Category Archives: the Praying Life

{Practicing Benedict} The Finale: A Beginning

The purpose for which we have written this rule is to make it clear that by observing it in our monasteries we can at least achieve the first steps in virtue and good monastic practice. Anyone, however, who wished to press on towards the highest standards of monastic life may turn to the teachings of the holy Fathers, which can lead those who follow them to the very heights of perfection. Indeed, what page, what saying from the sacred scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is not given us by the authority of God as reliable guidance for our lives on earth? … We, however, can only blush with shame when we reflect on the negligence and inadequacy of the monastic lives we lead.

Whoever you may be, then, in your eagerness to reach your Father’s home in heaven, be faithful with Christ’s help to this small Rule which is only a beginning. Starting from there you may in the end aim at the greater heights of monastic teaching and virtue in the works which we have mentioned above and with God’s help you will then be able to reach those heights yourself. Amen.

The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 73 (emphasis mine)

I have this memory of sitting at my computer during August’s naptime six weeks into our move to San Francisco. I had just spent the first 45 minutes of his nap building an Ikea desk. I did it backwards the first time and had to take it apart. Then, I drilled and grunted and propped that delicate fake-wood into its proper settings and set that cheap table on its feet. I placed two things upon it: my computer and my Benedictine Handbook.

Then I opened the screen to check in with my writerly friends from grad school. We were a group of women who had spent Thursday nights together throughout those three years in the early 2000’s. We’d get dinner and talk poetry while drinking tea. We had a little closed blog back then where we would post about what we were reading or writing. My friends were publishing books and teaching writing workshops and writing interesting essays on poetry and feminism. And I was wiping my kid’s butt. Not reading. And definitely not writing.

That afternoon, I opened the laptop to see a thread from a friend about her stressful life situation. She was struggling through an incredibly difficult season: unsure of the future of her marriage, trying to find a permanent teaching position, balancing her writing and her adjunct jobs and raising a toddler. She made a statement in her frustration. She said, “If only I could be some Stepford Wife and let somebody else take care of me!”

That’s all she said. She didn’t purposefully make fun of me. She was hurting and I was the selfish one. And you better believe I cried for myself. I sat at that new Ikea desk, my face smashed into the white plastic wood, and cried. I wept and asked God, “Is that all I am? Am I a lazy wife who lets my husband earn the money and take care of me? Am I useless? Am I wasting my gifts here in my home, washing the dishes and playing on the floor with my kid, making grilled cheese sandwiches?”

I had only just then begun my journey with St. Benedict. I was asking God to show me how to find purpose in this life at home. I was asking God how I was supposed to feel like this staying home business had any value compared to the work I had been in full time ministry just months before. I was looking at myself and my days alone with August and my loneliness in this new city, and I was gut-sobbing, “Please God, give me some help here. I don’t know where the joy is.”

You can read the rest over at Patheos…

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Time, Anxiety, Caffeine and Making Space

Yesterday, Mama Monk officially moved its home to Patheos. We’re still working out the details and so far it looks like email (RSS) subscribers have not been redirected. Hopefully that will happen in the next couple of days. (If you follow me on WordPress, I’m sorry to say Patheos won’t be able to move over the subscription. But, I’ll be your best friend if you’ll click here real fast and subscribe on the sidebar at the new site.) Until then, there’s a new post up today:

I’ve been living on caffeine. I’m talking two cups of coffee in the morning, a shot of espresso to get me through the afternoon and a nighttime cup so I can write till midnight.

I’m not saying this to brag or to complain. I’m saying it’s not healthy. I’m not healthy.

There’s this thing I’ve learned about myself: I have a terrible pattern in my life. Left to my own devices, my ENFP brain and I would do something different every day. I would wake at whatever time felt right. I would run into friends on my walk to the not-very-important-meeting and let them convince me we should play hooky all morning and sit at the park. And I would be enormously happy. Until nighttime. Then I would cry that I’d done nothing with my day and all I want is to accomplish something important with my life. I would cry that I just want a schedule and someone to help me.

Click here to read the rest at Patheos…

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Dishes and Litany and all that Beauty

keepcalmgallery.com via Pinterest

I live in the litany of the putting away. The clean dishes go onto shelves, forks and knives and cups and bowls. And the boys are waiting for their food, always waiting for food. I move from fridge to stove to sink to table, little circles.

Sometimes it’s morning. I listen to the news in my pajamas. Oatmeal for one child. Cereal for another. I’m slicing an apple. I’m pouring a cup of milk. I’m cleaning up a spill. I’m reminding Brooksie that “our food does not go on the floor, little babes.” I’m sipping coffee as I move around that room. I’m not frantic. But I know what needs to get done and my gut is begging me to feed it as well. Take bites. My mom always stood during breakfast too.

Sometimes it’s lunch and the quesadilla has two sides: one swiped with spinach puree for the baby who doesn’t notice green things yet. One plain for the boy who notices everything. “What vegetable would you like today?” I’m saying. He’d like to just once get away with no vegetable. Not in my kitchen! My head sings. And, it’s true: I own this room.

Later, during naptime, there are dishes to wash and floors to sweep and counters to wipe or, possibly, to be left till later. Because, seriously, I need to get on Twitter.

And dinner, and after dinner: All those dishes. All those pans. When we were first married and living on my tiny fellowship in grad school, freezing in Syracuse winter with our heat set to 62, Chris and I stood together in the kitchen washing pans and drying them, washing plates and drying them. That next apartment in Philly had a dishwasher. It was a slice of glory. We filled it with wonder in our eyes. How easily I can forget that.

The other day, I was putting away a glass bowl: the kind that has held salad and cookie dough, a baking soda volcano and playdough mix and I thought: This is it. This is my life.

Granted, sometimes I can have that thought in the kind of way that leads me to cry in my pillow and take a long bath and rewatch the saddest scene in Little Women (you guys know what I’m talking about). But, sometimes, I have that thought and the light shines in through the window and the bowl sparkles and I think: Thank you, bowl, for the volcano and the endless supply of salads. Thank you for the chocolate pudding August and I made in our second apartment in San Francisco and the way he couldn’t quite pronounce “choquate” then. Thank you for the endless circles I’ve scrubbed around you in every home Chris and I have shared for almost eight years. Thank you for the putting away and the getting out and the hope that I can always clean you.

And in those moments when the bowl is good and the litany is good, I realize that my life is this in its most simplest form: these circles I’m moving in around the kitchen and around my day–from breakfast to play time to errands to the kitchen to nap time and writing time and play time and the sun shining down on us outside and back to the kitchen and food and my husband being home and the boys wrestling in the living room and bathing the boys and clean shiny skin and combing their wet hair down and pajamas and teeth brushed and stories read and bodies tucked in and moments with my husband on the couch and our own books and bedtime. And we do it over and over and over. And this is the shocker: That circle is good.

Because this is what I’m realizing: every night as I lay my baby down in his crib and sing the words, “I know that moons rise and time flies and sweet little boys get older…” I see him changing. Some moments I can stop the circling long enough to notice: the way he’s smiling today, the joke he’s trying to play on me, the love he’s inheriting for books. And when I notice, that’s when I remember to pray.

It’s always about paying attention, I was thinking yesterday afternoon, stacking plates on top of one another, hoping not to wake the light-sleeping baby whose room shares a wall with the dishes. And that makes the circle more of a spiral, doesn’t it? We’re always circling, yes. But it turns out in all this doing and putting away and creating and consuming, we’ve been spiraling toward something all along.

And that spiral leads toward a glorious center, the place where God is making all the plain things beautiful and all the sad things untrue.

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Walk slow and notice

The plane lands and you have a connection to make in a city you’ve never see the ground of. Two or three times your body has hovered close here: once in a suburb, twice at this airport where you taxi now toward the bulding. A bell chimes and all at once, as if a symphony, you all unclick seat belts, reach forward for purses and backpacks, stand to feet with heads bents, eyes facing down under short ceilings, waiting.

How strange it is for you to be alone. Always those boys are attached to you. Always you are the one gathering misplaced playmobile pieces, always cars in the row behind you. Always a baby in a carrier, a child holding onto your hand. Always three bags and plans for the next destination: how to move forward. Always someone is hungry, thirsty, always dirty hands, diapers or quick hustles to the potty.

And here you are. The emptiness around your arms is softer than you have words for. You think, What did I do, once, when my arms were free and I stood alone among strangers? You think: Music. And there on that plane, you pull the wires through fingers, place buds in the your ears. The music shocks you. You’ve heard it before, but lately, so diluted. Watered by voices and calendars and doings. And here, the older woman in her hand-knitted purple shawl looks into your eyes, as if she knows: Oh, her face says, you are alone. Beautifully alone. You smile back. Yes, your eyes answer. Yes.

There are signs of who you’ve become. Perhaps if strangers looked close enough, they’d recognize the extra skin that folds your belly, the tired eyes, the good ache that comes from giving yourself to children. But here, as one by one the people lift their heads, set eyes toward their destination, walk the open path, you know you don’t know what they carry. They don’t know what you are lightened by.

Then, your turn to move. You step into an aisle. How many asles have you walked in your life, sweet Baptist girl? Always walking aisles toward a calling. Always coming forward pulled by grace. And here, you step into this space, arms empty, one bag, a book, this music. You turn it up louder than comfortable. You want it to burn a little.

You move off the plane into the long tunnel and the warm air rushes at you, past you, light skimming your surface on every side. And you are alone in that tunnel, illuminated.

You walk into the maze of spaces and people, all of it moving toward you.

Walk slow, the Voice whispers.

Walk slow and notice.

And every place you step is shimmering, every face is the image of God.

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{Practicing Benedict} Do not disappoint me…

“When the decision is made that novices are to be accepted, then they come before the whole community in the oratory to make solemn promise of stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience … Novices must record their promises in a document … Each must write the document in his or her own hand or, if unable to write, ask another to write it instead; then, after adding a personal signature or mark to the document, each must place it individually on the altar.  As the record lies on the altar they intone this verse: ‘Receive me, O Lord, in accordance with your word and I shall live, and do not disappoint me in the hope that you have given me.’ The whole community will repeat this verse three times and add at the end the Gloria Patri. Each novice then prostrates before every member of the community asking their prayers and from that day is counted as a full member of the community.”

The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 58 (emphasis mine)

It’s Saturday morning. I stuff my mouth full of pancakes at a diner with one of my favorite 19-year-olds. She looks across the table at me as if I am a surviver, someone once sick but now in recovery. She chews slow then stares in my eyes, says, “I feel like I believe in God one minute, like I’m thanking him and watching him do these amazing things…like I can sing worship songs and really believe them, and then, the next, I’m thinking these crazy thoughts. I hear my professors’ voices calling Jesus’ resurrection a myth. I can’t reconcile my brain and my heart. I don’t understand what’s happening to me. I’ve always believed.”

I stare back. How long have I been working through those same thoughts? How much fear sits in me? What right do I have to look in her eyes and talk about Jesus like I do in those cozy study chairs every Thursday night, our circle full of freshmen girls learning the world, and Christ, and themselves in both?

But she knows. I’ve confessed it enough–my doubt. How can I not? Even as we spread open the onion skin pages of the Gospel of John every week, even as I swear to them that God’s love is deeper than their brains, than their faith or lack thereof?

What can I say to her except that I know? What can I say except, Now it is time to lean back, sweet girl. This is a baptism of fire and you will emerge both burnt and refined.

I beg her to remember the past: every sweet moment where God’s voice broke Earth’s barrier and made its way to her ears. Set up a memorial in your mind, I say. Stones of remembrance, I say. And when the voices of doubt break in, hold up that memory and dig your fingernails in deep.

Jacob and the angel, I say. The wrestling that lasted all night. “I won’t let go until you bless me!” And how the wrestling and the clinging left him with the blessing and the limp.

Believe that the world is far more beautiful and far more complex and far more mysterious than your mind has room for, I say. And remember that God has room for all the beautiful, all the complexity, all the mystery.

“I do believe!” I quote a father’s prayer of hope for all of us faith failures. “Overcome my unbelief!” And the mystery of holding both those truths in the same heart, in the same prayer.

Who am I? I pray in my heart, my eyes on her young face, bringing my diner mug to my lips. Who am I to say anything, Lord? I know myself. I know the ache of my heart, how constant the tapes of doubt jog alongside my prayers of thanksgiving, how quickly my soul can break under the weight of their whispers. How often I kneel beside the couch, holding a physical cross to my forehead and begging: Lord, put this cross in my mind, bigger than the whispers. How I beg for my boys before they fade into the still of evening rest: that if they stray from the Lord, he will always bring them home again.

And then, I recall this prayer, offered by every Benedictine in the history of the order. Every monk has scribbled down the “solemn promise of stability, fidelity…and obedience.” Who can ever promise such a thing?

Of course, sweet Benedict offers them the sort of prayer of commitment that only a doubter would choose when presenting his or her life to the work of God. It is not a prayer of sacrifice, of promised perfection. No, it is a prayer that God would receive the promise, and a gut-beggar-plead that God will not disappoint us in our hope.

This freshman girl looks across the table at me as if I am a recovered doubter. As if these thirteen years of begging at God’s table for peace have finally delivered me smooth-faith brain waves. As if I’ve finished the treatment and come out pure. But the secret is this: I’ve been learning how to make promises, how to scratch them down and lay them flat on the altar. I’ve been learning how to pray with all my heart: My God! Do not disappoint me in this hope!

And I rise from the altar and lift my hands and shout out with the congregation on Easter Sunday, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

And then I sing from my gut as the voices beside me raise:

You make me new. You are making me new…

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Easter Sunday

"Testimony" Copyright © 2012 Jan Richardson Images. All Rights Reserved.



From  Girl Meets God:

The Last Battle, the final volume of Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, pictures the end of time. Aslan—the lion who represents Jesus—has returned, folding all of culture and humanity into his kingdom. In the novel’s lasts pages, he tells Lucy, a child from London, that everyone she knew back in Blighty is dead and raised to new life. And as Aslan spoke, writes Lewis, “the things that began to happen…were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beninning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were begining Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better that the one before.”:>

 

On Easter, we glimpse the beginning of Chapter One.

-Lauren F. Winner, Girl Meets God (193-194)


Descending Theology: The Resurrection

by Mary Karr

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in–black ice and blood ink–
till the hung flesh was empty. Lonely in that void
even for pain, he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist of his heart

began to bang on the stiff chest’s door,
and breath spilled back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he longs to flow into–
from the sunflower center in your chest
outward–as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

“Descending Theology: The Resurrection” by Mary Karr, Sinners WelcomeHarperCollins, 2006.


Joy is radically different from happiness, for it does not depennd up on the “ups” and “downs” of our existence. It is the constant moving away from the static places of death toward the house of God, where the abundant life can be recognized and celebrated.

Lifesigns, Henri Nouwen (102)

For more from Jan Richardson, find her website here and be sure to visit the Lenten series on her blog.

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Holy Saturday

"Buried" Copyright © 2012 Jan Richardson Images. All Rights Reserved.



The Last of the Brooding Miserables

by Mary Karr

Lord, you maybe know me best
by my odd laments: My friend
drew the garage door tight,
lay flat on the cold cement, then
sucked off the family muffler
to stop the voices in his head.
And Logan stabbed in a fight, and Coleman shot,
and the bright girl who pulled a blade
the width of her own soft throat,
and Tom from the virus and Dad
from drink–Lord, the many-headed
hurts I mind.

I study each death
hard that death not catch me
unprepared. For help I read Aurelius,
that Stoic emperor who composed
fine Meditations in his battle tent.

Surely he overheard at night
the surgeons chopping through his wounded soldiers’ bones
and shovels of earth flung down
on blue faces, and near dawn,
the barbarian horses athunder.

Still, he judged the young man’s death
no worse than the old’s: each losing
just one breath. I would have waded
the death pits wailing
till I ruined good boots with lime–
a vulture for my dead too long,
or half a corpse myself.

Lord, let me enter now
your world, my face,
dig deep in the gloves
of these hands formed
to sow or reap or stroke
a living face. Let me rise

to your unfamiliar light,
love, without which the dying wouldn’t bother me one whit.

Please, if you will, bless also
this thick head I finally bow. In thanks.

for James Laughlin

-Mary Karr, from Viper Rum, Penguin Poets, 1994

 

“Today we think about Jesus lying dead in the tomb. His bruised and lacerated body, hastily wrapped, rests on a stone slab, cold and stiff in the darkness. Correspondingly, our hearts remain quiet. Yet in the spiritual realm, all is not quiet. A doctrinal tradition going back to the earliest era of the church declares that Christ, in the time between his death and his resurrection, descended to the dead, that is, to the precints of hell itself, in order to liberate a throng of people. The “harrowing of hell,’ it is sometimes called. This doctrine is stated in the creeds–“He descended into hell”–and depicted in icons. Many Protestants dispute or downplay it because of the ambiguity of the scriptural texts. But whether Christ “recaptures” captives (see Eph 4:7-10) or simply proclaims the victory of the cross, some momentous event in the grand drama of God’s redemption takes place on this holy sabbath. Christ’s redemptive power plumbs the darkest depths before ascending to the brightest heighs. Holy Saturday recognizes this wondrous mystery and invites us, quietly, to enter it.”

-Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year (182)


Psalm 31:1-5

In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!

For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord,
faithful God.

On Holy Saturday, I walk up the hill to the cemetery and I meet old Fr. Gall walking stiffly toward me, dressed in a black suit, a narrow, European cut decades out of fashion. He twirls his walking stick and says, brightly, “Ah, you have come to visit those who are in heaven? You have come to seek the living among the dead!” The air is full of the anticipation of snow, a howling wind. Words will not let me be: In cold and silence you are born, from the womb of earth, the cloud of snow yet to fall. And from somewhere in the liturgy: What has been prepared for me?

From The Cloister Walk  by Kathleen Norris (181)


“In the end, no white light shines out from the wounds of Christ to bathe me in His glory. Faith is a choice like any other. If you’re picking a career or a husband–or deciding whether to have a baby–there are feelings and reasons pro and con out the wazzoo. But thinking it through is–at the final hour–horse dookey. You can only try it out. Not choosing baptism would make me feel half-assed somehow, like a dilettante–scared to commit to praising a force I do feel is divine–a reluctance grown from pride or because the mysteries are too unfathomable.

In the back of a dark church on Holy Saturday, I sit between Dev and Toby. In the pews, everybody holds an unlit candle, and the priest comes in with the altar’s mega-candle. Stopping at the back row, he touches its taper to the charred filament on either side of the aisle. The flame’s passed one to another until we’re all holding fire in our hands.”

From Lit by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, 2010 (351)

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