Yesterday was the funeral celebration of one of our Clergy whose family had moved to the community 40 years ago.
Ed was a farmer at heart and he loved taking care of the vegetables, flowers (roses were his specialty), and all the animals. One of the hymns sung during the liturgy, “In the Garden” (based on the scripture Genesis 3:8), says it all for Ed: “And they heard the voice of the Lord walking in the garden….”
One of the post-funeral traditions we hold dear is going to the cemetery after the funeral, to place our loved one in the ground. Each person takes a shovel full of dirt to lay on the coffin. The Community family takes care of the body from the moment of death — keeping vigil by the coffin — to the laying of the sod over the coffin when the last shovel full of earth has been laid.
Another custom, while we are filling the grave, is to share any remembrances of our loved one. All ages enter in — from the 10-year-old who remembered Uncle Ed always giving the children lollipops every Sunday, to a landscaping manager who got his first love of landscaping from Ed, to the fellow community member who remembered when he was struggling spiritually being told by Ed, “Come into my office (which was under a shade tree) and let’s talk.”
What a wonderful way to say goodbye to a fellow traveler on the road to our eternal home!
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.
During this morning’s exercise class, I considered the phrase full range of motion, pretty certain I didn’t have it. It’s medical definition is “the full movement potential of a joint, usually its range of flexion and extension.” I discovered that flexibility is the key – and most neglected – component for general good health, injury prevention, and outstanding sports performance. In my case, that would be ping pong. As I stared at the ceiling, rotating my left ankle, I had this thought:what about full range of emotion? Isn’t that equally important? Emotions are a persistent companion, closer than the air we breathe. They help define and provide commentary on life around us. And we need them flexible and healthy as well.
I’m convinced God isn’t anti-emotion. In fact, I printed seven pages listing 190 emotions mentioned in the Bible. Here are some of them: affection, anger, arrogance, bitterness, compassion, confusion, cruelty, defiance, delight, disappointment, eagerness, embarrassment, enthusiasm, exaltation, greed, impatience, kindness, laughter, loneliness, and optimism. Though sometimes fickle, misinformed, and prone to jump to conclusions, emotions are the color and substance of who we are. They join the clay of body, mind, and spirit in God’s patient hands.
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.
I have great admiration for those who fix broken things. Carrying a metal box filled with mysterious objects, they arrive prepared for any task. The Psalmist speaks of a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart, sacrifices that God finds acceptable. We’re also assured the Lord is near the broken hearted and delivers those who are discouraged (some translations say “crushed in spirit.”) So then, what’s in His tool box? I suggest the following:
Hymns of recollection and hope
Scriptures that inspire
A small prayer answered
A moment of solitude
A friendly interaction
A change in direction
We’re surrounded by God’s intervention. He’s in the repair business, eager to make us whole, and waits for us to recognize His presence.
Just by reading the words “Salve Regina,” many of us have a very familiar and beloved tune begin streaming through our “inner ear” — a sound many of us have known since childhood. Likewise, “O Come Emmanuel” will instantly whisk us inwardly to the time of Advent. If we even begin chanting “Humbly I adore Thee, verity unseen”, we are reminded of Maundy Thursday or the celebration of Eucharist itself.
In current-day language, most people speak of performing “by memory” or “without music.” As I re-read my old notes from classes with Mary Berry, I am struck with her continual references to knowing the chant “by heart.” “By heart” says something very different than “by memory.” “By heart” implies having something buried deep inside ourselves, something which has truly become part of us and which has become connected not just to our memories, but our emotions and spirit as well. THIS is chanting “by heart” and is one of the greatest joys of chant — to learn and know it so well that it becomes a conduit for prayer as a living conversation, full of spirit and verve!
Last Friday, I ran to the service of Lauds, leaving the house a little later than usual and feeling disturbed about something that I couldn’t shake. I wanted to just “wall off” for a few minutes while I went to the service, but the thought went through my head: “Don’t harden your heart.”
I threw on my robe, checked the page numbers in my service book, and hoped I wouldn’t be late. As I sat down, the words of the opening antiphon leapt off the page: “If today you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” The tune started, and I found my spirit lifting.
This particular antiphon is chanted every weekday at Lauds during Lent, giving us this message every day. What amazed me was that as I saw, and heard, this antiphon again for the first time this year, it was like hearing the voice of an old friend say my name after not having seen him for many months. There was no condemnation, but rather a hopeful sound that I would welcome again in my own ears and heart.
This is one of the most beautiful aspects of chant — its return! In the annual repetition of this antiphon, it has become part of my own spiritual life. This can be and is true for any chant learned, repeated, and savored — it will become part of you in unexpected ways and unimagined moments — even when running late to a service!
One of the ways I have often known God to talk to me is through other people, and at often unexpected moments. Last Tuesday, in the middle of a physical therapy appointment for my back, the therapist said rather plainly, “if your back starts to hurt doing an exercise, the answer here is not to push through the pain.” This was sort of a side-bar comment in between sets of exercises as she gave me the next set of instructions. Inside of me, everything froze for a split second, and these words were emblazoned in my ears and minds-eye like a bright neon light.
Laying there on my back on top of the physio-ball, I immediately felt like these words were coming from God. As God often seems to be, His help was simple, clear…and unexpected! “The answer here is not to push through the pain.” Right away I knew this was God’s answer to a prayer I’d been specifically asking for guidance and clarity of direction on since early Monday morning. (The prayer request had nothing to do with my back)
Initially I was so excited I wanted to ask the therapist to: 1) please repeat what she had just said, 2) if there was any more to the message from God? 3) could she possibly answer a few more questions I have for the Almighty?! I’m sure she had no idea that she might have been speaking on behalf of God. Nevertheless, I still believe she was. I think God used those words to care for me, and to assure me once again that he is listening, and responding to our prayers.
In the last 10 days we’ve received more than our yearly average for annual snow fall. This had been a mild winter until winter storm “Juno” blasted in last Monday. Outside in the cold sun, we keep trying to make the walkways and paths clear and safe around our community so that people can get to their cars, offices, and homes safely. We, and many others in the area, put a great deal of care and effort to protect people physically (with ice melt, sand, boots for better footing etc ), while trying to continue our lives “as normal” (the best we can due to the circumstances). We have all sorts of methods and tools we use to do this — plows, snowblowers, rock-salt, sand, shovels etc.
But what about our spiritual lives? Generally I spend much less time trying to protect myself from spiritual forces than I do for a snow storm. How many methods and tools do I gather, and what plans do I make to protect us from oncoming spiritual storms? Ephesians reminds us,”For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Maybe in the midst of all the snow clearing, God is reminding me to put more time and energy into fighting the battles that will keep me from slipping on our most important journey, the journey into the spiritual realms.
Did Jesus come this Christmas? Have I let him penetrate my sometimes hardened heart? Have I let him come all the way in where it is warm, where I can give shelter? Have I let him into the rooms that hurt, the rooms I feel embarrassed about, and the rooms I don’t dare enter myself? Have I let his tiny hands touch those scars, or his tiny eyes shed light ever deeper into my heart?
Did Jesus come differently this year?
Did I expect Jesus to come differently this year?
A new year brings hope, the possibility for change, for transfiguration.
Jesus is continually coming. Will I choose to open the door and let him in?