Last week at St. David’s, snow lingered for several days on our brick labyrinth, and last Thursday about a quarter of it was still covered. After three years of walking the labyrinth almost daily, I figured I knew the route well enough that the covered part wouldn’t mess me up.
When praying the labyrinth, I generally offer gratitude while walking in and intercessions while walking out. Since my lung cancer surgery, I usually begin by praying the “Jesus prayer” with deep breaths, inhaling “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and exhaling “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” (I first learned about this prayer from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, by the way, not from anything churchy. I referred to the book in a sermon once and horrified one parishioner who did not find the Christian inspiration she sought after locating the book at the library.) I recognize that some people who have been damaged by church have trouble identifying themselves as sinners, but I embrace my sinful nature, and this breath prayer resonates after half of my left lung was removed last April. I soothed myself to sleep in the ICU breathing this prayer.
So a week ago on the snowy labyrinth, I prayed the Jesus prayer on the outer circuits, then offered gratitude while starting to step around in the snowy part: thanksgiving for being cancer-free today. Thanksgiving for not contracting COVID-19. Thanksgiving that no parishioners had died of COVID-19. Thanksgiving that rates in our Virginia county were declining.
Suddenly I realized I was about to start the innermost circuit leading to the center. This was too fast. I stopped and studied the snowy patch, which didn’t have as many footprints as it should have if I had walked the entire labyrinth. I couldn’t figure out what I had missed. Where were the switchbacks? Underneath the snow.
I went inside the church building, grabbed a shovel and removed the snow that was on the labyrinth turns, then started over and, while snow still covered parts of the path, I was able to walk the whole labyrinth with the switchbacks visible.
The liturgical season of Lent is something like shoveling that snow. Even when we feel established in a relationship with Jesus and have a patterned prayer life, we can miss a turn and need to dig out. Every year we can reset at Lent. Reorient. We will still have something covering our path, but the reset will help us navigate our lifelong spiritual journey.
So what’s a metaphorical shovel for 2021 that can help us find our way? I’ve picked up writer and Episcopal priest Heidi Haverkamp’s book Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels. Reflecting on intentional solitude on this second Lent of the pandemic, when most of us are involuntarily separated to some degree from many whom we love, promises to be both provocative and soothing. I intend to write this newsletter (“Desert Owl Among the Ruins”) reflecting on Heidi’s book weekly during Lent, then will switch to writing once or twice per month in the season of Easter.
The newsletter won’t align precisely with Holy Solitude because I will publish on Fridays and Heidi’s chapters offer a weekly theme beginning on Sundays. Still, she offers daily reflections and I can’t wait to dig in.
This week, in advance of Ash Wednesday, I read Heidi’s “Introduction” and “Preparing for Lent.” She starts the Introduction by expressing how she was completely overwhelmed in her first years as a parish priest and found solace in various practices including reading books about hermits. She mentions Thomas Merton, whom I have tried to like, not only because he was a monk whom clergy constantly quote but because Merton is well known in Kentucky, where I spent time at brief residencies for several years while working on an MFA.
I did not succeed in loving Merton, so am excited that Holy Solitude also mentions May Sarton, whom I haven’t read, and Julian of Norwich, who has that wonderful prayer Episcopalians love to throw around (I guess I should say “pray” instead of “throw around”): “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I have an intense, violent internal reaction to people who quote that to me when I am stressed, so I recommend being judicious and aware when offering that prayer to others. As long as someone else doesn’t pray it at me I like the prayer, so looked for books by and about Norwich on Amazon and found one that looked particularly good, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World With Julian of Norwich by Amy Laura Hall. When I clicked on it, however, I discovered that I bought it three years ago. I scoured my shelves at home (which are not organized) and at work (which are sort of organized) and finally found it. Of course, I have not yet opened it. I am better at buying books than reading them. (Giving up buying books has been my most frequent Lenten practice over the years.)
I resonate with Heidi becoming overwhelmed by parish ministry and longing for solitude, perhaps because I’m an introvert. What do you all think—especially you extroverts? The pandemic has reset my longing for solitude. I don’t miss feeling overwhelmed on Sundays (or other days), but oh sweet Jesus, I miss face-to-face interaction with my parishioners. When I see some of them at our monthly drive-through events, I want to jump in their cars and go for coffee or out to lunch. Of course, I resist. I am masked and we remain physically distant. But these days, I long for in-person community more than solitude. I believe reading this book will help orient me. I just don’t know yet where I will end up, or where I will go when I exit the labyrinth.
“Preparing for Lent” encourages us to prepare our calendars, as well as preparing for fasting and almsgiving, and preparing our homes. Heidi offers specific suggestions. I was struck by her idea for creating a tabletop desert at home. At church, the flower guild creates a desert landscape in place of flowers on the altar during Lent, but I had not thought about trying this at home. Being from the desert (one reason why I resonate with the “desert owl” translation in Psalm 102, from which I got the title for this newsletter), such landscapes speak strongly to me, especially among all the green of Virginia, my current home. I don’t have materials to create a desert landscape readily available, and Heidi recommends keeping things simple and using materials we already have. I do own a little roadrunner in a sand dome that I moved from a bookshelf to my writing table after reading her suggestions.
I cannot believe it’s almost Ash Wednesday, so I need Heidi’s encouragement to intentionally prepare. At my church, St. David’s Episcopal, we are only worshipping via livestream at present, so I will not get to mark my parishioners’ foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday. I cannot express how much I will miss this. One Ash Wednesday I imposed ashes on an infant just weeks after he was born, before his baptism (which would take place at the Great Vigil of Easter). I had been called to the hospital right after his birth when he was wrapped up like a little burrito and joyfully anointed him with blessed oil, welcoming him into the world. Reminding his parents and myself that he would return to dust was wrenching. And holy. Right next to him was an octogenarian with loose wrinkled skin on her forehead. My thumb still remembers the contrast.
My hope is that while we are working through Heidi’s book together, we can work with some of her questions each week and take advantage of Substack’s comment feature. This week, however, we lack questions from Heidi to ponder because it’s not actually Lent just yet. If you are interested in engaging, I’d love to hear if you have planned one or more Lenten disciplines this year.
Have you ever fasted? Experienced almsgiving? Will you give something up? Take something on (like Heidi’s book?) Have you read books by or about Thomas Merton? Julian of Norwich? May Sarton? If so, what did you think? Does solitude appeal to you, or not? Has the pandemic affected your feelings about solitude?
Blessings, and get ready to shovel.
What I’m Writing:
Last Sunday I preached about Jesus getting overwhelmed and needing to pray. Sermon here.
A braided essay about guns that I worked on for several years just appeared in The Little Patuxent Review. Unfortunately, they don’t offer an online link to the essay, but they hope you will buy a digital or print copy.
I loved the most recent book I reviewed for Christian Century and now realize that overcoming my own ableism will take work. Check out Sitting Pretty.
You may have missed this essay in the Brevity blog about my love for reality television and my recognition of it as “creative nonfiction,” because it posted the same day as the Capitol riot.
This breast cancer essay in Christian Century means more to me than I can express. When I wrote it, I had no idea that three months later I would be diagnosed with lung cancer as well. I am so grateful that 2020 is over.
What I’m Reading:
Eight Perfect Murders: I’ve been having trouble finishing books lately (I think this is a pandemic thing?) but enjoyed Eight Perfect Murders. On Goodreads I usually don’t offer stars for genre fiction, but I gave five stars to this one. I love books set in bookstores, having spent five years as an antiquarian bookseller in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles back in my twenties.
Beheld: The title drew me in because “behold” is one of my favorite words in the Bible, and the NRSV—the translation used liturgically in the Episcopal church—annoys me by using “See” instead (e.g. Genesis 1:29). This historical novel offers a look at tension between pilgrims and Anglicans in the early years of Plymouth. I tend to think of Anglicans as being in the highest socioeconomic class, but in this book most of them were former indentured servants, creating a fascinating dynamic (and deep division) with their theologically different colonial neighbors. And, there’s a murder. Good read so far.
What I Compulsively Bought Based on Holy Solitude:
May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
What I Almost Compulsively Bought Based on Holy Solitude But Then Realized I Already Compulsively Bought Three Years Ago So Now Have to Read:
Amy Laura Hall, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World With Julian of Norwich
Note: I linked to these books on bookshop.org through The Little Bookshop’s page. If you’re local (Richmond, Virginia), I recommend buying books at The Little Bookshop or Book People Richmond. As soon I’m fully vaccinated I will return—masked—to The Little Bookshop. Until then, both shops offer curbside pickup and if they don’t have a book, they can order it. Shop local!