Living Stones, Spiritual Milk, and Soul Growth

Come to him [Christ], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  — 1 Peter 2:4-5.

This week I have been pondering this verse, taken from the First Letter of Peter, which will be proclaimed this Sunday at many Christian churches throughout the world.

Peter—whose name means “rock”– calls Christ a living stone, and later in the passage, a cornerstone, the important foundation for the beginning of a building. He also calls us living stones that God is building into a spiritual house or temple. Although each one of us is uniquely gifted, each one of us has our identity and space in the building, our relationship to each other. Individually, we are loved by God, but together we form something even better and bigger than ourselves, the “spiritual house” God is building.

Having been raised Catholic, I can’t help but notice that Peter, the Rock, whom many call the first pope, doesn’t say anything about popes, cardinals, bishops, or other hierarchy in this reading. All are “rocks,” built together upon the Cornerstone, Christ. Peter calls all of us together a holy priesthood, whose purpose is to offer spiritual sacrifices to God.

But what is meant by living stones?

Unlike inanimate matter, Peter doesn’t want us to just “sit there,” motionless. We are to be strong, like rocks, in our faith in God, no matter what the weather brings, but we are also to be alive, growing, moving, and changing more and more each day into the image of Christ.

Churches who use the Revised Common Lectionary this Sunday, will hear the words of Peter just prior to these verses, and I think it’s worth looking at how these verses illuminate what the writer meant by “living” stones. Just before he writes about the living stones, Peter writes:

 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.  (1 Peter 2:2-3)

At first I didn’t think there was any connection between this verse on drinking spiritual milk and the living stones. However, the original text would not have had paragraph indentations and periods at the end of sentences. The writer was flowing from one thought to the next.

Peter exhorts us to long for spiritual milk from God (food like Eucharist?), so that we can keep growing in the Lord. We forget to consider that in biblical times there was no packaged infant formula. The only way an infant was fed was directly from the mother’s body (or a “wet nurse”). The original hearers would have imaged a mother feeding her baby when they heard this verse and perhaps thought of God as feeding them directly from himself in the Eucharistic feast. (I am not the first person to think of this. See May 5th post.)

Although we must be strong in faith, like rocks, we are also to be fluid, moving, and growing, like a newborn baby. God is both the builder who is creating a strong church community and the mother who is feeding us directly with God’s self. (I think of Eucharist here, but I suppose additionally, in a mystical sense, the Spirit feeds us in the depths of our hearts as well.)

If you stop to think about it, these are amazing ideas: a God who is constantly supporting us, feeding us, building us up, not only individually, but together, in interdependent relationships.

O God, Sacred Builder and Divine Nurturer, help us to be strong as rocks in our faith in You, and as innocent and reliant upon You as a newborn baby is upon his or her mother.

Until next time, Amen!

Sumi Painting, Chi, Creativity and the Spirit

 

In the past year or two I have been digging into my artistic side by taking watercolor classes. Last fall, I signed up for a workshop called “Sumi and Soul” by Yuming Zhu, a professional artist who was born in China and currently lives in Seattle, Washington. I received so much from the experience that I signed up for another two-day workshop this spring with the same teacher.

Artist Yuming Zhu at Sumi painting workshop, 2011, Bloomington, MN--photo by Julie McCarty

Painting in the Chinese or Japanese way is quite different from the European style. In sumi painting, one holds the brush differently, and uses materials that more closely resemble ink and tissue paper than oils and canvas. Rather than painting with just your hand or arm, it is more as if your whole body is painting, from your own “center of gravity” someplace deep in your body. The philosophical or spiritual underpinnings are different as well, something the teacher mentioned in a gentle way, here and there, without harping or preaching.

Julie trying out Sumi painting at Yuming Zhu's workshop at the Bloomington Art Center in Minnesota--2011

My experience of the workshops with Yuming was very positive. As a writer, I am often too tense or perfectionist, which blocks the flow of words onto the paper. The Sumi workshop helped me to view my writing in a different way, to open up myself to letting the creativity flow more freely without fear of making “mistakes.” This fear is a real block to creativity, and “Mary Francis” (what I call the “good little Catholic girl” inside me) needs to let go of these fears.

 One of the many things I learned about in this workshop was the Chinese concept of chi, a word that means something like “energy” or “life force” in English. Here’s what About.com says about chi:

Ch’i (also spelled Chi or Qi) is a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy and culture. Found in Chinese traditional religion but especially Taoism, Ch’i literally means “air” or “breath,” but as a concept it refers to the energy flow or life force that is said to pervade all things. (Read more here or also here.)

On the second day of Yuming Zhu's workshop, students arrived with energy--photo by Julie McCarty, 2011

The concept of chi intrigues me. Because I follow Christ, the idea of chi made me think of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit moves, creates, and breathes in us. In fact, in the original bible languages, the word “spirit” is the same is the word “breath.” It was “spirit” that God “breathed” into the first human in one biblical Creation story.

 
Too often, Christians think of God as rigid, stable, unchanging–and I’m sure there is certainly the element of stability and permanence in the best sense in the Divine Being we Westerners call “God.” I don’t deny that truth. However, on the other hand, the Spirit is called Creator Spiritus, the divine Spirit that Genesis tells us “hovered over the waters” during the creation of the cosmos. This Spirit of God is alive, dynamic, moving, active. Jesus compared the Spirit to the wind: you do not see it, or where it is going, but you know it it there.
Yuming Zhu's painting demo, Bloomington Art Center workshop, Spring, 2011--photo by Julie McCarty
I wonder what would happen if Christians of today took Creator Spirit seriously, that person of God known for movement, action, creativity, and breath. Would the Creative Spirit bring about something new? Something beautiful? Something prophetic, that is revealing truth and compassion?

I wonder, dear reader, what good things might the chi within you or me, our inner energy, want to create today? What newness of life might the Spirit of God want us to bring to birth this week, this year? How might we live the Resurrection of Christ, that image of energy, bursting out of the tomb, right here, right now in this moment?

Note: To view artwork by Yuming Zhu or find workshops, visit his website http://www.yumingfineart.com/about.htm  or on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/mypainting

The Veil Torn in Two–Removing Obstacles in the Spiritual Life

After the long winter, it was good to see the ground again, even if the grass was flat and brown. One recent Saturday, when the only snow left was a couple of mountains near our driveway, my husband Terry spread the snow out across the lawn to speed up the melting. He said he wanted the exercise of shoveling and, after all, it felt good to get outside in the fresh spring air.

Secretly, I thought it wasn’t necessary, but I understood well the desire to be done with winter. Besides, I knew there were flower bulbs underneath that giant snow pile by the mailbox, and I thought perhaps we might see some blossoms a little bit sooner if the thick veil of snow was removed.

We were in for a big surprise: the very next morning, little shoots were peeking out of the soil. I still can’t get over it. How can a bulb that is several inches beneath the surface, and just the day before also beneath a couple feet of snow, push its way to the surface in less than 24 hours?

This experience made me think of the many obstacles, like mountains of snow, that sometimes block spiritual growth or the deepening of our relationship with God. We may have certain behaviors in our lives that are sinful, or bad habits that keep us from our maximum potential. Soft addictions (see my March 24 post) may keep us occupied in ways that prevent us from having the time for more productive activities or more attentive prayer lives.

But it is not God’s desire that anything keep us apart from the divine presence. In upcoming days, Christians throughout the world will be meditating on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We read in Matthew’s gospel that at the moment when Jesus released his spirit and died upon the cross

 . . . the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised(Matthew 27:51-52).

This curtain was the veil that hung between the general worship space of the temple and the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments was kept. The Holy of Holies was the place in which God dwelt in a special way–so special that only the High Priest could enter this sacred room, and then only on one day each year, on the Day of Atonement.

Some Scripture commentators write that the tearing of the veil of the temple at the time of Jesus’ death symbolizes the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant. Another interpretation–the one I like best–is that Christ’s sacrificial death transformed the way we humans relate to God. Christ removes the obstacles between God and us.

Christ is our high priest whose own sacrifice “tears the veil away,” making it possible for us to approach God directly in prayer. Christ removes the many obstacles in our lives that keep us from growing in love and service.

The more these obstacles are removed, the more the light of God will shine on us, so that each of us will grow into creations as beautiful as the flowers that bloom in spring.

Until next time, Amen!

P.S. If you are receiving this in e-mail subscription, it is always allowable to forward it to a friend. –Julie McCarty, author of the Spiritual Drawing Board, https://spiritualdrawingboard.wordpress.com

Behind the Boss’ Back: Prayer in the Workplace

Pray during the workday without disturbing others

Is there a way to pray in the workplace, without neglecting your job or infringing on the rights of others? A way to keep in touch with God while running a grocery store checkout, managing a daycare, answering phones, or meeting with clients? Or is prayer something restricted to that little Sunday box on your calendar?

A lot depends on how you define prayer. Praying the rosary while interviewing a new hire or meditating in a lotus position while running a backhoe certainly won’t work. Your boss won’t be a happy camper if you tell him or her that you missed a critical staff meeting because you were in a deep mystical ecstasy.

I suspect that few of us have ever thought about taking God with us to the workplace—but God is already there. After all, God is everywhere. Merely recalling God’s presence is itself one type of prayer. Simple? Yes, but difficult to remember to do. Here are some ways to prompt yourself to pray inwardly during your work day:

1. Place little reminders of God around your work area. If your office doesn’t allow religious symbols, use ordinary objects, like family photos, a personal book with a spiritual cover, or notes posted inside your briefcase to remind you of the spiritual dimension of your work, writes Gregory F. A. Pierce in  Spirituality at Work (Loyola Press). Writing a Scripture verse in your planner or selecting a gorgeous nature scene for your computer’s desktop wallpaper are other examples of unobtrusive ways to draw your heart to God without forcing your views on others.

2. Use your coffee break for a rendezvous with God. Reading little reflection booklets with lectionary readings or other devotions takes only a few minutes, but helps one enter into God’s presence.

3. Group with others for prayer time. In New York City, Muslims, committed to praying five times a day, meet in small groups during lunch or break times to recite the opening of the Koran and pray with bows, kneeling, and prostrations, writes Joseph Berger in the New York Times. He also reports that observant Jews similarly gather for minyan (prayer group of at least ten) in at least 180 places in busy Manhattan. People of other faiths might consider forming a small prayer group to meet at a nearby food court or coffee shop during a weekly lunch.

4. Set aside distracting thoughts. Just as you set aside distracting thoughts during prayer time, gently let go of distracting thoughts when a co-worker is speaking to you. Listen carefully to him or her—you might just hear the Spirit of God in something that is said.

5. Bring more silence into the work environment. God speaks to us in silence. You can invite a higher intelligence into your office meeting without saying it in so many words, suggests Dr. Deborah Savage, adjunct faculty of theology and business at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota [now Clinical Faculty member at the Saint Paul Seminary at St. Thomas]. Prof. Savage says God’s grace is constantly present to us, but we need to slow down in order to notice it. For example, one business she heard about instituted a company-wide policy that allotted one specific hour each day for sacred work time: no meetings, no phoning, no interaction, just sitting at your desk to do your work.

6. Practice awareness of the present moment. Prof. Savage also observes that we often mistakenly imagine the soul as one little compartment of who we are, when really our soul is “larger” than our body and connects us to God. You can’t very well leave your soul at home when you drive to work in the morning—it’s the spiritual thread that runs through every moment of our lives, she says.

Prayer is really more about be-ing, than do-ing, Dr. Savage reminds us, so it’s good to practice being attune to everything in the present moment: our feelings, our sensory perceptions, our thoughts, etc. Everything we are actually exists within the presence of God. As chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles declares, in God “we live and move and have our being.” God is always with us—even in the busy workplace.

Note: This article is a slightly revised version of a column I wrote that appeared in several Catholic diocesan newspapers around the country a few years ago. It is reprinted here because it is one of the most requested articles on my author website.

Copyright 2011 — Julie McCarty, Eagan, Minnesota.

Lent, Soft Addictions, and Detachment

Router on Julie's desk--photo by Julie McCarty 2011I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but do the very thing I hate.     –St. Paul in Romans 7:15

I was awakened the other day by a little scratchy sound in the next room. Was it a mouse? No…maybe my husband was hauling out spring clothes? No, it was taking too long for that… Was he cleaning the house? . . . REALLY? At five in the morning?! 

When I dragged myself out of bed, I discovered the internet wasn’t working and Terry was trying to get the web up and running by unplugging and resetting various cords. 

After he left for work, I kept trying to fix it, without success. Eventually, I told myself it didn’t matter–I’m a writer for goodness sake: get to work!

But, try as I might, I was restless and jittery. How could I work without checking e-mail and reading the morning news online? I kept looking at the little red light on the router, flashing at me.

I was like a little baby who has had her milk bottle wrenched away, mid-sip. I want! I want! I want e-mail! I want to blog! I want to revise my website! Waaaaaahhh!

(So far I don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, and you can see why these options may not be good for me.)

While I was sitting at my desk, having mental internet withdrawal symptoms, I remembered a phrase from old-time spirituality books:  “inordinate attachments.” These are things in life that we cling to in a way that is excessive or beyond what is spiritually healthy.

Attachments are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but sometimes they keep us from focusing on the really important things in life. For example, using the internet to do scholarly research is a good thing, but it might be an attachment if I simply cannot pull myself away to fix my family dinner.

While few people today speak of “inordinate attachments,” modern author Judith Wright communicates a similar idea when she speaks of “soft addictions.” As she describes in an interview with WebMD, “Soft addictions are those seemingly harmless habits like watching too much television, over-shopping, surfing the Internet, gossiping — the things we overdo but we don’t realize it. . . It seems like normal behavior, but that’s simply because everyone is doing it, too.” (To read the full article, click here.)

Lent is a good time to step back from our busyness and take stock of our lives. Are we too attached to some things? Do soft addictions keep us from having any time for prayer? Are there relationships in our lives that push us into doing things we know are bad for us? Do we find our attachments growing into bad habits that may evolve into the type of sin that hurts others or ourselves?

In spirituality, the opposite of attachment is detachment, the ability to let go of things. This letting go is done for the sake of a greater good. A person might detach from her fondness for eating in restaurants during Lent so she can use the money saved to feed starving children. A student who finds his schoolwork is not getting done “lets go” of chatty texting in order to succeed in his studies.

Practicing detachment is one way to open ourselves more fully to the action of grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We find the ultimate detachment in Jesus, who, while on the cross, opened his hands wide and let go of his life with the words, “Father, into Your hands I entrust my spirit.”

A Personal Focus for Lent

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there. . . . Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  (Exodus 24:12, 18)

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights. . .     (Matthew 4:1-2)

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner, and I’m wondering what spiritual practice I might do for Lent. If you are like me, you have experienced various Lenten penances related to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving over the course of your life. Some of my experiences produced quality spiritual growth. Other times I failed to follow through or had results that were, um, a little “silly” (such as the time I gave up potato chips and ate so many chocolate chip cookies that I actually gained weight during Lent).

Waiting for Spring -- Photo by Julie McCarty 2011

One spiritual practice that has been meaningful for me is reflecting on a single word, phrase, or bible verse for the whole 40 days. For example, one year I focused on the virtue of patience. I read about patience and pondered what patience is and what patience is not (laziness or procrastination). I asked God in prayer to help me be patient. When life brought me annoying moments, I tried to be patient.

One possible pitfall of this theme approach is that I might forget to follow through for the entire 40 days, but I have found ways around that. I can post my theme in places I’ll see it, such as the bathroom mirror, refrigerator, computer screen saver or cell phone banner. I can find a book on the topic and spend a few minutes each day reading about it. I can make it a point to weave my theme into prayer time and the routine of daily living. On occasion, I’ve asked spiritual people what they think about the topic.

When making plans for Lent, it’s important—as always—to ask the Holy Spirit to inspire your choices. (Why do I always think of this tip last? It should be first!) The “theme approach” may not be for everyone.   Think about what will build your relationship with God, and what will deeper your love for others.      

May all we do glorify God and build bonds of love throughout the earth. Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics for Lent

   If focusing on a theme doesn’t appeal to you, here are 13 other ideas:                 

  • Volunteer at a food pantry, homeless shelter, or other charitable organization.
  • Plan quality time with your children: eat together, use discussion starters, read together.
  • Organize recycling in your home in order to take care of God’s creation.
  • Visit a lonely or homebound person.
  • Reduce the amount of time spent with television, social networking, internet surfing, or video gaming.
  • Listen to inspiring, spiritual music while commuting to work.
  • Care for the body God gave you by increasing your sleep or exercise.
  • Read one book of the bible or other spiritual book slowly and reflectively. 
  • Sort out closets and donate clothing to those who need it. 
  • Teach your children a new prayer and pray it together when you gather for meals.
  • Be kind to someone you often ignore. Pray each day for him or her. Smile genuinely and listen respectfully to this person.
  • Fast from shopping for clothes (or books, electronic gadgets, makeup, etc.)
  • Visit a retreat center. If you cannot go away on a retreat just now, make arrangements to go on retreat later this year.

Praying with “Migrant Mother” using Visio Divina

On the website Patheos, Presbyterian minister Tim Mooney writes about a prayer form called Visio Divina, a way of praying with sacred art or other images. Visio divina (“divine seeing”) models itself after lectio divina (“divine reading”), that time-honored Christian way of thoughtfully meditating on Scripture. (Read more about visio divina here.)

 Artwork and religious symbols often draw me into a quiet, reflective zone, so I decided to give visio divina a try and share my experience here at the Spiritual Drawing Board. Just so I wouldn’t have too many preconceived ideas, I looked for an image not usually found in churches, and decided upon Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph called “Migrant Mother.”

 Experiencing Visio Divina

As the article on visio divina recommended, I set aside 20-30 minutes for the process. After asking the Holy Spirit to guide my prayer, I spent a little time just observing the various parts of the picture:

  • The woman’s sleeve is tattered. She has no make-up and there are wrinkles near her eyes.
  • Why do the children hide their faces? Are they ashamed to be seen?
  • The baby on her lap is wrapped in an oversize garment and has dirt on his or her face.

 The woman looks to be 40-something, but I know from my reading that her name is Florence Owens Thompson, 32, married mother of seven children. In this photo, taken during the Great Depression, she is sitting in a three-sided lean-to canvas tent. (View other pictures taken that day here. )

These facts make me think about the economy of today and people who suffer around the world, especially the homeless, many of whom are children. I imagine the faces of other migrant women of various races and ethnicities. Would I feel the same empathy for each of them as I feel for the woman in the picture?

 After praying for the grace to love all people with equal intensity, I focus my attention back on the picture once again. The woman’s expression haunts me. She may be worried, but she is determined. I think she is going to do whatever it takes to feed her children. With her hand placed under her chin, she reminds me of Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Thinker. Yes, I decide, she is indeed a strong woman, a brave woman, dead set on caring for her hungry children.

 I wonder, did Mary, the mother of Jesus, ever look so strong and determined? She, too, was a “migrant mother,” on the move with Joseph, first traveling as a pregnant woman to Bethlehem, then fleeing to Egypt to save her child from death, and some years later to Nazareth. Did the Holy Family ever experience hunger pangs? Surely Mary must have felt this same fierce love and deep resolve to do whatever was necessary to care for her Child.  

 Why have I never seen this look of strength and determination on the face of Mary in statues or paintings? Wouldn’t Mary have been radically committed to do all in her power to fulfill God’s will? Wouldn’t her love of God have been strong? Are these characteristics of Mary portrayed in sacred art but I just didn’t notice?

 Come to think of it, wouldn’t God have the same type of parental concern for us? Could we imagine the Divine Face looking something like this woman, in terms of her strength and determination? Doesn’t God love us as much—no even more—than the very best of mothers?

Observing the Results

Sometimes we think of Scripture as comforting, but the Word of God also challenges us to become more like Christ. I think the prayer form visio divina has the same potential. After the above prayer time, I observed myself feeling less whiney about my own inconveniences and more grateful. I found myself intentionally smiling at people who look “different” from me. And, when writing this post, I recalled that the Hosea 13:8 compares God to a mother bear, who expresses fierceness if her cubs are threatened or taken away. 

Spiritual Aerobics –Try visio divina yourself, using whatever image or artwork you like. Many musuems have artwork available online. For visio divina directions, click here.