Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Something about angels

Artist: Joanna Mary Boyce

I had not come across this teaching before today:
The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Man's flaw is that he can deteriorate; and his virtue is that he can improve.

Monday, June 28, 2010

God's great lovers

Artist: Pieter Janssens
Image from Wikimedia Commons

I particularly value the observation here that spiritual reading helps us cultivate adoration. I have found this to be true. I would also assert that spiritual reading helps us experience ourselves as members of the community of the lovers of God. We are, indeed, surrounded by a "great cloud of witnesses" and, not only that, we are part of that cloud:

Spiritual reading is a regular, essential part of the life of prayer, and particularly is it the support of adoring prayer. It is important to increase our sense of God's richness and wonder by reading what his great lovers have said about him.

Evelyn Underhill

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Putting one's hand to the plow

Artist: Aksel Waldemar Johannessen

From this morning's gospel reading: Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Here are some observations about the point Jesus is making by Lutheran pastor, Sharron R. Lucas:
We 21st century North American Christians are for the most part products of the low expectation school of discipleship. We give an hour on Sunday, drop 2-4% in the plate, and if we’re really involved teach a class or serve on a committee. Again, any North Dakota farmer worth his or her salt could tell you that you won’t get a crop from that kind of investment. Why even your youngest 4H member puts more of an investment into the local club than the average Christian puts into his or her congregation.
Commitment. Maybe it would be beneficial for us all to ponder just what that means today - not necessarily when we were first baptised or confirmed or ordained or professed. What does it mean for me today to set my face toward Jerusalem, to put my hand to the plow and not look back? Maybe that looks different from what it did ten years ago or even two years ago.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The problem with sentimentality

Artist: Leon Wyczółkowski

For some reason I have been forgetting about Flannery O'Connor lately. I was in my late teens, I think, when I discovered her and then I found myself consuming her fiction voraciously. Later, I came across her letters and devoured them as well. She actually had a huge effect on my religious formation. The following statement is certainly worthy of considerable refection, I would assert:

We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our turn to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.

-- Flannery O'Connor

Friday, June 25, 2010

Some thoughts on prayer

Artist: Cornelis Pietersz Bega

This morning I was surprised to stumble upon an article originally published in Tikkun Daily entitled "God Doesn’t Play Favorites: A Religious Person Rethinks Prayer" by a divinity student named Be Scofield.

Mr. Scofield examines the approach to prayer that consists primarily of requests for wish fulfillment. But, sadly, many people's faith rests on this approach. Take a look at an excerpt:
If one abandons the notion that God can intervene in the world to answer prayer God all of a sudden looks much different. Gone is the notion that the Holocaust could have been prevented and was part of God’s divine and “awesome” plan. Gone is the immense power for God to take sides in war as illustrated in the Hebrew Bible. Gone is a God that plays favorites. No longer can God be omnipotent as previously understood because God lacks the power to act in the world. For many who begin to interpret the divine in this non-theistic new light, God then becomes synonymous with love, creative energy and relatedness. Just because the theology of yesterday is insufficient for our modern standards doesn’t mean we need to abandon God, religion or appreciation for the divine.
If you find this excerpt disturbing or shocking, may I suggest spending a little time learning something about process theology - just to get some perspective. I could be considerably illuminating.

I count myself fortunate that my religious formation emphasized prayer as the way we draw close to God and become more Christ-like ourselves - not as a way to get our requests granted.

Therefore, I find myself valuing this outlook:
God is the creative power of existence. Prayer is a radical act of centering and a powerful spiritual practice that helps unite me to the divine. In some ways it is similar to meditation, but it also differs. It is more active, and in prayer I will often imagine people being held and surrounded by love. Or I will visualize transforming fear into hope. I find that prayer attunes me to my deepest and highest self while providing clarity and insight into my life.
What would happen if, just for a while, we practiced abstinence from asking for things in our prayer life - just long enough to experience a radically different kind of prayer. Truly, it could be life changing.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Love and the existence of God

Artist: Peter von Cornelius

For anybody out there who may be having trouble with the "belief" thing, have I got a quote for you:

The more you succeed in loving, the more you'll be convinced at the existence of God and the immortality of your soul.

-- Fyodor Dostoevsky

And, you know something? If it turns out that God doesn't exist and that your soul is not immortal, you will still have had the best life you could possibly have had.

This one is win-win, folks.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Pride and humility

Artist: Annibale Carracci

I'm trying to remember the last time I heard a sermon on the subject of pride and humility. Quite frankly, I'm stumped. That contrast doesn't seem to be a popular subject of late. I think such is unfortunate really because many people do not know to be on the lookout for slipping into spiritual pride. Here's a little observation worth pondering, I think:

A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride.

-- C.S. Lewis

Sunday, June 20, 2010

When every day is a battle

"Healing of the Possessed"

This morning's gospel reading is about the man healed by Jesus of a "legion" of demons. Here's something I found on Lindy Black's site about that from the Interpreter's Bible:
The story of the Gerasene demoniac should now be interpreted so that it speaks a word of assurance and hope to those for whom every day is a battle with depression, fear, anxiety, or compulsive behavior. They will understand what would lead a person to say that his name is "mob" (GNB). With such a response, the man had acknowledged that he no longer had any individual identity. He had lost his name. He had lost his individuality. All that was left was a boiling struggle of conflicting forces. It was as though a Roman legion was at war within him.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The importance of story

Artist: Alexey Venetsianov

Here is another one from Anthony de Mello:

A master was once unmoved by the complaints of his disciples that, though they listened with pleasure to his parables and stories, they were also frustrated for they longed for something deeper. To all their objections he would simply reply: "You have yet to understand, my friends, that the shortest distance between a human being and truth is a story."

Friday, June 18, 2010

Something important about love

Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

I think I discovered that amazing Jesuit, Anthony de Mello, in the late 80s or early 90s and I remember simply not being able to get enough of his teaching at that time. I do wish I could have attended one of his retreats while he was alive. If a person is at all receptive, it is quite impossible to hide from oneself and really engage what he has to say a the same time. Here's a sample:

Is it possible for the rose to say, "I will give my fragrance to the good people who smell me, but I will withhold it from the bad?" Or is it possible for the lamp to say, "I will give my light to the good people in this room, but I will withhold it from the evil people"? Or can a tree say, "I'll give my shade to the good people who rest under me, but I will withhold it from the bad"? These are images of what love is about.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Windows to the inner life

Artist: Claude Monet

I'm not much of a gardener, really. I don't particularly like being outside in the heat, I don't like stooping and digging and I don't like getting dirty. But I do have houseplants and I manage to plant some begonias in front of my little house every spring. So I really agree with the following:

Connection with gardens, even small ones, even potted plants, can become windows to the inner life. The simple act of stopping and looking at the beauty around us can be prayer.

- Patricia R. Barrett, The Sacred Garden

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Godly whispering

Russian icon of prophet Elijah

It's a very short little quotation that I bring you today. But it is one that is very evocative. Let us allow it to teach us, to encourage us:

Blessed are the ears that pick up the Godly whispering.

Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ

Monday, June 14, 2010

Something about prayer

Artist: Georges Seurat

I have just finished reading the transcript of an interview with Sr. Joan Chittister whom I've admired for many years now.

Here is just a little bit of what she says:
After more than 55 years of growing into a life of prayer through a lifestyle based on it, my definition of prayer is consciousness, immersion, and relationship. Prayer makes us aware of the elements of the divine in human life, bringing us into contact with the God-life in and around us. Prayer is not personal devotion; it is personal growth. Prayer brings us to the ultimate and the eternal, the daily and the regular, the total consciousness of God now. Prayer enables us to be immersed in what is fundamentally and truly divine in life right now. It is not meant to be a bridge to somewhere else because God is not somewhere else. God is here. Prayer is the act of beginning the process of becoming one with the One we seek -- eventually, melting into God completely.
I urge you to click through and read the whole piece. It gets better and better as well as more and more moving. She talks about her family, about her parents' "mixed marriage" (Roman Catholic and Presbyterian), about her passion for social justice and how that is utterly connected with her prayer.

It is beautiful.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Radical gratefulness

Artist: Peter Paul Rubens

I really like the following way of summing up this morning's gospel reading. (It's from a blog called "Contemplative Viewfinder"):

There was a woman who made a scene over Jesus when he was eating lunch at the house of a friend named Simon. (Luke 7:36) She cried and her tears wet his feet. She dried his feet with her hair. She poured perfume on them.

Simon told Jesus this was inappropriate. He was probably right. There’s a time and a place for everything, you know. Jesus’ answer: Simon, you’ve not even showed me basic hospitality in your own home, but this woman’s gratitude has caused her to do what you think is inappropriate. She’s just grateful. Leave her alone.

-- Melissa Bane Sevier

How wonderful to experience such gratitude that a person is able to be this "over the top". There's a humor website I recently discovered called "Overkill 9000". It's subtitled "Everything in excess, including excess!" I like it because, oddly enough, sometimes too much of something is exactly what it takes to jar us into waking up, to capture our attention about what is real, what is necessary. Today's gospel reading is a good example of exactly how this can work.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What sort of comfort?

Artist: Paul Gauguin

You know, this strikes me as being a very important teaching about prayer, actually:

It is quite useless knocking at the door of heaven for earthly comfort. It's not the sort of comfort they supply there.

-- C. S. Lewis

It certainly flies in the face of the so-called "prosperity gospel", doesn't it?

What would happen if part of our prayer was to ask for help in cultivating an awareness of and a receptivity for the kind of comfort they do supply in heaven?

I would think that it's well worth pondering.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Artist: Judith Leyster

I have shared with you before, I believe, that I had the privilege of hearing David Steindl-Rast speak at a conference in Virginia back in the 70s and was hugely impressed and moved by what he had to say. Some years later I read that he spent six months of the year in solitude and six months teaching and that was something that truly encouraged me in pursuing my solitary vocation. Here's one of his pithy sayings:

In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.

-- Brother David Steindl-Rast

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Deep and abiding change

At the heart of the Christian tradition lies the belief that transformation requires sacrifice. In fact, I would say that the difference between real movements and mere events is the sacrifice. Deep and abiding change is hard. When we experience conversion, we not only turn toward something new but away from something old. We can look down the road and recognize that in the long run our sacrifice is worth the cost, but it still does not make it easy or comfortable to sell all we have to buy the pearl of great price.

-- Jim Wallis

The above is from an article entitled "We Must Respond to the Needs of the Gulf Coast". I do recommend the entire article. It's painful to read but we need to read this sort of thing.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

This most amazing day

Artist: Jakob Hendrik Pierneef

I have long loved the work of this poet. And this particular poem is truly a little gem:

I thank God for this most
amazing day;
for the leaping greenly
spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;
and for everything
which is natural, which is
infinite, which is yes.

-- E. E. Cummings

Monday, June 7, 2010

Building bridges with strangers

I realize that some who read this blog may not be happy with Archbishop Rowen's approach to dealing with the "current unpleasantness" within the Anglican Communion. Nevertheless, the reflection in this video is very powerful and well deserving of thoughtful attention.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Raising the sons of widows

Artist: Lucas Cranach

In both the gospel reading for today and the reading from the Hebrew scriptures we are offered stories that relate how a widow's son is restored to her through divine mercy and power.

Please remember that in each case the widow's predicament is not merely that of losing someone she loves dearly. She is also losing her very means of survival. Women of that day were horribly vulnerable without the support of a husband or a son.

These stories are tremendously meaningful to me because they teach us that God cares for the woman who is alone, that her feelings matter, that her survival matters and that she is not to be devalued. I, too, am a woman alone; I have no husband, no son. And while I certainly have more options for survival than did a first century widow, I often feel very vulnerable indeed - especially as I age. So today's readings are powerfully consoling and affirming.

Now, there are other kinds of vulnerability besides that which makes physical survival precarious. What seems to have died in your life that has left you vulnerable and bereft - perhaps in on an emotional, inward level that most people will not recognize, much less acknowledge? Today's readings assure you that God will restore to you what you need for that part of your life to be supported once more, for you to thrive again.

Deo gratias.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sacred, precious solitude

Artist: Václav Brožík

I want to tell you about a very beautiful blog that I discovered quite some time ago and then re-discovered today. It's called "Spiritual Things Matter" and is made up of the poetry and reflections of the blog author, Viola Jaynes. Here is one stanza of a poem (which can be found right here in its entirety):
Oh solitude, my sacred precious solitude,
You so eloquently speak comfort to me.
May you captivate my heart fully -
And may you teach me never to fear you,
But to love you even more intimately!
In her post about herself, Viola writes the following:

As I write, I desire that those who have experienced pain will find some comfort and peace. The words which I write come from my heart, birthed from my own brokenness and a continued longing to find greater spiritual awareness. I want to embrace all people and therefore I will not limit my writing here to any religious beliefs or quotations of scriptures. That is a journey each will have to make for themselves. I simply want to share that in and through pain, a full life is still possible. It has been for me.
I identify with that hugely. It aptly expresses the reasoning behind my own interfaith focus.

The blog overall is gentle, lovely and offers writings of great depth indeed. You will not regret taking the time to explore this site.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

That we may write our names in kindness...

Artist: Edmund Blair Leighton

This is about having a sense of purpose. It's interesting that Chalmers talks about kindness, love and mercy and that he doesn't talk about financial success, professional achievement or impressing others:

Live for something! Do good and leave behind you a monument of virtue that the storm of time can never destroy. Write your name in kindness, love, and mercy on the hearts of the thousands you come in contact with, year by year, and you will never be forgotten. Your name, your deeds, will be as legible on the hearts you leave behind, as the stars on the brow of evening. Good deeds will shine as the stars of heaven.

-- Thomas Chalmers

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Something about words

Artist: Michelangelo Caravaggio

Very often the problem between fundamentalists and other religious people revolves around the meaning of words. It helps if we maintain a humble and respectful recognition of how limited verbal language can be:

... God is not objectifiable. Words serve only as mute gestures pointing to the irreducible, ineffable dimension where God subsists.

-- Martin Buber

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A little challenge

Artist: Angelo Bronzino

No posting today, dear people. I had hand surgery this morning and that makes driving the old computer a wee bit difficult!

I'll be back tomorrow, I sincerely hope.

Blessings to all.