Tag Archives: spiritual practice

{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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Thankful Tuesday: A History. And the First Ever Thankful Tuesday Link-Up Partaaaaay!!!

You might be shocked to hear that Thankful Tuesday did not begin as a somewhat piously disguised platform through which to list my kids’ accomplishments. (“Brooksie loves to sign ‘Thank you!’ August understands the theory of gravity!” *Insert eye-roll here.* Though, yeah, it’s a good way to talk about them and I can’t seem to stop, can I?) Also, Thankful Tuesday didn’t begin simply because it is cool to be grateful in the Christian women blogging community. (And, by the way, I’m totally okay with gratitude’s trendiness.)

Thankful Tuesday actually began in January of 1998 in the Behren’s Dormitory second floor (I lived on the second floor, I think?) hallway at my sweet little Baptist college. There, I met with Jamie and Michele every morning at 7 am for prayer. We made a plan. Every day except for Tuesdays we would pray through lists of requests or whatever (seriously, we probably said “or whatever”) but on Tuesdays we would only be Thankful! Why, you might be thinking did we choose Tuesdays for this task? Why not choose Thursdays and have some alliteration up in here? Because, friends, we were much too ironic for that, even as earnest 18-year-olds. Choosing Tuesday over Thursday made us laugh. So we chose Tuesday and I think God was really happy about that as well. We also decided it would be super funny and awesome of us to wish people a “Happy Thankful Tuesday!” every where we went on Tuesdays and insist that our friends tell us why they were thankful.

Click over to the new Patheos site to read the rest and join the first ever “Thankful Tuesday Link-Up Partaaay.” 

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Thoughts on Kairos and Epiphany, the ‘unbidden and unexpected’

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I’ve been reading and loving my newest happy discovery, In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice. Its author, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, is a theologian and the book is a straightforward theological teaching on the things we’ve been talking about around here. She’s a mother who believes the Church has missed its opportunity to honor the spiritual formation that can arrive out of the mess of everyday parenting. Often we’re taught that in order to encounter God we need to step out of the dailyness of life with children. Miller-McLemore, instead, holds up Christ’s own mother (and all that pondering she kept doing!) as our mother-hero of the faith.

Miller-McLemore is sharp and dryly witty and her insight is fantastic. I’m having this problem where I’m underlining every other paragraph and drawing lots of hearts and exclamation points in the margins, as well as phrases like: “Ordinary Awe!” and “Live graciously WITHIN time” and “Mysticism of Everyday life—-> Ignatius.” If all that doesn’t prove it to you already, this book is right up my alley.

So, on this Monday morning following a weekend with four trips to the airport, one night of watching New Girl episodes and eating Vietnamese food with my sister-in-law on the couch, one soccer game, four emotional breakdowns from August, one 93 degree/shadeless soccer game (with a back sunburn to prove it), and two bags of popcorn, I’m going to share some of my favorite words of Miller-McLemore’s so far.

Seriously, I can’t get enough of this stuff.

Just when my six-month-old fell into a predictable sleep pattern and I thought we had it all together, he grew and changed and we had to adjust…

The profoundly interminable and shifting nature of the work of parenting is both its challenge and reward. More than this: many parents would agree that in this practice of attending, they must learn, change and develop or the child will not thrive. For decades, modern psychology presumed that parenthood required little or no change in the already existing mind-set of the parent … Only recently has it begun to dawn on us that birth and rearing children a powerfully transformative for parents an children alike.

If I attend well to my sons over time, there is opportunity, however irregular, for astonishment … Children’s author Judith Viorst has learned , from watching her three sons, that “it is possible to find delight in us hanging around the kitchen while one kid is making a chicken salad sandwich and the other is tossing a napkin into the trash and missing.” It is just this potential for joy int he most mundane moment, pondered and attended to with care, that leads her to conclude, “Family life is better than most any other thing going on in the universe.”

Recently, a pastor who is also a father admitted to me apologetically that family devotions fall by the wayside in his household…

Here’s what I wish I could have said. Although family prayer has its important place … prayer and scripture reading do not alone determine faith. Faith is not one more thing to check off the list. Family prayer; check. Bedtime prayer; check. Ritual for dead hamster; check. It is not something set aside outside regular time. It is what we do in time and space, with our bodies and through our movements. The practices of this man’s family—playing with the children after school, interacting around dinner, greeting and parting, attending and pondering—these practices are formative of faith…

There is no ultimate solution to the dilemma of enacting faith in families in time. One cannot control kairos or schedule an epiphany … This is precisely the gift and bane of kairos and epiphany: such moments come unbidden and unexpected.

In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, 2007 Josey-Bass, 56-57, emphasis mine.

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Dishes and Litany and all that Beauty

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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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Quoting Thankful

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Today for Thankful Tuesday, I want to give you some words I heard over the weekend at the Festival of Faith and Writing, thoughts that have filled me up. I hope they speak something important to you too.

(Note: these are from my notes and they may not be exact…though I did my best–my very best!–at the note-taking.)

“Repetition…locates us, keeps us where we are, keeps us the way a mother keeps her baby.” –Jeanne Murray Walker

“It’s not an accident that Laments [in the Psalms] start individually and then turn into community. The circle widens with the Lament the more love and safety is there. We, the artists, are called to be the ones who bring [the community] into honesty.” –Gregg DeMey

“If I’m complaining to God it feels more healthy than if I’m complaining about God behind his back.” –Susan Isaacs

“Artists are called to be the most observing humans around, which involves a lot of listening.” -Gregg DeMey

“A testimonial is about answers. Good art is about polishing questions.”  -Greg DeMey

Quoting her friend: “Every church has a prase band. When are we going to bring out the Lament band?” –Caryn Rivadeneira

“In all of our rushing, we’re like bulls in china shops. We’re breaking our lives.” –Ann Voskamp

“[Our work is to speak] the language of amazement into a culture that thinks they’ve been abandoned.” -Ann Voskamp

“How did God make every woman to be a maker? He made an empty space inside her… Something always comes to the empty space. And it can be God.” -Ann Voskamp

“You either have to bury your fear in faith or bury your talents in fear. Which is it going to be?” -Ann Voskamp

“Story is in the suffering.” -Ann Voskamp

“When love and theology conflict, love should always be our priority.” -Dr. Vincent Harding paraphrased in Kristin Vander Giessen-Reitsma’s reading of her essay “Choice Cuisine” from the collection, The Spirit of Food

“People are gracious toward religious expression that is gracious to them.” –Marilyn Robinson

“God has never told us we would leave this world alive.” -Marilyn Robinson

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{Practicing Benedict} Offering the Child

“If parents who are from the nobility want to offer to God in the monastery one of their children, who is too young to take personal responsibility, they should draw up a document like that described above and, as they make the offering, wrap the document with the child’s hand in the altar cloth…

Poor people may make the offering of a child in the same way. If they have no property at all, they simply write and offer the child with the document in the presence of witnesses.”

The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 59

What does it mean to offer a child to the work of God?

When I first read this chapter two years ago, I was taken with the image of a child’s hand grasping the document written by his parents, promising him to the community, to the life of monasticism, and making a covenant he can’t possibly understand, his hand wrapped in the altar cloth.

Of course, the thought of what parents chose to do in the 6th century—offering a child’s life to a monastery, giving up rights to that child, both as a kind of tithe, but also as a way to feed less mouths and gain religious “approval” (from God? from the church?)—is disturbing. From our free-thinking, individualistic society, we can’t possibly grasp the culture of the Benedict’s time, what it meant to live in poverty. Or, what it meant to live under the authority of the church.

So I won’t really go there. When I read this passage, I just kept seeing my boys holding the life (the promises) my husband and I are writing for them, their boy hands wrapped in the altar cloth.

Both my boys are blankey types. They would prefer to have their blankets with them wherever they go. Although August is able to go to school and church without it, if there’s a new, scary event happening for him, you bet his “Bup” is in hand and it’s the only thing keeping him from an emotional breakdown. Brooksie has loved his blanket since he was five months old and every time he sees it, he throws his body into it, rubs his face in it.

You know I’m moved by images. Sometimes I stare past the moment I’m in with my kids and I see the eternal: Those two boys crawling and falling onto the couch cushions, laughing and rolling; the three of us on the rocking chair: August hugging my neck from behind while Brooksie sits in my lap and holds the book. What am I writing for them? What is the commitment I’m offering the Lord on their behalf?

Last Saturday night while Chris and I ate dinner at some supercool hipster French bistro (records playing through the speakers!), we talked about the boys, and I whispered across the table the secrets my heart prays for them, what I hadn’t mentioned to Chris till then. I’m convinced that we are always writing the document, this desperate offering to God on our children’s behalf.

The question I’m asking myself is what promises I’m making with the life I’m living in front of them. Am I writing for them a future of compassion, of community, of love for the most broken and most vulnerable? Or am I writing a future of the love of comfort, of success, of self-obsession? Am I teaching them to love things more than people? Am I teaching them to live in fear of the approval of others?

This is picture I keep seeing: As their little tired bodies lie back against their sheets, as their eyes roll backward, their cheeks relax, as they sink into the secret place their minds go in the darkness, they hold in their hands the words I’ve written for them that day: the commitment I’m making on their behalf to the God I serve. And in their hands, the blankets they love, wrapped around their hands, like altar cloth.

See, on the altar is the sacrifice, the grace offered from a merciful God. Yes, each day I write for them a future: some of it sweet and good; some of it broken and failing. But covering their hands, covering my attempts at mothering, at committing those sweet lives, is the grace that covers my hands as well, my tired body pressed into my sheets at the end of the day, the future my parents wrote for me and the promises I’ve made and broken and continue to walk in. All of it grace; all of it wrapped around our hands.

All of it sealed on the altar where Jesus breaks and pours out again and again.

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A list of gifts on a Tuesday

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  • For a Saturday date night and one long, happy dinner conversation with the Mister
  • For a husband who holds out his arms for our boy when he comes out of the game and cheers, “Yeah, buddy!’ despite August never touching that soccer ball. (Instead he runs around the field with abandon…in the opposite direction of the game). I know I’ve said it before, but how many boys are loved by their fathers unconditionally? I know my husband’s not perfect (he’d agree) but, man, he gets a lot of things right.
  • For a hair salon that has a dispenser for “Hot Tamales” candy! (Why, I don’t know, but I never question a good, free thing that involves sugar.)
  • For my baby’s newly developed dance skills, the squatting of his diaper-clad butt into the air and scrunching his elbows in, all while smiling up at me for appproval. (Which I give, honey, I give.)
  • For the excitement and the risk and the joy of jetting off in two days for the Festival of Faith and Writing: The blogging/Twitter friends who will become real, the chance to fly alone and read a book and take a taxi and take notes…all while not wiping a snotty nose or offering a snack while in conversation or carting around some large and necessary child-supply.
  • For the grace of the “I’m leaving my babies” ache and the goodness of trusting God to supply for them and love them well.
  • For the little boy who wanted his hair cut like Dad’s
  • For chin zits to remind me I’m still young, despite the eye wrinkles that remind me I’m not so young anymore.
  • For food in the fridge, and little tummies fed and the gift of not worrying for the physical needs of our kids
  • For freedom and grace and moments of quiet happiness
  • For boys in the yard kicking soccer balls with their dad
  • For my friend Sarah Bessey’s list of influential Faith Lady-Bloggers. For her courage to honor women and bless the voices out here in our little spot on the Blogville map. (Seriously, if you don’t read Sarah’s blog, today is the day you should start. And then send me cookies for making your life so much richer. I’m not kidding.)
  • For the new book beside my bed that I’m going to start quoting from incessantly and we’re all going to wonder why I even have a blog because really we should just read this book. (But I can’t make that statement yet because I’m only one chapter in.) It’s called: In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice. (See, I told you! Just go buy the book and stop reading this blog already!) Listen to this:

“‘Few of the great remembered pray-ers of our tradition were married. Few had children,’ notes church historian Wendy Wright. But this is not all. Many of the esteemed champions of the faith tradition modeled an entire way of life at odds with the life of these church members. They pursued God through the ‘silence and solitude of a hermits’s cell or the mobility of unattached apostolic life’… Limiting spirituality to the ‘inner’ life and restricting theology to the life of the mind ends up excluding a huge portion of the life from both faith and theology” (Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore 5-6, 7).

  • For bedtime snuggles and kisses and “I really love you, Mom” from my growing-up boy. (Who, by the way, has a pretty intense crush on the cartoon character “Isabella” from the show Phineas and Ferb.)
  • For the view of the world from my kitchen window: how blue it is, and green, and alive.

 

PS  Happy Birthday to my mother-in-law, Basia! Hope your day is full of bright flowers…

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