Power Of Symbols · Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

More Sacred Spaces: Where Do You Find Beauty?

Interior, First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Erie, PA
Interior, First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Erie, PA

Here are more photos of my recent visit of downtown Erie (PA) churches which opened their doors for the public during the Erie County Historical Society’s Fall “Sacred Spaces” Tour.

First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant on West 7th Street, Erie, PA is built in the image of a Gothic Revival Cathedral. It reminded me immediately of the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C. Its Vicary Organ, with 103 ranks and 6,000 + pipes, was designed and built specifically for the sanctuary’s acoustics. A tour guide had me balance on a cement wall outside where I could see a gargoyle through an archway. You don’t need to balance while standing in the magnificent sanctuary enveloped in organ music worship.


Exterior View, First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Erie, PA
Exterior View, First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Erie, PA













The sanctuary of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church on East Ninth Street is lined with statues, including St. Anthony of Padua and St. Benedict. Only a heart of stone would refuse to be moved by The Pieta.  There is nothing else to say….

The Pieta, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church
The Pieta, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church
Pleasure of Creating · Power Of Symbols

Beach Glass And Amazing Grace

I spend time looking for what has been “lost,” for what is left from milk, beer, and pop bottles that were tossed into a lake. Over the years that glass has been broken and churned in the sand to wash up on shores as beloved beach glass.

Not quite the colors I find, but you get the idea!

I’ve blogged about beach glass and forgiveness. Since then I’ve found hundreds more pieces. I get home from kayaking and empty my pockets. It’s scattered all over the house: in boxes, plastic cups, jelly jars and shallow bowls, or just lying loosely on tables, shelves and my bay window. I had to empty it from my car’s cup holders because I needed the space for coffee.

All this “lost” glass is now found and ready for other purposes. I’ve made earrings and wrapped pieces for necklaces to wear or give away as gifts. I could add glass stain to the clear pieces for some nifty color. Stained glass or wrapping them for a “wind chime” effect would be lovely.

The old hymn, “Amazing Grace” says, “I once was lost, but now am found.”  These “lost” but now “found objects” have given me the chance to think imaginatively (How can I use these? What would that look like?) and hopefully create some beautiful work. All that time, sometimes decades, all that churning in the sand, tossing by the wind and waves, to finally come to frothy rest on the shore. Now dropped into my pockets to be reimagined and recreated into something new.

Sounds like a spiritual lesson here, doesn’t it, describing God’s work in our lives? I keep learning it over and over.

Poetry and Art · Uncategorized

“There’s A Certain Slant Of Light”

You’re probably noticing about now the lengthening daylight hours. I know I am. But we have several more weeks of winter in northwest Pennsylvania. I love winter, but after the particularly brutal one of 2013-14 I admit I look forward to driving to work on I-79 without my hands gripping the steering wheel, flashers on at 45 mph, finding my way through blowing snow.

But along with the increased daylight, I also notice its different quality. The light from its lower position in the sky builds in quality from low intensity to a higher position and higher intensity. The process quickens my blood more than the momentary glimpse of a robin, as welcome as that is.

Roman Mosaic: The Four Seasons
Roman Mosaic: The Four Seasons. wikipedia image

Emily Dickinson’s line There’s a certain slant of light comes to mind often because she was writing about the winter afternoon sun.  But the rest of that poem does not look forward but inward. The sun doesn’t signal a new season in nature, but rather unexpectedly (a common occurrence in Dickinson) brings “heavenly hurt” that drives us to reexamine our priorities and attitudes

We can find no scar,/But internal difference/ Where the meanings are.

Has the sun become something to be feared? Only if we don’t want to look within. Some “heavenly hurt” can cause us to look for and find, changes in our internal meanings.  Hopefully we can welcome “that certain slant of light” for what God purposes through it, both externally and internally.

Feeling God's Pleasure · Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

Circling the Olympic Rings

USA Olympic Committee Logo
USA Olympic Committee Logo

I admire the dedication of the marvelous athletes competing in the 2014 Olympic Games. They freely undergo the rigors of training and the sacrifices it demands with no promise of reward.

The most meaningful commercials during the games show the athletes competing now, then growing younger, always involved with their sport. The sliders began sliding in their backyards. The skaters began as tiny children on roller skates. The tag line reminds us how every big moment is preceded by many little moments. Decisions made daily, for years, directing lives toward a goal.

I turn to Evelyn Underhill for a spiritual connection. In The Spiritual Life she says we must give time and attention to our spiritual lives, “a deliberate drawing in from the circumference to the center, ‘that setting of life in order’ as St. Thomas Aquinas prayed.”

These athletes have drawn in to the center and have “set their lives in order” to pursue their goals. I am humbled by their devotion to earthly glory. How much more do I need to be passionately devoted to spiritual things? I spend too much time on the circumference of spiritual Olympic Rings, skirting the responsibilities and demands of pursuing my calling. I circle, circle, circle, but don’t “draw in.”

In a week or so, the 2014 Winter Olympics will be over. The athletes will return to their more or less “normal” lives, which for many means training for the next Winter Games. So, what exactly, will I do with my “normal” life?

Art As Conversation · Creativity of Language

Evelyn Underhill and the Language of the Mystics

We don’t use the word “mystic” much in contemporary Christianity.  I think a major reason is that “mystical” brings to mind long flights of emotion, even ecstasy, or getting lost in a spiritual moment, kind of like my experience when the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl a few years ago, all except for the spiritual aspect.   Steelerslogo

OK, back to real mysticism. (You mean football isn’t a religion?) How about trying the Lora Zill definition:  getting lost in the presence of God.   How do you describe that experience to others, or better yet, to yourself?  What kind of words do you use?

Sometimes we have an almost mystical experience when we encounter nature, such as when we see a multicolored sunset or a double rainbow, perhaps, and try to capture and describe our feelings by using the words “awesome,” “cool,” or “beautiful.”

Evelyn Underhill

But somehow those words seem totally inadequate when describing an encounter with God.  I don’t know that I have an answer, really, because I, too, grasp at straws sometimes even while writing this blog.  And I’m not trying to describe a mystical experience, just my own walking on this earth, with some “God” thrown in.

Speaking of mystical and mystics, you’re probably wondering about Evelyn Underhill since I led off with her name. She was a 20th century mystic that I have just recently come to know through her book, The Spiritual Life.  A friend “just thought” I would like her.  If you call stopping my reading every few pages so I wipe tears from my eyes “liking her”, I guess I did.

So, let this blog serve as a brief introduction to Evelyn Underhill and mystical language. I’ll be sharing more in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.  Looks like the 2013-14 football season won’t lead to mystical experiences for Steeler fans, alas, so I’ll have to “settle” for mystical encounters with God.


More Reflections From the Monastery

On my recent time at a spiritual retreat, Benedictine Monastery near Erie, Pennsylvania.

1.  The three “hermitages” are named for Scholastica (twin sister of Benedict), Walburga, and (mine) Hildegard.  Hildegard von Bingen was a twelfth century mystic who shared her visions through music and written imagery.   She spoke for God and was proactive in her faith.  The hermitage was stocked with books about Hildegard and music contemporary musicians recreated from her compositions.

Hildegard's Awakening
Hildegard’s Awakening, A Self Portrait

2.  Benedictines pray as a community several times a day and guests are welcome.  Their liturgy includes burning incense, Scripture reading, antiphons (responsive chanting), and praying the Psalms.  Sisters sit facing each other on either side of the chapel, choirs that alternate verses.  Hearing the Psalms prayed as a community showed me an involvement with the Word I haven’t considered.  We Protestants emphasize private, individual devotions but praying the Psalms with the Benedictines revealed the communal aspect of the Word.

St. Benedict
St. Benedict

3.  The Benedictines have a beautiful library stocked with material it would take a lifetime to absorb. Windows face the woods, and a couch and reading lamps provide comfortable reading areas.  I read in many traditions, both monastic and apostolic.  Materials can also be signed out.

Speaking of, beauty is another Benedictine emphasis.  Sisters told me of the painstaking care of carpenters and tradesmen installing stained glass windows and pulley systems for plants enabling easier care.  Everyone sees themselves as serving God in their work, and takes great pride in fulfilling their part of the call.

4.  I fellowshipped with the sisters at meals, enjoying lively give and take.  Benedictines receive guests as they would receive Jesus, and it shows.  One night I arrived early for Evening Praise and several sisters, including the Prioress, offered a warm hand.  Another sister made sure I had the right prayer materials.

I wandered freely through the monastery (except for private quarters.)  The main chapel (worth visiting for the stunning stained glass windows) and smaller one nearby are open for prayer and meditation.

The stained glass in the smaller chapel counsels “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God.” (Rule of St. Benedict 43:3.)   Sounds like a good way to close: concentrating on the work of God.

Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

Retreat Reflections From the Monastery

  • Monastic life, for the short time I shared it, has its own rhythms of service, solitude, fellowship, and prayer.  To enter those rhythms as a welcomed fellow pilgrim is rejuvenating.  Makes me want to create rhythm in my own life.
  • It took commitment to get to your “hermitage.” (The sisters call these cabins “herms.”) I packed my gear on a sled and hauled it across two wooden bridges, up a long hill and through the silent woods in a driving snowstorm.  The snow was lovely, dark, and deep, and it felt like a mile long slog from the “herm” to the monastery for prayers and meals and then back. Don’t forget your flashlight for the trek after dinner.

    Mount S. Benedict Hermitage
    Mount St. Benedict hermitage
  • My “hermitage” really began when I realized I needed to get the mind of God.  A contemplative reading described the “hunger” I felt as God’s hunger for me.  I’m still reflecting on that.
  • I appreciate the friends and acquaintances who shared encouraging words about my retreat.  (One even sent cd’s of Kathleen Norris reading her book Acedia and Me.)  I listened to each voice as the voice of God.
  • I took two books: my Bible and Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. This Queen of Multitasking didn’t.  I really can take two days to shut up, sit, listen, and pray.
  • Journaling has a purpose, as I write to know what I think. But this time my thoughts weren’t important.  I only jotted down what God thought.

Next time I’ll share about praying with the sisters and more about the monastery.  Next year I’ll pack my snowshoes!

Feeling God's Pleasure · Uncategorized

Chariots of Fire and God’s Pleasure

In the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire the Olympian Eric Liddell prepares to run his last race and is handed a note: “He who honors me I will honor.”  The gun goes off and the runners fly toward the finish line.  Liddell speaks in a voice over, “Where does the power come from…To see the race to its end?  It comes from within. I believe God made me for a purpose. He made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Dare we believe that God made us for a purpose and delights in our pursuit of that calling?  Dare we feel his pleasure?

It comes with a cost.  Chariots of Fire has scene after scene of runners training in all types of weather, pushing themselves mentally, emotionally and physically to utter exhaustion, even suffering injuries. They trained with no assurance of victory, just for the sake of competing in the race.

Liddell knew God’s purpose for him was to run.  He counted the cost and willingly underwent the rigors of training to fulfill that call. What kept him going?  He felt God’s pleasure.

English: Eric Liddell in Paris Olympic Games M...
English: Eric Liddell in Paris Olympic Games Magyar: Eric Liddell a párizsi olimpiai játékokon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Czech President and poet, Vaclav Havel once described hope as “an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”  So like Eric Liddle, we create and suffer and endure and trust that the process, our pursuit of our calling, is worth it, whether or not it is “successful.”  We take pleasure in the pursuit, trusting God for the results.

God made you for a purpose.  I hope you will join me this year in pursuing your calling, and like Eric Liddell, feeling God’s pleasure

Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

The Benedictines and Me

One of my favorite Christian authors, Kathleen Norris, became a Benedictine oblate and immersed herself for a time in the liturgical world.  I love her reflection on that life in The Cloister Walk (Riverhead Books) for its meditative tone and sharing of spiritual experiences that inform my own walk.

I’m not becoming an oblate, but I am going to the monastery on New Year’s Eve for a couple of days.  The Erie (PA) Benedictines offer small cottages (“hermitages”) located in the woods near the monastery for folks who want a secluded time away.  A Catholic friend and I once shared a weekend there, together and apart, listening to God.  We spent time in prayer in a beautiful chapel and joined the Sisters for meals and Mass.  (Like I said, they welcome anyone of any faith!)

Mount S. Benedict Hermitage
Mount St. Benedict hermitage

The issue of “having time” is not on the radar.  This is a priority.  No major crises–my kids are great, so is my family, I am pursuing new opportunities in my teaching and writing career.   But I’ve run into roadblocks that are making me reconsider my “little life.”  You’d think by now, at my age, that I’d know what I want to be and do when I grow up.  Well, I do, kinda.  So what about these obstacles?  There’s the rub.

And for all of the surface “obstacles,” I suspect the real ones are within me.

So, I am going to meet with God in a spiritual place.  He can get around, or walk through, any obstacle, including mine.  I trust him for that.  So can you.