TEA SERVICE

When my three children were very young, they had the great privilege of sharing tea with their maternal great-grandmother twice a month.  Grannie was a force of nature, wearing pumps and skirts well into her 80’s and she could deftly navigate the rickety basement stairs in her 1920’s bungalow.  She and my grandfather raised their five children here (with one bathroom I might add), my father being the eldest.photo_15279_20100421

“Oh, I just have to pop downstairs to get one more thing”, she would say. The kids would always be curious as to what Grannie would emerge with. There was an endless array of “stuff” packed away down there. The eaves too were a walk through the American decades.  Having survived the depression, nothing was getting thrown away and everything had three or twelve purposes. And shelf life was not in my grandmother’s vocabulary.

Yet, with all this clutter below the surface, every room in her home was always tidy. And her values were clear water clean. She valued children, and the raising of them.

And you would see this, always, in afternoon tea.

Grannie would lay out the table lovingly.  If it were around Valentine’s, the kids were treated to a lace tablecloth and pink napkins, heart-shaped cookies with red sugar crystals.  If it were September, she would set out linens in brown and orange and serve soft ginger cookies. Every sweet homemade from scratch.  Oh, and always more than one kind. There were bone china cups, dainty and different, that would always match the theme. Even the pin on her sweater would reflect the season or occasion.

080322a8447Young as they were, I sensed their anticipation when I would tell them we were going to Grannie’s house.  It could be “just” a Tuesday at 3 o’clock, but there was nothing just about it. There was celebration and presence in every moment.

They listened intently as my grandmother taught them how to play Pinochle, an old-fashioned card game. They would sit at the table for an hour or more, sipping tea and munching on cookies, being listened to and heard while sorting out their hand.  Grannie, offering suggestions on a card, asking lots of questions.

The kids were learning the art of conversation and the richness of time that we have all but forgotten. Some of us, I’m afraid, have never had the grace to learn, yet.

It is simple really.  This being present.  But it takes practice.  Kids get it and so do the elderly.  The wisdom of knowing that the most important person is the one that is in front of you right now. That love and connection can only be cultivated in the here and now.

The sacredness of that time.  And I the fortunate bystander. My children telling their great-grandmother about their friends and school and what they like to do and what their favorite color was.  Grannie sharing about how she liked to swim and grow roses and read.  The four of them laughing while she regaled them with what their mother was like when she was little or the kinds of shenanigans their grandfather would get himself into.

iStock_000012366100XSmallThis memory a reminder, a pointer, that ordinariness and specialness are always both, depending on what you bring to the party.

“We come to realize that daily life is a theater of grace with continuous performances.  The sacred is here and there and everywhere. – Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

STUMBLING ONTO JOY

If you’ve lived long enough, or perhaps if you’ve just REALLY lived, you’ve been the giver of unconditional love a time or two.  If you’ve been fortunate enough to be a parent, it goes with the territory.  You  give without ever asking or even thinking about asking for anything in return.  The ones you truly love make mistakes (sometimes a lot of them) and you forgive them.

You love them as they are, at their very best and at their most challenging.  And if it is the perfect kind of unconditional love, it means letting the other be most perfectly themselves.  It is like water for the soul, helping it to blossom into what it is called to be.

 When we love like this, we are not hoping that they fit an image,  perhaps really just a mirror image of ourselves.  Actually, when you come right down to the heart of the matter, the self has nothing to do with unconditional love.  The self that cares so much about checks and balances, that wants to know “what have you done for me lately” always get stuck in this building we call the body.

When there is no clutching towards the self, no seeking to find something particular to and for us; we love joyfully and without hesitation. 

If you experience this kind of giving, you have been given a glimpse of heaven. In the Christian Bible, Jesus shares the Parable of the Hidden Treasure to explain how priceless this experience of real love is (Matthew 13:44), “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.  When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy sold all he had and bought that field.”  This is not to say that accepting another fully is without pain or is easy, but rather it is priceless. It is a wellspring.

It seems most often in my life (and perhaps in yours), that I have stumbled upon these moments, have been gifted with the people I have loved unconditionally, and so it makes the joy even more precious as I did nothing to make them come about.  They have come into my life, not as a payment earned, but as proof of grace.

The Sufi poet, Hafiz writes,   

 “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me’. Look what happens with a love like that, it lights the whole sky.”   

When you love freely, there is no end to how the spirit soars, no limit to how Love can expand.  

I was given this gift by father and it wasn’t his to keep, but to enjoy.  I give this gift to my children and it isn’t mine to keep, but to enjoy.   I know it is now theirs to take and enjoy.

Gonna Take a Sacramental Journey

Growing up as a child in a liberal but devout Roman Catholic household, I lived somewhat of a dichotomy.  We sang our kumbayas with guitar strumming folk masses on Saturday afternoons (Vatican II being brand spankin’ new) and then switched gears when it came to time to discuss the “Holy Sacraments”.  Not only did they sound solemn and serious, they were confoundedly shrouded in mystery. I knew they were very important as we usually had to complete a year of religious education devoted to a particular sacrament in order to receive it.  But at the end of the day, I still couldn’t really figure out what was actually about to take place. No matter, there were the actual after benefits.  A party with all your relatives bringing you gifts (and money) and a big sheet cake with cascading frosting roses.

It is hard as a child to understand something which is far from concrete.  Indeed, it can be difficult as an adult.  Yet each religion has their own version of sacraments whether they use the language or not. They are the means by which humans can discover the subtleties, the sublime joy of touching the sacred through symbols and ritual. Who knows?  Maybe you may come up with some sacrament making of your own.

The word sacrament describes a rite or a set of physical symbols that either separately or together comprise a visible form of grace.  Sacraments are transmitted through a series of  material elements. 

Roman Catholics and Episcopalians have seven sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation (these  3 comprise the sacraments of initiation), Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Most Mainline Protestant denominations confer only 2 of these as sacraments: Baptism and Communion.  Some of the many symbols and rituals involved in these rites include water (the baby or person’s head being dunked in it), oil (for anointing the sick), candles (to represent union, light, sacred space), and chalice (for bread or wine).

While denominations differ as to their theological understandings of what the literal or symbolic meaning(s) are in any given sacrament, they would agree that these items become more than what they appear.  They become tangible representation of the unseen, pointing to the very real presence of God.  Everyday items like water, oil, or candles can be conduits for confering Grace.  

This tendency to acknowledge and penetrate the holy using objects and ritual is an inherently human one. In Hinduism, they use the word samskara to describe the sixteen personal sacraments (there are also noncanonical samskaras) observed at every stage of life, from the moment of conception to the scattering of one’s funeral ashes.  Each region and caste of India have their own specific ways of enacting them. 

Buddhists also use the word samskara to define “the constructing activities that form, shape, or condition the moral and spiritual development of the individual”  (Encyclopedia of Religion).  Repetition of these activities is imperative to imprint a particular samskara on the psyche  so that it will be carried over to the next life.

Jewish observances are the rituals that make up the spiritual life of the individual and community. Whether it be the ‘Brit Mahal‘ (the naming ceremony) or the “Bar or Bat Mitzvah” where the teen becomes an official “child of the commandments”, they are furthering their blessings as they acknowledge their covenant with God.    The Jewish wedding ceremony is called the “Kiddushin”, which means holiness and their Chuppah (the bridal tent) represents the making of a home together, and it is open on all sides, just as Abraham and Sarah’s tent was, to welcome all in unconditional hospitality.   The Kaddish, the special prayer for the dead, which means  “the hallowing, the making holy.” We all mark the milestones that make up a life and we provide a powerful dimension when we invited the sacred.  

As we look to the symbols and rituals that nurture our souls and make meaning for us (whatever they may be),  it may be helpful to also to remember the words of the irascible Mark Twain : “We despise all reverences and all objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our list of sacred things and yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy for us.”

Book of the Day, Body of God by Sallie McFague, Quote from the Book of the Day: “The world in our model is the sacrament of God, the visible, physical, bodily presence of God.  God is available to us throughout nature.  It is available everywhere, it is unlimited-with one qualification: it is mediated through bodies.  Our model is unlimited at one end and restrictive at the other: the entire cosmos is the habitat of God, but we know this only through the mediation of the physical world.”