Blessed – how sacramental reality brings peace

Yesterday my house was blessed.

Friends gathered. The priest came with stohl and holy water. We walked through the house, prayed words, crossed ourselves. And the house was blessed.

After everyone was gone, leftover cheese wrapped tightly, dishes washed, chairs set back around the table — after it all, I paused. And for one moment I felt the old anxiety. Did I mean it enough? Did I feel it enough? Is my house really blessed?

I was 10 years old the winter I was baptized. I stood in the pool, freezing. Said yes to the pastor’s questions. Emerged shivering and wet.

I was 10 years old. The following years were chaotic. Again and again I was questioned: did you really mean your baptism? Or did you just get wet?

How was I to know? I was 10. I was scared of hell. I wanted to belong in church. I wanted to please my parents.

Well, did you have true saving faith?

I searched my heart, my soul. I couldn’t find the answer. I did want to be baptized. I did want to be a Christian. Did I believe all the right things? No – but who does? I’m sure I still don’t have everything right.

Had you repented?

Of what? How thoroughly? I still sinned – a lot. There were some sins I just couldn’t shake. But I tried really hard to be good. Did that count? Was it enough?

After fifteen years of being questioned, of questioning myself, I gave up. If I hadn’t really been baptized – meaning, if I hadn’t meant and believed all the right things at the time I was baptized – then, I was repeatedly told, I needed to be baptized. If I had been baptized . . . well, I figured getting dunked wouldn’t offend God too much. So, at 25 years old I stood in a much warmer lake, answered yes to the same questions, and emerged dripping and relieved.

A year later I walked into an Anglican church. I watched babies get baptized. I smiled as little children cupped their hands to receive communion. I witnessed adults renew their baptismal vows. I joined with the congregation on the feast days, renewing our vows, receiving the sprinkled reminder of our own baptisms. Slowly, deep peace settled in me.

Sacraments are real. All the introspective diligence of my earlier years is unnecessary. Communion, baptism – they are realities independent of me, of my changing emotions, thoughts, beliefs and moods. Did I have all the right intentions and beliefs when I was baptized at age 10? at age 25? On the deepest level, it does’t matter. I was baptized. Such comfort!

It is to that peace I now return. My mind wandered yesterday. My heart did not fully enter into prayer. I was distracted, tired, distant. But my house was blessed. Neither prayer nor holy water draws its efficacy from my mental state. The Lord hears.

Let this dwelling be made holy; let every unclean spirit depart, by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ: May health, joy, and cheerfulness be given to those who live here, and may your divine Majesty ever protect and preserve them. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Truth Is a Person

As we make the Spiritual Exercises we ask for various graces. Recently I have been asking for the grace to admire people.

It started with a seemly simple assignment a couple weeks ago: List the people you admire, people you would like to imitate.

I had a hard time making that list. In fact, it took me a week to think of one person that I very conditionally admired and might want to imitate in certain aspects.

I could, however, quite easily list qualities that I admire, skills that I want to develop, and character traits I would like to emulate. That’s not what I’d been asked to list, but I figured it was something, so I started writing:

courageous, fierce, just
joyful, spontaneous, still
voiced, diligent, kind, gentle
nurturing, loving, blessing
patient, laughing
feeling emotions, open to God
generous, honest, humble
open to people, open with time

As I wrote “open to people” the Spirit nudged me:

“Embody, Helen –
not theory, never pure virtue –
‘I am the truth.’

“I am . . . the truth.”

Jesus’ claim shakes me.

It wouldn’t bother me if Jesus said, “I always tell the truth,” or “I live an honest life.” Those statements would fit my understanding of reality. But “I am the truth”?

I tend toward idealism. I don’t mean that I tend to set impossibly high standards (though I do that too). I mean I tend to think that ultimate reality is in ideas and thought, to value a concept above a person, and to think of truth and love as abstract.

Basically, I tend to think that there’s an ultimate standard of goodness that God conforms to and is, therefore, good.

In so doing, I idolize goodness; I idolize my understanding of goodness; I idolize my understanding.

Then Jesus steps in and says, “I am the truth.”

And my idol crumbles, vaporizes, vanishes in thin air. Truth is a person.

I am undone.

I want to love this person, admire this person, emulate this person. I want out of the idealized world where flesh and blood are shadows. I want to live in physical reality. I want to enter stories, not theories. I want to admire people, not ideas. I want to know Truth.

dust thou art

The priest raises his ash covered thumb to my forehead. “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return. Repent and believe the Gospel,” he says, making the sign of the cross.

“to dust thou shalt return”

The campus was home to the oldest cemetery in the county. One afternoon, as I was wandering in the woods, something drew me to that cemetery.

What is it that draws me to cemeteries? Maybe it’s that I’ve never had a grave to visit, my own ancestors and friends buried thousands of miles away. Maybe it’s my love of history and tradition. Maybe my curiosity. I don’t know. But that afternoon something was drawing me to the old cemetery.

It was fall. Everything was dead. Leaves had lost their crunch and covered the decaying graves with a layer of visible decay.

Gove Cemetery

I climbed over the wall, where a little modern sign marks “Gove Cemetery, 1785.” I wandered to a far off corner, over the crest of the hill. I’d never been this far back before. A flag had fallen to the ground. I picked it up and planted it next to the old Captain’s headstone. When I stood up I saw the old cemetery entrance marked with two tall stones, tucked away in the corner farthest from our modern road.

I slowly, almost reluctantly, I made my way to the old entrance. I paused again and again, my mind wandering back to the place of the dead. Largely neglected, weeds surrounding, stones tipped at precarious angles, engravings faded. What is life? What is the purpose of life? “84 years of age” was written in one stone. Now what remains but a weathered stone, a lump in the ground, a faint memory whispering through the once farmed forest?

I reached the entrance. The wood gate was broken, rotting on the ground. Stepping over it, I found myself on an old road, if it can be called such: a path of saplings cutting through a forest, a pattern of breaks in old walls, a heap of stones leveling a gully. I stopped on the ridge above that gully and saw the heap of stones for what they had been: a bridge. Does anything we make last?

My thoughts wander back ten years to another graveyard, another ruined road. They were older, two thousand years older. Roman buildings lasted longer than the makeshift farm buildings of New Hampshire settlers. Longer, but not forever. The Roman headstones were more impressive, more legible. But the bodies were the same. The stone sarcophagus prevented the lumpy ground. But the memories were further removed. No one remains from 2000 years ago to tell an old story, to put flowers on an ancestor’s grave, to look with love on an old headstone.

The grand city and the small farm alike are gone, ruined, lost in history. The king and the farmer alike decay in the ground. And 200 years from now . . . where will my grave be? Will my memory stir through the grass? Will there be a path to the place I am buried? Or will it be forgotten, the town near the cemetery covered in overgrown forest?

Year after Year

YOLO. You only live once: the motto of our hurried culture. There’s only one chance: one chance to do this thing, to understand this lesson, to see this scene, to meet this person. If you don’t take this opportunity, you’ve lost it. Grab the chance.

My first year in church time I lived this hurried grasping. I loved Advent, but I couldn’t absorb it before Christmas rushed in. Then there was Lent, so full of blessing. I never wanted it to end–how could I hold on to all this blessing?–yet I was curious and ready for Holy Week. But who can capture Holy Week? Who can experience and remember and do it all? Easter was barely over before I was longing for next Holy Week. Could we just skip Ordinary Time?

As I entered my second church year, the Lord calmed my frantic grasping.

When we teach children the liturgical year we do not teach them a series of events. Instead, we show them a great circle, a clock of sorts. There’s no beginning, no end. The seasons come in order, over and over and over again. Here, in this cycle of seasons, the Church lives Holy Time. And here, in this cycle of seasons, I merge my life with the life of Church and enter the abundance of Holy Time.

I still love each liturgical season. The anticipation of Advent, the quiet joy of Christmas and Epiphany, the opening grace of Lent, the intense journey of Holy Week, the uproarious joy of Easter, the cluster of Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sundays, the long growth of Ordinary time, the exclamation point of All Saints’–I love them all. But more than each season, I now love the rhythm, the cycle.

The liturgical year is Holy Time, outside the swirl and demands of the world’s time. When I enter it, I step out of our broken, hurried world and into the Kingdom of God. Here I live with hands wide open to the gifts of each season. And, as each season passes, I gladly enter the next, knowing the passing season will return again. Gone is the desperate grasping. Gone also is the sense that I determine my spiritual life.

Holy Time, with its feasts and fasts and ordinary times, rarely correlates with my present experiences. Instead, as I deliberately engage in the feast or fast, I’m drawn into the experience of Church. By living the liturgical year, I practice the truth that I am not alone, that I am a member of Holy Church. Together, as we enter the rhythms of the liturgical year, we proclaim Christ’s reign in this world. In Holy Time we live the truth of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom marked by events more significant than any in this passing age, an eternal Kingdom where there is no need to grasp time.

Day after Day

It’s seven in the morning. Not quite awake, I enter the chapel. I dip my hand in the holy water and cross myself. The familiar words begin:

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness . . .

“Let us confess our sins . . . “

Why am I here again? Why am I repeating these words yet again?

I came from a church tradition that fears empty repetition, insists all prayer be spontaneous, and belittles ceremony. This service of all services, the morning and evening, day after day repetition of confessions, creeds, prayers, psalms—this service is the most foreign to my upbringing. Yet it is most familiar.

As a child I lived in Turkey and attended Turkish schools. There I experienced ritual, ceremony, and repetition. Every morning I stood at attention with hundreds of children in the schoolyard—with millions of children in schoolyards across the country—and recited The Oath. “I am a Turk! I am upright! I am diligent! . . .” Day after day, week after week, year after year . . . The words were woven into the fabric of my being. What began as a required recitation of uncomprehended words became the expression of my identity, in particular, of my identity as one of a People.

Holy Week 2013. In Vigil I would become a member of the church. As the disciplines of Lent opened my heart, I heard a drastic call: the call to shift my identity from Turkey to Holy Church. I wrestled with the call. My very identity was being torn out of me. Would I accept this death? Deep within I accepted, yet continued to wrestle. How would this new identity look? What was I being called to? How would Holy Church ever become the very warp and woof of my life, the People of my identity? As I cried and prayed my way through Holy Week, the Lord brought a gentle answer to my questions: daily office.

Through daily words and ceremony I became of Turkey; through daily words and ceremony I am becoming of Church. The Oath shaped my identity; the Creed and The Lord’s Prayer reshape my identity.

That is why I am here at seven in the morning. That is why I stand and kneel, say the words, pray the prayers, hear the Scriptures. Some days I stumble through, barely awake. Some days my lips form words I cannot say through my tears. Some days I feel nothing and my distracted mind wanders to trees and chores and intricacies of the HVAC system. Some days I am fully present, drinking in the beauty of God’s presence. I would love to experience all days fully present. But, in a way, whether I do doesn’t matter. Whether I feel it or not, whether I can focus on it or not, whether I can understand it or not, the ritual of the daily office transforms me through its sheer daily-ness.

I stand and proclaim, “I believe in one God . . . I believe in Jesus Christ . . . I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy, catholic Church . . .” And I know: I belong in Church.