#88 – Seizing the Day?

When it’s sunny and we don’t have much going, we tend to “seize the day” with a drive some distance through familiar countryside. We’ve enjoyed at least five such drives since mid-November, taking advantage of the relative warmth and lack of snow.  We attached a “purpose” – however flimsy – to each one of the drives.

Artists-Coop

Owen Sound Artists’ Co-op

Trip #1 – Owen Sound Artists’ Co-op.  We visit this beautiful space in downtown Owen Sound at least twice a year.  This time the purpose was for Sam to choose a Bruce County photo as a Christmas present from me. He started looking at the framed photos while I wandered off to the beeswax candles and the art cards. He chose so quickly I barely got to glance at the photo before it was securely wrapped by the clerk! So it will be a surprise for me  on Christmas Eve day.

The landscape along Hwy. 6 on the way north looked wonderful. We saw just enough snow to cover the gently rolling hills – and none on the road. We stopped for lunch at Pebbles, a Mennonite buffet at Varney, just south of Durham, where I know some of the food agrees with me.

Trip #2 – Simcoe. The following week, we drove south to Simcoe on a promising  day to deliver a couple books which a friend ordered.  Why put them in the uncertain mail, we wondered, when it’s such lovely day?  Plus I got to see my friend briefly! Lunch that day was a Subway sandwich, an occasional treat for both of us.

Again, we drove in sunshine, with just a little snow covering the rolling hills. The drive reminded me of my reflection time on the road during the years I had a spiritual director in the Simcoe area. I used to love the rural drive for three seasons of the year, not including winter.

Trip # 3 – St. John’s Convent.  One Wednesday we traveled much less serenely on the 401, the 407 and Yonge Street in Toronto. We had been determined to find a compatible date for spending an overnight at the convent before Christmas, and this was it.  We are always so pleased to get off the expressway and Yonge St., arrive at the very sheltered  convent, and then go walking in what is actually a quiet residential neighborhood.

The next day, on the way home, we had coffee with a friend at a restaurant near the Yonge St. entrance to the 407. Steeped in the peace of the convent, I really didn’t think about the upcoming drive home during the afternoon commute!

CandlesTrip #4 – Burning Hanukkah Candles. This time we drove west, picking up an old friend at the retirement home where he lives north of Stratford. Again, we drove through lovely countryside to get there.  An added bonus was going into Stratford to a place which permitted us to burn Hanukkah candles. I was pleased to find a way for the three of us to revive our thirty-year tradition of setting up a menorah and watching the dancing coloured candles in darkness for 45 minutes or more before they burned themselves out.

Farm-near-Glen-Allan

Farm near Glen Allan, Ontario

Trip #5 – To Dorking and the Country Sisters. One Saturday, we delivered a book in Elmira, then headed west on the old Hwy. 86.  We had passed Dorking Groceries & Home Baking, run by Markham Mennonites, many times when it wasn’t open, and had determined to stop in when it was open. We bought some Christmas cookies from a good saleswoman who would have sold us the whole store! We also ate a very basic lunch at Country Sisters just up the road, and could also have reveled in lots of their yummy-looking Christmas baking.

Looking back on these drives, I think they were not so much about “seizing the day” as about “graciously receiving the day”. For they included Advent time seeing old friends, viewing beautiful artwork and going on retreat, as well as  driving through the sunny  southwestern Ontario countryside.  “Seizing the day” sounds too forceful – violent even- for our gentle endeavors.

Christmas blessings to all as you visit with family and friends. And, if you’re driving in the countryside in daylight (especially in sunshine!), take a moment to let your eyes and your spirit graciously receive what you see…

Question for Reflection:

What’s the difference for you between “seizing the day” and “graciously receiving the day”?  Which stance beckons you as Christmas nears?

Next week: A new year beckons….

#86 – By the tender mercy of our God…

Morning-sky-at-convent
7:25 am on December 6 at St. John’s Convent (Willowdale)

I woke up this morning at my second spiritual home – the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine. I parked myself at a particular window and watched the light increase through the trees facing St. John’s Rehab Hospital next door. I remembered the morning sky at home the day before -pink and yellow streaks amidst grey clouds in the big sky.

I recited the Song of Zechariah, anticipating our collective chanting of it in the chapel at Morning Prayer:

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 2: 78-79, NRSV

It struck me again that the days become shorter and shorter during Advent, with the Longest Night at the winter solstice on December 21. When the nights are darkest and the days shortest, legend has it that the Christ Child was born.

So many phrases come to me from Scripture, Christmas carols and other Christian songs, speaking of light overcoming darkness.  Here are just a few examples:

  1. From the song “Christ, be our light” (Sing the Journey #54 ): “Longing for light we wait in darkness…Christ be our light.”
  2. Various songs from the Taize community, especially
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let not my doubt nor my darkness speak to me.
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let my heart always welcome your love.”
  3. The wonderful affirmation from John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:5, 9, NRSV).

But the play of light and darkness is not always as we first imagine. For there’s another biblical tradition about light and darkness, supported by mystics and by many fewer songs. This tradition indicates that God is working in the dark, perhaps in hidden, imperceptible ways.  The hope in this tradition is not necessarily for the light to shine and the darkness to please go away! The hope rather is to begin to accept and grasp God at work in the dark.

John Michael Talbot’s provocative song, “Holy darkness,” speaks of darkness as “Heaven’s answer hidden from our sight.” It affirms that “as we await you, O God of silence, We embrace your holy night.” Here’s the YouTube link if you’d like to listen to it.  Please note that all the indistinct words that could be either “night” or “light” in the song are actually “night.”

So… I want to keep chanting the Song of Zechariah, filled with hope.  I also want to keep exploring that other biblical tradition – the one where we accept the darkness and look for God’s unseen treasures within it.

A two-piano version of the Bach Chorale “Sheep Shall Safely Graze” always settles me, reminding me that sheep in an enclosure at night with a shepherd nearby are as “safe” – if not safer – than sheep grazing freely in the light during the day….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When and how have you welcomed the light?
  2. When and how – if at all – have you found God in the darkness?

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#16 – The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine

Convent LogoThe (Anglican) Convent of St. John the Divine in Toronto is one of my spiritual homes.  I’ve been making an overnight retreat there at least four times a year for the past 27 years.

On my most recent visit, Sr. Dorothy greeted me by name when I arrived at the guest house office.  Then Frisca, the guest house administrator, welcomed me warmly.

Mandella1I checked the board and found that Frisca had assigned me to St. Helena – the room with a view of three majestic pines, my favorite. I lugged my bags up the steep flight of stairs and settled in by playing a Scrabble game, my usual pattern….

My spiritual director, Ruth, arranged my first visit to the convent 27 years ago. With her guidance I started going on silent retreats. At that time the convent was perched just across a ravine from the furiously busy Highway 401.  I could hear the muffled roar from the chapel. Getting off the 401 and immediately entering sacred space was jarring but most welcome!

At first the convent seemed so foreign to me.  But over time I learned the Anglican prayer book.  As I chanted Psalms to musical tones my mind and my body slowed down; I felt at-one-ness with the Sisters in worship. Since I was a pastor at that time, I looked forward to receiving the Eucharist simply as a worshipper. Eventually it felt natural to eat meals with others in silence and to not make eye contact in the hallways.

Mandella2From the convent’s site on Botham Road, I took long walks in a residential neighborhood undergoing gentrification. I tried to guess which old houses had been razed for a new start, and which ones had been gutted and renovated almost beyond recognition. On those walks, I mused how God’s Spirit gently and sometimes not-so-gently renovated me and the congregations I served.

My retreats continue at the convent’s new site on the quiet grounds adjacent to a rehab hospital they used to run. I sense “prayer in the walls,” as the guest house used to be the residence for nuns who worked at the hospital.

I always look forward to a forced break from the tyranny of e-mail and from all social media, as well as a forced break from speaking, other than during worship. At the beginning of a retreat, my hope is that sinking into outer silence will begin to still my inner clamour as well. I always sleep very well.

Sometimes my retreat offers a chance to discern something at hand.  More often I assume that God will provide whatever I need – sometimes through a book for sale or one I’ve brought with me, sometimes through a hymn or a Psalm we’re chanting, sometimes through walking the labyrinth on the lawn.

I could worship with the Sisters four times a day in the chapel – Morning Prayer at 8:30, the Eucharist at 12:00, Evening Prayer at 5:00, and Compline (or Night Prayer) at 8:10. I usually skip morning prayer, since my pattern is to get up early, watch the light increase through the trees, then write for a long time in my journal and go for a walk.

Over 27 years, I’ve gotten to know some of the Sisters and their varying personalities, even though I’ve rarely spoken to any of them other than the Guest Sister and the second-last Reverend Mother. I greatly respect the Sisters’ way of life. I’m impressed with their social conscience and with their Benedictine hospitality. While I have no formal relationship with them – I’m neither an associate nor an oblate nor a residential “alongsider” – I see them as my sisters.

Mandella3I vividly remember some of my encounters with the Holy One while on retreat. Other times feel more like a calm oasis, preparing me to step back into a full life at home. Or perhaps some discomfort in me begins, signalling a shift, with much more work to do after I leave.

For the last five years or so, I’ve coloured a mandala towards the end of each retreat, letting the colours choose themselves.  I look at it when I’m finished, and a title presents itself to me –  such as “Spinning Out New Life – expressing the theme of my 24 hours there.

While I was a pastor, I urgently needed these times away to focus on my own spiritual life. They are still an enormous gift of God’s grace to me.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Have you ever gone on a spiritual retreat? If so, how did you experience that time away?  How has this focus on your inner life nourished your spirit?
  2. What other ways have you found of taking a time apart for your spirit to be nourished?

Next week: Summer Reading Discoveries