Slow church. At breakfast this morning here at this old house, we were talking about spiritual formation through literature and the stages of creativity: formation, passion, expression. As part of that discussion, one person talked about “slow church.” Like the slow food movement that seeks to return us to the enjoyment of real food locally shared mindfully, so the idea of slow church is less hoopla and numbers driven and more communal “breathing together.”

This past week, I read somewhere (Facebook?) that in England, there is a rise in attendance at traditional choral evensong services. Christian or not, people are hungering for silence in a beautiful space, surrounded by good music sung by a trained choir and the ancient words of the Christian Vesper service. A capella singing. A slower pace. Not seeker sensitive but, like the slow food movement, presenting the Scriptures in spoken and sung word, letting people get what they get and leaving the rest to mystery.

“Evensong … is a very tiny fragment of something else:  it is a fragment of the worship which is offered to God by Christian people every hour in every part of the world. When you come to Evensong here it is as if you were dropping in on a conversation already in progress — a conversation between God and people which began long before you were born and will go on long after you are dead.”      http://stpaulsivy.org/wp-content/uploads/spi-choral-evensong-A-booklet.pdf

That is so antithetical to the mega-church movement, to the contemporary Christian praise band, to so many of the church leadership conferences on “growing your church.” It is simply putting the Gospel out there in a beautiful but more subdued way. Despite the lack of glitz and glam, people’s dry souls are watered.

A vision of church was then shared as part of the morning’s discussion: the Church is like an oasis in the desert. You can build a 5-star hotel at the oasis, you can have a taco stand, the palm trees are nice but not necessary. The only thing that makes the oasis thrive is the life-giving water it offers. Period. Without that water, no oasis.

May you find a cup this week to quench your soul’s thirst and may you find a place that allows you to drink from that cup slowly and deeply.

 

What does it mean to be spiritually mature? Much of what I have been reading lately includes  in that definition the ability to take all the parts of ourselves, the good, the bad, the ugly, the young and ignorant, the old and foolish, and embrace them as part of the whole of who we are now. People who are able to recognize that everything in their life makes up who they are today, even if some of those parts are not what they want to be dominate in their lives now, are more integrated and therefore at peace with themselves. More spiritually and emotionally mature.

It reminds me of a Russian nesting doll, which we happen to have here at this old house. Ours was a gift on e Christmas. It is a traditional design like the one pictured first here, except ours decreases in size to a doll that is a little bigger than a piece of rice!

They are called “Matryoshka” in Russian. According to Wikipedia, “the name Matryoshka comes from the Russian female name Matriona. In old Russia among peasants the name Matriona or Matriosha was a very popular female name. Scholars says this name has a Latin root “mater” and means “Mother.” This name was associated with the image of of a mother of a big peasant family who was very healthy and had a portly figure. Subsequently, it became a symbolic name and was used specially to image brightly painted wooden figurines made in a such way that they could taken apart to reveal smaller dolls fitting inside one another.”

In the traditional form, these dolls are identical to each other as they get smaller and smaller, fitting neatly inside the larger one before it. To me it is a perfect image of this idea of embracing all the ages and stages of ourselves and welcoming them into a cohesive whole that reflects the tapestry of our lives. It is a form of making peace with the rough edges of our souls and memories.

 

 

Some of the more modern Matryoshka dolls are made around a theme instead of an identical replica in different sizes. For example, you may have one about a fairy tale and each of the dolls is a character from that fairy tale.

At times, we may view the various stages of our lives as separate characters that just happen to be in the same play. Those times of our lives when we were less than God created us to be may feel like they don’t belong to us. We may be embarrassed or saddened by those phases of our lives and want to split them off, box them up and stuff them in a bottom drawer that never gets opened. But, when we embrace those hard parts, lovingly invite them into their place in the totality of our life’s story, we will be more whole mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

An exercise towards spiritual maturity may be to acquire a traditional nesting doll. Then, in a quiet, uninterrupted space, unpack the doll, journaling about each phase of your life, beginning with the present and working your way back to the smallest doll and the earliest memories you have. After you have spent the time reflecting on your life, seeking forgiveness where necessary, forgiving where possible, loving and embracing as much as you can, put the doll back together with a prayer that you might “be fit together neatly and in a whole way.”

It is possible to buy blank Matryoshka dolls so you could, if you wanted, personalize each doll to reflect in some way each phase of your life. Another option is to print out a picture of a doll unpacked, such as the one above, and use the sizes in the picture during your reflection time. However you choose to engage in the exercise, let the Holy Spirit help you unpack and repack your life into a seamless whole. May all that is unforgiven in you be released. May your fears yield their deepest tranquilities. May all that is unlived in you blossom into a future graced with love. John O’Donohue

 

 

 

E pluribus unum: out of many, one. That was the unofficial motto of the United States, put on the Great Seal in 1782. In 1956, Congress made “In God We Trust” the official motto. That phrase had been on coins since 1864; in 1957, it was mandated to be on the paper currency as well. The phrase, “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our Trust,'”  is found in stanza four of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which itself was written during the War of 1812. In 1861, the Reverend M. R. Watkinson petitioned the Treasury Department to add a statement recognizing “Almighty God in some form in our coins” in order to “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.” (He was also motivated by a desire to make sure people knew God was on the side of the Union forces in the Civil War.)

Throughout American’s history, the “one”  in “out of many, one” has come to mean, too many times, uniformity of thought, not unity of national purpose. This idea of a big melting pot sounds good in Latin but is way too scary in reality. “In God We Trust” sounds more pious and lofty. E pluribus unum is messy. It means throwing everyone and everything into the stew. “In God We Trust” is more amorphous, less easily defined and therefore, somehow, more comforting. When we are afraid, especially in times of national crisis, we want to assure ourselves, and the world, that God is on our side. Warm fuzzies instead of the hard realities of immigrants and refugees, foreign languages and cultures. In short, not everyone looks and thinks as I do.

Maybe we all need to re-read the fairy tale “Stone Soup“:

Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travelers. Then the travelers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travelers answer that they are making “stone soup”, which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor, which they are missing. The villager does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, the stone (being inedible) is removed from the pot, and a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all. Although the travelers have thus tricked the villagers into sharing their food with them, they have successfully transformed it into a tasty and nutritious meal which they share with the donors.

E pluibus unum. It can nourish us all if we will let it.

 

I have been thinking about the three monastic vows this week: obedience, stability and conversion. Last week, I had shared that things were in a state of flux here at this old house as old vocations had passed away and new vocational calls had yet to be revealed. While we are still in a threshold time, some foundational “hand-holds” have appeared that can be loosely categorized under obedience, stability and conversion.

Obedience is not a popular word in the Western world. We pride ourselves on being “free” but, if we understand that the root word for obedience means “to listen,” things take on a less ominous meaning. We are invited to listen to God, to others, and to ourselves. We listen to God by spending time in silence after reading short passages of Scripture. We listen to those we admire and respect as well as to those who speak hard words into our lives. Finally, we listen to our deepest selves, the part of ourselves where God’s Holy Spirit resides. We practice sorting out voices that are not from God and those that are. Not every flattering voice is good for us nor is every critical voice bad for us. Through regular, intentional listening to God, to spiritual directors, and to our “gut instincts,” we learn to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd in our lives.

Stability means that monks don’t quit the monastery when the going gets tough. Stability means for us in the world that we don’t quit our job, our marriage, our faith community, our neighborhood when things don’t go the way we think they should. Rather, we stay in community, seeking to work for good, putting relationships above our need to be right. While there are times when bonds need to be broken, they don’t happen as quickly as many of us think they do.

And finally, conversion. The Latin term conversation morum does not easily translate into English but it basically means a willingness to be transformed, truly changed into the new creation in Christ that St. Paul talks about (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). Christine Valters Paintner describes it as a willingness to daily be surprised by God. Fr. Richard Rohr talks about learning to see in broader, more embracing ways rather than in black-and-white judgments.

Whenever life is in transition, in big or small ways, remembering foundational principles can help steady the shifting ground. If you don’t have defining principles that guide your life, I invite you to consider obedience, stability, and conversion.

I haven’t been writing as regularly lately. Maybe it is the high heat and lack of rain here at this old house. Fire weather, we call it, although it does not spark creativity in me. I find myself exhausted from heat and mild dehydration.

Maybe my lack of writing is due to the liminal time frame we are in, a threshold between what was and the not-yet. We are waiting where life is lived each day in the same way a pregnant woman goes through her days while simultaneously something new grows in secret within her. This is a different kind of waiting than waiting for a bus, Henri Nouwen explained. There is a forced inertia at a bus stop. One does little to nothing until the right bus comes and you begin to move toward a destination. The waiting we are currently in is very pregnant with something new but when it will be birthed and what exactly will be birthed is shrouded in mystery. I find myself, at times, in a state of quiet anxiety because of it.

I remember being pregnant. Twice. There was a holy mystery and yet a deep fear to it all. So much can go wrong in those crucial gestational stages and the world has always been a hard place to bring such innocence into it. We did not know the gender of our girls until the moment of their birth and so the attempts at preparing for them to come while not fully knowing who we were preparing for produced some unease as well.

I am pregnant again. This time, it is in my soul, which is growing into a new season of life that has no clear boundaries or shape to it yet. Hard choices are going to have to be made at some point, that is clear, but what and when and where and how are so unknown at this point. pregnancy stages

I remember one day, pregnant with our second. I was standing in the kitchen of the tiny duplex we were living in. Suddenly, I felt my joints loosen and my pelvis spread. It was an odd feeling and yet a feeling of growth for the child I was carrying.

I have felt the joints of my soul shift in the past several months. Growth is happening in secret even as I go about my daily work and play. New levels of creativity are beginning to emerge. Are they heralds of the coming new season? Time will tell. Meanwhile, my job is to take good care of myself, as any pregnant mother knows.

There is a growing life dependent on it.

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