Lent and Well-being: White space

No one can say I don’t pay attention to a good sermon. One of my favourites was delivered several years ago by the Reverend Canon Maureen Ryan–priest, writer, and poet. Her sermon, preached at Trinity College Chapel and now published in the chaplaincy journal Spiorad (Spring 2012 issue), was entitled ‘Lent as Poetry’.

Since just last week we were talking about Lent as an opportunity to slow down and pay attention, and today is the day that the American Episcopal Church commemorates another poet and priest, George Herbert, I thought it a good time for some poetry and some eloquent thoughts about its connection to Lent.

From ‘Lent as Poetry’, by Canon Maureen Ryan:

A poem is divided into stanzas with lots of white space on the page, white space that lets in the light and represents silence so the words are focused by emptiness. One of the ways you know you are reading poetry is that you are forced to pay attention to the light, to the silences between.

. . .

Christian Lent is an opportunity to do just this – to slow down, take stock, to remember that silences exist, that they are essential, for though ‘Grace fills empty spaces,’ Simone Weil reminds us, ‘it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.’

And the temptation is always, always to turn from that emptiness, to fill it feverishly again and again so we don’t have to stare into it and bear it staring into us. But if we hide from it in busyness and noise, then we never wait in the silent emptiness that is our Holy of Holies, put aside for the dwelling place of God.

. . .

It’s about rebirth, about how the reawaking of creation mirrors our own need for new life. We follow the example of Jesus, give ourselves 40 days to wake up and shut up, and be aware of where the temptations are in our own lives, the temptations that lead us away from what really matters – to love the lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls, and our neighbours as ourselves. 

So, in Lent, we court silence and woo simplicity to let clarity light up the page of our lives, to create a line ending, a rhythmic pause, a pregnant pause, a hungry emptiness that waits to be filled. We acknowledge that life, like poetry, is difficult. That the moments of our lives, like words, are what Coleridge called ‘hooked atoms’, twining, meshing around each other to create a web of relationships, a net of interlocking meanings and images, response and unconscious resistance. So we stop.

We focus on what is being communicated and dig for what is being concealed. We remember what it is we love, whom we love, and what we are living for. We discipline ourselves so we do not forget that the sustaining rhythms of our life are nourished when we savour only what we need rather than whoring after everything we want.


Love (III)
by George Herbert (1595-1633)

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Lent and well-being: Paying attention

This week we’ve been talking about slowing down. Slowing down, even if only for a 1-minute vacation or meditation, nourishes our physical and mental well-being by, at the minimum, easing stress and relaxing muscle tension.

But slowing down is good for our souls, too. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World,  describes the spiritual practice of paying attention as a way to cultivate reverence.

The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable. Meanwhile none of them meets the first criterion for reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods. If anything, these devices sustain the illusion that we might yet be gods—if only we could find some way to do more faster.

Taylor recommends the following two practical exercises:

The easiest practice of reverence I know is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first. Just take the three square feet of earth on which you are sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives on that small estate.

. . .

If you cannot go outside, then find a pencil and a piece of paper and spend twenty minutes drawing your hand. Be sure you get the freckles right, the number of wrinkles around each knuckle. If you are old, marvel at what has happened to your skin. If you are young, find your lifeline. Pay attention to the scars if you have them.

And there’s this:

It is not necessary to invent new practices, of course. Praying for thine enemies is as old as the Sermon on the Mount. So is the laying on of hands, the anointing of the sick, and the bathing of the dead. If you have ever done any of these things, then you know that it is just about impossible to do them without suffering a sudden onset of reverence. They accomplish this, I think, by giving you something so important to do that you are entirely captured by the present moment for once. For once, you are not looking through things, or around them, toward the next thing, which will become see-through in its turn. For once, you are giving yourself entirely to what is right in front of you, and what is right in front of you is returning the favor so that reverence is all but unavoidable.

This weekend I’m going to practise paying attention. It’s an ideal time of year for it, with new signs of spring every morning. In a way, that’s the easiest kind of attention to give, the least demanding. What’s a bit harder is to pay attention, real attention, to the humans around me. To put down the laptop, or stop trying to think of what I’m going to do or say next while I wait for them to finish speaking; to listen, with no agenda, to see them as they are in that present moment. ‘I see you,’ they say in Avatar. And it’s easy to understand why that has as much impact, more even, than the oft-glib ‘I love you’.

Because I’m an unabashed fan, here’s one more from Taylor: Regarded properly, anything can become a sacrament . . .

Lent and Well-being: One-minute meditation

Yesterday’s mention of the one-minute vacation led me to this video of the one-minute meditation.  Focusing on our breath not only slows us down, relaxes tensions, and improves circulation, but it also reminds us of God’s immanent presence. It reminds us that we are God-breathed, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (or Wind or Breath). You can do this exercise as is, or you can add a simple ‘breath prayer’ as you inhale and exhale.


Lent and Well-being: Slowing down

Slow me down, Lord. Slow me down!

Ease the pounding of my heart
by the quieting of my mind . . .
Give me, amid the confusion of my day,
the calmness of the everlasting hills. 

Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles
with the soothing music of the singing streams
that live in my memory.

Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep.

Teach me the art of taking one-minute vacations,
of slowing down to look at a flower,
to chat with a friend,
to pat a dog,
to read a few lines from a good book.

Remind me each day of the fable of the hare and the tortoise,
that I may know that the race is not always to the swift
but that there is more to life than increasing its speed.

Let me look upward into the branches of the towering oak
and know that it is great and strong
because it grew slowly and well.

Slow me down, Lord,
and inspire me to send my roots
deep into the soil of life’s enduring values
that I may grow toward the stars
of my greater destiny.

 —Wilfred A. Peterson (1900–51), from Pocket Prayers for Healing (Trevor Lloyd, Church House Publishing, 2012).

We’re into the week now, and the urge to rush towards deadlines is hard to resist. But Lent calls us to slow down, to pay attention to what really matters. I like the idea of the 1-minute vacation. From where I sit at my desk, I can see the late afternoon sunlight filtering gently through the sheer curtains. It’s a small thing, an ordinary thing, and beautiful.

Lent and Well-being: In the Garden

It’s Friday, and the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the clouds are puffy. Today is no day to be reading (or writing) long essays or reflections if you can help it.

Instead, here are some links to voices and events that have caught my attention, especially as relates to our earthiness and our connectedness:

I wish I had read this before writing yesterday’s reflection.
From this account of starting a city garden:
It restores balance to my life. To be able to touch the soil. To walk barefoot outdoors. To look at the weather not just as the planet’s plot to make me lose my umbrella but as a living system that will nourish – and threaten – the small plants we’ve put in the ground.
A meditation from an Orthodox perspective on Lent as spiritual gardening, with an admonition to go gently on the weeding!
Finally, Retreat in the City is happening here in Dublin at Christ Church Cathedral this weekend. From the Irish Times article on New Monasticism:
“I sense that there’s a deep stream of possibility in the monastic way that can help us in the 21st century to find new ways to live – in balance with ourselves, reconnected to our fellow humanity, in harmony with the planet and at ease with mystery,” he [Ian Adams] writes.

Lent and Well-being: Remember that you are connected

Yesterday I went to the Ash Wednesday service at Christ Church Cathedral. If you, like me, went to a service that included the imposition of ashes, you probably heard the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Remember that you are dust. In one sense, of course, this is a call to remember our mortality. Remember that you are going to die, and in light of that inescapable fact, how are you going to live?

In another, related, sense, it calls us to repentance, reminding us of the sackcloth and ashes of the prophets of old. It calls us to look for the experience that makes part of us die, and turn away from it.

But there’s another significance that occurs to me. In her article, Jesus of the People, Sister Elizabeth A Johnson reminds us that, in fact, we are stardust.

Aruther Peacock, a scientist who is also a theologian, explains, “Every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to formthe iron i the crust of the earth from which we have emerged.” Quite literally, human beings are made of stardust.

She goes on to exclaim the ramifications for this when it comes to the incarnation:

. . . In [Jesus’] person, gracious solidarity encompasses not only all people but the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which they are composed. . . . Jesus of Nazareth, composed of star-stuff and earth-stuff, existed in a network of relationships extending through the biological community of Earth to the whole physical universe”. (See Johnson’s article ‘Jesus of the People’ in Holiness and the Feminine Spirit, 2009.)

To remember that we are dust is to remember that we are connected. Connected to the ground beneath our feet, connected to our fellow dust-creatures, and connected to the God who put on dust to join us.

So what does that have to say to us as we consider our well-being?

It turns out that high on the list of factors that influence our sense of well-being are our relationships with others. Australia’s Better Health Channel includes “happy, intimate relationship with a partner”, “network of close friends”, and “a sense of belonging” on its list. Likewise, in its recommendations for achieving well-being, it lists “develop and maintain strong relationships with family and friends”, “make regular time available for social contact”, and “join local organisations or clubs that appeal to you”.

Remembering that we are connected is an exhortation to nurture our relationships and a reminder that no matter how lonely you may feel on any given day–and on a day like Valentine’s, it’s easy to feel it that much more keenly–you are not alone.

Remembering that we are connected also means remembering that our well-being is tied to the well-being of those around us. In that sense, it is both a consolation and a responsibility.

That responsibility features in yesterday’s reading from Isaiah:

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  . . . You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

I want to be careful here, mindful of those whose dedication to others is so great, they can forget to tend to themselves. What is clear is that the two are connected. When we nourish our own well-being, we become, like a watered garden, better able to support those around us. And when we tend to the needs of others, we tend also to our individual and corporate flourishing.

I couldn’t end without saying something about our connection to God. Yesterday evening, as I sat in Christ Church, I realised that I cannot seem to think of Ash Wednesday without also thinking of Good Friday. They are both solemn occasions, both days of fasting, both days on which the shadow of death can linger in the mind. But there is (at least) one stark difference: On Good Friday, the altar is stripped bare, and there is no Eucharist, no Communion, as is fitting on the day we mourn Christ’s death; but on Ash Wednesday, even when we are exhorted to recall all the things we’ve done wrong, individually and corporately, when it would be easy to feel cut off from God by a sense of unworthiness, we are welcomed to God’s table. As we are, dust and imperfections and all. 

So today, on St Valentine’s, with the words of Ash Wednesday still ringing in our ears, remember that we are connected.


Lent and Well-being: Ash Wednesday

In a 2010 Ash Wednesday sermon, the Rev Darren McCallig talks about sin and self-examination in a thought-provoking way. Referencing Barbara Brown Taylor, the American priest and author, he says this:



The trick is to identify what sin is for you, to really know yourself. And to do this, she says, you look for the experience that makes part of you die.


Look for the experience that makes part of you die.

Look for the things you do which make you a smaller person than you know you really are.


Look for the experience that makes part of you die.

Look for the habits in your life that make you a less generous, a less forgiving, a less compassionate person than what God wants you to be.


Look for the experience that makes part of you die.

Look for the things you do that kill your joy and your peace and replace them with bitterness and anger.


Look for the experience that makes part of you die.


We have a tradition of giving up and/or taking up something during Lent, and sometimes it can be difficult to choose our ‘punishment’, so to speak. Wine again this year, or chocolate? Definitely not coffee.


What if we extend this concept of death, and its correlative, life, to our Lenten discipline? What if we ask:

What’s life-reducing, life-distracting, life-sapping in our daily routines? And give that up.

And what’s life-nourishing, life-creating, life-sustaining that’s missing from our daily routines?

And take that up.


How does your Lenten discipline this year relate to your sense of well-being in body, mind and spirit?

Lent and Well-being: Where the good way lies

This year in CMHI, we look at the theme of well-being in body, mind and spirit.


Beginning tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, we take advantage of the Lenten season to ‘stand at the crossroads, and lookand ask for the ancient paths, where the good way liesand walk in it, and find rest for [our] souls.’ (Jeremiah 6.16)


Lent may have a reputation for misery and deprivation, but it invites us to examine ourselves and our lives, to bring focus to that which points the way to Resurrection and the abundant life of Christ’s promise. It beckons us to pay attention.