Monthly Archives: February 2012

{Practicing Benedict} How Lent should be observed in the monastery

“There can be no doubt that monastic life should always have a Lenten character about it, but there are not many today who have the strength for that. Therefore we urge that all in the monastery during these holy days of Lent should look carefully at the integrity of their lives and get rid in this holy season of any thoughtless compromises which my have crept in at other times. We can achieve this as we should if we retrain ourselves from bad habits of every kind and at the same time turn wholeheartedly to the prayer of sincere contrition, to lectio divina, to heartfelt repentance and to self-denial. So during Lent let us take on some addition to the demands of our accustomed service of the Lord such as special prayers and some sacrifice of food and drink. Thus each one of us may have something beyond the normal obligations of monastic life to offer freely to the Lord with the joy of the Holy Spirit by denying our appetites through giving up something from our food or drink or sleep or from excessive talking and loose behaviour so as to increase the joy of spiritual longing with which we should look forward to the holy time of Easter.”

The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 49 (emphasis mine)

If I had to sum up what the past three years of walking with St. Benedict’s Rule have taught me, it would be this word: Wholeheartedness. That prayer should not be lived out in fear or in obligation but in a full resting hope in our Savior who invites us into his kindness. In wholeheartedness, we can receive our freedom with joy, we can cease striving because we know that God is good and is making us and the world into what we were always meant to be. In wholeheartedness, we are allowed to live fully in the present moment, practice thanksgiving and humility and kindness because we know who we are and to whom we belong.

In the calendar of our lives, Lent is the space set aside for the purposeful reminder of our need for Christ and the restoration he offers.

So how do we do it? How do we actually use this time so that we aren’t either living in guilt for what we should be giving up and are failing at, or living in pride for our own self-infliction? We remember that Lent is a season of the heart, not action. Action–self-denial, spiritual practice, the addition of sacrifice in our lives–is worthless if it does not flow out of God’s work in our own hearts.

There are so many phrases in this paragraph that speak to me today. Benedict calls us to:

  • get rid…of any thoughtless compromises
  • retrain ourselves
  • turn wholeheartedly to the prayer of sincere contrition
  • offer freely to the Lord with the joy of the Holy Spirit

Wow, can  you imagine the change God might work in us during these 46 days if we made those four phrases our prayer and our desire? I’m sticky-posting those on my mirror this Lent. And I’m praying that wholehearted would be become the truest descriptor for my life with Christ.

PS Yesterday was a big day of traveling and waiting for results from my mom’s surgery. I’m happy to say everything went as well as we could have hoped for. We’ll know more in a couple weeks but so far the doctor says things are looking positive.  Thank you SO much for praying!

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Hard Thankful

“One act of thanksgiving, when things go wrong with us, is worth a thousand thanks when things are agreeable to our inclinations.”

-St. John of Avila (via Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts)

My brother Brooks’ lifelong friend died Sunday night. He had brain cancer. Jeremy was a groomsman in Brooks’ wedding. My brother loved him. Brooks has been in Haiti, working with some orphanages. He left last Wednesday knowing that his friend could pass away before he returned home. He’s supposed to speak at Jeremy’s funeral. He recorded his message ahead of time just in case.

I haven’t mentioned this on the blog yet, but my mom has been diagnosed with cancer. It seems so personal that I’ve held it close, I guess. My mom’s more private than I am (obviously, this blog will attest that I’m not so private), so I’ve also felt a little quiet about sharing it with you. (And, honestly, I haven’t liked the thought about seeing “my mom has cancer” in print.) But, today, she will be in surgery. It’s possible that they will remove the sick thing in her and that will be the end of it. Or it’s possible that more cancer will be found and we will have to face the possibility of chemo or radiation.

Today I’m on a flight home with my two boys to stay with my parents for the week, help care for my mom.

It’s Thankful Tuesday.

So, yeah, sometimes my Thankful Tuesday posts are probably the kind that make you feel like my world is all glitter and musical numbers. And, honestly, sometimes it is. But the hard Thanksgiving is found when there’s sacrifice in it. Today there’s sacrifice. Because I’m broken-hearted for my brother and for Jeremy’s family. Such loss. So unfair. And I’m hurt for my mom. I don’t want her to feel afraid. I don’t want her to face any kind of physical pain or heavy illness.

But sometimes being thankful is the sacrifice. That’s what Psalm 50 calls it: a sacrifice of thanksgiving. I don’t have to be thankful for my mom’s illness or for the terrible loss of my brother’s dear friend. Death is always Christ’s enemy. We should be outraged over it, because it is wrong, because death was never God’s intention. But I can be thankful that there’s grace in the horrible. There’s always grace. There’s always God’s good presence.

Yesterday morning, while I drove August to school, we had the radio on and news broke in to mention the school shooting in Cleveland. I realized what they were saying and that my boy’s ears were listening and I went to change the station, but it was too late. I looked in the rearview mirror and August wore the look he saves for serious questions.

He said, “We should pray for those people, Mama.”

Sigh. Yes we should.

Here is my sacrifice of Thanksgiving:

  • Bright red Texas sunsets and a backyard deck to watch them from
  • Coffee dates with my college girls, getting to love them and know them
  • My baby’s first steps! And how proud his little face was (and is).
  • Airplanes that can get me to my family in 45 minutes
  • The sweet sticky smell of springtime rain (yep, it’s springtime around here)
  • My friend Emily’s new baby girl

Will you join me in praying for my mom today? Please pray the doctors will remove all the cancer and that she will be healthy and encouraged by God’s nearness. I’m thankful for this community and all the encouragement you all bring to my life.

What’s your thankful?

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Fumbling Toward Alleluia

I slowly eased into liturgy. I was reading Anglicans first before I entered the doors of their churches. Madeline L’Engle so moved me that I couldn’t imagine I wouldn’t love to worship beside her at her Episcopal church in Manhattan. CS Lewis spoke the gospel to me in ways that all my evangelical Bible studies had failed to do all my life. These people understood beauty. And I realized, while reading them, that I did too. (I’d just never had the chance to recognize it.)

Words. Words. Words. Some would say that prayers written in a book, recited by a congregation, are what Jesus described as “vain repetition,” words without meaning. But I found the words of the Book of Common Prayer to be prayers intricately sculpted, made with truth from scripture, shaped to say what I’d always tried to say with my mumbling and my adding-in of Christian prayer-jargon punctuation: “Lord God, I just…” repeated 13 times in a three minute prayer. I realized we are all users of “vain repetition,” whether we adhere to our unwritten language of acceptable out-loud praying or whether we join in the prewritten variety. We’re all fumbling toward prayer.

I was thinking about this yesterday morning in church. August had thrown a fit over Sunday School. He didn’t want to be there. He wept. He insisted that all he wanted was to “go home and be cozy!” So, I let him join us in the service, prepared that I’d have to escort him out after what I imagined would be the first five minutes of the service, for talking at his unusually high decible level and making pens blast off with full-out rocket sounds. But, miraculously, the kid cooperated, whispered loudly sometimes, pulled me to the ground at one point while we sang and held hands (it didn’t take much…I was a little unstable in my shoes), and made pens blast off as rockets (but without too much booster power). Yesterday’s service felt a lot like what prayer has felt like for me all of motherhood. Spurts and stops. The quick holding up of my heart followed by a boy who needs to go potty or a baby who needs to nurse.

Chris, in his husbandly wonderfulness, has been meeting a buddy of his for a Saturday afternoon playdate with August and his friend’s son, giving me some Saturday time alone. We were commiserating yesterday about the problem (impossibility?) of  trying to have a conversation with a friend at while your kids are nearby, asking for help, falling down and crying, making plans to climb jagged rocks: You know, the stuff you have to pay attention to. It was a relief to hear my husband complaining of the same difficulty I’ve felt for years now. The conversation gets interrupted and never goes where it should. Fits and starts. A fumbling.

So there I was in church, the first Sunday of Lent, the cross and the altar veiled in purple fabric, our small reminders of how this is a season of inward honesty, a season of soul preparation. A season where we take the things that we’re comfortable with away because often comfort protects our hearts from seeing truth. We remove the cushion, set our hearts out raw and when it hurts, we remember how fully we must face up to our neediness.

If you’ve ever been in a liturgical service you may recall that at certain points in the congregational prayer or in response to the pastor’s prayer, the community will respond with “Alleluia! Alleluia!”  During Lent, “Alleluia” is generally done away with. This is another reminder of our being in a time of mourning, a season of asking God to reveal our own neediness. The celebration will come at Easter, but for now, it’s time to be reflective. In the places where we’re used to spurting out “Alleluia!” throughout the rest of the year, we say nothing. We stop our words. We come up short.

Oh, but we’re so used to that “Alleluia!” It’s our punctuation mark! It’s our comfortable little prayer marker that tells us we know what we’re doing here in the religion play. We are experts.

And every year that I’ve been in a liturgical church, I stare at the prayer in front of me and wait for the voices who will yell out, with great confidence: ahhhhle… And stop. I imagine their flaming faces around the room, embarrassment at being the one who forgot. Those voices were there again yesterday. And I couldn’t help but feel for them, my three-year-old beside me in the service. Isn’t prayer always like that? We think we know what we’re doing and then, boom! something changes. Whether it’s our circumstances or our connection to God or our inability to see the truth about ourselves.

Though I always cringe a little and wait for the awkward Alleluias, yesterday I found myself strangely comforted by them. I kept my mouth shut and heard the other voices around the room catching themselves mid-praise, and thought, Oh! That’s kind of beautiful. And I thought about how God must see us during Lent, fumbling toward worship, attempting to set this time aside as holy and failing or frustrating ourselves, forgetting who we are and who our God is.

Lent is a time when we strip the cushion away. Sometimes the cushion is our own notion of prayer, our own comfort in worship. Sometimes, we shout it out. Sometimes we’re a mess of a people tripping over each other toward God.

It’s the rawness that God sees as beautiful. The humility. The privilege of falling because when we fall, we fall toward him.

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Poem-a-Day Friday: Thomas Heise

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Several years ago, Chris bought me a couple of books of poetry for Christmas. They were both new poets (their first books) and Chris had read an article recommending them. At some point I read Thomas Heise’s book Horror Vacui. I know this because my ugly boy-handwriting is scratched all over several pages in pencil. I picked it back up this week after it has sat on the shelf for years. It’s completely new to me. How did I wait so long to read this?

I wish I could tell you something about Thomas Heise. I know nothing: about his writing, about his other work. But I can tell you that I’ve connected to several of his poems this week. Here’s one of them. (Before you read this, it’s good to know that ” Pieta”–Italian for “pity”–is a Michaelangelo sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Christ.)

My Pieta

by Thomas Heise

He held me bone-tight. He held me backward.
He held me high with the bellows
to smoke the beehive, hanging delicate
as a lung in the branches and bleeding
a half-gallon of honey while he held me. He held me
in the bathtub, scrubbed ashes from my small tongue.
He held me in the pond of this hand,
as if I were a tadpole, and wouldn’t let go.
He held me hostage. I would hide
in the dumpster. Under the rain bucket
during thunderstorms. Holding my breath
among the lawn statues of gnomes and giant toadstools
until he found me, held me, walked me home.
When I fell asleep in the attic, he would carry me down
and sing to me. One winter he held a rope, lowered me
by the ankles to the well’s bottom.
I ascended upside-down through the dark thermometer
with a blood orange in my teeth. He had a beard
of new snow. I held cold to his pant leg
while our dog leapt and snapped at a sound
in the air only he could hear. When I fell
in love, he reached out to me and held me down
when she slinked away on our dirt road alone,
sheepish, depressed. He held me as the constellations
mingled through the torn curtain.
A beanstalk sprouted through a hold
in our above-ground pool. A band of raccoons
commandeered the upstairs and stared
at us as he held me in his reading chair.
He grew older, he held my ear
to his artificial heart on a daily basis.
He grew sick, he held me like a suckling child.
We grew smaller and smaller and would crawl
after each other through tall grass growing through our carpet.
The walls of the house fell away.
We curled in a bird’s nest. I could barely hold
his tiny thumb in my fingers.
We felt a shell growing around us.
The dog was barking.
And then rain, we could hear it tapping,
we held each other, then a blast
of hot light roared through.

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Guest Post: {Family and the Christian Year} Christine Warner on Lent and brushing teeth to candlelight

I’m so thrilled I have the chance to introduce you to Christine Warner today. She is one of my favorite gems I’ve discovered here in Austin. Her kindness, wisdom, warmth and bright spirit make her one of those people you can’t help but describe as “special.” I’ve mentioned before how she has challenged me by how she invites her children into the Christian Year. So I’m excited to welcome her into our semi-unregular discussions on that very topic as she shares her family’s Lenten tradition.

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I came to the Anglican tradition as an exhausted, falling-asleep-while-reading-the-Bible-non-praying-new-mother.  I needed help. I seemed to need visual aids and props to live out my love for Jesus and to receive His love for me, guiderails for the sake of longevity for my prone-to-wander heart.  In my new church, I found the faith-sustaining frame of liturgy, a tradition of Jesus followers who, on a weekly basis, called me to Scripture reading and heart-wrenchingly rich prayers along with confession.  I found a profusion of beauty and a symbol-saturated daily life.  I found the church calendar which invites me to “inhabit the story of God” (Living the Christian Year, by Bobby Gross).  My fragile faith felt sustained; maybe there was a chance that I would still be pursuing God at eighty.

My husband and I have four children between the ages of 6 and 13.  Our calendar year now coexists with a surprisingly baroque Christian Year.  Now, with many years under our belt of family ceremonies and celebrations, the children eagerly anticipate and contend for the traditions we have grown into. Some attempted traditions never came to life.  Some traditions require a revival and restart.  Some traditions have become so deeply a part of our identity that I wonder if they could ever be removed.  “Giving up Electricity for Lent” is one such tradition, an idea planted in a seemingly random conversation with friends some 14 years ago

During Lent we are invited into the gift and privilege of fasting.  We let go of something that creates more room for God, more room to listen to Him, more room to love Him better, more room to love others, and less room for distraction, less room for the things that become “dressed-up” idols.  Each member of our family gives up small, but costly, habits during Lent (desserts, coffee, hair gel), but what most significantly defines our 46 days before Easter is electric darkness and silence.

First, what this does not mean: We do not go off the grid. We leave on: the fridge, the A\C or heat (depending on variable Texas weather), the gas, the water. On Sabbath/Sunday, once a week, we watch a family movie.   Now, what it does mean:  For only two hours a day we have access to the computer, dishwasher, washing machine and dryer.  For 40 days there are no electric lights at all.  Appliances and the computer are quiet most of the day.  We do not listen to recorded music. This means lots of candlelight and daylight, lots of silence and darkness, lots of room for God and each other.

We have written much about this experience in our journals, how hard it is and the glimpses of life and truth we drink in. I could write about the ways in which our expectations of encountering God were met, exceeded or dashed.  I could write about the extensive verses in Scripture about Light and Darkness. But here I’ll just share a few of our Lenten Darkness observations:

  1. We bump into furniture and drop things a little more, especially at the edges of tables and counters.  One might be reminded of episodes of the Three Stooges.
  2.  Fasting electricity, it turns out, means fasting from light, noise, information, and easy entertainment…eyes, ears, mind, heart are all quieted.
  3.  Dusk and sunset take on special meaning and beauty.  We have a heightened awareness of the light coming through the windows.  The reflections and shadows on different surfaces feel significant and precious.
  4. Darkness in the city isn’t very dark.  Ambient light envelops us.
  5. The best candle holders are the ones from Little House on the Prairie, a taper candle holder with a base plate and a finger loop. Tapers produce the brightest light.
  6. The morning becomes especially welcome. There’s an anticipation of sunrise…light
  7. The constant call to productivity as well as the ability to “get things done” fades and only the space around the candle or lamp is lit.  It is a call to presence (books, stories, conversation).
  8. You cannot sweep or clean thoroughly by candlelight.  I appreciate the cleanliness possible with light.  Dust, dirt, spots and wax drips are more generously tolerated for 46 days.
  9. We’ve gained a greater understanding of the significance of the solstices and those whose lives are directly shaped by the natural rhythms and forces.
  10. Small children cannot manage wax candles (can teenagers any better?), so there is an intimacy and bonding in the night routines done in each other’s company.  There is something magical and charming about all four children brushing their teeth to candlelight.
  11. Lent becomes missional in that I am able to talk with joy and freedom about Lent and Jesus to my most avid environmentalist friends and colleagues and students who are antagonistic to the church.
  12. We sleep better, deeper.

This fast is only a rail, a prop, a visual aid.  But it provides a healing limitation that turns our hearts towards the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who in love are winning, wooing, crushing, and making us new.

We are not prepared to live this way for the other 319 days of the year, but you know Easter is coming by the way our children are preparing by counting candles and discussing creative ways to make their own music to replace KMFA.  Oh, yes, Easter is coming!

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Wednesday: Ashes and Death

I’m reposting what I wrote for Ash Wednesday last year, when I was nine months pregnant with Brooksie. It still says what I want to say.

 

I love Ash Wednesday because it reminds me that I will die.

I am a product of a culture obsessed with youth and beauty. We honor the young and ignore the elderly. We worship comfort at the expense of wisdom. We refuse to consider that each of us are constantly moving closer to our own deaths. And we convince ourselves that we have control over the reality of living and dying…until the cancer, the terror, the tragedy.

I don’t know what it is about pregnancy, perhaps those millions of years (until this past century), when a woman’s body knew that giving birth meant the possibility of death. Maybe my body and my brain still haven’t connected over the existence of modern medicine and the rarity of death in childbirth for the average American woman. And so I’m feeling in these final days of pregnancy like my womb has switched on an awareness-radar, saying: Love everything! It could all end soon! The world is suddenly brighter and more fragrant. August is charming even as he whines while I’m on the phone. I’m seized by a need to stroll instead of hurry. What a strange thing to have hormones telling you you’re risking your life, possibly dying, and doing something so significant it could change the world.

So tonight, I will sit alone in an Ash Wednesday service, preparing myself to stand before a priest of the gospel and hear the words that ring the bell signaling the Lenten season: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I will feel near to death. Not like it is a monster coming at me, but like it is a sleeping terror I am allowed to approach.

The older I get, the more often I know people who have lost those they love. I’ve watched two friends lose siblings tragically in the past two and a half years. I spent the month of June two summers ago with a woman whose husband had lost his life to brain cancer when her children were preschoolers. Now they’re teenagers.

I know it’s possible. The tragedy could come to me. I could be the tragedy. There’s something to sitting alone with that thought on this first day of Lent, for a mother and a wife who is never completely alone, to approach the bowl of ashes and feel them pressed into the skin that covers my brain. I am made of this. I will be this again.

The ashes tell me that I am broken. I am human, not a god, not a marvel, not a woman of accomplishment. They tell me that whatever I do with my life, this body, in all its beauty, will be the same lump of ash as the vilest criminal in prison. The ashes make me look at myself: thirty-one years old. Have I lived long enough to have become the woman I want to be? Have I loved completely?

I want to ooze hospitality in my life. I want to see the people around me as Jesus. I want to care. I want to carry peanut butter and jellies in my diaper bag to offer to those begging just blocks from my home. I want people who meet me to sense peace in my presence. I want my son to joyfully remember his childhood as full of color and kindness and rich love. I want to patiently listen to my husband instead of storing up bitterness until I lose my temper.

I’m thankful that the ashes are about more than my own death. They’re about the death of the God whose brokenness and ultimate restoration heals my failure, who brings purpose to a life that could easily be written off as ordinary.

Last year, as I sat through our Ash Wednesday service, I watched a couple carry their ten-month-old baby with them to the pastor, who marked not only their heads but their little girl’s as well. I watched them carry her back to their seats, a bit shocked at the sight of ashes on a baby’s face.  I couldn’t help but consider their intentions. Were they reminding themselves of their child’s own brokenness as well? I thought: August will die. At some point he will die.

As I write this, he is asleep in his room, snuggled up with around 12 different stuffed animals. My other son, the one whose feet press into my side long enough for me to measure a length that simply should not be (those things are not going to fit on the birth certificate), is waiting for our God to give him a little shove out of me. He’ll breathe oxygen for the first time and scream at the injustice of life outside of my warmth. He will be fresh and beautiful and it won’t take long before he will be scarred.

It’s Ash Wednesday. So let these ashes remind us that what we need is not the avoidance of age, the fear of our own endings, but the glory of healing, of purpose, of life lived fully.

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Fat Tuesday Thankful

  • Writing posts two nights in a row at 11 pm because I spent the evening with friends.
  • My husband’s heartbreaking skill at searing and roasting a pork chop.
  • Creating a Goo Goo Dolls station on Pandora while our friends were over last night. Wow, 90’s music was the best.
  • The “Hoe Cake Hoe Down,” my dear church’s version of a Mardi Gras party, a pancake dinner and country dancing. It was last Friday night, a day I spent feeling crazy emotional, with snotty crying children who couldn’t get outside because of the rain. And at 5 pm, I couldn’t imagine discovering enough energy to get my people and myself dressed and into the car by 6:30. But we made it, fed our children pancakes, received lots of hugs, and spun around in red cowgirl boots (ok, I’m the only one in my family with red cowgirl boots…but I spun around). August and I have some mad dancing skills. What better way to celebrate the coming season of Lent?
  • Tea and scones and clotted cream yesterday afternoon with my San Franciscan friend Cecelia who was in town for the day.
  • Brooksie’s first step yesterday. He had been making some valiant attempts for the past couple of days, but yesterday evening, he stepped and stuck the landing. Oh boy.
  • Candles flickering on the mantle
  • A day so full I was never online from morning till 11 pm
  • Bath time and clean boys and cozy jammies
  • Realizing on Saturday that my hair has become “wavy” since having this last child. How?! I have always had stick-straight fine hair. Ladies and gentlemen, there is now a wave. (One wave.) And it is miraculous.
  • Laughter and cloth napkins and frozen chocolate covered bananas
  • Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Last week my baby turned 11 months old. A year ago on Ash Wednesday I was a massively with child. Now I have a little boy who has taken exactly one successful step in his life, who leaned in this afternoon and kissed my lips over and over (with his mouth wide open), who responds to a dinosaur name. How good a year can be???

It’s Thankful Tuesday. It’s the day before Lent begins. Be thankful. And tell us about it.

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