Friday, April 29, 2016

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

In my senior year of high school, I took a religion class, taught by a man who studied to be a priest. We were required to turn in weekly papers that summarized an article from a Catholic theological journal. My friend Kathy Murphy and I shared papers. She would turn in her paper, then a couple of weeks later I would copy hers and turn it in as my assignment. And she did the same with mine. We never got caught. I’m presuming the instructor didn’t read the papers. Cheating in religion class must be some special category of sin. I remember almost nothing from the class except the irony of being taught about being chaste and saving ourselves for marriage when there were girls in the class whose pregnancies were busting the buttons on our Catholic school girl uniforms. I vaguely remember being taught about Vatican II, and I remember the words aggiornamento, eschatological, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

I knew nothing about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin except that he wrote about Catholic theology and he had a very sexy French name. But recently I came across a quote credited to him and wished that I had paid more attention in Religion IV in high school. Now I know one iota more than I knew in 1965. Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest and philosopher who died in 1955. He wrote about the struggle to be patient while waiting for God to work. He used the term “the slow work of God,” a phrase that resonates with me.
Enough of my words—here is a poem/prayer he wrote about trusting in the slow work of God:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown, something new.
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
-- that is to say, grace --
and circumstances
-- acting on your own good will --
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser. Amen.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Woman, planet Earth, and the Other, shining like the sun

How I now see things:

     Myself—woman, human being, plant Earth

     God—the Other, incomprehensible, in everything, everywhere

As I child I saw God as an old man with a long, white beard, stern, condemning, impossible to please, voice like thunder, distant.

Over time, as my relationship with God has deepened and evolved, my understanding of Him* has evolved, become far less concrete, yet far more present. I will never understand what God is on this side of eternity. I don’t stay awake nights pondering the nature of the Divine. What’s the point?—it is not to be comprehended; it is beyond the grasp of human intelligence. As I gradually cede the need to understand and visualize Him, it has become easier to sink into feeling God’s presence. God in all the spaces between molecules, in the air I breathe, inside of me and the primary essence of my soul and the soul of every living creature.

It is that presence that we share that Thomas Merton saw in 1958 on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. He wrote this description in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
You are shining like the sun, I am shining like the sun, we all are shining like the sun because God is present in us all.

*Please don’t be snarled up in my use of the word Him to refer to God. I use the masculine pronouns just for simplicity sake. I don’t see Him as an old white guy—that’s just the Children’s Bible version of God.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Porcupines in love

This morning in prayer I had a conversation with God.

          Me: Thank you, Lord, for all your blessings. I love you.

          God: I love you more.

          Me: I know that’s true. Thank you for loving even little old me.

It has been over 4 years since my dear Mike died. Weeks before he died, while in hospice care, he came to faith and asked to be baptized. My friend and former pastor videotaped Mike’s testimony at his baptism. Mike said that reading Romans 6:23 had been the turning point for him, that he realized God’s gift of salvation is available for everyone, in Mike’s words, “including little old me.”

Mike’s use of the phrase “little old me” speaks volumes about the man. He was a big, strong man. He trained horses and climbed mountains. His sentimentality was entwined with gristle. I loved him but he could be so doggone uncommunicative, impenetrable sometimes that I became frustrated trying to maintain a relationship with him. He was a porcupine, quills positioned to protect his tender heart from hurt.

And I was a porcupine too. The deep hurt from my failed marriage kept me in protective mode, so afraid I would get crushed again.

In the final year of his life, we both let down our prickly defenses and just loved one another like there was no tomorrow. Because, for one of us, there was no tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Quit trying so hard


James Finley is a former Trappist monk who, when he was a young monk, studied under Thomas Merton. In his book, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, Finley recalls Merton telling him not to try so hard to pray:

He said, "How does an apple ripen?  It just sits in the sun. A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes, and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts.  Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God's time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in God's hidden action within us.” 

Okay, I'm not trying so hard. I'm just sitting in stillness, in His presence. There is nothing I can say to Him that He doesn't already know. I'm learning that the most powerful prayer of all is listening.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Perfection in the guise of a lemon bar

Can there be a state beyond perfection? Technically not, I suppose. Yet these are as perfect as perfect gets. Yesterday I went on a quest for a lemon bar recipe. At last the weather forecasters were calling for a touch of spring today. I need to bring something sweet to a meeting tonight and nothing says spring like lemon bars. Of course there are many, many versions, but I trust Ina Garten and Smitten Kitchen above all others. When I found that Smitten Kitchen used Ina Garten's recipe (with minimal adaptations) I stopped looking.
So here it is--lemon bars via Smitten Kitchen via Ina Garten. I used Smitten's version for the thinner lemon layer. If you want to see her original post, it can be found at She adapted them from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.
Lemon Bars
1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Lemon layer:
4 extra-large eggs at room temperature
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (3 to 4 lemons)
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 cup flour
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9 by 13 by 2-inch baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly grease parchment paper with butter.
For the crust, cream the butter and sugar until light in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Combine the flour and salt and, with the mixer on low, add to the butter until just mixed. Dump the dough onto a well-floured board and gather into a ball. Flatten the dough with floured hands and press it into the greased baking sheet, building up a 1/2-inch edge on all sides. Chill (about 10 to 15 minutes).
Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, until very lightly browned. Let cool on a wire rack. Leave the oven on.
For the lemon layer, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and flour. Pour over the crust and bake for about 20 minutes. (Check the filling to see when it sets. Once it has set, back for five more minutes.) Place it on a rack and let cool to room temperature or put in refrigerator overnight.
When ready to serve, cut into rectangles and dust with confectioners’ sugar.
Makes about 3 dozen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Love unabashed

If I had long, flowing hair and I had an opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus, I would have done this. Jesus shows such incredible mercy and forgiveness toward this woman, a woman scorned and viewed as a sinner in her community. What moves me most is her unabashed love of Jesus. She doesn’t beg his forgiveness, says not a word. Despite her sinfulness, her faith saves her. “Go in peace,” He says to her.
This is the freedom we have when we repent and love Him. It’s all we need to do to be forgiven. Nothing equals this freedom, this confidence of living life in faith, knowing. There may be a lot I can’t understand, but this I get. I repent because I love Him. He forgives me because He loves me. And as He forgives me, I love Him more and more deeply. And I begin to see what love is.

Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How not to be a food writer

There is a relatively long list of ingredients. The cooking technique is rather simple. And I have to report that the results are quite delish. There is no risk at all that I will ever get hired by America's Test Kitchen. Here's my recipe for a mélange of oven-roasted vegetables.
Baby carrots
Baby cremini mushrooms
Baby zucchini
Extra virgin olive oil
Laconiko Greek chive olive oil
Laconiko Green sweet lime olive oil
Butter-flavored olive oil
Jalapeno lime balsamic vinegar
Maharajah curry powder
Rocky Mountain seasoning
Herbs de Provence
Ground ginger
Lemon pepper
Coarse Kosher salt
Most of the vegetables are organic. I'm sure you're impressed. Most of the olive oils as well as the balsamic vinegar are from an artisanal oil and vinegar store called Ah Love Oil and Vinegar. Most of the spices are from Penzey's. The herbs de Provence were carried with love directly from Provence by my cousin. I buy Kosher salt in a large box and keep it on the kitchen counter in a vintage salt box that belonged to my late beloved mother-in-law. I used my iPhone to take the photo at approximately 3:30 in the afternoon and the temperature in my house was approximately 67 degrees. I roasted the vegetables on cookie sheets lined with unbleached parchment paper in an oven using the convection option at 375 degrees.
What I failed to do was to keep track of what I put on the vegetables and how much I used. Yes, I used everything I listed. I think I put the ginger on the carrots and maybe I used the butter-flavored oil, or maybe it was one of the others. I'm pretty sure I splashed a bit of balsamic vinegar on the broccoli. The curry powder was on the cauliflower. I have no idea how much but it should have been more than that. Maybe I used the herbs de Provence on the mushrooms. Or was it the zucchini?
I am shamed by all the American Test Kitchen books in my collection. The writers and testers go into intense detail on techniques and ingredients. For this I flew by the seat of my pants and could not duplicate this if I had to. I'm living in the moment--it's a flimsy excuse.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

My job is to observe all of this

It’s April, the cruelest month. Tomorrow it may snow but today the temperature got into the 60s. It was raining early this morning when I headed out for a long drive into the Shenandoah Valley for a day-long retreat on contemplative prayer. Luckily it was still light when I drove home. By then the sun had erased the rain clouds, the mountains were glorious, the redbuds were in peak bloom, and the buds in the apple orchards were just beginning to show some color. I drove home in peace and quiet, savoring the day.

This is not the first time I have gone on retreat, focusing on a getting some specific direction from God—often called discernment—and ending up on a completely different path than what I was seeking. Once again I wanted God to give me some marching orders, to tell me what I should do with the rest of my life. Instead He put me outside a farmhouse in the rolling Virginia hills, watching hens, listening to cows, and smelling the reemergence of life. I wanted a life plan. He told me to love His creation.

This is what I wrote in my journal at the retreat:

It’s early spring. The grass is starting to turn green, as if it is a sentient being and it miraculously knows that it’s time to turn green and soft and it begins to grow again. The buds on the trees start to swell, the hens cluck and peck at the earth, their feathers slick and shiny. The sun has a promise of warmth even when the wind blows with just a bit too much bluster. My job is to observe all of this, to feel the warmth of the sun, to smell the earth coming to life, and to thank God for so many blessings. I have been so deeply mired in the brokenness of the world—my own sorrow, the pain of others, the cruel violence and hatred of humanity—that I have forgotten to simply take in God’s goodness and thank Him.

And I vaguely recalled (and luckily found) a poem by Mary Oliver that expressed the idea that “my work is loving the world.” It is such a perfect reflection of the feeling I had today, the reverence for His work. Here I am, standing still and learning to be astonished.

by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—

          equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
          keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

The phoebe, the delphinium.

The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.

Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart

          and these body-clothes,

a mouth with which to give shouts of joy

          to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is

          that we live forever.