Greatest Simplicity

Little Flowers (Quotes for Meditation), Uncategorized

Brother Lawrence was both very humble and very trusting.  The intimacy he had with God left him in no doubt that God would provide for him, even if what God offered in the moment was a series of trials or, even, a good death.  We have trouble thinking of trials as a gift from God.  When I was young I welcomed them because I knew that they were helping me learn and develop.  Now that I’m in middle age, I find them burdensome.  Aren’t I developed enough?  God’s answer, of course, is no.  I wish that I had Brother Lawrence’s simplicity, his ability to simply ask for God’s assistance without having a pre-planned idea of what that assistance should look like.  Here’s the quote that accompanies the prayer card I made to help me meditate on this:

When an occasion of practicing some virtue was offered, Brother Lawrence addressed himself to God saying, “I cannot do this unless Thou enablest me”. And then he received strength more than sufficient. When he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault saying to God, “I shall never do otherwise, if You leave me to myself. It is You who must hinder my falling and mend what is amiss.” Then, after this, he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.  He said we ought to act with God in the greatest simplicity, speaking to God frankly and plainly, and imploring God’s assistance in our affairs just as they happen. God never failed to grant it, as Brother Lawrence had often experienced.

A Tree Stripped of Its Leaves

Little Flowers (Quotes for Meditation), Uncategorized

I love that Brother Lawrence’s conversion was accomplished through nothing more than noticing a tree stripped of its leaves in winter.  He is like the Zen master who reaches enlightenment when a tile falls off the roof.  Of course, for Brother Lawrence the tree is an image of resurrection – the repeated nature of resurrection and, necessarily, the repeated nature of death.  But instead of leading Brother Lawrence to a lifelong exploration of this ongoing process of death and resurrection, the tree stripped of its leaves mainly leads him to look for God in all things and all moments, most particularly mundane things and moments.  This is enough for Brother Lawrence, this continual call and exploration of what it means to pay attention and stay in communion with God.

Here is the text that accompanies this prayer card:

During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, Brother Lawrence received a high view of the Providence and Power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul… He said we ought to quicken and enliven our faith. It was lamentable we had so little. Instead of taking faith for the rule of their conduct, people amused themselves with trivial devotions which changed daily. He said that faith was sufficient to bring us to a high degree of perfection. We ought to give ourselves up to God with regard both to things temporal and spiritual and seek our satisfaction only in the fulfilling of God’s will. Whether God led us by suffering or by consolation all would be equal to a soul truly resigned.

Moses and the Thorns

Exodus, Uncategorized

Since I started work on the Exodus Big Read with my friends in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, I’ve been struggling to make a good piece of art that depicts Moses and the Burning Bush.  The story is at once too small and too huge.  Too small because there’s not a lot of action – there are only two persons present, Moses and God, and all they’re doing is talking.  But too large because it’s a theophany – the nature of God is being revealed.  Something beyond image and language is happening to Moses, and he’s being transformed by it.  How do you depict that?

I’m not sure that this attempt is any more successful than the previous images I’ve made. But I learned from my friend, Rabbi Daniel Bogard, that in Judaism its traditional to think of the burning bush as a thorn bush.  You can’t put your hand into it without being grabbed by the thorns.  Once you engage with it, you’re snagged.  Hearing that, I realized that this must, in part, be what’s happening to Moses.  He’s trapped by his contact with the divine.  This resonated with me because I, too, feel entangled with the divine.  My own theophanies haven’t necessarily led to clarity about the nature of the sacred or of the profane, nor do I have any better idea how to respond to either.  But they have snared me in the questions – big, ultimate questions that I can’t stop asking.  For me, in this moment, Moses’s contact is less with fire than with thorns, and I hope that this image reflects that.

Out of the Depths


I first encountered the 130th Psalm when I took a class entitled Exile & Pilgrimage at Kenyon College.  Don Rogan, my professor, who later became my friend and mentor, had us read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, the desperate letter to his lover that he wrote while imprisoned for sodomy.  Wilde’s small book takes its name from the Latin title of the psalm.  It was one of the best things I read that year, or maybe any year, of college.

The 130th Psalm is one of the Psalms of Ascent, the group of psalms that Jews sang while on pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.  These fifteen psalms (120-134) might be expected to be praise songs, since the people singing them were on their way to worship God.  But they’re not.  In these psalms, the people laid bear their souls – all of the pain they felt towards each other, all of the grievances, all of the disappointments.  In our culture, we rarely sing sad songs together, let alone songs that are full of complaints against our neighbors.  I find it odd to think of a group of pilgrims walking together and expressing the struggles of their communities in song.  But that’s what they did.

Of the fifteen Psalms of Ascent, the 130th is my favorite, in part thanks to Oscar Wilde, but also because I find it the most intense, the most raw.  I hope that the piece I made reflects that rawness.

Here’s Nan Merrill’s transliteration of the psalm:

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to You!
In your Mercy, hear my voice!
May you be attentive to the
voice of my supplications!

If You should number the times we
stray from You, O Beloved,
who could face You?
Yet You are ever-ready to forgive,
that we might be healed.

I wait for You, my soul waits,
for in your Love I would live;
My soul awaits the Beloved
as one awaits the birth
of a child, or
as one awaits the fulfillment
of their destiny.

O sons and daughters of the Light,
welcome the Heart of your heart!
Then you will climb the Sacred
Mountain of Truth;
You will know mercy and love
in abundance.
Then will your transgressions be
forgiven; and you will know
the Oneness of All.

From Psalms for Praying © 2007 Nan C. Merrill, Continuum International Publishing Group,


Exodus, Uncategorized

Birth has always been perilous. For most of our history, conceiving meant reconciling oneself with the possibility of death, even in the act of bringing forth new life. Death and life sat very close together on the birthing bed. Midwives, or wise women, would accompany women in labor into that liminal space between life and death, and would guide them through it with their rituals and plant lore and coaxing hands. They have always been the ones who ensured the human future.

The midwives in Exodus have names, Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh is known only by his position, not by his name. His dominance would suppress life and bring about death. He is the opposite of a midwife. When the midwives oppose him, it is life opposing death, the named and specific opposing the general and indifferent.

The spiritual life is about putting away the old and welcoming the new. It is about coming through death into new life. It is about discovering ourselves – finding our true names. And it is about standing with God in opposition to dominance and indifference. This is a journey we undertake many times. Again and again, old selves die so that new selves can be born. It is always perilous. And it is when we are faced with this peril that we might cry out for a midwife. We might hope for someone wise to come and aid us with rituals and lore and kindness.

What has died in you?  Do you feel the empty spaces where the dead thing used to be?

What has been trying to be born in you?  Are you struggling with a new birth of self?

Who are the midwives in your life right now?  Who is helping you?


Pray for the Disciples of the Stilled Waves


Pray for the disciples of the stilled waves

who can’t conceive of a mind formed from the firing synapses of suns, with a plan that’s existed since existence began.

Pray for the disciples who find it too strange

that such a mind might look down at the ocean with a scheme for each life, a schematic laid down, never to change.

Pray for the disciples who don’t believe, but can see

His feet skim across the waves, who believe in miracles when they occur, who prefer not God’s providence, but God’s fleeing order.

I’ve struggled with the idea of providence for a long time. Whenever someone says that a tragedy is God’s will, or claims that God never closes a door without opening a window, or says that something is part of God’s plan, I rebel. These sayings seem to make God into a puppet-master at best, a sociopath at worst. Why is it comforting to think that God is actively causing our hurt?

Such an idea isn’t supported by scripture. God is definitely involved with human life. But there’s nothing that points to God having a master plan. Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and although God ultimately does destroy those cities, Abraham’s argument holds sway for a little while. God formulates plans that don’t work out, and then seems open to shifting them. Noah’s rainbow points to this, as does the whole plan to make a chosen people who are going to be a light to the nations, and then God’s willingness to ditch that plan when it doesn’t work and send Jesus down to try out something new. In scripture, God doesn’t have a grand, sweeping plan that’s been around from the very beginning of creation. God does have a vision of what’s best for human life, and is always pointing us towards that vision. But usually this isn’t what people mean when they say that something is all part of God’s plan. They mean that God is in total control, and the bad thing that’s just happened to you happened according to the will of God.

I don’t think we need this idea. It’s often used, and maybe it came about, in order to explain the cross. Some atonement theories rely on the idea that God knew, from the beginning of time, that Christ would have to die on the cross. But there are other atonement theories that state that the cross was never part of any plan that God came up with, but was the result of human will and human evil. I agree.

If we shift our idea of providence, or get rid of the idea of providence altogether, something wonderful might happen. We might find that we’re more open to miracles as they appear in our lives. We can allow them to be mysterious without having to slot them into a pre-existing intellectual framework. We can accept that God is constantly trying to do new things in the world, and in our lives, because there’s no script. God sees what is necessary in the moment and responds. When we’re suffering, that might mean simply being present to us, or filling us with the strength to reach out to others who might help us, or reassuring us that we’re forgiven when, in our pain, we act in ways that surprise us and that let us down. When we’re not suffering, but full of joy, we might look for the miraculous in our daily lives, in flowers appearing on trees in the sunshine, in the heavy sunlight that falls on us in summer, in the rim of ice on a puddle in winter. We might allow ourselves to understand that each passing moment is precious, even if it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with a pre-packaged divine plan. I’m advocating for us to stop looking for God’s cosmic plan, and start paying attention to God’s shifting order.

The Beauty of Holiness


I’m having trouble referring to God as “Lord” these days, so I’m borrowing from Mechthild of Magdeburg and calling God “the Love Beyond All Love” instead.  A nod to bridal mysticism, and a gesture away from theologies of dominance.  The text comes from the 96th Psalm.  Here are verses 1-9:

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing to the LORD, all the whole earth.2Sing to the LORD and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.

For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.

As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the LORD who made the heavens.

Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!

Ascribe to the LORD, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the LORD honor and power.

Ascribe to the LORD the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.

Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.

Joy Comes in the Morning


A line from one of my favorite psalms, Psalm 30.  Here’s the full text of the psalm.

I will exalt you, O LORD,
because you have lifted me up *
and have not let my enemies triumph over me.

O LORD my God, I cried out to you, *
and you restored me to health.

You brought me up, O LORD, from the dead; *
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.

Sing to the LORD, you servants of his; *
give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.

For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, *
his favor for a lifetime.

Weeping may spend the night, *
but joy comes in the morning.

While I felt secure, I said,
“I shall never be disturbed. *
You, LORD, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.”

Then you hid your face, *
and I was filled with fear.

I cried to you, O LORD; *
I pleaded with the Lord, saying,

“What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? *
will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?

Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; *
O LORD, be my helper.”

You have turned my wailing into dancing; *
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.

Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; *
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

The Spirit Helps Us in Our Weakness


Since I started thinking about the Holy Spirit I find references to it everywhere. Take, for instance, this quote from Richard Rohr, which I read yesterday:

The Holy Spirit is that aspect of God that works largely from within and “secretly,” at “the deepest levels of our desiring,” as so many of the mystics have said. That’s why the mystical tradition could only resort to subtle metaphors like wind, fire, descending doves, and flowing water to describe the Spirit. More than anything else, the Spirit keeps us connected and safely inside an already existing flow, if we but allow it. We never “create” or earn the Spirit; we discover this inner abiding as we learn to draw upon our deepest inner life…Home is another word for the Spirit that we are, our True Self in God. The self-same moment that we find God in ourselves, we also find ourselves inside God, and this is the full homecoming, according to Teresa of Avila. (1)

That helpful, sighing spirit is, in effect, us, ‘Our True Self in God,’ at least according to Rohr. It feels vainglorious somehow. I’m uncomfortable with equating myself with the Trinity, even my best and truest self. But I suppose that he means that my True Self is only a fragment of the spirit, and that everybody else has a fragment, too. Or maybe fragment is the wrong word, maybe it’s like a fractal, where the smallest part contains all of the whole. Regardless, the realization that everyone has this True Self, this fractal spirit, means that no one person can claim any kind of spiritual supremacy over any other person. If I participate in the Trinity, so do you, and we do so equally.

It’s comforting to think that our True Self in God is active and working on our behalf, even when the rest of us seems dead as a stone, mute with grief and confusion, unable to think beyond the bare exigencies of existence. I think that’s why I always want to give Paul’s words to people who are suffering. As a reminder that they have a true home inside of them, and that it’s as mute as they are, but still acting, still sighing. Participating in their grief but also still reaching out from it to the rest of the Trinity, and to the fractal spirit in other people.


(1)Rohr, Richard (2011-02-11). Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (p. 90). Wiley. Kindle Edition.