.

In the silence I remembered something Evelyn Underhill wrote about intercessory prayer (in her wonderful little book of essays called "Life as Prayer" -- this is from the title essay: "One human spirit can, by its prayer and love, touch and change another human spirit; it can take a soul and lift it into the atmosphere of God. This happens, and the fact that it happens is one of the most wonderful things in the Christian life." I experienced this at the prayer vigil today, in that familiar place with these well beloved people, all of them, I believe, particularly gifted in intercessory prayer. I am glad to be reminded, and invited again, into this mysterious and very beautiful dimension of the Christian life. It was a holy time, this morning, for me, and I am grateful.

The Spiritual Advisor and the Public Square

Well, I've been pretty lame about keeping up this blog. Here's something I posted last month on Episcopal Cafe, in case anyone is still out there checking this, and missed it. It seems timely as election day approaches

I recently visited the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (NYAPC) in Washington DC, and enjoyed a fascinating historic tour of the building, especially the “Lincoln Parlor.” Mary Todd Lincoln and the children were members of this church during the Lincoln Administration, and apparently the President relied on the pastor, the Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, as an informal spiritual advisor. On display in the Lincoln Parlor are photos of the Lincolns and the Lincoln cabinet, and, behind glass, an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The story is that originally, Lincoln intended an arrangement that would have reimbursed the southern landowners for their slaves, essentially a government “purchase” of the slaves, to free them. In private conversations, the president’s spiritual advisor encouraged him to take a more morally consistent position, and the ultimate result was the Emancipation Proclamation as we have it.

Gurley was the preacher at the funeral of the Lincolns’ son Willie (as well as at Lincoln’s own funeral), and apparently met with the president to talk about “the state of his soul” and to listen. Apparently he did make some use of his relationship for what might be called “political” purposes: there are records of his recommending several people for influential political positions. But he seems to be someone whose judgment and integrity were generally held in high regard. He was also known as a preacher who did not preach politics. It appears that there was a relationship of genuine spiritual companionship between Gurley and the President, though they met relatively infrequently and Lincoln never joined Gurley’s church. The obvious spiritual depth of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, together with the story told at NYAPC about the Emancipation Proclamation, give us some sense of the “fruits” of that relationship, but its details were not a matter of public record when those conversations were going on. And , I believe strongly, this is as it should be, when it comes to spiritual advisors to the powerful and famous.

There’s a contrast here to the way that the religious advisors of the powerful have been covered—and, I suspect, manipulated nowadays, and it is dismaying to me. From my training and work as a spiritual director, I know that conversations about the “state of one’s soul” are about a work in progress, God’s work in progress. And there are good reasons why our code of ethics insists on the sacred confidentiality of such conversations. I would think that for a famous person, such a relationship would need to be a place of freedom and absolute confidentiality.

People sometimes quote their spiritual advisors (as Barack Obama does, for example, in his use of Jermiah Wright’s phrase “The audacity of hope”), and that is their prerogative, as well as their spiritual risk. But I grow uneasy –and suspicious– when spiritual advisors themselves take the public stand and talk about their pastoral relationships with candidates From this point of view Jeremiah Wright’s speech to the NAACP was profoundly distressing and obviously embarrassing to the candidate, whatever one might say about the theology of the black church and the value of the Reverend Wright’s ministry generally. I had the same problem with a New York Times front page article a few weeks ago featuring an interview with Sarah Palin’s pastor, who spoke of her worship and prayer practices and her request for Bible passages to guide her in her desire to be a faithful leader. Even apart from my personal objections to the theology and the political priorities expressed in this interview, I was troubled by the situation: What are we to think, when the pastors to the powerful give public interviews about those conversations. Are they doing it with the candidates’ permission? Or if not, whose agenda is being furthered?

It seems to me that revealing publicly the details of a spiritual conversation is a kind of sacrilege, a manipulation of holy things to further a personal or political agenda. There’s a commandment against that: You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. It seems to me that public discourse about the theological positions of the candidates – and the pressure on them to explain their beliefs is our most blatant contemporary violation of that commandment. There is good reason why pastors and spiritual companions are enjoined to be very respectful of boundaries and confidentiality. In my view, if there is a genuine relationship of spiritual guidance and companionship, this kind of confidentiality should trump the public’s “right to know” about a powerful person’s associates and beliefs.

What a candidate says about him/herself is another matter – and may or may not be the fruit of good spiritual advice. But I have become profoundly suspicious of anything we hear publicly from a “spiritual advisor” about the state of a candidate’s or President’s soul. There’s a Buddhist saying that “those who know, do not speak, and those who speak, do not know.” This seems to me a good guide for processing media stories about the spiritual lives of the candidates, or of any public figures.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park.