Working the earth

December 2, 2011


“If I don’t struggle to pray regularly, both privately and corporately, if I insist on waiting for inspiration on the dry days, or making sure I have the time, then prayer will be as impossible to me as the C minor Fugue without work.”

The Summer of the Great Grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle

I think I have shared this quote on here before, and I have come back to it this week in thinking about prayer, specifically the practice of Morning and Evening Prayer within the Anglican Church.

Later on in her book, L’Engle also compares praying to writing, an analogy I find more applicable to my own life (as someone with no musical abilities whatsoever). I am in fiction class right now, and it didn’t take me long to learn that trying to complete one story a week by writing only when I feel inspired is impossible. In fact, though I have found pockets of time when I feel like writing (15 minutes here, 15 minutes there), almost all of my stories this semester have been the result of sitting down and writing when I felt nothing.

I consider it a rare gift that each time I have sat down and started typing with a bad attitude, I have found my way into the rhythm of the story and, by the end, felt relieved and joyful and (sometimes) giddy. I say “rare” because, if writing really is like prayer, I know there will be days when I feel nothing all the way through.  Like prayer, the struggle won’t always be immediately rewarded with a feeling of closeness to God or self-realization.

In Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris shares that “the ancient monastics recognized that a life of prayer must ‘work the earth of the heart.'” I think there are a lot of reasons this metaphor is fitting, one of them being that when you plant a seed, you do not see the fruit of your work immediately. Of course, we are not the planters, but we are, in a lot of ways, in charge of the soil. And this takes patience and discipline.

The purpose of recited prayers is not to stifle genuine engagement. They might cater to passivity, but only when I abuse them. To pray words already written involves effort, a submission and conforming of the heart that is easier on some days than others.

Henri Nouwen says,

“Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature.”

 This is why after Confession comes Thanksgiving, why after The Creeds comes intercession.

I have found that instead of being burdensome and regimented, practicing Morning and Evening prayer has, among other things, taught me about grace.

When I have been lazy or angry or careless and have not stopped to pray, there is tomorrow morning.

When I am too empty or angry to form my own words, the words on the page remind me who I am, and they become my own.


Weeks and Years

December 1, 2011

A few months ago, we had our annual Torrey Conference here at Biola, and this year’s theme was the Sabbath. I was really excited that they invited Lauren Winner to come speak (mostly because she’s an intellectual and a woman, two of my favorite things), and she did not disappoint. She spent her first lecture explaining the rise of the weekend: how and why America transitioned from a 6:1 pattern (a week and a Sabbath) to a 5:2 pattern (a week and a weekend). In brief, it had a lot to do with the Labor movement, Blue Laws, and good old separation of Church and State. Winner explained that overall, the switch to 5:2 was a good and appropriate change, but she also argued that something was lost in the switch.

The leaders of the French Revolution restarted the French calendar by changing 1792 to “Year One” (and so on). They knew that if you could change how people lived in time, you could change their imaginations. Winner explained how the transition from the Sabbath to the weekend in America has changed the way Christians Sabbath. She uses what she calls the “Capitalist Sabbath” and the “Women’s Magazine Sabbath” as good examples of this change. The Capitalist Sabbath is about resting now in order to be more productive later, and the Women’s Magazine Sabbath is about making yourself a bubble bath and relaxing. While neither of these things is bad, neither of them are Sabbath, because one’s end is productivity and the other’s end is relaxation. The Sabbath’s end is God.

I realize the truth of Winner’s words when I look at my own weekends, usually spent sleeping in and catching up on homework. Sure, I go to church for a few hours Sunday morning, but besides that my Sunday doesn’t look very different from my Saturday. And Winner has convinced me that I’m missing out on a pretty cool invitation to let how I spend my time remind me of who God is. (Speaking of “spending” time… Winner also had a lot to say about the language we use when we talk about time: spending time, saving time, wasting time, running out of time, investing time…all monetary terms! What if we thought about time as something we inhabit rather than something we own?)

Winner shared an excerpt from Holy Days, a book where a Jewish man explained why things like ripping paper and boiling water count as “work,” and therefore aren’t done on the Jewish Sabbath. He says, “If one day a week you have the opportunity to stop altering creation in even these small ways, you are reminded that you are not the Creator.”

I know that was a ton of regurgitation, but Winner’s lectures really opened up my eyes to how my views of time are affected by my environment (kind of a “duh” moment, I know). And since we are learning about the Church calendar these days in Inquirer’s Class, I have realized that it’s not just my view of the week that is affected; how I think of the year as a whole is shaped by culture as well.

Like The Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy, the Church calendar is something that’s pretty new to me. The church I went to growing up celebrates the season of Advent, and even though I remember thinking it was pretty strange when I was younger, I’m really thankful for it now looking back. Though I probably wasn’t listening very closely to what was going on during Advent season, I am thankful that I can recognize the truth in Kathleen Norris’ reflection on Advent when she says,

“I’ve learned how much the Advent season holds, how it breaks into our lives with images of light and dark, first and last things, watchfulness and longing, origin and destiny.”

As far as the rest of the calendar goes, besides Easter and some parts of Lent, I’m pretty ignorant. I’m just beginning to learn about the calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity–an annual cycle that causes us to remember, to be grateful, and to wait. The Calendar is meant to let us experience time not just in terms of the school year or the weather, but in terms of the narrative of our redemption.

Though the calendar, like so many things in our lives, is at first glance circular, we come to each season having inhabited the others and been changed. The Messiah comes every year, but next Advent will be different than this Advent.

And since I really do believe in the power of narrative to shape and challenge and transform (that’s why I’m a writing major), this makes a lot of sense. A lot a lot… The Church calendar affirms the connection I feel (and a bunch of humans I know feel) to stories.

That’s a pretty consistent theme I’ve been noticing since learning more about Church tradition: I keep coming across rituals that really speak to parts of me that I didn’t know could inform my relationship with God. I know this “not knowing” stems from a simplistic, naïve view of who God is and where He can be found, but really, all that could help me get past it was actually finding Him in unexpected places.

This semester, and even this blog project for the past few months, has mostly just been me finding God where I didn’t think to look before. Not in the midst of extreme pain or suffering, but in the midst of my everyday. And this is an unspeakably exciting process. A lot of times I feel frustrated because I can’t communicate what is going on inside of me; I can say what I’m learning in Inquirer’s Class, but I know it is more than that. I think it’s the “aliveness” of God–a God who isn’t contained in a set of beliefs or a building or a denomination–that makes the words hard to choose.

And so this Advent, I can celebrate the incarnation, the “aliveness” of God in history, in a body, in a story. I can remember that the Word became flesh, I can be grateful that he held and touched and loved, and I can wait for all of creation to be restored to Him.