Free Jesuit Retreat for Lent

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Have I written about Pray As You Go at all here?  It’s basically one of the true joys of my life right now. Produced by some Jesuits out of England, it’s a podcast that walks prayerfully through one of the day’s lectionary readings and offers some questions for guided prayer. Along with the most beautiful music.  There is also an app and a website by the same name that contain some longer meditations and guided scripture readings/prayers. I just opened it up, looking for something to listen to as I try to slowly bring a bit of order to the chaos of our kitchen while the two imps are sleeping. And oh what a gift, there is a Lent Retreat, based on the last words of Christ. I’m out of fancy candles, but I’m going to light some tea lights and make a cup of tea and start listening. (Calling it a retreat is a bit generous, but there is something that feels good and luxurious about calling it that, something nurturing and sustaining.  I’ve taken to having in-home retreats when John has to travel for work, which is often, but maybe more about that later. Anyway, here’s to creating little spaces to breathe right in the middle of dreary March days when everything is messy and things aren’t going quite as brightly as they maybe could, bringing some calmness and joy into the work of dishes and laundry, and for tending to one’s soul in the midst of the “howling waste of the wilderness,” to quote Anne of Green Gables and the book of Deuteronomy.)

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Glimmers of Light on Dark Days (Candlemas)

Today is Candlemas. A mass for the blessing of candles. The day we remember the presentation of Jesus in the temple. It is a feast day in the church, a day of white vestments and (if one is fasting) a break from the fast. In France they eat crepes & in Mexico there is a tradition of hot chocolate and tamales. And while most of us are probably not going to bring homemade candles to a priest to be blessed (do they still even do that?) it is a day to remember, I think, that all the ordinary things are blessed. The pillows and brooms and dishes and the toys strewn on the floor. The ordinary parts of our day shine with the glory and beauty that radiates from the countenance of the Lord as he bends towards us. The rest of this post is copied and pasted from what I wrote last year. (I can do that, right?)

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(Last year I wrote this the day after actual Candlemas.)

Yesterday was Candlemas. I wanted to write all about how people used to take their candles to churches to have them blessed for the coming year, wanting the very light in their homes to be flickers of holy church-light. How in France they celebrate with crepes. How it’s the Holy Day that commemorates Jesus being brought to the temple when he was a baby and placed into the waiting arms of old Simeon, and how Anna the ancient widow beheld the face of her Redeemer. How Candlemas is probably rooted in wild pagan festivals to celebrate the ending of winter and the lightening of days, but how maybe we need all the wild festivals we can get our hands on when the world is so dark and so, so cold.

And I wanted to write about how this small, unnoticed holiday is maybe a holiday for the people who are waiting. Huddling under blankets, crying eyes out in the dark or in the car on the way to work. Waiting for things to change, waiting the long days of every month for a baby to get conceived, or for a husband, or to get healed, or for something to make this cold world feel not quite so broken.

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And then by the time I realized I wanted to write all of this, the day was waning and it was warm (40 degrees! In February!) so we all went outside and I played baseball with Will while Margaret sat in her carseat draped with a blanket, and then it was dinner time and the house was a mess and I was trying to cut up cabbage to sauté and dropping most of it on the floor because I was so hungry that my hands were shaking and then all the crying and screaming and bedtime drama, and then after the children were in bed I pretty much huddled under a fleece blanket in a state of shock or something. Drinking tea and reading My Mother’s Sabbath Dayscoughing piteously, like the rose in The Little Prince.

So I didn’t write what I wanted to write, which is this:

That we don’t sing songs about Anna and Simeon in Sunday school. We learn about the ark-builders, the giant-slayers, the ones swallowed by fish or walking through parted seas. We hear about the women who get babies: Hannah, Mary, Elizabeth. And all the miracles and angel choruses, and they are grand and we need every story of the dead being raised and the oil lasting and the bread being multiplied and the angels singing over fields of sheep.

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We don’t sing songs about the quiet old folks who sat in the temple and waited all those long, aching days.  But maybe we should. Maybe we need the unremarkable story of this old priest who served in the temple, doing ordinary things every single day, just “waiting for the consolation of Israel.”

And the old prophetess Anna who was at least 84 years old and had lived most of her years as a widow. She was single. “She did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2:37). Her entire life was a prayer. She prayed; that’s who she was.

Anna and Simeon, they lived quiet days. Days of longing and ache and somehow of trusting and worshipping God in the midst of the longing and ache.

And then Mary and Joseph bring this tiny baby in and lay him in Simeon’s hopeful arms. And Simeon took the baby up in his arms and blessed God. Took the Consolation of Israel into his empty arms and thanked God. And Anna after all her unremarkable years or prayer, of inhabiting God’s house with no husband, no miracles, no displays of glory. Just being faithful in ordinary days. I like to think that when she saw the baby she knew instantly Who he was, picked up the folds of her dress, and ran over to him with the abandon and glee of a little girl. I picture her and Simeon passing the tiny baby back and forth, just laughing and dancing with joy.

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And maybe Isaiah was right when he wrote that the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married (54:1). Maybe the ones who wait the longest with the least will one day be blessed just a bit more? And maybe Saint John was praying the best prayer of all when he wrote the last prayer of the Bible: Even so, Come Lord Jesus. A prayer of longing for Jesus to return.

So until He does & until our desperate prayers are answered, we light candles against the darkness and eat crepes to makes us happy and read poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins and sing hymns and keep telling each other the good stories from the Good Book. We keep sweeping the floor and washing dishes and driving to work, doing ordinary things over and over again in the midst of our ordinary days. With broken hearts or broken bodies.  Waiting maybe for angels or manna or honey from a rock, but maybe it will only be the Messiah.

Untitled, for Loss of Words

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It has been the most beautiful fall imaginable here, the hills all aglow with scattered patches of bright green farmland and little specks of barns in the distance.  And we are only just now entering the slow decrescendo: the trees letting go of their leaves, letting them fall like flakes of gold or maybe like so many beautiful tears. Standing tall and strong as they lose their treasure, teaching us the grace of loss. A whole winter-long to learn and re-learn this lesson from them. I keep saying the Hopkins poem over and over in my head, “Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?…” And then, the other one, this morning: “The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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Today all I can think is this, that the true ruler is a Prince of Peace, who leads by gentleness and grace. A King who turns swords into plows and speaks with dignity and courtesy to women and outsiders. May he return soon and make All Things Well. Until then, lighting all the candles I can find as flickering specks of hope, reading all the good Poems in the Good Book, and taking lots and lots of really deep breaths.  All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and forevermore.

Isaiah 9

Valentine’s Day & Good poems for Lonely Hearts

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John was out of town for work all of last week. My mom came monday night, just in time for Ithaca to get cold again. The temperature was in the negatives this morning. She brought heart-shaped cookie cutters and we’ve made cookies and heart pancakes and oh lots of things.

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John came back & he and will made this heart garland (above) for me. (Based on this little Valentine’s Day book we’ve checked out from the library to read with Will. Kind of a deep book about how a little mouse makes a huge valentine and wants to find someone to give it to, but it’s too big for anyone else so he and the little girl mouse cut it up into smaller valentine’s to give to lots of people. I mean, that’s really deep for a children’s Valentine’s Day book, right?)

On these cold days we need all the strung up hearts and little honey-spice cookies and treats we can get. My toes refuse to warm up, even in thick wool socks and shearling-lined slippers. I vowed last year that I would never do another winter here, and well, here we are.

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(Above: Will and my mom doing one of many baking projects together; Will eating raw batter. Below: Keeping things classy with orange paper plates.)

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And maybe it’s just me and my enneagram type or my idealism or having read too many Jane Austen and L. M. Montgomery novels at an impressionable age, but even with all these babies and this really, really good man (and the sweetest parents ever and friends far beyond what I ever deserved) my heart still feels so lonely and so sad sometimes. And I wanted to write a whole thing about this, about Simone Weil and Augustine and the void and our hearts being empty and restless and all that, but I just am so exhausted from babies and toddlers not sleeping that I can’t.

But just very briefly. I wanted to say, especially on this particular day, that our hearts are made with this infinite empty space and this space aches so much sometimes. Even when you’re married. Even when you have little darling babies who are latched onto you 24 hours a day.

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And I wish I knew how to make it stop, but pretty much everything from Jesus to Anne Lamott seems to suggest that we just have to sit with the emptiness and let it be a little empty, without trying to stuff it down with all the chocolate in the world, cough, cough. not me, other people, I mean. Other people do that.

But Jesus, annoyingly, showed us that sometimes we have to sit in a garden and cry. Sometimes we have to pray, “God, why have you left me completely forsaken and alone?” And that is a hard prayer to pray. There is nothing fun or easy or cute about that prayer.  But maybe one of the main reasons I believe the Bible to be true is that the longest book in the whole thing is a book of poems.Poems for empty hearts. Poems for the betrayed, poems for the angry, poems for the soul-starved. Ok, so they are poem-prayers. And ok, the first and second ones are a little austere, if you’re starting from the beginning. You can skip around. 3, 4, 13, 16, 18, 22, 23, 27, 30, 31, 32, 40, 42, 46, 56, 62, 63, 69, 73, 84, 90, 91, 121, 130, and 143 are some particularly good ones.

And the beautiful thing about these particular poems is that they don’t leave us in our misery. There is plenty of room for wallowing and languishing and angst in these poems. They say that every single one of our tears is counted. Matters. But these poems carry us through the ache and into the holy, shining radiant love of God. They gently teach us that our own empty heart is not the center of all things but that the beautiful Home of God is the center of all things. And that that dwelling place, that lovely home, is what our hearts long for (Psalm 84).

And the other beautiful thing is that Jesus prayed all of these poems for us. He became the loneliest and most forsaken for us. And there are no depths we feel that he has not felt. And he is just gathering us all up &  oh so soon will mend all the broken hearts & wipe all the tears from the saddest faces and bring us all home. (speaking of which, pleasepleaseplease listen to this song.) Anyway, happy valentine’s day, y’all.

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Beautiful Daughters of Hope

The last morning I had Little Girl,  I took her to Walmart to pick up some pictures for her to take with her to her new (and hopefully permanent) home.  I wanted to find one of those little plastic photo albums to put the pictures in, one that she could hold with her chubby little fingers and not do much damage to.

On the drive there (we had just left a visit with some of her relatives), Little Girl started screaming angrily.  I think she was hot and hungry and tired, but I think she was also mad that she had gotten to play with someone who had been the closest thing to a mother to her, and then I took her away.  Mad that whenever she starts to feel happy and comfortable somewhere, she gets taken away.  So I told her to scream louder.  I screamed with her in the car.  I told her I was mad, too.  And I was, and I wanted her to know that it was ok to be mad.

Anyway, we went in to Walmart and I found the little photo books I had been hoping to buy, and the first one in the box was light blue and had the word “hope” written on the cover.  Perfect.  When we got home (with about 15 minutes to spare before her case worker was supposed to show up) I slipped the pictures in as quickly as I could manage, and sealed them in with scotch tape.

I looked up a quotation that I had thought of after seeing the word “hope” and also knowing how important anger is in this child’s situation, and I wrote it on the back page of the little photo book:

Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”  (Saint Augustine)I hope the girls’ new mom helps them be angry about what has happened to them.  I hope she screams at the top of her lungs with them and talks with them and lets them know that it is a good thing to be angry about what has happened to them.  And I pray that somehow a deep courage is also tied up with the anger, and that in the midst of everything, and against all odds, the Little Girls will be able to hope.

the marriage will take place in Jerusalem

I’m re-posting this quotation from a beautiful book by Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters. I’ve been too busy the past couple of weeks to do much cooking or photography or writing or thinking, so this is just a quotation, but it’s a good one.  It’s from a story about Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak, who was drawing up his son’s engagement contract:

“The scribe had specified that the marriage was to take place on a certain date in Berditchev.  Levi Yitzhak furiously tore the contract to shreds: ‘Berditchev? Why Berditchev? This is what you will write: “The marriage will take place on such a date in Jerusalem, except if the Messiah has not yet come; in which case the ceremony will be performed in Berditchev.””

If that doesn’t make you want to weep like a baby, I don’t know what will.

One Day, A Feast

I’ve been reading through the Chronicles of Narnia, as I do, and everyone else ought to do, every 2 or 3 years.  I just finished Prince Caspian the last few chapters of it are especially gorgeous.  Here is an extended passage from the end, when Aslan is bestowing a time of flourishing and there is dancing and feasting:

“Then Bacchus and Silenus and the Maenads began a dance, far wilder than the dance of the trees; not merely a dance for fun and beauty (though it was that too) but a magic dance of plenty, and where their hands touched, and where their feet fell, the feast came into existence– sides of roasted meat that filled the grove with delicious smell, and wheaten cakes and oaten cakes, honey and many-colored sugars and cream as thick as porridge and as smooth as still water, peaches, nectarines, pomegranates, pears, grapes, strawberries, raspberries– pyramids and cataracts of fruit.  Then… came the wines: dark, thick ones like syrups of mulberry juice, and clear red ones like red jellies liquified… Thus Aslan feasted the Narnians till long after the sunset had died away, and the stars had come out…” (Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis, 211-212)

And of course, anyone who knows their Old Testament will hear all the echoes from all the books and will know that this is what we were made for and what we will one day partake of. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.