On the Road: San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico

San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church, SJG photo.

Before even leaving for our trip to New Mexico, I knew one of our stops would be the majestic and oft-photographed San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church just outside of Taos. My good friend and mentor Fred Volkmann had shared his photos with me years ago, and I later learned that the mission church has been the subject of paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and photos by Ansel Adams and Paul Strand, among countless others.

Construction on this adobe masterpiece began around the time of the American Revolution and was completed in 1815 by Franciscan missionaries in honor of their founder and patron, St. Francis of Assisi. Like all mission churches, it held a dual purpose. It was both a place of worship and served as protection from attack, in this case from Comanches. Today, it continues to serve as a parish church in the Santa Fe Diocese and is listed as a National Historic Landmark and designated as a World Heritage Site.

San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church, SJG photo.

And like all churches of its era, this is a sanctuary built (and rebuilt) by hand. Spanish colonists moved to the area in the mid-18th century from the larger settlement of the Taos Pueblo (unfortunately closed during our visit) and found fertile land for wheat and corn. They built their adobe homes from mud and straw around a central plaza to create community and for protection. The church, with its massive flowing buttresses and bell towers, occupies a place of importance and inspiration on the plaza. A thick adobe wall encircles the church and its small cemetery and forecourt.

The church remains in great condition, thanks to the continuing efforts of the parishioners, who have lovingly and authentically repaired and rebuilt it over the years. In fact, citizens, parishioners and visitors come together for two weeks every other year to re-mud the exterior, a job that can only be done by hand and with the knowledge that they are maintaining a spiritual and cultural home for generations to come.

St. Francis, looking in. SJG photo.

For all the advances of modern society and advanced building techniques and materials, the sight of this old adobe church basking and baking in the New Mexico sun was a reminder that the works of our hands, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are meant for the service of others and for the glory of God.

[Thanks to the National Park Service website for historical information.]

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Book Review: One young Jesuit’s journey along “A Purposeful Path”

A Purposeful Path: How Far Can You Go with $30, a Bus Ticket and a Dream?
Casey Beaumier, SJ
Loyola Press, 2015

The answer to the question in the title, first of all, is “pretty far, and the journey’s more important than the destination.” And that’s almost always true in life, yes?

Beaumier’s book is a brief memoir of his 1994 Jesuit pilgrimage, an experiment each young Jesuit novice undertakes, during which time he is sent out from his community with only $30 and a one-way bus ticket. The purpose? He must survive by begging, and the point of the experiment, he writes, is to “receive a very special grace of profound trust that the Father will always provide, precisely through the kindness and generosity of other people.”

I had never heard of this pilgrimage until a few years ago when I met a couple of novices in a class I was taking at Aquinas Institute of Theology, and I’ve been intrigued by the notion ever since. So I opened the book with curiosity and wondered what it might have to teach a 55-year-old lay spiritual director and writer. The answer I received was, “a lot,” and so I highly recommend the book to anyone looking for reassurance about his or her own life journeys. We are, after all, all pilgrims.

Casey Beaumier, SJ

Beaumier’s journey, fueled by a desire to meet famed writer and teacher Maya Angelou, takes him from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the Appalachian Trail, on to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and then to Washington, DC, and New York City and finally to New Orleans.  Along the way he learns important lessons from both likely and unlikely mentors, including from Fr. Henry Hasking, SJ, who gives him this sage advice on the meaning and purpose of the generosity of others. He tells Beaumier: “You need the courage to ask for what you need in life, and that starts by believing that you are worthy of what it is that you seek. If you weren’t, then you wouldn’t even think of asking for it. Everything is here to help you on the journey. That’s God’s design and plan.”

Reading this, I thought of how many times I felt that I wasn’t worthy to ask God for what I desired, and I recalled many times when those I was directing felt exactly the same. So this is wonderful advice for all of our journeys.

Later, kneeling before an altar as another priest prayed for and with him for the success of his journey, he receives these simple and perfect words of truth: “Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. Remember to be kind to people. Don’t forget to be kind.”

And all the people said, “Amen.” Whatever we do and wherever we go, let us remember to begin and end our days with kindness. The rest will fall into place.

Beaumier receives many good lessons along the way and has numerous encounters with kindness and grace received from God and others. But the hanging question, you are likely asking is, “Did he ever meet Angelou?” Ah, that’s the question. I could tell you the answer but it just wouldn’t be fair to you or the author. Buy the book, for it’s worth the answer. I can only say, please don’t stop before reading the afterword. Like the rest of the book, it’s a story of pure, unexpected thanksgiving, a celebration of grace and the kindness of strangers who are open to becoming friends.

You’re in the Right Place If…

Washed ashore. Freeport, Grand Bahamas. SJG photo

Tonight on our drive from St. Louis north to Des Moines, Iowa (en route to visit friends in Minnesota) we listened to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” interview with Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, of Homeboy Industries, who has worked with gang members in some of the toughest neighborhoods in LA for decades. During the interview he said this:

“I read once that the Beatitudes’ original language was not ‘blessed are’ or ‘happy are’…but that the most precise translation is ‘You’re in the right place if.’ I like that better. It turns out the Beatitudes is not a spirituality. It’s a geography. It tells you where to stand.”

Which got me thinking…

You’re in the right place if you can stand and embrace your poverty and that of others, for one day you will stand very close to God. Maybe you’re already standing there.

You’re in the right place if you can stand before coffins and graves and cry, weeping for those now beyond your sight, for you will feel the arm of God around your shoulders.

You’re in the right place if you can stand behind and beneath others and let them go first and receive the best of everything, for you have much coming to you in the end.

You’re in the right place if you hunger and thirst for what is right, if justice brings you alive and injustice moves you to action, for you, someday, will be satisfied.

You’re in the right place if you speak words of mercy instead of aggression and accusation, for mercy will find its way back to you and make its home in you.

You’re in the right place if your words and actions are pure love, for you will see God in your own reflection.

You’re in the right place if you can make and embrace peace with those around you, no matter their faults, their addictions, their histories, their origins and leanings and orientations, for then you are accepting your given place as a child of God.

You’re in the right place if you’re ruffling a few feathers, if you’re hated for your hatred of injustice and your acceptance of the little, the weak and the oppressed, for you will find yourself sitting in the lap of God.

The Creative Spirit: Working from Memory

University of Notre Dame grotto. SJG photo.

“Now will I recall God’s works; what I have seen, I will describe.”
–Sirach 42:15

Memory, it seems, plays a crucial role in the lives of those of us who create. For what we recall and have seen, to paraphrase the wisdom of Sirach, we are called to describe to others. The memory might be from just yesterday (an overheard conversation becomes a story, the setting sun hitting the side of a tree becomes a poem or a painting) or it might be something much older (the sound of our mother’s voice becomes a song, a remembered Christmas morning becomes dialogue for our invented characters). Even remembered tastes and smells can be grist for the mill of our imaginations.

And this is especially true (and all the more important), with our recollections of how God has moved and worked in our lives, of the moments when God seemed so real and present that we could not NOT tell others. To experience the love of God and not be inclined to retell the story — in some way — is akin to seeing the Grand Canyon and forgetting to take a photo or send a postcard. Just who could do that? We see, we experience something majestic and grand, and we feel a deep desire to say, “Let me tell you about the time…” or “let me show you something.”

The “trick,” of course, is that we need to set ourselves up to remember. We need to live lives with time for reflection and contemplation built in to the fabric. Whether daily or weekly, this time to remember fuels our creativity in ways we could never imagine. When I write, and when I reflect back, I remember things that have remained buried for days, months, years, even decades. But the act of writing, for me, raises them from the ashes.

An example, right here and right now. None of what I’m about to write have I thought about or mulled over…it’s all spilling forth as my fingers slip across the keys:

Praying at California mission. SJG photo.

It’s about 1973, I think. I’m 13 and a friend has invited me to Holy Saturday mass at the (it seems to me) massive Holy Cross Catholic Church in the Baden neighborhood of North St. Louis. I’ve never been in a Catholic Church before, except maybe for a wedding of some family friends. I’m a little scared. I’m scared of being out of place and not knowing the drill. Raised a Protestant, I’ve heard the stories and the jokes — stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel, sit. Religious calisthenics. I don’t quite know what to expect.

My senses are assaulted as I come through the huge oaken doors. It is dim in the pews where we sit, the altar aglow with candlelight. It’s crowded, pews already filling with older people and large families. I slide into a pew with my friend and his family (they genuflect but I did not know how), including his 16-year-old sister Theresa, who I always had a bit of a crush on, and his younger brother Mark, who would die the following year in a car crash in Arizona that almost took out the whole family during a vacation. They kneel so I kneel, something we didn’t do in my church. And yet it felt right and proper to do so here, felt like a holy thing to do, like there was something going on here that needed to be bowed to. I didn’t fully understand that, of course. I just sensed it.

Msgr. Martin Hellriegel (from website cited)

The mass began with a long procession, the altar boys (only boys back then) and the priests making their way up the center aisle. One of the altar boys who I knew from baseball was swinging the censor back and forth and filling the space with incense. (There are so many words here that I didn’t know or understand back then I now realize…mass, procession, censor…). I don’t ever remember my sense of smell coming into play during worship before. This was something new. I swooned a bit, I think, the combination of the incense and this new act of kneeling. The priest, I would learn and appreciate a decade later, was Monsignor Martin Hellriegel, a liturgical pioneer and hymn composer who wrote “To Jesus Christ our Sovereign King,” which is still sung in churches around the world.

But back then, I didn’t hear or understand much (Oh, to go back and listen!) and this was just a long, tedious service for someone so young. Three hours of readings, the retelling of salvation history interspersed with psalms and songs, with the incense hanging in the air as a reminder of the presence of God when we pray, that our prayers rise like the smoke rose to the arched ceiling of the grand sanctuary.

Okay, enough of that memory for now. But that’s the power of memory. When we give ourselves some time and some promptings to remember, we can recall images and stories, and stories and images can change lives, can turn people toward God who waits for our turning. For most of us, these stories and pictures speak louder than proclamations. Remember your stories and fold them into lessons. Infuse them into art. Move them into music and dance. Stitch them into fabric.

A challenge: Sit down with pen and paper or your computer and ask yourself these questions: What is one of my earliest memories of faith, of church, of God? What do I remember of that moment…the sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes? Now just write (or draw!)  for ten minutes. Don’t stop to edit and don’t pause long to think. Let your fingers do the work; allow the buried truth (even if your memories are a bit tarnished by time) to flow from you onto the page or the sketchpad. If you’re so inclined, post what you created in the comments section.

Ask yourself in silence: What memories am I missing because I’m not taking the time to recall them?

The Creative Spirit: Cultivating the Earth and Ourselves

My cilantro...our salsa. SJG photo.

I am not much of a grower of things. I almost typed, “I am not much of a farmer” but that would be even less true. Maybe someday I will be. For now, a few containers on my deck grow a small selection of my favorite herbs (rosemary, cilantro, parsley and basil) along with a couple of jalapeno pepper plants and some green onions. I’m looking forward to homemade salsa and pesto as the summer lingers on.

My father was an urban backyard farmer in North St. Louis in the 1960s and 1970s, planting short rows of lettuce, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, radishes and carrots in the poor soil (made organically better by him) beneath our old unused swing set in the back of the yard by the alley. He ran a hose up the uprights of the swing set and secured a sprinkler to the crossbar, creating an easy and gentle “rain” on the garden that supplied us with fresh salads and vegetables, which I didn’t really appreciate at the time, I am sure. Today, I wish I had him nearby to share his knowledge and passion for a small plot of earth, as well as his collection of old copies of Organic Gardening Magazine. Oh, the things we lose and throw away.

All this reminded me this morning of songwriter David Mallett’s, “The Garden Song,” which I first learned from a John Denver album back when I was a teenager and which I have performed for many years since:

Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.
All it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground.
Inch by inch, row by row, someone bless these seeds I sow,
Someone warm them from below ‘til the rain comes tumbling down.

The song has been recorded by many artists over the years, including Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary in addition to Denver, but I was delighted to find this YouTube version of Dave performing it himself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2m0LewjkO4s

Lenz House garden, New Harmony, Indiana. SJG photo.

Growing a garden is an act of faith and an acknowledgement of gratitude. It is a gesture of creativity and hope — that what we begin and nurture “with a rake and hoe” can become something else, something bigger and more, something that can be shared around a table. A garden beckons family and community to come together in thanksgiving. A garden is a reminder of our obligation to use what we have been given to help others and offer praise to the ultimate giver of life and sustenance.

In response to my last post on finding the extraordinary in our ordinary life I received a wonderful and beautifully written note from a REAL farmer who reminded me of the healing and spiritual power of just sinking our hands into the soil and urging things to grow up from the ground. Ordinary, sure, but it’s also extraordinary at the same time if we allow it to be. Jan owns a fruit farm in Winnebago County, Illinois with her husband Thomas. Sunrise Market Farm is just a mile from the Wisconsin state line and grows blueberries, raspberries and pumpkins. Jan wrote:

I have practiced prayer when I work outdoors with our plants and growing things but the best practice by far seems to be a focus on exactly what is at hand, seeing the beauty even in the weed that needs to be pulled as well as in the plump blueberry that needs to be picked. To breathe deeply of the perfume of the soil and the newly cut clover. And I think “Jesus is here” and my task is a task of love for Him and there is peace and joy. Best of all, there is a further chipping away of the old me, the me I was never meant to be, and a growing of the real me, the one that the One created me to be.

In Carol's Garden, New Harmony, Indiana. SJG photo. CLICK for a larger view.

We can find God wherever we look for God, and sometimes, too, in places where we never expected to experience the Divine. We create from what we have been given. We live by what we cultivate in ourselves and in our lives.

Ask yourself in silence: What am I cultivating in my life? By what fruits will I be known?

The Creative Spirit: Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Scarecrow: Folk art or innovation? Faust Historical Park, St. Louis. SJG photo.

I’m up early this Sunday morning, searching the quiet of the new day for a spark of inspiration; not only inspiration for writing this — although that’s part of it — but inspiration for the day, the week, the moments that lie ahead. Inspiration to not just get through these times but to actually live through and with them, to embrace the gift of the ordinary that fills our lives and do something productive and creative with what I see and experience.

And isn’t that often how creativity and innovation occurs? I hear birdsong outside my door and think of flutes and the trills of a violin. I hear the natural rhythm of the birds and the crickets and the frogs and I sense not just noise but the percussion of the world around me. Noise becomes music, as it has for so many composers and musicians throughout the ages. From great classical composers to jazz innovators to those who carry forward the folk traditions of aboriginal and old-world music as it reflects the beauty and intricacy of the world around them, the ordinary becomes extraordinary when we put our hands and our minds to work. Do we hear birdsong in the flute or the flute in the birdsong?

The green of the leaves on the trees out my back door is radiant with the early sun’s glancing blows and the lingering wetness of last night’s rain, and although trees don’t move from their rooted stations they move before our eyes, of course, whether slow and subtle in a gentle breeze or ecstatic and tortured in a storm. Ordinary? Of course, but don’t tell that to Monet and so many other artists who made the trees and gardens and their movement come alive for us.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Hopkins wrote, but within the ordinary grandeur of our lives are the seeds of our own human innovation and art. Flowers are flowers, spores are spores, but they also contain multitudes — healing medicines and hope for cures when creative scientific minds look beyond the ordinary in search of extraordinary ways to improve our lives. Someone saw a bird fly and began to wonder how we could fly ourselves. And we eventually did.

The radiance of nature. SJG photo.

Our DNA hasn’t changed all that much in thousands of years, but we know now how to look closely enough to notice the changes that bring about disease, so we can begin to bring about healing. A miracle? Perhaps, but only in the sense that we have learned to capture the ordinary to bring about the extraordinary. Perhaps that’s what the writer of Genesis had in mind when he said that God gave man dominion over the earth. We have far too often used that Biblical narrative as an excuse to do whatever we wanted to the earth around us — often to the detriment of the world we are called to protect and nurture — when, perhaps, we should have just been paying closer attention.

And, indeed, many have been doing this for a long time. The history of our art, our music, our science and engineering breakthroughs more often than not springs from our ability to pay attention to the world around us. The ordinary world, from its molecules and atoms to the grandest of canyons and the vastness of oceans, continues to inspire and motivate change, innovation and art.

So what is our response? How do we fit in? What contribution do we have to make? Don’t be confused or disheartened by my examples. We all don’t have the training and the wherewithal to find a cure for cancer, to paint a masterpiece worthy of Monet, to compose music that will reflect the beauty of the world back to its Maker. Or maybe we do.

We all have the ability to transform the ordinary in extraordinary ways. We plant and fertilize and nurture and a garden is born, a gift to those who see it even at a glance or taste its fruits. We write a poem or a letter to a friend who needs to hear that they are remembered and extraordinary. We sketch, we draw, we doodle. We make up stories and games to keep our children amused. We hum an old hymn in the ear of an elderly friend and we cradle a newborn and calm her tears with a whispered lullaby. We solve a business or societal problem by emulating how nature takes care of itself. We pay attention. We get off our duffs and act. We believe we have something to contribute.

Last week, one of my reflections appeared in the Living Faith daily devotional, and I ended it with this:

Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” We can see each sunrise, each newborn child, each encounter with beauty and chalk them all up to chance, or we can stand back in wonder at these daily miracles and choose to see the hand of God. The first option is a yawn; the second is a gasp. You choose.”

Ask yourself in silence: What one thing can you do today to pay attention and act, to respond to your call as creator and reflector of the divine, creative spark?

Challenge: Write and tell me what you did!

Today’s Word: Death

New Orleans cemetery. SJG photo.

There is no death! The stars go down
To rise upon some other shore…
– John L. McCreery

These three days of the Christian liturgical year — the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — tell the story of Jesus’ final days and minutes and, at the same time, remind us all of the one inevitable moment that hangs like the tarnished old chandelier in the midst of our living rooms: our own deaths. For even as we hope and anticipate the day of Christ’s resurrection, even as we trust in our own “something else”  beyond these mortal days on earth, it is death that holds our attention now. And that’s the point. There is no death without first living, and there is no life beyond without first dying to this world.

Yesterday I had the honor of being a pallbearer at the funeral of my Godmother, my 88-year-old Aunt Ruth. Although I didn’t get to see her much in her later years — perhaps once a year at our family reunion — she and her late husband, Fred, hold important and iconic places in my life and memory. She was a woman of exquisite beauty and deep faith. She was always impeccably dressed, and never was a hair out of place. She was, using that old word that just doesn’t get used enough these days, elegant. She was likely the first elegant woman I ever knew.

The daughter of a Baptist preacher who married into our largely German Protestant family, she and Uncle Freddie were also the elder spiritual leaders of the extended Eickmeyer (my paternal grandmother’s) clan, the people to whom we turned to say an eloquent and faith-filled grace before our reunion and Christmas meals. No one else ever seemed willing or equipped to do so, so God bless the Baptists! In later years when she could not be present, those gathered began turning to me to say the prayer, a mantle I have been honored to assume. The family’s faith has spread out over the years to include a variety of expressions, including a few Catholics like me, as well as others who don’t profess any faith at all and yet hold on to these few sacred moments of family with heads bowed and eyes tightly closed. Grace indeed.

Funerals are always a reminder of our own mortality, of course. Some shrink back from them, not wishing to experience death so up close and personal. Others are able to embrace and celebrate these moments, finding in them, perhaps, that this three-fold journey of life and death into life is one we all share. Exactly what passage lies between the realms we cannot say beyond conjecture or article of faith. We want to believe, as the minister stated so beautifully yesterday, that it is merely a heartbeat that separates us from what awaits us on the other side of the veil. We’ll see. Indeed, we’ll see. For now, as the Christian band MercyMe sings, we can only imagine:

I can only imagine what it will be like.
When I walk by your side.
I can only imagine what my eyes will see.
When your face is before me.
I can only imagine.

See video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_lrrq_opng

New Orleans cemetery. SJG photo.

I kind of like cemeteries. I enjoy a leisurely walk among the stone and trees. Like funerals in general, they stand sentinel and serve as constant reminders that there is more to this life than what meets the eye. But neither do I believe there is much beneath those stones other than the biological waste of dusty bones. Whoever these souls are that so enthralled us when they were alive and among us, they certainly don’t lie beneath the rolling hills and engraved memorials. So I’ll end with this, with the hope of heaven and resurrection waiting just over the next dawn. Happy Easter.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

– Mary Elizabeth Frye

Ask yourself in silence: What do I believe about what comes next? What are my hopes? My fears? What does my faith tell me?

Today’s Word: Available

Chronos. St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. SJG photo.

Evidently, the vast majority of Americans believe that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. In fact, it was uttered by the wise old founding father Ben Franklin who, although clever and all that, is hardly a reliable source for Christian social teaching. For Franklin’s witticism is not only non-biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Indeed, it could not be further from the call to service and love that we find in the gospels.

For if we profess to be Christian, we have no choice but to love and care for those around us. And who is “around us?” Who is our neighbor? As the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) teaches us, our neighbor is anyone who is in need. So we must ask ourselves today: Is there anyone in need around us? If we say no, we’re either looking with half-closed eyes or our world is far too narrow.

We are called to make ourselves available to others. In Ignatian spirituality, this is referred to as “apostolic availability.” We must be there for others. We must be the healing and comforting Christ for others. We are called to bring the “good news” of the Gospel to others, but with the knowledge that salvation comes in different forms. We tell of a Jesus who saves and promises life to come, yes. But we are also called to bring the good news of the here and now. I love this from Dean Brackley, SJ:

Jesus proclaims “Good News to the poor.” What is this Good News? Ask 
the poor — you will get clear and immediate answers: health, shelter,
food, opportunity, jobs, education.

The challenge of responding to this call to service is that our lives often make us so UN-available. We fill our lives with so many things — including many good things — that we leave no time to just be available if someone needs us, no time to go looking for someone who might need us, no time to call someone up and say, “do you need anything?”

Kairos. Jackson Square, New Orleans. SJG photo.

This is the difference between the Greek ideas of chronos time and kairos time. Chronos time rules our days. It is ordered time — seconds, minutes, hours — and it is a demanding taskmaster from the moment the clock goes off in the morning. It’s necessary, of course. But it is not all. Kairos, on the other hand, lies outside of this sequential time of clocks and calendars. It is the time that slips by in moments of quiet contemplation and prayer. It passes without notice in moments of service to others. It is fleeting in moments of creation and joy, when time seems to stand still. It is time outside of time.

We need chronos, of course, or nothing would run on time and the world would run amok. But we need times of kairos in a chronos world. We need big chunks of time when we’re not watching the clock, when we’re not worried about the next appointment. We need this time to be available to God and available to others. This availability — this love — doesn’t come free or even cheap. It will cost us something. As Sarah Thebarge, author of The Invisible Girls, writes:

Love will cost you dearly.
And it will break your heart.
But in the end, it will save the world.

Ask yourself in silence: To whom can I be available today? What will it cost me? Will it be worth it?

Sitting at the Feet of Elders

Memorial Stone in New Orleans cemetery. SJG photo.

About a month ago at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church at Saint Louis University, I had the opportunity to attend an event for the L’Arche community in St. Louis featuring Sue Mosteller, CSJ, a sister of St. Joseph for 65 years and a long-time friend, colleague and literary executrix of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, who died in 1996, was one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century and one of my own personal inspirations and heroes, although I never had the opportunity to meet him.

So when I had the opportunity to hear Sue Mosteller, who has done so much to preserve and continue to publish Nouwen’s work, I knew this might be as close as I ever might get to Nouwen. And I was not disappointed. Sitting on a folding chair with a few hundred others, I was reminded of something I recently read (wish I could remember where!), that “sitting at the feet of wise elders is like listening to the Holy Spirit.”

Although I took notes while I was there, I wasn’t sure I would ever do anything with them. But as I reviewed those notes yesterday, I realized the depth of the wisdom and knew I needed to share it. So with apologies to Sue if I get anything a little wrong from faulty note taking, here are a few things I learned sitting before this particular elder, this person willing to allow the Spirit to work through her as she told us about listening for the “inner voice of love.” I didn’t put quote marks around everything below because I wasn’t sure of my accuracy, but be assured that the thoughts and ideas are hers, not mine…

She began by telling a story of accompanying Nouwen to a museum, where he placed himself before a Van Gogh painting. She waited with him…5 minutes…10 minutes…15 minutes until finally she asked him, “What are you doing?”

His nonchalant reply: “I’m walking around in the south of France, aren’t you?” He had stepped into the painting, was appreciating it. And the lesson: We cannot be spectators when it comes to our faith.

Sue Mosteller, from Wikipedia.

So where is this “inner voice of love?” First of all, she urged us to be careful about those words, for there is no “voice.” The inner voice of love, the voice of God, comes to us through others, and often from the most unlikely of teachers. John the Baptist, one unlikely teacher [just think about what he must have looked and smelled like!] came to point to the light of the world. “Not me, it’s him,” he said.  “There is the lamb of God.” We need John the Baptists who will point us in the right direction. We hear that voice, but it is Jesus we follow and encounter, and it is with Jesus that we abide. In that encounter we are transformed. In that encounter we discover the voice of love.

When God wanted to save us he didn’t send a book; he sent a person, Jesus. And this Jesus is delicate and respectful. He doesn’t begin by saying, “repent and be saved.” He says, gently, “What are you looking for? Can you give me a drink? Would you like to be healed?” This is the voice of love. The voice of love asks questions of the other.

Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I love you.” We have to claim this. We have to say, “yes.” We are beloved, with all of our beauty and darkness. The earth has seen 34.5 billion years of evolution and…then…there was the perfect time for you and me to be born. So that we could be here right now, doing what we are doing. Jesus came to “pitch his tent among us.”

We need to stay close to the wise voices that are guiding us, that are telling us that we are loved. For the call of love is to become like Jesus. Our call is to become what we are — mothers and fathers of whatever kind — and take responsibility to show and guide others to the realization that they are beloved.

Jesus was vulnerable to others — he kneels and washes their feet. So we need to ask: What is my role, my primary name? Do we give people a moment of heaven in the midst of their hell? To do so, we must be aware of what is happening around us.

Sue ended by telling the story of a prostitute in Paris, depressed and suicidal, who stopped by a church to pray one last time before going off to kill herself. A minister saw her there and sat beside her while she wept.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“No,” she replied. “I’m on my way to die. There is no redemption for me and I hate men.”

“Could I say one thing?” the minister asked. “I hear you and I know you are suffering. But do you know that you are a virgin?”

She scoffed.

“There is a secret place in your heart, a hidden, privileged chapel, a place to which only you and God have access. In that place, you are a virgin.”

She wept more.

Can we believe there is such a place for all of us? A place where God dwells and waits for our return? A place where God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love?” We need to claim this truth. We are beloved. We are all broken and waiting to be transformed.

Ask yourself in silence: Do I believe I am beloved, that there is a place where God and I can meet, a place where God awaits my return, no matter what I’ve done?

One more question: Leave a comment and tell me about a time you sat at the feet of an elder and felt the pull of the Holy Spirit. Who was it and what did you learn?

The Creative Spirit: Waiting

Waiting for spring. SJG photo.

It’s a cold, cold, cold morning here in America’s Midwest, and the snow and ice outside my window are begging me to stay inside today, nudging me toward my chair by the fire, toward a time of prayer and waiting.

So much of prayer, like so much of the creative process, is in fact about waiting. But it is not a passive waiting as much as it is a time of expectation that something will happen, a hidden promise that revelation or inspiration will come if we leave ourselves open to that secret and mystical movement of God in our lives.

And yet, sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work. Sometimes we sit and wait and nothing happens. No words, no ideas. Our hands won’t move across the keyboard, the pen sits idle in our grasp, the paintbrush remains dry.

So what do we do when our prayer life or our creative process come up dry? Rather than wringing our hands or — even worse — giving up, our call is to something gentler and more faithful. God asks us to sit and wait, to keep coming back with the knowledge and expectation that the divine presence remains, whether we sense it or not, whether our time of prayer or creativity seems fruitful or not. With a very loud silence, God reminds us that our time together is not about what gets accomplished; it’s about our time together, our shared and intermingled presence.

I was reminded of all this upon reading a poem this week by Rev. Tom Schoenherr, a retired Lutheran pastor, spiritual director, and inspired writer and blogger. Tom’s poem, below, speaks to this “gnawing at the soul” that we can sometimes feel in the depth of dark and cold winter. You can check out more of his writing at his website, The Deeper Journey.

Today,
Snow blankets the scenery,
White smoke pours from chimneys,
Writing gnaws at my soul,
No words to pray
Today.
Longing for peace-filled thoughts,
Hoping for new life,
Doubting your presence,
No words to pray
Today,
Where comes the Spirit?
Where come the sighings?
Where lie deep thoughts?
Where comes the crying?
Today,
My mind settles in,
My spirit centers my soul,
I rest my open hands upon
My knees. I wait,
I listen.
You are here
Today.

Welcome, Kate. SJG photo.

Speaking of waiting, yesterday Sue and I welcomed our second grandchild. She is perfect in every way and the spitting image of her big brother, Noah. Welcome to the world Kate Olivia Givens, we’ve been waiting for you…

Ask yourself in silence: How do you cope with those times when God and inspiration seem distant?