Writing The Weeks

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Around Christmas, I stumbled across a Twitter post about an Anglican rosary-making society. And the first thought into my head was: Wait a minute – I thought the Catholics had an exclusive on that.  It should be said that I have never been a devotee of the Catholic rosary. The nuns tried but like the Act of Contrition and the Baltimore Catechism, the Catholic rosary just didn’t take hold for me. No matter how much I tried, it felt forced, awkward and confining. I envied those who found so much peace in the decades.

I was intrigued by the pictures the Anglican priest had posted and asked him for more information. He sent me a link, which led to another link and there I was, several links and an hour later, ordering myself an Anglican rosary. So if the Catholic rosary was never my thing, why would I even bother with reading about, much less buying, an Anglican rosary? Pure, relentless, incessant curiosity.

The Anglican rosary is far smaller than a Catholic rosary, only 33 beads rather than 59. There is a cross, an Invitatory bead, and then four sets of seven beads called The Weeks which are separated by four larger beads known as the Cruciforms. The prayers are variable, some are the prayers of saints, others are lines of scripture, most are no more than few lines long. As I started to explore, what I found was simplicity and a whole lot of open space. Six months later, I have found is that I adapt those prayers to fit where I am in life at the moment. Whether it’s a prayer for strength, trust, mercy, or stillness, I have found what I needed.

In the month leading up to the Week of Guided Prayer, I prayed for clarity. God gave me far more than I ever expected. And while, God gave me clarity, God also gave me homework. The lines of scripture that hit home for me over the past few days will become a part of my daily prayer. I spent my Sunday morning writing out the lines that will become the Weeks and the Cruciforms for me for the foreseeable future. That was easy part of my homework. I have lot more writing to do in the coming months. But I’ve found a way of praying has the meditative quality found in repetition and yet the open space I need to be at home in my own skin. That combination has been nothing short of a gift. I also found that while the Weeks and the Cruciforms have changed, the Invitatory prayer that has been my mainstay for the past month remains the same.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

~Saint Patrick

Let Go

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So what happens when you put a perfectionist with no artistic talent whatsoever in a painting studio? Eye twitches. Eye twitches happen. And clenching of the jaw and a death grip on the paintbrush. But it’s okay because I’m in a private party with some of my longtime Catholic grammar school friends and we’re all hopeless perfectionists. We’ll leave the connection between Catholic grammar school and perfectionist tendencies for another post. For now, there’s food and there’s mimosas. There’s music from our younger days. It’s all good. Except I can’t paint creatively. I can paint a room, including the trim, and it will be gorgeous. But a beach? At sunset? With palm trees?

Ha ha ha! No.

For the next couple of hours, I reminded myself with every third stroke of the paintbrush to lighten up and let go. In the end, we all had a great time. We laughed ourselves silly and I came home with some great memories of friends that I love dearly and a painting of a beach at sunset – or the beginning of the apocalypse – with what could be either a sickly palm tree or a dead tarantula on it. But whatever, it’s hanging in my kitchen, conveniently covering the calendar, and, oddly enough, I’m rather fond of my apocalyptic tarantula.

I suppose my fondness for this painting has less to do with what it looks like and a lot more to do with what went into it. And I suppose maybe that applies to a lot of things in my life. I know where I’ve been and I know what it took for me to be where I am. The last few months got way more hectic than I can comfortably handle. So when I caught myself reading American history during what was supposed to be my prayer time at the beach in the morning, I knew something had to give. I need that time with God far more than I need an A in history. Yeah, I actually had to read that sentence out loud a few times until I could say it without my voice shaking.  I will most likely walk away from this summer class without an A, bringing an end to a two-year streak of perfect grades, and I am okay with that because I know what when into it was the best I had to give at this point in time. It seems like perfect timing that the Week of Guided Prayer starts this weekend just as one class ends and the next one starts. It’s the precisely the interruption I need. I’m not feeling like I’m on the most solid of footing, but that’s okay too because when I first attended the Week ten years ago, it was supposed to be a one-shot deal and yet, here I am again. I’ve been on more solid ground and I’ve been on shakier but it doesn’t matter because it’s all holy ground.

So, ultimately, what did my little foray into the arts teach me? That sometimes it’s okay to let go and when I find that things aren’t turning out quite the way I think they should, it’s completely cool – and actually rather helpful – to throw down the paintbrush, jump up and dance the YMCA with three other friends while the rest of the class paints on. Because in the end, it was never about the perfect beach painting. It was about the part of my soul that went into it. And you know, I think that’s pretty much what life is all about in the end. It’s not about what life looks like. It’s about how much soul goes into living it.

 

The Pendulum Swing

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“I think if that was me, I would’ve been gone the first time somebody hit me. Once would’ve been enough.”

“Yeah, well, we all think we’re a lot more of a badass than we actually are and when we suddenly find ourselves in a situation we don’t know how to handle, we find out pretty quick that we’re not as bad as we thought we were.”

It’s a conversation I am so very tired of having and yet it’s one that has to happen. And every time it happens, I wonder how many more times I will have to say it. More often than I want to admit, I wonder if I’m really just wasting my time. But this is my everyday life.

That conversation would become yet another facet to a revealing Week of Guided Prayer. The unique thing about the week is that it’s a stay-at-home retreat. It’s a chance to take a time out of everyday life to pray and reflect and work with a spiritual director and yet stay home in the midst of all the normal stuff of life. This is awesome when you can’t completely walk away from all of life’s responsibilities for a week. But the flipside is that everyday life has a way of encroaching on the retreat, like getting pulled into a conversation you’ve had a thousand times already and really don’t want to have again. Ironically though, that’s precisely why I love the week. The constant pendulum swing between the sublime and the ridiculous is simply the rhythm of life and if I can’t learn to find God in that swing, I am so royally screwed.

I went into the week with an important question to consider: the question of dating church. I was offered the opportunity to teach religious education at my Catholic parish. One of my bigger pet peeves with the Catholic Church is the anemic religious education programs at most parishes. We don’t teach the kids anything of real catechetical substance but then as they grow into adults we expect them to follow all the Church teachings and traditions. Not only is the expectation is unrealistic and unfair, but some of the best that the Church has to offer is often left neglected in the shadows, forgotten by all but the clergy and a select few self-proclaimed church nerds. So here I was being given an opportunity to be a part of the solution. Saying yes seemed to make so much sense. But…

Yeah, there’s always a ‘But’.  Their religious education program is at 9:15 on Sunday mornings. Care to guess when my ELCA church, and pretty much every other Protestant church within 20 miles, holds services?  Yup, sometime between 9 and 10 on Sunday mornings.  In order to teach, I would have to give up dating other churches. My new Catholic parish is very conservative and, as my readers know by now, I am, well… very NOT conservative. My friend Frank likes to refer to me as The Free Spirit. Maybe this parish needs a breath of fresh air and maybe I could be that. But can I be that if I close the window that’s been opened for me? By the end of the week, in spite of all the encroachments of everyday life, I knew for certain the answer was no. By Friday night, I knew for certain that God has put me on a path for reasons all His own and, while I don’t get it, I will go where He’s leading. Dating church is decidedly part of that path.

Sunday night, as if in confirmation, I had one of my vivid watcher dreams. Somehow, being beyond time, I walked down the same city block over and over and over. I watched as the block shifted from one time period to another to another, with centuries passing by as rapidly as my own footsteps. As we reached modern times, my guide, a wise woman slightly older than myself, said to me, “He will be there. In every generation, He comes. Whether as an inerrant preacher or as a mendicant child, He comes. Your job is to recognize Him.”

I can’t recognize Him if I’m not looking. So I’m paying attention. And somewhere, in between the swings of the pendulum, in the midst of both the sublime and the ridiculous, He’s there.

A Tale Of Thorns & Lawnmowers

My Week of Guided Prayer wrapped up this morning. I suppose I should’ve seen it coming when the week started off with a few days of reassurance. Remember this? We got through this together and you’re still in one piece? Remember? Well sucker that I am, I thought maybe God and I might spend the entire week sort of reminiscing on how He never abandoned me. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were full of all these little reminders of hard times but ones that stand out so clearly as times only God could’ve brought me through.

Then Wednesday happened. The scripture readings and the book I had been reading coincided with all the subtlety of an Acme safe being dropped on my head. I talked to my director, who by Tuesday had been aptly dubbed by my mother as “NotRon”.  NotRon told me she felt like quite certain I was being pruned. It was just the image that came to her and as soon as she said it I knew she was right. I also knew exactly which passage in John she was talking about and we circled back to again on Thursday and Friday.

I watched my neighbor lovingly prune her rosebush earlier this year, carefully cutting away all the dead stuff and tossing it aside into what became a huge pile. Later in the summer, that bush bloomed beautifully. I’ve never seen it with as many roses as she had this year. Okay this is an image to work with – right? Well, I had a rosebush once. It was kind of small and scrawny but I loved it. Then my brother ran it over with the lawnmower. It almost recovered. Then he ran it over again. At which point, despite my best efforts, all I had dead thorn-covered stick in the ground. After the last few days, I can now tell you that when it comes to pruning, what may be from the gardener’s perspective a careful and loving pruning, from the bush’s side feels every bit like getting run over by a lawnmower. Twice.

Adding to the overflowing *joy* that was the result of being safe-dropped and lawnmowered, twice, my schedule that I so carefully cleared decided to take on a life of it’s own. My ex-husband decided to use this week to rid my ex-house of not only my ex-stuff but also of many things I had saved from the boys’ earliest childhood. He showed up at my house twice, sending the boys in carrying boxes of stuff to pick through, deciding what I could keep and what could be tossed while he waited in driveway. Meanwhile, at my house, my mother had also decided she needed this particular week to purge stuff and suddenly anything and everything of mine was in her way. By Thursday night, thankfully, she had stopped. She sat and watched me quietly as I sorted, for the second time, through a box my ex had dropped off, tossing aside the cards full of lies and the calendar I’d hung in Andrew’s nursery to hide the hole my ex had punched in the wall next to my head. 17 years later, I was suddenly back in that room, a scared 25 year-old new mom using my bare hand to brush the sheetrock dust out of the crib and out of an infant Andrew’s hair.

When I finally got ready to go up to bed, Mom asked me, “Is it traumatic? To see it all again?”

“Yes. Very.”

End of conversation. But somehow it was enough.

IMG_2529I spent Friday morning at the beach and finished the book. I went home and holed myself up in Andrew’s Man Cave for a few hours until it was time to meet one last time with NotRon. Feeling every bit like a dead thorn-covered stick in the ground, I journaled for awhile and I looked at a picture I had stumbled across mid-week. It captured so perfectly what I felt. It came alive for me. A heart desperately trying to fly away, branded Useless, wrapped up in barbed wire and chained to a huge weight. And I know, really deeply know, what that heart feels like. Every time it tries to break free, the barbed wire cuts in deeper and the chain drags it right back down until it slams into the ground like an out-of-control kite. There’s nothing to do but wait to be held still by strong steady hands, wait to be cut loose, and wait to be carefully untangled. The words trust and surrender and pruning and deeper healing have all been batted about this week. But I think the words that will probably stick with me the most are these:

So if God is waiting around for the same heart to feel nice, loving, warm, pink, fuzzy things about someone who is my enemy, well, I think God might be waiting a while. So I wondered if maybe the prayer part of the “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” bit was about how we love them. Maybe my little “God, help me not to be an asshole” prayer was the smallest little opening for God to do God’s thing.

-Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber Pastrix

Somehow God doing God’s thing sounds less scary to me than surrender. Maybe because it sounds like God actually knows what He’s doing and isn’t just gassing up the lawnmower.

We’ll Come Back To This…

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This week is my annual Week of Guided Prayer, my ninth and the third (thankfully not consecutively) without Deacon Ron. There has been so much upheaval in life the last few months, I wondered more than once if maybe I should pass it up this year. But at the same time I knew if I skipped it, I would regret it. I cleared my schedule and I mean completely cleared my schedule. I took the week off from work, I doubled up on my schoolwork so I have nothing due this week, and, although not of my doing, it worked out that the boys are with their father and his new wife for the week.

Saturday morning at the opening, I wondered who my director would be, wondered at least until she spoke.  As soon as she opened her mouth, I knew who I was assigned to. I’ve never laid eyes on this woman before and yet I recognized her voice as soon as she said, “Good Morning” to the group. I couldn’t see her from where I was sitting but I knew the voice. Yeah I know how weird that sounds. Rank it up there with the rest of my strange Jedi skills of knowing things I can’t possibly know. I gave up trying to explain it a long time ago.

When we broke into groups and arranged our meetings, she handed me my readings for the first day. I took one look at that slip of paper and started to laugh. Jeremiah 29:11-14. Again.

Jeremiah 29 11-14

For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope.  When you call me, when you go to pray to me, I will listen to you.  When you look for me,  you will find me.  Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, you will find me with you, says the Lord, and I will change your lot; I will gather you together from the nations and all the places to which I have banished you, says the Lord, and bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.

God has been stalking me with that verse for at least five years now. As in a post-it note tucked into an old wallet and forgotten until precisely the right moment two years later kind of stalking. This isn’t the first time it popped up during the Week of Guided Prayer either. The last time it was at the end of the week and my reaction to it then was not exactly warm and fuzzy. Instead it led to a sit down with God in an empty chair across from me that just thinking about still gives me the shivers, even three years later. I knew back then that our discussion was far from over. So much has changed since then. What sounded so beyond impossible back then is happening now. That future full of hope seemed so far out of reach and now I’m in the midst of something I never thought possible.

And just in case I thought to brush this off as coincidence, Sunday’s psalm was Psalm 23. The first time I did the Week of Guided Prayer, I spent the entire week on those verses. Okay, so God got my attention. Seems like we may be revisiting some things from years past and that’s not a bad feeling. It feels sort of like hauling out the old family photos and sorting through them. Remember this? And this? And this?

And in keeping with tradition, it is once again the hottest week we’ve had so far this summer. I have yet to figure out God’s rationale for that one. But it does serve to send me to the beach with a book in hand. No school reading this week. Hasidic parables will just have to wait. I had been waiting until the end of summer classes to read Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Pastrix but it’s been calling my name. Very much turning out to be the right book at the right time. But that’s another post entirely.