From Hopelessness to Heaven

The Testament and Death of Moses - Luca Signorelli - 1482

The Testament and Death of Moses, Luca Signorelli, 1482

Divine Beloved, open my heart to your Truth… now that there is room for music… now that I have realized that I had wasted my precious hours and years on earth fearing doom,
inclined toward death…
when I judged and withheld forgiveness…
when I scolded self and others, drowning out angel whispers and celestial songs…
when I despised my guides and teachers… and myself…
when I was harsh and lacked compassion…
when I felt weak and burdensome to this groaning world…
when I betrayed myself and sought approval for my false image…
when I craved prominence and admiration…
when I gave away my ease and my magnificence…
when I forgot to celebrate your bright and manifest gifts….
I heard you through the chaos: Peace; be still.

Surely, you promised, surely I am with you always. [1]

Trust me in the depths of your being…. I am with you and within you…. Quiet your mind in my presence… and hear [my]… blessing:
Peace be with you. [2]

I listened and I heard; but it was not always so. So long I called to you and waited for serenity, but it eluded me. Like the psalmist I cried out to you:

To the God of my salvation,
I called for help by day;
I cried out in the night:
Let my prayer come before thee,
for my soul is full of troubles and the Pit would devour me.
I have no strength,
like one forsaken among the dead,
like those whom you remember no more,
those who are cut off from your hand.
In regions dark and deep I lie; I am overwhelmed.
I have become a thing of horror…
shut off so that I cannot escape.
Every day I call upon you; I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do fallen spirits rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?
Is your saving love known in the land of darkness?
Why have you cast me off?
Why is your face hidden from me?
Afflicted and close to death, I am in terror;
I am helpless, drowning in confusion and dread, which would destroy me; they close in on me,
surrounding me like a flood all day long.
Lover and friend shun me;
my companions are in darkness. [3]

Divine Beloved, how the road seemed long and treacherous, though at my creation you had spread before me from the mountaintop a green and gently rolling plain, blue ovals and racing curls of water, distant hills all forested with pine, chattering cottonwoods lining level pathways, mighty eagles in flight, swift deer in meadows and thick aspen groves.
No blighted hills and wastelands did you point to, no grieving storms, no desolation.
You revealed clouds, light and buoyant with the promise of refreshing rain. Crops were thriving in the fields; sheep and cattle grazed at will.

You witnessed my pain and offered me the balm of Gilead;
you spoke to me of peace and healing; I would not hear.
You quelled my stubbornness and redeemed me from the pit.
You taught me to face hardship, to be steadfast in its cold and empty gaze,
to grapple with misfortune, soul to ego;
to be bold in the face of troubles’ bold impertinence;
to unmask the friend or mentor in adversity.

At length, O Father-Mother God, through your mercy I began to notice shape and form within the void…
to give attention to hue and texture in the creeping dawn…
to wonder at the workmanship of shrubs and shirts and shoes and grand pianos.
I began to see how this thing cleaves to that by way of growth or glue or clever carpentry, or by simply wanting to be one with loveliness or stillness or profound compassion and moving toward it, bold or shy.
I was a novice at it, more accustomed to attend to what isn’t here and likely won’t be in an hour or twenty-four.
I was like a tender seedling in the morning after frost.
By day and night I pray for sure footing on dew-slicked grass,
that I might offer water to the thirsty,
encouragement and guidance to the wanderer.
Through your grace I seek clear vision for the something like a destination;
soft landings for inevitable stumbles;
and small arrivals, breath by breath.

And your voice slides neatly through pandemonium: Thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left. [4]

I asked, Divine Beloved, How can I pray this fear away…
this sense of dissolution, cell by cell and bone by bone,
one digit at a time or all at once?

I cried, How can I, when I don’t know what’s gone missing,
what precise adhering bits of tissue steered my thoughts and guarded my emotions on a sweeter, leveler path;
what benevolent vibrations, pulses, energies have kept me wakeful
and expressed a cosmic gentleness whose source, so little understood,
would become forever cherished?

Dear God, I searched to know what I had taken for granted when I ought to have been grateful;
when it seemed my body had betrayed me. Where, I asked, was Spirit? How concealed?
Perceived as altar or as steeple, or disguised in humble blessings holding all the secrets of divinity?

I confess that I have judged, mistrusted, or ignored the sacred heart of what is elfin, elephantine, or invisible. To perceive myself as anything at all, I fabricated a counterfeit of me, as unobjectionable as organic textiles, artisan-constructed, not beautiful, not ugly, but unused,
instead of draped across a pair of chilly shoulders and a thinly covered back
for an hour’s warmth and comfort, maybe more.

I confess that my love, imperfect and sporadic even when spontaneous, without agenda,
struggled, poorly tended and quickly reabsorbed;
lay inert in my unworthiness…
the smoky aura radiating bleakly from the embers of my heart
into eternity.

But I have heard your promise and have clung to it as to a mast in a hurricane:

In the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.
And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.
In the habitation of dragons… shall be grass with reeds and rushes.
And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness;
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
[5]

In that fearsome hurricane there seemed a force that kept the pieces in the solitary unit known as me from cleaving as when I was made. Tormenting thoughts in neon hues could penetrate with ease the feeble bonds of molecules and atoms, and off I went, like sparks from green wood, failing, failing to adhere, flickering out in the pallid sky. The eyes, wherever they might rest, were helpless to regain the whole, and off I went in shards or streaks or grotesque shapes or formlessly… fleeing particles of the unit I once recognized as me.

They were of the lie, I knew… but why? Who benefits, and in what way? All that occurred to me is I, because the day is short and even now the shadows lengthen; in the dark there is no certainty.

And Truth replied, It is YOUR light that midnight lacks.

O Father-Mother, I confess: Your nature is perplexing in my bereavement. This I know: You live in me; my native purity is Love, and all I need. But even in that certainty, I have felt orphaned and adrift in something near insanity.

And so did I approach you, child to parent, willing to surrender all in order to be reassembled into your intention for me. And you heard my plea:

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore in me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with thy free spirit.
[6]

Creator of all things seen and unseen, I cried, what is this somber heaviness in my heart?

Enlighten me, O God. Dispel the lie of darkness with eternal truth.
You have not created fear, antipathy, confusion, rage.
You have left no defects or omissions in the spirit.
Open my eyes to beautiful and eternal love, truth, and wholeness, which are the nature of all creation.
When earthquakes of the emotions seem to shatter peace, swaddle my heart and mind in safety and serenity.
Then, calm and radiant, may I become an instrument of your peace. Anoint me as a physician of holiness, spreading not toxicity but health and divine order.
May my thoughts, speech, and actions proceed from robust joy planted and nurtured in sentient beings by you, O God of grace.
Make clear and shining the vision of all good, however swathed in mist it might appear.
Stimulate my timid inclination to pray without ceasing… to walk in uninterrupted conversation with you, my holy parent, comforter, and guide.

Divine Beloved, open my heart to your love.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I give away all I have, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. [7]

O Fount of Love, I have known nothing so miraculous as the complete surprise of finding myself made new, in a cloister of astonishing love for which there was no precedent in my experience. I lacked vocabulary for the glories of the great beyond, so long beguiling, out of focus, unattainable … the indistinct eternity of Spirit, a destination I had cherished less than attention and esteem.

By your grace immersed in love, I knew only how to float and be patient through the storms at sea.
Is this the place, I wondered then, where faith, despair, and mystery collide, and would I in the aftermath discover where power lay instead of choosing the idiom of pain that most resembled peace?
Impatient, in a mirage I paddled fruitlessly. The sea is wide; there seemed no light to guide my navigation; I was beyond the urgency of time and tide, yet I knew a buoyancy and wondered: Was it hope or mockery?
For still I clung to mortality and cried into the void,

Is cruelty the grim default and struggle the essential posture,
or does complete surrender breach all barriers and allow a healing wind to embrace the one essential self?

But you, all-knowing, saw beyond the slender orbit, where clashed fire and ice and hopelessness, to beauty, victory, and the infinite embrace.

All substance, intelligence, wisdom, being, immortality, cause, and effect belong to [you]….. No wisdom is wise but [your]… wisdom; no truth is true, no love is lovely, no life is Life but the divine; no good is but the good [you bestow]…. [8]

I watched with you and witnessed how no ground is gained without a daring leap into the stratosphere, where deathless joy and endless love astound.

Worship me, you gently said, in the beauty of holiness. I created beauty to declare the existence of my holy being… to proclaim my presence in the world…. Even before you knew [my name]… you responded to my creation with wonder…. [The universe is filled with my radiance. Declare my glories to the world.] [9]

And [the people]… called to one another, Holy, holy, holy is God Almighty; the whole earth is full of God’s glory. [10]


[1] Matthew 28:20

[2] Sarah Young, Jesus Calling, p. 222

[3] Adapted from Psalm 88

[4] Isaiah 30:21

[5] Isaiah 35: 6-10

[6] Psalm 51: 6-12

[7] I Corinthians 13: 1-8, 13

[8] Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 275

[9] Sarah Young, Jesus Calling, p. 221

[10] Isaiah 6:3

 

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Small Comfort

A Prayer of Gratitude.

tuscanysunriseGod who made us and sustains us— God,
immortal and mysterious— God, synonymous,
and more, with life, love, beauty, and the peace
that passes understanding:

When we are ungrateful, even our complaints are manifest of
sweet abundance: air and water; bread and butter; shelter from
the cold; and your embrace when we surrender deep in prayer—
as babies, weary even of exploring all the wonders of the world, its
lights and colors, sounds and textures, burrow into Mother’s shoulder,
fearless in her equanimity.

Yet we fancy ourselves victims of ungentle circumstance now and
again. Perhaps a small annoyance, not attended to, becomes infected.
Swollen, red, and tender to the touch, it spreads to the extremities,
and farther — others suffer the contagion. Thus can friends on Saturday
be enemies on Sunday, and, by Monday, legion.

Gratitude does not require the sky to be forever blue, or that the sun
appear at every moment we consider opportune. Not every day is halcyon,
not every month is June, and there are bitter winds that penetrate each
layer of protection, entering through skin and bone to pierce the heart. Small
comfort then to know that even when the sun’s invisible behind the storm
or hidden by the circle of the Earth, it shines as bright and will be visible
precisely when it ought to be. Small comfort too are food and shelter —
even friends, if friends remain (we might have driven them away).
A few are stubborn: let them in, for they can rub our feet and startle languid
faculties awake — the ones that sense not heat or cold but grace.

IT-IS-FINISHED-LAKESIDEWe are not patient, though, no matter that we’ve had our share of
warm, fair days and peaceful nights. We hear the thunder of a distant
storm; we witness human cruelty, we wonder at the blind impartiality
of nature, and we are bewildered at the magnitude of evil, at the
unpredictable caprice of fate, or doom. Disaster may be out of sight but
looms in some malicious posture, poised to strike when least expected.
So we watch and worry, like a sentry whose antagonist has neither form nor
name; and we neglect whatever bounty has accrued in our distraction.

We forget to feast. We lack the energy and appetite for our accustomed
satisfaction. Those who suffer and survive have told us they were somehow
more alive than when the breezes were benevolent and calm. They learned
to be astonished that amid catastrophe and cataclysm, life goes on.

You have warned us to beware the sleek vocabulary of the
merchants of salvation.

When they speak, their words are vacant. When they pray, their
prayers are memorized and animated, artful, eloquent, and uninspired.
Their lines are well rehearsed, but had they truly died and been
redeemed, their phrases would reflect (it seems to me, and I
have been there) something of the grave; not so articulate —
there are no words; would be forever fresh, a quiet wonder— if
they had been saved. If one has been to the abyss and fallen in,
then one is humble, having little need to understand, no reason to
pontificate… but rather one is moved to celebrate the mystery
and to be newly grateful, day by day by day.

Having suffered condemnation, having been appraised and
come up short, and having then been lifted and embraced —
one cannot judge, cannot condemn. The court has been adjourned
and all the prisoners released. We have no jurisdiction; it is
not our place to round the sinners up and put them back again.
Our duty, then, is light and brings us joy: To know as friend a
stranger, one who will, like each of us, be tried; and one thing
more: To gratefully remember how the tide that swept us out to
sea — when we, in mortal danger, cried out, “Save me!”—
pulled us gently to the shore.
Tree in the mist

Today I Didn’t Break My Arm

 

Window, tulips in vase, white lace curtains

…at the bed-and-breakfast…

Dear God,

Today I didn’t break my arm

nor did I rupture my appendix.

I got up at six a.m.

and probably will go to bed

before eleven, certainly

by midnight, at the latest.

 

I read a book—a hundred pages.

I had supper with a friend.

I didn’t grumble very much

about the pang of emptiness

I feel at times when I come home

and here I am—alone again.

Tomorrow I shall grumble less.

 

I didn’t lie. I didn’t cheat.

I didn’t steal. I did my bit

for peace. I wish I had a dog—

but that’s a problem I can fix.

There’s glass on all my windows

and a carpet on my floor.

I have a clean and pleasant kitchen

and some dishes in the cupboard.

There are those who’d miss me if I didn’t

call them every week or two.

I care about them, so I do.

 

It rained this afternoon, a pleasant

interlude before the heat.

There’s food in the refrigerator,

shoes for both my feet; and there

are blankets on the bed. And if

there isn’t money in the bank,

I’m thankful for the stuff I bought

instead.

 

Tomorrow I’ll have company.

It’s Mrs. Beaman’s day to clean,

pick up a bag of groceries,

and wash the towels and the sheets.

I’ll have an opportunity

to write a letter to a friend

who’s happy when she hears from me

but understands my tendency

to undertake too many things.

 

I have my health, and never take

such things for granted any more.

I’ve no excuses to complain

and every cause to celebrate

the sunshine, and the April storm.

 

Thank you for another day,

dear God, and let the people say:

Amen.

 

A Lovely Young Woman

Green leaf on blue water

'Up the mountain'—the pool at the spring near the Upper Shrine*

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Digesting a Difficult Book

Beautiful redhead with freckles

Fanny at almost-13

Fanny, who will be 13 in August, is about to leave for Daylight, the almost-inaccessible mountaintop home of the Ancients, with her mentor, Sister Alma Rose, and Henry, the man she knows she will someday marry. Fanny has learned only recently that she is a reincarnation from the Ancients. She will live with them until she feels that she is ready to serve among the “Lowlanders,” doing the healing and peacemaking work that will become her mission.

coffeecup wingding

I am packed to go “up the mountain” — indefinitely, although Mama and Daddy will be allowed to visit because they’re “special,” and I can come home as often as I want, maybe via magic carpet, I’m not really sure. Sister Alma Rose and Henry will be taking me. Henry will stay as long as I do; Sister Alma Rose is keeping mum about her plans.

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

While we are waiting to leave, Sister Alma Rose has assigned me to read The Metaphysics of Mysticism, A Commentary on the Mystical Philosophy of St. John of the Cross, by Geoffrey K. Mondello, a book of which “the goal… is unabashedly epistemological.” Whew! What if it had been gastronomical? Would I have been forced to eat the book? Would it have eaten me? And tidied up afterward?

It is heavy going; the author uses a lot of words such as solipsistic. And only occasionally can I infer the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context, because the context is full of words such as refractory (not to be confused with refectory, which is where St. John and his fellow Carmelites went to eat dinner).

And so I slog along, reading indoors at the computer so that I can easily look up words every three or four sentences, until it is just irresistibly gorgeous outside, when I lug the unabridged dictionary out to the garden or go read on Sister Alma Rose’s porch. Sometimes I think she forgets I’m only 12.

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Visiting Cousin George

Mama was an only child and so was her cousin George. (Everyone I know just calls him “George,” even my little brothers.) George and his parents— Mama’s mother’s brother and his wife (“Big George” and Jake, I don’t know her real name) farmed outside of Hilltop when Mama and George were kids, so they were like siblings.

Now George lives in Chicago, but he is hardly ever there because he makes huge amounts of money as a freelance photographer who specializes in going with linguistic anthropologists to remote places like Papua New Guinea (where more than 850 indigenous languages are spoken!) and the Amazon rainforest. So when he is in the U.S., which is hardly ever, he comes to see Mama or she goes to Chicago, and since he was at home last week, and I was going to be leaving soon, Mama, Henry, and I all flew to Chicago. Henry bought our tickets, and I still don’t know where he gets all his money, even though his parents are rich, but they don’t know where he is, and I don’t understand that either. I’m sure he’ll tell me when he’s ready to tell me (this is the new, patient, serene Me talking). 

 
 
 

The Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

The Amazon rainforest, Brazil

We didn’t tell George that I am going to Daylight, although if you could tell anyone and not be scoffed at, it would be George. We also didn’t exactly explain about Henry, but George takes everything in stride. His wife, Annette, used to go with him on long assignments, but she and their baby (Annette was five months’ pregnant) died on Borneo, not from some exotic jungle disease or snakebite or anything. She was standing at the edge of a four-foot embankment near a dry streambed when an insect flew into her eye, and she lost her footing and belly-flopped onto the hard ground, and she died of “multiple internal injuries” in a helicopter on the way to the hospital.

Being the observer

This tragedy happened while Mama was carrying me, so the baby, who was a girl, would be about my age. I used to wonder if I might be an unwelcome reminder of George’s unborn child— he always seemed to be scrutinizing me— but Sister Alma Rose has taught me to not be self-conscious but to observe rather than “feeling observed,” and when I started observing George I realized that he scrutinizes everybody, because he is actually interested. George is a person who lives in the moment. As Sister Alma Rose says, George remembers “where he is” (here) and “what time it is” (now). He’s kind and sensitive but not at all sentimental. He probably doesn’t know it, but he practices “mindfulness.”

Sexy blonde with cigarette, leather outfit, and fur stole

Daddy thinks Carla's a spy

George’s girlfriend, Carla, swears like a sailor and is physically the kind of woman who could have been called a “blond bombshell” in an earlier era. Carla might be a little on the flashy side for high society, and you might assume that she was no rocket scientist, but you’d be wrong because that’s exactly what she is, an aerospace engineer who was an associate professor at some university with initials like M.I.T. but not M.I.T., but now she’s a handsomely paid consultant with ultra-ultra security clearance, and she loves to talk but she doesn’t talk about her work. Carla lives in George’s apartment when he’s away and when he’s home. Daddy doesn’t approve, not that anybody asked him.

George is a self-professed Christian who says he has seen God’s grace “up close and personal” too many times to doubt its reality. It was grace, he says, that brought him and Carla together and that keeps their relationship strong though they both travel a lot and sometimes Carla can’t tell even George where she’s going.

Sultry beautiful blond woman

...Dagmar WAS a spy...

Daddy thinks Carla’s a spy. That’s because a long time ago, just before Mama and Daddy got married, there was a woman called Dagmar who was another “blond bombshell,” and she worked at the Diner and chewed gum and had this Bronx accent, and Daddy told Mama, “She’s a spy,” and Mama said, “What would a spy be doing in Hilltop?” and Daddy said, “Keeping a low profile,” and Mama laughed because Dagmar would have stood out anywhere, but it turned out that Daddy was right and Dagmar was a spy for the Russians or the Chinese or something. Daddy said she was less like a waitress than like somebody playing a waitress on television, and the gum-chewing and Bronx accent were “overkill.”

Loving is the main thing

Coffee in a light-blue mug

...a wonderful time drinking coffee...

Our day in Chicago ended too soon. We all had a wonderful time drinking coffee and eating George’s “culinary specialty,” fruit salad made with cream cheese and marshmallow cream and it is just to die for, if everyone had left the room I would have been compelled to eat it all.

As Sister Alma Rose has told me over and over until it finally sunk in, you cannot be loving when you are being an “observee” instead of an observer.  And loving is the main thing. So I got over myself; I relaxed and observed instead of being self-conscious and feeling as if all eyes were on me. It was fabulous, wonderful, liberating… liberating most of all. And when we left, George told Mama he thought I had “grown into a lovely young woman.” I didn’t need George’s approval any more, but it felt good. Validating. “The truth shall make you free.” **

 * Green leaf on blue water, vnwallpapers.com
** John 8:32

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Moving Right Along

Purple Flowering Shrub to illustrate prayer "The Shrub"Find sample blogs on a gazillion topics at Alpha Inventions

The Shrub:
Prayer for a Happy Home and for Difficult Transitions

Glory be to you, Creator and Redeemer, Father-Mother of us all

It was as if I’d one leg that had put down
deep, good roots—the rest of me was flailing,
not in an endeavor to escape, No! but to stay
there, stay forever; not for freedom, but for
safety, so I did believe. “I can’t!” I cried. My
tears were shed to no avail, for they (the
gardeners) merely hauled me out, to plant me
in some other yard. I thought I’d die;
however, as it happened, though the roots
were bared and some were torn and I called
out in pain (while they pretended not to
listen, but I knew they cared), the roots ran
broad and shallow, and not deep at all, and I
can keep my foot and all my toes, it seems.

Red Clover to illustrate poem "The Shrub - Prayer for Happy Home and Difficult Transitions"

Well, they were not mean-spirited or so
unkind as just to leave me to the task and
drop me any-old-where; they asked, and I
said, “There, please.” There they stopped, and
sent me in with my valises, oh, so many! and
they went away. I didn’t mind so much,
although I wish it all had happened faster, for
I sit here yet with my belongings strewn at
random… nor do my legs, quite tender from
the struggle, function right. The touchy, easily
offended, mewling voice, in protest, whispers,
“This is wrong.” But it’s too late; I silence it.

Blue Sheer Curtain Window Toothbrushes to illustrate prayer-poem

My troubles found me, with that radar that
they have, and seemed to double in the
interim. But by your grace, O God, I shall win all
the little victories and overcome the obstacles,
with them, with the detritus, the unholy mess,
eventually, I’m not sure how, but I don’t need to
be… in you, there’s no uncertainty. This morning,
anyway, I hear a pair of cardinals calling to
each other, far away, then nearer, or else
bolder, and the sun is warm upon my hair, my
neck, my shoulders; it’s enough and more for
now.

Images: vnwallpapers.net
except as noted

Hurry Up and Listen

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Sister Alma Rose Insists…

Omigosh. If it’s still December 3 when y’all read this, go immediately to the Morning Prayer at DivineOffice.org and listen to…

Hymn: Amazing Grace by Jane Chifley And Pat McGrath from their album Traditional Catholic Hymns – Lifeboat 14

Sister Alma Rose could dig up only one album by Lifeboat 14 — Who Will Adore Him? (2004) — upon which “Amazing Grace” could not be found.  She looked on several sites and finally discovered this description of the band at Eternity Music:

It’s finally here! Who Will Adore Him? is a CD by Lifeboat 14 containing a mixture of rock, folk, serenade and country. It’s taken a long time and is worth every moment of listening.

Music that will rock you. Music about Mary and the Blessed sacrament. Music that’s Australian. Music that’s Catholic.

You won’t find anything but faith on this CD.

Every Lifeboat 14 album has different artists performing…. The band was founded by Jane Chifley.

Sister Alma Rose sampled several cuts from the album, but none was as clean, elegant, and simply lovely as the unpretentious duet “Amazing Grace.”

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Catholic Things part 2

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Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

‘Pray Without Ceasing’

From ancient times the Church has had the custom of celebrating each day the liturgy of the hours. In this way the Church fulfills the Lord’s precept to pray without ceasing, at once offering its praise to God the Father and interceding for the salvation of the world. —Office of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship

Fanny McElroy

I, Fanny McElroy

When I, Fanny McElroy, first discovered The Brother Cadfael Mysteries, by Ellis Peters, I ripped through them like a scairt rabbit about to be et by a hawk, as Sister Alma Rose says her Daddy Pete says, or maybe it’s “a hawk after a scairt rabbit.” Anyway, I read them fast. And then there weren’t any more, because Ellis Peters died, so for the longest time I put off reading the final book, the twentieth, because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Brother Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey during the 12th century, but I found other books to read because I had become fascinated by all things medieval and all things Roman Catholic.

Compline — Coronation of the Virgin

Compline — Coronation of the Virgin

I loved Brother Cadfael’s irreverent way of being genuinely and truly religious, his painstaking cultivation of herbs for healing, his humor and his kindness. And the way he told the time not by the clock but by the Canonical Hours for Prayer — Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline, and so forth. Sister Alma Rose has specific times for prayer during the day, and if I am at her house when one of those times comes, we go into her chapel and pray together, and sometimes we pray out loud, sometimes we don’t, and she reads a psalm and we sing a hymn — harmonizing rather nicely, if I do say so — but the thing is, she always seems to know what she’s doing, I mean there aren’t any awkward “what should we do now?” moments. And now I know why.

The Liturgy of the Hours

Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1410

Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1410

One lazy summer afternoon I was sitting on the steps of Sister Alma Rose’s great green wraparound porch half-listening to Sister Alma Rose talking with Father Dooley and his sister Bernadette, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and who is a willowy, fair-haired, freckled young woman who has, as she says, “quite enough money,” and her occupation is Doer of Good Deeds, and she would have become a nun, she told us, but she wanted to get married and have children, which she hasn’t, yet, but she’s only something like twenty-two, so she spends her time visiting the sick and does what she calls “healing prayer work,” and sometimes she takes in the homeless, temporarily, like mothers with children running from an abusive man, that sort of thing, not scary people or drug addicts.

Versicle: Poem on a Stick?

So I’m sitting there, drowsy with the sun and the hum of a summer afternoon, and I perk up when I hear Bernadette say “Compline,” so I get up from the step and go over to the green wicker table and sit in the one vacant green wicker chair and listen to Bernadette talking about the Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called the Divine Office, I have no idea why, but Catholics have funny names for everything, like antiphon and breviary and versicle, which is not “a poem on a stick,” as I suggested, and everyone laughed, which was very gratifying because when one thinks that one is being very clever, it’s good to know that others think so too.

The Hours of Jeanne D'Evreaux

The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreaux

I think that everyone was surprised by my fascination with such a dry subject as the Divine Office, which I had thought was something from long ago… well, which it is, but it is still practiced, or “celebrated,” as Father Dooley says, and he as a priest is obligated to “celebrate” the Liturgy of the Hours, but it is a joy to him, he says, and Bernadette also “celebrates” the Liturgy of the Hours, and Sister Alma Rose says that her daily prayer times are “based on” the Liturgy of the Hours. “Fanny McElroy,” she says, “y’all have been celebrating it with me for years,” and then she laughs and pours me a glass of Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incomparable lemonade.

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1410

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1410

Sister Alma Rose is not Catholic (she has referred to herself as “a Christian Jewish Buddhist,” probably offending adherents of all three religions, but she doesn’t mind — like J. Krishnamurti, she doesn’t mind much of anything, she says, and she is certainly the most serene person I have ever known, though in a crisis she becomes very exercised and shouts prayers to Heaven).

I am not a Catholic either, but there are many things I like about Catholicism, and here is one of them: For two thousand years or so, in spite of corruption and scandal and competition from other religions, and popes who had mistresses and children, and bishops who plotted royal assassinations, and so forth, the Catholic Church has inspired, comforted, counseled, educated, and healed. Irish monks preserved the knowledge from Roman and Greek antiquity by copying a huge lot of documents by hand (read How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill).

Sister Alma Rose has told me about the vile perverted priests who prey on young boys, but I don’t think that those sick men’s transgressions erase all the good that the church has done. And I love the idea of Confession, and the Rosary, and having one’s own personal saint, and Mary the Mother of Jesus, with her woman’s wisdom and her tender heart, and, of course, the Liturgy of the Hours. And, basically, that Catholic worship has gone on uninterrupted for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Some facts about the Liturgy of the Hours

So I ask a thousand questions, and here is some of what I find out about the Divine Office:

It sprang from Jewish prayer practices (“Seven times a day I praise you,” it says in the Psalms)

It began rather simply, with reading or chanting psalms; reading from the Old Testament, the  Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and epistles; and canticles, which are basically hymns from the Bible but not usually from the psalms.

By the end of the fifth century, the Canonical Hours were — and this is a lot of praying and involves getting up in the middle of the night

  • Matins (during the night), sometimes referred to as Vigils or Nocturns, or in monastic usage the Night Office; it is now called the Office of Readings
  • Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at Dawn)
  • Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = 6 a.m.)
  • Terce (rhymes with “purse”) or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = 9 a.m.)
  • Sext (rhymes with “next”) or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = 12 noon)
  • None (rhymes with “John”?) or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = 3 p.m.)
  • Vespers or Evening Prayer (“at the lighting of the lamps”)
  • Compline (KOM-plin) or Night Prayer (before retiring)

Wow! Don’t you love it that the time for Vespers is “at the lighting of the lamps”?

The complete Liturgy of the Hours is contained in the Roman Breviary. Most of the pictures on this page are from personal breviaries made for wealthy people in the Middle Ages.

Très Riches Heures calendar page

Très Riches Heures calendar page

All hours begin with Ps. 69-70 v.2, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me,” and then the doxology:  “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”

The Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer may consist of

  • opening versicle (a short verse said or sung by a priest or minister in public worship and followed by a response from the congregation) or (for morning prayer) the invitatory (Psalm 94)
  • a hymn, composed by the Church
  • two psalms, or parts of psalms with a scriptural canticle. At Morning Prayer, this consists of a psalm of praise, a canticle from the Old Testament, followed by another psalm. At Evening Prayer this consists of two psalms, or one psalm divided into two parts, and a scriptural canticle taken from the New Testament.
  • a short passage from scripture
  • a responsory (chant or anthem recited after a reading in a church service) typically a verse of scripture, but sometimes liturgical poetry
  • a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke: the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus [Blessed be]) for morning prayer, and the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat: The “Song of Mary” from the Gospel of Luke, Magnificat anima mea Dominum = My soul doth magnify the Lord) for evening prayer

    Russian Orthodox icon, Zechariah

    Zechariah, Russian Orthodox icon

Nativity from an Antiphon

Nativity from an Antiphon

It looks complicated, doesn’t it? But I have to tell you, it is refreshing and renewing to drop everything at 3 p.m. or whatever because that is the time you have set aside for prayer. And if you’re not Catholic, you can develop your own structure for prayer and praise, as Sister Alma Rose has done, she created a sort of hybrid of the Divine Office, and Father Dooley says that’s fine with him, he encourages everyone to pray in the way that suits them best, as long as there’s no mutilation of poultry and stuff like that.

Well, you can buy the complete Liturgy of the Hours in four volumes for more money than I have in my piggy bank, which last time I counted was $97.13, I am saving for a school trip to walk the Appalachian Trail, but there are less expensive books, such as those that have only the Morning Prayer and the Evening Prayer.

There is much, much more to be told about the subject, but Bernadette had to leave to go back to Grand Rapids and her Good Works, which she does out of love and not to earn points toward Heaven or anything like that. So I will just tell you that I, Fanny, “celebrate” the Hours four times a day using the website DivineOffice.org, which has an audio version with beautiful music, and there are other websites with text versions. Sometimes I pray with Mama, and sometimes with Sister Alma Rose, and sometimes it’s just I, Fanny.

Even if you are not a Christian, you might enjoy this prayer discipline, which is principally made up of psalms anyway, though the references to Jesus Christ Our Savior might make you cringe, I don’t know. What I do know is that I need and enjoy discipline and structure in my prayer life, and for me, Fanny McElroy, the Divine Office is the beginning of that discipline and structure.

Chant; Troparion; hook-and-banner notation

Chant; Troparion; hook-and-banner notation

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