Tag Archives: prayer

Laboring for Love

Writing2We celebrate Labor Day tomorrow, a national holiday honoring the Labor Union Movement and the contribution of workers to our country. But we all labor in different ways, unionized or not, and it is good to consider the place of work in our culture.

Work may be defined in many ways. There’s working to pay the rent and put food on the table. There is volunteer work, actively helping others without payment. A mother’s work is never done, it is said, and probably true. Most of us wake with the first cry of our children and work for their well being on and into the night. They may grow up and leave home but will always be our children. We will always be their mothers. And so it ever shall be.

There is the work of those lucky few who have found joy in their calling, especially those who are paid to do something they love. They reap envy from others, but they too have their long hours of toil, one disciplined step at a time.

I have found it interesting that the Women’s Movement was begun by ladies of leisure, graduates from Ivy League colleges, women with time on their hands. They had no meaningful work. Nannies cared for their children. Cooks cooked and housekeepers kept house. What’s a girl to do? It was inevitable that ladies’ lunches and charity bazaars would bore some women. They wanted to be rewarded financially, for their brains if not their brawn. They wanted recognition in the “real” world. Somehow raising children wasn’t real, when they didn’t do the raising. I can see that.

As feminism swept the country, the women in my family were swept along with many others from the modest middle class. A woman without a career was somehow weak or silly or dimwitted. Eventually and with some reluctance, being a homemaker was accepted as acceptable, or at least lip service was paid. And so families, already fraught with the natural tensions of human beings living under one roof, without maid, cook, or nanny, felt additional pressure to meet unreal expectations, to “have it all.”

Feminism has benefited our world in many ways; equal pay for equal work, and greater respect for women, have been a welcome revolution.

But the desire of the wealthy to head off to work says something about basic human needs. We are wired to create, to build, to move from beginnings to middles to ends. To produce and achieve. Medieval monks knew this, laboring in those secluded houses of unceasing prayer, for their hours of prayer alternated with hours of work – ora and labora, as St. Benedict decreed. Their labor, their toil, was often tedious, to be sure, in fields and farm, digging, planting, harvesting. Monastics in more cloistered orders prayed in solitary cells, but they saw prayer itself as a kind of work. Their words to God were not turned inward as found in Buddhism or Hinduism, but outward, to the Christian God of love, as they meditated on his Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection. All Christian prayer has a goal within it that pulls one outside oneself – praise, petition, confession, intercession, thanksgiving. In this sense prayer is a work in itself, a beautiful work for God.

A tradition grew within Christianity of prayerful work, labora full of ora, work full of prayer. We offer our work to God, our time, ourselves, minute by minute. We infuse our work with the holy. Secularists have borrowed and renamed the idea, calling it “living in the moment” or “mindfulness”. But Christians have practiced this for centuries. In a world created by God, all creation, all time, is holy, and even our breathing can be infused with God’s spirit. A prayer-full friend taught me to breathe Jesus in and out, Je in and sus out, pulling God into our very breath, the breath that he breathed into us in the Garden. Now we hear from therapists to remember to breathe deeply, to relax.

Work structures our time on earth and gives it meaning, even if only for an hour. It structures our minds as well. We discipline ourselves to go to work, to labor and toil, to make the effort to sit down and work, say, to write this blog. In the discipline itself, my mind is slightly changed, remade. My brain has been strengthened, sculpted, for the next work challenge. And my time has reaped rewards. I have no regrets.

We say a woman giving birth goes through labor. It is a life-giving work, God-like in its power and its love. For the woman must suffer in this labor, must breathe and push and give of her body to allow this new life, this child within her, the chance to breathe as she has been given. It is the most glorious and important and cosmic work of all, a true labor of love. It would be good for our culture to one day honor such labor. It would be good to tell the truth about mothers and their unborn babies. Every woman giving birth should be especially honored. I pray for that, and that is another labor of love.

Since the Garden of Eden, when man was sent into the world to work, we have toiled for our living. And yet, through grace, our loving God pours himself into our labor.

We need merely breathe him in and he will turn our work into his glory.

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.

Listening in the Stillness of Lent

prayerThere is a great rushing about these days and I, living in the world, rush too, doing and thinking and writing, packing my hours and days and weeks, overscheduling, overpromising. The younger generations twitter not only in tweets, but chitter and chatter like small birds, speaking at such a pace my untrained (elderly) ear cannot absorb the frenzy and I cannot interpret the bites of sound flung so furiously and I often ask for repeats but to no avail, for they too race ahead around another corner and beyond into the future.

When do we rest? When do we pause and reflect? When do we listen in quiet for the still small voice of God?

It has been said that the Christian’s growth is two-fold.  A Christian grows into Christ and at the same time Christ takes residence within the Christian. “He in us and we in Him” we pray in the Mass. We receive Christ in the Eucharist and with each communion we invite Him to take over more of our lives. As He grows within us in this sacramental action and as we pray the prayer he taught us to pray (Our Father…) He begins to pray within us, so that our prayer becomes His, our deepest desire. And so we journey through this passage of time on earth, preparing for eternity.

It is so very good that there are regular times in the Church Year in which we are pulled out of our busy lives. We are called, especially in Lent, to observe a different way of living. Essentially we are called to simplify, to remove habits of misspent time, habits of gluttony, and care-lessness, and dance to a simpler tune, a slower and quieter one, so that our slow steps will ease our hearts. So that we can rest. We are asked to take this gift of found time carved from Lenten discipline and use it to love, to love others in care-taking, to love God in prayer-making.

Sundays are days of rest throughout the year. Our Creator in his infinite wisdom decreed in the beginning that we should rest on the seventh day. For Christians this day moved to Sunday to honor the Resurrection. Sundays became sacred, set apart to worship God in repentance, renewal, and regeneration. They are weekly holy-days for the faithful, healthy-days for body and soul.

Studies have found that religious people in general live longer than others. I believe it must be true, at least for true believers, those who practice their faith, integrate their belief into their lives to become whole, holy. Christians live under a law of love that provides order, an ordering of importance, a prioritizing of concern. Having answers to crucial questions, having a map to follow, decreases our stress. We know that we will not always live up to this law of love. We may ignore the answers to the crucial questions. We may forget we even have a map. We err and we stray like lost sheep, we follow the desires and devices of our own hearts, and there is often no health in us. But we also know that we have a loving Father. We repent, we confess, and we return to His law of love. We recall the answers and we follow the route on the map that has been so clearly laid out for us.

The ability to release to a loving God all of this stress and worry, to let Him bear the burden on His holy wood, is a relief giving birth to joy. And in our joy we return to the cross to happily help Him carry it, walking with Him through Jerusalem and through our own lifetime.

Lent is a time of renewal through re-creation. We retreat and reflect, we repent and are reborn, we render unto God what is God’s. We move out of the fast lane and into the slower one. We prune, cut back, and feed. We watch for new growth, meeting Christ in Sunday worship, praying our Morning and Evening Prayers, calling on the housebound, giving to the poor in need and in spirit, embracing the forgotten and lonely who sit alone in the corner of the room, knowing we are embracing Christ.

All the while, in the silence of Lent, we listen for the still small voice of God. Soon, we know, in the killing and burial of our rushed time we will hear His voice. Soon, we know, we will join our voice with His, and His with ours, to rise once again in glory.

Requiem

APCK-Logo-10-03-2008It was as if Archbishop Morse of our Anglican Province of Christ the King were present among us, and perhaps he was, the sense was so palpable. 

My husband and I arrived early Saturday morning for Bishop Morse’s Requiem Mass at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Oakland, near Berkeley in the historic residential neighborhood of Rockridge. The clergy were vesting in the Sunday School rooms (the sacristy being too small for such numbers) and as I checked on the nursery – lights on, toys set out, our young attendant waiting for the first arrivals with her sweet smile – I was greeted with the awesome anticipation I usually sense when dozens of clergy meet for a single Mass, whatever the occasion. 

But Saturday’s occasion was a serious one, an especially joyous one. These men knew this was a historical event, a meaningful time in all of their lives, in the life of the Church, in the world itself. This funeral was for no ordinary man, not your average priest. Bishop Morse had welcomed these men into the fold of the Anglican Province of Christ the King over the past thirty-seven years with the vision to continue traditional Anglican Christianity. Each man who had known  this bishop had differing and yet similar stories to tell of his love for them. 

A good shepherd, Bishop Morse had found these young men at miraculous moments in the millions of moments in their lives – at crossroads moments – and revealed the love of God in a compelling way. Saturday morning, as they robed in the Sunday School of St. Peter’s, pulling cassocks and cottas and stoles over their heads, chatting and catching up with one another’s lives since the last gathering, they were thankful for this man who had changed them forever. 

I had checked on the nursery and had watched the tide of clergy ripple through the Sunday School rooms. I now entered the nave of the church and joined my husband in our pew. I said my prayers of thanksgiving and looked about. Four large candles stood at the head of the central aisle, before the chancel steps, waiting for the casket. To the side of the chancel an acolyte entered from the sacristy. He lit tall candles on the altar. A large medieval crucifix hung over a tented tabernacle and marble altar. I thought how the steepled wooden ceilings and red-brick apse formed the bow of our ark. Stained glass windows, glittering along the side aisles, told stories of St. Peter. Behind and high above us rose the choir loft with St. Ann Chapel’s wondrous singers. Beyond them more stained glass burned bright with Pentecost crimsons, flaming to the eaves. 

As we waited in our pews, the choir sang softly, and I recognized Shall we gather by the river. Then the choir was suddenly silent, and in the silence a procession stepped up the aisle. Torchbearers held flaming candles, the thurifer swung clouds of incense, the crucifer held high the crucifix. Four young men, the bishop’s grandsons, rolled a closed casket to rest between the standing torches at the head of the aisle. 

I gazed at the draped casket, knowing that the spirit of this man was no longer there. He was alive, but where was he? Sleeping? Purgatory? Heaven? The body had become, now separated from the spirit, a symbol or memory, something tangible, and as sacramental Christians we honor the material of creation. We believe God  created us and our world from his great love. He even entered  our created order himself to walk among us, to die among us.

So in our liturgies, matter matters. Matter is our means of expression; matter is our vocabulary, our dialog with God. Hence, candles burn, incense billows, bells ring. We use our bodies to kneel and genuflect and make the Sign of the Cross over our heads and hearts. We process with our feet, we anoint with oil, we baptize with water, we mark foreheads with ash. We act the story, we celebrate the glories as we re-create Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday in every Eucharist. We receive the Son of God, uniting his body and blood with our own, taking, eating, and drinking the consecrated bread and wine at every Mass.

Words are one means of expression, but only one (and I do love words). We desire to express the profound love of God through the dance of the liturgy, through our bodies, through our living lives. 

So I gazed at the coffin, now anchoring our ark of a parish church, sitting in the heart of its cross. It was as though our ship had paused in its sailing through the rough weather of our world, and in this time of standing still we on board in the pews wove prayer and song around and over the body of the man who had fought for us all these years. 

Robert Sherwood Morse took a strong stand against the riptides and undertows of the seventies, eighties, nineties, and the first fifteen years of this millennium. He told the truth, unafraid, always listening to the voice of God spoken through scripture, sacrament, and tradition. Especially in the last few years, a time in which I was given the grace to work with him, I could see him listening, looking, feeling his way through choices, sometimes hard choices. In essence, he protected us from heresy, ensuring the ancient creeds would continue to be recited and, more importantly, believed. So, like Noah, he built an ark and welcomed us in. And like Moses, he led us through the desert to the promised land. He walked straight and tall, holding fast his shepherd’s crook. He watched out for hungry wolves. He protected us. He guided us. He loved us. 

And in that love he taught us how God loves. In that love he taught us how Christ loves, how to love one another. “Christianity is caught, not taught,” he often said. His exuberant witness was indeed catching, and the fire of God’s love spread from soul to soul in his congregations as his many arks set sail through the years. And we always knew it was Christ who acted through him. He was a vehicle, a way, a disciple who pointed to Christ, waving his hands in gentle arcs as he preached from the central aisle.

He loved the Holy Eucharist: “The purpose of the Church is to give humanity the Eucharist. The Church must clear the roads so that this can happen.” 

And so, as I gazed upon the draped casket surrounded by flaming candles, as I joined in the prayer-dance of liturgy and song, and as I stepped to the altar to receive Christ, our good bishop was present, with us. He heard us, he smiled upon us. His love wove between us, pulling us into Christ. For our bishop knew, and knows at this moment as I write this, that he formed a cross with his body, linking earth to heaven, a cross pointing to the true Cross, the way to life, to God, today and in eternity. 

As we sang, Yes, we’ll gather at the river,/The beautiful, the beautiful river;/Gather with the saints at the river/That flows by the throne of God, I could hear him singing with us, gathering us together in his love this first Saturday in June 2015, gathering us together in our mortality, so that we could gather later in eternity by the river that flows by the throne of God. 

Biography of Archbishop Morse

Giving Thanks

prayerToday is the last Sunday of the Church Year and the Sunday before our national Day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the best antidote to selfishness and the best prescription for selflessness and thus leads naturally to the First Sunday in Advent.

Melanie McDonagh in the November 1 issue of The British Spectator makes the profound observation that the “cult of mindfulness” is largely a cult of self. It may or may not bring peace, alleviate stress, even heal depression, but it is an isolated lonely cult in which the focus is on one’s inner self. She is correct that the idea of living in the moment is pure Buddhism, and like Buddhism, the idea encourages us to escape suffering rather than face it, wrestle with it, and create meaning from it.

I have found that Christianity and Judaism pull the believer out of himself. It is through being self-less not self-ish that we find peace, and indeed, it is an inner peace that we find. How does this strange contradiction work? It works because in prayer we are focusing on the God who made us, and yet who also lives within us. Without belief in this objectively real God, we are merely wallowing in our own selves. Christianity brings the believer into community with all sorts of folks unlike him or her, different in age, gender, race, class, interests. We rub shoulders, we share tea, we are solicitous of one another. Most of all, we worship God (not ourselves) together, sharing this common outward vision, as we act out and re-present the great liturgical drama of church or temple.

And so Christianity and Judaism urge the believer to look around and, yes, smell the roses and live in the minute, for every minute is a precious gift. But these religions do far more. They urge the believer to face and interact with the real world. We call this interaction love, brotherly love. It is the sacrifice of that precious minute given by God, for the minutes are numbered, in order to give that minute to another, a stranger, someone unlike us. We pray for others; we visit the sick, shut-in, and lonely; we support charities that support life in all its facets, joyful and sorrowful. The history of the West is the history of this urge to better our world, to care for our communities.

Within this urge, this still small voice directing us to love, lies judgment. Judgment is not popular today; we are told we must not point fingers. And yet if we do not see clearly the true nature of what is happening around us and within us, we cannot better the world, and we cannot better ourselves.

God has spoken to his creation through his chosen people over many centuries. He has clearly marked the path to glory. The path takes us outside of ourselves so that God can enter those same selves. By shedding “me,” I miraculously find “me.”

One of the ways God has shown us how to do this is through simple thankfulness. The psalms are full of thanksgiving to God. To pray the psalms is to leave no room for depression. To offer oneself up is to know joy. It’s as simple as that. The Lord’s Prayer opens with praise that pulls us heavenward: Our Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come… Thanksgiving lives inside every word of praise.

And so this Thanksgiving Day, I look around me at my world, my nation, my community, my own heart. I try to see honestly, and I see generations of children raised in the cult of mindfulness. I see them highly mindful of their self-esteem, prone to take offense, demanding and self-righteous. They have lost themselves in themselves, as though whirling downwards, pulled into a vortex where depression imprisons them.

But on this Sunday before Advent and before Thanksgiving, I also look around me and see churches and temples where true thanksgiving is offered to a very real and loving Creator. I see voices raised together, not always in tune, singing thanksgiving and praise. I see love weaving among these communities of true believers who thank, not the stars, but the living and Almighty God for their very breath. I see islands of faith that show us how to be free from ourselves, not enslaved by ourselves. We do this by giving thanks to God for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Today is called in our Anglican tradition “Stir-up Sunday,” named after Thomas Cranmer’s powerful Collect, the collecting or gathering prayer for this day, written in the sixteenth century:

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This is one of the many prayers that have formed the Western tradition. In this prayer we are called to act, to care for those around us, and through the caring itself we are interiorly rewarded. We will be changed.

And so, we look to the season of Advent, the four weeks that proclaim the advent of God becoming man, the Incarnation, the Christ child born in a stable. How do we prepare ourselves for this great coming? We give thanks, and in the giving thanks we receive God, we know joy. It is his chosen path. The way is clear.

Singing with Angels

330px-Guido_Reni_031Today is the eve of the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, or “Michaelmas.” Michaelmas marks the end of harvest, the beginning of fall and the shortening of days.

I believe in angels. They have fluttered through my life, ordering and arranging, guarding and nudging, strengthening and leading. And so today in church I was especially pleased to rediscover this marvelous hymn, #122, sung to a traditional Irish melody:

Angels and ministers, spirits of grace,
Friends of the children, beholding God’s face,
Moving like thought to us through the beyond,
Moulded in beauty, and free from our bond!
 
Messengers clad in the swiftness of light,
Subtle as flame, as creative in might,
Helmed with the truth and with charity shod,
Wielding the wind of the purpose of God!
 
Earth’s myriad creatures live after their kind,
Dumb, in the life of the body confined;
You are pure spirit, but we here below,
Linked in both orders, are tossed to and fro.
 
You do God’s bidding unshaken and strong;
We are distraught ‘twixt the right and the wrong;
Yet would we soar as the bird from the mesh,
Freed from the weakness and wonder of flesh.
 

Percy Dearmer, 1867-1936

Angels are “free from our bond… free from the weakness and wonder of flesh.” We, however, are “Dumb, in the life of the body confined… Linked in both orders… tossed to and fro.” We are made for another country, to be sure. We are alien creatures on this earth, sensing another home, a home calling us. Each time we respond to goodness, beauty, truth, and love we are touched by this heavenly world. We are pulled. Each time we pray, each time we make the Sign of the Cross, each time we receive the Holy Eucharist, we reach and touch heaven. We are both body and spirit, unlike angels, who are only spirit. We have a foot in each world; we straddle two countries or perhaps toggle between.

And it is true, as Father Dearmer says, that our flesh is both weak and wondrous. Today, as cultural forces seek to merge the male and the female, to create androgyny and deny gender, I see this wonder disappearing. Men and women were created to be delightfully complementary to one another; they are uniquely different and yet when joined together they produce new life. So within the sacred union of marriage, God works these miracles, transforms our fleshly weakness into creative strength. He unites heaven and earth through our flesh.

Michael the Archangel is described in Scripture as the great warrior-angel who defeated the rebel angel Lucifer in the war in heaven.  And of course there are choirs of angels, angels appearing to comfort and guide as well as protect, messenger angels bridging heaven and earth. There are many accounts of people seeing angels, often testimony of children whose vision is unguarded.

Angels are “unshaken and strong,” but we are torn between “right and wrong.” And yet, angels help us to choose when we are torn and strengthen us in our good choices. For angels wield “the wind of the purpose of God.”

I pray for such a wind daily, especially as I work my way through the first draft of my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail. I know that I cannot write it alone. I need help and, as I reach for help, angels lift up my hands to the heavens, leaving my feet firmly planted on earth. I can feel the stretch of my soul, my mind, my heart, and sometimes it hurts.

I pray for such a wind for our nation and those of the Western world, as we fight to defend our boundaries, both of liberty and land, as we build a wide fire trail to keep out those who will burn to ash our way of life, our freedom.

I pray for the angels all around us to open our eyes that we may see the truth. And I thank God for Father Dearmer and his dear portrait of our ministering heavenly friends.

As the Mass ended this morning, we sang another powerful hymn, #600, and my husband turned to me to whisper, “My favorite.” The organ thundered and as the crucifer and torchbearers recessed triumphantly down the aisle, followed by the clergy in their gleaming white robes, we sang, “Ye holy angels bright, Who wait at God’s right hand,/Or through the realms of light/Fly at your Lord’s command,/Assist our song, For else the theme/Too high doth seem/For mortal tongue…”

With a Song

035“Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh.” So writes Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton in his beautifully written memoir, Gentle Regrets. The first reference is, of course, to Psalm 100, O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song… Dr. Scruton’s second reference, that to sighing, is to the sadness that seems to permeate our culture of unbelief, the most prosperous and “advanced” culture in recorded history.

Psalm 100, also called the Jubilate Deo, is part of our Office of Morning Prayer, in the Book of Common Prayer prayed by Anglicans worldwide for centuries. I wondered, what happens to a person’s attitude toward life if he or she repeats this prayer psalm every morning upon rising? Is there a change in the way he sees the world, or even a gradual restructuring of the soul?

I’ve been thinking about this the last few days, having dipped deeply into Dr. Scruton’s words of wisdom. He rightly values the Prayer Book with its Elizabethan English, so suitable to worship God. We sing the words of these prayers, sometimes in melodies, sometimes in chants, sometimes in our hearts and minds, following the rhythm of the phrases like a dance.

I first crossed the threshold of an Anglican Church (then Episcopalian) in 1966, at the age of 19: St. Matthew’s, Burlingame, California. Raised Presbyterian, turned collegiate agnostic, I was unfamiliar with the ritual, the set prayers, the kneeling, the making of the Sign of the Cross, the processions, the candles, the incense. Yet I felt as though I had entered Heaven. I was sure I had; I was totally smitten. I sat in the back pew and drank in the liturgy like a traveler in the desert. I was thirsty and didn’t know how parched I really was until then, didn’t fully understand what I deeply longed for, but here it was, all around me, the sights, the sounds, the smells of Heaven.  It was as though I was being held in the palm of a loving God, one who had created me in great joy and was so glad I had come home.

I wasn’t instructed and Confirmed until the following year, but in the meantime I entered, knelt, imitated the others. Since many of the prayers were the same each week, and there were Prayer Books in all the pews, I learned the words quickly and was soon part of the miracle happening around me. I learned how to dance with the Church, a universal dance stretching back two thousand years and celebrated all over the world. Since then, I have come to understand the meaning behind the rituals and the prayers, the Scriptures that ordained the words, the actions, the steps in this dance of worship. I came to understand what happened in what was called the great Sacrifice of the Mass, when the wine became blood and the bread became body in the Real Presence of Christ. I understood how the Liturgy of the Word led to this pivotal moment of bell-ringing and happy holiness – the Collects, the Scriptures, the Creed, the Confession and Absolution, the Sermon. And since then, I have traveled deeper and deeper into the mystery of worship and into the heart of God.

So it was with great joy that I discovered this Anglican philosopher who is also in love with the Book of Common Prayer, who “gets it,” as is said today. And he is right when he profoundly observes that our culture, having trouble finding God, has become sad, “morose.” Many no longer sing to the Lord a joyful song with gladness for they have lost him in a kind of slippery sophistry. Instead, they look to one another, and to themselves, to create gods from their own kind, longing for but not finding true worship. The resulting attitude is one of un-thankfulness, of grievance and complaint, of never having enough, of striving, of racing, of consuming, all in hopes of finding. The old adage, “Count your blessings,” is just that, an old adage and rarely practiced. Today curses are counted rather than blessings.

And so it was that this morning when I entered our parish church I was especially thankful for the words of our Prayer Book, the poetry of the prayers and psalms and liturgy, and most of all for the belief that backs and binds it. I addressed some “proofs” for the historicity of the Resurrection in my recent novel, The Magdalene Mystery, arguments of the mind if not the heart. And in the end, if one can argue the Resurrection, the rest falls into place, at least for me. But here, this morning, in my parish church and recently in the words of my new philosopher mentor, I find argument for the heart and soul. Human beings long to sing to God because we know deep down he exists, that he loves us, and that he has provided a path on earth to Heaven, to one day, see him face to face, no longer through a glass darkly. We long to experience what we suspect is waiting for us, true joy.

And as we sang with the children in Sunday School “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” prayed an “Our Father” together, and led them up the central aisle to kneel at the altar rail for their blessing during the Mass, I knew we had taught them well this day. They had experienced the bright and the beautiful, to be sure, when they entered that hushed space, as they padded up the red carpet toward the tabernacle set amid the flaming candles, as the robed clerics drifted by. “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be upon you, Natalie, this day and always” the priest said, touching her head lightly with blessing. We each made the Sign of the Cross, and with folded hands we processed out, back to the Sunday School, where we made more animals from paper plates.

It is good for us to pray, to develop an attitude of thankfulness for what we have been given, beginning with life itself, another day on this earth. I recommend an “Our Father” followed by the “Jubilate Deo” each morning, even if it’s in the rush of the early hours, driving to work, waiting for the bus, readying the children for school. Say it regularly and your life will be filled with joy, the jubilate of God, and far less sighing. I know mine has.

Rejoice Sunday

I continue to be astounded by the richness of our Anglican liturgy, the way the colors and seasons weave into one another to create a fascinating and beautiful tapestry of time. 

It is a liturgy shared, of course, with Roman Catholics and to an extent Eastern Orthodox: the love of symbols, saints, and sacraments; the dramatization of deep and joyous beliefs; the pleasure taken in incense, song, chant, processions, and common prayers we know by heart so we can pray in common together. 

We call our sixteenth-century prayer book The Book of Common Prayer, for it provides prayers learned by rote for those of us in the pews so that we can pray as one voice. It also provides assurance that the prayers prayed at the altar are theologically true, for they reflect words chosen carefully through the centuries. We call this catholic in the sense that it represents what is true for all time in all places for all people. 

I read recently that new education studies show that children are better prepared to succeed in life if they learn the old fashioned way, that is, by rote, by memory work and drill. I learned the old fashioned way and while it took effort and patience, I was rewarded with a strong sense of accomplishment. We learned poems and times tables and history dates. Often boring, but usually productive. I think I also learned how to accept boredom, how to not expect constant entertainment, how to go the distance, how to, in essence, work. I learned how to meet goals set by teachers so that later I would learn how to meet goals set by myself or employers. 

Our liturgy is full of these small and large milestones. It is not meant to entertain (although it often does in a glorious way, suddenly, unexpectedly), but rather it is meant to meet certain goals. “Liturgy” is the “work of the people.” We call the Holy Eucharist an action in the phrase the “Action of the Mass.” Something truly happens, and we, with God’s help, help to make it happen. We add our unified, voiced prayers, memorized (eventually through repetition), to those of the priest who celebrates the Mass. As the priest stands before the altar he stands before God, representing us. But during the Action, he represents Christ, consecrating the bread and wine into body and blood; Christ is made manifest in the “creatures” of bread and wine through this action.

To be worthy of receiving Almighty God into our hearts and bodies, we examine our lives for deeds done and undone, those things separating us from God. We need to be perfect, washed clean, to meet him at the altar rail. And so we confess together, as one and as many, and are absolved. We are made perfect in that moment.

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is called Laetare Sunday, meaning “Rejoice,” named for the traditional Introit, “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her…”. It lands midway in Lent, and is meant to be a lighter brighter more joyful Sunday than the others in Lent. Rose vestments and altar cloths sometimes replace the somber purple, and flowers are allowed on the altar (not so the other Sundays in Lent).

We draw closer to Passiontide, the two weeks before Easter, and so it is as though we are refreshed today, before we return to the road to Jerusalem and the way of the Cross. We consider our Lenten rules – our self-discipline of time and desire. I for one am not midway through my memory work: First Corinthians 13. I have the first few verses down, sort of, but it has been a struggle, as is anything worth doing. It may take Lent and Advent and another Lent for this old soul to learn it by heart. Nevertheless, I keep at it, the passage printed out, handy for the odd moment of time. Perhaps it is discipline that, in the end, forms disciples.

Today’s Gospel is the account of the feeding of the five thousand, the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, one of many feeding miracles recorded in Holy Scripture. But John’s Chapter Six account is followed by Christ’s stunning announcement that one must eat his flesh and drink his blood to attain eternal life. It is not surprising that many followers left him after that statement, confused and probably overwhelmed at the very least.

Christianity is not a religion for the faint of heart, although our God mends broken hearts. It is not for the lazy, although our God empowers us with his own life. It is definitely a faith for those who admit helplessness in these matters, for with steady slugging along, we are rewarded with stunning joy. Not a bad exchange. It is an exciting journey with God to God, full of miracles and happiness. I’ve had more Road-to-Damascus moments than I could possibly count. 

So it is with great delight that I am certain that all I have to do is show up at church on Sundays. All I have to do is pray with the Body of Christ, the Church, and be part of the great Action of the Mass. All I have to do is repent and be forgiven. I do these things every Sunday and everything else falls into place, as though angels rain grace upon my life. I don’t need to see and understand everything all the time. All I need to do is go to my little parish church and be faithful.

A Chapel in Berkeley

On this Second Sunday in Lent, my husband and I worshiped at St. Joseph of Arimathea Chapel in Berkeley, a block from the University of California campus.

It was not our first visit to the chapel, for our publishing group, the American Church Union, is headquartered in the adjoining building (where I spend considerable time…) along with our Anglican Seminary, St. Joseph of Arimathea Theological College. It is also the seat of our dear Archbishop Robert Morse.

It was the first time, however, that we arrived on a bicycle race day. After finding on-street parking, still free on Sundays (!), we stepped around the roadblocks, watching the cyclists fly around the corner of Durant and Bowditch. This particular corner was our destination as well and, as we approached St. Joseph’s Chapel, working our way through the gathering race-watchers, we heard the happy thunder of the pipe organ.

It was a traditional English hymn that poured out the open doors and onto Durant Avenue. Many race-watchers on the sidewalk paused, wondering about the music. “An Anglican church,” I heard someone say, approaching the sign near the front door. “Hmmm, interesting,” he murmured, and moved on to the corner’s edge and the flying cyclists.

The day was bright, a glorious spring day. The hills in my East Bay neighborhood have turned a velvet green. Balmy weather has returned as though last week’s welcome rain was a distant memory. Berkeley buzzed with the energy of youth enjoying a sunny Sunday morning.

We left the bright energy of the flying cyclists and their watchers and followed the music. We entered the chapel’s softly lit space and paused in a small foyer. A Madonna and Child opposite the doorway caught the light, glowing. Turning, we stepped into the barrel-vaulted church, a “collegial” church, meaning one with a choir and sanctuary but no large nave. The space, twenty by fifty, thirty feet high, reminded me of chapels we have seen in Europe, medieval parish churches dating to the seventh and eighth centuries. But I knew St. Joseph’s was built in the mid-twentieth century, designed by William Dutcher, who clearly had a good sense of history and acoustics as well as holiness. In this chapel, the eye is drawn first to the altar – the simplicity points there – then above to the sixteenth-century crucifix, and higher to the vaulted ceiling.

We were early, the first to arrive, and I appreciated the time to gather my heart and mind into prayer. Sitting on wooden benches, we listened to the organ. The music spilled onto the red-tiled floor, winging to the altar, the crucifix, soaring beyond. A hanging sanctuary lamp glowed before a rustic altar, and soon a gentleman entered from the side of the sanctuary and lit six candles on either side of a purple-draped tabernacle. The white stucco walls, unadorned, added to the simplicity, and I recalled a Cistercian abbey (much larger) we visited in Provence: Senanque, where the empty space channels vision, and thus heart, mind, and soul to the altar and its tabernacle.

The organ is on loan from the university in a happy collaboration with St. Joseph’s. It is, according to the website (www.anglicanpck.org/seminary) a “twelve-stop, two manual and pedal, mechanical-action instrument,” built by Herr Jurgen Ahrend of Loga-Leer, Germany, renowned for his work in Europe and America. The organ is especially tuned for liturgical music of the medieval and early modern periods, so that we enter history as we sing.

I’m not a professional musician but I am drawn into beauty, and especially beautiful music, and if I am allowed to sing hymns I know and love in an intimate space like this, I think I am in heaven and not Berkeley at all. If an organ such as this one leads me through the music of beauty, a mere fifteen feet away from my ears, I am sure I am flying with the angels, and my feet couldn’t possibly be planted on terra firma.

The Anglican liturgy, with prayers dating to the seventh century, with words translated from the Latin to Elizabethan sixteenth-century prose, is especially beautiful and stunningly poetic. Over the years the words have become part of me, as the beauty has soaked into my five senses. I hear the song, see the procession of acolytes and flaming candles, smell the burning wax and the billowing incense, feel the host upon my tongue, and taste the eternal as I receive Christ into my body.

But the liturgy in this small soaring space, the organ thundering its notes upon our ears, is intimate. It is the intimate experience of God among us, touching us, loving us. Outside, the watchers shouted and bicycles buzzed. Inside, we flew as well, soaring into the chapel vaults, winging with the music, the chants, the prayers.

It was a good morning, this Second Sunday in Lent. As I saw the Cal Crew process in as acolytes (one of their duties as residents in the chapel’s neighboring house), I smiled. The young men carried their flaming candles, stepping seriously, holding the crucifix with care. As the liturgy of the Eucharist began, we all stepped into time, past, present, and future, with ancient prayers and future glory.

And we left the chapel with a holier sense of the present, and our place in time, this Second Sunday of Lent 2014.

Living the Christian Year

I love the Christian year. Many have written about it and for good reason. Living out the year, Sunday to Sunday, season to season, orders the chaos of our souls in the same way secular rituals gather together, and perhaps heal, communities. 

Human beings are creatures of liturgy, ritual, and ceremony. We use these means to express who we are as a people, not only as a church but as a nation. States, cities, clubs, all manner of civic and social gatherings use these means to define themselves, to organize their times together, to ensure justice and democracy, to ensure free speech, to create order. We “call the meeting to order” with a gavel meant to silence the many, so that the few – the single speaker, one at a time – may be heard in an orderly manner. 

Both secular and sacred bodies create time liturgies which we call seasons and calendars. Within the twelve months organized in our solar Gregorian calendar we celebrate winter, spring, summer, fall. 

Inside each season, Americans gather to honor national heroes, presidents, soldiers, peacemakers, the birth of our nation. We reflect on each old year and celebrate the beginning of each new one with New Year’s Eve and Day. We parade, marching and trumpeting down Main Street, we give speeches, we fly flags, and we sing songs we learned by heart so that we could sing as one. In school we once pledged allegiance to the United States of America, one nation under God… a ceremony that bound us together. At ball games we sing our national anthem and place our hands over our hearts. We memorize words and actions, by rote, by ritual, so that we may say and sing and do these things together. We form a national circle and dance America’s story through the year. 

Sacred bodies, churches, also express themselves through seasons and calendars, through song and dance, through processions rather than parades. The Christian liturgical year has, over time, been divided into nine seasons in which the life of Christ and its meaning for each of us is acted out. We step deeper into this meaningful life, immerse ourselves in the love of God in these seasons. Christianity is sacramental, meaning that God is involved in our world, his creation. He desires an intimate conversation, face to face, and we call this prayer. As we portray his mighty acts in history, he acts among us in our own time, drawing us close to him. God responds to our song, and we call this Grace. So it is natural that we act out our faith through the year; it is natural to use all of our senses to express who we are; it is natural that we follow the music of the spheres, both heavenly and earthly. 

The Church Year begins with the purple (penitential) season of Advent, which prepares us for the coming of Christ in Bethlehem. Then we live out the white season of Christmas, particularly rich with symbol and song, announcing the incarnation of God in human flesh. Epiphany trumpets, manifests, this good news to the world, lighting the darkness. 

Soon we enter Lent, a time of self-examination and penitence, to follow the Way of the Cross to Golgotha, acting out Christ’s last days and his crucifixion. Easter morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the empty tomb and share her wonder and awe. The following weeks, Eastertide, reflect the resurrected Christ’s appearances to many before his ascending to Heaven on Ascension Day. Ten days later we join the Apostles as the Holy Spirit descends upon them (and us), birthing the Church on the day of Pentecost. 

From the beginning of December (Advent) through the end of May (Pentecost) we have acted out the greatest drama ever told. These six months, half the year, tell of God’s redemptive acts among us, two thousand years ago, in the ancient lands of the Middle East, the land of Israel. From Pentecost to Advent, June through November, the second half, we enter the long green season called Trinity, a growing time, a season of learning what all of this means to us, a time of celebrating the many mysteries and miracles only touched on earlier, a time rich with saints and angels and transfigurations, a time of growing, a time of pondering our three-in-one God, the Trinity. 

The colors we see in the church reflect the seasons: purple for penitence (Advent, Lent); white for purity (Christmas, Easter, saints); red for fire and blood (Pentecost; martyrs); green for growth (all other times). Vestments and altars coverings reflect these colors and these seasons. The songs we sing, the hymns, reflect the seasons as well, as do the processions, pageants, and even plantings. We bake pretzels (praying hands) and hot cross buns. We form processions, waving palms. We flower the white Easter cross. We light candles to witness to the light lighting the darkness, and we swing sweet incense up the aisle to remind us of heaven and the winging of our prayers. The words we hear in the readings tell the story too; the sermon amplifies those readings. 

As with all ceremony, these rituals can be greatly gratifying, artful, poetic expressions of our hearts and minds. But they can also be empty and dead. We must choose whether they be full or empty, alive or dead. Liturgy is the “work of the people” and the Liturgical Year is our great dance through seasons of darkness and light, penitence and resurrection. We weave God into our years, our months, our weeks, our days, our hours. As we genuflect,  as we bow, as we make the Sign of the Cross over our heads and hearts, we intersect eternity, kneeling in our Sunday pew. As we step to the altar, we receive more than bread and wine; we receive body and blood; we are fed, filled by God; his time is one with our time.

Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphanytide. Next Sunday we begin three Sundays (“Pre-Lent”) that usher in Lent, a season that prepares us for the great festival of Easter, a time of spring and rebirth, resurrection and new life.