writing in the walls

While in France, more than just my cell phone taught me to look up and look out.

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Sainte-Chappelle’s windows pointed my eyes heavenward, illustrating stories from Scripture (the very stones which line the windows are arranged in such a way as to make arrows–do you see?)

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Mont Saint Michel–a monastery which itself points upward, perched on a rock at the Atlantic shore–boasts a Gothic church, encouraging the pilgrim to continually remember the source of life and strength.

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Arrows abound in the aisle at Reims.

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All is oriented upward on the West facade in Strasbourg.

Our necks hurt the first few days that we spent in cathedrals, but soon we got used to paying more attention to what was above and around us than what was below us or what was associated with our own individual experiences (I cannot recall which cathedrals were most-busy, or most-noisy, or too cold, or too warm, or too expensive).

I wonder if our lives should be a bit more about paying attention to who God reveals himself to be (those things, “above”), to God’s work in others’ lives and in the world (what’s around us).

This message is finding its way into all kinds of outlets recently–here are a few I’ve noticed:

Relevant Magazine

Huffington Post

What do you think?  How have sacred spaces challenged you to look differently at life?

Look up, Look out!

In preparation for my trip to France, my dad suggested we spring for an international plan–just in case we really needed to make a call or use our phones while we were abroad–it’d be better to pay a little up front instead of footing the bill if we needed the service but hadn’t paid for it beforehand.

I didn’t listen to him.

Thankfully–as you can safely assume from my recent glowing updates about my trip–we didn’t encounter any emergency that required use of our cellphones as phones (though you’ve already seen much evidence of our use of our cellphones as cameras!).  I learned something important from not having my phone’s “smart” capability accessible most of the time, though–I learned to look up.

Sitting with my husband at lunch, waiting for the food to arrive, walking down city streets, waiting in line at a museum or (yet another!) church–I had no excuse not to look up, to look out at the people passing on the street, to look at the architecture, to look at the sky.  All this looking at other things not only helped me to keep my mind attentive to what was in front of me–which was no small change!–but it also kept me from looking down, looking at myself–navel gazing.

When we look down at our phones, we’re not only missing the world around us, but we’re teaching ourselves to do something strange with our bodies.  Our necks are cranked down–not the way we’re made–and our bodies are hunched over, literally curling in ourselves.  What kind of patterns are we teaching our minds and hearts through our bodies if we’re curved in on ourselves all the time?  We’re not just missing the world around us, but we’re becoming the only thing that we see–and it’s not a particularly attractive angle at that.

When we hold our bodies so that our eyes and faces are looking out and up, do you know what happens to our hearts?  Our hearts are opened, as our backs are held up straight–as if our very souls are ready to shine and share with others.  If we look down, it’s not only ourselves who are missing something; everyone else around you can’t see you and your beautiful heart–we’re robbing ourselves, and others, of the great beauty that all the world possesses.

I got into this work (being a priest) because there’s nothing I love more than seeing God at work in people’s lives.  Sometimes I lose sight of that love, and the work gets to be onerous.  In France, I was made to look at the beauty of people, of buildings, and of nature all the time.  It helped me remember that there is beauty everywhere, all the time.  We need only to look for it–and looking out and up is one of the best ways.

(super short approximation of sermon delivered 6 July, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.  Original version had a lot more about Gothic architecture in it; see another entry soon…)

Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes

My most-fave homemade dessert, which has only six ingredients and is ready in 20 minutes, is made more than twice a week in the Hylden house.20140708-211928-76768876.jpg

Gather: 2 tablespoons Smart Balance or butter, 2 ounces chocolate (I use 85% cacao, but you can use your favorite), 1/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 whole egg, 3 tablespoons flour.

First, melt the butter & chocolate together in a small bowl and stir. Then add the sugar to the mixture and stir well. Next, add the egg–stir until the mixture changes texture, it will pull away from the side of the bowl. Add vanilla, if desired, then gently fold in flour–stir until just combined.20140708-211930-76770057.jpg
Divide between two greased ramekins (or teacups, or small bowls) and bake at 375 F for 13 minutes. Immediately remove from oven, invert a plate on the ramekin, and then invert the ramekin onto the plate–remove ramekin and serve.

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Pilgrim’s Reward

When I reached the top of the cathedrals in Chartres and Strasbourg, gorgeous, expansive views awaited.  But in each place, it wasn’t just the long distance vision that greeted me, but deeper revelations which wouldn’t have been so clear from the ground.

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In Chartres, there were life-sized statues, intricate gargoyles, and mischievous little creatures crawling (in stone) all over the upper reaches of the Gothic spire.  What good did they do up there, completely hidden from the ground?  Even in the cathedral’s heyday, how many people scaled the tower and once up top, noticed the intricate stonework?  They were made and fitted up there because the stone workers knew that God could always see their work; their efforts were for God’s glory and God’s delight–not primarily for fellow humans to enjoy.

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At Strasbourg, going up to the spire landing allowed a view of the surrounding mountains, land where my ancestral family had lived for years before immigrating to the US in the mid-1800s.  Seeing the land that is, in a way, in my bones and my being helped me understand why I’d so fallen in love with the Blue Ridge mountains back home in North Carolina–where I’ve come from, and maybe a bit of who I am.

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Courage and Pilgrimage

Over the last few weeks, I did a lot of stair-climbing.  It wasn’t just at our walk-up rental in Paris, but in museums, castles, cathedrals, old hilly towns, terraced gardens (aren’t you sympathetic for my knees?  …not so much?).  By far, the most terrifying climbing, as one might imagine, was in the cathedrals–two of which enticed us up into their spires to enjoy the great heights which Medieval builders scaled.

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Above, in Strasbourg, it took all my concentration to commit to each step up.  If I took my attention off of just the next stone slab in front of me–if I looked out over the rooftops, or looked up the set of stairs as far as I could see, or stayed still on the steps too long–I got dizzy and I would suddenly feel unsteady, as if I was about to lose my balance and was going to fall.  Objectively, my body was no less-grounded whether my eyes were looking at rooftops or at my feet, but my mind and heart were easily overwhelmed with the task at hand: overcoming my fear of heights in order to be able to enjoy the secure and amazing view at the top of the stairs.

I realized as I climbed that the journey up the spiral stairs was a fruitful way to think about trials in our everyday lives.  Focusing on more than the very next step in front of us, allowing ourselves to lose focus on the present moment in order to try to take in the whole project we’re working through–that’s a recipe for disaster; the only way to not be overwhelmed, crushed by the enormity of the present reality, or drowned in a deluge of fear and negative emotions, is to actively put them out of your mind–to practice putting them out of your mind over and over again, and to choose (and practice!) instead focusing on just the one next thing to do.  Thankfully, in my case, the one next thing was very clear, and very simple–step up.  One at a time.

20140704-083249-30769794.jpg Climbing these stairs at Chartres, just as climbing through trials in life, I didn’t know how long the ordeal was going to last before I arrived at the top and I couldn’t enjoy the views and hints of the reward in the midst of my climbing–it made me feel unsteady and sick!

Just as in life, what got me through was deep, deep breathing.  What is breathing but inviting air–wind–to move through you, to energize, awaken, enliven you?  What is the Holy Spirit but air, wind?

In our trials, throughout our lives, God is eager for us to call upon the Holy Spirit to surround, fill, enliven, energize, and sustain each of us every single step of the way.