I grew up watching my neighbor Hoyt watch the world go by. After Hoyt had retired from the cotton mill, he sat on his porch — a lot. I’m not saying he did nothing, because he also had a large garden and tended football-field-length chicken houses, but this sitting and watching is my strongest image of my friend. And his kindness — he let us use his air pump to inflate our bike tires whenever needed, and once he walked over to our house, barefoot of course, to bring a sack of fresh apples when he knew we were going on a trip, and I never heard him say a harsh word about anyone. . . . [see more]
Far north off England’s east coast, near Scotland, is Holy Island, known as “Lindisfarne” at first millennium’s close. Its vibrant monastery could only be reached from the mainland at low tide, by a path of mud and sand flats, famously described by Sir Walter Scott in Marmion:
Dry-shod, o’er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandalled feet the trace.
Pilgrims of all sorts have visited the island over the centuries, braving its signature strong winds to enter this place of joy. Present-day islanders say the twice daily separation of Holy Island from the mainland gives their home a “magical quality,” which attracted seventh-century Scots-Celtic monk Aidan to found a monastery here, with tides creating the rich isolation for a contemplative community without solely cutting it off. These monks became known for their evangelical spirit, best seen in the breathtaking early-eighth-century illuminated manuscript, The Lindisfarne Gospels, a decade-long act of prayer by the well-named monk, Eadfrith. I can imagine Eadfrith having come in from milking a cow or weeding in the garden — hunched over vellum, stylus in hand, absorbed in crafting this extraordinary manuscript that a thousand-plus years later blesses (Ead-) the world with Christ’s peace (frith). . . . [see more]
Stranded high on a cracking vinyl cushion, I tried not to blink, eyes filling with regret. I’d picked the pixie cut after browsing waiting-room Glamour magazines, but watching six inches of my dark locks lopped off, I thought, Mistake, and as the minutes passed, Disaster. Attractive hair is oxygen to a thirteen-year-old, and my looks defined my nascent personhood. It’s easy to forget the Lord values the heart when living in a community of “mortals look[ing] at the outward appearance” (1 Samuel 16:7).
This began my hair battles, evidence of my feelings of self-loathing. As soon as I got home, I tried fixing the cut by plastering pink Scotch hair-set tape on every wavy chopped tress in futile attempts to get my natural texture to stay down. This proved to be a disaster, showing in the mirror as an odd bubble-gum-pink crown of Band-Aid-sized strips above a tear-streaked brown face. . . . [see more]
Soon after publishing my translation of that medieval book on prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing, I crash-landed in a counselor’s office. I had become a jittery, work-driven insomniac whose old ways of coping had failed. I was living fifteen-hour writing days, becoming eighteen-hour writing days when the rest of my family left me to visit my in-laws in England. On a good night, I slept two-to-three hours. Searching for healing, I don’t even remember how I came into the providential possession of a second-hand book offering “a psychology of prayer,” by two people I’d never heard of, Ann Ulanov and her husband, Barry.
A lifelong fascination with prayer drew me to Primary Speech. By the middle of the first page, I knew here, finally, was someone speaking a language I had experienced and hungered for more of, someone carrying on the work of my much-loved medieval women mystics, whose spiritual sagacity was anchored in and fed by Scripture meditation and whose compassionate living embodied their Christly love-your-neighbor worldview. . . . [see more]
I had worked there three months without even so much as tapping it once. I had, however, eyed, admired, analyzed, wondered at, and resisted it. Scholarship-enabled, I was an anxiety-ridden sophomore at a private college high up on a leafy hill. . . . [see more]
Often I find myself sitting across from a student in my office as the conversation moves from gerunds and infinitives, deadlines and revisions, applications and careers, to family difficulties and personal worries. I pray a lot then. If a student’s stress is greater than my listening can relieve, I gently recommend a counselor, as grateful for these professionals as I am for my equally brave friends the women mystics, their medieval counterparts. . . . [see more]
The low, dull roar of an industrial fan in concert with the higher-pitched hum of the wet-dry vac in my office drew my heart’s easily preoccupied ear to God’s ever underlying, eloquent silence and had me contemplating the power of water. . . . [see more]
Strong lungs gave loud cries that opened my sky and started tears I couldn’t control; this joy’s never-before-ness soaked my cheeks. I wanted to see the new person my husband was holding but had to wait for him to bring her over since a Caesarean had left me flat on my back.
Why are beginnings often so little? A baby. A seed. A second.
My daughter. An oak tree. A new year.
I used to fill the ends of Decembers with resolutions. . . . [see more]
My bottom was already numb, and my skinny shoulder blades ached against the hard wooden pew where weekly as a child I sat obediently a few rows back on the left-hand side of the church with my family. Mostly I spent a lot of time staring at the stack of big black hymn numbers on the hanging board beside the choir, and a favorite pastime was adding up its digits and checking if that number was divisible by three. So adding “475” (4+7+5) and “438” (4+3+8) and “1,” (which I knew by heart to be “Victory in Jesus” and “He Lives” and “Holy, Holy, Holy,”), was 32, and 3+2 adds up to 5, so not divisible by three this time.
But one particular Sunday a strange minister got up, strange because I’d never seen him before, and said something that landed in my soul like a glowing ember. . . . [see more]
The bouquet of shiny red and blue stars jostled each other for position against the car’s soft tan ceiling. The squeak of plastic rubbing plastic made me think about the community that can be nourished by the simple act of buying helium balloons for a friend.
It was Monday, and of course Mondays can be a hard start to the work week. I climbed into our green Ford F150 truck with the mission of celebrating a friend’s success by taking her this floating gift. . . . [see more]
The student pulled the frayed bill of his dark gray baseball cap over his eyebrows and slumped further down on the brown sofa in my office. He had been late again with a paper and came in with the multiple excuses that try any teacher’s patience. I felt that impatience rising in me then and prayed, Help me love this young man. That’s when I noticed how skinny he was and tall, lanky, and somewhat awkward as if still growing into his adult body. I grew over time to have genuine affection for this young man, mainly because I asked God to help me understand him better.
Empathy seems the only path through the interpersonal challenges of life. . . . [see more]
I was watching our seven-year-old son who had been playing a long time, rolling Matchbox cars across “roads” in the den rug’s intricate patterns and blowing car noises through his lips. When I said, “You’re so handsome,” he stopped, looked at me, tilted his head, simply said, “I know,” then resumed crawling across the floor blasting out, “Bbbbbbbbbb.” [see more]
Under the alias “Squire George,” a bearded knight rode from Wartburg Castle and its safety, heading northeast to Wittenberg to check on the Reformation’s progress.1 Bold, high-stakes scenarios were not unusual for this sixteenth-century Christian; however, less well-known is that while being hidden in Wartburg Castle after being excommunicated by the Pope, this high-profile hostage also quietly steeped his soul in Scripture, a lifelong pursuit. . . . [see more]
I was born with a hole in my heart. It tired me out more quickly than my friends on playgrounds and regularly sent me to Egleston Hospital on Atlanta’s Emory University campus to have an EKG’s cold electrodes attached to my chest while caring, serious-faced experts in white coats leaned over me with stethoscopes. When I heard them calling it an “intraventricular septal defect,” I (of course) memorized that to impress my friends. . . . [see more]
I went strawberry-picking with a friend the other day. The afternoon sun was welcome after so many weeks of cold, wet weather, and when it got too warm, a good breeze blew coolness through the rows of low-growing green plants that offered us bright jewels of the rose family and gave me visions of shortcakes piled high with sliced red fruit and crowned with chilled whipped cream. After I loaded that flat box heaped with crimson treasure onto the front seat of my Ford F-150, we rode back enjoying that unforgettable pre-summer perfume. . . . [see more]
This semester I assigned my students a half-day Facebook fast and essay analyzing the experience. Most said Facebook was hard-to-impossible to do without — they schedule extracurricular activities with it, keep up with friends, and, yes, occupy boring hours. They did, however, say fasting from Facebook helped them hear the unaccustomed sound of silence, so we discussed what John of the Cross means when he says, “Silence is God’s first language.” . . . [see more]
Across campus, singing birds pull out all the stops, and students read in hammocks strung between trees; so spring approaches: “Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!” as Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe wrote 400 years ago. Spring has always been popular and much celebrated. Little wonder. The season is about resurrection, rebirth, and new chances. Who doesn’t want that? . . . [see more]
May these wise words shine
on our wintry souls, frozen by loneliness and hurt,
and thaw us.
This invocation opens Following Christ: A Lenten Reader to Stretch Your Soul, and the “wise words” it contains are life-giving writings of Christ’s good friends — Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas à Kempis, Benedict of Nursia, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and John of the Cross, among others. I wrote that prayer for me and for anyone else who has ever experienced an achingly numb soul. . . . [see more]
I go for a walk almost every day, so when I can’t or don’t, I start feeling stiff in the joints . . . of my soul. Walking helps mend my monkey mind, or what I dub “squirrel skull” after the eternally restless, long-tailed rodents chaotically leaping from limb to limb in my yard. . . . [see more]
This week, I got to spend time with a two-month-young baby. At lunch with her parents, I asked and was handed her like a gift and got to walk around with her to the oohs and aahs of the restaurant owner and servers. Her mother said she likes to bounce, . . . [see more]