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.

Falling in Love

November 23, 2011

“Their Liturgy of the Hours is, at root, a symbolic act, an emulation of and a joining with the choirs in heaven who sing the praise of God unceasingly. To most people even to think of such things seems foolish, and Benedictines are well aware that their motives are easily misinterpreted, labeled as romanticist or escapist.” – Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

Anglican worship, like Benedictine worship (and Jewish temple worship in the old Testament), is meant to be a reflection of the worship in the heavenly temple. It reminds us that, in one sense, Christ lives with us on earth, but in another sense, we live with Christ in heaven.

As I have shared before, when we first started going to St. Matthews, Christian and I were intimidated by the, for lack of a better word, “other-ness” of the service. We weren’t sure when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel; the sermon was only fifteen minutes long (but extremely dense…when taking notes these days, I often find myself copying down the sermon word for word if I can keep up); the incense smelled strange; the order of the liturgy was hard to track with.

From the first Sunday, we knew we had a decision to make: either decide to conform to this somewhat-foreign way of doing things, or find a different church. And of course, conforming for conforming’s sake is no good; when we decided to go to St. Matthews, we knew we had a lot of work to do. We feel (and the church encourages) a responsibility to learn why the service is structured the way it is, and where its traditions came from. We’re just at the beginning of the process.

But in the mean time, we have been participating in the service. And while we still fumble around a lot (Christian usually says the liturgy a lot louder than I do, so his mess-ups always make for a good laugh…just a few weeks ago he accidentally chimed in on the priest-only section and it was a hoot), we find that we are learning just as much (if not more) by participating in the service as we are by going to Inquirer’s class.

One of the hardest parts of participating is learning the liturgy. Christian and I follow along in the Book of Common Prayer, and though we have a good idea of the order these days, we still get confused with page-turning every now and then. Learning when to pause and when to speed up has been really helpful in the memorization process; it reminds me a lot of reading poetry.  There is something so meaningful and life-giving in speaking the Creeds, the Confession, the Thanksgiving out loud in community.

Kathleen Norris says,

To say or sing the psalms out loud within a community is to recover religion as an oral tradition, restoring to our mouths words that have been snatched from our tongues and relegated to the page, words that have been privatized and effectively silenced.

Now, to be honest, I’m a big fan of  “privatization” when it comes to most things. For example, I would rather spend hours researching something on my own than have a discussion about it. Sure, this is partly because I’m introverted and love time alone, but it’s also because I’m impatient and proud. Similarly, I would rather sit back in a service taking notes (and inwardly analyzing every theological point within a sermon) than participate myself. And this is one of those preferences I have learned to deny, because I really think it is rooted in selfishness.

Learning to actively participate in a service–to say the words, to concentrate in the silence, to approach the altar–has been a rich, perspective-altering experience. Exactly how it is changing me is something hard to articulate.

Kathleen Norris (can you tell I like her? also, hers is really the only personal-preference-book I have time to read these days) talks about a conversation she had with a Benedictine woman who compared liturgy to falling in love, because

“You don’t enter knowing the depths. It’s a relationship you live with until you begin to understand it.

I have only touched the surface of liturgical worship, but I am already beginning to recognize the truth of this statement. I wish I was ready to write about the importance of liturgy, but right now it’s too abstract in my own mind. I know that it is good for my soul, but I can’t say much more than that yet.

Last week Father Scarlett compared liturgy to dancing: they are both highly scripted, but can become almost intuitive over time.

Well, let’s just say I’m not a natural dancer…the self-consciousness is still very present, though its gradually fading. I told Christian last week that every time he or I says the wrong thing a little to loudly or speaks at the wrong time in a service, I picture an over-eager runner wiping out and scraping his face on the track (in an America’s Funniest Home Videos way, not in a facial-reconstruction-surgery-required way). Hopefully some day the mistakes wont break my focus, but for now I’m working on stifling my giggles.

Absurd acts

November 2, 2011

Monks and poets both value image and symbol over utilitarian purpose or the bottom line; they recognize the transformative power hiding in the simplest things, and it leads them to commit absurd acts: the poem! the prayer! What nonsense! … Maybe monks and poets know, as Jesus did when a friend, in an extravagant, loving gesture, bathed his feet in nard, an expensive, fragrant oil, and wiped them with her hair, that the symbolic act matters.

-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

The symbolic act matters. I don’t know if I would have agreed with that statement 2 or 3 years ago. But more and more, I am learning that I need the symbolic act—the kneeling in worship, the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine—to help me see. My heart sometimes needs some nudging from my knees or my hands, and it is this connection between body and mind that I didn’t really used to buy. Maybe I thought I was beyond it? That these symbols—so tangible and obvious—were too blatant, or maybe too simple and child-like?

But now, I love these symbols—the Eucharist, the laying of hands and anointing with oil—and I need them. I know myself more…I know that I am easily distracted, that I need to be reminded, that I don’t understand yet. Sacraments are, in a sense, “extensions of the Incarnation into the present.” God communicates His invisible grace through visible symbols…grace  I receive regardless of how I feel, because I receive the bread with my hands, and the wine with my lips.

And when I learn to cherish the sacraments, to receive them with the wonder of a child, I start to see the world around me differently. I start to notice other visible signs of invisible grace, imperfect but still whispering Christ’s presence. And I know one reason Kathleen Norris compares the poet with the monk: both see life steeped in metaphor. If, as G.K. Chesterton suggests, “everything is stooping and hiding a face,” then metaphor is necessary.

This week in Inquirer’s class, Father Scarlett reminded us that, in the world to come, there will not be sacraments because the whole creation will, once again, be a perfect sacrament…including me.

When I am quiet enough to see well, I remember that, even now, “each Christian is a sacramental person, a sign of Christ’s presence and a mediator of grace.” If I let it, this can change my interactions with my housemates, my boyfriend, my teachers. I can recognize and receive grace from them, and pray that moments of frustration  become opportunities for me to give grace.

Of course, this hasn’t proved easy—its not one of those things that I can learn simply by praying one of those sweeping prayers in the morning (is anything?). It’s a moment by moment learning, a too-rushed prayer, and I choose anger more than I want to.

Transformation is a slow process and grace is hard to learn, but the sacraments are offered week after week, and grace is promised each moment.

Priests in Black Gowns

October 29, 2011

Growing up in an evangelical church, the phrase “Seven Deadly Sins” was more of a cultural catch phrase than anything else. (I vividly remember watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model in which the seven sins were featured as a photo shoot theme…let’s just say gluttony as illustrated by a stick-thin model was a little hard to buy.) So I have to admit, when I saw “The Seven Deadly Sins” as a heading in our reading for Inquirer’s Class* last week, I was taken aback/weirded out/nervous. But I’m glad that didn’t stop me from reading, because I actually learned a lot.

For one, our priest explained that the point of identifying the seven sins is not to invoke guilt, but rather to provide a vocabulary for things that all of us struggle with. And though identification of sin is helpful and necessary, stopping there does little good; learning about the corresponding virtue is even more important. He reminded us of something I always forget: as a Christian (and a human), I will never be able to conquer sin by trying not to sin. Rather, I conquer sin by growing in virtue, which I must ask for and receive from God.

God, by His Spirit, offers me patience when I am angry. He offers me humility when I am proud, kindness when I am jealous, chastity when I am lustful, diligence when I am lazy, temperance when I am gluttonous, generosity when I am greedy.

It is grace in the first place that I might even see my sin, because, as Harriet Beecher Stowe reminds me in her book The Minister’s Wooing, I often see what I want to see:

Evil is never embraced undisguised, as evil, but under some fiction which the mind accepts and with which it has the singular power of blinding itself in the face of daylight.

And most of my willingness to disguise evil as good probably comes from a misunderstanding of the law. Do I really believe that fighting sin and asking for virtue is what’s best for me? Not just “best” meaning it’s what I should be doing because God tells me to, but “best” meaning it’s what I was created for, and what brings real fulfillment and lasting joy? Not always.

A few weeks ago in Torrey, we read and discussed the poems of William Blake. He’s a tough read, but a brilliant poet. And he was much easier to understand once we identified one of his foundational assumptions: Blake doesn’t believe the law brings about his good. Even though he loved much of the Bible, he found the 10 Commandments and many of Paul’s calls to virtue restrictive and even imprisoning.

Perhaps Blake’s least favorite virtue is chastity, and given his view of what chastity is—basically, the forced repression of natural and good passions—it’s no wonder the man wasn’t enthusiastic about it.

In his poem “The Garden of Love,” Blake writes:

“And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds

And binding with briars, my joys and desires.”

Again, Blake’s dislike of the law makes a lot more sense given that he thinks it’s primary purpose is to stifle, not shape, desire.

For the past few weeks I have been reading bits and pieces of Kathleen Norris’ s The Cloister Walk in my free time, and I think she provides a compelling critique of Blake’s viewpoint (still pretty common in our culture today) in her reflections on celibacy. (Though celibacy isn’t commanded in the Bible and therefore shouldn’t be categorized under the “law” that Blake rails against, it’s obviously an example of religious restraint.)

Norris, a poet for whom “literature had seemed an adequate substitute for religion” most of her life, somehow ended up on two extended residencies among Benedictine monks. The Cloister Walk is a fragmented collection of her reflections on her residencies, tracing how she came to value and even love the Benedictine tradition.

Perhaps one of the most controversial topics Norris discusses is that of celibacy. The fact that she interacted with celibate men and women daily for months at a time, befriending them and asking them difficult questions, gives her more authority than most on the subject. She writes:

“That celibacy constitutes the hatred of sex seems to be a given in the popular mythology of contemporary America, and we need only look at newspaper accounts of sex abuse by priests to see evidence that celibacy isn’t working. One could well assume that this is celibacy, impure and simple. And this is unfortunate, because celibacy practiced rightly is not at all a hatred of sex; in fact it has the potential to address the sexual idolatry of our culture in a most helpful way.”

The end of celibacy, Norris argues, isn’t virginity (after all, these monks believe sex can be good and holy). Abstinence is rather a means to develop a new perspective towards the people you interact with:

“I’ve seen young monks astonish an obese and homely college student by listening to her with as much interest and respect as to her conventionally pretty roommate…They’ve learned how to listen without possessiveness, without imposing themselves… Celibacy, simply put, is a form of ministry—not an achievement one can put on a résumé but a simple form of service to others…In theological terms, it is a concept I find extremely hard to grasp. All I can do it catch a glimpse of people who are doing it, incarnating celibacy in a mysterious and gracious way.”

Like Norris, I think I can learn a lot from these Benedictine monks’ commitment to celibacy. They remind me that sacrifice can bring a hidden sort of freedom—freedom to serve neighbors wholeheartedly, and to love better. It’s not Blake’s freedom (doing what I want when I want to), but, unfortunately, I think I’ve tried that enough to know it’s not as great as it sounds.


*my church is offering a 10-week course on the history/practices/beliefs of the Anglican church. As part of a writing project, I am using this space to reflect on each week’s class.


October 19, 2011

Last Saturday ago morning I rode two hours in a car to reach a little bit of fall, and it was worth it. Tracy, Erin and I went to pick apples. Along the way, we picnicked in the shade, trampled over acorns, and wandered through sweet shops.

But almost the whole time we were there, I couldn’t get a stranger off my mind—a little boy who drowned in a river recently.

I had been thinking about him since I read the news, and my own reaction had surprised me. For some reason, the thought of someone drowning in a river just seemed absurd to me in that moment. And when I think about it enough, it still does.

How could a river, made of water that we can bend down and run our fingers through, take away a little boy’s breath, words, and smile? How could the rocks bruising his arms and the water rushing into his lungs—these material, tangible things—somehow leave him lifeless?

Of course, this is an old question. The relationship between body and soul is a mystery that we have wondered at for thousands of years. I have read about it, discussed it, written about it…but it became something more urgent when I learned about this little boy.

I am beginning to better understand a passage I read last semester in Crime and Punishment. Sonya, who has seen too much suffering for a girl her age, hesitates to speak of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead:

“‘Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany…’ she uttered at last, with effort, but suddenly, at the third word, her voice rose and broke like an overtightened string. Her breath failed, and her chest contracted.”

Sometimes resurrection seems too far removed from our daily experience, and too painful to speak out loud.

When, like Sonya, I can’t seem to get the words out, the Church Creeds help me. Saying the Creeds is a sort of submission, a participation in something beyond me. I recite these words that I do not quite understand:

“I look for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come.”

To deny the reality of death—to refuse to mourn a loss—is dangerous and usually impossible. Father Scarlett reminded us that funerals should be sad occasions. But, though we mourn, “we do not mourn as those who have no hope.” And our hope is not in flying away from this world to sit on a cloud all day, because death is not about escape, it is about renewal. In the end, all creation will be made new.

But until then, we wait. And as Harriet Beecher Stowe reflects in her book The Minister’s Wooing, waiting in the midst of sorrow can be strange. There seems to be a disconnect between the tasks we must keep doing and the truth of what has happened:

“How strange this external habit of living! One thinks how to stick in a pin, and how to tie a string,—one busies one’s self with folding robes, and putting away napkins, the day after some stroke that has cut the inner life in two, with the heart’s blood dropping quietly at every step.”

The Resurrection of the dead means a lot of things, but this week it was a reminder that bodies do matter. When the mother of the little boy who drowned asked to see her son’s lifeless body, her request was not foolish. And now, when what she wants more than anything is to hold him, she is simply being human.


“Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” John 20:27

Smells and bells

May 22, 2011

Upon the invitation of a few new friends, Christian and I just recently started attending an Anglican church called St. Matthew’s. Neither of us know much about the Anglican tradition, so we’ve been talking a little to those around us that do (Christian’s brother is actually in grad school right now training to be an Anglican priest, and one of my Torrey professors, also an Anglican priest, gave a really informative lecture on the history of Anglicanism last week).

Recently one of the priests from St. Matthew’s, Father Mark, spoke at a listening party for a radio show our friend Barak produced (Barak also happens to be the one who invited us to St. Matthew’s). The show’s theme was “I (don’t) Want to Change the World: Interviews with Top Media Leaders.” Barak asked a few Biola professors and Father Mark to comment after the show was over.

Father Mark talked about how often American churches aim to please by making their services—the worship, the sermon length and content, the overall atmosphere—fit the preferences of their congregants.  And, often Americans choose their church based on taste and personal preference. Of course, this isn’t a new problem, and I have heard a lot of speakers talk about why it’s not okay—because it’s selfish, it’s shallow, it’s arrogant. But Father Mark’s point was that it’s also really harmful, because sometimes we want the wrong thing. He talked about the dangers of letting our preferences (instead of ultimate reality) dictate how we view God—the eternal and unchanging God. What a nightmare for the whole world to simply be a mirror of our preferences, just the way we like it… that  only works in a universe where we like all the right things. In reality, our preferences are part of the problem.

Of course, the ever-increasing trend of customization (perhaps the best example of which is customized wedding vows, a relatively new phenomenon) makes sense in a postmodern context: if there is no ultimate reality, no absolute truth, then who better to define how things should be than us? But Christians do profess an ultimate reality, so it doesn’t make sense that we expect our churches to be just like nearly everything else in our culture: made to please. At St. Matthews, I do not like the smell of incense, my legs get tired from kneeling, and I have a really hard time singing some of the hymns. But I am so happy that this church will not break its centuries-old traditions to please me. I am so happy I am not getting everything I want, because then maybe I can begin to figure out if I am even wanting the right things.  (Of course, before I could get to that realization, I have to understand where these traditions came from and why they are important. And  a lot of that mostly has come  from my two semesters reading and discussing and writing about the early Church Fathers…but I still have so much to learn).

A lot of this reminds me of J.D. Salinger’s brilliant little book Franny and Zooey. The last half of the book is basically all a conversation between Zooey and his sister Franny, where he confronts her about her misusing the name of Jesus:

“Worse than that, though, I can’t see—I swear to God I can’t—how you can pray to a Jesus you don’t even understand…If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him and he was and not as you’d like him to have been… The Jesus Prayer has one aim and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back.”

Just like I’ve often decided how a church service could be better in my head, I have also made Jesus who I want him to be. I will never stop needing to be reminded that this is not okay. Not just because customizing Jesus is delusional and self-centered, but because if Jesus is only who I want him to be, if he fits into my reasoning about what love is, He is not enough to save me.