In spiritual direction, I always begin with a time of silence and centering. Often those engaging with me in spiritual direction want another period of silence at the conclusion of our hour together. As we unravel stories and complex, often perplexing personal narratives, there are moments when we go silent. Sometimes, after a rich and profound silence, a directee will say: "I really needed that." And I usually concur that I needed that silence also.
I admit it: This is my (monastic?) bias. In silence, we begin moving towards quieting all of the inner voices that compete for our attention and that distract us from essentials.
Never hope to find a silent zone in an American church (unless, of course, you are a Quaker). My home parish is chatty, chatty, chatty. People mean well. They are happy to see each other. But all of the chatter leaves God's voice in the wings. For awhile, I went to the church a little early so that, in silence, I could focus and prepare myself for the service. But, then, the choir decided to start rehearsing and, so, au revoir silence!
In monastic practice, after late evening prayers (compline) we observe the Great Silence. This is a deep time. I feel as though it prepares us not only to hear God's voice but readies us for the ultimate silence we will all face sooner or later: death. Even if we are all praising the Lord in heaven, I imagine that the mode of that praise will not be words and chatter.
So, I have never really considered a down side to silence . . . that is, until I read Days in the History of Silence by celebrated Norwegian author Merethe Lindstrom. This wonderful and acclaimed (in Norway but not quite yet in the USA) novel spins the story of an aging couple--they seem to be in their seventies, kids grown, in retirement, cultured. Suddenly and without any apparent reason, Simon, goes silent. He smiles. He makes eye contact. But he has just stopped talking. Period.
His wife tries to sort out what is going on while keeping her part of the better or worse deal that her marriage now represents. For her it is worse. It turns out that Simon is a holocaust survivor who has never discussed this with his daughters. It is revealed that the long suffering wife, gave away her baby boy because she had no feeling for him. But she has never told anyone except Simon. There is a Latvian cleaning woman who the couple suddenly releases--and this causes tensions with their daughters who are fond of the cleaner. The couple refuse to share with the adult daughters the reason for the dismissal. As the novel progresses, it seems that one secret by one family member is lodged inside another secret of another family member. Even the cleaning woman guards a silence, until one day she speaks words that electrify and hurt.
Maybe this is a silence of shame or of confusion about things that happened long ago. Many families experience this in some way. But you wonder if Simon's silence is not intentional and meant to hurt or punish. All persons who have been on the receiving end of "the silent treatment" by someone near to them, know how maddening this can be.
I am not going to leak the ending of this novel. It wouldn't be fair to readers or to the author. But I think that this is a wonderful, elegant, sparsely constructed novel which, with an intense economy of words, sucks you into the silence or the many nested silences. Good silence, bad silence? You decide at the end.
For myself, my bias regarding silence is just a little shaken now. Before I open that can of silence pictured above in a spiritual direction session, I am going to try to be sensitive to the possibility that the person sitting across from me might have been hurt or damaged by a bad silence.
I have been spending time on a "re-do" of the master bedroom in this ninety year old house. All winter I thought about what I wanted: sycamore green walls, a white chenille bedspread, new wooden (not particle board) bookshelves, a large arts and crafts style tile.
At this point I can report that the walls have been given two coats and look clean with a very deep hue and inviting contemplative tone. All of the stuff has been purchased and is awaiting right moment and measurements to go on the walls. The woodwork that was painted white will now be a mediiterranean white (slight apricot tinge). That painting is yet to happen and is only awaiting the long work of prep, putting up the blue painter's tape.
This week I reluctantly began stripping ninety plus years of varnish off the two closet doors. Talk about unpleasant! I don't like toxic smells and so I bought what was billed an an environmentally safe, citrus smell product for the stripping. No amount of citrus could hide the powerful work that was occurring once I applied it to the door and the varnish started oozing into blobs.
With newspapers duly laid out beneatth the doors, I began the work of cleaning off the now-liquified ancient varnish. Dirty, nasty work.
But as the varnish started to disappear, a beautiful door of real wood appeared. The color was reddish gold. The wood showed itself with beautiful grain and markings. Yesterday I varnished the first door and it glows in its newly established natural woodiness!
As I went through this exercise, I started thinking that stripping old varnish off doors is a little like what we do in spiritual direction. As we work, the gunk that slowly masks the beauty that exists deep in every person starts to become visible. This is slow, sometimes unpleasant work as the old covering clings on, reluctant to be removed once and for all.
As a spiritual director, I rejoice in those moments when the beautiful sheen, texture and hue of a formerly hidden spiritual self begins to emerge and show itself. Very often this happens in a moment of insight and surprise. When a person says, after engaging for a long time in spiritual work, "I didn't realize that God was working deep inside me" the gunk is gone for good.
A sacred expression. Michiana Shores, Lake Michigan, Michigan June 21, 2013
My experience regarding sacred places such as altars, churches, shrines is that they are places you plan on visiting. They are predictably in a given location. Either you know about them or you don't and you plan accordingly to include them in your plans (like attending a worship service at a given place) or not. We pore over tour books and land on the Grotto of Lourdes or the site in Canterbury Cathedral in the UK where Thomas a Becket was killed. It is very intentional.
But there are sacred spaces that may catch us by surprise. Last week I spent a few days at the Michiana Shores, right on the Indiana Michigan state line on Lake Michigan. The beach was pristine and endless and the water and sun most inviting.
One evening I was walking along the waterline when I saw that someone had built this beautiful altar. A log, some rocks carefully arranged. It was, at the very least, a kind of beach-appropriate installation art. But, in its composition and attention to design, it seemed to me more than just log/rock/sand composition. It drew the viewer to something greater than him/herself. I don't know how else to put it, but in its simplicity and detail, it pointed to something greater--a greater power or Ultimate Being or God. Anyway, this is what I read back into the sacred place. It did not have to be a part of the Christian narrative for it to energize me. Some spiritual beauty cannot be categorized.
My daughter, Nelia, and I decided to leave this sacred place intact. We knew that maybe tomorrow the strong Great Lakes waves would break it apart. We knew that like all sacred places, whether they last two days or two millenia, they are provisional and ad hoc, pointing to that which is more permanent and eternal. We left having had our spirits lifted for a moment. That was all that counted.
So, the long, hot months of summer are now officially upon us. With vacations, trips, lazy moments on the beach ahead of us, what will we read?
As a former bookseller for the now defunct Borders chain, I love having a book recommendation up my sleeve and so I decided to use this blog to give expression to my "inner bookseller". (Well, you can take the bookseller out of the store but you can't take the bookseller out of me!).
Earlier this year, I spent Holy Week at the Church of the Holy Cross (Episcopal) in Chicago as monastic in residence. One of my assignments was to lead a Holy Week Bible study. I chose to talk about Jesus' last week. I based the study on The Last Week: A Day-by-Daty Account of jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan (Harper, 2006). In the opening paragraphs of the book, Borg and Crossan write: "Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30 . . . One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession" p. 2. They contrast Jesus' procession of rag tag followers with the imperial might of the Roman military processiion of Pontius Pilate entering the city on the same day. Throughout The Last Week they make clear that Jesus' death was a matter of imperial politics.
Now a book has been issued--historic fiction--that takes up the same theme. It is The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman, a writer working out of London. Here is the description of the work from National Public Radio Books: " . . . imagining the life of Jesus, this novel presents the story of Yehoshuah, who wandered Roman-occupied Judea giving sermons and healing the sick. Now, a year after his death, the four people closest to him tell their stories. His mother grieves, his friend Iehuda loses his faith, the High Priest of the Temple tries to keep the peace, and a rebel named Bar-Avo strives to bring that peace tumbling down."
I found that reading this novel helped me think through the narratives in the New Testament texts as well as the embedded narratives in my head. For example, I love to sing or recite the Magnificat during Anglican evening prayer. Along with this is an image of Mary that is all innocence and sweetness. But in this novel, it is a coarser, less innocent and less loving Mary that is portrayed. This shift in perspective is healthy for my faith and my theology. Jesus himself comes off slightly crazed and without a clear agenda. He is one of many individuals challenging the political and religious structures of his day.
This is not a happy ending novel. None of the persons presented in expanded cameos comes out okay. All are hurt and are impacted by the death and violence around them.
I suggest this book as a challenging read for Christian readers who want to get a new sense of the times of Jesus. Some of the language might be offensive, especially in the mouths of those we have revered. Strangely enough, the profile that I found most helpful was that of Judas, named Iehuda.
I recommend this book to anyone wanting that good summer read in the sun! It is a nice complement to Borg and Crossan's work on the last days. Not comfortable but good reading.
A great blessing for me was to be invited as spiritual director for the 22nd annual conference for persons living with HIV and AIDS sponsored by Province IV of the Episcopal Church (mostly dioceses in the south and southeast). It was held June 7-9 2013 at the gorgeous Kanuga Conference Center, Hendersonville, North Carolina, just minutes from Asheville. It was billed as a "spirit filled weekend of hope, music and rejuvenation." My experience with the several hundred others who were there (mostly non-Episcopal Church members from as far away as Tuscon) was that this billing was right on target. This conference represented a setting where people who carry big and heavy burdens are able to kick back and let God work in life-giving ways. For many of these persons who get to travel only rarely, the conference is described as transformative.
Just a word about how it is structured: There are regular worship services. The speaker was the Rev. Roger Hayes who preached powerful messages that brought the crowd to their feet with clapping and amens. There were workshops (reiiki, mask making, Anglican prayer beads and even one on spiritual direction. There was a hugely popular talent show and ice cream social. And lots of free time to meet people, walk in the mountains and let silence take over.
Here are some pictures. FYI, everyone in the pics signed a consent form to have them used on the internet or in publications. The pictures speak for themselves and so not many captions.
I grew up learning that words matter. You give respect to those in authority in your life (mom, dad, grandparents, teachers) and you honor with right language God and holy things. Much of this training was based on respect for the Word and for what happens in and between persons during verbal transactions. This training occurred before the days of television, reality shows, the Internet, tell-alls . . . . I learned that words matter. They can hurt and they can heal. We sat around radios and listened . . . to words.
It was only much later that I learned that images matter also. Orthodox icons had never been a part of my formative Protestant experience. But in the nineties, I started paying attention to them, partly as the result of ecumenical exposure to Orthodox Christians. I took a wonderful icon writing class with Mother Catherine of the St. Seraphim School of Iconography here in Indianapolis. Slowly over five months my icon of the Blessed Mother took shape. This icon is in the prayer corner of my house now. This may come off as a little weird but sometimes I feel as though the eyes of Mother Mary are looking right at me and right into me.
Lately I realize that I am in a culture that is awash with ready access to images of all kinds. Advertisers know how to manipulate images to create "needs" or to promote issues. I can watch anything on-line. The television brings things into the house from everywhere.
And it is about the television that I want to comment. Several months ago an innocent man was killed and then hacked, knifed and butchered in full public view at a busy crossroads of London. This gruesome act was reported on many news programs, by many pundits of the left and the right.
So, I happened to look at my screen and I saw one of the killers calmly talking to a woman and blood was dripping from his hands. I was stunned. And sickened. This was not fiction or make believe. This was the real thing. It was in my living room where the Holy Eucharist has been celebrated. It was only steps from the prayer corner where I offer monastic prayers and where I often sit for long periods in silence in the presence of God. Suddenly this space where I live, pray, eat, work, study and offer hospitality to others seemed desecrated by the image on television.
At that moment, I made a decision. If I am to be subject to violent, intrusive images in my own home, then I am done with broadcast news on television. The reason for this decision, I later reasoned, is to draw a clear line between what I allow in this space. I don't allow porn of any kind. I would challenge persons using disrespectful or hurtful language. Equally, I am not allowing vivid violence in the name of news.
The interesting thing is that this does not mean that I am not paying attention to news. I still subscribe to a national daily newspaper, Time magazine and other publications. I still listen to NPR. I know that I still need to be informed and to make civic decisions. But for two months the television has been turned off except for an occasional movie or C-span book channel program.
We often talk about how we need silence to deepen our spirituality. But we need to clear away images that are unhelpful as well. I have no scientific proof. But I feel certain that images such as the gruesome aftermath of the terrible London murder have a way of getting inside our psyches and souls. Once there they can wreck spiritual havoc.
Not everyone agrees with me that it is best to flip the switch. One very sensitive person I met last week in Asheville, NC listened carefully. This is a spiritually deep person in all ways. In effect, she said that you can't wall yourself off from the real world. She says that her response when confronted with these bad images is to pray for those involved. She hands them over to God. I respect this approach very much.
My choice, though, even if it is for just a time, is to walk into a fenced off, boundaried space where violent visual intrusions do not happen. I trust that this is different from putting my head in the sand. I respect images and what they can do to the soul. They matter.
Letting It All Settle: Cultivating Compassion on the River, Spiritual Directors International Conference, St. Paul MN April 9-11, 2013
Mississippi River Walk 2013 on Facebook/Peter Johnson as published on Minnesota Public Radio web site, March 12, 2013
I have been back for two weeks from my 1,300 mile road trip on Megabus to the Twin Cities via Chicago for the annual conference of Spiritual Directors International on the theme "Cultivating Compassion on the River". The Crowne Plaza Hotel in St. Paul is located right on the Mississippi and it is as far north as I have ever seen this great and powerful river. From my 20th story window I could look down on the river. I thought that it might be small but even in the north, far from New Orleans, it is wide and formidable.
As I looked at this river (through the snow and sleet, I am sorry to say) I remembered other great rivers that have played a part in my life. There is the Hudson on whose banks I lived for a time both in New York City and in upstate New York. There is the Amazon where I was doing my youthful backpack trip as a Peace Corps Volunteer when the Six Days War broke out in 1966--I remember that the river was so wide that you could not see either side from our little steamer. There is the Zambezi where I saw Victoria Falls once from my one and only ever helicopter ride. There is Niagara Falls and Iguacu Falls, both dumping with incredible noice and power water from rivers and tributaries. And there is the Congo River that I travelled by motor propelled canoe several times when I worked with missions in Africa. Surely these rivers contribute to my love of water as well as to my deep fear of it (well, for one thing I can't swim!). Both my love and my fear equate deep respect.
So I was surprised during the conference that in the plenary opening rituals, much attention was given to two Ojibwe women, pictured above, who are walking the length of the Mississippi, from the headwaters in Minnesota as far as the Gulf of Mexico with a copper bucket filled with water from the headwaters of the Mississippi. Their intent is to call attention to the condition of our water resources.
Sharon Day is walking the 1,200 miles with her sister, Doreen. The copper bucket that they are carrying is filled with water from Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi. She commented: "This time we we'll take the water from the headwaters, where it is still clean and pure, and all along the way to where it enters the Gulf." Day is the executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force in Minneapolis. By mingling the clean water with the polluted waters at the mouth of the Mississippi, they will provide a sign of healing and of memory.
During the conference, I attended many workshops, plenaries, discussions around dinner tables and elsewhere. But two weeks out from the conference the impression that is greatest and most important to me is of Sharon and Doreen making a sacred pilgrimage along one of North America's great rivers. This small, holy act reminds me so powerfully of water as the source of sustenance for all of God's creatures. The work of these two women is the most basic spiritual act that I can think of and I keep them in my imagination and my thoughts and my prayers.
If Spiritual Directors International had not met in St. Paul on the banks of the Mississippi, I would never have known this story. Of all the things at the conference, this is what most nourishes me now.
Each night I dip my finger into the holy water font in my icon corner and make the sign of the cross remembering my baptism. Water. Nurture. Life. The Mississippi, Doreen, Sharon. Holy women, holy water.
Today is definitely transitional to Spring! The temperature, for so long wintery, finally broke the sixties today. My crocuses have been up for awhile, little lonely blooms. The tulips and other bulbs have valiantly pushed through the frozen earth--and I am happy to see that the ones that were composted are bigger and healthier than the others.
About an hour ago I walked to the Spades Park Library, a century old structure that is one of the few remaining Carnegie Libraries in Indianapolis, to collect my reserve book. In yards everywhere, people are out with rakes and black plastic bags clearing the twigs, dead grass, leaves and debris that has accumulated since Autumn. I haven't started yet--mostly I am just looking and thinking about it! As I looked lazily upon my garden beds, I did notice lots of debris and some trash--hmmm, how did those Halloween candy wrappers manage to stay in one place throughout the past months?
This exercise of debris cleaning will allow lots of new life and growth to appear very soon. Dead stuff is removed so that fresh plants may enter the world unhindered. It is an old lesson that we all know: Life bursts forth from the old and the dead . . . Is that a good Easter lesson or what? Sure, it is about Jesus but it is about the way the earth is wired. In fact, it is the way the universe is wired, if we are to believe the scientists (which I do).
Every day I sit in contemplation and silence--most often in wordless prayer. What happens in those moments is a clearing of the debris. It is raked away--the sounds, the mental script, the to-do list (about which I am normally compulsive), the worries, the things that get in the way of my feeling really good. And I am left with what is deep inside. For me it is Being itself. For others, it might be a greater consciousness. For others, God. Actually, it doesn't make much of a difference what it is called. What I know is that it is life giving. But first, the debris has to be cleared away.
Sometimes in spiritual direction, we may spend months or years clearing the gunk and the debris away, only to find one day that we have moved deeper both into ourselves and into God. That is a breakthrough moment worth every moment of raking and good work. It requires leaving behind ideas, favorite doctrines, habitual modes and allowing something new to spring forth in its own time. As we clear the debris, we learn to process things in new, unexpected ways. Contemplation, as a new way of processing, results in deeper, more richly textured life and promise.
A joyous congregation gathers after the Easter mass for fellowship. The Rev. Fowlkes, Priest-consultant, seated right. Ms. Laura Mills, Warden for Finance, seated left front. Mr. Ben Farnandis, Warden for Operations, standing left. Daniel Hoffman "monastic in residence" for Holy Week seated center.
The Easter service at the Church of the Holy Cross (Episcopal) in Chicago began with the lighting of the Paschal candlle and the words: The light of Christ. The people responded: Thanks be to God. Two more times these words were intoned solemnly and slowly by liturgist and congregation. The Paschal candle made its way to the front of the podium to one side of the alter where its light flickered gently and beautifully. It was cold outside--a Great Lakes cold. But it was also sunny and the shafts of amber light made the wonderful 1960s nave aglow--yes, the light of Christ! And this in a city that is struggling with unprecedented gun violence and social issues (the announcement was made just days before about the closing of more than twenty public primary schools). And yet . . .
And yet, this small congregation announced with assurance and joy that Christ lives. It was a radiant moment following the darkness of Holy Week and the long forty days and forty nights of Lent. After a full week of fellowship and prayer with this congregation as monastic-in-residence, I rejoiced in the wisdom and stability of faith of the members and the vision of their priest-consultant.. Celebrating the resurrection in Morgan Park was a gift to me that I will not soon forgot.
Easter joy! Yes, indeed, the light of Christ! I returned to Indianapolis thinking that the light of Christ and the hope of the world may reside in small groups of persons who generate energy and goodness as they carry the Paschal light into their world.
I am writing this from Chicago. This holy week I have been the monastic in residence at the Church of the Holy Cross (Episcopal) in Morgan Park on the South Side. A small African American parish that has been in existence since 1942, the members are not getting any younger, as they say. In fact, several of them are in their mid nineties.
Last night I preached the homily at the Maundy Thursday commemoration of Jesus' last night with his disciples. He washes the feet of these sometimes clueless followers. My take on the text in John 13 is that Jesus does this for the very simple reason of giving them something, an act and interpretive words, to remember him by. Sort of like that battered and chipped platter that your grandma handed down to you just before he died. In this case, Jesus asks us to be humble, kneeling down and serving others. But he asks us also to receive acts of service from others. Reciprocal servanthood is what he is getting at. It is "something to remember me by." Words and action, not a platter.
I don't like foot washing (I don't mind washing others' feet, I just don't feel so comfortable having my own feet washed). Yet, here I was the preacher and proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus Christ and, clearly, on this night above all nights, footwashing is involved. I did go forward.
What moved me almost to tears were the old people who walked ever so slowly to the front and with pain got down on their knees, washed and dried others' feet, stood up with difficulty (please, God, don't let him lose his balance and fall backwards) and then return to their pews, smiling because they too, maybe too old for lots of things, had complied with Jesus' admonition on the night before he died to wash others' feet. I learned so much about the human spirit just watching these people reverently engage in a truly deep and sacramental act. And, hey, I am almost seventy. I took note.
Here is the homily's conclusion:
I am leaving this world.
Take this to remember me by:
a wash basin,
Let your own feet be washed.
Someday you will understand that the things of heaven are right here in what we are doing and in these things--wash basin, towel, water.
I wanted to give you something to remember me by.