Monday, April 27, 2009

Looking Into


Art is not an end in itself. It introduces the soul into a higher spiritual order, which it expresses and in some cases explains. Music and art and poetry attune the soul to God because they induce a kind of contact with the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. ~Thomas Merton

Maybe you’ve heard of the celebrity nun, Sister Wendy Beckett of BBC fame. With her down to earth insights into the world of art history, she has carved out a niche through television and books, helping people better understand the world of art. Sister Wendy not only helps us better understand art, she offers sane advice about getting into the habit of meditation. In a September 4, 1997 interview on “Fresh Air”, Sister Wendy shared a few creative ideas for “getting into the habit” of meditation, through the use of classic works of art[1].

First, Wendy encourages people to find a reproduction of a classic work of art. This could be in an art book, on a postcard or from a magazine. She typically chooses works of art from the great master painters and sculptors. The subject does not need to be religious. But it does need to reflect something of the realm of the soul, something beyond our external, daily life. As Sister Wendy describes great painting, Spiritual art is something very much deeper…It will take us beyond our own capacity into something visionary and then will return us to ourselves with a deeper sense of who we are and what life demands of us.

Second, she encourages us to place the art reproduction on a stand in a special place in our home. We’ve purchased inexpensive tabletop easels to display such works of art in our home. A simple solution is to prop up the work of art on a counter or up against a lamp at a bedside table. For people who have computers and internet access, simply download a classic work of art as wallpaper onto your desktop. Every time you turn on your computer and begin to check email, take a few moments to reflect upon that work of art. Again, Sister Wendy reflects upon this step of meditation.I have reproductions of paintings, of sculpture and of ceramics. I always have a postcard up on a little stand. I have a poster on the wall. There is something very pleasant about sitting in your own space with your card up and silence and time.

More from Sister Wendy on this next week.

[1]Sister Wendy Beckett, as interviewed by Terry Gross on PBS: Fresh Air, aired on September 4, 1997. Artwork is by Stefan Robinson, a 4' x 6' painting, photographed by Thomas Robinson.

Monday, April 20, 2009


How beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterwards.

~Traditional Spanish proverb

A few years ago, for the first time in my life, I took a three-month paid leave from my full-time professional life. The fancy title they have for this time is a sabbatical. What is a sabbatical? Three months of sacred laziness. What is the goal? Getting caught up on doing nothing. Preparing for this period of absence from my normal duties presented some big challenges. First, to prepare for three months off, I had do ask a lot of people to step in and agree to do what I usually do. That was tough at first, but it turned into a big relief as I realized that others were not only willing, but able to pick up these tasks and even do them better than I was able.

I’m not administratively wired. One of my favorite rationalizing slogans declares, “A creative mess is better than tidy idleness.” For several weeks, I labored over the details, organizing schedules, calling meeting after meeting with people to pass off the baton of my weekly duties, and to get all the nuts and bolts in the right place. A challenge, but comparatively speaking, this was the easy part.

The hardest task in the preparation period was facing the illusion I had been living under for years: the concept that I’m indispensable. The months leading up to the sabbatical were ruthless reminders of my vanity, thinking I was necessary to the well-being of hundreds of others in the community of faith where I serve as pastor. How will these people get along without me? Quite well actually. What will they do week after week while I’m away? Pretty much what they are doing now; living their lives by faith, loving God, and loving others.

The first few weeks of my sabbatical were a mixed bag of nuts: long hours reading in a comfortable leather chair, staring at the ocean and napping. Occasional twinges of guilt would creep into the day, only to be chased away by that professional sounding title, “sabbatical”, a word with its roots in the Hebrew word for Sabbath, or resting before God. Learning to truly rest takes time and invites us into a whole new rhythm of daily life.

I suppose that’s why we are encouraged to take sabbaticals every seven years or so. Some of us need a reminder every decade that we are mortal. We need help taking off the superman costume, and settling into the ordinary life of being ourselves. More than this, we may need to be forced into a time of sacred laziness, of wasting time for God. In returning and rest, in quietness and trust; we will find our saving grace in such odd places as sacred laziness. Most of us who work full-time with people get ensnared in the trap of human doing, forgetting that we are, first and last, human beings. We’ve become so good at doing, but need every few years to relearn how just to be.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Let nothing disturb you;
Let nothing make you afraid
All things pass;
But God is unchanging,
Patience is enough for everything.
You who have God lack nothing.
God alone is sufficient.
~Teresa of Avila

The ancient song writer sings,
My soul finds rest in God alone (Psalm 62:1). That’s a pretty good way to start the day. In fact, that’s exactly how the Hebrew people viewed the beginning of the day, in sleep. For the faithful Hebrew, the “day” begins with sundown, evening, then night and sleep. Halfway through the “day” we awake refreshed, ready to begin our labor. We close the day at the end of our labor, having received food and refreshment from time with people we love. Then we begin the cycle all over again by simply laying our heads upon a pillow as the new day begins.

Of course the incandescent light, modern marketing, 24-hour grocery stores and our incessant need to be perpetually busy has messed with this ancient rhythm. Have you ever felt in need of slowing down? Does your busy pace of life wear you down? Try taking a sabbatical. I took my first sabbatical several years ago, a three month leave to rest and rejuvenate my mind and soul. It doesn’t have to be a three-month paid leave of absence from your job. A day-long sabbatical is a grand gift if you can swing such a thing. Try breaking off a smaller piece the fresh baked bread of sabbatical rest. Break off a little piece by beginning your morning with a few slow breaths as you recite those ancient song lyrics, “My soul finds rest in God alone, my rescue comes from him.”

Many demands and distractions will continue to knock on the door of our secret garden, that space within our soul set aside for spiritual refreshment. Daily we make choices to listen to those demands or ignore them for the few minutes of quiet and trust anew in the one voice, the Voice of the Shepherd of our souls.

In spite of my ongoing struggle with the many anxieties and distractions in this life, the simple words of Teresa of Avila from five hundred years ago comfort me, helping my soul fly like a dove flying across the ocean, coming to rest once again in quietness and trust at that peaceful island home in the presence of the living God.

The poem by Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was found as a bookmark in her prayerbook after her death.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Children of the Eternal Light


Two April poems by Welsh poet-priest, R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)


And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked.
Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.


It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

The photo, titled "Three Graces", is by Thomas Robinson