Living the Christian life can be like hanging onto the pommel of a bucking horse. This is often true in Advent. Advent is a time to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. But in our culture, it is also a time of much activity and pressure– not only in preparations for Christmas and giving to others, but because many jobs include tasks that have to be done “by the end of the year.”
We may want to give more time to quiet and reflection, but it doesn’t always work out. Then, trying to be peaceful becomes frustration and anger at not having it. I have experienced this many times but knew there must be a better way to prepare our hearts in the midst of activity.
My answer came suddenly from one line in an Advent reading by Austin Farrer: “We do not ascend to God, he descends to us.” This is a radical statement, but it is the Gospel. I do not have to perform, I do not have to “rise to the occasion,” work my way into peace, or even get in the right Christmas spirit. Ascending to God is not the Advent message. To prepare my heart, all I can do is to come as a little child, admitting I can’t do any of those things myself. Then I’ll be ready to invite him in, as God descends to us, as a vulnerable baby, accepting us just as we are.
I recently saw a film about elderly D-Day soldiers returning to the beach at Normandy to honor those who fought and died alongside them in World War II. It was moving watching them share memories, tears, and gratitude for the sacrifice of their friends. “All Saints Day” is this kind of remembrance for the church.
The first Christian martyrs were honored at their gravesite on the anniversary of their death and Saints Days developed from this tradition. In those early years, I imagine there were eyewitnesses of the event, with tears, and gratitude for a faithful witness (“martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness”). Then, after the first generation, stories would have been passed down. Eusebius, in the 4th century, wrote about the heroic death of Blandina, a slave girl 200 years earlier in Gaul (now Lyons, France). Although she was described as frail, Blandina had suffered such extreme tortures in the Roman coliseum that the crowds were “astonished at her endurance.” Eusebius goes on to say: But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession; and her comfort and recreation and relief from the pain of her sufferings was in exclaiming, “I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile done by us.”1
Today’s celebrations of All Saints Day include all Christians, martyrs, and non-martyrs, known and unknown. But it is an excellent time to remember all who have died for the faith throughout Christianity, particularly those who are persecuted and dying in parts of the world today.
1 Eusebius, Church History, Book V, #19. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250105.htm
A phrase leaped out at me during the Lauds service on Sunday: “Dolphins and all sea creatures, bless the Lord.” It is from “The Canticle of the Three Young Men” (better known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who went into the fiery furnace) in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 3.
How do dolphins bless the Lord? I know how they bless me. Their playful dance-like movements make me smile. Their acrobatic high jumps out of the water make me gasp. I was delighted when I saw three swim offshore recently in perfect synchronization. I have no trouble believing that God, the Creator, is blessed by his creatures the dolphins.
What about us? What can I do to bless the Lord? I used to think it was being good, doing the right thing, producing the perfect widget or piece of art. (And then, realizing this was impossible, gave up entirely). I have something to learn from dolphins. Like the lilies, I suspect they neither “toil nor spin,” and I doubt if any of them secretly wants to be a unicorn or a hippo. They are creatures of God, content to swim in the ocean, unaware they give joy to bystanders like me, in a boat or offshore. If I can be me, without pretensions, freely living my life as it unrolls before me, I can stand before a loving God, who knows all and sees all, and expect to bless, as I am being blessed.
I used to think “hope” was something to say when there was nothing else to say–“I hope it will be better,” or “I hope you are okay.” But real Hope is a powerful force, and the path to living in joy. It is choosing to believe that, no matter the outward circumstances, a loving God is ultimately in control.
This is what I have noticed about people who choose Hope in spite of difficult circumstances. They are Humble, because they don’t believe that everything depends on them. They are Open to others, not bothering with self-protective walls. They are Personable — easy to talk to and be around because they are not trying to prove anything. And they are Efficient — in the moment and not distracted.
Lord, help me to choose Hope, knowing that whatever I face today, I can trust you in all circumstances and enter into joy.
I have always wondered if Emily Dickinson had a contemplative call. She kept to herself, avoided social situations, and wore white. One of her poems suggests her choice of a cloistered life.
A solemn thing — it was — I said —
A Woman — white — to be —
And wear — if God should count me fit —
Her blameless mystery —
A cloister is a covered walkway in a convent or monastery open to a quadrangle often filled with flowers. As a New England Congregationalist in the nineteenth century, she would never have seen a cloister, but I suspect she made her own. She was an avid gardener, tending the many flowers she mentions in her poems.
To her neighbors in Amherst, Emily was an eccentric and a recluse. Her life reminds me of 1 Samuel 16:7—The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. She wrote nearly 1,800 poems—about life and death, God and nature—many funny, many profound, discovered in a drawer after her death.
There are thirty references in the Bible to weeds. No wonder. Weeding has many valuable life-lessons. It’s not my favorite part of gardening, but for me, it’s the most valuable. I was facing an impossible problem recently (having nothing to do with gardening) with no hope of solving it until I realized my problem was just another weed. I remembered what I do when a weed is too big and tenacious for me. I take out a shovel and try to pry it up. If that doesn’t work, I go around it carefully on all sides and keep loosening, removing dirt until the plant’s roots are exposed. Eventually, it pulls free. I don’t have to be strong; I just have to be persistent. I can handle my impossible problem the same way, and it doesn’t need to defeat me.
I’m not forgetting prayer in this process. That’s the grace that enables me to be persistent with weeds of any kind, whether I want to be or not. And it helps to have a vision. In the garden, it’s the beauty and fruitfulness of the plants. So next time I’m weeding, I’m going to thank God for realizing that weeds (and problems) are a normal and necessary part of life.
A Garden with Weeds – Community of Jesus
Before Jesus left his disciples, he told them he would not leave them comfortless, but would send a Comforter, the Holy Spirit (John 14:18, 26). The Greek word that’s translated “Comforter” in the King James Version is also translated as Counselor, Helper, Companion, Friend, Advocate, Helper in Court. The Amplified Bible adds Intercessor, Strengthener, Standby. The word is “Paraclete” and means literally “one who comes alongside to help.” Amazingly, Jesus said to his disciples that it was better for their sakes that he himself leave them, so he could send the Holy Spirit.
So here’s my confession. This verse is telling me I have a constant companion who is looking out for me, who “has my back” in all situations. With such a great Comforter and Advocate (and I am reminded of this every year in the Scriptures before Pentecost), you would think that the Paraclete would be the first place I turn when I’m in distress. I don’t. I try to figure everything out on my own. If that doesn’t work, I go to friends. I might ask them to pray for me, but then try to Google the answer. All the while, the Source of Comfort is right in front of me, waiting for me to ask. I’m a slow learner, but this year, Jesus, help me to learn!
“We must pray to maintain stillness of mind even in the midst of struggle.”
This sentence from a reading in Lauds this week caught my attention, sounding like contemporary advice. I had never heard of the author, Diadochus of Photiki, who, I discovered, was a bishop in the 5th century in what is now the northwestern section of Greece.
The 5th century was a time of great instability throughout Europe. The Roman Empire, a powerful military force for centuries, was falling apart, leaving cities vulnerable to marauding invaders. Diadochus himself was most likely captured by Vandals when he was in his 60’s and taken to Northern Africa, never to return to Greece again. The Vandals were a Germanic tribe with a reputation for sacking and looting—the origin of the term vandalism. Diadochus’s “stillness of mind” was no doubt tested, and I suspect he was in constant prayer. My struggles seem very minor compared to what Diadochus of Photiki faced, but I appreciate his wisdom—stillness of mind is important in all situations, and prayer is the way to receive it.
I am surprised by the same thing each year as we approach Easter: Jesus’s statement that “by this all men will know you are my disciples.” If I filled in the blank of what “this” is, I would say it must be serving others—feeding the poor, visiting the sick, remembering the prisoners. Or “this” must be an attitude toward life and death, being willing to jump in the flames (of whatever kind) knowing that God will take care of you. Or surely “this” is loving your enemies. These are the marks of a disciple. But that’s not what Jesus said. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). That’s a revolutionary statement – it’s not the doing, it’s the being. And you will be known as a disciple by how you love those who are closest to you. Jesus is interested in changing hearts, so that everything we do flows from love.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (Corinthians 13:1).
by Sister Spero
One of my favorite stories is told by the Venerable Bede about Hilda (Abbess of Whitby from 657–680) and the servant Caedmon, who herded the monastery’s cows. Caedmon kept to himself, and usually left a room when “the harp was passed” for singing and reciting poetry. One night he fell asleep among the animals and dreamt that a man told him to get up and sing a poem about “the beginning of created things.” He told Abbess Hilda, who was as amazed as Caedmon was himself with the poem. The Abbess brought him into the monastery, where he continued to sing and write poetry for the rest of his life. His poem is the oldest in the English language, and he is now considered the “Father of English poetry.”
I think of Hilda as a very wise woman, Abbess of several monasteries of men and women, who nurtured the gifts of all that were under her care.