Pond

The willow’s reflection
grasses greening
a cardinal’s red
stark against blue

Still water
the dock graying
a boat’s metal
held by line

Hands in pockets
Mother standing
a thin figure’s
moment in time

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Time Lapse

leaf-bud

If you’re still
long enough
at dusk
you can watch

a flower closing–
tiny twitches
of tired petals,
contracting.

If you’re still
long enough
in spring
you can see

a bud opening–
the tumescence
of new leaves
birthing.

Fragrance

This year will be different
You will release
the guilt
that holds you captive

Chained in place
your hand stretching
for daffodils
just out of reach

This year will be different
Your gifts will lose
their tarnish
and you will shine

Free at last
to breathe in
the fragrance
of your soul

Out in the World

Quietly and steadily, a movement has been growing throughout the world called “New Monasticism.” Everyday people feel drawn to making the sacred a continuous thread through their days and their lives. Many of us, myself included, yearn for a life suffused with God in everything we do. New Monasticism seeks to move these activities from the cloister out into the world. Christine Paintner’s Abbey of the Arts and her “Monk Manifesto” (http://abbeyofthearts.com/about/monk-manifesto/) were my introduction to being a “monk in the world.”

One method of bringing the sacred into each day is to follow a “rule of life.” The Rule of St. Benedict, written in about 530 C.E., describes a daily balance of work, study, and prayer in the lives of Benedictine monks and nuns. The day’s rhythm is punctuated by what is called the “Liturgy of the Hours” or the “Divine Office,” beginning first thing in the morning and ending before going to bed. It imbues the day with grace and holiness.

 “The purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify the day and all human activity.” – Apostolic Constitution, Canticum Laudis

This brief overview of the practice of the Divine Office from Universalis.com encapsulates well its rhythm:

Morning Prayer – at the start of the day’s work and the coming of the light.

Daytime Prayer – at mid-morning, noon and in the afternoon, to unite us with the one for whom and through whom we are working.

Evening Prayer – at the end of the day’s work, to offer up what we have done.

Night Prayer – last thing at night, to commend our souls to God.

Many people are recognizing that you do not have to become a monk or nun to participate in the observance of what is called “the hours.” You don’t have to be Catholic or Episcopalian. You don’t have to be a Christian. All that is needed is a little bit of time and a desire to experience the sacred.

Our society’s work schedules do not lend themselves well to this practice, but it can be done. Many people practice four periods of prayer a day instead of seven: morning, noon, evening, and night. When you are working, you spend a few minutes in the morning, take a very brief pause during your lunch break, do evening prayers before supper, and night prayers before going to bed. Each period of prayer and reading can last as long or be as short as you need it to be.

Resources for this practice include the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Shorter Christian Prayer (Catholic Book Pub.), and other editions called “breviaries.” If you go to a bookseller’s web site and type any of these terms into the search box, you will find a plethora of resources for finding out more about this practice. In addition, there are online versions of the hours such as the one from Mission St. Clare (http://www.missionstclare.com/english/).

When you practice at home, you can choose to set aside a chair or cushion somewhere quiet and can make your space as simple or as elaborate as you choose. Furnish it with whatever makes it more conducive to prayer and contemplation. You might like some images, candles, incense, music or other items that soothe you. At work, you can find a place to sit or walk that gives you a little bit of private time.

The discipline of a rule of life is a tangible way to express gratitude to God for this life. We can go through our days feeling grateful on a subconscious level, but the structure of the rule, the observance of the hours, makes it conscious. Through daily, hourly practices that engage not only the mind but also the senses and body, awareness of the grace of God becomes embodied. You sense it in the aromas of incense and candle wax, you see it in colors and imagery, you hear it in music and psalms, and you feel it in creaky knees and touching palms.

Why is embodying grace so important? Selfishly, who wouldn’t want to live out their days suffused with grace? But grace is just a given, some would say. You don’t have to follow a rule or participate in rituals to receive it. True. But for me, following a rule of life and participating in liturgy amplifies it. You listen for God’s “still, small voice,” the voice of love, the voice of grace, while in prayer, while lighting candles, and then that voice, received and carried bodily, becomes a beacon that guides the activities of the rest of your day. Awareness of grace through the liturgy of the hours becomes awareness of grace while grocery shopping, while eating, while working, while loving.

This is an ancient practice of stopping at points during the day to pray, read scripture, and meditate going back into Jewish prehistory. “Seven times a day I praise you” (Ps. 119:164). It’s a turning away from the temporal and a turning toward the eternal. Like looking up at the Milky Way on a moonless summer night, you are reminded of the vastness and infinity of God. This practice then enlarges your perspective, and passing moods, difficulties, and irritations no longer hold such sway over you. You understand their transience against the backdrop of eternity.

Why would this practice matter to the world? Because it changes your perception of the world. Where you perceive differently, you behave differently. Your enlarged perceptions result in an openness, a kindness, indeed a largesse, toward others because you want them to experience this grace as well. Embodiment becomes precisely the point. Christ resides in you, your hands, your feet. You take your embodying of God’s grace out where you walk, shop, work, and play and give it to others by way of your very being. You’ve seen how Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama beam with joy and kindness, and people are drawn to it, for it is deeply nourishing and healing. You too will radiate such joy in your own unique way. And it’s all coming from God. You practice daily, thereby filling your “tank” with love. You go out daily and give it all away, knowing that there will be more, a manna that never runs out.

“Monks in the world” may or may not wear robes or habits. (Some do. More about that in another post!) Most will be hidden in plain sight as librarians, nurses, accounting executives, teachers, store clerks, retired people, and others that you encounter every day. Won’t you join them?

 

 

 

Putting Christmas Away

Now that Christmas is over, and even Epiphany is past, why do I still have the Christmas tree up? Why don’t I want to take the lights down off the porch? You know, even though Christmas comes every year, it’s different every year. We might spend it with the same people or different ones. We might attend the same church and sit in the same spot in the pew as last year. Or we might be attending a different church or no church at all this year.

Our parents and children might be with us or not. We might ache to fill the hole they once filled. We might have them with us still but be painfully aware that someday, these precious days will end. That the someday will come when they are not here anymore. Do you ever see the future in the midst of the present?

One year, my mother said to me, “Lauren, someday these days will be gone, and you will wish they could return.” And she was right. How I wish they could return. How I wish I could have just one more Christmas with all of my family, parents, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But life has moved into a different season for me now. Those days are gone, but still Christmas comes every year.

I guess I don’t want to take the tree or the lights down because some part of my little girl’s heart is waiting to show the beautiful Christmas tree to my mother. Or hoping my grandmother might walk up the steps to see the lights on our porch. Or that I might get out my guitar and sing Silent Night with my dad. Some of these people are living; some are not. My heart reaches out for them in the form of lights, ornaments, candles, and songs. I don’t want to put them away for another year.

 

 

You are Here

When I spend time in prayer and meditation, sometimes I go very deeply into a place that allows me to imagine or experience profound insights. Often when I meditate, I imagine Jesus sitting directly across from me, so close that our knees could touch.

One day, I was sitting at our home altar, candles and incense lit, breathing slowly and deeply and imagining again that Jesus was sitting across from me. I have always been moved by the story of the woman who had been hemorrhaging  for years and who knew, if she could simply touch Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed. I sometimes hold my hand out, eyes closed, and imagine feeling the coarse fabric of his cloak as well. I held out my hand on this day, and to my surprise, Jesus took it and placed it on his heart. Looking compassionately into my eyes (though they were closed), he said to me, “You are here.”

“You are here.” In his heart. In God’s heart. You are here. You are loved. You are enough. “Do you understand?” Looking into the deep wells of his eyes, I said, “Yes.” I felt joy! I felt included. I felt warmth. God’s heart beating with love…for me! Experiencing such unconditional love is life-changing. I ended my prayer session, blew out the candles, and rang the bell and stood up to go about my day.

Later, as I was doing household chores, I could hear my upstairs neighbor arguing with his mother and stomping around. I looked exasperatedly up at the ceiling thinking, oh, brother, not this again! That lazy young man needs to get a job and stop mooching off of his mother!

Suddenly, as if seeing Jesus again, his hand to his heart, I heard someone say, “He is here also.” The upstairs neighbor is in Jesus’ heart also. “Do you understand?” he asked. Thinking of the great compassion I knew from his eyes, I thought, yes, I understand. Jesus, God, loves this young man with every ounce of the same care that he holds for me.

Now, as I go about my days, when I look around at the people I see on the streets, in shops, at church, in my family, those whom I love, those who irritate me, those who differ with and from me, it’s as if Jesus is standing beside me on the sidewalk saying, “They are all in my heart. Just as you are. Do you understand?”

That’s why my heart is growing softer, day-by-day. How can I harbor ill-will, anger, and irritation for those others who live in Jesus’ heart just as surely as I do? That doesn’t mean that I go soft to the point of lying down to injustice, to unfairness, to evil. But it does ask of me to go about these tasks differently. It demands that I treat all people with dignity, with love, even if I disagree with them. We are all in his heart.

 

 

What can we do?

Thinking about all the suffering in the world can make you feel helpless and overwhelmed, especially if there is nothing you feel you can do to change anything. You can lessen the overwhelm by engaging in typical stress-relief techniques, breathing slowly, exhaling your feelings of stress. Breathing in, breathing out, releasing tension. This type of practice helps to alleviate your suffering, but you remain uneasily aware that the world’s suffering continues.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen turns typical stress-relieving breathing techniques upside down. If you are seeking a practice to help alleviate outer suffering, you should try it. I first learned about tonglen from reading Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s book The Places that Scare You. Tonglen “refers to being willing to take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and to send out happiness to us all” (55).

When I first read about tonglen, I thought, but isn’t it harmful to yourself to “take in” suffering? Won’t it make you suffer as well, which is just adding more misery to the world? Ah, there’s the miracle! Instead of causing you to suffer, tonglen practice produces the miraculous alchemy the ancients sought of turning lead into gold. You breathe in suffering, transform it, and breathe out peace–for others and, curiously, for yourself as well.

For example, imagine sitting comfortably in your place of prayer and contemplation. You are thinking of the victims of America’s most recent mass shooting. You imagine the anguish of their families and friends. Sitting with the grief, you allow it to wash over you; you breathe it in–a deep, long, slow breath. Now, here’s where the alchemy occurs. With that breath of suffering inside you, you transform it into compassion, love, and relief for the families and friends as you exhale. On the molecules of that out-breath, you send into the world intentions of healing and the release of suffering. Suffering into peace.

Of course, engaging in this practice doesn’t mean you have solved all the world’s problems, but if you believe that intention, like prayer, changes things, then you are indeed contributing to the world’s well-being. Tonglen is in a sense similar to intercessory prayer: you are asking for relief for someone. It is different in that it involves this physical act of the intentional in- and out-breath.

If you believe in God, you could easily integrate tonglen into your intercessory prayer practice. As you breathe in the suffering, as the breath sits in your body, as you form the intention of release from suffering, your mind turns this intention over to God on the out-breath. The intention then becomes a part of a much larger community of intention brought together in the mind of God. In this way, your practice, when joined with the loving intentions of millions and enfolded in God, becomes a powerful, world-altering act indeed.

Christians believe that the Holy Spirit resides in the breath. Through this practice, you join with the Spirit to participate in Her work in the world.

May I be free from suffering.
May you be free from suffering.
May all be free from suffering.