Tag Archives: Christian

Our Father?

I was inspired, by an article I read this week, to think about the divine feminine and to really consider my relationship with patriarchy and tradition in the Church. My relationship with the Church is tenuous at best, but my relationship with God is enriching and fulfilling. While I have a great reverence for historical Christianity, I also have a very suspicious eye aimed toward those systemic prejudices that are embedded within it.

I was then prompted to share this with you. I’m not really one to share my prayer life, since I feel that it could be much more deep and much more intentional, but I do think I’ve learned how to redirect traditional prayers in a way that feels more personal to me, while also maintaining the traditional aspects that I love so much.

cross

Traditional “Our Father”:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.
Amen.

The way I pray it:

“Mother-Father God in heaven, you are holy. Help me to practice your kingdom and your will here on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us what we need, our daily bread. Forgive us, as we forgive. Help us not to be tempted, but keep us from evil. Yours is the kingdom. Yours is the power. Your is the glory. Forever and ever, even unto the ages of ages. Amen and amen.”

There isn’t a huge shift in the language, but addressing my petition to a God that is called both Mother and Father was a huge leap in my faith and a difficult step when I first made it. The more I pray, and the more direct and intentional my inner spiritual life becomes, the more I feel secure in my choice and practice of viewing God as both feminine and masculine, both or neither.

If I am honest, I believe God exists outside of gender. Generally, I refer to God as [They] or [Them] in order to honor the three persons without prescribing a gender on an entity that exists outside of our finite understandings.

Mystic Monday on Shrove Tuesday: Richard of St. Victor

Today is Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras or the day before Ash Wednesday. If you know anything about me, you know that Lent is the most important Christian season to me and Easter is my favorite holiday. I have been drawn to the penitence of Lent since a young age, because it gives me a chance to contemplate my shortcomings while also focusing on the grace that will come through Holy Week, Jesus’ death and resurrection.

This morning I asked Bec if she was going to go to Ash Wednesday service with me, and she said,”I know that’s important to you some years, but I don’t really need to go.” There’s a lot of truth in the first part of that statement, but it correlates to my closeness or desire for Christ and my ability to feel God’s presence in my church. Since the first Sunday of Advent when I stepped into Grace Episcopal, I have felt at home, more at home than I’ve felt in a church setting a good long while. The theology is right, the service is perfectly liturgical and monastic feeling, Fr. Tom is intelligent and challenges us, and the people are friendly and open to all folks. So, of course, this year I feel a draw to celebrate Lent in all of its capacities, starting with Ash Wednesday tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure how fasting and contemplation will look for the course of Lent this year, but I will do as led during the service tomorrow.

During my morning contemplation this morning I read a bit from The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism and I came across this quote by Richard of St. Victor a 12th century monastic who wrote The Four Degrees of Violent Charity: “So, we now have the four degrees of violence in burning love that I have set forth above. The first degree of violence is when the mind cannot resist its desire; the second degree is when the mind cannot forget it; the third degree is when it cannot taste anything else; the fourth and last degree is when that desire cannot satisfy it. Therefore, the first degree love is insuperable, in the second inseparable, in the third singular, in the fourth insatiable. Insuperable love is what does not allow other attractions; inseparable love is what cannot be forgotten; singular love is what admits no companion; insatiable love is what cannot be satisfied.” Richard applies this same set of four degrees to romantic love (which will create a deity of a lover), Christian love (which creates the most perfect union between a person and God), and familial love (which culminates in the parents’ love for the child).

What I am drawn to is the idea that perfect love is violent, charity is violent. With some quick refreshment of my biblical languages, I find that charity (caritas) is frequently the way that love (agape) is translated in the vulgate, so the idea of love being violent fits right in with the idea that we should simultaneously love and fear God. The idea of violence never really appeals to me, and yet, when I look at the biblical text, I see repeated examples of God being violent and God’s followers being violent. In fact, that violence looks a lot like the four stages or degrees of love outlines above.

1) Insuperable love: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” —Deuteronomy 4:24

2) Inseparable love: “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” —Deuteronomy 6:7-9

3) Singular love: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” —Song of Solomon 6:3

4) Insatiable love: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,  as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” —Psalm 63:1

While contemplating this ideas of violent caritas/agape, I began thinking of the ways in which each level is presented in the biblical text. I am convinced that every biblical concept can come back to a new testament woman, and this one comes back to the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Here’s the story

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Maybe it’s whimsical thinking, but this woman seems to exhibit all four degrees of love for Jesus in a way that humbles me and makes me wish I could put aside my self-consciousness and worldly concerns and fall at the feet of Jesus, only Jesus, and pour myself out until I can only be filled up with him. Total love, total grace, total peace, and total beauty. Four degrees of caritas/agape: insuperable, inseparable, singular, and insatiable.

Sunday, Sunday and Mystic Monday

Well, I know you’re surprised that I got a bit behind, but, well, it happens. My mind races 90 miles an hour, but I’ve always been a slow moving person. The combination can be almost deadly. I’m a sloth with ADHD. Not pretty.

Sunday, Sunday

Since I forgot, or didn’t have time or motivation, to write yesterday, let me just mention briefly here that several of my goals go hand in hand and they are slowly beginning to be realized. Here are the goals, then I’ll tell you how I am realizing them: run a marathon, finish the Racine 70.3, ride a century ride on the bicycle, and swim the 5K at Big Shoulders in Chicago. This may seem like a lot to accomplish for most folks, but for me, the only one that even makes me nervous as far as completing it, since I’ve never completed one before, is the marathon. I swear on all that’s holy (sort of) that if I start this marathon in October and don’t finish . . . I’ll just try again next year. I’m nothing if not resilient. Or dumb.

I’ve signed up for the Medtronic marathon in the Twin Cities, the Racine 70.3. When I get paid on Friday, I’ll sign up for Big Shoulders and Headwaters 100. Of all of these events, I look forward most to Big Shoulders. I’ve never swum a 5K before, and I’ve never swum in Lake Michigan by Chicago, so it’ll be all kinds of new stuff. I’m most worried about Racine 70.3 on a “how will I look level”, because I think I’ll have to rent or buy a wetsuit, and squishing myself into a wetsuit is conceivably my very worst nightmare.

Imagine if you will: a giant caterpillar trying to shed its skin swimming in a lake.

Body segments and all.

That’ll be me in a wetsuit.

Eek.

I’m getting ready to ramp up my activity to train for all this mess. In fact, I’m adding swimming and biking back in gradually, so I can move up gently now that I am no longer sick. I swear I’ve felt drained for about three weeks, and I was really sick for about four days, which is really unlike me. It’s cool. Now if I can get some of this weight off and keep my foot from hurting, it’ll be a miracle.

Mystic Monday

“Listen. Look. Suffer and be still. Release yourself into the light. See with intellect. Learn with discretion. Suffer with joy. Rejoice with longing. Have desire with forbearance. Complain to no one. My child, be patient and release yourself, because no one can dig God out from the ground of your heart.” —anonymous, “The Silent Outcry”

I’m not really sure what to make of this little pamphlet of guidance. I understand what each sentence means, but when they’re thread together, I get nervous about what the writer means and how her advice might affect my daily life. I have no problem listening and looking, but that’s about where it stops. When I read “suffer and be still,” I think of people with mental illnesses who think suffering in silence is their best option, and I want to scream out, “No! Don’t suffer and be still. Tell someone you’re suffering.” I suppose, however, this writer refers to a spiritual suffering, not an emotional one. In which case, what does it even mean to suffer? I am unsure that I have ever actually suffered. For anything. In any regard. I move forward in the text and see three phrases that intrigue me, but mystify me as well.

“Release yourself into the light” could mean a variety of things. Does this text refer to the moments just before death? Given that the hearer is asked to listen, look, and suffer in silence, possibly the writer is speaking about death. But We can do all those things while wholly alive and well, too. “See with intellect” and “learn with discretion” appeal to me in every sense. And, of course, it reminds me a bit of the transcendentalists, who ask their readers to really see things, to look beyond their mundane usefulness and to locate the beauty, to really see the objects and to really understand them.

The writer then brings the text back around to suffering, longing, desiring, and complaining. The long and the short of this bit of advice seems to me to be that we should revel in whatever is happening around us, that we should simply be grateful we’re alive. Additionally, this part of the text seems to highlight our human need for binaries: suffer/joy, rejoice/longing, desire/forbearance, and complaint/silence. We’re to fully experience both emotions, so that we can rely on God. The last line of the excerpt above illustrates where the readers strength is supposed to come from: “no one can dig God out from the ground of your heart.” You may suffer, you may rejoice, you may experience desire, and you may not be able to tell anyone, but for certain, no one can dig God out from your heart. Like Psalm 1 says, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” Likewise, contemplatives, mystics, people who seek to follow Jesus are like those same trees planted by the waters, wherein God is also like who is planted inside them. Listen, look, suffer and be still. Let the silence break the silence and rejoice in whatever comes your way.

 

 

Cultivate Joy: Part Two (St. Bernard)

I am slowly coming to realize that joy is not necessarily an outwardly expressed, chipper, I-am-so-happy-because-everything-is-fine type of feeling or attitude. Joy is an inwardly felt, deep, intense, I-am-so-connected-with-Jesus-I-can’t-help-but-feel-any-other-way-(at this moment)-and-I-can’t-help-but-share-this type of feeling or attitude. And, it seems as if everything I read about joy indicates that it’s cyclic. Of course, the goal is to be in a permanent state of joy, but because we have other human emotions, the permanence is varied depending upon the presence of those other emotions.

For example, according to an article by Sylvie Supper titled “Spiritual Joy in the Works of St. Bernard,” St. Bernard believed that joy is one of four inner movements. The other three are sadness, love, and fear (361). Supper quotes Bernard’s own writing: “If sadness follows fear, it brings despair. If joy comes after love, it brings laxness. Let joy then some after fear, for fear dreads what is to come, whereas joy finds happiness in what is present and possesses the object of a prudent security. Joy must therefore put fear to the test. And a tested fear is nothing but prudence. Sadness must follow joy, for whoever remembers sad things will embrace joyous things with moderation. Thus sadness must balance joy, and a balanced joy is nothing but moderation” (361-2). The part of this statement that resounds with me is this: “Joy must put fear to the test. [. . .] Sadness must follow joy, for whoever remembers sad things will embrace joyous things with moderation.” I find myself telling my students that bad things happens in order to help us recognize the beauty and grace that surrounds us every day, but St. Bernard says that remembering sadness will help us “embrace joyous things with moderation.” What that says to me is that if we remember sadness, we’ll realize that joy is temporary and subject to change. We won’t let ourselves be swept away by joy, but we will realize the beauty of that joy, because we remember the sadness we’ve experienced as well. On this earth we must recognize there will be highs and lows. We should expect them, and remember each to temper the other. Now I feel like I am talking in a circle: joy, sadness, joy again, sadness again.

In order to illustrate the various types or levels of joy, St. Bernard sets up an excellent metaphor involving drinking: a taste is the joy of God we can experience during life, drink is the joy that is experienced by the souls of the saints, and inebriation is the experience of joy at the resurrection of the body (364). In this life, we can only taste; we can’t become inebriated. He quotes Psalm 35: 9, but I think both 9 and 10 help to better explain this idea of the inebriation of joy: “Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance. All my bones shall say, ‘O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and the needy from those who despoil them.'” It’s as if the speaker’s entire body is steeped in deliverance, and why would that not bring an intoxicating, inebriating joy? “All my bones shall say” I am filled with the joy of the Lord. How many times has my whole body said, “I am inebriated with you, Lord”? Not yet. Not here. St. Bernard, much like John Wesley from the last post, says that inebriating joy will come later, that it’s not this-worldly.

Jubilus cordis is “the very music of the heart,” which is only found when our hearts experience “the deepest and most intimate joy of the soul united with God” (366). This intimacy is given to us through the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, and it is felt as if from an intimate couple, such as two individuals who marry or who are deeply, intimately bound. Supper says that this intimacy “is a certain experience of God that communicates to the soul [God’s] sweetness and the joy of [God’s] presence” (366). This reminds me of the song “You Are So Good to Me” by Third Day. The chorus says, “You are beautiful my sweet, sweet song,” which seems like a version of this intimacy with Jesus that’s prevalent in Song of Songs.

Finally, Supper explains that though St. Bernard focuses on the inner workings of joy, joy cannot help but radiate our from us. We should have a desire to share our inner joy with others. So, for Bernard, as for Wesley, this inner attitude becomes an outward attitude. Something we just can’t help but share. I suppose first you have feel joyful inwardly, which is my difficulty. I’m not sure if I should expect this joy that can’t help but radiate to be a knock-me-down kind of joy, or just this occasional sweet, peaceful, sort of pukey feeling I get in my soul when everything seems to be right with God. I think it’s the second one, because it seems to be tempered with fear like in the first part of this post, but I also think St. Bernard thought it was the first one, too. Joy is subtle and joy is blatantly obvious. Basically, joy boils down to, again, a relationship with God. Joy is part of the fruit of that relationship. It’s a part of the fruit I wish I could taste more frequently. I want to be inebriated with joy. Here. Now. I don’t want to have to wait for it. I’m the Veruca Salt of the spiritual fruit: I want it now.

*

Supper provides a nice little glossary of terms St. Bernard uses for joy:

  • gaudium: signifies all kinds of joy
  • laetitia and exsultatio: signify the exultation of those who have found God, opposite of bitterness; confiteor: the praise of whoever gives thanks to God
  • hilaris: one who gives joy, the radiation of the face
  • jucundus: someone who leads another to joy
  • congratulatio and congaudere: shared joy
  • alacritas: fervent and driving joy
  • delectare: delight found in resting in God
  • jubilus: the inner song of the soul united with God

Cultivate Joy: Part One (John Wesley and Mother Teresa)

My first goal of 2013 is to cultivate joy. In my last blog post, I wrote that in order to cultivate joy, I would “do things which me bring me joy. Embrace the random. Enjoy the mediocre. Don’t stress over things I can’t control. Live in the moment and revel in those I spend my time with. Put down my phone or my other distractions and really love and live the moment.” For me those are the beginning steps to cultivating what I perceive to be pure joy. Because I am not the most joyful person, I decided to learn from what others have written about joy. What is joy? How does joy work? Is joy the same thing as happiness? Is joy what some mystics call ecstasy? Is joy something that one must experience every day in order to be considered joyful? I suppose I had (maybe still have) many, many questions about a theological, psychological, and behavioral characteristic I claim I am going to cultivate this year.

I intentionally used the word cultivate for what I intend to do with joy. There are really three types of cultivation. One type is more like refinement, which would require that I already possess some amount of joy that I simply plan to nurture and shape into much more mature, refined joy. This is not the type of cultivation I will be accomplishing. I will be using a combination of the second two types of cultivation: improving by the care or study of joy and fostering the growth of joy.

Much like a farmer cultivates crops in a field or a scientist cultivates specimens in petri dishes, I plan to plant, encourage, maintain, and harvest this joy. I plan to do the backbreaking work of starting from the ground up, digging little holes, planting little joy seeds, growing little joy plants, and then harvesting whatever little joy flowers or fruits grow from those plants. This is a whole new endeavor, and I didn’t even buy crop insurance. I’m not sure this is the sort of thing that can be insured. I’ll either come away with a bouquet of flowers or a peck of fruits from this year of cultivation, or I won’t. The pursuit of joy is mostly up to me and my willingness to work for it. Sounds weird: work for, cultivate joy.

Similarly, much like I have studied for the past few years to cultivate my knowledge of literature, I hope to study to cultivate my understanding of joy. I started by reading four articles, which is of course where I would start with this damn rational mind I’ve been given, but I plan to pay more attention to those people in my life who seem to be joyful. How is it that they can experience joy, when there is so much sadness, so much angst, and so much depravity in this world? Do they maintain certain habits? Do they hold certain attitudes? Do they rely on their spiritual lives, whatever religion or non-religion they may be? How do they seem to be so filled with joy?

Naturally, I first turned to John Wesley for thoughts about joy. Not because he was necessarily a joy-filled man, but precisely because he strove toward joy and sometimes fell short, did I turn to Wesley for wise words about the topic. In the article titled “John Wesley’s Moral Pneumatology: The Fruits of the Spirit as Theological Virtues,” Joseph William Cunningham writes: “The cultivation of spiritual virtue is abstract from community. Believers develop the holy tempers of righteousness, love and peace in relation to their neighbour. The fruits of the Spirit, though inward dispositions of the soul, are always socially oriented” (284). When I read these lines, I had three thoughts. First, I was elated that he used the word cultivated because that’s my word! (:)) Second, I was thrilled that he used the virtue, because when I was writing my goals for this year, I had in the back of my mind Ben Franklin’s thirteen virtues. Third, all theological concepts work best, and are meant to work best, when practiced in community. We are not designed to be solitary beings.

This photo was taken from http://anglicanhistory.org/wesley/.

This photo was taken from http://anglicanhistory.org/wesley/.

On a more serious note, I really was elated when I saw these lines, but it was more because it has always seemed that joy is an inwardly focused theological concept; joy is about how I feel, right? The above quote made me think of the many ways in which joy is much more outwardly focused. Though Cunningham doesn’t list joy here in this passage, I can’t help but think joy comes in community, that joy is an “inward disposition” that should be “socially oriented.” I’ve experienced joy in my life, and usually that joy was felt in community. I have been in love, which was joyful. I have won competitions, which was joyful. I have experienced God, which was joyful. I’ve sung spirituals and released my pain and suffering, which was joyful. In every situation, while I was the person experiencing the joy, there were others experiencing it with me. I am not sure I have ever experienced joy alone. And if I have, my first inclination was likely to share that joy.

One reason I may not be the most joyful person is that I abhor those shiny, happy Christians I grew up with. Seriously, you can’t possibly be that happy all the time. Joyful? Maybe. Shiny happy? I doubt it. I was thrilled when I was reminded that Wesley struggled with the concept of continuous joy. Later in the same article, Cunningham quotes Wesley: “A will steadily and uniformly devoted to God is essential to a state of sanctification, but not an uniformity of joy or peace or happy communion with God. They may rise and fall in various degrees; nay an may be affected either by the body or by diabolical agency, in a manner which all our wisdom can never understand or present” (285). In other words, all of those people who told me I had to be happy to show my Christian faith were wrong. My will has been constantly (or nearly so) devoted to God. Only the outward signs of the fruit of the spirit have wavered. We, in this lifetime, cannot be filled with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). We are human, yes? Perfection is something to be attained.

My quest for an understanding of joy was likely fueled by reading An Unquenchable Thirst. Much like the author Mary Johnson, I fell in love with Mother Teresa when I was young. A drawing of Mother Teresa with the words Living Saints in large, bold letters graced the cover of time magazine when I was about 18 months old. There is no way that image could have impacted me like it did Johnson, but I grew up having a knowledge of saints (likely from my mom’s Orthodox family) and having a certain reverence for Mother Teresa. I read everything I could about her, and I believed I had been a nun in a former life (okay, really I still believe it). There is simply something that appeals to me about living with other women whose thoughts are directed toward God and others; there is something that strikes a chord within me when I think about regulating my day with service and prayer. I have always thought that I might experience more joy in a place that was filled with Christ’s love.

This photo was taken from http://topics.time.com/mother-teresa/.

This photo was taken from http://topics.time.com/mother-teresa/.

When I read Johnson’s book, I learned what I knew deep down: sometimes things aren’t what they seem. I had always assumed, until the August 2007 Time Magazine article,  that Mother Teresa was the most joyful woman on earth, and if I believed what Cunningham writes about Wesley’s thoughts of joy she might be: “Joy is a theological virtue implying habitual self-sacrifice and service of neighbour, even in the midst of sorrow and despair. The desire to love and serve is animated by true joy in the Spirit, and cultivated through commitment and practice” (286). Half-heartedly I agree with this. Before I read Johnson’s story, I (maybe) would have whole-heartedly agreed with it. Joy seems to be fed by giving to others, but I worry, now, if giving everything to others renders us not joyful but broken. Theologically, I suppose that very brokenness is where some folks would say that God works when we can’t. You know, the “Jesus works through our brokenness” idea? I am not sure I can buy that line of reasoning anymore, not the brokenness reasoning, but the idea that if we sacrifice and serve, we’ll be joyful. In fact, Wesley himself writes: “Yet it cannot be denied that many times joy is withheld even from them that walk uprightly” (Cunningham 286). Does pouring one’s whole self out into others and loving and serving provide joy? Yes, but not always. No, but sometimes. Maybe.

So, here I am at the end of my first consideration of the cultivation of joy, and I have studied and learned what one person thinks about joy. After thinking about how to cultivate joy, do I feel more joyful? Not yet, but I am hopeful.