Monday, November 24, 2014

In Line at the Bank

It was 1974. The Philadelphia Flyers, massive underdogs that they were, had won the Stanley Cup. The Broad Street Bullies, they were called.

On the last night of the finals, I stood outside celebrating the win with friends. The atmosphere was glorious. We cheered a carful of nuns who drove past us, honking their horn, waving white handkerchiefs from every window.

Weeks later, the trophy would be on display downtown. Anybody could go and see it, take pictures, whatever. One Friday afternoon, after work, I took the trolley in to Center City so I could cash my paycheck and have a look at Lord Stanley’s Cup. This was back when you actually got a paycheck on Friday and had to take it to the bank for deposit.

I got my grateful fill of the hubbub around the trophy. I drank in the pure fan glee at the sight of the thing, felt the excitement of everyone of the same mind as myself and then took myself off to the bank. As usual, back in those times, there was a long line at the bank on a Friday afternoon. All manner of humanity stood patiently, or not, holding that piece of paper that meant, “Now you can pay the rent, buy groceries, go to a movie.”

I was vaguely aware of an argument several people ahead of me in line. One woman seemed intent on making her point to another. They did not seem to be “together;” I had the impression that this was a chance encounter, perhaps an argument over whose place was whose in the line, normal stuff for a Friday afternoon in a city.

Then, the more argumentative woman turned around, spotted me in the line, pointed to me and proclaimed, “There. She believes in the power of prayer.”  Of course, I was at a loss for words. Introvert that I am, I didn't want to be drawn into this or any argument.  But she persisted. “Don’t you? You believe in the power of prayer, don't you?”

At this time in my life, I had been attending the Episcopal Church for about three months after several years of no church at all. I did not consider myself an expert on the power of anything. I barely considered myself a believer. But I answered, “Yes, I do.”

Proudly, the woman turned to her partner in argument and said, “There! See?” as if my agreement somehow proved her point. That was all she needed from me. I was a bit stunned at my response, but I didn't regret it. 

There is a reason I have remembered this episode so well after all these years.  Yes, the hockey championship may have cemented it in my mind somewhat, but I think it’s more than that. Somehow, this eccentric woman drew a response from me that has directed my life.

Our director of faith formation always asks the Sunday School children, “Where is God in this story?”

So where is God in this story? It’s logical to dismiss incidents like this. We can conclude that some people are simply odd and like to confront others with pronouncements. We can guess that there is some mental disorder at work freeing such people from normal inhibitions.

Oddly enough, however, if either of these incidents had occurred in a work of fiction, the reader would immediately see the exchange as meaningful, true and important. An author wouldn't insert such a scene without purpose. I am convinced that this real-life encounter was just as meaningful.

All our days are filled with moments of meaning. Everywhere we see evidence of God’s work, we face his image bearers, we use and value his creation, we hear its music. If one moment is a bit sharper than others, if one person seems a bit truer, that is just a tiny taste of God’s kingdom. It’s the merest whiff of God’s will. The worst thing you can do is close yourself off from it as I nearly did. The best you can do is breathe it in and smile. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

To Live a Vowed Life, Part II: Ruled

On October 5th, I was admitted as an Associate of the Order of Julian of Norwich, a contemplative order of monks and nuns of the Episcopal Church. In doing so, I promised to live my life according to the Associate Rule.

Does the idea of rules put you off? Are rules made to be broken? Situations with a lot of rules are generally thought best avoided. A broken rule implies consequences, sometimes severe ones. A contract violated, a discarded vow both provoke bad feelings and a ton of paperwork, as any contract or divorce lawyer will attest. So if anyone wondered about my decision to affiliate with a religious order, the question was always  about the vows.

The vows! Standard issue vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and the bonus vow of prayer. Even my rector, who knows me well, professed himself amazed that I would want to live under vows. People see religious vows as self-imposed trials, stringent tests of a person’s devotion, harshly imposed restrictions of freedom, comfort and even thought. Monastic history is replete with examples of all that and more. 

But religious rules are intended to give, not take away. The vows offered freedom not restriction; they are openings not closures. Modern orders offer this way of life as a gift. The great commandment, to love God and neighbor, is embedded in them all. Affiliate vows are, of course, adapted for persons living in the world so that one may own property, may be married, employed and may live outside the monastery.

Holy Poverty: Affiliates commit to a pledge of financial support to the Order. There is no required amount or percentage. It is a symbolic gesture of commitment as well as a gesture of non-attachment to material wealth. Additionally, the affiliate strives to free herself from the power that possessions can have. We recognize that our real dependence is on God.

Holy Chastity: Desire, of course, comes from God. Our desires, our sexual energy, our creative forces point toward God. Just as any appetite can become a means of gratification of the ego, so can the same appetites prompt gratitude and holiness. Partnerships (and there is no distinction made between same or opposite sex unions, by the way) for affiliates are meant to be life-long, exclusive and non-abusive. Of course, one may be single as well. Affiliates who are embarking on a partnership or ending one are urged to pray and seek spiritual direction.

Holy Obedience: A while ago I posted about my attitude toward obedience. Obedience has a bad reputation. Images of penances, starvation, and actual harm come to mind. Certainly abuses of power in prisons and totalitarian regimes suggest that obedience is to be avoided at all costs.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the term “faith formation.” Generally, it refers to efforts of the church to develop faith among its congregants. This is a good thing. But, for me, it also means that my faith is forming me. I am allowing my church, its creeds, its prayers and its liturgy to actually form me into a new person. So, too, with my vow of obedience. The Order of Julian with its, admittedly few, disciplines will form me. Even as I question doctrine, even as I am find myself on one side or another about a moral question, I will be formed by the church and the Order and made new. 

Holy Prayer: The Order of Julian is the only religious order that requires a vow of prayer. As an associate I am required to say one daily office and a special prayer asking God’s help for all in the Order. I am also expected to spend some hours each week in silent prayer. Beyond that I am vowed to continue serious religious reading and to make a life-long study of Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love. In terms of time and effort, the rule of Prayer is probably the most demanding.  Affiliates will differ in the amount of time they can devote to prayer and study. I may have plenty of time now, but next year obligations may keep me from spending so much time praying and reading.

As to the daily office, the Order uses the traditional appointment of psalms as shown in the Book of Common Prayer. Proceeding from the first psalm straight on to the 150th, the entire psalter is covered each month. As of November 1st, I have adopted this practice. At first I thought this would be disorienting, but it is quite the reverse. Of course, the office takes a bit longer, but just a bit. 

Living these vows is a work in progress. I may adhere to one or another differently from year to year. I may be granted a deeper understanding of one or the other and pursue that revelation. I may falter in my practice. Perhaps I will feel discouraged or abandoned. Something in my life may disrupt my practice or my disposition. I may gain or lose in grace and love.

Whatever happens, I have back up. I have people praying for me every day. I have individuals I can turn to. I have a monastery that I can go to for retreat and reflection. I have my vows that will keep me pointed toward my Savior and Redeemer.

Affiliation with The Order of Julian of Norwich is at two levels, the Associate and the Oblate. I am an Associate. There are many of us all over the world. We strengthen and bless each other and, with God’s help, we strengthen and bless all creation.

The Order has a lovely website where you can read more about monastic life and affiliate vows. The ipublications are especially interesting, especially to the theology-minded. The photo albums reveal much of monastery life; a talented photographer shares images of the place and the work there. I hope that you will visit the web site and also that you will see the many ways that our faith and our church find expression in the lives of the people.

Monday, November 10, 2014

To Live a Vowed Life - Part I - Chosen

A spiritual journey is a strange thing. It rarely makes sense in the living of it. Occasionally, there will be some gift of the Spirit and you think, “Oh, I bet that was God.” You wander about and find yourself inexplicably loving a complete stranger that you see for a moment on the street or on the bus. If you’re very lucky or very smart, you think once again, “Oh, that was God doing that.”

Then, in church you hear words that you’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, and they jolt you. Maybe it’s “The gifts of God for the people of God,” or “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” But this time, the words stun you. Suddenly, the Eucharist is a massive treatise on theology, and creation screams with the presence of God.

Personally, I am not fond of explanations, neither about my life, nor about anyone’s. It’s as easy to say that God has a plan as it is to say that everything is random. Explanations don't help. Let’s just live into our faith and our beingness. 

About a year ago, I suddenly felt the need to find a way to go off and pray, to live for some days in silence and contemplation. I also felt the need to connect to someone or something beyond my parish (much as I love my parish). Although wanting a silent retreat was a normal desire for me and one I've fed variously throughout my life, this intense desire to become a part of a contemplative religious body was new.

With a search in (God’s gift of) Google, I found Julian House Monastery just one state away. I posted about that visit here. After four wonderful days there, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to affiliate with the Order of Julian of Norwich. I submitted a petition and after some months of discernment on their part and mine, and quite a bit of paperwork, I was received. My admission rite was performed on October 5th of this year. My rector kindly recommended me, and three generous fellow parishioners sponsored me.

I have a medal that I wear around my neck. I may add the initials AOJN after my name. I have made vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and prayer.  I will be invited to the affiliates’ get-together, Julian Fest, in June. I am very, very happy.  People are happy for me. Probably it was God doing it.

Looking back over my life, my path, my journey, I can discern that this development makes sense for me, but I can just as easily see it as out of step with my experience. I could have easily ended up in a different church or no church, much less, in a religious Order. I could have had several husbands or none. I could have been some sophisticated literary person at a cocktail party or a selfless charity worker spending every weekend at a homeless shelter.  

The gift of this vocation is precious to me. I thank God for it every day. I know without a doubt that God is moving in my life every moment. This knowledge, however, simply assures me that God is moving in all our lives. What looks special from the outside, the medal, the letters, the vows, is really just my ordinary life now, just as a job in a coffee shop or a bank might be someone else’s ordinary life.

I resist the notion of God’s preference. God might have chosen Mary to be the mother of Christ, but does that mean that he loved her more than anyone else in Nazareth, or in the world? I don’t think so. God chose Abraham to be the father of millions, but did God actually esteem this man above any other? I cannot believe it. Just as I cannot believe that my call to a contemplative life proves that I am of a higher order in God’s, or anyone’s eyes. I don’t want to weigh the grace that I receive against anyone or anything.

My grandfather had favorites among his children. (My grandmother did not.) He played them off against each other all his life with predictable results: they never gave up snarling at each other. People would say he was playing God, but I don’t think God plays like that. It’s when we try to make sense of things, when we ascribe preferment to this or that person or this or that tribe that we lose sight of God. Life is not a game; only games are games. Winners and losers are for baseball and checkers and Monopoly. In life we are all winners.

God must love us all, magnificently and equally; we needn't jockey for favor. This is Julian’s teaching and I willingly admit her influence. Julian said that when God looks at us, all he sees is the brilliant beautiful beings he created. God sees us not as we see ourselves, nor as my grandfather saw his children. Is God blind to our sins? No. God sees the pain and sorrow that our sin causes and God feels every ounce of it. 

When I compose myself to say my prayers, when I study my vows, I know that these prayers, these vows, my life connect me to all of humanity. We are on level terms. We are all the apple of his eye.  

Next week I reflect on my vows. (Everyone is mad curious about my vows.)