Sunday, March 29, 2009


Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10

She was lying in a bed in an upstairs room in the home of her daughter in a small town in northern Italy. She had been lying there for a year, suffering from multiple physical ailments common to people in their eighties, as well as the daily grief from missing her husband who died years earlier. Her daughter daily cared for the physical needs of her ailing mother, week after week, month after month. Bathing, skin care, turning, spoon feeding, assisting in the basic tasks of living.

We spent three days in that home resting in quiet. We had been traveling for the previous few weeks on a spiritual pilgrimage across Europe. We came to rest, renew and reconnect with family. Over two decades ago, my brother married an Italian woman and they had been living in northern Italy ever since. While in his home, I found myself drawn to the side of the bed upstairs. There she lay, an Italian widow, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Nonna. She spoke no English. I speak only a few phrases of Italian, just enough to order coffee and brioche. We got along marvelously.

What do you do at the bedside of the dying? What if the dying person is an Italian grandmother who even if you had an idea of what to say to her wouldn’t understand a word you said? As it turned out, the language barrier was no hurdle. We moved around the barrier and met heart to heart in that sacred place beneath words.

We sang. I sang with my voice. Nonna sang with her eyes. I sang an old song in Latin. Dona Nobis Pacem. Grant us peace. She sang with her eyes shining as she attentively listened. I held her hand, chilled to the touch and wrinkled. I bowed my head and asked if she’d like to pray with me, using body language to convey the meaning of my invitation. She brought her hands together in a prayerful clasp. We offered our lives to God together, heart to heart, beyond language, nationality, gender, generation. Even beyond oceans which normally divided us.

Back in my college days, I had a poster on my wall which said, He who sings prays twice. I didn’t really understand the truth behind that saying until I sang Dona Nobis Pacem with Nonna. In that old Latin song, our hearts reached out to ask for and, wonder of wonders, receive the divine gift of peace.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Many people thirst for spiritual life with God, yet all too often we overlook this yearning or simply neglect to care for the soul. During the current season of Lent, a six-week season of spiritual renewal before Easter, how can a person refresh and renew their inner life? Here are my top five habits of the heart.

1. SING: “Beautiful music”, wrote Martin Luther, “is one of the most magnificent and delightful gifts God has given us.” Few other gifts move the human heart as deeply as beautiful music. Every 1st and 3rd Sunday, at 7PM, at Community Presbyterian Church in Cannon Beach, we enjoy TaizĂ© Worship, a candlelight service of singing, Psalms and silence, styled after the TaizĂ© Community in France (see

2. PRAY: “There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God.” (Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God). Like all habits of the heart, prayer grows through practice, through conversing with God in our hearts through the day, while walking on the beach or sipping coffee in the morning (photo above is courtesy of Thomas Robinson at

3. MEDITATE: “My soul finds rest in God alone” (Psalm 62:1). Through the heart habit of meditation, our soul returns again to our resting place in God. Meditation may include soaking in the beauty of God’s creation, writing in a personal journal, or opening to the Psalms or one of the Gospels to meditate upon the prayers and wisdom found in Scripture.

4. RETREAT: Getting away from our regular pattern of living can help our heart find refreshment. I love to get away on spiritual retreat for a few days of silence and solitude each year. I retreat to a Benedictine monastery nearest our home. For more information on Benedictine spiritual life, visit

5. GIVE: There are thousands of creative ways to give help to others. Mother Teresa was known to say, “If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” A wonderful heart habit is helping hungry people around the world or right in your local town or village. Love your neighbor by supporting a local food pantries in your city or region.

This article was first published as the "Take Five" column in the Daily Astorian paper, Astoria, Oregon, March 12, 2009.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


When Michelangelo began work on the Sistine Chapel, his first drawings were not on a ceiling but on scraps of paper called “primo pensieri”, or "first thoughts". Art historians estimate he drew over one thousand of these scribbles, doodles, sketches and cartoons. Fewer than seventy of them survive. Then again, who keeps napkin art? Seen any framed legal pad doodles recently? Ever kept your loose sheets of scribble drawings after playing an evening of Pictionary with friends? This type of drawings do not count as real art in most people’s books. Michelangelo even thought so it seems. Few were saved.

Michelangelo’s primo pensieri carried more value than anyone dreamed possible at the time. If people knew what they would be worth in five hundred years, they would have kept them in bank vaults. Their worth is a lot more than mere current value at Sotheby’s auction. As biographer Ross King writes in Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling,

Fresco painting called for numerous preparatory stages, but among the most vital and indispensable were the drawings by which designs were worked out and then transferred to the wall. Before a single stroke of paint could be applied to the vault of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo needed to produce hundreds of sketches to establish both the intricate body language of the characters and the overall composition of the various scenes.[i]

There's something about King's phrase, "Before a single stroke of paint". The vital, even indispensable work behind the scenes of any great creative work involves first thoughts, those fleeting ideas we have regarding a new venture in life. We don’t think much of these loose scraps of paper, the bits and pieces of our grand plan. Yet, without our primo pensieri, there will be nothing but blank plaster over our heads when people come into our lives.

Of course, Michelangelo’s first thoughts were no mere stick figures or doodles, but detailed studies of human anatomy with a tender pathos in their duotone simplicity. Thankfully, various assistants in his studio grabbed up a few of scrap papers from his studio floor, preserving some of his cartoon studies for posterity.

The question for us has nothing to do with how we will be remembered in five hundred years. We leave that to God. But here’s a great idea from the past. Dare to have first thoughts. Begin today. Scratch out a few lines on the back of an envelope. Doodle a grand concept on a napkin. Daily scratch out a few more first thoughts. Those stick figures marching across your legal pad just may show you the way into the world of your dreams, and into the plans that God has for you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).

[i] Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, (New York, NY: Walker & Company, 2003), 81.

Photo of Study for Libyan Sibyl, by Michelangelo; red chalk drawing; 1510-11

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your whole being
into the image of the Godhead through contemplation!
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
which God Himself has reserved
from the beginning
for those who love Him.

So wrote Clare of Assisi to Agnes of Prague in 1238. The heart habit of contemplation is something like looking into "the mirror of eternity", placing our soul in the "brilliance of glory". In so doing, we allow our whole being to be transformed into "the image of the Godhead" and begin to "taste the hidden sweetness" which God has for all who look into this mirror.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Raven Rock: Hiking in and Hiking Out


Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you new courage....Brothers and sisters, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. ~Father Zossima, from "The Brothers Karamazov", by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crows are communal creatures. They communicate in complex social patterns of speech, live in intentional social structures, and they submit their lives to the corvid pecking order. Ornithologists have studied crows at play, at work, at community gatherings. They’ve discovered them storing food for the winter, playing together and posting sentries to guard their camp. They have attempted to decipher their language and understand their communal way of life. Some odd bird-brain facts. A domestic chicken brain accounts for one tenth of a percent (0.1%) of its body weight. The American Crow’s brain is two and a half percent (2.5%) of its body weight compared with the human brain weighing in at one and a half percent (1.5%) of our body weight.(1) Every time I meet a crow I think to myself, “there must be something remarkable going on inside that head”.

A minister friend told me an odd crow story he witnessed at a wedding in Santa Barbara, California. The bride and groom wanted to share communion on their wedding day. So my minister friend provided a dinner roll as a communion loaf, along with a chalice of wine. During the outdoor ceremony, a crow flew down from a neighboring tree, landed on the edge of the chalice, nearly tipping it over, and with one quick motion, the large bird pecked at the loaf of bread and flew off with it to a branch above the heads of the wedding guests. Then the crow sat for the next few minutes, in full view of the humans below, enjoying its own form of corvid communion while the minister hustled off to obtain another loaf.

I love talking with crows and ravens when I meet them in the village or in the forest. On a hike a few winters back with friends in the Olympic National Park, a raven followed us for several miles, high in the treetops overhead, keeping us company and tracking our progress with deep throaty “Krawwk” calls that echoed through the forest.

I had an odd encounter with a crow a few years ago, while spending the weekend at a retreat center on the north coast of Oregon. Sitting on a park bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean at sunset, I was meditating on a sentence from the Bible when a crow flew up, perched on a nearby telephone pole and started its brash calls. Caw! Caw! Caw! I continued my quiet reflection on the story. Caw! Caw! Caw! I was thinking, “Hey bird, knock it off! I’m trying to enjoy some quiet time down here.” The crow kept up his calls: Caw! Caw! Caw! “Quit already. Can’t you see, I’m trying to enjoy the quiet here!” Caw! Caw! Caw! My eyes returned to the sentence I was pondering. Caw! Caw! Caw! It was only then that I discovered the crow’s secret hidden in the sentence. There they were: three verbs tucked away in that sentence I had been reading and rereading. Go! Close! Pray! When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6).

Go! Close! Pray! An “Aha” ray of spiritual light penetrated into that 1.5% of my body weight also known as my brain. At that exact moment, the crow flew off. I watched its flight across the dunes, offering a prayer of thanks to God for sending that bird to point out a basic pattern for wise living. Go! Close! Pray!

Go! Getting away from distractions requires some forethought. I’ve found it difficult to engage in soul work of meditation in the middle of the muddle. Better to remove our bodies, even just a few steps from the thoroughfare than to be perpetually frustrated at the many irritating interruptions.

Close! Just because you’ve gotten away to a corner chair in a back room doesn’t mean all the distractions cease. What happens is an actual intensification of interior distractions. Quietly closing the door on these takes some soul work as well. I’ve found it helpful to place into my awareness a simple focusing tool, like a candle, some meditative music or a paragraph of sacred writing. Then my eyes, my ears and my mind have something simple to focus upon. Giving in to distractions is not bad. It’s normal. But why not try to settle in to enjoy a few minutes of quiet without them for once.

Pray! Going and closing are merely prep work for the grand event. Enjoy an encounter of intimacy with God. Dwell together. I love the visual way Psalm 23 teaches us to pray. Lie down to rest in a verdant meadow. Sit down next to a cool mountain stream and quench your thirst. Walk together along a path, experiencing guidance, comfort and protection along the way. Feast on a grand banquet, letting your cup be filled to overflowing with good wine. Dwell together with goodness and loving-kindness every day of our life. That’s what I’d call the good life.

It doesn’t take bird brains to figure out what prayer is all about. I don’t know if crows are prayerful birds. One thing I do know. Whenever I’m out in nature, they will always be invited to my table to enjoy a grand feast in the forest.

(1) See Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), 326-331.