Why this blog? And what’s ordinary time, anyway?

[D R A F T — under construction]

Editor’s (admin’s) note. When I started this blog, the plan was I’d include an “about” page that introduced the blog and brought my spiritual journey into focus. Well, it’s clear that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. So for Plan B, I’ll just include a couple of quotes and a copy of a 2018 memo to my spiritual director. Earlier drafts of the “about” page are archived below — at least till I figure out what to do with them.

***

ZEN (Urban Dictionary, No. 8)
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
Q: Does a cow have Buddha Nature?
A: Moo
by Buddhabing February 14, 2004

***

What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either. — Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

***

Completed questionnaire sent to my spiritual director, who guided me from the spring of 2018 until her death in October 2020. It served as an introduction, that got us started on our spiritual formation sessions. She was a remarkably patient, inspiring Dominican sister, and this memo still explains — as well as anything ever could — what I’m about when I write to this blog.

DATE:             April 28, 2018

TO:                  Sr. ___

FROM:             Pete Ellertsen

RE:                  SPIRITUAL DIRECTION

Here are my thoughts on the questions you posed to me the other day. There’s probably a lot more here than you need to know, but hopefully they’ll suggest to you a couple of avenues that might be worth exploring. As much as anything else, I have a feeling I’m not making the most of my gifts, and some direction can help me stop spinning my wheels. I’m pretty sure writing, or journaling, will be part of it – I’m one of these people who can’t not write – and I hope it will get me more engaged with music. But I’m content to let you call the shots as to the specifics of what we do and how we go about it.

Share 5 or so things about yourself that you think it is important for me to know 

In no particular order of importance:

  • I consider myself a “spiritual mutt” – broadly ecumenical but rooted in the sacramental type of Christianity (grew up in the Episcopal church, spent most of my adult life “unchurched” and rather contemptuous of organized religion; taught for 20 years in a Catholic liberal arts college (SCI-Benedictine), joined a Lutheran congregation at the age of 60. Also an interest in Zen philosophy (although not the discipline of Zen practice) that came to me as a college English major. None of this is particularly well focused, however.
  • What prompted me to finally do something about seeking spiritual direction is a feeling that I haven’t been using my gifts – especially:
    • Music – I sing with both the traditional choir and the Saturday afternoon contemporary praise team in my parish church, write articles (both scholarly and journalistic) about hymnody. But I don’t do much with it at the moment.
    • Writing – similar situation. I’ve read somewhere that writer’s block, clinical depression and the medieval sin of sloth (acedia) are related, and I know I’ve got a hard case of writer’s block. I also know journaling is a valuable tool for working through these things, which brings me to my next point …
  • I’m in 12-step recovery, and I’ve been “working a spiritual program” (i.e. trying to reorient my life along spiritual lines) for about 20 years now.  I’ve been reading a book of Debi’s by Fr. Richard Rohr (Breathing Under Water) that brings the two together, and it kind of picks up where I left off in the 1990s. It was 12-step recovery, more than anything else, that got me back in the church – I like to tell people I realized I needed a community that was oriented along spiritual lines, and the music was better in church than at AA meetings. I try not to be a “bleeding deacon” (AA-speak for someone who makes a fetish of the 12 steps), but it is pretty central for how I have tried over the years to grow along spiritual lines.
  • Fair warning: I’m also a recovering English major, and some intellectual issues are truly important to me, but I tend to overintellectualize. I’ve been told I do it when I’m trying to distance myself from things from issues I’d rather not deal with. (I do that with humor, too.) I think it’s mostly under control, I think, but the tendency still comes out at odd moments.
  • I’ll link you to a CV (apparently last updated in the fall of 2016) on one of my blogs, in case there’s something important I’m leaving out. I’m one of these guys who just has to write, and I maintain two blogs: (a) Hogfiddle, a research blog that has been mostly about musical topics, on Blogspot from 2006-2016, and WordPress since December 2016; and (b) Ordinary Time, a blog I opened this month, for content that’s more personal – i.e. hopefully spiritual in nature – and wouldn’t be of interest to readers who Googled into Hogfiddle looking for information about mountain dulcimers (a.k.a. “hog fiddles), etc.

What is your hope for/ idea of Spiritual Direction?

I don’t want to get too prescriptive about this. I’ve followed Debi’s progress over the last few months, talked with her about issues that have come up and insights she’s gained – and I’ve got a hunch that something like it might help me with my sense of being stuck, of frittering away my talents, or gifts, especially relating to music and writing. (This might correspond to Debi’s sense of being overwhelmed by “clutter.”) Especially when the music I like best tends to be sacred music, and my research and writing have tended to focus more and more recently on hymnody and church history. Perhaps spiritual direction can help me get unstuck. I’ve especially liked the way it’s given a new focus for some of Debi’s writing, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have started my new blog, Ordinary Time, if I hadn’t liked so much what she’s doing with hers. But I’m willing to follow the process wherever it leads me.

Tell some key things about your spiritual journey. 

I think I’ve touched on most of it above. I grew up in an Episcopal church in Tennessee, left the church as soon as I went off to college and never came back to it until well after I got into 12-step recovery in my 50s. However, I never lost my interest in spiritual matters that got into the secular media, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ecumenical movement and existentialist theology (Tillich, Kierkegaard, etc.), even though I remained indifferent or hostile to organized religion. About the same time I got into recovery, I began teaching at a Catholic college – a situation that offered me the best of both worlds, actually of three or four worlds after I joined a mainline Protestant church in the late 90s. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve developed a strong feeling for the liturgy and sacraments of the western rite Christian churches – especially Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican.     

***

“About” profile posted in July 2019, archived here in case I have some use for it later …

Artwork by Peter Aschwanden, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (1969, 2001), p. 238.

I’ve had other blogs, and you may Google into them at odd times (although I’m not sure why anybody would want to). They were The Mackerel Wrapper, for my mass comm. students at Benedictine, and something I called my teaching b/log. I started keeping it when I chaired the student learning outcomes assessment committee (and the less said about that debacle, the better)! Both are on hiatus now, and I suspect the hiatus will be permanent.

(A wonky explanation of how the name “Ordinary Time” migrated to the new blog — you can safely skip over it without fear of missing anything important, but it may clear up some confusion: When I started it in April 2018, I wanted to call it “Ordinary Time,” after the season of the church year that follows Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter when nothing else is going on but the Holy Spirit is presumably at work. (We call this season Pentecost in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.) But that URL was taken, and I named it Hemlandssånger instead — after a 19th-century Swedish-American songbook I’ve worked with — and, sure enough, that URL got accepted right away. So I had a blog with one name in the header and another in the URL. Now I’m separating them, as outlined above.)

Enough already about the other blogs. This one, Ordinary Time, is my spiritual formation journal. Here’s how it came about.

A little more than a year ago, I started keeping a spiritual journal. As I said at the time, I started thinking about life’s issues “in the emergency room on a Saturday night, with cops waiting in the hallway outside the treatment bay next door to mine.” (The cops weren’t waiting for me, by the way. I was in trouble, but not the kind that involves the police.) When I got out of the hospital, I lined up a spiritual director and — away we went!

You’ll notice in the header I call it a “Zen Lutheran lectionary.” Reckon I should explain what that means, too. We’ve already mentioned what a lectionary is — an ecumenical cycle of liturgical readings that follows the church year — but “Zen” and “Lutheran” are two words you don’t ordinary hear in the same breath, and I kind of have my own take on both. So here’s what I mean by them:

— Zen. When I say “Zen,” I don’t mean the rigorous discipline of the Zen masters. I’m thinking more of the kind of everyday mindfulness I got from reading books like Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and a 1970s-vintage shop manual by John Muir titled How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, which counseled, among other things, “Take your time! Just do the job once and well, you have an eternity! DON’T IMPROVISE!” And, “You must do this work [on your car] with love or you will fail. You don’t have to think but you must love.”

But when I was working the steps in a 12-step recovery group 25 years ago, I read a lot of the real Zen masters.

I came away from it all with sort of a pop psychology version of Zen that centers less on the intellectual discipline of it than being aware, or mindful, of the present moment. Psychology Today calls it mindfulness, “a state of active, open attention on the present. … It means living in the moment and awakening to our current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.”

In fact, I suspect technically it’s more Theravada than Zen since a Theravada Buddhist, Jack Kornfield who wrote After the Laundry, the Ecstasy, is the guy I keep coming back to. But whenever I talk about Buddhism, Robert Pirsig’s warning comes to mind, that Motorcycle Maintenance “should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

One last thought before I move on — I’m talking a lot about books here, and that isn’t the way you do Zen. It isn’t the way you do Christian spirituality, either.

But I’m kind of a bookish guy. That’s why I like the Peter Aschwanden drawing in the header so much — I can relate to that little guy with all the car parts flying around and his nose stuck in the shop manual. It’s also why I’ve signed on with a spiritual director, a wonderfully patient Dominican sister, to help me get my head out of the books.

Which leads me to the next word in the header.

Lutheran. See if you notice a pattern here — I’ve been going to a Lutheran church for 20 years now, and one of my hobbies is reading Lutheran theology. Again, reading, reading. It’s the closest thing I have to an outdoor sport these days. But I’m not exactly a typical Lutheran out of the “News from Lake Wobegon” radio sketches.

For one thing, I was one of those “nones” you read about for 40 years.

i grew up in the Episcopal Church down South, an Anglo-Catholic in a part of the country where everybody — and I mean everybody — is a little bit Southern Baptist by osmosis. I left the church at 18, and stayed out till I was nearly 60. When I was first working a 12-step recovery program about the time I turned 50, I read a lot of Zen, and I started going to church basically because I liked the music better there than at AA meetings. To round out the picture, I taught at a Catholic college for nearly 20 years, and as I get deeper into spiritual direction, I’m drawn to the Jesuit exercises like the examen and lectio divina — especially Fr. James Martin’s take on lectio, which, to my mind, combines elements of the two.

So I qualify as a spiritual mutt all right. Sometimes I feel more like a whole spiritual kennel, yapping at passing traffic.

But I think there’s a common thread here. I’m drawn to the Christian traditions that most emphasize the sacraments and a commitment to social justice. As as spiritual mutt, I’m also drawn to ecumenical initiatives — no surprise there — and I feel like ELCA is a pretty good fit, especially as ELCA Lutherans seek ecumenical partners and greater cultural diversity.

Ordinary Time (the URL is ordinaryzenlutheran.com). What you’re reading now is the continuation of my spiritual journal, perhaps most accurately described as the musings of a spiritual mutt who belongs to a Lutheran church but who has amoeba-like ecumenical tendencies and tries to experience an occasional Zen moment from time to time. It’s called “ordinary” time since it follows the lectionary, or readings assigned to different seasons of the church year — including the season called “Ordinary Time” — at least when my attention doesn’t wander elsewhere.

Hemlandssånger (the URL is https://hemlandssanger.wordpress.com/). It’s a Swedish word that means “songs of the homeland” in English — the little circle over the “a” is pronounced like aw and it doesn’t show up in the URL since the Swedish letter “å” isn’t in the English alphabet. It started as a spiritual journal and a suitable home for my research notes on Swedish hymnody; now it’s primarily a research blog, much of it (at present) on Swedish-American immigrant church history. Up till now (July 2019) it also carried my spiritual posts.

Hogfiddle (now at hogfiddle.wordpress.com and formerly, from 2006 through 2016, at hogfiddle.blogspot.com). As I described it in the original header, it’s “about dulcimers, history, hymnody and all kinds of music.” Before I retired, I used it in my cultural studies classes at Benedictine University Springfield; now it’s a more-or-less straight music blog, largely geared to a slow jam and tune learning circle I take part in. It also has my research notes on the mountain dulcimer and a related Swedish and Norwegian box zither called a psalmodikon.

-- Pentecost, August 2019