Monday, March 28, 2016

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday was a full day.  I arrived at St. Stephen's for my weekly check-in, only to be greeted at my car by my rector, Scott, telling me not to come in to the building.  A sewage back-up in the basement of the parish hall, had made the building, including offices, uninhabitable.  Plumbers and water company people were on the scene, but there was no point in me spending time inside.  So I headed over to CNU and spent a little time in the campus coffee shop before setting up the prayer station.  It was a beautiful day but very windy.  The prayer station was quiet; students passing by were in a hurry to get to where they were going.  There was also an event on the other side of the student union from where I was sitting.  Pie the president.  I sneaked over after hearing loud cheers and saw students flinging pies at the faces of sorority and fraternity presidents.  I have witnessed this event before.  I think you pay a certain amount of money to have the honor of throwing the whipped cream pies.  I worried about one student passing by later in the afternoon until I realized that the white dripping down his face was from pie, not a wound. 

For Maundy Thursday I had planned a labyrinth walk.  I brought the SpiritWorks labyrinth, and a friend dropped by to help me set it up.  The wind made it a struggle.  Gusts ripped the canvas labyrinth out of our hands and almost blew it across the plaza.  I tried putting books down on the edges, but the wind tossed them in the air and blew the labyrinth back on top of itself. 
I got more and more frustrated, thinking that we wouldn't be able to set it up.  On my way inside for a pit stop, I noticed a pile of stones off to the side of the walkway.  I picked a couple up and set them on the edge of the canvas.  It was hard to know where to put them because the wind blew against any section not held down.  I left my friend standing on the labyrinth while I collected more rocks.  As I walked to the rock pit, I said, "Really, God, is this necessary?  Can't you do something about this wind?"  The answer I got back was, "I helped you find this pile of rocks."  TouchĂ©, God.  I smiled sheepishly.  The rocks were, indeed, a Godsend.  Once I had collected enough of them, they were able to hold the labyrinth in place for the most part.  Several people commented that the rocks gave it a monastic feel.  They thought it was an intentional aesthetic choice.

My first visitors were staff members from the Center for Academic Success.  They enjoyed walking the labyrinth and said they would recommend it to their students.  I explained how walking it can reduce stress.  They had seen my advertisement in the campus announcements.  Another staff person brought a couple of students out to walk it as well.  A number of students came and asked questions about it or thanked me for having it there, but they said they didn't have time to walk it.  A couple of students evidently thought it was a maze, as they stood nearby and used their eyes to traverse the path - when there were no dead ends or choices, they rolled their eyes and moved along.  Maybe they were looking for a challenge, not a clear path to the center.

Some of my favorite comments were the students who passed by and saw the "Happy Maundy Thursday" on the bottom of the sign.  "Maundy?" I heard them saying to one another.  "What's a Maundy?"  I saw a campus minister from another group explain it to one of his students.  When the Catholic Campus Ministry passed by on their way from Mass, they wished me a blessed Holy Week.  Nice to hear it.  The best, though, was when a small group of girls passed between me and the labyrinth.  "I think you're supposed to walk it slowly and take deep breaths or something," one of them said.  Another one replied, "We don't have time for that."  I laughed out loud, but they didn't have time to notice that either.  On their way they went.

When it came time to pack up, I texted one of the Canterbury students, and he came over to help me.  I knew I couldn't do it by myself in the wind.  Turns out, four other students saw us struggling to fold it up, and they ran over to help as well.  I have to say that the students on this campus are very gracious with their help.

The agapĂ© meal at St. Stephen's had to be canceled, so we moved the whole service into the church.  I preached, we washed feet, we celebrated the Eucharist, and stripped and censed the altar.  It is one of my favorite services.  I love that the congregation gets to participate, if they so desire, and at least one person said that my sermon caused him to take part in the foot washing, which he had never done before.  It is a holy thing, that foot washing.  The person who washed my feet started saying, "This little piggy..." as she dried my toes.  It is sweet and humbling and funny and tender, all at the same time.  What a glorious privilege to be able to share an act so intimate.  I was grateful for a full day of meaningful ministry with students and parishioners and fellow human beings. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Holy Tuesday

On Sunday I went to the nonviolent communication practice group that I attend once a month.  One of the members opened our session with the following poem by Langston Hughes:

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two—
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.

It is Tuesday in Holy Week.  This morning I awoke safely in my house and, after showering and feeding the cats, went downstairs for centering prayer and morning reading.  Something caught my eye on Facebook.  "Praying for the people of Brussels."  Uh oh, I thought.  What has happened now?  I finished my prayer time and then turned on the news while eating breakfast.  There I saw why prayers are needed.  Another terrorist attack.  In Brussels.  Lord, have mercy.  May the souls of all the departed rest in peace.  Please bring comfort to their families and friends.

Yes, Langston, I am tired, too, of waiting for the world to become good, and beautiful and kind.  

Tonight I walked the labyrinth again.  This time in honor of Brussels.  I barely know where it is, and  I don't know anyone who lives there, though a dear friend lives nearby in the Netherlands.  But I remember what it was like on 9/11, and I weep for those who are devastated tonight.  "Now my soul is troubled," says Jesus in today's Gospel lesson from John.  I take it out of context, but I imagine that Jesus' soul is troubled by all the violence in our world.

What are the worms that are eating at the rind of our world?  How do we get them to stop?  

There was much beauty in my walk tonight:  delicate blooms on trees, gentle songs of birds, full moon rising opposite the setting sun.  It was hard to conceive of the tragedy happening across the ocean.  In the center I sang songs that I learned during summers at Camp Mikell - "By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept for thee Zion."  "Ruah Elohim."  Breath of God.  The wind was blowing, tugging tendrils of my hair out of its clip and into my face.  Tears lurked behind my eyes but did not fall.  I ended my singing with "Balm in Gilead."  Bring balm to the people of Brussels tonight, God.  

Be our strong rock, God, a castle to keep us safe.  You are our crag and our stronghold. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Holy Monday

There's a chill in the air tonight as I walk slowly toward the labyrinth.  It's Monday in Holy Week, and I have decided to observe it at the labyrinth instead of in church.  Tonight's walk is not about exercise; it's about slowing down and connecting with God.  A contemplative walk.  My neck is in pain - I must have slept wrong last night - so I massage it as I walk.  When I get to the Easter State campus, I see a row of tall Bradford pear trees in full bloom.  I smell them, too, their not-quite-pleasant fragrance drifting my way on the wind.  When I arrive at the labyrinth, I see that the pears at three of its corners are also starting to bloom, although they are not as far along as the ones I first encountered.  The crape myrtles are still in hibernation, branches bare against the sky that is darkening into twilight.  Spring has begun, but it has not fully arrived.  Though it is chilly, I am grateful the weekend's cold rain mixed with snow has ended.

I walk counter-clockwise around the outside of the labyrinth before stopping at the entrance and bowing my head in prayer.  Take away my judgment, God.  Heal me from my judging thoughts and help me to be open and curious and compassionate.  I enter the labyrinth.  I wind my way along the path, moving closer and then further from the center, walking more slowly than usual.  Taking time.  At one point I imagine releasing my busy thoughts.  I breathe in peace.  I breathe out love.  I find myself wondering if the moon is full yet.  Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.  It's almost as early as it can be this year, so the full moon must be soon.  The sun is headed to the horizon, but I can still feel its warmth on my face when I turn to the west. 

In the center I feel a deep stillness inside.  I stand with my eyes closed, facing the sun.  It bathes my face with tender, warm light.  Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  I start singing.  With each verse I turn to face a new direction.  I can't remember one of the verses, so I sing the first one twice.  When I am facing west again, I sing John Bell's, Take, O take me as I am, summon out what I shall be.  Set your seal upon my soul and live in me.  I decide that I want to walk the labyrinth every day this week if it is possible.  It has been my spiritual practice this past year.  What better way to connect with God?  Of course it may become difficult when it's not my day off, but for now that is my intention.

On the way back out, I notice a couple of cigarette butts in the cracks between the bricks.  I immediately begin an inner litany of judgment about why someone would even bother to walk the labyrinth while smoking and why they would choose to litter in the sacred space.  I know that several of the patients from the hospital have stashed packs of cigarettes in the concrete block walls near the labyrinth, so it really shouldn't be a surprise, but I hadn't thought that people smoked while walking.  Fairly quickly I realize how quickly I have jumped back into judging, so I try to shift my thinking to one of compassion for those who are addicted to cigarettes. 

As I follow the path I realize that I could bring a bag when I come back and pick up the cigarette butts that I see.  That could be my gift to this labyrinth that has nourished me all year.  Tending it, cleaning it, caring for it.  Just as Mary cared for Jesus by anointing his feet with oil and washing them with her hair in the reading from the lessons appointed for today. 

When I reach the entrance I pause for a moment before sealing the circle by walking clockwise around the labyrinth.  I notice other litter that I can pick up when I return.  The sun is below the trees now, and the air is getting cooler.  I pick up my jacket from where I had left it and head for home, stopping to look closely at the pear blossoms on my way.  As I am leaving the campus, I see the moon - almost full indeed.  My calendar says it will be full on the 23rd.  Maybe I can walk in the moonlight later in the week.  We'll see.  It's the beginning of Holy Week.  A good start.

Collect for Monday in Holy Week:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Plaza Full of People

On Thursday the Plaza was packed.  After many Thursdays of sitting in the rotunda of the DSU, shivering in the cold, I have finally been able to return to the Plaza the past two weeks.  This Thursday was the perfect day for sitting outside to pray.  Clear and dry, 73 degrees, gauzy white con trail lines crisscrossed the deep blue sky, while a gentle breeze with only hint of pollen in it kept the temperature comfortable.  Many things converged on the Plaza at lunch that day.  Of course I was there with the prayer station, and I was dressed in a green fleece for St. Patrick's Day.  It was also CNU day.  Last year they had CNU day during Spring Break, a choice I didn't understand.  I remember wearing my CNU sweatshirt to SpiritWorks and wondering why you'd choose a day when the students weren't around.  This year they chose St. Patrick's Day and made special green CNU shirts.  One student commented that it seemed like a good idea to combine the two but that they were just too far apart.  He had decided to commemorate neither, choosing to celebrate the weather instead, with an Oxford button down and shorts.

In honor of CNU day, there was a flash party on the Great Lawn during lunch.  Music blasted from
speakers, while crowds of students dressed in either green or CNU blue gathered around the on the lawn.  I was told that it was a dance party, but I did not detect much dancing going on.  The only song I recognized was the "Cupid Shuffle," that we had learned to dance to at SpiritWorks a couple of years ago.  No, I did not get up to dance.  I held onto my dignity by maintaining that my presence at the prayer station was more needed than any unfortunate dance moves I might make.  Watching this clergy person "break it down" might have brought some amusement but probably only embarrassment on my behalf.  The dance party ended with a huge group photo on the steps of Christopher Newport Hall, the new administration building.  I wish I had made it over to capture the picture, but at the time I was enjoying good conversation with students who were choosing not to participate.

In addition to CNU day and St. Patrick's Day, it was also the beginning of Greek week.  I had been watching members of sororities and fraternities carrying out life-sized wood carvings of their Greek letters and setting them up in the Plaza.  I tucked the prayer station even closer to one of the gigantic topiary pots so that I wouldn't be in the way of the great Greek assembly.  After the group photo, the crowd of students migrated to the Plaza to start Greek week with a friendly competition.

As an observer I always have to piece these rituals together and try to figure out what's going on.  It looked like the Greeks were organized into teams:  Team 1, Team 2, Blue Team, Green Team, etc.  The first event was some sort of chant/cheer competition.  Because I was sitting and they were standing I couldn't see everything that was going on, but I could hear the cheers.  It looked like most of the students were reading their cheers from their phones, and some of them were hard to hear.  To my left was the green team.  As far as I could tell they were the loudest, and the most energetic, dancing to their chant and jumping up and down.  More of them seemed to know the words of their chant.  I decided that I would vote for them.  (Not that anyone asked me.)  I found out later that they won that portion of the contest.

Next came an event that I didn't understand.  From my vantage point it looked like a few students were gathered in the middle of the circle and that they had small boxes tied around their waist, positioned on their butts.  I thought the object was to dance until the box fell off, but when I asked a student later, he told me it was called, Minute to Win It.  The boxes were tissue boxes filled with ping pong balls, and the goal was to shake all the ping pong balls out of the box.  I couldn't determine who won that one, but it sure looked like they were having fun.

Surprisingly enough, even in the midst of all the chaos, I still had some good conversations and prayer time with students.  Last week had been quiet at the prayer station - I think they had to get used to me being out there again.  I know a lot of seniors this year, and I'm excited to hear about their plans for the future.  They're winding down, trying to stay present where they are and especially enjoy the good company of their community while also looking ahead to what comes next.  Not a bad place to be.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Spring Break Musings - Seek Joy, not Comfort

It's spring break for CNU, so I did not go to the prayer station this week.  The prior two weeks were so busy that I've had little time for writing blog posts.  Both Thursdays were bitterly cold and windy, as I sat inside the DSU rotunda gazing out the windows onto the Plaza and longing for spring.  One of the days I shared the rotunda with other groups so I was positioned to look through the glass doors to the magnolia just beyond the Plaza.  With blue sky in the background, and sun lighting up the evergreen leaves, I could imagine that it was warm outside.  It was only an illusion, though, as I huddled under my soft knitted prayer shawl and felt the wind's cold breath each time the door's stayed open.  On one of the days a student stood and held the door open for what seemed like 10 minutes, until every last person in sight had gone in or out.  I have to admit to thinking unkind thoughts of her as I shivered and my ears turned ice cold.

On that same chilly Thursday, I had a great conversation with a student.  He told me that he was learning that experiencing joy did not necessarily mean being comfortable.  Such wisdom for someone so young.  Joy and comfort are not at all the same thing, are they?

When I was in seminary I did my field work at St. Elisabeth's in Glencoe, IL.  My supervising priest, Daphne, used "seekjoy" as the first part of her email address.  I used to smile as I typed her address into the "To" portion of an email.  What a great reminder - seek joy.  I wonder if part of the challenge of our society is that we're seeking comfort and not joy.  I don't mean the comfort that we seek when we're grieving or struggling and we long for God's peace or a kind word from our loved ones.  I mean the comfort of ease, the comfort of complacency, the comfort of numbing ourselves so that we don't have to witness the pain of others or feel our own pain.

The student I spoke with was realizing that doing God's work brings joy but often takes us to places of discomfort or calls us out of our comfort zones.  Yes, oh yes.  And at the same time it's so easy to slip back into the comfort and ignore the call.  Sometimes it means standing up and speaking out, especially against injustice.  Sometimes it means sitting down and listening, especially to voices that don't share our privilege.  It means sitting with our own discomfort when we're told we don't know everything and we can't fix everything.  I find it so hard to sit in the in between, to listen when I want to act, to stand up when it's going to cost, and yet, there is joy to be found in all those occasions.

There's is probably much more to be said on this topic, but I hear my taxes crying out to be finished.  I hope that the student I spoke with will continue to seek joy and not stay comfortable.  I hope I will too.