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Formations #4: Humble Feet

(This is part of a blog series for my Formation of Christian Traditions class)

One of my very favorite stories from the Desert Fathers is from Abba John the Persian. “It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to harm him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet.  But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.” This is more than a scene of “kill them with kindness.” This is a full-blown response of humility and love towards someone who is “other,” who exhibits violent tendencies, towards someone whose life is very different. Instead of calling the authorities (if one could even do so in those days), or rebuking them, or even preaching at them, Abba John simply bends down in front of them and washes their feet. No kidding, these bad dudes were confused! What would you do if you were making fun of someone or were trying to fight someone and they wouldn’t cooperate, but instead humbled themselves before you and began to wash your feet?

foot washing.jpeg
Michal Splho

Foot washing is a very old practice that dates back to times before Jesus. In my church, we practice footwashing at the Maundy Thursday service before Good Friday, in memory of the night that Jesus gathered his community around him, called them friends, and washed their feet. The symbolism within the actual act is important to understand. Feet in ancient times were considered unclean, a part of the body that touched the ground and could be contaminated by all sorts of things–plants and dirt and decaying things. And remember that before the last century or so, people were not bathing all that often, especially if you weren’t a rich person. So, these feet that Jesus was washing were pretty stinky. It was considered a low-class job to wash feet because you were touching the most undesirable part of the body, so the task required someone to do it who was not very worried about status.

Abba John, in this story, is similar to Jesus, was not worried about status or class, and concerned himself with spiritual things. He knew that his life was just as valuable as the lives of the bad dudes who intended evil against him, no matter if he was a spiritual leader or not. As Brother Roger of Taize wrote, “Only compassion allows us to see others as they are. When we look at them with love, we discern in each person the profound beauty of the human soul.”

The Simple Way community, founded by Shane Claiborne and others in Philadelphia, PA, holds as one of their principal values “Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.” That means that the community values the people around them, the churchfolk who are the body of Christ. They also value racial reconciliation, shared economics, and care for the earth, each issue necessitating a humble attitude. If racial tensions are going to be healed, we must recognize that #blacklivesmatter and that white folk don’t experience the racism that black folks do. If the hefty gap between rich and poor is going to be narrowed, we must get used to the idea that the wealthy will come down from their thrones and help increase the minimum wage and work to eliminate cycles of economic injustice that have existed for centuries. If the earth is going to be delivered from the plight of climate change, and if we are going to still be here to see that, we must get used to the idea that we cannot continue to violate the wealth of the forest, mountains and plains by extracting lumber, coal and natural gas.

foot washing ceremony.jpeg

If we truly believe in being humble before God, we must be humble before one another, as the ancient ascetics taught us through their practices of welcoming, feeding and healing the poor. If we are to be humble before each other, we ought to be humble before the earth which sustains us. Shane writes, “The kingdom of God is not just something we were to hope for when we die. It is something we are to live out here on earth.”

For this week, practice humility by remaining attentive to any unkind thoughts that might pass through your mind. Be aware of when you are passing judgment on others. Practice sending out “good vibes” to those around you. Recognize any inclination you might have to think of yourself as “better” than others. Remind yourself that you, like all those around you, are a child of God, beloved, and beautiful to behold!

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. How do I want to be a humble servant of God in the world?

Peace be with you!

 

Posted in School, Uncategorized

Formations #3: Shhhhhhhhh! It’s Quiet Hours! Contemplative Silence in Monasticism

 

(This is part of a blog series for my Formation of Christian Traditions class)

When I was a guest of the Taize community in southeastern France during my first year of college, my companions and I were invited to take on a week of silence. Yes, a WEEK of SILENCE. No talking, no communication of any sort–even when meeting people on the road, we were supposed to avert our eyes. My three companions and I were assigned a small area of one of the women’s houses, each given separate rooms, and instructed that we would have Bible study with one of the Sisters (a nun associated with the Taize community) each morning. We would still participate in worship morning, noon and night with the whole community, but we would spend days and nights in solitude.

To this day, I don’t think my parents believe that I actually was silent for a whole week. I love talking and communicating with people, especially when we were in France and surrounded by a bunch of people from all over the world! But I was scared, and didn’t think I could do it. That’s a LONG TIME to not speak. And more than my FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), I was terrified to be left alone with God. The first semester of my freshmen year of college had been filled with a rough break-up, a grandparent’s stroke, and friend troubles–going into this period of silence, I knew that my soul had a lot of work to do and it would be a difficult week.

Here’s the truth: silence is not easy. It is an intensive spiritual discipline and, though difficult and alienating at times, it can be very rewarding. The Desert Fathers and Mothers sometimes took on practices of contemplative silence, the virtue of which was not only in their refraining from communication with the outside world, but was in learning to be intentional with what words they do choose to speak aloud.

The Desert Father Abba Poemen said, “If we remembered that it is written, “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned,” we would choose to remain silent.” By saying this, he was reprimanding those who were tempted to speak unjustly. Did your parent ever tell you to “Say something nice or say nothing at all?” Yeah. If Abba Poemen had been a family guy, he would have been one of those parents.

Here’s another one: Abba Poemen also said,

“A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent, that is, he says nothing that is not profitable.”

Here, the carelessness in the internal spiritual practice that leads to judging others in your heart is what is bad–even if you appear to be pious on the outside. And, conversely, people whose hearts are focused on God can speak a lot and be dropping wisdom all over the place! So, translated into parent aphorisms, that means “mean what you say and say what you mean.”

So if we can be intentional about how we talk, how can we be intentional about how we are silent? Isn’t that kinda the same thing? At the time I went into the silence in Taize, I didn’t know how to pray. Weird to say, right, for someone raised in the church like I was? Not really–I thought praying was saying the Lord’s Prayer with your congregation, listing your sins and saying “thank you” at the end. But Brother Roger of Taize, quoting St. Augustine, offers some help on this matter of silence and prayer:

“There is also a voice of the heart and a language of the heart…That inner voice is our prayer when our lips are closed and our soul open before God. We remain silent and our heart speaks, not to human ears but to God. Be sure that God will listen to you.”

contemplative prayer.jpeg

Even in silence, and perhaps especially in silence, we are not distracted with the words coming out of our mouths or even the words from someone else. We are trusting that God knows what our hearts are concerned with, as long as we can be present and open before God. This can take some practice for those of us who grew up in Western United States American culture and have many technological distractions at our fingertips. One of my college roommates would always be watching Netflix on her computer while playing a game on her phone and maybe brainstorming about her homework on her iPad, when all I wanted to do was hang out and talk with her. God wants us to rest in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is always with us, in silence or in chatter.

Something that surprised me about my time in the silence (doesn’t it sound like a movie? “In the Silence”–horror and intrigue, ooh!) was that people could be silent together. This shouldn’t have been surprising for me, since I loved sitting around my loved ones and not talking but enjoying the togetherness quietly. But this time, having no distractions (no technology! no talking! woohoo!) left me and my companions to be alone…together. A member of the Leb Shomea community in Texas offers this thought on communal silence, “Silence is not ‘me and God’ but a way of being present to each other in God.” From the desert of old into the modern college campus, this remains compelling: if we can turn off the noise around us, turn off the internal distractions of worries and comparisons and judgments, and rest in the presence of God, we can share in God’s peace, alone or together.

prayer around the cross

For your practice this week, try on some silence. That doesn’t necessarily mean not answering a question your professor or TA asks you–it can be, if you want!–but maybe try setting aside several morning hours on the weekend (wait, are you even awake on the weekend, you college students out there?) to practice not talking or communicating with anyone around you. You might want to let your roommate and your family know that you are taking on this practice for a few hours, so they won’t be offended if you brush off their “good mornings” or miss the weekly phone call from home. Remember, silence does not necessarily mean solitude–there are plenty of spaces where public silence is held (think of your school library, public vigils, contemplative church services, and annoying coffee shops where everyone is on their laptops). Some things you might want to do during your time of silence are:

  • walk outside–what do you notice that you’d usually pass by because you are texting or talking to friends?
  • meditate/sit contemplatively–centering prayer might help here.
  • journal or draw–challenge yourself to use as few words as possible while expressing yourself.

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. How can I continue to be engaged in my life (doing school/work/family, etc.) and carry this practice of silence with me?

 

Peace be with you!

Posted in School, Uncategorized

Formations #2: Roommates, Monks and Community: Oh My!

(This post is part of series for my Formations of Christian Traditions class)

Do you have a roommate? How is it going? Have you found out each other’s worst habits and Netflix passwords yet? I was blessed when I lived in community after college to have four amazing housemates who were kind and funny and watched Gilmore Girls with me and made dinner with me and cared for me when I was sick.

And yet…

Living in community is hard. We had different cleaning standards–the bathroom and kitchen counters sometimes felt like war zones. Sometimes people had different ideas about what community meant and how much time we should spend together. Even though we shared a lot of values (community, hospitality, empowerment, justice, sustainability, etc.) we had different understandings of how to live out those communal ideals.

newgirl.roommates.jpeg

The Desert Fathers and Mothers had problems like this, too. In popular imagination, monasticism involves being solitary waaaaaaaaay out in the wilderness, far away from the prying eyes and temptations of society. Monks live secretive lives where they eat bread or rocks or something–I don’t know–and, like, sit around being holy. Well, yes, there were some hermits then, and there continue to be hermits today who separate themselves from human community, but actually, early monastic communities–yes, communities!–were made up of small individual “cells” close to each other where monastics were able to practice a balance of solitary living and community. This might seem counterintuitive (can’t you be more pious by yourself where no one is able to distract you?) but some Christian ascetics seemed to think that being together would be more helpful to their understandings of God than being apart!

The New Monastic movement has similar ideals. Ian Adams, in New Monasticism as Fresh Expressions of Church, writes:

“If there has been a particularly rich source for new flowerings of Christ-community in the last few years I would suggest that it has been in the idea of religious community on the road. Community life lived in public space, shaped by contact with neighbor and stranger, recognizing that the journey is equally as important as the destination open to encounter, travelling light.”

I like this idea of being on the road together in a religious community because spiritual journeys do seem an awful lot like a road, winding and diverging and coming together again, with roadblocks and traffic jams and concrete medians. Brother Roger of Taize said that we should “live a parable of community,” which is what is happening on this road of New Monasticism. When we are on the road together, living in community, we are traveling parallel paths as we figure out how to shape our lives into actions and expressions of God’s love and Jesus’ justice worth living. The parable of community functions like a parable in the gospel of Luke: the goal is to provide an opening that changes how people understand their place in the world and their relationship with God. Thus, a community rooted in following Jesus would hopefully point others towards the teachings of Jesus.

Community is actually one of my favorite aspects of the Trinity. Though the Trinity is probably the MOST CONFUSING THING that ever happened to Christianity, it is also an amazing parable of community. By virtue of having 3 different aspects (“Father,” “Son,” “Holy Spirit”) that are all united under 1 being (“God”), the original posture of the church that values the Trinity is one of community (or in plain speak: 3 things that are kinda different all joined together to represent one big thing are a community–yeah, I know, still confusing).

trinity

But, anyway, how do we form righteous communities of joy and peace and love if living together is so darned hard? How can we study the Psalms when that roommate left his dishes in the sink again? Or if that roommate left her laundry in the washer for the third day in a row? Though I’m not sure if Abba Anthony actually had laundry issues with his fellow ascetics, he offers this saying to help root ourselves: “Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” This saying encourages us to act with kindness towards each other, and for us not to go around judging each other, because we are not more righteous that way. If we are close to one another, we are close to God. And if we are hateful to one another, we are being hateful to God. The cause of community is a worthy, though difficult, one to tackle.

Mark Berry writes,

“Spirituality is often expressed as individualistic; even those who seek to do it as a solo pursuit. Christianity, too, has too often made the individual the focus of religion yet we know that the heart of spirituality is community. But this problem is not restricted to spirituality–culture as a whole is still wrestling with the bonds of individualism, with the notion that one has to be self-sufficient, that weakness is a bad thing!”

In Western culture (the context in which I have grown up) rabid individualism is rampant and self-sufficiency is gold. I often have to remind myself that it is ok to rely on people for help. It is ok to look to others to fulfill tasks I cannot fulfill on my own. It is ok that I enjoy working in a communal environment where I don’t have all the answers. This week, I challenge you to consider the ways in which we can create spiritual practices that are not individualistic, but that lift up communities and the communal aspect of God.

For this week’s practice, make a map of your community, widely defined: this can be your school, your family, your workplace, your friend group, etc.) Study it and try to define what values are present in this community. Mark the places where there is room for solitude and individual expression. Mark the places where there is a lot of hustle and bustle, and lots of life takes place. Each day, journal about one aspect of community that you are grateful for, and how you are impacted by being part of this community.

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  • What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  • Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  • How do I want to impact my community? How do I want my community to impact me?

Peace be with you.