Coffee vs. Lectio Divina

“What is the first thing you think about in the morning?”

I spend the majority of my waking professional day asking questions.  As a teacher with a curriculum geared toward literary analysis, this seems to be my natural state of communication.  Questions such as “What does the narrator mean when he says x?”  Or, “Why does the poem emphasize this particular image?” come trippingly off my tongue during a school day.  I love asking difficult questions which challenge my students’ perceptions, and to see them squirm in their chairs and furrow their brows (their “brains wrinkling” as I have described it before).

But what happens when the tables are turned?

This usually occurs during the weekend, when, after grading (or often before), I allow my mind to wander freely over anything that catches my interest.

Lately, I have dived, once again, into an exploration of Christian monasticism, particularly the practices of the Cistercians and the Carthusians (sample reading:  The Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Maguire, The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the 12th Century, and The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture.).  Reasons for this wading into monastic waters include my own desire for simplicity and solitude, and the attempt to find common ground, and balance, with the contemporary dialogue of the Church, and the gathering of wisdom from its past.

Lectio Divina is one of the practices of the Benedictines, often described as a slow, careful, meditative reading of Scripture.  Readers immerse themselves in the Word, not for “answers,” but for the experience of the Word in their lives, at that particular moment in time.  The reader reads until a verse or word catches her attention, and then the reader repeats the verse or word almost as a mantra, to let the passage sink in and allow the Word to reveal itself in her heart.

A spiritual practice which butts heads with my answer to the question posed at the beginning of this blog entry.

Coffee.  That’s the first thing I think about.

Not God.  Not my faith.  Not thankfulness to God for Him or my faith.

Coffee.

Coffee elicits the direct opposite state of mind that lectio encourages.

You want to do stuff.

And more stuff.

Any print material I come across, I analyze to pieces.

Because that energy needs to GO somewhere.

It can’t just BE.

Which is what lectio demands: that you be on God’s time, not your own, and certainly not on the accelerated bouncing off the walls conception of time that our venti double-espresso culture values so highly.

So I love reading- intensely reading- about monasticism, yet when it comes to the practices of monasticism, such as lectio divina, I come up woefully short in my caffeinated state.

And short as in I’m not taking the time to let the fullness of Scripture tell its tale.  The words become jumbled together and meaningless.  Not always, but enough to make it an issue.

I have a feeling I know what I need to give up for Lent.

This is not exactly going to be fun.

But necessary nonetheless.

A Few Thoughts on Snares

I have a rigid interior clock that does not usually deviate from its rhythm.  Therefore, when I found myself wide awake at 6 this morning, it gave me pause.  Seriously, I get up at 7:03 every day.  That’s right: 7:03.  Why my body has started to register minutes as opposed to “oh, the sun’s up.  let’s rise, shall we?” is beyond me, and if I start thinking about it too much, I’ll probably come to the conclusion that my body somehow knows it has less time on this earth than I think, and then I’ll REALLY start freaking out.  Oops.  Too late.

I felt a bit of grace through this early rising, however: like I was being given a chance to take some time to quiet a mind that’s been rather stressed the past few weeks.  So I went out to our library room and meditated for a bit, watching the sun slowly start to rise, turning the sky from a hazy azure to pink, then orange.  I picked up my Bible and prepared to settle my mind further in lectio divina, or meditated reading.  It’s a slow, rhythmical reading of Scripture where you allow the words to just unfold within you, and when a word or a phrase catches  your attention, you take time to dwell on it, to meditate on its application to your life in that moment, in that place.

The Psalms are a great for this, because the Psalmists run the whole gamut of human emotion, from anger to fear to hatred to love to joy to praise to despair to pride to humility.  It’s all there.  Many people are turned off by the Psalms because of this.  This is supposed to be the “word of God?”  All this hatred and violence?  What gives?  But the Psalms show this relationship between God and man where man has a voice as well, and aren’t there times when all of us feel hatred and joy, love and despair- sometimes even in prayer?  But I digress…

I read Psalm 124, one of David’s “songs of ascents.”  Part of the Psalm reads:

Praise be to the Lord,

who has not let us be torn by their teeth.

We have escaped like a bird

out of the fowler’s snare;

the snare has been broken,

and we have escaped.

When I read this, an image began forming in my mind of that bird in the snare.  I sensed the panic, its heart racing, the recognition, instinctively, that this hindrance to flight was very very very wrong.  The panic increases when all attempts to escape just seem to trap it even more.  Remaining still is not an option, that way lies open only to death.

Then I began to think about what happens when someone tries to help the bird.  All too often, the bird struggles even more.

I began to think of what a snare is meant to do: it’s such a simple device that causes so much pain and hurt.  The reason?  It lets its victim work with it.  It depends on the struggling of its victim to achieve its end result, which is often quite gruesome.  Here’s a description by Rosemary Groom, from her blog at Wildlife Direct:

Dead wild dog - neck injury from snare

Snares are hard to find and thus hard to control. Snares are wasteful – poachers often set them and then fail to check them, resulting in the death of animals which end up just rotting in the bush. Finally, snares are inhumane. Animals are caught in snares when they put their head, or a limb through the wire noose, which then pulls tight as the animal attempts to escape. The animal then dies through asphyxiation or through dehydration. In many cases, animals manage to break the snares, leaving them to walk around with a cutting ligature on a limb, or dragging a broken branch to which the snare was attached.

A lion caught in a snare – an unnecessary waste

Lion caught in a snare set for antelope

Even when the snare is broken, it can still cause pain if the animal carries it around, or can’t get completely free.

So why did my eyes open a little wider pondering all this?    For one, it seemed as if the Psalmist was recognizing the pain when he writes “the snare was broken.”  For some of us, spiritually, this can be a painful process.  We panic, we struggle- even when someone is trying to help us.  The struggle may even occur after we have escaped- the memory of a painful event can stick with us, sometimes overwhelming us again, until it seems like we are right back in the heart of the snare.

“And we have escaped” reads like a sigh of relief.  One can imagine the bird spreading its wings, finding use for them again, in essence realizing once again, instinctively, that it can do what it was meant to do, and be who it was meant to be.

I pray the Lord releases us each and every day, that we may truly be who we are meant to be, in His eyes.

Fractal Art

Free Bird: Fractal Art

When No Escape is a Good Thing and “The Word”- George MacDonald Reflections 9 & 10

9: Escape is Hopeless

The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning.  But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it.  Escape is hopeless.  For Love is inexorable.  Our God is a consuming fire.  He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing

10: The Word

But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged.  It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth.  The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God.  It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to Him.

Christianity gets particularly singular, despite its numerous doctrines, traditions of the church fathers and mothers, saints, and denominations.  All things point to Christ, and Christ alone.  What are we to make of this?

The more educated I’ve become about Bible, the less I’ve come to see it as the be all end all of Christ’s teachings.  It is a combination of historical documents, poetry, storytelling, myth, letters, and prophetic writings.  To some, this automatically renders the Bible, and thereby Christianity to be of no use, authority, or truth whatsoever.  For myself, however, this realization brings on a sense of relief and enables my faith to come more alive.  Why?

I was at a retreat at Weston Priory, and the brothers took us through the benedictine tradition of lectio divina, which is a very slow, methodical, meditative reading of a passage of scripture from the Bible.  I asked, at one point, “So what does this passage mean?”  The subtext of my question was an inquiry into what the doctrinal position was on this particular passage, a “when Christ says X, he means X” equation.  The brother looked at me and then asked quietly, “Well, what does it mean to you?”

What the brother was emphasizing was a return of my consciousness to what holy scripture was meant for: to assist in the growth of my relationship to God.  That’s what scripture is meant to speak to.  If my first impulse was to read the Bible as a series of rules that I must obey, to apply X to X, as one would in following directions on how to build a table,  then I was truly missing the point.  Of tantamount importance is what this particular passage of scripture was saying about my relationship to Christ , right then and there, and the impetus of this reading was to focus my mind on that, and that alone.  The Bible, having led me to where I need to be, can now be put to the side, as I dwell in He to whom I have been led.

And by my faith I believe I have been led to a place where inexorable Love is supreme, that anything that is not Love is burned away.  The part of me that comes with the baggage of hate, anger, greed, selfishness, insecurity, anxiety, is stripped away, and I am able to dwell in that Perfect Love.

Faith and Focus for the New Year: George MacDonald

George Macdonald (1824-1905)

George MacDonald (1824-1905)

That man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, “Thou art my refuge.”

Happy New Year to all! I have not made any New Year’s resolutions per se, but in order to offer some focus to this blog, my writing, and my devotional meditations (3 birds with one stone!), I am embarking on a journey through C.S. Lewis’s anthology of George MacDonald. This consists of 365 readings of the Scottish novelist, poet, and clergyman focusing on everything regarding to the faith, from God’s Love to Death, Forgiveness, Prayer, Miracles, and everything in between. I will use the blog to either simply post the daily reading as I go along, or reflect on portions of the daily reading. Normally my modus operandi consists of devouring several books at once, and from there attempting to sift through the information to find a kernel of wisdom lost from the inundation of my gluttonous reading habit. This different approach, similar, I think, to the monastic practice of lectio divina, will hinder the sense of confusion which usually results from my normal practice, and do what all good reflective reading is meant to do: slow down the mind. I usually stay away from “devotional reading” books as I find them trite and often too sentimental. I trust that this anthology will be different, as I do have respect for the discerning mind of its compiler.

For those of you who do not know much about George MacDonald, you can find a biographical sketch of his life here. The Golden Key is another good resource.  MacDonald was influential in the writings of both C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and many others. Oh, and we share a birthday, too. When you get a chance, please wish him a happy 184th birthday.

So, onto the quote above “That man is perfect in faith….” Here I think we start off the year with a wonderful paradox. How can one be perfect “with the weight of low thoughts” and “wandering forgetfulness?” We are able to come to God in prayer sometimes with a joyous heart- if we have had a good day, or in the memory of a good day from the past. However, often I know I settle down for my prayers not even wanting to pray, with my mind distracted with thoughts and activities that either will be coming up (morning prayer) or which I have had to deal with (evening prayer). But MacDonald seems to bring that act of prayer back to its barest essence- the recognition that, with heads bowed, our reliance is on the God who offers Himself as refuge for us- no matter what the circumstance. For we are perfect in faith when in any situation, we rely and hope in the love of God the Father. When we see those low thoughts, distractions, and failures as the ultimate reality of our lives, then we have no faith. But turning to the One who can lift us beyond that “reality,” therein lies the hope and joy that comes from life in Him.

Beyond the Mist

I have this picture on the desktop of my computer:

Beautiful, right? It’s not a picture I took myself- this is simply included with the “sample pictures” folder that came with Vista. Ever since my school has upgraded their technology (overhead projectors, plugins, etc.), I have been using Powerpoint to present notes from my own computer, and this is the picture my students most often see before we commence with the lesson of the day. It’s inspired some conversation, most notably “What’s down the path?” I find it a great source for teaching imaginative/descriptive writing.

Opening up my laptop this morning, with the familiar photo of dirt path, tall trees, and mist before me, I began contemplating, “Am I really walking down the Path set before me? Or am I simply content talking about walking down the Path?” The image is so beautiful from where I stand, at the start of my journey- why bother going into the mist? Into the unknown? Into the unfamiliar? What if it not so beautiful later on? What is out there? Or, if I am walking, are my eyes closed? Focused on the ground?

I think I’ve been lingering too long at the head of the pass, or else not really seeing what is on the path, but instead trudging along blindly, and every once in a while determining where I am by a smudged map written by others.

I am a Christian, and by the tenets of my faith I am charged with “taking up my cross and following Christ,” but lately doubts, distractions, laziness, and confusion have taken hold of me. I came back to the faith three years ago (has it been that long already?), no longer doubting God’s presence in the world, or doubting the sanctifying blood of Christ, but still wary of how Christ was presented to others, and deeply embarrassed and put off by the particular vitriol of the American Christian evangelistic tradition, an approach to “presenting the love of Christ” that seemed arrogant, demeaning, demanding, and hurtful.

But I had a “God moment” as some might title it, (and others deride as naive and delusional- fine- I’m not really concerned in this post about “proving” or “disproving,” everything simply slams up against the wall of Faith anyway), and found this incredible need to explore my new found faith, which effectively dismantled all previous assertions made when I was “born again” in my teens, and assumptions and expectations of the happily “born against” person I had become in my twenties. I discovered the strong tradition and path of monasticism.

Monastic spirituality removed all the hype and pretense of the evangelic tradition of which a majority of my Christian knowledge consisted. Many Protestants may be able to attest to this. Anything that happened before the Reformation and after “Scripture” (re: Christ) is deemed null and void theologically. Christianity went wrong, the Reformation put it right, and all truth comes from the Bible, and that’s it. So I was never really exposed to the early church’s history, even from the intellectually vigorous pulpit of Park Street Church in Boston where I was raised. Or, to be more honest, I never chose to investigate the early history of my faith. When I did, however, in my early thirties, I came across a whole new spectrum and expression of the Christian faith, one that started with St. Antony in the year 300 and went all the way up to Thomas Merton in the 20th Century. Who were these people- what do you call them? Monks?– that gave up everything they had for God? Who were these people that seemed to have a much more, for lack of a better word, calmer and contemplative approach to the Faith, one that wasn’t about a scorecard with “this many converted,” but a truly humble and grateful sense of the Living God?

my father, as a monk, Weston Priory 1960

my father, as a monk, Weston Priory 1960

Well, my father, for one.

Okay, this is where it gets a little odd. “Greg, your father was a monk?” “Uh…yep.” “Then all this ranting and raving about not knowing about Church history is kind of…”

Ignorant. Sure, you can say it. I never said I didn’t have a head full of rocks when I was a teenager, or was able to put two and two together (math was never my strong suit). My father was a Benedictine novice monk from 1959-1963 at Weston Priory, in Vermont. My family and I used to take trips up to the monastery when I was a kid- around 6 years old. It remained in my memory as just a long car ride ( 3 hours), old people (the brothers), and two pigs named Bilbo and Frodo who never woke up, or stopped snoring, no matter how much grass I threw on them.

The Lord, I am convinced, jump started this hazy memory of the monastery soon after my “God Moment,” and I googled up the monastery to see if these monks still existed. They did. And wouldn’t you know it, they had something called a Monastic Retreat for Young Men in June of that year (2006), and openings were still available (which is great considering only five men are allowed at a time). I experienced in that short week, at taste at least, of monastic spirituality and culture. The structure and routine of the monastic life: Lectio divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist, ora et labora (work and prayer), allowed me to see a rhythm and pattern to the Christian life, centered on Christ’s love, peace, and goodwill and brotherhood towards others.

After my retreat, and back “into the world,” recapturing that feeling of love and peace, as Brother Michael warned, did not come easily. I partially shot myself in the foot on this one, choosing to fret and frown and worry about the paradoxes in Christianity I saw. Why aren’t you people- you Christians- getting this? Why do you have to be so aggressive, so enraged, so un-Christ-like?” My anger turned towards the monastic communities- “Why aren’t you more vocal? Why don’t you speak up against what people are doing in God’s name?” And I began to read, and read, and read, trying to find the arguments that fit, the rebuttals I could use. I tried to find the denomination that didn’t have blood on its hands (literal or figurative). I tried to put on rose-colored glasses. I tried not to look at all. I tried to put it in human terms.

I never turned that anger and frustration against myself, of course. Didn’t Christ once speak of the oak plank and the speck? (Matt 7:4) What exactly was I doing to show the love of Christ to others? Why was I making things complicated and angaging in conflict? What I failed to do, and what I’ve failed to do since, is take myself back to a conversation I had with my wife over coffee at Starbucks, when I finally came back to the faith I had left so many years ago. I remember it clearly: she was worried about the direction I was taking, worried that I may become a religious “fanatic.” I tried to assuage her worry. I quoted from I John: “God is Love.” And that, I continued, is all I know right now, but it is enough, and I am just exploring and discovering what that means. What that means to me, to us, to the world. I did not delve into anything else, but took her hand as she sat, semi-convinced that I wasn’t off my rocker.

So I gaze at the photo on my desktop, and Christ, the good Rabbi, leans in and whispers “Why are you so afraid of the mist? Come, and follow me.” And I think I finally realize the ridiculous answer I so often give to God: “Okay, I’m almost finished with this chapter.” Because who knows what’s out there, right?

But ultimately I should remember who is with me.