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.