Merely Beloved: The Life of Mary

Merely Beloved

This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. We are in the season of Advent and Corein offers us a lovely reflection on Mary and her life of discipleship. Corein has an incredibly fascinating spiritual history and tradition, and is inspiring in the way she is seeking to be faithful. For more information about this series, click here.

I climb onto my mother’s bed and “sit,” my legs crossed in sitting position but my torso bent sideways and my head resting on a pillow, exhibiting the kind of flexibility reserved only for pre-teens and gymnasts. I hope that this half sitting/half laying position will convince my mother that I am in fact praying and fully engaged in the task at hand.

I press my thumb to my finger to help me count the number of prayers we are required to recite. I miss my rosary beads that go unused during Advent, the ten beads equaling one decade of the rosary are insufficient during Advent when nightly prayers are increased to fifteen. Sitting upright (my mother not fooled by my earlier “sitting” position) we begin our prayers, “Hail and blessed be the hour and the moment in which the Son of God was born to the most pure virgin Mary at midnight in Bethlehem in piercing cold…”

My mind drifts between wake and sleep as the prayers continue, random thoughts jump into my mind, “Was it piercing cold in Bethlehem, how do we know?” “Why does my brother get to watch TV while I pray?” I jolt myself back to our task – bored, half asleep, I still know this is important because the intentions that my mother and I place in our prayers that evening and throughout the season might produce a miracle, you never know.

This prayer, and its recitation fifteen times nightly throughout Advent, is the prayer of my family, of my mother, of my grandmother, it is our prayer. And every Advent the miraculous stories are retold, about the relationship that was mended, the illness healed, the addiction overcome, all because of our intention, our dutiful prayer, our commitment to Our Lady. And this was not a task for just anyone but for grandmothers, mothers and daughters.

Like many Catholics, my childhood was filled with piety and Marian devotion. My Irish-German Catholic heritage expressed in the Mexican-Navajo culture of my birth filled our home with the life of Mary and her Son. Above the kitchen sink was a jar of dirt from when Our Lady appeared in the desert and healed the crippled, rosaries pasted with pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe and her roses hung from pictures, a nativity scene with baby Jesus securely resting in a Navajo cradleboard decorated our coffee table year round.

20121204-223828.jpg

Today, my spiritual practices and Catholic faith may, in some ways, be unrecognizable to the grandmothers who carried it to me, who filled our home with the stories of mingled traditions, myths, and miracles all pointing to the life of Mary. Yet, as Advent begins again, I crawl into my bed, press my thumb to my finger and begin counting my fifteen prayers holding closely the prayers and stories of my family and my faith, carried through the generations by women who wrapped their lives in the life of Mary.

As an adult, during the Advent season, I find myself filled with profound thanks for the devotion that was so casually and naturally a part of my daily life because in that devotion, that commitment, and all the retelling of stories I discovered a young woman who formed my discipleship. A young woman, who carried scandal in her womb yet pressed her pregnant belly to her cousin’s and sang out for joy as their babes leapt. A young woman, who had no place in society outside of marriage, yet dared to speak words of truth to the powerful and mighty of the world. A young woman whose voice would go unheard by many, yet who dared to say yes to God over and over again, showing the world what life-giving, death-enduring discipleship entails. A young woman, who went largely unnoticed as she did what women have been doing from the beginning of time, bearing life into the world.

As we prepare for Christ’s coming, Mary stands as both an enduring conviction and an unbreakable bond between every daughter, mother and grandmother walking this broken earth. The prayers, myths and traditions we carry call us into life, into the life-giving, life-breaking, life-resurrecting work of discipleship. Mary stands with us, journeys with us, as one daughter among many, and asks, “Will we sing out in joy, will we speak truth to the powers that oppress, will we courageously, continuously utter the word, ‘Yes,’ in this life of discipleship?”

Hail and blessed be the hour and the moment in which the Son of God was born to the most pure virgin Mary at midnight in Bethlehem in piercing cold…

575897_3390246548422_197772364_nCorein Brown is a deacon at Spirit of Hope Catholic Community in the Twin Cities and is navigating the complicated and blessed road of honoring the faith of her grandmothers and pursuing her vocation. She is thankful for her adopted Minnesotan family who puts up with her constant longing for northern New Mexico and the women there who fill the air not only with prayers but with the smell of fry bread, posole, and tamales in the Advent season.

Merely Beloved: Embracing Inconvenience

Merely Beloved

This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. For more information about this series, click here.

The other day I took Ellis on a much needed hour-long walk. Actually, I don’t know who needed it more – me or her. Whenever I take her out I barely hang on to the leash because she is so good about staying nearby. I get the feeling she relishes the freedom of running random circles and the chance to greet trees and bushes her own way. I’d tried to make a couple of phone calls to catch up with friends, but no one was available. But the “This American Life” podcast app on my phone caught my eye and scrolling through the recent shows I saw a Christmas special from a couple of years ago – the transcript of the show is here.

It had David Sedaris reading something from an earlier work about working as a Christmas elf – a story that was too human, too funny, and too sad. I will never not laugh when he sings like Billie Holiday. There was another interesting piece, but the one that caught me was the first introductory piece by Ira Glass. He said:

You know that saying, you can really tell who somebody is in a crisis? You can really tell at Christmas, too. That’s because Christmas, more than any other day in the American year, is a day when we’re all handed the same stage props. The same tree, the presents, the meal, the relatives, and all the same expectations. And then we all try to create, more or less, the same kind of day. It’s like hundreds of millions of people all set to work doing exactly the same art project. And not just any art project, but a very high stakes art project, an art project everybody cares about getting right. And in that setting, the choices people make never seem clearer.

It was the introduction to a scene in Toys R Us. On Christmas Eve. The background noise and chaos certainly confirmed a sort of urgency that would seem to only come from the most last-minute shopping one could do for Christmas. Ira Glass was with a dad and his kids searching for a particular doll, and it was almost social commentary to hear descriptions about the various aisles of dolls upon dolls – different themes, names, etc. The dad explained that his daughter at the last minute mentioned asking Santa for this doll, and since they hadn’t gotten it for her they ran to the store after dinner at 7:30 pm. They found the doll. It was $90.

Ira Glass

You’re a good dad.

Mark

I’d better be, for $90.

Ira Glass

This is the thing about Christmas. Christmas has given him a stage on which he can prove who he is. He’s the same good dad he always is, but more so, you know? Christmas. Christmas is the time when everybody is who they normally are, but more so.

I keep thinking about this story. And about gift-giving. And about convenience, like how easy it is to get something last minute, or to purchase something from Amazon and have it shipped to the recipient, or to even just get a gift card and send that out. There’s nothing wrong with any of this in and of itself – I totally get the way life swamps you especially during these kind of seasons, and convenience is almost necessary for survival.

But.

I was talking with a good friend from college last night. She came for a brief visit between interviews for her medical residency next summer, and happened to be interviewing up in Indy. We figured out she could have just stayed an extra day, and rather than flying back home today and then flying out tomorrow somewhere else, she could have just flown directly there from here. But, she said she didn’t want to be an inconvenience, to which I replied without really thinking about it – something to the effect of: “Our life is one big inconvenience these days. It wouldn’t have been a big deal at all.”

Our life is one big inconvenience.

The funny thing is that I didn’t mean this in a negative way at all, even though inconvenience is seen as incredibly annoying/frustrating and generally something to be avoided like the plague. I said it with a laugh, tongue planted firmly in my cheek. Because I remember that the so-called inconveniences I’ve experienced in my life – all the interruptions, disruptions, obstructions – they end up being incredibly…good. When I let myself be open to them they are opportunities to experience something unexpected and usually, strangely gracious.

Advent and Christmas – it’s a funny time. It’s supposed to be meaningful somehow while spilling over with tradition and nostalgia but a time of heartache and grief for so many. There’s a lot of truth to what Ira Glass says about how who we are comes out even more during these holidays. And I think that it can be a good time to foster a spirit of flexibility and openness, and a different kind of mindfulness and posture towards the culture around us. Even in the midst of what seems outside of our plans and visions for the season.

And sometimes these revelations and moments even come at what seems like an inconvenient time … Like in the middle of the night.

A Facebook friend posted the following (From the Anglican Book of Prayer):

Lord, it is night.
The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be.
The night is dark. Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you.
The night is quiet. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities.
In your name we pray.
Amen.

Merely Beloved: More Than Fasting

This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. We are in the season of Advent and Mariclair offers us a straightforward discipline – one that is often only associated with Lent and food. She is incredibly cool, and it’s perfect that her title includes the word “canon.” For more information about this series, click here.

I am contrary by nature. It isn’t a part of myself that I am proud of, but I have tried to make peace with it because I know it also contributes to my drive to seek justice, understand all sides of an issue, and suss out truth. My contrariness has gotten in the way of my spiritual life at times. Along with my latent hipster aversion to enjoying popular things, it means that I have trouble committing myself to a new approach to prayer that seems “on trend”. I have never really enjoyed walking a labyrinth, for example, primarily* because I can’t get away from the little snarky voice in my head cataloging the endless Christian tchotchkes the resurgence of labyrinth walking has produced: labyrinth jewelry, pocket labyrinths, labyrinth pillows. For all of these reasons, and like others contributing to this series, I have been comfortable in an identity that is religious, but not spiritual. Or at least not spiritual like “that”. However, in my continued attempts to be the better, less insufferable human being God made me to be, I regularly try at incorporating spiritual practices. One that has stuck, perhaps because it is inherently a practice of being intentionally contrary, is fasting.

Fasting during Advent is a powerful way to celebrate this season. Surrounded by festivity from Thanksgiving on, this might seem like the anti-fast season of parties and cookies and delicious gifts of treats. Take a digestive pause and try a traditional fasting practice- anything from replacing one meal a day with something simple to an orthodox fast of nothing, not even water, passing your lips from sunrise to sunset. Take note of the times during the day when your hunger disturbs you. Take a moment when your stomach growls to pray for those whose fasts are not voluntary. Without straying into Lenten penitence, refrain from something particularly delightful like cheese, or sweets, or wine, so that in its absence you can be present throughout this season with Joseph and Mary, wandering, without so much as a bed in which to give birth.

Remember that fasting isn’t defined by (not) eating- you can fast in many ways. Perhaps you might decide to “fast” from splurging on fun things that aren’t necessary one day a week, giving the money you didn’t spend on a latte or a magazine to a charity instead. Fast with those in poverty by finding out the local food assistance allowance for an individual or family of your size, and try living on that amount for a week yourselves (in my state a family of four qualifying for food assistance benefits receives a maximum of $150 towards pre-approved foods, with most receiving much less).

Fast from the craziness of Black Friday by participating in Buy Nothing Day and sitting out the mall entirely, or by shopping with local vendors, or making your own labyrinth pillows and jewelry. Join the Advent Conspiracy and fast from celebrating the birth of our Savior with overconsumption and material excess, instead sharing with those who have the least. Fast from missing out on the blessings of your life by keeping a daily gratitude journal of thanksgivings, or gather with friends or family each night, electronically or in person, to share what one thing you are most thankful for in that day. Fast from texting and make a phone call instead, fast from checking your email more than once an hour, fast from technology altogether one evening a week, and celebrate incarnate living with friends or family or maybe your pet- when was the last time the dog got a walk beyond the absolute minimum required, or a full half hour of ball chasing or belly rubbing? When was the last time you got in the floor with your child and played for an hour, without silently cataloging the sermon that needs writing and the laundry that needs doing and the lunches that need to be planned and packed?

Fast from snark. Fast from sarcasm- speak a kinder, gentler world into being. Pay attention to the times you want to make a clever or cutting remark, and then don’t. Fast from chiming in with complaints, as we all do, when we hear of another’s difficulties. Fast from self-critique, and remind yourself of something you are good at instead.  Let your creativity run wild, and come up with your own special fast during Advent. Remember that fasting can be anything, truly anything, that requires you to slow down, take a breath, and remember that you are God’s own, wonderfully and marvelously made.

*Also because of the movie with David Bowie.

Mariclair Partee is the Canon for the Ministry of the Baptized at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, PA. She is the editor of the Jesus Review at Fidelia’s Sisters, an online publication of The Young Clergy Women Project. A Georgia native, Mariclair has spent the last decade spreading the Gospel to the frozen north, living in New York City, New Hope, PA, and now Allentown, PA, which someone famous wrote a song about once. Along the way she has picked up a few beagles and a fondness for bretzen, fastnachts, and other Pennsylvania Dutch staples.    

Merely Beloved: Charging the Dark

This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. Matt and I were friends in seminary. He’s crazy and fun, and deeply spiritual and wise. For more information about this series, click here.

I grew up afraid of the dark. I don’t know when it started but I vividly remember the hall light wars I had with my sisters. They would turn off the hall light and as soon as they went back to bed I would sneak out and turn it on every time until they finally gave up. Darkness terrified me and that terror controlled me.

When my son was 4 he was gripped by his own fear of the darkness. When he expressed this to my step-mother she instructed him to “charge the darkness.” She explained that this meant rushing into the room with bravery to turn the light on. She wanted to help him face his fears and learn that he was bigger than the darkness.

That phrase deeply resonated with me because my entire journey in life, my spiritual discipline, feels like it has been one of charging the darkness. It’s taken me a long time to realize that not everyone started off life so aware of what lurks in the shadows of the human condition. I know that everyone who reads this has a different concept of darkness. That is the way darkness works. It hides what we are afraid of and our fears become as big as our imaginations. The fortunate among us have only had to imagine the worst.

Those who haven’t had to imagine can become consumed by the dark that has been thrust upon them. It is impossible to ignore or to purge from your soul. No matter how saintly you strive to be, no amount of devotions, good deeds, or prayers exorcises it. You can try to stay ahead of the shadow and run towards the light; the light of other’s acceptance, the light of purpose and usefulness, some reactive experience, or some other external light. Yet, no matter how tall you stand in other’s eyes you know the truth. You have not escaped it and your fraud only thickens the dark.

When it comes to the darkness that we face there really is only one thing we can do, and this is our spiritual discipline, to charge the dark.

The difficulty in this is that our torches of faith only take us so far. The darkest places are the places that extinguish faith and expose our need to believe as our primary motivation to believe. When you face emptiness of our need, of our own vacuum, you are alone and it is just you and those places inside that consume so much energy in avoiding. The dark reveals that your faith has been nothing more than thoughts and, perhaps, that your faith has been nothing more than fear disguised.

To charge the dark you must accept it. In accepting it you accept yourself, not as who you want to be, but as you are, a being with light and shadows. In plunging into my own darkness I came to a place where I accepted it and would embrace it. I was tired of running, tired of pleasing, tired of fraud, and tired of feeding the self-loathing. I charged the dark ready to accept that ultimately, I was alone with my own emptiness.

However, that’s not what I found. In those depths I found what I had sought externally for so long. The presence of another. A light in the core of my being. The Word enfleshed. I’d never had such a strong experience of “the other”, the sacred, in my life and haven’t had one since. That experience, however, has stayed with me, reverberating and transforming.

A parenthetical phrase in Ephesians 4 explains this about Christ,

(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)”

Even in the lowest, darkest, parts of our existence Christ has descended and has filled all places. The light of the world fills all darkness. However, Christ has not taken away the dark. Our faith proclaims that this will happen, but not yet. Sometimes the way we believe is uncomfortable with the presence of darkness and so we create cultures of shame about the shadows in our lives. We judge those who do not profess anything but light and faith. We can also minimize the dark and attempt to excuse it or even equate it with light.

There is a song from the Avett Brothers titled, “Head full of doubt/Road full of Promise” with the stanza:

There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it.


The darkness upon us has been flooded with light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The dark is acknowledged in this verse from John 1 but it is not obliterated. We have a light that shines within the darkness. Not only that, but as Psalm 139 proclaims, “the darkness is as light to God.” This is our confidence, and this is why we can even think of being able to “charge the dark!”

Our practice of charging the dark is not based on our faith that there is a light there that we can turn on. We don’t charge the dark carrying our own torches of faith. We venture forward without certainty into the void that lies beyond reason because we hope in one that has filled that space.

Charging the dark is a spiritual practice because it is the practice of trusting a light we do not always see and finding light where we thought none could be.

We charge the dark when we choose to be honest and authentic rather than living behind a front, when we risk being vulnerable, when we speak truth to lies, and when we turn and face what frightens us rather than letting it drive us. The more we understand our own inner landscape, and the more we find God present there, the more we help others face their own with faith and courage.

Throughout any average day we have countless opportunities to charge the dark. The good news is that we are not alone. We accompany one another in this effort with love and unity, Christ’s Body in a darkness that is flooded with light.

Rev. Matt Gough is the Associate Pastor for youth and their families, young adults, and outreach and evangelism at Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church in the heart of Silicon Valley. He was born and raised in Berkeley, CA, is an open source tech geek (Android all the way!), a camping and skiing enthusiast, and is entirely responsible for his son’s total obsession with the wonderful world of Star Wars™ and Legos™. One of his greatest hopes is that he and the Rev. Andy Kort will someday compete as a team on the reality show, The Amazing Race™. He and his wife, Christine, have two boys, Alex (5) and Drew (2) and a neurotic dog named Sally. Matt blogs at mattgough.com

Merely Beloved: Walking Tsuki

This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. Kiran and I went to seminary together, went on runs, sang, studied, and generally, she became one of my favorite people. For more information about this series, click here.

I’m not a huge dog lover.

Ok, I used to be much more of one before I had kids. Now our beagle, Tsuki, has gone way down on the totem pole of our affection. But there’s one thing I do love about my dog, and it’s that she makes me go for walks. Some of you might have dogs that don’t absolutely have to be walked, ie you can let them run around the backyard while you stay in the house and tick things off your to-do list. Well, if we let ours do that she will without fail find the tiniest hole in the fence, squeeze through to the other side and be gone for days, eating dead things while she’s at it. Hence the need for the chaperoned walk, every day, at least once a day. It’s something that often gets in the way of the other millions of things that need to happen in a household with three kids under the age of four. It’s not something that I always look forward to. But it’s something that definitely, most definitely, keeps me sane.

This forced walk has become, for me, a spiritual practice. When I set off I’m usually in a foul mood (what that says about me I don’t know). I curse at my dog for actually needing to do her “thing” when I am clearly not in the mood to hang around while she sniffs for the perfect place. I’m usually cold (after all, I do live in Ireland), and I’m often stiff from hunching over a computer or carrying laundry up and down the stairs. That first part of the walk is my least favorite part. And the key is to walk through this part. If I turn around then – say, after my dog has cleared her system – then the walk has failed. I return home annoyed that I had to do that, annoyed with dog for being a dog, and no one is any happier.

If, however, I push through that first yucky part, a transformation begins to take place. My legs get into a quick rhythm, and by the time I get to the top of the hill that’s about halfway through, I’m warm. My lungs take in the fresh air and my eyes start to notice the world around me – the leaves still on the trees that are changing shade, the leaves I’m kicking in light piles on the ground, the strangely maroon-colored hydrangeas that grow in this climate, the smells of the bushes and flowers that hang over people’s gardens into my path.

And while I notice what’s around me, I also notice what’s inside of me. Thoughts spin through my head completely at random. I think it’s really annoying for anyone who ever walks with me, because trying to follow my train of thought is nearly impossible. Sometimes it’s completely mundane stuff – “Oh, I need to fill out that form for my daughter’s school.” Sometimes it’s a little deeper – “It was so sweet how my son wanted to kiss me goodbye this morning.” Sometimes it’s angry stuff, like stewing over a fight with the hubby. Sometimes it’s sad stuff, like missing my far-away family. Sometimes it’s intense stuff, like “What am I going to do with my life?” I talk about all this stuff to myself when I’m walking, but I also talk about it to God. I can be pretty matter-of-fact about it, just putting it all out there like my spiritual director tells me to do.

It doesn’t really matter, actually, what the thoughts are that spin through my head. I just let them spin, and spin, and spin, and eventually – they stop coming. I run out of things to say. A calm spreads over me as my legs and arms continue to propel my body forward. I used to be a runner and I know there’s a science to the whole endorphin thing, but it is truly amazing the way it happens, every single time. I begin to get this blissful feeling, and all the negativity, impatience, worry, fear, anger, just melts away.
Then I’m ready to listen. I get the best guidance and wisdom when I’m on my walks.

And create. Creativity seems to flow in an unrestricted way when I’m out there in the elements.

And get clear. More often than not, things I found completely muddling before I left the house look embarrassingly clear by the time I return home.

And forgive. My husband after the occasional fight. Myself after a failure of one kind or another.

And get excited. I get ridiculously excited about things when I’m walking. I’ve always been a dreamer, but when I get going, all the projects I’m in working on become the most amazing things ever (in my mind), and all plans for the future look very positive.

And, interspersed throughout all of that, woven into it, rising to the surface again and again, is thankfulness. Thankfulness for all of the gifts that God has given me. I don’t need to name them. There are so many, for all of us. All I know is, by the time I get home, I am ready to face it all again. The chaos. The tasks. The routine. The crises. Parenting. Marriage. Ministry. Living in my own skin. Seeing the goodness, the beauty, the fun, the hope in it all.

So, Tsuki. Maybe I should raise you up a notch or two on that totem pole.

Kiran Young Wimberly is a mother of three and a PC(USA) minister. She currently lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland and is Pilgrimage Director for the Centre for Celtic Spirituality. Now that she’s had her third kid, she’s decided to start blogging with all her free time at kiranyoungwimberly.wordpress.com.