Today I attended the memorial service for a dear friend at my church. Jean passed away at age 93, but she was watching and singing with us. It started this morning when one of her daughters, looking down onto the parking lot of her hotel, saw a gold charm in the shape of a heart with ‘Mom’ written on it. It continued as the choir sang Sanctus from Charles Gounod’s “St. Cecilia Mass’. Once again we were reminded that God is love, and God is all around us, to be seen and heard.
Since I began the daily practice of centering prayer in January I’ve been spending less time figuring out about God. God just is; God leads; I follow. Well, it’s not that simple, but that’s the idea. That being said, I admit that I’m still terrible at it. I ‘feel the breath’ a few times and then started planning menus or making travel plans. But I show up, and that, I am told, is all I have to do. Showing up twice a day for twenty minutes means I am committed to this mysterious practice of being with this mysterious presence that I call God.
I must admit how much easier it is to see God’s glorious creation when I am out in the country on a spring walk than when I’m in the city crossing the street on a winter’s day. Spring blossoms are God’s creation par excellence, with no intermediary other than perhaps a gardener. When I walk I clear my mind of the chatter, take in the beauty, and as I say, “Walk around with God.”
I’ve been thinking about free choice human beings have, and which we, the privileged in the western world, have in abundance. I choose what to eat and wear, where to live and what to do each day. Being a Christian, however, puts limits on my freedom; being a Christian requires me to think and do through the lens of love.
One might assume that economic privilege makes it easy for me to be kind, but I don’t see it that way. Like everyone else, I am free to choose to love, and like everyone else, sometimes I am kind, sometimes mean spirited. As a Christian, what makes the difference for me is I am conscious of The Light ahead of me, leading me toward love.
Yesterday I attended a workshop on contemplative prayer (synonymous with centering prayer) at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge. About forty of us sat in a circle in the general purpose room of the undercroft of the monastery listening to Br. Robert and practicing letting go of thoughts as we felt our the breath. It is simple as that. And yet, how hard it is to expand that space between thoughts!
Br. Robert opened the session reading Mark 6:1-6. Jesus is at his hometown synagogue, teaching but not praying. He prays when he goes off by himself, which is a model he has given us for contemplative prayer,
Here are a few nuggets gleaned the workshop.
• Prayers is about relationship with God.
• The purpose of contemplative prayer (and life) is union with the Divine.
• Develop a daily routine for contemplative prayer and follow it. If on a given day you don’t want to, do it anyway. Give up all excuses.
• Br. Robert’s first thought when he wakes up in the morning is about coffee, not God.
Childhood memories of being with God swept through me yesterday as I walked the hilly streets of Fiesole, sat in the park, and prayed at the Chiesa di San Francesco. I was reminded of a recent sermons by one of the Brothers of SSJE who suggested we recall a childhood memory of being with God as a way of tapping into God’s presence in our lives. I filed away the idea, but didn’t consider it until yesterday.
There I was, a three year old playing among the trees, a ten year old in the woods setting up a little private place for myself, and finally as a nineteen year old sitting in the cloister of San Lorenzo here in Florence. Again I was in a place of calm, without obligations or reasons for being other than with God, and that was enough. Yes, I thought, living here in this little monastery would be enough.
The monastic life appeals to me because all that is required is commitment to the Christian message that we love God--the sole message for our souls. And yet, how hard it is to practice, how impossible it is to do on our own. There is no rational way to go through the eye of the needle; only through the Spirit can we feel and experience God’s love; only through the Spirit can we be released from judgments; only through the Spirit can we live only with love. Like the psalmists, we try, we love, we fail, we ask where God is, we plea for help, we love again.
This morning while walking to my favorite café after Centering Prayer, the thought came to me to live through love. Keep love in my mind with everything I do. It’s all about attitude. It started with purchasing a cappuccino.
I started out this morning at 7 to find myself entering the side entrance of the Duomo. The guards were just opening up for 7:30 Mass and prayer and I was the first worshipper. I love the feeling of being alone in a church, just God and me. But this cathedral is never silent; today the banging of doors echoed throughout Brunelleschi’s dome.
I sat for a while looking at a little known painting of the Last Supper at the altar of the central apse before moving to the side chapel where Mass was starting. But no, I couldn’t get into it; I was distracted. So I left and started walking, which is the best way for me to be alone with God in Florence.That’s what I’ve been doing since I arrived.
Most of the time I am filled with gratitude, but when I get restless or sad about the dwindling possibilities that come with aging, I return to my commitment to pray through, with and by God’s spirit. A version of Thy will be done.
I’m wondering if this simple, pure prayer is what faith is all about, although even we church people don’t seem to get it until we are older. I call it The Old Person’s Secret, the secret being our longing to be at rest with God, void of thought, possessions, career, and even vocation or calling. We can’t do this when we are young because we have nothing from which to rest, such as family, friendships, careers, hobbies, creative endeavors, good works, and making a difference. The challenge is to build up positive experiences (that’s where church can support us), so our rest is just that, not escape from a unsatisfying life.
On this trip I notice I am indulging in fewer judgments about what’s going on around me (trash in the streets after Saturday night, loud tourists, etc.).Negative opinions don’t come up as often as they used to. The world keeps happening and instead of praying for things to be different, which as with all judgments implies that I know better (I don’t), I pray for peace and love to be present, and that God’s kingdom be felt and actualized. A version of Thy will be done.
This slideshow is from my visit to San Marco yesterday afternoon. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll recognize many of them, although on each visit I take the pictures anew.
I did a rather daring thing today, daring for me. I attended Mass and took communion. If there are any Catholics reading this, please, I don’t mean to offend. In my UCC church God’s table is open to everyone who wants to follow God’s way of love. I certainly feel do, and more to the Catholic point, I am open to following Christ.
Going up to receive the wafer took great courage on my part because the two other times I took communion in Florence I was reprimanded for not doing in right. Both times were years ago, both at Santa Maria dei Fiori (the Duomo). The first time I put out my hands to receive the wafer only to be startled with a “NO” from the priest who wanted to put it into my mouth (Perhaps he was a pre-Vatican Two priest). I’ve never had a man speak to me as sternly as this priest did. The other time I turned away before putting the wafer in my mouth and was called back by the priest. When he saw that was eating it, he let me go.
We Protestants know (but don’t fully understand) that the Catholic Church only allows communion to its members. This makes us nervous when we privately, and yet faithfully, break this law that we haven’t bought into, and go up to receive. We also know and believe that God, who loves everyone, loves an open table. The fact that we are willing to take communion is enough for God.
The following is also posted on my cottagebythesea blog (along with a slideshow) but I want to add a little here. Just as I don’t read the Bible only as history but how that history speaks to me now, I don’t look at religious paintings only as history (of art), but as living stories with messages for me today.
When I gaze at Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, I think of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will be the Christ bearer. I also ponder what God is asking be to bear, what God is calling me to do in my life.
My observation is that Asians make up the largest group of tourists in Italy these days. It’s a good thing for the economy; they are the ones carrying huge bags out of the high-end designer stores on Via Tournabuoni. I’m talking about pocket books costing $2000 and dresses at $4000. There aren’t enough of us American to keep those shops open. I understand this—well kind of.
In museums and churches I notice Asians glancing at noteworthy pieces of art while intensely reading their guidebooks. For me, on the other hand, the history of western art, and especially the Biblical stories depicted in paintings, are deeply embedded in my mind and spirit. When I visit museums and churches I have an enormous back-history to draw upon, both consciously and unconsciously. It at these times that I am reminded of my superficial viewing of Asian art at the Shanghai Museum in 2003, and I am humbled.
I slept in this morning. Very grateful for this apartment with a view that lets me know life is happening out there but quiet enough for sleeping. From my window I saw a group of elementary school children accompanied by five nuns, all Caucasian, all dressed in full habit—long black robes, white (lots of white) coif and wimple. Occasionally I observe nuns, often of color, dressed in grey, grey-blue, or brown walking the streets of Florence, but this, well, this was startling.
After a cappucchino, I spent time at La Badia, my favorite prayer place. Two groups of children came in with a teachers. For a moment the rustle of coats disturbed me, gratitude took over, gratitude that they were getting a glimpse of the holy interior of the church, and seeing those of us in silent prayer.
Before leaving I lit a candle for two friends, one for peace for his dying mother, another for his wife who has breast cancer, and for him and their seven year old son. Now I’m off to wander the streets of Florence with God, to visit St. Croce.