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)

 

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Thank you for joining us for 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.

***

Writing–

For Those About to Write, I Salute You via John Blase (commit to becoming and staying a good writer–and a good human)

Why Letter-Writing Is Essential to the Good Life via Michael De Sapio (the benefits of reviving a “forgotten” art form)

31 Days of Writing Tips via Kate Motaung (check in daily for this series brought to you by Kate’s Five Minute Friday)

 

Spirituality–

Reflections via Curt Thompson, M.D. (what a great resource — three-minute reflections to help you re-focus and re-center, based on where you are spiritually right now)

Unnoticed in a “Notification” World via April Fiet (on wanting to be noticed, wanting to be invisible…and being seen by our Creator)

Practices to Awaken to Hope in the Chaos via Ashley Hales and Catherine McNceil (a conversation with author Catherine McNeil on the Finding Holy podcast)

When Jesus Did the Dishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Wash the Dishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Thank you for joining us for 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.

***

We Are Free to Learn Slow by Tasha Jun (a beautifully liberating message — we are free to move at the pace God has given us)

How to Stop Work From Taking Over Your Life by Sheridan Voysey (discover “sacred inefficiency” and why your weekend is about more than recharging for the week ahead)

A Prayer for Those Who Feel Awkward in Social Situations via Douglas Kaine McKelvey (Who me? I don’t need this prayer. *Runs and hides*)

A Rough and Ready Primer on Traditional Publishing via Andi Cumbo-Floyd (helpful info for writers wanting to go the traditional publishing route)

Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper via Nature (his advice is transferable to other subjects– and, well, it’s Cormac McCarthy)

“Emergency Poet” opens literary “pharmacy” to support mental wellbeing via Keele University (literary “first aid” as a way of bringing the therapeutic benefits of poetry to the local community. “Yes” to more poetry!)

 

Kitchen Sink Spirituality

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

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

But maybe it should be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday Favorites for Prayer and Writing

Welcome to Friday Favorites! Each week, Prasanta Verma and I round up links that really struck us and that we’d like to share with you. We hope they will add to your writing and spiritual life. Without further ado…

Prasanta’s picks —

Postmarked via Shawn Smucker and Jen Pollock Michel (it began as a Twitter conversation but developed into a series of letters between two writers, navigating the terrain of creative work and family life)

How to Write Compelling Articles That Get Read and Shared via Nicole Bianchi (5 steps to crafting compelling articles)

“Birthday Poem for Roma Cady MacPherson Wilson 2 January 2019, aetatis suae XV” via Anthony Madrid (a stunning poem in Curator Magazine)

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Lisa’s picks —

Rhythms That Return Us to Ourselves via Marlena Graves (returning to “our senses,” or to the rhythms that once sustained and can still sustain us)

On Feeling Afraid and Finding the Edge via Kelly Chripczuk (on the subtle sway of fear)

Year of Pilgrimage – to be a pilgrim in Britain’s Green and Pleasant Land via Bess Twiston Davies (the year 2020 has been decreed the “Year of Cathedrals and Pilgrimages” by the Association of English Cathedrals. Read about the continuing popularity of the practice of pilgrimage!)

 

 

 

 

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Thank you for joining us for 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.

***

Lisa’s picks–

Breaking My Podcast Addiction via Julia Roller (social media addiction? who…me?)

Why We Must Seek God’s Presence in the Ordinary via Catherine McNeil (an invitation to see God in the ordinary moments of our days)

8 Prayers from John Chrysostom that get right to God’s heart via Kathleen N. Hattrup (little reminders that we are always in the presence of the Father)

 

Prasanta’s picks–

Recognizing Eternal Moments in Narrative Nonfiction via Kent Meyers (a craft essay on tracking down eternal moments in our writing)

The 2019 Madeleine L’Engle Conference — Walking on Water (coming up on Saturday, November 16)

Poetry from Kristin George Bagdanov (inspiring poetry from a finalist in the Omnidawn Chapbook Contest)

 

 

 

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome back to Friday Favorites. Each week, Prasanta Verma and I share our favorite links on prayer, writing, and spirituality.

Do you have someone else’s article or post to share? Join the Contemplative Writers Facebook group, comment on today’s post on my Facebook page, or follow me on Twitter (@LisaKDeam) to nominate your favorite articles, blog posts, and books by Thursday at noon each week.

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Lisa’s picks —

Rewriting and Renaming the Silence via Cara Meredith (finding God–and oneself–in silence)

Pastoral prayer for the anniversay of 9/11 via Jill Duffield (a prayer to help us as we remember a difficult time)

Thought For the Day via Pádraig Ó Tuama  (a short and lovely audio about sleeplessness, prayer, and welcoming the dark)

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Prasanta’s picks —

Curiosity, Creativity, Productivity: Three Pillars to Building Your Best Writing Life via Ann Kroeker (part one of a series)

The Business of Being a Spiritual Writer via Writing for Your Life and Patricia Raybon (a helpful video webinar on writers, agents, priorities, and more)

Arise, Stone via Christopher Warner (a poem in Image Journal)