Category Archives: Uncategorized

Angels in words, pictures, and music

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Along with Santas, elves, and reindeer, angels make a big appearance this time of year.  And yet unlike many of the other characters associated with the holidays, angels aren’t Christmas-specific.  In fact, as a new book points out, they  are fascinating beings whose presence in the Bible can point us toward a fuller understanding of God’s work.

All God’s Angels: Loving and Learning from Angelic Messengers (Paraclete Press)  is one of the loveliest books to cross my path this year.  Each short chapter focuses on an angel story from the Bible, everything from Genesis to Revelation.  In pithy, wise reflections, author Martin Shannon meditates on each story and what it reveals about angels, about God, and — ultimately — about our human selves.  I love the approach; I’ve never before read these Bible stories and thought about the angels as anything other than peripheral figures, so I found the new perspective fascinating.

Each chapter is illustrated by a colorful reproduction of a work of art, everything from a Byzantine mosaic of the angel guarding Eden to Eugene Delacroix’s famous picture of Jacob wrestling the angel.

Delacroix's classic image

Delacroix’s classic image

These pictures are powerful complements to the chapters, particularly because Shannon also comments on the artwork, pointing out little details that help emphasize the mood and meaning of the story.

Between the words and the art, this book is a glorious celebration of these mysterious beings who end up on our Christmas trees and coffee mugs but whose history and involvement in salvation is so much more rich than it seems.  It’s a lovely, inspiring little book and would be a great Christmas gift for anyone looking for a dose of inspiration.

And if you want to fully immerse yourself in all things angelic, read the book to the strains of this lovely song.  It’s one of my favorite carols of all time, courtesy of John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers.

Enjoy!

 

 

When all else fails, try nature

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Marin Headlands, Marin County, CA

Like many of you, I’ve been spending the last two weeks looking desperately for peace and a quiet mind.  I’ve found a few things that help. Writing is one; wine is another. And getting outdoors into the beauty of creation has a healing power like nothing else.

I’d like to share with you two places I’ve found God lately.

One is a county park not far from where I work.  It’s the place where Scott proposed to me lo these fifteen (!) years ago.   And while the hillsides are light brown most of the year, we’ve been fortunate enough to have rain this fall, and everything is a brilliant spring green.

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There are oaks here, and bay trees which give out a wonderful fragrance.  There is poison oak turning a beautiful red and lots of deer, who graze unconcernedly as you walk by.  Off in the distance you can see Silicon Valley and the bay.

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It’s a place so dear to my heart, and on a crystal-blue day like this, with the earth still soft from the recent rain and the air smelling so sweetly of oak and bay, it’s much easier to breathe here than anywhere else.

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The next place is in the Marin Headlands, north of San Francisco.  The boys went there on a Cub Scout Hike, and it was the kind of day where rain gave way to wonderfully dramatic skies, with clouds over the ocean and fog hugging the hills.

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We hiked from the estuary to the coast, then up a rather significant hill to a WWII bunker up on the top (a hit with the Scouts).  Along the way we passed an honest-to-goodness cove far, far down below, in which water was churning and roiling about and moving a log as if it were a toothpick.  The whole setting was all very Poldark. I half expected to see Cornish smugglers unloading a ship down below.

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Channeling my inner Demelza

Channeling my inner Demelza

It was balm for the spirit: being out by the water, seeing impossibly large waves form and crash onto the beach, smelling salt and soil and the cleanness that only comes from a good rain, seeing the birds wheel and glide over the estuary and the hills.  At every turn there was a view that makes you think about the Being that made all this, in its glorious splendor, for the rest of us to live on and with.

I’m home now, with sore legs and good memories and a renewed conviction that time outside is always the best choice.

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Orange is the new prayer

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Getting ready for my son’s 8 AM Saturday soccer game may seem like an odd context for a spiritual experience.  I can tell you that when I went to bed the night before and set the alarm for 6:15, I sure wasn’t expecting a prayerful, mindful morning.  I wasn’t expecting to feel anything other than nostalgia for the warm bed I’d just left or the usual pre-game rush of panic (“Is his uniform clean?Where the heck are the shinguards?”).

But as I stood at the kitchen counter around 6:50, yawning and cutting navel oranges into slices for my little player and his teammates, I had a moment’s mindfulness.  I have my senses to thank for it.

First of all, the scent: oh my, those oranges smelled like heaven. They smelled almost as good as the coffee my husband made, and that’s saying a lot. With something so fragrant right before me, my nose was awake before the rest of me was.

And once I’d sliced them all, I realized that there were a few more than could comfortably fit into my Tupperware.  I decided that was my cue to eat one.  So I did.

I rarely ever eat oranges anymore; I’m not sure why. But that taste showed me what I’d been missing.  The little triangular segments peeling off the rind and feeling all wonderfully pulpy and sweet in my mouth: it was positively marvelous.  I can’t remember when something tasted so good, or when a food made me so instantly happy.   It was a gratitude prayer of the most simple and delicious kind.

That’s why it’s good to have our antennae tuned to the spirituality of the senses.  If we do, then any moment — even the dreaded 8 AM Saturday game — can be a little bit of God, when you need it most.

P.S. If you’re interested in cultivating your own awareness of the senses in your prayer life, check out the “Experiencing God with Our Senses” retreat on IgnatianSpirituality.com.  Starting Monday and continuing throughout October, you’ll find reflections and prayer prompts to help you taste and see (and smell, hear, and touch) God’s goodness.

Let there be peace on earth

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…and let it begin with me.

The Book Pile: Summer Vacation edition

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Well, Mr. Darcy, I’ve been doing a lot of extensive reading these days.  Summer vacation means that the time usually earmarked for grading gets repurposed for other, more enjoyable pursuits, such as cracking open a good book.  Here are a few of the ones I’ve enjoyed lately.

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The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

This one started off at a very leisurely pace, sort of like a summer afternoon …. so leisurely that at first, I wondered where the book’s sense of urgency was. But I kept going, and before long, the story and characters had me hooked.  Read this to immerse yourself into life in a small  English town at the time of WWI.

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East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood

Sometimes you just want to dive into a thick Victorian saga.  When I’m in that sort of mood, I usually go for something by Wilkie Collins (try The Woman in White if you’ve never read him before).  This time I tried East Lynne, which has all the expected components: English country houses, unsolved crimes, hidden identities, unprincipled rakes, women in a swoon.  Great fun.

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The Devil’s Advocate by Morris West

What makes a saint?  What is the definition of “holy”?  This was a very different sort of novel, about a dying priest who is sent to a small remote Italian village to investigate the life of a dead man who is being called a saint by many.  Each of the people in the village has his/her own memories of the deceased, as well as his/her own motivation for wanting the investigation to proceed in a certain way.  It raised good ethical questions, and provided a lot of food for thought.  If you liked Graham Greene, you  might enjoy this one.

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Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden was an Englishwoman who spent a lot of her early life in India, and this novel is apparently heavily drawn from her own experiences.  It’s the story of a well-meaning English widow with two children who decides to go live in a remote village in Kashmir, seeing it as a sort of Eden in the mountains.  Her optimistic naivete and her inability to honor (or even to perceive) the cultural differences between her family and the villagers leads to conflict and, ultimately, a near-tragedy.  I’d call it required reading for anyone going to live in a different culture, whichever culture it is, because it’s a case study of how even a well-meaning person can really mess it up.  And Godden’s prose is, as always, breathtaking.  This was my favorite of the summer so far.

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Why Bother Praying? by Richard Leonard, S.J.

I heard Fr. Leonard speak at LA Congress last year, and he was wonderful.  I happened to pick this up at a retreat center a while back, and it’s a very engaging book about the many effects of prayer.  There’s wonderful wisdom in here, along with a bunch of memorable personal anecdotes (some of them hilarious) that really ground the book and make it speak not just to the head, but to the heart.

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Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

This was the perfect book to take a long cross-country flight.  The effortless narrative voice and the engaging plot (it’s about a young woman at a professional dead-end who takes a job as a companion to a quadriplegic) all made for a very fast six hours.  That said, I’d have given the book a different ending — if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean — but still, it was an excellent summer read and I can safely say that Moyes has a new fan (and, as my younger son pointed out, only one letter separates her last name from mine.  I love how kids notice these things.)

What are you reading now?  Do tell!