Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

"It is a paradox in human life that in worship, as well as in human love, it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for greatest transformation."
--Kathleen Norris, "The Quotidian Mysteries."

So, perhaps you are wondering, "What did I do this weekend on my self-directed retreat?"

Well, for starters, I stayed away from the Internet for the weekend. No e-mail, no Facebook. I turned my cell phone off and only checked it in the morning and evening just to make sure nothing emergent was happening in the outside world. I wasn't on call, so that wasn't a problem. These things can be a time suck when I have serious contemplating to do. I've always found that easier than I thought it would be, the first time I did it.

I have been dealing with issues on about five different fronts that all seem pretty "big" when I let them take hold of my mind. They run the gamut of work to church to personal life to the expectations of others to my expectations of myself. They involve joy and fear and mystery and confusion and obsession with detail--but they all carry a certain level "un-clarity" at this point. These things are all out there, but I am not sure what I am supposed to be "doing" with them--or am I supposed to be doing anything?

In short, there are just a whole pile of things on my plate that my discomfort with a lack of a "big picture" is frustrating.

An old, old memory popped into my head.

Thirty-three years ago, I was named one of the "Outstanding High School Writers in America" by the National Council of Teachers of English. The words of one of the referees, words told me long ago, when I was young and stupid, bubbled up. To paraphrase, this referee had said that my greatest strength as a writer was that I was able to write about the banal and ordinary in a way that captivated the reader into entering into a realm of mystery and delight.

At the time I did not think beans about it. I thought to myself, "Well, living in a town of 5000 people in NE Missouri is incredibly dull and if I am going to write about something, I'd better find something interesting to say about all the dull and boring surroundings of my life." In fact, I felt inadequate that I didn't have great, exciting, literary things to offer.

But in pondering these present spiritual paradoxes in my life, I came to realize that the answers were not going to be big wide screen Cinemascope-like answers--they would come from those seemingly banal parts of my life that I imagine are boring to outsiders. So I spent a lot of time quietly sitting and exploring the ordinary in my back yard, visiting a couple of favorite places in the area that give me solace, that I had not seen for a while, and making sure every day I punctuated it with a quality visit with people I consider trusted spiritual friends. On Sunday, I celebrated the Eucharist at a place other than my home parish--I have been endeavoring to try to take a "field trip" once a month to another parish in our diocese--simply to see how "other Episcopalians do church." To see there is a Eucharistic world outside my weekly world, so I could appreciate the "sameness" of my weekly worship. How can I truly value what my home parish gives me if I don't step outside of it once in a while and see more of the Episcopalian world?

I also built in long periods of silence during the weekend. I observed the Great Silence from Compline to Morning Prayer, as I prayed the four offices in the BCP each day. When I drove from place to place, I drove in silence, as opposed to my usual mode of always having the radio blaring. (I did make one exception to my nighttime silence--when I took the dogs out I did give instructions to the dogs. But since "Dog" is "God" spelled backwards, I figured this was an acceptable breach.)

But this little Kathleen Norris book (well, booklet, really--it's a printing of a lecture she gave some years back) made a great jump start to giving thanks to the ordinary. The word "Quotidian" means, "Everyday, mundane, in the normal course of events." It's from the Latin word "Quotidianus"--everyday. (Ok, I admit the word "laundry" jumped out at me, since I have composed an entire liturgy for doing the laundry (including revisions for Lent), and my Episopalian Facebook friends and I often post that we are doing the Saturday Sacrament of the Laundry in weekend status updates.

But I figured the most important thing was to get in touch with some affirmation that it is the small stuff of life that gives us the biggest stuff of our understanding.

Then...on to using a book I've touted before on this blog to address where the rubber meets the road for me in preventing me from affirming the goodness in the mundane...

Once again, I am putting in another shameless plug for my Facebook friend Jane Redmont's book. It was a major source of how I planned this little self directed retreat. In particular, I used the following four chapters and the reflections in these chapters to shape my quiet time:

Chapter 2: Begin where you are, not where you ought to be
Chapter 6: Gazing: Images, Icons, and the depth of God
Chapter 10: Praying with Anger
Chapter 24: Faithfulness, not Performance: Building a Daily Practice

For me, these seemed to be the most important places that, as the stockbrokers say, "have high risk but also high potential for reward."

Now obviously, I need to spend more time with what I've discovered this weekend, and let it process, but for me, all retreats also have a small amount of instant gratification in the form of insights I had not (or dared not) considered. Here's the short version of that chapter by chapter:

Chapter 2: Begin where you are, not where you ought to be

I think this is a hard one for many of us. We feel the weight of the expectation of others upon us. I think that, for any of us who ever lived through situations that required time to gain perspective, whether that is for healing, insight, or closure, we have this sense that others are assessing us, and we often feel "others think I should be further along with this," or "others are upset b/c I no longer seem to care about this like I used to.

I did a crazy exercise to just add to "where I was." In the winter, when I can't have my night time outdoor space with my chiminea, I have a place in my living room that is my "devotional corner." I light candles and burn incense. I was sitting outside and thought to myself, "I wonder what it would feel like to sit outside and look out at my pasture and burn incense." So I took a little bucket and filled it with gravel and I put half a dozen big incense sticks in it. I get the really smelly, strong incense that Hindus use--I even buy it from an online Indian foods store.

It was an amazing experience to look out across at my pasture and my hay field, to look out at the rolling hills that make up my home in NE Missouri, and smell jasmine and musk and patchouli. It doesn't get any simpler than that!

Chapter 6: Gazing: Images, Icons, and the depth of God

For this one, I did two things.

First, my Facebook friend Luiz Coelho is designing an icon for me. I look forward to seeing the icon he has written. I know a little about what he plans to do with it. (Don't worry, I will share when I know what it looks like.) But for part of Saturday, I sat and simply pondered, "What will it be like praying through this icon?"

The other thing I realized is part of why I love Trinity-Kirksville's recent addition of Taizé services, is I dearly love "The holy warshtub." We use a galvanized washtub on a small table to hold the candles that people light during the service. The tub is filled with sand, and the table often has a towel draping it for the correct part of the liturgical year. So I decided to have my own "holy warshtub." Well, it's not quite a "washtub." It's a galvanized oversized pail with a garbage-can style lid--perfect for keeping the feral cats out of the sand in the tub. So I spent some time at Home Depot prayerfully considering "The holy galvanized pail with a lid." I put it into practice outside this weekend.

Chapter 10: Praying with Anger

If "being angry on a regular basis" were a condition of exclusion to Heaven, well...I'd be hosed.

The fact is, I'm a little on the volcanic side, but my volcanic eruptions are generally short-lived. Most of the time, they are angry pop-offs. They are responses to stress I can't control. But one of the things I have to learn to do better is do them when no one is in the line of fire. It's usually either an innocent bystander who gets fried, or a person I care deeply about.

But it turns out I did not have to use any "planned" activity for this one, I had one come up of its own accord.

I woke up Sunday to a flat tire on my truck.

I was supposed to drive to Columbia to worship at Columbia Hope for my "planned outside worship activity." I have a "spare vehicle" but it was being loaned out. I had to make arrangements at 7 in the morning to "borrow it back."

Believe me, I was mad. Mad that I had a flat. Mad that Ford Motor Company puts cheap 4-ply tires on new vehicles. (It has never made sense to me that they do that particularly with pickup trucks.) Mad that now I had the hassle of taking a tire in on Monday morning.

So I sat and fumed as I waited for the ride that was going to take me to my other vehicle. Then as I sat, and looked out over my pasture, a thought occurred to me...

"Wait a minute...I am glad that I am fortunate enough to own another vehicle and can loan it out to folks who don't."

Literally, at that moment, a flock of about six goldfinches showed up and flitted in my trees in the sunlight. I thought..."Why goldfinches?" I had a vague recollection that goldfinches were in some religious art. But it calmed my anger just the same at the time, simply to see the brightly colored birds in my tree. Had I not been sitting there, fuming, I would not have seen it.

I later looked it up. Some of the Italian paintings of Madonna and Child show the chubby little naked baby Jesus holding a goldfinch. Legend has it that as Christ ascended Calvary, carrying his cross, a goldfinch flew down and plucked a thorn out of his brow. European goldfinches have a red spot on their heads, and in the legend, some of Christ's blood got on the goldfinch.

It was a reminder to simply sit with my anger. Acknowledge it. Remain open to what might be behind it rather than let it close me down.

Chapter 24: Faithfulness, not Performance: Building a Daily Practice

I spent a lot of time pondering all the things that simply await me each day, faithfully. Coffee in my kitchen. Sunrises and sunsets. Useful work (and a lot of not very useful work.) A paycheck on the last day of the month. My dogs, waking me up.

I thought a lot about the discoveries we've made during this interim period in my parish, where new people with new ways of serving have emerged. I have undercut my faithfulness in all this. I have downplayed that there is something holy about my simply "being there" on a regular basis--that being reliable is, in itself, a gift.

I sometimes get frustrated that the busy aspects of my day sidetrack some of my regular prayer time. I became more open to the idea that there is plenty of room in my day for short prayers. The frustration (and occasionally, subsequent anger) that my prayer time gets cut short now and then with the demands of my world, really, is not about "getting my prayer time cut into." It's about "not getting what I think I want with my prayer time." Not getting "my way" about things. So being open about using the short empty spaces in my day for prayer is unexplored territory for me. I think I need to explore it more.

But all in all, it was a good retreat...a retreat into the ordinary...but with extraordinary findings!


God bless you. Thank you for feeding me tonight. Amen.

You're welcome!

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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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