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.

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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

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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.

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.

 

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: THE MYSTICISM OF ST. AUGUSTINE

Most of us know St. Augustine as a Church Father and theologian. This week, I discovered that Augustine can also be considered a mystic. The church historian Dom Cuthbert Butler called him “the Prince of Mystics” because, in works like the Confessions, Augustine speaks of traveling inward to meet God. He also writes of experiencing the divine presence of God and of seeing God invisibly.

I suppose it’s not too surprising to think of Augustine as a mystic since, according to some–and this is a view I also espouse–every Christian is a mystic. We’re designed to encounter God, to experience his divine presence, and to yearn for greater intimacy with him.

In that vein, I want to quote a somewhat mystical passage from Augustine’s Confessions. I have long loved this passage for the beauty of Augustine’s language and the passion with which he seeks to meet God within. This is a spirituality of longing, and it’s on my heart this week. Early in the Confessions, Augustine calls upon God to come to him–to come into him, in fact. But no sooner does he call than questions arise:

But what place is there in me where my God can enter into me? . . . Where may he come to me? Lord my God, is there any room in me which can contain you?

A little later, Augustine gives the answer. There’s not just a room but a house. However, there are some problems with this house:

The house of my soul is too small for you to come to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins: restore it. In your eyes it has offensive features. I admit it, I know it; but who will clean it up? Or to whom shall I cry other than you?

We cry out to God in mercy to rebuild and restore the house of our soul. God cleans up the house he intends to inhabit. That’s a good first step on the mystical journey, and it’s where I am right now. I’m feeling my own lack and asking God to restore my house that I might meet him there. I’m encouraged that there’s the potential for such a beautiful and spacious place inside me.

Does your heart similarly cry out to God? Have you ever experienced this intense longing for the Creator?

Read St. Augustine’s Confessions here.

CONTEMPLATIVE HISTORY: BEATRIJS OF NAZARETH

Beatrijs of Nazareth (c. 1200 – 1268), a Flemish Cistercian nun, was prioress of the Abbey of Our Lady of Nazareth in Brabant (present-day Belgium). She is often studied in the context of the beguine movement since she received her education from beguines before becoming a nun. In the mid-thirteenth century, Beatrijs wrote The Seven Manners of Loving, a mystical treatise that describes the soul advancing in love for God.

I’m drawn to the striking imagery that mystics often use to describe spiritual growth. Beatrijs of Nazareth does not disappoint! In one passage of her treatise, she likens the soul to a housewife putting everything in order. Although housework seems down to earth, it characterizes a very advanced kind of love in Beatrijs’s treatise.

In the sixth manner, as the bride of our Lord advances and climbs into greater holiness, she feels love to be of a different nature, and her knowledge of this love is closer and higher.

The soul has advanced this far because she has prepared her house for love . . .

And you may see that now the soul is like a housewife who has put all her household in good order and prudently arranged it and well disposed it; she has taken good care that nothing will damage it, her provision for the future is wise, she knows exactly what she is doing, she acquires and discards, she does what is proper, she avoids mistakes, and always she knows how everything should be.

I suppose that calling anyone or anything a “housewife” sounds a little out of date today. I wouldn’t want to be called that! And Beatrijs’s standards for housework seem impossibly high. But I do like the image of the soul bustling around preparing and making room for love.

The rewards of this spiritual work are great. When the inner house is ready, love moves in, and the soul is able to have a “close comprehension of God.”

And then love makes the soul so bold that it no longer fears man nor friend, angel or saint or God himself in all that it does or abandons, in all its working and resting. And now the soul feels indeed that love is within it, as mighty and as active when the body is at rest as when it performs many deeds.

Does Beatrijs’s household imagery resonate with you? Can you picture your soul bustling around preparing an inner home for love? For more examples of this kind of imagery in medieval devotional literature, see the post Finding Christ in the Kitchen by Louise Campion.

For more on Beatrijs of Nazareth, see, among other sources, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature by Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff.

FEATURED ARTICLE: Every Christian is a Mystic

This article in Seedbed is a couple years old, but it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing on Christian mysticism. Why? Because it takes some of the mystery out of mysticism. We often think that a mystical experience must be ecstatic, perhaps involving tears and visions. Or that it’s the preserve of a very saintly kind of person.

Donald Richmond, a clergyman and a Benedictine oblate, explains that this is not the case. Mysticism is not only practical but also essential to a vibrant, everyday faith   it “is central to the revealed religion of the Bible.” Every Christian who longs to encounter God, who wants her faith to be real and lived, is a mystic. Richmond writes:

When we read our Bibles . . . mystical experiences were frequently referenced. Enoch walked with God. Moses had his burning bush. Abraham entertained “angels.” Gideon spoke with “God.” Samson experienced supernatural strength. Mary spoke with an angel. The disciples saw Jesus transfigured and personally worked wonders. Mysticism is Bible-based religion.

What is mysticism, why does it matter, and how are we practical mystics? The answer to these questions partially resides in formulating a proper definition. After many years of thought, I have arrived at the following: Mysticism is a direct encounter with God by Christ through the Holy Spirit as often (although not always) mediated through Holy Scripture, Sacraments, and Christians living as “saints.”

Christian mysticism is direct encounter. That is, mysticism is experiential religion. It is philosophy (the love of wisdom) practiced.

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Practical mysticism matters. We are hardwired for an experiential faith. We want to “know” penetratingly intense intimacy with God. When the Psalmist wrote, “my flesh yearns for [God],” his words highlighted both desert experience and ardent desire.

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Read more.

Reflection: Have you ever thought of yourself as a mystic?

Saturday Prayer

Today’s prayer is from the Divine Hours:

“Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Read more in The Divine Hours.

Featured Article: How to Resist Distraction

We are surrounded by distractions that are more than appealing to our minds that crave a quick win and pleasure. Choosing to focus runs against, the grain and the more we give in, the harder it is to say no.

So what recourse do we have when a text message pings or a commercial calls for our attention? This compilation of studies offers some practical steps you can put to good use when you writer or pray:

 

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Your lazy brain is happy to just react to that relentless bombardment of stimuli coming its way. But when you just react, you don’t usually make the best choices. And while you’re definitely doing something, you’re rarely achieving your goals.

That’s because when you’re reacting, you’re not in control of your life. In fact, reacting is the opposite of control. You see something fun and you chase it. You see something scary and you run away. Either way, your environment is determining your behavior.

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When you need to get work done, put your phone on the other side of the room. Make distractions harder to reach.

When you have fewer things to react to or you make it harder to react to them, you’ll be less reactive.

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Neuroscientists say stress takes your prefrontal cortex — the rational part of your brain — “offline.” Quite simply, stress makes you stupid. And that’s why just reacting often makes you do stupid things.

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Read more…

 

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Book of the Month: Everything Belongs

everything-belongs-rohrWeek Two: Replacing Illusion with Reality

In his book Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr writes about the great surrender that must take place before we can find God and our true selves in prayer.

He is quick to note that God is already present. In fact, we cannot escape God’s presence but we can obscure it or overlook it. Our illusions about ourselves or about God can get in the way.

Therefore the great goal of every spiritual practice is to help us move past our illusions, distractions, and oversimplified answers so that we can be truly present for God.

 

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“We have no real access to who we really are except in God. Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are. Only when we live and see through God can ‘everything belong.’ All other systems exclude, expel, punish, and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection or some kind of ‘purity.’”

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“We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us in every breath we take.”

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“All spiritual disciplines have one purpose: to get rid of illusions so we can be present.”

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“When we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. Fixing something doesn’t usually transform us. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer.”

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“When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God, who works in the darkness—where we are not in control! Maybe that is the secret: relinquishing control.”

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Read more in Everything Belongs

 

For Reflection

featured-book-october-10

Contemplative Profiles: The Female Mystics of the Middle Ages

In the past I have made the mistake of ignoring the spiritual teachings of the Middle Ages, missing out on the rich contemplative practices that were documented at great personal cost. Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff notes in an article in Christianity Today that women were often denied educations in the Middle Ages, so their religious communities took on a more contemplative, creative, and spiritual shape, while many religious men leaned toward theological reflection.

This resulted in a unique spirituality from women who experienced the love of God in rich and vibrant encounters. Perhaps the simplicity of their spirituality became their greatest strength. While some female mystics from this time were supported by the church hierarchy, many wrote down their accounts and visions despite heated opposition, risking persecution and even death at the hands of controlling church leaders.

Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff writes about female mystics for Christianity Today:

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We think of the Middle Ages as the age of faith, and so it was, but it was also an age of crisis. In such a context, mysticism was not a retreat from the negative aspects of reality, but a creative marshaling of energy in order to transform reality and one’s perception of it.

Mystics were the teachers of the age, inspired leaders who synthesized Christian tradition and proposed new models for the Christian community. We know some of the men—Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas—but we are not as familiar with the women, although they were actually more numerous. Hildegard of Bingen, Clare of Assisi, Beatrijs of Nazareth, Angela of Foligno, Julian of Norwich, and other women mystics drew on their experience of the divine to provide spiritual guidance for others. Such women became highly respected leaders of the faithful. Their role as prophets and healers was the one exception to women’s presumed inferiority in medieval society.

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She goes on to write:

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Dame Julian of Norwich said in her Showings: “ … God forbid that you should say or assume that I am a teacher … for I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail. But I know very well that what I am saying I have received by the revelation of him who is the sovereign teacher … because I am a woman, ought I therefore to believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at that same time that it is his will that it be known?”

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As we honor their legacy, learn from their wisdom, and embody their practices, may we have the courage to share with others the ways God has spoken to us.

 

Reflection

Take 5 minutes to ask God what you need to receive today.

Remain open to sharing that with someone else if appropriate.