Tag Archives: body and soul

Uncovering a Cover

Cover Art v2 (Flattened).jpgThis last week I received (and approved) the cover for my new novel, The Fire Trail, to be released by eLectio Publishing May 10. It always astonishes me when I open that email attachment. I am filled with anticipation, then wonder.

Covers cover things, in this case, the interior pages, the real book. I had signed off on the interior galley earlier, having changed a word here and there, having caught some inconsistencies. They say one never finishes writing a book; one merely abandons it. How true. I usually have a sinking feeling when I sign off on a book, for it is like sending one’s child into the great wide world. Twinges of regret will shadow my exuberance over the release, and I shall be nervous to open a copy once published. Like many authors, I am my most demanding critic and shall always see errors to be corrected and changes to be made.

And so as I gazed at the cover of The Fire Trail I asked myself if it was a good representation of the story and its themes, its characters and their arcs, the burning passion that I had seared onto the pages with my words and phrases. The cover shows the sun setting in the west beyond the Statue of Liberty, the orb of fire falling into a dark horizon, with votive candles flaming below.

I suppose it is a truth (possibly trite) universally acknowledged that humans have their own covers hiding their true selves. Does my outward manner reflect my soul or hide it? Is my book to be judged by its cover? Am I am open book, disingenuous, integrated, whole?

Our flesh, our clothing, and our behavior cover and protect us. We are born with bodies and live within them a lifetime. Body and soul are at once separate and united. And yet we have a yearning to reach out, to experience something other, transcendence beyond ourselves. Some of us make this journey with drugs. Some travel into prayer. Some are absorbed by the beauty and truth of music and art, some lost in work and some in play. In fact, being absorbed in anything, be it work, books, movies, or love of another, pulls us out of ourselves. The movement away from self is a relief, a rest, a relaxation. Self absorption is exhausting. This is why, I am told, that a good sleep is more about the rest of the mind than the body. We need a break from ourselves.

As I peer at these words through the windows of my eyes I know that I desire such escape from self. I am blessed to have found rest in God, in worship, in prayer and praise and sacrament. I’m also re-created through beauty, in music, and in nature when it is friendly not deadly. I have found rest too in books and movies that pull me into another world.

As I gaze at my new cover for The Fire Trail, I ask myself, do the images invite me inside? Just so, our outward demeanors sometimes belie rather than reflect our inward states. Sometimes they protect the inner person with layers of sophistication, sophistry, fads, political-correctness, the zeitgeist of today. Sometimes it is frightening to drop the mask, the public persona, to be open, honest, and loving.

The Fire Trail referenced in the title of my new novel is a firebreak in the Berkeley hills that many walkers and runners enjoy for the panoramic views of San Francisco, the bay and its bridges. It’s a path that safeguards civilization from the wilderness, that protects Berkeley and its university from the firestorms that rage through the dry brown grass of the East Bay hills in late summer.

The Fire Trail considers whether the sun is indeed setting over Western civilization, ushering in a new dark age. But the fire of the setting sun is also the fire of burning votives, those prayers that lighten the dark. And the fire of prayer is lit by the burning love of God.

And so today, this last Sunday in Eastertide, Rogation Sunday, we pray for our world. Rogation comes from the Latin rogare, to ask, and we petition God for peace in the world, and the freedom to pray. In prayer, we unite with God’s sacred heart of burning love.

One of the appearances of Christ after his resurrection was on the road to the town of Emmaus. The two disciples who walked with him did not recognize him as Jesus who was crucified and risen from the dead. It was only when Christ breaks bread (recalling the last supper and the Eucharistic body broken) and vanished from them that they knew who he was. They wondered at their own blindness, saying: “Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?”

It has been said that when we face the last judgment, we shall either burn with the love of God or be burned by it, for mankind cannot bear too much reality. He must cover himself with anything that will distance himself from real life, from truth and even beauty. C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, a story about the irreconcilable distance between Heaven and Hell, describes the blades of grass in Heaven that will cut our tender feet if we are not made more real in our earthly journey, more full of the love of God.

And so we uncover our hearts and minds and souls, open them wide to God’s love – in history and in the present – so that we may infuse our culture with his law and liberty, peace and transcendence. Such experience of truth and beauty will make us more real, faith warriors able to protect our culture from the barbaric and deadly, so that that fiery setting sun will rise again, revealing a new day.

Drenched by Christ

Rain on hillsIt’s been raining here in northern California and our happy earth drinks in the spring drenching, this gift from the heavens. Perhaps our rolling greens will not turn to golden browns quite yet.

It is often these quiet things, these gentle tears of the skies, that delight human senses. We pause and watch and listen. We turn off phones and radios and TVs and ponder, seeing new life birthing in buds and babies, feeling our own beating hearts dance to the rhythm of our breathing.

We are beautiful creatures both infinitely complex and varied, composed of miraculous maps within, historical maps, biological maps, genetic maps. We look to the heavens and see the miraculous maps of the universe, God’s stardust. We are small, tiny parts of a whole, and yet we are giants, of tremendous worth to our loving Creator.

As I stepped through the Holy Liturgy in our parish church this morning, I gazed at the high altar covered with white Easter lilies. I was flooded with wonder. There we were, ordinary folks, sailing in this old ark of a church, taking part in eternity intersecting time. With raspy voices we sing our hymns and the organ pumps out jeweled notes. We are an integral part of the great thanksgiving, the Sunday offering, the Divine Liturgy, the “work of the people.” We hear the silence too, moments of prayer, quiet seconds linking words of confession and absolution, sacrament and scripture. We watch tall tapers flame behind white lilies, a garden holding the tabernacle of God’s Real Presence.

I have found that the Eucharistic liturgy is both earthy and heavenly, uniting our two natures. For the duration of this hour our bodies and souls sing as one, married, united by love.

I’ve been typing up my late bishop’s sermons, and when asked to offer word suggestions for a dedication plaque, I thought of the love of God. Our bishop showed us the love of God, that it was real and living, that it was ours for the asking. And of course, when we are showered with such love we can shower others with such love. It is who we are meant to be, why we were created, to love and be loved.

It is all a mystery. St. John writes that God is love: “He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). But love is far more than a feeling, just as God is far more than wishful thinking. Love is complex and simple, demanding and sacrificial. Just like God. 

So God the Father loves us through God the Son, Jesus, whose very name is holy, one to be breathed in and out with a sacred sense of life and living. It is a name beyond all names, and with the naming of God we pull Him into our hearts and minds and souls, enlivening our bodies with His very breath, the breath of His Holy Spirit.

We have a church conference coming up, an Anglican Synod, and the days together with parishes from many states will be days of mingling the heavenly and the earthly. We shall sit on hard chairs and listen to speeches and reports, but we will also pray together, sing together, and love one another. We shall weave a tapestry of the Body of Christ, so that we may unite as one breath of love, at one in the breathing in and out of the Holy Spirit, the Name of Jesus, to show our world that God is love.

Christ the Good ShepherdToday is called Good Shepherd Sunday. I have a beloved icon that shows Christ in red-and-blue robes carrying a lamb over His shoulders. A wooden crossbeam stretches behind Him. Christ is the Good Shepherd who loves His sheep. He knows them and they know Him. The lamb He carries is like the lamb carried into the temple for sacrifice. We know, of course, that Christ is the sacrificial lamb. He replaces the lamb once sacrificed. For love of us.

I have a recurring nightmare where I am hiking along a steep mountainside in the dusk of evening. I must reach safety before dark and I must watch where I step or I shall fall far into the caverns below. Waking from these nightmares I recall thankfully that Christ will find me wherever I am and bring me safely home with Him. I will not be lost, for not one of His sheep are lost. He is the Good Shepherd.

And because of the Church and its liturgical dance of love, I know His voice when he calls my name. Like Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, I recognize Him by his voice. Like the disciples at Emmaus I see Him in the breaking of the bread. He is real. He is love.

I also have a recurring dream in which I am flying like a bird, low over green hills, arms outstretched like wings. I can sense in the dream that my arms must push downward through the air so that I can rise, as though I am swimming. It is a beautiful dream, a soaring dream, and one beating with love.

And so like these green hills, drenched and quenched by the rain, I am drenched and quenched by Christ. Christ in sacrament and scripture, in song and dance, in the breath of each day. I know that nightmares will be redeemed by dreams, dark terrors turned into bright joys.

As the clergy and acolytes recessed down the red-carpeted aisle toward the open doors of the narthex, the crucifix held high, the torches aflame, we sang the wonderful Hymn #88, “Jesus Lives,” written by German poet Christian Gellert in 1757 and set to the tune “St. Albinus” in the 19th century by Henry Gauntlett. We are instructed in the top left corner of the page to sing joyously and so we do. I particularly like the first and fourth verses, for they sing of the promise of the Good Shepherd:

 Jesus lives! thy terrors now/ Can no longer, death, appall us;/ Jesus lives! by this we know/ Thou, O grave canst not enthrall us. Alleluia!

Jesus lives! our hearts know well/ Naught from us his love shall sever;/ Life, nor death, nor powers of hell/ Tear us from his keeping ever. Alleluia!

Healthcare of the Soul

I’ve been exercising more and feel the better for it. I have chronic low back pain and exercise helps a great deal, stretching and strengthening those tiny but crucial muscles around the vertebrae. 

And during this holy season, these holi-days, of Advent, I exercise both body and soul and feel the better for it. 

We all know that we must fight fat and cholesterol and carbs and calories and sugar in order to be healthy. We must do thirty minutes daily of aerobics so that our heart rate will rise and our blood move freely through our arteries to feed our flesh and return through our veins and into our pumping heart to begin again the journey of circulation. We know now, in this modern world of ours, through words on pages and in media of all kinds, lots of “how-to’s,” lots of self-helps. We know that “natural” is good (although the definition of natural remains elusive), that fish is better than meat, that baked is better than fried, that fresh is better than frozen, canned, or cured. Dark veggies and bright fruits should fill our plate. We must avoid fries, hamburgers, hot-dogs, and pizza. I fear that we what we really want is white rolls rather than brown, white rice rather than whole grain, fast food rather than slow. We know a great deal about how to have healthier bodies. 

As I rolled along on the elliptical machine, pushing and pulling, I thought of these things. I thought how lopsided our society had become, as though we walked with one leg instead of two, dragging the weak leg, the spiritual leg, behind. We seem to be unaware that we limp, listing to one side. We don’t notice the odd rhythm of our step, the scraping noise of our sick soul pulled along, for we are used to being unbalanced. Then we wonder why we feel a sad pain in the ignored area of our souls, our hearts and minds, why we get depressed, why life seems overwhelmingly meaningless. We look to pills and other self-help mantras, rather than diet and exercise suitable for souls. 

We ignore our souls as we exercise our bodies. We starve the spirit and feed the body. We are unbalanced, undernourished, weak. Just as we feel physical pain, we feel spiritual pain. How do we exercise and feed our souls to assuage that pain, that longing for something (or Someone) greater, that anguish that weaves through life, ambushing us unawares? I for one want to walk straight and tall and without a limp. I want to assuage my spiritual pain. I want a soul regimen, one with good diet and exercise. 

Exercise and feeding of the soul, of course, must be practiced with as much care as that of the body. There are exercises that help and those that hurt. There is healthy food and unhealthy food. How do we know? 

Just so, the Church defines and illuminates how to exercise and feed souls. She shows us, like a good mother, the healthy way, the care-full way, the diet to grow our souls. Our spirit-muscles strengthen with her commandments as we feed at her table, God’s altar. As we follow her teachings, we learn to love.

And this learning to love is what Advent is about. We await the coming of Love Incarnate in Bethlehem and as we look to Christmas Day 2013, we feed on Scripture, learning that love does indeed have a definition. Love is doing good – not doing harm – to our neighbor. Love is the summary of all law, the distilled essence of the Ten Commandments. For the Ten Commandments give us love’s recipe, guidelines to nourish us. The Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses so long ago on those clay tablets on Mount Sinai, are the prescription for how to love and how to heal our spirits. 

It has often been said that if mankind followed the Ten Commandments, we would live in a peaceful utopia. Probably true. We would worship only God and keep Sundays holy. We would honor our parents. We would not kill one another, we would not sleep with another’s spouse, we would not steal, we would not lie, we would not desire what is not ours. In a sense the last five – those commandments about how to love one another – are largely about taking what is not ours to take, are all forms of theft, whether taking life, illicit sex, another’s goods, another’s good name. And we are not supposed to even desire these things for that transgresses the commandment, thou shalt not covet

A friend once told me that when he couldn’t think of things to confess, he would confess that he hadn’t loved enough. For me I can always confess covetousness, a sure sign of not loving enough. I don’t often covet other’s material goods, but other odd and not-so-odd things I often covet – clear skin, thick hair (I have mottled skin and little hair); energy (I am slow-moving); good vision (always a problem even with thick glasses). I covet more serious things too, more painful things. I envy women with many children, although I am not childless. 

Just making this list is bitter for me, for I know the other side, the true side, to these complaints. My mottled skin reflects my many years outside in glorious sunshine, lucky me! My thinning hair means that I have been graced with a long life. My low energy allows me to reflect and write. My poor vision has been balanced with acute hearing and miraculous attention to aromas, breezes, conversation, melody and song. And my few children? I have a wonderful son with a wonderful family. I’m a step-mom to three more sons and their wonder-filled families. I have eight grandchildren, with a great-grandchild due in April. How can I complain? I can’t. I am ashamed of my covetousness.

So coveting is a nasty thing, a tightening of the heart, a blinding of the soul to blessings. It is un-love for it treats others as objects to be owned. Perhaps it is the opposite of thanksgiving. 

But my sins against God’s law of love are forgiven in the sacrament of confession, through the Incarnation of God’s (only) son, through this redeeming intersection in human time on the Cross, through his glorious resurrection. And with confession and forgiveness, my own pain and shame vanishes. I am washed clean. I often leave church with a happy smile on my face. Joy has replaced the pain in my heart; I know true happiness. 

So I try to exercise my soul at least as often as I exercise my body. I want to walk straight and tall, with no limp, balanced. I want to be pain-free, full of hope, to learn to truly love my neighbor as myself.