Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’


My reflection with Matt’s on our first morning in Istanbul.

My classmate and our group leader, Abudurrahim, asked us to write a short response about our expectations for the trip (ten days, eight cities, countless sites and people, throughout Turkey), on the very first evening. I have been engaging in inter-religious dialogue and work for eight years; I’ve spent years of academic and professional time wondering about expectations for interfaith engagement.

But this was personal: What did I hope to get?

Matt and I were in the unusual position (for Western, American, Christians) of being in the minority; of the fourteen of us, only four of us were Christians. We often stopped during the day so our friends could worship in a masjid, but we never participated in a Christian service. I was startled to see large pieces of holy calligraphy, in Arabic, throughout Hagia Sophia, and disrupting my view of the central image of Christ.


In Hagia Sophia, Christian images were plastered over both during times when the building was used as a mosque, and destroyed during iconoclastic periods. Our guide noted that the Islamic leader at the time did not want to destroy the images, because Jesus and Mary (Issa and Maryam in the Qu’ran) are sacred to Muslims as well; he just had them plastered over because images are not suitable for a place of worship. Here we can see the plaster being removed from the mosaic, painstakingly.

But this is what I asked for. I often use the word “disequilibrium” when I’m talking about education in general, and IR engagement specifically. It’s a term from Piaget. All children experience disequilibrium every time they encounter something, new in the world, that doesn’t go along with what they previsously knew. It doesn’t feel right. You have to check for other information, and finally incorporate the new worldview into what you know. It happens before you learn anything.

One of our jobs as teachers is to provide safe places for students (or congregation members, or clients) to experience disequilibrium.

For a toddler, it might be: You thought if you pushed this toy, it would light up red. But look! Sometimes it lights up green—what do you think about that? The world can be surprising. Keep pushing, see what happens.

For young adults, it might be: You have been taught that the protagonist of the book is always good, dependable, trustworthy. Guess what? Here’s an anti-hero, an unreliable narrator, a character you don’t like but somehow connect with.

For any of us: Every black person you’ve seen on television has been a criminal; you know only what the media has chosen to show you. Guess what? Your family has a new member, and he’s lovely, the son-in-law for which you’ve always dreamed. You’ll have to feel the disequilibrium, hold on as all the old synapses get sorted and grow, and incorporate these new understandings with how you move through the world.

I often pray that God will give me a posture of openness. By this, part of what I mean is that God will keep me curious, open to disequilibrium, and hold me safely through it. In my reflection for Abdurrahim, I said I hoped that I would experience things that I did not expect, and make new relationships and encounters that expanded my understandings.

This is easy for me to say, in America. In my home, with the pillow that smells like me, my favorite coffee cup, a closet full of clothes that suit the weather, and classes in which I excel. Surrounded by English language, and an endless (truly) assortment of food and drink that are tasty and nutritious.

Swimming like a faithful fish in a Christian environment, at a school of theology marked by a central chapel, and images and languages from the Bible throughout the literal landscape. Where I can wear a cross around my neck, say “Merry Christmas,” or “God bless you,” two dozen times of day, and never feel uncomfortable. Where I can seek out interfaith seder meals, or interfaith iftar, or read about Buddhism…if I want to. And no one will stop me or question my intentions; I am privileged that way.

The other hope I had was to really encounter history. I’ve learned and read so many Byzantine hymns, prayers, songs, stories. There was a time in my life where Gregory and Basil, Constantine and Helena—they were in my daily thoughts and writing.

This trip exceeded both of these expectation—boy, did I feel disequilibrium. Mostly in small ways—but they add up!—and in some delightful, serendipitous ways as well. And the history—well, I got goosebumps every day. I’m still working out what it all means to me. At the moment, my mind still reels slightly, dizzy from new geography, new tastes, and a crazy array of beauty and holy.


The interior of the Blue Mosque. So, so breathtaking. One can’t help but pray.


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When I titled this blog, I turned to a group of women, and two saints, who have been most influential on my own spiritual growth as an adult. I became an Associate to the Dominican community of religious women, in Racine, WI, in 2004.

The Dominican charism, “Committed to Truth; compelled to Justice,” has informed my teaching, studies, writing, professional work, and how I encounter challenges and possibilities in my life. Today is the Feast Day of St. Dominic. Before he was born, his mother dreamed of a black and white dog, carrying a torch in his mouth– this would be her son, carrying Truth and God’s message to help bring light to this world.

Today I received by e-mail a sermon by one of the sisters, a powerful theologian and preacher. I share her words below. I am struck by her call to “enter into what it means to be human.” I am challenged by examining how I might live out my calling in everyday life, in all of my work, and not keep it for Sundays or “holy” occasions or settings.

“Proclaim the word; fulfill your ministry.  And remember I will be with you at all times. 

It is a phenomenon of life that as we get older, time seems to speed up.  Has it really been that long since we last saw each other?  It is hard to believe my youngest grandchild is graduating.  Is my hair turning that gray?  Am I now on the list to receive Medicare and social security?  Time is fleeting.  Where have the years gone?  The sense of life moving on can haunt us.

But the more important question is how have we spent those years?  How are we willing to spend our lives, so more life may evolve?  Suddenly we could arrive at our last day not believing that that was it.  And so we strain to find a way of living and being to harvest the short time of our life on Earth.

We know that our brother Dominic demonstrated a focused way of life.  The words of scripture heard today: Proclaim the word; fulfill your ministry.  And remember I will be with you at all times, unmistakably reflect Dominic whose feast we celebrate this week.  Dominic, the preeminent disciple and itinerant preacher left us an incredible legacy, using his time on Earth announcing peace and bringing good news.

Dominic set himself to preaching and attracting others to preach.  Heretical teachings dangerous to the faithful, led him to see a great need for educated, zealous preachers who would enlighten hearers and lead them to the truth.  He proposed an order dedicated to preaching at a time when no one but bishops regularly preached.  Designated by the Pope, he was to be the preacher to the world.  Dominic was concerned that preachers should know their faith thoroughly and be able to expound it competently.

Biographers tell of how cheerful and companionable Dominic was.  His intense devotion to prayer and preaching led him to demonstrate that both should be full time occupations.  You may recall from any studies about Dominic that he exhorted his brethren to ‘talk always about God or to God’.  Dominic spent five years as head of the Order.  Five years of his charismatic presence was enough to gather an Order that in its first hundred years would count nearly 30,000 members from the European countries.

Catherine of Siena is to have said: ‘The voice of Dominic’s preaching is still heard today and will continue to be heard’ in the preaching of his followers.”  It is quite in accordance with his own temperament that Dominic should live on in the church, not as a striking individual, but in the work of preaching the gospel.  Indeed that is why he gathered the brethren.

We have inherited this profound Dominican legacy, so in the same way, today’s scripture should speak to us.  Proclaim the word; fulfill your ministry.  And remember I will be with you at all times.  As Christians we have been called.  The call comes from a voice inviting us to be the persons we were born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given us at birth by God.  Vocation is the place where my deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.  Every journey honestly taken stands a chance of moving us toward the place where we make a mark in the world.

The nature of the call can change over time, taking a person down pathways never anticipated.  Friends, guests celebrating with us today you have each answered a call.  Those of you who were more formally connected with the Racine Dominicans as aspirant, postulant, novice or professed, we express gratitude for the gifts you shared with us, gifts that are immeasurable and lasting.  We hope that what you received during those years of special connecting have been valuable and have enhanced your life and outreach for whatever path you have taken.  We hope your Dominican connection has made you a better person.  Many of you have testified to a deepened spirituality, a stronger faith, and gifts of lasting relationships when sharing your thoughts for the Booklet of Memories.

As you have grown and moved on so have we.  In 150 years Racine Dominicans have never remained stagnant.  Change has been a mantra.  It happens to be quite visible today with the claws and jack hammers seen on the property.

Mother Benedicta began our community and we have always been a little chaotic as time unfolded, as social conditions changed, and the church changed with Vatican II.  While we changed our wardrobe, more significantly we changed our classrooms.  The world has become our classroom.  We strive to think through the questions of faith in dialogue with the world; attentive to the signs of the times, listening to the call of the Spirit, seeking the bigger picture, knowing God is at the heart of it all.  In the Jubilee ad booklet you received today, we invite you to read the two pages listing the Corporate Statements we have adopted.  We encourage you to endorse them with us.

And so to proclaim, to fulfill our ministry, to be a follower of Jesus is to reach out, to enter into what it means to be human.  It starts with loving a people so much we work to change the structures that violate human dignity and hold people in bondage.

As the Albigensian teachings challenged Dominic, as this week we remember the atomic bomb attacks in 1945, as immigration laws cause division, as trafficking enslaves, as Earth cries out for respect, as power is abused, we must strive to restore just relationships and bring peace to our messy world.  With Dominic as our motivator and mentor, we are companions on this journey, remembering we have a greater opportunity to make a path if we do it together.  Time is fleeting.   There is an urgency to proclaim the word, to fulfill our ministry with the assurance that Jesus is always with us.

Jesus came to teach us that God’s presence is as close as our next act of kindness, our decision to go the extra mile, our willingness to be inconvenienced, and our attentiveness to real needs, keeping in mind that the most powerful influences are often the invisible ones.

As we prepare to be nourished at the Eucharistic table, let us continue to be faithful followers of the disciple and itinerant preacher Dominic.  And let us carry on this celebration in a spirit of joy and heartfelt gratitude for all of us who have answered and continue to answer the call.

May the God in you meet the God in me with each encounter?” (by Sharon Simon, OP)

Image from “Telling the Stories that Matter.”


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Two days ago, some of us visited the Monkey Temple– outside of Jaipur, near mountains, a kind of broken down abandoned place. But there are people, monks, kids swimming, a scant few tourists, and monkeys.

Ganesh, inside of one of the temples. The buildings are like abandoned castles and have temples, shrines, and icons in otherwise empty rooms, throughout. You’re walking barefoot along hot marble, you walk up an empty staircase or turn a staircase, and there is another vista, or peeling wall of color, or breathtaking idol.


One of the monks, inside a tiny room shrine. He anointed the top of our hands with perfume, and then our foreheads with bright orange, and then came around, asking our names, and brushing the top our our heads with a feather bouquet.

The colors and smell, and heat, and concentrated devotion, were so intense. I get a feeling like my elbows and sides are kind of getting floaty, with the potential to expand out. Hard to explain. Like getting light headed, but in my body’s structure, and in a good way.


I can’t get enough of these empty rooms, with old painting and detailing. This room reminds me of an old dowager, who once was the belle of the ball, but now is aged, and her skirts are drooping and her hair fallen. Plus, the monkey.


The next day, our entire group took a walking tour of Old Jaipur, including the insides of the walled city. Old Muslim worship spaces, from Mughal times, have been turned into apartments. Shops, animals, children, laundry, shrines, food, trash, and noise abound.

Tough little girl, with fabulous shoes, outside one of the gates.


View from the outer walled space into the inner walled room. I love the curlicues of marble and plaster.


We were treated to spicy lentil pastry pockets, with fresh yogurt. Delicious street food.


We ended the tour by stopping at the cafe–literally dug out into one of the walls–that has the best chai in Jaipur. Hot, milky, luxuriant with cardamon.


We broke into groups to explore…I visited countless textile and jewelry shops. Here is an abundance of sari material. A wealth of colors and textures.


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We woke up early in Hastinapur and visited one more local temple, attached to a school. A local Jain founded the school and the community supports scholarship students from the surrounding town.

My view from the women’s side of the worship service.

Me with a local family.

Singing on the bus to Agra. (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Wonderwall,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Hotel California”…)


The Taj Mahal! First of all, I can’t believe I was actually at the Taj Mahal—I try to imagine all of the images of it I’ve seen throughout my life, from calendars to posters, screen savers, even the little tea tags on our bags in Delhi had the image of that most famous monument.

A few months ago, I was really stressed out from school, and needed to read something comforting. I still have a copy of The Secret Garden my Grammy sent me when I was eight years old; I re-read it. This has long been a beloved book of mine, and I was surprised to see how much of my sense of self and the world has been influenced by it. And—the book starts out in India; Mary’s father was an important British military figure, and her family lived in luxury surrounded by Indian servants. The descriptions of the heat, the lushness, the smells and foods…I had long forgotten the story starts in this faraway continent. How strange to think of myself in McLeansboro, Illinois, reading this story and trying to picture the world. And now this same self has encountered the Taj Mahal, and knows the heat, lushness, and smells Mary describes.

It is huge. Dreamy. A mirage. Massive. Inspiring. I walked through one of the gates, and saw my first glimpse of it through a giant, decorated archway—the pale, nearly-glowing whiteness, the arching gracefulness, the splendor.

The mausoleum itself is surrounded by gorgeous green grounds, with waterways and red brick outbuildings that would themselves be amazingly beautiful if not competing with the Taj itself.

View of one of the gates.

At the far end of the gardens.


In all its magnificence.


Archways, soaring archways at every turn.

The ceilings within the mausoleum.


The beloved wife’s tomb.


Detail of the jeweled inlays.


Stone screens and carved marble.


Arabic script to illuminate the marble.


Into one of the gates.

Detail of corners surrounding doors and archways.

Detail of marblework.




The gate through which we entered and exited.

After the Taj, the bus dropped those of us in the six-week program off at the train station so we could leave for Jaipur.


Outside of the train station.

The arrivals and departure board.


Inside the station—only two tracks. A posh, English-accented recorded voice announced arrivals and departures. Small carts sold soda, water, juice, and snacks. Entire families lay on blankets waiting for their train.

Initially, our train was delayed from 7:35 pm to 9:00 pm. And then ‘til midnight. And the day before, the “midnight” train hadn’t come until 3:00 am. Jaipur is only four hours away, so our handler rented three taxis. The drivers piled our possessions on top of the cars, we piled in, and undertook the journey.

The roads into Jaipur were the best I’ve seen. We reached campus around 1:00 am, and were greeted at the gate to our building with biscuits, an anointing with red on our foreheads, and our wrists were tied with red thread. Tea service was waiting in the dining room if we liked.

Our accommodations are much nicer here—the rooms are better appointed and cleaner, and we have warm water. After taking a bucket shower, I took to my bed—right next to the fan. The weather is cooler here, and with the fan right next to me, I experienced the most delicious sensation: I was so cool that I wanted to be under my sheet. For the first time in India, I climbed under the sheet, and fell happily asleep.

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Digambara means “sky clad,” that is, digambara monks wear the air. They go naked.  They have no possessions at all—their very bodies are expressions of non-attachment to this material world. We made pilgrimage to two digambara monks at a place called KundrakundraBhakti.

In one discussion of “self” in a lecture, we were challenged to consider the following, “Describe yourself without using your name, references to your appearance, age, profession, education, family background, material possessions, geography or ethnic heritage…”

What would be left? What words or phrases would still indicate my “selfness” (in this thought exercise I can’t even say “Stephanie-ness”)?

One lesson from this consideration is that I am a soul. We are souls, embodied souls, yes (and what fascination we have with these bodies), but the soul is our essential nature. As C.S. Lewis said, “I do not have a soul. I am a soul; I have a body.”

I think it would be an interesting and fruitful Advent or Lenten practice to be mindful of all the time and thought I spend on the material world—I love magazines like Real Simple, Cooking Light, Oprah Magazine, and catalogues, and window displays…but all of these things, recipes, home décor ideas, crafting inspiration, clothing and jewelry and food…they are all related to my material body in this life, not at all related to my soul. It would be fruitful to take time to notice and cultivate the things that actually feed, nourish, and cultivate my soul. Music? Meditation and prayer?Acts of generosity and altruism? Taking care with my food and water use?

How can we help one another attend to our souls?

The older, bald man in the photograph is Kundakundacharya, a well knownDigambara monk. We were allowed to hear him speak, and ask him questions. I asked him, “Do you look forward to death, or are you afraid of death, or do you not think of death at all?” He answered, emphatically, “No, no—I do not think of death until the moment it comes. I am like a wick in an oil lamp; the wick does not know, and does not care, how much oil is left until the last moment, and the light is extinguished.”

Me, trying to stand like the Jain goddess of knowledge. She is always shown with a book in her hand, and her legs make a triangle. The triangle is related to logic within the Jain cosmology, with the points helping illustrate how we make inferences about our observations.

Dr. Jain in front of a huge statue of Mahavira, the last (most recent) thirtankara. This open air temple is called Ahimsa Stahl. Mahavira is on a hill overlooking Delhi.

Me and Nelda, a classmate from CST/CLU.


A little girl at Ahimsa Stahl.

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I haven’t blogged as much since I came to California, but I’ve definitely been using my hands, good ingredients and supplies, and creativity. I made Harry Potter-inspired “chocolate frogs” for an event here at school. Really easy– I laid out little piles of gummy candy, whipped up a batch of chocolate ganache, and poured some over each.


To celebrate the end of a really hard class in Practical Theology, I made a cake that looked like one of the most difficult texts.


Christmas wreath. I wanted it to be hula-hoop sized. But our door isn’t big enough.


Pears in a caramel sauce, for a tart.


Homemade pretzels! Inspired by our wedding feast, for our anniversary. With white cheddar dipping sauce.


Succulent gardens! In containers I found at the Goodwill store.


Everyone at SexHo Xmas got a tiny Lego person as a gift tag.


Chocolate chip monkey bread! Didn’t last long at all…


A cake to celebrate wrapping on a production of _The Great Divorce._

Things I want to make soon: savory filled pancakes using a pan my dear friend Janet got us. Wine bottle pendant lamps with Matt at a class here in the village. A book light— old fashioned lightbulb in an old book. And cupcakes with the Arabic alphabet for one of my Arabic classes.

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Flowers and freedom

My run in a dramatic adaptation of The Great Divorce ended last night. An amazing book, an amazing play. It’s a really quick read, and I recommend it for anyone with Lent coming up… a really rich opportunity to reflect on free will, God’s mercy and compassion for us, the nature of human choice, and heaven.

Here are some snaps of little bouquets I made out of the flowers I received:

Gorgeous arrangement Matt chose for the color of the roses, in a teapot.

Tiny vases on the shelf above our kitchen sink.

Giant lily overtaking a creamer on our dining table.

One for my vanity top, with unmade bed in the background.

Mini arrangement on Matt’s dresser.

Milk glass and matryushkas in the bathroom.

Finally, here is a chunk of my dialogue– at the end of the play, as the Teacher, I’m telling the Traveler (who has experienced many vignettes about the nature of human love, choice, anger, and free will) about the difficulty of understanding things from our limited perspective in time… and yet, the necessity of seeing it that way, for now, in this life. The Traveler wants to know if it is possible to ask about the end of all things.

“…all answers deceive. If you put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain.

The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

But if you are trying to leap on into eternity, if you are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so you must speak) then you are asking what cannot be answered to mortal ears.

Time is the very lens through which you see–small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope–something that would otherwise be too big for you to see at all.

That thing is Freedom. Yes, Freedom–the gift whereby you most resemble your Maker and are yourselves part of eternal reality.

But for now you can see it only through the lens of Time. A little picture of one moment, following another, following another…and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise.

The picture is but a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of time destroys your knowledge of Freedom.”

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