pull up a chair

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

Category: season change

mark this day…

IMG_0545

there is something about the crisp edge of things — of a hem, of a book, of a season — that settles the soul of a sometimes frazzled someone. someone like me. it fills me with a sense of something noble — a job well done, completion. prompts me to bend my knee and bow. it’s gratitude and it’s awe.

take summer, for instance. it ends tomorrow, making today the last full dose of it. and before i chase it out the door, before i usher in the amber hours of the season i love best, before i haul in the wheelbarrows of pumpkins, the tins of cinnamon and clove, before i fling myself upon the forest floor, playing peek-a-boo through golden, crimson, and persimmon-shaded boughs, it’s summer’s due to say goodbye to sand and sun unfiltered. to bees that buzzed and blooms that cheered me with their moppy heads, their delicate tendrils, their sweet perfumes that made me sniff around the garden (a pretty picture — me with nose in air, and mud-stained knees — surely not).

the season of about-to-burst tomatoes, and cicada song at night, the months of curtains flapping in the window’s invisible current, the sweater-less months, they draw to a close tomorrow eve at 8:54 p.m. (central time). that’s the equinox hour, when the sun slides into absolute right angle to blessed planet earth, when its beams fall straight onto the equator, that cinch-waist strap around the middle.

and so this last full blast before the season ends, it begs occasion. begs a moment’s pause. a plea to savor just a swatch of time — time filled with the summeriest wonders you can imagine.

my summery moment might be this: a fat tomato (the last one in my wooden bowl) sliced and salted, laid reverentially on whole-grain bread, and ferried to my summer porch, along with a fat book that begs to be begun. bare toes wriggling in the fading shaft of mid-afternoon sun. a moment’s pause to contemplate the butterfly wafting by. a whispered prayer of thanks — for the somnolence of summer. for the deep warmth and gentle breeze. for all that ripened and spilled with juice. for days that slowed, and hours that nearly burst with sumptuous sweet.

thank you, summer, once again…

***

because i’ve once again stumbled in my duties to bring my soulful literary roundups to this page, here’s the “books for the soul” that ran a month ago. oops. three fine picks. i especially loved the first, “learning to speak God from scratch ,” a linguistic exploration, richly written, and sure to make you think….

may your autumn days be filled with good reads…

How to talk about God, and more, addressed in this week’s spiritual book roundup

By Barbara Mahany

“Learning to Speak God from Scratch” by Jonathan Merritt, Convergent, 256 pages, $15.99

Here’s a subject not often found on the religion bookshelf: linguistics. As in “sacred language” or “Godspeak,” the ways we put words to what’s holy and so often ineffable. It’s a language that’s frankly been hijacked by politicians, blasphemed by holier-than-thou hypocritical preachers, and muted by the masses who dare not utter a word construed to be “church-y.”

And it’s into this battle-scarred landscape that “Learning to Speak God from Scratch” bravely proceeds. A few years back, Jonathan Merritt, a religion and culture contributor to The Atlantic, left behind the Bible Belt for New York City and found himself thunderstruck by the stark disconnect (and discomfort) in God talk there in Gotham.

Something of a spelunker in the realm of sacred linguistics, he robustly constructs his argument — one rife with hard data from the sociocultural realm and rich in personal narrative. It’s one that solidly convinces that sacred words are in crisis, and that any lost language leaves a gaping hole in human understanding. He makes the point that when the language at stake is the one that ties us to all that’s divine, it’s our souls that stand to wither.

He opens his case with this assessment: “The way certain groups of people use sacred words gives the rest of us the holy heebie-jeebies.” From there, Merritt takes off, swashbuckling his way through ironclad analysis, poking into curious linguistic and Biblical corners, making us see in a whole new light why it matters to reimagine and reclaim sacred language.

In the book’s second half, Merritt takes on, one by one, a lexicon of 19 words worth learning all over again, from confession to sin to grace. Because Merritt is an elegant and deeply literate writer, he makes his subject one of which we can’t get enough.

“The Way of Kindness,” edited by Michael Leach, James T. Keane, Doris Goodnough, Orbis, 224 pages, $18

It’s the end of summer, and the reading is supposed to be easy. Never hurts when it’s rich too. “The Way of Kindness” is everything you might want when you stretch out in your recliner, long tall refreshment within quick reach. It’s as if your favorite librarian is sitting beside you, whispering, “Read this. And this. And this, too, while you’re at it.”

The roster here is a greatest hits of American writers, not all of whom are regular travelers in the religious or spiritual domain. And that, perhaps, is what makes this a notch above the usual such gathering. To read Jack Kerouac: “Practice kindness all day to everybody/ and you will realize you’re already/ in heaven now.” Or George Saunders implore, “err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”

Dorothy Day quotes the Carmelite nun who told her, “It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart.” Even Aldous Huxley chimes in, telling us, “(I)t’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with human problems all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’ ”

While this is a book for quick dips or longer dallies, the curators of this collection — three fine souls in the world of spiritual publishing — have put their collective heft into what unfolds here. Your summer’s day will be all the gentler for having spent time among these literary and spiritual masters.

“Love Without Limits” by Jacqueline A. Bussie, Fortress, 195 pages, $24.99

File this one under “Standing By Your Story.”

Jacqueline A. Bussie, theologian, beloved professor of religion at Minnesota’s Concordia College and award-winning author of “Outlaw Christian,” her 2016 exhortation to find authentic faith by breaking a roster of too-rigid rules, sat down to pen “Love Without Limits,” a deeply personal how-to-guide for no-holds-barred loving. Because her stories arose from the depths of her heart, and the truth of how she lives her life — she calls this latest book “my life’s love letter” — she included chapters on both her Muslim and her LGBT friendships. Then, she turned in her manuscript to the Christian publishing house with whom she’d signed a contract, a book whose subject all along had been exploring God’s radical love.

The publishing house balked, deemed the two chapters “offensive” and “theologically out of bounds,” and ordered Bussie to cut them or they’d cancel her contract (and make her pay back every penny of her advance). Bussie refused, dead-set against being censored. Certainly not in a book about how people of faith — all faiths — “are called to love with no exceptions, asterisks, or limits.”

Mighty fine thing that Fortress Press, a Minneapolis-based Christian publisher with a more progressive bent, saw fit to snatch up Bussie’s much-needed message. In a world as balkanized as the one in which we find ourselves, Bussie’s words light the way toward practicing “a love so deep it subverts the social order, so radical it scandalizes the powerful, so vast that it excludes no one.” A love, it turns out, that couldn’t be censored.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in April.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

how will you mark the last full blast of summer? 

ordinary time

noddling bells of spring

deep in the recesses of my DNA, these knowings lurk. those little bits of knowledge slipped in once upon a time, those bits that order time, that frame the paradigm, the window frame, through which i watch the passing picture show called life.

somehow this week there was a whisper barely heard that told me ordinary time had come. technically, liturgically, it had come because the church i grew up in, the catholic church, ordains the monday after pentecost sunday as the opening of the long chapter of the year called “ordinary time.” and so, this week, as i slipped into this time, i couldn’t keep myself from considering the folds and undulations of just what ordinary means.

all around me, as lily of the valley sent up its flagpoles of perfume, as apple blossoms drifted down like vernal snowfall, as songbirds in feathers shocking pink and golden yellow darted in and from my feeders, i hardly thought things “ordinary.” the world’s in exultation.

and in my daily everyday, there was no relenting from the news that never stops and never slows to a trickle, nor was there quelling from the firehose of bumps and bangs that comes with loving widely, deeply. one night had me up till 2 a.m., making sure a young typist came to the end of his bibliography and junior theme (aka massive term paper) before we clicked out the lights. that same night had me dispensing nursing cures to a long-distance patient whose neck was in some spasm. all while keeping track of a train chugging to st. louis, where my sweet mate and familial co-conspirator drew more distant by the minute and the mile. by day, i somehow managed to turn in — on deadline — my own newspaper assignment, the first such one (a cookbook tale, complete with half a dozen lively interviews) in quite a while. none of this seemed “ordinary,” if by ordinary we mean “having no distinctive features,” as the oxford american dictionary tries to persuade us.

oh, around here, it’s distinctive all right.

i even plopped my bum on the old cedar slab i call my prayer bench, amid the ferns and bleeding hearts of my secret garden, intent on keeping watch on this so-called ordinary time.IMG_0172

lured by curiosity to the pages of old books, i dug around to learn a thing or three about this ordinariness. here’s a bit of what i learned: the church, in all her wisdom, divides the year into chunks of time (perhaps to fine-grain our focus, knowing full well we’d succumb to blur if not for demarcation). the church knows, according to one wise writer, “that human psychology desires the marking of moments.”

there are, apparently, two liturgical mountain peaks in the year, easter and christmas, each with preamble (lent and advent, respectively) and in between (here comes “ordinary time”) “the pasture between the mountains,” otherwise referred to as “vast verdant meadows,” of ordinary time, of tempus per annum (my church loves its latin, and, according to my resident latin translator, this literally means “time throughout the year”).

it must be the quiet season, the chunks of year when — inside the church and beyond — there is not the cacophony that comes with birth (christmas) or death and dying and its glorious resurrection (easter).

in one lovely meditation, i read that God, in infinite wisdom, invented the notion of seasons (not unlike the kaleidoscope that turns a notch and explodes in all new shapes and colored bits) as “invitation to reflection,” to jostle us awake as the all-around ever shifts. yet another meditation opined that God uses seasons to “translate wisdoms into a language of purpose for our lives.”

what that means, i think, is that it’s no accident that some of us walk around fully willing to be klonked on the head by the 2-by-4s of revelation that have us extracting lessons from earth and sky and trickling waters in between. it’s why a vine that blooms long after deadline (the week before thanksgiving, one year) might speak to me of undying courage, and the quiet of the dawn reminds me to settle my soul and breathe deep before the launch of day. it’s why the springtime stirs me full of hope, and all but insists i power up my rocket blasters.

ordinary, i read, comes from “ordinal,” or numbered, the weeks of the year simply counted off, one by one. amid the canvas of quiet, without profound distraction, our task in this stretch of time is to think hard and deep about the mysteries in the weft and warp of being alive. as this is the longest time of year, a full 33 to 34 weeks of ordinary time, depending when the feast days fall, i suppose the point is to settle in, sink deep, into the extraordinary work of living, with our attention meters cranked as high as we can muster.

all of that is literal, is what the books i sought spelled out. i tend to veer off the page. and that’s when i began to really contemplate the power of unencumbered ordinary. as if we’re given unfettered canvas on which to quietly and without bother absorb the sacred simple. the gift of being alive without all the inner chatter. the charge to scan the hours of the day for those moments that break us out in goosebumps. the blessing of deep, slow breathing. the chance, scant chance, to catch God in the act….
IMG_0173

of late, i’ve become intrigued by what i call the theology of the sacred ordinary. not the loud bangs and pyrotechnics, not the stuff that comes at the end of miles-long, desert-crossing pilgrimage, but rather the stark and quiet notion that we are living the Holy right now.

it’s the hush of a whisper, the percussion of the rain, those are the sounds that call us in, call us to behold the simple pure sacred. it’s the humility of the moment that belies its grandeur, its magnificent majesty……

and perhaps that’s the invitation of ordinary time, to dwell amid the plain-jane, stripped-down quotidian of the everyday. to awaken our deeper senses, our fuller attentions, to behold the Beautiful, the Wise, the Profound amid our daily stumbles and bumbles. to live as if the Book of Wonder has been placed upon our open palms, its pages spread akimbo. to extract, inhale, deep breathe its mighty and eternal lessons. the ones that whisper, the ones we hear only when we truly, truly listen.

what does ordinary time mean to you?

this morning’s writing came in fits and starts, as it sometimes does, as somehow this morning this old house clattered like it was grand central station, locomotives and the people who aim to board them rushing in and out the station, barely and noisily keeping to the clockwork schedule.

perceptible growth

perceptible growth

i must be one of those people who needs things klonked over my head. and thus, the simple act of walking past my kitchen window yesterday took my breath away. a quick glance out the window set my eyeballs in direct gaze of what had been the straggly, misbehaving leathery-brown vines that snake along my garden fence.

only, the thing was, yesterday — just a day after the day before when i swear the straggles were mostly stripped naked, without more than a paint drop of green anywhere in sight — they had decided to erupt in a tapestry of sawtooth-edged leaves and cauliflower buds that come july or august will unfold into nodding white hydrangea heads.

that’s the thing about spring: it catches you unawares. it all but grabs you by the cheekbones, holds you in its clutches, and bellows in your face: “there is growth by the hour here, something beautiful is unfolding.”

and then the one-two punch: “pay attention. it could happen to you.”

yes, my wise old professor of a vine seemed to be telling me, even you. even after all these weeks and months of feeling about as fruitful as a stripped naked, leathery-skinned vine, even you might be growing just beneath the surface. perhaps not yet erupting into cauliflower-budded bloom, but keep the faith; there is rumbling, stretching, reaching for the depths and heights. even you, little pewter-haired flower, even you just might be unfolding by the month — if not the week or day (let us not set our growth expectations too high here…).

it’s why spring makes me dizzy.

it’s why, i think, God invented the season of promiscuous advancement and rambunctious take-your-breath-away-ness. because it comes after the long season of stillness, of winter’s deep-down stirrings, the ones that can’t be seen. and then, the very instant we’re at the end of our hope rope, the days when we’re sagging like nobody’s business, God decides to wallop us with undeniable, whirling-all-around magnificence.

the flocks of feathered things arrive as if a river, saturating sky and bough with their shots of color and their song. the trees practically poke us in the eye, with frilly, lacy shades of velvet green and white and caution yellow and lipstick pink, as if slathered with a paint brush. and then there’s the best-of-show for those who dare to bend their knees and crouch down low: there, just above the crust of earth, that’s where all the tenderest unfurlings are. that’s where fern literally unwinds from its tight-wad comma — or is it a question mark? it’s where the itty-bitty baby leaves first reach for sky. it’s where you might even spy a worm, drowsy from its long winter’s snooze, out and about for its first seasonal constitutional (if one can apply such a noun to a walk without legs), slithering in between the rising stems of daffodil and lily of the valley.

year after year, it happens: i fall deliriously in love with the opening-up hours and days and weeks of spring, the ones where the volume is dialed to blaring, so clogged-ear folk like me can’t help but catch the message, the one that beats a billboard along the side of the highway.

if it can happen to a bush, you might find yourself thinking, i suppose it could happen to plain old me. i suppose i too just might be unfurling in the tight spots deep within. i suppose i too could dare to believe that something bright and beautiful dwells deep down inside. and something gentle, too. and, like the magnolia or the hydrangea vine, if i dared to let it out, if i found the faith to strut my stuff, the stuff that God has tucked there for a certain purpose, maybe the world around me might glow a little bit more heaven-sent.

it’s the wisdom and the glory of the book of spring: the world bursts into beautiful all around, undeniably all around, so that we too might know that at the end of our seasons when no growing, no perceptible beauty is apparent, there is something breathtaking astir, something take-your-breath-away just beneath the surface, coming soon to bloom.

what lessons do you extract from the beauties — or the heartbreaks — of the spring?

bleeding heart dew

and one more little wisp from the pages of The Blessings of Motherprayer…..

wonder

permeable season: necessary (and overdue) rinse for the soul

door closed

closed off: awakening earth, behind glass

door wide open

open wide: nothing but screen between birdsong + me

it’s not yet warm, certainly not at this early hour. so i sit wrapped in layers of sweater, with a blanket besides. my down vest is within easy reach. and so is my steamy-hot first mug of coffee. ah, but the sunlight says yes, and the birdsong is begging: open the door, let in the dawn.

and so i surrender.

the glass-paned french door is swung on its hinges, and nothing but screen stands between me and the cool april morn. it’s door-opening season, windows-ajar time of year. even if a smidge on the chilly side.

it’s the necessary ablution of springtime. the rinse of the outdoors rushing in. stale wintertime, out; vernal cleansing, in.

despite the goosebumps parading up and down my fleshy forearms, i am awash in the warbles of avian romance, as males of the species put on a flash-dance of song. there is much feeding of worms out there in birdland, the tender exchange of squirmy invertebrate passed from beak to beak, a wet juicy kiss if ever there was. and one that wiggles, to boot.

my furnace, not yet stilled for the summer, bellows like nobody’s business. it’s doing its darnedest to chase out the chill i am defiantly, purposely, ushering in.

whoever invented the quartet of seasons (hmmm, who might that be?) must have had the insider’s intimate knowledge when it came to the care and maintenance of the human soul. because, i tell you, by the final stretch of april, when winter’s gone longer than long and mittens aren’t yet tucked away, we’re nearly gasping for a good strong dose of undiluted solar infusion.

truth is, i wouldn’t mind being pinned to a clothesline right about now. just dangling out in the breeze, chasing my wrinkles and worries away.

folks i know and love are practically bursting at the seams, ready to shake off the sluff of being stuck inside for far too many weeks. and sitting here, amid the swells of this early morning’s stirrings, i’m bristling to attention with each and every quarter note flung from the throat of my warblers and robins.

it’s as if our pores, every last one of them, need the cobwebs and grime air-blasted out. that peculiar affliction known as spring cleaning, it’s a must for our souls as well every last tile and nook crusted with the long winter’s crud.

i, for one, need a good long march through the woods. i ache to crouch low to the leaf-caked earth, to inspect for fungi and frond slowly unfurling. i yearn for a log to call out my name, to beg i plop down my bum, pull a cake or a grape from my pocket: plein air piquenique, i call it. a feast for the senses, garnished with goosebump.

it’s why the first duke of wellington invented the rubber-soled boot. and why mr. charles macintosh invented the dew-proof, rain-repellant mackintosh jacket. so that fools like me could take to the logs, and the awakening woods when our souls cried out in deep dire need of the airing that comes on the brightening end of winter.

margaret atwood once wrote that in the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. i say bring on the pungent, the woodsy perfume, of knees drenched in dirt, and shoes oozing with muck.

we’re long overdue for that most essential turn of the seasonal dial: the one that stirs us to life, to revivification; the one that quickens the pulse in our tired old ticker, and brings on the proof, living and breathing and warbling, that the beautiful, the tender, it comes, hallelujah.

how do you indulge in the vernal effusion?

and two more little wisps from The Blessings of Motherprayer….

springtimes

practicing presence

xoxox may your week wrap you in blankets and blankets of birdsong and tender breathtaking beauties…xoxox

putting a season to bed…

IMG_0068

for weeks now, i’d been thinking i’d mark this one-year point with an open letter to the occupier of the oval office. i was going to politely suggest that i’d prefer a country of considerate kindness and gentleness. i’d prefer the bullying, the bragging, the bombast be put to bed. i was going to mention how i’d withered across the arc of the year, how i went to bed some nights with such a sinkingness in my belly, i ached. and then i woke up aching some more. i was going to tell him that, from the eensy-weensy spot on the map where i keep watch, i felt like i was elbow-akimbo at the edge of the fourth-grade playground, watching the schoolyard bully chase after the scrawny kids who couldn’t run fast enough, the ones who could never find a safe place to hide. i was going to ask if maybe, for the sake of our souls and our sanity, he could please swallow a humble pill, take a hard look in the mirror, and remember that children are watching, children are taking their cues, and parents all over the land are hitting the mute button every time he chimes up again. i was going to ask to stop with the tweets.

but i decided — or my wiser, gentler angels did — that i’d best invest those energies under the great pewter dome of november’s sky. i turned, as i so often do, to the balm that comes in raking my hands through cold damp earth. in tuning my ears to the sound of the blade slicing through the garden’s autumnal frost.

i spent the morning taking census of nodding heads and withered stems. i dumped out shallow pools of rainwater from the last few pots, hauled spent vessels into their winter’s resting place. the hoses i drained of last dribbles.

autumn is the season of turning in, and i partook of the liturgy with muddy hands and dirt-stained knees. there is a whole body immersion, a surrender to the dilution of light and heat, a preparing, a submission, that comes with the ticking through earthly chores. chores, perhaps, are those seasonal triggers, the ones that pull us into the lure, into the spiritual cadence of each and every turning of the calendar page.

we are on the cusp now of the darkening, a season i regard for its inner kindling — look past the inking in along the margins, dwell on the lumens arising within.

we coil now into our depths, into the nooks and crannies of our soul, and we do best to dial down the noise, to slow the beating of our hearts, to aim for a stillness shared with so many citizens of the woods and waters and sky.

consider the painted turtle, who a week ago might have been basking in a pool of sunlight atop a log, but in one invisible moment, might have heard the ancient whisper: it’s time now. and so the turtle took her last deep breath and plunged to the silty bottom of the chilling pond, pushed aside the lily pad roots and stems, burrowed deep into the mush, and settled into her wintry stillness.

just now i was reading that she goes so still she doesn’t need to breathe, “she slows herself beyond breath in a place where breath is not possible,” writes gayle boss in “all creation waits,” a breathtaking advent book i will soon share. and while the turtle is without oxygen all winter long at the murky bottom, as lactic acid builds in her heart and her bloodstream, she draws calcium from her hard shell, in order to neutralize the acid, in order to keep her muscle from burning away.* she literally dissolves through the winter, till the vernal thaw when she rises, deep-breathes again.

blessedly, we do get to breathe. and, mostly, we don’t dissolve over winter. but turtle has a lesson to share. it is this:

“…every stressed particle of her stays focused on the silver bead of utter quietude.

“it’s this radical simplicity that will save her. and deep within it, at the heart of her stillness, something she has no need to name, but something we might call trust: that one day, yes, the world will warm again, and with it, her life.”

i say we’d all do well to turn in. to tuck away our last few pots. to coil away the hose. to replenish the bins of seed for the birds. to aim for the stillness of the painted turtle. to put this season to bed. and await the deepening to come.

painted turtle from all creation waits

painted turtle, from “all creation waits,” illustrated by david g. klein

how will you put this season to bed? do you dread the darkening or do you keep your gaze on the flickering flame deep within?

* is not the divine design of creation the mind-blowingest, knee-bendingest endeavor you ever did encounter? that the pond-bottom oxygen deprivation is balanced by the turtle’s hard shell, that one yields and shields the other, that all of this was conceived….

the light may save us (and a few books, too)

cobalt-spring

i was minding my dr.-seuss-birthday business yesterday (march 2, the national feast of green eggs and ham, and 113th birthday of theodore geisel), when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention. i mean really caught my attention. i mean made me put down my pen and turn my head sharply in the direction of the beckoning.

i stared, jaw-dropped. it was something not seen in months and months. it was pure and unblinking. it was whiter than white, a color so sharp, so intense, you could practically apply it with paintbrush.

it was the first light of spring, the vernal lifeline cast from the biggest star in the sky, the one that burns through the day, the one that signals “the seasons are turning.” you’re making it — just when you’re thinking you won’t — from winter, on into spring.

i sat and stared at the light. marveled at the way the season comes on unannounced. no clanging and banging, just the world underfoot quietly going about the business of awakening. all around i feel it, the drab of winter dying away to the newborn tenders of spring. from underneath a pile of spruce branches, i discovered snowdrops pushing their slender necks through the crust of winter’s garden. my front walk is flanked on both sides with a pool of lemon-y aconites, their bright shining faces aglow in the hours, especially, when morning sun soaks them in wattage.

all this unfolds as i too shake off the germs that took me hostage for the better part of two weeks. we’re still moving slow as sap here in the house where strep took hold. but there are signs that life insists on moving forward. spring will come. lungs will clear. the intensity of sunlight will creep from a tickle to a surge.

sometimes i remember: if we surrender to the rhythms of the earth, and the heavens above, we will be carried by the divine heart that animates each and every stirring. world without end. amen.

what signs of hope did you spot this week?

and, in case you’re looking for a few soulful books, here’s my latest roundup from the Chicago Tribune.

Religious humor in ‘Sin Bravely’ leads spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Sin Bravely” by Maggie Rowe, Soft Skull, 225 pages, $16.95

Admittedly, the “religious humor” section of the bookshelf is markedly sparse. Yet that’s where you’ll find “Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience” from comedy writer Maggie Rowe, a suburban Chicago native who’s written for stage and screen, including scripts for “Arrested Development” and Netflix’s “Flaked.” Since 2002, she’s been performing in and producing the Comedy Central stage show “sit ‘n spin,” Los Angeles’ longest-running spoken-word extravaganza, described as “part theatre, part 12-step meeting, part tent revival.”

Publishers Weekly called “Sin Bravely,” Rowe’s debut memoir, a “born-again version of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.'”

Don’t let the funnies fool you: It’s an unflinching examination of the dangers of literalism in the religion department. And while you might be distracted by the sound of your own laughter, it’s a dead-serious message that won’t soon be shaken off.

The plotline goes like this: As early as 6 years old, Rowe found herself obsessed with a fear of going to hell, one so extreme it drove her to become “an outrageously dedicated” born-again Christian. At 19, crippled by her fear, Rowe checked herself into an evangelical psychiatric facility, where pictures of Jesus hung on the walls and a kindly doctor — and a ragtag cast of lovably kooky characters — proved prescriptive.

It’s there that Rowe launches her anti-damnation campaign, finally subscribing to her version of Martin Luther’s admonition: “Sin bravely in order to know the forgiveness of God.” In a scene unlikely to be found anywhere else on the religion bookshelves, she tests her newfound theology in, of all places, a strip club’s amateur night. We’ll let Rowe take it from there, for hers is a storyteller’s inimitable gift.

“Liturgy of the Ordinary” by Tish Harrison Warren, IVP, 184 pages, $16

From the photograph of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on the cover, Tish Harrison Warren’s debut work, “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life,” signals that it’s rooted in the quotidian, the humble humdrum of day-after-day existence. This is spiritual guidance for the bed-maker, the teeth-brusher, the traffic-snarled among us. This is one ordinary day turned inside out, its hallowed script revealed, liturgical underpinnings exposed.

Warren, an Anglican priest, campus minister, writer, wife and mother of two, unlocks “a practical theology of the everyday,” and she does so by seamlessly coupling ordinary moments — awaking, brushing teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, sitting in traffic, checking emails, sipping tea, sleeping — with the sacred.

She beautifully ties making the bed to the Creation story, to God’s making beauty from chaos. In a consideration of tooth brushing, she draws us into a meditation on Christianity as an embodied faith, one in which our senses — our physical pleasures — draw us closer, more emphatically to the divine. Even a fight with her husband becomes a platform for seeking shalom.

It’s in the nitty-gritty of daily work where Warren illuminates holiness. She writes of “tiny theophanies,” church-bell moments, that jolt her — and us, her readers — to sacred attention. The purity of her vision, the clarity of her writing, makes effortless work of the notion that the small acts of our everydays are what shape us into the sacred vessels we are meant to be.

As Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And “Liturgy of the Ordinary” unveils the holy way through even the humblest, most fumbling of days.

“Hammer Is the Prayer” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26

It would be unwise — foolish, even — to think that cracking open a book of poetry might take you straightaway to the same high plane as prose that trains its lens on God. Or the Sacred. Or however you define divinity.

What happens in poetry is altogether chancier. You might, one moment, find yourself immersed in the earthly, devoid of anything remotely godly. And then, one poem later, find yourself catapulted to a place you’ve not before felt, so sudden and so certain is your awareness of, your proximity to, what’s holy.

So it is traveling through the pages of Christian Wiman’s “Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems,” a gathering of three decades of poetry from one of America’s foremost poets, one whose poems have been said to “reach out to both heaven and earth.” Wiman, for 10 years editor of Poetry magazine, now teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. This is his eighth book.

Raised a strict West Texas Baptist, he’s said that his awareness of God went dormant once he hit college, but then, newly married and diagnosed with a rare incurable blood cancer in 2005, Wiman and his poetry began to grapple with faith and with God. It’s more of a wrestling, a visceral dance with doubt and belief. An urgency, too, entered his work, and it’s that sharp edge in his poetry that seizes your heart.

To trace the trajectory of God’s absence or presence in Wiman’s poetry is to enter into your own dance with those unrelenting questions.

Here’s one: “Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?”

Barbara Mahany’s next book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” is due out in April.

(and speaking of that book, the real live actual first copy landed on my stoop this week. and it’s lovelier than i ever imagined. thank you, abingdon press.)

motherprayer-arrived

tender is the earth

IMG_7423

i am submitting to the tilting of the earth. as the oozy patch of mud that is my very own fraction of acreage leans into the less-diluted rays of the great burning star that is the sun, pivot point of the universe, as adagio quickens, and feathered choristers raise their warbles by decibels upon decibels, i allow myself to be wrapped in the soft skeins of earth unfurling, earth letting loose its tight and clenched long-winter’s grip.

i am brushing up against its tendrils, its newborn threads, as i tiptoe down my bluestone walk. as i plop my bum on bluestone stoop, the one that hasn’t yet released its wintry chill. i crouch down low, and run my fingertips across the frilly tops of fronds, just beginning to poke beyond the crust of earth, just beginning to contemplate the art of opening, sun salutation of the new spring garden.

i can’t get close enough — save for rolling in the dewy grass, smearing fists of mud across my knees and elbows. or climbing up a tree, to discover how it feels to be a bird, warbling across the heavens, toes clinging to the bough.

all in all, my daily pull is to the pulse point where earth and sky entwine, where winter’s hibernation gives way to springtime’s insistent release. i drink in the lessons, the unspoken parable: it’s letting-go time, it’s time to uncoil, time to put aside the winter pose — one born of sorrow, yes, and a hollowed-out sense of quietude — time to practice the gentle nudge, bow down low to the invitation, the one that whispers, “i offer healing, if you lean in close, breathe deep the wholeness, the promise, of the season.”

i allow myself, day upon day, hour after hour, to be soothed by the blessed balm of earth at its tenderest. of earth when heaven first begins to draw forth what’s been tucked inside for all the weeks and months of darkness.

it’s dawned on me, as i make my daily rounds of close inspection, that the truth of springtime is that of revelation, long-held secrets breaking through the cloak that kept them shrouded, not seen, forgotten.

the beautiful, come springtime, is no longer under wraps. those yellow petals clinging to the branch? the tight buds of hyacinth just periscoping through the earth? it’s all creation trumpeting its truths. it’s all been there all along, sacred DNA tightly wadded, awaiting heaven’s cue.

and now it’s come, the call to rise and shine and strut the fresh-born splendor; must have tiptoed in while we were napping. so now, perhaps, it’s time for us to ponder too what’s been hiding deep inside of all of us, while we waited out the winter.

and while i wonder what the days and weeks ahead might bring, what beauties might be on the cusp, i’m savoring this tender interlude, these holy blessed hours when all the earth is gentle invitation, and balm for where the winter wore me raw.

i seem to be transfixed — you might call it “stuck” — by the slow unfolding out my door and windows. day by day, week by week, i’m keeping watch. mesmerized would be the word. drinking deep the healing offered by this holy blessed earth, the one so alive in spring. 

since my offering feels thin today, i’ll add to it with two addenda. the first is a celebration of a blessed angel among us, the cook in the night kitchen of what was once called children’s memorial hospital (and now has someone’s too-long name attached). just last night she wrapped up 50 years on the job. a half century of serving up love and prayer, with a side of oozy grilled cheese. one of my beloved nurse friends let me in on the chapter’s ending, so i dug into my archives and found this story i wrote for the chicago tribune in 2009, when she’d been on the job for a mere 43 years. 

to whet your appetite, perhaps, here are the first few paragraphs of miss bettye tucker’s story: 

One by one, night light by night light, the rooms go dim in the not-so-hushed place where sick children, broken children, dying children, finally fall into sleep.

One by one, room by room, the big people who’ve held little hands, dried tears and rocked fevered babies all day long at Children’s Memorial Hospital surrender for a moment their long night’s watch.

It is time for all the keepers of the children–the parents, the nurses, the doctors, the ones who mop the floors, the ones who keep the respirators breathing in and out–to be fed by the comfort-slinging cook in the night kitchen.

This much-loved healer with a soup pot and a prayer is known to all as, simply, Miss Bettye.

bettye tucker

miss bettye tucker

the other offering is the latest of my roundups of books for the soul, with works that blew my mind from rabbi jonathan sacks, and a patron poet-saint of the chair, dear mary oliver.

what lessons do you learn from keeping watch on early spring?

grape hyacinth

i heard the wind howl

blustery day pooh

i heard the wind howl, that shiver-your-spine whistle of late november, the one that tells you the world is being stirred. the one that always reminds me, always stops me in my tracks, whispers: there’s a force infinitely bigger than you, there’s a force to lean into.

it’s the sound of something’s coming. it’s the sound of batten the hatches. and yesterday afternoon it wasn’t much longer till i heard the words, “snow advisory.” followed by “three to six inches.”

once again, i find my soul pulled by the world around me. i’m just a puppet on a string, i sometimes think, and i let my prayerfulness be defined by slip-sliding myself into the Big Book of Nature, the one all around, the one that whirls and whistles and blossoms and withers, the one that drenches and parches, sometimes stirs not a leaf, and some days makes like we’ve stepped inside the waring blender.

when the whistle begins to blow, when autumn’s shrill cry rattles the window panes, seeps in through the eighth of an inch under the door (old houses don’t know from taut construction), i commence the pulling-in posture. i might take to the couch, i might take to the underside of the afghan. or, just as likely, i might press my nose to the glass. wait. watch. scan the heavens for sign of storm coming.

i suppose it’s a sign of my spiritual weakness, my saintly shortcoming, that i’ll take a dose of drama any old day. gets the juices rolling, i find. shakes me into my senses. heightens my paying-attention antenna. i pretty much dare you to see tree trunks bending in half, posing in downward dog of the woods, and not snap to salute.

but then, once i’m wide-eyed, i begin to go deep and deeper inside. prayers take off. i am grateful for walls, yes, and roof overhead. grateful, so grateful, for that box in the basement that cranks all the heat. i’m grateful for days that don’t demand i leave the house. grateful for 10-quart kettles that simmer with bones and broth and whatever the produce bin has offered up for the cause (the cause, of course, being kitchen-sink soup, a name that i now realize needs some revision).

once those elemental gratefuls are out of the way, i sink deeper still. as i scan the sky for sooty snow clouds, survey the heavens, i begin to survey my own deep-down depths. there is much down there deserving of contemplation, there is much coursing, much that begs to be unearthed, lifted, turned over to the one who stirs the wind.

year after year, it’s the first winter storm that packs the mightiest wallop, the one that throttles us back to our proper perspective: we are defenseless if left to our own devices. we’d be battered without whatever, whomever, blankets us, keeps us safe from the elements.

my second instinct on days when the weather report is written in caps, with long strings of exclamation marks, and maybe even an asterisk or three, is to make like auntie em in the wizard of oz, to head out the door to batten those hatches: anchor the bird houses, strip the landscape of soon-to-be-flying projectiles, slip the old glass bottles off the ledge in the summer porch. and, of course, dump seed for the birds, make sure the water basin is filled, should any one of the soon-to-be-scattered flocks decide a pre-emptive guzzle is in order.

it seems especially apt this year, as the landscape of the world at large and the more private one i know best are both so cloaked in sadness, it’s apt that the wind is calling us out of ourselves, pressing our nose to the glass, stirring the breeze deep inside, rustling up prayer. we’re about to be shaken into our places again.

november’s wind is the call to attention. we’d do best to listen.

and pray.

in searching for an image of winnie-the-pooh and the blustery day, i realized our well-worn copy of a.a. milne’s masterpiece, illustrated by the ever-charming e.h. shepard, has gone missing, which is a terrible thing to discover. so i made do with a frame from the original disney version. and i am so sad for the page that’s missing in action.

what calls you to attention in these blustery days of november?

“don’t be afraid of the dark”

octobermoonatdawn

i heard the words, suddenly, as if instruction. it might have been late afternoon, a day or two ago. the details are murky now. i know i was in the kitchen, not far from the window, and i know the dark hadn’t yet rolled in when i heard the words, as if a celestial whisper.

“don’t be afraid of the dark.”

i never am. afraid of the dark, that is. my celtic soul is one of the ones that, most of the time, shimmies into the darkness, as shoulders into a soft-knit sleeve. dark invites mystery. invites deepening. dark is where shadows dance. dark is where faint outlines appear, the chiaroscuro of night.

but somehow, deep down in my soul, maybe i knew this might be different. maybe i knew this year’s season of darkness, as globe turns away from the sun, as our point on the planet lies mostly in shadow, the faint slant of light more diluted than summer’s blaze, maybe i sensed that this year it might be tougher to shoulder.

so the instruction crept in, out of nowhere. the sort of whispered coaxing that might make you look up to the ceiling, to see if it came from above. or, maybe, truly, it might make you pause, put ear to your heart, and know it came from within. the still small voice that whispers. and every once in a while shakes us by the shoulders, says (more or less), “listen here, i’m talking to you, and i don’t want you not paying attention.”

so there you are, about to swing open the door of the fridge, reach for a tub of cottage cheese or some other plebeian foodstuff, when all of the sudden you’re shaking your head, trying to knock off the cobwebs that must be messing with your ear drums, and next thing you know you’re thinking hard about darkness, and how it’s coming, and how you’ve just been instructed not to be afraid.

all right, then. so i won’t be. i’ll try, hard as i can, to peek out the window at four in the afternoon, and look for the beauty in the purpling hour, when the world outside goes violet, awash in sinking sunlight. maybe i’ll crank the stove a bit earlier, a bit more heartily. maybe i’ll stack candles along the window sill, the armament of light from within.

maybe i’ll keep the afghans close at hand. maybe i’ll pencil in night walks. maybe i’ll memorize planets and stars.

there’s an enchanted picture book, a book for children who might be eight or 85, and it’s one i keep close by, on the bookshelf here in the room where i type. it’s titled, “caretakers of wonder,” by cooper edens, the glorious illustrator whose work with the magical publishing house, “green tiger press,” served as my muse through the 1980s, back in a decade when life was walloping me this way and that. back when mr. edens (let us be wholly respectful of this master of brush and charcoal pencil) was a child, his principal sent him home from school (for the year, not the day!), telling his mother he was “too creative.” his mother, wise woman, sat him down for the duration with a set of crayons and stacks and stacks of coloring books. it wasn’t long till he began channeling van gogh and monet, and his works have always swept me away.

IMG_6148he might best be known for the bedtime book, “if you’re afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow,” but the one i love best is “caretakers of wonder.”

it begins with these words: “this very night, while you lie quietly in your bed, open your eyes. now, look out the window! for even at this yawning hour, so many of your friends are working to keep the world magical.” (now, turn the page…)

“yes, they are the ones who make new stars and put them up” (illustration of two fine caretakers climbing into the wicker basket of a hot-air balloon — how else to float to the stars?) (turn page again…)

“the ones who light and keep the stars burning.” (and here we see the heart-air balloon, and the extra-long wick that kindles the night stars…)IMG_6149

sometimes all it takes is one reading, one brush of words up against the soul, for whole new paradigms to be born, whole new ways of seeing, of glistening. and so, perhaps, ever since i first brushed up against cooper edens’ whimsy and wonder, i’ve found the night all the more enchanting. to think there are caretakers flitting about with their miles-long wicks, and their night work of wonder….

it must be the make-believe part of me that’s never faded away, the ember that would not extinguish.

and so, this very morning, beginning to reacquaint myself with the wonder of darkness, the darkness that’s coming this very weekend when we turn back the clocks, i tiptoed outside with my dawn-viewing equipment: my slide-in shoes, my fat mug of very hot coffee, my old tin can of birdseed filled to the brim for the birds who were still off nodding at that early hour.

i looked up. that’s all it takes, a simple crank of the neck, chin pointed skyward. and there it was, dawn awaiting. gibbous moon, ringed in a halo of violet and rose and peek-a-boo cloud (one of those early morning mysteries whose science i do not understand, nor do i need to). planets emphatically spotlit (venus, mars, and jupiter pinned to the southeastern sky). stars on the brink of fading away.

it was breathtakingly beautiful, all of it.

and i’m fairly convinced the beauty is ours for the taking, yes, deep in the darkness. if we take in a chest-filling breath, and wrap ourselves in the whole of the long night’s offering, the invitation to burrow deep inside our souls. and bring on the night candles, the flame, and the blankets.

what particular beauties do you find in the darkness? will you steel yourself against its early coming, or welcome it with rapt attention?

tender are the hours

tender are the hours. spring.

even if you don’t yank your sit-upon from the shelf and plop yourself amid the morning’s deeply sodden garden, you can’t help but notice: the air is soft, is velvet-rippled, faint breath against the skin you’ve dared to bare (we’re talking ankles, maybe toes, nothing racier here, folks).

the boughs froth in springtime meringue, the crabapple’s creamy blossom, the redbud’s tight-stitched knots of tonsillar pink. the lilac waiting in the wings. any branch that’s not in bloom is one that’s a filigree of lace-cut leaf, from afar a mist of just-born green.

and birdsong comes in deep striations, the piercing notes atop a bank of blurred and whirling insistence. they seem to never pause to catch their breath, those choristers of each and every dawn.

but the main attraction of the spring, the one that begs the quietest attention, is what unfurls down low, just inches from the warming earth, where loamy mounds (and giddy earthworms) soak up the benevolence of sunbeams, now lavishing the northern hemisphere with increments of extra minutes, day by passing day.

that’s where the bleeding heart (above) dangles from the stem, so many pantaloons pinned to the clothesline. that’s where the lily-of-the-valley unknots its lilliputian bells. and where cerulean clouds of forget-me-not waft above their heart-scissored leaves.

and after a long night’s rinse, whole brigades of water droplets hold their pose, crystal balls suspended, shot through with morning rainbows in miniature. not far away, more animated drops offer pitter-patter, a metronome of plops. the hollow of a hosta’s broad-leaf tongue makes for a shallow drinking pond for ladybug or spider, or my cat who’s never quenched.

and if you keep closest watch on the whole tableau, if you tune into any sign of fluttering — a branch that leaps, a blossom that seems to shiver — chances are, you’ll catch a feathered glimpse of migration’s many gifts. just this morning what i might have mistaken for a hovering cicada turned out to be a hummingbird, one partaking of viburnum’s spicy cocktail.

tender are the hours of the spring.

and tender is the invitation: bring on your thin-skinned self, your delicate spirit. bathe your soft spots, your raw edges, in this pool of life releasing. not long ago, all was clasped in hard-shell incubation, the protective armament of the season of harsh winds and late freezes. but now’s the hour when the letting down begins. when our fragile selves needn’t shudder.

it’s as if all the world, all that blurs the soft edge between heaven and earth, it’s as if all of it is drawing us tenderly out of ourselves, signaling that it’s safe, offering even our unfurling selves a margin of deep-breathing room.

because i’ll always be a believer that the book of nature was one inscribed with lessons to be learned, with wisdom in which to be steeped, i can’t help but notice how this is the season that begs us to come as we are.

to not worry if we’re feeling a bit exposed, because everything about the spring is tender, too. and while we’re finding our way from winter’s harshest hours, and while we’re not yet inclined toward summer’s bold declarations, this in-between time it’s when we too can find safe harbor in the frilly arbors of the begin-again interlude.

and, right in here, i’m feeling on the verge (a word, i find, with roots in the latin virga, which, curiously, and serendipitously, refers to “a slender green branch,” aka the new growth of spring). in just one week, a boy i love will leave behind his college on the hill, and begin whatever’s next. and any hour now, he’ll be climbing into a back seat and driving hours and hours on the highway, because that’s how college kids these days mark passages, they mark them on sandy beaches far from civilization. and their parents — yes, miles and miles away, but never far in heart and soul — they hold their breath all the while. and other friends i dearly love, they are weathering all sorts of crossroads. and, in sum, i am feeling the fragility of all of life. and the world around me only serves to amplify — and yet, blessedly, benevolently, to cushion — that reality.

from the mewling of the baby birds who’ve made their nest above my doorway, to the tissue-paper petals scattered across my stepping-stone path, i am walking through the living-breathing fragility of newborn spring. the in-between season that understands the truth that sometimes we need soft hours, tender hours, to uncoil from what’s been harsh before we spread our wings, our arms, our souls, and bask in all-enveloping radiant golden light.

do you find springtime a tender time? is this a season for you that begs the soft embrace of all that surrounds us?