I’ll Pass; Or, How to Age Like a Star

This week, I’m sharing an article I recently wrote for The Perennial Gen on aging like a star, with help from the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen. You can begin here and continue at The Perennial Gen’s website. Thanks for reading! And…shine on.

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Dedicated to Polaris, “a rapidly aging giant star”

 

The other day, I played a little game with my husband. I asked him, “What do you think? Could I pass for forty?”

He looked at me. Squinted a little. “Yes,” he said, and I think he was telling the truth.

“What about thirty-eight?” I pressed.

“Sure,” he said.

I should have left it there, but something made me continue. “Thirty-five?”

At that point he began to look skeptical.

This game with my husband was affectionate; we laughed and teased. But behind it lies a serious hang-up. The fact is, I play this age game all the time. I don’t always play it overtly, but I do it in my mind. Because I have small children, I reason, that surely makes me seem younger to people I meet. Because I choose my best photo for my social media avatar, maybe I seem more youthful online.

When I play this game, I’m not just holding on to youthful beauty. I also want to be relevant. Vibrant. Involved. I want to have something to offer. So I try to convince myself (and others) that I can pass for a woman who is younger than she is.

Read the rest at The Perennial Gen.

 

Scar on the Cheek: Betrayal: A Post by Prasanta Verma

As we meditate and pray during this season of Lent, one aspect of the upcoming days of Jesus’ trial is clear: there was a betrayal. This betrayal led the guards to finding Jesus, arresting him, and eventually his dying a brutal death nailed to a cross.

What is quite remarkable, however, is how Jesus responds to Judas. Even though Jesus knew what would happen, he still kept Judas near him as one of his twelve disciples.

The same is true for Peter. Jesus knew that Peter would deny him, yet Jesus still washed Peter’s feet.

Jesus still kept them near. He did not deny them nor betray them, but served and loved them.

If it were not Judas, though, it would have been someone else. It could have been me. Or you. God’s plan will be carried out. If we are honest, we know we also betray Jesus. Have we denied him? We betray him.

“There is no one righteous, not even one…” (Romans 3:10). Even so, to all of us who are unrighteous, we are all offered the gift of reconciliation to God Himself. We are all offered the hope of restoration and redemption. The scabs of our wounds, the scars of sin, and the scratches of pain may be healed, restored, and transformed into gifts that flow from our words, hands, and feet. We are new creatures, sewn up from the inside, able to give love and shine a light into darkness around us.

We have hope to live an abundant life on earth. We have hope for eternal life spent with God. With this kind of hope, this kind of love, our pain transforms into joy, which spreads to others in this hurting world—all made possible by forgiveness. That is love. That is Jesus.

Below is a poem I wrote a few years ago, meditating about Judas’ betrayal, our betrayal, Jesus’ response, and the hope and love that flowers and blossoms out of God’s love for us.

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Scar on the Cheek

The kiss on the cheek
planted swift, turns
to thorny scratch, burns
long and thin, drips

red on black dirt.
Fragile petals live a breath
away, a thin vein from death.
Roses keep distant,

far from drawn swords
ready to impale petal-skin.
Repent and attempt
to pluck stems

of delicate short-lived beauty,
for arrangements in a vase,
that fragrance may erase
the scent of love’s demise.

But watch when red drips:
seeds bloom anew,
emit ethereal perfume, transform
into wild, vibrant, hybrid,

blood-red rose. Are you a rose?
Are you a thorn?
Or one scratched by scorn
of deceiver’s kiss?

Show me your scar.

(Prasanta, 2011)

***

Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. 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/.

Holy Tears and the Spiritual Joy of Lent

When I was growing up, my best friend and I often gave up Carmex (the medicated lip balm) for Lent. I’m not sure why we felt that was the best way to prepare for the resurrection of Jesus. I guess we believed that we had a Carmex addiction and were relinquishing something very dear to us.

During this season, I like to see what the ancients of the Church say about Lenten practices. Their views are much richer than what I knew of Lent as a child. Last week, we explored St. John Chrysostom’s full-orbed view of fasting. This week, let’s see what St. Benedict (ca. 480-547), founder of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, has to say.

In his Rule for Monasteries, written in the sixth century, St. Benedict includes a chapter entitled, “On the Observance of Lent.” He writes:

Although the life of a monk
ought to have about it at all times
the character of a Lenten observance,
yet since few have the virtue for that,
we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent
the brethren keep their lives most pure
and at the same time wash away during these holy days
all the negligences of other times.
And this will be worthily done
if we restrain ourselves from all vices
and give ourselves up to prayer with tears,
to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.

 

During these days, therefore,
let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service,
as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink.
Thus everyone of his own will may offer God
“with joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6)
something above the measure required of him.
From his body, that is,
he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting;
and with the joy of spiritual desire
he may look forward to holy Easter.

For his monks, St. Benedict advises the moderate withholding of food, drink, sleep, and talking. But, like St. John Chrysostom, Benedict also has a fuller view of Lent. He suggests that ideally, Lent is a way of life. A difficult way, to be sure. Yet we are called to prepare our hearts for resurrection during all seasons.

Also note that St. Benedict has suggestions on what to add to our Lenten diet, not just what to give up. We might forego certain foods, but we can add prayer with tears, reading, and compunction of heart—that is, repentance; a holy desire to sin no more.

Speaking of tears, I love the depiction of the weeping Mary of Clopas in Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross (ca. 1435). I think about this painting every year during Lent and Holy Week. In the painting, Mary and her companions express overwhelming sorrow as the body of Jesus is taken down from the cross. Mary of Clopas is the figure on the far left. Her tears, which escape from the cloth she has pressed to her eyes, are sacred outpourings of grief that we might emulate on our own journey to the cross.

Deposition - tears
Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross, ca. 1435, detail
Tears - van der Weyden
Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross, detail of Mary of Clopas

Yet Benedict ultimately moves us from tears to joy. At the end of the passage, he says that during Lent, Christians are to look forward to Easter with the “joy of spiritual desire.” We know that Easter brings joy, but so should the darker season of Lent bring a somber kind of joy — that of yearning for Christ, whose resurrection we await.

May this unique joy be yours as you prepare for resurrection and renewal in your own life.

 

 

Do You Fast? Prove It!

Among the practices we associate with Lent, fasting usually tops the list. Fasting from food and delicacies can be a form of preparation for Easter. We respond with our body to our soul’s hunger for God and for new spiritual life. More recently, fasting from social media has become popular.

Yet St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407), Archbishop of Constantinople and early Church Father, bids us be careful about fasting. He recommends the practice wholeheartedly, devoting several sermons to its benefits. But he also has words of caution. He warns against boasting and asks if we have remembered to fast not just from food but also from some of our more pernicious behaviors. “For the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices,” he said. In Homily XVI (Homilies on the Statues), Chrysostom writes:

It is common for every one to ask in Lent, how many weeks each has fasted; and some may be heard saying they have two, others three, and others that they have fasted the whole of the weeks. But what advantage is it, if we have gone through the fast devoid of works? If another says, “I have fasted the whole of Lent,” you should say, “I had an enemy, but I was reconciled; I had a custom of evil-speaking, but I put a stop to it; I had a custom of swearing, but I have broken through this evil practice.”

In his book, Fasting, Scot McKnight calls this a “full-orbed” view of fasting because it’s a way of life, not merely a limited and temporary practice. Here’s another taste (if you’ll forgive the pun) from St. Chrysostom:

Do not just let your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast by being pure from theft and avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles . . . Let the mouth fast as well from disgraceful speeches and railing.

Chrysostom also mentions that fasting can include serving those in need: “Do you fast? Prove it by your good works . . . If you see a poor man, take pity on him!” The point of a fast is not to endure a temporary privation, but to enter a new way of life. The fast goes on, even when Lent is over and we’re all stuffing our faces again.

I love Chrysostom’s emphasis on serving and on being reconciled with our enemies. He seems to imply that he’s not even going to believe that you’re fasting unless you’re ALSO looking out for your neighbor. Fasting can be not just a path to spiritual growth, but a means of justice as well.

In what ways might you consider fasting this season?

The Making: A Lenten Poem by Prasanta Verma

The Making
 

Scattered, broken particles
must be remade
after life on earth snaps,
crushes each bone, sinew, organ
into first-born
molecules

Dust catches in throat
chokes irrelevancy

Smeared ashes
reconstruct
into wooden cross beams

unmade – made – remade

 

***

 

Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. 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/.

 

The Smallest Thing Will Not Be Forgotten

Last week, we explored Julian of Norwich’s famous phrase, “All will be well.” We found that it refers to the “necessity” of sin and God’s grand plan of salvation. It points us to the end of time, when God’s purposes for the world will be accomplished. But I want to emphasize that Julian’s saying is also full of comfort for the here and now.

In the Showings, Julian continues to marvel and reflect on the idea that “all will be well.” She says:

He [God] wants us to know that he takes heed not only of things which are noble and great, but also of those which are little and small, of humble men and simple, of this man and that man. And this is what he means when he says: Every kind of thing will be well. For he wants us to know that the smallest thing will not be forgotten. (231-232)

How I love this thought. The smallest thing will not be forgotten. We have a God who sees the small and the simple. And that means that he sees us; sees you and me. God delights not (just) in grand gestures and great deeds; he notices the humblest acts of faith. He loves not just the heroes and saints; he loves this particular man and that particular woman. He loves us in all our marvelous idiosyncracies. In our unique presence. Our ordinariness. And in our insignificance.

hazelnutThis passage on smallness reminds me of one of Julian’s earlier visions. God showed Julian something no bigger than a hazelnut lying in the palm of her hand.

Julian says, “I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made.” (130) God preserves such a small thing, Julian writes, because he created it and loves it.

In something as small as a hazelnut, the whole world can be contained. In something as small as you and me, God finds something of incredible value. Something worth rectifying the world for.

We have to wait until the end – until God’s time – to see exactly how he will rectify every thing, both large and small. But we have this consolation now: we are not lost. We are not forgotten. God takes heed of us. We are swept up in his plans to make all things well.

Julian says that in God’s promise to make well even the smallest of things, we find rest and peace. We are powerfully comforted.

Do you believe, as small and insignificant as you are, that “all will be well” both for the world and for you? I leave you with Lady Julian’s encouragement:

“Accept it now in faith and trust, and in the very end you will see truly, in fulness of joy.”

 

 

Will All Be Well?

Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) is one of the most beloved medieval mystics. She lived for much of her life as an anchoress (someone who lives enclosed in a cell) and wrote the first known book in English to be written by a woman. This book, the Book of Showings, teaches us about the fullness of divine love and compassion; it is based on a series of revelations or visions that the mystic received in 1373.

Julian’s words are oft quoted, and the most famous passage from the Showings is one you’ve undoubtedly heard:

All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.

We quote this passage when we need reassurance. When things are not going well. When we don’t have much hope for the future. I myself have quoted and tweeted it many times.

Today and next week, I want to explore the context of this famous passage. Reading Julian’s Showings, I found that “all shall be well” is not just one sentence, but a theme that spans some six chapters of the book. The passage has a larger context that is usually not considered.

That context is sin.

Julian utters her famed saying in a portion of the Showings in which she sorrows over sin. She realizes that sin is keeping her from close communion with God, and she wonders why God ever allowed sin to come into the world.

God reassures Julian, saying:

Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well. (225)

There are two main things to note about this passage. First, it has an opening clause that is often omitted (“sin is necessary”). And second, we are to understand it as something that God himself said to Julian. The passage means that, despite the pain and suffering of humankind because of sin, God has promised to make things right.

Julian of Norwich
Statue of Julian of Norwich by David Holgate, 2014

In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t like the statement that “sin is necessary” and cannot pretend to fully understand it. Julian herself is troubled by this notion and persists in asking God how things can possibly be well given the destructive consequences of sin. She won’t let this issue go. For several chapters, she pesters God about it. How can it be well? How, God? And why . . . why did you allow sin to come into the world? These questions make her a kindred spirit to those of us who wrestle with tough questions. Why, God?

God doesn’t quite answer Julian’s questions. But he tells her, very tenderly, to contemplate the atonement, which is far more glorious than sin ever was harmful. And he tells her to trust him. God says to Julian:

For since I have set right the greatest of harms [original sin], then it is my will that you should know through this that I shall set right everything which is less. (228)

“All will be well” refers to nothing less than God’s grand plan of salvation – for setting right the world and the human heart. It does not mean, alas, that things will be okay tomorrow or in a particular circumstance in our life. It could be that, like Moses, we will not see with human eyes the fulfillment of God’s promise to make things “well.”

“All will be well” is not a phrase to throw around lightly. It requires a lot of faith to affirm. Look around you at the world right now. And then look at your own heart. It’s hard to believe that all will be well, isn’t it? It’s hard partly because God is keeping to his own timeline, not ours. And because he is working in ways that we cannot fathom (more on this topic next week).

As we wait on God, we work with him in the grand plan of salvation (because waiting is active, not passive). We suffer and groan. We sorrow in our sin. But we believe: in God’s time and in God’s way, every kind of thing will be well.

 

The Mindset for a New Year: A Post by Prasanta Verma

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

-T. S. Eliot

 

I am sitting in a room with about 70 other people, at a business conference, and the speaker transitions into a message of mindset. We are seated in six long tables on each side of the room, in a large conference center with picture windows overlooking a snowy hill with a half-frozen river at the bottom of the hill. A picturesque scene outdoors delights the attendees; indoors, the audience sits in rapt attention to the dynamic and energetic speaker.

We have two choices, the speaker says. She asks us some questions, poses a few hypothetical scenarios, and then asks us to consider what side we are on.

Abundance? Or scarcity?

As I sit listening, I thought I had already dealt with that particular mind-devil.

Hadn’t I already proclaimed that truth to myself? Hadn’t I already called out the lies of irrelevancy, worthlessness, and lack of confidence? I know the half-empty/half-full glass mindset.

Yet, the taunts of a hidden department of the scarcity mindset were peeping through, so tiny and barely perceptible, I almost missed it.

The difference, I realized, was the circumstance. I had dealt with the scarcity mindset on the personal level. Now, here I was, starting a new business, and recognized that troublesome voice lurking in my life, waiting for its chance to reappear. I had never started a new kind of business, and the monsters of depravity sought to destroy what I was building before I had barely begun.

The scarcity mindset was appearing in unwelcome thoughts such as, “There is no way you can do this.” Or, “You can’t succeed; you will fail.” And, “No one will call you, or hire you.” And other such negative thinking.

All of this is in stark contrast to the abundance mindset, which of course, says, things like, “You can do this.” Or, “You don’t have to be perfect, you just need to make progress.” Or, “You are here for a purpose and you are not alone.” Or, “You have something to offer. People will find you.” And so on.

I realized I had been living in the land of scarcity in regard to my work, though I thought I had slayed that particular demon.

The verse about “abundant life” came to mind, and it brought a new meaning, a new idea of abundance to me. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 (RSV).

The abundant life also applies to my thought life. I had not quite thought of it in that way before. My mind was living in a dry place, when a verdant and fruitful place was available to me. Moreover, the thief was still sneaking around, with intentions to destroy me.

As this new reality dawns upon me, I think it is a good way to begin a brand new year: with a mindset of abundance as opposed to scarcity.

With God, I have abundance and life. I have more than enough, and I am enough. I do not know what the year ahead holds, but there is a place for scarcity and its words: in the past. Abundance is our inheritance; it belongs in the future. And that is a better place to dwell.

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Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. 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/.

On Turning in a Book

As some of you may know, I’m writing a book on medieval pilgrimage. It features mystics like Margery Kempe and Walter Hilton and lots of pilgrims, both known and unknown, who journeyed to Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. From these pilgrims, we can learn about our own journey of faith today.

I have some news about said book. A few days ago, I turned in the manuscript to my editor.

I feel all the things a writer usually feels. For example, elation. I did it! I just completed 40,000 polished words! And anxiety. Will my editor like it? What revisions will she want me to do?

But I did not expect to feel . . . grief. I miss the project that has been so much a part of my life the past ten or so months. I miss working with such wonderful historical material: researching it, shaping it, seeing it come together, finding the words to make it sing. I even miss the less glamorous aspects: looking up niggling details, double-checking facts, formatting endnotes. I miss the way this writing project weighed on my mind. I miss sweating bullets and wondering whether I’d be able to pull it off. I miss waking up on mornings when I had a whole glorious day to do nothing but work on this book.

I really did not want to turn in my manuscript. Which is why I held onto it and tinkered with it for about two months longer than I should have (don’t tell my editor).

pilgrims cross alps
Pilgrims cross the Alps in the prayer book of Bishop Leonhard von Laymingen of Passau, Walters Manuscript W.163, fol. 1v

I miss my project because, for me, writing is perhaps my purest expression of faith. It is where I bare my soul–first and foremost to God, and then to my readers. When I write about pilgrims’ journeys, I walk this road in my heart. In footsteps and stories and metaphors, I am pouring out my belief in this road we all take to our interior Jerusalem. My desire to reach this destination. My awe and fear over how difficult it is. My heartfelt cry that God would make the going just a little bit easier. I cannot express these beliefs in any other way than through the words in my book. Writing is a form of worship, prayer, and wrestling with the angel.

So, I’m a little at a loss this week. Happy, but out of sorts. Relieved, but scared. Resting, but feeling loss.

Fortunately, the journey goes on. I await the next steps . . . revisions and then getting the book into your hands so that you can walk this road with me.

May God grant each of us the grace to walk our portion of the road today. Travel well, perigrini.

 

 

Praying for a World in Need

January 12 was the Feast Day of Aelred of Rievaulx (c. 1110 – 1167), an English Cistercian monk and the abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire.

You might know some of Aelred’s thoughts on spiritual friendship, which have been written about by Wesley Hill, among others. But today I want to share a bit about Aelred’s life and other work.

A fellow monk, Walter Daniel, wrote a biography of St. Aelred. He said that Aelred often repeated the phrase, for crist luve— that is, “for the love of Christ.” It was like a short, spontaneous prayer. Aelred apparently preferred to say “Christ” in English rather than Latin (Christus) because the one-syllable English word is “easier to utter, and in some ways sweeter to hear.”

Aelred’s desire for brevity reminds me of the later Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century spiritual treatise that also advises choosing a short and sweet word (or two) for prayer (see my post on this). “A short prayer penetrates heaven,” to paraphrase the Cloud‘s author.

Aelred of Rievaulx
Possible portrait of Aelred of Rievaulx in De Speculo Caritatis, ca. 1140

But my favorite thing about Aelred is a beautiful passage he wrote about prayer. What good is prayer? It is useful, Aelred says. Practical. Prayer is of infinite value. And the world needs it so desperately. In his Rule for a Recluse, Aelred wrote:

What is more useful than prayer? Give it. What is more gracious than pity? Spend it. Hold the whole world in one embrace of love; consider the good to congratulate them, the wicked to grieve over them; behold the afflicted and compassionate the oppressed; call to mind the miseries of the poor, the groans of orphans, the desolation of widows, the sorrows of those who weep, the needs of pilgrims, the vows of virgins, the perils of men on the sea, the temptation of monks, the cares of the clergy, the hardships that soldiers endure. Open your heart to all, spend your tears on them, pour forth your prayers for them.

You may have seen me quote this passage before. I love it so much that I can’t stop sharing it. I think you’ll agree that we need this kind of selfless prayer more than ever today.

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Source: For Crist Luve: Prayers of Saint Aelred Abbot of Rievaulx