What I’ve learned from books, lately

photo 2 (48)A few days ago over lunch a friend said: “I imagine it’s pretty hard getting ready to leave your parish. All kinds of things must be coming up for you.”

I’m moving out of my office. Slowly, surely, I’m leaving a job where I’ve been for the past five plus years, a job where I’ve worked harder and had more fun than I ever thought possible at church. It’s a hard place to leave, in spite of knowing that it’s time. Yes, many things are coming up for me. But instead of telling him about all those things, I just talked about my books.

As a woman of the cloth, I have a lot of books. Books acquired before, during, and since seminary, book-group books, gift books, someday-when-I-have-more-time books. Most people in my position go through life moving their books from one office to the next until they retire and have a huge book sale, or give the books away, or box them up for their heirs to deal with. But I’m neither going to another office nor retiring. When contemplating this move I realized I wasn’t ready to put the books in boxes or give them away, and instead hired a talented young man to build some gorgeous shelves in my study at home.

photo 1 (49)Over the past six weeks or so, since the time the shelves were completed, I’ve taken a box home from the office every few days. I’ve tried to cull through them and give some away, but that has not been easy. I’ve been able to part with maybe fifty books out of I-don’t-know-how-many hundreds. I’ve been meticulous about organizing them: scripture commentary on the shelves by the desk, theology and ethics on the shelves by the armchair. Church music and worship next to the desk, my father’s amazing photo album collection and books for daily prayers next to the armchair. Dictionaries (including Latin and Greek dictionaries which I haven’t opened for decades) are next to the desk; poetry is next to the armchair. Church history didn’t fit; it’s spread out over two shelves in the guest room. Church growth and development sprinkled across both study shelves. You get the idea.

It’s been great to take the books from office to home one box at a time, rather than dreading a big overwhelming moving day. I want my final goodbyes to be separate from packing and moving and sorting. Ditto with my first week at home without a sermon to write or parish meetings to attend.

What I’ve learned from my books is that I that I have a whole lot more commentaries on scripture than I ever knew, and that each one is a particular treasure. I’ve learned that somewhere along the way I picked up a dozen different books on Saint Paul and have yet to read them. And that in me is the intent to read them. I’ve learned that there’s a lot of great stuff out there on Christian ethics and that much of it is on my shelves. I’ve learned that I’m not done with study or preaching or diving deep into worship.

On Saturday I brought home the last box of books. Shockingly, they just fit. Because the books seem to have become a metaphor for what I’m affectionately calling My Big Transition to God Knows What, the fact that they all fit bodes well for whatever comes next. And whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a book to go with it.

 

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?

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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“Look, here is water!” What would you do?

Have you ever baptized anyone?

Ten years ago I spent a summer working with a priest in East London. Like a good Anglo-Catholic, he wore his collar most of the time. One Saturday afternoon, he ran into a sex worker on Roman Road, where the streets were full with the weekly outdoor market. She grabbed his arm, gripped his eyes with hers, and said “I want to be baptized. Would you do it?”

He was about to tell her to come to the church the next morning to talk about it when he realized that the chances of that were slim to nil, and that she wanted to be baptized at that moment, where they stood. They went into the nearest mini-mart for a bottle of water, and then into a side alley away from the traffic. She knelt down on the sidewalk. He asked her name and then, splashing bottled water on her head, repeated the name alongside the universal words of Christian initiation: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The original Greek of the ancient formula translates “into the name,” so she was baptized into that crazy extended family that starts with the Trinity and includes everyone, even street workers who make up so many names for themselves, that only their mother and God know the real one.

He never saw her again, although there was something about the way he told the story that said he thought of her every time we walked down that part of Roman Road. Waiting for the next person to grab his arm and ask for the same thing.

I preach and lead worship in a tradition that sends mixed messages about baptismal preparation. On one hand, we baptize infants early and often. On the other, we take baptismal formation for unbaptized adults very seriously, and most adults wanting to be baptized undergo some fairly in-depth preparation. Or we like to think they do. I recently led a worship service that included the renewal of baptismal vows. No one was actually being baptized that day although there were half a dozen infants in the congregation and as many unbaptized adults. I stopped just short of a “font call” and later wished I’d gone ahead and said “y’all come.”

If someone asked you to baptize them on the spot, would you do it?

Manual Acts

Do this for the remembrance of me.
Starting position: palms flat, parallel,
now bend whole core toward the altar.
Now raise the chalice, arms an upward O,
and follow with my head.
My own private yoga.
Sometimes I see reflected there
a face stretched out across the silver
like some big broad mama without a care in the world,
shining out from the refiner’s fire.
My weekly guilty pleasure:
that woman in the chalice
looking back at me and saying
there you are! like I’ve just been discovered.

Day 5: Rituals of the Road

I periodically drive the 45 miles down I-5 from Portland to Salem and back again. Today was one of those days and I found myself cataloging all the things that make the trip better: a coffee to go, a bottle of water, music (Handel’s Messiah, for the 12th Day of Christmas), and a snack to look forward to on the way back. It turned out to be a long, long day, with not much more to say at the end than “and to all a good night,” but I’m curious: What are your rituals of the road?