When friends of ours moved several years ago, they gave us a tall stack of books. These were obviously loved books – underlined and annotated – so I suspect space was the determining factor. Or maybe moving was just an excuse to disperse cherished works amongst interested friends.
One that caught my eye was Abbot Christopher Jamison’s Finding Sanctuary. It is a practical book that explores the wisdom of St. Benedict for today’s world. The author had taken part in a TV series in 2005 in which ordinary people chose to participate in a religious retreat at Worth Abbey. I hadn’t heard of Worth, nor of the show, but I liked the idea of an everyday guide to sanctuary.
Isn’t that a rich word? It suggests a spacious sense of peace and safety and perhaps of welcome, too. I’ve read through this slim volume several times, finding both the text and the marginalia encouraging and inspirational. It is a gentle and useful book, easy to slip into my pocket on the way out the door.
Which is what I did last Wednesday afternoon.
My older two children are taking communion classes after school once a week. These don’t start right after the bell, so we’ve developed a habit of spending 40 minutes together in the closest diner. Coffee for me, French fries for them, and everyone’s happy. Often they have a bit of homework to get through, so I thought it would be good idea to bring along some reading material of my own.
I’d been working through a chapter about prayer, and this line caught my interest: “Christian prayer is the simple act of addressing God as ‘you.’” When I shared this with my kids, they looked at me skeptically. It obviously wasn’t that simple. They told me a lot of prayers don’t even use the word you. Then the waitress came with our order and I set my book down.
Since their confirmation class started, they’ve both become a bit self-conscious about saying grace before a meal. We tend to be informal about family mealtime prayers. Usually someone will volunteer and if it’s the little one, things might go on for a while. He likes to thank God for each person at the table by name and then all sorts of wide categories of creatures and creations. The bigger kids are more economical, relying on the formula that you thank God for three things, one of which has to be food. But recently when asked, they shrug and say no thank you. I worry that in their class, there has been an emphasis on structure and different kinds of written prayers. I don’t want them to feel that it needs to be complicated. But there are lots of approaches to prayer and it can be useful to learn from those who went before. Whatever I say, I can’t solve prayer for them. You can teach traditions, but only God really teaches us how to pray.
So, in the midst of the afterschool French fries and ketchup, I left it to God.
A little later, the big kids turned back to their homework, and my little one reached for the book to look at the cover. He told me he liked the skeleton tree. I told him I did, too.
It’s an interesting image – a bare tree silhouetted against a yellow sky. The twigged branches reached up and the outline of the roots are visible below the surface but strangely, their tangles resolve into leaves and flowers. It’s surprising and clever.
As this winter drags on, it feels as if we’re forever looking at bare trees. But winter is a good season for seeing shapes more clearly. Maybe confirmation classes are like that, too. They are good at highlighting the shapes and structures around us. And we know – and we trust – that however hidden the flowers might be, they will come.
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