FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome, friends, to Friday Favorites, where Prasanta Verma and I bring you lovely links on spirituality, prayer, and writing.

In this season of Epiphany, we hope that Jesus reveals himself to you, perhaps partly through the pieces and podcasts below. Be blessed.

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What I Learned Being Silent with Monks via John Gehring (what happens when we perform the radical act of withdrawing and being quiet?)

More Than “Just Mercy,” A Path to Healing Racial Trauma (an interview with Sheila Wise Rowe and an excerpt from her new book)

Listening Without an End in Mind via Nicole T. Walters (living as a listener and a learner)

Still Life: Pneuma via Michael Wright (on pneuma, art, and spirituality)

3 Life-Changing Rules for Finding More Writing Inspiration This Year via K. M. Weiland (inspiring creative rebirth in the coming year and decade)

The Habit Podcast via Jonathan Rogers (in this episode, Meredith McDaniel shares the connection between counseling and writing)

 

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.

 

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! Our Advent theme continues as Prasanta Verma and I bring you poems, essays, and resources for this season of anticipation. Read and be blessed.

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The Image Advent Calendar via Image Journal (a daily reflection, piece of visual art, music, or other resource to accompany you through the season)

Perseverance * An Advent Epistle via Alicia Akins (a letter to encourage us as we wait and run)

Advent: Waiting in Hope: What Are YOU Waiting For? via Bob Toohey (why do we get so impatient in everyday situations like traffic lights? Advent may hold an answer)

Joseph via Mary-Patrice Woehling (an Advent poem)

We Are No Longer Alone: Do Not Forget You Are Loved via Emily Polis Gibson (a visual and poetic reflection)

Happy Birthday, Encountering Silence (the Encountering Silence podcast looks back over its first two years)

 

 

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.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome, friends, to Friday Favorites! Each week, Prasanta Verma and I round up our favorite links related to prayer, spirituality, and writing. We hope it will enrich your life and help you to find the best the web has to offer.

Read, enjoy, and be blessed.

***

Gratitude in a Time of Drought via Norann Voll (gratitude turns the little we have in this moment into enough for today)

How to Have a Slow Christmas in a Hurry Up World via Shelly Miller (join the Slow Christmas community this year)

Welcome to the Playroom via Ray Hollenbach (“you don’t need to be perfect to live here”)

First Sunday via Sally Thomas (prepare for the season with this Advent poem)

“Chasin’ Wild Horses” via Bruce Springsteen (from Springsteen’s 2019 album, Western Stars)

Sparrows, Breath, Memory: On Writing and Identity via Catherine DiMercurio (“I think of every word I have ever written . . . as an attempt to understand identity and allow it to sing”)

 

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/.

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome, friends, to Friday Favorites! Each week, Prasanta Verma and I round up our favorite links related to prayer, spirituality, and writing. We hope it will enrich your life and help you to find the best the web has to offer.

Do you have someone else’s article or post that you’d like to see on Friday Favorites? Find me on Twitter (@LisaKDeam) to nominate your favorite articles, blog posts, etc. by Thursday noon each week.

Read, be encouraged, and be blessed.

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Kyrie Eleison: A Prayer for Heavy Times via Jessica Sanborn (when you have a hard time praying, try these ancient words)

Friendsgiving and Why It Matters To Me via Elizabeth Ríoѕ (the beautiful tradition of yearly friendship gatherings)

David K. Weber (in what ways does the ascetic practice of pilgrimage bless the pilgrim?)

My Advice to Struggling Artists: Seek First God’s Kingdom via Andrew Peterson (the key to creativity is worship and prayer)

Time, Space, and Materials via Austin Kleon (what artists and children need to do their work)

Is Multitasking Ruining Your Productivity? via Sarah Bolme (the myth of multitasking; or, do less and accomplish more)

 

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.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Hello and welcome to Friday Favorites. Today is All Saints Day–let’s remember all those who have gone before us in the faith and pray for each other, too.

Prasanta Verma and I hope that this week’s links will enrich your prayer and writing life.

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Poems for All Saints Day via Englewood Review of Books (a beautiful collection of poetry about saints old and new)

Happy Halloween: Remember You Will Die via Jessica Mesman (“remembering death is a dusty practice that needs to be dusted off and used”)

All Hallow’s Eve; a sonnet of reclamation via Malcolm Guite (reclaiming this season as one of remembrance…we remember the light that shines in darkness)

 

Ecclesiastes 1, Recast in Classical Poetry via T. M. Moore ( new take on a familiar chapter of the Bible)

Watch Out: Poetry Can Hijack the Heart via L. L. Barkat (an ode to the poetic form)

Working with (Those Dreaded) Editors via Florence Osmund (an excellent resource on how to choose an editor, the different types of editing, and working with an editor)