Sunday, June 13, 2010

eat dessert first!

We haven't ever met, but Ruth is one of those folks I hope some day I can sit down with and share a cup of tea and a long conversation. I first 'met' her when she was editing Coracle (the journal/magazine of the Iona Community) and she was so encouraging about the occasional prayers and/or poems I would submit for her consideration.

She has started writing a monthly piece for the wonderful monthly magazine of the Church of Scotland called Life and Work. Each month, she shares observations about aspects of life, sacred and secular, drawing many examples from what takes place around her. In her writings about patience, about the value of silence, about the simple joys and graces which can come to us in the course of everyday life, I find a kinship with her on many levels.

Yesterday morning, before heading up to Columbus for our weekly visit with Teddy, I read her observations about what many call the 'new monasticism,' of how folks look for communities in which their attempts at faithful living might be found in communities which offer Rules for living, such as prayer, scripture reading, service, accountability to the community, and so on. It seems to be a yearning which is expressed more and more these days, not only by those outside 'traditional Christianity, but by those within, as well.

As I was reading the article, I was struck by a comment about the dessert fathers and mothers like Columba, Cuthbert, Hilda and others. At first, I just went past that phrase but then my brain jerked to a halt and told me to go back and re-read the sentence again. Not being the best proofreader as a writer, I thought to myself that it was a cute 'oops', and chuckled to myself about how often when I am writing liturgy or prayers, I will type the word dessert when I want to talk about the desert.

But then, as that phrase percolated in my subconscious the last 24 hours or so, I've begun to wonder if it was an 'oops' and even if so, that perhaps Ruth is onto something. For folks like Cuthbert and Hildegard of Bingen, like John of the Cross and Mechthild of Magdeburg, like Ignatius and Julian, like Meister Eckhart and Amma Theodora are not desert mothers and fathers in the sense of being dry, dusty, and not very appealing, but truly are the rich dessert which God has offered to God's people over the centuries.

After all, I spent a lot of years feasting on the meat and potatoes of Christianity. I would go up to the buffet and pile the doctrines on my plate, chewing and chewing until I began to understand such things like justification, sanctification, Christology. I would go back for seconds of the criticisms (historical, textual, contextual) which had been stirred into the servings of scripture readings, hoping that they might add a little flavor to my understanding. But all too often, I left the meal feeling like all I had done was add a few inches my theological waist, and could feel the arteries of my soul harden just a little bit more.

But when I began to spend more time at the dessert bar, putting a slice of Abba Anthony on my plate (sometimes ala Merton), when I would take a small dish of Hildegard and savor it bite by bite, when I would take a few pieces of Nouwen home in a doggie bag so I could enjoy them later in the week, that's when I began to discover the wonders, the joy, the goodness which seemed to be missing from my life. And now, I just can't let too many opportunities go by without having dessert every day.

So, maybe my friend Ruth is onto something. That all these soul friends who have nudged me to keep walking this pilgrimage called life, who have given me those cups of cold water I needed to refresh myself on the most arid of days, who have fed me with the manna of silence, who have taught me how to center myself in prayer, who provide me with radical hospitality when I find other doors shut are the ones who have taught, and continue to teach, me the Rules of Living I need so much.

Some years ago, I found a t-shirt which featured a lot of different flavored ice cream cones on the front, with the saying on the back "Life is Short. Eat Dessert First.'  Now, I just need to find one that says the same thing, but has the pictures of the dessert mothers and fathers on the front!

© 2010 Thom M. Shuman

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