Posts Tagged ‘saints’


Students’ morning prayer, in Jalgaon.

At the end of many prayers in which I participate here, I hear and sing, or chant, “shanti, shanti, shanti.” “Peace, peace, peace.” May there be peace in this place, peace for those who hear the bells, peace for our community, peace for the world.

I am always reminded of the prayer of St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

How do I pray such a thing, in the midst of poverty, inequalities in education, and stories of female feticide, rapes, and murders of women?

How do I pray that, on a smaller scale, when I am still hurt, jaded, and cynical from my classroom teaching experiences? When I cannot say for certain that the schools in which I taught could ever be truly a “safe space”?

And yet, what kind of teacher—or human, or Christian—am I if I give up hope? Sr. Carla Mae once told me that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is despair.

For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about what happens when teachers “burn out.” I wrote a paper for my multi-religious contemplative capacities course entitled, “Ahimsa Practices for Tramautized/Tramautizing Teachers: How to Restore Peace-full Teaching.” In these three weeks, I’ve been listening carefully to the stories of teachers, and attending to what the schools here feel like. Do the teachers have warmth and regard for their students, or contempt and disdain? Are students energized and joyful, or reciting rote and fearful?

What meditative or restorative practices can heal teachers who work in circumstances where systematic injustices and dehumanizing bureaucracies discourage voice (read: vocation)?

We live in a world where peace feels frequently elusive, impossible, a nice quote to pin on an inspiration board before returning to sarcasm, individual competitiveness, black-and-white thinking, and practices that leave us feeling increasingly dead inside. Gandhi and the Reverend King are heroes, far removed from the kind of daily injustices we face. Unless our voices touch millions, we fear, it’s unlikely for us to see peace—or justice—in our lifetimes.


I had a long conversation with Prof. P. last week. Last year, I attended part of the funeral of his father. Twenty days before his father died unexpectedly, his teenaged nephew drowned. It was a hard summer for his family.

We sat together on a porch in Jalgaon, overlooking green hills and orchards. I told him that I had held his family in my prayers all year, and asked how they were.

Prof. P. mentioned how devout his sister-in-law is, how ordinary and good the lives of his families are, how the thousands drowned in sudden floods were at worship. And yet, he pointed out, thieves and looters live and thrive. We were talking about the problem of theodicy. Both of us used the phrase, “…in this life.” As in, “We just can’t understand the purpose of such loss, in this life.” Or, “…there are different kinds of karma, that we can’t understand, and it doesn’t make sense, the way things happen, in this life.”

I recited again a quote that is dear to me, from the Reverend King: “…the arc of justice is long, but it bends toward mercy.”

Jain cosmology, with its radically different sense of time, reminds me again and again that my mind is finite. The universe, and God, are infinite. Maybe I will be blessed with a few golden glimmers of Truth, of Possibility, where I understand, for one goosebumpy and numinous moment—the bending.


Remember how in A Wrinkle in Time, Charles Wallace thinks he faces evil alone—a quick path to despair.

Mrs. Whatsit shares with him a glimpse of our planet Earth, seen from afar. A dark, pulsing cloud covers most of it. It is like a tumor, a living, present thing. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who reminds Charles Wallace and his friends that we are one of millions of those who work against the dark, who work knowing their tiny acts of light will not be overcome.

Charles Wallace is surprised; he didn’t realize this battle has been fought long before his particular pain. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who offer reminders; L’Engle writes:

‘And we’re not alone, you know, children.’ came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter.

‘All through the universe it’s been fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, but there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.’

‘Who have our fighters been?’ Calvin asked.

‘Oh, you must know them, dear,’ Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly. “And a light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

‘Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. ‘Why of course, Jesus!’

‘Of course!’ Mrs. Whatsit said. ‘Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.’

‘Leonardo da Vinci?’ Calvin suggested tentatively. ‘And Michelangelo?’

‘And Shakespeare,’ Charles Wallace called out, ‘and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!’

Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. ‘And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!’ (65-66).

The mundane, daily, and systematic examples of injustice work to make us think that our impulses toward community, toward collaboration, and toward life-affirming action are silly, wrong-headed, and bound to fail.

As children of God, we are made to be light-carriers. If we tend to our spiritual selves and work in communities that can help us identify and remember our calling, we are better equipped to work against despair.


Practicing mindfulness may seem a selfish, tiny act—how is cultivating gratitude going to help my students in their poverty and hunger? And yet, we find that over time, the cultivation of a new kind of flexibility in the mind prepares us to be prepared and willing.

From childhood—ourselves threatened and made afraid from nursery school—we have been raised up in a posture of fear and despair. We forget so quickly our true potential. Even understanding that the history upon which we build assumptions may be faulty can change the position of our posture.

In Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink writes, “Learning the history of nonviolence is another way of rehearsing it. Furthermore, our ability to act may depend every bit on our knowledge of nonviolent methods and spirituality as on our fortitude” (300).

If I had to teach again, in such a situation, and I pray I will, I will do the following to begin with. I would teach the history of nonviolence, including the history and voices of those in the American Civil Rights Struggle and for every nation represented by my students. For my own good, as for theirs. I would commit to never using sarcasm, ridicule, or threats with my students—and would be forthright with them why I make this choice, and why it is difficult. I would share this challenge with my teaching peers.

I know from experience that when I have been honest with my students—in joy and humor, and in tricky times, admitting when things are hard and “right answers” far and few between, the energy in the room is one of deep community and connection. I didn’t know that when I engage with young people from my centeredness as a child of God, I am tugging a bit at the veil of despair that conceals our true natures that will help, one day, to upend it forever.


I pray that I will always have hope, and a healthy, noisy, thriving hope that fills my blood with oxygen and keeps me sharp and eager to work. I pray that I can grow in practices that help me see light, help me recognize peace when I see it, and keep me mindful of that arc of justice, ever ending toward the light.

All will be well. We are made for more than competition, poverty, sarcasm, and hopelessness. We are made to be in relationship, to heal one another, broken shard to broken shard, small light to small light.

It’s a good thing to recite “Peace, peace, peace,” many times a day. To take time to sharpen my eyes in looking for it, to reminding myself to not abandon it. I do believe that all will be well, and all shall be well.

I’m not sure how peace will come about, and in what forms it will take, but I trust that arc of justice, bending long to justice. I can see it and feel it, and I will not despair.


Portions of this reflection got their start in a paper I wrote for class in 2011, called, “Lights for Us to See By: A Critical Review of Engaging the Powers.”


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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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photo from “Dominican Saints 101

Today is her feast day.  She was whisked away to a Dominican cloister by her father, to save her from invaders. Young Margaret took to the life like a fish to warm water, and practiced study and devotion for years. Because she was so young when she took the habit (at the age of four), many thought she would grow out of her devotion, but she never did.

Many take her story as a reminder of the seeds of great spirituality in children, and as a reminder to we who educate them to not dismiss those callings, but foster them so that they might flourish.

As a Sunday school teacher, I have always thought it was wrong to take a position of “I know and you don’t; listen carefully.” The Latin for “educate” means “to lead out.” That is, to create circumstances and opportunities that might lead a young person into discovery and reflection.

My most delightful and holy moments in Sunday school and in public school teaching were when I trusted a Gracefullness that surrounded all of our curiosity, conversation, and endeavors… when I trusted to let go a bit, listen to the kids, and regard what they had to offer as valuable.

This is harder than it sounds! I have a lot of energy, and a million ideas a minute, and like to be in charge. I pray, today on Margaret’s day, that I might be ever mindful of the gifts and passions of those I teach, and teach from a posture of welcoming and celebrating them.

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Christmas Even

We are in Joshua Tree National Park, in a cabin. I’m in front of a fireplace; outside, millions of stars fill a sky darker than I’ve seen in years.

A woodblock creche from India; the woodblocks are similar to ones used for printing patterns on saris.


Love the detail from this wooden creche– look at Joseph lifting the new baby high! Such a human moment captured and made immediate in simple wood.


And this one, another intimate human moment. The new family, young in the world.

I was trying to remember about starlight– isn’t it true that the starlight we see is reaching us many, many years after it’s already shone? That the stars we see shining, many of them, are already dead?

I’ve been thinking a lot about saints recently, and about Joseph– an ordinary man of the world thrust into extraordinary circumstances. His faith– and faith alone, no angel came to reassure him!– and solid actions nurtured something that has continued to impact us these thousands of years later.

As this year comes to a close, I want to hold fast to the idea that the relationships I form and keep, and the decisions and actions I take, are in place in a pattern or rhythm I can’t always see or know. How frightening! How out of control! And yet, isn’t Christmas–after the waiting of Advent–about embracing the radical unexpected things, with a willingness to joyfully follow a world turned on its head?

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At Our Lady of All Angels Cathedral, in Los Angeles. Love, love, love this contemporary rendering of Mary– she’s a young woman, but graceful and sure. You can see her youth in her face, in her French braid, in her posture.


Another youthful, contemporary rendering of a powerful young woman–Joan of Arc. Love her cropped, boyish hair and serious face. Can you imagine the King of France, approached by such youth and certainty, with no regard for his power?

It’s interesting to think about these saints that surround us… they were physical bodies, real people with hungers, anxieties, jealousies, and friends. I think we would recognize more in them than we would expect– surely some bit their nails, stuttered, laughed nervously, touched your arm when telling a good joke.

And then– in this recognition, can’t we see that we might also be called to use our bodies and voices? Frightening to consider how we are daily called.

Angel candelabra in Cathedral.

Angels over their city.

Another amazing contemporary rendering: Felicity and Perpetua.

I pray that I will continue to find moments of recognition with those I meet, both saints and not-yet-saints.

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Expecting revelation

“Creative scientists and saints expect revelation and do not fear it.

Neither do children.

But as we grow up and we are hurt, we learned not to trust.”

–Madeleine L’Engle

Prayer: May I always be willing to trust, to expect revelation in every day and relationship, and to not cringe away from the possible in fear.

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st lucy

St. Lucy, outside of an elementary parish school in the Bronx.  Interestingly, she has her eyes here; often, she’s shown holding her own eyes on a platter, referring to her martyrdom.

st francis

St. Francis of Assissi, across the doorway from St. Lucy.  I’m not sure why they’re flanking the same entrance, as Clare is the bosom friend of Francis.  I love his eyes.  I climbed up a pedestal to get this close to his face, and the difference from this proximity and how he looks from the street is so striking.  I was abashed to be so near him, to see his face so intimately.


St. Anthony of Padua, somewhere in the East Village.  He quite looks like the young wunderkind scholar and brilliant doctrinal mind he was, doesn’t he?  All cool, and a bit proud if you ask me.


Our Lady, on the Upper West Side.  Recent pilgrims had given her a fresh head-dress, and new blooming flowers for her to hold.

A side note– here in contemporary times, we see Mary looking down as a sign of humility. In the East, and certainly in Byzantine times, she looks down because she is a fine lady of nobility, and we are commoners– a noble lady would never look a plebe in the face.  I personally prefer the modest, downturned face to mean humility, but it’s interesting–as a young woman–to consider the other option.  And the extension of the argument– one needn’t necessarily be shamefaced to emulate Mary.  (I do think in this sculpture she’s being meek.  In the icons where she’s being fierce and noble but eyes cast down, she looks much stronger, and much less approachable.)

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