Rule of Life


Today is the eleventh day of Lent and Lent always orders me to order my life — again. Isn’t that what we do, put order back into our lives over and over again?

02D6C44D-9692-4DA6-86C3-0A256C32DB27That’s what I do, because I have learned the wisdom of ducks. Even ducklings sometimes step out of the line behind a Mama duck who bids them to walk a straight line, single file!

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Or even to swim in an ordered line! Something ducks are very good at!
For me, achieving a well-ordered life is a constant struggle, yet something I need and want. What do I mean by “ordered life?” I envision for myself a life that longs to move toward physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Especially spiritual well-being.

Perhaps I will turn to ducks for an inspiration to order my life or, even more compelling, perhaps I will turn to one of the streams of spirituality that comes from very deep in the Christian tradition — the wisdom of Benedictine Monasticism.

Now, stay with me! I’m not going out on a shaky spiritual limb.

Saint Benedict wrote his rule of life in the 6th century and thus left us with its simple and stable legacy of “Ora et Labora”: “Prayer and Work.” Today’s monasteries and convents still function under a Rule of Life, the best-known of which is that of Saint Benedict. A spiritual rule of life offers a fundamental rhythm for the balancing and ordering of life. Several years ago while seeking a deeper spiritual life, I entered into the novitiate of the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans. In the process to full profession into the Order, I was asked to write a personal rule of life.

Rule of life? I had no idea where to start. Nor did I really know what a rule of life looked like! I found this definition from a very helpful website, “Sacred Ordinary Days.”

A rule of life is a commitment to live your life in a particular way. It is meant to be crafted with prayer and discernment, in partnership with God, as you consider the way God made you and the values God has inscribed upon your heart. Once written, it serves as a tool that can help you make decisions for your life and determine how best to order your days. A rule is different than the goals, intentions, or resolutions we tend to set for ourselves. Those methods are task-based and measurable, and they’re often focused on what we do. A rule of life, on the other hand, helps you become. It is comprised of several simple statements that guide the posture of your life and the living of your days. It is not lived perfectly but can be lived faithfully while fostering within you an integrated and embodied life of faith.

So, attentive to the lives of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, I began discovering and creating my rule of life. What I learned in that experience is that crafting a rule of life is a spiritual discipline, whether I am writing, drawing, designing or graphing it. If you know me, you know that mine was handwritten because, for me, writing becomes the sigh of my soul. Once I began writing, I sensed a pull drawing me inward. The writing called me to open up my spirit to God in a deeper way and, from that place, to write down the ways I desired and intended to follow Christ and order my Christian life. In a nutshell, that’s what I discovered about a rule of life.

Sister Joan D. Chittister, O.S.B., an American Benedictine nun, theologian, author and speaker,  explains the idea of a rule of life more clearly in her writing about Saint Benedict’s Rule. She describes how the Rule of Benedict provides an opportunity for transformation for everyone who chooses to follow its wisdom.

All in all, the Rule of Benedict is designed for ordinary people who live ordinary lives. It was not written for priests or mystics or hermits or ascetics; it was written by a layman for laymen. It was written to provide a model of spiritual development for the average person who intends to live life beyond the superficial or the uncaring.

Benedict was quite precise about it all. Time was to be spent in prayer, in sacred reading, in work, and in community participation. In other words, it was to be spent on listening to the Word, on study, on making life better for others, and on community building. It was public as well as private; it was private as well as public. It was balanced. No one thing consumed the monastic’s life. No one thing got exaggerated out of all proportion to the other dimensions of life. No one thing absorbed the human spirit to the exclusion of every other. Life was made up of many facets and only together did they form a whole. 

A rule of life is rooted in Scripture, pointing always to Christ; and, in the words of Saint Benedict, it is “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”

Lent is upon us. I don’t know about you, but I need to get my ducks in a row and, more importantly, I need to revisit the rule of life I wrote decades ago. I have a notion that, while my life has changed over the years, my rule of life hasn’t. But my need for genuine repentance is this: I don’t even remember my rule of life. What did I write? In what ways did I live it out? How many years or months or weeks did I live by it? Why is my rule of life now lost in a pile of old papers? I contritely confess that I remember (sort of) only this small part of it:

I will live my life and speak truth in the manner of love, for God is love
and, in Christ, I live and move and have my being.

I vaguely remember those words, but I intend look through my archived treasures and scraps of paper to find my rule of life and to revisit it. Maybe I will even begin living it again. From now on, I want to remember to remember it, so that its expressions will become like the air I breathe. And I will remember what Saint Benedict wrote 1,500 years ago, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way. The love of Christ must come before all else.”  

As for me, the one thing I do remember so strongly about the act of writing my rule of life is that I was on a spiritual retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a sacred place that made me imagine the lives of the desert mothers and fathers, the monastics who sparked spirituality for centuries. I also remember that, as I was writing, I would continually relive my ordination and its deep meaning for me. I continued to think and write on the day I had to finish, while the prayer of my heart and the longing of my soul continually whispered the same words sung at my ordination many years before:

Here I am, Lord. It is I, Lord. I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

“Here I Am, Lord”
Daniel L. Schutte (b.1947)
Arranged by Ovid Young (1940-2014)

More Information on crafting your rule of life:

I found this website to be very helpful for people who want to craft a rule of life. Remember that your rule of life is for you, your way of enhancing your life and increasing your devotion to God. So every person’s rule will look different. 

NO MORE AIRTIME, MR. TRUMP!

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The time for Donald Trump’s airtime is over! In my life, I have no available airtime for him, and I wish the media would follow my example. I’ve heard enough of his rants and tweets. I’ve heard enough of his incendiary speech. I’ve heard enough of his indiscriminate name-calling. I’ve heard enough of his lying. I’ve heard more than enough of his disrespectful, hate-filled, divisive rhetoric. More than enough!

My soul will no longer give Donald Trump airtime. Why? Because often my responses to hearing him were anger, disgust, self righteousness and even hate. And those emotions darken my soul. Those emotions do not belong in my soul at all, because they have a way of displacing love, compassion, gentleness, peace, hope, light and grace — all the good emotions that God plants in the soul through Spirit breath.

I think of the beloved hymn . . .

Holy Spirit, breathe on me until my heart is clean.
Let sunshine fill my inmost parts with not a cloud between.

Breathe on me, breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe on me; 
Take Thou my heart, cleanse every part,
Holy Spirit breathe on me. 

— Words by Edwin Hatch, Music by B.B. McKinney

In these days of harmful politics, racial injustice, coronavirus fear and isolation, I need a Spirit-cleansing of my heart and soul. God has been ready to begin the cleansing for a while now. God has heard my repentant prayers admitting anger and hatred. God has waited patiently for me to embrace the stillness that can begin to heal my soul. 

Stillness! Stillness longing for healing. Stillness whispering words of repentance. Stillness yearning for calm. Stillness seeking peace. Stillness waiting in solitude for the presence of the Healer of the Soul.

I’m going there — to that place of solitude where one can breathe slower, sigh deeper, listen attentively to the whisper of God and the breath of the Spirit. I’m going to solitude’s “luminous warmth” as John O’Donohue’s poem in which he describes the soul as the divine space. 

There is a lantern in the soul, which makes your solitude luminous. 
Solitude need not remain lonely. It can awaken to its luminous warmth. 

The soul redeems and transfigures everything
because the soul is the divine space. 

When you inhabit your solitude fully and experience its outer extremes of isolation and abandonment, you will find that, at its heart, there is neither loneliness nor emptiness but intimacy and shelter.

― John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Right now, in the midst of the disheartening mood of the year 2020, I am entering the solitude I desperately need so that I can experience my soul as the divine space it is. 

Politicians, continue your rancor in loud and powerful voice! I will not hear you from my place of solitude, from my soul’s divine space. And as for you, Mr. Trump, I have no further airtime for you. I refuse to sit in front of my television for another minute, anticipating — hoping — that you will finally say or do something appropriate, beneficial, worthwhile, productive, compassionate or kind.

Instead, I will change the channel to more soul-healing television. In fact, I will leave the television altogether and go to a better place, higher ground where peace and silence and reverence and awe can begin the holy work of healing my soul. I am taking a sacred pause from my life that has been so anxious and worried and isolated. I will wait there in that sacred space where my “soul redeems and transfigures everything.” Thanks be to God.

The “Soul’s Insistent Yearning”

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I have come to know Ash Wednesday as the time to draw nearer to my “soul’s insistent yearning.” That can be a frightening prospect, so I always approach Ash Wednesday with a bit of reticence, meeting the day with the self-awareness that I am trying to keep my distance from my “soul’s insistent yearning.” Being closer to one’s soul can well be a disconcerting proposition, but a necessary one. Ash Wednesday presents me with entry into the season of Lent.

I cherish Lent’s forty days, actually, always expecting change to happen in my soul and spirit. And yet, the prospect of repentance, renewal, transformation — and ultimately a personal resurrection — always disquiets me.

83D4AF68-A9AD-40EC-9D26-F0787CFE6D7BHow will I spend Ash Wednesday?

How will I approach the day
that will open the gate of Lent before me?

I have always thought of Lent as a spiritual journey we take alone, a solitary season of introspection and self-reflection during which we contemplate our own spiritual well-being and our relationship with God. For me, Lent has often been alone work.

So I make my Lenten journey into my alone places. I will know that God will abide with me, comforting me in my self-reflection, in my penitence and in my repentance. I will be mindful this Lent of my need to reach into my soul in search of places needing healing, constant and long-time wounds of the soul and spirit. I will search for the traces of my sinfulness, finding in my heart the will to seek sincere penitence, the sad and humble realization of and regret for my misdeeds. I will move beyond penitence to repentance as I resolve to change and to experience transformation.

How will I spend Ash Wednesday?

In whatever way I am able, I will receive ashes on my forehead imposed in a sign of the cross. I will recall the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I will utter as my prayer, the words of Scripture, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

As for the actual ashes, I have often wiped them off while in public. I never knew why, just that I was uncomfortable when others saw the cross of ash on my forehead. Perhaps I needed to keep my spiritual practice to myself, or hide the reality of my search for repentance. Years ago, I came across these words, spoken by Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM:

We can feel a little funny with ashes on our foreheads, but for Catholics, that’s how we mark the start of Lent. Ashes don’t say we’re holy. They say we are sinners. They don’t say we are perfect, only that we’re willing to try. They don’t say we’re models of religiosity, but they do say we belong. In today’s world of loners and isolates, that says a lot.

~ Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM

7FA58B58-0019-4809-B3B9-F956F3B06D7BThe essential truth, and gift, of Ash Wednesday is its call to come to terms with ourselves before God. Ash Wednesday says what so much of modern culture denies, namely that we are forever deceiving and justifying ourselves about our sinfulness. So on this day, when we contemplate our sins, when we pay attention to the ash on our foreheads, when we enter into Lent’s forty days, we must make prayer our utmost spiritual intention. So I pray we might embrace our Christian community that we might journey together for these forty days, praying for one another, seeking together the serenity, the reflection and the transformation of Lent, as all the while, we lean into our “soul’s insistent yearning.”

In that spirit of prayer, I hope you will take with you into Lent with this beautiful prayer from Rabbi Naomi Levy:

The rabbi in me would like to offer a prayer for you.
I pray you will learn to see you life as a meaningful story.
I pray you will learn to listen to your soul’s insistent yearning.
I pray you will learn to believe you can transform your life.
I pray you will learn to live and shine inside your imperfect life
and find meaning and joy right where you are.
Most of all I pray you will uncover a great miracle: your extra-ordinary life.

~ From Hope Will Find You by Rabbi Naomi Levy

Most importantly, pray yourself into Lent in the few days we have before Ash Wednesday. Seek God’s heart and seek the depths of your own heart and your “soul’s insistent yearning.” May you know God’s presence as you begin your Lenten journey.

Imposing Silence Upon Our Cares

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Photography by Jennifer Blackwell

The only people who pray well are those who keep praying!
— Richard Rohr

Sometimes you just need to get away. You need to push back from your daily grind and be in a space that gives you life-restoring energy. The place may be a mountaintop or beside a sea. The place you love might be on a sailboat watching the changing colors of the sky. The need is a time of contemplation although I admit that contemplation is easier said than done.

Richard Rohr describes contemplation using the frightening word, “dying,” something we usually do not want to consider. Still his definition is compelling.

Contemplative prayer is one way to practice imposing “silence upon our cares, our desires and our imaginings.” Contemplative practice might be five or twenty minutes of “dying,” of letting go of the small mind in order to experience the big mind, of letting go of the false self in order to experience the True Self, of letting go of the illusion of our separation from God in order to experience our inherent union.

I am intrigued by the phrases “imposing silence upon our cares!” dying” and “letting go of the illusion of our separation from God.” We readily recall words we have long known: “Be still, and know that I am God,” and we know that we can move into God’s real and palpable presence. Still moving into God’s presence and lingering there is easier said than done. We are slaves to our lives, to our every day concerns and responsibilities. And sometimes times our responsibilities — though they may be important to us — take too much from us, robbing us of our life’s spiritual depth.

Again, Richard Rohr offers deep wisdom:

Each day that dawns is a celebration of the fact that we have been invited to consider how our lives are spent; how we embrace and recoil from the . . . darkness.

So for me, I would like to watch the hued, expansive skies — the moving clouds and the sparkle of the sun. I would like to find silence in the vastness of God’s creation, in a place where my view includes the beauty of verdant green pastures, the sound of the never-ending surf, the feel of the wind in my face, the shadows cast upon a high mountain. It takes the beauty of such a place to calm my spirit and stop the whirring of my mind. In such a place, I can try to enter into the posture of prayer and contemplation.

Don’t be fooled. Contemplation is called a practice because it truly is a practice that we must try again and again. Contemplation is not easy for many of us. It can even be disconcerting because, in truth, contemplation is meeting as much reality as we can handle in its most simple and immediate form — without filters, judgments, or commentaries. Contemplation moves us to the space our soul craves, and in that place we gain a renewal of our spirit.

Anything worth doing is worth practicing for as much or as long as it takes. Yes, at times it feels like forcing ourselves to be still for an interminable length of time and to force ourselves to fully concentrate on petitioning and listening prayer. No doubt, being silent with ourselves can be frightening. “Imposing silence upon our cares” can be threatening. But in the practice of contemplation we can hear God’s whisper clearer and sense God’s presence more deeply and fully.

I wish for you the time and space you need, the time to take in the breathtaking beauty of God’s creation, the stilling of your mind and the calming of your spirit that can guide you into the presence of God.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

“Be still, and know that I am God!”

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

— From Psalm 46 (NRSV)

Lingering in God’s Presence

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Himalayan blue poppies in the rain, Valley of Flowers National Park, Uttarakhand, India

The beauty of God’s creation often takes my breath away. This image did that. When I first saw it, I stared at for quite a long time. You might say it stopped me in my tracks, slowed me down for a moment, caused me to wonder. That’s not a bad thing, slowing me down. It does not happen easily.

So what does it mean to slow down and linger, to linger in God’s presence? One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the very brief story of Anna.

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38 NIV)

What strikes me about Anna is that “she never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying.” She lingered in God’s presence. Perhaps God honored her devotion by allowing her to see the Christ child.

And then there’s this small snippet of Joshua’s story:

 . . . When Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses. All the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the tabernacle door, and all the people rose and worshiped, each man in his tent door. So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle. (Exodus 33:9-11 NKJV)

Joshua lingered in the tabernacle even when Moses, his mentor, left it. Perhaps it changed him. Perhaps because of his devotion in lingering in God’s presence, it was Joshua, and not Moses, who received the honor of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land.

Of course, we are not certain about any of that. Certainly we do not linger in God’s presence in hopes of receiving some reward or honor. At the same time, developing the spiritual discipline of abiding — lingering — in God’s presence brings its own reward.

What are your ways of spending time in God’s presence? Reading scripture? Writing scripture in a prayer journal? Yoga? Walking a labyrinth? Praying? Journaling? Taking in the beauty of nature? Creating a place of silence? The ways of spiritual discipline are endless.

One thing is certain: lingering in God’s presence does not just happen. We enter that sacred space and linger there only if we commit ourselves to do it. Not in a legalistic manner that is more religious than spiritual, but in ways that slowly open us up to craving that time with God, needing it more than we need to “accomplish” our never-ending daily tasks.

When we reach that place, we might discover that lingering in God’s presence is life-giving. We might suddenly realize that we are lingering in God’s presence easily and often, that it has become a part of life.

So how in the world did a blue flower get me here?

I’m not sure, but I think it is because God can be found everywhere, in any moment, in any space, in every stillness, in silence and music and birdsong, in whatever we hear and feel, through anything our eyes can see — even a blue flower covered with dew.

And in that space, we are transformed.

Amen.

The Great Silence

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I struggle with the life of contemplation I most desire. I long to stand on the Holy Ground of God’s presence. And yet, I often fail in my attempts to enter that spiritual space. My mind is filled with thoughts, words, concerns, plans, worries. And with so active a mind, I am hard pressed to meditate on the divine presence of God. I simple cannot seem to find a way to enter the great silence that enables me to hear the whisper of God I so desperately need to hear.

In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr spoke of “the great silence” as he described the prayer of the contemplative. This is his thought:

The prayer of the contemplative is, essentially, an attention to the omnipresence of God. God is omnipresent not as a theological doctrine, but as the great silence that is present in every moment—but from which we are usually distracted by an overactive mind that refuses to wait in a humble unknowing for a pure wisdom from above.

As always, he nailed it, describing the kind of waiting in silence we must do if we are to encounter an omnipresent God. Certain ways of being can move us more fully into the great silence. 

The beauty of nature, the sound of a gentle breeze, the patter of a soft rain can lead us on the contemplative path. Intentional prayer, journaling, experiencing the healing of music, walking the sacred path on a labyrinth — all of these can encourage us into a more contemplative life.

Most of all, we need the longing, our deepest soul desire, to encounter God. The Psalmist expressed such a longing.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God . . .

— Psalm 42:1-2 (NRSV)

Seeing the Light: A Spiritual Discipline

DF9BF7FC-6583-4F1A-A78F-3F5CD0D37117I seldom talk much about the spiritual disciplines that have given me strength. A private retreat — just me and God — in a beautifully isolated hermitage was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life. While there, I also practiced another of my spiritual disciplines — iconography.

Iconography is not merely a visual art, it is Christian sacred art, and has been an integral part of the worship and mystical life of Christians since apostolic times. Referred to in the Eastern Christian tradition as “windows into heaven,” icons have inspired and uplifted millions of the faithful, and have at times been the instruments for demonstrating God’s miraculous intercession in the life of humankind.

29074C09-C2E4-49B3-ACA8-FAED6A6069B8In describing the purpose of icons, the early Christians used the Greek work anagogic, literally meaning “leading one upward.” Photios Kontoglou, a renowned modern iconographer, expressed this perfectly: “Icons raise the soul and mind of the believer who sees the icon to the realm of the spirit, of the incorruptible, of the kingdom of God, as far as this can be achieved with material means.” 

So to appreciate iconography fully, we must approach it as a liturgical art form whose function is essentially spiritual. Since the creation of an icon is itself a sacred activity, the iconographer must be a person of prayer, not merely a technician. If the iconographer’s work is to inspire and illumine others, then it is essential that she leads a life of prayer and fasting that she may be inspired and illumined by the Holy Spirit, that her iconography becomes itself an expression of her spiritual life. Kontoglou writes: “The iconographers painted as they prayed.”

355CF8CB-A1B6-4D08-B5DD-DF59A9618C9AMy love of iconography resulted from the prompting of my dear Aunt Eirene. She was an artist extraordinaire and a gifted iconographer. She studied and practiced to hone her skills and each year, she went to an intensive iconography workshop at a beautiful retreat center. One year, she persuaded me (forced is a more accurate term) to go with her. Of course, I was extremely reticent to try this new art form.

At first, I called on my artistic skills and was doing a barely decent job. But then a lovely nun who sat next to me said words that literally imprinted on my heart. She said, “Your rendering of the Holy Child is beautiful. Look into his eyes. When you see the Light coming from them, you will fall in love with your icon.”

286998AD-4ACD-4E54-BBD6-EDCC0B0D4ED0She was so wise. I began to think more about the Christ Child’s eyes than my own art, and within a day, my iconography transformed from a painting to a prayer. It was worship, meditation and reverence. It touched my soul as I added color to the board, layer upon layer. It was an incredible experience to see the Light. I share with you here some of icons I created, as I remember the experience I had with each of them that opened my soul to the Light.