Psalm … with help from Thomas Merton

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.

You have placed within me a spirit capable
of soaring to the highest heavens like an eagle on wind currents
drunk with abandon in joy and pleasure beyond measure.
Yet mystery of mysteries, that same spirit plunges
as low as the ocean floor consumed by fear,
captive to despair and darkness.

While yearning burns deep within
for communion with you, O Holy Mystery,
my humanity and creatureliness
continuously pull me away from you.
Your precious and loving gift of free will
is both blessing and curse.
I praise and thank you yet.

But, O God, on days when darkness and despair
invade my soul like guests, unannounced,
unwelcome and unfriendly I cry to you in helpless hope
like a lamb trapped in a lion’s den.
Your most-feared absence in the abyss
holds the sweetest, most mysterious yet potent promise
of your most holy presence.
Truly, you did descend into hell,  transforming
its destructive fire into purifying flames,
redeeming the ultimate darkness, death, itself.

Help me, O God, to always err
on the side of excess of mercy
rather than excess of severity
both towards myself and towards others.
Thus your image and likeness
will shine forth more and more
through every fibre of my whole being.
My eternal home lies in this quest and you,
O Holy Source and Destiny of my life,
draw me thus irresistibly and always.

In my final days, as you will separate
the last intricate fibers of my earthly being,
grant me the grace to cling to you in my nothingness,
finding fullness and destiny in your eternal bosom
of love and mercy and compassion.

Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
I sing and shout for joy for each day death and pain
dance with eternal and holy life-giving light, mercy and love.

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The Universe Story in Us

I wrote the reflection below in January of this year. I am bringing it back now in light of Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si. When new insight or conversion cuts deep into our hearts, there is one question that spontaneously jumps from our enlightened spirit and that is, ‘What then must we do?’ It is the question that sprung from the hearts of those who heard John the Baptist preach (Luke 3:10). And so, for those whose hearts are moved with this renewed desire, the Pope’s encyclical contains many practical tips on how to adjust and simplify our lifestyle. Check this article: The Pope’s Practical Tips for helping the environment.

The reason for this re-posting is not to position myself as having “all the answers” and as in any way superior to others. Please do not draw that conclusion. What I want most is to show in a small way that lifestyle choices can be made responsibly without succumbing to almighty consumer pressures. While I may have been choosing simplicity for most of my adult life, I am a pilgrim on the journey like everyone else. Part of being human is to accept there are many times where I stumble and fall, give in to temptation and damage the earth with foolish living. May this re-posting be a reminder of our common ecological vocation and an encouragement for us all:

Moving from the densely populated country of the Netherlands, from a home above a store surrounded by bricks and cement, to a farm on the Canadian prairies at the end of a dirt road, 6 km from the nearest school, church and store had an earth-shattering effect on me. I knew the theory well – living off the land in harmony with nature, following the rhythm of the seasons. At the time of my pioneering on the Canadian prairies I had the fledgling spiritual underpinnings of a cosmic worldview, arising directly from my Christian/Catholic faith and Scripture itself. The very notion of God as Trinity, God’s incarnation in Jesus and the Church’s sacramental theology, worldview and practices helped me to expect everything in creation to bear not only God’s imprint (image and likeness) but also as capable of communicating God’s holy and loving presence. I gave myself completely to what Gerald Manley Hopkins captures so eloquently in his famous poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (1877)

The plants and animals, the seasons and tides of creation have been spiritual muse, emotional compass and daily mentor for much of my life, affecting every detail both practical and spiritual. From my teenage bike rides in the forest to today’s baking of bread, I have always felt that my place in the universe and my responsibility in it necessitated careful discernment in life choices. Fostering freedom from a consumer mentality was grounded in a commitment to care for the earth. Choosing a natural method of family planning was grounded in a profound respect for the gift of life, the refusal to pollute our bodies with artificial hormones (as well as the land with chemicals) and the need to live in harmony with our human capacity to co-create with God. Living without modern conveniences was motivated by a desire to let nature mold and guide our daily family rhythms with the accompanying tasks of freezing, canning and storing the winter supply of food. Literary companions, such as Sharon Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning and Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Geography played pivotal roles in my ability to place our little individual lives tucked away at the end of a dirt road firmly and deeply into the Saskatchewan prairie soil and against a wider cosmic backdrop (greatly aided by the stunning beauty of the natural setting with bush and fields, hills and lake, blue herons and pelicans …).

I give a lot of credit to Jim, my gardening and seed-growing husband, who has lived an intimate connection to the earth all his life; he taught me so much about the wonder of nature and the need to reverence all living things (even when seeds seem to take forever to germinate – don’t ever give up!). Yes, he does talk to all his plants with profound love and respect … Even now as we have moved into a more urban setting and our three children have been launched into their own cosmic orbit, creation continues to help us navigate life choices respectful of the earth’s well-being and remains a source of profound spiritual nourishment and guidance. It’s simply a deep part of my/our identity.

My first book entitled Finding the Treasure Within – A Woman’s Journey into Preaching (2002, Novalis) includes the following words as I share about the choices Jim and I made from the day we married:

        We were not comfortable in adopting unquestioned middle class, materialistic values in our self-identity and lifestyle, nor did we think of farming as agribusiness. The rebel in us both pushed us into counter-cultural choices, so as not to enslave ourselves. The prison of modern living looked more suffocating than the time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of hauling water from the lake, growing and preserving our own food, and chopping wood for cooking and heating. William McNamara’s spirituality became real for us: I share the secret of the child, of the saints and sages, as well as of clowns and fools when I realize how wondrous and marvelous it is to carry fuel and draw water. Once the spiritual significance of such ordinary earthy acts dawns on me, I can skip the yoga and the koans, the mantras and the novenas. (p. 56, Mystical Passion, William McNamara OCD, Element Books Ltd., Rockport, MA, 1991)

As I reflect on the extent that creation/nature and an evolving cosmic consciousness have been an integral part of my living and growing for the better part of my adult life, two things stand out. First of all, the cosmic story touted today as “new” cosmology is really not that “new.” All of it is present in the Biblical writings in both Old and New Testaments, in the life-teaching-suffering-death-resurrection of Jesus, as well as in our own Church’s understanding of the Incarnation and its sacramental life. I saw, heard and tasted it there, I was captivated by it in those sacred words, understandings and practices many years ago already, before I knew much  about the great scientific discoveries of the universe as we now understand it.

Having said that, I know all too well the struggles and challenges of living thoughtfully in cosmic consciousness while failing miserably — often.  And even in living the fullness of a cosmic consciousness, human tendencies of rigidity and deceit, judgment and clinging, laziness and sloth remain alive and well, reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s astute observation that upon entering the monastery he wasn’t any holier than anyone else: ‘All my bad habits…had sneaked into the monastery with me and had received the religious vesture along with me: spiritual gluttony, spiritual sensuality, spiritual pride.’  (The Seven Storey Mountain)

I am merely questioning the “newness” claimed by those now doing theology from a renewed cosmic awareness informed and formed by present scientific insights and discoveries. Mystics in all religious traditions have always and everywhere accessed this cosmic consciousness throughout history. Maybe a better way to describe the newness is that the unitive consciousness that was once considered the purview of a select few is now the fundamental reality out of which we all must operate if human life on the planet is to continue. This reminds me very much of many of our friends who would admire the life choices we made, ending their praise with: “When the world is going to end, we’ll all move in with you!” In other words, we admire what you do and how you do it, but not me unless I’m forced to. Well, if we care to leave our children’s children a beautiful and sustainable planet, the time has come that we are all forced to …

The Paschal Mystery and the divine Trinitarian community are THE relational and generative paradigm, patterns of Love in both the universe and deep in our soul, making the most deeply personal the most widely universal: life—death—life. Every living thing dies to itself in order to renew life & love.

In periods of painful spiritual dryness, I strive to emulate prairie plants who grow deep roots in order to find water. My spirit sings praise and thanks along with the morning song of birds and joined the pelicans as they soar on the wind currents over my house. Cloudbursts of tears in my heart resemble prairie storms on hot summer days. The labour-intensive and time-consuming tasks of daily living (hauling water, chopping wood and preserving food) indicate efforts needed to feed both body and soul. On days when my spirit matches the cold and dark of winter days, the simple task of gathering wood in the bush and sitting by a warm fire later on soothes my soul, like a child drawn on its mother’s lap after a stressful day. Times of spiritual stagnation find consolation in seeds that take forever to have God’s Life Force crack them open. When newness of life and the pulsating energy of spring leaps into my being, I smile from head to toe like the crocus or cactus blooming on a meadow barely awake from its winter sleep, eagerly waiting to be noticed and bring joy to someone’s heart.  Many a time dancing northern lights in a winter sky help keep the flame of hope and promise alive in my drooping spirit.  And on and on and on …

It is thus that I continue to grow still today into an ever-deeper and sacred intimacy with all living things, learning to surrender to Life itself in the moment – sometimes an easy, colourful and joyful dance, other times merely an intense yet unfulfilled and aching desire – unified by a loving and merciful Creator and by the stardust which makes us all part of all.

By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagine it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. – Teilhard de Chardin

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What’s in a name?

One day my book editor told me that I’m affectionately called the “Hyphenated One” at his office. I sighed. Even after living in Canada for over thirty-five years, I still have to fight to keep my long name. I had a medical appointment recently. “Marie Ternier, please,” the receptionist called out in the waiting area. I didn’t recognize my name, and she called a second time. “Marie Ternier, please.” I got up. “The name is Marie-Louise, with a hyphen,” I said, “and Ternier-Gommers, with another hyphen: my married name first, Ternier, followed by my maiden name, Gommers. The order is Dutch. Computers hate my name, but truly, I’m never called Marie.” The receptionist barely took note of my speech. I went home and mused. What indeed is in a name?

“Marie-Louise Colletta Cornelia Josepha, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the priest likely said as he poured water over me at 3 days old in Tilburg, the Netherlands. While names are unique to each person they also connect us to our past: my middle names come from my father, my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother

But even though the hyphenated stuff is a real headache in this country, I could not part with it. Hyphenated names are very European, very French in fact, and not just when your name finds itself at the end of a line and needs to be cut in two. I grew up with Marie-Louise, I respond to Marie-Louise – esp. when pronounced the French way (why a Dutch girl should care about that is a story for another time). Pre-owned is fine, first-class is fine, even clear-headed is fine. But not names for some reason; somehow it is assumed that a name such as mine surely would have been shortened long before I could even say it myself.

Our name is very unique to us: “By name I have called you, by name I have saved you; by name you are mine, you are precious to me.” (lyrics based on Isaiah 43:1) Often parents wait to name their newborn until they’ve laid loving eyes on her/him, to make sure the name “fits.” Biblical names remain among the most popular and “durable” ones in every time and place, grounding a child into a rich and deep heritage.

For a name shapes our character and becomes integral to our identity. The fact that name–calling can cut so deeply into us (and I certainly had my fair share of that as a child) merely serves to illustrate even more how very personal our name is.

Scripture says that God knows us by name; Scripture also tells us that God’s name is as important as ours. I love the realization that God calls us by name. Several biblical figures who had a major encounter with God undergo a name change: Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Hadassah was known as Esther, Levi became Matthew, Saul was also known as Paul. When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus in the garden but did not know it was him, she only recognized him when he called her name: “Mary.” In the monastic tradition it was customary to change one’s name as one made the life-long commitment to religious life. Initiation rites for young adolescents in aboriginal cultures involve being given a new name. Somehow our name is an intimate aspect of our identity before God and the world.

In the ancient world to know the name of something also denoted to gain a certain power over. Some of that is still true today: each one of us recognizes her/himself by their name. Addressing someone by their first or given name implies a certain familiarity and intimacy. Addressing someone by their last name implies a formal or distant relationship.

The most intimate name I know is Jesus, one who was named by the angel at conception: “You shall name him Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us” (hey, another hyphenated name:)). Jesus showed us in word and deed what it looks like to live to the fullest of our human potential in a God-like manner – fully human and fully divine. That is the deepest desire of my heart: to become all that God is calling me to become after the example of Jesus the Christ. No wonder St Paul recognized Jesus as deserving of the highest honour: “Therefore God hasWhatName1 highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. “ (Philippians 2:9—11)

So once in a while reflect on your name; recall how it has shaped who you are and how you live your life. And always remember God loves you and calls you by name, your first name. In fact, God has carved your name in his heart while he holds you close in the palm of his hand. As for me, I’m keeping my hyphens. This two-in-one name has shaped my character and my self-identity. l Besides, I wouldn’t want to risk arriving at heaven’s door and not recognize when I’m being called: Marie-Louise. If I’m being called that is.

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My Body, my Blood (Part I)

One Sunday at Eucharist I was pondering once again the meaning of the Body and Blood of Christ. To say that it is a mystery is not to dismiss curious minds and inquisitive queries, but rather to point to something that transcends words or any human understanding. In fact it is only a mystery that can touch our deepest existential reality, because we too are a mystery even unto ourselves.

Anyway, this one particular Sunday I again allowed my spirit to encounter Holy Mystery in the Eucharist. And my thoughts wandered, as they tend to. This time thoughts turned to the Theology of the Body (TOB), a series of catechetical talks given over several years by Saint Pope John Paul II. Several questions have puzzled me over this magnum opus of the\is Holy Father. First of all, the first popular interpretations of the Pope’s TOB insights focused exclusively on marriage and sexuality, creating the impression that our bodies are only worth theologizing about when we become sexually active. Once I explored the TOB on my own (with the help of a dear friend) I discovered that it is about much more than what happens in the marriage bed. A second, way more urgent question, emerged: how come it has taken us 20 centuries to reclaim the sacramentality of the body, something so powerfully communicated in the Word made Flesh? Our human body was good enough for Jesus of nazareth. This very Lord who is the reason for our Church, whose bodily gift of self in the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, took on our flesh in the womb of a woman’s … body. How come we have so ignored the radical implications of this truth when it comes to our bodily comfort level? How come we now need the TOB to return us to this fundamental message in the Incarnation?MotherOfTheEucharist2

The sovereign God took on human flesh and redeemed us through the human flesh of Jesus Christ, thus revealing the capacity for the human body to make visible the invisible God. In Christ Jesus the physical and the spiritual were reunited as one. Despite this amazing Good News Christian history has had an abominable track-record in honouring the human body. At varying times we have degraded the body, chastised the body, dismissed the body, even blamed it as the source of all evil, in particular the female body. In light of the Incarnation, and despite St. Paul’s summons “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (I Cor. 3:16 & 6:19), such a track-record could be considered deeply heretical. Given this dubious legacy, it is refreshing to re-read Katrina Zeno’s presentation at a TOB conference in Rome a few years back in which she said:

As human persons we do indeed have a very specific nature, an embodied rational nature, which perhaps could even be called a sacramental nature. At all times and in all places our embodied human nature is created by God to point to something beyond just the material. We are not relative only to ourselves and to our acquired goods and pleasures. On the contrary, “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine” to cite one of the most frequently quoted passages from the theology of the body (Audience 19, section 4). Our bodies are created by God to be living sacraments, to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds. (Zenit, Nov. 14, 2011)

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to the ordinary food and drink of bread and wine being transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. I find it fascinating that women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time their bodies grow another human being, The new life generated by the marital union is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.

ElizabethMaryIn her yes, Mary became first in offering to the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus, our Messiah and Lord. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, every woman knows something about the mystery of transforming ordinary food and drink into new life – a profound Eucharistic transformation, culminating in the great Eucharistic Sacrament of the Incarnation of God’s own Son Jesus. Have we really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological transubstantiation called pregnancy? God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food, ordinary events, and ordinary situations into the radiance of the risen Christ present and active in the world.

Without negating the reality of sin, our bodies are created to be living sacraments; both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds, in the same way as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. According to the Theology of the Body, we make God in Christ present every day when we make giving ourselves to another a gift of love, mercy and beauty. Long before any of us end up in the marriage bed, and those who never do this in a marriage bed, we gift the world with our very selves in the quality of our love, our compassion, our forgiveness.

In one of his Lenten sermons a few years ago Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, urged all of us to offer our bodies and blood as a daily Eucharistic sacrifice and gift to the world, thereby transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary presence and action of God: “Let us try to imagine what would happen if also the laity, at the moment of the consecration, said silently: ‘Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. A mother of a family thus celebrates Mass, then she goes home and begins her day made up of a thousand little things. But what she does is not nothing: It is a Eucharist together with Jesus! A [religious] sister also says in her heart at the moment of consecration: ‘Take, eat …’; then she goes to her daily work: children, the sick, the elderly. The Eucharist ‘invades’ their day which becomes … Eucharist.” (Zenit, March 12, 2010)

CupBlessingEvery time we drink the cup of blessing that we bless, we share in the Blood of Christ, thus committing ourselves to be poured out in love for others. Every time we eat the Body of Christ, we are called to offer our own bodies in sacrificial love for the healing of the world. Daily gifts of self to others redeem relationships between men and women, as well as with creation and with God, whether in the marriage bed, in school or workplace, at the recycling depot, in the dance recital or the communion procession. Our body is an integral expression of our personhood, thus affirming creation as male and female in the divine image as “very good.” It is thus that we glorify God in our bodies, male and female.

An earlier version of this reflection appeared in the Prairie Messenger, June 11, 2014

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I was a rather plump child in elementary and high schools, awkward in this mass of flesh and organs called my body. I endured relentless teasing about my obvious un-sporty physical shape. Having only a few friends, being picked last on sports teams in Phys. Ed. and never wearing trendy clothes resulted in physical, social and emotional shyness and withdrawal. It was thanks to generous parental affection and care, and some very positive, enjoyable social experiences in the ballroom dance community and formative youth events in church circles, that the scars of these demeaning treatments remained surprisingly minimal.

It was not until I met my husband Jim that I entered a more comprehensive and intentional exploration of the connections between the physical and the spiritual. I was drawn to Jim’s profoundly earthy spirituality, deeply rooted in prairie soil and in working the land with nature’s gifts instead of industrial manipulation. I learnt quickly about the socio-political implications of such a connection when lived out radically and publicly.

Our Cochin Farm , home for 25 years.
Our Cochin Farm , home for 25 years.

We were not comfortable in adopting unquestioned middle class, materialistic values in our self-identity and lifestyle, nor did we think of farming as agribusiness. The rebel in us both pushed us into counter-cultural choices, so as not to enslave ourselves. The prison of modern living looked more suffocating than the time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of hauling water from the lake, growing and preserving our own food, and chopping wood for cooking and heating – all very earthy, bodily activities. We gardened organically and sold vegetables at the local farmer’s market. I learned all about preserving our winter supply of food and about baking bread in the wood stove, things that were not part of my upbringing. Taking charge of our own health through lifestyle choices paid off in more ways than economically. We shared a deep underlying freedom and a sense of creative accomplishment at knowing that we did not “need” the electrical gadgets and ready-made foods of a fast-paced consumer society. Our home became a nest with rich, wholesome food for body and soul in which grew three beautiful children which God entrusted to us. I never felt so alive in my body as in those years of hauling water, chopping wood, making fire, growing and preserving food.

With a husband committed to the land, who refrained from manipulating its fertility and polluting it with chemicals, it was evident that we would adopt the same approach to our combined human fertility.  Roman Catholic Church teaching regarding family planning fitted with our choice, but this was not our primary motivating force, and the validity of that teaching became clear only over time.

Incidentally, three Ottawa doctors were recently in the news because they are refusing to prescribe the pill because of medical concerns. The doctors are asking: is pregnancy a sign of illness or health? They point to the negative effects of hormonal contraceptives as listed with the product information: increased risk of cardiovascular disease, headaches, breast tenderness, breakthrough bleeding, decreased libido and mood swings.They contend that pregnancy is a sign that a woman’s reproductive system is working as it should. So why, they ask, should they assign medication carrying such health risks to someone who is in fact healthy? (Prairie Messenger, Feb. 12, 2014)

Even without being completely swayed by the contraceptive culture, I was embarrassingly ignorant about the inner workings of my reproductive system until I learned to observe my body symptoms with the help of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Curiosity replaced embarrassment as I became greatly intrigued with the realization that so much of my bodily functions occur completely without my interference or knowledge. I developed a sense of awe as I grew into an intimate relationship with my body through observing the signs of its cycles. I regarded my fertility as a gift to cherish and work with, rather than a liability and a burden to manipulate artificially or to get rid of.  Already back in 1977, in  her small book entitled Women`s Challenge: Ministry in the Flesh Sr. Timothy Prokes, SSND, echoed both these insights:

For a woman who is attuned to her basic rhythms, the menstrual cycle is not an infirmity or “curse” but a gift, enabling her to participate in the vital intercourse of daily life with greater understanding. (p. 31, Prokes, 1977)

Living in harmony with our natural body rhythms reaped its own rewards. With every conception I joyfully claimed my bodily role as co-creating with God ababy-in-hands beautiful new human being. The challenge to discipline our sexual activity according to our combined fertility — wishing to achieve or to avoid pregnancy — brought deep, long-lasting experiences of mutual respect, commitment and maturing marital love, forcing us to communicate and collaborate as we shared the times of sexual avail-ability and the times of abstinence. In turn, developing communication skills and fostering mutual respect of our bodies regarding family planning helped to weather relational storms over the years. The relational demands of Natural Family Planning deepened our personal and couple development: demands in the areas of communication, self-esteem, self and mutual respect and freedom, confidence in our ability to learn and grow. Besides, our choice for a chemical-free method of family planning mirrored the non-chemical, organic, approach to working the land. Jim always said: “I don’t believe in putting chemicals on the land; why would we chemical our bodies to render them infertile?”  We experienced a growing into one’s body as mystery and as the place of God’s own Holy Spirit: “Surely you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is in you and is a gift from God. You are no longer your own. God paid a great price for you. So use your body to honour God” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

It is of vital importance to realize that emotions and unresolved issues get stored in our bodies, and if left un-transformed can play havoc with our physical health. Equally important is the fact that our health is further jeopardized by sedentary lifestyles, material comforts and poor eating habits – all ironically encouraged by a money-hungry, industry-driven consumer culture, making us blindly drift away from the responsibility to care for our God-given bodies because God’s Holy Spirit dwells there.

With my friend ivan.
With my friend ivan.

I am still on the plump side, downright fat according to fashion standards and dieting plans. But such standards have little bearing on my self-image anymore. Besides, my solid physique is a desirable one in many developing countries as it represents wealth and abundance. I make sincere efforts to keep my spiritual and emotional health firmly connected to my physical health. I`d like to think of my solid body build as reflecting a solid spiritual build, and the extra fat helps me tolerate more cold than Jim can who is downright skinny. I have been the same body weight for over 20 years and even now with a less labour-intensive lifestyle, remain physically active. The Dutch genes still make me prefer the bicycle to go grocery shopping!

Every day I am grateful to feel at home in this body which has enjoyed an amazingly steady green light for overall health and fitness even though some aging signs are beginning to appear. From intimate involvements with others, I also know that not everyone is gifted with the kind of health I have taken for granted but no longer dare to. I am truly fearfully and wonderfully made, praising God that I can honour this gift of my body through healthy living. I pray for the grace to live my remaining, and possibly declining, days in the same gratitude that flooded my being as I wrote this reflection.

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Prairie Encounters


Writing about writing

I wrote a lot in my younger and teenage years – essays, journal entries and poetry – quietly harbouring the dream of becoming a writer. In our parish youth group I’d write reflections which would be shared in place of the homily in our monthly youth Masses.  I even wrote a romance novel, sneakily turning my own real experiences into fiction! After publishing installments in the high school paper, which received surprising reviews, I even sent the manuscript to a publisher who wrote back politely that I had potential and wished me luck.

writing-with-penLife took me on other waves of adventure for quite a few years, and for a long time the only writing I did was in my journal, until even that halted when, for several years, three adorable children demanded time, attention and energy every minute of every day.  Besides, I had by now changed languages, no small occurrence when one’s mode of creative expression is the written word. In fact, it was because of this that my writing dreams withered away. After all, how could I possibly write creatively, competently and engagingly in a language other than my mother-tongue?

Thus the desire & creative call to write almost went to sleep; almost, as I had resumed journaling (in English) once my youngest turned one year old (now 28). However, journaling is a most private affair, not intended for public consumption. One day I found myself a student, writing essays and exams, eventually leading to theological papers and sermons – in English of course. Never having taken a university-level English class, I wrote off ever writing well (interesting pun 🙂 ) until feedback from professors, friends and fellow-students claimed otherwise. I was quick to brush aside such compliments, claiming that these couldn’t be right as English is not my first language. Until a friend got tired of the glib ways I disregarded the power and quality of my own written creations: “It’s exactly because English is not your first language that you are much more conscious about using the language well.”

Her words stopped me dead in my tracks. Slowly my perception changed; I began to observe my own creative writing process, strikingly resembling the biological processes of pregnancy and giving birth (the section titles in my first book). In the preaching classes I learnt the difference between writing for reading and writing for oral delivery. Learning to write and preach sermons claimed my whole being in unprecedented ways. I discovered parts of myself I had lost touch with long ago and had even forgotten they existed. The process of preparing, writing and delivering the sermon challenged me more than anything else had previously, pushing me into prayer and solitude with God in a way that nothing else did. The personal and spiritual growth, the sense of ministry and the deep love for the preaching task became new sources of life. In giving all I had to the task of preparing, writing and preaching, I found life in abundance. The creative process, however arduous and demanding, became a surprising new source of life. I started to feel in my bones the meaning of Jesus’ words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” In surrendering my whole being to the creative writing process to accomplish the task at hand, I found life in abundance. No one was more surprised than I. The call to write and to speak a holy Word was re-awakened with a radiance and beauty so glorious; I felt as if head over heels in love again yet for the first time, smitten with the gift of God’s gracious and passionate kiss on my soul …

Ever since, writing, publishing and preaching/speaking have become one of the fullest expressions of my creative self. I have learnt a tremendous amount about the four types of writing I engage in, each one with its own demands, features and rhythms: poetry and journalling (mostly private), writing for publication (books, news articles and Scripture commentaries), and writing for oral delivery (preaching and speaking at conferences and workshops). I take seriously the need for ongoing learning by reading other people’s books (which also helps to Writing2expand my vocabulary), even if I have yet to be excited about fiction, mystery novels and most poetry (I read mostly non-fiction and books of a spiritual nature). Even my favourite word games of Scrabble and Bananagrams serve a continuing learning and growing in my writing ability.

In order for the creative process to be fruitful, optimum conditions are required. But this process is seldom linear and one-dimensional. It is true that time and attention need to be carved out of one’s daily schedule. It is true that the process can be obstructed by life crises, depression and other negative emotional states. However, the reverse is also possible. In fact, engaging the writing process in hard times has often acted as a de-stressor for me, as if enjoying a refreshing, cleansing bath. I will never forget the insight which hit like a lightning bolt when asking God the agonizing question of why the impossible callings/tasks and insurmountable obstacles cause so much pain, heart-ache and flood waters of tears – in order to write about the experience. That insight forever (at least so far) unlocked the prison doors of any hardship I was to endure in life – if nothing else, I can always write about it.

Writing my first book was an almost surreal experience. With a job, three teenagers and one car there was no time, and often no energy, to sit down and put words on paper/computer which could form a coherent whole and tell a worthwhile story. And yet I had  the distinct, deeply spiritual, feeling that the book/story wrote itself, as if Someone Else wrote it and I was simply the scribe, from the very first moment I sat in front of a blank computer screen and asked “the question:” if ever I’d write a book, what would it be about and look like? Every writing minute was time pressed like juice from grapes, sometimes only a few drops at a time, and in the course of a full year, the manuscript was complete. Writing the second book was a much more arduous process, but the experience of writing the first book continues to inspire and mesmerize me. I know I will write more books in the future, but I’m also learning that when living a book, it’s not time to write the book. As with most forms of creative expression, some distance in time of real life experiences can act like the aging process by which good wine becomes vintage wine.

When I look back to discover when and where this call to write and preach/speak first germinated in my soul, a particular time and place emerges in my memory. I am 17 years old, living in my Dutch home town, and I am happily involved with the parish youth group. With this group of young committed Christians, I engaged in intense soul-searching, for the purpose of writing “sermons” and for the purpose of preaching the Good News, in all the wild ways we employed back then. The fire of the call and of the creative writing process was kindled in those years, even if the name of the call eluded me at the time. Now I give glory to God for the gift of creation going on creating in my own body, mind and soul through the written word.

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AutumnLeavesas the greening glory of summer passes
so I surrender to colourful transformation
giving birth to new and abundant fruitfulness
crisp and cooling air pushes birds
south in flying formation …
once again the cyclical dance of
life – death – life
determines the rhythm and moves my soul
growing – birthing – feeding – dying
form the reason for my being …
yet, deep within, hidden yet visible
is the pain and loss
of letting go of greening glory
and my baby, fruitfulness …
pick me, use me, change me, grow in me
divine giver of life
the aching hunger of my soul
comes to the fore as
autumn turns to winter
waiting eagerly for your holy presence
to impregnate my emptiness once again
readying me to birth new life
in the colourful dance of
the seasons …
(written when turning 40)

New Year’s Day 2015

On New Year’s Day the Catholic Church honours Mary as Mother of God. It is the most beautiful title ever bestowed on a human being – Mother of God. In giving birth to Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, God made holy Mary’s womb, and by extension, declared sacred the natural processes of pregnancy and childbirth. I remember well my three pregnancies – a profound sense of holy partnering with God would wash over me as I realized how we were co-creating, forming a new human being in the secret chamber of my belly.

We Catholics are great at honouring Mary. At this morning’s Mass the priest preached extensively about the importance of Mary as intercessor and as mother of the Church. I couldn’t help but think that, while this was all good and well, there is so much more about Mary that hardly gets attention. Like the qualities she exhibited as a disciple of Jesus, the qualities she exudes as a woman and as a human being longing for wholeness. What would happen if we extend our honouring of Mary to an honouring of the fullness of the “feminine genius” in every woman, and encourage her mothering qualities to be emulated by both women and men. For Mary’s qualities are God’s own mothering qualities, qualities placed in both men and women as potential for greatness.

Many moons ago my own husband got to deliver the homiletic reflection in our parish during a lay-presided Sunday service on Mother’s Day. He had recently had an experience of single parenting as I had been away for a few days. Caring for three little ones had given him a vivid taste of both mothering and fathering. He reflected on that in his Sunday reflection, noting that both women and men are called to develop qualities beyond their traditional gendered characteristics.

I seriously wonder whether ascribing human characteristics to either traditionally male and female (men as strong and single-minded, goal-oriented, competitive and tough; women as caring and intuitive, compassionate and sensitive) can obstruct the ability of both women and men to grow into the fullness of God’s image and likeness.  Attributes traditionally associated with motherhood – gentleness, compassion, perseverance – are often found in men as well as women. Traditional attributes associated with manliness – determination, strength, boldness – are readily found in women. Is it possible that limiting women to natural female characteristics could account for women feeling voiceless and underdeveloped? Is it possible that men can feel trapped in stereotypical male characteristics in the midst of an emotional desert?

Is it fair to say that men who act tough and repress emotions bear the bigger burden of responsibility for the current crisis of our planet on the brink of disaster? Most world leaders of both nations and multinational corporations are male. It is now an urgent matter of planetary survival that men develop characteristics traditionally associated with women, and for women to develop qualities traditionally associated with men. Our world is crying for new, collaborative and compassionate approaches to resolve foreign and social, economMaryMotherGodic and environmental crises — characteristics we tend to associate more with women than men.

Meister Eckhart’s words in the image of the woodcarving here are telling and provocative, esp. in our day when women still feel voiceless and disempowered while men are still afraid to cry in public or show fear, sorrow or any other emotion. While each gender has a natural giftedness in some human characteristics, let us never forget that to be fully human we are called to develop all our human potential. That is what it means for each woman and man to birth Christ in the world each day. Jesus was born male, but he displayed characteristics we tend to attribute to the female species, thus integrating within his own being the best of being male and female. It is thus that God is always needing to be born. Mary, Mother of God, pray for us all.
And a very HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone:)

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