“The ABC’s of Thomas Merton, A Monk at the Heart of the World” by Gregory & Elizabeth Ryan

“It’s as easy as A, B, C!”

Challenge: How to take the information found on our shelves and shelves—and shelves!—of books by and about Thomas Merton, and make it all understandable to a young audience.

As a youngster, I had heard about a “mysterious” Trappist monk who lived an austere life of silence, prayer and work in a monastery far removed from the rest of the world. As an adult, I first came upon Merton in a serious way in 1971 when I was working as a nursing assistant at The New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, near Princeton. I was serving as a civilian conscientious objector during the war in Vietnam. During the initial four-weeks of training, I befriended a fellow who was also a CO. I soon learned that he was a radical philosopher, through and through. He was also a professed atheist. He knew I was a Catholic, but that did not get in the way of our having many lively discussions during our lunch-breaks. His small room on the hospital grounds was crammed full of books. More, he admitted, than he could ever read. But one day, he handed me two books that changed my life: The Man in the Sycamore Tree, Edward Rice’s “entertainment-biography” of his friend Thomas Merton, and The Sign of Jonas, one of Merton’s most celebrated monastic journals. More than 40 years later, much like Richard’s small room, our house is crammed full of Merton books. Unlike Richard’s, however, they’ve all been read. And re-read. And re-read.

Once having been “bitten” by the Merton bug, I looked for magazine and journal articles about Merton. I wrote to many of those authors who were in what I would call the “first generation” of Merton scholars, who very generously answered my questions, or sent me photocopies of their work. Most importantly, I befriended Dr. Robert E. Daggy, Director of the Thomas Merton Studies Center at Bellarmine College (now University), who very soon became “Bob.” Merton enthusiasts of my age (late-60’s) know how generous Bob was both with his knowledge and with his friendship. The first thing I published on Merton was in the 1970’s and was a result of Bob’s invitation to contribute something to “The Merton Seasonal” which he edited. The very short piece compared Thomas Merton with Dom John Main OSB, my meditation teacher. (Learn more at www.WCCM.org). Over the years, I’ve published other Merton-related articles in The Seasonal and other journals.

One day, in the 1980’s, while I was sitting in the car waiting for our older daughter, who was having her piano lesson, it occurred to me that Merton had published not only The Asian Journal but Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Titles from A to Z. Hmmmm…. Click! I was off to the races.

Being a second grade teacher for many years, I had a small pad with me. I started to make a few notes and some rough sketches for what was important in the life of Thomas Merton, starting with “A is for Abbot, B is for Benedict….” and so on. When we got home, I shared the sketches and the texts with my wife, Liz, who is a very talented artist. She thought it was a great idea. And so did Caitlin, our young pianist. Our other daughter, Abbey, who today is also an artist, was a tad too young at the time. She was in her room, busily making her own pictures.

Liz and I soon had a fully illustrated manuscript ready and sent it out to publishers. This was in the days of postal mail. You could only submit your work to one publisher at a time. Weeks would go by between submissions. After a good number of thoughtful rejections and one very hard nibble—which unfortunately got away—we put the project on the shelf, where it sat for many years. We took it down for time to time to show friends and family. They all repeated a familiar refrain, “This is good. You should try again!”

In the summer of 2015, Abbey and her partner were visiting for a weekend. In the middle of a long walk down Memory Lane, the subject of the book came up again. Liz went to her studio and took the manuscript down from the shelf and we listened to Abbey and Leigh as they flipped through the manuscript. They liked it! “This is good. You should try again!” Click! (By the way, Caitlin and Abbey both have “Merton” for their middle names.)

I spent the next few weeks scanning the text and the color illustrations. Skills I did not have the first time around. Nobody did; there were no personal computers. The text needed some additional tweaking, but the paintings were still perfect, thanks to Liz’s artistry. We settled on a lay-out and “saved” the now-digitized book as a PDF file.

As luck would have it, one day I came across an ad in the National Catholic Reporter for the re-issue of Anthony Padovano’s excellent book on Merton. I sent an email inquiry to the publisher about our ABCs of Thomas Merton, A Monk at the Heart of the World. In just a few moments, my inbox had the reply: “Let’s see it.” After some nail-biting while PDF files were Drop-boxed back and forth, the verdict came back. “We love it!” The only problem was, they had not yet published any children’s books. But they might start. They didn’t. (Insert big “sad-face” here.)

Fortunately, that editor did not give up on us. He was just embarking on a new position at this publisher, after recently coming from a position at Paraclete Press. But he believed in the book and he said he would send it on to Paraclete. He was sure they would like it. And they did! I’m sure it didn’t hurt, either, that we had included with our submission what some might call “glowing endorsements” from more than half a dozen of today’s leaders in Merton studies, contemplative prayer, and pastoral care who had previewed a PDF file of the illustrated manuscript.

Staffed by a creative and talented monastic community, Paraclete Press has been a perfect fit for our book. We could not be happier.

When I tell this story to people, I always tell them not to give up. If they have a good idea, keep at it—no matter what others might think.

As I look back on this publishing journey, I can see how, as some may say, the stars had to be aligned just so to make it happen. Me, I would say it all happened in God’s own good time.

Note: You can take a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the book here and view Paraclete Press’s wonderful video here!

– Gregory and Elizabeth Ryan

Happy Mother’s Day!

Gifts for Mother’s Day (4)A Mothers Love and Witness are Powerful!

By Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, author of Feeding Your Family’s Soul and A Catholic Woman’s Book of Prayers

When we think of a mother’s love we might get a warm and fuzzy kind of feeling inside, reminiscing childhood memories. Truth be told though, as warm and cozy as a mother’s love truly is, mothers indeed possess an incomparable inner strength that is utterly edifying. Her vocation is extremely important in raising little saints to heaven even though our culture, which values the size of a paycheck over anything else, does not revere the sometimes monotonous tasks of a mother and pushes women to pursue careers outside the home rather than get “tied down” to a sometimes thankless job.

I am exceedingly thankful for my vocation of motherhood, as well as the very interesting life that God has given me—filled with endless heart-warming joys and sprinkled with struggles and challenges too. I constantly pray that I can be the hands and feet of Jesus—to be His humble instrument to inspire faith in others—first in my family where He has placed me to be a wife and mother of five on earth and three in heaven, as well as a grandmother. After all, my spiritual mother Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, someone I was blessed to know personally for almost ten years has often preached “Love begins at home.”

Beyond my family, because our Lord has given me the task of writing and speaking to inspire faith in others, I expand my reach by His grace and go out to meet countless people at my events who openly share their hearts with me and ask me for prayers for a myriad of needs. My book signing events are not merely a time to sign books, but rather an opportunity for much grace in the amazing encounters that God sets up. I’ll share a few encounters with you.

One time after giving a keynote speech to a parish in Kansas, a very long line of people who wanted to purchase autographed copies of my books formed at my book table. The first woman in line came to me with many tears, telling me that her mother had just passed away. My heart immediately went out to comfort her in her intense sorrow. She continued to bury her head into my chest as my arms reached around her in compassion. She laid her head against me a few times during our conversation—she needed love and empathy. She needed to feel Christ’s loving arms around her.

Before we parted, she gave me a copy of her mother’s obituary and placed her head against my heart again while many tears flowed.

A week or so after I returned home to Connecticut, I received an email from her. I will share it with you because I feel it is a very inspiring story of a mother’s powerful love and shining witness to her family and beyond.

Hi Donna,
Do you remember me? I met you last week. I bought your book and asked you to pray for my Mom that passed away on. You told me that my Mom is in heaven now when I told you that my Mom died on her sleeping at age 87 years old.

You put the Miraculous Medal close to yours. I am so blessed to receive it from you. The next day, on Monday I put the medal to my Mom’s hands in her casket and told her about your story. I was so surprised they opened the casket again when I visited her. But I kept your medal now. My mom was cremated last Wednesday.

Thank you for comforting me and making me strong.

After meeting you, I realized that I am so blessed because God gave me a wonderful Mother that had a very strong faith. My mother was not rich, she did not leave money, but she left the important things, such as her example that shows me that we have to trust in God and pray all the times. It is more valuable than everything else. You made me so proud about my Mom.

She was baptized when she was 5th grade, being the only one in her in her family who was Catholic. After years, she made sure that all of her family (9 siblings), became Catholic and her parents too, and also my Dad. Now all of my aunts, cousins, nephews, uncles are Catholic because of my Mom. It is pity that I just realized this after my Mom is gone.

How wonderful she is. She never complained if she had a problem. She always prayed. We were so poor when I was a kid in Indonesia, living in a small house, not tile, only dirt. I have 4 siblings, my Dad was jobless, so my Mom worked hard to make dresses for our neighbors to get money, but she put all her kids through Catholic school and we were baptized as babies.

She taught her kids to be good Catholics. Now, we (3 of her kids) are living in USA. God always has better plans than we can ever imagine.

It is nice to meet you and thank you for opening my mind that my Mom is not ordinary people. God loves her and I believe that she is happy now in her new place in heaven. She is so blessed.

This woman was suddenly given the grace after her mother’s death to understand the amazing things that her mother had accomplished as a very simple yet faithful woman who worked hard to get her family to heaven. “Small things with great love” as Mother Teresa, a great spiritual mother to our world has always preached. She often spoke about the fact that God calls us to simply be wholeheartedly faithful to our duties in life. That is really our ticket to heaven, and just as importantly, it opens wide the gate for others because of our Christian witness. I am deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to give that woman a blessed Miraculous Medal—Mary’s medal. Mary truly mothers us through her sacramental. Mother Mary always points us to her Son. “Do whatever he tells you,” as she told the wine stewards. Mary will grant many graces to us for the asking. Let’s not be hesitant to ask her.

God Gives Us Strength to Endure

That night I was also blessed to meet a woman waiting in the same line of people waiting to approach my book table. She drew nearer and knelt down next to my table. She presented a photo of her handsome son to me. On the other side though, was a printed eulogy. He was only thirteen years old when he passed away in an accident just twelve weeks prior. I gazed at the photo of that smiling child and the woman was beaming with a mother’s love as she tenderly told me all about her beautiful son who surely went straight to heaven. This woman proceeded to tell me that God had granted her much grace and after some time she would accept the tragedy of her son’s death. I witnessed strength personified in that woman kneeling at my book table. Such love, such grace. Mothers are strong. Mothers are heroic.

Another woman came forward to tell me all about a little baby with brain cancer. That’s right—a baby—with brain cancer! Her thoughts were not on her own needs. She pleaded for prayers from me for little Adele, her friend’s baby girl who was undergoing chemotherapy at a tender age. She told me all about Adele’s mother’s dire need for prayers that Adele might be healed. Sometimes a mother’s heart seems encircled with piercing thorns when she experiences the depth of this type of pain.

Mothers Can Be a Channel of Grace

We start first in our own homes to serve our families. When we are out and about with our family’s activities we have the occasion to share our faith with others through caring words and kind gestures, not hesitating to get “God” and “prayer” into our conversations—even with complete strangers. We never know how much someone will be impacted by those words and Christ’s love shining from our eyes. This was shown to me in such an amazing way one ordinary morning out at the school bus stop. I tell this story often because I like to encourage others that by God’s amazing grace, our simple words and care can work miracles in someone’s heart—someone needing God’s love!

When my daughter Mary-Catherine was about three years old she insisted upon wearing a pretty dress to the school bus stop one morning. After seeing her older siblings go off to school on the school bus, my neighbor remarked that Mary-Catherine looked pretty in her dress.

I replied, “It’s really her Church dress but she desperately wanted to wear it this morning.”

My neighbor began to cry and then she sobbed! I asked if I could give her a hug. She immediately accepted my hug. I had no idea why she suddenly got upset, but I knew I needed to try to comfort her. She then opened up about the promise she made to her father on his death bed, eight years prior. She told her father that she would be sure to have her son baptized. Eight years had passed and he was still not baptized. She cried some more and I told her that it was not too late! She expressed her concern about getting yelled at by the priest for waiting so long. I reassured her that the priest would welcome her with open arms and I offered to call our parish priest ahead of her phone call to him to help pave the way. She thought it was a good plan.

Soon after, my neighbor’s son was baptized and my neighbor went to Confession and was back in the graces of the Church! She then helped out in the parish office while her son took his faith formation lessons to make his First Holy Communion. God is amazing! That one word, “Church” that I mentioned in describing my daughter’s dress had awakened the memory in my neighbor’s heart about her important promise to her father.

Mothers are the Hands and Feet of Jesus!

Mothers everywhere are involved in innumerable ways in the care of their families and of others. All women are spiritual mothers and can mother those that God has put in their lives. Their faithful witness shines among us. God calls every single one of us to open our hearts to His grace and to strive to be Christ’s hands and feet in our darkened world. A simple smile, a listening ear, a warm hug of comfort can soothe someone’s deep pain and open up an amazing channel of grace!

Saint Teresa of Avila encouraged us to go forth and bring Christ’s love to others. She said:

“Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion into the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world.”

Happy Mother’s Day to every woman!

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“Who will stay with us?”

Today’s guest blogger is Laura Alary, author of Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter

I am getting ready to go out. It is only for the day, but I require a lot of gear. By the front door, my youngest daughter prances around a pile of bags, investigating and wondering aloud. A frown creases her forehead as the questions pour out:

“Where are you going? How long will you be gone? Who will stay with us?”

There is something oddly familiar about her words. Then I remember. My mind flits to that moment in the gospel of John when Jesus, reclining in the lamplight around a table with his closest friends, breaks the news to them that he will soon be leaving. Their questions are those of children afraid to be left alone:

“Where are you going? When are you coming back? Who will stay with us?”

Among other things, Pentecost is a response to these anxious questions. But we rarely celebrate it that way. Observing Pentecost—especially with children—often owes more to the book of Acts than to the gospel of John. Acts describes the joyful chaos, the crowds of people, the palimpsest of voices and languages, the wind and fire. The scene is loud and noisy and oriented outward. The disciples burst from behind locked doors and rush into the streets; the message travels outward from Jerusalem and spreads out across the face of the earth.

Acts is Pentecost for extroverts.

Our celebrations frequently mirror these extroverted qualities. We throw a party, complete with balloons, streamers, pinwheels, bubbles, bright colours, birthday cake and candles. And why not? Parties are fun. So are gifts. Children can certainly relate to them, and to the thrill of waiting for something new and exciting. And what better excuse for a party than the birth of a new kind of family with its all its varied and abundant gifts?

But sometimes important things get lost amid the cake and wrapping paper.

The Gospel of John gives us a very different account of the gift of the Spirit. This other version—I like to think of it as the introverted version—happens in a locked room, in an atmosphere thick with worry. The disciples have retreated there because they are terrified and have no idea what to do or where to go. Their worst fears have come to pass. They are all alone and there is no one to help.

Into this fearful place, Jesus comes. His words are few. Be at peace, he tells his friends. Receive the Holy Spirit. Then he breathes on them, and something mysterious begins to stir in them, the way it did when God breathed life into the muddy nostrils of those first earth creatures in the ancient story of the beginning. The disciples can feel they are not alone. And somehow that makes all the difference.

In her lovely book about Pentecost, The Day When God Made Church, Rebekah McLeod Hutto describes the gift of words in all their wonderful variety: “Some with LOUD sounds, some with quiet whispers, words like drumbeats, words that tiptoe through the air.” How true. It is not only the loud and bold words that matter. The gentle and quiet ones do too.

Peace.
I love you.
I am with you.
You are not alone.

Such words are a precious gift to children who, like the disciples, know the fear of being left alone, the sensation of feeling small and powerless, the anxiety of not knowing what lies ahead. Their connection to the story of Pentecost runs deep.

How can we help children explore this connection? Perhaps by making some space for silence in the middle of all the noise and hilarity. Perhaps by wondering together about different kinds of words and what they do. Which words build up? Which ones tear down? Are there times when it is better to be quiet? To speak out? How can we use our words to bring peace? To encourage? To spread kindness?

Maybe Pentecost is the time to get out the crayons and beads and fabric and play together with some new forms of prayer, especially those practices which nurture awareness of the divine presence in and around us. Praying in colour, centering prayer, praying with beads, making prayer flags—there are so many ways to practise paying attention so we can look on the world with wonder and see the movement of the Spirit.

These things might not make for a rollicking party. But they do bring peace to anxious hearts, encourage those with gentler voices, stir kindness and confidence, and open young and old to a clearer way of seeing.

And there is always room for cake and balloons.

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 12.28.33 PMMake-Room

Guest blog from Jerusalem Jackson Greer!

This month something amazing is happening.

My second book is being published and brought into the world.

Which is pretty amazing. Maybe even more amazing than when my first book was published.

You see, At Home in this Life; Finding Peace at the Crossroads of Unraveled Dreams and Beautiful Surprises, is not the book I set out to write 4 years ago.

The book I imagined and pitched to my publisher back then, was a little more fluffy, a little less messy. That book was a cheerful little ditty about how to pair monastic practices with domestic chores in cute Pinterest-ways.

But then life happened. Things came apart, plans fell through, dreams unraveled.

And instead of just being cute inspiration for adorable crafts and yummy recipes, the ancient monastic spiritual teachings of steadfastness, transformation, listening, and Sabbath became my life rafts.

They, along with the verses of Jeremiah 29:1-14, became the scaffolding on which I was able to rebuild a life of hope and promise. A life rooted in the goodness of God, the grace of Christ, and the passion of the Holy Spirit.

And the beautiful thing about these practices is that they are not only life rafts. They are also anchors and row boats.

In addition to their life-raft skills, they also hold me fast to one place when what I need most is to stay and learn the lessons that life has for me when it would be so much easier to run away, and they keep me moving and growing in the midst of the most mundane ordinary parts of life when I would much rather be lazy and stagnate.

Using these tools, I have learned how to be present to life I have, growing in gratefulness and faithfulness (imperfectly!) in the process. But as the little poster from my childhood said, “be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Which is why I have to keep practicing.

In order to really live into the wholeness that God has for us, we – me, you, everyone – has to keep showing up – to the table, to each other, to our lives. We have to keep practicing spiritual disciplines (after all to be a disciple is to be someone who is teachable, not someone who has all the answers,) day in and day out.

Which is where A Rule of Life comes in.

This idea – that there are certain spiritual practices that are able to both anchor, rescue and propel us forward – essentially helping us remain present to our life no matter the circumstances, helping shape and form us in the image of God – is not a new idea – it is one that comes from the monastic tradition and is called A Rule of Life.

“A Rule of Life is an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. A Rule establishes a rhythm for life in which is helpful for being formed by the Spirit, a rhythm that reflects a love for God and respect for how God has made us.”

– C.S. Lewis Institute

The cool thing is that A Rule of Life can be established for a community (a monastery, a family, a church) and for an individual. It can be adjusted and modified over the course of a lifetime, it can grow and change as we grow and change.

Different people have different ways of creating A Rule of Life and there are many books and theories on the subject, but I have found what works for me, and what I think what might work for a lot of us, is a pattern based largely on the experiences I write about in At Home in this Life. It is a simple four-part rhythm inspired by St. Benedict’s teachings and Jeremiah 29:1-14.

A pattern that can help us remain present to the life we have, watering the grass beneath our feet, growing deep roots right where we have been planted. A pattern that can help is NOTICE the goodness of God in our everyday lives.

Over the next month, as part of the At Home in this Life book launch celebration, I thought I would unpack this process and idea a little bit here on the blog. Over the next few weeks I am going to look at what each of the four overarching themes (or “vows” as they are called in the Benedictine tradition) that I think help frame an easy-to-use, but completely trans-formative Rule of Life. One that helps me dig into the Spiritual Practice of Being Present, and I think might help you too.

Here is a free worksheet I have created that you can use over the course of the next few weeks to begin creating your own Rule, as we go through the process together, looking at the four guiding themes – Steadfastness, Transformation, Listening and Sabbath – and how we can use other spiritual disciplines to really experience and practice each one to the fullest, making ourselves at home in this amazing, beautiful, chaotic, messy, glorious life!

Won’t you join me?

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Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer

Many thanks to Angela Doll Carlson of Ancient Faith for today’s review and guest blog post featuring Scott Cairns’ book Short Trip to the Edge.  

“And then I was standing at the edge. It would surprise you
how near to home. And the abyss? Every shade of blue,
all of them readily confused, and, oddly, none of this
as terrifying as I had expected, just endless.”

–Scott Cairns “Short Trip to the Edge”

Well, first off, I don’t generally “review” books. Let’s just be clear about that. Reviews can be so subjective, and what one person digs, someone else might hate. That’s just the long and short of it.

But, you know, the work of Scott Cairns has figured greatly not only in my writing but in my conversion to Orthodoxy as well. His memoir, “Short Trip to the Edge” was particularly influential. I read it for the first time about seven years after Scott’s poetry reading at Calvin College that I speak about in both Garden in the East and in Nearly Orthodox. I was already well on the road to becoming Orthodox, but still a few years away from making it legal, so to speak. I had met Scott, “friended” him on Facebook and then got busy bombarding him with questions.

Some of those questions were answered in that first version of his memoir and even more of those questions cropped up in the course of reading the book. He’s a gracious friend and was kind enough to answer them until I got myself into a larger Orthodox community. Sometimes I still bombard him with questions. He’s still gracious.

So when the new version of Short Trip to the Edge came along, complete with a new subtitle, I was eager to read it. I was told that the new book, in addition to the new subtitle, is a bit different from the first edition; there are now maps, some amendments, some small corrections and an epilogue that continues the story.

I’ll confess that I went into the re-reading of the book, all these years after reading the original, with some of the same thoughts I had as I entered into Orthodoxy. I thought, “I totally know all this.” I was right on some counts, there were moments I remembered well– the descriptions of the “switchback” roads of Mount Athos, the harsh conditions during the winter trip to the Holy Mountain, the painful search for a spiritual father and yet the beauty of it all, even so. I’m pretty sure I cried and cringed at all the same places. Don’t judge me, I’m a crier.

I’m not much of a fan of typical “conversion stories” which is fortunate because this memoir isn’t one. This is a story about a man in search of prayer, deep and resounding prayer. I remember that the book struck me on my first reading as part travelogue, part memoir. The triptych feel as Cairns crafts narrative through three visits to Mount Athos is interwoven with his spiritual journey at home, underscored most prominently by his search for a spiritual father. It echoed my own anxieties as I put my feet on the road to Orthodoxy.

Since becoming Orthodox, I’ve encountered this desire for a spiritual father quite a lot, in people I meet but also in myself. I tell people that I’m still looking for my own version of Dostoevsky’s “Father Zosima.” I’m only half joking. It’s a kind of pathology in our culture. We’re in some need, and we’re looking for someone who has answers.

In some ways, I think this desire is one of the driving forces that led me to Short Trip to the Edge the first time I picked it up– and it did not disappoint. The thing is, I didn’t know what I really needed was not someone who “knew the answers” as much as someone who was asking better questions. I found that in Scott Cairns’ Short Trip to the Edge.

Scott Cairns is a fellow traveler to his readers, sharing anxiety and joy and beauty each step of the way. We feel the weight of his backpack on those switchback roads, the heat of the day, the cold of the night. We see the weathered stones of each monastery and smell the incense-soaked katholikon. And we can almost taste the strong raki and rich dark brewed coffee and sweet or savory offerings at the trapeza after a lengthy night of Liturgy. And in this we are offered, at each point, the hospitality of the author to enter in, to taste and see. When Isaak is welcomed home, it is as though he turns to us and invites us in as well. Stepping into these sacred places feels a little less daunting with such a guide.

Whether one is pursuing Orthodoxy or simply recognizes the need for some brush with beauty, this “pilgrimage to prayer” is a worthy journey for the reader.

Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer by Scott Cairns (Paraclete Press) is available here on Ancient Faith as well as the amazing and wonderful Eighth Day Books, Paraclete Press and all those huge corporate places too if that’s your bag. Don’t worry, I’m not judging you.

About Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson is an Orthodox Christian poet, fiction writer and essayist whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from publications such as Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling, Bird’s Thumb Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Ink & Letters, and Art House America. 

Her memoir, ‘Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition’ (Ancient Faith Publishers) was released July 2014. Her latest book, ‘Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body’ is due out from Ancient Faith Publishers in 2016.

Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL with her husband, David and her 4 outrageously spirited yet remarkably likable children.

 

The Herz-Werk (“Heart-work”) of Rilke

by Mark S. Burrows

In her marvelous recent collection of essays on poetry, Jane Hirshfield suggests that “the desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.” She goes on to describe how, in strong poems, “the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees” (Ten Windows. How Great Poems Transform the World [New York: Knopf, 2015]). Poems carry the magic of transformation, bending the imagination in both directions—from inner to outer to inner, and back again. They change the way we learn to look, and thereby shape what we see. In turn, the “outer” world, by means of the leadings voiced in a good poem, reach into our inner being and change us, in large or subtle ways.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in a style that exemplifies this, his use of often startling and unexpected metaphors shifting something in the way we see, as if offering us glimpses of a world that alters the ways we look—and, thus, what it is we come to see in this world and in ourselves. One of these poems offers glimpses of God through a peculiar gathering of images, ones few of us might have imagined if left to ourselves but which, once we encounter them, might come to feel as intimate to us as our breathing. It begins this way:

99 Psalms

The poem goes on to speak of how God stirs within us as we grow and change, “ripening” us in our journey, and above all in the struggles that will and do come, which Rilke alludes to with the pointed image of our “wrestling.” We find our lives deepened through feelings that might be discomforting, perhaps even a struggle, for us: viz., the experience of “homesickness”; wandering into a deep, dark forest; facing the silences that somehow, he suggests, might still invite us to song.

How is this to happen? Rilke refuses to say. His work as poet is not to tell us something, but rather to lure us: in this case, by awakening our vision with images that might initially strike us as strange and marvelous, as these surely are. Ours is the work of taking such metaphors into our musings, letting them come to work slowly on our inner way of seeing, inviting them to stir our imagination—which is the heart of what it means to “come to faith.” How a poem like this ignites our inner eye, and thereby alters how we look if not also how we live: this is the work of experiencing a good poem, taking us on a slow, meditative journey of coming to know. In engaging this “heart-work” (Herz-Werk), as he elsewhere calls it, we learn to take such images into the “deep” of our mind, coming to inhabit the outer world more perceptively and the inner world more knowingly. Through such images as these, as Ms. Hirshfield reminds us, “the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees.”

God as the “great homesickness we’d not mastered”? An unsettling, even unorthodox image, at least at first glance. But no less a figure than the great theologian of Late Antiquity, Augustine of Hippo, said as much: “To praise You is what we desire, we who are but a fragment of your creation. You stir us to delight in praising You, because You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You” (Confessions I.1; my translation). Rilke, of course, carries Augustine’s thought further, suggesting that what we experience in our unrest is the very presence of the divine within us—a remarkable insight, to be sure. And what a provocative and liberating invitation it offers, pointing to our struggles, our troubles and confusions, not as our problem but rather as the very hope of our “ripening.” Here, the poet suggests how we might claim our struggle as the root of our ripening—and how this might become for us a path into song, the kind we might learn to sing “in every silence.” Perhaps, along this inner path of the heart, we might even begin to attune ourselves to God the “net” who is wide enough to snare our “fleeing feelings.” To be caught in this net is to be freed into the deep of peace.

Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives

“Once I began reading these stories I couldn’t stop. Each writer is a strong woman who has learned much from life and God. Gritty, funny, painful, affirming. No punches are pulled, but grace abounds.” —Luci Shaw, poet and author

From matters of politics to education, from social justice to health and wellness and beyond, this has been a year for the voices of women to ring out, and the Women of Redbud Writers Guild add their voices to the swell: voices of honesty, faith, deep spirituality, and generous wisdom. In their new book, Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives, they speak out on behalf of those women who might not have found their own voices yet, sharing stories of their own personal transformations, discoveries, and overcomings.

In forty stories, from global campaigns against social injustice and poverty, to the most intimate retellings of miscarriages and stillbirths, these Women of Redbud Writers Guild share a clarion call to all women: there is no pain that cannot be redeemed by the grace of God, no God-given voice that should be silenced, no one for whom the love of God through Jesus Christ will ever fall short.

Each of the diverse Women of Redbud Writers Guild — comprised of authors, lawyers, doctors, pastors, journalists, wives, mothers, and more — are as fascinating as the stories they share, for example:

Shayne Moore, a founder of Redbud and author of Global Soccer Mom, tells her story of a visit to Kenya to learn more about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and becoming a voice for the voiceless

Margaret Ann Philbrick, who began her career advertising Pop-Tarts for Kellogg’s, now plants seeds in hearts, having surrendered her life to the cross of Jesus Christ, and shares her poem “We Write”

Emily Gibson, wife, mother, farmer, and family physician, chronicles the heritage of the farm where she and her husband now raise their sons, specifically the woodlot where the trees have been watered with tears after the suicide of a 14-year-old boy

Alia Joy, writer, speaker and blogger, shares what it was like growing up Asian American, and how the “sin of omission” – neglecting to show women like her to the rest of America – is one of the worst types of oppression

Read an excerpt

Paraclete Poetry Anthology Reviewed in Booklist

Booklist Online Exclusive: March 10, 2017 The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: New and Selected Poems. Burrows, Mark S. (Editor) Dec 2016. 224 p. Paraclete, paperback, $20. (9781612619064). 811.

Paraclete Press stands out from other small religion publishers by maintaining a poetry series of handsome paperback editions. This volume well represents Paraclete’s program with selections from those books and a few new or newly translated poems by their authors. By far the most famous of its poets is Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by editor Burrows, though the Polish Anna Kamienska (1920–96), Irishman Thomas Lynch, the Iranian-German SAID, and the Wisconsin Episcopal monk, Father John-Julian, are either also better-known or deserve to be. The late Phyllis Tickle, Publishers Weekly’s first religion editor, and the well-known literary biographer, Paul Mariani, are also Paraclete poets. Altogether, the range of poetic expression here encompasses spiritual journaling, prayer, legends and biography, visionary and ordinary mysticism, nature-contemplation, and, of course, prayer, as well as formally relaxed and precise individual poems. A worthy showcase. — Ray Olson

9064

Greg

Communion of Saints

In my teens, I discovered a poet named Gregory Orr when my friend loaned me her copy of his New and Selected Poems.  I read constantly, usually books from the library, but this book wouldn’t accrue fines if I kept it for a while, and I really loved it.  It was the first book I ever loved by a living poet.  I loved the weird photograph on the front of wax candles in the shapes of a human heart and two arms, hanging outside of a candle shop.  I loved the poems between the red covers, in which a poet flies in a small aircraft and opens up an egg to find his grandmother’s jade ring inside.  I bought as many of Orr’s books as I could find.  My favorite used bookstore owner, a tough, smart man who was formerly a super in Manhattan, flipped one of his books to expose the author photo on the back cover.  “Doesn’t he look like the most romantic gypsy?” he asked admiringly.  I had to admit that he did.

Once at college, I took an Introduction to Poetry course, then applied to take an intermediate poetry class with The Romantic Gypsy.  I typed up my poems and put them in his mailbox as I’d been instructed to do.  I hoped I might be accepted to his course, but I wasn’t sure it would work out.  Several days later, I came home to a message on my answering machine.  “Hello, this is Professor Orr,” he began.  I was in.

I remember the first days of class well: how much we all wanted to impress him, how foolish people sometimes looked when we tried.   Fortunately, Greg never laughed at our pretensions.  He had thought a great deal about poetry–he’d written his own textbook for our class, which we bought at the copy shop and read dutifully every week.  We all knew his life was full of personal tragedy–the hunting accident when he killed his brother, the early death of his mother–and because he spoke slowly, it seemed more like he was thinking out loud than lecturing, most of the time.  But he had a delightful, delighted smile and a sideways way of writing on our poems–his comments sometimes snaked down the side of the page.  They were spare but powerful.  I treasured them in the way I might have treasured love letters–except these were more sacred.

I took his class several times, and it got even more fun as the years went on, especially when I took the adult education classes that city residents could attend.  There I was surrounded by law students and graduate students and even some hippie women who seemed to be part of our local Sufi community.  These folks really wanted to write, and Greg validated what we did every week.  He was clear and kind, thoughtful of what we were attempting to do.  He seemed to accept anything we brought to the table, even when Rahima brought in a terrifying poem about getting a cockroach stuck in her ear canal and practicing zikr to keep from freaking out as she drove to the doctor.

Fifteen years after I graduated, I went back to visit him.  I had been in touch with him intermittently, and had attended his readings in the city where I now lived, but going back to my hometown, I had always been too shy to meet up with him.  This time, though, I’d been invited back to campus, so I stopped by the department and left him a note.  He taped up a response to his door, directing me to meet him just after his class.

When we met, he looked the same, although his hair was grey now instead of the dark brown it used to be.  He still had his handlebar mustache and his beautiful, wry smile.  He remembered me, which I expected, but he also remembered my college poems, which I did not expect.  He asked me about my current work, suggested a few places which might publish my writing, and, when I told him I was writing about St. Francis, asked about the Giotto frescoes in the basilica in Assisi.  He had examined them carefully enough to know that Giotto had left out an important episode in Francis’s life, the moment when he embraced the leper.  Greg still took me seriously after so much time apart, and I remembered how supportive he had been fifteen years before, when I had showed up to this same office early in the morning after my overnight shift, bearing purple morning glories and asking him about graduate school.

Teachers don’t always know their impact on their students, and students don’t always reflect on the importance of their teachers, but I am certain that if I had never been Greg Orr’s student, my life would have gone in a completely different direction.  Even now, when I pull out his books from my bookshelf, I can still feel the excitement of being a teenager, reading those poems, and listening to that gentle voice on my answering machine, telling me that someone who could really write felt that I might have something important to say.

Portrait of Chayo as St. Jude Thaddeus

2

I never set out to write a book about the saints.  I was a Catholic convert at 37, after a long struggle with discernment which began in my early twenties.  I had never been baptised, never belonged to groups, religious or otherwise—even my friends often didn’t know each other.  Over the years it seemed more and more important to be part of something bigger, and the Catholic church, as I grew to understand it, drew me in.  I traveled a fair amount—to Mexico, India, the Czech Republic, and then in a period of very few years, to Canada, Peru, Spain, Morocco, and repeatedly, back to Mexico, sometimes several times a year.  I usually began and ended my travels in Mexico City, the Districto Federal, which its citizens refer to as D.F.

I usually stayed with friends there, and these friends had a remarkable cook named Chayo.  During my first visit, when I was 28, Chayo was introduced to me by Clementina, the matriarch of the family.  She told me that Chayo had given her own kidney to her son when he was in dire medical condition.  When I met her, Chayo was a little reserved, but soon she opened up, usually with some surprising statement out of nowhere.  When I was growing up, I was taught that only criminals get tattoos, but I thought for a long time about getting a stem of flowers right here behind my ear.  Or Ugh.  That picture of me is terrible.  Give it to the robbers.  She’d tell me horrific cautionary stories about babies who got their toes chewed by rats in the slums of Mexico City, or she could repeat a gruesome joke about the earthquake, its punchline a phrase from a children’s song: A hand here, a foot there…

I can feel already that I’m giving you some of the wrong details.  Her toughness was real, but she wasn’t hardened—Chayo radiated gratitude.  She was always singing, with the radio, by herself, sweeping up the living room.  She wasn’t just cheerful; she seemed deeply contented.  It surprised me when she admitted that, as a girl, she had been very talented at drawing and drafting and had wanted to be an architect.  Instead, she had chosen a life of work in the homes of wealthier people.  She never appeared dissatisfied or regretful.  She had to work hard, coming to work from the North on the bus in the early morning chill, wrapped in a crocheted shawl, cooking and cleaning before most people had woken up.   She was good at her job, proud of her food, loved and respected by the people she worked for, and she always made time to teach me how to make one thing or another.  And she shared with me her devotion to Saint Jude Thaddeus, who had helped her when her son’s health was failing.

One day, near the end of my trip, Clementina announced that Chayo was to take the day off from cooking and spend it with me at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  She navigated our trip to the North of the city by communal van, subway, and a brief walk through one of the city markets that springs up at every corner in D.F.  She told me that I’d recognize the Basilica from a distance: it’s the one that looks like a big stupid circus tent, she said.  She was right—it wasn’t exactly an architectural triumph—but we rode the conveyer belt under the miraculous tilma of Juan Diego together, and visited the old cathedral, now sinking into the ground and filled with ex voto paintings by cured postulants.  It seemed silly, though somehow quaint, to get a photo taken on a donkey, as people were doing on the hillside leading up to the smallest chapel.  We walked up the hill to that chapel, and there both Chayo and I stopped to pray.

Praying can be such a private thing—and for each of us, it was—but somehow, I felt that the barriers between us, of language, nationality, religious upbringing, had somehow softened a little—that Chayo recognized in me the rootless quality that made some kind of home so important to me, and that I understood more about her solitary experience of belief.  I don’t know if that day affected her feelings about me, but by the end of the trip, she was referring to me as her “American daughter.” It  took another decade before I committed to my conversion, but I have always remembered her own example of faith as a model for me.

It was only later that I started to think of Chayo as a version of her favorite saint: the patron saint of impossible causes.

 

Portrait of Chayo as St. Jude Thaddeus

In a green apron, Chayo stirs chayote soup,
holding her palm taut so she can daub a taste there

to check the salt. Her skin doesn’t feel the heat
though if I try the same I blister myself. She sings

while she chops chives into tiny rings
that oat on the surface of the liquid.

When Clementina first told me about her, she taught me
in Spanish riñones, kidneys, because Chayo gave one

to her son, who almost died when his failed.
In Mexico City she pinned a bean-shaped charm

to the skirt of a statue. Priests, I don’t talk to much,
she says, but San Judas Tadeo, him I trust.

I prayed to him to intercede, to heal my son. She lifts a copper bowl
down from the cabinet and hugs it

against her chest with both arms. Now he works
as an engineer, and lives with his girlfriend. She sets the bowl

on the counter, lifts a stack of plates onto
the wheeled cart she uses to set the table.

She wraps warm tortillas in a cloth, spoons salsa
into a shallow dish, fills the serving bowl

with pale green soup I watched her form
from three chayotes, a potato, and bouillon.

Above her the stove-light burns in its hood,
illuminating each loose strand of hair on her head.

Nothing, she tells me, is a lost cause. This soup,
for example. If you cook it too long, add water and Norsuiza.

If green beans turn dark, a little baking soda keeps them bright.
She smooths her hair and straightens her apron,

ready to serve. And if you use a pressure cooker
for frijoles, they’ll be perfect inside of half an hour.

—from Communion of Saints by Susan L. Miller