Exercising with Augustine

By Open Eyes

Recently we had a reading at Lauds from a Commentary of Augustine. His words: “The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes, you may see and be utterly satisfied…. Simply by making us wait, he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.”

I found the word “desire” running around in my head for a while after hearing this reading. What is it I desire in my life, and how can I increase my desire for a deep relationship with my God? Returning to Augustine’s words I heard the word “exercise” in a different light. Learning to desire God in every part of my life requires training, repeated exercise, gaining strength with each choice I make to put him first in my life, in the things I pay most attention to.

Physical training and exercise require stretching. Augustine talks about the spiritual stretching of “the sack” or “wineskin” to increase our capacity. Life often feels like a “stretching” that I don’t always appreciate. Perhaps though the stretching is what increases my desire for more of God.

st_augustine_hippo_24

Sacred Seeing: Stilling the Storm

A few years ago, the Community of Jesus published a little book, Sacred Seeing: Praying with the Frescoes in the Church of the Transfiguration. As we approached the New Year, it seemed like a good opportunity to share this simple guide to praying with the art here in the church, especially for those of you who aren’t able to come and see it for yourselves. Over the next several weeks, we will be sharing the meditations from the book. We hope that it helps to enrich your prayer life in 2017!

Stilling the Storm

Stilling the Storm fresco by Silvestro Pistolesi in the Church of the TransfigurationSpend a few moments looking at the fresco image.
What initial feelings does this fresco evoke?
What are some of the different things that you notice in this image?

Read the Scripture: Mark 4:35-41
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Some thoughts and questions to ponder
Look carefully at the facial expression and hand gestures of each of the disciples. What do you imagine that each one is saying or thinking?

A careful look at the boat leads one to wonder how such a small and fragile vessel can be expected to carry all of these people, even in good weather. Why do you think the artists portrayed the boat in this way?

The mast is broken and lying uselessly off to the side of the boat. What does this mean for the disciples? What does this mean for you?

Look at the way that Jesus’ arms are extended. What is he “saying” with each hand?

The fresco panel seems to capture a precise moment near the time that Jesus commanded the wind and the sea, “Peace! Be still!” All is not yet calm, but Jesus appears firmly in control of the situation. What does this kind of peace mean to you? Over what storm in your own life do you need to hear Jesus’ command?

What is the central element in this image? Is it the raging storm that fills the sky with its dark fury? Is it the frightened disciples sitting in the boat, each with his particular anxious thoughts and gestures? Or, is it Jesus standing tall in the boat, his arms reaching out with authority and compassion? When the storms rage in my own life, what fills the center of my vision and becomes the focus of my attention? Is it the circumstances that are knocking me about and blowing me “off course”? Is it the turmoil of my own fearful thoughts and feelings? Or, is it Jesus, the Ruler over all the storms of sky and sea and soul?

Prayer
Lord Jesus, I am afraid. My world is crashing down around me. Punishing winds and waves, beyond my control, seem to be driving my life off course. Where are you, Lord? You are so quiet. I have forgotten that you are making this journey with me. Actually, getting in to the boat was your idea in the first place. So, you must be able to calm this storm; you must be able to right this boat; you must be able to get me to the other side. And I must be able to trust you.

Lord, you see the weather in my soul. Sometimes it feels like a storm is raging within me. And once the billowing winds get started, I don’t know how to stop them. Without your help, I will drown in this turmoil. If even wind and sea obey you, then you also must be Master of my soul. Speak peace to my heart, Lord, and may it listen.

A Word from the Tradition
A temptation arises, it’s a wind; you are trouble by a wave. Wake Christ up; let him talk to you…. Don’t let the waves overwhelm you when your heart is upset by a temptation. And yet because we are human, if the wind has driven us on and shaken our souls, don’t let us despair; let us wake up Christ, and so sail on in a calm sea, and reach our home country.
—Augustine (354-430)

Image: ©2004 Stilling the Storm by Silvestro Pistolesi at the Church of the Transfiguration

When We Were Born, and When We Die

By Faithful Finch

I recently had the gift to care for my Mom as she was dying. It was amazing to go through the experience with her, that she went about with such faith, grace and trust. The process of dying and preparing for heaven unfolded before my very eyes.

As I was clipping her fingernails, the memory of her clipping my fingernails as a little child came rushing into my head and overwhelmed me. Yes, roles certainly do reverse. I realized in that and other simple acts, she was letting go, and beginning the process of looking toward her journey home. As she continued in that journey, her trust in God and in others grew. Gradually she lost her ability to walk, and talk clearly, and if she said a word or a sentence, we would be listening with baited breath, as a parent would with its baby’s first words. It was almost like she was gradually changing to be more child-like so she could be “born into heaven” on the other side. It seems like death is something that we struggle with because we are so afraid of the unknown and of letting go. When I thought of that, I remembered I had filed a poem my Dad had written twenty-six years ago that was similar to that very thought:

When We were Born, and When We Die

When we were born, we also died
To life, as seen and lived inside
Our mother’s womb, where safe and warm
We’d lain protected from the storm,
And from the threat of living life outside.
When we were born, we kicked and cried,
Resisting change and terrified
Of life, unknown, upon this earth.
To us, ’twas death instead of birth,
We could not see a door was opening wide.
As so it is, that when we die,
We’re also born to life on high.
No foe is death, a friend is she:
Opening the door, she sets us free.
Gone fear and pain, as to our Lord we fly.

Detail, mosaic apse of Christ in Glory, Church of the Transfiguration at the Community of Jesus

Pruning

By Sr. Spero

Anyone who grows roses knows that the way to get beautiful roses is to prune mercilessly. I tested this out recently, but not on purpose. I was deadheading and got carried away. It wasn’t the right time to prune, but I turned a beautiful bush into a bunch of sticks. So I was more cautious with the second one, leaving as much as I could. Now, several weeks later, the first one is budding, and the second has nothing but leaves. There’s a lesson here. Deep pruning gets results. And if you feel like God is taking you through some deep pruning, don’t worry. He’s growing roses.

Roses

Stones

By Sr. Spero

Recently a sister wrote about learning to leave well enough alone—learning not to straighten the crooked picture. That’s not my bent. My struggle is careless inattention to detail. I’m more apt to say: “crooked picture? what picture?” We are all different, and we all need help.

Scripture calls us “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5). Some are smooth, others rough. Some are perfectly round, others have interesting shapes. We are all needed, and this is what makes community.

Building stone walls at the Community of Jesus

Thorny Weather

By Sr. Nun Other

Sometimes I clear my thought collection by writing poetry. I un-jumble the jumbled mess by sorting, eliminating, and re-arranging words on paper. Recently, I captured the words thistle thorns and placed them in my reject section. However, they persisted and insisted on space in my poem.

I’m of Scottish descent and somewhere in Scotland, there’s a clan chief and a run-down castle that bears my name. Enter the lowly thistle, scorned by gardeners, despised by children in bare feet, and just below dandelion on the least wanted list. It also happens to be Scotland’s oldest recorded National Flower. A 13th century legend tells of Viking invaders, who hoped to capture the Scots as they slept. Their plan failed when a barefooted soldier tromped on a thistle, cried out in pain, and woke the sleeping Scots. If I’m any example, Scots are not morning people, and the Vikings were quickly overcome by enraged clansmen.

The thistle is a symbol of tenacity. It’s both a humble weed and a complex entity composed of soft downy flower and sharp thorns. Its roots reach deep, it keeps a stubborn grip on the land, and flourishes in adversity. I’m aware that God hands me flowers with thorns now and then. The beauty of the flower is a blessing, but it’s the thorns that make me strong.

thistle

The Present

By Faithful Finch
A couple of weeks ago, I got stopped for speeding. I was so caught up in my thoughts of what I needed to accomplish and the happenings that had just occurred, that when I saw the lights on the police car, I thought he was going after someone else!
The humorous thing about it, is that the Lord had just been speaking to me about living in the present. I had been reading the scripture where Jesus was teaching in the house, and it was so crowded, no one else could get in the door. A paralyzed man had friends who cared about him so much that they decided to find another way to get him to Jesus. They dug a hole in the roof and lowered him down.
Jesus stopped everything he was doing, and made time for the man in need. That was the present need, and Jesus wasn’t concerned about anything else.
I miss the present because I’m either caught up in the past or worried about the future.
I didn’t get a ticket from the police that day, or even a warning, but I did receive a lesson.

Inside Out

By Sr. Nun Other

The earth is composed of layers: surface, crust, mantle, outer core and inner core. And so are we. I have a surface-self, carefully constructed of what I want others to see. Successive layers, less in my control, lead to the heart of the matter. Psalm 51:10 petitions, Create in me a pure heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. God promises in Ezekiel 36:26-27, A new heart I will give you; and a new spirit I will put within you. While I’m busy trying, God is busy transforming. And I hope He finds my heart, fallow ground, plowed and waiting for the essence of Christ to grow.

Inside Out

Holy Desire

By Sr. Spero

The entire life of a Christian is an exercise in holy desire.  St. Augustine

The Lauds reading this morning was from St. Augustine—about stretching our souls through holy desire.  He used the illustration of a wineskin, the forerunner of the wine bottle, that could be stretched to hold more wine. I’ve never had to stretch a wineskin, but I’ve put too much in a suitcase, and been very grateful for a top zipper that expands my space. So I understand the concept.

St. Augustine’s point is that we are containers, of one sort or another, that should expand and stretch so that God can use us more and more. We do this through holy desire. As we desire God, we are being stretched, to be able to hold more of Him. I suspect spiritual stretching is like physical stretching. It takes effort, it’s sometimes painful, but always worth it. Lord, help me to desire you more and more, and not be surprised when I feel the stretching.

Vineyards at the Community of Jesus

Meant to soar

A month ago today Yoshio Inomata, one of our vowed brothers, entered the paradise chapter of his life. Yoshio is from Japan, so in addition to the usual monastic traditions around the liturgies and proceedings, we knew there would be special touches – flowers in the church, food at the reception – from his homeland. At the graveside, we always have a special time of telling stories and placing flowers as we fill the grave. In the middle of December flowers are rare to be found, so some of us had the idea of having the kids make paper cranes for Yoshio. They did a beautiful job, and we had baskets full of the brightly colored birds they passed around to all of us gathered there. As I watched everyone place their birds in the earth with Yoshio, the antithesis struck me: Yoshio’s soul and spirit were flying to heaven even as his body was placed in the earth, and these birds—meant to soar—buried there with him. I suddenly remembered this poem that another of our members had written years ago. Requiescat in pace, Yoshio!

With hollow bones a bird learns how to fly
Not once despising frame all delicate,
But pushed without the nest his wings to try,
Fast finds the air till flight’s inveterate –
And pauses not to ponder nor to care
How fragile are his limbs amidst his flight,
But boldly lifts his wings against the air
And mounts the wind all ignorant of fright.
And so each day, until he dies, he lives.
He soars aloft, aloud, and all replete,
Content with gifts that his Creator gives,
His weakness making all his life complete.
                Who curses frailty wisdom needs implore,
                For only those whose bones are hollow soar.

Peace Cranes for Yoshio