It’s been a long time….

spiral clock…since I’ve blogged on this site. (I’m sure you’ve never seen that before, eh?) Which is not to say that there’s not lot going on in my little world. I’ve been busy over at Define Fitness, and continuing the journey of integrating and holding together the various pieces of life: personal training, parish-priesting, fun with other churches in my work with the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, working on my memoir (will it ever end? doubtful), and, last but not least, hanging out with my beloved menfolk every chance I get.

PassageOfTimeSepiaI hope that the handful of you who regularly read this blog are having a similarly rich, full time, and experiencing many blessings and much peace. And stay tuned.

 

Modern art and me

Last week my family and I had dinner with the family that hosted us in East London for the summer in 2002. It was great to reconnect and we had joyful and far-reaching conversation. At one point we were talking–I’m not sure why–about art. And I was reminded yet again that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who like modern art, and people who don’t. Or at least, people who say they do, and say they don’t. (I’m guessing there are a whole lot of people like me who a) like everything and b) don’t know beans about art.)

In any case, the conversation spurred me to get past my general aversion to museums, especially popular museums in large, foreign cities, and today I made the pilgrimage with thousands and thousands of others across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern. It was late in the day which did not deter the crowds one bit, but it meant that for me, I started, rather than finished, with tea. I sat in the comfortable cafe with a cuppa and a coupla scones and looked at map to plan my visit, knowing that I would poop out after an hour, tea or no tea.

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was so jazzed by the art and the space that I lasted three hours instead of one. It was truly splendid, and If you want see a whole bunch of images, here are some of the photos I took.

But I was really there for Mark Rothko. Mark and I have a special relationship. For most of my adult life, I had been vaguely familiar with his work, familiar like:  “Oh yeah, that guy who does those big huge squares.” 

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When my father died in 2005, that changed. I was in a whole new world of hurt. In the airport heading home from Philadelphia to Portland for the last time, I had a task to look forward to: I had volunteered to write with the news of my father’s death to people who were around when I was a kid, but with whom my father had lost touch over recent years. In the airport bookstore I found a box of cards by abstract expressionists. I never liked them before. I never understood non-representational painting. I wanted art to refer to something I could name, and to make the familiar more so.

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But now, in the uncharted territory of grief, where I couldn’t put words to anything, these artists were saving my life. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman. How did I ever live without them? Their illogical order of things accompanied me during that journey, and I was able to write over and over again in the airport coffee shop and then on the plane:  it has been a long time since we’ve been in touch; I am guessing you have probably heard by now but I want to be sure you know that my father died. You were such an important part of his life when I was growing up…. Through this repetition I came to understand what, in my work, I have told others over and over again: the little tasks right after a death keep us from falling apart, and keep us connected to one another, to the living. And now I could tell people about how Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock somehow–as mysterious as death, as mysterious as Eucharist–became the map with which I navigated the way back to myself without my father.

nortonSo visiting the Tate Modern was, in a way, a pilgrimage to visit my man Rothko, who has a whole room there of paintings which he himself actually gave to the Tate, and there’s a great story that goes with them. (Some of you probably already know it.) In the late 1950s, Rothko was commissioned to paint a set of murals for the fashionable Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the Seagrams Building. He found the murals were darker than his previous work: maroon, dark red, and black. He eventually realized that they were too dark and serious to be the backdrop of a restaurant, and withdrew from his commission. (And I’m guessing there’s another side to that story; you can look it up.) Instead, he gave the paintings to the Tate Gallery as an expression of his affection for England and for British artists, particularly JMW Turner. Go figure. I’ve always been a fan of Turner’s, ever since a painting of his was on the cover of my very favorite college English anthology.

But it never would have occurred to me to see any artistic affinity between the two. Yet here they are:

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The second painting represents Rothko’s “transitional work,” when he was trying to make up his mind what kind of painter he was going to be. Most people who are familiar with Rothko are familiar with the later stuff.

So now, if you’ve read this whole post, you know pretty much everything I know about art. Where do you fall on the modern-premodern continuum, if there is such a thing? Has art ever saved your life?

Feast your eyes….

Here are some photos from my afternoon at the Tate Modern. No captions, no commentary, no nothing. (Phew!)

No commentary except about this first photo, that is, of a guard (I know they don’t call them “guards” any more….a concierge?) at the Tate. At the risk of seeming both overly forward and horribly middle-aged (not to mention American), I told her I thought her hair was a work of art and asked if I could take her picture. She was happy to oblige, and took my request very seriously in a way that I found touching.

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Choose your own adventure: some thoughts on pilgrimage

IMG_1936My summer has definitely had a bit of a pilgrimage theme. A mini-pilgrimage I was privileged to make earlier this week with my son has me reflecting on the whole idea of pilgrimage. There are many different types of pilgrimage; one could of course say there are as many types of pilgrimage as there are pilgrims.

There was our Walk Across England, which was a certain kind of pilgrimage, where the travel itself was certainly more important than the destination. During that walk, I spent some time thinking about my ancestors, the Mayflower Pilgrims, who left this land, already in the 16th century, etched with stone walls and footpaths, for a perilous journey to the New World, where the pilgrimage was not so much about the journey or even the destination as it was about escaping a certain life in exchange for an uncertain one in an unknown place.

There is the pilgrimage described in the novel I just read, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Like some great memoirs old and new, this fictional story recounts two distinct pilgrimages in parallel: the outer journey to a particular destination and the inward journey backwards and forwards through one’s own uniquely challenging life. Perhaps all pilgrimage has this outer, geographical component as well as the inner component.

Durham CathedralThere are pilgrimages to famous sites: Canterbury, Santiago de Campostela, Mecca, places hallowed by history and places to which, presumably, a pilgrim connects through their own history, their faith, their heart. A few weeks ago I visited Durham Cathedral and the popular Shrine of St. Cuthbert, a pilgrimage site for many over the centuries.

Last night, my family and I got together with a friend who leads pilgrimages through the Holy Land. He and his wife spoke very movingly about how their everyday Christian experience which they had long taken for granted – saying or attending mass, praying certain prayers, participating in baptism – had been transformed for all time by being in those ancient holy places.

IMG_1942A few days ago, my 16-year-old son and I journeyed from London by train and then bus to the little Sussex village of Hartfield, where we made our way on foot through rolling sheep fields, along narrow, wooded lanes, passing several farms-turned-luxury homes, through the Hundred Acre Wood to the Pooh Bridge. This was clearly a pilgrimage site like all the others, complete with advance instructions that if one wanted to play a game of Pooh Sticks, one needed to pick up a stick along the path out of town, because the trees and ground around the bridge had been completely picked bare of any suitable branches or twigs.

IMG_1941As we left the bridge we saw a little shrine in a hollow tree where people had left small pots of honey and notes to Pooh, as well as a note from Pooh apologizing for not writing thank-you notes, because he was, of course, “a bear of very little brain.”

This was clearly a pilgrimage site as much as any other. My son has a lasting, personal connection, through his own story and his own heart, to the place and the literary history shared by millions around the globe. That mix of the personal and, depending on one’s perspective, the universal makes the Hundred-Acre Wood and the Pooh Bridge holy land.

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My son’s connection to the story and the place is his own to tell (or not), but the pilgrimage experience in all its forms is ours for the taking. What’s your pilgrimage story? Where have your been, or where do you want to go?

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The thing we rarely talk about

In which Sara explores a Dirty Little Secret, with apologies to her areligious readers.

One morning during our Coast-to-Coast walk, we found ourselves sharing breakfast at our B&B with a couple we’d seen a few times over the past few days. We had a lively breakfast conversation, early on in which the woman and I discovered that we were both priests, I in a church in Portland, Oregon, and she in a parish in North Yorkshire. We talked of many things, although I’m sorry we didn’t exchange names throughout our conversation. She and her husband were ending their walk at the next village, which was a half-way point for most walkers and an ending point for some. As we passed each other in the hall during the time between breakfast and setting off, she said: “It’s too bad we didn’t meet each other earlier; we could have been saying Morning Prayer together all this while.”

Ah, yes. Morning Prayer. The Daily Office. The Prayer of the Church. The Office to which English clergy are bound by their ordination vows, in a way that Episcopal clergy ordained in the United States are not. We are bound to pray, and I many priests I know are indeed faithful to the traditional Office, but more are not. I have always envied those from branches of our Anglican Communion who do, in fact, manage to say the Office twice a day as a matter of course. Ken Leech once wrote: “the moment the Office is a place you go, rather than something you pray, you need to reorder your priorities” (or words to that effect).

I have often described clergy prayer life as a “dirty little secret.” The secret being that most of us who are ordained, if we were to reflect with complete honesty, on our prayer life, would say we didn’t have much of one. (And I would venture to say this applies across denominational lines; I don’t think Episcopal clergy have a monopoly on spotty prayer.) As St. Paul says, we, whose work is so often to encourage others in prayer, “do not pray as we ought.” Speaking only for myself, of course.

My prayer life is almost always its most regular and fruitful while I’m on vacation. Sabbatical has proven no different, although the shape of my prayer has changed from stage to stage. For some time leading up to sabbatical and including the first few weeks, I read through the whole Office faithfully each morning using the wonderful resource of Mission St. Clare. I have especially enjoyed knowing that a growing handful of folk from St. David’s use it each day. And yet, I have missed the Prayer Book with its beribboned heft, and found myself packing it, rather than the iPad, for my trips in May to Alaska and then to Ashland.

IMG_0213The Mission St. Clare app depends on good wifi, which has often not been present over much of the past several months. In mid-June, after some rich conversations with colleagues about such matters, I began experimenting with a pared-down version of the Office which allowed me to focus more on the gospel narrative and on prayer. Then, at the last minute while packing in London for the Coast to Coast walk, I jettisoned the Prayer Book, having no room for it in my backpack. Instead, I took with me a leaflet which is always tucked into my journal, of the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families. In Edinburgh, post-Walk, I have been re-united with my Prayer Book and have the sublime luxury of staying in a community which gathers for morning and evening prayer. So for these two weeks, my prayer life runneth over. I wake up and make myself tea and pray the BCP morning office in bed around 6:30 or 7. Then at 9:15, most mornings, I gather with community members for morning prayer from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals. At the end of the day, the community prays evening prayer from the Society of St. Francis, and at bedtime I return to my beloved Daily Devotion for the Close of Day. (“Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name. Do not forsake us, O Lord our God” is one of my favorite scripture passages of all time. Why would anyone end the day with anything else?)

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I mention all of this because this summer I have dined at the smorgasbord of the generous variety of practices and prayer resources within our Anglican tradition. I know some who would say that the Benedictine principle of stability calls us to stick to one form of prayer whether we like it or not. However, it has been both refreshing and important to allow myself–at times of necessity–to avail myself of different practices. (Call it the Ignatian principle of God’s presence in desire, if it’s possible to so drastically mix monastics, mid-blog.)  It will be interesting to see which of these practices continue when I am home, left to my own devices, and returning to that other “office” where I go each day, and where I am relied upon by others as a Woman of Prayer.

I know that many people pray without ceasing, without aid of any written text. You may be one of those people. For me, written, structured prayer…it’s how I roll. I am both grateful for and dependent upon our rich tradition of psalms, lectionary, and prayers handed down through the ages. I appreciate the freedom to dip into it, in all of its fullness, and to acknowledge–if not always respond to–the invitation to go ever deeper.

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Disciples of the Desert Monastic Abba Agathon are said to have asked him: “Among all good works, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort? Abba Agathon answered: “I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”

I assume, naively perhaps, that laypeople have a better time of faithful prayer because their consciousness is less cluttered with Episcopocultural “shoulds” about such things.  And yet I have no reason to think that Abba Agathon was talking only about clergy when he described the struggle of prayer. So this question is for anyone reading this post: How goes the battle for you?

Postcards from Edinburgh

In which Sara does a lot of urban hiking, reports on her writing, learns that Presbyterians have cathedrals, too, and makes new friends.

From the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art

From the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art

I’ve been in Edinburgh for a week and having a wonderful time. (Would anyone have expected any different?) The week–Week One of Two, but this may be the only blog post–has been a great balance of writing, walking, and just the right amount of sight-seeing. I’m staying at Emmaus House, a Benedictine-inspired guest house conveniently situated close to just about everything, without being too much in the thick of the heavy tourist trade that characterizes much of this city. Most days I walk to the gym after breakfast: about 25 minutes along the Royal Mile, the most touristed part of town, but fun to walk along before all the tourists get there. I’ve explored a few of the abundant (and free) museums and art galleries, and done most of the obligatory churchgoing one

From the Lady Chapel at Old St. Paul's

From the Lady Chapel at Old St. Paul’s

would expect: Evensong at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Sunday Eucharist at Old St. Paul’s, and a self-guided tour of St. Giles which is, as everyone assured me it would be, an amazing place, massive and rich in history as the mother church of Presbyterianism in Scotland should be. A few more places remain on my list to see (and feel free to comment with the houses of worship on your must-see list, if you haven’t already).

St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral

St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral

I have been making progress in my writing life which, being as it’s me, has been very slow and fraught with procrastination, distraction, agonizing, self-doubt, and criticism. However, thanks to help from mentors and friends along the way (who are secretly travelling with me even if they don’t even know it), I’ve been able to put a lot of that on the back burner and actually get some work done. Today, for the very first time since beginning this project three years ago, I suddenly realized that it was turning into a book. That I was thinking of it not just as “my writing” or “my &$%# memoir,” but “my book.” Of course, that only works if I pronounce it the way the Scots do: my boook.

IMG_1856If I was asked to identify just one highlight of Edinburgh thus far, it would have to be the discovery of Emmaus House. The small community here offers a degree of hospitality that I find incredibly nourishing, inspiring, and non-intrusive. In a short amount of time I have become attached to everyone in the house, and hope to come back over and over again in the years to come, joining the community in prayer between visits. 

The hike up to Arthur's Seat (not named for King Arthur at all...look it up!)

The hike up to Arthur’s Seat (not named for King Arthur at all…look it up!)

Up here at the 54th parallel

People who go to church with me know that I am fond of saying, about any given feast day (and even a few fast days), that this or that feast day is my very favorite day of the year. All Saints’ Day, Ash Wednesday, Advent I…all beloved. And this is how it’s been for me on this walk. With a few exceptions, every bed-and-breakfast, every meal, every village, has been better than the one before.

20130715-183534.jpg There was something especially sweet and enticing about the very last place we stayed before completing The Walk, Intake Farm just above the tiny village of Little Beck. (Beck is Old Norse for stream; we have followed many becks along this trek.) A working farm that raises about 60 head of beef every year, along with a few dozen lambs, the farm sits on a hillside with views of Whitby and Whitby Abbey to the north and the Yorkshire moors to the west. The farmhouse is huge, comfortably cluttered with thousands of books and mismatched overstuffed furniture. The upstairs guest rooms are large, light and airy. Our window looks east (where, somewhere over the hills is the North Sea and the end of the Walk) at a field full of cows and sheep and green hills beyond.

Up here at the 54th parallel it stays light until 10:30 pm, and the sun is fully risen, a bright wake-up call, before 5 am (daylight begins around 3:45). The nights are deliciously quiet, the mornings bright and inviting. This morning we both woke to the sun in our eyes as 5, and were packed and ready to hit the last stretch of trail by 6:30. With an hour to wait for breakfast, I had to be content with reading, drinking tea, and finishing my little coast-to-coast knitting project. Looking out at the sun on the hills, listening to the birds and the first sounds of sheep calling to each other, I didn’t want to leave. (“This is my very favorite B&B,” I said to Mark. “Let’s be sure to come back here.” It’s a running joke between us; we cannot imagine retracing the whole walk, but we have such a growing list of places where it would be great to come back and stay for a weekend, we might as well.)

When I moved to Portland in 1986, I did so in a Ryder Rent-a-Truck, driving from Boston to Portland along Interstate 90, which I like to think follows, roughly, the 45th parallel that bisects Oregon. I’d never seen most of our country, and it was a wonderful odyssey. I loved the vast, flat states–Wisconsin, parts of South Dakota–almost as much as the wild mountainous parts of Wyoming, Montana, and the Idaho panhandle. I was so moved by seeing so much of the country that I was completely unprepared for the most stunning part to be near the end, when the only thing on my mind was getting to Portland and out of that truck. So imagine my surprise when we drove through the Columbia River Gorge.

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That’s how it was today, finishing our Walk Across England. It was a perfect day for walking and we set out thinking only about the final finish line. I had expected that we would trudge through our three thousandth cow pasture and march through the village of Robin Hood’s Bay into the sea. Instead, we hit the sea about 75 minutes’ walking time north of the village, just south of Whitby, and were treated to a perfect path along the sea, worth every step it took to get here.

We made our way through the village down to the beach and did the ritual tossing of pebbles into the sea, pebbles we picked up eighteen days ago from the beach at St Bee’s on the Irish Sea on a misty-rainy day. It is hard to believe this particular journey – all 192 miles! – is behind us. I can’t wait to find out what’s next!

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