Today’s Lent reading, squeezed in between much Holy Week preparation, was a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye from 19 Varieties of Gazelle.
The Arabs used to say,
when a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking him who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way he’ll have the strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.
Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take my red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.
No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armour everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.
I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.
As part of my Lent reading I’ve been dipping in and out of Claire Benton-Evans’ book Food for Prayer. It contains daily readings throughout the year with good ideas for prayer. I read this one a couple of days ago and it has stayed with me and I’ve been wandering around my home giving thanks for the little things that make it familiar.
Imagine coming home one night with your family and finding that everything in your house has been taken. Not just the TV and the stereo, but the carpets, the toilet rolls and the hooks for your coats. That is the premise for Alan Bennett’s story, The Clothes They Stood Up In. It explores the effect of such a comprehensive burglary on a prosperous middle-class couple, Mr and Mrs Ransome:
‘What she did miss – and this was harder to put into words – was not so much the things themselves as her particular paths through them. There was the green bobble hat she had had, for instance, which she never actually wore but would always put on the hall table to remind her that she had switched the immersion heater on in the bathroom… But with no bobble hat she’d twice left the immersion on all night and once Mr Ransome had scalded his hand.’
In your prayers today, walk around your home and appreciate the little things that make it familiar. Take some time to thank God for these everyday comforts, perhaps using these words:
We bless you for the chance to be ourselves,
for the tasks that weave the pattern of our days,
for the sweet, familiar round of ordinary things.
Blessed are you, strong, sheltering God.
Giving thanks for my reclining chair, fresh bed linen, my new red spotty tablecloth, many pictures and paintings which take me to faraway places in my mind, my favourite fountain pen, Gloria the printer and photocopier making books for Holy Week, a pebble from Brighton beach, a smelly candle giving off the scent of raspberries, and oh so much more… When I was made homeless I lost most of our ‘stuff’ and learned that stuff was just that… stuff. We survived without it. In time I bought more stuff and none of it matched and that didn’t matter. And now I have too much stuff in my home, but all the clutter tells a story and in time the stories hopefully will remain when the stuff is long gone.
Listening and watching
pausing from piles of paper
Spiegel im Spiegel
a cello and a piano
a hand lifts slowly
in the air
then gently hits the key
but it is in the pauses
that the beauty lies
a touch on my shoulder
a paw tentatively rests
have you forgotten that I’m here?
she watches the pianist
and his balletic hand
pause and listen
I tell her
listen to the pauses
that’s where the music lies.
Cats have been on my mind this past weekend. A friend whose cat died recently mourns her loss. Another friend is moving house and her cats are anxiously sitting in the packing boxes. And Rita Kitten decided my lap was the best place to be yesterday afternoon until my legs went numb.
Imagine my delight, then, when today’s Lent reading took me to Janet Morley’s book ‘the heart’s time’ and this poem by DH Lawrence.
All that matters is to be at one with the living God
to be a creature in the house of the God of Life.
Like a cat asleep on a chair
at peace, in peace
and at one with the master of the house, with the mistress,
at home, at home in the house of the living,
sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.
Sleeping on the hearth of the living world
yawning at home before the fire of life
feeling the presence of the living God
like a great reassurance
a deep calm in the heart
as of the master sitting at the board
in his own and greater being,
in the house of life.
Morley goes on to talk about the ‘profound relaxation of the cat before the hearth’ being about contemplation and being fully present in the presence of God and of the present moment. ‘To anyone who has watched a cat extend its whole body in ecstatic sleep, exposing the fur of its impossibly long belly to the warmth of an open fire, the image is compelling. It is the antithesis of any sort of hunched-up fearful prayer; rather the animal arches itself to experience the greatest possible pleasure from the presence of the fire. It may not understand what causes the warmth it enjoys, but it intends to receive maximum advantage from this source of life.’
I look at Rita Kitten now, curled up not stretched out, and envy her peacefulness. She has no To-Do list. No worries or concerns about phone calls to be made. No emails to answer, no preparations to be made for this or that… She twitches an ear towards the sound of children playing outside and decides she can’t be bothered going to hiss at them through the window. Better to just stay cosy and be. Food will come, she is sure of it.
Today I wish to be more like a cat.
I have the most wonderful Podiatrist called Naresh and we have very interesting conversations about life, death and the universe while he tends to my tootsies. One of the questions he nearly always asks is what I’m reading. Last time I was there I was reading All That Remains: A Life in Death which was a fascinating look at our bodies after death and we had a wee chat about that. He knows I have a fascination with helping people achieve a ‘happy death’ and asked if I’d read Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. It is written from a medical point of view by an American doctor but there is much in it of a spiritual nature. Much of it is Case Studies of people he met who were given a terminal diagnosis and how they wanted to end their days. I’ve enjoyed reading it and been saddened by how society and the medical profession often treat patients. (Often, I said, not always. I am aware there are some good stories out there.)
One passage which caught my eye and gave me cause to pause during the Lenten season was this paragraph:
As our time winds down, we all seek comfort in simple pleasures – companionship, everyday routines, the taste of good food, the warmth of sunlight on our faces. We become less interested in the rewards of achieving and accumulating, and more interested in the rewards of simply being. Yet while we may feel less ambitious, we also become concerned for our legacy. And we have a deep need to identify purposes outside ourselves that make living feel meaningful and worthwhile.
As I get older I can appreciate those sentiments. Recently I had a health scare which really made me think about what was important in my life, and accumulating ‘stuff’ which I don’t need became a real issue for me. I then spent a few weekends selling ‘stuff’ on Ebay and taking things to the charity shops. I thought about what was important to me and it was about spending time with family and reading more and worrying less. I also knew I had to sort out papers and get rid of so many files and magazines and books which I was holding on to unnecessarily. This is a work in progress!
Lent is a good time to let go of what takes us further from God. To let go of temptations which take us down paths we don’t need to travel. To let go of achieving and accumulation and focus on simply being.
Today’s Lent reading brought me to this from Jan Richardson. It made me smile. It made me want to paint it, but suspect that working and baking and stewing won’t allow time for that yet. Not today anyway. But I leave it with you… it is a gift for you.
has been waiting for you
for a long time.
While you have been
making your way here
this blessing has been
biding its time
This blessing has been
polishing the door
oiling the hinges
sweeping the steps
in the windows.
This blessing has been
setting the table
as it hums a tune
from an old song
a spiraling road
All this time
it has kept an eye
on the horizon,
hardly aware of how
it was leaning itself
in your direction.
And now that
you are here
can hardly believe
it’s good fortune
that you have finally arrived,
that it can drop everything
to fling its arms wide
to you, crying
welcome, welcome, welcome.
Today’s lent reading brought me to this prayer by Fr James Martin SJ
A New Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the people I cannot change,
which is pretty much everyone,
since I’m clearly not you, God.
At least not the last time I checked.
And while you’re at it, God,
please give me the courage
to change what I need to change about myself,
which is frankly a lot, since, once again,
I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect.
It’s better for me to focus on changing myself
than to worry about changing other people,
who, as you’ll no doubt remember me saying,
I can’t change anyway.
Finally, give me the wisdom to just shut up
whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter
than everyone else in the room,
that no one knows what they’re talking about except me,
or that I alone have all the answers.
Basically, God, grant me the wisdom
to remember that I’m not you.
Today’s prayer comes from Joyce Rupp in Fresh Bread.
So much in me gets lost, God.
I run off in other directions
and lose my vision of you,
of you and your Kingdom.
I lose sight of my hopes,
I forget all our promises.
I get lost in problems,
I run around in selfishness.
There you are, before me,
There you are, behind me,
There you are, beside me,
What is it you’ve placed in this sheep’s heart of mine?
What is it that keeps me bonded to you
in spite of all my arrogance,
in spite of all my independence?
I feel a new surge today,
a re-visioning of hope.
I feel as if you’ve lifted me up
and are carrying me home,
safe and secure on your shoulders,
or maybe next to your heart.
O God of lost sheep, my God,
appeal again and again to all the lostness in me,
pursue me relentlessly.
Carry me home.
O, carry me home.
Today’s Lent reading brought me to this from the Barefoot Theology Blog…
You, my dear human being, are not God. You, busy person, are not immortal. You, who can do so much and command so many, will go back to the dust. Thank God.
While human mortality can be stunningly difficult to accept, especially the mortality of those we love, it is a blessing.
We, frail creatures, are not all powerful; we’re not even very powerful. Without one another, we would very quickly wither away. Without God, we would simply cease to be.
Ash Wednesday, and Lent, is perhaps God’s best way of telling us to set down the world.
Set it down, and let someone infinitely more qualified carry it instead.