Tag Archive | spirituality

The Art of Prayer

LaTour still life

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 –1904)

pollock

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

My prayer at times is calm, a

still life, fruits and flowers

carefully arranged, pastel

petals of gratitude shaping

trust and dropping peace;

quiet listening for that

whisper from beyond, elusive

though it be.

*

At other times, I pray a

Jackson Pollock kind of

prayer; jagged lines of grief

and questions slashed across

the canvas of my life; daubs

of anger, neediness, and greed

flung onto the walls that shape

the contours of my soul.

*

A mystery, this business of prayer;

I do not understand, but yet I pray;

not as a master artist; more like a child

offering crayoned sketches to her mother’s

love; yet pray I do; paint my longings

and my needs, my tangled fears,

my angers, and my joys; and like that child,

simply trust that kindly, grace-filled eyes

will see and treasure all my brush strokes,

all my reaching—for a presence,

for a wholeness, for a beauty,

in my life and in my world.

Waiting for God

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To pray means to wait for the God who comes.

[God’s] coming is bound to his promise, not to our works or virtue.

God is thrust onward by his love, not attracted by our beauty.

[God] comes in moments when we have done everything wrong, when we have done nothing…when we have sinned.

(Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes)

 

 

 

Thin Places and All Saints’ Day

Poulnabrone_dolmen-SteveFE

Poulnabrone Portal Dolmen, 4200 BCE and 2900 BCE, County Clare, Ireland

*

        “Thin places”—places where whatever it is that separates the living from the dead feels almost porous.  Places where the supernatural world seems palpable and where the natural and the divine seem mysteriously and tightly woven together.  Places where visitors feel a mystical sense of communion with whatever or whomever lies beyond this mortal sphere. 

        Ireland, with its rich Celtic and even earlier sense of a world mystically inhabited by spiritual forces beyond this mortal sphere, has numerous thin places widely scattered across the Irish countryside.  Sometimes, as is true of the Poulnabrone dolmen above, these thin places are ancient burial sites with a single entrance.  Sometimes they are very early monuments built around openings that highlight the winter solstice.  And sometimes, like the Hill of Uisneach at the very center of Ireland, they are sacred hillsides where ancient heroes or even divine creatures are said once to have lived and where, some believe, the spirits of those ancients continue to dwell.

        I’ve never visited any of these hallowed Irish sites, but when I read recently about some of them, I found myself intrigued by the whole idea of “thinness.”  A closeness to those who have gone before.  An intimate sense of the Divine, powerfully reaching from Beyond into our Here and Now.  And I realized that, while I don’t have any thin places to visit, I do experience thin times now and again.  Moments at the altar rail when I sip the Eucharistic wine and feel a Presence holding me.  Evenings when I step into a glorious sunset or bright moon rise and feel the distant closeness of a Power so vast it takes my breath away.   Moments when I see the intricately detailed pattern on a small butterfly and sense a profound Love that cares for tiny things like butterflies and me.

        Thin times.  Precious times.  Intense and almost haunting times.  But I believe the thinnest of all thin times for me is the annual celebration of All Saints’ Day in church worship.  The somber reading of the names of those who have entered the nearer presence of God in the previous year.  The organ chime that solemnly and respectfully rings a final tribute to each life now gone from us.  And then the majestic singing of that most triumphant of hymns, “For All the Saints.” 

        As the organ swells and voices all around me sing exultantly, recalling those “who from their labors rest,” I feel myself joining hands with so many of those now gone from this world.   I have a strong sense that I am no longer “here” and they “there.”  We are, for one brief shining musical moment, together as one—one in “blest communion,” one in “fellowship divine.”   Heaven and earth are joined.  We sing and dance together.  And for that one brief shining moment, as one people—the living and the dead—we look forward to that coming day when separation will be no more, when tears will all be wiped away, when we will hymn as one the harmony of life together in God’s Nearer Presence.

        Thin places.  Thin times.  Places and times when the veil that falls between the Here and the There seems so thin it’s almost as though it is not there at all.  Places and times when our hearts become a little braver, our arms a little stronger, because we sense that we are not alone.  Places and times which cause us to bow in deep and reverent gratitude for all of life—life in this world and life in the next.

 

Taming Dragons

Tarasque and St Martha, 1895 picSt. Martha and Tarasque

(painter unknown—circa 1895)

     “Tarasque” was its name—a giant dragon that, according to legend, terrorized the region of Provence in southern France in the first century CE.  The dragon was said to have six short legs, head like a lion, an enormous body covered with a tortoise-like shell, and a scaly tail with a scorpion-like sting.  Tarasque was said to live in swamps and in the Rhone River and would devour alive any humans or beasts that came anywhere near, tearing them apart with massive teeth or belching fire that turned them to cinders.  Many had tried to kill this beast, but all to no avail.  Those who tried were never seen or heard from again.

     Enter Martha of Bethany.  Martha of Bethany in Provence, France?  Perhaps.  Legend has it that Martha and Mary and Lazarus, along with some others, had fled persecution in their homeland in a small boat that eventually landed on the southern shores of France. 

     Legend further claims that, in due course, Martha learned of the dreaded dragon and took it upon herself to seek it out.  Taking with her only a crucifix and some holy water (the legends, of course, don’t worry about how Martha obtained these!), Martha confronted the dragon, and chanting hymns and psalms, she quietly sprinkled him with holy water and tamed this ferocious beast.  She then tethered the dragon with her belt and led the now docile Tarasque into town.  Overjoyed, the townspeople rushed upon Tarasque and butchered him to death, in spite of Martha’s pleas to let the tamed creature live.  Later, perhaps expressing a bit of remorse for their hasty actions, the townspeople re-named their town Tarascon.

     So interesting to me that Martha, the one whom Jesus gently reprimanded (“Martha, Martha!”) for her undue busy-ness at her home in Bethany, is depicted in this legend quite differently.  Here she is a woman who accomplishes her task, not through frenzied action, but rather through a quiet, almost meditative stance.  Martha doesn’t carry a sword.  Martha doesn’t rush upon Tarasque in a burst of energy reminiscent of her time cooking for Jesus and washing up the dishes.  Instead, Martha simply holds up the cross, quietly sprinkles her holy water over the dragon, and softly chants some hymns and psalms.  It seems that Martha had taken Jesus’ chiding very much to heart.  Seems that she had learned from Jesus the power of quiet, the power of trust, the power of strength beyond her strength.

     Dragons.  They still roam through our world.  Not in the shape of the legendary Tarasque, to be sure, but real nonetheless.  Dragons of violence and hatred.  Dragons of ignorance and poverty.  Dragons of unchecked power and prejudice.  They lurk, as well, in the darker corners of our personal lives.  Smirk through our illnesses and our worries.  Breathe fire through our depressions and our fears.  We want to be rid of them, and we often muster all of our resources to tackle them and destroy them before they destroy us. 

     Before we confront these dragons, however, perhaps we would be wise to remember what Martha learned in her encounter with Jesus.  Remember increasingly to let our actions grow out of time spent in Quiet.  Time spent in listening to the cadences of hymns and psalms.  Time spent in meditation and prayer.  Time spent in sprinkling our souls with the holy waters of trust and confidence in the One who taught in Bethany that quiet listening and quiet trust are often what is needed most.  Indeed that quiet listening and quiet trust are, and always will be, more powerful than fretful, anxious activity that strikes out on its own and often ends only in wretched self-pity or defeat.

     Martha, Martha.  Tamer of dragons.  Thank you!

 

Voices of Prayer

 

prayer

Elihu Vedder

1836-1923

*****

Answer me when I call, O God of my right. 

You gave me room when I was in distress. 

Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.

Psalm 4:1

*****

      “Answer me when I call, O God of my right.”  The psalmist cries out in desperation.  His life has been difficult, and he wants God to set things right.  His plea is urgent, even demanding.  He wants action from God.  He wants a resolution to his problems.  Now!  “Answer me when I call, O God of my right.” 

      How often our prayers begin in this same demanding voice.  We’re hurting.  Or someone we love is hurting, and we storm into God’s presence, an urgent demand, or sometimes a list of urgent demands, in our hands.  Do something, God.  Fix what’s wrong and make it right.  “Answer me when I call, O God of my right.”

      A pause to catch our frantic breath.  And often in that moment of pause, we find ourselves carried back to an earlier distress, an earlier time when we felt as desperate as we do now.  “You gave me room when I was in distress.”  A whisper.  Ah, yes.  We sigh.  That was a tough time, and there were no easy answers.  There was no instant solution, no snapping of God’s fingers to make everything fine and dandy once again.  Instead, we remember that we were given “room,” space in which we could carefully work through the problem and, with a few stumbles here and there, find our way to a place of greater wholeness.  The memory calms us.  Quiets us.  Leads us to yet another voice in which to pray.

      “Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.”  We crumple our list of demands.  Our voice softens.  Becomes more humble.  Yes, we are still distraught.  Yes, our needs are still urgent.  But no longer do we wave before God the flag of entitlement.  No longer do we insist on God’s instant response to our needs.  It is enough for now to know we are heard.  Enough for now to know we are not alone.  Enough for now to know that the “God of my right” will give us room, space in which to live and work through our dilemma.  Enough to know this God will also be with us in that space—to direct, to comfort, and to strengthen. 

*****

Answer me when I call, O God of my right. 

You gave me room when I was in distress. 

Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.

A trinity of honest doubt

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*****

“Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward–or at least outward–even in your lowest moments.  Such doubt is painful–more painful, in fact, that any of the other forms–but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying.  Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

Jesus Laughing

523px-Rembrandt_-_Young_Jew_as_Christ_-_WGA19204

(Rembrandt van Rijn)

(1606-1669)

     “Jesus laughed.”  With all the tragedies of our world today—the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, the horrific tornado that flattened Moore, Oklahoma, to name just a few—it may seem a little strange to be thinking of Jesus laughing.  But laugh I’m sure he did, and I find myself wishing that at least one of the gospel writers had penned the words, “Jesus laughed” at least once.  I grew up with a sober Jesus.  And I’m afraid I often preached a sober Jesus.  Very sober.  Very serious.  Of course, it’s true that in story after story, teaching after teaching, Jesus is presented in all four gospels as a very sober, very serious man.  Nowhere is there a recording of Jesus’ laughter.  Jesus does tell his listeners at one point that those who mourn now will one day laugh.  But we never see or hear him laughing.

          And that seems strange to me.  And yet not so strange either.  Jesus was, after all, the “man of sorrows,” one “acquainted with grief”—and not just his own grief, but the grief of every one of us.  From early on in his active ministry Jesus was aware that one day he would  face a cruel death.  Aware that he would one day serve as the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  So yes, in a sense, it’s really not so strange that we don’t see or hear Jesus laughing in the gospel stories.  He did carry a very heavy load through his life.

          But he must have laughed.  For while his life was truly a difficult one, his task immensely sobering, he did love and affirm life.  All of it.  Spoke of lilies and sparrows.  Was a frequent guest at dinner parties.   And loved children.  Held them and blessed them.  And all of this without a laugh?  With face rigidly set in somber stone?  I don’t think so. 

     For when “the Word became flesh,” that Word didn’t just take on our somber moods, our gravity and grim solemnity.  That Word took on our sorrows, to be sure, but took on as well our laughter and our joy, our dancing, our delight.  And that Word came to be with us, to relate to us, in every aspect of our lives—the happy as well as the sad, the joyous as well as the somber.  That Word came to affirm that all of life is sacred, and I think that herein lies the importance of picturing Jesus laughing at times.  It can be all too easy to isolate our “religious” life in a somber realm of darker colors and drab tones, to be open and aware of the Word living with us almost exclusively in a sepia world isolated from our fuller lives.  And wonderful as it is to know that the Word made flesh does indeed walk with us in all our sorrows, wonderful to know that this Word weeps with us as we watch tragedies unfold in our lives and around our world, it’s also wonderful to know that this Word also shares our joys.  To know that this Word longs to skip and dance with us to make our every laughter deeper, fuller, richer, an echo of the joyous laughter of the God who looked with delight on all that God had made. 

     In almost all classical depictions of Jesus, Jesus is pictured as a deeply solemn man.  Note Rembrandt’s pensive portrait above.  And grateful as we can be for all these rich classical images, I’m also grateful to the contemporary artist Jean Keaton who has reverently moved beyond this classical art to capture some of the joyous laughter of our Lord in her art.  In a number of beautiful pencil drawings, she depicts the delight that I’m sure was very much a part of Jesus’ life.  These drawings give us a fuller sense, I believe, of just who Jesus was in his time here on earth—a man acquainted with grief, to be sure, but a man also who echoed the joy of God in his smiles and his laughter.  Here’s a sample of her work, and you can see more at her website: http://www.jeankeatonart.com.

k1babeup

     To be sure, faith is a serious matter.  To be sure, faith in the Christ of the gospels calls for sober commitment.  To be sure, faith is never to be taken lightly.  But I do believe that our faith and life will be ever so much richer as we become better acquainted with the Man of Sorrows who not only bore the weight of our sadness and our sinfulness, but who also laughed with joy at the goodness of life as he walked the earth so long ago.  Who continues to walk with us today.  To challenge us at times.  To comfort us at other times.  And yes, to laugh and smile with us as well, whether we are responding to the needs of those struck by a natural or man-made disaster, or are simply relishing the beauty and the joy of life in this lavish, exuberant world in which we live.