Getting Close to You, God: A Meditation During the Month of Elul

by-david-bergin-emmett-and-elliott-on-flickr“You are my light and my help / Whom should I fear?” Thus begins Norman Fischer’s Zen-inspired translation of Psalm 27.

Right now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning, the 14th of Elul, 5776; Sept. 17, 2016, these verses don’t resonate with me. Fear: yes, I am afraid, afraid, at the moment, that I won’t finish this essay by the deadline, two days from now, for my next contribution to “Good Letters.”

Whom do I fear? The “Good Letters” editor, a kind woman and talented writer who generously works with a group of writers for the blog? The editor-in-chief of Image, the extraordinary journal that is at the heart of an equally extraordinary community of writers, artists, musicians whose work engages, one way or another, ultimate questions of “art, faith, and mystery”?

What about the Divine, YHVH, whose commandment to observe the Shabbat I am breaking by writing this piece this morning, is that who I fear? Or is it some internal judge who took up residence within me, probably so early in my life that I can’t remember when. [Read more…]

Roots Trip to the Castles in My Bloodline, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.


A tempest of Winters temper—mine—had blown through the Highlands of Scotland on our harried, hurried itinerary, and I pondered that now in Ireland. My working notion of a “roots” trip up until that point pertained only in the genealogical sense: Scotland and Ireland being, respectively, my maternal and paternal ancestral stomping grounds.

But in my review of the course on spiritual hearing I’d begun the month prior, a most delicious linguistic epiphany was about to present itself like low-hanging fruit.

As opposed to those cerebral terms for some ugly manifestations in me—weaknesses, patterns, compulsions, dysfunctions—which lacked the texture and energy of the issues I needed to confront, I revisited in the course manual the notion of spiritual fruit.

As explicated by St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians, the nine fruits of the Spirit are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If you want to take an honest accounting of your produce in this department, take a road trip with your spouse and kids in another country. You might find yourself in many a moment, as I did, not much stronger than the dollar in the face of all that taxes you. [Read more…]

Spiritual Counsel Part 2: Prayer and the Desert

Jean Francois Millet, The Angelus (1859)

As I wrote yesterday, my spiritual director, Fr. Bill Shannon, had said early in our twenty-five years together, “It’s good that you see spiritual direction in terms of a barking dog instead of only as a matter of prayer methods.” But before long he was asking me about my prayer life at nearly every one of our monthly sessions.

“There’s no need to go to Mass every day,” he said (he who, as a priest, presided at daily Mass). “Sunday Mass is different in kind from daily Mass; Sunday is the Lord’s day. What’s important in one’s daily life is prayer, not Mass.”

“What kind of prayer?” I naturally asked.

First he recommended the Liturgy of the Hours, a version of the breviary that used to be prayed only by clergy but now is offered to laity as well. My husband George and I had already bought a copy of the book at our nearby Trappist monastery, but we were confused by all the different sections: Ordinary Time, the Proper of Sundays, the Office of Readings, the Proper of Saints….

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Spiritual Counsel Part 1: Barking Dogs

“It’s good that you see spiritual direction in terms of a dog, instead of only as a matter of prayer methods.” This was my spiritual director’s response when, early in our twenty-five years together, I told him about a neighbor’s dog barking all night, keeping me awake. I’d been agonizing over my soul’s relation to this constant distress. How could I accept this trial in grace?

“You’re not meant to simply accept it,” Bill said. (Bill was Fr. William Shannon. Previously I wrote about how I started going to him, and the soul friendship we developed. “Your neighbor is being inconsiderate by leaving his dog outside all night. You must talk to him about it: tell him the barking is keeping you from sleeping.”

Wow, I thought, such utterly practical advice. So this wasn’t a matter of my spiritual inadequacies after all.

Over the twenty-five years of monthly meetings with Bill, this kind of experience would recur. (I’m a slow learner, I guess.) I’d come to him with a trial that was distressing me, assuming that my spiritual immaturity was the problem. Bill would respond by asking lots of practical questions about the issue. [Read more…]