Sunday, September 17, 2017

2017.09.17 Holy Cross Monastery Retreat

A lot of funny stuff can happen under the sign of the Cross.

We, Dick and I, have just spent six days on retreat—and on the seventh day we do not rest, but drive home, chatting and full of unquiet zeal. 

The rhythm of retreat is sturdy and steady: eat, pray, sleep, pray, love, pray, laugh, pray, eat some more. There were three groups meeting with different focuses. Ours was on theological language, my pet peeve and passion. We all, monks and guests alike, are our prayer to God.

 Communal prayer is so regular it heals spiritual atrial fibrillation and provides rhythm—a beat to match each heart’s, no matter how erratic, unsteady, or broken. It’s astounding how the regular marking of time makes time seem shorter. I always plan to catch up on my reading, yet— mysteriously— there’s so much time there’s not enough time.

Prayers in the chapel are not compulsory for guests. No one has to go to prayer or pray. It is, however, a bit hard to abstain, because the chapel bell gongs—more than once— ten minutes before each prayer time: Matins, 7 am, Eucharist, 9 am, Diurnum, noon, Vespers, 5pm, Compline, 8.  The bell tones are beautiful and dutiful. The bell tolls for me and thee. So I go.

You’d think that, being drenched in so much piety, these brothers would be stern and boring and stiff. You’d think that so many aging voices would be off key or cracked. You’d think you’d fall asleep to the lull of so much chanting. But these monks are alive, happy monks—ready and able to grin, crack jokes, laugh, and sing with gusto for deep joy, even in silence—even in prayer. 

Everything here, including the majestic strip of the Hudson River at the foot of the long green hill on which the monastery is perched, is an invitation to love God more deeply— and yourself in God.

Here’s how they let you know there’s no smoking:
   


Then there’s always plenty of another substance available on tap as advertised:

These signs are calligraphed by the Rev. Roy Parker, OHC. Each is framed and hung on the wall heading toward the chapel. They are funny. My heart can’t help but be lifted, my cup filled to the brim, my soul drenched in the generous faithfulness of God.

As we prepared to leave we felt a gentle sadness. While waiting for the vintage monastery elevator, really a single person lift, we chatted with a black woman here for a visit with a group from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  She said: “I'm always a bit sad when I leave. I love this place. I’ve told the brothers that I want to be one of them. That’s been my prayer for years. So far though, they haven't figured it out, and I’m running out of time.”  

A retreatant in our group summed up the charism of this community, using ancient words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, second-century bishop in the early Church. “Long ago someone, even a bishop or other, was saying just what we are doing today."

The oft forgotten second half of Irenaeus's famous quote is: "and the glory of the person is the contemplation of God."

In cas you think that being drenched in holy prayer is easy, it is. 












Sunday, September 10, 2017

2017.09.10 On Change—A Wee Parable

In between aimless transportations of soul— letting myself get lost in the vast expanse of sea, sky, and white sparkling sand of summer— I ground myself in reading. I’ve been reading Richard Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. It is structured in short chapters organized to present, one by one, the story of all the world's religions in historical order. How little I knew. My favorite chapter is our Anglican one of course, “The Middle Way”—how England’s church reorganized itself after the Reformation.

Holloway, former primus of the Church of Scotland now retired and admittedly disillusioned with religion, offers some wisdom, gleaned as a young student from a church history lecturer who began his course with a parable. 

“You have a wee son and he’s been out playing with his pals. When he comes home at bedtime his face is filthy, covered in mud from the fields he’s seen playing in all day. When you see the state he’s in, what should you do? You have three options. You can send him to bed as he is and lay his dirty wee head down on your clean pillow case. You can chop off his head. This would get rid of the mud certainly, but you’d kill him in the process and no longer have a son. Or you could give him a bath and clean him up before tucking him in for the night.”

These three choices signal: continuity with no change; change with no continuity; or continuity with some change. The16th century English church chose option three— not to get rid of the established Church altogether, but simply to wash its face, clean up the grime, and go forward with a new Book of Common Prayer and a broader view of authority i.e. no Pope.

In the wake of a successful effort to raise capital, there is money, and with money comes opportunity and many decisions—all meaning change. Change could mean change in attitude, change in priorities, change in traditional ways of making decisions, both personal and communal, change in personnel as needed, change of heart, and God forbid, a change in theology, the way we understand God, including words we use to speak about God.  Shivers!

No wonder most of us fear change. Today many of us fear continuity about as much as change.

I have chosen to be an Episcopalian, choosing the "middle way" as much as I can and embracing brave change with some continuity. It’s always messy and always a blessing at once. But this kind of change, ironically, grounds me more deeply in continuity.

Raimundo Panikar ( 1918-2010) Spanish Roman Catholic priest, scholar of comparative religion, and proponent of inter-religious dialogue, puts it the way:  “I left Europe for India as a Christian, and I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.”


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Psalm 23, Beloved Prayer Song Re-potentiated

A word is dead when it is said
Some say
I say it just begins to live
That day

        Emily Dickinson, 1924

Hear an old favorite psalm with just a few fresh words that change its complexion. 

Psalm 23 translation, Pamela Greenberg The Complete Psalms

God is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
You lay me down in lush meadows.

You guide me toward tranquil waters,
reviving my soul.

You lead me down paths of righteousness,
for that is your way.

And when I walk through the valley, overshadowed by death,
I will fear no harm, for you are with me

Your rod and your staff—they comfort me,
You spread a table before me
in face of my greatest fears.

You drench my head with oil;
my cup overflows the brim.

Surely goodness and kindness
will accompany me all the days of my life

and I will dwell in the house of the Holy
for the length of my days.


The psalms are prayers—startlingly honest emotionally. No feelings are absent from these prayers, even violent ones, the ones that let us know where and how we are hurt and want to hurt back. Yet psalms are also poetry and we chant them. Pamela Greenberg has translated the psalms in creative new ways without allowing them to lose their poetic power and spirituality.

I love familiar words that lull me; I love fresh words to awaken me even more. These latter force me to pay attention, to tune in. That’s how I grow. Even in discomfort, there is soul. Besides, who says scripture must always comfort or edify?  Poetic words soothe and disturb in equal proportion, and psalms are poetry.
                                         *  *  * *

The Rev. Dr. Judith Fentress Williams, Old Testament professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, spoke to the Massachusetts clergy recently about the Old Testament—its value and its power, its connectedness with the fullness of earthly expression and experience. “Don’t be afraid of it. Preach from it,” she said.
I’ve always loved Old Testament. It was required in seminary, and the very first course I took at Yale Divinity School. The instructor began in solemn tones; “In the beginning, God potentiated……….. 

I wrote that down and tried to still my heart. Potentiated felt more powerful than created. It signaled the spiritual power behind/within everything that lives breathes and has being. It spoke to me of God’s agenda: ongoing potentiation. Whenever you are potentiated, by anything at all, you awaken. You feel suddenly lifted….in a word, resurrected. It’s a scary and a wonderful feeling.

The Spirit of God potentiates Life in the beginning, at the end, and in every second in between.
                                               *  * *  *


What do you notice in Greenberg’s translation of Psalm 23 that is different from what your ears are used to hearing? Say it aloud.

This translation is familiar —and brand new. The first thing I notice is: “God is my shepherd”— not the Lord. God is a name not a noun. God is free of royal role and all its accoutrements.

Then I notice is “there is nothing I lack.” It sounds different from: “I shall not want” or “I shall not be in want.”  “Nothing I lack” means I have everything I need. Do I? Even as I age and feel lacking in many joints, every sag of skin, every short-term memory lapse: what did I have for breakfast today? But with God I lack nothing.

This 23rd psalm hums along, and all of a sudden your mind is jarred. You expect: “You lead me in green pastures” And you hear: “You lead me in lush meadows.” The words mean the same and yet have different tonality, sensuality. Lush!

“You spread a table before me in the face of my (fill in the blank)—enemies, we all say. But we hear: “my greatest fears.”  What is potentiated by these new words? Are your fears like enemies? Do they not make you skulk, cringe, cower and hide? Are they at war with your aspirations? Do they help you sin against goodness? Is this translation as accurate as the idea of having real enfleshed enemies out to get you?

And “I will dwell in the house of (fill in the blank)…the Lord, we shout?  We hear instead: “the Holy.” Lord implies ruler; Holy suggests a quality of Being, a Presence within and without. This Holy Presence  “drenches” our heads with the oil of healing. “Drench” is more literal and stronger than “anoints.”

What do these new words potentiate in you? Maybe contempt or distaste? For me, it’s the knowledge that great words I love do not die when they are altered, but they do acquire a different flavor; they inspire me to think—again and again. As the poet says, these newly spoken and heard words live.

What am I saying? What am I thinking? What am I meaning? What words do I use?

Lastly, the image of the shepherd is softened by these new words. Real shepherds are rough and tumble, not so gentle with sheep. The divine shepherd accompanies yet neither drives not coddles. This shepherd is just be a little more, well, divine.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

2017.07.27 At Play With God

When I am on vacation on this island called Nantucket, I swear my mind goes fallow, or at least I feel plowed and unsown waiting to be seeded as I sit on the beach and stare blankly into the vastness of god-ness spread out before me with no end: the sea, the sky, the stretch of beach and sparkling white sand—even the tang of salt on my sun-dried legs. When I was young I swam in the ocean. Now I wade in it.

I listen to the sounds of silence punctuated by the surf’s splash and the occasional shouts of delight from children who dash toward the breaking waves and, suddenly frightened, race back—over and over and over. This is how I behave sometimes with God—boldly approaching with my words, my prayers, my theological assertions, and then, with no warning, I feel too big and too small at once, and retreat. I feel playful. Such a Mystery where mess and blessing collide.

I’m just back home in the city and still hearing, smelling, and feeling the island landscape and its lazy mood. I would not want to live there all the time—too isolated. Even an introvert like me could get claustrophobic here in winter, though I’m not sure about that. Nantucket is 30 miles out from mainland Cape Cod, a small scoop of land in the Atlantic Ocean. Every year the beaches recede almost imperceptibly. Climate change fears jump into my mind and jump out again—fast.  Not today. Today, I give my imagination full play.

I would be sad if we couldn’t return summer after summer for our two weeks in our small cottage at the west end of the island. It is quiet there. There's little ground light, so we sit outside and look up and see what looks like every single star in the cosmos and the milky way—better than any movie or television show we could watch. We actually ate by candlelight a couple of evenings, talked, and even cried a little—not sad just, dare I say, age appropriately age- aware, stoked by the power of 40 years of memories. These surge in and out of our minds and our conversation like the waves, bearing echoes of our children’s and grandchildren’s voices. And we said I love you more that we usually do. This is as close as we get to romantic. Godde, how strikingly irresponsible. Playing.

An island, such as Nantucket, is limited space thriving within limitless sky, sand, water, and air—a very playful image of God, I’d say.



Oh yes, I know there’s plenty of garish affluence among the stereotypical  “beautiful island people” who wander from store to store in Nantucket town and never stop spending. I do that, too sometimes, and this year nearly spent $200 (Ok reduced to $189.99) on a pair of fashion jeans that actually fit my skinny legs—nearly. I’m too old, not wise just old. And too, there’s plenty of loud partying among the young. I used to do that too. They are having fun, playing. 

How little we play in this present worried culture and gravely serious church. How little we let ourselves go and revel in godness wherever we sense it—be it idyllic natural scapes or on the sooty curbs of city streets where beggars gather to chat, compare the day’s wage, tell jokes. I’ve seen them play and seem them quarrel. But seriously, beggars in Boston smile, laugh, and say God bless you more than any other passerby caught in the rush.

In all this I imagine the face of a Creator-God exploding with delight watching Creation unfold, day by day, like a child inventing a new game. In Proverbs, Wisdom is portrayed as being God’s playmate:  “ . .  . beside God like a little child, I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Proverbs 9)

God at play, playing like children play, and adults play when they are free enough, exploding with delight at almost anything that bounces onto the cosmic scene. It is this image I seek, it is this image I play with—not to ignore sorrow or suffering or evil or decay, but to recognize and acknowledge what deeply matters, what gives the world and its creatures energy abundant.

Well of course! It would take unimaginable—beyond nucleic— energy to pull off a Big Bang.






Sunday, August 20, 2017

2017.08.20 You Won’t like It Here—But You Will Love This Book and This Boy

Why would a book review bear a title that directly contradicts the book’s own title: You’ll Like It Here?

Because when six-year-old Donald Vitkus, an abandoned orphan and rejected foster child, arrived at Belchertown State School, in 1949 he was told a lie: “You’ll like it here.”

Young Donald recognized this deceit because of the rough way he was treated, his desire to “puke”, and because this putative school had bars at the windows and padlocked doors. “School” was a misnomer for Belchertown.

You’ll Like It Here. The Story of Donald Vitkus Belchertown Patient #3394 is Vitkus's biography, written by Ed Orzechowski, a writer and retired high school English teacher in Northampton, Massachusetts. The memoir exposes the painful irony of its title by telling the whole truth: a story of tragedy and triumph.

The tragedy is that Belchertown existed for containment only—not care, not education. It stayed in business under state auspices for seventy years (1922-1992)—even after a 1973 Federal class action lawsuit against the institution’s leadership for cruelty and dehumanization. Children and adults, commonly diagnosed as “idiots”, “imbeciles” or “morons”, lived under inhumane, unstintingly cruel conditions.

The triumph is that some of Belchertown’s designated “retards” proved smart enough to make friends, humor, pranks, and plots. They knew damn well what was happening to them and what terrorism felt like. Vitkus was one such kid. He felt increasingly sure he was not a moron and secretly determined that one day he would prove it. His inner determination eventually taught him the right balance between risk-taking and compliance so that in time he was free from institutional control—
but not before some runaway attempts.

Belchertown took regular photos of all the patients and distributed them to the local police so runaways would always be apprehended and returned. Vitkus’s first runaway attempt happened on August 7, 1953, when he was ten. He had no place to go and no family in sight. Written recurrently on every entry of Vitkus’s case files was this painful sentence:“Does not receive mail or visitors and does not go on vacation.”

One could call runaway behavior desperate, foolhardy or just plain natural chutzpah. Vitkus always was caught of course, yet he never gave up. Once a compassionate policeman took this child for ice cream before he returned him to Belchertown. One ice cream is heaven when you’re in hell.


Life after Belchertown, though less breathtaking, had rough patches but just as many graces for Vitkus, not the least of which was his meeting Ed Orzechowski in 2005 at an event to publicize a book called Crimes Against Humanity and asking Orzechowski if he would be interested in writing his story. Orzechowski agreed to a  conversation. That conversation would turn into eight years and some forty hours of taped interviews, not to mention patience, courage and yes, affection. The men collected official records and documents to prove their book was not a work of fiction. This book is uniquely the product of a relationship of trust between author and subject, a relationship that gives this book its integrity and intimate worth.

Orzechowski listened very closely in order to write the story in Vitkus’s voice. At times he felt as if he were “channeling” Donald. The process wasn’t easy, Orzechowski told me when I contacted him. “I first had to learn to write a book,” he said. “But Donald pushed ahead, because he never wanted ‘to go back to those days.’”  It’s not easy to write someone else’s memoir and make it vibrate with a voice not your own. Orzechowski writes with exceptional craft, skill, and clear-heartedness.
Sometimes a memoir helps a person, not to forget or resolve every painful memory, but to give a lived experience shape, form, and right words outside one’s own mind—contained, shelved and ready for others to read and find empathy and hope. A memoir can be a kind of miracle this way. Vitkus had first to entrust his whole story to a stranger. He wanted others not to feel alone in their truth, and most of all, he wanted to prove he was no moron. Donald Vitkus as an adult in his late sixties is pictured here.

Vitkus lurched clumsily toward happiness as he grew in body, mind, and spirit in spite of having grown up deprived of affection, adequate health care, and most all of life’s most urgent basic lessons from table manners, to language, to pubescent impulses, to the meaning of love—save the inner longing that signals love’s absence. We are not left with the impression that Donald is free of all his scars. He still has a strong aversion to authority. In his efforts to manage life outside he flounders. And he still sleeps with the covers over his head.

What saves this book from being mere reportage of atrocities for the sake of news:   
    -tight structure including compelling chapter titles, often quotes from Donald or his case records;
    -the redemptive quality of the biography-as-memoir genre itself— characters, dialogue, plot—supported by documented facts and photos;
    - a protagonist with exceptional chutzpah who also managed a gentle, respectful touch when he stripped and washed the younger boys for their weekly shower night;
    -a simple pencil posing as a godsend—just one pencil given to each first grade student. Donald had never experienced the thrill of ownership: “mine.” He took excellent care of his pencil;
     -some kind teachers who cared about patients as much as Vitkus did about his very own pencil;
    -transformation of a life nearly sunk by trauma;
    -a writer who never allowed his own emotions, which would have to have been painful, overwhelm the plot or the truth of his subject.

Orzechowski may just have discovered his retirement vocation. He is beginning interviews with another former Belchertown patient who sought him out. Hopefully, some women will come forward as well.  Orzechowski told me: “Since I know the ropes much better now, I expect the process to be considerably shorter this time.”

Today, as Ed Orzechowski promotes his book in readings and presentations, Donald Vitkus attends every single reading. Vitkus, for his part, travels and speaks publicly about his experience. He is Vice-President of Advocacy Network which evolved from Friends of Belchertown.  When he  introduces himself he begins his talks this way: “I’m a human services worker, and a Vietnam vet who can’t own a gun. I am an ex-husband, a husband, father, and grandfather. And a former moron of Belchertown State School.”

Here is Donald Vitkus with his present wife Pat at his graduation from Holyoke Community College in 2005.

Readers of this book will find faith, hope, love, and grace. Darkness and light co-exist, neither overwhelming the other. You’ll Like It Here is ministry—restoring dignity to the innocent and exposing larger social justice issues with universal implications.

Ed Orzechowski, by the way, has also proved he does know how to write a book.




Sunday, August 13, 2017

2017.08.13 Sincerely, the Sky

 Sincerely, the Sky

Yes, I see you down there

looking up into my vastness.

What are you hoping

to find on my vacant face,

there within the margins

of telephone wires?

You should know I am only

bright blue now because of physics:

molecules break and scatter

my light from the sun

more than any other color.

You know my variations—

azure at noon, navy by midnight.

How often I find you

then on your patio, pajamaed

and distressed, head thrown

back so your eyes can pick apart

not the darker version of myself

but the carousel of stars.

To you I am merely background.

You barely hear my voice.

 Remember I am most vibrant

when air breaks my light.

Do something with your brokenness.

“Sincerely, the Sky” from Dear Sincerely by David Hernandez, © 2016. Aired by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.
Dear Sky,

Thanks so much for your wisdom and for being blue—or not. When I was a kid I thought the sea was blue like you, too. I know you’re just sun-mottled molecules, or my tendency to project all my dearest dreams onto every scape, but to me you’re the glory of God—divine true-blueness. 

I’m on an island now, surrounded by you and sea and sand. When I’m here I forget all about the many careful distinctions people attempt to draw between science and religion. They just don’t matter when you’re bright blue, the sea is deep blue-green, and the silky white sand sticks like glitter to my salted nakedness. 

I’m in one piece when I’m here. So is the cosmos.

Thank you, Sky.
  
              Sincerely, a Fan.


David Hernandez, born in Burbank California in 1971, is a prize-winning poet who teaches creative writing at California State University-Long Beach.

David is a year younger than my youngest son, which makes me feel old, but not old-mother old. David is four years younger than my other son who aspires to be a poet himself—which he already is. I know because poetry is soul-deep and sky-high.


Thank you, David Hernandez

Sunday, August 6, 2017

2017.08.16 I Love You


Early on, I noticed that you always say it
to each of your children
as you are getting off the phone with them
just as you never fail to say it
to me whenever we arrive at the end of a call.

It's all new to this only child.
I never heard my parents say it,
at least not on such a regular basis,
nor did it ever occur to me to miss it.
To say I love you pretty much every day

would have seemed strangely obvious,
like saying I'm looking at you
when you are standing there looking at someone.
If my parents had started saying it
a lot, I would have started to worry about them.

Of course, I always like hearing it from you.
That is never a cause for concern.
The problem is I now find myself saying it back
if only because just saying good-bye
then hanging up would make me seem discourteous.

But like Bartleby, I would prefer not to
say it so often, would prefer instead to save it
for special occasions, like shouting it out as I leaped
into the red mouth of a volcano
with you standing helplessly on the smoking rim,

or while we are desperately clasping hands
before our plane plunges into the Gulf of Mexico,
which are only two of the examples I had in mind,
but enough, as it turns out, to make me
want to say it to you right now,

and what better place than in the final couplet
of a poem where, as every student knows, it really counts.

"I Love You" by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Writer’s Almanac, 3/3/17.



August 7th is my 79th birthday and my husband’s 76th birthday.  “How wonderful and insane,” a friend commented.  It’s mostly wonderful and occasionally insane to be a first child and an only child, both under the roaring sign of Leo, living in the same house—married no less. We don’t say I love you a lot. Love comes in small ways, such as a little phrase we exchange as we hit our pillows to sleep each night: “Okay, g’night.” Even if one of us is half asleep he/she responds: “Okay, g’night.”  



What are your verbal “I love you” habits?  In our house growing up I don’t think we said it all that much. We had the kiss-Daddy-good-night ritual and maybe the love finale just before bed, but it wasn’t a standout phrase. It was not a habit, like goodbye. 

When I had children it got more use. My first husband and the father of our children said it a lot, and I believe it was more or less a requirement for him that we answer in kind. I always wondered about that. He, I thought, was more in love with his booze and his job than his family, yet I knew he wanted to share his heart. I’m not quite sure how or when the love seeped out of our marriage unnoticed, or at least unspoken.

Now with grandchildren it’s a definite expectation or closure for us all, as in “Love you” on texts and phone calls. Some are more excessive with love emojis than others, but that's only because they have excessive in their genes.

My oldest granddaughter, just 21, said it to the loan officer at her bank. “Bye. Love you.” She was horrified when she realized what she had said to a complete stranger who had yet to approve the extension of her loan.

To say “Love you” doesn’t have as much gravitas as “I love you.”  My husband and I say it occasionally. He says it,  it seems, more than I do. Probably he needs to in order to get over his irritation at my quirks. For me it usually rises up when I feel a sudden surge of deep affection for this man I’ve been married to for over 30 years. We’ve grown into each other’s souls like puzzle pieces that are misshapen but somehow fit together like no other two pieces.

Old married love, like traditional practices of language, is like a comforter. It’s full of profound devotion mixed with profound annoyance at small differences we never seem to understand and that never change. Habits of communication and ways of managing time—silly things of little moment. We don’t argue over many big things at all. Well, occasionally over a theological nuance, but mostly we agree. 

I suppose I love you has as many meanings as there are people and circumstances. Still, I love that it can be used more routinely with family, because they all deserve it, you know—no matter what.

No wonder Christians believe God  is unconditional love…..because no human person is capable of unconditional love. Well, maybe a dear pet is. The one who can’t help all her or his instinctual ways but whose ways become tolerable because of the steadfast love, presence and companionship given without reserve. 

To say I love you, and mean it deeply, must include I know you. They go together.

The granddaughter who threw off a quick “Love you” to the loan officer at the bank felt mortified.  But I bet the guy experienced a chuckle and a wee resurrection. And who knows, it might have inspired him to extend her loan—which he did.

So Happy Birthday, Dick, I love you truly, madly, deeply—husband, best friend, lover, and companion in mischief and grace.
 
Okay, g’night.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

2017.07.30 Book Review Heaven: God Is Not a Boy's Name...

Jesus’s parables tell us that the reign of heaven on earth is like a pinch of leaven, a tiny mustard seed, a pearl lost in a great field. They challenge us to be pearl, seed, leaven—remembering that our presence, no matter how small, can enhance the reign of divine Love.

As any writer knows, waiting around like some kind of salivating lap dog for someone to feed your hungry soul with a review of your book, can be torturous.


Book reviews are what you want—and don’t. I hope my writings are like the parabolic pearl or leaven or seed. Humble and grateful, the few reviews I’ve received are positive. Here are snippets.
 
Karen Erlichman, DMin, LCSW, a faculty mentor in a Jewish spiritual direction training program, wrote a review, published in the September, 2017, issue of Presence, International Journal of Spiritual Direction. I love that she refers to other faith traditions.

“As a spiritual director I am a curator of personal stories. Memoir is a unique genre that requires a skillful writer to create a personal story that is compelling, but not too dramatic, touching without being cloying, and historically relevant but not overly academic. These nuanced writing skills are particularly important for a spiritual memoir. Episcopal priest, spiritual director, and pastoral counselor Lyn Brakeman has written a stunningly poetic, hilarious, unapologetically feminist, heart-opening memoir that hits the mark beautifully on all of the above facets. God Is Not a Boy’s Name: Becoming Woman, Becoming Priest is a compelling, juicy, passionate, and gracefully narrated account of Brakeman’s life as a child of god, servant of God, and lover of God. She invites us to walk with her  . . .”  

The review goes on to elaborate structure and some details, concluding with the acknowledgment that my memoir will “touch the heart and minds of readers in many faith traditions.” That to me is the highest compliment, because I think such connections can mend a broken world.


Dr. Allan G. Hunter, professor of literature at Curry College, one of my writing teachers and a published author himself wrote on FaceBook. Praise from a teacher is the best.

“I loved every bit of your memoir, Lyn. What a great read, and what important points, social and doctrinal, you make. I found myself writing extensive notes about the ways patriarchy had squeezed the real energy out of so much religion, and in the process killed so much of the humanity in it. Impressive work, dear soul!” 


Jennifer (Jinks) Hoffmann, spiritual director, poetry editor for Presence and author of "It’s All God Anyway. Poetry for the Everyday."  Jinks gets the patriarchal language issue!

Lyn Brakeman's memoir, God is not a Boy's Name, is simply fabulous! Read it, if you want to laugh and cry, and mostly cheer, for this inspiring, wild, gutsy, and determined woman who decides to become an Episcopalian priest. She will not take no for several answers, and spends 14 years persuading the powers that be to ordain her.

Lyn is blindingly honest, so you will learn a great deal about her childhood, her family of origin and her nuclear family, about addiction, adultery, life and death. . . . and her passion for a religion that is free of male pronouns and bias against women. But mostly you will meet God. If you join her on her journey, the odds are 2 to 1 that your God will show up more in your own life." 


Susan Oleksiw, author of mystery novels and a skilled writer herself. It means a lot that my book passes muster with a “secular” who is sick of spiritual pablum and acknowledges my understanding of rejecting bishops.

“I rarely read books about spiritual awakenings or anything else about one person’s religious life, but the author of this memoir is a friend and I was curious about how she handled topics that could easily ring false. I needn’t have worried. The author’s voice is authentic on every page—funny, wry, self-deprecating, revealing, light-hearted, determined, frustrated, irked, and all the rest that makes us human. This is an honest story of one woman’s struggle to become an episcopal priest, made less than easy by a resistant hierarchy, a deteriorating marriage, and a fear of alcoholism. And the path to priesthood begins and ends, apparently, with Ritz crackers.

One of the more rewarding aspects of this memoir is the deepening understanding of the bishops who rejected her.

This is a delightful, well paced story of one woman’s life that is lived on the path to priesthood.”


The Rt. Rev. Audrey Scanlan, bishop of Central Pennsylvania and former Christian formation director at Trinity Church in Collinsville, Connecticut, my sponsoring parish for ordination, and the parish where my second husband was rector and Audrey’s supervisor and “boss.” Love that she read it in one sitting.

“I spent last night’s insomnia reading God is Not a Boy’s Name. Got through it in one sitting. Me and my Kindle in the dark of the night. It was a wonderfully affirming feminist viewpoint on the Church that we love; it was a stark reminder of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.  I also loved the real analysis and coming to terms with the complexities of your relationship with your mom. Your relationship with your dad seemed pretty clear, all along, but it was wonderful to see the depth of discovery of your relationship with your mother. So- thanks.”


Thomas Tufts, mentor for the Education for Ministry (EfM) program of  Christian formation. Tom writes from his perspective as a mentor in a program in which the process of Theological Reflection (TR) on lived experience is as central to one’s self-awareness as a minister as is any academic knowledge of the religious tradition.Theological reflection is so integrated into my life I didn’t see it in my memoir! Great advertisement for the formation value of EfM.

“I’ve known Lyn as EfM Co-coordinator for the Diocese of Massachusetts for six years and recently read her book God is Not a Boy’s Name.

My first reaction was that I wished I had read this book six years ago when I was starting EfM and learning what Theological Reflection was from teaching about the 4-step, 4-source model. For me it  is a perfect example of several themes of EfM: wrestling with our faith, deepening our relationship with God, and opening our hearts and minds to others.  I plan to offer it optionally as suggested reading to the members our group, #6069,  in August as an experiment to see if it helps people in September as we practice listening, spiritual autobiography, and theological reflection.  I felt that it took my appreciation of theological reflection to a whole new level in terms of the challenges, rethinking , coherence and integrity these practices can bring to my life not just once, but progressively and repeatedly as I constantly perceive and confront what is new and different in my life.”


All I need is a few more non-Amazon reviews from a Christian or two, maybe an Episcopalian?







Sunday, July 23, 2017

2017.07.23 The Best Thing Ever

The Best Thing Ever

It’s your first bike
with training wheels
—a trike—
near divine
You are assured
—and reassured—

You can’t tip over.

You pedal slowly
one foot at a time
up and down, then
 upanddown
and up again
fast, faster…….

You don’t tip over

Pretty soon
your legs move so fast
they spin
with the wheels
—whirlwinds—
the spokes and you
 together.

You won’t tip over.

No one can even see that
there are wheels there
—five altogether—
You are flying
flying
—flying—

You’ll never tip over.




















Sunday, July 16, 2017

2017.07.16 Be a Seed Already!

The parable Jesus told about the sower who went out to sow seeds is a very familiar story and many people love it. Why? Because the sower is supposed to represent God, or Christ for Christians, this sower keeps on sowing seeds and more seeds and all different seeds— no matter what.
Jesus seizes all the authority and mastery he can summon, saying LISTEN! A sower went out to sow.  The farmers must have felt excited. Expectant. What would Jesus say? They knew that land was life. Maybe they’d get some hot agricultural tips.  I bet too they might have felt some anxiety, because this was Jesus and he had a habit of challenging them in odd ways.

LISTEN! he said, and listen they did, perhaps too hard, too eagerly, too selfishly.  

What happened to them, happens to us also. Because Jesus elaborated all the different kinds of soil—hard and dry, rocky, choking, no nutrients—and some good soil, they began to focus on the soil. No, obsess. What kind of soil are we, or literally if you were a farmer, do we have?  They, like we, quickly forgot about the faithful sower and the seeds. I’d bet that most interpretations of this parable focus on the soil alone. Is my soil, my church’s soil, good enough to receive, nourish and sprout more God’s seeds?

Let it go—for Christ’s sake.

Most of us develop such a toxic case of soil-angst that we forget about the seed with all its potential.

Still, being a seed isn’t easy. Seeds are tiny. They have no will of their own. They are scattered to and fro, and they don’t know what kind of soil they’ll hit. The destiny of a seed is vulnerable indeed. Yet, seeds have enormous potential—enormous potency. Seeds sprout. It is through seeds that Christ potentiates Life, if not Love.

Living in the city I am continuously amazed at how the tiniest of flowers and grass blades pop up between bricks and concrete stones. What resilience and strength these little seeds have to keep on growing toward light and air through thick concrete. They always sprout—no matter how much concrete we trowel on. Seeds are unstoppable. Just a few days ago, I saw three men on their hands and knees laboriously picking small green tufts of growth and tiny wild flowers out from between the concrete stones on a front sidewalk. They worked for a stone cutting outfit and had been hired to repave the area in front of the garage. But first…..they had to get rid of all the sprouted seeds. I laughed out loud. So you think those little seeds will never return to sprout, do you?

Contrary to all logic, tiny useless seeds sprout amidst concrete—real concrete as well as the concrete that forms around our hearts, the concrete that causes us to have rigid set attitudes and assumptions. God’s seeds always sprout.

When I feel sure that something is right, makes sense, or even is the way of God, I have to FORCE, yes, force, myself to stop and rethink things—not till after I’ve argued my case of course. I could be wrong, or the tradition, or my culture, or everything I learned in school, or what my parents taught me, or my church believed could be wrong. Or it all might need tilling or some more seeds. God the sower doesn’t cultivate wheat fields. God cultivates souls. God willingly and willfully without force, sows seeds and seeds and more seeds—many varieties of seeds over and over and over.
Years ago in Connecticut I worked as a chaplain in an alcohol/drug rehabilitation center. Many patients saw themselves  as “bad seeds” They were ashamed of themselves for their disease, and their relapses, their painful, painful addictive patterns. Oh, they readily condemned themselves—bad seed, bad soil, bad God, bad religion, bad chaplain—everything. They did this all of course with raucous laughter and good humor, which I saw as a sign that they were God’s seeds and didn’t know it.

Violating the separation of church and state, I used biblical stories a lot to help them see that God wasn’t the vengeful judge they thought God was, and that they weren’t bad seeds. The sower story was very popular, second only to the prodigal son. The stories were seeds to re-potentiated them, give them hope.

I would say something like: Listen! You’re a seed and if you hit a rough patch God/Higher Power will sow you again, and again.” There was a hush. In that hush I would quietly add: “with your help.”

And so it is for us: God never stops sowing you, never stops potentiating you. No matter how much concrete has been slathered on your soul, you are a seed to be sown by God-in-Christ. So listen! Hey!………

Be a seed already.







Sunday, July 9, 2017

2017.07.09 Can You Still Love? Two Healing Stories.

My seminary learning experience at Yale Divinity School took place in a religiously diverse environment—one reason the school continues to thrive and is economically viable. But it isn’t just the sensible economics, or even the obvious ecumenicity, that gives this school, or any school, a soul of its own. It takes real people and real stories.

Nellie was a student with multiple challenges. She’d been in a car accident on her way to begin her college education. Her mother was driving. It was an accident—an accident that left Nellie with severe brain damage, unable to walk or talk except in very halting and barely intelligible ways. I was scared of Nellie. I didn’t know what to do or how to be with her, or what to do with my shame. I admit I avoided Nellie and feared for myself as well—hardly exemplary of a woman who wanted to serve God in ministry or take a shot at christlikeness.

I wondered how Nellie had forgiven her mother. I wondered why Nellie wanted to go to seminary and get ordained in spite of her severe limitations. One professor, an Episcopal priest, worked with Nellie as a tutor. He typed out her words for papers, and made sure she was accompanied safely to and from her classes. It all felt like a full-blown miracle to me—too difficult to digest.

Yet Nellie was a vibrant presence among us stressed-out, worried bunch of first-year seminarians, most of us not knowing a damn thing about this God we were there to study, if not master. Nellie stood out for her smile. Some days I thought she herself was a prayer. How could she seek God after all that had happened to her?  Some students reported that when she had a beer or two her speech suddenly became intelligible. Nellie’s being there among us must have had something to do with the impossible love of God—the love that scared me and made me run the other way. 

Now I wonder if Nellie's passion for God was not for the God the church traditionally presents, the Omnipotent one with all the power, but rather for the God she found in her own broken heart—the same one I’d found in mine as a young child.

I’ve thought a lot about Nellie over the 35 years since I graduated. What ever happened to her?

Google-god!!—the great connective search engine—helped me out.

Nellie did graduate from Hampshire which took her seven years. In that time she felt called to serve God. “Serving God became her salvation,” wrote Michael Vitez, journalist and Director of Narrative Medicine at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Vitez has written Nellie’s story for his book on the healing power of story. 

Nellie went on to graduate from seminary and was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1993. She served in Chestnut Hill United Church (formerly United Methodist) until 2014 when she retired. It would take Nellie as much as five weeks with blurry vision and one palsied finger to type out 2000 words for a sermon. She then selected different parishioners to read her words to the congregation. Oh Godde, what a privilege! Nellie attended the Episcopal General Convention in Denver in 2000, where a special ramp for the entire altar procession was constructed so Nellie could read the Gospel using her voice box. 

Here is a photo of Nellie on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You see she is still smiling that smile I remember so well, the soul-smile that made Nellie shine.
Nellie died in August, 2016, at age 64. 



Only recently have I fully understood and wept deeply for Nelly and for me. The painful beauty Nellie gave me, stirred up as I read about Ed Bennett (1959-2017) in my Yale Alumni Magazine. Ed became a quadriplegic after a diving accident just before he entered his sophomore year at Yale University.

Here is Ed at a wedding in 1990, surrounded by his Yalie friends who called him “Edder”.
“Can I piece a life together?” Ed had asked a rehab psychologist, Lester Butt, when he was facing life with minimal movement in one arm only.

“Can you still love?" Butt replied.

The rest of Ed’s wheelchair-bound life was spent living the answer to that awakening question in the affirmative. He was the first quadriplegic to graduate from Yale College and went on to attend Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School but did not complete those degrees. He didn’t think his temperament was suited to pastoral work, although friends remember Ed as one with an “uncanny ability to bring people together.” Note that smile! The church could have used him. I wish he and Nellie had met. Obviously, they both could still love.

Ed wrote this in an essay for YDS in 1995:

“I have thought a great deal over the past few years about what is important to me. Perhaps my paralysis, maybe my acute experience of mortality  . . .  something has forced into my intimate, quiet moments the sense that God matters. My friends matter. The suffering of other people matters. And when I look at my profoundest satisfactions—friends, ideas, helping others, family—I do not see political or intellectual connections among them. Instead, I see a world of subtlety and wonder that lives in the spiritual world.”

Can you still love? 

I’m trying, Ed and Nellie. Thanks to you, I’m trying. And thanks be to God whose Hope incarnate forgives me—over and over—in my own clumsy efforts to love. And thanks to the Spirit who gives me eye and heart to spot healing stories, call them gospel, write them down, and send them forth—seeds for healing.  











Sunday, July 2, 2017

What Really Do We Celebrate On Independence Day?

It’s July 4th, almost, a time when Americans wave American flags and celebrate our independence from British occupation and control of our land. We appreciate the liberties we enjoy, and we know there are other nations who do not have such freedoms. Some of us wonder if we're as free as we think we are. Still, we wave our national flag with pride.

Our flag has great colors. Fifty white stars on blue, each representing a state—the pluribus (many) of us. Then the thirteen red and white streamers, flowing freely and representing the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from Great Britain and became the first states in our union—unum. We are meant to be many AND one. Our nation is only 241 years young, and we are having trouble with the unum of our motto E pluribus unum. Yet we still wave our flag.


I like our flag. I do not, however, like our national anthem. "Oh, say can you see. . ." doesn't see far enough. It is time-limited, written to celebrate a particular military victory, and full of the language of bombs and war—hence fireworks with rockets and booms of bombs "bursting in air" through the night. I don’t mind making noise to celebrate but I admit to resenting the consistent language of war and destruction attached to patriotic celebrations.

Warlike language is also attached, disastrously I think, to issues of health, mental and physical—we “battle” cancer, “fight” depression or a cold, enter “combat” against diseased parts of our very own body, then speak of “winning”or “triumph” when we feel better? What is this odd war we wage right within our own flesh?  And what if we don’t “win”?  Warlike language is a habit to change.

On July 4th do we celebrate battles and victories won, or are we celebrating— with light and sound and loud booms in the sky— the sheer joy of our diversity "bursting in air?


The spiritual meaning of this day, I believe, goes far beyond our own nation’s independence. There’s no" us" and "them". We honor ourselves, and we must also honor national freedom and dignity for all lands. It’s a day to remember the mutual interdependence of all humankind, all species of animal life, and all vegetation—an interdependence founded in the measureless vision of a Creator God. Trying to live too independently is perilous. We live well together or we perish together.

I feel the same about my religion. It’s mine and I cherish it. But other hearts have faith as worthy and beloved as mine. We live well together or we perish. That’s worth a firecracker or two! A vision to keep us alive.

Nothing expresses this spiritual magnanimity better than the beautiful music of Jean Sibelius (1899) and the expansive lyrics of the Finnish national anthem, Finlandia.


Finlandia

This is my song, O God of all the nations,

A song of peace, for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is;

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;

But other hearts in other lands are beating

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.


My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine;

But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,

A song of peace for their land and for mine.






      


Sunday, June 25, 2017

2017.06.25 A Retreat To Consider

Words Matter: A Conversation About Theological Language and its Impact

Tuesday September 12- Friday September 15
Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York

Led by Rev. Lyn G. Brakeman and Rev. Richard J. Simeone

A young rabbinical student raised her hand, and the Rabbi gave her a nod. “Rabbi, does G-d have a gender?” Students laughed. The Rabbi answered respectfully: “No.” The student had more to ask: “Well then, if G-d has no gender why do we use only one gender when we talk about G-d?” To this the Rabbi had no answer. It’s not easy to stump a Rabbi. He could have said that the Hebrew noun for god was masculine, but that, he knew, was inadequate. The student had awakened the teacher. The Rabbi who told this story some years ago still ponders that question.

How does theological language and imagery shape the divine image? How does it shape our souls? What about all that familiar and beloved liturgical formulae? What about pronouns? What would you change? Why or why not? Is this simply a women’s issue? Is it an issue of spiritual formation of human souls? Is it just politics? Or is it a theological issue? What would Jesus do?

Cost: $ 350; deposit: $80

To Register, call the Guesthouse Office: 845.384.6660, ext 3002


Holy Cross Monastery is the mother house of the Episcopal order of brothers (yes, monks) The Order of Holy Cross. The Monastery, in West Park, New York, sits atop a sloping hill, often dotted with deer, overlooking the majestic Hudson River.
The house is comfortable (nice new bathrooms), the landscape alluring, the food near-divine. The regular worship in the monastery chapel led by the brothers gives rhythm and structure to the soul and peace of the mind. You can follow from the Book of Common Prayer easily, or you can sit and let the chanting of psalms and canticles flow over you.

The retreat will include meditations by the leaders with ample opportunity for conversation, questions, humor, experiential learning together.  There will also be plenty of time for quiet reflection and prayer on one’s own. It’s a chance to have fun together and relish a few days away from the pace of the world in silence, solitude and community.  The monastery website is:  www.holycrossmonastery.com

Sunday, June 18, 2017

2017.06.18 When Your God-School Dies

What would it be like to have a school from which you graduated close its doors—for good? And what if it was a seminary, your God-school?  I can’t imagine. Maybe it would be like losing a beloved father/dad—too soon, which would be any time really.

My dad died at 71— too soon for the length of our love. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I’m so glad you were there when I graduated from my seminary at Yale, your undergraduate college.

Now I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the  Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) just closed.

A seminary is a particular kind of graduate school. It’s about learning to be who you are through studying who God is. How strange that sounds as I write it. How true it turned out to be… And how sad that many denominational seminaries are closing. Some, like EDS, are moving to affiliate with other thriving schools of theological education where they will maintain a presence, a dean, and some faculty.

The viability of independent denominational seminaries is obviously uncertain, but I wonder what the Spirit might be asking us to consider, besides just how to merge and survive as a kind of half-breed? I wonder if God might be calling us to examine the viability of denominationalism itself as a way of re-presenting Divinity to the world? 

I went to Yale Divinity because I could commute, and loved it, ironically, because it was not  denominational. I got courage there to sacrifice my fear of pushing for new ideas about sacred traditions and sacred language. Godde is bigger than all traditions. I will grieve if it ever closes. That said, I live now in Cambridge and will sorely miss having an Episcopal seminary right in my neighborhood—a presence.
I will sorely miss EDS, but not as much as its graduates, like the Rt. Rev. Alan Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts who wrote with candor about his own grief, memories and blessing.   

 “As a member of the EDS Class of 1987, I was marking my 30th reunion year.  My memories of EDS in the mid-1980s are not without complication.  It was a time of some considerable conflict and challenging community dynamics at the school.  Chapel life in particular was fraught.  And yet it was simultaneously a place of manifold grace and genuine formation for ministry in church and world, a blessing for which I have always been deeply grateful. At last week’s final Alumni Eucharist I found myself offering prayers of deep gratitude for that blessing.

What I had not anticipated was the level of deep grief that I experienced in that moment.  St. John’s Memorial Chapel and its surrounding campus was a place where I had been taught well by so many devoted faculty members; a place where I formed lifelong friendships; a place where our elder son was baptized; a place of altogether singular influence on my identity as a priest.

As we sang and prayed all of this was viscerally real to me, and I could not help but weep.  Momentarily present there in that chapel were all the remarkable, committed and quirky professors from whom I had learned, in both classroom and refectory.  Present with me were classmates and friends with whom I had exegeted Scripture; conjugated Greek verbs; wrestled with process theology; practiced chanting the collects; dreaded the GOEs; and contemplated resolving the campus housing shortage by turning the quad into a KOA campground.  Present also were support staff personalities who oversaw with an eagle eye my operation of the refectory’s Hobart dishwasher, and insisted (unfairly!) that I must have put coffee grounds down the kitchen sink at Kirkland Street housing.

All of those saints and more, living and dead, joined with alumni, faculty and friends as we celebrated the final moments of this final Eucharist of the final school year at EDS in Cambridge.  They were all there!

In coming days we will pray earnestly for the fruitful vocation of EDS at UTS.  On this day we pray with the deepest gratitude for the manifold gifts offered and received at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.  Thanks be to God.

Here is the final blessing which I offered at that closing Eucharist.

Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
May the God of faith grant you the courage born of the assurance of things not seen;
May the God of hope renew your confidence and preserve you from despair when that arc of the moral universe seems to have bent in the wrong direction;
May the God of love empower you as an agent of that love, having been strengthened in this place to strive relentlessly for the justice which incarnates love;
And the blessing, mercy, and grace of God Almighty, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit, be upon you and those you love and serve, this day and always.  Amen.”
 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

2017.06.11 Graduating Into Godde

If I were giving a graduation speech or trying to explain the Holy Trinity to a bunch of eager, scared, impatient grads, I’d offer one idea to practice and a soul-poem that dared to mention God by name.

AT EVERY MOMENT, STOP TO WONDER AND ASK YOURSELF:WHAT MATTERS HERE? PAUSE. THEN ASK YOURSELF: WHAT REALLY  MATTERS HERE?

Do You Believe in Godde?
     by Lyn G. Brakeman
 
I say I believe in God
when I see a seventeen-year-old girl-child
catapult down
center aisle
–late–
 shot from a cannon.

Wait! she shouts;
her bright blue graduation
robe flaps open
to reveal bare knees ending in fuchsia sneakers.

She races— winged— up the steps
to the stage
then stops,
straightens her square hat
until it settles over her curls, then walks with slow steady steps
towards the school principal
—who waits.

I say I believe in God
when I see this girl
walk with no swagger.

The principal waits still.

When she arrives he hands her a diploma
He says her name
—all of it, out loud—
even the middle name she hates: Victoriana.

At the sound of her name she leaps into his arms.
He holds her tightly,
the diploma still in his hand.
It has her back.

I say I believe in God
when I hear murmurs of shock
ripple through the crowd of praise-addicts.

I say I believe in God when
—one-by one—they rise to applaud.

Two people in the very back row
keep on clapping
after the girl flings her tassled
hat into the crowd
and runs off the stage.
No one is there to snap her photo,
except the invisible Godde*
with the invisible camera that images all Earth.

I say I believe in God
when I witness such jubilation,
and keep on believing
long after the applause has died down.

I say I believe in Godde when years later
I see this girl
hard at work packing groceries
with neat precision into bags.
She grins at every customer
so broadly that the whole world can look down her throat.


*Godde is the Middle English spelling of God. It is used quite frequently in modern times, because it nuances femininity in the divine name and softens the hard "d" ending. 



Sunday, June 4, 2017

2017.06.04 Yirah

The word yirah (pronounced yir-aw/) is Hebrew for awe/fear/awareness. It does sound a little like a cheer—hurrah. And yet yirah is not a superficial “yippee” that passes quickly, as when you cheer for a sports team to win. Rather it is a sensation that grips your gut with a combination of awe and exhilaration—like seeing a bull fight.

When I went to a bull fight in Spain, I was horrified and disapproving. Taunted by my Spanish hermano in Madrid, I relented when he called me “timid Americana—grrrl.” This was not complimentary. I went with him to the fight. We sat in the cheap seats facing into the sun. Baked and pissed, I waited.

A bull fight is a ritual: hot and fiery, alive with music and the alacrity of picadors on horseback, toreros with sparkling costumes and red capes—the essence of macho eroticism. The crowd, intimate players in this drama, roars and sways rhythmically. Suddenly, I could not resist this dark power. There was something beautiful, sensual, unavoidable about this gruesome dance. I was swept into shouts of olĂ© and toro, toro. I was fully alive.

This was liturgy. This was biblical.

    -like being part of the multi-voiced multitudes of Jews gathered from all the corners of the earth on the day of Pentecost—expecting God’s promised Spirit to show up and make it all  better—lost in divine pulsation, knowing it is supposed to be ecstatic—but it isn’t, quite. Yirah.

    -like being present at Jesus’s crucifixion, a horror-show everyone thought would never happen, despite predictions. This scenario, even now, we Christians reverence and detest and do not understand and cannot forget as we sit in pews and pretend we are not part of the mob. Yirah.

The Spirit of yirah  is one of overwhelm. It can be frightening in a mystical way, as if one’s individual identity will be lost as all boundaries, even those of language, dissolve. The particular is subsumed in the universal. Believe me, Christians, this day we call Pentecost is no simple elation, no little Happy Birthday to the Christian Church. It is is much more, much much more. It’s breath-halting, heart-waking, near-intolerable yirah.

Yirah can cause a whole crowd of people to grow suddenly silent with collective quivering, simultaneously paralyzed and transformed.

My friend and poet Jinks Hoffmann wrote a poem called Yirah in her book It’s All God, Anyway.
The poem catches this mystical mix.

YIRAH

The hiccup between
here and there
now and then

is less

than a full breath
when you know

you cannot trust
your ground,

when you know

there is no-one,
no thing,

between you,
your life and death.

When you stop,
there is nothing
to do
but be aware of
how damn exquisite
how damn awful
is all is.


The feeling this poem first generated is me was puzzlement. I couldn't parse the words. Angry, I read it over and over. I looked up everything, trying to contain, interpret. Having no control is scary.

I even tried Google where I discovered that a Rabbi, Alan Lew, had defined this word. He at least is immersed in biblical Hebrew. He’s also a Zen Rabbi with a mystical bent and the author of One God Clapping. (No, I did not go to Amazon to order it.) According to Lew, one meaning of yirah is “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.” 

This is being IN God—a bit of what I felt at the bullfight and what I feel reading this poem —hanging among the stars helpless yet not dead. I am myself and not myself.

How damn exquisite and damn awful it all is. It all is—this particular moment of knowing and not knowing who the bejesus you are, and yet you are.

Yirah


Sunday, May 28, 2017

2017.05.28 Goodbye and Thank You Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle, a writer who made music with his words, just died yesterday.




I don’t write obituaries as news. I write today because I feel deep sorrow at the loss of a writer so supremely deft with words that I am left wonderstruck. (The formal obituary is below.) I did not know Brian Doyle personally. I grieve his writing, much of which I’ve read.

I would call Brian Doyle a Master of Words. He would, in his prose, pile words up—verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs—in heaps, and he never heeded the scorn of those who advise writers to use fewer adjectives and never an adverb. He wrote about everyday things and made them all shimmer with soul. He shunned no word that said what he meant and felt. Brian gave me courage to use as many words as I needed to match the energy of my emotional investment in whatever I was writing about. 

Here’s an example of my own attempt to describe the mysterious power of an experience which is not earthbound:  

There’s no telling exactly why such attractions take hold and cement themselves into the human mind and heart, yet most of us know the experience, and most of us admit it feels irresistible, indispensable, immeasurable, irreplicable, mysterious, and tidal, all at once. So we follow it.

If I hadn’t borrowed Doyle’s word-courage I would never have dared to use so many adjectives, one not even a legitimate word. But I felt each one. To pay proper tribute to Doyle’s faith along with his skill with apt words, here is a poem he wrote called God. 
    
GOD


By purest chance I was out in our street when the kindergarten
Bus mumbled past going slow and I looked up just as all seven
Kids on my side of the bus looked at me and I grinned and they
Lit up and all this crap about God being dead and where is God
And who owns God and who hears God better than whom is the
Most egregiously stupid crap imaginable because if you want to
See God and have God see you and have this mutual perception
Be completely untrammeled by blather and greed and comment,
Go stand in the street as the kindergarten bus murmurs past. I’m
Not kidding and this is not a metaphor. I am completely serious.
Everyone babbles about God but I saw God this morning just as
The bus slowed down for the stop on Maple Street. God was six
Girls and one boy with a bright green and purple stegosaurus hat.
Of course God would wear a brilliantly colored tall dinosaur hat!
If you were the Imagination that dreamed up everything that ever
Was in this blistering perfect terrible world, wouldn’t you wear a
Hat celebrating some of the wildest most amazing developments?

                        by Brian Doyle

Doyle had a vibrant sense of humor and was obviously passionate about God, his Christian faith, Roman Catholic brand, and basketball—not necessarily in that order. He also adored little stories and noticed absolutely everything that crossed his path, things others would pass by without a shrug. Everything, everyone, and every story is sacred—maybe religious and always soul-shaking. To perceive in this way is a gift—let’s say it’s Holy. 

Here is a poem he wrote in A Shimmer of Something. Lean Stories Of Spiritual Substance about tiny unnoticeable events of eternal magnitude. Call these poems Incarnation, Resurrection, Creation—or just plain Life, true and on the bone. 

THE SPARROW

Or, hey, listen, here’s a story for you.
A friend of mine who is 96 years old
And blind but still living in her beach
Cabin hears her cat capture a sparrow
Which the cat then presents as a prize.
My friend cradles the bird in a sponge
And goes to the front door and throws
Out the sponge, and then goes to wash
The dishes, only to realize she’s using
The sparrow, who objects strenuously.
Now, this is terrific story from every
angle imaginable: deft murderous cat,
Sparrow who didn't die, lady giggling,
The grin that just opened on your face,
The child who will fall down laughing
Later when you say now here’s a story . . .

And a favorite of mine.

THE SQUIRREL

Here you go. Here’s a moment to ponder carefully.
We think that there are greater and lesser moments
But how immensely and ridiculously wrong this is.
For here is a boy riding along the street in summer.
He is perhaps six years old. His bike is wildly blue.
He sees a smear of squirrel in the street. He pauses,
Using the heels of his sneakers as brakes. He looks,
He dismounts, he sets his kickstand, he looks down.
He kneels and gathers up the shredded creature and
Walks to the shady ravine where we saw the coyote
That time and he gives the squirrel to the tiny creek.
He washes in a muddy puddle and then he rides off.
I am the man who saw and testifieth of these things,
And what I say is true. I saw a boy bow before holy
Things, for all things are holy, and he reminded me,
And so now I remind you. Go thou and do likewise.

            


Brian was born in New York, my own home city, in 1956. He has been the editor of  the University of Portland’s (that’s Oregon)  quarterly Portland magazine since 1991. Author Annie Dillard called this “the best spiritual magazine in the country.” Brian died on May 27th, 2017 at age 60 of complications related to a brain tumor. He leaves his wife and three children. Here's the obituary link.

https://www1.up.edu/news/2017/05/Brian-Doyle-passes-away.html






Sunday, May 21, 2017

2017.05.21 The Way It Is—Words of Wisdom



     Wisdom, to me, is the fruit of much well-digested life experience combined with intellectual knowledge, the kind that comes with “school”. 

    The dictionary defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment”. Pretty close, but I called the “good judgment” part, well-digested.

    A popular aphorism of Benjamin Franklin advises:"Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  For some strange reason this advice wasn’t meant for women. :0)

    The Bible calls Wisdom divine and names her Sophia (in Greek), a feminine name because Wisdom is portrayed in biblical Wisdom literature as a woman, her shadowy counterpart named Folly.

    In the Book of Proverbs, it is written that Wisdom as a child was present with God from the beginning when God created the world. Then again in Proverbs (1ff), a much-neglected yet often taken literally and over-quoted, book, it is written (paraphrased):
    “Wisdom has build her house. She has set her table. . . .  She calls: ‘Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity. Live, and walk in the way of insight.’”  

A biblical scholar once proffered this as a good invitation to the table of Holy Communion. We took him up on the idea and used it in a former parish.

"Groves of redwoods . . .are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or mosque—a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy."  Colin Tudge, "The Secret of Trees"



Socrates, a wise thinker in ancient times, said. “Wisdom begins in wonder.” If I were delivering a  commencement I would use this wisdom, elaborate very little and dismiss the grads with this advice: Whatever you do, always remember to wonder—and too, allow yourself to be wonderstruck.


American Poet Laureate, William Stafford (1914-1993) offers a recipe for daily life wisdom.

There’s a straw you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the straw.


Personal wisdom: Whatever comes your way in life is an opportunity to enhance or impede the flow of divine Love. That's ministry. That’s my “straw.”

Madame Owl sits among trees, observes, and wonders.



Sunday, May 14, 2017

2017.05.14 Mother's Day Letter to My Children

To my dearly beloved children,
 
I am writing to let you know that what honors me most as your mother on Mother’s Day is your presence in my life, being able to see and hear how you manage to love life in spite of its many difficulties, your willingness to include me in the midst of your own busy lives, and your capacity to forgive me my clumsiness as I sorted out my own life messes. 

To say that I love you is a silly understatement. But it’s true, and the only word we have for deep affection coupled with admiration and gratitude. Because of you I don’t feel anonymous as I age out. Thank you. (BTW, I can hear you all laughing and saying: Oh, it’s a mom special.) True, I get more mushy with age.

Here’s a poem Rob wrote. I treasure it for its simplicity. It’s not dated but I’m guessing it’s 30 years old. I know it’s old because I tried to remove it from its frame to see if it was signed  and the backing began to crumble. It has hung on many walls over the years.

It was you, Mom,
  who brought me
From two to ten
Ten to two tens,
Crayons to pencils
pencils to pens.
       And
For that I love you
        Dearly


Each of you is a beautiful poem with your own unique personality, character, and special gifts. You are radically different and equally beloved.

It was you, Bev,                                                   
  who mothered me
when I couldn’t mother you
  and most needed the help.
     And
For that I love you
     Dearly



It was you, Jill,
  who  spoke a truth to me
when you called me a “wimp”
  and we laughed and cried together
     And
For that I love you
     Dearly



It was you, Rob
who wrote me poems and
dared to sob after a car accident:
“I nearly killed my brother.”
   And
For that I love you
   Dearly


It was you, John,
who, so ill in hospital, told me
“When I opened my eyes,
I saw you just sitting there, and it was enough.”
      And
For that I love you
     Dearly



“We have to work with what life presents to us, and we have to work as well as we can while we can.” (Martha Graham)

You all have done that and are doing that. Me too.


love,
Mom



Sunday, May 7, 2017

2017.05.07 Winged Words and Image

The Institute of Sacred Music at Yale Divinity School will host a conference, “Love Bade Me Welcome” on May 12-14, 2017.

It sounds by its title as if this conference is about social justice and supreme hospitality. So it is, of course, but its stated mission is to provide inspiration and practical guidance in the many uses of poetry for worship, liturgy, meditation, and education. “Our aim is to equip church leaders with the ‘winged words’ of poets as we seek to shape the minds and hearts of contemporary congregations.”

Here are the “winged words” of seventeenth century poet, George Herbert.

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.


The conference planners recognize that “poetic sensibilities are always present within the Christian faith. From the remarkable poetry of the Psalms, Prophets, and Wisdom literature, to the splendid verse of Dante, Herbert, Milton, Dickinson, Hopkins, Levertov, and many others up to our contemporaries, poetry has brought life and light to the Church through the ages.  How, afresh, can poetry revitalize our worshiping communities today.”

Herbert’s poem is religious, yet its “winged words” take it far beyond religion. It thrills me to see such an effort undertaken on the campus of the school where I spent four of the most formative years of my life.

To Herbert, “Love” is God, welcoming him and noticing, with a “quick-eyed Love,” how much the guest doth protest all his sins and unworthiness. Love invites, welcomes without condition, then feeds the guest actual food while also bathing him with the grace of healing his fascination with his shame—now toxic. Are you secretly preoccupied with your inadequacy?

Jesus the Christ lived and taught that Love absorbed all such feelings. He was crucified for his efforts. It’s ironic that humankind has little tolerance for Love, especially the kind that does not demand excessive displays of repentance, the kind that’s Eternal, the kind that just plain bypasses the sin we allow to cling to our souls—so tightly, so tight. 

Like the rejection of a heart transplant, humankind rejects Love. We are simply not comfortable unless we have a way to atone. Atoning sacrifices give us a way to feel powerful, a way to take control over our salvation. Oh, for God’s sake let God do it!

Love, writes this poet, bids us welcome without atonement. There is no such phenomenon as Eternal disdain. Love is winged—too big to demand repayment for the sake of being bade welcome.

The music of Herbert’s words brought to my mind the Greek muse Polyhymnia, muse of sacred song—a winged art form if there ever was one. Polyhymnia has no wings, she is simply winged.

Artist Susan Sohl created this image of Polyhymnia, copyright, 2017.  In giving me permission to share her image, Susan told me a bit of her own story.  She wrote: “I look forward to reading this blog and seeing my "muse". I did the entire series of 9, and none of the originals remain in my possession. They found a variety of homes, and now I am ready to start on other icons from the ancient world.

‘By the way, I am a survivor of lymphomic cancer, lupus (chemo forced it into remission), open-heart surgery, and two spinal surgeries. Painting and creating gave me the strength and will to never give up.  Now I teach and continue to paint, sharing my sense of color and love of movement with others. Thank you for wanting to offer one of my pieces to your readers, Susan.”

 Below is the artist with the winged soul.


Thank you Susan for your generosity. Obviously, Love bade you welcome and gave you strength to love back through your art and your spirit of persistence. Love inspires that kind of thing.