Advent: December 2

Yesterday, I quoted a line from mystic Meister Eckhart, that if we cannot be moved and changed by the birth of Jesus that we celebrate year after year, then what is the point in celebrating? I want to continue that thought today. 

 Photo by  Walter Chávez  on  Unsplash

Having been raised in a non-liturgical church, I resisted Advent when I first encountered the liturgical season in my twenties. My grad school roommate Jen had been raised in a Lutheran church and we lightheartedly argued about when to start listening to Christmas music and when to put up a tree. I would let loose in full Christmas mode as soon as Thanksgiving rolled around while she thought Christmas didn't start until, well, Christmas day...imagine that! In those early days, Advent was asking me to let go of something I wasn't willing to give up. It wasn't really about the timing of music or the tree (I'm not ashamed that I'm listening to a few Christmas albums amongst my Advent ones as I write...and our Christmas tree still goes up at Thanksgiving. Sorry, not sorry). I didn't want to give up what I thought Christmas was: presents, warm fuzzies, pumpkin spiced candles, carols, and a little bit of Nativity backlit on the church lawn. While, many of us who are Christians love to talk about the real meaning of Christmas, trying to yank back our holiday in a decidedly non-Christlike fashion, we simultaneously fill our homes with stuff and spend hours rehearsing for our live Nativities and carol singings. 

And while these things aren't all bad (I'm thrilled to be singing in a Christmas Eve choir for the first time in many years), we forget the full picture of Advent and therefore who Jesus was and is. In the introduction to his book "Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditation for Advent," Richard Rohr says that we often view Christmas as the "sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us in terms of surrender, encounter, mutuality or any studying of the Scriptures or the actual teaching of Jesus." We are distracted from who Jesus really was by a snuggly baby and the smell of pine trees. Rohr says that Jesus was clear about his own message: "the coming of the 'reign of God' or the 'kingdom of God.' Any other message we get time waters it down.

Advent isn't about sweetness. But I also don't want to take away its joy: it is about hope, hope for a suffering world. But its hard to access that hope until we have looked inside our own pain and brokenness. Rohr says the Word of God "confronts, converts, and consoles us--in that order." Early Christmas celebrations and loving gazes at the sweet baby Jesus cooing in the manger are ok. There is hope in the newness of life and birth. As the hymn below says,

"Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness glow with new-born light,
no more shall night extinguish day,
where love's bright beams their power display."

But Advent offers us something more. Only when we have been confronted by the fullness of who Jesus is--the baby, the man he became, and his divinity--can we truly understand the good news of the God who loved us so much that he came to be among us in our suffering. And that is something worth singing about. 

A song for today:

Come, thou Redeemer of the Earth, sung by Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles

Advent: December 1

 Photo by  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

In the liturgical calendar, Advent doesn't start until this coming Sunday, December 3. But I'm beginning today, following our family's Advent calendar. And this year, I'd like to link to (or write) a reflection each day of Advent, focusing on the mystics as much as I can. And also share a song that means something to me. 

Reflection:

Today, I am linking to a short reflection by Ilia Delio, a Franciscan sister whose writing I relied upon in Mystics and Misfits. She has written some particularly rich things about Clare of Assisi. In her reflection, she quotes the medieval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, to summarize the meaning of Advent: "What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?" You can read the rest here.

What a question to ponder. If we celebrate Advent with books, calendars, and candles, and yet do not take its meaning into our hearts and lives, what is the point? We are only a banging gong. Or maybe a pitchy flute. 

Song:

I Wait by All Sons and Daughters

"Oh restless heart do not grow weary

Hold onto faith and wait

The God of love, He will not tarry

No he is never late"

This song is a word of hope, not just for the Advent season, but for all who are suffering, who are weary of the painfulness of life, who hear only silence when we approach God. This is part of faith: to hold on even when there is quiet. Sometimes, even underneath the quiet, there is a humming, a buzzing of life.

Sit in silence today and listen for it. 

Music and the Mystics (and some exciting book news!)

If you're reading this, you've stuck with me despite the fact that I've reneged on my promise to update my blog every week. Perhaps I should've said once every season instead. We have a new baby, we've changed jobs, moved states, and bought a house. And, in my scant nap time hours, my book is slowly making its way toward you, its readers.

 Who has time for blog updates when the trees look like this?

Who has time for blog updates when the trees look like this?

So, thank you for sticking around and understanding. In this post you'll find some of the music that influenced me in the writing of Mystics and Misfits and some exciting book news. Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints releases April 17, 2018. In the meantime, if you can't wait, go over and pre-order it on amazon or at Mennomedia.  

Songs for the misfit in you:

1. Sandra McCracken, from Psalms, Song: all of them, particularly Send out your light;

 "Then I will praise him with my guitar, oh my joy, my joy." 

2. The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostle, all albums, particularly Lent and Advent

Clear and lovely harmonies by nuns who sing together, sometimes for five hours a day. 

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

Always a misfit, sometimes Sufjan's music evokes an ache so deep, I want to weep for him and his pain. Because his pain is all of our pain: the awareness of our need for the God who calls us beloved.

4. Bjork, Song: Wanderlust

Weird, wonderful, woeful, and often disturbing, Bjork's music should always be on a soundtrack for misfits.

5. Fiona Apple, from The Idler Wheel, Song: Every single night 

This song. I can feel the swirling thoughts in Fiona's head. 

6. Patty Griffin, from Downtown Church, Song: Move up

Patty Griffin should always be nearby. For any occasion. 

7. John Micheal Talbot, from The Lord’s Supper. Song: We shall stand forgiven

“Lord, have mercy”  I am not the one to ask if this 1979 album, which is basically a Eucharist liturgy, has stood the test of time. It’s opening violin on “Prelude” is part of the soundtrack of my childhood; I would lie on my back in our living room, listening to this record play, wallowing in the deep, angsty feelings it elicited in me. Talbot started an intentional monastic community and writes about my beloved St. Francis. This album is a glorious celebration of the Eucharist, in its beautiful Catholic hippie way.

8. My beautiful diamond, from All Things Will Unwind. Song: We added it up.

I hear a quieter voice, and it says Love binds the world, forever and ever and ever, love binds the world.” I can hear mystic Julian of Norwich, speaking in that quiet voice, a truth that was revealed to her in visions of divine love. Julian says, "I saw that He is to us everything that is good and comfortable for us: He is our clothing that for love wrappeth us, claspeth us, and all encloseth us for tender love, that He may never leave us; being to us all-thing that is good, as to mine understanding."

9. Rain for Roots, from Waiting Songs. Song: Come light our hearts

Even though it's an Advent album for children, I couldn't stop listening to it as Christmas passed and the new year began. These are messages of hope that we need in dark times. "For you, Oh Lord, our souls in stillness wait. Truly our hope is in you....We come as we are, oh heal and restore, come light our hearts."

10. Bruno Coulais, the soundtracks to The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Song: Song of the Sea

Go watch these movies if you haven't already. My kids and I loved them and the question at the end of each viewing was, "Mom, why are you crying?" They are full of beauty, heartbreak, longing, and fantasy. I dare you to watch them yourself and not cry. 

11. Enya (and her sister Moya Brennan): watch them sing with their other sisters in their home church choir in Ireland

Enya's music has been the soundtrack to many important life events. 1)Years ago, when I was in college, I would crank up Enya as a passive-aggressive hint to my roommates when they were being too loud in the living room. My roommates still tease me about it.  2)When I was deciding whether or not to go to grad school in Scotland, it was an Enya song that decided it for me. 3)When I met my husband years later, we discovered a mutual love for Enya. 4)I walked down the aisle to the Song of David by her sister Moya Brennan (another favorite) in our wedding. 5)And when I was in labor with my babies, I listened to Enya. 6)Her music accompanied the labor of my writing this book too. 

Speaking of exciting book news...

I am thrilled to announce that author Jon M. Sweeney has written a lovely foreword to my book. The writer of dozens of books, Sweeney is perhaps best known as a scholar of St. Francis. Sweeney's writing has certainly inspired my own book: you'll find the evidence of his influence all over its pages. 

And I'm also excited that some wonderful writers are already sending in their endorsements for the book. Among them: both fantastic authors and friends Amy Peterson and D.L. Mayfield, gifted Catholic writer and writing teacher Kaya Oakes, professor, spiritual director, and author Marlene Kropf, and...wait for it...RICHARD ROHR! Yes, that Richard Rohr, author of Everything Belongs, Falling Upward, The Enneagram: a Christian Perspective, and Eager to Love. I almost fell out of my chair when I read his endorsement. It's quirky, generous, and kind, just like his writing. 

I can't quite believe that so many of the writers and thinkers that have influenced me in the writing of this book are aware of it and supporting it. It feels as though St. Francis himself might've prayed a blessing for me. I hope he wouldn't mind what I've written about him. 

 

A mystical cover

I'm happy to share with you the cover to my book, Mystics and Misfits, which will be forthcoming from Herald Press in Spring 2018. One friend noted that it looked like a Medieval Irish Mystery Novel. There's some truth to that...if only because, in the book, I write letters to a few mystics from the medieval period; there is also an element of novel-like storytelling in the narrative of my life in intentional community and in the biographies of the mystics. 

If you'd like to subscribe to my blog, you can more readily get more of the details that I'll share in the coming months of the release and pre-order dates. For now, I hope you enjoy this cover as much as I do. 

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.