Tag Archive | Lent

Lenten Emptiness

006-2

 

Emptiness fills my world

this harsh late-winter day;

cold seeps into my walls,

sits heavy in my rocking chair,

spreads icily around my yard, a shroud

wrapped tight around the color

that I ache for in my life.

*

The trees in my backyard, stark branches

spider-webbed across the sky, embrace

this leadenness so gracefully;

mystery of stillness,

patience of a waiting rest.

Could it be that angels curl

in those wintered trees, breathe

with them the bitter nights, caress

their icy bark, whisper poems that seep

a solace deep into their veins?

Beneath the brooding skies, I listen

for the rustle of their wings.

Overcast on Ash Wednesday

001 - Copy

 

Bare branches mere bones of

sorrow etching crosses black and

bleak against a heaven that has

forgotten how to smile.

*

Sky knits a seamless shroud;

the air is thick and still with

heaven’s grief for all the sadness of a

world of stitches dropped and patterns

gone awry; silence in my sagging pines.

*

Has God forgotten us? misplaced his

once delight in wind that tiptoes

through my chimes? in mischievous

white clouds that spill their joy into my trees?

*

My only answer is a Presence

brooding over all the tatters of this

wilted earth, pulling me to Silence

that has held within its womb

all that is, from dawn of time until this

solemn Day of Ash; bare-branched

crosses stretching high into the sky;

smudge of ashes burning on my brow;

enough; the Presence tender holds my

dust, rocks me in the empty trees.

Reading the Bible with van Gogh–a fresh look at lectio divina

van Gogh

“The Raising of Lazarus”

Vincent van Gogh

(1853-1890)

          Look closely. Can you see that wispy red beard on Lazarus?

            Vincent van Gogh was in a hospital when he painted this picture in the last year of his life. Years earlier he had virtually given up his Christian faith. He had tried, but unsuccessfully, to be a student of theology. He had tried to be a missionary pastor to a community of impoverished Belgian miners, and he had lived in poverty so as to better identify with them.   But he had been dismissed by church authorities because they felt his life of poverty demeaned the office of a pastor.

           Enough! Van Gogh decided to let go his faith and pursue instead his love of art. His life was not a happy one. He suffered from mental instability, and he led a dissolute and lonely life. A final breakdown at the age of 36 led him to the hospital in St.-Remy, Provence. While he was there, his brother sent him a sketch by Rembrandt of the raising of Lazarus. VanGogh then painted his “copy” of a portion of this sketch. And he painted himself right into the picture, wispy red beard and all! Not all art critics agree, but many believe that in spite of his earlier turning away from faith, van Gogh seems to have found some profound personal meaning in this story from the gospel of John. He seems to have seen himself in Lazarus, gaunt and disoriented, yet hearing from beyond a call to return to life.

          VanGogh’s painting serves as an illustration of a very ancient practice of reading the Bible, a practice known as lectio divina, or “holy reading.” It’s a practice that invites the reader to place him/herself right into the biblical narrative and then to listen for what God may be saying to him/her in a particular story. Like van Gogh, the reader may become one of the characters in the story. Or the reader may simply be standing by, watching the story unfold, seeing and hearing all the details as if right on the scene. 

          Lectio divina has been used by Christians for many centuries as a way of helping the biblical story become more truly alive in their lives, and as a way of experiencing a closer presence of God through a careful reading of God’s Word. St. Benedict established lectio divina as a monastic practice in the 6th century. Then, in the 12th century, a French Carthusian monk named Guigo II formalized lectio as a four-step process: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.

           I have found this approach to reading the Bible so very helpful, and over time, I’ve tried to spell out for myself just what is involved in each of the four steps. I share these thoughts here, and I hope that, especially during these Lenten days, others will find lectio divina a helpful way of experiencing God more deeply in their lives. Will find themselves, like van Gogh, very much a part of God’s ongoing story and work in our lives and in our world.

Lectio

First reading: Let your imagination come alive! See the scene, smell the smells, feel the feelings of the people.  Be there–like van Gogh, put yourself into the picture.

Second reading: Listen for how the passage touches your life. It may be a simple word or phrase. It may be the passage as a whole.

Meditatio

This is a time to reflect on your experience of the text. You may want to ask one or more of the following questions:

  • what feelings does this passage arouse in me: joy? anger? sadness?
  • what questions about God or about my life does this text prompt?
  • what do I wish the text said…or wish it didn’t say?
  • does the text give me comfort?
  • does the text challenge me?
  • what memories does this text bring to mind?
  • does the text invite me to experience God, myself, others in a new way?

Oratio

Take a few minutes to talk with God about your experience of this text. Tell God your hopes, fears, angers, questions, whatever. Come to God “just as you are” with this text.

Contemplatio

Now spend a few minutes letting yourself be conscious of God’s presence and love in your life.

Imagine God saying to you, “(your name), I am with you. You are beloved.”

***

Hope this might be helpful.  Blessings for all our reading in these Lenten days and in the days beyond.

Lenten Prayer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Passion flower from San Juan Capistrano Mission, California)

Recently I came across this Levertov poem.  Seems a fitting prayer for these Lenten days.

The Avowal

Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
free fall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

 

Leprechauns and Lent

leprechaun-2

          St. Patrick’s Day, and  today my little leprechaun smiles benignly and rests comfortably in my inner warmth.  A gentle sprite, content to let me be.  Today he even breathes some of his lively spirit into my spirit and lends me a bit of his tireless energy, seeming to delight in the small tasks I can manage.  Today my little “Irish friend” is all charm and spreads his magic through me to let me feel an almost-wholeness, while he quietly hums and twiddles his tiny thumbs.

          But tomorrow may be a very different story!  Tomorrow this little fellow may awaken to a feistiness that will bode trouble for me.  Tomorrow his eye may gleam maliciously as he runs riotously through my system, wreaking havoc wherever his tiny toes touch down.  Tomorrow he may, in the words of Yeats, “leap on to a wall and spin, balancing himself on the point of the hat with his heels in the air.”  And all that mischievous leaping and spinning will set my teeth on edge and send weakening shivers through my system, while he will simply grin with glee.

          Sigh.  The little leprechaun who has taken up residence in my body is the CFS/ME (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) that’s been with me for years.  God knows I have tried taming this little fellow!  With alternative medicines.  With special diets.  With rest and rest and more rest.  With stress management systems.  With exercise plans.  With prayer and meditation.  But all to only little effect.  My little leprechaun has nested himself in my body, and he is not the least bit interested in leaving or in being tamed!

          Many of us, I suspect, have similar little leprechauns bedeviling us in some way—physically, emotionally, or mentally—and there seems to be no way to rid our lives of these feisty little creatures.  And much of the time—thankfully, with modern medical advances, not all the time!—these imps are only slightly tamable!  So what to do?

          Part of the discipline of Lent, it seems to me, is learning to live with the mischievous, pesky, untamable leprechauns in our lives:

  • learning to live with them one day at a time;
  • learning to accept with some measure of grace whatever challenges these annoying little creatures present to us each day;
  • learning to recognize that accompanying us in our difficulties is the One who walked his own difficult road, a road that led to the cross;
  • learning even to experience a certain hallowedness in the limitations our leprechauns impose on us—limitations which can draw us into a deeper awareness of who we are and of who God intends for us to be.

          Not an easy discipline.  But an important one.  And as we work on learning to live with our difficulties, it’s possible that our little leprechauns themselves, with a twinkle in their beady little eyes, just might be able to help us:

  • help us to learn a certain playfulness in response to the arbitrary mischief they spin in our lives; 
  • help us learn to discover paths of wonder and delight, even if we can’t do all we’d like to be able to do, to be all we’d like to be able to be; 
  • help us learn to take their little leprechaun hands and imagine ourselves dancing with them in gratitude for life, life that’s rich and full even though it’s been diminished by their unpredictable mischief.

Ashy Hope

ashes

“Remember that you are dust…” my

bones, my muscles—dust? my

sinews, veins—all dust?

“…and to dust you will return”; words that

sting and push me to a charnel space  

dark with endings, loss, and ash; words

intoned incessantly as friends and

strangers kneel to feel the print of

cross upon our brows; feel with

sinners near and far the weight of who we

truly are—fragile, errant souls with

muddied lives, distorted dreams, and now the

black of ashes marking this, our too, too brief

mortality.

*

A cheerless mark, this dismal smudge that

signifies my dust; why, then, this

sprig of joy that’s rooting in these

ashes and insists on pushing up?  And

why this quiet hope persistent at the

edges of this gray?  Perhaps it is the

deep that calls to Deep, this real in me,

unmasked, that hears the Real

beyond, the Real who stirs my ashes,

calls my name, and tells me I am

loved in all my ashiness, that I will be made

clean and whole because of one who

scooped up all our dust and from his open

tomb sculpts from our cinders timeless works of

love beyond the ashes of this too, too brief

mortality.  

“Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation.”

Ash Wednesday

ashwednesday

Good to begin Ash Wednesday with a reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”   Today many will kneel at altar rails around the world.  Today many will hear these ancient words as pastors, with the ashes of last year’s palms, mark the sign of the cross on their foreheads:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation.

Not difficult these days to remember that I am dust, that we all are dust and that to dust one day we will return.  Recently, I have watched loved ones and friends coping with intense physical and emotional pain.  I have been measuring out my own days in mere teaspoons of activity with the weakness of my CFS/ME.   As I’ve listened to the evening news, I have tried to imagine the agony of a young Syrian mother giving birth in a refugee camp after fleeing from all she had ever known and loved, or the distress of an Afghan father worried about finding money to bury his young son who had frozen to death in a Kabul shelter the night before.  With all that’s going on in my life and in the life of the world, I truly have to struggle some days to remember that God has indeed begun a good work in me, in all of us.  Struggle to believe that God is still at work to accomplish that good work and bring it to completion.  Easier these days—often—simply to feel the dustiness, the grittiness, the muddiness of life rather than to be aware of any glory of the divine at work within me and within our world.

Yet, as I kneel today and hear the beautiful words of the Ash Wednesday prayer, I find myself realizing that God is indeed at work in all our lives…

  • enabling us to trust as we grope our way through pain and weakness…
  • enabling us to keep hope alive amidst all the ugliness and fear so rampant in our world…
  • enabling us to see and cherish all the beauty that still shimmers and shines amidst the gloom…
  • enabling us to love and care for those who need our hearts and our hands.

Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation!