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, April 24, 2009

Why Church? -- another thought from Evelyn Underhill

As I reread in Evelyn Underhill I find again how she addresses some of the questions I've been carrying now. Here, from her retreat, "Sanctity, the Perfection of Love" (in Ways of the Spirit) is a gentle but I think eloquent reason for why we need churches in some form. I've been thinking about this because of a conversation about "what needs to be thrown out" in the church, being carried on mostly by church-people, on various blogs and particularly at A Church for Starving Artists -- where there's a discussion of "things to toss" in the contemporary church. I haven't tried to respond on that blog because my response is complicated. But here's a quote from Underhill that makes the case for some presence of churches that are carrying on some kind of tradition into the next generation, in some accessible way.

No gardener who knkows his or her job ever gives seedlings rich soil, and God does not either. A step by step response to that which is given is the way to prepare for more. The simple food comes first, and there is lots of it to be found in religious institutions and traditions which modernists are too apt to despise. All the hoarded spiritual food of the race is there, all that it has found out about God. It is silly and arrogant not to accept it.

It is quite true that it is not the same thing as direct experience, just as jam is not the same thing as fresh fruit; still, it is made of fruit and will feed the soul and make it capable of more. Such variety of nourishment is better than fastidious concentration on one kind of food. We are a multiplicity in unity with mind, sense, heart and spirit -- all, possible channels of grace.

Maybe that's a question for churches -- how are we feeding mind, sense, heart and spirit -- and how are we becoming communities of prayer (another theme for Underhill) equipped to reach out to the world in love and charity. For her, it all goes together -- this might be a better measure for deciding what is/is not working in contemporary churches. And for reminding us what churches are for -- in a consumerist context that can confuse us about that.

Underhill also writes (In The Spiritual Life) - a quote I use often: "The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose, not a comfortable religious club established in historic premises. . . . " In that she seems to "chime" with conversations about what needs to go in contemporary religious institutions -- but I appreciate the reminders she gives us of why we might want to have churches, from one generation to the next.

Food for thought -- whether or not we like jam!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Evelyn Underhill and "The Call of God"

Rereading Underhill's retreat "The Call of God" in Ways of the Spirit. This in preliminary preparation for the Underhill Day of Quiet, sponsored by the Evelyn Underhill Association, to be held on June 6. I like her reminder that it all begins in our awareness of ourselves as at once members of Christ, Children of God and Inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. These quotes from her reflection on our growth as "children" of a God who loves us and desires and invites our thriving. Underhill can sometimes sound stern but she has a bracing wisdom about the way that God works with our growing souls. A few quotes I'm pondering this morning:

We are trained through ordinary events and objects, not by peculiar religious experiences. It is better to stay where we are, be gentle and peaceful,and acknowledge that ordinary lilfe. Even the most homely incidents will serve the purposes of God. Our Lord is more likely to come to us in His garden clothes than in robes of glory (p. 231)

Spiritual growth is real growth toward the maturity of free creatures; it is not being brought up in an incubator. And holiness isn't a kind of white wash; it is a growth in freedom, love, and true being. In the process, we must learn to tread firmly and carefully and to lose our fear of spiritual darkness and our greed for spiritual sweets. (p. 231)

When we do not know what the will of God is, surely His will is that we should do our best and use common sense and initiative as we remain open to His strength and surrendered to His love. If we do, surely He will protect us in the ultimate consequences and as regards what really matteres which may not be at all the same as what we think matters. (232)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Spiritual Practices

I've had a number of occasions just lately when I've been asked to talk to groups about what have been called "disciplines" for a lively faith, for staying alert to God's presence in our lives. Listening to myself, and to the questions I hear, I am aware that we need to remember WHY we seek to practice things like prayer, scripture reading, hospitality, sabbath-keeping, service, etc. It is NOT in order to "make ourselves better people". It is to respond to the grace and goodness of God that has already come into our lives. When we say that a way of prayer "isn't working" for us -- we may mean that it makes us feel bad about ourselves, or that it isn't giving us a pleasant and welcome experience of God -- or perhaps that it is distracting us from other good things that we believe deserve or demand our time attention.

So I want to remind myself and others that spiritual practices, creating what the monastics call a "rule" of life -- is NOT for the purpose of "self-improvement." It's rather for the purpose of making us available to the God who loves us in a world where it's pretty easy to get distracted. I'm trying out some categories to think about when I or anyone else begins to reflect on their yearning for spiritual practices that will make us more open to God. And here are some of them:

1. SOME way of regularly "showing up" with God -- Evelyn Underhill calls for "a definite time set apart" sometime during the day -- just on waking or just on sleeping -- some people spend a large chunk of time reading Scripture or a set prayer ritual; others remember to greet the day with a prayer and end the day with reflection on "Where I've seen You/ Where I've missed you." Too many people, however, resist the concept of "showing up" regularly because there seems to be a "right" way of doing it that they can't do: I'd frame it differently then: What practices in your life enable you to "show up" regularly and intentionally for God, in more or less the same time & place, regularly (my link on this blog on "practical suggestions for daily prayer" can help with this but is not an exhaustive list.

2. SOME way of "practicing the presence of God" as we walk through our lives: many people practice a kind of walking/talking prayer, where they think of God while moving, enter a conversation. I hear many speak of times in the car or other times of solitude when they're aware of the presence of God. Watching for beauty in life, being aware of how God speaks to us through daily encounters -- these are all practices that help us toward the goal that Paul counsels, to "pray without ceasing" -- to live in such a way that prayer is a "natural" part of ongoing life. I think many people find this easier than the first practice ("showing up") - I think both are important if we are seeking to be more and more available to a God who is always reaching out to us in love.

A third practice -- and there are lots of ways to approach this -- is to be aware of where we find joy, and nourish those areas of life, and be aware when they're not being nourished. "Making and Moving" go in this category: Making things, exercising our creativity; Moving our bodies so that we are aware of the gifts of life and health. Attention to what is strong and good in our humanness leads us to prayers of thanksgiving to the One who made us. If we are losing track of joy, why is that? What's getting in the way.

A fourth practice, related to this: The Fourth Commandment ("Remember the Sabbath") -- God works for 6 days and rests on the 7th day. The commandment to remember the sabbath is really a reminder that finding balance in our lives between work and rest is an essential part of a lively spiritual life. If we are too tired because we're working too hard (or if we find ourselves "wasting time" because we're just burned out on work that isn't going anywhere -- it may be a sign that it's time to look at the balance between work, rest, and prayer in our lives.

The purpose of all of this is not to make us better but to help us become who we most fully are, so that we can be of use to the God who is in the process of transforming the world, and desires our participation in that work, as the people we are. "The joy of God is the human being fully alive" wrote the Church Father Irenaus of Lyons. Prayer and spiritual discipline are meant to move us toward fulness of life.

The challenge that comes with adopting a regular spiritual practice is it always brings us up against our own inadequacies - we feel guilty or frustrated because we don't "feel like praying" one day, or our efforts to turn to God are disrupted by distraction or the millions of other demands we have in our lives. And we give up because it makes us feel bad. We want to have a "spiritual life" next to all the other things we do in our lives -- but in reality, a spiritual life is lived out in the midst of everything else, and developing an intentional practice helps us to track that.

I've been reading in Evelyn Underhill's retreats - and was stopped by the place where she points out that almost always in Scripture, when someone experiences a true encounter with the living God their first reaction is "depart from me, for I am a sinful man" (Peter in Luke 5) or "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips" (Isaiah 6) -- Maybe we avoid opening ourselves to the possibility of encountering the Living God in our lives because we fear that sense of inadequacy. But Underhill says that the point is to acknowledge that inadequacy and move on - because the next stage in the story is always God MAKING the person called worthy of and adequate to whatever they are called to do. I think sometimes dwelling on our failures at prayer and saying "I just can't do that" is really an avoidance of the relationship that's being invited, where we say "I don't seem to be able to do this - but God will help me if this is what I'm supposed to do."

Spiritual practices remind us of our connection with a mystery much larger than ourselves and invite us to get out of ourselves and pay attention to those around us and to the way God is working in our lives and communities. They remind us of two items of Good news: 1) that we are not God, and 2) that God is with us, and loves us, despite our inadequacies. When we feel inadequate or ashamed, we can ask for mercy - just say "I can't do this alone." And that mercy will come. I think many of us miss out on this experience of grace because we are afraid of "failing" at a regular spiritual practice. But the desire to pray is the thing to nourish -- everything else will follow from that.

Those are my still-developing thoughts on why spiritual practices are a good thing and a gift.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Beauty of the Burial Service - and Resurrection Faith

By Kathleen Staudt (also, in a slightly different version, on episcopal cafe)

A character in one of Mary Gordon’s novels, talking about what the various denominations believe, concludes wryly by saying, "and Episcopalians are not required to believe in anything but the beauty of the Burial Service.”

There's something to that, I discovered again this past Lenten season, when on 3 out of the 5 weekends in Lent I have had a funeral to attend. None were for close family members, but all were services I couldn’t miss. All used the same basic liturgy. All were beautiful and fitting. Two of the services had been carefully designed by friends as they were dying, enshrining something of themselves in eloquent readings and uncannily appropriate music. A third was bare-bones and beautiful, following the sudden death of a member of the church choir, who had been there singing with us the Sunday before. All three services somehow managed to bring together for us the life of an ordinary, beloved person and the quiet hope of Resurrection faith.

Funerals are always disorienting, coming as they do in the midst of life. But a funeral during Lent, if we are observing the season aright, is jarring in ways that go beyond words, and into the heart of our Resurrection faith. On the Sundays and other days in Lent, the cloth on and behind the altar is purple, as are the stoles the priests wear. Our local custom replaces the bronze altar cross with a simple wooden one; floral arrangements are replaced by budding branches or sparse greenery. We don't say "Alleluias." And we commit to whatever practices help us to be aware of our need for God's mercy and love, our desire to repent, return, be restored. Much is taken away, deliberately, during Lent, to make us available to transformation.

And then we arrive at a funeral in mid-Lent and find ourselves suddenly kicked out of Lent into Easter: "I am the Resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. . . . I know that my Redeemer liveth. . . whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's.” There are flowers in the church and the altar hangings and vestments are white. The paschal candle burns, and we sing an Easter hymn. Lent or no Lent, “even at the grave, we make our song, ‘Alleluia.’” A funeral in Lent takes us to the unnameable heart of our faith, which is not about any one of us, our worthiness or unworthiness, but about the unfathomable grace and power of a Risen Saviour who calls us to himself, and gathers us together to receive the promise. But the way to this place of promise is through the loss and the grief that are a part of our human condition.

This year the liturgical seasons of Lent and Easter have grounded me in the spiritual journey, reminding me of the need simply to be in a "between-time" -- during Lent with glimpses of Easter, but only through the lens of grief and death, on this side of the Cross. I found it almost a relief, the Sunday after a Saturday funeral, to return to the sombre purple of Lent. I was back to a place I knew how to be in. It is a time we move through, each year, a pilgrimage- time, between the life we're used to and the mystery of transformation and life eternal. It is hard to find words for this, frustrating to me since I am a word-person; but the visual and liturgical cues of Lenten observance - and of our paradoxical, beautiful burial service, provide an experience of the mystery that I am cherishing this year.

I suppose what I am experience is the truth that we are ultimately and always an Easter people - but our whole life's journey and beyond is about figuring out what that means, and each Lenten season invites a new beginning in that direction. I felt closer to the mystery this year, because of these Lenten funerals. They have been disturbing, disorienting, paradoxical. But a blessing, nonetheless. A Holy Lent, which has made me more aware, now, of the mystery and blessing of Easter.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eastertide - The Stone

At the end of her really good commentary on Mark, Bonnie Thurston writes in a way that has been speaking to me about the image of the stone that covers the mouth of the tomb. She writes: "In the accounts of the Garden of Resurrection in the gospels there is a great stone over the mouth of Jesus' tomb. Who will move it? The women know that they are unable to remove what separates them from the Lord. This is a great metaphor for the spiritual llife. We cannot, in our own strength, remove what separates us from God and the life God wants us to have in fullness. We cannot bring life from death. But God can and does. The technical word for this is "grace." (The Spiritual Landscape of Mark, p. 78)

And then I turn to the gospel appointed for today, John 20, 11-18 (but I am reading it all the way from 20:1) -- my favorite of the Easter gospel accounts, of Mary Magdalene, meeting, first an angel and then Jesus in the garden and not recognizing where she is or who she is speaking to until the moment when she does. (I've written about this elsewhere on this blog (see other posts tagged "Easter"). But now, in light of what Bonnie Thurston has written, I notice again the first verse of John 20: "

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

An image of grace I now see: While it is still dark -- the stone is already removed. Before we even know how or what has happened. Something real has changed, by God's power and love. Coming to see what this means for me seems to be an invitation, this Eastertide.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holy Saturday - a new poem

Martin Smith writes that "Poetry can lead us to the place of wonder, but it patrols the shoreline of what can be said, only making us more aare of the ocean of the unsayable" (Love Set Free, p. 66) Perhaps that is why what I was trying to say in my journal about this odd, rich, in-between day in the triduum came out as a poem. (See also my friend Kit Carlson's meditation on this day at Saints Alive -- good stuff).

But here's my poem: a first draft, no doubt, but it begins to say something.

Holy Saturday

Rain. Strong, steady April rain
Scatters waning cherry blossoms over the grass
Invites scarlet tulips, yellow daffodils
To stiffen, open, rise.

In churches that observe this day
Everything is grey
Crosses gone or covered, candles out
Waiting for the night, when New Fire flames
Baptized, Exultant, Singing.

Today, the waiting time.
Whatever happened during Lent
Is buried in the harrowed soil,
Puts down roots now, drinking in
The steady April rain.
Who knows what green will grow
From this quiet, rain-soaked day?

Kathleen Henderson Staudt
April 11, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday: "Making it Real" II

My "Lent book" for this year, Bonnie Thurston's The Spiritual Geography of Mark's Gospel, reminds me that because God suffered alone, no one, ever again, will suffer alone. I'd paraphrase it this way: from this side of the Cross (the Easter side), we know Christ is there in solidarity and love, with all human suffering, having suffered himself. Knowing this provides us with a way through suffering, though it is often hard to feel or see. But when we understand it the Cross becomes a healing image, a reflection of the divine compassion for the whole world, as expressed and lived out in the Incarnation and Passion. As a hymn-hummer, I find this summarized well in a middle stanza of Isaac Watts"s "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross":

See, from his side, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

It's a baroque, vivid image but it stays with me as an image of the divine love.
I think Bonnie's book also does a beautiful job of showing us both the vulnerability and the strength of the suffering Christ, and the paradoxical hope that we find in the mystery of the Cross, so central to Mark's gospel.

But today we are in the gospel of John - as we always are on Good Friday. And the focus is the Love of Christ for us, and the totality of his self-offering, expressed in the events of the Passion. The hymn that springs to my lips is "What Wondrous Love is this, O My Soul!" For Holy Week I've been rereading Martin Smith's wonderful meditations on the Passion according to St. John, Love Set Free. He shows how the Cross, in the fourth Gospel, becomes the moment of union between the divine and the human, when God's desire for us, and our desire for God, is consummated and made real. Ever since I first read Smith's meditations, I have found that the image of the Cross has become, for me, an image for the mystery of God's love, hidden, incomprehensible, and yet manifest in the real events of the Crucifixion, and in the Holy One's willing submission to this.

Martin Smith looks at the moment when Jesus, from the Cross, speaks to his mother and the Beloved Disciple and makes of them a new family. And for Smith, this is the moment when the Church begins, at the foot of the Cross. This moment was made real for me last night and this morning, after the Maundy Thursday service, when we held an all-night prayer vigil in the stripped-bare, darkened church (the only liturgical symbols the black-veiled crosses on the altars.

There were many gifts to me in this time of silent prayer, but perhaps the most impressive was the first hour, when a surprisingly large group gathered in the small chapel, where the altar of repose was (holding the Cross and the consecrated bread and wine being reserved for today's liturgy). There were probably 15-20 of us, and as is typical in our congregation we represented many backgrounds and cultures and languages -- the prayer vigils, held in silence, are impressively the place where the English speaking and Spanish speaking members of the congregation can be fully at prayer together. I thought of Martin Smith's observation about the Church being formed at the foot of the Cross and I was deeply moved by the way this gathering made that real: all of us in deep reverence, puzzled and yet drawn to the mystery of love that we had just re-enacted in the liturgy -- recognizing that every one of us is held in this love, safe in this love and open to prayer. Just the fact of our being there reminded me of a friend who once remarked that "Christianity begins at the foot of the Cross." In that place of shared suffering and growing compassion, we were together. It would be good for the Church at large, with all our truly silly divisions and quarrels, if we could remember this place where we begin, contemplating the mystery of a Love that is beyond our understanding, offered and raised up for our contemplation and deep gratitude.

By the time we get here, to Good Friday, we've done what we can do about our own sins and struggles - that was what Lent is for. Today is about Christ, and what he, in his love, has done for us. We are gathered to be present with Christ, as he desires to be present with us, and to give thanks for what has already been done, once and for all, to bring us back into union with his Love. For that is really all there is to say on Good Friday - a quiet "thank you" for the redemption that has already happened, whether we can feel it or not in the moment. And a waiting, in adoration, for the unimaginable part of the story, which comes next. We do this together. It doesn't make sense any other way.

The starkness of the Good Friday service in the Book of Common Prayer is appropriate for all of this, beginning as it does with a prayer that sums up where we are, praying at the foot of the Cross, aware of both horror and the ultimate promise that it holds:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
(BCP 2760

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Holy week pilgrimage: Making it Real I

Today I joined a small group from the church youth group on what was billed as a "mini-pilgrimage" to the National Holocaust Memorial in DC. I have never been before, and this year, Holy Week did seem an appropriate time for such a pilgrimage. Now I'm back to reflect just a little on the experience - hoping that the "blogging process" will help me put a shape to it.

It's spring break in DC and the place was really crowded with groups of young people. How was this a "pilgrimage?"was my first question to myself My working definition of the attitude to bring a pilgrim, rather than a tourist, comes from T.S. Eliot's great pilgrimage poem, "Little Gidding." Visiting the chapel where Nicholas Ferrar and his companions formed a religious community during the English Civil War, Eliot writes,
"You are not here to verify,/ instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel/Where prayer has been valid."

That is, pilgrimage is about entering the experience and the place, and finding where God is there. (Not just learning the history - which in this case is numbingly awful) Walking through these exhibits "makes it real" - we're invited to remember the real people killed in the holocaust, their stories, their lives. The Memorial bears witness to the awful combination of state-sponsored genocide and a long history of ugly and widely accepted racist anti-semitism. On the face of it this does not seem to have much to do with the "valid prayer" of Eliot's pilgrimage vision. Indeed the question: "Where was God in all of this evil" reverberates inevitably as you walk through the vivid and beautifully constructed exhibits, the terrible images, the terrible stories of the Nazi era, those who were its victims and those who carried out the horribly named "final solution". In Holy Week, as we reflect on the Way of the Cross, it is both distressing and convicting to reflect how the same tradition that tells of the compassion and love of Jesus, going willingly to the Cross (in the fourth Gospel especially) has been retold in ways that furthered and deepened the anti-semitism that made so many Germans-- and Americans -- indifferent to the horror was happening to the Jews of Europe. It seems so utterly contrary to the message of the gospels to blame the "other" -- the Jews-- for the Cross. The only prayer that has been valid in this place and time in history seems to be that of the psalmist: "My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?"

But of course that is also the prayer of Jesus - who is God Incarnate -- from the Cross. This realization also brings me deeper into the story we are telling in Holy Week. We dwell on the horrible details of Christ's Passion to remind ourselves what human beings are capable of; We try to imagine a God who willingly takes flesh and comes to a world where someone is capable of driving a nail into the hands and feet of a fellow human being -- and who suffers that, with a radical compassion of the One who suffers with us, longing for our wholeness despite what we do.

This is the mystery I've come up against, taking this pilgrimage today. If nothing else, it has forced me to bear witness to the suffering that goes on and how easy it is to become complicit in the infliction of suffering. This pilgrimage made it real, in an experiential way, forced me to see what we are capable of. The Cross does that, too -- and also tells us something about the love of God for us, and what kind of truth-telling and clarity of vision about ourselves that love demands of us.

I don't have words for what that "something" is -- but I am seeing, on the Eve of Maundy Thursday, that this was an appropriate pilgrimage for me to make, this Holy Week.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

More on Julian - Sin and the persistence of Love

Julian is really "speaking" to me again -- haven't read her in years but glad to be returning. And I like Frances Beer's modern translation (especially for devotional reading). In the 24th revelation of divine love she reflects back on her vision of the suffering Christ on the Cross, who for her has become the emblem of a divine Love that desires nothing but that we should thrive and love and be whole (my paraphrase but I don't think it misrepresents Julian). She has also been having an honest conversation with Christ about sin - how it separates us from His love, and how he is eager to remove that separation. This passage seems very wise both about divine love and human psychology:

Though the persons of the blessed trinity are all equal in property, love was showed most fully to me, because though it is closest to us all, we are blindest in our knowledge of it. Many men and women elieve that God is all mighty and may do all, and that he is all wisdom and can do all; but that he is all love and will do all -- there they stop. Such ignorance most hinders God's lovers, for when they begin to hate sin and to amend themselves according to the ordinances of holy church, a dread remains that stirs them to dwell upon themselves and their former sins. (my italics) Though this is a grievous blindness and weakness, we do not despise it becuase we think of it as humility. Yet if we recognized it, we would immediately reject it, as we would any other sin with which we are familiar, for it comes from the enemy and is opposed to truth.

Of all the properties of the blessed trinity, God wants us to feel the greatest confidence and pleasure in love, for love makes power and wisdom humble before us. Even as by his courteous love God forgets our sins as soon as we repent, so does he wish us to forget them, and all our sorrow, and all our doubtful dread.

Julian seems to know that a lot of our sense of captivity and separation from God (aka "sin") comes from dwelling on ourselves and our failings instead of trusting God's love. This is really hard to grasp but something about the way she puts it is speaking to me, in these last days of a Holy Lent.