THE HOLY SPIRIT: Human Existence In The Spirit, by Sallie McFague

From Collected Readings

“Christians believe the world is hidden in God.”  This is the same as saying that human existence takes place within God’s Spirit.  The world does not have a separate existence for Christians.  Ontologically, we live from, toward, and with God.  I did not used to believe this; in fact, I fought it.  I wanted the world to stand on its own; I feared that otherwise it would be sucked up into God – shades of Hegel and Barth!  But believers are always mystics (even if they are not philosophical idealists).  One (or, at least I) cannot believe in God as a being, no matter how infinite, eternal, ubiquitous, good, powerful, or supernatural.  God is either everything or nothing, or to phrase it more carefully, God is reality (or being-itself) – if not, there would be something “beyond God” or “more than God” that would be God.

So, how are the world and we human beings differentiated from God?  In this story, we are the body of God, we are God “spread out,” we are God incarnate.  We (the universe) come from God and return to God, and in the “interim” we live in the presence of God – even when we do not know or acknowledge it.  We are created in the image of God (the entire universe reflects God’s glory, each and every creature and thing in its particular, concrete, unique way).  Creation is a panoply of mind-boggling diversity, a myriad of outrageously extravagant species and individuals who all together make up the body of God – God going out, God enfleshed, God become matter.  Each creature – except us, it appears – praises God by simply being itself, by being fully alive.  The whole universe, in this story, desires to grow back into God: the beloved longs to return to the lover.  It is the deepest desire of creation to do so: eternal life, as Julian of Norwich says, is being “oned” with God, being “knitted up with God.”

In this story there is nothing but God: God in God’s self (the Spirit) and God going out from God’s self (God embodied).  God incarnate means God going out from the divine self to create “another,” the world, which in a sense is over against God: the billions of particular, different creatures and entities that constitute it.  But the world’s “being” and its “well-being” and even its “reason for being” is to live in intimate relationship with God, which, of course, means living in intimate relationship with all other parts of divine embodiment as well.

What, then, of sin and evil?  Sin and evil are pretending that we can live outside reality, this reality of interrelationship and interdependence of all things with one another and with God.  Sin is refusing to grow into the image of God in which we (and everything else) is made.  Sin is refusing to reflect God, become like God, by imagining that we can exist outside of relationship with God and others, living as if one’s life came from oneself.  Sin is living a lie.  If God is reality and if reality is good, then sin and evil are a turning away from the ground of our being and our hope for happiness; sin and evil, as Augustine claimed, are not.  They are a turning away from reality, from the radical, intimate relationships that constitute life and its goodness.  Sin and evil are a denial of reality in their false belief that we can live from and for ourselves.

My exegesis of the statement, “Christians believe the world is hidden in God” is, I have suggested, a “likely story” of God and the world for our time.  It is not a description, but neither were the medieval or deist stories of how God and the world are related.  Rather, all three are Christian retellings of the relation of God and the world in terms commensurate with, appropriate to, different times.  The story of God’s embodiment and return, of all things evolving from one source that is reality, is congruous with the Big Bang of contemporary cosmology and the resulting unimaginable diversity and interdependence of matter – from the billions of galaxies to the DNA in bacteria, and everything in between.  It is a creation story that gives God greater glory than any other that human beings have ever told.  It is a retelling of the creation story that underscores God’s awesome magnificence and power (God is reality) and our total dependence on God (as God’s body created to reflect God’s glory, each in our own way).  It is story that can be imagined without sacrificing one’s intellect, although contemporary cosmology and evolution do not give special support to this religious tale.  But this tale can “accompany” the contemporary worldview with minimum strain.

At an important point, however, this story makes a claim that the cosmological, ecological worldview does not: it makes a claim concerning the direction of the universe.  This claim, for Christians, is focused on Jesus of Nazareth as the lens or model of God.  His life, ministry, death, and appearances are the way that Christians look Godward, the way they dare to speak of the world not as a tragedy, but as a “divine comedy.”  All of creation, this story says, reflects God, but at one place that reflection is seen (by Christians) in an especially illuminating way.  In Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe they see what we are meant to be, and by implication, what we are not meant to be.  If the purpose of all of creation is to reflect God, then the story of Jesus is the message and the means for how human beings can do so.

Life as it should be – salvation – is then, for Christians, christomorphic.  It is becoming like God by following Jesus.  “Following Jesus” is not principally a moral imperative, but a statement of who we are.  We learn what it means to say human beings are created in God’s image for God’s glory by looking at Jesus Christ.  “The importance of the confession ‘Jesus is the Lord’ is not only that Jesus is divine but that God is Christlike.”  The focus of salvation, then, becomes living in a new way, the way of God’s abundance.

This is a deification, not an atonement understanding of salvation.  It is an incarnation rather than a cross emphasis, a creation rather than a redemption focus, from the Eastern Christian tradition rather than the Western.  It claims that we were created to be with God: creation is the pouring out of divine love toward that end; the incarnation in Christ is the reaffirmation and deepening of that love; the cross is the manifestation of the suffering that will occur, given sin and evil, if all creatures, especially the most vulnerable, are to flourish; and the resurrection is God’s Yes that, in spite of the overwhelming forces of sin and evil, this shall be so.  We will, all of us, be one with God and with each other.  It is an understanding of salvation, of the good life, that reflects and deepens the ecological, economic worldview, for it is communal, physical, and inclusive.  It imagines God’s work for and with us as the enrichment and fulfillment of all forms of life, with special emphasis on the basics that creatures need for survival and well-being.

This is a different notion of salvation than is typical in most Western theologies.  In the West salvation has usually been seen as redemption – God in Christ paying a price for our sins, or ransoming us from the forces of evil, or sacrificing the Son as a substitutionary atonement for us.  The focus of these theologies is on redemption from our sin, not on our creation for the abundant life in union with God and others.  The focus is on human individuals who are saved from evil (which is often equated with the world), rather than on the whole creation being invited into fuller communion with God and all others.  The focus is on “Jesus doing it all” rather than on us, in partnership with God by following Christ, working toward a different way for all of us to live together on the Earth.

While the deification view may at first glance appear to take sin and evil less seriously than the atonement view, it actually takes them more seriously.  It views them not simply as individual failings for which human beings need forgiveness, but rather as all the forces – individual, systemic, institutional – that thwart the flourishing of God’s creation.  “Sin” is not mainly or only a personal problem, the solution for which is divine forgiveness.  Rather, sin is living a life, living contrary to the way the christic lens tells us is God’s desire for all of us.  “Evil,” in this understanding, is the collective term for the ancient, intricate, and pervasive networks of false living that have accumulated during human history.  In the atonement model sin and evil are mainly individual, personal matters; in the deification view they are principally communal, worldly matters: one focuses on individual redemption from sin, the other on the forces, whether individual or institutional, that keep creation from flourishing.

This means, then, that the point of Christology for the deification view is not personal redemption but a “a conversion to the struggle for justice.”  It means becoming “conformed to Christ” since he is, for Christians, the lens by which we know God.  If, however, the goal of salvation is God’s glory – every creature fully alive – then becoming christomorphic will involve very mundane work.  “Work, land, housing, health, food, and education become the very expression of the glory of God.  Likewise, the glory of God is trampled underfoot in any person who suffers hunger, destitution, and oppression.”  Deification, becoming like God or following Christ, means, then, becoming involved in such matters as ecological economics, the just distribution of resources on a sustainable basis.  Deification, becoming like the incarnate God, means making the body of God healthier and more fulfilled.  Salvation is worldly work.  Human existence “in the Spirit” means working “in the body” so that it may flourish.

Do we do this?  Can we do this?  Some do, and they can do so only by being deeply, personally, profoundly grounded in God.  The “saints” who work tirelessly for justice are spiritually alive.  Persistent, lifelong cruciform living appears possible only through immersing oneself in God’s presence.  Justice work and mysticism seem to be companions.  To live this way is very difficult; it is, however, what I believe we middle-class North American Christians are called to.

THE HOLY SPIRIT: Experiencing The Spirit, by Karl Rahner

From The Spirit in the Church

Is there such a thing as experiencing the Spirit?

Is there such a thing as experience of the Spirit which on the one hand enables us to understand and legitimate the testimony of scripture to the indwelling of the Spirit in us, and on the other hand is confirmed and affirmed by scripture as the true word?  Indeed there is.

That assertion is not contradicted by the fact that we can and must ask in an inquiring and even doubting spirit about the possibility of such an experience; that it is not a question of an unquestioning experience, such as we have of the external world, without (apart from the belief of philosophers of the sublime) any need or necessity to feel or ask whether there really is such an experience of the human and material environment of man.  There are other genuine experiences which are given and which we nevertheless have to inquire into and about beforehand.  If, for example, a German idealist philosopher or a modern Christian philosopher inquires into the transcendental subject of knowledge and freedom, and asks about its structures, and if a modern depth psychologist tries to dredge up ultimate repressions and hidden attitudes, in both cases it is right to say that a human being can exhibit real experiences which are made in an unthematic way, are not verbalized and are perhaps repressed and not accepted by the free attention of a human being.  Experience and objectified, material and verbalized experience are not simply one and the same thing, as the human consciousness lost and involved in the objectivity of everyday happenings might think.  It is possible to have a kind of experience which is also an authentic quest and question.

The quest for the experience of the Spirit cannot be rejected from the start as contradictory.  But how are we to go about it?

The testimony of the mystics

Today as so often in the church’s past it is probably appropriate to our quest to remember that there have always been mystics and enthusiastic or “charismatic” experiences and movement in the church which, in spite of their extremely diverse forms and interpretations, have been taken as experience of the Holy Spirit.

Mysticism has existed and still exists.  Those graced with such an experience have reported and continue to report that (either in a sudden breakthrough or in an extended series) they experience grace, the direct presence of God, and union with him in the Spirit, in the sacred night, or in a blessed illumination, in a void silently filled by God.  They say that, at least within the mystical occurrence itself, they do not doubt that they experience the direct presence of the self-communicating God as the action and actuality of God’s saving grace in the depths of their existence, and that that experience is the “experience of the Holy Spirit.”

But the ordinary and theological ways in which this experience has been described are most various in the history of mysticism, and this objective and verbal interpretation (dependent on ideological, cultural, and philosophical and theological modes, and patterns of understanding) has been offered in very different ways.

How the question is to be answered in accordance with the elation of this Christian mysticism and its Christian interpretation of similar non-Christian mystical phenomena, especially in the East and above all in Islam and in Buddhism, and how such experience can co-exist with socio-ecclesial and sacramental-ritual piety – are questions which do not concern us here and now.

The mystics bear witness to experience of the Spirit, and in principle there is nothing to stop us accepting all their testimonies as credible.  That is the case especially when we remember that the original experience and the philosophical and theological interpretation of it are two different things, and that for that reason variety and contradiction in explanations do not discredit the original experience.  On the other hand, these mystics included men of extreme sobriety and the finest observation, right up to Carl Albrecht in our own era – a mystic who was also a prominent doctor, psychologist, philosopher, and scientist.  There certainly are people who have the courage to offer credible testimony of their experience of the Spirit.

Of course theologians of Christian mysticism have stressed the extraordinary, reserved nature of these mystical phenomena.  They have done so on the one hand because they wanted (quite rightly) to emphasize the origin of these phenomena in grace, and were guided by the implicit opinion that the work of grace and that which was free from all guilt must by definition occur but seldom; and on the other hand because such unmistakable mystical phenomena usually occur with accompanying ecstatic (indeed almost para-psychological) circumstances, which can of course be very rare.  It is to some extent understandable that a normal Christian should treat such mystical occurrences as something that does not concern him and that he can safely ignore.

But if we isolated the mystical core-experience more exactly from such unusual peripheral phenomena as ecstasy, trance, and so on (something not possible in the present context), then it would certainly be easier to see that such mystical experiences are not events that are sadly beyond the experience of an ordinary Christian, but that the testimony that mystics offer of their experiences indicates an experience which every Christian (and in fact every human being) can make and evoke but which he or she too easily overlooks or represses.  In any case it is true to say that there is such a thing as mysticism, and that it is not so very distant from us as at first we are inclined to think.

PRAYER: Ten Meditations, by Francis de Sales

From Introduction to the Devout Life
(A modern rewriting, making these meditations easier to read and understand, can be found at the website for the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.)

The whole Earth is laid waste with desolation, because there is no one that thinks in his heart. (Jeremiah 12:2)

The First Meditation

On our creation

Preparation

1.  Place yourself in the presence of God.  Beseech him to inspire you.

Considerations

1.  Consider that so many years ago that your being was a mere nothing.  Where were we, O my soul, at that time?  The world had lasted so many ages, and yet there was no news of us.

2.  God has framed you out of this nothing to make you what you are, merely of his own goodness; having no need at all of you.

3.  Consider the being that God has given you; for it is the highest in this visible world, capable of eternal life, and of being perfectly united with his divine majesty.

Affections and Resolutions

1.  Humble yourself exceedingly in the presence of God, saying in your heart with the psalmist: O Lord, I am in thy sight a mere nothing; and how hadst thou remembrance of me to create me?  Alas, my soul, thou wert engulfed in that ancient nothing, and hast yet been there had not God drawn thee thence.  And what couldst thou have done remaining there?

2.  Give thanks to God.  O my great and good creator, how am I obliged to thee, since thou hast vouchsafed to take me out of this nothing, and by thy great mercy to make me what I am!  What can I do to bless thy holy name as I ought, and to render due thanks to thy inestimable goodness?

3.  Confound yourself.  But, alas! my creator, instead of uniting myself to thee by love and service, I have been a rebel to thee by my inordinate affections, wandering and straying away from thee, to unite myself to sin; valuing thy goodness no more than if thou hadst not been my creator.

4.  Prostrate yourself before God.  O my soul, know that the Lord is thy God: It is he that has made thee, and not thou thyself.  O God, I am the work of thy hands.

5.  I will then no more henceforth take pleasure in myself, since of myself I am nothing.  Why dost thou magnify thyself, O dust and ashes?  Yea, rather, O very nothing, why dost thou exalt thyself?  To humble therefore myself, I resolve to do such and such things; to suffer such and such disgraces: I will change my life, and henceforth follow my creator and esteem myself honored with that condition and being which he has given me, employing it entirely in obedience to his will, by such means as shall be taught me, and as I shall learn from my ghostly Father.

Conclusion

1.  Give thanks to God.  Bless thy God, O my soul, and let all that is within me praise his holy name; for his goodness has drawn me, and his mercy has created me out of nothing.  2.  Offer.  O my God, I offer to thee the being which thou hast given me: from my heart I dedicate and consecrate it to thee.  3.  Pray.  O God, strengthen me in these affections and resolutions.  O blessed Virgin, recommend them to the mercy of thy Son, with all for whom I ought to pray.  Pater.  Ave.  Credo.

After your prayer, out of these considerations which you have made, gather a little nosegay of devotion, to smell to all the rest of the day.

The Second Meditation

On the end for which we were created

Preparation

1.  Place yourself in the presence of God.  2.  Beseech him to inspire you.

Considerations

1.  God has not placed you in this world for any need that he has of you, who are altogether unprofitable to him, but only to exercise his goodness in you, by giving you his grace and glory.  And to this end he hath enriched you with an understanding to know him; with a memory to be mindful of him; with a will to love him; an imagination to represent to yourself his benefits; eyes to behold his wondrous works; a tongue to praise him; and so of the other faculties.

2.  Being created and put into the world for this intent, all actions contrary to it are to be avoided and rejected; and whatever conduceth not to this end ought to be contemned as vain and superfluous.

3.  Consider the wretchedness of worldlings, who never think of this, but live as though they believed themselves created for no other end than to build houses, plant trees, heap up riches, and such like fooleries.

Affections and Resolutions

1.  Confound yourself, reproaching your soul with her misery, which has hitherto been so great, as that she hath seldom or never considered this.  Alas! shall you say, how did I employ my thoughts, O God, when I placed them not upon thee?  What did I remember when I forgot thee?  What did I love when I loved not thee?  Alas!  I ought to have fed upon truth, and I have gutted myself with vanity; I have served the world, which was created but to serve me.

2.  Detest your past life.  I renounce you, O vain thoughts and unprofitable fancies: I abjure you, O frivolous and hateful remembrances: O unfaithful and disloyal friendships, lewd and wretched slaveries, ungrateful contentments, and irksome pleasures, I abhor you.

3.  Return to God.  And then, O my God, my Savior, thou shalt be from henceforth the sole object of my thoughts; I will no more apply my mind to objects that may be displeasing to thee.  My memory shall entertain itself all the days of my life with the greatness of thy clemency so mercifully exercised on me: thou shalt be the delight of my heart, and the sweetness of my affections.

4.  Ah! such and such, trash and trifles to which I applied myself, such and such unprofitable employments, in which I have foolishly squandered away my days, such and such affections which have captivated my heart, shall henceforth be a horror to my thoughts, and to this end I will use such and such good remedies.

Conclusion

1.  Thank God who made you for so excellent an end.  Thou hast created me, O Lord, for thyself, and for the everlasting enjoyment of thy incomprehensible glory: O when shall I be worthy of it?  When shall I praise thee and bless thee as I ought?  2.  Offer.  I offer to thee, O my dear creator, all these affections and resolutions, with all my heart and soul.  3.  Pray.  I beseech thee, O God, to accept my desires and purposes, and give thy holy benediction to my soul, to the end that it may accomplish them, through the merits of thy blessed Son’s blood shed for me upon the cross, etc.  Pater.  Ave.  Credo.  Make your little nosegay of devotion, as aforesaid.

REFLECTION: Total Eclipse, by Annie Dillard

From Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

I

It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass.  It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread.  It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering.  We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place – a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima.  The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early the next morning.

§

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SATURDAY READING: The Art Of Seeing Things, by John Burroughs

From American Earth, edited by Bill McKibben

I

I do not purpose to attempt to tell my reader how to see things, but only to talk about the art of seeing things, as one might talk of any other art.  One might discourse about the art of poetry, or of painting, or of oratory, without any hope of making one’s readers or hearers poets or painters or orators.

The science of anything may be taught or acquired by study; the art of it comes by practice or inspiration.  The art of seeing things is not something that may be conveyed in rules and precepts; it is a matter vital in the eye and ear, yea, in the mind and soul, of which these are the organs.  I have as little hope of being able to tell the reader how to see things as I would have in trying to tell him how to fall in love or to enjoy his dinner.  Either he does or he does not, and that is about all there is of it.  Some people seem born with eyes in their heads, and others with buttons or painted marbles, and no amount of science can make the one equal to the other in the art of seeing things.  The great mass of mankind are, in this respect, like the rank and file of an army: they fire vaguely in the direction of the enemy, and if they hit, it is more a matter of chance than of accurate aim.  But here and there is the keen-eyed observer; he is the sharpshooter; his eye selects and discriminates, his purpose goes to the mark.
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NATURE: The Language Of Animals, by Barry Lopez

From Wild Earth

The steep riverine valley I live within, on the west slope of the Cascades in Oregon, has a particular human and natural history.  Though I’ve been here for thirty years, I am able to convey almost none of it.  It is not out of inattentiveness.  I’ve wandered widely within the drainages of its eponymous river, the McKenzie; and I could offer you a reasonably complete sketch of its immigrant history, going back to the 1840s.  Before then, Tsanchifin Kalapuya, a Penutian-speaking people, camped in these mountains, but they came up the sixty-mile-long valley apparently only in summer to pick berries and to trade with a people living on the far side of the Cascades, the Molala.  In the fall, the Tsanchifin returned down valley to winter near present-day Eugene, Oregon, where the McKenzie joins the Willamette River.  The Willamette flows a hundred miles north to the Columbia, the Columbia another hundred miles to the Pacific.

The history that preoccupies me, however, in this temperate rain forest is not human history, not even that of the highly integrated Tsanchifin.  Native peoples seem to have left scant trace of their comings and goings in the McKenzie valley.  Only rarely, as I hear it, does someone stumble upon an old, or very old, campsite, where glistening black flakes of a volcanic glass called obsidian, the debitage from tool-making work, turn up in soil scuffed by a boot heel.
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NATURE: Earth Music, by David James Duncan

From Portland Magazine

I hold the thing we call “nature” to be the divine manuscript.  I hold the infinite wilds to be the only unbowdlerized book we possess of the Authorship that gives and sustains life.  Human industry is shredding this book like an Enron document.  Some call this shredding “economics” and “freedom.”  It’s not quite a lie.  But the freedom to shred the divine manuscript is not an economics any lover of neighbor, self, or Earth wishes to practice.

A spiritual hero told me when I was young that “true happiness lies in making others happy.”  Having found no happiness seeking it for myself, I tried seeking the happiness of others, and found this unlikely statement to be true.  The formula was not without side-effects, however, once self-giving starts to give you joy, you grow bewildered by the specter of selfishness, fall out of the nationalist/capitalist loop, and limp about in search of healthier hopes.  A new source of hope for me: the growing reverence for nature and its mysteries among scientists.
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POETRY: the earth is a living thing, by Lucille Clifton

is a black shambling bear
ruffling its wild back and tossing
mountains into the sea

is a black hawk circling
the burying ground circling the bones
picked clean and discarded

is a fish black blind in the belly of water
is a diamond blind in the black belly of coal

is a black and living thing
is a favorite child
of the universe
feel her rolling her hand
in its kinky hair
feel her brushing it clean

POETRY: Black Snake, by Margaret Gibson

1.

When, in the darkened room, I hear a clatter from the mantel
of the central chimney with its many chinks,
and turn to see why a plate has leapt to the floor on its own,
I freeze
as a sleek thick ribbon of snake
slides like rain
over the rough stones of the chimney and into an opening
I swear is no wider
than the eye of my wedding ring.
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POETRY: Microcosmos, by Wisława Szymborska

Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak

When they first started looking through microscopes
a cold fear blew and it is still blowing.
Life hitherto had been frantic enough
in all its shapes and dimensions.
Which is why it created small-scale creatures,
assorted tiny worms and flies,
but at least the naked human eye
could see them.
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REFLECTION: The Nature Of Nature

My high school is situated on a hill above the business districts of Newcastle and Damariscotta, Maine.  As you come out of the driveway and head toward town, you take a big curve to the left and then glide down the hill to the stop sign.

I learned to drive and got my license without ever having encountered a light signal.  The screams in the car were not for joy when we visited nearby cities with these strange lights that kept blinking at me.

Now there’s a traffic light at the crossroads where the McDonald’s sells lobster rolls.  I think the McDonald’s was there before the streetlight came.  But I’m not sure.

We all grow up in such different ways.

Anyway.
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NATURE: Wuthering Heights, by Peter Milward

From A Poetic Approach to Ecology

There is something innately spiritual about the wind.  It is something we cannot see.  It is without shape or color, by which it might affect our eyes.  It is only to be seen in its effects, as when it moves the trees and makes their branches sway to and fro.

In the same way, it cannot be heard.  It has no sound of its own which might affect our ears.  It is only to be heard in its effects, as when it creates a singing or rustling noise in the trees and thus uses them as its lyre – just as the breath from our lungs passes through our throat and mouth in the formation of words.

But now, I ask, is what I have just said of the wind really true?  Does the wind really make no sound of its own?  Then what of the phenomenon of “wuthering,” as used in the title of Emily Bronte’s famous novel, Wuthering Heights?  This is a word not to be found in the average English dictionary, coming as it does from the northern dialect where it means the noise and rush of the wind.  In this case, it can hardly refer to the sound made by the wind through the trees, as the whole point of the heights, or Yorkshire moors, where the novel has its setting, is that there are no trees or very few of them.  In this case, it seems, the wind makes a sound of its own, a commotion or disturbance in the air that is audible to men on Earth.
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WRITING: The Greatest Nature Essay Ever, by Brian Doyle

From Orion

. . . would begin with an image so startling and lovely and wondrous that you would stop riffling through the rest of the mail, take your jacket off, sit down at the table, adjust your spectacles, tell the dog to lie down, tell the kids to make their own sandwiches for heavenssake, that’s why God gave you hands, and read straight through the piece, marveling that you had indeed seen or smelled or heard it articulated that way, and you think, Man, this is why I read nature essays, to be startled and moved like that, wow.
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PRAYER: Prayers To Mother Earth

Prayer to Earth Mother
Gaël Razière

Earth Mother
receive in your great bounty
all the blood that has poured over me,
the sorrow that has mired me down.
Let me be free,
so flowers and trees may sprout from me to the heavens,
so birds may come and perch on my wings
and sing their eternal song of gratitude.
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SERMON: Going To Church In The Psalms, by Mark Love

My assignment tonight is “The Character of God in the Psalms.”  Which is a little like speaking on the subject, “Everything That’s Wrong with the Detroit Tigers.”  Where would you start?  Where would you end?  Pitching, defense, hitting, minor leagues, coaching?  This assignment is daunting.

Still, I’m up to the challenge.  Ready?  God is Yahweh, El Shaddai, Elohim, a mighty tower, a rock, a fortress.  Our God is a stronghold, a sure defense.  The Lord of Hosts is a horn of salvation.  The Lord is our light, a warrior, a king, a shepherd, a mother, a vinedresser.  God is an avenger and a healer.  A protector, creator, destroyer.  The Lord is lawgiver and judge, a forger of weapons and their destroyer.  Our God is a shelter in the storm.  God is the storm.  God is a place of peace and rest, and God is the disorienting whirlwind.  Any questions?

I hope you noticed two things from this quick tour of images of God in the Psalms.  The picture we have is rich and diverse.  Simply listing images, however, leaves us still a long way from knowing the nature of God in the Psalms.  But I also want you to notice that the images are so varied, and sometimes so at odds with one another, that it makes you wonder if the psalmists are speaking of the same God.  We have a very difficult task tonight, defining the nature of God in the Psalms.
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SATURDAY READING: Praying In The World, A Case History, by Marvin Barrett

From Parabola

This is an account of the circumstances in my life that led me away and back again to prayer.  Twice

I

If I divided my prayer life into three stages – petitions, intercession, and what came after – petitions stand first.  They were the gut prayers of childhood – praying for a toy, for a pal to play with, to win at ball, for good weather, good health.

Next came childish intercessions introduced by the chilling quatrain of ancient and unknown origin:

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

This was followed by “God bless mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, and all the other grown-ups.  God bless brother Dirk and all the other children.”  This list was soon augmented by those I grew up among in the Midwestern city that was my home, cousins, uncles and aunts, teachers, neighborhood and schoolyard favorites, and in my case, perhaps not so enthusiastically, my younger brother, Eddie, a recent arrival.  I began my prayers at age three.  Petitions and intercessions flourished, and if I didn’t always get what I asked for, those on my prayer list seemed preserved from serious misadventure.
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POETRY: The Waltz We Were Born For, by Walt McDonald

Wind chimes ping and tangle on the patio.
In gusty winds this wild, sparrow harks hover
and bob—always the crash of indigo
hosannas dangling on strings. My wife tries copper
to turquoise from deserts, and bits of steel
from engines I tear down. She strings them all
like laces of babies’ shoes when the squeal
of their play made joyful noise in the hall.

Her voice is more modest than moonlight,
like pearl drops she wears in her lobes.
My hands find the face of my bride.
I stretch her skin smooth and see bone.
Our children bring children to bless her, her face
more weathered than mine. What matters
is timeless, dazzling devotion—not rain,
not Eden gardenias, but cactus in drought,
not just moons of deep sleep, not sunlight or stars,
not the blue, but the darkness beyond.

THE MECHANICS OF PRAYER: The Elements Of An Answered Prayer

Perhaps I haven’t covered this before.  I can’t remember.  And while having the intention to thumb through past writings, I tend to get distracted by other concerns. (This is known in the English major circle as foreshadowing.)

But even if I’ve covered it, I’m fairly sure I haven’t written this.

(If I have, then here you have it again.)

One of the most incomprehensible things about God, I have found, is his simplicity.  We imagine that the “rules” of God are so complex and vast that just witnessing one would overwhelm us.  Perhaps even to death.

We equate God with infinity.  And with all those “omni’s.”

But the more I have studied God, the more I have come to understand that it is, in general, a study in reduction.  Of taking a lot away.  It’s we, the humans, who complicate things.  Almost to the point of making things unworkable.
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THE CALL: Listening, by Robert Benson

From The Echo Within

My life is a listening.  His is a speaking.
My salvation is to hear and respond.
(Thomas Merton)

It was early fall, and it was late afternoon, and I was walking through old Carolina pines with a new friend.  We were near the ocean, near enough to hear the surf as we walked along a broad path through the forest.

I saw I was with a new friend.  I only spent five days with him, and I had never seen him before and have not seen him since.  He and I were two of about sixty people at a retreat, and I was the speaker.

“I think I am being called to go to seminary,” my new friend said.  “Do you think I am?”

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POETRY: Yard Sale, by Jane Kenyon

Under the stupefying sun
my family’s belongings lie on the lawn
or heaped on borrowed card tables
in the gloom of the garage. Platters,
frying pans, our dead dog’s
dish, box upon box of sheet music,
a wad of my father’s pure linen
hand-rolled handkerchiefs, and his books
on the subsistence farm, a dream
for which his constitution ill suited him.
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POETRY: Washing Sheets in July, by Jane Gentry

Thin clouds work the sheet of sky—
jays cry, flat and starchy.
Against the white garage
hollyhocks flicker.
The sheets, wet, adhesive
as I hang them, smell
of soap and bee-filled air.

Flags of order in the palpable sun,
how they snap in the new breeze!
Watching them balloon on the line,
I swell with an old satisfaction:
I beat them clean in the Euphrates.
Poems half-conceived drift off—
unwritten essays muddle, fade.
The white sheets crack in the wind,
fat bellies of sails,
sweet as round stomachs of children.

Tonight they’ll carry me to sleep
in joy, in peace,
muscles unknotting, tired eyes clearing
in the dark under their lids.
The sheets, fragrant as summer,
carry me into realms of cleanliness,
deep dreams of order.

SOUL STRUCTURE: Evil And Asceticism

Balancing the costs of being a mystic, there are the benefits.  A most unusual approach to understanding reality is one.

For every seen definition of life, there are unseen definitions.  Corners around which reveal if not a completely different reality, than, at the very least, a distinct lens through which to look at it.

It’s a way of thought that most often supplies reasons.  As though God, for the most part, keeps the mechanics of his creation well hidden under the skin of the truth of the matter.  Why he does this is perhaps a study for another mystic.

And I will admit to wondering if knowing some of these hidden natures of things would change the world in any way.

Can’t imagine.
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WORSHIP: Place, by Doris Grumbach

From The Presence of Absence

Most of the faithful give evidence of their belief in public places.  For them, worship is a communal act carried out in a consecrated or holy place where ceremony is predetermined, and the actions and postures of the body – kneeling, bowing, standing, making symbolic signs – are prescribed, almost automatic, so many times in a lifetime have they been performed.  For many, they provide the warm security of unquestioned repetition, for others the outward demonstration of inner conviction.

Worship often begins in small gatherings.  These inevitably expand to require governing bodies which, of necessity, must lead a worldly financial life at some distance from the worshiper in the pew.  Religious institutions, now solidified and hierarchic, justify their existence in many ways.  The most persuasive justification I have come upon is Peter L. Berger’s.  In A Far Glory he holds that “it is the very purpose of any religious tradition [for worship"] to preserve for generations of ordinary people not only the memory of the great founding events but the possibility of replicating them in a much lower key.”  In another place he writes that “religious experience would remain a highly fugitive phenomenon were it not preserved in an institution.  Only the institutionalization of religion allows its transmission from one generation to another.”
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LISTENING: The Gift In Receiving, by Mark Nepo

From Seven Thousand Ways to Listen

Can you hold the door of your tent wide to the firmament? (Lao Tzu)

We usually think of giving as more important than receiving.  Yet only by receiving light can flowers grow into their beauty and pollinate the earth.  Only by absorbing rain can the earth grow what feeds us.  Only by inhaling air can our bodies walk us to each other.  Only by accepting each other’s pain and vulnerability can human strength grow between us.  In these ways, receiving involves absorbing, inhaling, and accepting the life that flows through us, between us, and around us.  These are deeper forms of listening.

On the surface of things, giving and receiving are about exchanges.  I need.  You give.  I feel grateful.  You feel good about yourself.  I feel indebted.  I give back.  We take turns.  But below the surface of things, giving and receiving become indistinguishable, and the aim is not to have or move things from one person to another, but to keep the gift of life flowing.  The pulse of being alive moves like blood circulating in the body, and giving and receiving, like arteries and veins, are both necessary.  For no one organ owns the blood.  Rather, we are of one body.  The gift of life, like blood, must keep flowing, if we are to stay alive.

The difference then between receiving and taking – between taking things in and taking things from – is crucial.  To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with taking something given by another.  But when taking tightens into hoarding, we stop listening, and the imbalance poisons us and those nearby.  We’re always capable of both receiving and taking, and so must guard against being one who just takes and acquires in favor of developing our capacity to take in and transmit the life-force given; to be a conduit rather than a repository.
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PRAYER: The Active Prayer, by Thomas Keating

From Open Mind, Open Heart

The sacred word is designed to lead into silence.  Hence, it should be short – one or two syllables.  The active prayer – an aspiration drawn from scripture for use in daily life – should be longer – five to nine syllables.  The saying of the syllables is synchronized with one’s heartbeat.  While some people like to use a variety of aspirations for this purpose, it is easier to work a single aspiration into the subconscious.  The great advantage of this practice is that it eventually becomes a “tape” similar to the “tapes” that accompany one’s upsetting emotions.  When this occurs, the aspiration has the remarkable effect of erasing the old tapes, thus providing a neutral zone in which common sense or the Spirit of God can suggest what should be done.

The active prayer has to be repeated again and again at free moments in order to work it into the subconscious.  The old tapes were built up through repeated acts.  A new tape can be established in the same way.  It may take a year to establish one’s active prayer in the subconscious.  It will then arise spontaneously.  One may wake up saying it or it may accompany one’s dreams.

Go about this practice without anxiety, haste, or excessive effort.  Do not blame yourself for forgetting to say it on some days; just start up again.  It should not be repeated when your mind is occupied with other things such as conversation, study, or work requiring concentration.

Following are examples of active prayer.

O Lord, come to my assistance.

O God, make haste to help me.

Holy Mary, Mother of God.

Abide in my love.

My God and My All.

My Jesus, mercy.

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SERMON: Transformed Nonconformist, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2)

“Do not conform” is difficult advice in a generation when crowd pressures have unconsciously conditioned our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo.  Many voices and forces urge us to choose the path of least resistance, and bid us never to fight for an unpopular cause and never to be found in a pathetic minority of two or three.
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