Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jesus was not white

As an artist, I have a tendency to create images of a Jesus who looks like me: white... I know better. Jesus was born a Jew, a fact many have ignored (or glossed over) in their quest to create the perfect Messiah. What does a Jewish baby look like? While he was probably not the darkest black of the Ethiopians, he was most likely a baby of color. One of my sisters called me to task for my white babies... so I went searching the internet for sources. Not too many to be found, as it turns out.

On Christmas morning we sing carols before and after breakfast, one of our traditions. There is as much energy around the impersonations for the Friendly Beasts as there is in trying to get our harmonies on key. This year our favorite camel couldn't remember her signature noise... she couldn't remember that she had always produced this camel noise for as long as I can remember... so at least five years. It was a turning point for sisters who are still in denial about the big "A" word. We muddled through. There is no turning back time, not collectively anyway. So here's a new baby, (not white) surrounded by his friendly beasts.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

God's desire

In her sermon on Christmas Eve, our celebrant suggested that Christians are charged to do two things at this time of year: to return to Bethlehem, and to remember the garden. She reminded us that in the Orthodox tradition, December 24th is actually the feast day of Adam and Eve... the feast of the beginning. The Christmas tree was originally decorated with apples, a reminder of that time before time, when we lived in wholeness. Before we knew we were not good enough.

Once we knew... then the endless misunderstandings began. She painted a picture of a God who desires to be in relationship with what God has created... yet we manage to keep screwing it up. Wholeness was shattered in the original Eden, but still God did not give up.

Fast forward to Bethlehem. A radical new way to approach relationship with us... to be one of us. Like us. Ordinary. Suffering. Laughing, working, eating, drinking and eliminating... Everything that humans do, God would do too. God with us: Look at him. See ourselves. See our God.

Bethlehem today is still occupied, still unsafe for children and other living things. The names of the powerful change but their ways are still violent, fearful and deadly. And each year we remember... it doesn't have to be this way. God wants relationship with the created beings of this world. No wonder they say "Patience is a Virtue."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

the day after

I remember Christmases past when on Christmas morning you could barely see the tree for all the mountains of gifts piled in front of it. I think back on those as the years of excess... when things were so important because the important things were so lacking. I cannot say it was anybody's fault... the culture contributed, major dysfunction in the family, never having conversations that went below the shallow how-are-you-I-am-fine variety. To have those conversations would have been dangerous at best. To invite the kind of vulnerability required to go deeper was just not safe where we lived. We did what we could...

I spoke with both of my sons yesterday evening... after all the hustle and bustle of our busy day here. Although I had just seen both of them earlier in the month, that had been an odd get-together because it centered around my life profession. My birthday was the week afterwards and my sisters went overboard to give me a lovely party... almost as if they suspected my kids might forget. They did.

My older son lives in a time zone three hours earlier, so his hustle and bustle still revolved around dinner. The other had a million in-laws in the house, so our conversation was mostly drowned out and peppered with other conversations with the people around him. I was placed on hold a few times during both conversations and wondered briefly why I had even called at all.

But I knew. I called... to hear their voices... to engage. To remind them that although I am a nun, I am still their mother... and that I still love them. I cannot pile up presents to the ceiling to show that love, and even if I could, I wouldn't do it anymore anyway. It was an illusion, like so much of our culture's approach to life. We have forgotten we are in fact okay. Just as we are. Flawed, yes. God knows why.

That is part of the mystery we can't come to terms with. It kills us to imagine a perfect God who could/would create an imperfect world. Because we equate perfect with good. And... we can't imagine an imperfect God. Why not? Explain to me exactly why God has to be perfect.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Short week...

The week of Advent IV is a day and a half long this year. That's what happens when Christmas falls on Tuesday. We had our normal Monday rest day yesterday (although only a few got any rest.) Most of us were about the business of last minute Christmas preparations. Some were cooking or baking, some grocery shopping, while others attended to the assorted rest day activities for the elderly sisters.

I made a haul at the Farmer's Market... six poinsettias and two big bunches of assorted mixed Christmas boughs. We used to take the car to Staten Island for our Christmas flowers (when the budget was four times what I spent yesterday.) We no longer have the car, and are scaling down in other areas as well. It felt good to spend so little and create so much. I approach flower arranging the same way I approach cooking: collect the leftovers and see what I can make that doesn't look or taste like a rerun.

So this year we have a big basket of assorted boughs under our altar, mixed with the late-blooming herbs from our garden, holly and some sweet kale flowers. A large red velvet bow adds the color. Today we set up the creche, hang a wreath on the altar cross, and will be close to being finished.

This entire Advent has been a bit of a blur for me. I was focused on other things. The liturgical year has never quite matched my spiritual cycles anyway... except for Holy Week. But I remember some Christmases past when I never even celebrated Advent until I was taking down the tree. It's easier to celebrate subliminally now, and I recognized an odd pattern with the prayers for each particular week:

Advent I Give us grace so we can cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light... We can do this ourselves. We just need a little help.

Advent II Give us grace to heed the warnings (of your prophets) so we may forsake our sins... Okay, we're not getting it yet, we see that. But all we need is a little help and a reminder now and then.

Advent III Stir up your power... and with great might come among us. We are so totally blowing it, you'd better do something dramatic to get our attention.

Advent IV Purify our conscience... by your daily visitation... so your Son will find us prepared... It's all in the ordinary everyday encounters that we are sanded down to anything close to perfection. Attention to detail, acknowledging the small errors in judgement or compassion. Practice, practice, practice. Ignoring our conscience is the easy way out, but it never works for long. It's a short week to practice.

Friday, December 21, 2007

knock knock

Jesus said, "Knock and the door shall be opened..."
He didn't say it would necessarily be the exact door you knocked on. Yes. doors open, but they are not our doors... they are God's. The point is to knock. The door, any door may never open on its own.

This has been a hard lesson for me. I used to get really upset with God for offering me Door #3 when I had specifically asked for Door #1. I never got Door #1, no matter how many times I asked... demanded... bargained... begged... I would sometimes decorate Door #2 and pretend it was Door #1, but that never lasted long, either.

Door #3, now that I've trudged through it, is way cool. Exactly what I needed, wanted, longed for. Who knew?
Knock knock, who's there? God. God who? Godcha again. Hahahahaha

Monday, December 17, 2007

Amazing performance

I've attended a lot of performances of Handel's Messiah in my day... All were memorable (in their own way) but yesterday's performance at Trinity Church Wall Street stands out as the best by far. For one thing, the soloists were not over the top, being divas for their own exaltation. Their tones were pure and intensely focused, but it was the text that stood out, not operatic calisthenics. In particular the soprano who sang the final aria was awesome. Her voice soared without the gale force normally associated with those extremely high notes.

Ever since I was a teenager and was taught it was not only polite, but important to "stand up" at the first strains of the Hallelujah Chorus, I've always looked forward to that one moment when the audience rises. There's something to be said for standing up for pure joy... the physical act reinforces the emotion the music already evokes... one supports the other and as the chorus swells in volume and pitch, my heart swells as well. Who cares whether King George actually stood up? Who cares if some programs now discourage the practice? Some people want to stand; they should leave well enough alone.

I'm always a sucker for the Hallelujah Chorus, no matter how awful the choir might be. Yesterday's choir was most excellent, however, and we were there as guests of one of our celebrants. Our seats were amazing. I always wonder what people must think about a bunch of nuns in the expensive rows. Behind us, the "general seating" was packed. But the truth is, we didn't buy the tickets; people give us these things... especially at Christmas. We get grapefruits from Texas, oranges from Florida, candy and cookies, wreaths for our front door and chapel... it's a magical time of receiving for us.

The brilliant conductor had been a student of one of our founding sisters. She had encouraged his musical talent and was intensely proud of his achievements. She told me how, in the fourth grade, he would bring his compositions to her and say, "Sister, I have written you a symphony!" I sat beside her at the concert and she had brought her own dog-eared score. She followed along through the entire performance. Afterwards we went up to greet him, and he gave her a big hug and kiss.

The conductor introduced us to another well-wisher who was standing in line: a priest he had known at Trinity for many years... the same man I had known as an interim priest from my old parish in Jacksonville. Small world, isn't it?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Back in the saddle again...

These photos were actually taken this past year when we had a cookout on Pentecost Sunday. Our grill broke down (no gas) so we ended up cooking the hamburgers and hotdogs indoors. Still, they are indicative of the first place I returned last week (after all the hullabaloo over my life profession.) I was back in the saddle again and very happy to be there.

I made soups and salsas, croutons, bread sticks and used up leftovers galore. Once again, I felt at home in my own house. Thursday at the pantry was the same feeling... back where I belong, where it feels right, where I can do the most good. Sure, it was great being "Queen for a Day" but unlike Cinderella, I actually like what I do.

Today I'm making Christmas cards for several of the sisters. Stay tuned. You may get one here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Three out of seven ain't bad

In the Life Profession ceremony the bishop doesn't lay hands on the person. That strikes me as odd, actually. We lay hands on each other for so many other important things: baptism, confirmation, weddings... you'd think a hit from the Holy Spirit would be par for the course. I'm not complaining, just wondering.

I say I'm not complaining for good reason. I've been hit with the Holy Spirit before... at my confirmation, when the bishop did lay hands on me. I opened my mouth to sing the closing hymn and out came a string of unpronounceable syllables. It was more than embarrassing; it was out of control. The residual effects weren't any better: six months of sleepless nights and cramped fingers as I poured forth an unending string of lyrics to religious folk songs. Like so many gifts from God, you sometimes have to really look for the blessing.

For people who thrive on roller coasters an all-expense paid trip to an amusement park would be a great gift. Spiritual roller coasters are just as exciting, unnerving, gut-wrenching and vomit-producing as the physical ones... When I was a kid my cousin would con me into going on those rides and I've done a few with my sons, but I can't stomach the sensation.

The "seven-fold" gifts of the Holy Spirit are confusing. The terminology has changed a bit from the early translations, but the content is in tact. Since we are the Community of the Holy Spirit, we take these gifts pretty seriously. Here's the run-down:

1. Wisdom: not regular wisdom, or street smarts, as in she's a wise old bird... but holy wisdom, divine light of the soul. When you have this gift you can actually see and savor God's light in everything. (I imagine auras around trees and people... that kind of thing.) I don't seem to have this gift. I would love to see auras but I don't.

2. Understanding: or another good word would be discernment. I'm pretty sure I have a smidgen of this.

3. Counsel: that would be encouragement, or spiritual tact... it helps you see Christ in each other, something we give lip service to most of the time. I know people who have this gift. They are amazing.

4. Ghostly strength: not like superman or vampires... this refers to passion and perseverance. it would be a real good quality to have as a monastic, considering the monotony of the life. I didn't get that one either.

5. Knowledge: again, not book learning, but insight... the ability to "get" the external truths. I figure I have some of this one.

6. Godliness: or piety. You can stop laughing. I know this one passed me by.

7. Holy Fear: yet another misnomer, I think. Fear in this case means awe. And I am definitely in awe in the presence of the holy.

Remember the TV show Star Trek Voyager? The Borg was called Seven-of-Nine. I could call myself "Three-of-Seven" but why limit my options? There's always the possibility I'll get some more presents along the way.

Monday, December 10, 2007

highlights

I gave a generalized (admittedly muddled) synopsis in my first post as a life professed sister, so now I'm remembering the highlights...

1. I already mentioned the exchange with the guy in the mosaic. No need for more detail there.
2. I knew my grandchildren had been asked to carry the elements up to the altar at the end of the offertory. I expected the two older ones, but lo and behold, here they came all three... the center child Gabriel is only three years old and he was carrying the huge silver bowl-full of wafers. So precious and tiny between the other two, and so solemn and careful. They were delightful! Most everyone loves a toddler and this was no exception.
3. I was one of the chalice bearers. Giving the wine to so many people who knew me and loved me and were celebrating with me was amazing. And very humbling. Funny aside... two toddlers of the Roman Catholic faith (who shall remain nameless) received their First Holy Communion (bread only) at the hands of an Episcopal bishop. So don't tell their parish priests!
4. My sisters' response to my family (and my family's response to my sisters) was phenomenal. They were so loving and welcoming and engaged with each other. I think that means both my sons will return with everyone in tow next time.
5. Having a drink in a bar (in habit) with my two sons after everyone else had crashed... priceless.

synopsis

I bet people who read my blog are expecting some kind of status report. (I don't know that, of course. I just imagine that after all the build up and the drama around the discernment and preparation, they'd want something for closure. I imagine questions like "What was it like? Was it wonderful? How do you feel?"

And without a doubt the disappointing (yet truthful) answers will be... "It was okay. I guess it went well. I'm glad it's over. I really can't remember a lot." What I do remember comes in snatches... a glimpse of something here, a conversation there. But for those of you who'd like to have more than that... here's what I can remember:

I got shooed out of the kitchen right after breakfast because the assembly line for plattering the little party sandwiches was in place. My three friends from out of town were helping. My family took off for Central Park to tire out the kids so they'd behave during the ceremony. I got dressed. At the last minute, I decided to change from the dressy shoes to the comfortable ones; then decided they needed a polish. Got black shoe polish under my fingernails. Spent fifteen minutes scrubbing. When it was time to leave, I rode with the three older sisters in the Access-a-ride van. (Our driver must have wanted to be a fireman when he grew up because he whipped around corners like he was going to one.) I remember thinking "I need to throw up now."

Most of the pre-service activities are a blur. I remember trying to knit, trying to ground; that was hopeless. I was somewhere up in the dome. A sister from another community, who was recently life professed, assured me that I would be calm. (She didn't have to sing a solo at her profession.)

The processional hymn (St. Patrick's Breastplate) was grand, but we could have used a few more people in the procession to make it come out right... All the hymns were wonderful, (well duh, I picked them) but especially the Offertory anthem, which was a piece our own Sr. √Člise had written. St. Bart's choir did a magnificent job, as did the organist and choirmaster. When I look back on it like this, I realize just how many people I still have to say thank you to.

As the hymn "Come Holy Ghost" was being sung I was gazing straight up into the mosaic of the Transfiguration, focusing on the central figure. Of course it's a rendering of Jesus with his arms out to God, but just then it looked like Jesus with his arms out to me. We had a brief moment... me and the guy in the mosaic. That's probably when I actually said yes, although there were a series of questions and answers I rattled through before it was over. My singing was not so hot. I got through it without a mortifying giggling fit, that's the best I can say. The sermon was funny and pretty much over the top. I remember thinking I wonder who he's talking about, because it can't be me.

What I remember most was the sea of faces from my past... members of the Cursillo community, friends from other religious orders, celebrants who serve at our altar, parishioners from St. Bart's, people I used to work with... my family... each group was represented. I was handed cards and gifts and flowers... I can't remember who gave me what if a card wasn't attached.

I had dinner afterwards with my family and out of town guests and only then did I begin to return to my body. The amount of psychic and physical energy an event like this takes is unbelievable. I think I like being a guest at someone else's event way better than at my own. (Good thing I only have to do it once.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

omens

I think we are a superstitious species. Maybe it comes from being self-aware, maybe from not being self-aware enough. Whatever the reason, looking long and hard for meaning can be tiring work. Shortcuts help. I think superstitions fall into that category. Example: I actually slept well last night. On the eve of this auspicious day, that's a good sign. Not only did it mean I am functional already (at 5:00 am) but that I was able to drag my sorry butt out of bed in time to make a batch of almond scones for my sisters, family and friends. What better way to start a life of service than to serve? Except I'm not exactly starting a life of service... I am dedicating myself to a life of service. All that means is I can give myself less slack if I oversleep. Or something.

I think I'm out of silence. (Not totally sure about this... but one of my sisters spoke to me this morning.) My "silent retreat" sign is in my pocket, just in case. Now that I can talk, I have very little to say. Funny how that works. It's almost time for Morning Prayer. If I can sing, maybe it will be another good sign for later this afternoon. If not, well... nobody's perfect.

Here's the recipe for almond scones:

3 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/8 tsp salt
6 TBSP sugar
8 TBSP canola oil
15 TBSP buttermilk
3 tsp almond flavoring
1/2 cup sliced almonds

Whisk all dry ingredients til blended. Add canola oil and mix with a fork (then finish with your fingers) until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in almonds, buttermilk, and flavoring. (If I don't have any on hand, I make my own buttermilk from yogurt, milk and a dash of vinegar.) The mixture will be sticky but not runny.
Drop spoonfuls onto baking pan and flatten slightly. Brush with buttermilk and add a few more almonds on top of each.
Bake at 400 degrees for 15-18 minutes, until lightly browned. Makes 18-20 scones

Friday, December 07, 2007

foretaste

Okay, so the warm fuzzy blur snapped into clear focus when the doorbell rang yesterday. It was that time... My younger son and his family had arrived. I peered out my window to the street below and there they were... in a white stretch limo no less, (so much for the link I sent for the cheap van service) and I could see the tops of their heads as each one emerged... Helen, little John, Mom holding three-year-old Gabriel. I watched my son help the driver unload the suitcases, watched him go back to hand him a tip, watched them all disappear beneath the overhang so I could only imagine them standing on the doorstep. No one had answered the door. Where was everybody anyway? My family was here! The doorbell rang again and this time I saw the phone light indicating there was communication over the intercom, heard my sister walking down the stairs from the fourth floor. Hurry up! let them in! It's cold out there and they've just come from Florida! Later as she showed them their room on the third floor, I was hanging over my fifth floor railing, listening... no audible conversation but the distinct piping voice of Gabriel. I longed to run down the stairs and hug them all.

I thought all these things, but could say nothing, do nothing. I am in silence. I am at the mercy of other people's kindness, other people's efficiency. One more friend arrived last night; two more will come this afternoon, and my older son will arrive this evening. Each time the doorbell rings I want to scream. When it rings twice in a row I want to bash in the wall.

All this from the woman who is supposed to be bliss-filled, at peace, ready to turn her life over to Jesus. The irony is not lost on me. As my mother used to say: I am a nervous wreck. I could barely sing in chapel last night or this morning. My voice just wouldn't push out the sound. Will it be like this tomorrow? When I will be the only one singing? I need to get a grip. Soon.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

It blurs from the edges in...

My past several (few that seem like several) days have blended into each other so much I have to check the calendar to make sure I know when now is. Silent retreats can produce an altered state, much like labyrinths or isolation tanks or drugs. For me, time is the most deeply affected... my sense of it, anyway.

When the daily structure is removed, my internal rhythm makes its own will evident. I recognized this before when I was unemployed... I took naps in the afternoon and stayed up much later than normal. Some of this pattern has surfaced again because my room is so cold. I make my bed in the morning, but am back under the covers before noon. I read, knit, read some more... and eventually fall asleep. I have vivid dreams I don't remember. I leave my room only on the briefest of forays... to eat, dump the trash, work on the creche pieces down in the art room. I went outside for a walk the other day and almost froze to death, nothing I care to repeat anytime soon.

Mine is a corner room on the fifth floor. I hear the wind whipping over the roof above, and two of my walls face the outside. My window is large and in other seasons lets in a golden light. In winter the light is gray and cold. The other day (which one?) I remembered a turret room in a house I lived in as a teenager. I appropriated that turret room one fall and hauled my desk up there to be a writer, to live like Jo March in Little Women. I had a fountain pen that leaked and left my fingers black just like hers. I did well in my little attic garret until winter came. The same howling wind and freezing windows drove me back downstairs to the relative warmth of civilization. So much for fantasies.

I've finished reading The Secret Magdalene by Ki Longfellow, yet another take on who Mary Magdalene might have been. Now that the Da Vinci Code's uproar has abated, stories are coming out of the woodwork that publishers would have rejected as unthinkable before Dan Brown's smashing success.

The truth is, they are all dead... all those apostles and disciples and early followers of Christ. We have no clue who they really were or what they truly witnessed or believed. We have only our own relationship with our creator, whoever or whatever that may mean to us in this time and this place. Who we choose to be and with whom and by what power will probably also be misrepresented by future generations. So what is important is now. Now, as I am experiencing it, blurs from the edges in. It's quite beautiful.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

in silence I am...


Day 1:
sleep til 10:00, coffee, refill water bottle, knit.

An abundant supply of wine and an inadequate supply of food from the Bishop's installation the previous evening have left me with a massive headache on my first morning in silence. To my credit I did not moan (or swear) aloud, although no one would hear me... there are two thick doors separating me from my sisters this week. Of course I can still prowl the halls and go about the few duties left to me, but I am like a wraith that nobody sees.

I have started knitting a hat and scarf for the Ecclesia Christmas knitting project... warm winter garments for the homeless congregation they minister to in Madison Square Park. I am following the pattern to the letter, but my hat, only half done, seems huge. It might fit a giant. It is red... red, the color of martyrdom, of the Holy Spirit, of Christmas. As I knit, I pray. I pray for the woman I met at the reception, whom I have met at other receptions. She wears her judgment about her shoulders like a worn out mink. She is not happy with her parish priest and singles me out to express her frustration. I cannot help her, because I do not agree with her assessment of her priest. Still I can listen. I pray for them both.

2:00 pm
I sneak down to the kitchen and fix a sandwich. I read from Matthew Fox's The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. I have tried to read this before, but it is densely packed with imagery that always sends me off on my own tangents. Then I forget to come back to the book. This happens again as I read about the concept of "creation mystics".

3:30 pm
I unpack all the beautiful creche pieces from their swaddling blankets underneath the altar. One by one I transport them to the art room downstairs where I will (yet again) mix Sr. Lucia's ancient dry pigments with polymer medium and touch up all the nicks and chips. This too is another of my retreat projects.

4:30 pm
I take a shower.
I knit. Pray. Think. Knit. I attend Evening Prayer, supper alone in the small refectory.
I knit, think, read, journal, sleep...