Thursday, December 24, 2009

The gift of practice -- December 24, 2009

In her new book, An Altar in the World, priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right.

Practice is what this Advent blog has been about. Developing a practice -- or maintaining a practice, or revising a practice. Reflecting on the words of Joan Chittister -- as she reflects on her lifetime of Benedictine practice. And the rightness of it all is that through practice we are drawn closer to the center -- the center of our soul, the center of humanity -- to the place where Emmanuel (God with us) is so eager to be born anew.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Peace: sign of the disarmed heart -- December 23, 2009

One of the ironies of the Christmas season is that immediately after the birth of the Prince of peace, we get violence. The Feast of St. Stephen is on December 26; it commemorates an early witness to the faith who was stoned to death. December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents -- who were the children that Herod ordered to be slaughtered upon hearing of the birth of a potential rival.

We live in a world of violence. There is physical violence -- which may or may not be on an increase; and verbal violence, which -- from my perspective, is most definitely on the rise.

Joan Chittister acknowledges the presence -- if not the reign, of violence in our world. And she talks of peace, which she identifies in chapter 14 as a sign of the disarmed heart. She acknowledges that peace is not something that is ever achieved, but is something "sincerely and consistently sought. It comes, in fact, from the seeking, not from the getting." (page 184)

Seeking peace, then is a commitment to spiritual discipline. It doesn't take away the violence -- or remove us from it. But the desire to seek peace, and to imagine peace -- enables us to live in the midst of violence -- without violence. And helps to generate peace.

I remember someone saying that the reason nuclear weapons have not been used against humanity since 1945 is because millions of people around the world have prayed that they not be used. That their intentional prayer for peace helps to create peace. I also remember Desmond Tutu thanking an American congregation for helping to end apartheid in South Africa. How did we do that, we silently asked. By praying that apartheid come to an end, he said quite clearly. He told a story of a nun in California who lived as a hermit. She wrote Archbishop Tutu a letter to tell him that she got up every morning at 2 am, and for an hour prayed in silence for an end to apartheid.

"They didn't stand a chance," Bishop Tutu said. "The powers of darkness didn't stand a chance against a nun praying in silence -- at 2 am, in California."

And we believed him.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

customs and traditions -- December 22, 2009

Customs and traditions help us see the connection between the human and the holy: "If there is no way to connect the normal with the wonderful, what can possibly give the little things in life spiritual meaning?" (page 173) These words have resonance with earlier passages in Chittister's book -- to live an ordinary life extraordinarily well.

Silence is important. "Silence is an antidote to the turmoil that is manufactured to distract us from the important things of life." (page 171) Silence centers us -- and brings us closer to the divine. Custom and ritual (which are elements of spiritual practice) provide us with a lens to see the Divine.

We are a couple of days away from Christmas. A time when the power of the birth story breaks into the night silence -- and we carry out customs and traditions that both honor that story and bring us closer to it. Take note of the silence. Pay attention to the ritual -- a ritual that you engage in individually, as a family -- and/or as a community. It will serve as a reaching out to a God who is so eager to reach out to us.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Vocation -- December 21, 2009

In the novel Evensong by Gail Godwin, an Episcopal priest gives his wife, another Episcopal priest, his definition of vocation: "something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you."

As I read through Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, I keep thinking of vocation -- and what seems to be Joan Chittister's passion that each and every one of us claim the vocation that will keep making more of us. The Benedictine triangle of obedience, conversion of life and stability is designed so that the follower of the Rule will grow -- will be made more of. The second century theologian Iranaeus remarked that the glory of God is the human being fully alive. To be fully alive, it seems to me, is our vocation. As Joan Chittister puts it, "live life for something greater than your satisfactions and do not let anything or anyone cause you to lose hold on your free and unfettered self."

Instead of being constraining, the spiritual practice is liberating. Instead of shutting down our view of the world, it opens us up to the full complexity and the deep challenge of the world.

And takes us to the heart of God.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mary's song -- December 20, 2009

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear Mary's song -- the Magnificat: "my soul magnifies the Lord". It is a song of openness -- to receive God's life-changing blessing; and a song of fierceness -- of what that blessing can and will do to the power centers of the world.

For years I paid little attention to Mary. She was the mother of Jesus, whose story was told and sang and depicted at this time of year. But in 1999, I went on an 8-day silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat house in Pennsylvania. Mary was everywhere -- in the liturgy, on paintings throughout the retreat center -- and on pedestals all over the grounds. In my silent time I began to ponder Mary -- and I came to appreciate her availability to God. She didn't have an oversized or undersized ego that needed stroking or inflating. She was totally available to receive God's spirit. In this sense, she was a virgin, because all that was in her soul was the desire to receive God.

That was her purity. That is her witness. And today I honor that gift.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More on stability -- December 19, 2009

"Stability says that where I am is where God is for me". (page 151) That is being rooted in God; being stable with God. Often we want to be somewhere else, in the idea that God is there, and not here. The proliferation of bumper stickers over the past several years speak to this desire to be elsewhere: 'I would rather be sailing'; 'I would rather be fishing'; I would rather be doing something other than this.

I have a friend who has a bumper sticker on his car: "I would rather be here now". It reflects a commitment on his part to stability -- to a desire to seek God in the moment.

When I began a consistent spiritual practice, I thought -- indeed I hoped, that I would reap no end of immediate benefits. That didn't happen. What did happen is that it increased my desire for God -- and deepened my commitment to the practice.

To quote Joan Chittister as she drills down to manifest the importance of stability: "we don't pray in hope of becoming prayerful. We don't struggle in hope of triumph; we struggle in hope of growth." (page 153)

Stability is a pathway to a level of freedom that we cannot arrive at any other way.

Friday, December 18, 2009

stability: to stay and not run -- December 18, 2009

It's known as the Benedictine triangle: stability, obedience and conversion of life. Stability, which is the title of Chittister's 12th chapter, is the ability to stay and not run. To stay with the situation, the problem, the confusion, the feeling -- to stay with it and learn the truth from it. The temptation is to move on or move away -- or seek a distraction, or give in to a temptation.

One notion of freedom suggests that we are free to move whenever and wherever we want to move. Often, that notion of freedom is more escape. A deeper notion of freedom suggests that if we stay in a situation, and are willing to learn the truth in it -- we become free from the forces that ensnare us psychically and spiritually.

Because those forces no longer have the same power over us.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Truth beneath the power -- December 17, 2009

"Listen for the truth of a thing, not the power for a thing." (page 146) In my experience we may indeed listen for the truth of what is being said or done, but more often than not we react to the power of what is being said and done.

The challenge is to listen beneath the power. That takes work. And the work is to resist the temptation to respond with a verbal salvo after having received one. In conversation, we are more inclined to score points or win arguments than to search for the presence of the Spirit -- which does what the Holy Spirit always does -- bring people and ideas together.

"Listen with a critical ear for the sound of the gospel in everything you do. And don't do what isn't a gospel act, no matter who says so, no matter who orders it, no matter how sacred the institution that demands it....

...Or else power before truth."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Healthy authority -- December 16, 2009

Joan Chittister talks about the dangers of of dependence, license and domination when considering authority: "dependence says that everybody counts but me. License says that nobody counts but me. And domination says that I have the right to tell everybody else what counts at all". (page 142)

Authority, she says, is more than the preservation of law or the maintenance of order. Authority is the call to grow. "Authority is meant to call. Authority is meant to enable. Authority is meant to raise questions. Authority is meant to convert. Authority is meant to shape us in the values of the Christian life." (page 143)

Our world, and our lives in that world (certainly my life) could use a more healthy dose of this notion of authority.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Obedience: holy responsibility -- December 15, 2009

In the modern Western world, most of us hear an average of a thousand messages a day. Some from print, but most from electronics. And the messages suggest that our bodies need to be a different shape, that our hair should be a different color or texture, that we should know different people and/or different things -- and on and on and on. These messages have an impact, which, of course, is exactly their point.

Enter Benedictine obedience (which is chapter 11). Joan Chittister makes the case that obedience is neither about being dependent or dominated. Obedience is about listening: "obedience, in other words, lies in listening and laboring and in knowing what is required of us." (page 137)

The Benedictine rule of obedience calls for listening with the ear of the heart. To listen beneath and beyond the fabricated messages that are constant and endless. To seek to arrive at what Thomas Merton called the "point vierge"; our center, where God's presence is most deeply felt.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hospitality -- the unboundaried heart December 14, 2009

In my experience, the Benedictines have hospitality as part of their spiritual DNA. In the Benedictine tradition, to welcome the stranger is to welcome Christ. It is a key ingredient of their discipline. Joan Chittister laments that hospitality is the missing value of the twentieth century: "hospitality has been domesticated and is now seen more as one of the social graces than as a spiritual act and a holy event." (page 126)

This lament calls to mind the Celtic Rune of hospitality, which I look at from time to time (as it hangs in our kitchen):
We saw a stranger yesterday.
We put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place,
And with the sacred name of the triune God
He blessed us and our house,
Our cattle and our dear ones.
As the lark says in her song:
Often, often, often, goes the Chist
In the stranger's guise.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stir up Sunday -- December 13, 2009

We get stirred up today, the third Sunday of Advent. Gaudete Sunday, when we hear the clarion call (some would say the harrangue) from John the Baptist.

What stirs me up is John's indictment in Luke 3: "Do not begin to say to yourselves , 'we have Abraham as our ancestor'". I want to be able to say that -- that Abraham is part of my spiritual roots; that I am a Christian.

And John would say, 'so what?' What does that mean? How does that belief shape and challenge life? This faith business is not simply about being able to say that I am associated with Abraham through geneology or genetics; but through relationship -- relationship with the one who created us, a relationship that we have to work at -- and define and re-define -- not just once but all the time.

That stirs me up (and not always in a good way). John the Baptist preaches what Joan Chittister writes -- that we need to have a practice, a rhythm -- that reminds us all of who and whose we are.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Spirit and ordination -- December 12, 2009

I will perform two ordinations today, which may be the greatest privilege one has as a bishop. To convene the gathered community in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and then to witness that same Spirit eniven us all, but especially those to be ordained, is an extraordinary honor.

In the course of each service, at the prayer of consecration, I will invite the Holy Spirit to fill Shane, and later in the day, Jon. And it will happen. And it will take my breath away -- partly because of the power of it all, and partly because a portion of my Spirit (my release of breath) will be given to each ordinand. They will be in-spired -- in spirited, by everyone who has their breath taken away. And we will celebrate what we already know: that the Spirit does in fact fill each of us -- to be priests and prophets and teachers and parents and friends and companions on the way.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The art of contemplation -- December 11, 2009

There is a thread that runs through Wisdom Distilled from the Daily that claims the spiritual life is not an escape from the world but a deeper engagement with it. In the 8th chapter, Chittister indicates that holy leisure is the foundation of contemplation; and further, that contemplation is not a vacation from life. Contemplation, she writes, is the ability to see the world around us as God sees it. (page 103-104).

I learned this the hard way. Years ago, when I first began making silent retreats to monastic communities, I had the sense that I was getting away from everything and devoting myself solely to God. What I discovered was that not only did nearly everything come along with me, but the combination of space apart and silence brought me closer to the center of the world's distress. And closer to the heart of God, who also sees and feels the world's distress.

The grace in this -- and the deepening desire to continue in contemplation, is that God is a companion on this inward journey. And that what we see is what God sees -- and hears. A TV reporter once asked Mother Theresa of Calcutta what she did when she prayed. 'I listen', she said. The reporter then asked, 'what does God say to you?' 'Oh, she replied, God is listening too.'

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holiness of work -- December 10, 2009

Work, Joan Chittister writes, is what we do to continue what God wanted done. We were not put on earth to be be cared for. We were put on earth to care for it. (page 86,87)

That is our work. Which is not always easy, because work for me often ends up being what needs to get done, and God's intentions get lost in the process.

I carry my work a little more lightly when I think of it as holy rather than as duty. When I can see my work as integrally connected with God's ongoing act of creation, I live with a greater level of freedom.

I am working at that.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Re-balancing life -- December 9, 2009

For six years I led 8 day CREDO conferences for clergy. The curriculum was designed to help clergy assess their financial, spiritual, vocational and physical life -- and then invite them to rebalance those dimensions of their life, and to devise a "CREDO plan" for living into the future. In almost every case, the clergy indicated that their lives had gotten out of balance. The week spent together in community, with guidance from the faculty and support from one another, enabled the 30 or so clergy who were present to claim what was important and then dare to live into it.

In her 6th chapter -- "A blend of harmony, wholeness and balance", Joan Chittister renders an indictment that almost everyone's life is out of of balance. I knew that. My guess is that we all know that. She claims that we lack awareness.

I would suggest that the need for a Copenhagen Conference on climate is, in part, the result of a global lack of awareness, and a desire to rebalance humanity with the earth. We have a lot to do.

At the end of the chapter, she has a paragraph that captures the problem -- as well as the opportunity: "All we lack, now that life has become so speeded up, is the will to slow it down so that we can live a little while life goes by. We need to want to be human as well as efficient; to be loving as well as informed; to be caring as well as knowledgeable; to be happy as well as respected." (page 78)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Do you seek God? Seek within yourself and ascend through yourself.

Advent is a season of preparation -- for making space for God who will come among us. The intention of reading Joan Chittister's book, and the intention of reinforcing or creating a practice of faith, is to help us not just to make space, but to reflect on the space we make -- to ask the questions:
how am I in relationship with God now?
what is God up to now?
where am I being called to make a commitment or take an action?

When I don't make space, there is no end of distraction and detail in my life and psyche that will try and take over whatever space I think I have. So instead of living with purpose, I end up chasing after those distractions and details which badger me into submission or confusion.

I am much taken with the question of St. Augustine (page 56): " Do you seek God? Seek within yourself and ascend through yourself."

I take that as an invitation, if not a challenge, to make space in the soul for the one who dares to be Emmanuel, God with us.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The challenge of humility -- December 7, 2009

Somewhere along the way in Advent (and every day for Morning Prayer), we hear Mary and her Magnificat: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior." The 5th chapter of Joan Chittister's book is entitled "Humility: the lost virtue". In it Chittister describes the Mangificat as humility at its best. Being humble before God. She also describes humility as the center of the rule -- that it leavens the entire document and indeed the entire way of life.

The Magnificat --which is a song to humility, is the antidote to pride. We know of pride. Certainly I do. The bottom line with pride is to think, to believe -- to live, as though we don't need God. That we can get by totally on our own. Writer Parker Palmer refers to this as functional atheism, which is to say that we believe in God but live as though God doesn't exist.

The Rule of Benedict has twelve degrees of humility. Lots to think about. What stands out for me in this long list is that humility demands that we "hold only to give and that we gather only to share."

May it be so.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Candles in the darkness -- December 6, 2009

Today, the church will light two candles on the Advent wreath. Not much light to shine in this deepening darkness of December. But it is enough. The two candles give us enough light to explore the darkness -- to see into the far reaches of our soul.

My instinct -- and our culture's training, is to turn on all the lights. Kill the darkness. But the Advent light helps us -- not to destroy the darkness, but to see in the darkness. To help us learn and discover where else God lives in us.

Ever since I was a child, we had an Advent wreath at home. And we dutifully lit the appropriate carol. And then we sang lots of carols. As an adult, we still light the candle -- but sing just the first verse of "O Come, O come Emmanuel". It has become part of the rhythm (the regula, the rule of my life).

An important part -- for it helps me to honor the darkness.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Community as one -- December 5, 2009

A few years ago, the US Army issued a recruiting slogan: "the Army of One."

I was bothered by that, because it seemed to play into the hyper-individualistic attitude of our culture. An attitude which Joan Chittister challenges in her fourth chapter. Perhaps the Army wanted its recruits to think of the Army as one. But we are so geared to think of our personal needs first and foremost, the Army realized that it was not creating the concept of community -- and so the slogan was dropped.

Community is the antidote to individualism. When we are redeemed by the living Christ -- it is we who are redeemed. It is a community redemption. Salvation for self has little worth if it does not include the journey of others. It is one thing to have a personal relationship with Jesus; it is something else -- and more powerful, to have a communal relationship with Jesus.

Community can be wonderful. Community can also be very hard. While in seminary, I remember going to Henri Nouwen (who was on the faculty) with a community problem. The administration of the school wasn't treating a student very well. The student -- my friend, was having serious mental health issues -- and the dean and staff seemed (from my perspective) to be doing its best to distance itself from the student. I was ready to give up on community.

I relayed all the slights and injuries that this student received to Henri, expecting him to rise up in full dudgeon -- as I had done. Instead, he looked at me, smiled and asked -- "what do you expect?" He didn't know the particulars of this case, but he told me that communities try and act with kindness and justice toward one another, but they don't always succeed. Get used to it, but don't give up on it. Because when community does work, the glory of God is revealed in extraordinary ways -- because we are as one; and transformation happens in a way that are not possible when living as an army of one.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Competing forces and deep water -- December 4, 2009

Years ago I did a fair amount of white water canoeing. One of the biggest dangers on river with heavy rapids is to get caught on a hydraulic, when the force of the flowing river is met with equal force by an opposite wave of water. If the canoe goes over (which it most often does when hitting a hyrdaulic) the instinct is to try and keep your head above water and then work your way out. That is when people get into more trouble, because the force of the water from opposite directions is too much to fight against. This is when people often drown.

The counterintuitive wisdom is to go down -- below the aquatic frenzy; to go down to deeper water where there are currents that can lead one to safety.

I am reminded of this wisdom when Joan Chittister remarks that Benedictine spirituality is not an escape; but is rather a spirituality that fills time with awareness of of the presence of God (page 30).

That sounds like going deeper to me.

For many years my goal in Advent was just to keep my head above water. I used up an awful lot of energy, and I inevitably ended up in the same place where I started. I now see the Advent season as an invitation to the depths-- beneath the frenzy and into the darkness; where there is a promise (and an experience) of a force and light that leads us to hope.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Living life extraordinarily well -- December 3, 2009

Living the ordinary life extraordinarily well, Joan Chittister writes. That is the invitation -- indeed the challenge, from St. Benedict many centuries ago. Chittister goes on to say that Benedictine spirituality is more a commitment to principles than to practice.

I find that to be a help, because it challenges me to determine -- not just once, but again and again, what is most important in my life? And the practice flows from that ongoing discernment. I can't exactly say that I am then living my life extraordinarily well, but I can say that it is being lived with more intention -- and a deeper appreciation of God's creating mystery.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Afghanistan and Advent -- December 2, 2009

I kept looking for light in President Obama's speech last night. I may have seen some, but in this early morning darkness, I am not sure. The pundits are proclaiming -- and I, and I suspect many of us, are pondering. Will the President's plan work? Is it just? I know the President wants us all to see light in the darkness that has enshrouded our military engagement in Afghanistan, and I deeply admire him for expressing that desire. It is complex, confusing -- and much as we might like to wish otherwise, it won't go away.

In the northern hemisphere, Advent comes at a time of deepening darkness, a darkness which culminates with the shortest day of the year on December 21. The ancients developed a practice to respond to the growing darkness of the season: light a candle. The tradition of the Advent wreath brings light (the candle) and life (an ever green bough) into the home when the deepening darkness and cold is telling the psyche that neither will survive.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:5) Light destroys darkness. So we look for light. We look for it, claim it, celebrate it -- and build on it. Not an artificial light that we think we can turn on and off at will; not a light of false optimism -- but a true light, Christ's light, which shines in everyone.

The Advent promise is that the light is there.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December 1, 2009

Life is worth practicing, a friend of mine recently wrote. Practice has its roots in a Greek word, praxis, which refers to an action that is taken in order to reach a goal.

For centuries, Christian practice has involved regula, which is Latin for "rule". I prefer to think of regula as a railing, something to hold onto as one ventures toward a goal. In recent years, I have found more and more need for a railing -- because of the steep slopes that fall away from it. On one side of the railing is the slope of distraction. And the distractions are increasing. It is estimated that a person living in the US receives an average of 1,000 electronic messages a day -- telling us that our hair needs to be a different color, that our bodies need to have a different shape, that we need to know and buy and do different things. These messages are constant and consistent -- and after awhile we wear down and are tempted to believe them.

On the other side of the railing is the slope of temptation -- the temptation to think that we don't need God. That we have enough energy and wisdom -- and electronic devices of our own, to get us through life.

Besides, God is busy. There is the economy and Afghanistan and tragedy for God to worry about. We are led to think that we can get by on our own.

I have found that the railing of practice is a much needed anchor to the distractions and temptations that we face. Life, as my friend has said, is worth practicing.