Time

By Sister Spero

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of people say that when they visit the site of an old monastery that is no longer active (it may have become a ruin, or even a museum), they still sense the presence of God. This is true of old church sites as well. Today, I read a verse from the Psalms that confirms this idea as something more than active imagination. The second half of Psalm 93:5 says, “Holiness adorns your house for endless days.”

My prayers may feel weak and ineffective, but, according to this scripture, prayer (“holiness”) in God’s house has the power to transcend time. Our collective prayers—the collective prayers of any church or community—will adorn His house “for endless days.” This is a powerful encouragement for me to persevere in prayer, whether or not I ever see its result. Who knows if, in a future generation, someone at the site of our prayers could experience God’s love because of what we pray and how we worship today.  

Apse of the Church of the Transfiguration, Community of Jesus

Sacred Seeing: The Baptism of the Lord

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 as 2017 begins!

The Baptism of the Lord

The Baptism of Jesus

Spend a few moments looking at the fresco image
What are you first impressions of this fresco panel?
What do you notice about this fresco that sets it apart form all the others?

Read the Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Some thoughts and questions to ponder
Jesus is flanked by John the Baptist and by a rock. What is their role as they are pictured this way? Perhaps the spandrels below give us some insight — Joshua 24:25-27 and Ezekiel 47:1,9

BaptSpandrel1BaptSpandrel2

 

 

 

 

 

A single staff stands leaning, perhaps against a rock. Whose is it, Jesus’ or John’s? In either case, what is its purpose; why is it there?

What does John’s kneeling posture tell us? What does Jesus’ standing posture tell us?

The artist has presented Jesus wearing a simple white robe. Why?

Why, at this event, did the Holy Spirit appear in the form of a dove? (e.g. it could have been fire, as on the day of Pentecost).

Why do you suppose there is so much sky in this fresco? It almost looks like Jesus is standing on a mountain top rather than in a river valley.

What does this image say to you about your own baptism?

Prayer
Lord, I don’t think enough about heaven,
about the ultimate end of my life…and its eternal purpose.
But here, looking up at you as John did,
I believe again that you are doing something unimaginable with me.
Before I leave this place,
I will sign myself once again with the waters of the font.
— a reminder of my own baptism
— a reminder that you have sealed me within your own heart, and stamped my heart with heaven’s address
— a reminder that, whether or not I can hear it right now, your (and my) Father’s voice has declared of me, “This is my beloved child;”
— a reminder that all the coarse fabric of my life will someday fall away, and I will exchange these garments of sorrow for robes of joy.
Until then, I will believe that you are doing something unimaginable with me.

Lord, in every way you have gone before me.
My steps were your steps, not so very long ago.
You descended to the Jordan valley,
and now your staff leads me there, too.
The descent is rough, sometimes slippery, and often lonely.
But the valley is where the river runs,
and the promise of new beginnings.
So, because you went there first, Lord, I will follow.
I will step into the healing stream,
bow my head under its rushing waters,
and look to see how you will come to me, again.

A Word from the Tradition
There is a mystery here. The pillar of fire went first through the Red Sea so that the children of Israel might follow without fear; it went first through the waters to open a way for those who were following. That event, then, was a symbol of baptism, as Paul tells us. Moreover, it is the same Christ who was at work then and now. Then he went through the sea, ahead of the Israelites, in the form of a pillar of fire; now he goes through the baptismal waters, ahead of the Christian people, in the pillar of his own body.
— Maximus of Turin, Sermons on the Epiphany (D.C. 466)

Image: ©2003 The Baptism of the Lord by Silvestro Pistolesi at the Church of the Transfiguration

Sacred Seeing

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 approach 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 twelve weeks, we will be sharing the meditations from the book. We hope that it helps to enrich your prayer life as 2017 begins!

Introduction

Fresco of Jacob's Ladder by Silvestro Pistolesi in the Church of the Transfiguration at the Community of Jesus“Jacob came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!… Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:10-17)

An ancient practice of prayer recommended by St. Benedict in his Rule, and still widely used today, is called lectio divina—sacred reading. The method requires enough silence, both inward and outward, and enough time spent mulling over and meditating upon a passage of the Bible, that the text eventually becomes a stepping stone to prayer and contemplation. This kind of reading is done not so much for content and knowledge as for insight and interpretation, for it is meant to lead the reader through the words to the God of whom they speak. There, in the presence of God, prayer becomes the only appropriate language.

Something similar can happen with art, and so it is that this little book may be considered a prayer guide for “sacred seeing.” Like Jacob’s dream, art can point us beyond itself, through its visible shapes and colors, to God who is both invisible and present. Like sacred words, sacred art can be a ladder to prayer.

The clerestory walls of the Church of the Transfiguration contain twelve fresco images that depict major events in the life of Christ:

Epiphany Entry into Jerusalem
Baptism Last Supper
Wedding at Cana Crucifixion
Calming the Sea Resurrection
Feeding the Multitude Ascension
Healing the Man Born Blind Pentecost

The following pages are offered as one way to spend enough time with these images—to “converse” with them long enough—so that they can lead us to prayer. And “enough time” is probably the most important tool here (along with a Bible, a pen, and piece of paper). The goal is not to get through all twelve images; it is to pray with them. In fact, it may be necessary to return again and again to the same image until it has “said enough” to you.

The shape of each meditation is as follows:
1. First, sit quietly and look at the fresco. The opening questions look only for your initial thoughts and impressions. Breathe. Take the time.

2. Then, slowly read the scripture passage that the image portrays. Don’t be afraid to stop at any word or phrase that calls for your attention, or particularly connects you with the fresco itself. (These readings are taken from the Revised Standard Version, the primary translation that was used to guide the word of all the artists in the Church of the Transfiguration.)

3. Consider some of the thoughts and questions (mostly questions) that are listed. Remember, these are only meant to guide the “conversation” that you are having. In every case, the goal is to listen for what the Holy Spirit may be saying to you through the fresco image.

4. Begin to turn your own questions and answers into prayer. What prayer is the fresco creating in your heart? What is it inspiring you to say to Jesus? A prayer or two is included here, but you may wish to write your own.

5. Finally, a word is offered “from the tradition”—something from an earlier pray-er who contemplated and wrote of the event you are looking at. Something to take with you as you leave.

Reflecting on his own experience with icons, Henri Nouwen once said that it was important for him to look at art with his “heart’s eye.” From that perspective, certain images kept him connected with his experience of love and he found that they helped him to pray when he had no words of his own. Learning to “see” in this way can take a long time. While its primary purpose is to house a community at worship, the Church of the Transfiguration, even from the earliest stages of its design, was envisioned also as a “teaching church,” a space that would proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ even when standing empty and silent. Among the many things that the church teaches us, perhaps it can also teach us to pray.

Giving Thanks

by Sister Victoria

Yesterday I spent most of the day travelling on a rather stifling bus from Bamenda to Yaounde, Cameroon’s capitol. After a good nine hours, I arrived around 5:30 pm, the dirt and dust having settled visibly on me.

I was greeted at the bus stop by the niece of my Pastor friend with whom I would be staying, telling me, “We’re going to Church.” What?! Really?! I say to myself, glancing down at my disheveled habit. What I thought I needed was supper, washing up, and an early night.

The service was well underway by the time we arrived, complete with a lively band and choir. It was a great time of praising God and I didn’t even check my watch!

What I needed and what I got, was a great chance to give back to God my thanks for the ways I have seen Him personally watch out for me. I felt less tired than when we began.

Sr. Victoria from the Community of Jesus tells about a service of prayer and praise in Cameroon

Knocking

by Sr. Spero

“…keep knocking at the innermost place of the heavens…”

I was stuck by this phrase from the hymn for Sunday Vespers (attributed to Gregory the Great, 7th century). It’s so simple. It reminds me of Jesus’s words, “Knock, and it shall be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7).

Knocking is not usually difficult. It doesn’t take great effort—like running, or leaping or holding back floods. Whether blind, deaf, or lame (physically or spiritually), most of us can still knock. Gregory says, “keep knocking.” Even if you don’t feel like it, keep knocking.

The next phrase of his hymn tells us the reward: “then you shall receive the prize of life.” I find this very encouraging. With a little effort on my part, knocking—even tentatively—God will do the rest. He opens the door.

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To be light

Lord Christ,
Help us to have the courage and humility to name our burdens
and lay them down
so that we are light to walk across the water
to where you beckon us. . . .
The memory of hurts and insults,
driving us to last out,
to strike back
We name it
and we lay it down. . . .

Our antagonism against those
whose actions, differences, presence,
threaten our comfort or security
We name it
and we lay it down. . . .

We do not need these burdens,
but we have grown used to carrying them,
have forgotten what it is like to be light.
Beckon us to lightness of being,
for you show us it is not unbearable.
Only so we can close the distance.
Only so we can walk upon the water.
Blessed are you, Lord Christ, who makes heavy burdens light.

Kathy Galloway, Iona Community

walkonwater

The Light Switch

by Sister Spero

Why don’t I pray? I remember the sermons about prayer being a light switch. The electricity is always turned on, but we have to activate the switch. Many times I go around in the dark, proud of myself that I can navigate in the dark without sight. It’s only when I trip over something, or the room seems unfamiliar, that I turn on the light. How different it would be if I kept the light on all the time. But I don’t. Why?

lightswitch

Listen, my child

Listen, my child. I want you to place the ear of your heart on the solid ground of the Master’s wisdom (what I received, I’m passing on to you). This advice is from a spiritual father who loves you and gives you the sort of counsel that will shape your whole life. Listening is hard work, but it’s the essential work. It opens you up to the God that you’ve rejected when you have only listened to yourselves. If you’re ready to give up your addiction to yourself, this message is for you: to listen is to equip yourself with the best resources available to serve the real Master, Christ the Lord.

For starters, begin every good work with this prayer: “Lord, bring it to completion.” Since God is full of goodness and has already called us his children, we shouldn’t grieve him by doing wrong. Instead, we should take advantage of the good gifts God has given us and become good listeners. This way we won’t make God into an “angry father” or a “harsh task master” who punishes us for not following him to glory.

So, let’s go! The Scriptures are stirring us, like fire in our bones: It is high time now for you to wake from sleep (Romans 13:11b). Let’s open our eyes wide to the light that shines out from God, and open our ears to the voice from heaven that shouts out every day: O that today you would hearken to his voice! (Psalm 95:7b). And, again: You who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 2:7). What does the Spirit say? Come, children, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord (Psalm 34:11). Run while you have the light of life, lest the darkness [of death] overtake you ( John 12:35).

A Contemporary Paraphrase of the Rule of St. Benedict by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Paraclete Press)

LENT III: A prayer

Holy God, as we enter into another week of our slow preparation, anticipating your saving passion, we turn our eyes away from our own sore insufficiency and lift them to your Holy Cross. We seek all the more earnestly to relinquish our dim will to your illumination. We ask you to help us to shed our petty self-concern, our failed self-sufficiency. We ask for your uplifting care.

In Paradise, our ancient home, a tree once stripped us utterly of life, for by giving us its fruit to eat, the enemy fed us death and we partook.

Today the Tree of thy most Holy Cross is raised upon the earth, filling all the world with joy and with thanksgiving, that we, partaking of its holy, life-giving fruit might once more be made whole, infused with your life.

We lift our living voices, praying: Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen

From God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter Paraclete Press

Gregorian Chant: The Eternal Song

By Sr. Fidelis

The Reading for Lauds at the Community of Jesus this morning was from an Epistle of Clement I. The last paragraph read, “Even the Creator and Lord of the universe rejoices in his works.  By his supreme power he set the heavens in their place; by his infinite wisdom he gave them their order.  He separated the land from the waters surrounding it and made his own will its firm foundation.  By his command he brought to life the beasts that roam the earth.  He created the sea and all its living creatures, and then by his power set bounds to it.  Finally, he formed humanity, the highest and most intelligent of his creatures, the copy of his own image.  We must recognize, therefore, that all who are upright have been graced by good works, and that even the Lord himself took delight in the glory his works gave them.”

This seemed like a summary of the beautiful Vespers hymns we’ve been looking at these past weeks with themes of the various days of creation!  The Friday hymn is the last in the set, with text mostly likely attributed to Saint Gregory the Great. Here is as description of true Paradise on earth.

O God, shaper of man, you who, alone, ordaining all things, order the earth to produce species of creeping and wild beasts;

You, who gave the great bodies of creatures, made alive by a word of command that they might serve in their place subduing them to mankind:

Drive away from your servants, whatsoever, by uncleanness, either suggests itself by customs, or insinuates itself by actions.

Give the rewards of joys, grant the gifts of graces; dissolve the chains of quarrelling, bind fast the agreements of peace.

Grant this, O most loving Father, and you, the only One equal to the Father, with the Spirit, the Paraclete, who reigns through every age.  Amen.

The Community of Jesus