pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

the holy pause is upon us…

img_8776

i feel it, coming in like the draft through the cracks in my old wobbly windows. i feel it, as if a soft finger tapping me on the shoulder. i feel it beginning to swirl here in the kitchen, where cupboards are stacked with tins. i feel it when i plug in the lights on the tree. i feel it when i step out the back door, step under the great dome of dawn, shlep through the snow with my banged-up tin spilling with seed for my birds.

i feel it settling down in my heart and my soul. i feel the pure exchange of breath as i exhale the tired old air of these weeks of discombobulation and worry and fear, and breathe in the newborn air that will always be Christmas for me.

it is the holiest pause of the year for me, the birth of new light, just after the longest, darkest night. the quiet that comes, i imagine, just as it came in the manger, long long ago. i imagine the mother with child. i imagine her belly, hard, ready to birth. i imagine the cows lowing, and the sheep, the soft sounds of a barn, mixed with the muffled wail of pain from a mother in labor. then stillness. holy stillness. silent night. and then, at last, that cry from the deep, from the newborn lungs of the babe, the sound of God shattering the night. the first sound, a cry.

it’s a story that draws me deep into the folds of its threads. it’s a story that startles me, tenders me, year after year. it’s a story i need in double doses this year. and so i will tell myself the story over and over. i will stand at the edge of my creche and marvel at the newborn tenderness. i will marvel at the courage and strength of the mother who birthed her firstborn, her one and only, in the dim chill of a barn, surrounded by the murmurations of those beasts of burden. i will imagine the night sky, jet black, stitched with shimmering knots of pure light.

i will take hold of that tenderness, that courage and strength, and make it mine. or try, anyway. i will scoop up the seed that is Christmas, and tuck it deep in my heart. i will breathe into it, allow it to grow, to blossom, to spill beyond these few short days when the pause, holy pause, is upon us.

the holy pause is the most blessed gift of Christmas.

these are the days when the quiet comes, when we’ve ticked to the bottom of all the to-do lists, when we can shut the door on the cold winds outside. when we huddle with only the ones we love the most dearly. the ones our life depends upon.

at our house, the logs are piled high, ready to submit to the flame. thank you, old birch trees, old pine trees. the cupboards are full. the blankets are stacked in the old wicker basket. my firstborn, the one whose first cry long ago broke the silence, he’ll be home tonight. and the anticipation of his arrival is stoking the Christmas in my heart. it’s been a long autumn. and, in good measure, that’s what makes the Christmas miracle all the more blessed. especially this year.

and so, as is my way of keeping Christmas, i will bow my head at the dawn, and i will whisper my litany of prayerfulness. it’s the essence of Christmas to me: to weave the strands of petition into a whole and mighty salutation to the God who looks to us to uphold tenderness, mercy, and most of all justice. the God who begs us to keep peace here on this most blessed globe, the one of mountains and majesty, fragile bog and feathered flock. the God who gave us this gift with the undying hope that we’d hold it close to our hearts, and never let it shatter.

here is my prayer, or at least the first draft of it:

a christmas morning prayer…..

(the more insistent the prayer, the earlier i seem to rise. and so this morning, the heavens are star-stitched still, the edge of the dome is soaked still in inky black. the cardinals haven’t yet stirred from wherever it is they sleep.

and yet, my heart is bubbling. my prayers rise up from deep inside. they can’t wait to take flight, to be put to the airborne parabola, the one that puts wings to their breath.)

i pray for the mothers who have buried a child, the mothers for whom christmas will never be whole, will ever be hollow. i pray and pray for peace, just a thread of it, to come to them, to wrap for a moment around their aching heart. i pray for one moment’s relief from the stinging emptiness that will not be staunched.

i pray for the children who’ve lost their mother, two in particular i know and love, and countless others i’ve read about, countless others who cling to the margins of all the merriment, knowing it’s a country to which they no longer belong. for children without a mother on christmas, there is no peace, no everlasting peace.

i pray for Aleppo. i pray for the children hovering in the cold. i pray for the bodies of the babies unentombed from the rubble, the dust of hatred dropped from the skies. i pray for the mothers and fathers, i pray for the men and the women — cold, hopeless, hungry. i pray for the masses left to die, awaiting the words — any words — that tell them the world is listening, has heard their cries, awaiting the word that the world is coming, hope is coming to save them.

i pray for world leaders courageous enough to have opened their borders, to let in the rivers of refugees, disgorged from their homes, from their histories, from any shred of a sense that they’re safe.

i pray for the weary souls i see lying under puffy-layered sleeping bags, on cold hard sidewalks, under viaducts, against the grates at the base of shimmering downtown towers.

i pray for my children. i pray that in their hours of darkness, the light comes. that they see how brilliantly they shimmer in the landscape of my heart and my soul. i pray that someday they understand just how wholly they filled me, how they put purpose to my being alive. that each and every day we try and try again to teach each other: this is how you love. 

i pray for all of us who, more often than not of late, feel hollowed. feel jarred and broken by the hatred spewing all around. i pray for our tender hearts and fragile spirits. i pray that we don’t topple. and if we do, i pray for someone strong to come along, to reach out a hand, to whisper hope, and pull us to our feet.

i pray for those who haven’t a clue how deeply they teach me each and every day — be it a story on the news, or one passing by in the social media whirl. or someone i bump into at the grocery store, or riding on the el, or shivering in the cold as i shuffle down the sidewalk.

i pray for the ones i love who come to this table. who leave behind a trace, or not even a whisper. i pray for the ones i love who never come here, who share in the depths of my life but never stop by here, never hear the deepest voice i know, the one i found here, buoyed by courage and love.

i pray for the ones we’ve lost this year, the ones whose words rumble through my head, through my heart, each and every day. i pray especially for my friend who wrote these words: “wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. you won’t regret it,” she promised.

i pray for the poets and wordsmiths and makers of art in every form — in clay, in thread, in wood, in every hue under the sun and the moon. i pray for those words that catch against my heart, and work their way into prayer. those words that leap from my soul into the heavens.

i pray for the God who catches them, who catches the words of the prayer, who catches us all.

more mightily than any prayer i pray of late, i beg Holy God to not abandon us now. to not leave us to our sins and our shattered promises. i promise to love a little bit harder, to live a little bit better, more true to the blessing i was made to be.

and this is the prayer i pray most mightily: i promise to love, God, and i beg You to show us — show me, show every single lost and hungry one of us — the way. the holy, certain way…

thank you.

amen.

may your pause for the blessings of Christmas — and Hanukkah, the great festival of light that begins tomorrow — be gentle, and tender, and stitched with wonder and breathtaking marvel.

for what do you pray in this pause filled with holiness?

img_8773

my littlest manger

books for the soul: december edition

img_8785

because it’s Christmas and Hanukkah in the days just ahead, this morning is bringing you two posts, and first comes the latest roundup of books for the soul. from the pages of the Chicago Tribune, and tucked here for anyone poking around in search of a something special to read… 

Ann Voskamp leads this week’s spiritual roundup 

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

‘The Broken Way’
By Ann Voskamp, Zondervan, 288 pages, $22.99

From the first sentence of “The Broken Way,” Ann Voskamp, a writer of exquisite capacity, does what she does best: She pierces into a vulnerability that’s rarely explored with such truth-telling and almost never mined for hope. Yet she makes us believe that our deepest blessing is born of our brokenness.

“We can be brokers of healing,” she writes, “exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”

Voskamp, a best-selling author with a devout following (her book “One Thousand Gifts” sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 20 languages), is at her breathtaking best in this exploration that hollows our souls and leaves our hearts in pieces.

“I just know that — old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” she writes in one of her opening, bracing paragraphs.

A wheat farmer’s wife and the mother of seven in Ontario, Canada, Voskamp has known grief ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. It’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and use them to pierce “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

And yet, out of that brokenness, Voskamp finds a way. She comes to understand that operating out of love — a wild, abundant love — wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. In one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, Voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. And that’s just the start of it.

“God is drawn to broken things,” she writes, “so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

‘Light When It Comes’
By Chris Anderson, Eerdmans, 181 pages, $16.99

The clue to reading “Light When It Comes” is nestled in its foreword, where we’re instructed to “pay fierce attention to the holy of everything.” The brilliant essayist Brian Doyle, who penned the foreword, goes on to write that in ancient Irish tradition that’s the task of the seanachies, or story-catchers. Theirs is an imperative calling, he insists, because “stories of grace and courage and humor and love and wild tenderness are compass points and lodestars, and if we don’t catch and share stories that matter, we will have nothing but lies and blood, and can’t we do better than that?”

Chris Anderson, professor of English at Oregon State University, poet and Catholic deacon, is one such story-catcher. And here he writes impressionistically, a pastiche of images, snippets of story, all connected through the singular thread of looking for and stumbling on joy. Stumbling, too, onto the indescribable holy, those moments where we understand at some deep level that we’ve encountered the sacred.

Drawing on the ancient Ignatian prayer tradition of the examen of conscience, a daily practice spurring us to take stock of the joys and sorrows of our every day, Anderson puts words to the practice in these pages that record the fleeting moments of joy.
However small, however ephemeral those moments, he writes, “this is where God is calling us.” It’s a connect-the-dots theology, but in the able hands of Anderson, an evocative writer, a fine-grained observer of light and shadow, the image we see in the end is one that insists God is all around. But we must pay fierce attention to notice.

‘The Paraclete Poetry Anthology’
Edited by Mark S. Burrows, Paraclete, 224 pages, $20

Consider this a short course for the soul. Or, perhaps, the syllabus to last a lifetime. Herein, Mark S. Burrows, a poet, translator and professor of historical theology and literature in Bochum, Germany, becomes one of those once-in-a-lifetime teachers who illuminates the way into the depths of a subject we’ve never before seen so clearly.
In his introduction, “‘A Sense of Presence’: Poetry and the Education of the Soul,” Burrows makes the case for why poetry is a sure road into the uncharted landscape of the divine.

It is through “the startlements of language” that a poem begins its work, in its capacity to awaken “the sense of wonder by which we discover again and again traces of the beauty that saturates our world,” Burrows writes, drawing fluently from a pantheon of poets. “In moments of surprise, we sense light breaking forth from the dark we carry within us,” the professor writes. Poems attune our minds “through the practice of attention.” And they invite us “to wander into truths often hiding in plain view.”

And then, as if we’ve been invited into a book-lined library, one curated across a lifetime, Burrows lines up a litany of poets and poems illustrating that very thesis.
Gathered here we find selected and new poems from a contemplative monk or three, an Episcopal priest, a rabbi, a protege of Thomas Merton, an Iranian-German poet, a theologian, a flock of English professors, and poets from Ireland, Poland, West Virginia and Tennessee. Tucked amid the poets’ roster, we find Rainer Maria Rilke, considered one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, in new and previous translations by Burrows.

You’ll wear out the pages and the binding before you’re ever ready to put down this book.

Barbara Mahany is a freelance writer whose next book, “Motherprayer,” will be published in the spring.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune