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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Prayer on a Summer Day

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” writes the poet Mary Oliver in her poem, “A Summer Day.”
Do you know exactly what a prayer is? Like the poet, I do not, not really, not with any certainty. And yet, for most of my life, I have felt called to pray.   
That doesn’t mean that I have always responded faithfully to that call. Nor does it mean that my habits of prayer, when I have managed to establish them, have always taken the same form. Sometimes I have walked my prayers. Sometimes I have written or drawn them. Sometimes I have used prayer books, and other times, prayer beads.
My most recent prayer habit, which took place first thing in the morning, included an extended period of inner stillness. That practice has dissolved in recent weeks, however, first with the adoption of a puppy, and then with the arrival of two grandchildren, ages 7 and 9, for a three-week visit. The resulting changes in household dynamics gotten me thinking again about how to pray.    
After confessing that she doesn’t “know exactly what a prayer is,” Oliver adds, “I DO know how to pay attention” (my emphasis). The things she writes about paying attention to on her summer day are different from—and generally quieter than—those I am currently paying attention to on my summer days. She watches a grasshopper chew. I watch for cues that the puppy needs to go outside to potty. She falls down on her knees in the grass and strolls through fields. I play Sorry! with my grandchildren, fill an inflatable pool for them in the backyard, and share popcorn in a dark theater during the last of the Harry Potter movies.
Are those activities prayer? Probably not, at least not in any traditional sense. But perhaps yes if, as I go about them, I can remain fully aware of and present to the goodness inherent in all of God’s creatures. Later there will be time to resume other forms of prayer, but today, if I can simply pay attention, perhaps that is enough.

Angier Brock

The Summer Day   
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
"The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver, from The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays. © Beacon Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Call and Recall

It has struck me that often we use the terms disciples  and apostles  for the twelve as if they were synonymous, but first they are called to be with  Christ, to learn and grow in that relationship, as pupils or disciples, and then they are sent  as apostles.  And still they are not ready for Good Friday, and even after Pentecost there is a period of learning together and coming to understand their continuing call.  It seems that the call to discipleship precedes and continues beyond any particular task, and yet we often use the term “call” to describe a task, work to be done, even the choice of career, putting the cart of mission before the horse of discipleship. 
An alternative approach would recognize every form of service as a way of learning Who it is we serve.  The Easter season is all about a series of recognitions, an essential and continuing sequel to the resurrection that allows the disciples, recalling what they have seen and heard, to reflect on its  meaning, reinterpreting it in the light of familiar scriptures.  They will continue as apostles, responding to a continuing call that becomes clearer and more meaningful as they go along  (“Did not our hearts burn within us. . . ?”). The process of learning is part of the call. 
Often too, looking back and finding new meaning in the past, recognizing the role of grace, becomes a kind of retrospective call.  I was away from the Church for some twenty years, and my  return meant extended reflection and self-examination.  There seemed to be no way to calculate the sins of omission -- the tasks I might have been called to do if I had been listening -- but a wise priest said, "it seems to me that you have been trying to be a good person," and instructed me to go and sit in a quiet church and spend some time reviewing what I had to be grateful for. In the end I made a kind of project of it over several weeks, thinking I should spend at least as much time, thought, and prayer on gratitude as on repentance, and gradually I realized that part of what I was grateful for was having worked in various ways that I had thought would be "helpful" and expressed my ethical concerns.  I realized that without seeing these as calls I had been allowed to serve.  (How many "former" Christians do we all know, working hard in the non-profit world for social justice or peace?)  That in turn made me realize that God had been with me all along, grace not only bringing me slowly back but guiding some of my choices in ways I didn't recognize.  At that point I was called – recalled – to a new understanding and recognition that I could offer to God the work I had done during those years of absence, not as compensating in any sense but as a usable foundation for responding to what would come next.
Sometimes we do things without knowing why but simply because "it is time" or part of a current job or role description.  Parenthood is like that.  We work and love, thinking "of course," as if what we are doing just came naturally, but at the same time we are learning love and caring and attention that can be turned outward and made more inclusive as time goes on.  Part of the continuity to discover in later adulthood is to discover the grace of God's call in whatever good we may have done along the way, as a guide to the way forward, called and recalled.

Mary Catherine Bateson is the author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, and a Cultural Anthropologist.  For more information about her, and the other books she has written, please go to her website: www.marycatherinebateson.com

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Resonance by Mary Catherine Bateson

I have sometimes prayed, "Use me, Lord."  (Or, with St. Francis, "Make me an instrument of your peace.")  But these prayers only make sense if I remember that a loving God does not merely "use" anyone -- that any call is at least as much for the sake of the person called as it is for some other person or group to be served, and that what I may think I do for God is actually a gift, a grace, from God. Too often we overemphasize the second: we may do good and useful work but miss half of what is happening.  There remains a part -- the greater part perhaps -- of the call unanswered and unnoticed.  Yet any call, even to the smallest unconsidered kindness, has echoes and layers of resonance to explore.
Let’s imagine I spend a couple of weekends helping a widowed uncle clear out his house to move to an assisted living facility. 
1.                 I have taken on a task that obviously falls to me, as I am the only available family member (packing, sorting, lugging boxes, but even more listening to his memories and assisting his decisions).  
2.                 I may or may not see the time and effort I am giving to my uncle as a response to a call and/or as an offering to God.
3.                 But in serving my uncle I am called to recognize Christ in him (“Whatsoever you do for...”), in spite of the ambivalence he surely feels about the move (which may make him fairly irritable).
4.       And in serving my uncle I can recognize an imitation of Christ and I am called to  recognize Christ in myself (“We shall be like him…”).
5.       I am in training for whatever comes next.

It turns out that, when I think I have finished the job and done my duty, I may have noticed only a quarter of what was happening, and my discernment is incomplete.  Like money put in the collection plate that symbolizes an offering of oneself, the job done was a token of a long term process.  This particular task to which I was called was a brief passage in a continuing conversation, and in that sense it is not over. 
What have I learned from the time I spent with my uncle?  What kind of follow up should I offer to him in this difficult transition?  How will my participation in his experience affect my own maturation and aging?  What have I learned about listening for God’s continuing call? 
Perhaps one of our habitual failures is the failure to learn as we go along, or to become aware through reflection of our learning.  My uncle thanks me.  But as I look back on the process, I find that I too am giving thanks. 

Mary Catherine Bateson is the author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom and a Cultural Anthropologist.  For more information about her and the other books she has written, please go to her website: www.marycatherinebateson.com