Sunday, April 26, 2015

2015.04.26 WHY PRAY?

A granddaughter asked me not long ago, “Grammy, why do you pray?” Her tone was not child-innocent, it was edgy-young-teen-of-fifteen.

Momentarily flummoxed, I had no idea why I prayed. But this was a near-emergency—my aging religious faith vs. her budding religious skepticism—so I  blurted out, “I pray because I love.” She snorted but didn’t retort, then grabbed a couple of french fries from my plate. After she’d swallowed them whole she grinned and said “Okay to have a couple of your fries, Grammy?”  Sassy!  And I love her.

So that IS why I pray. I love. I also pray about her, which is to say that she is on my heart daily, along with all my children and grandchildren and several million other concerns from world peace to the barely audible wheeze I’d heard in my lungs this morning.

I remember some priest asked the Presiding Bishop some years ago when she spoke to the diocesan clergy of Massachusetts at our conference: “What do you think about prayer?” (I do think it was a rather saucy adolescent question.) The PB threw up her hands and just said, “Do it!” Later she added that she prayed when she ran.

Public prayer is powerful and recitative. However, personal prayer is a sluicy thing. The assumption behind prayer is that there is a greater power than the human looking out for the universe in kindly, not kingly or silly, ways. When we pray we access and release that greater energy. We call this Mystery by many names (God, Allah, Wisdom, Christ, Adonai, YHWH, and more) and when we evoke it in prayer it is a matter of connection and hope, not control. 

No one really understands prayer but many of us do it. There is no one who can’t pray, and probably no one who has never prayed or called out in some way. My own praying makes an art form of wordiness. Yet when I am on a retreat of silence and solitude, after my yammering, I fall into contemplative prayer, which is much the same as breathing meditation: after a while your heart becomes one with the sacred heart. Thump, thump, thump. 

In other words, God is Goodness and Love and, in a deeply spiritual way, massages the fabric of earthly life enabling replication of this goodness and love—imperfectly but surely. 

Thank god I did not rattle on in such abstract ways to a fifteen year old. But here is what I hope she got:
    We pray because we love, because we care.
    We pray because people and things matter to us.
    We pray because we seek faith and because we have faith.
    We pray with certainty and we pray because we don’t know.
    We pray because we seek God as God seeks us. Prayer is more mutual than we think.    
    And as Christians, we pray because Jesus prayed.

The psalmist in Psalm 119:9 (Pamela Greenberg translation) declares:

“With all my heart-muscle I have sought you.”
Seek with all your heart muscle and you will find.
Thump. Thump. Thump.

Prayer is muscular. According to Benedictine monastic, David Steindl-Rast, OSB, the antidote for exhaustion is not rest but whole-heartedness. Whatever you do, including pray, do it with all your heart-muscle. Thump. Thump. Thump

Sunday, April 19, 2015


There was a note in the bathroom of a local restaurant.The note was an e-mail copied and distributed about the neighborhood. It read something like: Lost, one quadroceptor. Please watch for it and please, please return it. E-mail us if you find it.

For some reason the note broke my heart. It was like one of those painful postings you see on phone poles or in restrooms, or anywhere where someone might notice it and come to the rescue. You know the kind: Lost: a black and white kitten named PussyPoo, or worse, a little boy who answers to the name of Timmy, has disappeared from the park. Last seen wearing a blue jacket—and you stop reading. 

But I’ve never seen a note about a thing, a toy I figured, obviously precious to its owner. Did a child write this e-mail?

I had no idea what a quadroceptor was but I knew this one was very important to someone who was very important to whoever posted the sign—a love note.

A quadroceptor is the classic toy reinvented. It's autonomous.  It flies like a  helicopter, zooming all over the house or outdoors. It even flies through windows. It's a drone!  And some small pilot mans the remote controls.

I imagined that the handwritten note was dictated by a child to a parent. I imagined that they went around together to post it. I thought that the parent couldn’t bear the broken heart of a child, and would do everything to try to fix it, and hopefully would not have launched into a little lecture about, “It’s only a toy!”  Or something more shaming. 

I still look for that quadroceptor—more than a toy. 

Children teach us about hearts and show us the lost art of grieving. Young children feel things deeply and do not easily discriminate about relative values until they mature. Death becomes an enemy only when children listen to adults talk about it. Often, then, death becomes an act of God, a God who “takes” someone away. Is this a body-snatcher God? Honestly I do not know how divine love survives with all the errant projections upon its graces. But children are naturally more given to profligate loving, grieving, saving, and finding than they are to destruction, a behavior they learn soon enough.

Once a cat we had in NYC flew out of a window and fell six stories down onto concrete. She used to race back and forth across the width of our apartment, jumping up onto the radiators at each end and pivoting to race back. One of the radiators was under a window. That day the window was open. I was about nine. My back was turned to the sight but I remember my mother’s face shattered into a thousand pieces. She had seen what happened. She cared little, not at all really, for the cat whose name was Lilliput. But it was my first pet. Sobbing and choking with terror and grief, I ran to the window, climbed up on the radiator sill and looked down. I saw, not a flattened, limp heap of mangled and bloody fur on the pavement, but a small cat slowly rising to its feet to look around and let out the loudest yowl imaginable. Then it walked around trying to figure out a way out of the back alley while my mother and I raced to the rescue as fast as we could. Lilliput was uninjured, though she yowled  inconsolably for hours, which was her right really. She rose up. She lived on for years.  

The note about the lost quadroceptor could have been written by God. And the amazing risen cat  seemed to me as a child like God’s doing. It still does. It’s a heart thing.   

Sunday, April 12, 2015

2015.04.12 Forty In Forty: Sisterhood

Siblings are a blessing and a curse. It’s hard to live with them and impossible to live without them. They know you very well, well enough to torment you, and well enough to defend you, no matter what—also well enough to love you into death and beyond.

I am the oldest of three sisters. There are approximately three years between us each. Our mother had three miscarriages before me and two before my younger sister, Laurie. Our youngest sister, Jeanie, died prematurely of brain aneurysms when she was 34, just five months before I would turn 40. She broke our hearts and broke up our troika.

I have no idea if heaven is a state of being in which we two living sisters will see our “baby” sister, again, but it’s a nice hope. We have lots of love to catch up on, and lots of stories to tell, and lots of need to be we three again. 

When I moved away from "home" I gave many years of scrapbooks to my children and theirs, so I don’t have childhood photos of us three sisters to share, alas. Nor do I have a photo of Jeanie alone, although I wake up to see her face in a group photo with her husband and three children taken just before she died. 

Two out of three of us are alive today: Laurie (left) now, at 73 and me at 76. We have been through all kinds of hell and damnation. Okay, I exaggerate, but I’ve lost count of how many times we have broken up and tentatively come back together—just because we are sisters. Now we are old enough to embrace intimacy, and also be ourselves. Age helps some things. We both will probably live into 2019, 40 years after Jeanie died.

Forty is a conventional number. In the Bible it is also a symbolic number, signifying a very long time. The Israelites wandered in the desert wilderness for “40” years. Jesus headed into the wilderness after his baptism. For “40” days and nights he discerned his vocation. It took a long time, but he decided  to withstand the temptation to exploit others with his spiritual gifts. He would, instead, do the unifying work of God.  

It takes a long time to grow up and into unity.

(A note: before you pummel yourself, or blame your sibling, consider your larger context—just to see whether anyone, with good intention, might have told you, "You're as good as your sister," or "You are the a perfect gift from God.")
*  *  *  *

In a NY Times Magazine article, “40 Portraits in 40 Years” (October 3, 2014), Susan Minot wrote the story behind a series of photographs, taken from 1975 to 2015 by artist Nicholas Nixon of his wife and her three sisters. I have seen the exhibit; it is transfixing, this photographic documentation of sibling affection, sibling difference, and sibling aging.

Here is the 1975 photo:

Over the years the annual photo became a project in which the artist and the subjects collaborated. Without wardrobing or make-up, the four sisters stayed as they were, year after year, enduring together within the truth of aging. “Everyone won’t be here forever” was implied.

This sisterhood admitted public observation, but not entry. It is remarkable that, in this age of the selfie, there does not seem to be evidence of attention-seeking. As I gazed at these sisters they gazed back at me, steadfastly. They had eye contact perfected, yet they never looked self-conscious. Sad often, showing signs of sibling wear and tear perhaps, but not possessed by their own image. Was this the way of these sisters?  Or was it the skill and eye of an artist who knows how to catch the truth without fanfare? Probably both.

According to Minot,“Nixon has pulled off a paradox: The creation of photographs in which privacy is also the subject. The sisters’ privacy has remained of utmost concern to the artist, and it shows in the work. Year after year, up to the last stunning shot with its triumphant shadowy mood, their faces and stances say, Yes, we will give you our image, but nothing else.”

There is something profoundly god-like in this last statement, something we humans who believe ourselves to be made in the image of God might take to heart. 

The sisters in 2015.