Leaf Song: A Poem by Prasanta Verma


Leaf Song


Beautifully curling upward
Cupping droplets on its skin

I take my finger, wipe the drop
Leaving a skirmish behind

*

The autumn leaf is like a heart
Turned toward heaven

Changing colors, singing in its death
I wonder, Leaf, how many songs you have sung?

*

I wrap myself in a coat of leaves
Stand under a sheltering tree

Sing with the wind
Go to the one who sings over me

Cup my hands, raise them—empty
Here they are, here am I

*

Am I to be like that last leaf,
Stuck on the tree? Alone?

 I am answered,
“You are connected to the vine.”

Water spills over my hands, overflows,
Slips through my fingers.





***

Photos: Prasanta Verma

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 @VermaPrasanta, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

Swimming with God

Imagine something with me. You’re in a ship in a raging sea, going somewhere important. Perhaps going on a pilgrimage. But it’s beginning to look like you’re not going to make it. The ship dips and lists. The sea is alive – a force against you. You pray to God to save you from destruction.

Doesn’t our faith often feel like this? Like we’re being tossed around by untamable wind and waves? Medieval theologians often compared the world to the sea. “All the ways of this world are as fickle and unstable as a sudden storm at sea,” wrote the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. And every soul must cross this sea on the journey through life.

So what do we do? Usually we respond with alternating displays of strength and alarm. We try to build a stronger ship. Bone up on our sailing skills. Lay in resources. And when the storm comes, we cry out to Jesus to pilot our ship.

Now imagine that the worst happens. Despite everything you’ve done, your ship capsizes . . . you fall into the water. And it becomes calm, buoyant. You realize that you’re floating. Swimming. Drinking water yet not drowning.

How is this possible?

Perhaps because we’ve got it wrong. Perhaps Jesus does not pilot us through the sea but is the sea. Perhaps this is the way we make it through the waves.

Two female mystics of the Middle Ages paint this picture of our journey. The 14th-century Dominican Catherine of Siena prays:

Eternal Godhead!
I proclaim and do not deny it:
you are a peaceful sea
in which the soul feeds and is nourished
as she rests in you in love’s affection and union
by conforming her will with your high eternal will—
that will which wants nothing other than that we be made holy.

(source)

In this prayer, the sea becomes a figure of God’s gracious abundance. The soul does not have to survive the water in a ship. Instead, God is the water. He envelops us, and we rest in him.

We might even go for a swim in this sea. The 13th-century mystic Marguerite d’Oingt writes of a vision of unity she received:

The saints will be within their Creator as the fish within the sea: they will drink as much as they want, without getting tired and without diminishing the amount of water. The saints will be just like that, for they will drink and eat the great sweetness of God.

(source)

Marguerite envisions the sea as a source of living water that never runs out (John 4:10-14). It’s a source of nourishment, where the saints (that’s you and me!) taste the sweetness of God.

I love this imagery for the way it rewrites the usual script about the sea of life. In the words of Catherine of Siena and Marguerite d’Oingt, the sea does not inspire terror but represents the incredible generosity of God. It’s a way to conceive of being fully enveloped in God’s goodness. And it’s an image of peace and rest.

As we ply the waters of life, let us remember the vastness of God who, like the sea, is everywhere. Let us be assured that if our ship capsizes, we will not perish. Should we be tossed overboard, we can swim like fish in the sea that is God.

***

This post is loosely based on one chapter from my forthcoming book, 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers. It’s a sneak peak behind the scenes, because it contains a lot of material that didn’t make it into the book! Click here (my author website) for more info on 3000 Miles to Jesus.

Are You A Mystic?

As you may have noticed, I’m always talking about the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. But did you know that there were no mystics in the Middle Ages? The figures we call “mystics” – like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena — would have referred to themselves as contemplatives or perhaps simply as devout Christians.

“Mystic” and “mysticism” are more modern terms (17th century). But the medievals did use the adjective “mystical.” The 15th-century chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, wrote a book about mystical theology, which he defines as knowledge of God that comes from love (as opposed to books or academic study). Medievals also spoke of the mystical meaning of the Bible – its deeper, spiritual meaning, which usually pointed to the mystery of Christ.

So what about those figures we call mystics? Figures like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Meister Eckhart? These Christians experienced a heightened consciousness of God’s presence. They sought God’s love based on direct experience, not textbook knowledge. This is what we mean when we call them mystics – and I think it’s fine for us to use this term since it’s firmly entrenched in our vocabulary now.

In the medieval era, a mystical encounter with God could result from lectio divina – reading and spending time with Scripture. At other times, it might come after meditating on scenes from Christ’s life or on sacred imagery.

Margery Kempe had a mystical experience upon seeing the site of Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She was graced with a vision of the crucified Christ in the very place he suffered and died. It knocked her to the ground. Jesus, she says, was present before her eyes.

However, mystics did not always have visions. Nor did they always experience complete or ecstatic union with God. Those were special gifts given to some of them. And they were also fairly rare experiences. The criteria for being a mystic is much simpler, and it opens the door to an “everyday mysticism” to which you and I have access today. Simply put, a mystic seeks a deeper and more direct consciousness of God in her daily life. She wants to be awakened by God! This often happens through what seem like quite ordinary activities, like prayer, reading and meditating on Scripture, and being part of a Christian community. Always, it happens through the work of the Spirit in us.

So . . . it’s not audacious to define yourself as a mystic; it doesn’t mean you’re extra holy or have to meet some impossible standard. It just means that you seek greater intimacy with God and long to be enlivened by God’s eternal presence.

What attracts me the most about mysticism is that it coaxes me out of my hiding place. I can hide behind books about God and Christianity; I can fall back on my education or on acquiring more knowledge (including Wikipedia sometimes–oops!). But all this will mean very little unless I truly know, on a heart level, God’s all-encompassing love. This is why I need to be an everyday mystic.

How about you? Would you define yourself as a mystic?

For reflection:


FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites, our weekly roundup of life-giving posts and podcasts. This week, Prasanta Verma and I bring you links on spiritual practices, Scripture, and being broken and remade by God. These are such good links for a disorienting time. Be blessed!

***

To Bleed and Break via Sarah Rennicke (we’re able to love others because God first loved us)

What Breaks and Remakes Us via Tasha Jun (through every shock and transition, God is with us)

Prayer Walking a Labyrinth — With a Printable Guide via Tongua Williams (an ancient spiritual practice with a guide to help)

Four Practices For Staying Alive Until November 3 (and long after) via Steve Wiens (in this podcast episode, learn practices for engaging in respectful and peaceful disagreement)

The Best Way to Memorize Scripture Has Little to Do with Learning Words via K. J. Ramsey (how neuroscience can help us to be doers of the Word)

Lauren Winner and Marilyn McEntyre on Words, Empathy & Disorientation via Jen Pollock Michel (listen to two prolific writers discuss the role of words and reading during this time)

False Self and Creativity: A Guest Post by Ed Cyzewski

I’m pleased to have Ed Cyzewski back at The Contemplative Writer with a guest post this week! Ed is an author and a contemplative who writes with great wisdom on topics such as prayer and the quieting of our soul. Today, this wisdom comes in the form of a post based on his recent book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration From Digital Distraction. Reconnect helps us learn to be present to God rather than to the constant call of technology. If you struggle with distraction or the need for validation, both of which can result from social media use, I really recommend Ed’s book.

Below, Ed talks about the effects of social media not only on our souls but also on our creativity.

***

Leah is highly accomplished programmer who has worked on some of the most important features on one of the most widely used social media platforms in the world. Leah also pays someone to manage her social media accounts, especially her Facebook pages.

Why would prompt someone with her credentials to take such a drastic step? Is she naïve to the many benefits of social media? Is she a workaholic who can’t make time for social connections on line?

Actually, Leah is protecting herself from a social media feedback loop that is addicting and destructive. She knows that because she helped create it.

This “Leah” is Leah Pearlman, the co-creator of the red notification button on Facebook.  She had to hire someone to manage her accounts because the red notification button was too appealing and became linked to her self-esteem and daily moods (as of this writing the notifications are a red bubble on top of a bell on the Facebook home page). She went on to say:

When I need validation – I go to check Facebook… I’m feeling lonely, ‘Let me check my phone.’ I’m feeling insecure, ‘Let me check my phone.’… I noticed that I would post something that I used to post and the ‘like’ count would be way lower than it used to be.

Leah even used the word “addicted” in assessing herself: “Suddenly, I thought I’m actually also kind of addicted to the feedback.”[i] 

Even for those generally unworried about the response of peers, social media still prompts us to curate our identity, selecting the “best” parts of ourselves to share with others. This sets a perfect trap of sorts in terms of spirituality, as we have more than enough opportunities to present or live under the influence of a fabricated false self already.

This can be devastating both for our souls and for creativity:

Do we find our affirmation in the integrity of what we create or in the chance reactions of distracted people, many who barely know us, on social media?

Do we find our worth in the chance feedback of social media or in the loving presence of God that doesn’t rely on careful programming, alluring designs, and enhanced algorithms?

When I speak of a false self, I mean that kind of mask or identity we imagine for ourselves. Henrì Nouwen wrote in The Way of the Heart about the pressure in ministry to be relevant and competent, rather than embracing the brokenness we find in silence and solitude.[ii] Whether we try to project ourselves as successful, organized, creative, wise, or smart, the false self steals the security and affirmation we could receive from God. Instead, we face the pressure to maintain and even protect the false self rather than discovering who we are in God.

Social media provides an opportunity to make the false self more concrete—at least in the sense that it becomes something you and others can see. It literally can become an avatar that is projected, and as we become entangled with our online personas and false selves, it may become quite difficult to discern who we are in the security of God’s love.

As more likes and followers amass in approval of the false self, we may fear the loss of this steady stream of affirmation and may do what we can to ensure that it continues to grow. That isn’t to say that every social media user is at the mercy of a false self. Rather, social media offers a perfect opportunity to “incarnate” the false self and to build relationships around it.

Are we truly seeing people as they are? Or are we only seeing a projected image that is meant to appeal to us? As algorithms help us find people who are most like ourselves and as social media results in people migrating toward divided echo chambers, we are at risk of losing touch with the complexity of each other while also reducing people to simplistic labels based on what they reveal online about themselves, such as their religious or political preferences. 

While there are opportunities for connection, community, and encouragement via social media notifications, those notifications can also serve as a source of insecurity that drives us back to social media for another hit of affirmation. This ready-made, daily affirmation from friends, family, and even complete strangers can make it difficult, if not impossible, to give up a social media affirmation hub like Instagram or Twitter—although services like Facebook, YouTube, and SnapChat offer many similar quandaries for users seeking affirmation. You could get “amazing feedback” at any moment if you keep checking, keep posting, and then keep checking. This feedback loop runs counter to the vision for content offered by Thomas Merton:

In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.[iii]

The feedback on social media is quite immediate, especially if you compare it to the older publishing processes, such as a magazine article. We immediately know if our ideas, images, videos, or favorite articles resonate with our family, friends, and colleagues. The elation of that feedback can become addicting.

At the same time, we can also enjoy reading updates, viewing videos, and browsing photos from our friends, which go on in an endless supply. We have no end of sources for comparison and envy. The more we fill our days with the parade of images and videos on social media, the less likely we are to turn to God for our affirmation, identity, and security.

This post has been adapted from Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction by Ed Cyzewski (Herald Press, 2020).

Learn more here and get a free study guide.


[i] Hilary Andersson, “Social media apps are ‘deliberately’ addictive to users,” BBC, July 4, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-44640959.

[ii] Henrì Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence, 19-21.

[iii] Merton, No Man Is an Island, 127.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

One of the greatest joys of being a writer and, well, a person, is that of being in community. It’s always a joy to discover the words of fellow writers and then to bring them to you. This week, Prasanta Verma and I are sharing a collection of links that we hope will inspire you. So much beauty! Be encouraged, and be blessed.

***

Day Begins via Linda Hoye (after dark comes dawn)

My Prayer Mat via Kevin Driedger (channeling Brother Lawrence in the kitchen)

My Cross I’ll Carry via Aarik Danielsen (when you pick up a cross to justify yourself, that cross gives up its meaning)

When You’re Stuck–A Reflection on Exodus 14:19-31 via April Fiet (when we get stuck, we want to turn around and go back–but is “back” where we’re meant to go?)

Days of Awe: A Gentile Discovers Jewish Poetry via Melanie Weldon-Soiset (the poetic history and possibilities of the Days of Awe)

You Do Have Agency: Your Morning Walk with Sophfronia via Sophfronia Scott (as creatives and as people, we can do much more than we think)

When Mystics Meet (Or; We Need One Another)

On September 28, the Episcopal Church (USA) remembers three mystics: Walter Hilton, Margery Kempe, and Richard Rolle. They are not saints but considered to be important ancestors in the history of the Christian faith.

Walter Hilton (ca. 1340 – 1396) was an English Augustinian canon and mystic. His treatise on Christian contemplation, The Scale of Perfection, was well known in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) was an English laywoman and mystic. She wrote (or more likely dictated) The Book of Margery Kempe, a spiritual autobiography and one of the first in the English language.

Richard Rolle (ca. 1300–1349) was an English hermit, mystic, and writer of spiritual treatises. His best-known work is The Fire of Love.

All three of these historical figures are worth getting to know; Hilton and Kempe play a big role in my forthcoming book on pilgrimage.

In Margery Kempe’s book, we get a glimpse of how these three medieval mystics—and others—were interconnected. For Kempe, meeting other mystics and reading their texts was a way to further spiritual growth. We know, for example, that around 1413, Kempe visited Julian of Norwich in Julian’s cell. The two talked for several days and spoke about the love of Christ. Kempe also told Julian about of her spiritual experiences and received advice from the anchoress.

I’m equally intrigued by Kempe’s report that she had Walter Hilton’s book and Richard Rolle’s treatise read aloud to her by her priest. She says:

[The priest] many a good book to her about high contemplation and other books too, such as the Bible with commentary by doctors, St. Bridget’s book, Hilton’s book, Bonaventure’s Stimulus Amoris, the Incendium Amoris, and other such books (130).

“Hilton’s book” is The Scale of Perfection, and the Incedium Amoris is Richard Rolle’s Fire of Love. The other books mentioned in this list are the Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden and the Pricking of Love, which was not by Bonaventure, as Margery Kempe says, but probably by James of Milan and perhaps translated by our friend Walter Hilton!

So . . . Margery Kempe met Julian of Norwich, and she knew Walter Hilton and Richard Rolle through their words. I enjoy discovering that some of my favorite people from history knew one another. It reminds me that these mystics existed in Christian communities; they weren’t left to figure out their faith completely on their own. So should it be with us. We can’t do it alone. We need each other’s testimonies, advice, wisdom, and companionship.

In the Middle Ages, Christian community extended to reading. As we see from the passage about Kempe’s priest, books were often read aloud rather than silently and privately. I picture Margery Kempe, perhaps sitting down to her evening meal. A fire crackles in the hearth. Kempe’s priest sits across the room and, while she eats, reads aloud from one of the authors she admired. Would Kempe have paused the reading to ask a question? Did she request certain passages that particularly spoke to her?

Give this a try sometime. Grab your favorite passage from Julian of Norwich or another mystic and read it out loud. You will be experiencing the text in a very historical way. And you will meet some great mystics!

Flammable — A Poem by Prasanta Verma

Approaching flames
warm hands, wake
mind, sparks sear heart,
ignite fiber of truth—
a thread of hunger burns

Eternal pyre,
inferno of letters,
old stories illuminated—
a pearl, a passion, a phoenix

This skeleton of dust
catches fire,
I know where I
belong.

In red embers
where love transforms
smoking ash,
I find myself:
A fading flower,
temporal vapor,
with flammable soul

***

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 @VermaPrasanta, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

A New Book for the Contemplative Community: Recital of Love by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

This year, I’ll be featuring some new or recent books about once a month. These are books that I think will particularly speak to you, and I’m happy to highlight them as resources for our contemplative community.

Yesterday, the writer and Christian contemplative Keren Dibbens-Wyatt came out with a new book, Recital of Love: Sacred Receivings. Faced with a chronic illness, Keren turned to contemplation and prayer and found God speaking words into her heart. Her new book is a collection of these “seeings.”

Keren records her seeings in beautiful language that’s perhaps best described as prose poetry. These seeings are God’s words to us, as received by Keren, and they sing of God’s wonder, grace, creativity, and constant presence in the world. They really spoke to my heart, and I think they will delight yours as well.

In the excerpt below, we’re invited to marvel at the vastness of God, as if we were being given a tour of one tiny room of a universe too immense to ever fully see — but not too immense to fully love. Enjoy this passage from Keren’s book.

***

Beyondness

There is much, so much more to be said than can ever be said. Words are inadequate for most of what needs to be poured out from my heart to the world. And so, I do not only speak, but sing, and the flowers and birds add colour and harmony. For I am speaking out an endless stream of universes and laughing worlds into existence. Chains of constellations form from the breath expelled from my nostrils! You truly have no concept or words for the wonder and vastness that I am, nor for the longings in my heart, or the love I harbour, even for the tiniest harvest mouse.

I am beyond all knowing. Do not fence me in, therefore, with your words and ideas, but stretch out with your heart-mind and sense instead, with your feelings, the vibrations of compassion and creation that echo through all of time and space, that resound in your own one tiny life.

By all means, chase my glory, watch my ways, gaze at my goodness, know my presence in the stillness of the waiting heron and the swish of a goldfish’s tail. But do not expect, no, never expect to see more than a glimmer of the whole, more than a flicker of light, more than the furthest edge of the universes of my being. You can only catch a trail of stardust, as you gape in open-mouthed awe at my Love and my Being.

You will return home, but for now you are crammed in the rock cleft with Moses as your guide, and you will only sense my passing, unable to comprehend it.

Yet, do not be dismayed! There is enough in this one moment to keep your minds and hearts busy for all eternity, if you truly love me. Think, ponder, write and paint, sculpt and garden, love and worship, sing and compose, set my wonders into stone and colour and rhyme, do these things with my blessing. But do them knowing that all you have seen is the smallest corner of the hem of my trailing robe, galaxies caught up in the stitching, or that what you capture in your words, or your gleaning of imagery is minuscule, and so small a part of who I am.

Because I exist wholly and holy throughout all creation, every quark knows my name. I may be found under the tiniest pebble, or beneath the lark’s tongue. But if you spy me there, do not imagine for one moment that I am wholly discovered. You could live a thousand years and not see. Gaze instead at my reflection, given within your own heart, and sing with it of my love—for here is where we begin our journey back to unity.

     Selah.

Recital of Love by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt
Copyright © 2020 by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt
Used by permission of Paraclete Press

***

Keren Dibbens-Wyatt is a contemplative in the Christian tradition. She writes to encourage others, to know the Lord more intimately, and to share the poetic ponderings of her heart. She lives in southeast England with her husband.

Are You A Contemplative?

As I prepared to kick off The Contemplative Writer this fall, I spent some time thinking about that word in the website’s title — “contemplative.” It’s easy to toss the word around, and I more or less know what I mean when I say it . . . until you ask me. What does this term really mean? What or who is a contemplative? Am I? Are you?

As many of you probably know by now, I often turn to history for answers. A look at Christian history has helped me begin to grasp what it means to be a contemplative or perhaps just a contemplative person (or writer).

Christian contemplation originated early on and in a monastic context. It was one stage in lectio divina, or sacred reading – an important monastic discipline and one that many Christians still practice today. Lectio leads us to read the Bible but is not a form of Bible study. Instead, it’s a way to prayerfully and reflectively engage with a passage and listen to what God might be saying to us through it.

The traditional stages or parts of lectio divina are:

  • Read
  • Meditate
  • Pray
  • Contemplate

In this practice, contemplation is the final stage; it’s meant to flow naturally from reading Scripture, meditating on its meaning, and then praying. During contemplation, we enter a time of prayer in which we “hear” or “speak” the word of God largely without words. We are attentive and open to God’s love. Some describe this as “resting” in God’s presence.

Throughout the Middle Ages, contemplation remained a part of lectio divina. But it also became an independent exercise in The Cloud of Unknowing, a spiritual treatise written in the late 14th century. The anonymous author, a monk, gives guidance and even some steps for contemplation, which include the repetition of a single word to help focus the attention on God. He mostly refers to contemplation as a “special prayer.” Today, we call this practice contemplative prayer or centering prayer. To learn more, check out this book by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke.

Contemplation can sometimes sound a bit esoteric. And historically, it was; it was limited to the literate, the scholarly, and/or to those in a monastic context. But a number of history’s monks and mystics highlight its relevance to “ordinary” people like you and me. The Cloud author, for example, describes contemplative prayer as a yearning for or reaching out to God. Even though God is in a large sense unknowable, our longing for him is the key.

In 1915, the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote:

Though it is likely that the accusation will annoy you, you are already in fact a potential contemplative: for this act, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, is proper to all . . .  is, indeed, the characteristic human activity (from Underhill’s book, Practical Mysticism).

Underhill describes contemplation as “the” characteristic human activity because all seek to draw near to God . . . even if our drawing near happens in a kind of cloud.

Drawing on these historical sources, I might summarize the contemplative life as a deep-rooted, daily desire to draw near to God. Prayer and silent prayer are good aids to this life, and other practices might be, too – Bible reading, general reading, experiencing the natural world, and sacred friendship, to name a few.

I also love this definition by a group of Poor Clares: “The contemplative life is a life long journey to God in prayer and worship, turning from all else that could make the journey less direct.”

We are all on this journey, friends; the journey of life! And this means:

The Contemplative Writer is for you.

Contemplation is for you.

And, above all —

God is for you.