All Hallow’s Eve

October 31, 2010

I know from the getgo today’s post will be controversial.

Oh well. I can’t help it. It seems I am compelled to write the truth as I see it, to share my story. And, I try and listen to God’s lead in the morning regarding the blog and what to say and how to say it. I’m sure I don’t always get it right, but this is my prayer and my desire and why wouldn’t God honor such a request? Please pray that I listen and follow.

It is All Hallows Eve, better known in our vernacular as Halloween. Tonight, little ghosts and witches, Spider Men and fairies will be knocking on doors to receive a treat dropped into their outstretched bags. They will look down to see what goodie they got as their parents watch from behind.

I loved Halloween as a kid, walking with my brothers and sisters around the neighborhood, holding the younger ones’ hands in the dark. When we got home, we would empty our bags on the bedroom carpet, sort by type, and compare our haul.

I loved it with my own kids as well. We had so much fun over the years with costumes, black hair dye, and fake blood. There were ninjas and wizards, Fred Flintstone and clowns, superman outfits with a great big S and army fatigues and helmets.

Carving the pumpkin was a great ritual as newspaper was spread out on the kitchen floor, triangle eyes and noses, scary mouths with jagged teeth were drawn on the rind with Sharpies, the top was cut off and hands and spoons reached into the hollow to pull out the stringy mess of seeds.  I can still smell the odor of the candle burning in the pale innards of the Jack-o-lantern and the mystery as it was lit and orange light appeared through the holes.

One of the great fringe benefits of being a parent is that you get to monitor the candy, dole it out like cards being dealt to unsuspecting children. One for you and one for me. I awlays figured I earned at least a few miniature Milky Ways and Tootsie Rolls, and besides, my children didn’t need all those sweets. It wasn’t good for them. I was so altruistic.

All Hallows Eve is the night before All Saints or All Souls Day, a day to remember the faithful departed. In Catholic and some Protestant churches, candles are lit and names are read. Last year on All Souls, I was in Norway with the Trappist sisters and volunteers in the cemetary beside the church.  We sang the liturgy in heavy coats as winds from the fjord blew scarves around our heads. No one is buried there yet.

Halloween is linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain which in Old Irish means roughly “summer’s end”. The festival celebrates the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”. The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honoured and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm (Wikipedia).

I wish it was so easy as putting on a costume. But perhaps it is. A simple prayer will do.

In Norway, I spoke with the prioress, Sister Rosemary, about the experience of the demonic in her life. I asked her what she did when she was ‘under attack’ from dark forces outside herself. She has been at this for over fifty years, having just celebrated her Jubilee year. She answered with one word, Pray.

I’m not going to argue with you about the reality of demons and spiritual warfare. You can believe what you want to believe. But I know from my experience, we do not do battle with ourselves alone in the call to be holy and to live as saints. Paul says it best in Ephesians 6.12:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

I don’t believe Paul was superstitious or psychotic. And having read historic spiritual literature of the souls who have gone before–the faithful departed–I know their experiences have been similar. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, of Antony the Great and unnamed monks who lived in the deserts of Egypt, speak of demons and what causes them to flee, and it is prayer, prayer and humility.

The thin places keep us humble and on our knees. We cannot do battle on our own against spiritual forces. We must pray. We must lift up our shield.

I hope you enjoy the day and if you have little ones, get to take them trick-or-treating or to a costume party or fall festival, complete with bonfire. And maybe tonight after you put them to bed, you can sneak a Butterfinger from their bag.

But tomorrow, I hope all of us will remember the saints and the faithful departed. Give thanks for their lives and pray for All Souls.

All Hallows Eve is a time to honor the thin places and be circumspect. That’s all I’m saying.

 

Liar Liar Pants on Fire!

October 30, 2010

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

   —John 3.18

Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

   –John 4.20

Lying is the mother of all violence.

    –Gandhi

It is not enough to write and think about grace and love. You must live it. Demonstrate it to those you encounter, who are placed in your paths like gems of pure gold.

   —Patty Ryle Clay

So what is evil? Peck believes evil is a variant of narcissistic personality disorder. He also seems to say that while evil manifests itself in many ways, the common identifier is the lie. 

   — Clancy Cross from his blog, Clancy’s Quotes, on M. Scott Peck’s book, People of the Lie

I imagine children all over the world yelling across the playground in their own languages of Russian, German, or Mandarin Chinese, to a playmate who has been dishonest, has cheated in a game or relationship, Liar liar pants on fire. For children know when someone is a Liar and aren’t afraid to name it for what it is. The version may differ, but the truth remains: People who say one thing but do another.

Boy, Jesus has a lot to say about hypocrites, another word for liar. People who pose as religious men yet do not love their sister or brother.

What does it mean to love? Is it three little words whispered in an ear? Or is it demonstrative proof offered to someone who is hungry and cries out in anguish for one little morsel of bread?

I believe it is the latter, and those who do not or can not demonstrate it by how they live are Liars, with a capital L.

M. Scott Peck writes in his book, People of the Lie, that you cannot have a relationship with people who lie. They are incapable of love because they are incapable of honesty. Lying to self, to others, to God is the antithesis of Love and as Gandi says, is the mother of all violence.

The words of Jesus are equally tough on such persons, persons who say they love God but do not show it to others. He might as well be yelling, Liar liar pants on fire.

Words are cheap. Actions are not. And the difference determines the disciple. If one follows Christ, behavior follows. Words become a lived Truth.

This morning, I am pissed off. I have had it with the religious who are silver-tongued devils, whispering love and then walking away. It is bullshit.

I know too many people who have suffered such violence. Who have been wooed and waltzed with words which are impotent.

As far as I am concerned, such  persons are Impotent in the place that matters most—the heart. They make take medication or undergo a bypass to treat the physical organ which pumps blood, but they suffer from Heart Failure. The failure to love in truth and action.

Such people are liars, for one cannot say they love God and then turn their back on others in their greatest need.

Children all over the world get it right, for when love is lavished on us by God and others which is sure and pure and true, the one who doesn’t reciprocate through their actions is a Liar and their pants and their soul are on fire.

No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.

   —Luke 5.37-38

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

   —John 6.35

I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky.

   —John Denver, Rocky Mountain High

Is there anything better than the smell of fresh bread baking in the oven? Perhaps what comes after is the closest rival; when the first slice is cut, spread with butter and jam, and is still warm. Mmm.

I am not a great baker but on occasion will feel the inspiration to pull out the giant stainless steel bowl used for mixing, the whole wheat flour in the canister, and my Tassajara Bread Book. The book is old, the cover torn and brown with oil stains and years, but in it is the best recipe I know for whole wheat bread with wheat berries.

The book was a gift when I lived in Colorado in 1973. It was published in Shambala, wherever that is, and in Berkeley, as in California, in 1970. It has tan pages, even before they were old, and brown print, and is filled with simple drawings on mixing up the sponge, arrows pointing above a bowl to illustrate how one ducks the spoon under the surface “pulling the batter up in a circular motion” which makes the dough stretchier and incorporates air. Feminine hands demonstrate how to knead.

The book came from a natural foods store in Estes Park, the first natural foods store I had ever seen. It was run by thin men with dark beards and braless women with long skirts.

Estes Park in 1973 was a mecca for young people who wanted to live on the land, return to Mother Earth in a way that was fresh and beautiful. They migrated from places like Chicago and Arizona and San Francisco, many inspired by John Denver’s song Rocky Mountain High.  There were Polish Catholics and gifted artisans who wove thick natural fiber on looms. There were musicians and young people from working class families who grew up fast. One friend from Kansas City drove a pickup so old, it could have been on the set for Lassie. He affectionately referred to it as his humble truck.

In sum, the brief summer I spent working there was an eye-opening experience for me–an eighteen year old surburban girl who was rather upper-middle class and waspy from a provincial town in Georgia.

There, I climbed the highest mountain I have ever climbed and the highest one in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak, with an elevation of 14,259 feet. I remember each inch. And I remember the joy at reaching the summit, and my desire not to linger. The air was very thin.

It is so easy now to mock that time with its idealistic innocence, an innocence which sought something fresh and new, yet old at the same time–the desire to be close to nature. John Denver’s lyrics captured the desire for many:

Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high

Since that time, I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in many places and known it in my heart. The intense and pure space where one can talk to God. I have walked in quiet solitude, seeking grace in every step I took.

I’ve learned to bake bread and I’ve drunk new wine and I know how they both taste, the warmth and goodness of something fresh, the bittersweet love of something new, and at the same time, very, very old. Something earthy and organic, red like blood and soft like grace.

Jesus had so much to say about grace, and so much to do. He broke bread on hillsides and in upper rooms. He lifted cups for blessings. His own blood, dark-red like Cabernet, spilled to the earth.

When we taste the bread of the eucharist on our tongue, when we drink from the cup, we participate in the life of Christ and his death.

We die to the old and become new. We are made fresh over and over like bread. There can be nothing stale or stagnant about our life in Christ and the sacrament makes sure of this. It is Presence and it is Mystery and it beckons us like Mecca where pilgrims come, diverse and seeking, to get close to nature and to learn to bake bread.

Our faith is an ever-changing sacrament, old like a forest but new like the evergreens-trees whose rings and apex continue to move outward and upward towards the sun. Branches fill the canopy, needles softly fall and cushion its floor.

I like my old bread book whose pages are stained. I may pull it out soon to bake bread in my new home. And when I do, I will remember a time in my life filled with sweet aroma and the Mystery of Presence, ancient like the Rocky Mountains but which continues to beckon all of us through hand-made drawings to a life that is fresh and new.

Intentional

October 28, 2010

He brought me to the banqueting house,

and his intention towards me was love.

  –Song of Solomon 2. 4

My elder son Hank is incredible.

He is kind and he is good and he is filled with God’s love. You see it in his face and know it in his hugs.

And he is intentional.

There is not much in his life that he has not ‘gone for’ by his own choosing. 

He sets goals and he reaches them.

And he is an inspiration.

If my/our younger son Sam–who I have previously written about–came out earnest, Hank came out wise, like Solomon.

Part of his wisdom, lies in his intention: the rational part of him which plans and follows through.

What a concept and how much I can learn from him.

I think I first realized this aspect of his nature and what an unusual gift it is when he was four. His dentist told him that if he didn’t quit sucking his fingers, as many children do, by his next birthday he would have to wear braces.

So when his birthday came, he quit. Just like that.

I’ve witnessed his intentions all of his life: he wanted to graduate from Young Harris College while still in high school, so he did. He walked across the stage of the Clegg auditorium while barely eighteen to receive his associate’s diploma one month before he received his high school one.

He wanted to be a gourmet cook, so at thirteen, he downloaded recipes from the internet, watched cooking shows, and prepared incredible dishes, complete with garnished presentation. Complex recipes using phyllo pastry, sauces made with wine, and thin layers of cake stacked with cream and strawberrries did not daunt him. He taught me the meaning of the word dredge–as in with flour.

He wanted to take full advantage of the Hope Scholarship while a student at UGA, so he took as many courses as he could and received two bachelor’s degrees simultaneously, and then two master’s, one year later with Hope paying for one year. He was twenty-three.

In the meantime, he was president of the UGA graduate student body, because he wanted to be and worked hard to get elected. It paid for part of his education too.

He wanted to meet Hayley, so he squirted whip cream on her at a Wesley Fellowship party. Now, she is his wife.

I could go on and on and you might see it as bragging about my son, like a showoff Christmas letter, but here’s my point: Hank lives with intention.

It isn’t that Hank has lived a charmed life without disappointment or set-backs. Or that he is all logic and no heart. He has one of the largest hearts I know. Or that he can’t sometimes be random or delightfully relaxed and spontaneous, but each step along the way, he has lived with intention.

Some would call it mindful. In spiritual circles today, mindfulness is the catchword. The term describes a way of being that is present—present to the moment, present to the possibilities, present to others and self and God. It is focused and seeks to be free of distraction. Even it is intentional.

So, it came as no surprise when Hank told me yesterday that he had decided he wanted to read his grandmother’s book, Catastrophes and Celebrations: One Woman’s Look at the Ups and Downs of Life, published in 1985 and out of print. He had gone online, found a copy, and is now halfway through.

He has enjoyed learning about his extended family from a different time period–before he was born. My mother was fifty-eight and wanted us all there for the signing. I was pregnant with Hank.

Now, I am fifty-five and I, too, want to publish a book. Hank and I discussed the parallels between my mother’s writing career and mine: I am writing blogs as my mother did columns  in the Marietta Daily Journal. The subject matter and style are similar. And even our age and position in life shadow one another.

I realized on the phone with Hank, through his gentle and diplomatic leading, that if I want to have a book published by the time I am fifty-eight, I better get busy. This goal and dream will not be realized without intention.

Scripture speaks of intention in the Song of Solomon:

He brought me to the banqueting house,

and his intention towards me was love.

I believe God is Intention and that God’s intention towards us is Love, like the lover in the Song of Songs.

What an amazing concept, that God invites us to the banqueting house and there reveals his intention: to lavish us with love.

In this way, Hank and God are very similar. They live with Intention and Love.

If I want to publish a book by the time I am fifty-eight..if I want to live in France..if I want to lose weight and be more fit..and if I have a few more dreams and desires I want to fulfill, I better get busy.

I best learn from my son and from my Maker, the gift of mindful intention.

What I Like About You

October 27, 2010

Keep on whispering in my ear
Tell me all the things that I want to hear
‘Cause it’s true
That’s what I like about you

  The Romantics, What I Like About You

There are people we love.

And then, there are people we like.

Ideally as Christians, we love everyone. But we don’t have to like them.

I remember how freed up I felt when I realized this distinction. I could love the obnoxious, the irritating, the mean people in my path without being obligated to like them.

Love is a powerful word and a great gift–whether it is in friendship (philos), in romance (eros), or the great Love modeled by Christ which is unconditional (agape).

But to be liked? Now, that too, is gift.

If we reflect back on our lives, it is easy to recall some of the first friends we had in school. People we played with at recess and invited over to spend the night. People we liked, and who liked us.

It was such a sweet thing, to realize someone liked you and you liked them. To forge a friendship based on mutual and natural affection. Nothing forced or imposed but instead, a shared delight.

I would like to suggest this morning that such mutual and natural affection can exist with God, the One who has called us friend.

I know God loves us with a love we cannot fathom, but I believe God also likes us. Like a new-found friend in second grade. Nothing forced or imposed but genuine delight in who we are.

And..surely God would like it if we felt the same. If we invited God for a sleep-over or wrote Him/Her a note. If we hung out together on the playground or walked to the drug store after school to sit in a booth and laugh. If we wanted to spend time hangin’ out.

The Romantics had a one-hit-wonder called What I Like About You. One verses goes like this:

Keep on whispering in my ear
Tell me all the things that I want to hear
‘Cause it’s true
That’s what I like about you.

The song is probably about romantic love, but I think can be applied to friendship as well, and particularly our friendship and affection with a God who likes us and whom we like.

This God, I believe, whispers in our ear and tells us things we want to hear: I like you. I’m glad I made you. I get a kick out of you. You delight me and intrigue me and I think you are awesome. Would you like to hang out?

I know God doesn’t like us all the time, I wouldn’t think. Or like all the things we do or don’t do. God knows us too well to get a kick out of everything about us—the times we are mean and obnoxious. The times we hurt others or ourselves. Surely we disappoint and frustrate and irritate God and at times, break God’s heart, and yet..I hear God singin’ this song, What I Like About You.  I hear God whispering in my ear, tellin me all the things that I want to hear—and perhaps a few things I don’t—but liking us all the while. And hoping the affection is returned. 

 

Some mornings, when I wake up, it is as if I have been with a lover and am still in bed with him.

You know that sleepy, contented feeling you have, a smile on your face, the morning after?

And then you get to do it again.

Do we need to have another little talk? For those who are just joining my blog, I will copy text from a previous one about why I choose to occasionally write about sex and use erotic metaphors and language. Please refer to the note which follows today’s post.

This morning was one of the above kind. I woke with desire between my legs and in my heart. The world beckoned to me like a lover, exquisite air stirred my senses. I longed to give my love away in a never-ending embrace. I wanted to make love with the Universe.

I don’t think I am so unique. We all have those moments when we are Alive with a capital ‘A’,  our senses on edge, our hearts full of passion. Our skin sensitive to the slightest breeze. We like what we see.

I remember hearing the Emory chaplain give a sermon years ago at Cannon Chapel in which she quoted a poem from Maya Angelo, Still I Rise.The poem has this stanza:

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

For many of the male students who were good-ole-boys in theological disguise, her sermon was scandalous. They left the Chapel angry.

But as for me, I smiled. She had hit the nail on the head, or should we say at the meeting of my thighs. She had touched on something to which most of us are afraid: the life-force that rises within us and beckons us to come to bed. I believe that Life Force is God made manifest in the Universe.

As scandalous as it may sound, I think God wants to make love to us. I believe mystics and  women of ecstasy (and men like William of St. Thierry) have experienced this stirring—this passion—in bodily ways throughout history. I know I have.

I have shared this affair with no one—until now. Nothing like coming out on a blog.

It has been in my most intimate and sweet moments with God in prayer that I have been aroused.

What’s a person to do with such feelings of erotic warmth and pleasure, where the entire world is wet like a rain forest? When the Love of God touches everything?

I don’t really know, but today I am going to enjoy it, to experience the Universe as one big bed.

Note from blog entitled “Stasis” posted on July 10, 2010:

Ok, it is time to have a little talk. You may as well get used to the fact that I will occasionally write about sex. It is a huge part of our lives, relationships, and culture. It has caused the rise and fall of kingdoms and men (no pun intended), and of many a marriage and woman. Just watch TV for an hour, or read a history book, or talk to your friend who is separated or your child in middle school, and you will be reminded of how pervasive and powerful sex is.

I think to host a serious blog–which I would like to think this one is–about life in all its complexities, about being a lover of God and the world, about trying to make theological sense of the deepest joys and pains of human existence and to celebrate and honor the most simple and ordinary pleasures of being alive, as well as the most sublime, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least on occasion, explore the subject of the erotic, even if it makes us uncomfortable. It is, after all, a gift from God. Plus, I like it.

I apologize if it offends, but please remember you always have the option of signing off, although I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Does My Ass Look Big?

October 25, 2010

I don’t know any woman out there who, sooner or later, doesn’t ask her husband the proverbial question: Does my ass look big? Or perhaps the more classic version, Do I look fat?

The answer is a no-brainer for men. Of course not, honey, they lie through their teeth.

So did I really expect my husband to be truthful when I turned around yesterday in my new black yoga pants, tight across the hips and thighs, and asked his opinion? I was headed to the grocery store and didn’t want to look indecent.

In spite of the many gains women have made in careers, independence, positions of leadership in academia, business, government, in spite of the fact that we embrace our intelligence and don’t want to be treated like objects, in spite of new majors like women and gender studies and a post-feminist new generation, the market says that for all that–women still want to look good and invest a lot of money into their appearance.

The industries of cosmetics and skin care, plastic surgery and Curves, hair and fashion and shoes are thriving and Victoria knows our Secret: no matter how ‘liberated’ we have become, we still want to be attractive–and sexy. We want our ass to look good.

So..if you are a guy–or a girl for that matter–and your girlfriend asks you How do I look? don’t panic. She doesn’t really care about what the rest of the world thinks. She wants to see herself through your eyes of love and longing.

In the end, that is all we want.

Playing by Heart

October 23, 2010

She can’t read a lick of music.

  —heard in the beauty parlor

There ain’t no notes on a dulcimer–you jus play it.

  —Joe Clark, 1892

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

  —Miriam’s Song, Exodus 15.21

My mother is a pianist.

Throughout my life she has played for church, musicals, and social gatherings.

And she is good.

I don’t think I realized just how good until recent years. Even though I grew up with people telling me, “I love to hear your mother play” and, as her child was the beneficiary of her talent as I lay in bed at night listening to lullabies, the sweet notes she could make I often took for granted.

There is technique, there is training, and then, there is heart. My mother possesses all three.

As a child she practiced two hours a day, slender fingers lickety-split up and down the scales, stretching over octaves, reading music-almost black with notes–like it was a good novel.

Which is why we laughed so hard when we heard a story. Mom was in the beauty parlor for her regular ritual of getting her hair ‘done’. Her stylist passed along the comment that one of the clients had made: Nancy is such a good pianist, but she can’t read a lick of music. We laughed ’til we cried.

But the client didn’t know any different, for she had heard my mother play solely at parties and church fellowships, where, when beckoned, she would slide over to the bench and pull songs from the air. Mother not only reads music, but she also plays by heart.

What does it mean to play by heart? Is it a gift only a few are given or is it an ability we all possess?

I think it is the latter, but we get hung up on the notes. We try and read music like it was math, solve problems on the page, transfer knowledge into our fingers. The song of life becomes technique.

I think about Miriam this morning-that sassy and smart big sister of Moses. You remember the one, hiding in bullrushes beside the river, keeping watch over her baby brother as an elegant lady appeared. It was Miriam’s brilliant and savvy suggestion which resulted in Moses’–and Miriam’s–own mother becoming his nurse.

And thus, Miriam, as much as anyone else, including Moses and Aaron, helped to save the Hebrew children. Without her plan, Moses would not have heard stories from his mother’s knee about the special covenant his people had with God.

There is a song in our Bible and the Torah which is ancient–in fact, it is the oldest song in scripture. It occurs spontaneously from Miriam’s lips as she beats her tamborine on her hip:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

Miriam is named a prophet in Exodus. She dances and sings her way into history as the Red (Reed) Sea is parted and the former slaves are freed. Who wouldn’t break into song?

I wonder about us.

Do we sing and dance and play by heart the life that God has given us? Or do we simply read the notes on the page?

– – –

And, since I mention ‘beauty parlors’ in the post this morning, I thought I would share a poem:

We Are All Nuns

In the beauty parlor
we are all nuns
a community of sisters.

We wear white towels
like habits
hair is shorn.

We keep silence
under dryers
our office of prayer

                          Patty Ryle Clay
                          June 17, 2009

A Bird in Hand

October 22, 2010

There are many paths to choose from and none of them go anywhere. Yet you must carefully chose the path that you take. If you chose a path with heart, it may be difficult, but there is joy along this path, and as you travel you grow and become one with it. If you chose a path out of fear, anxiety travels with you and no matter how much power, prestige, and possessions you acquire you will be diminished by it.

  –the teaching of Don Juan

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you…Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.

  –John 14.26, 27b

A good and wonderful friend, who is an encourager like Barnabas, recently sent me the above quote from The Path with Heart (The Teaching of Don Juan) by Carlos Castaneda. I found the version below on the internet. They are similar but the one below mentions a “bush.” And since I am writing about the bird in hand, while two flutter around in the bush, it seems appropriate to use this version as well:

This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.
Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.

This quote scares me, for I think we are going somewhere–towards Love– but I also know I have sometimes taken paths which lead nowhere, except to a bush where I have looked for birds while I held one in my hand.

I am thinking this morning about desire and heart and the paths we choose, always plural, for life takes us down many. Sometimes we veer to the right or the left. Sometimes we retrace our steps and start over. And sometimes, we reach a deadend.

The proverb reminds us: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush and I know its meaning: the call to be satisfied with what we have instead of going after what we don’t. But this is my response: I have held a bird in my hand and it is unnerving. Why the hell would I want two?

When I worked as the director of the Outdoor Activity Center many years ago in Atlanta, birds came our way. Sometimes they were falcons perched on a gloved hand. Joel Volpi, a falconer who was active in the Atlanta Audubon Society, would visit us in southwest Atlanta and astound the children with his birds of prey. We all ducked and marveled as the sharp talons and intense beaks zoomed past us, the hunters splitting the air with sleek bodies and powerful wings.

Then, there were screech owls. Immature gray and brown puffs of feathers people brought us that needed to be rehabilitated back into the wild. I remember holding one to feed it ground beef. It was unnerving.

My friends in Atlanta Audubon were bird banders. They would go into fields and woods with nets to catch the birds in the bush, slip tiny bands like bracelets onto their ankles. Very trendy. At least, the birds were not tattooed and pierced. The bands would help with research on the range of the birds’ habitat, how long they lived, and more. Even though I was invited to join in on the project, I never accompanied them.

I love birds, but I really don’t want to hold them.

The Holy Spirit is imaged as a bird. A dove descending to earth like a dive bomber, head and wings and tail lined up vertically. The target, Jesus. He is standing in the river. John is nearby. The dove looks as if any minute he/she will pierce Jesus’ skull. Luckily, the bird pauses to hover right over His head.

But then what happens. Where does the bird go? Does She remain suspended in time and art like an airborn statue or Italian fresco? Does She fly into the bush? Does she travel with Jesus, above his head like a question mark or a cloud? Do we hold Her in our hand?

I think all of the above is true. Sometime, the Holy Spirit is suspended in space and time as we rise from baptismal waters and trek across the desert sand. Sometimes the Spirit flies ahead, lies hidden in brambles and shrubs along our path, as we seek to find and follow Her. Sometimes, the Spirit is right above us, only slightly out of reach. And sometimes, we hold the Spirit in our outstretched and shaky hand.

And that, my friend, is unnerving.

My Fantasy

October 21, 2010

Yesterday, I met a friend in Madison.

Madison is a small Southern town in Georgia with a lot of history, and buildings which survived the Civil War. It is known as “The Town that Sherman Refused to Burn” because it was the home of pro-Union Senator Joshua Hill. Politics make strange bed fellas and save ante bellum homes.

The route I traveled from Marietta led me out I-20 east of Atlanta. When I got to Panola Road, I had to grab the steering wheel to keep my car from taking the exit.

Panola Road is the exit I have taken for 24 years to visit the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.

I easily can picture the first time I visited this Cistercian community. It was in 1986. I was a seminary student at Candler and a new mother with a red-headed baby on my hip and a diaper bag on my shoulder.

Women couldn’t spend the night back then, but the Guest Master, Father Francis Xavier, gave me a room for the day. I was nursing and exhausted and he saw it. So, he helped me carry my bags up the steps to a wonderfully simple room in the retreat house.

I will never forget the first prayer office I went to in the church. I sat in the balcony with my baby in my arms. The light, purple and blue streamed through the stained glass windows. The monks were below in their white-robed choir to sing to God in antiphon. 

On the first note of the chant, I was smitten. It was love at first sound.

I have been visitng ever since. I cannot articulate all that the monastery has meant to me over the years. I have gone there when I practically had to crawl on my knees to reach the front door. I have gone there when I was so anxious I couldn’t sit still. I have gone there when I needed direction, when I was full of new passion, and when I was empty. I have gone there when my heart was torn.

And so, this is my fantasy: I am pulling up slowly to the gate one night after Compline. I abandon my car and my past as I walk through the door. I find the cell where I belong and the bed I was meant for. I take off my clothes and slip under the covers where it is nice and warm. My hair spreads across the pillow as I listen to the silence, the sound of heartbeats, the rhythmic breathing of monks.

I rise in the middle of the Great Silence for Vigils. I bind my breasts and shear my hair. I pull on a tunic and scapular, cincture my waist loosely with a leather belt, and lift the cowl to cover my head.

I take my place in the choir, sit beside a cantor who leans over to help me with the mammoth book of the liturgy and the seasons. I open my mouth to sing the first note of the Divine Office as I pray “O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me.”

And there I remain for the rest of my years.

This is fantasy for three reasons: I am married. I am too old. I am a woman.

I know there are women monasteries where I could be admitted, if I wasn’t married and too old.

But the Monastery of the Holy Spirit is the community I know and love.