Dorothy Day and new pieces

This month, I set aside my very messy beginning (Simplicity) and began the section in my book about Hospitality. My resident mystic is Dorothy Day. I highly recommend Day's book Loaves and Fishes. In it, she tells the story of the Catholic Worker movement, a movement that began during the Great Depression. They started with a magazine, trying to highlight the plight of the poor and marginalized; this lead to houses of hospitality which offered shelter to many of their friends who couldn't afford to live anywhere else. After this, they opened communitarian farms to feed and teach those they encountered and befriended in the poor city streets of New York City.

Day's story is honest, funny, and inspiring. She is gracious in her telling of difficult people, honest about the mistakes they made, and fervent in her passion to love others. Her story is also terribly sad both for the time it was written and because it is still so timely. She tells of immigrants stuck in the cycle of low-income housing, rising rents, and cheating landlords. She tells stories of so many who are still ignored in our society.

As someone who grew up privileged, I've know that I've often been unaware of the struggles of others, not from intention but because wealth and privilege have the power to isolate us from the struggles of others. Day's words about poverty are moving: "We need always be thinking and writing about it, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it."

I love this Dorothy Day icon by Br. Robert Lentz O.F.M.

I love this Dorothy Day icon by Br. Robert Lentz O.F.M.

I have two pieces that happened to appear on the same day this week. They both explore supernatural things but in completely different ways.

My piece for Off the Page points to a new genre of YA fiction: agnostic angels. I explore the ways our fantasy genres tell us about ourselves and our existential longings.

In a rather more personal piece for Good Letters called Parting the Veil, I explore the idea that the nightmares and visions I've had since I was a child might be mystical in nature.

Spiritual Hospitality

Recently, a friend wrote an online piece about her personal decision to stop watching a popular television show. The response to her essay was swift and defensive: while a few folks actually engaged with her piece, most of them were so offended that they wrote derogatory responses in the comment section, telling her to "lighten up" and "suck it up, princess."

When a few of our friends talked with her about it afterwards, the discussion turned to listening. I made the remark that many of those commenters weren't actually hearing what she said but were reacting defensively, as if my friend had poked them and they were swatting her hand away.

Our wise theologian friend Kelley noted that part of mindfulness is learning the practice of waiting a few moments before we react to what someone has said. True listening means opening ourselves to others instead of biting back, hearing their stories instead of nurturing our own hurts and aches.

As I sat down to read Henri Nouwen's daily devotional book Bread for the Journey, I was delighted that his message flowed right into the midst of our conversation. I love it when that happens. Nouwen says that listening is so important that is it a Spiritual Hospitality.

"To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept."

I had to reread this passage to let it seep in. When we truly listen to others, we aren't eager to justify ourselves, our existence or our opinions. Instead, we are "free," yes, liberated to welcome what others have to say or express.

I don't know about you but that seems nearly impossible to do. Many times, when I react defensively to a comment or critique someone has made to me, it's because I have already felt the truth of it in my own heart. Hearing another express concerns, thoughts, and feelings, especially when they seem to contradict what I feel and believe is so difficult.

I didn't get the whole picture until I read the next day's passage in Nouwen's book. It turns out that this "interior stability" which we draw from is not our own inner strength. Instead, Nouwen says, it is not ourselves but the Spirit which "creates in us a sacred space where the other can be received and listened to."

When I read Nouwen's words, I don't solely think of this as a message for those negative commenters to hear. The truth is, this is a message for me, a daily, even hourly, reminder that all the people in my life need to be listened to.

Not long after my friend's piece went online, I decided to write a comment of my own. I wanted to defend her, to scream at those rude commenters and bite back. I wonder now if I shouldn't have said anything at all. Because the truth is, those commenters have stories too that need to be heard. I wonder that many of them are writing from a place of loneliness, searching for a connection, even if it is online. Many of them are reacting out of their own pain and grief. Is my small comment, meant to defend my friend, only another way to dismiss others as unheard?

As with many lessons, the learning starts in the smallest, most intimate ways. Many days, amidst the bustle of morning school routines, my children leave for the day, rushed and unheard.

As my son crawls into my lap while I type, I feel the urge to stop, to hold and rock him. I am starting at home, showing this kind of hearing hospitality to my children.

 

The Worst Church Advertisement

A post for Good Letters blog


I don’t mean to brag, but I attend your ideal church.

If you’re a millennial or a 30-something interested in social justice and dissatisfied with your tradition, your suburban congregation, or your mega-church, and feeling a bit None-ish, then I have the church for you.

What’s on your list of descriptors for the perfect congregation, you social justice-y-leaning, about-to-give-up-on-church looker?

Local community oriented?

Guess, what? I walk to church. And we are hyper-community oriented; we are an intentional community. I think you might like that we’re a little bit radical. We actually live on the same property together!

Authentic?

We provide a space where people allow themselves and others to be vulnerable. There are no fakers here. Just real folks sharing their lives and showing you who they really are.

We are an intergenerational group from ages one to eighty.

Socially concerned?

Yep, most Sundays, we pray for peace in the world, for refugees, for both sides in war-torn regions. We even pray for our enemies!

Kid-friendly?

My seven-year-old daughter reads scripture during worship. My one-year-old toddles through the middle of the circled gathering. It’s not unusual for one of the younger kids to shout out commentary of the scripture or a song. We aren’t fussy and we expect that children will clap their hands and make noise. Sometimes—gulp—we even choreograph a dance for them.

A different kind of leadership and worship style?

We are a lay-led congregation. There are no microphones or stages. Our circular gathering makes it less important who is leading; we don’t mind if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re single or married, young or old, just as long as you are willing to serve. Until recently we used an overhead projector from the nineties for song lyrics. The sheen of worship doesn’t overpower the realness of people. And even with all of this, we still follow the lectionary. We’re kind of a low church with a dash of high church.

Doesn’t it sound great? You’re more than welcome to come for a visit. But just a word of caution: Once you get here, you might want to leave.

Keep reading over at Good Letters

Music for the Mystics

Here are five albums that have become the soundtrack of my reading and wrestling with the Christian mystics.

1. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel  Song: Every Single Night

I’ve loved Fiona Apple for years. She seems to teeter on the edge of both sanity and genius, something I can relate to (except for the genius part). Though I’m pretty certain she’s not a Christian and I don’t know if she even believes in God, she's an appropriate addition to mystic listening when you realize that the mystics themselves often lived at the edges of society, the church, their own intelligence and, yes, sanity. I can almost hear a secular Margery Kempe singing:

Every single night/ I endure the flight/Of little white-flamed/Butterflies in my brain/These ideas of mine/Percolate the mind/Trickle down the spine/Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze/That's when the pain comes in/Like a second skeleton/Trying to fit beneath the skin/I can't fit the feelings in/Every single night's alight with my brain

I can't fit the feelings in sometimes too, Fiona.

2. The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, Angels and Saints at Ephesus

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I first discovered these Sisters when looking for some music for Advent. Their album Advent at Ephesus captured me from the first line. What better music to listen to when reading and writing about the ancient mystics and saints than these Sisters, whose tight acapella harmonies have the ability to transport me to a convent in the 14th century. They say on their website that because their call is to “emulate Our Lady in her final, hidden years,” they “cannot preach the Gospel to the nations nor bring the Lord to our tabernacles.” I disagree. They are preaching the beauty of the Gospel in every note.

3. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell, Song: John my Beloved

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There is a reason this album has been on so many lists of “favorites” in the past year. Sufjan is himself on the edge. A professed Christian who writes about subjects that many Christians would shy away from, Sufjan often plunges hard into the distressing depths of confession. In this song, he echoes many of the mystics for whom the cry is “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

I am a man with a heart that offends with its lonely and greedy demands/                                         There's only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I'm dead

4. John Micheal Talbot’s The Lord’s supper, Song: We shall be forgiven:

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“Lord, have mercy.”

Talbot, a Catholic musician, started an intentional monastic community in the 1970s and writes about my beloved St. Francis. This record is a glorious celebration of the Eucharist, in its beautiful Catholic hippie way. I am not the best judge of whether or not this 1979 album has stood the test of time; Its opening cello in “Prelude,” with a deep lament that echoes in the ribs, is the soundtrack of my childhood. When I listen to this record, I can almost feel the shag carpet beneath my back as I stretched out near my father’s desk, the soft scratching of the record accompanying my contemplation of the deep, angsty feelings it elicited in my elementary aged self. 

5. My brightest diamond, All Things Will Unwind, Song: We added it up:

I hear a quieter voice/and it says Love binds the world/Love binds the world/forever and ever and ever, Love binds the world.

In singer Shara Worden’s lyrics, I can hear echoes of Julian of Norwich, speaking in that quieter voice, a truth that was revealed to her in Revelations of divine love: “And at the same time that I saw this bodily sight, our Lord showed me a spiritual vision of his familiar love...He is our clothing, wrapping and enveloping us for love, embracing us and guiding us in all things, hanging about us in tender love, so that he can never leave us.”

Love binds the world indeed.



Listening to Simone

A post for Good Letters


The woman stands in the entryway of our common building just before Sunday worship begins. It’s not a sightly place, but it has every necessity for common intentional community life: a kitchen, a large meeting space, tables and chairs for worship and meals, a bathroom and a prayer room.

At first, the woman seems to fit right in with our unfussy crew: round spectacles, hair in a frizzy bob, a shapeless dress, oversized shoes. I immediately feel an affinity with her.

But I am also wary of her. Something tells me that she has intentionally obliterated anything outwardly lovely in her appearance. This both draws me in and annoys me.

Because I think I know her type. They come through intentional community sometimes: idealistic, stringent in their belief system, radically unusual in their dress. Community hoppers who bounce from church to church, intentional community to community, never satisfied with what they find and always criticizing. Not one of those again, I sigh.

Read the rest at Good Letters--an Image Journal blog