It is morning as I walk along the bare caliche road, as my sandals crunch across the gravel, drowning out the mid-September songs of birds.
It is morning when suddenly it occurs to me that, for reasons unexplained, I am not being struck by lightning. I am not falling into a crevice and disappearing into the earth. I am not bursting into flames or whirling into space. My body is intact.
It is a morning in mid-September when I wonder why it is that I so seldom marvel at the fact that I'm alive. Why does it seem so ordinary to be occupying time and space?
I hold out my hand and see the veins, see the knuckles, tendons rippling underneath the skin. I see the tiny scar there on my middle finger where I accidentally burned it as a child, the callous where I gripped the pruning shears too long.
What is it, I wonder, that tells my hand to brush the bangs out of my eyes, that tells my fingers to adjust the glasses riding down my nose, that tells my feet to rise and fall, rise and fall in a rhythm that makes sense?
As a rule, I admit, I am not moved by mysteries such as this. And yet, this morning I am baffled by them all. This morning, for an instant at least, I am fully in my body, fully in my life. My feet are on the ground. I am, as some would put it, "placed."
Were I more literal-minded than I am, my curiosity would not be piqued by such phenomena as this. I would be satisfied to know, for instance, that it is some electric impulse coursing down the nervous pathway from my brain, some charge emitting from any of 10 billion neurons causing me to stop on this caliche road, to bend over from the waist, to touch the flower of an Indian mallow in full bloom.
As it is, though, I'm confounded by the simplest of things.
Later, having traced my steps back down the caliche road, I will sit in the gazebo near the house where I am staying. Behind my back, a light breeze will be blowing from the south. A dragonfly will hang in air just to my right. Clouds will drift by overhead. And on the screened-in porch, 100 yards away, a young man will stand in a shaft of sunlight, working out a sweet and haunting tune on his fiddle.
Hearing this, feeling this, seeing this--it is all another way of being placed.
Days before, a friend had written to tell me of the changes in her life. "I have the sense that I'm being distilled," she wrote, "simplified by forces I can't name."
The process, she added, was less disturbing than it seemed. It was, in fact, a little bit like being on the bottom of the pool, or under water in a lake, looking up and seeing the turbulence on top, but not being battered by the waves.
Reading this, I felt myself swept back to an afternoon just 15 months before, to a moment when, having crashed into a massive rock, two friends and I were thrown from our canoe. Caught by the river's current, caught by a force I couldn't see, I was held here, held below the water's surface long enough to know that I would die.
"This doesn't happen to me," I had thought for an instant.
And then, "Oh, yes, it does."
Minutes later, years later, I had somehow washed up on a gravel bar, had dragged myself to a nearby rock, and had sat there staring at my hands.
What struck me then, what struck me later as I read the letter from my friend, was just how strange it was to be alive. Moved by the fact that I was still in my body, I had come out of the river knowing something that I hadn't known before. I had learned, quite simply, just how thin the margin is between what we call life and death. I had learned a little bit of letting go, of letting myself be borne away by something I could neither understand nor tame. I had learned the volatility of things.
"Everything distilled," I told my friend, recalling the events of that summer day last year. It's distilled to something that feels like a single pebble or a single grain of sand or a single drop of water, and you know this "something" is your life. For an instant, you hold it in your hands or taste it on your lips, but then, quite suddenly, it's gone. Paradoxically, you realize, it now is who you are.
Walking along a rough caliche road in mid-September, I am jolted by the mental image of a woman sitting on a gravel bar, staring in amazement at her empty hands. This is your life, the stones in the river tell her. Pick it up and hold it; turn it over and over; let it go. Let it gently fall into the flow of the river. Let it be carried away like sand. Let it disappear from sight, becoming a part of the current as it goes. Let it not matter any longer that you have lost it. Let the losing of it set you free.
Walking with the wind against my back, with the sun on the side of my face and the sound of crunching gravel underneath my feet, I am grounded in this time and in this place. For another day, another moment, I'm alive.
Susan Hanson lives in San Marcos, Texas, where she attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and teaches English at Southwest Texas State University. She is a feature writer and columnist for the San Marcos Daily Record.
Here I am
Sr. Brigit-Carol, SD
An Advent Meditation
There was a hush in heaven. The angels walked around almost on tiptoe, speaking in soft voices. It was as though their ears were cocked – listening. Listening for the news of what they hoped might come. You see, this was the day that Gabriel was to approach Mary of Nazareth and pop the question. Would she of all women be willing to become the God bearer? Would she ascent to the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Word made Flesh? Would old Gabe be able to represent God in such a way that Mary could hear and through that hearing have the courage to accept? Just six months ago he had been sent to the priest Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist—the forerunner of Christ the Messiah. That almost ended in disaster and Gabe had to take rather desperate measures to help bring Zechariah into belief of the promise of God. But this was big time compared to that. This time he was to approach a young maiden and ask her to become the mother of the Son of God most High. The suspense was overwhelming. Then through the climate of anticipation and expectancy, very quietly, almost imperceptibly at first the murmur began – Mary said yes! Mary said yes! Did you hear the news? Mary said yes! The murmur grew to a crescendo -- an exultant shout rang out -- MARY SAID YES! And the angels of heaven rejoiced and Christmas came to earth and heaven.
Mary is often called the “mother of God” or in Orthodox terms, the “God bearer” because God became incarnate in Jesus through being born of her. When we pray the Nicene or Apostles Creed we state our confession of faith in this great mystery: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”.
Mary had a choice to make and chose to say yes. When you think of it, all great moments in history began with a “yes” or “no”. Hitler said "yes" to hatred and Mother Theresa said "yes" to love. And both decisions had a great impact on our world. Our lives, though usually less dramatic, are filled with the same choices. We make choices that affect our own freedom. For example, a single person decides to marry, thereby choosing to adapt to another instead of always having his or her own way; parents choose to raise a child which then negates the opportunity for self-indulgence. Or you decide to work and so choose not to be a couch-potato dependent on others. Every day we have choices to make, some small, others large.
Part of what we share at Christmas is the power of choice. If Mary had not said “yes”, had not said “let it be with me according to your word”, there would have been no rejoicing in the festival of the Word-Made-Flesh. Christmas would not have occurred.
But don’t fool yourself - this was not going to be easy. In her “yes” Mary knew at least a part of what she was getting into. Imagine her fear in front of her family and friends. Imagine her trepidation at encountering folks in the town in which she lived. Pregnancy out of wedlock was a stoning offense. Imagine her trying to explain this one to Joseph, her betrothed. What would his reaction be? Would he decide to put her away quietly or turn her over to the authorities for punishment? This was a new thing—it had never happened before and she was in uncharted waters. There was no blueprint to follow and what Mary really said yes to was a life of uncertainty and unknowing. And yet she had the faith to say yes. This was certainly a striking moment of choice. It was so pivotal in human history that the early Church Fathers describe creation as holding its breath to hear Mary’s answer.
Mary knows she is hearing something beyond human capability. It will surely take a miracle which surpasses all that God has done previously. Her question, “how can this be since I am a virgin” is not prompted by doubt or skepticism, but by wonderment—and I imagine a good dose of bewilderment! But she truly is a hearer of the Word and so she responds with faith and trust. But I think it is important we realise that this response could not have come about had Mary not been prepared to hear God through fidelity to the small decisions of faith in her life. We learn through being faithful to the small things.
This one was undeniably big, but it really was not so foreign to Mary that she couldn’t hear God even through her confusion. She had become accustomed to saying “yes” to God.
Mary's prompt response of "yes" to Gabriel’s invitation is a model of faith for all of us. Mary believed God's promises even when they seemed impossible. She was the favoured one not because she was perfect, but because she trusted that what God said was true and would be fulfilled. She was willing and eager to do God's will, even if it seemed difficult or costly.
As with Mary, God gives us grace and strength to respond with the same willingness, and heartfelt trust as did Mary. When God commands he also gives the strength, and ability to respond. But we also have freedom. We can say yes or we can say no to God.
And all too many times, if you are like me, you say “no” and fail in following God. We often give in to what we should not and choose what is harmful either for ourselves or others. Welcome to the need for the Christmas redemption! Welcome to the need of being humble before God and asking forgiveness. If we see faith as something for the occasional and the big event, it will not suffice—it will fail us. The Christmas faith is one that says “Your will be done” on a far more regular schedule.
At this busy time of Christmas, perhaps we are being offered the story of the Annunciation with Mary’s “yes” to challenge us to put things in focus. What is Christmas really all about anyway? It can be a time where we are encouraged, even challenged, to see how we can grow in faith to be able to join with Mary in her “yes”.
As we pray each day that God’s will be done, may our daily “yes” grow in fervor and strength – not just during this time of Christmas, but throughout the whole of our lives. And the impact of our “yes” on the world, although not always apparent to us, will have great consequences for it will be a witness of God’s love and life in the world.
Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.
Tuning in to Spirit
A Reflection on the Melodies of Prayer
Fr. Travis du Priest
"How has music been instrumental in your prayer(s)?" my friend asked me, and even as he was asking I was planning how to wiggle out of the assignment. "It hasn’t been," was my first thought. I’m not a musician and I quite like a quiet early morning Eucharist with lots of silence. And besides, I had a bad experience with the children’s choir of my childhood – I showed up one Sunday in a green shirt and wasn’t allowed to sing. But on reflection, I realized that music has indeed played a larger role in my prayer life than I had thought.
First off, I’d better say a word about my understanding of prayer, because it might strike some of you as odd: I don’t actually think we pray, I think God does. I don’t really believe God answers our prayers, but that we seek to answer God’s. So then, God’s prayer for us and the world is what we listen for when we ‘go to church,’ or settle into a conscious mode of individual prayer, what I call ‘practicing prayer.’ Just as musicians practice their instruments and voices, so we ‘practice prayer’ when we sit or kneel at home or when we respond in church to the invitation, "Let us pray."
The ancients believe that the spheres made music as they swirled through the cosmos, and that in some sense the Music of the Spheres held the universe together. Interestingly, Quantum physicists today believe something of the same thing: The so-called ‘strong theory’ says that electrons undulate rhythmically like tiny strings of pearls dancing in ritual ceremony. Christians similarly believe in an Interior String Theory, and Interior Music of the Spheres: The Spirit inside us is actively praying or translating our inarticulate verbal groans in an unceasing melody of prayer, as St. Paul explains in the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans. This on-going prayer of the Spirit links up with the never-ending song of the Angels, Archangels (and one assumes the other orders of angels), saints, and the faithful departed most noticeably in the Holy Eucharist, as we sing, "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus." "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are full of Thy Glory, Glory be to Thee, O Lord Most High." Hence, the universal prayer practice of the faithful is to be attentive to the rhythms and melodies of on-going prayer in the cosmos and in one’s own human heart. In other words, the Spirit and angels are playing a timeless tune – for those who have ears to hear.
We all hear in different ways and are a-tuned to different
modes of music. Some of us like classical, some rhythm and blues, some jazz,
and some folk. I confess to feelings of great joy, freedom and at-one-ness
when alone in the car, I can turn up the radio and sing an old BeeGees song.
In Church or in private prayers, some of us prefer choral music or hymns or
the newer ‘praise music,’ while others of us prefer instrumental music –
classical or ‘background.’ Some of us like the so-called New Age tapes of
sounds of nature: crickets, ocean waves, whale songs, rapid flowing streams
and the like.
Whatever the instrument – the human voice, piano, lute, guitar, cello, drum, waterfall, bird –
the question is, Am I tuning in? Am I tuning in to Spirit and her on-going prayer–melody? For me, this tuning in is best accomplished with quiet instrumental music – I really like single instrument sound like the cello or chant. I have a preference even when I am in a prayer place, such as church, for music for solo organ, brass, or strings, particularly by Corelli, Charpentier, or my favorite Orlando Gibbons.
The most tuned-prayer experience I have ever had was
several years ago when a bright young cellist named Michael Fitzpatrick,
winner of the Prince Charles Award at Spoletto in Italy, played
improvisations on his cello in the 1865 St. John’s Collegiate Chapel at The
DeKoven Center where I work. When I told Michael afterwards how interiorally
transported I had been during that time, he said in response that he had
actually felt a spiritual energy entering his body as he played. I have
prayed through his music since.
The same is true during a ‘prayer practice’ at home when I sit quietly – I prefer sounds without words. Usually I meditate in silence, but sometimes I listen to falling water, to me one of the most pleasant sounds on earth; sometimes, to the piano music of the late Daniel Hansen which mixes in the wind chimes and sea gulls of his native Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. The ‘openness’ and non-directive quality of the sound without attendant thought is, for me, more conducive to receptivity and meditation. Wordless sounds are the ‘thin place,’ to use a Celtic term, where Heaven and Earth meet, where I can more readily slip out of myself and more deeply into myself and reach that place where ‘God and I mingle,’ as a Quaker writer once put it.
Chanting, though, with its paucity of words and
repetition, has much the same effect. I love traditional Gregorian Chant and
Anglican Plainsong. I am very fond of the chants of Robert Gass – for
example "Alleluia" set to Pacobel’s Canon – and some Taize chants such as "Veni
Creator Spiritus" or "Ubi Caritas." The slow repetitive quality of the sound
seems to become a part of me, almost like T’ai Chi breathing or Centering
Prayer, and at the same time, chant seems to surround or envelop me,
inviting me inside the music.
One particularly appealing aspect of chanting is its memorable quality. I find throughout an ordinary day, a chant will rise up to consciousness, like an Arrow Prayer, threading itself from one prayer practice to another. Chanting has an energetic ‘connecting’ effect, linking exterior sound with interior sound, assisting us, as Robert Gass puts it, to ‘sing our lives.’
What I have come to see, or rather hear, is that there is not so much one particular type of devotional music, but rather musical sounds which devote us to the Spirit’s prayerful melodies of the Kingdom Within.
The Reverend Fr. Travis du Priest, Ph.D., is the retired director of The DeKoven Center, a retreat center of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, in Racine, Wisconsin. He has conducted numerous retreats and quiet days and published over 300 articles on literature and religion, prayer, meditation, and spirituality.
A homily preached by Sr. Brigit-Carol, SD
Proper 17A If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
It is said that after he had been converted to Christianity, St. Augustine encountered a former mistress one day on the street. When he saw her he turned and walked the other way. Surprised, the woman called out, “Augustine, it is I”. Augustine as he kept going the other way, answered her, “Yes, but it is not I.”
This story is a good example of both the Gospel and Epistle lessons for today. When Christ calls a person to follow him, he calls him to die “"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Augustine died when he decided to follow Jesus. His whole life changed, he was no longer the person he had been. In the words of today’s Epistle, he was no longer conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of the mind.
This is what our faith is all about - dying, dying to self, dying to the old way of living, dying for what is right, dying for Jesus, just as Jesus died for us. A Scripture professor of mine once said that Jesus only promised his disciples two things in this life: persecution with sufferings, and death.
For those of us who are life-long Anglicans or Episcopalians we were baptized as infants into the Body of Christ. Many of us do not have a time orS place to point to where we can say we were converted. We really don’t have a Before or After. It has been an ongoing, gradual process. That makes it difficult, I believe, to be able to make the kind distinction Augustine was able to make concerning his dying to self and Christ living in him – as Paul says in Galatians, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” But even though it may seem that Augustine and Paul before him had a definitive experience of conversion to look back on, the real conversion took place day after day as they faced the temptations to conform to the world and continued to offer themselves as living sacrifices to be made pleasing to God.
I currently have a dog, Elgar. Besides being rather bright (I’m not biased at all!), one characteristic that Elgar has is he desires to please. A word of disapproval is the only rebuke her has ever needed--this appears to devastate him enough to bring him to the desired obedience. Other dogs I’ve had have needed considerably more persuasion, and were often quite “hard-headed.” With other dogs I’ve resorted to the rolled up newspaper to get their attention—but never with Elgar. Just an “uh, uh” from me is all that is usually needed—he is so sensitive to my wishes and needs. We can learn a lot from our animals, and I believe God wants us to be like Elgar in our relationship with Him—eager to please and to be sensitive to God’s approval or disapproval.
This is what the Epistle is talking about when we read the words, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” All we can do is present ourselves—that is all we have. It is up to God as to what happens next. As the adage goes, we do not choose our crosses—our crosses choose us. It is what we do when a cross is laid upon us that determines whether we are dead to the false, old self and living for Christ or whether we are holding on to ourselves and going our own way.
Although there are many ways to help bring us to this place of dying, I believe a primary step we must take is that we must surrender to God.
When Jesus talks about denying ourselves and taking up our crosses and following him, when he talks about losing our lives for him, he is talking about surrendering, about giving up. What he wants us to give up, what he wants us to surrender, is our way of thinking and acting as if God does not exist or does not matter. When Jesus rebukes Peter for saying to him - “Lord, this shall never happen to you”, he tells Peter that he is on the side of Satan that he is thinking not the things of God, but the things of men. Peter is, to paraphrase today’s Epistle, conforming to the pattern of this world.
It is this conformity to the world that we must give up, the way of thinking that tells us that the important things are safety and security, along with possessions and wealth and power—especially the power-- that brings that safety and security. We must give up the conformity to this world that tells us that we must do it all ourselves, that we must look after ourselves because no one will do it for us.
Jesus calls us to believe in him, to trust him, to not worry about these things-- but to first seek God’s kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well. With the uncertainties of the world situation today and the unsettled economy, this obviously becomes more challenging. But we really need not to be concerned about what the world tells us to be concerned about, we need no longer to seek to save our own lives by the ways that the world has taught us, instead we need to surrender to God all our concerns, and through that, become living sacrifices and have our minds transformed into being God centered.
Jean Paul Caussade, a 17th century priest taught this way. His teachings have come down to us in a book entitled: Abandonment to Divine Providence. In it he speaks of humbly accepting whatever is sent our way by life as though it is from the hand of God. This is far from a mindless passivity—if we are honest about it, this acceptance comes about by hard work – by actively saying “yes” to God in all things. And that saying “yes” helps us surrender by getting our priorities in order.
Take for example a family member who becomes seriously ill. Instantly everything changed. What was a relaxed family atmosphere is replaced by intense anxiety-- and it feels like nothing will ever be the same again. Our priorities are changed. Suddenly there is only one thing that matters, that sick person in our family. Everything else, from financial considerations to relationships and everything in between, is relegated to second place. The whole of our lives, our thoughts, our emotions, our prayers, will be concentrated on that one person. Our priorities are turned upside down. We can fight and rail against God for this injustice, and illness truly is an injustice. Or we can humbly accept the current circumstances and surrender more and more to God’s love and mercy. In other words, we can die.
It doesn’t have to necessarily be a major event that
derails us—even minor inconveniences can show us the degree of our surrender
and the depth of our dependence, or lack of it, on God. But it is through
our daily acceptance of what is that allows us the opportunity to take up
our cross and follow Christ. Not high and lofty spiritual experiences, as
wonderful as they are, but the day by day plodding through life-- being open
to the leading of the Holy Spirit and merely presenting ourselves to God.
Is this beginning to sound rather grim to you? I have to confess there’s times when this dying to self business becomes quite wearisome. But only if I am trying to do it myself. When I simply present myself to God and am present to God and all that comes my way, then the surrender is turned into joy.
Remember the closing words of the Gospel lesson: "For the
Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then
he will repay everyone for what has been done." By virtue of his death,
resurrection, and ascension, Christ has already come in the glory of the
Father. He dwells intimately with us, so as we more and more surrender
ourselves to him, that glory is able to shine forth and surrounds us with
the mercy and love of God. And that is what the dying to self is all
about—allowing God’s love and mercy to shine forth through us. And through
us to all those we come into contact with.
To God be all glory, honour, and power. Amen.
Thoughts in Solitude
Many years ago I had the opportunity to read The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. Since then the book has remained on my shelf, but the title still haunts me. With time I have learned that a paradox exists in the lived experiences of security and insecurity. Both attract me and both frighten me. I desire to feel secure and I long to know the meaning of really letting go.
Security is necessary for newborn infants. Children learn to trust that life is reliable, that others do care. Not even the best child hoods are perfect so as we grow some of us have more resilience than others in risking mature lives.
But the paradox is that I mature into adulthood only to discover God calling me to let go of the life on which I have learned to depend! As a solitary, I am called to live this paradox, to grow into the true freedom of the Children of God. The call to trust emerges out of the mysterious recesses of desert emptiness – a call to have faith and confidence in life and the God who dwells in all the experiences of life.
Solitude, I have discovered, is the place where I face head-on my resistance to the paradox. Here I meet all the insecurities that prevent me from growing into God and the securities that hold me back from the embrace of Love. Looking around, I see my security needs: financial, material, physical, mental, and spiritual ones.
I desire the security of knowing that there is a God who is deeply invested in my life and in all of creation. I desire to trust that there is a God who is there even in quiet nothingness. In solitude I discover over and over that my finances are not secure; that all the ‘things’ I have around me do not satisfy nor ever seem to be enough; that my health can change at any moment; and that my experience of God is one of never knowing for sure what this Divine Presence is or how it will be revealed.
Others may experience the paradox of security/insecurity in other forms. For me, it is fear and the trap for me is to hold on to what I have. Fear of? My list is endless: fear of not having enough, of being needy, of being insufficient, not good enough, and of course the big one: what will happen when I can no longer support myself? Intertwined is the terror of total aloneness and emptiness that I see on the horizon at times. All these fears can be paralyzing.
The hermit’s wisdom is that God will provide, as we grow in fidelity to this way of discipleship. I have known this in bits and pieces. I long for the day when all these loose ends will be linked together in a trusting awareness that God alone is my security. I long for the day when I will truly believe that, when I feel most insecure, God will be there to give me everything – but nothing to hold on to. My flailing around may stop even if my fear and anxiety continue to surface. Yes, I will continue to provide for my needs. The difference is a growing awareness that my inner solitude and my external solitude are ‘secured’ in God providential care.
Judith lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her writing appeared in ‘Raven’s Bread’, a newsletter which seeks to affirm and support the eremitic life. Reprinted with permission.