Editor’s (admin’s) note: When I was taking spiritual direction before, I emailed my director ahead of our monthly sessions … summing up what I’d been journaling about since our last meeting and, more to the point, focusing on themes I’d been working on and, more to the point, new directions that might (or might not) be worthwhile. Since I resumed spiritual direction this year, I’m resuming the monthly emails as well. And posting them to the blog with light editing to remove obvious illiteracies.

Sr. ______ —
A quick note to confirm our appointment for 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19, over Zoom and to give you a sense of what I’ve been up to regarding spiritual direction since we talked in December. Since I do quite a bit of journaling, I’ll just excerpt from the journals I post to my blog “Ordinary Time: A Zen Lutheran Lectionary.” It’s a practice I developed with [my first spiritual director, who died in the fall of 2020]. She didn’t always get around to reading them; nor should you feel like you have to! But doing it helped me focus my thoughts going into our monthly meetings.

Two things I hope to highlight, or follow up on, Wednesday. One is about practice, specifically how I’ve been trying to incorporate music into my spiritual practice. We touched on this last month, and I definitely want to follow up on it. 

But I posted the other to my blog first, and it relates to the whole issue of being more aware of the presence of God around me. I can’t really summarize it (and have a hunch maybe I don’t even want to try). So I’ll just give you a link to the journal and quote the pertinent parts: 

PRESENCE OF GOD

Fr. Richard Rohr’s daily meditation for Friday poses a theological question I want to work on in the coming year. I don’t know exactly what to call it, and I want to move it out of the realm of precise definitions and abstract theological speculation anyway. It has to do with the nature of God, and our relationship with God. Beyond that, I don’t know how to define it. But I’ve encountered it in Lutheran and Russian Orthodox writers as well as Catholics.

Since I don’t have the right words for it, I’ll let Rohr — or a member of his editorial team who wrote the editor’s note for his meditation — identify the issue. It’s titled “God is Present in All,” and the headnote promises:

In keeping with his Franciscan tradition, Father Richard teaches that we can find God’s freely given image in all of creation, beginning with ourselves!

In the meditation itself, Rohr suggests “a mantra that we might repeat throughout our day: ‘God’s life is living itself in me. I am aware of life living itself in me’.” He goes on to say:

We cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God, even as we read these words. This [is] not some New Age idea; recall St. Patrick’s (c. 373–c. 463) blessing, “God beneath you, God in front of you, God behind you, God above you, God within you.”

God within you. That reminds me of something else — I grew up with an Anglican hymn based on St. Patrick’s breastplate, “Christ be with me, Christ within me, / Christ behind me, Christ before me […] Christ in hearts of all that love me, / Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” So we can chalk up one more faith tradition. This idea of the presence of God within us, or whatever you call it, isn’t shared by everyone. But it’s nothing if not ecumenical.

Some of my discussion gets into deep theological water (and would probably get me burned at the stake for heresy in most cultures throughout history), but it led me to a picture illustrating a legend of St. Francis and a wolf in an Italian village. I wrote: 

The picture (copied at the head of this post) is taken from a mural at the St. Francis Inn, a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. It illustrates the legend of the wolf of Gubbio in the Little Flowers of St. Francis, and it was posted to a website called Creative Commons Prayer that provides free content under Creative Commons licensing. When I found it, my main interest was in looking for artwork to illustrate this post. But I think the story fits here thematically.

It’s typical of the legends in the Little Flowers a 14th-century hagiography. The wolf has been terrorizing Gubbio, an Italian village; St. Francis goes up to the wolf, makes the sign of the cross and says, “Come hither, brother wolf; I command thee, in the name of Christ, neither to harm me nor anybody else.” The wolf complies; the townspeople agree to feed him; and they all live in harmony till the wolf dies of old age — “and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly; for when they saw him going about so gently amongst them all, he reminded them of the virtue and sanctity of Saint Francis.”

Clearly we’re not entirely in the realm of observable historical fact here. Nor are we in the realm of theological disputation. But I think we’re well within the realm of legend, when you strictly define it, as Wikipedia does, as “a reaffirmation of commonly held values of the group to whose tradition it belongs.” And I think seeing the image of God in brother wolf, brother squirrel [also pictured in the mural] and all of our brothers and sisters in all of God’s creation — including what Rohr calls “this piece of clay that I am” — is one of those commonly held values.

I have more questions about all of this than I have answers, but we’re definitely in the realm of things I want to work on in the coming year.

The other thing I want to work on is incorporating music into my spiritual life. As I said before, until the pandemic hit in 2020 my primary focus was on singing in my parish choir. I got away from doing anything with music altogether for about a year, then last summer I realized I was missing it and started playing my dulcimer at home. So my other journal follows up on that:

MUSIC AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

The carol translates into English as “a child is born in Bethlehem,” and it’s an old, old German carol that tells the Christmas story as found in Luke and Matthew. (I’d better explain my headline — it’s quoting a pastor in Copenhagen who said his job was to be a “shepherd to cats” in a postmodern, secular city.) I embedded a YouTube video at the top — or you can hear it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRyiOB4as9c. I wrote:

In one form or another, Et barn er født i Betlehem has been sung at Christmas in Latin, German, Danish or any of the other Scandinavian languages since at least the 14th century. Known by its German title as Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem, it comes down to us as a chorale melody most commonly heard in a setting by early baroque composer Michael Praetorius.

So even when I play it to a variant tune by the fireside at home in Springfield, Illinois, I feel like I’m lifting up my voice — or the dulcimer’s — in a chorus that goes back 600 years.

The video at the top of this post shows the Danish National Girls’ Choir, directed by Phillip Faber. Their performance shows me how much feeling can be packed into a 10-verse religious ballad, and its musicality gives me something to strive for when I’m noodling around on my dulcimer. Other versions, at least a sing-along called Syng med Sigurd (sing with Sigurd) by Sigurd Barrett on YouTube, are geared more for the kiddos.

But with the Girls’ Choir, I can get into the music — as music — even though my Danish is worse than rudimentary. Obviously, I’m not going to sound like a girls’ choir, but I can listen with mindful attention to their phrasing and dynamics, even without understanding much of the poetry.

I hadn’t expected this, but I’m finding more of interest in the music, bringing out the melody, and especially the feeling of a piece of music, than I am in the lyrics. (Even when they’re in English!) I returned to the theme at the end of the journal: 

And when I play it on my dulcimer by the fireside, however inexpertly, I feel like I’m bringing the song to life again as I transpose the melody from G to D and train my fingers (which involves a little stretching and a lot of repetition), to match the intervals, phrasing, tempo and dynamics and — most of all — the emotion I hear when the Danish National Girl’s Choir performs it. Those kids can really sing!

Until I picked up the dulcimer, Et barn er født was just a printed page on an elementary school textbook in a language I can barely read. At least that’s what it was for me. I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, but surely it’s a form of incarnation when I teach my recalcitrant fingers to match the girls’ choir’s phrasing by moving smoothly from the C# on the A string to the E and then the open D on the melody string, and back to the B on the A string. All of which strikes me as good news for other misguided sheep and independent, postmodern cats.

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