hold my hope

So, when did you last sit down with a book on prayer and find yourself laughing? Oh, all right. I do laugh with books on prayer — but it’s often a bit rueful, as I face yet again the gap between what I hope for and what I sustain. This was different. This book is funny — and worth sharing:

Ana Hernández is someone whose worked crossed my path last autumn when I went to the Music that Makes Community workshop in New York. She is a creator of earworms, and teacher of chant.

Earworm first. I think I have shared this before: Open my Heart. It doesn’t sound like much at first, but trust me — if you listen to it a few times, it will sing itself in your consciousness at the most helpful times.

I love her songs, and they have been a large part of my prayer for the last year — but I confess, the book has made me a bit nervous. The Sacred art of Chant: preparing to practice.

I like chant. I like it contained safe in the walls of Evensong and Compline. I like it sung stunningly by well trained monks. But this book seemed to be asking more of me. I suggests that I might chant. It suggests that I might make it a part of my daily prayer. It suggests that I might make noise in prayer. Silence, yes. Noise? God of all Scariness, give us strength.

Still, you know that I tend to think that what terrifies us is good for us and one of the ways God calls us to grow, so I have persevered. Ana Hernandez makes strong claims for chant:

Chanting with an intention to open our hearts and minds to the presence of God in us helps us to be quiet in the face of mystery and learn how to hear what it has to say to us. Chanting can hep us focus when we’d normally space out, stay calm when we’d normally blow up, raise our energy level when it’s time to go out, lower our energy level when it’s time to go to bed (or vice-versa — you make the call). Chanting is great at helping us fathom how to deal with our emotions so we don’t feel overwhelmed and so we don’t overwhelm others: It helps find and maintain a balanced perspective.

… and I have this nagging hunch that what she is saying might just be true.

So, I wanted to share it — to say ‘sing this. read this. try this with me?’

Even if you find that chant is not your thing, I think this is a book worth reading. She is asking big questions about how we can live more openly with God and one another, and how we can ‘manifest our sweetest selves’. I suspect that only someone who is not always sweet could have stumbled across that goal, and I find that very reassuring.

I’ll give her the last word: Hold my hope. The Schehallion Reel of chanting:

nowhere but here

Kelvin is asking good questions again about the theology and praxis of The Church and Virtual Reality.  He sets out questions enough for several doctoral thesis, but it was this that caught my eye.  He says:

‘Prayer generally takes place in virtual space.’

And I thought, ‘does it?’ and then, ‘he may be right…’   I am caught somewhere between agreement and rebellion at the thought, so I thought I’d play out the question here.

Let’s start with the easy positives — the ways in which I could imagine talking about prayer as a virtual space.

  1. prayer — like cyberspace — creates, strengthens and sustains relationship even when we are physically absent from each other.  So, yes: a virtual space.
  2. prayer — like cybersapce — connects us across time.  Whenever we pray, we join in something that is already happening, in Christ, and in ‘the whole company of heaven.’  We join in when we can, as we can, and become part of something bigger.
  3. prayer — like cyberspace — creates its own environment, and that environment changes us.  As we pray we are drawn deeper into prayer.  The time we spend in prayer changes how we perceive and relate to the world at ‘other’ times when deliberate prayer slips into the background.  There is always the danger that we will use ‘prayer’ to avoid other forms of engagement, but this is not true to what prayer is, and if we pray well, it will lead us to more engaged action.  All of this does indeed seem very similar to what happens in online communities, and strengthens the idea that prayer is a ‘virtual space’.
  4. my sense of what happens in prayer is bound up with the idea that prayer starts and ends with God.  We are taken into prayer, into Christ, and although I believe that is a ‘real’ ‘space’ I will have to concede that it is also, technically, a virtual one. The body of Christ is not limited to (nor excluded from) physical presence.

But still, there are things that pull against the idea too.

  1. While prayer might connect us across time and space, we can only pray in a particular time and space.  Prayer is not served  by severing ourselves from our physical reality.  Honest prayer demands that we face distractions, emotions, sensations with openness to God’s presence there.  Sometimes, our physical reality will distract us.  Sometimes it will pull us more deeply into God’s presence.  But never is it irrelevant to who and how we are with God in any given moment.
  2. We are made in the image of Christ — in the image of God, who becomes human and takes our bodily existence into the divine life.  Bodies matter.  We pray as much through our physical actions, movement, stillness as we do through our attention, our thoughts and our words.  (all in agreement: please cross yourself now.)
  3. I believe that the gift of God in the moment will always trump the idea of God and the communion of saints across time and space.  I know that morning prayer is richer and deeper right now because each day, it has been accompanied by the first warmth of a blazing sun.  It is hard not to see this as grace, and I will experience it as such even though my rational brain says that the coincidence of prayer and sunlight can be explained (quite easily) otherwise.

So, does prayer generally take place in virtual space?  Sort of.  I will concede that that it does not depend on physical presence, and that it draws us into something that transcends the limitations of time, space and physical reality.  It has real effect on us without physical change.  But that is not the whole story.

Prayer is always embodied – in word or song, in stillness or breath. Prayer invites us to to meet God in the fullness of our reality — so that we pray from the whole truth of our lives, and all the lies too.   Even if, in my prayer, I am praying for and with those who are physically absent, I can only pray well if I am present to myself.  And that cannot be a virtual reality, or one which denies the physical self.

My hunch is that the question Kelvin asks is crucial, and that the very tensions of it will help us pray and relate better.  It is not either/or, but both:  virtual and real. Embodied, and transcendent of the limitations of time and space.

And — pace, dear Information & Communications chair — that goes for ‘virtual reality’ too.  The communities we create there are real as well as virtual, embodied as well as distant: a gift of God, pulling us into relation.

see? it is enough.

‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’

How many times have I read, told, preached the story of the burning bush?  It is one of the foundational stories for Jewish and Christian faith, and much more troublingly, for much of the history of the Middle East.  But this morning it caught me:  ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’  My breath, catching with Moses’; my heart leaping alongside his at the sheer wonder and beauty of it.

Then I found myself singing Dayenu.  I was still at the bush, mind.  Still ‘caught’ and in awe.  But in another part of my brain, the passover song was buzzing ‘Dayenu-dayenu, dayenu.’  ‘It is enough, it is enough…’

Had it been lectio, I’d have stopped here (and I did for a while), but it was morning prayer, so I knew I would have to go on.  I happily read about the sandals and Moses hiding his face.  I felt the joy of the promise of liberation  I paused again under the weight of YHVH, and thought of Eish Levanah’s white fire.  I felt the soothing hope of a land flowing with milk and honey.  And I flinched as I had to read over and over again: ‘to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Prizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.’  I remembered the anger that filled a room of seething, hormonal 15 year-olds in Rugby, as I let them ask their questions: ‘but why would God do that?  It’s not fair.  You can’t give away what belongs to someone else. Why does God start wars?’

I often carry their anger into my reading of this story.  Not deliberately, but as an embodied memory.  How could God do this?  It is not fair.  The history of the Middle East is full of pain in a thousand directions, and much of it, on all sides, is deeply unjust and unfair.  It is easy to blame, easy to simplify, easy to completely misunderstand through sheer ignorance of culture, history, belief.  I do not claim to understand it. Yet it comes to me in this passage, fighting with the glory of the burning bush.

But today, I suddenly saw my own part in it:  I want to stop with the bush.  I want to say: ‘Dayenu.  It is enough.  This is the religious moment, turning aside to the bush, to the “transitory brightness”, to the things that steal our breath away and stop us in our tracks and reveal the very presence of God.’

And I do think that is the staring point:  unless we encounter God for ourselves and help others to do the same, Christianity will be a very dry and dull thing.

But we don’t get to stop there.  We have to go on, into the awkward bit, into the stories we would rather avoid.  ‘I will give you a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Cannanites, the Hittites, the Amorites…’   I’ve read it a thousand times, but I’ve never seen it before.  Dayenu.  The land flows with milk and honey.  It is enough.

If a bush can burn without being consumed, then Israelites can live alongside Cannanites, Hittites and Amorites without mutual destruction.  Here, in this story, there is no necessary conflict:  just a challenge to our imagination, to see a world in which God’s presence is enough.  And that means that we can live alongside that things that feel impossible for us:  the clashing visions, the different theological and liturgical ways.  Even the competing needs of temperament and priorities.

Sometimes I think I have let the bright bush blind me.  I have held too tightly to my vision of the holy and felt the tension of its interruption, its opposite, the things in life that disrupt, clash, compete.  I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this, and that it is all too human a response.

The burning bush is an invitation into paradox and humility:  what should not be able to co-exist can exist freely in the mutual presence of God.  What we see and experience and hold dear is held safe in God’s presence, and the appearance of conflict, contradiction, opposition need not consume us.

I have known this.  I have even, sometimes, lived in the reality of it.  And I have often forgotten. But I had never before seen it in this story, in the paradox of wonder and terror that spins out from the telling of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.

Dayenu was the right song for this passage.  God gives us all we need and more than we can imagine.  The clashing conflict is in our failure of imagination.  The land flows with milk and honey and it is enough.

addenda for the very observant:

yes, my declension of dayenu is wrong in translation.  I went with the theological concept of the song rather than the literal translation.

yes, the words of dayenu make me flinch as much as the second half the story of the burning bush.  The song is thought to be a thousand years old, and I’m willing to make allowances.

wind-rush, feather bright

Today, the sun is shining, the cat is purring, and I’m off to visit the flamingoes.  In the absence of a pancake party, they seem to be the right companions for Mardi Gras.  There is a strange giddiness in the early spring.  All around the world is whispering, ‘hope, dream, dare.’

For many years, it was the solemnity of Lent that I loved — the very challenge of it, as I walked through the cold blustry days of an East Neuk winter, or the unending snow of a New England March.  I was fairly strict with myself then, keeping absolute fasts, carefully planning Lenten disciplines, finding it very hard to go to lectures or teach lessons on Ash Wednesday, never really relaxing till I was in church.

But it feels different now.  Either I have become lazier, or my sense of God has become more gracious.

Discipline is important.  I know how much difference it makes to pray in stable patterns:  early morning silence, daily office, Eucharist. And I know that to do that, other patterns must be stable too:  bed times and rising, meeting times and meals.  The rhythms of the day, the rhythms of the liturgical year — at times, a hassle; at times, lost in busyness or complexity, but ultimately–  a gift given to us for freedom.

When I set out on my jubilee year, it was a claiming of the freedom of the desert.  I was leaving my work behind.  I was leaving my patterns of life behind.  I left knowing — at last knowing — what had long been true:  that we can’t control what people think of us or say of us or make of our stories.  There are lots of times in life when truth and perception fail to meet, and we find ourselves alternately on both sides of that chasm.

I’m learning to live with that.  And that is a form a discipline too.

I want this Lent to be about freedom.  I’m hoping for a warm blustery March that will shake us all of our illusions and leave us laughing in the midst of God’s grace.  And I want that even in — especially in — those parts of our lives where pain remains, where new pains arise, where we cause and are caused harm, despite all our desires to the contrary.

And then, at Easter, I want kites.  Bright shards of joy, riding on the winds.

I should not write when I wake giddy and yearning for flamingoes.  It is sloppy and careless.  A messy Mardi Gras parade.  So be it.  Today is for feathered flurry.  Order and ashes tomorrow.