Peace like a river

Peace like a river

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do to help in the current crisis. I’m not serving in a parish these days, and I’m not going out anywhere for the safety of my family and for myself as an older person, so in-person volunteering is out. I don’t want to spread the virus to anyone, especially the people I love, and I don’t want to add to the patient load.

That part isn’t so hard for now. I have everything I need, even if it isn’t all that I want for my life at this point. But I want to do more than sit and wait for this to be over.

So I’ve made some donations: I went on Amazon and ordered some food to be delivered to an Episcopal school that provides a range of services to its Philadelphia neighborhood, even now. I/we made some other contributions to good organizations that are struggling. I let the gym take one month’s dues to keep paying their employees while the gym is closed, but after that I’ll suspend my membership because I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable going back.

I know that’s just throwing money at the problem but sometimes money helps, and this is what I can do right now. I think the operative guideline at this point is to do what you can.

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Pilgrimage

Stone cairns at Fiddlers Creek Preserve

Yesterday’s destination: Fiddler’s Creek Preserve in New Jersey, where the trail follows lovely Fiddler’s Creek for a while. There’s a wide, level place beside the stream where past travelers have built a little village of stone cairns, and when I saw it, I thought: other pilgrims have been here before us.

As I’ve written here already, I was supposed to go on pilgrimage to Assisi right after Easter. After 10 days there, Chris was going to join me for a trip up the Adriatic coast and over to see Padua and Bergamo before flying home from Milan. Needless to say, that trip is off the table. I loved looking at pictures while we were planning the trip. I was looking forward to Ravenna and Bergamo especially, and it has felt especially heartbreaking to see photos of the suffering the novel coronavirus has brought to that region.

So no physical travel to Italy this year, but of course the pilgrimage is already underway. It won’t be stopped even if I never see Assisi again. The wise ones would tell you, as Jim Forest has written, that “pilgrimage is more an attitude than an act.” Pilgrimage is, he says, “a conscious act of seeking a more vital awareness of God’s living presence.”

You can be a pilgrim in ordinary life – an armchair pilgrim, you might say. The pilgrim’s first step doesn’t involve travel reservations, it’s more about recognizing the longing for that presence. For myself and perhaps for many others, the longing has always been there, just waiting to be recognized. Many of my friends and colleagues hear it expressed now as a hunger for communion of the bread and wine variety, since our churches have been closed.

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I took my walk early today hoping to get it in before the rain that was supposed to start around 8. Anything to get out for a while, anything not to spend the whole day inside. Well, it’s 10:15 now and still no rain; so much for certainty about anything.

It was grey and dreary as I walked through the river towns and I found myself in a black and white sort of mood – except for the mural at the Mexican restaurant in Lambertville, which was too exuberant for bw, and the men in front of the convenience store where people wait for day labor, who were too real.

Listening to all kinds of streaming audio as I walked, I heard the poem by the Irish Franciscan that has gone viral. “They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise / You can hear the birds again” – that’s part of it. It’s about those good things that are happening as people slow down, spend time with their families, pay more attention to nature, do what they can to help others. You can read the whole thing here if you want to: https://www.irishcentral.com/news/coronavirus-lockdown-poem

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On beauty

Our daily walks have become the centerpiece of our days in isolation. Sometimes we walk together, sometimes individually. If Chris goes alone his walk will be a lot more aerobic than mine. If I go alone, mine will be more photographic. We go to see something other than the inside of our house, as lovely as it is, and to get some exercise now that going to the gym is off the table. And I go looking for beauty, because it grounds me.

As much as I love walking near home, that was getting a little old by the weekend, and we started exploring nearby parks and trails, of which there are many –  I’m so glad now to live where we do, because there are lots of possibilities to fill the days ahead.

Yesterday we were at Bowman’s Hill Wildlife Preserve, where the buildings are all closed but the huge gate meant to keep deer out was left open to let the people in. We were grateful, even if I worry for how much the deer will eat if they get in.

There was plenty of room to spread out, and we could hear the voices of children as we walked, which was sweet and grounding in its own way.

We saw a few flowers as well as tadpoles and a turtle in a small pond, were soothed by the sound of flowing water, and encountered friends I usually “see” only on Facebook. It was good to chat in realtime, though we kept a respectful distance, of course.

I’ve been thinking about this from the poet John O’Donohue:

We have often heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective; there is no accounting for taste because each person’s taste is different. The statement has another, more subtle meaning: if our style of looking become beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything. When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary.

I need to see that the world is still beautiful, even in the face of all the sadness, worry, and sometimes even fear that I’m feeling these days.

Spring flowers

We’ve settled into a routine here, which seems important for maintaining sanity if this is going to go on for long. I get up at 6:30 as usual, read the headlines, and try to pray with coffee for a while. I take a long walk with my camera, looking to photograph flowers. The spiritual discipline of seeking beauty is helping to ground me right now (and it seems like a good time to hunker down and really learn to use PhotoShop).

I like this quote from the poet John O’Donohue: 

“We have often heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective; there is no accounting for taste because each person’s taste is different. The statement has another, more subtle meaning: if our style of looking become beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything. When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary.”

And it is my sanctuary right now. I

I’ve been sharing the flowers on Facebook, and people seem to appreciate them. I think we all need to see more beauty in our lives right now.

It’s been raining a lot, and I miss the sun, but I’m having a wonderful time photographing raindrops. Here’s the photo I posted this morning:

And a poem from Mary Oliver:

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away, expecting
to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

Thirst

Bread

It seemed like a good time to be intentional about using up some things that have been around the house for a while … and I do mean a while …

I substituted some yeast from the refrigerator, which expired only two years ago, and it worked … more or less …

What love would have us do

This watercolor of Jesus being stripped of his garments is by a woman named Bettina Clowney, who died last month. She had been my spiritual director for the past six years. Bettina was a wonderfully wise, loving, attentive, supportive presence and I miss her greatly. Some other mutual friends have written about this loss on Facebook but I haven’t until now, because it just felt too tender for words.

Bettina was an artist, and her encouragement of my own artistic efforts literally changed my life. (You can still see her work online at bettinaclowney.com.)

This Lent I’ve been sitting with her stations of the cross. (To see the rest of the set, go to bettinaclowney.com, hover over “Portfolio,” click on “Sacred Imagery,” and scroll down to about the middle.)

I find their portrayal of the humanity of Jesus and his mother heartbreakingly moving.

I especially love this one: his vulnerability, and the way he is freely giving himself to whatever will happen.

The Gospel is a multifaceted story with threads that have been seen and understood in different ways over time. In particular, various aspects of the person of Jesus Christ have been emphasized at different times, shifting perhaps to meet the needs of each era.

Some who were raised on the theme that “Jesus had to die for your sins” now find it difficult to relate to this story, which might be understandable but is still regrettable.

For myself, these days what I see and appreciate most clearly is that Jesus died because he preached a message of love and religious reform that was rejected by the authorities – Roman and religious – who plotted against him, and he absolutely would not back down even knowing where that would lead. He stood up against the empire, and those authorities might have thought they’d won by killing him, but the truth is that in the long run no one will ever succeed in repressing the message of love.

In these times, there’s something else I see in this picture: the vulnerability and free giving of self by our healthcare workers and others as they continue working to keep us all safe. May God (and all of us) hold them in love.

Worship in a time of pandemic: a lament

I believe very strongly in the power of ritual. I guess that makes sense, considering. But I don’t practice it as a form of magic and I don’t think of it as “just” symbolic, either. For me it’s more like poetry, where simple words and imagery may serve as containers for deeper truth.

I believe, as we like to say, that our prayer shapes our believing, and also that our words and actions in church shape the people we are always in the process of becoming.

Reflecting on my experience of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, I’ve come to believe that putting bread into open hands is the holiest thing I do. Everything that matters is expressed in that moment as it’s repeated again and again on a Sunday morning.

So then, what to do in church as COVID-19 spreads and spreads? How to pass the peace, what to do with bread and wine, and when is it time to ask if we should we be going to church at all?

Understand this: I would never suggest substituting theology for science. We have to do whatever it takes to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible, even if it means changing the sacred ritual in ways that would have seemed shocking back in seminary.

But I can’t help wondering: What will it mean for the people we’re becoming if we’re too afraid to open our hands to receive?m

On pilgrimage

Francis in Assisi

Since my planned pilgrimage to Assisi has been postponed for a year, one bit of fallout from the COVID-19 epidemic, I’ve been thinking about pilgrimage and what it might mean for pilgrims in the 21st century; and what it might mean for me in particular, whether it be a journey to somewhere else or the sustained pilgrimage of everyday living.

Pilgrimages are “generally, journeys to holy places undertaken from motives of devotion in order to obtain supernatural help or as acts of penance or thanksgiving,” according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, which goes on to expand on that idea: The word pilgrim meant resident alien, and pilgrimage can also mean voluntary exile from one’s native land, or a journey to special holy places where great heroes lived and died, or to the places where Jesus lived, died, and rose. A pilgrimage might be a form of public penance, or a quest for healing.

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At the close of Black History Month

What’s the point of Black History Month?

That’s intended as a serious and respectful question. Should its focus be the righteous celebration of the achievements of black Americans which have so often been overlooked in our history books? Or an honest look at the totality of what really happened here—which is something that matters for many reasons, including the fact that black history is white history, too, and there are important lessons to be learned from that history.

As Black History Month 2020 draws to a close, I’m inclined to agree with Erin Aubry Kaplan on this:

“In 2020, at this very perilous moment in the history of us all, it’s urgent that we turn the lens around, take it off the worthy black individuals and put it on America as a whole. It’s time to acknowledge what black history really reveals — not individual heroism or the endurance of democratic ideals, but their opposites. Time to examine what black history has always shown us: how hundreds of years of codified oppression, groupthink, hypocrisy, lies and political cowardice have made possible, and palatable, the political oppression and moral corruption of the current moment that threatens to wipe out democracy for everybody.”

Erin Aubry Kaplan, “Seeing Black History in Context,” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/19/opinion/black-history-month-america.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/19/opinion/black-history-month-america.html

For the past few months I’ve been reading through some of this history with a brave group of church members who have been working their way through the Episcopal Church’s Sacred Ground curriculum, a film- and readings-based dialogue series, grounded in faith, in which we’ve been walking together through chapters of America’s history of race and racism (to borrow the official description).

When we sit down each time to the readings and videos we’ve studied since our last meeting, the first reaction nearly always is, nobody ever told us this! That’s not what we were taught in school. There’s a sense of deep betrayal in this. I don’t mean to suggest that this betrayal is anywhere near the level of hurt that has been suffered by enslaved Africans and their descendants in this country. But our feelings of resentment at having been misled about important parts of our history are real.

You may assume from this that our group is all white, and that would be correct, so I know that to some our reaction will sound naive. I suppose it is naive, but I make no apology. You have to start where you are, and this is where we begin. There’s no dishonor in being ignorant; the only dishonor is in refusing to learn.

You can learn more about the Sacred Ground program here:

https://episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground

And if you’re someone who might consider starting a Sacred Ground dialogue group in your place, I’d be happy to talk with you about it’s been for us.