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 30, 2010

Reading: "Fuel for the Fire" of Prayer

I haven't been writing much because I've been reading - and trying to read in a different way than I've been accustomed to: following the advice of Abbot Hugh Gilbert, OSB (in an interview with Phillip Zaleski in the anthology The Inner Journey: Views form the Christian Tradition)
Abbot Hugh says this about reading in Benedictine practice

Reading is the food of prayer. Or perhaps one can say that reading is fuel for the fire. Prayer is the flame, but you won’t have fire if you don’t have fuel. If the monk is not feeding himself with the word of God, if he is not putting the logs of the word of God into the hearth of his heart, there won’t be prayer. The fire will just die out in one way or another.
. . . .
If people come from an academic background, they have to learn to read in a less acquisitive way. Not read just to make notes and gain information and write an essay about it in the end. But to read for reading’s sake, as it were, to read with an eye to meeting God.

"To read with an eye to meeting God." I've been reading, just lately, two books that speak to each other interestingly -- at least in my imagination -- about God and the experience of the Divine Life. The first is John Zizioulas's classic, Being as Communion. It develops the Eastern Orthodox idea of God as a "communion of persons" - a being defined by communion -- and suggests that what we mean when we say we are created in the divine image is that we are made to be persons in communion: that is our eternal identity. I am who I am, who God has made me to be, and the journey of Christian faith is to grow more and more into that person, and to understand more and more how I am connected to other persons, in the "communion" (koinonia) that is the true divine life. He makes the distinction between being "individuals in community" -- a consumerist model -- occupied with what we can get out of the community -- and being "persons in communion" -- gradually discovering our divine identity through our connection with other human beings, all of us made in the image of God. Zizioulas says the Church lives this image of the divine life most fully at the Eucharist. I'm not expressing this very well, but it seems to me to be a compelling idea -- one I'd heard about but have enjoyed mulling over more fully, wading through the often quite technical systematic theology that Zizioulas presents.

I've been reading other things too - most recently Parker Palmer's wonderfully titled book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life: Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World. -- which I think speaks to some of the same things as Zizioulas, in another mode -- but will write more about this in another post. I'm not sure I fully understand everything I've read in Zizioulas -- couldn't write a term paper or a theological essay on him yet -- but the experience of reading & pondering this work has been rich and prayerful. "Fuel for the fire" of prayer indeed! I want to read around more in the spirituality and practice of the very earliest church fathers.

Perhaps I'll write more soon about what I've been reading. But that's enough for now.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Faith and Writing

I'm just back from the biannual Festival of Faith and Writing held at Calvin College. It's the second time I've been and I hope to make a habit of it. Will probably be processing for awhile the things I heard, and I hope that may prompt more frequent blog posts in the next couple of weeks.

It was wonderful to be around people who understand that writing is a vocation, whether or not one is widely published. And we heard from some lovely people who are published writers -- Scott Cairns, Thomas Lynch, Parker Palmer -- many others (those are the three who signed books for me). I am reminded that we write because it is a calling - and that writing well is part of how we worship -- attention to the craft a kind of contemplative activity. It makes me look forward to the summer months when I have more time to truly attend to that crafting. It also reminded me that a love of reading is something that writers share - nice to be among people who shared that passion.

What I'm chewing over right now -- perhaps following on some of the reading I've been doing in orthodox spirituality, and some of my Holy Week blogging -- is the keynote speech given by poet Scott Cairns. Scott was raised in a strict Calvinist tradition but is now a very joyful Eastern Orthodox Christian, and he is perhaps unique in his ability to bring alive to people what is richest in orthodox doctrine - and as he often says, the common heritage of all Christians. A couple of things he said in his opening remarks stay with me: first, just generally, the clear sense he had that all of us abide in communion with the great Mystery that we call the Love of God. Jokingly, he brought greetings from his Orthodox priest to the Calvinists -- "tell them,"he said, "that they are not as bad as they think they are" -- a wonderful summary of the difference between Orthodoxy, which sees us as made in the image of God, and our sinfulness as our tendency to dull or violate that abiding image of God in us. So there is no sense of original sin or "total depravity" of human beings, which is so important to some forms of Calvinism, and notorious in popular accounts of Christianity in this country (the sense that we are hopelessly fallen and bad and can only hope for redemption through the mercy of God) -- of course there's no denial, in either tradition, of the reliability of God's mercy or the sinfulness of humanity, but for me the language of Orthodoxy (also used by many Anglicans and by many Christians these days _ is a much more generous and hopeful understanding of our brokenness and of our call to be whole and human and in communion with God, in the orthodox way of thinking about sin and redemption. I appreciated that. Scott also invited us to reflect on whether we follow the way of faith as servants, hoping for a reward, or as slaves, fearful of punishment, or as lovers, who simply long to be near the beloved, and are formed by our love. Obviously the invitation, he would say, is to the last - to live into our identities as persons made in the image of God, and to understand ourselves as a whole community living within the divine life, and growing more and more into fulness of life.

Some of this is my language, brought in from my reading of orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, of whom more later -- but it seemed to me that Scott was speaking my language, and his poetry does, too -- in a kind of pithy, down-to-earth way that is very aware of human brokenness, hypocrisy, and sinfulness but radiates the experience of the divine mercy. Here's the end of one of his poems, "Adventures in New Testament Greek, Metanoia (metanoia, in Greek, is usually translated "repentance" - but it means "turning around," implies a total change of life, a turning toward God -- I love these lines:

The heart's metanoia
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time. (from his volume Compass of Affection, p. 93)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday Thoughts

The Maundy Thursday sermon last night (preached by our assistant rector, Peter Schell (you can see videos of his preaching at the Church of Our Saviour homepage – though not this sermon) has given me a good image to take through this Holy Week observance. He spoke quite simply about how Jesus, in giving his disciples the Eucharist, was giving them a “point of reference” – a landmark to return to when we lose our way. When we feel lost, or headed in the wrong direction, that point of reference, he said, will always reorient us, and help us “find our way home.” It is a gift of love to us.

For me, the whole observance of the Triduum: Maundy Thursday-Good Friday-Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day – has become such a point of reference in life. Each year, the return to the Cross is a time to re-orient my life toward what is truly real: the mysterious love of God for a broken world – the reality of a way of life offered to us, different from the one we usually choose, a way that leads straight through the brokenness of the world, into the fullness of life that God desires and intends for us and all creation.

And so each year Good Friday invites me to re-orient my life, toward the “home” that is prepared for all of us, beginning right where we are, at the heart of the Divine Life. I bring to the Cross – that mysterious symbol of love and suffering “made holy” (see my previous post) – whatever is most broken in my own life – and I ask what it might mean, in light of the central mystery of our faith.

This year I have a sense of urgency about how true this all feels: the urgency of a love that is always calling to us across whatever obstacles we put in the way – the agony of that love when it is rejected and not heard – and yet its persistence, in a deeply personal and yet mysterious way, in and through the darkest moments of our human experience. I cannot get to it in words, though there is a poem coming, perhaps – in the voice of Christ, beginning “walk with me” –(stay tuned). I’m trying to listen -- there’s an invitation, here at the Cross, to experience the divine desire to share in our human brokenness and to show us a way through that is beyond anything we can find on our own: a way through to life. I am convinced that this is what God offers – and for me Good Friday is a day when it all seems vividly, heartbreakingly true. I am grateful for this.

And yet I also know it is a mystery beyond what anyone can grasp or understand. Each year, in the process of finding our way again, we come up against this. Evelyn Underhill writes “I suppose no soul of any sensitiveness can live through Holy Week without an awed and grateful sense of being incorporated in a mystery of self-giving love which yet remains beyond our grasp.” I see what she means.

At Our Saviour on Maundy Thursday, when the altar is stripped bare, the crosses in the church are also veiled in black. Over the years, that black-veiled Cross has become a powerful invitation to me to simply be in the mystery. I realize that this is a local custom – many churches do it but many don't -- it isn’t observed everywhere. But that solid symbol of hope shrouded in mystery – life hidden in death and brokenness – that black-veiled cross is the symbol, for me, of the mystery to which our lives are oriented. It is the point of reference that I return to each year, to reorient my life, and find my way home. I look forward to spending some quiet time today, in between actual services, simply resting in the presence of that Mystery.