In his Best Lent Ever series, Matthew Kelly encourages the idea, “Don’t give up chocolate for Lent.” Kelly is suggesting here that, while the sacrifice involved in fasting treats and sugar can provide space for refocusing our lives, perhaps Lent gives us an even bigger opportunity to examine the greatest challenges facing our soul. In other words, soul maturation can require growth at a deeper level. To offer an example of this dynamic, the author invites to imagine someone who is shot in the hand and the heart but enters the emergency room seeking only surgery on the hand.
So how do we identify these substantial opportunities for progress in our lives? How do we determine our most important avenues for growth? What are the deeper issues of our heart that are just waiting for healing? Perhaps we encounter the answer when we pay close attention to the little ordinary moments in our daily existence.
On the first Saturday of Lent, I had an amazing opportunity to attend a Companioning Conference at a local church where the theme centered around journeying well with others. The one-day event featured a variety of breakout sessions, some led by close friends of mine, and I was so excited for the opportunity to simply show up, sit back, and absorb their wisdom. After the welcome and opening speaker, we were invited to navigate our way to our first break out session, and I found mine to be down the church hallway. A dear friend, Katie, was leading my first breakout session although I did not find her in the room on my arrival. Grabbing a seat near the door I soon heard Katie’s voice down the hall. She seemed to be in conversation with another woman, although the woman’s voice was somewhat loud and difficult to understand. Glancing up from the session handout I watched Katie slowly enter the room guiding her friend toward the seating. It was in this moment I realized that the other woman’s slow movements, slurred speech, and motor skill impairment were most likely symptoms of cerebral palsy.
Through what seemed like an eternity, I watched the slow, deliberate physical effort required by Katie to guide her friend by the arm. Knowing that I was sitting close to the door, and there was an open chair right next to me, I knew what was coming. At that moment, I became aware that Katie would invite her friend to occupy the seat to my right and I felt my initial response was one of hesitation. This dynamic could demand that I put in a lot of work. This encounter could be uncomfortable. This seating arrangement could require something more of me when I simply desired to sit back and listen on this Saturday morning. On the surface, I did not skip a beat in welcoming the woman as Katie made the introductions, but I knew the reluctance in my heart having intuited the energy that would be required of me. “Hi...there...I’m...Lyla,” the woman offered. We navigated the formalities and then sat back to hear the presentation.
Throughout Katie’s talk, I found myself not only working diligently to help Lyla see the handouts but also inviting her into the “talk at your table among yourselves” moments. Engaging her in the conversation involved providing space for her to complete her sentences and then straining a bit to understand her contributions so that I could engage her with more than a blank stare. No doubt it required a great deal of effort on my part.
As our session ended, I noticed Katie had to leave the room and so I found myself there with Lyla and not really sure how she was going to stand up and make it to her next breakout session. Although I was slightly self-conscious of saying, or doing, the wrong thing in my offer of assistance to Lyla, I found relief when she accepted my invitation to help her stand and make her way forward. Lyla gave me slow, but helpful, verbal guidance, “grab...my...arm…”, but also infused our conversation with great humor! “Shall...we...dance?” was her first line to me as we gradually moved toward the door.
In his book Seizing Your Divine Moment, Erwin McManus suggests that we all encounter these divine moments or opportunities in which we can look to the right and seize the moment, or look to the left and pretend we saw nothing at all. In one chapter, McManus offers an example of witnessing an opportunity to help someone and, in a split second, we decide whether we will look to the right and dive right in, or look to the left and ignore what we saw. McManus proposes that seizing these divine moments requires something from us. Diving in requires initiative, courage, and sometimes even a level of risk but he encourages us to “look right” and seize these opportunities as they become evident because they provide fertile ground for growth.
As I reflected on divine opportunities to look left or right, I realize that choosing to stay back and help Lyla was precisely a space in which I found myself at this “left/right” crossroad. As everyone stood to leave Katie’s session, my internal dialogue was hopeful that someone else was coming to help Lyla so that I could get on with my day. At this moment, I wish I could say that I was eager to be the first person to courageously jump in and walk alongside Lyla, but the truth is that I was actually just waiting around for someone else to take the lead and I waited so long that everyone else had left the room. I “looked right”, and made the decision to assist her, primarily out of awareness that I was the only one there to do so.
Through the day I found my path crossing Lyla’s extensively. I helped her navigate the lunch line, helped her wash hands in the restroom, helped gather and schlep her belongings from one room to the next, and of course, found us sitting at the same lunch table. Did my interactions with Lyla require me to continually take initiative and maintain stamina in doing so? Oh yes. But a funny thing started to happen as we “danced” together. Over the course of the day, I started to really “see” Lyla. Although her speech was slow, her wit was lightning quick and I found us both laughing so much together over her hysterical one-liners. Through these interactions with Lyla, I saw not only her spunk but also her soul. I saw her resilience. I saw her light. I saw her emotional and spiritual fortitude. Through the events of the day I realized that, while I may have been physically stronger than Lyla, Lyla brought a spiritual and emotional strength far superior to mine. While I originally thought I was walking alongside her, helping her, and giving to her, I found that she was actually walking alongside and giving to me. I was actually the recipient.
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, I was reminded of the beautiful words of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
When we read this prayer and reflect on it conceptually, we can experience it as such a pure, beautiful inspiration to guide our lives. Yet as we meditate on those divine moments in our lives when we can “look left” or “look right” we gradually come to realize that taking the initiative needed to act courageously and give of ourselves, can require a lot of work. Seeking “to understand” can be really hard when listening to someone, for example, with cerebral palsy, where the words are slow, loud, and sometimes unclear. The opportunity for “giving” can arrive at a time that does not feel convenient in our schedule for the day. And yet, I believe it is in precisely in these brief, challenging, inconvenient, and sometimes messy moments, in which we gain awareness of where we can benefit from “surgery on the heart” instead of merely “surgery on the hand”.
Reflecting on the events of the Companioning Conference, I remember many session highlights. But even more, I remember the way that Lyla shined her light while walking alongside me. Thank you, Lyla, for the invitation to dance!
Note: Lyla has given permission for her name and this story to appear on this blog. Thank you, Lyla! For those who would like to know a bit more about Lyla, she has a blog at: morethanlegs.wordpress.com/ and a book: It Takes More Than Legs to Stand available on Amazon.
We started the story of Hildegard last time. Let’s continue…
Hildegard of Bingen was extraordinary in her time. She continues to be a voice to our theological understanding of gender, the church, and how we relate to God. Through her published writings, letters of correspondence with secular and religious leaders, and her preaching; she called the church back to living a life of purity with God. She felt that the true nature of things was obscured by the “grossness of the fallen world.”(1)
I find it amazing that Hildegard had a voice at all. In her writings, her boldness is evident as she confronted those in authority. This boldness is in sharp contrast to the view of women at this time. As I shared last time, women were considered weaker than men, which made a formal education unavailable.
Hildegard approached her speaking and writing by accepting her weakness based on being a woman. The force and courage she approached in all of her contributions were due to her being a mouthpiece for God. She spoke to both secular and religious leaders boldly because she felt due to her nothingness, all of what she achieved could only be God.(2)
A woman’s voice had to be approved by men as theologically correct. Before her work was able to be published, Pope Eugenius III, upon the encouragement of Bernard of Clairvaux, sent someone to confirm Hildegard’s gift. Upon receiving a positive response from that visit, Pope Eugenius III read her unpublished work, Scivias, to a formal gathered group of church leaders called a synod. This action gave unprecedented approval to Hildegard as an approved theologian in the church.(3) This approval was a big deal.
In her writing and teaching, Hildegard encouraged others to begin to see things clearly. She spoke of a holistic God.(4) We tend to judge and fragment our world, yet Hildegard’s writings invite us to see things outside of a dual perspective. She viewed people both as creators and the created. Her view of humanity held our capacity to be gracious, compassionate, and loving while recognizing our capacity to be destroyers, malicious, and self-indulgent. She was able to hold both our capacity for great good and great evil in tension within her non-dual understanding.
She thought the world spiraled through ages of justice and injustice, continuing until the universe was consummated in love.(5) It was in this hope that Hildegard desired to communicate her message to influence reform in the church, changing things in small ways and still allowing things to be not quite right. As she understood it, God’s provision of restoration and reform was available as long as humankind needed the help.(6)
During this time, the Middle Ages, it was turbulent and disorderly; full of wars, fierce struggles, undisciplined Church leaders. There were popes, anti-popes, emperors, and anti-emperors. There was a bloody conflict between Church and State over control of society and religion. Henry IV was the king of Germany and a punitive ruler of the empire.(7) It was a violent and divisive time.
Even in the harshness witnessed during this time, Hildegard could view everyone having the image of God within. She understood the violence and corruption that was so evident in the Church within the knowledge that these same people were also capable of great good. She believed she could speak as a mouthpiece of God to the need for reform inside the Church by looking past the “fallenness” to also see the beauty, as God continued to bring us to love.
What would Hildegard say to us in our own time? Can we see the Image of God (Imago Dei) in every individual (Gen. 1:26-27)? Can we realize our own capacity for great good and great evil? And allow for that to be true in others? This awareness takes humility - accepting that we do not have all the answers.
Hildegard spoke about the need for us to see things clearly. I trust God to continue to show us clearer and clearer views of the world, God-self, ourselves, and others as we ask for greater and greater clarity. Willam McNamara defined contemplation as a long, loving look at the real. This is the place I have found that offers a quietness which allows my mind to quiet into my heart for a clearer view. May God meet each one of us on the journey to greater awareness and clarity.
Note: The image at the top of this post from Scivias 1.6, titled Humanity and Life. The other is an icon showing God’s illumination while Hildegard wrote Scivias, a book containing her theological understanding which was approved by the Pope.
(1) Julia Dietrich, “The Visionary Rhetoric of Hildegard of Bingen,” in Listening to Their Voices: The Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women, ed. Molly Meijer Wertheimer (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 202.
(2) Marian Bleeke, “Considering Female Agency: Hildegard of Bingen and Francesca Woodman.,” Woman’s Art Journal 31, no. 2 (2010): 42.
(3) Mike Kestemont, Sara Moens, and Jeroen Deploige, “Collaborative Authorship in the Twelfth Century: A Stylometric Study of Hildegard of Bingen and Guibert of Gembloux,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 2015, 201, 205, https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqt063.
(4) Hildegard of Bingen, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L Baird and Radd K Ehrman, vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 10.
(5) Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, 1 Reprint edition (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 130.
(6) Ann Astell, “The Eucharist, Memory, Reform, and Regeneration in Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias and Nicholas of Cusa’s Sermons,” in Reassessing Reform, ed. David Zachariah Flanagin and Christopher M. Bellitto (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 207, https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=494528&scope=site.
(7) Hildegard of Bingen, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, I, 10.
This year, I am studying church history and the development of theology through time. I started with Jesus and the Early Church and will finish this summer with American Church History. It has been an incredible journey of seeing God meet humankind through history - even through humankind’s imperfect efforts of living a life of faith the “right” way.
One quote that seems to summarize the purpose and gift of looking through history caught my attention.
…a visit to the past provides distance and a vantage point from which to comprehend the present. (1)
It is on this journey through the past which allows us to see the thread of legacy that defines our Christian faith. How the people in history have shaped our view of God, ourselves, and how the world works, has been an insightful experience. It is from that perspective, I would like to share how certain individuals in our past have shaped our views as well as how they invite us to look at the understandings we hold to be true.
Would you join me as we discover more about one such individual, Hildegard of Bingen?
To fully explore her story will take a few blog posts. We will look at Hildegard’s story, the context of the world she lived in and how that impacted her views, as well as her many and varied contributions. Hildegard was a prophet, scientist, mystic, visionary, poet, dramatist, musician, composer, and theologian. She was indeed a Renaissance woman.
Let’s explore more about her…
In 1098, Hildegard was the 10th child born to an aristocratic, upper nobility family in Bermersheim, Germany. (2) At eight-years-old, her parents dedicated her to religious life. Some view this as a means of education for a gifted young girl in that time. Others suggested she was a tithe to the church, being the 10th child. (3) It seems we honestly do not know her parents’ motives.
Sending a young child to live in a monastery would be unheard of today. However, during the Middle Ages, women were considered weaker and lower than men. This understanding impacted their ability to receive an education as well as their ability to teach or stand in their authority. Women had to know their place in society due to being judged for their emotionality.(4) Men were able to pursue a university education and teaching positions yet, this was entirely out of the question for women. Wealthy families interested in an educational opportunity for their daughters sent them to convents at a young age.(5)
Jutta von Spanheim, a family friend, was only six years older than Hildegard and lived as an anchorite connected to a Benedictine monastery.(6) An anchorite is someone who has decided to pursue a religious life of solitude, prayer, and study. During this time, choosing this kind of life meant a young woman could be free to pursue her relationship with God and not a life devoted to marriage and family. She could choose her own way to live. Those who chose a religious life were considered more spiritual, or closer to God, than those outside the church.
Jutta taught her young student to read using the Latin Bible and to recite the Benedictine office, specific prayers at specific times. Through time, other young women joined Jutta and Hildegard. When Jutta died in 1136, the other sisters asked Hildegard to be their new abbess, their leader.(7)
Learning Latin and reading the Bible would not have been available to a girl outside the convent. We will see this later as a gift that allowed Hildegard to write, speak, teach, and influence the religious authorities of her time. Remember, women were considered less than men and were not allowed education or the ability to teach or influence thought.
In fact, during the Middle Ages, laypeople did not have access to the Bible. The Church authorities felt they needed to protect others by controlling the interpretation of Scripture. The printing press and the translation of Scripture into German came a few centuries later.
Imagine being a gifted and intelligent girl, curious about God and the world around you, yet not free to pursue an education or to able to choose how to live your life. Leaving your home and family at eight-years-old being the way that gave you that right. I would imagine young Hildegard soaked up all she could even within any confusion caused by this change in her life. Hildegard seemed to truly embrace her journey due to the other nuns asking her to take the abbess role after Jutta passed.
As we continue this series, we will see how Hildegard influenced the world she lived in, even as a lowly woman. It is quite a story. So, to be continued…
Note: The picture at the top of this post is a portion of one of many of Hildegard of Bingen’s paintings. Here it is in full. This one depicts the choir of angels and is from her Rupertsberg manuscript.
1. Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 2nd edition, (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 2.
2. Katharina M. Wilson, Medieval Women Writers (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1984), 109.
3. Hildegard of Bingen, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L Baird and Radd K Ehrman, vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 5,11.
4. Elizabeth Dreyer, Passionate Spirituality: Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant, Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2005), 76.
5. Ibid., 18.
6. Ibid., 78.
In a few of my previous blog posts, I wrote about current events through Brueggeman’s framework of the Psalms: Orientation, Disorientation, New Orientation. The first stage is a place of contentment with the status quo with an understanding that it will go on forevermore. Kind of like happily ever after…
The second stage is a place of lament, shifting sand, a dissonance that can shake us to our core. This is uncomfortable and not easy. It seems safer to protect ourselves from the difficulties of facing our emotions or the loss in our lives.
The last stage is a new orientation. This is a space of a bigger view of God. If we follow the invitation toward God through the dissonance involved in the state of Disorientation, we come to a new awareness of God. Often, it seems like a hard-won gift of freedom.
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.
We can see this movement through many Psalms. This last state is a place of praise for being met in the difficult spaces of life. However, once in this space of praise, this new awareness begins to feel like an old orientation, once again. For example, in Psalm 147 the praises begin to be more generally stated. This is when new awarenesses become another theological box that holds our expected happily ever after…
So what do we notice on this journey? I believe the invitation is to be aware and to take notice of what it is that flows through our days. To hold, without judgment, what we notice and what we feel about whatever we notice. This means to hold whatever we sense without assigning value - be it good or bad. What we sense, what we feel, what we notice, just is.
This doesn’t mean taking a passive stance to whatever we notice. Noticing isn’t passive. To refrain from judging what we notice, doesn’t feel natural. What it seems to take, is a decision to be gentle with ourselves.
Our tendency, at least mine, has been to fix what I discover in my own heart, what I notice. This comes from a place of deciding that whatever I find has to be fixed because I am not “enough” as I am. This is a place of shame - the definition of shame is to be “not enough.”
Let me explain - I love to play in the ceramics lab. The feeling of clay beneath my fingers is a place where I am invited to join the Creator in creating. For me, it is a healing and worshipful experience, more so than just about anything else. Through my time in the lab, I have made bowls for my grandchildren with their names on them and a heart traced on the bottom of the inside. My hope is that the heart will represent my love for them as they finish whatever is in their bowl.
My five-year-old granddaughter called me up the other day to let me know that her bowl was broken. She was crushed and I could tell she was afraid to tell me. It was something I had created for her with great love and it was ruined. Maybe I would be mad. Maybe I would shame her. Through many tears and with the encouragement of her mom, she told me what had happened.
Now, as a loving grandma, what would I do with this newly acquired information? For me the answer was simple. Mema, my grandmother name, would, of course make a new one. I couldn’t promise it by her birthday, but absolutely by Christmas!
What did my sweet granddaughter learn from this experience? Hopefully, she learned that Mema was safe and loved her, regardless. That I was for her, regardless of anything. I hope she grew to understand that she could share anything and not be rejected. To do this, she had to be vulnerable and share her truth. Her bowl was broken and she really wanted another one.
My granddaughter had to trust me enough. Maybe she had to trust her mom’s trust in me enough to tell me. She will be rewarded for that trust in just a little over a month. But it required trust.
That is the invitation. When we take what we notice to God, we trust God to meet us in our noticing without condemnation. This is a bigger view of God that allows us to believe that God is for us, regardless. This vulnerability with God allows God to heal our wounds based on the lies, fears, and doubts we hold as truth. Our tendency, at least mine, has been to hide in my shame and not trust. To judge what I notice and keep it hidden. This creates a barrier between God and me.
For me, noticing takes quiet and space. I have to learn the difference internally of when I am resistant or receptive toward God and others. When I notice that I am resistant, my practice has become to take what I notice to God to see God’s view. The gift has been to experience a God that is gentle and for me, regardless. When I experience a God that is harsh and judgmental, I’ve learned to understand that god is usually of my own making. The invitation is to let go of my barriers and trust God to be outside of my own expectations and judgments. This is a little like my granddaughter and her broken bowl. God is certainly for us!
Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
As we have been working hard putting together the Companioning Conference, other things have fallen to the side. Now that the conference is over - a beautiful time shared by all - we can reflect on both the event, the preparation, and God’s delight in the midst.
The day after the conference, a dear friend shared this poem with me and it has presented an invitation to rest and to rest well. May it offer the same for you…
If you feel so inclined - I would love to hear what you notice in these words. Feel free to add them in the comments below. Let’s reflect on this beautiful poem together.
Sabbath V, 1985 - Wendell Berry
How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is a part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.
What is the way to the woods, how do you go there?
By climbing up through the six days’ field,
kept in all the body’s years, the body’s
sorrow, weariness, and joy. By passing through
the narrow gate on the far side of that field
where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way
to the high, original standing of the trees.
By coming into the shadow, the shadow
of the grace of the strait way’s ending,
the shadow of the mercy of light.
Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come into the woods you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
Wendell Berry, Sabbaths, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987) 88-89.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!