I think one of the hardest things in life is learning others’ limits.

We are familiar with our own, but we often hold onto illusions about others, somehow thinking they are better than they are. We have trouble spotting weaknesses, failures, even sin, in those we once admired. We want them to be something they aren’t and never have been. Are not capable of being.

It is such a relief to finally let it go–the hopes we have that people will grow, our own encouragement and prodding, our endless giving and belief in something or someone who doesn’t exist. People who aren’t as grand or as good as we imagined, who are in fact quite small and selfish in the place that matters most–the heart. 

I think about the circus today after watching Water for Elephants at the movie theatre last night. The circus is full of illusion, of a certain mastery of deceit by imposters, where clowns appear to be happy and gay when they cry in their sleep. Where beautful women, who look so elegant and powerful, wear homemade costumes worn thin at the seams, and cover bruises with makeup. Where animals who stun us with their amazing feats, who we imagine are tenderly cared for by trainers, are beaten by bull hooks and worked until they die. Where acrobats who seem invincible, slip from hands in mid-air.

August, the ringmaster of the circus in the film, is a complex character, but haunted by anger and a violent fear. He is cruel to humans and animals alike, and as a result loses everything dear to him, including his own life. He is killed by Rosie, the elephant, while attempting to strangle his wife.

Near the final scene, the lions and hyenas are let out of their cages, the spectators flee in a screaming panic. The stakes are ripped from the ground, the circus workers escape their bondage to a tyrant, and the Big Top collapses around him.

I believe that is what finally happens to us when we face the truth about ourselves and others. When the illusions disappear as the curtain is pulled back. When the Big Top  collapses and the performance is over. When the clowns wipe off their madeup smiles and the beautiful women are set free.

I pray today for all of us to be able to pray the prayer of a certain disillusionment: Lord, grant us the ability to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Yes, the wisdom to know the difference and to be set free.

Ask

April 29, 2011

Ask and you shall receive..

  –Luke 11.9a

It is 6.21 AM and I sit like a Sikh in a  turban. I am treating my hair.

The morning got off to a good start. I was up at four to pray and then I looked in the mirror. My hair shocked me. I noticed it is breaking off at the top.

For someone who is quite vain about her hair and has worked very hard to grow it long and keep it healthy, this is a concern. I must have used a harsh product, too strong for my fine wisps. So, I lathered it with conditioner and wrapped it up in a hot towel. I pray for good results.

Does God care about my hair? I don’t know, but I do know this much: I do. I told my sister just yesterday, I love my hair, especially the length; the warm feel of it down my back, the way it lightly touches my arm.

This morning, I am thinking about prayer. Again. 

I am wondering if I know anything.

I don’t really think I do.

I have been praying a long time–most of my life, if not all. I have been a minister and invested my life in loving and serving God through others, praying for them, with them. I have read books on prayer and taught workshops and gone on silent retreats and met with spiritual advisors and had prayer partners and spent hours a day in prayer.

I’ve tried to live a life of prayer and asked God to teach me, pray through me. I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Prayer. I’ve prayed the Psalms and scripture and the prayers of the saints. I’ve prayed the seven daily offices. I’ve practiced Centering Prayer and been a contemplative. I’ve prayed in the Spirit and asked the Spirit to pray through me.  But, still, when it gets down to it, I know nothing, really, about how to pray.

Recently, I’ve been behind three different cars whose license plates diplayed  “ASK” as their first three characters. ASK is what they have shouted to me from the rearend.

But I don’t know how.

I know the scripture says to ask and we will receive, and elaborates on the point with a rhetorical question: Is there any among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? (Luke 11.11)

 But I don’t know how to ask for a fish. I don’t really know what a fish is.

All I need are coffee and cigarettes.

  —Patty Ryle Clay, June 2010

We assume that if we gaze at the stars and ponder the meaning of life, we are becoming “holy,”  but it is the cry of a child or the bark of a dog that truly brings us back to the Presence of God.

  –unknown

Last year, I was speaking to a friend about my future and stated that all I need are coffee and cigarettes.

But I was wrong.

In reflecting on my needs as a woman, a person, a human being, I know these are not enough. I am an ordinary woman and I need an incarnational love.

And so..I am revising my list. Here are my additional needs:

I need to be loved and respected. I need to be cared for and cherished. I need to be honored and understood, celebrated and praised. I need touch, and passion, and yes, sex. I need attentiveness and affection given openly, freely, and lavished like grace. I need to be held in tender arms and a compassionate heart. I need the Presence of God in flesh and blood.

I believe the Cross and the Incarnation–the whole story of Jesus–celebrate and affirm with one big YES, all that it means to be human, to be alive, to be Lovers on this earth.

I can’t really think of anything else, except, oh yeah, new clothes and shoes every once in a while, to get my nails done every so often, and my hair highlighted when the roots start to show.

These are my needs. I am simple. I am ordinary.

I am the cry of a child. I am the bark of a dog.

Our Names, Our Character

April 26, 2011

雷若山

  –Sam Ryle Clay in Chinese

In a little over two weeks, my son will go to China.

He is majoring in business management and Chinese and will be in Shanghai for eight weeks in a program through GA Tech that puts the two together. He is astute.

Having had a year and a half of the language at UGA, he has tried to help me understand the basis for the Chinese character. It is intriguing in its art form, for the language is based on pictograms–pictures of the words.

Although only four pecent of the language is now pure pictograms, the ideograms and ideagrammatic compounds and phono-semantic compounds that make up modern Chinese are based on the root pictogram, and then add nuance, iconic illustration, and other things of which I know very little.

What I do know is that the written language is over 3,000 years old; the Chinese characters are the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world. The number of Chinese characters contained in the Kangxi disctionary is approximately 47,035. Studies carried out in China have shown that full literacy in the Chinese language requires a knowledge of between three and four thousand characters (wikipedia).

As Sam’s mother, this frightens me.

But Sam has plenty of character and can do anything he wants and chooses.

I like that the letters are pictures, are icons to a deeper meaning. I like that the characters are drawn, like art. They sketch reality and give it expression in symbols and form.

I believe we do the same through the writing–the drawing–the pictures of our lives.

We are characters. We are art. We are meaning.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’.

  –Tony Campola

Friction is the force between two objects as they move over one another such as a car’s tire and the surface which it is traveling on. There are  two types of friction: static friction and kinetic friction. Static friction is the frictional force required to start an object moving on another surface. Kinetic frictional force is the force to keep the object in motion. The force to get something moving is always greater then the force to keep it moving.

  —article on Physics and Car Safety

It is Monday, the morning after Easter. I contemplate what difference that makes as thousands of tires roar past my house in heavy traffic. I can hear their whine begin before sunrise, a testimony to the friction between the surfaces of asphalt and rubber. It is my own sort of ‘white noise’.

The question is the one we live  with as Christians, on this side of the resurrection. It is a good question to think on as we head back to work, to school, to life post deviled-eggs and chocolate bunnies.

Tony Campola- an unorthodox evangelist to young people–has a famous sermon entitled: It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’. In it, he makes the connection between Good Friday and Easter, when the pain and sorrow and death of this life give way to victory, the particular hope we find in a a very specific cemetary.

The title of his sermon has become a refrain for many when we struggle through woes and heartache, worries and loss. We all know what Good Friday feels like. We also know the hope and new life found on Easter Sunday, when lilies cover hillsides and our hearts are filled with irrepressible joy.

But what about Monday? What about the morning after, when we undergo the effects of an Easter intoxication and wake to the indulgences of Love?

Monday is about moving on, traveling with Jesus on an ordinary road. It is full of kinetic friction– of sandals scuffling dirt and tires treading pavement. But it is alive and humming with energy and force. It is picking up speed. It is going somewhere.

 

What is it, Mother? What is grace?

     —Patty Ryle Clay, April, 1978

When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat..”. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed..

   —Exodus 16. 14, 15, 21a

It is Holy Saturday–a day between, a type of interstice, when things are quiet, still. Very still.

I sit on the deck in the damp and ponder. On my lap is a fallen heart-shaped leaf, newly green with the promise of chlorophyll. A tiny stalk of pale yellow flower, maybe a quarter inch, with perfect stamen and pistil is beside me on the swing. The rain brought it down from some unsuspecting tree, perpetuity clustered around a stem.  A brown caterpilly-looking thing from a pine tree is on the table where I put my coffee. I learn that it’s an undeveloped pinecone.

So much promise, so much hope, is right beside my lap,  all brought down by the rain.

In 1987, I was a student pastor of a small church in Marietta. I introduced the congregation–more Baptist than Methodist–to liturgy and the calendar of the Church. For the first time in their life, older members had an ashen cross placed on their forehead, learned about the forty days of Lent, and participated in a Seder meal and foot-washing on Maundy Thursday. Many had given up something for Lent, the first time in their lives. Sue had given up sweet iced-tea, a true sacrifice for her daily habit of at least a quart.

Several of us loaded up a car on Holy Saturday night and traveled down I-75 to I-20, then traveled the dark two-lane highway to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. Our hearts were ready to receive the beautiful and dramatic liturgy of the Service of Light close to midnight.

The Service begins outside around a fire, much like the one Peter warmed himself by in Jerusalem. The monks and Abbot join in the litany: My brothers and sisters in Christ, on this most holy night in which Jesus passed over from death to life, we gather as the Church to watch and pray. This is the Passover of Christ, in which we share in Christ’s vistory over death.

The Paschal candle is lit from the fire and these words are said, The light of Christ rises in glory, overcoming the darkness of sin and death. A procession then forms behind the monks and candle as we move  into the darkened church.

I was so excited to be sharing this service with some of my parishioners–with Sue–who had taken it all to heart, this new discovery of Lent, who had never seen a monk or visited a monastery, and certainly had not begun a service around a fire at night.

But the service and the experience were marred by something that had happened on the way down. A motorcycle passed us on the interstate with two African-Americans riding double on the seat, the stars reflecting off their helmets. This is what Sue said,”Look at those monkeys” she might have said apes. I was horrified and this is what I said, “I am really offended by that comment”.

The car got very quiet and remained that way the rest of the way to the monastery and on the way home. Sue, who had been enthused and open to the gifts of an ancient tradition, new to her, closed her arms and her heart that night to the experience and to me. She never returned to church while I was there.

I think about Sue today and wonder if she ever gives up iced-tea for Lent anymore. I wonder if she thinks of the imperfection of the evening of promise on this Holy Saturday.

In 1978, I was moving towards Jesus after being away for a very long time. I was ignorant of so much, having left the chuch as a teenager. I didn’t understand what it all meant–this story of redemption and of love. I didn’t understand the meaning of grace. “What is it Mother?’ I asked, like the Hebrew children asked Moses about manna (manna means “What is it?).

I’m not sure I still get it all, but I do know this much about grace: We need it, desperately.

I am not so different from Sue.  I open my mouth and hurt creation. I tromp on promises and dreams like they are sodden seeds under my feet on the forest floor. I am offended and I offend. I stare in silence at a sealed tomb, while the rains fall down. I flee in fear from Love.

Today is an in-between, a sliver of time usually lost in the celebratory ritual of  Easter egg hunts and the last-minute preparations for Sunday’s feast. Eggs are boiled and dyed. Lace and flowered dresses in pastel colors are laid out. Lamb is ready to be roasted with leeks and the Honey-baked ham is sliced. Baskets are placed beside the bed. Colored foiled chocolate waits in a bowl.

The gray drama of Good Friday morphs into an always cold but dew-sparkled Sunrise Service of Hallelujahs at Kennesaw Mountain, the Service of Light with the monks, or eleven o’clock worship when pews are filled with well-dressed people.  Holy Saturday is lost.

I think today about Jesus. He is laid out. He is still. It is quiet. Very quiet.

It is the week before all days become Holy in the Church. Palm Sunday will give way to Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday will bring us to Good Friday. And Good Friday will lead us to Holy Saturday, the hardest day of the Christian year. The day when all is silent. The tomb is sealed and hope is gone.

But things are simmering underground, bubbling like ground water below topsoil in the tunnel of the earth’s stream. There is a quiver as bone meets bone, rattle and gurgle and scrape and sigh pierce the silence for those who will hear.

Let us hear the silence. Listen to the ground, put our ear to the earth, and strain for the invisible, for all that is yet to be.

More original blogs are coming after Holy Saturday. They are bubbling and gurgling and waiting to shoot out like a gushing geiser or a trickling spring. But until then, may I repost some old blogs I wrote last year? 

Patty

All is Well: A Tribute to Roberta, Julian, and Diane

Posted April 13, 2010

In 2005, I went back to school. I was 50. I had left the Church as an active minister. I found myself in classes with other ThM students from Korea, China, around the world–scholars who loved the Lord as much as I.

I would focus on pneumatology–the theology of the Holy Spirit– and its relationship to religious practice and experience. Julian of Norwich would become my touchstone for exploring their connection, for making sense of where and how they merge.

As I sat in a class taught by Systematics Professor, Dr. Roberta Bondi–the last class she taught at Emory before her retirement–I marveled at the way she embodied Julian’s theology. She knit beautiful sweaters made of thick heathery wool while she talked, listened, prayed. The seminar was peaceful. We all got A’s.

How was it that Roberta could be so serene, even as we learned of Hurricane Katrina’s fury, as we struggled to comfort a classmate with relatives suffering in Louisiana? What language in her life could anchor her so well?

I believe it was Julian. Her words in Showings were knit into Roberta’s life like the yarn in the sweater.

Julian’s most famous quote from Showings is “All shall be well”. She is considered a mystical theologian because of her unity with God, experienced in sixteen divine revelations and later expounded in her writings at the encouragement of a priest. She wrote of being “oned” with Christ in the knitting together of human and divine experience. I believe this happened for her through–and because of–her practices of prayer.

One day, I shared Julian’s theology with a mountain friend of mine, a poor but very bright woman with a truncated education, who passionately loves Jesus and has an uncanny way of being “spot on”–to borrow a favorite academic phrase. She can cut through complexity and in a matter of seconds and a few chosen words, serve up a clear and simple truth. She-I will call her Diane-processed Julian’s theology with a keen mind and offered her response: If all shall be well, then all is well. What in God’s good name could I say?

Diane nailed it–this quality of serenity embodied in Roberta and her sweater. At that moment, Diane was a theologian in the deepest sense. She ordered, systematized, and developed Christian thought in a single breath.

Julian’s theology only takes us so far. I believe her experience  takes us further. And it is here, where Diane’s theology begins to whir and soar. It is here, where future and present meet, with the past not far behind. Precisely at this juncture is where theology, practice, and experience are joined.

We can all be mystical theologians. We can all know divine revelation and become “oned” with God. For when we believe all shall be well and we practice our belief through a rich and robust life of prayer, we experience the next step on our journey, the step Roberta, Julian, and Diane all share: a unity with God where all is well.

Diane will never be published or heralded as a great mystic and theologian. But on that summer day, as we sat on my porch looking out over the lake, her words became like the mountains around us: gentle and ancient beauty.

Now, I knit. My fingers are not as nimble as Roberta’s or my stitches as neat, but the sweater in my lap is almost finished and as substantial as these three women, ages and worlds apart. They sit with me like a feminine trinity, an icon into Christ’s heart. I hear them laugh, the whispers of their prayers. I witness their serenity where theology, religious practice, and experience come together. And I know, even as I drop a stitch, that I am oned with my sisters in the union of a shared faith.

If all shall be well, then all is well. I tilt my needle, smile, and pick up the stitch.

Since many of you have joined my blog more recently and have had questions about why I became Catholic and gave up my clergy status, I am reposting this essay written last April. It was published in the Georgia Bulletin–the state Catholic newspaper. Peace, Patty

On Pentecost Sunday, last year, I officially became a Catholic.

My former parishioners, Protestant friends and colleagues, even family who know me so well would ask, “Why?”  Interested and curious, they listened in earnest attention as I repeated the simple version: My becoming Catholic is a natural result of my spiritual and intellectual journey.

How could I ever put into words–even to those who know me so well-my lifelong movement in this direction?

When I reflect on my past–the rosary I found at my feet in the woods when I was praying at age fifteen; the slow realization that I have been a contemplative all of my life; the attraction to and affinity with medieval women mystics; a deep longing to live in Christian community–I am aware all these factors and more brought me to the point of no return.  The decision was almost made for me. All I had to do was stand at the altar and embrace it.

Father Wise–who lives up to his name as an incredible pastor, teacher, friend, and priest–received me, blessed me in the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Blairsville, GA. I would quietly weep then, as I do at every Mass. My sweet husband and children, a sister-in-law, my sponsor, all were present, circling me with their love.

I am not sure I fully grasped then either the magnitude of the decision, or the joy I continue to feel as a new Catholic. I am not certain, I ever will. 

Yes, there was a certian grief in surrendering my credentials as a United Methodist clergywoman: I would never again celebrate the eucharist. I would muse over ideas for a sermon which would remain unwritten, the words privately lodged in my chest. The sacred priviledge of burying a loved one or baptizing a baby would remain an experience of the past.  As a female pastor for over twenty-three years in a pivotal time and transition within United Methodist history to be a more inclusive Church, as a wife married to a UMC minister and one of the early ‘clergy couples’ in our North Georgia Conference, as an active member and modest leader within the system, I had weathered much, witnessed much, both good and bad, that I would be leaving.

And yet, we must follow the Spirit wherever she leads.  And trust the journey. How can we ever regret?

Catholic friends have encouraged me to join the organization called Coming Home, an association for former Protestants who ‘convert’ to Catholicism. And perhaps it is the Protestant remnant in me, or simply the natural loner and rebel I am, which causes me to resist even the name of the organization.

With all due respect to my new brothers and sisters who share a similar path as former Protestants, I offer a slightly different perspective. I wonder if it is even possible to “come home” in this life? And aren’t we all One Body as the Church no matter what part we fill? Don’t we all share in the call and challenge of falling in love over and over again with the beauty and terror of creation? Doesn’t the daily Mass remind us of this truth, fill up our mouths, our hearts, the fabric of our very lives with this amazing Grace and Presence?

I tell people I am Catholic largely for this– the daily reminder that Christ is enough. I tell them that I don’t want or need to be a priest, even if Catholic women are ever ordained. I am on a different journey now.

My intellectual, theological, spiritual life all lead me to union. I know no other way to exist. And for this union–for a past, present, and future reality as a daughter of our Lord, for old and new colleagues and friends in the Universal Church and Christian faith, for Love which transcends every barrier, even the smallest crack, for the marriage of souls which exists between God and one another, for the confluence of theology, religious practice, and experience, for the coming together of  heart, mind, and body in an Incarnational faith, for the mystery of the Trinity–I will sing.

Whether it’s the Salve Regina during the exquisite chants of a monastic compline or the rousing  and beautiful harmonies of Charles Welsey’s  O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,  I pray I will always open my mouth wide in awe and wonder and sing  the Song which never ends.

I pray that you will too.

Can I get a witness?

  –sung by Marvin Gaye

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

  —legal oath administered to witnesses in a court of law

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
         Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
         And lead me in the everlasting way.
  

                            –Psalm 139.23,24

You will know them by their fruits.

   –Matthew 7.16

I don’t know about you, but I hate having to defend myself. It feels so demeaning, a humiliation that is below my dignity. But sometimes it is necessary.

I have learned this the hard way.

There have been a few occasions in my life where I was accused of something I did not do and my response was to remain silent–like a lamb going to slaughter. I have learned with age and experience and a certain healthy self-respect, that there is a time to remain silent, and there is a time to speak up, This is my own version of Ecclesiastes 3.7b.

Many of us find it easier to defend another, to come forward quickly and bravely to their defense. I have no problem speaking out for another person who has been falsely accused or unjustly treated, but when it comes to myself..I grow faint and sad. I shut down. I am defeated.

It seems that a defense shouldn’t be necessary, that the truth will speak for itself, that a person will be known by their fruit. That the evidence makes it obvious.

But I have come to realize, such a mindset is very naive. People are not always well-intentioned. People lie. People purposefully misrepresent or distort the truth. And sometimes, we have no witness except ourselves and God. We must become our own defense attorney.

What a shame. What a pity. How sad that anyone would ever make a false allegation against us, but it happens.

Unfortunately, it happened to me more than a few times in my twenty-three years as a minister in the local church. The pastor is a sitting duck. There is no getting around it.

Once, a parishioner stated before a committee that I was not doing something required by the church Discipline. He brought his book with him. Incidentally, as many UMC pastors know, whenever a parishioner comes to a meeting with a Book of Discipline tucked under his or her arm,  things are quickly going south–the person is ‘loaded for bear’.

I sat with my mouth agape, trying to close it and not overreact. I looked at him in the eyes. It was a serious allegation he was making, which insinuated dishonesty on my part. I was floored. Especially since this man knew I was the one who had initiated the process to make the church compliant with what was required by the Discipline.

Prior to my coming, the church was negligent in this area, as were many churches at that time. In every church I served, I made sure we did this simple but important thing. The man had chaired the committee I worked with to institute this new practice. Together, we got it done. He knew this truth. It was a flat-out lie. But some of the newer church members were not privy to this history or fact. They looked at me with suspicion. 

Did I dignify it with a response?  I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. It made me so sad. I just sat there with my head down, my eyes closed, and imperceptibly shook my head from side to side.

Thankfully, the District Superintendent was present and came to my defense. He knew better, but the damage had been done.

A similar experience occured in a small college where I was employed. It is still so painful, I cannot speak of it without getting upset and shakey. It marred and scarred in ways which continue to be traumatic and profound. I am slowly healing.

Thankfully, these experiences have been few and far between in my thirty years as a professional.

But even more painful is the experience of being falsely accused or having the truth distorted or outright lied about by someone we love. Is there a greater wounding? I don’t think so.

Marvin Gaye recorded the hit song Can I Get a Witness in 1963. Written by the famous Motown team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, the title comes from a phrase commonly used in black churches, and has a very spiritual connotation: When the preacher asks, “Can I Get A Witness,” he’s asking the congregation for affirmation, often met with the response of “Amen!” (www.songfacts.com).

I am older now and wiser. I have learned that the evidence doesn’t always speak for itself  because it is ignored or misconstrued.

And so now–although my immediate reaction is to say Are you #@&# kidding me?! —this is my Ecclesiastical response: There is a time to be silent and there is a time to speak up, to pull your shoulders back, steel your voice, and clearly, firmly, speak the truth in love:  No Mr. Gaye. No, you can’t get a witness. Not unless you pay them.

I am the Door.

  –John 10.9

Break on through to the other side.

  –The Doors

I’ve been thinking lately about doors–ones that are open, revolving, closed..and cracked.

I’ve been thinking about how important doors are and how they are like the heart.

Sometimes, they are wide open, letting anyone in and out in some free flow of life and love. Sometimes, they revolve slowly with measured openings. They regulate flow and energy.

Sometimes, doors and hearts are closed and need to be.

I spoke with a friend recently about open doors and closed ones, especially as they relate to job opportunities. She shared a devotional from Max Lucado, the gist of which stated that if something is a door from God, it will stay open until we walk through it. But I wonder..

It seems to me that sooner or later, we must submit a resume, make a phonecall, write a letter–show up.

The doors which intrigue me the most are the ones which are cracked. They can go either way.