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Saturday, November 19, 2011

In Praise of the Useless Life

The subtitle of this article in Parabola is: Prayer as Creativity and Play. The writer Brother Paul Quenon is a Cistercian monk. Some quotes from this excellent article:

"Thomas Merton, in his latter days, was concerned that monks of the future would have identity crises because the monastic life seems so useless. We serve no obvious purpose and cannot be explained in terms of modern society where everyone serves a purpose, has some function, and can show a product to prove it. People can be justified in the eyes of society when they have something to show for themselves....

However, contemplation is not a commodity, nor is love. It is a reality that exists for its own sake, not for the sake of an impression it may make. ... Prayer might be compared to art and a life of art - a very pure art for the sake of making art. ... To engage in a song alone in the woods, or to play a flute on a mountainside, has no end other than itself. It might be for practice, for improvement of skill, discipline. It might be for enjoyment. Or it might be for worship done to honor beauty in the presence of God, done as a pure act of love for joy, form and beauty in the universe.

Matthew Kelty, a monk of Gethsemani, died at the age of ninety-five... He has expressed this notion of art, and implicitly the notion of prayer, in his book Flute Solo, which begins:
"I am not a flutist, yet I have a flute and I play it, for no purpose and for no ears save God's and my own. That being so, there is no need of artistry or skill and I can sing my tune without fear of correction or disapproval, let alone of another showing me how it should be done. ... I don't want to learn to play the flute; I prefer it this way. Beyond my incapacity to get far, there is the fear of my small joy being driven away by concern for doing it well and turning a natural act into a performance."

Prayer, like great art, has transcendent value in itself - even more so. Contemplation is a mind and heart engaged in the highest potential they were created for. ... What some take for absurdity and vanity, monks take for grace and a pure act of play. ... A child understands this. Commercialized play has lost its true nature and has been debased into a serious business of drawing crowds and charging tickets. Its purpose is outside of itself. ...

What then is the right way of living? We might find the answer to that question Posed by Plato by turning to Thomas Merton at the end of "The General Dance" in New Seeds of Contemplation:
"What is serious to men is often trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as "play" is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing..."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

How much better is the little of those who know Love

From Psalms for Praying by Nan C. Merrill -
Part of Psalm 37 which seemed very appropriate to current world and political situations:

In a little while, those who live with greed 
will prosper no more;
the darkness of ignorance will pass 
as a new dawn enlightens the world.
The lovers of darkness shall perish,
while the humble shall inherit the earth, and find
delight in sharing its abundance with all.

Those who are greedy plot against the weak,
those without worldly power,
and rationalize their selfish deeds.
The Beloved watches patiently, knowing 
they will stumble and have to face
their own downfall.

Those with power make war
despoiling nations,
killing the poor and innocent,
murdering in the name of peace!

O, if only they knew that their greed
will kill their own spirit;
their hearts will be broken.

How much better is the little of
those who know Love, than
the abundance of the greedy ones.
Those who are greedy borrow, using
money they cannot pay back;
the upright are generous and give.
Blessed by Love, they know inner peace,
but the selfish cut themselves off from Love.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Butterfly Experience

A guest staying with me recently saw this beautiful quilt hanging on the wall and said she remembered reading an article I had written many years ago about "the butterfly experience". So I thought I'd re-publish it here along with a photo of the quilt made for me by Marion Robinson.


I was given a most unusual gift this Easter. It came in a small plywood box. On the lid was a label: "The Butterfly Experience". I gently slid the lid open and there, nestled on spaghnum moss, was a monarch butterfly chrysalis!

The friend who gave me the gift had been given a chrysalis herself a week earlier and hers was further along on its transformative journey. We hung them both on a pot plant in the house where we were making our Easter Retreat. Each day we looked carefully to note any changes. By Easter Saturday the more mature chrysalis was darkening. We could see the red wing colour and the black body through the capsule.

Resurrection day dawned. Still the chrysalis was intact. Perhaps it was too much to hope that the butterfly might emerge today!  But wonderfully, that afternoon as we sat reflecting together on the meaning of Easter, the chrysalis split! It happened silently and quickly. If it hadn't been right in front of us we would have missed it. We sat awed at the wonder of new, beautiful life being born from a tiny enclosed case. The wings at first looked too small and almost deformed. I wondered if something was wrong. Surely this butterfly would never fly? We watched and waited. Over the next hour the wings gradually unfolded. The butterfly was in no hurry. It allowed the transforming process to be completed at its own pace. Soon the wings were full size. Now it was time to let them dry and to test their movement. A tentative opening and closing began, with long rests in between. We wanted to see the butterfly take its first flight but our retreat was over and we had to leave. We left the newly resurrected "caterpillar-turned-butterfly" on a sheltered plant in the garden and drove away.

My own chrysalis came home with me in its mossy box. It was a wonderful gift because for some time the chrysalis has been a powerful symbol for me of spiritual process. There come times when it feels as if the way life used to be (as a caterpillar!) has disappeared. It is dark, confined and mysterious in the chrysalis. There seems to be no movement, no externally observable "progress". We just hang there. There is nothing to do but stay still and trust. Staying still and trusting might sound easy to the uninitiated! But anyone who has entered a chrysalis stage of spiritual transformation will know it is not. It challenges all our notions of independence. We either surrender to the process - or we stay as we are. (Apparently some caterpillars choose not form a chrysalis until a year later than their contemporaries.)

Transformation always involves leaving behind the way things were.  But being drawn away from the familiar into a confined space where the future is unknown is usually frightening. It was so even for Jesus. He agonised over the journey to the cross. "Isn't there some other way?" he pleaded. Yet he allowed death to take him into cocoon of the tomb. What if he hadn't? What if he had not followed through on his mission? We can scarcely even imagine the alternative. But perhaps there come times when we are invited to transformation and we balk at entering the chrysalis. It feels like death. How can I let go the old familar ways? How can I be sure this will lead to something better?  Probably the answer to the latter question is: "You can't! Surrender. Stay still. Trust."

"The butterfly experience" is the Easter experience! Transformation is at the heart of God's purposes. Jesus demonstrated and accomplished the biggest transformation of all. God has built visual aids of the transformation process throughout creation - seeds buried  become flowers, caterpillars cocooned become butterflies. Humans are not exempt from the mystery, awe and joy of the same process. We are led to let go, to surrender, to stay still in the darkness of cocooned stages and to trust.

Today, a week after Easter, my cocoon hatched! I was at home most of the day and I sat with the newly emerged butterfly for several hours. I so much wanted to see it take its first flight. I had to go out for a meeting and as soon as I got back I rushed to the plant on my porch where I had left it resting. At the very moment I arrived it climbed to the top of the plant and took off with a few shaky wing flaps to a nearby tree! I gasped aloud with thankfulness and wonder. Whatever the cynics might say, I do not think the timing was just coincidence. I think God smiled on me and let the butterfly reassure me that transformation does lead to the ability to fly - even if shakily at first.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


"Understanding" the Trinity is difficult. I've heard a couple of minsters say they dread preaching on Trinity Sunday!

But I like how Paul Smith (minister with the Alliance of Baptists USA) expresses it:
Infinite God - Father/Creator
Intimate God - Jesus
Inner God - Spirit

A prayer liturgy they use in his Church is:
  Infinite God in whom we live and move and have our being;
     Intimate God you are always with us;
       Inner God we are the light of the world.

I've adapted that for personal prayer:
Infinite God in you I live and move and have my being;
     Intimate God you are always with me;
         Inner God through you I am called to be light in the world.

You can read more of Paul Smith's discussion of the trinity here: Part 1; Part 2.