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The Way of the Heart

“What is required of a man or a woman who is called to enter fully into the turmoil and agony of the times and speak a word of hope?”

Abba Arsenius was a well-educated, well-situated Roman in the court of Emperor Theodosius when he prayed this prayer, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” It was the beginning of an odyssey. God would ultimately answer his prayer with these words. “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always…”

In his powerful book, The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen distills the essential wisdom of the desert fathers into these three things: Solitude (flee), Silence, and Prayer. When these become as natural to us as breathing, we will know the joy of continual communion with the Father and the words we speak will be life.

“Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter.”

I am defined by the people around me. I depend on them to tell me whether I am ok. Solitude rids me of this scaffolding. “…no friends to talk to, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me–naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful,deprived, broken–nothing.” It is a terrifying prospect. But as I carve out my own desert where I “dwell in the gentle healing presence of [my] Lord” the false self is extinguished and I am transformed.

Though it seems ironic, compassion is the fruit of solitude. As I face my own brokenness, I can enter with others into the places where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, broken. When I stop using others as a yardstick to measure myself, I no longer need to judge them. “Compassion can never co-exist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.”

“Silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.”

When the door of the steambath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. ~Diadochus of Photiki

“Out of his eternal silence, God spoke the Word” Likewise our words “can only create communion and thus new life when they embody the silence from which they emerge…when the word calls forth the healing and restoring stillness of its own silence, few words are needed: much can be said without much being spoken.”

“Real prayer comes from the heart.”

To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you. ~Theophan the Recluse

Prayer is not meant to be an intellectual exercise in which we figure God out. Nor is it bargaining, manipulation, or an opportunity to impress God. Prayer of the heart is vulnerable, exposed, simple, and ceaseless. “When, for instance, we have spent twenty minutes in the early morning sitting in the presence of God with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ they may slowly build a little nest for themselves in our heart and stay there for the rest of our busy day.”

“Ceaseless interior prayer is a continual yearning of the human spirit towards God.” ~from The Way of the Pilgrim

How I wish I could say to you that I have fully integrated this into my life. But perhaps being discomfited and knowing the longing are worthy first steps…

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me.

 

*Unattributed quotes in the post are by Henri Nouwan.

 

Souvenirs…of Silence

Any retreat into solitude and silence has, for me, two parts. There is that extended quiet that gives way to deep, restoring breaths…to uninterrupted reflection. And there is the hope that some of the quiet will accompany me home; that I will remember to find silence where I am…in the midst. Here, a few of the meditations and moments that I carry with me…

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

These are the words of the Jesus prayer. It has for centuries been an integral part of the prayer life of Christians seeking a way in. A way into stillness. A way into the unique mystery within themselves. It has for some time been part of my own prayer life. As I journeyed toward my oasis, I listened to a remarkable teaching on this prayer, on the invocation of the Name, by the venerable Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. He spoke of its two-fold use. In the midst of our daily lives, the prayer helps us to “find Christ everywhere”, to see all of life as sacramental. And, as part of our dedicated prayer time, it is one way to “create silence”. I have listened to it several times hence. It was a most worthy beginning.

Two of the three nights I was away, I fell asleep to a lullaby of raindrops against a tin roof. One of those nights there was a spectacular storm. I snuggled beneath the covers, watching flashes of lightening and feeling the reverberations of thunder with my whole body. In the morning, I awoke inside a cloud. A cocoon of sorts. A place of resting…and becoming.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” ~Anais Nin

I paused in the center of this bridge for a very long time…spellbound by the movement of the water. Very nearly undisturbed in its flow, its gentle gurgle seemed to work itself inside me. More silent than an absence of sound. More still than an absence of movement. Oh, that I might sing silence into those around me as this stream sang it into me.

“Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.” ~Fyodor Dostoevzky

My friend, PJ, speaks of our shared ache for beauty. As I stumbled into a whole field of glorious Virginia Bluebells, ache was a most apt description. A glory almost too intense to be borne. A take your shoes off for you are breathing holiness kind of moment. A remnant, a memory of a world unseen, yet home. Wide awake. Delicious agony.

“He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die…that we may appreciate the joys of living.” ~Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

It’s ok if you don’t get this photo. I’ll warrant you its beauty is unconventional. But I found it captivating. That is to say, I found the tree with its multifarious hangers-on captivating. Perhaps one of the most valuable things God has been showing me of late is that gifts do not always come in the forms I expect…or ask for. But if I am willing to open my hands…if I will humble myself and receive as He is pleased to give, He is faithful to show me the beauty He has designed for me. For my good. For the good of those I love. I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.


I offer my profound thanks to Mary Claire and Nordeck for graciously opening to me their own particular piece of paradise. Your kind hospitality overwhelms me.

Thank you to my family for letting me go…for verily pushing me out the door.

And thank you, especially, to my extravagantly generous Father who is always, ALWAYS, waiting for me when I slow long enough, when I open my eyes wide enough, to see Him…from your sometimes unwieldy and recalcitrant daughter.

 

Awe and Inexpressible Innocence…

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The first chirps of the waking birds mark the “point vierge
of the dawn.
under a sky as yet without real light,
a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence,
when the Father in perfect silence opens their eyes.
They speak to Him, not with fluent song,
but with an awakening question
that is their dawn state,
their state at the point vierge.

Their condition asks if it is time for them to “be“?
He answers “Yes.”

Then they one by one wake up, and become birds.
They manifest themselves as birds, beginning to sing.
Presently they will be fully themselves, and will even fly.

Meanwhile, the most wonderful moment of the day is that
when creation in its innocence asks permission
to “be” once again,
as it did on the first morning that ever was.

All wisdom seeks to collect and manifest itself
at that blind sweet point.
Man’s wisdom does not succeed,
for we have fallen into self mastery and cannot ask
permission of anyone.
We face our mornings as men of undaunted purpose.
We know the time and we dictate the terms.
We know what time it is.

For the birds there is not a time that they tell,
but the virgin point between darkness and light,
Between nonbeing and being.

Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us
and we do not understand.
It is wide open. The sword is taken away,
but we do not know it:
we are off “one to his farm and another
to his merchandise.”
Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves
cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static.

“Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.

~Thomas Merton

In Deep Nights

In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet….

My hands are bloody from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree.

Reaching, these hands would pull you out of the sky
as if you had shattered there,
dashed yourself to pieces in some wild impatience.

What is this I feel falling now,
falling on this parched earth,
softly,
like a spring rain?

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Why Sometimes the Mommy Runs Away

“Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger. Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.”

~Henri J.M. Nouwen

Being a wife and a mommy is my favorite. It has been the primary focus of my life for nineteen years now. I adore my husband and children. I love making a home for them, listening to their stories and dreams and plans, welcoming their friends. I love hearing about their discoveries. I am grateful that they come to me in those moments when they are hurting. That they trust me. That they know I am safe. I hope they will always know that.

But every now and then, I run away from home.

Because I know…..to be the wife and mother I want to be…the friend I want to be…the person I was made to be…I sometimes need to be alone. I need silence. Outside and inside. I need to still the craziness around me, and the craziness that is me. I need permission to breathe slowly. To listen…to God…to my own soul.

My dear family has come to understand this about me. Whereas my children used to visibly grow uneasy when I left, they now encourage me to go. Not because they don’t like me. 🙂 But because they love me. And whereas I used to feel the need to defend these bits of solitude to my husband, he now pushes me to find time to get away. In fact, he is sending me away. Today. It is my birthday gift. Silence. Stillness. Best birthday gift ever.

So I will be off the grid for a few days. But I am leaving little gifts for you. Voices who sing silence into me, even in the midst of the craziness. Healing, nourishing, life-giving words. Pop back. I think you will like what you find.

~peace

 

Annunciation

Lingering bits of brilliance play
among the dust in slanting rays of sunlight.
A fragrance also.
Indefinable.
Mysterious.
Other.
She shivers as she remembers…

Taken completely by surprise,
His voice.
Man voice.
Inside her modest chamber.
Unheard of.
She is terrified. And yet…

He does not harm her.
A messenger, he says.
He does not explain how he came to be there.
So suddenly.
Shimmering…

Highly favored, he calls her.
Blessed.
She is to bear a child.
Son of the Most High.
Throne of David.
House of Jacob.
JESUS.

She trembles.
Tears betray her fear.
She barely breathes…

…HOW?

(It is too much.
She is so young.)

Words tender…
Holy Spirit
Son of God
You
are not
alone.

Silence hangs in the room.
Heavy.
Her heart pounds.
So much
depends
on this……

May it be to me….according to your word.

Her whisper rends time.
Nothing
will ever
be the same.
Inside her fragile body
the DNA
of God.

Lingering bits of brilliance play
among the dust in slanting rays of sunlight.
A fragrance also.
Indefinable.
Mysterious.
Other.

~sm

Today, Christians around the world commemorate the Feast of the Annunciation. We honor the Mother of God; she who first showed us how to open our lives completely to Christ. To allow Him to fully inhabit the deepest parts of who we are, whatever the cost. Inside her womb was wrought the Incarnation which is life to us all. Would that I might be more like her.

“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be to me according to Your Word.” ~Luke 1:38

 

Just Show Up

I am not always the sharpest knife in the drawer. But when God gently sings the same idea into my life over and over…..and over…..even I can’t miss that.

In less than a week, from three different sources, on three different topics, one message:

Just show up.

First, my sweet friend Anne poured her heart onto the page on behalf of those walking through the heart-rending pain and loneliness of divorce. She said the most important thing we can do when those we love are walking though this…or any kind of pain for that matter…is to be there.

“Here’s the catch. When a relationship is ending, especially a marriage, it physically feels as if your soul has been ripped out of your body. People going through this change will likely not have the strength to reach out to you….Not only do we not want to bring people down with us, we don’t have the strength to engage with others. This is why it’s so important you reach out constantly to your friends.”

It is cowardly to allow my own inadequacies to keep me from loving others. Just because I don’t have any earth shattering wisdom to share doesn’t mean I have nothing to give to those I love who are hurting. They need me now more than ever.

Just show up.

On Sunday, the Orthodox Church honored the great theologian, Saint Gregory of Palamas. Our priest confessed to us how intense and somewhat intimidating he finds the works of this brilliant man who was so important to the Church. He then gave us what he lightheartedly titled “Orthodoxy for Dummies”. Point number one: Just show up. The Liturgical life is a gift to us. God will use it to heal us, to restore us, to make us who He always intended us to be. But we have to make ourselves available to this process.

Just show up.

I have been slowly making my way through Julia Cameron’s wonderful book, The Artist’s Way: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice.  This morning I was reading back through underlines and notes when I came to a section called “Rules for the Road”. Here is rule number one:

“In order to be an artist, I must show up at the page. Use the page to rest, to dream, to try.”

It is not necessary for me to know what I will write. I need not have everything worked out in my head. I know from my own experience that most of what goes on the page only reveals itself once words are already flowing from heart to fingers. But if I allow fear of the blank page to keep me from putting pen to paper in the first place, those words will never be released.

Just show up.

Three applications. One truth. It is not our wisdom, our effort, or our brilliance that is wanted. It is our presence. When we are available, the magic happens.

I have an idea this truth is not just for me. Where is your presence desperately wanted just now?

The Man Watching

The Man Watching

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Rainer Maria Rilke

 

*To my lovely friend who caused me to revisit this favorite poem of a favorite poet, Thank you.

Delicious Agony

I wish I could tell you how much I miss the bells. The censer the priest uses has bells. So while I watch the vapors rise heavenward with our prayers, and while I breathe the fragrance of God, I hear the joyous sparkle of bells. But bells are incongruous with Lent. So they are gone, for now. My, how I miss them!

There is this lament.  The priest begins it all alone from behind the altar. He brings it out to us, along with that solemn, silent censer. The melody is so tragic it would break your heart even without the words. But the words, oh the words…

O Lord of hosts be with us for we have none other help, none other help in times of sorrow. O Lord of hosts, have mercy on us.

The weight of this moment is almost unbearable.

So, why can’t I stop singing this song?

I even asked for a copy of the music so I could get the melody just right. The thing is, it is not a dismal cry of despair to me. There is something very warm and right about it. This made no sense to me. Until last night…

Last night a sweet friend poured out her heart before me like water. She was in that desperate place of barely breathing….very nearly out of hope. She asked me how I had learned to live in a place of joy, how my awareness of the sacred had become so keen. Mine is a story of extravagant grace. A grace that is willing to rend, so it can heal. Beauty grown in a furrow plowed by pain. It was an anguish I did not choose, but it was a result of my choices, all the same.

I told her of my persistent striving…

“…somewhere deep inside me I believed I had to be good enough, that I had to do enough, that I had to prove that I was ok for God to really love me. I would have told you that was not true. But I lived my life in terror of not measuring up. And as long as I put up a pretty good front, I could almost convince myself that if I worked a little harder, if I did a little more, I would finally get there.”

I told her that the devastation I thought would kill me turned out to be the beginning of freedom.

“Failing epically, seeing the depth of my own depravity, liberated me from this delusion. It became clear that I would NEVER, EVER be good enough…I have come to understand grace for the astonishing, extravagant miracle it is, in a way I never could when I thought I had bought part of it myself.”

So long as I was trying to attain God on my own the idea of being without resource, of being needy, was abhorrent to me. This song would have been to me a dirge. A pathetic whine from those too lazy to improve themselves. But now, it is to me truth and rest. A grief that is the birth pains of joy. A delicious agony. God IS my only hope. He is enough.

I wish all of you could stand with me, hearing and breathing it. I couldn’t find a recording. So, for those of you as musically nerdy as myself, here it is. A gift for your Lenten walk. From my heart to yours.

Coming Clean…

“The springtime of the Fast has dawned, the flower of repentance has begun to open…” 

I’m a reluctant housekeeper. This is not to say there are wild animals living in our home, or an accrual of partially empty food containers growing science experiments. Well, that might be hasty. I do have teenagers…

Most of the time, it takes the whole of my domestic skill just to stay ahead of the obvious piles. Dishes washed. Laundry dried and folded. But this week I am  dusting blinds, washing windows, and venturing behind furniture to battle dust bunnies (or in my case badgers). It’s “clean week” in the Orthodox Church. One of the accompanying traditions is a thorough cleansing of the home. It is another of the ways life and faith become delightfully, disturbingly tangled.

I drag chairs away from the walls and am astounded by spider webs, fuzzballs, filth. How many times have I sat comfortably in that chair with my nose in a book, completely oblivious to the  contamination?

Last night, during the Cannon of St. Andrew, a bit of furniture got dragged away from the walls. Putrid piles of pollution were exposed. In me. The chanters sang familiar stories of those who chose folly rather than faith, and I was reminded that the story is my own…

“Instead of the visible Eve, I have the Eve of the mind: the passionate thought in my flesh, showing me what seems sweet; yet whenever I taste from it, I find it bitter…I have stained the garment of my flesh, O Savior, and defiled that which was made in Thine image and likeness…I have clothed myself in the torn coat that the serpent wove for me by his counsel, and I am ashamed.”

“I alone have sinned against Thee, I have sinned more than all men; Reject me not, O Christ my Savior. Thou art the Good Shepherd: seek me, the lamb that has strayed, and do not forget me. Thou art my beloved Jesus, Thou art my Creator; in Thee shall I be justified, O Savior.”

Looks as though the both of us need some attention. My house and me. So I keep dusting and scrubbing. And as I dust, I pray. I ask God to keep unearthing the hidden things. It is a terrifying prospect, to be perfectly honest. But I would have Him restore His image in me. To rid me of that which is false. However hard He must scrub.

Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me.

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.”

*All quotes in the post taken from The Lenten Triodion.

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