A Medium Aevum Advent

I’m heartened to see more and more Christians keeping Advent—not rushing to the feast, but spending time in holy expectation. The historian in me approves. When we observe Advent, we deepen our preparation for Christ’s coming by embracing the liturgical rhythms of the ancient Church. Some historical Advent practices, such as fasting, many of us do not keep today. Others, like the annual Christmas pageant, are still going strong (in the medieval Church the pageant was performed by choirboys).

This year, as I watch my daughters perform one of their own practices, I’ve been drawn to some wonderful medieval teachings on Advent. Perhaps I should say Advents. In one of his sermons for the season, written in the mid twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of not one but three comings of Christ. A century later, Thomas Aquinas adds yet another. That’s three more comings than most of us prepare for. It has taken my two children to help me absorb what these four advents might mean for me.

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Christ’s first coming–no surprise here–is his historical advent. My daughters have developed an elaborate practice to prepare for this event: the manger scene. My girls set up their manger with the precision of an HGTV reality show. Everything must be just so. The picture on the box is consulted: Mary must stand here, Joseph there. The manger must be centered. Then and only then is the baby tenderly placed therein. But not for long; Jesus requires much more attention than that. He is taken out and taken care of, cradled and coddled until it is deemed the right time to lay him down again. I sometimes think God sent his son as a baby for the benefit of maternally inclined five-year-olds.

My girls’ mothering reminds me of a beautiful fourteenth-century devotional text, Meditations on the Life of Christ. In this text, readers are asked to imagine their way into the manger scene: “Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to let you hold him a while.” Later, we are advised to step in and help Mary: “Be ready to give your services as if you could, meditate on them, delight and rejoice in them . . . and often gaze upon that face which angels desire to look upon.” Caring, with all our imaginative and spiritual faculties, for the baby Jesus: what a wonderful meditational exercise for the Advent season. I wonder if the infant Jesus slept through the night?

This exercise leads to another, perhaps deeper, form of preparation. In his sermon, Saint Bernard notes that Jesus not only came in the flesh. He also comes to our heart. He is hidden there: “Only his chosen see him in themselves, and they shall heal their souls.” I like to think of Jesus’ indwelling in us as a continuation of Mary’s work. Mary gave birth to Jesus and cared for him physically. Now it is our job to spiritually receive Christ and raise him up. He must grow to maturity in our heart.

My daughters pick baby Jesus up and put him down. They take him to town. They sing to him. Watching them play reminds me how much care Jesus needs to grow in me. It makes my heart tender but also afraid. I feel keenly my own lack. Sometimes I fail to care for my children the way I should. How can I possibly provide for Jesus? I need not only the baby but also the full-grown savior. My yearning for Christ’s grace is as great as my desire to cradle him in my heart.

Of course we know that Jesus’ cradle leads to the cross and the grace we so desperately need. These two yearnings are depicted in one of my favorite paintings, the Adoration of the Magi by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.

St. Columba Altarpiece

As one of the kings leans forward to kiss the infant Jesus, almost exactly as recommended by the Meditations on the Life of Christ, we see a small crucifix nailed to a post above his head.

Columba detailThis is a good painting for Advent because it keeps us from sentimentalizing the birth of Christ. If you want to grow up the baby Jesus, remind yourself that he’s headed to the cross. That will do it every time.

But Advent looks even farther ahead in the life of Christ. In his sermon, Bernard of Clairvaux reminds the Church that within Christ’s coming in the flesh is embedded the promise of his coming again. Jesus will return to earth, and the world will be made new. We are assured that whatever darkness surrounds us, God will bring his story to the glorious conclusion he foretold.

As we reflect on the teaching of the Mellifluous Doctor, we realize that Advent is truly ancient-future. It harks back to the birth of Jesus (and before that to the prophecies about him). It takes place in the present as he is born in our heart. And it looks forward to the end of earthly time. Advent is a season to meditate on the entire history of salvation through Jesus Christ, a season to both celebrate and yearn for the world’s redemption.

Admittedly, my girls seem far more earthly than eschatological when they play with their manger scene:

“He doesn’t want his blanket.”

“Yes, he does! All babies need their blanket!”

But, as Saint Bernard shows, the birth of Jesus is wrapped up in his other advents, even the ones that are invisible or that take place in a distant future. Christ’s comings cannot be separated one from another; one form of yearning leads to the next. It is strange to watch my daughters play and feel so much ache mixed in with my delight. When my girls are older I will tell them about the complex theology behind their childlike faith.

I could end my Advent meditation here. Bernard of Clairvaux does. His sermon, as I mentioned, teaches three comings of Christ—in the flesh, in our hearts, and at the end of time. But in an Advent sermon preached in 1271, Thomas Aquinas adds a fourth coming of Jesus. Christ comes, writes the Angelic Doctor, at the hour of our death. This coming is necessary to bring his “just ones” not only grace, but also glory.

I confess that with this teaching, my yearning grinds to a halt. It seems easier to long for the end of time than for my personal end. Yet Saint Thomas is not the only one to advise me on this subject. Centuries earlier, the desert father Pachomius said, “Have, therefore, the hour of your death ever before your eyes.” Even in Advent? Even when my children are so full of life and the whole world is telling me to be joyful? Upon reflection, I conclude that there is no better time. During this season, we prepare for a savior who came to defeat death—yes, even our own. When he comes for us, it will be to take us to glory.

And so, as I watch over my children, I learn to watch my heart. I coax and guide it to think on its final hour. If I can’t yet yearn for this coming of Christ, I can at least be alert. I ask my heart, are you ready? Christ will return for you one day, and this advent is every bit as real as his birth in the flesh and his coming again.

Thanks to two daughters and two doctors of the church, my Advent preparations are a strangely medieval mix of delight, yearning, and rather intense soul-searching. As a mother, I look for the coming of a baby, one as fleshy and sweet as my girls. I also remember that the baby Jesus grew up to save the world and that he will come again, both at the end of time and, likely before that, for me. May my heart be prepared to mother him now and to meet him when my time comes.

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This essay was originally published on my website, lisadeam.com.

Open, Starry Spaces: A Thanksgiving Memory (A Post by Prasanta Verma)

Gently the dark comes down over the wild, fair places,
The whispering glens in the hills, the open, starry spaces;
Rich with the gifts of the night, sated with questing and dreaming,
We turn to the dearest of the paths where the star of the homelight is gleaming.
-L.M. Montgomery  

When I was in elementary school, my classmates would speak eagerly of family gatherings with grandparents and cousins for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I felt a sense of mystery, wistfulness, and even a tinge of jealousy, wondering what it would be like to experience a holiday with relatives bustling about and a table crammed with food and people. My family lived solitary in that sense, in my small southern hometown, often celebrating holidays on our own.

Except for one person.

One friend often visited our house on Thanksgiving and some holidays. Grandma Sue, as she became known to me and my siblings, visited our small Thanksgiving table. Grandma Sue, a widow, lived alone, her three children lived far away, and she was the first close friend of my family while growing up. The meals were not fancy, and were most definitely southern, with a turkey and the usual assortment of casseroles, ending with pumpkin and pecan pies.

Our family and Grandma Sue not only shared a holiday table, but often otherwise. Before she grew too old and stopped baking, she would stop over on occasion with a steaming loaf of freshly baked homemade sourdough bread, wrapped in a leftover cellophane covering from a grocery store bought loaf. Once, Grandma Sue brought me a gift from a trip she had taken to Mexico: a little donkey figurine wrapped in brightly colored threads. No one else brought me gifts when they traveled. When I was in middle school, she taught me how to paint my nails and how to use the different tools in my small nail manicure kit. This must be what a relative would do, I reasoned.

Grandma Sue was the closest person in my life to what a grandmother might have been. Because my relatives lived on the other side of the world, I did not grow up knowing any of my grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins, meeting them only once or a few times in my entire life.

My mother visited Grandma Sue during the day when my siblings and I were in school. As an adult, I realized that Grandma Sue was perhaps the closest person in my mother’s life to a mother or a mentor. She had left all family behind and moved to a foreign country.

When I was young, I had dreams of my future kids enjoying the experience of knowing their cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents—reminiscing about what I had missed while growing up. But as a grown adult, I find myself in the same sort of situation as my parents did—the Thanksgiving holiday is often not a reunion table full of immediate and extended relatives, each year growing older. Gatherings do occur, albeit infrequently, because the reality is that we all live and work in cities hundreds of miles apart. I replaced my naïve childhood imaginings with the reality of migrating for jobs and living in a more transient society.

The Thanksgiving holiday table of my adult life changes scenes every year: one year we travel, another year, we host Thanksgiving at our own home with international students invited to the table, and sometimes we enjoy a feast and games at a friend’s home. If there is one thing I can count on, it is that each year Thanksgiving will look different from the previous one. No one particular picture characterizes the holiday; rather a collage of varying memories marks the season, like a patchwork quilt.

Yet the memory of celebrating the holidays with someone else in my small hometown who was also alone remains a memory of hope and a call to an enlargement of the table. The friendship our family had with Grandma Sue remains one of my happiest memories of growing up. It represented a space between two very different families—a Southern woman and an immigrant family—occupied with genuine affection.

I did not realize what an important relationship that was until many years later. It showed me that immigrants could be welcome in another place. It taught me that both sides had to open their hearts to each other and could meet on the same table. It exemplified how friendship blossoms in a small town with perhaps the unlikeliest of persons.

I draw upon these memories made in my childhood home nestled between emerald hills surrounding my cozy southern valley, and I remember what is good to remember.

As you prepare for the upcoming holidays, consider enlarging the table to include someone else in your community: a lonely widow, an international student, or a neighbor with no relatives.

Your homelight can be a place of gleaming, an open, starry space, a place for a lonely person to find a place of rest and warmth, whether it is just for a day or if it turns out to be something more. Who knows? It could be the start of a new tradition—or a lifelong friendship.

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Prasanta Verma is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. She’s a writer, poet, and artist. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @ pathoftreasure, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

 

What Is Your Vocation?

I’m someone who has long struggled with work and vocation. I have a sketchy employment history. I’ve had trouble paying the bills. I frequently wonder just what it is that God is calling me to do with my life.

On the subject of vocation, I’ve often come across the following quote from Frederick Buechner, the writer and theologian: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It’s a beautiful thought; I can see why it’s quoted so often. But it hasn’t helped me much in my own struggles.

Like a Bible verse, Buechner’s quotation is often lifted out of context. There’s a lot more to it than just that one sentence. The quote comes from the book, Wishful Thinking. In this book, Buechner defines vocation as the work God calls a person to do. Then, in the first edition of the book, he writes:

The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b)…

 

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

I still think the last sentence of this passage is lovely. But when I read the paragraph preceding it, my first reaction was, What on earth is wrong with writing deodorant commercials? I actually think this job is worthwhile, and I think this for two reasons. First, because the world needs deodorant. So, yes, let’s write some ads and sell more of it! Second and more importantly–what if your job writing deodorant ads is what enables you to put food on the table? Provide for your family? Pay the bills?

Some of us, maybe even most of us, will not have jobs that in themselves fulfill the world’s deepest hunger. We cannot all be doctors in leper colonies, pastors, missionaries, hospice workers, or counselors. I deeply admire Buechner and have learned much from him (in fact, you’ll probably see me quoting some of his Advent writing pretty soon). However, I have reservations about Buechner’s treatment of vocation because it implies that some jobs are worth more to God than others. If you’re not a doctor or something similar, you’re somehow missing the mark. You’re not fulfilling your vocation. I think this view is wrong. It’s more than a bit elitist.

There was a time in my life when I was a college professor and a time when I was a Kelly Girl. I can tell you which job my peers most admired me for. But during my stint as a temp worker, I was pretty happy to be bringing in some much-needed income. I think I was fulfilling my vocation by working hard and helping my family, even if this work didn’t meet Buechner’s definition.

And what about the other part of Buechner’s famous quotation? The “deep gladness” part? Well, I wish that we could all find jobs that stem from a deep well of joy. But let’s face it, sometimes work is a 9 to 5 kind of thing. Sometimes it is just what pays the bills. And there is no shame in that. We should do the work we can in a way that glorifies God.

We do this because a job is not the same thing as a vocation. Originally, a vocation meant a divine call to the religious life. Its common usage gradually broadened to mean the particular gifts or interests God has given us or the call to a certain kind of life. But above all, a person’s vocation is her call to follow Jesus Christ in and through whatever work or tasks she does.

Let’s say that God has given you the gift of hospitality. Making others feel welcome, heard, cared for, and important is what gives you deep gladness. You could live out this calling in any number of jobs. An auto mechanic can show hospitality. So can a nurse. And a college professor. And a Kelly Girl. You can live out the joy of hospitality when you meet people on the street, when there’s a new face in your book group, or when you invite people to your home after church on Sunday. Our true vocations are never a 9 to 5 thing. They are a part of us, our spiritual core, and we can practice them wherever we are and whatever we do.

In the revised version of Wishful Thinking, the section on vocation was changed. The example of a “missed vocation” is not deodorant ad writer but cigarette ad writer (119). I suppose this makes a little more sense. Given what we know about cigarettes, we could conclude that promoting a harmful product would not be an ideal job OR vocation.

But I still don’t see what is wrong with writing commercials in general. Go and work. Pay your bills. Support yourself and your family. Pray. Love. Serve. Glorify God in all the tasks of daily life. This is your true vocation.

Have You Ever Tried to Run Away?

Many of us love the theologian, priest, and author Henri Nouwen for his insights and guidance on the spiritual life. I recently reread his book, The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery. This book is Nouwen’s diary about the seven months he spent as a “temporary monk” in the Abbey of the Genesee in New York. Nouwen took this extended retreat in 1974 while he was a professor at Yale Divinity School. He did so to face his restless self and to step back from a busyness and sense of self-importance that seemed to have a hold on him. He had questions about himself and questions for God.

Genesee Diary
My well worn copy of Nouwen’s book

Nouwen’s diary is full of insights about monastic life and the Christian faith. I highly recommend it. But the part that arrested me came at the very end, when Nouwen returned to his life and work as a professor.

Nouwen reports that soon after returning to his everyday life, his “demons” returned: restlessness, ambition, illusions, and compulsions. His seven months in the monastery, he says, did not change him. Did not improve him. Did not solve his problems. Did not even quiet his heart.

What a surprising denouement to this little book! After following Nouwen’s daily life in the monastery, the reader does not expect to learn that his retreat amounted to so little. We were looking for results: big changes, a new life, a renewed spirit.

At first, Nouwen was thrown by the return of his demons, too. He he wondered if his retreat had “failed.”

Eventually, however, he came to a different conclusion. The monastery, Nouwen says, “is not built to solve problems but to praise the Lord in the midst of them” (217). What a beautiful thought. Maybe we can learn to praise God right where we are, mired in the difficulties of life, and not look to him or to our experiences of him purely to solve our problems.

I have often fantasized about removing myself to a monastery or, I kid you not, a sanatorium. I have wanted to run away from my life and its problems. I do not think that running away is what Nouwen did, but it’s what I want to do. I want to find a place apart from the world where I can have a measure of peace. A place without the pressing everyday issues that sometimes seem to tear me apart. A place where I can find myself again, and, yes, find God, too.

Recently I tried to run away from my life (not to a monastery; just away). I thought I could find peace and freedom away from it all. But it didn’t work, and I’m both pleased and apprehensive to report that God called me back. He is restoring me to my life, with all its problems.

I’ve come to realize that there is no escape from life–not in a monastic community, not at a retreat, not anywhere. We cannot run away from our problems or our selves. My life—the hurts, the issues, the chaos—is my monastery. There may be moments I can retreat, but in general, I have to learn to praise God right here. In my world, just the way it is. And to rely upon a daily measure of grace to see me through.

It is a hard lesson. I think there will always be a part of me that wants to escape. But, following Nouwen’s example, I am learning to not run from the mess but to praise the Lord in the midst of it.

Treasures from the Tree Maker: A Post by Prasanta Verma

Abscission (noun)*

  1. the act of cutting off; sudden termination.
  2. Botany. the normal separation of flowers, fruit, and leaves from plants.

The Tree
From a place deep within itself, the autumn tree bursts forth in glorious color, and shows a different face of its beauty. Colors emerge like hidden jewels, sparkling in the sun. The season is turning, and once again I contemplate the language of the Tree Maker speaking through the deciduous tree.

fall-2014_crimson-magentaleaves
Photo: Prasanta Verma

The Leaves
For months they are magnificent lush and green, but as temperatures cool, leaves transform, change colors, and strike us with emanating, glowing hues. We have to catch the show at the right time. The window is short. A week too late, and the leaves could be gone, fallen to the ground in a dusty heap.

 

Questions
Why do leaves change color in a glorious display for only a short time, only to fall to the ground, dead?
Why do trees lose their magnificent crown, drop their jewels, shed their shimmering coats, just before the onslaught of bitter, brutal cold, winter winds, and ice and snow? Why at that moment of time?

The Tree Maker
Surrender. Did you notice that glory shines brightest before Tree dies during autumn? It shines then gives up a part of its treasure – its leaves– and only a spindly skeleton remains for the long winter season. The autumn leaves that glow, and then die, exemplify the beauty of letting go. Its branches are always lifted upward like arms in praise. With a dark, cold season approaching, my Tree surrenders bravely as it is stripped of its glorious coat of color and stands bare naked in the coldest months of the year.

Finding Rest. In the whirlwind of life the tree is firmly planted. It may sway in the wind, but it won’t come out of the ground. Its roots are firmly established. The peace, the place of rest, amidst seasons, the bitter winter, and the whirlwind of life, is found in Me: “Return to your rest, O my soul, For the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” Psalm 116:7. The leaves return to their place of rest.

Deeper Roots. Abiding with Me makes for deeper roots. Surviving the winter is part of the process. Surviving in the environment where they are planted is also part of the process. During one season they bear fruit, in another season, the seeds fall and lie dormant in the ground, but the seeds do not die in the winter. I am cultivating life, even in darkness, even in the long winters of your life.

Finding Rest. The trees of autumn appear to me like aging trees, and through their changing colors, they show off their wisdom and knowledge, as if these are crowning acts of their lives. But then their glory dies all too soon, and their colors fade and their leaves drop dead to the ground. Then the snow falls upon the bare tree.

October
As in: trees laughing leaves, floating in the wind.
I catch a handful of laughter, toss it back in the air.

As in: the hidden beauty in growing old, in death, revealed and witnessed through vibrant colors of burnt orange, flaming scarlet, deep gold.
I see the lines of mirth and hues of grace in an aging autumn. I, too, am another year older, passing through another autumn, an unknown number of autumns remaining.

fall_brown-leaves-on-pavement
Photo: Prasanta Verma

As in: the beauty of letting go, surrender, the tree succumbing to the cold of winter without its luscious wrap of leaves.
The tree, another year older, yields to the process of time and change. I, too, have seasons of hard times, removal, loss, and renewal.

As in: watching youthful green disappear as quickly as it came.
I soon will see the tree, standing in the middle of winter like a stark, bare skeleton with spindly limbs. Only its leaves will have died; the tree remains alive and breathing, waiting for its time to bloom again.
Hidden jewels exist behind the coat; “great and unsearchable things”, words of life and wisdom and the peace of His presence, that the Coat-Remover Himself reveals after the false wrappings of this life are taken away.

Senescent (adjective)*

  1. growing old; aging.
  2. Cell Biology. (of a cell) no longer capable of dividing but still alive and metabolically active.

*definitions from dictionary.com

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Prasanta Verma is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. She’s a writer, poet, and artist. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @ pathoftreasure, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

 

When Jesus Did the Dishes

Last week I wrote about dishwashing as a spiritual discipline. By channeling the wisdom of a Buddhist monk and a medieval master, we can “wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.” We introduce tenderness into a chore that usually invites frustration.

Did you know that Jesus himself was said to have done the dishes?

We can thank the Middle Ages for this insight into the Savior’s life. In the fifteenth century, Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote a narrative poem called the Josephina. This poem celebrates the life and faith of Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph. In the poem, we find all kinds of scenes about the daily life of the holy family, including the boyhood of Jesus. And this brings us to the dishes. Gerson writes:

Thus Christ was subject, as he was to you, Mary and Joseph,
What kind of subjection did he wish for himself?
Was he not showing obedience in your midst, as one who rightly serves?
Carefully and often he lights the fire and prepares the food;
He does the dishes and fetches water from a nearby fountain.
Now he sweeps the house, gives straw and water to the donkey.*

This tidbit about Jesus is, as you’ve doubtlessly realized, extra-Biblical. Gerson uses his imagination to bring to life the Bible’s brief statement that the boy Jesus was obedient to his parents (this was after Jesus was “lost” for three days in Jerusalem–see Luke 2:51).

Gerson’s poem represents the medieval imagination at its finest. Like Ludolph of Saxony’s Life of Christ (discussed in my previous post), it paints a picture of Jesus meant to delight us and to invite us into his daily life.

There’s some good theology behind this and related scenes. Jean Gerson says that there is no better way to soften hard hearts than to see God acting as a child. He wanted to help Christians delight in the boy Jesus and to affirm that God became human—a small human with parents, chores, and child-like faith. Gerson’s imagination is in service of the incarnation.

I think we could use a little more imagination in our faith today. We are so good at studying the Bible. We parse its meaning verse by verse and even word by word. We defend our beliefs with arguments and analysis. We listen to three-point sermons that tell us how to live.

But sometimes, this approach leaves me exhausted. I feel like I’m drowning in interpretation. I recently turned down an invitation to join a Bible study because, frankly, it seemed too labor intensive. It involved too much homework, too many workbooks, and too many lectures. I love God’s word, but sometimes, instead of study guides, I need to be guided to some lighter moments. I need to enjoy my faith and to delight in who Jesus was and is. “God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God,” writes Richard Foster about experiencing delight in our Lord.

Gerson’s poem opens the door to a moment of delight, one I can experience even at the kitchen sink. Thanks to this medieval chancellor, I can no longer do the dishes without imagining the boy Jesus scrubbing away at the nearby fountain. I think of the incarnation, which is good. I remember that Jesus participated fully in the messiness of life.

But more than all that, I smile. I like thinking that God did the washing up, in more ways than one.

***

*Source: Brian Patrick McGuire, “When Jesus Did the Dishes: The Transformation of Late Medieval Spirituality” in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Mark Williams (London: Anthem Press, 2005), pp. 131-152.

How to Wash the Dishes

In last week’s post, we explored what I call a kitchen sink spirituality. Can we find a worthwhile practice in the mundane task of washing the dishes? What can it teach us? We looked at three references to a spirituality of dishwashing.

There is a fourth reference I’d like to explore today.

dishesOn his website, author Jim Forest tells a story about his friend, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. One evening at a dinner party, Forest was annoyed at the pile of dishes he was stuck washing while everyone else was having a great conversation in the other room. Sensing his annoyance, Nhat Hanh told him, “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” Forest was puzzled. Then his friend advised him to “wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

I’m really drawn to Nhat Hanh’s response. When I first read it, I was immediately transported to the Middle Ages, my favorite time period. Nhat Hanh may have meant to impart advice on mindfulness, but he sounds just like a medieval devotional master.

In the late Middle Ages, many devotional texts invited their readers to experience the humanity of Jesus in a new and startling way. Their goal was to foster an experience of intimacy with the savior. The Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony (14th c.), for example, asks lay Christians to imagine holding and caring for the baby Jesus:

Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to let you hold him a while.

And later:

[T]he holy Virgin, following the law that had been established, left the city of Bethlehem with Joseph and the infant Jesus to go to Jerusalem, five miles distant, to present Our Lord in the temple. You go, too, in their company, and help them carry the child.

I never fail to be moved by the tenderness of this invitation. Ludolph asks his readers not just to meditate on Jesus, not just to think about him or rehearse the events in his life. He invites every person to enter into Jesus’ life. This reverses the way we usually approach Jesus. Instead of asking our Lord to help us, we help care for him. We kiss and hold and carry his infant self. For a moment, we are his mother.

I’m fascinated by the way a contemporary Buddhist monk channels this text. I doubt that Nhat Hanh meant to get medieval on us, but he did–-and together with Ludolph of Saxony, his advice helps to transform a small part of our daily life. Hold the infant Jesus a while. Wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.

Doing the dishes can make me so angry. I’m tired at the end of the day. I see the piles of dirty plates, not all of which will fit into the dishwasher, and I simply don’t want to wash them. But how could I be angry washing the baby Jesus? How could I refuse an invitation to take him into my arms?

I need this kind of spirituality, one in which tenderness and imagination melt away my frustration. One in which Jesus becomes startlingly present in my life. What, after all, could be more startling than suddenly seeing Jesus in your kitchen sink? It’s the jolt needed to restart and soothe my troubled heart.

If henceforth my family sees me weeping at the sink after dinner, it will be because I hold not only dishes, but also the infant savior.

Dishwashing as a spiritual discipline? Surely so. One that I practice each day. One that brings me to Jesus. One that washes me of anger even as I wash the dishes clean.

 

Kitchen Sink Spirituality

Sink. Soap. Suds. Plates. Pots. Pans. And . . . prayer?

Washing the dishes isn’t included in the big books on spiritual disciplines—not in Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline nor Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, which describes a whopping 62 disciplines.

But maybe it should be.

DishesIn recent months I’ve come across no fewer than four references to people who have made doing the dishes into a discipline of sorts. Four! That can’t be a fluke. Is there something about dishwashing—other than its obvious need to be done—that recommends it to Christians today?

Let’s take a look at what people are saying about the dishes. Today we’ll explore three of the references I found. I’m saving the fourth (my favorite one) for next week.

Christine Berghoef gets poetic about dishwashing in a post at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation:

In the predictable rhythm of liquid warmth swirling through my washcloth as I swab away remnants of the day’s nourishment, the liltingly light splash of the faucet rinsing the suds, and the movement from rinse to dry rack, I am soothed. Unwound. Almost tranquilized. It forces me to pause, to ruminate over the events of the day, to be still.

In Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP Books, 2013), Andy Crouch, describes the small discipline of doing the dishes as an exercise in humility. Tackling the crockery before he leaves for a speaking engagement, he says, helps him to limit “my own exercise of godlike freedom and significance” (pp. 241-242).

Finally, Tish Warren mentions dishwashing in her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary. The disciplines needed to sustain our spiritual life, Warren says, are often quiet, repetitive, and ordinary. This may be counter-intuitive, but it’s how growth occurs:

I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s in the dailiness of the Christian faith—the making the bed, the doing the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading the Bible, the quiet, the small—that God’s transformation takes root and grows (35-36).

I love all three of these! Each brings to the fore a different spiritual benefit of doing the dishes:

  • being still
  • being humble
  • finding Jesus in the mundane

Given my natural approach to life, I need all of these benefits. I tend to get frustrated by daily chores. As I wrote in a previous post, I believe that I should be doing something more “exalted” with my time. And that means I need a good dose of humility. It also means that I need a reminder of Jesus’ presence. He is there, even (or maybe especially) in the mundane tasks of the day. These tasks show care for my family and slow me down enough to be present in the little moments of my life.

Which means that I may need fewer mountain-top experiences and more mountains of dishes. A kitchen sink spirituality.

What about you? Where do you need to see Jesus reaching into the mess of your daily life?

 

Come on Retreat with The Contemplative Writer

A few days ago, a friend of mind wrote: “Without care of the soul, we suffer under the weight of our calling or become smothered in the banal. Spiritual rejuvenation takes many forms but it is not a luxury OR optional.”

Those words ring true to me. Soul care is not optional. It keeps us going, renews us, returns us to ourselves, and above all helps us experience the care of our Creator.

Spiritual practices help us care for our soul — fixed-hour prayer, contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, and lectio divina, for example. When we engage in one of these practices, the goal is to clear the way for God to work in us. As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing said, “In the work of contemplation, God stirs our souls. His grace is the principal worker in us.” It’s God, not us.

I find valuable resources in the contemplatives and mystics of contemplative history who tell us about these practices. And I have another resource I’d like to tell you about today.

I’ve teamed up with a soul friend to host a spiritual retreat! We’re excited to offer this to you. The retreat will take place June 5 – 7, 2020 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here’s a brief description:

Sacred Spaces is the first annual destination retreat created and hosted by Lisa Deam, Ph.D. and Lisa Colón Delay, a top-ranked spirituality podcaster and writer. In the high desert of New Mexico, we’ll gather to recharge our soul. We’ll enjoy a time of rest, contemplation, and spiritual practices.

We’ll specifically be focusing on the practice of pilgrimage, which is experiencing a worldwide resurgence today. A highlight of the retreat will be a visit to the local pilgrimage site of Chimayo, New Mexico.

Our schedule for the retreat is spacious. We want to welcome you and provide time for you to rest, recharge, grow, and journey with friends old and new. The New Mexico landscape is an ideal place for retreat and contemplation since it has a spiritual potency of its own.

Soul care is important, so I hope you’ll prayerfully consider joining us on this retreat. If you can’t make it yourself, you can donate so that someone else can.

There are two ways to get more information on the Sacred Spaces retreat. You can sign up to get updates on the retreat’s landing page.

And you can go to EventBrite for a wealth of information and to purchase your tickets. (Note: EventBrite is down or experiencing some technical difficulties. If the link doesn’t take you there right now, please try again later!)

From now until the end of October, we have a reduced rate on tickets. It’s a really good deal — it includes the event program, pilgrimage visit, two nights lodging, and four meals. Take a look.

Please join us on a pilgrimage of the heart.

Announcement and details of Sacred Spaces Destination Retreat June 2020 from Lisa Colón DeLay on Vimeo.

Long Night of Struggle: A Post via Prasanta Verma

Today’s post is by Prasanta Verma, a member of The Contemplative Writer team.

***

“It is clear we must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance. We can be sure of very little, but the need to court struggle is a surety that will not leave us.” – Rainer Marie Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet

No one can see the internal dialogue while I sit at my desk and gaze out the window or while I sit at a coffee shop, quietly sipping a cup of coffee, while others bustle about, my laptop on the table with an empty screen facing me.

“I have this deadline—and the article isn’t coming together.”
“How should I rearrange these particular paragraphs?”
“I’m too distracted.”
“This is digging up too much emotion.”
“Can I even do this? Why did I say yes?”
“Why didn’t they accept my submission?”
“What do I even write about?”

Based on what I have read from other writers, I believe I am not the only one who has said the above; I am sure you could add your own statements to the list.

For many of us, we are sure to encounter a season of struggle in our writing at one time or another. Maybe we even find ourselves in longer seasons of dry spells, struggling to put something of value and beauty onto the page.

Perhaps the struggle is against a deadline. Perhaps a struggle ensues in seeking the exact word or phrase, or the overarching purpose and length of a particular piece. Perhaps the struggle arises from within—a struggle with ourselves—of willpower or motivation or something else.

If struggle is inevitable, how can the writer “embrace struggle” as Rilke describes it? Must we?

I came across something recently that gave me some hope in those times of struggling and digging.

In Luke 5, Jesus was speaking to a crowd of people near the Sea of Galilee. He spotted two boats on the shore, climbed into Simon’s boat, and continued speaking to the crowd from the boat. After he finished speaking to the crowd, Jesus told Simon to go into the lake and do some fishing.

Trouble was, Simon had been fishing all night long, and had come up empty, and was even cleaning his nets. He says, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” (Luke 5:5, NIV). He pretty much says, “Been there, done that, Jesus.”Furthermore, it is not just any place in the water that Jesus is asking Simon to fish: he tells him to fish in a deep part of the lake (Luke 5:4).

Jesus asks Simon to take the nets he’d just cleaned, and go out try again. I don’t know about you, but I’m usually tired after I’ve been out fishing all night! (I’m joking, of course; I have never been fishing all night.)

Presumably, experienced fishermen already know where the fish bite, when to fish, what parts of the lake are best, etc. I wonder if it felt somewhat insulting to be told where to fish and to go out again.

I can’t say I blame Simon. When Jesus, a carpenter and not a fisherman, tells them to go out again and drop their nets in the deep part of a lake, it must have sounded like a strange, fruitless, and unnecessary request.

Sometimes, writing (or service, or a job, or ministry, or some other activity requiring long-term diligent focus and attention) can feel like a long night of fishing with no catch. Maybe it can feel fruitless.

Yet, Simon and the others, already tired from the long night of fishing, do what Jesus asked: “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5).

When they pulled up their nets, the nets were overflowing with such an abundance of fish they had to summon the other boat to come and assist them.

I do not know how long the particular obedience has been for each one of us. I do not know how many times we have dipped down our nets and come up empty-handed.

Rilke says, “embrace struggle”, and “everything in nature grows and struggles…establishing its own identity.” If the need for struggle is a “surety”, instead of fighting these seasons, viewing them as blockages, perhaps we are meant to embrace them. Perhaps the struggle is part of the formula needed to forge our own identity, the part that takes us to a deeper, truer level while also resulting in an astonishingly abundant net. Perhaps the growth occurs as we struggle; that one cannot occur without the other.

This little passage reminds me that no matter how many long nights have yielded nothing, that words and hope-filled stories are swimming and breathing underneath. A treasure is stirring in the deep, waiting for its time to surface. The next net pulled up may contain tender morsels of light and love for a reader who needs them.

***

Prasanta Verma is a writer, poet, and artist. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @ pathoftreasure, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.