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.

***

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.

***

 

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.

***

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.

***

*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?