Is this not a miracle?


Friends,

Last week I shared with you Mary Lou Kownacki’s description of the Benedictine way of Christian life – from her book: Peace is our Calling: Contemporary Monasticism and the Peace Movement. This week I share some of the multitudes of miracles she witnessed through her attentively observant wonder-filled living. I pray that as we see how she sees – we may begin to see as she sees:

From the introduction of her book The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles, Kownacki writes:

“The real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on the earth,” Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk wrote.

But who believes him?

This is a book about trying to walk on earth, about taking steps to see every moment as a miracle, as a blessing, as a love song from our Creator. The book is also an invitation, an encouragement to find the miraculous in the ordinary events of your life. Try to imagine how different life would be if we all recognised and revelled in the present, in the common, as sacrament. Come, let’s walk together on earth. Let’s celebrate the miracles happening to us moment by moment.

Monday morning
in the inner city.
My guru,
the boom box
on the neighbor’s tenement
roof,
about five yards from my
prayer corner.
This morning
I am offered
a choice of mantras:

“Born in the USA”
or
“Like a Rolling Stone.”

Koans to wrestle with a
lifetime
from Zen masters
Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Is this not a miracle?

Kownacki, Mary Lou. The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles

 

She is still weeping
for the young deer
whose fresh blood
was splattered
on Interstate 80
ten miles ago.

Is this not a miracle?

Kownacki, Mary Lou. The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles

 

O, the books I read,
the retreats I made,
the lectures I attended,
the beads that passed
my fingertips
to understand
what Saint Paul meant
when he told the
Thessalonians
to pray without ceasing.

Then
this morning
I listened
– for the first time –
to the sparrow sing.

Is this not a miracle?

Kownacki, Mary Lou. The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles

 

If on my deathbed
a slight smile plays
upon my lips
know it was
that January walk on the bay
when we first met,
remember:
at dusk,
the light snow,
the thin ice beneath our feet,
your hand
holding my arm tightly,
the circling mist
daring us to continue
walking together
into the winter night.
And we did.

Is this not a miracle?

Kownacki, Mary Lou. The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles

Grace,
Alan

Balanced Living

 

Friends,

Last week, Benedictine Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki died at age 81. You may not have heard of her before but if you have been at CMM over the years – you would have heard me repeatedly teach her interpretation of the Beatitudes. And if you have not, then later this month when the Lectionary readings sit us down to listen to Jesus’ staggering sermon on the mount, I will reach for her interpretation again. Not only a remarkable interpreter of scripture, but a courageous doer of justice and practitioner of mercy. She humbly walked this earth holding the hand of the poor, knowing that she was in fact holding the hand of God. She lived honouring the sacredness of life with every sacred fibre of her own life.

In her 1981 book, Peace is our Calling: Contemporary Monasticism and the Peace Movement, Kownacki beautifully describes the Benedictine way of Christian life. I include some of her description below and encourage you to allow her words to “scan” over your own way of life. Listen out for the words or images or sentence that beeps at you – causing your attention to pause and focus. Hover for a moment over the spot it has touched within you and ask: Why the alert?

BENEDICTINE LIFE IS CENTERED ON COMMUNITY.

The Benedictine way of Christian life was not begun to do any special work. Benedictines are to be living signs that strangers can come together in Christ, care for one another, hold one another up, challenge one another to grow. Our essential ministry is community.

BENEDICTINE LIFE IS FOCUSED BY THREE VOWS: OBEDIENCE, CONVERSION OF LIFE AND STABILITY.

Obedience is a promise to be a faithful listener. … Then we work to respond with generosity and courage. Conversion is a dedication to lifelong growth. We are never fully converted; our lives are a continuing process of listening to the Voice of God, opening our hearts to the Word and growing in love. Daily we pray, “Turn our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.” Stability is a promise to be faithful to one’s sisters as a way of faithfulness to God. We establish the lifelong human bonds so necessary for healing growth. We agree to search for God together, making our journey as honest, as loving, as human as possible.

BENEDICTINE LIFE IS CREATION ORIENTED.

Benedictines look at the world God has created and say: “It is good.” We affirm moderation rather than severe asceticism; transformation within society rather than withdrawal from it.

BENEDICTINE LIFE IS NOURISHED BY THE SCRIPTURES.

Our common prayer, called the Liturgy of the Hours or opus dei, is based on the texts of the Old and New Testaments … If we are faithful, the Word of God enters our life and disrupts it. Often it impels us to disrupt the lives of others. Always it gives peace.

BENEDICTINE LIFE IS CONTEMPLATIVE.

We think there is great wisdom in the words of the psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God.” We try to create an atmosphere of prayerfulness, solitude, silence and leisure in our lives so the Word of God can penetrate our hearts and take root. As we enter into solitude we approach the elusive presence of God, open our true selves, and find inner peace. We come to know that we are made in God’s image and that God is love.

BENEDICTINE LIFE IS ONE OF TOTAL GOSPEL MINISTRY.

The intensity of the contemplative vision draws us, as it did Jesus, “to enter compassionately into the struggle, pain and suffering of the world.” Gradually the Spirit transforms us into contemplatives, impelled to action, who see with the heart of Christ: we find the Creator in all creation; we can look on the face of any woman or man and touch our sister or brother.

BENEDICTINE LIFE IS BALANCED.

Each Benedictine community … is a life with a distinctive rhythm. The community gathers for prayer to mark the coming of light and darkness, the passing of night and day. There is time given to serving others and time set aside for reading and personal prayer. Sisters come together for meals and discussions; individuals are encouraged to spend time in silence and solitude. Periods are devoted to study and hours given to play. All creation is treated with reverence, all time is seen as holy. As the days open and close, as the seasons turn and the cycles of redemption are celebrated, a whole and healing life rhythm begins to flow into time.

The creative balance of forces – if she chooses to internalize them – allows each woman to become her truest self. At the depth of her being, at the ground of her being, she discovers love.

Kownacki, Mary Lou. Peace Is Our Calling: Contemporary Monasticism and the Peace Movement

Grace, Alan

PS: If you have not heard Leonard Cohen’s song Democracy then tap the link “staggering sermon on the mount”.

Lessons from the garden

Photograph: Jenn Forman Orth (Flickr)

 

Friends,

Once a year over Christmas and New Year I go on an all-out gardening binge. A real bender. As with most binges there are some not so lekker consequences. Like getting up in the morning. Every year I am stiffly reminded that gardening is gym by another name. It is all lunges and squats, in the mud rather than the mirror.

My binge gardening consists mainly of pulling things out the ground. It always seems that the stuff I do not want to grow – grows obsessively. Without assistance at all – popping up here there and everywhere. Attaching to this and that and basically taking over everything in their path – including the path. Growing and going where they know they are not supposed to grow and go. All without a care in the world. Trespassing anarchists.

So, I pull them out and cut them back – hacking and chopping and digging – snipping and pruning just don’t cut it. Overwhelmed and impatient, I hire someone with a weed-eater thingy to mow the “invasives” down. But a week or so later they respond with revenge, spawning a 100 fold more. I multiply what I try to defeat. These plants demand to be respected enough to be removed at their root or not at all.

Conversely, almost everything that I want to grow, grows so s-l-o-w-l-y. Sloth-like. I wish the creepers would hurry up and creep up to provide shade, but they stubbornly refuse to stretch skyward. Why are they so slow to do what they are born to do and what their label promises they will do? Surely they can’t be afraid of heights. 

And it is these plants – the ones I hope to hurry up and grow, rather than the others that attract dodgy company. Parasitic company. This then demands loads of my time and attention. Gloves-off attention. Finicky-finger attention. The worst is the exceedingly passionate and persistent parasite called dodder laurel that goes by the common and disarming name, love vine. No doubt because it clings so tightly to the host plant. Each string-like-strand curling round the stems or branches of the host must be individually removed by gently undoing their sticky twines. There is no other way to do it without harming the host. There are no short cuts. Uncurling. Unlearning. Undoing attachments. Ultimately liberating and healing.

Finally, planting never fails to feel foolish. I look at the size of the tomato seeds with suspicion. Each seed simply looks too small to carry their promised nourishment. So, every season I must fight the temptation to not sprinkle a couple of seeds into each finger-poked-bed of soil. Living in a more-is-better-world, my planting mantra becomes: One is enough. One is enough. One is enough.

I am not sure if Paul was a gardener, but I have a feeling he may have been, after all he wrote about planting with Apollos watering and God making it grow [1 Corinthians 3:6]. More to the point in the light of my own gardening experience, Paul wrote: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” [Romans 7:19]. There are few words in all of literature that so acutely describe our human condition as these. I invite you to consider the truth of them in your own life. If gardening doesn’t fit, what is the metaphor you would use to describe how this plays out for you?

Grace,
Alan

Angelic Liberators

Friends,

A few weeks ago I referred you to The Red Hand Files. The Red Hand Files are Nick Caves’ public reply to questions / letters sent to him. Here is his latest that I think tandems today’s Gospel reading rather well. For were it not for angelic intervention a socially “disgraced” Mary would have been dismissed by a so-called religiously “righteous” Joseph and no Gospel would have followed. Throughout the ages men have often been deaf to the truth of angelic liberators. With righteousness weaponised, the rejection of women have followed. These rejections are the real disgrace!

Grace,
Alan

“Yesterday, I was listening to your BBC interview, and the interviewer asked you to discuss the distinction you make between spirituality and religion – I’m interested in this distinction too, and it’s something I wrestle with.

What do you do when you’re a woman who would like the kind of spirituality with rigour that religion affords, but your faith, and much of its rigour is stacked against your sex? What to do, when the faith you were raised in continues to make decisions that isolate women, and prevents women from being fully themselves in the church and the world?

I haven’t been to church, or even prayed for a long time. I’ve been angry at my church because women continue to be discriminated against, and because not all of us were safe there.

Christ is still compelling for me – and while congregations are still mostly made up of women – how do the rest of us practice within a church that we know hates us.”

CLAIRE, SOUTH GOLDEN BEACH, NSW

“Dear Claire,
In many ways, the figure of Jesus is the radical and mystical embodiment of female energy. It is there in the blood thread of suffering that runs from his birth to his death, his emergence bereft of male seed, the mercy and forgiveness he displays and teaches, his nurturing, shepherding love – all of this feels female in its essence. I think perhaps the biggest mistake the church made was to distrust, dismiss and undermine this implicit female energy that pours through the gospels and the idea of spiritual belief itself.
 
I can see why you would reject a theology that seems to have taken that free-flowing spirituality and imprisoned it within an intolerant and hostile masculine construct.
 
Even though I go to church when I can, I am by no means an advocate of organised religion. Like you, I struggle with it. However, I feel the church I attend allows me a lasting structure that can contain my unbelief and belief both – that is to say, my love for the motion, direction and energy of faith, albeit nested in a certain skepticism of its ultimate destination.
 
Certainly church has its challenges, and it may be the last place you might find Christ, if that’s what you’re looking for. But, for me, a church service affords me a place where I can, for an hour or so, put aside my uncertainty and sit within a gathering space – a place of communal and timeless yearning, imperfect though it may be. There are times when my rational mind clamours in and I wonder what I am doing there, yet there are other times when I am genuinely lifted up by its mothering energy – the words and music and liturgy – and I find those ever-present whispers and intimations of spiritual activity, that both haunt my life and give it meaning, to be quite beautifully affirmed. There within that institution I feel the sacred and feminine essence to be revealed.
 
Claire, as I said, I am not an advocate for the church one way or the other, and I wish I had a better answer for you. Sometimes it feels as though part of the work of a spiritual life is to discover a way to transcend the imperfections of the religion itself and attune oneself to its essential nature. This is what I try to do. In any event, I wish you all the best and thank you for your letter. I am sure many will relate to it.
 
Love, Nick”

The Liberating Spirit of Mary

Five years ago on 17 October Yasaman Aryani dared to take off her hijab
and practice her civil disobedience as part of #WhiteWednesdays campaign.

 

Friends,

Every year on the third week of Advent we are invited to sing Mary’s liberation song with her. Few words have ever been spoken that are more radical. Few words have ever been spoken that are a greater threat to the status quo of Empire. Say them aloud if you dare…

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from
generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has
scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our
ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants
for ever.’ (Luke 1:46-55)

Proof of the power of these words is how the powers of Empire responded to them. Empire’s Herod fearfully and lovelessly responded with the systematic state sponsored murder of the innocents. Unjust and oppressive regimes rule by fear and therefore the one thing they fear more than anything else is that people will no longer fear them. Brutal clamp downs of uprisings are clear proof of this fear. We see this in Iran at the moment. Brave and courageous Mary-like-women no longer afraid to reveal their faces and sing of their freedom while the spirit/wind blows through their hair. This terrifies regimes of terror. This freedom campaign against #ForcedHijab in particular and oppression of women in general will be overcome one day.

Five years ago on 17 October Yasaman Aryani, dared to take off her hijab and practice her civil disobedience as part of #WhiteWednesdays campaign. She is paying a heavy price in prison. Even from jail she issued a statement to support Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman who on 16 September 2022, died in a hospital in Tehran, Iran, under suspicious circumstances. The Guidance Patrol, the religious morality police of Iran’s government, arrested Amini for not wearing the hijab in accordance with government standards.

One exiled journalist and activist from Iran, Masih Alinejad says: “The truth is I am not the one they are scared of. They‘re scared of us drops becoming a river … You’re scared that people are no longer scared of you and they can rise up. Whichever woman hears me she sees that our voice is heard worldwide. She feels powerful because she can become a state in her own right. Because Islamic Republic isn’t the real choice of Iranians. Because our elections are a sham.

Long live the liberating spirit of Mary – long live.

Grace,
Alan

 

Advent: Reimagining Our World

 

Friends,

Each week of Advent we are invited to contemplate a different theme: Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. We do so through the lens of ancient texts (this year through the likes of the prophet Isaiah). The texts stretch our understanding of each theme beyond shallow stereotypes. They remind us that hope is not hope, unless it is hope for the whole world.

Hope that is not for all, is for none.

Peace that is not for all, is for none.

Joy that is not for all, is for none.

Love that is not for all, is for none.

The reason, “if they are not for all, they are for none”, is because of our interconnectedness and interdependence. The ancient texts set us free from the false frame of individualism, releasing us from solitary confinement to enter communal solidarity where justice reigns.

Contemplation cannot be rushed. Unlike other things, we are unable to squeeze an hour on contemplation into fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes of contemplation is at most fifteen minutes of contemplation. Nothing more.

The dictionary is clear: To contemplate is to look at or view with continued attention; to survey; to observe or study thoughtfully; to consider thoroughly; think fully or deeply about; to have as a purpose (intend); to have in view as a future event; to think studiously; consider deliberately.

Advent’s invitation for us to contemplate hope, peace, joy and love, is therefore first an invitation for us to carve out time to consider them thoroughly with continued attention, etc.

Grace,
Alan

Artwork: Frances Seward Photography – Abstract Landscapes

 

We are prophets of a future not our own

 

Friends,

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.

It is the start of the Christian calendar.

This calendar invites us to mark time differently.

Not just in years, but in yearnings.

Yearnings for the life-giving ways of justice, mercy, truth and grace that Jesus enfleshed to take root among us in the here and now.

Christian New Year is not just a day, but 4 weeks.

We have 4 weeks to prepare for Jesus’ birth among us.

We prepare for his birth by offering ourselves, as Mary did, to give birth to him.

We give birth to Jesus by practicing justice, mercy, truth and grace.

Perhaps this prayer by Bp. Ken Untener, may help our practice. I invite you to ponder and pray this prayer during these Advent days.

Peace,
Alan

We are Prophets of a Future not Our Own

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

This prayer was first presented by Cardinal Dearden in 1979and quoted by Pope Francis in 2015. This reflection is an excerpt from a homily written for Cardinal Dearden by then-Fr. Ken Untener on the occasion of the Mass for Deceased Priests, October 25, 1979. Pope Francis quoted Cardinal Dearden in his remarks to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2015. Fr. Untener was named bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1980.

 

In good faith …

Friends,

I have wanted to introduce you to The Red Hand Files for a while now. The Red Hand Files are written by Nick Cave – a boldly creative musician and all-round wonderfully wise human. The Red Hand Files are his replies to questions that have been sent to him concerning anything and everything.

This last week in issue #212 he was asked by Laura in the USA: “Is it better to keep quiet or to speak one’s mind?” And Ray from the UK asked: “I have heard you mention “good faith conversations” several times now. What is a good faith conversation and how do you have one?” Here is Nick’s reply:

Dear Laura and Ray,

A good faith conversation begins with curiosity. It looks for common ground while making room for disagreement. It should be primarily about exchange of thoughts and information rather than instruction, and it affords us, among other things, the great privilege of being wrong; we feel supported in our unknowing and, in the sincere spirit of inquiry, free to move around the sometimes treacherous waters of ideas. A good faith conversation strengthens our better ideas and challenges, and hopefully corrects, our low-quality or unsound ideas.

I have learned that it’s best to retract, disengage and to change the subject once a conversation ceases to be in good faith. In general, I have found it to be a waste of time to expend too much energy on someone whose mind is fully made up, who does not understand the nature of conversation and the true value of disagreement. To me, it seems a kind of inverse metric often applies to these kinds of conversations – the shriller, more strident and more certain your interlocutor, the less they tend to know on the subject. I say this with a fair amount of discomfort because there are times when I have been that self-righteous person. Who hasn’t? Who hasn’t felt that near erotic charge when the wind is in the sails of a subject we know little about? As we grow into ourselves, hopefully we learn the folly of that.

A good faith conversation understands fundamentally that we are all flawed and prone to the occasional lamentable idea. It understands and sympathises with the common struggle to articulate our place in the world, to make sense of it, and to breathe meaning into it. It can be illuminating, rewarding and of great value – a good faith conversation begins with curiosity, gropes toward awakening and retires in mercy.

Love, Nick

In a world filled with twitter jabs and clickbait headlines, and where the point of so much public conversation is to score points, may we all be given the grace to have “good faith conversations”. The goodness of one’s Faith depends on it and so does Life on earth.

With grace,
Alan

What if we take Jesus seriously?

Philippi Horticultural Association Press Conference

 

Friends,

With COP27 currently taking place in Egypt, highlighting the complex issues of climate change, the devastation caused by floods and droughts, feast or famine, unscrupulous exploitation of natural and other resources, there is still hope. Hope inspired by people and organisations who have made it their life’s work to bring climate justice to our planet and to those who would otherwise have no voice.

One such group is the Philippi Horticultural Association. This is a group of “farmers who seek to be good stewards of the land, given by the Creator as an ‘amana’ [trust] in safekeeping for future generations to come.” [See press release.]

A 2020 High Court judgement ordered that a proper assessment of the 500ha Oakland City Development on climate change, the aquifer and water scarcity take place. The developers have presented their study. It is now in the hands of MEC Anton Bredell who must make the call and decide whether to approve or not the developers’ proposal. The Western Cape Government had previously adopted the PHA Indego Study Protection Plan and identified the PHA food land as the city’s resilience against climate change. Only time will … either decision will impact the lives, livelihoods and the environment of all affected parties.

The relocation of people who are currently living on the Central Railway line to the Philippi area was announced by the Minister of Transport who apparently had not consulted the Ward Councillor in the Philippi area. The land earmarked belongs to various spheres of government as well as private owners. The impact on the water supply from the Cape Flats Aquifer, food production, the lack of basic services for human settlement and crime are some of the concerns raised by the PHA and others. The impact on climate change will also be felt as food will have to be produced elsewhere and brought from greater distances to the City’s growing population and the overuse of the Aquifer could lead to dwindling water supply. Who can forget the drought we experienced not so long ago! It is also important to know what the impact will be on the farmers who have put all they have into sustaining this project year after year. What will happen to them and their livelihoods? And … what about the people who have nowhere to call home? Where will they live?

Every person has a fundamental constitutional right to adequate housing and basic services. The livelihoods of those who have for many decades provided Cape Town with much needed fresh fruit and vegetables right on its doorstep also have their rights enshrined in our constitution. Where to from here?

The answers of course are far from simple or easy to find. Whatever decisions are taken by the Western Cape Government [and the delegates attending COP27], we are called to be custodians of Creation, to care for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner and not to glean to the edges of our fields. God entrusted the care of all of creation to humans – to care justly and holistically. I would like to suggest that we can start looking for answers by living out the greatest commandment Jesus gives: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Mark 12:30-31.

Justice is needed everywhere. I believe that should all of us (and especially those in powerful positions) take Jesus’ commandment seriously justice will be restored and it will prevail, particularly for the least among us.

With gratitude to all who heed the call for justice.
Adrienne

 

Enduring Blessing

“A Gathering of Spirits”

©Jan Richardson

 

Friends

Sharing with you today this poem by Jan Richardson, a writer, visual artist and retreat leader.

Jan introduces it as follows:

“This year … I am thinking especially of those who have lost beloved ones since this time last year. And I am thinking always of those who have carried grief for a long time. I am grateful that the sacred calendar provides these days to do what so many of us do throughout the year: to remember beloved ones who are no longer here but who somehow journey with us still.

In these days, as we grieve and celebrate our beloved dead, may we know how they endure with us, holding our hearts and encompassing us with a fierce and stubborn love that persists across time and distance. May that love help light our way in the life that is continuing to unfold for us.”

ENDURING BLESSING
What I really want to tell you
is to just lay this blessing
on your forehead,
on your heart;
let it rest
in the palm of your hand,
because there is hardly anything
this blessing could say,
any word it could offer
to fill the hollow.

Let this blessing
work its way
into you
with its lines
that hold nearly
unspeakable lament.

Let this blessing
settle into you
with its hope
more ancient
than knowing.

Hear how this blessing
has not come alone—
how it echoes with
the voices of those
who accompany you,
who attend you in every moment,
who continually whisper
this blessing to you.

Hear how they
do not cease
to walk with you,
even when the dark
is deepest.

Hear how they
encompass you always—
breathing this blessing to you,
bearing this blessing to you
still.

—Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

Grace and peace, Adrienne