Reflections From Home

Hard to believe that the last time I wrote was November 27th!

We left on that day for Battisborough on the south coast of England. What to say about staying seven nights in a 19th century house, built with a view of the sea (and a lot of sheep)?! The winds blew at gale force almost unceasingly. The sheep on the hillside between us and the sea plodded patiently up and down, in and around the few trees. The rain, mist and downpours came and went.
Battisborough was an experience of what the Benedictines would call “stability.” We were all stuck in one house, with a land line phone and very spotty internet. Together for seven nights. We shared one big kitchen. Let’s just say those days were an experiment in community.

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Then we were on to London for our final long weekend before coming home. The terror in Paris was still fresh in our minds, there had been threats against London, of course, and the first day we were there a mentally ill man attacked a few people with a knife in a tube station.

As I walked through the Soho area (and found a Red Wing Shoe store on Carnaby Street!), or strolled through Green Park and St. James Park, or walked down by the Thames for a final view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, I was struck by how many people were enjoying the mild weather and festive holiday atmosphere. They aren’t oblivious to terror — just determined not to let it shape their lives. I was impressed by the resilience of the Londoners, and Europeans in general (there were many Italian and Spanish tourists around that weekend). London has dealt with terror since the IRA bombings of the late 20th century. The much overused phrase, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, although stemming from the time of the Blitz, still sums up reality in London.

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“Do not be afraid” — this command, or reassurance, is repeated throughout the Christmas story we hear during these days. Joseph is told by an angel of the Lord not to be afraid. Zechariah is commanded by Gabriel not to be afraid. Mary is reassured by Gabriel with those same words. And the shepherds are comforted and challenged by this angelic message.
“Do not be afraid.” Fear not. There is much in our world today that causes fear. There may be circumstances in our personal lives that bring fear. But if I’ve learned one thing in my journey over the past few months it’s to listen to God’s voice: “Fear not.” When I think of the planes, trains, automobiles, coaches (British for bus), subway trains, and boats that we travelled on; when I think of the thousands of miles we covered, the cities and countryside we passed through; I’m grateful and amazed by our safety and the grace shown us.

Do not be afraid. There is good news of great joy for all people: Immanuel. God IS with us.
Have a blessed and joy-filled celebration of Jesus!

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Evensong

Walking across the darkened close to the Salisbury Cathedral, I’m transported back almost 800 years to the mid-13th century when this building was constructed. The church bells would ring (but not from this present tower and spire, now the largest in England, which was built in 1320). People came from their homes within the Cathedral Close or just outside the walls in the little village. They were drawn to worship, to offer prayers and song within the magnificent walls of this dominating structure. And as Christians have been doing for 800 years, Dan and I join the informal procession.

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As we enter the building, the nave towers 90 feet above us. The vaulted ceiling is lost in darkness. In the quire space, at the west end of the Cathedral, candles have been lit, awaiting the congregation, worship leaders and choir. In this quiet atmosphere, we, the congregation, take our places in the ancient wooden choir stalls, surrounded at our shoulders and under our arms, by carved angels blowing trumpets and playing harps, and fierce animals keeping guard against any evil that might come near.
The liturgy unfolds as it has for hundreds of years. The order of worship is the same each night, with psalms sung, Old Testament and New Testament readings interspersed with Biblical songs — the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55) and the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2.29-32). The choir, consisting of children (usually boys although here at Salisbury girls get a chance to learn the ancient tradition of sacred music) and a few men, sing an anthem. Their crystal clear, unaccompanied voices pierce the semi-darkness, reverberating through the stone vaulting.
Dan and I have had the privilege of attending evensong at four different locations now — St. Patrick’s in Dublin, St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, All Saints College Chapel in Cambridge, and twice here in Salisbury. This is one of the memories I know I will cherish when I return to my comfortable routine in St. Paul.
Evensong ends with prayers for peace, as it has for centuries. But how much more fervent and strangely relevant are the prayers since the terrorist attacks in Paris two weeks ago now:
O Lord, save thy people. and bless thine inheritance. Give peace in our time, O Lord, because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.
O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give….”

As the service ends, we head out into the night darkness, praying for England, praying for Europe, praying for every place where peace is needed.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! I can’t resist a post about pilgrims and pilgrimages as we celebrate our Plymouth Pilgrims and their courage of so long ago.

The group of Calvinist Christians who left England for the New World in 1620 were not first called Pilgrims. They were called “Separatists.” They were similar in theology to the Puritans of the time, but the Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England whereas the Separatists wanted to create totally separate congregations of like-minded believers.

The term “pilgrim” seems to have come into use in the late 18th century as our new country honored these early settlers. They used the words that William Bradford had used in his written work, Of Plymouth Plantation: “So they lefte [that] goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.”

Of course, Bradford was alluding to the passage from Hebrews 11.13: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (KJV).

You probably know the story of the first Thanksgiving. Almost half of those sailing on the Mayflower died during the first winter. The next fall (1621) they had such a bountiful harvest that they celebrated with great gratitude, inviting their Native American neighbors to the feast (without whose help they would not have had such plentiful crops).

The hardships and deprivations those first Pilgrims endured is beyond my imagination. Besides losing so many companions in death, they left behind family and friends, most of whom they would never to see again. They left
comforts and familiarity, sacrificing for hope of a new beginning.

In Sacred Britain by M. Palmer and N. Palmer, the Rev. John Y. Crowe is quoted: “I thought how every Christian should go on pilgrimage at least once a year to relearn the evergreen truths of that primary metaphor. He travels light. He has no settled roof, assured rest or nourishment, except at his destination. He meets strangers. He must stay alongside people he does not greatly care for, and say farewell to others he quickly warms to. He is asked to share with those in need, to support those weaker than himself….”

We have been traveling for 91 days now. We’ve learned something about traveling light — making due with fewer clothes than we thought possible, paring down even further on short legs of the trip when we had weight limits on our plane rides. We’ve had a “settled roof” for no more than 6 nights anywhere. Sometimes we’ve had inadequate rest (there was the trip to Dublin where our plane was delayed 6 hours and we arrived about 1am!) and sporadic meals.

We have met kind strangers — like Andrew at Castlewellan who helped us deal with some problems with our buses, and Lilli at Eton Dorney who cheerfully cooked us delicious meals, provided a birthday cake for one student and made us feel very welcome — and many more. We had home stays in Belfast, “quickly warmed” to families whom we then had to leave.
We’ve learned about living in community — bearing with the weak, putting up with those we don’t get along with as well as others, sharing our candy bars or hot chocolate with each other. And many, many other lessons as well.

We will be moving on to Battisboro, England, at the end of this week, not far from the Pilgrims’ final departure port of Plymouth. On this Thanksgiving, as you gather with friends and family (hopefully the people you do greatly care for!), may you be filled with gratitude for all God’s good gifts to you!

And Finally, St. Patrick!

Most everyone has some knowledge of St. Patrick — the fact that he was Irish(you’ll read ahead that he was actually British), lived a long time ago (!), and is somehow associated with the shamrock. A lot of myth has grown up around St. Patrick, as even the Catholic Church has admitted. The truth can be hard to sort from the legends that have accrued around his name: Patrick as spiritual warrior fighting the ancient high kings of Ireland, Patrick banishing the snakes from Ireland, Patrick’s walking stick sprouts into an ash tree, etc.

That’s why I was excited to find a new translation of what is sometimes called Patrick’s Confession or Declaration, in a gift store at Bru Na Boine. On the cover, in a modern graphic, the booklet declared: “‘My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person and the least of all believers.’ Read St. Patrick in his own words.” This translation, made in 2011 by Padraig McCarthy, under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, contains what many scholars agree is Patrick’s own account of his slavery in Ireland, his escape and the vision that drew him back to bring the Gospel to the land of his captivity.

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It’s a simple but moving witness to God’s action in the life of a man who lived sometime in the 5th century. He was taken into captivity in Britain by Irish pirates. They took him to Ireland where he was a slave. He had been raised in a Christian family but had not made the faith his own. Here are his own words: “After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same.” One night in his sleep he heard God tell him there was a ship a mere 200 miles away that would take him away from Ireland. He only needed to trust the vision and run away. So he escaped on a ship and had many adventures including being taken prisoner again.

Finally returning home to Britain, he had another vision of Irish people begging him to return to them: “‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.’ This touched my heart deeply…I woke up .” So he returned to Ireland and the rest is history (and legend!).

There are as many places associated with St. Patrick in Ireland as there are legends: churches, mountains, wells, and valleys. Here in Sligo, where I write this blog, is a church that St. Patrick is said to have visited because a dear friend of his founded it. But one of the best known places associated with St. Patrick is the Hill of Slane, which is very near to the Bru Na Boine which was the subject of my last post.

So our coach driver took us to see the Hill. The weather was blustery, rainy and foggy. One of the spectacular aspects of this hill is the almost 360 degree panoramic view of the surrounding hills. But since there was no chance of seeing any such sight, we stayed in the comfort of the coach.

The legend tells that on the evening of Easter, in defiance of the High King Laoire, Patrick lit a fire to celebrate. The fire could be seen from the hill of Tara, the High King’s home. He was so impressed by Patrick’s defiance that he agreed to let Patrick continue to preach.

You may know the name “Slane” from the hymn tune for “Be Thou My Vision.” We sat in the coach, as the mist swirled around, and sang the first stanza of the hymn: “Be thou my vision, oh Lord of my heart. Nought be all else to me save that thou art. Thou my best thought by day or by night, waking or sleeping thy presence my light.”

As we sang, some of the students were rather noisy at the back of the bus. I have learned to ignore such distractions. But their excited cries got us looking out the window — the mist was swirling away from the hill, revealing a glimpse of the ruins there and the hills beyond. Be Thou our vision….

Let me end this post, and probably our stay in Ireland, with St. Patrick’s own words: “I must take care not to hide the gift of God which he has generously given us in the land of my captivity. It was then that I looked for him with all my strength, and there I found him, and he protected me from all evils — this is what I believe — on account of his Spirit living and working in me to this very day.”

Where have you seen the Spirit living and working today? Even when you feel “in captivity”, the Lord is there!

Five Thousand Years of Spiritual Longing

What is it about Ireland that seems so intensely spiritual? Every time I visit I experience an island driven by longings, yearnings, deep passion — striving always for something just beyond reach.

Over the millennia this desire has expressed itself in many amazing creative efforts. Stone passage tombs or stone circles built by Neolithic people, stone bee hive huts for Christian hermits, midieval cathedrals,, even contemporary monuments all witness to the drive to design and create that seems to define much of Ireland.
On November 5 we went to Bru na Boinne, a site of three passage tomb structures built 5,000 years ago. Yes, FIVE THOUSAND years ago! This was my third visit. I’m surprised each time by how moved I am by this place. Somehow it impresses me in much the same way as other “thin places” we’ve visited. I hesitate to write that lest someone think I’m becoming a neo-pagan and will soon start worshipping the sun.
But I do empathize with these stone age ancestors. I suffer in the winter from lack of light. I celebrate the winter solstice, December 21 (my dad’s birthday) in my own quiet way — thankful for our faithful God who designed creation so that now our light deprived northern clime begins to turn back slowly towards the warmth and light of the sun. How much more must these Neolithic people felt the desire for and need of the power of the sun at the shortest day of the year!
They went to immense efforts to build these passage tombs that precisely aligned with dawn on the shortest day of the year. On that day, the rays of the rising sun shine in an opening above the door (the roof box) and illuminate a center point 19 meters away within the darkness of the tomb. Without the wheel or any metal tools, they hauled stones from County Wicklow, 93 kilometers away, as well as huge boulders from a nearby riverside and mountains. The construction of the tomb must have taken generations, yet they persevered to create the structure that still stands today. How deep must have been their yearning for something beyond themselves — light, abundant life, eternity!

Behind Dan you can see the "roof box" area where the sunlight enters on the winter solstice
Behind Dan you can see the “roof box” area where the sunlight enters on the winter solstice

The morning we visited Newgrange, the best known of these passage tombs, I had read the story of Acts 17.22-23. The Apostle Paul is in Athens and, asked by Greek philosophers to explain the Good News, he offers this: “‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.'”
The people of the Bru Na Boinne lived about 1,000 years before Abraham. They longed for a Power and Life beyond themselves. Yet it would take about 3,000 years, until 432 A.D. for that Good News to be brought to this Island by St. Patrick.
More about him next post!

Outside view of huge passage tomb at Newgrange
Outside view of huge passage tomb at Newgrange

Glendalough — Place of Pilgrimage for 1500 Years

In the 6th century, a holy man (later declared a saint) named Kevin came to the valley of two lakes in what is now County Wicklow. He lived there simply, some say “in the hollow of a tree,” other times up the steep lakeside cliffs in a small stone hut. Much legend surrounds his life but we do know that by the time he died in 618, although he had wanted to be a hermit, other monks had gathered around him there at Glendalough. A monastery community was founded that lasted until 1398 and has been a place of pilgrimage all these years.

The day we visited was chilly and misty — very Irish! The Irish hikers we came across seemed to think it a “fine day,” a phrase that several greeted us with as we passed. The scenery is stunning, whether the sun is shining or not.

Scattered around the valley are the remains of seven churches, as well as other outbuildings and a magnificent round tower. Surrounding the ruins of the small cathedral is a cemetery, with gravestones as ancient as the 10th century and as recent as the 21st! What a testament to the resilience of Christian faith which has survived the Vikings, fellow Christian foes in the English army, and the forces of secular modernity!

The natural setting is spectacular. Two lakes, separated by a small piece of land, are surrounded by steep hills. Brooks and waterfalls tumble down into the lakes. The day we were there, the upper lake seemed to disappear into drifting mist of distant hills.

Collage of scenes from Glendalough
Collage of scenes from Glendalough

This is another “thin place” for me (see post of 9/10 on Holy Island).My imagination is captured by the introverted faith of St. Kevin who, wishing to be a hermit, couldn’t help but draw others to him through his authentic faith. Here he and others began living in simplicity and even harshness. But over the centuries Glendalough, like the other Irish monasteries of Clonmacnoise and Iona, grew and developed, becoming centers of scholarship and teaching. The monks were artists who created some of the most beautifully decorated scrolls and metal work of all time. The Irish monasteries also sent out intrepid and vibrant missionaries who reached into eastern and northern Europe.

It’s easy to romanticize what life would have been like in such a place (although a dose of wet, cold Irish weather reminds me of the deprivations these monks went through!). But as I visit these sites, their center is still clear, even in the stillness of a damp and chilly day — the worship of the Triune God and the proclamation of the Good News that God became human in Jesus. Their faithfulness, creativity and innovation in creating manuscripts of great books and passing on learning to others, remains a great legacy. I’m pondering the same message that Taizé offers me — the power of the simple faith of one person with a vision, the attractiveness of that vibrant, winsome faith to others, and the creation of community as others come alongside.

Where are people with such vision today? Do you see people with faith that is so attractive that you want to come alongside, stay and learn?

The Power of Taizé

This will be my final blog about Taizé. I want to leave you with what impressed me during this second, brief visit.

I am even more impressed by the power of one man’s vision — Brother Roger. At the same time in Europe that the vision of another man, Adolf Hitler, was wreaking devastating evil on the population, Brother Roger had a vision of the power of reconciliation and Christ’s love to create and recreate community. He created that community by bringing together just a few men. And 70 years later, the community is still worshipping, praying, and working towards sowing those small seeds of the Kingdom.

I am impressed by the power of a community. The brothers of Taizé live simply, welcome thousands of others, and reach out all over the world. But it begins with about 100 men who covenant to live together as brothers in Christ.

I am impressed by the power of ongoing worship. The brothers gather three times each day to pray and worship, no matter how big or small the visiting crowds are. Worship is at the center of their community. This is not a show put on for others. It is the heart of who they are and what they do. All flows from it. This winter when I’m back in Minnesota, years from now when I’m really old (!), they will still be gathering faithfully to pray and chant.

I am impressed by the power of silence that is at the heart of the worship of Taizé. The silence invites us to consider God’s Word that has been read. The silence opens a way for us to respond to God’s gentle invitations and quiet voice. There is no coercion. Just silence during which we are free to listen to the Holy Spirit.

Jared Brock, in his book, The Year of Living Prayerfully, describes the silence of Taizé: “In a world that competes for attention, that always has an agenda to push and a point to prove, it was incredible to share a moment of silence with a large group of people. For a small moment, we weren’t talkers and speakers. We were transformed into listeners and hearers.”

Icon of Christ accompanying Abbot Mena
Icon of Christ accompanying Abbot Mena

One of my favorite icons in the Church of the Reconciliation is that of Jesus and Abbot Mena. It is an icon representing friendship with Christ. In John 15.14-15 Jesus says: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

We are Jesus’ friends if we do what he asks of us. I pray that the silence of Taizé will enable me to hear Jesus’ voice more clearly, and when hearing, to respond.