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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Cottonwoods

cottonwood by riverHow I love the cottonwood trees that grow fast by my window. In spring, the females produce tiny red flowers, then small, hard seeds with cottony coats. The bark on young trees is smooth and white or gray; it wrinkles, as I do, slowly, with age. The shoots are stout, the leaves are spirally arranged, triangular or round, lustrous green on top and pale on the undersides. When the wind blows, the fluttering leaves sparkle like water droplets in sunlight. They slap against each other, clapping, whispering, chattering in the breeze. In autumn the leaves turn to brilliant yellow.

Cottonwoods cluster by the streams and rivers of the plains. The root systems are shallow and spread like long-fingered hands, sometimes outreaching the canopies, soaking up the fresh water they need to thrive.

O God, let me take to the sky like a cottonwood seed. Make me bright and sociable like that tree’s shining leaves. Nourish me with the water of life so that I too might send out long and robust roots that anchor me in storms. Keep me content to grow and flourish where I’m planted.

Amen.

What Do You Want from Me?

Chocolate Ice Cream Sundae

When I pay my rent, utilities, and phone bill, and I buy the necessary groceries, and I have a bit left over for a small extravagance, do you want my hot-fudge sundae, God?

Do you want me deprived or prosperous? Do you want me confident or needy? When I see the poorest of the poor among your children, do you want my pity or my activity?

Do you want me to volunteer among the elderly, even though it would be (almost literally) the blind leading the blind?

Do you want me to show up for the homeless or at protest rallies or the Red Cross?

Do you want me to take up chanting, make a gratitude journal, or crochet blankets for children in third-world countries?

Or do you want me to be like Brother Lawrence, wanting nothing but what you want in things both great and small… not even taking up a piece of straw from the ground if I thought you didn’t want me to but running to pick it up out of love for you if that is what you want?

Do you want me to wake up every morning and cheerfully to give you the day, confident that you will guide me to the place where joy meets grace, and certain, as I take my rest, that you have done precisely that?

Do you want my sickness and my pain? They are of no use to me except to waken my awareness of your presence.

Do you want my heart? I grant it to you freely, hoping you can chip away the crust and shine your light into the corners.

Do you want my purpose? Here it is, and here is my prayer, too.

All I have I give to you. Amen.

Sunday Prayers

Four_siblings_in_their_Sunday_clothes_19th_century

Prayer was a dress-up occasion when I was a child. We did it on Sundays in black patent-leather party shoes, white cotton socks, white cotton gloves, and freshly pressed linen dresses with puff sleeves, smocked bodices, and grosgrain ribbon at the waist. Organ music by Bach or Praetorius reached the loftiest spaces of the nave, and deep-voiced men intoned with piety: “Let us pray.” We wondered if we had forgotten something. Were we fully prepared to become fervent?

No, we must not have been, for our minds wandered. Our ears heard, “Hallowed be thy name,” but our thoughts strayed like children distracted from a well-trod path by ducklings in the pond just over there. And if we caught a phrase or two—“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—we shrank back in shame; our hearts were not in it. “Thy will” must surely be something onerous, like being kind to our loathsome brother; keeping our room clean; befriending homely, awkward children; and putting all of our allowance in the offering plate. “Thy will” would never be anything pleasant or fun, according to our Sunday-school teachers, at any rate, whose own children were shrill and quarrelsome and picked their noses.

Our Sunday-school teachers described a judgmental Jesus, frightening us with too-frequent readings from Revelation and making a hash of the parables in the Gospels so that we thought we would burn in hell like the tares among the wheat, never mind that we didn’t know what “tares” were. Our teachers didn’t talk about the magnificent Jesus who loved us no matter what we did or, worse yet, what we thought. They didn’t quote John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

We thank you, God, for helping us hang in there! We are grateful for the wise teachers who read to us from Romans 8:26: “…The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”

Amen.

Captivity

Blue_Jay_(Jim_Ridley_2010.)

God, I cannot see. The lids are heavy on
my eyes; they close involuntarily. They
want to send me back to sleep, and I would
readily obey, except the day’s too fine,
the world is busy soaking up the sun.
Am I the only one who’s overcome by
lassitude? Is mine the only drowsy heart?
The children in their back yards kick their
soccer balls from fence to hedge; each
footfall is a separate victory. The new spring
grass is long enough to need a mowing.
Engines chugging, droning, coughing mask
the softer sounds—the women planting
dahlias, petunias, zinnias… roses if they are
ambitious. How I long to be among them
and to have a garden of my own.

I should be so much that I am not. I should
not be so alone. I should be more sociable,
more cheerful, and more passionate for
other creatures’ happiness—for mine is
certified. The robins tell me so, as do the
redbirds and the sparrows. Even raucous
blue jays say aloud, Go out and dance! But
I, you know, am vaguely unwell. I am weary
of myself.

Shake off this torpor, woman trapped in
twilight. You are made of carbon, oxygen,
and other elements like other humans in
their lucent shells. Your spirit shines like
theirs with no exertion on your part.
You are a work of art the angels have
composed, conceived by the Divine, by grace,
for love, not striving, straining. Look your
captor in the eye—it vanishes; your shackles
fall like rain. Earth swallows them.
Look now! They never were, nor
will they be again.

Amen.


Image: Wikipedia Commons, Jim Ridley

First the Quiet, Then the Dawn

Noli_me_tangere,_fresco_by_Fra_Angelico-1440-1442

Noli Me Tangere, Fra Angelico, 1440-1442

Creator, speak to us of life, and may your
voice be stronger than the noise of our
confusion. Shout, if shout you must, so
loudly that we can’t mistake your
teaching for the rolling thunder,
blasting guns, or animals stampeding,
panicked, running reasonless except to
separate their heaving bodies from the
pandemonium behind them. May we
turn to you and hear an utterance of
life so clear it slices through the clutter
of the evening news, the arguments, the
blame, the words of fear, the hate, the
litany of retribution.

God of Earth and Heaven, we have
seen too much of death. Now we are
ready; we would hear you: Tell us
where to find this life, however near or
far away. Direct us to the distant
forest or the unkempt field where
living seeds—so generously sown yet
carelessly received, so easily displaced by
clumsy feet, so poorly tended, long
neglected, overcome by brash,
aggressive weeds unchecked—have
taken root and thrived in spite of
lassitude, unkindness, or abandonment.

The rain, it seems, is overdue and ends
too soon; the sky too pale, the sun
irresolute or vicious, alternating days;
the earth depleted, soil once dark and
rich with nourishment now turned to
dust. The gardens that in seasons past
have flourished now send up weak,
scattered seedlings, delicate, bug-ridden,
subject to disease and rot.

And then come summer storms that even
oaks and beeches and the hardiest of
shrubs succumb to. How we long for
spring, remembering warm afternoons
and honeybees, industriously pollinating
cherry trees and making golden honey
thick with sweetness. How, we wonder,
did the yield go tough and bitter? What
now shall we eat for strength and
courage, nature having turned against
us, poisoning the harvest, if indeed a
stalk remains for reaping?

Creator, we were not expecting such an
answer as the one alighting like a
feather on a puff of wind… not even
certain you had heard us… not
anticipating anything like peace or
purpose… just a tiny dose of courage,
strength enough for one more midnight.
First the quiet, then the early dawn;
eyes to discern wheat ripe for cutting,
grapes plump on the vine; ears to hear
wagon wheels turning and the soft tread
of workers who appear as the sun clears the
far hills, ready to haul away decaying
branches and dry leaves and bring in the
crop that bursts with life beneath.
Yesterday was meant for sorrow. Now
you call us to the season and the
work at hand—to serve the hungry,
heal the hurting, carry comfort to the
shocked and grieving, stunned by
unimaginable loss. The time for
feasting will be soon enough. Now
you call: Come, labor on.

Amen.

 

I Am Prayer Again

by Rainer Maria Rilke

rainer Maria RilkeI am praying again, Awesome One,
You hear me again as words from the depths rush toward you in wind.
I’ve been scattered in pieces in alleyways.
I sweep myself out of garbage and broken glass.
With my half-mouth I stammer you who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands in wordless beseeching that I may find again the eyes with which I once beheld you.
I am a house gutted by fire where the guilty sometimes sleep before the punishment that devours them hounds them out into the open.
I am a city by the sea, sinking into a toxic tide.
I am strange to myself as though someone unknown had poisoned my mother as she carried me.
It’s here in all the pieces of my shame that I now find myself again.
How I yearn to belong to something, to be contained in an all-embracing mind that sees me as a single thing.
And I yearn to be held in the great hands of your heart.
Oh let them take me now.
Into your hands I place these fragments, my life, and you my God spend them however you want.