Marilla Cuthbert, Teach Me to Pray

Hello and happy summer! Have you watched the Netflix series Anne with an E? My sister and I were HUGE fans of the 1980s Anne of Green Gables mini-series, which we watched every time one of us was home from school sick. I think Gilbert Blyth was my first literary crush.

Anyhow, I started watching the first episode and I had to stop halfway through to scribble out this essay on Marilla Cuthbert, Kathleen Norris, and my devotion to a Catholic prayer book called Give Us This Day. You can read all about it here in my Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices column. 

It starts like this:

"Last week I started watching Netflix’s new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. I was skeptical. Having been raised on the 1980s version starring Megan Follows, I couldn’t fathom another actress embodying the iconic role of Anne Shirley in quite the same way. But as I watched the first episode of the new, grittier series, I felt a rush of fondness for actress Amybeth McNulty as she delivered Anne’s lines with passion. Who wouldn’t love a child quoting Jane Eyre on the train ride to Avonlea, her lonely carpetbag folded on her lap?

Even greater than my love for Anne, though, is my attachment to Marilla Cuthbert’s character. Marilla is the strict yet tender spinster who becomes Anne’s adoptive mother. In the ’80s version, she had a twinkle in her eye, a roundness to her face, and a quick retort (“What a fine kettle of fish this is, Matthew!” and “For heaven’s sake child, hold your tongue”) delivered in just the right tone—firm, yet goodhearted. Growing up, I wanted her to be my adoptive mother; I wanted to bury my face in her ample calico-ed bosom after a good cry. This new Marilla, however, has a thin face and a meanness I don’t recall from the original. (“Did you steal anything?” she asks Anne, grabbing her bag to search its contents. When she finds a twig with live blossoming white flowers from the nearby cherry tree Anne took as a memento, she takes it out and shoves it into the cooking stove fire.)

But Marilla won me over in a scene where Anne reveals that she never says prayers before bed or anytime."

Read the rest here.

The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Retreat

Happy Advent! It's time for another installment of my column "The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices" for Off The Page. This month, I wrote about the discipline of retreat. I have to say, this was a tricky one to write. My year-long experiment of implementing new spiritual disciplines has gotten off to a rocky start, and it's hard to admit when things are not going as planned. But, I figure I am just embodying Wendell Berry's words in the poem "Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front:"

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

Here is how my essay, The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Retreat, starts:

"Last month I arrived puffy-eyed and haggard at a writers’ workshop on Whidbey Island, just north of Seattle, Washington. The emotional whiplash from the presidential election a week prior, combined with work and at-home stress, had left me feeling crunched and shriveled and no good. The first day of the workshop I nursed a low-grade headache that would not let up. Even my sleep was restless; the retreat center’s silence was unsettling and I missed the sound of city traffic.

The first morning I took a walk through the Legacy Forest on the island, which towered with slender Douglas firs. The sky was gray, with a classic Pacific Northwest drizzle, and my boots squelched through puddles and mossy earth along the lush, green trail. I tried to listen for the voice of God as the wind moved through the trees, but all I could hear was chattering within myself. It sounded like a trapped squirrel, a noisy and unrelenting voice that bounced from worry to worry—intrusions left and right.

As I walked, my mind jumped to items on my to-do list; my thoughts scrambling and scratching. So used to stimuli at home—children asking for breakfast, dishes to be washed, emails to answer, the dinging of my smartphone—that my spirit no longer had the capacity to enter the quiet. The silence of the forest was lost on me. I might as well have been walking in the middle of a city street."

Keep reading here.

The Skeptic's Guide to Spiritual Practices: Introduction

I am starting a new series for Off the Page about doubt, skepticism, and reclaiming spiritual practices. These actions - tangible expressions of our faith - seem especially important these days. Right now I am in deep lament after the outcome of the presidential election, but soon I am going to start looking for sprouts of hope. We have so much work to do.

Here's how my essay, The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Introduction, starts:

"This spring marked ten years since I graduated from a conservative evangelical college. It is where I met my husband back when he still believed in God. Friends I haven’t seen since graduation, the ones whose faces I remember only from their profile pictures on Facebook, have been asking if we will make the trip to suburban Chicago for our ten-year reunion this month. The event is over Homecoming weekend, but my husband and I haven’t made plans to go back. I can’t garner up much sadness; I never attended a college football game when I was an undergraduate, anyway.

It’s not that we are opposed; it would be fun to see old friends, to revisit old landmarks around campus. We might go to the student center, walking into the cozy fireside room where I used to do my morning devotions, reading My Utmost for His Highest. We might walk through the Stupe, a coffee shop with old diner-style booths, where I once interviewed my husband for the student paper. We might walk over to the mailroom, the one with all the tiny post office boxes, where I would check mine after chapel, the walls lined with colorful flyers for prayer meetings and spring-break mission trips.

My husband and I met at this school when we were just twenty years old. Babies, I think now. We have changed so much.

Milestones like this always bring up my reflective side. College, I realize now, was a time of intense spiritual saturation. It was easy to be a Christian then, when Bible studies were conducted on every dorm floor, when we held “mocktail” parties (orange juice with seltzer, anyone?) because we all signed a college-wide pledge not to drink alcohol, when we prayed before each class. I would go to chapel three times a week, to church on Sunday, and again on Sunday evenings for World Christian Fellowship. Spiritual disciplines didn’t take much discipline—the school structured them for me. Anywhere on campus I felt as though I could stretch out my arms and smack into Jesus.

Life after college, by contrast, has felt like windmilling my arms into the wide open air. After the legalism of Christian college—the proverbial checklist of Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, and worship, to name a few—the freedom and disillusionment I experienced after college had me slowly shedding these spiritual practices, one by one. While I still attend church, I haven’t cracked open my Bible in ages. I often feel as though my faith is limping along; it doesn’t help that my husband’s is gone completely. I struggle with cynicism, with heartache over how different my life is from what I expected it to be.

All I know is that I want to find Jesus again, but I don’t know how to find my way back to what Richard Rohr describes as a “second simplicity”—a faith that embraces mystery, that names its doubts, that transcends legalism, that soars in the wide open air.

Keep reading here.

Drishti Prayer

Hey everyone. It has been like crickets over on this blog, and I am sorry about that! I just started working for my dream organization, the Collegeville Institute, and the transition from stay-at-home mom to works-part-time mom has been stretching.

I am pleased that my first piece for Off the Page is up today. It's about how I started praying again after a long, silent period.

It starts like this:

March 15

I was running on the treadmill, my legs struggling to keep up with the fast moving belt, when I looked up and saw a plane through the window. My eyes tracked the thumb-sized aircraft as it climbed slowly across the sky until – poof – it was gone, swallowed by a cloud. I let out a small gasp, my eyes scanning to where the plane might exit the clouds, hoping to see it emerge again. There it is, still visible but partially cloaked in haze, there it goes again, vanished into the white and grey.

It kept happening, plane after plane, ascending, passing in front of the clouds, then disappearing, then reemerging, then disappearing again. They all made the same journey, and something about it stirred me uncomfortably. I felt sadness when they vanished; I kept returning my eyes to the same place, hoping for another sighting.

Read the rest here.

Ash Wednesday

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You were unprepared.

Chagrined, you look up the local Episcopal church website and discover the evening service is at 5:30 PM. Call your husband to see if he can stay home with your two-year-old daughter. You want to go alone.

Drive through the snow-packed streets to the stately stone building. You swing open the heavy oak doors and slip into the church. An elderly gentleman in the foyer hands you a bulletin as you enter the dark sanctuary, the stained glass glowing like a lit lantern. Your body slides onto a hard pew towards the back, the floorboards creaking under your feet. Tasteful mandolin and guitar chords strum the first lines of "What Wondrous Love is This." The congregation sings heartily, the familiar notes soaring then falling.

It has been years since you last attended a liturgical service. Stand up, sit down. You stumble through the "Thanks be to God"s and "Glory to you Lord Christ"s, yet it feels good to be here.

The scriptures are read. Raving mad prophets, gentle Psalms. Everyone stands when the Gospel is carried to the center of the church. The priest reads the voice of Jesus, his Sermon on the Mount. You listen, believing and unbelieving. You are so thirsty.

She preaches a homily, words on ashes and death, about reconciliation to God and our neighbors. The person next to you pulls down the red velvety kneeler with a loud thwack and together you confess your sins. When it’s your turn, you come forward to receive ashes on your forehead in the sign of the cross. The sight of dark smudged foreheads in the congregation startles you when you turn around. You, too, bear that sign.

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Nothing stirs you, but you are glad you came. You rifle through the bulletin and check the time, wondering about what is happening at home. Communion is next.

You can’t remember the last time you took Communion. The tiny Mennonite church you attend now rarely offers the sacrament. In your high church days it was the service's climax, the one thing required of you each and every Sunday. Can I take this cup? Can I eat this bread?

The priest prepares the table and launches into the familiar liturgy, the Great Thanksgiving: The Lord be with you. And also with you. We lift up our hearts. We lift them to the Lord.

Your attention drifts during the long liturgy describing the Last Supper. But you snap back to present when the priest invites you back to the table, saying:

This is the table, not of the Church, but of God.
 It is to be made ready for those who love God
 and who want to love God more.

So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
 you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time, 
you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
 Come, not because I invite you: it is God, and it is God’s will 
that you who want God should meet God here.

And that’s when it all hits you, the burning behind your eyes and sharp twinges in your nose. You give in and let the hot tears fall. You who have little, you who have failed, you who are woefully unprepared.

You walk forward and take what is yours, that bread dipped in wine.

*Photos by LifeCreations and  The Cleveland Kid, Creative Commons via Flickr