This one leaf. This moment in time. Rain-glued to my windshield, the leaf will be gone in a flash once I pull out of the driveway. It’ll fly away with twenty-five, fifty, a hundred others the rain pasted to my car overnight, whirling and settling as if we were a tree moving through the wind. This moment in time. This one leaf. Neither will come again, but for this one moment, that leaf is all that matters.
I read these words by Joyce Rupp to start our time of silence before Holy Eucharist this morning:
Holy One, awaken my heart. Quiet my mind. Draw back the veil of my illusions to perceive your presence. Settle what stirs endlessly within me. Hush the voice of haste and hurry. Awaken my inner senses to recognize your love hiding beneath the frenzy. Enfold me in your attentiveness. Wrap a mantle of mindfulness around every part of my days. I want to welcome you with joy and focus on your dwelling place. Amen.
If a little flower could speak, it seems to me that it would tell us quite simply all that God has done for it, without hiding any of its gifts. It would not, under the pretext of humility, say that it was not pretty, or that it had not a sweet scent, that the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, if it knew that such were not the case.”
― Thérèse de Lisieux
Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux
Bold as it might be to contradict Thérèse, it seems to me that even if the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, the rose would still be beautiful.
Strange November: So many leaves on the trees around my house are still green, and the roses just keep coming.
If a little flower could speak, perhaps it would speak of #hope.
I had never seen this brilliant trompe l’oeil mural by artist Richard Haas on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia until we happened by it last week. I love it, not just because the deception is so effective, but mostly because the space it suggests is so inviting. I really wanted to walk right into it because it seemed so spacious, clean and bright. Rather more appealing than the city around it, to be honest. Illusion can be like that, and it’s OK to visit–just take care you don’t try to live there.
This article was featured in the November 2017 Shalem eNews)
Compassion means to understand another’s pain at such a deep level that it’s like feeling it yourself. Many mentors have told me over the years that the essence of pastoral ministry is connection and presence, being with. One seminary professor liked to say that the most important thing in parish ministry is to love the people you serve. It stands to reason that anything that makes us more compassionate will enable us to enter more deeply into the ministry that is ours as pastors.
The question then is how to develop compassion, which is a bit like asking how we learn to love. Through intention, perhaps. Through practice, certainly. But Henri Nouwen and his collaborators point out in their book titled Compassion that “compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.” In other words, it doesn’t always feel good. Nouwen et al add—and I think this is significant—“Compassion … is not as natural a phenomenon as it might first appear.”
I propose that contemplative practices can facilitate direct connection with other beings, in ways we are only beginning to understand, enlarging our capacity for profound compassion. If contemplative practice can awaken our compassionate hearts, it can help us minister to people—even, or perhaps especially, those we might see as annoying and maybe even try to avoid.
The seed of my interest in this subject was planted in something that took place some years ago, during a period when I was faithfully maintaining a daily practice of Centering Prayer. I walked into a crowded convenience store and crossed paths with a store employee. I was heading for the coffee; she was carrying some bottled drinks to the refrigerator. As she walked by, I experienced a powerful sensation that she was carrying a great deal of pain – not physical, but emotional – and I offered a prayer for her. I felt that same sensation again when I went to pay for my coffee and she was back at the cash register, and this encounter stayed with me for a good long time after I left the store.
What just happened? I wondered. I’d never experienced anything like this before. I sensed that it was more than just a matter of emotional intelligence, i.e. picking up on visual clues such as her facial expression and body language. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me, since it involved my feeling some of what I perceived to be her pain; on the other hand, it also felt sacred. Even after those impressions faded, I continued to reflect on what had connected us for those few moments, and how it was even possible.
Much later, when I had returned to the regular practice of Centering Prayer after a time away, I had another similar experience. This one was even more intense. While sitting with others in contemplative prayer, I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of the goodness of one individual in particular. To be honest, this was someone I had previously found rather annoying. But now it was as if this goodness were a tangible quality that was overflowing into the room, blessing all of us; the word that came to my mind to describe this person in the moment was “golden.”
Another time, while sitting in silence with a woman who had experienced real pain in her life and whose physical appearance bore mute witness to what she’d been through, I glanced at her and was overwhelmed by her beauty. Again, it was as if what I perceived as beauty was not a matter of looks but more a kind of energy that radiated from the depth of her person and had moved between us.
As we develop our compassion for the world, we become better positioned to lead our parishes in responding to those needs and fulfilling the baptismal promise expressed in the Book of Common Prayer to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” As Thomas Merton wrote after his well-known Louisville experience, “If only they could see each other as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
Additionally, many of us believe that good preaching requires becoming aware of what the text might have to say to the particular circumstances in which we preach, and what the people we preach to need to hear. I think the perception of contemplative compassion has something to contribute in both of those areas, but especially in the understanding of who the people we preach to really are, what they are experiencing in their lives, what hurts and doubts nag at them, what they need to feed their souls.
I cannot think of any quality that is more needed in our world today than compassion, and each parish is in its own way a microcosm of that world. If a greater capacity for compassion is a natural outcome of contemplative practice—and it seems that it is—that is a wonderful and valuable asset for anyone in pastoral ministry. We so need that open-hearted connection to God, and to our people.
When I was a kid, I liked to sit very quietly in the shadows when my parents got together with aunts and uncles for the holidays, just listening to their stories, hoping they wouldn’t even notice I was there, so they’d tell the real stories, with all the details.
They talked about relatives I would never know, and others I had met but could barely remember, because they died when I was still very young, and somehow I sensed that all those little bits of information about who they were was also part of who I am.
Lately I’ve been working on my family tree again, trying to flesh out those stories, connecting individuals and tracing those connections back to ancestors I’d never even heard of. In one part of family now I can go back seven or eight generations, to the 1600s.
I was moved by the new statue of Hungry and Thirsty Jesus outside the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, and also by the urge some obviously had to give him something–the coins are not part of the sculpture. Though I couldn’t help thinking that if we’d only put bread on that plate instead, he might have fed our hunger.
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The bright colors, the even rows of bumps, the interesting way they stick together and come apart, even if the intention to build something is still a long way off. Call it mindfulness or just the wisdom we have as babies but lose as we grow up, you know if you stop and pay attention that there is such pleasure in these little things. Even the simple act of passing a blue block back and forth, hand to hand, an act of connection, can be a moment of happiness.
Terrible things are happening in our world; don’t think I haven’t noticed. Don’t think this talk of bumps and blocks is just a silly distraction from what really matters. Yes, we must be about the business of making things right, but we’ll never have strength to persist in this work if we don’t remember to stop and enjoy the simple pleasures of being human.
I loved the way people smiled at me today as I pushed my granddaughter through the streets of the city. The man who said “beautiful baby” as we passed spoke the truth, but I know that what he really meant was that life itself is beautiful.
Back home we played with blocks some more and then she fell asleep on the couch, leaning against my leg, as I sang “You Are My Sunshine” (my repertoire is limited) and rubbed her back. And that made me about as happy as I think it is possible to be.
Beautiful baby. Beautiful life.
Today we begin those couple of Sundays people like to call “stewardship season.” That isn’t really a very good name, but it is a convenient shorthand. Church people know what it means: You’re going to get a letter with a pledge card and a deadline for returning it, and for the next couple of Sundays the sermon’s going to be about giving in support of your parish.
But good church people should know that true stewardship has no season. It’s not a synonym for fund-raising.
It’s a way of life that begins with recognizing God’s abundant generosity, and it’s all about our grateful response. It’s about how we use what we’ve been given in all areas of our lives. It’s about how we spend our money. It’s about how we use the abilities we’ve been given. It’s about how we care for the earth.