Franciscan Bookshelf: “One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are”

By Messy Jesus Business guest blogger K.P.

Eucharisteo always precedes the miracle.”– Ann Voskamp

51lWAOBT9rL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_The concept of eucharisteo, as Ann Voskamp explains in One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, is a practiced and disciplined form of perpetual adoration: a choice to thank God in every season, every action, every moment. As she describes in this interview with The High Calling, it is “the word that can change everything”: thanksgiving, which “envelopes the Greek word for grace, charis. But it also holds its derivative, the Greek word chara, meaning ‘joy.’ Charis. Grace. Eucharisteo. Thanksgiving. Chara. Joy.”

Last week, I made my covenant affiliation to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and participated in the program’s live-in for five days prior to that ceremony. On Wednesday morning we were visited by two sisters who spoke passionately about perpetual adoration. I confess that, prior to the live-in, I found perpetual adoration to be the most mystifying and distant aspect of my community’s charism. I have sat in the perpetual adoration chapel many, many times, and I’ve experienced peace; I’ve prayed and felt the effects of my prayers; I’ve left prayer requests for others. And I felt that I understood—intellectually—the significance of perpetual adoration and the way it has marked the history and experience of the FSPAs in La Crosse, Wisconsin. But I did not fully understand this ministry and its immediate application to my life. I was grateful that others dedicated their time to adoring the monstrance—not just FSPAs, but countless affiliates, prayer partners and occasional visitors. But I did not understand how or why I should make this a regular, meaningful part of my own spiritual journey.

One of the sisters that morning spoke fervently of perpetual adoration as a form of being prayerfully active in the world, and I recalled immediately Voskamp’s own word for such a practice, eucharisteo. Voskamp’s text is meaningful to me because I credit her book—and my dog-eared, much-loved copy—for introducing me to the power of the everyday spiritual practice. It was after I read One Thousand Gifts that I began to explore lay orders and other spiritual communities and disciplines; it was after I watched interview after interview with Voskamp that I began to recognize and appreciate mundane holiness and the need for loving presence in every moment. One Thousand Gifts helped me understand that I would be remembered for how I loved, how I brought peace—not for what I owned or accomplished. In this way, I would place Voskamp in powerful company: her book was as quietly revolutionary, for me, as was Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and the work of Richard Rohr. Her revolution is a whisper. A silent, persistent prayer of gratitude. A microaction, prompted by a profound call to her own version of perpetual adoration.

And so, even though Voskamp is not Catholic nor is she Franciscan (though I believe that, as we say, she has a “Franciscan heart”), her word eucharisteo remains with me as I begin my new journey as an affiliate of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

Franciscan Bookshelf: A Simplified Life: A Contemporary Hermit’s Experience of Solitude and Silence

By day, guest blogger K.P.—a good friend of Sister Julia’s—reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

For 25 years, Verena Schiller spent a life cultivated from quiet at the edge of the world. She lived alone in a weather-beaten shed on the precipitous edge of Llŷn Peninsula in Wales, battling both the elements and overpowering roar of her own silence. A member of the Anglican Community of the Holy Name and a consecrated sister, she shares her story in A Simplified Life, a book that rewards its reader for the slow turning of every page with a deeply felt sense of the holy struggle of solitude.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258

In prose that is as difficult and as raw as her salt-grimed cove, Schiller nudges her reader towards gentle insights about the interconnectedness of our inner and outer landscapes. The book winds together three complementary narratives: the rich spiritual history of the peninsula itself, overlooking Bardsey Island; the natural history of Schiller’s new habitat; her discovery of companion plants, animals, and tides; and the personal history of her journey from consecrated sister to solitary hermit. For readers interested in the ecological obligations of the Christian, the possibilities of practiced silence, or the structure of a life that is voluntarily secluded and driven by prayer and survival, Schiller’s story will be achingly beautiful, meditative in its rhythms and depths.

Two words that have drawn me, slowly but surely, onto my Franciscan path are the following—simplicity and solitude—and Schiller delivers a thought-provoking account of both. Silence … what a bonus that would be! But sadly, I think even at the edge of the world, I’d be pouring forth in conversation with the wildflowers, the gulls and the seaweed—as Schiller occasionally finds herself doing, actually.

This is not a journey white-washed for those (like me) who occasionally luxuriate in the idea of becoming a hermit: Schiller’s story makes clear that this is a life of struggle, but also of incredible purpose and beauty. I left these pages feeling extremely grateful for the sacrifice of these sisters and brothers whose quiet prayers animate the abandoned corners of our world.

Franciscan Bookshelf: “Following Francis”

By day, K.P.–a good friend of Sister Julia’s–reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

Like most of the books on my Franciscan Bookshelf, I don’t know exactly how I came across “Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone,” Susan Pitchford’s readable but rigorous introduction to the practice of lay Franciscan spirituality, but it is now one of my most dog-eared, deeply-cherished books about faith. Perhaps this is somewhat owing to the way Pitchford’s story resonates with me, particularly: an academic sociologist who describes herself as “scratch[ing] and claw[ing]” her way back to Christianity, Pitchford wrestles throughout the book with how to reconcile her secular vocation with the countercultural demands of her faith, in chapters that detail the aspects of her Rule, including “Prayer,” “Penitence,” “Love,” and “Simplicity.” Now fully immersed in the Anglican Third Order, Pitchford weaves her own (often endearingly clumsy) introduction to the Franciscan way into powerful narratives about the value of simplicity and prayer, the need for radical love, and the pursuit of meaningful work using the life of St. Francis as a guide. Pitchford’s introduction to the “Way” is—by turns—difficult, beautiful, accessible, and nourishing.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Following-Francis-The-Franciscan-Everyone/dp/0819222356
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Following-Francis-The-Franciscan-Everyone/dp/0819222356

On the topic of “Self-Denial,” Pitchford is particularly insightful. Building on Kathleen Norris’s insight in “The Cloister Walk” that “the saints are those who have been willing to go through life without anesthesia,” Pitchford examines the many ways in which we have become accustomed to “anesthetizing” ourselves in modern Western culture: drugs, alcohol, greasy food, cigarettes, to be sure, but also music, movies, shopping, television. By rightly recognizing that the practice of self-denial is often counter-intuitive—if not seemingly irrelevant—to lay religious, Pitchford gently encourages those interested in such a discipline to meaningfully cultivate time and attention for the entertainments which bring us profound pleasure rather than transforming them into background noise. (As she puts it, “I figure if the music is good, it deserves my full attention; if not, it deserves to be turned off.”) Far from lamenting the deprivations of a good life, Pitchford humbly suggests a different version of it: a life filled with the kind of joy and peace that only gratified silence and cultivated attention can bring. And, of course, the occasional, profoundly-felt chocolate bar.

“Following Francis” also speaks to the challenges lay religious face in coordinating the disciplines of their spiritual life with the demands of their secular one. In chapters on “Humility,” “Study,” and “Work,” Pitchford addresses the intersection of meekness and practicing obedience in the context of meaningful employment. The modern workplace is often both competitive and self-aggrandizing, which can feel at odds to those called to lifestyles of solitude, humility, and voluntary simplicity. And yet, Pitchford reminds us, the reconciling of the two can produce powerful opportunities to witness and minister. She (rather comically) describes her search for meaningful ministry as an experience of discouraged unemployment, where everything she understands to be a “legitimate calling” is ultimately closed off to her. Yet she neglects to recognize that, all along, she has continued to write, teach, research, and touch lives. As she describes her realization, “Prayer, teaching, and writing: could this be a life that would be genuinely pleasing to God?” I think those of us called to a more contemplative life can agree that it sometimes feels … indulgent? Irrelevant? I myself have struggled deeply with my vocation as a professor: shouldn’t I be out feeding the homeless? Couldn’t I dedicate my hours to something more meaningful than reading and writing? Yet God has responded, again and again—through spiritual directors, through prayer, through books like Pitchford’s—by reminding me that a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth and knowledge, and to fostering truth and knowledge in other, more resistant minds, is a vocation in and of itself. Not a better or worse vocation, but simply the shape of my specific and particular call at this moment in my life. And thus I find helpful and comforting Pitchford’s emphasis on the need for self-reflection in order to understand secular vocations in discerning terms, to recognize the limits of our knowing:

… I think humans have a natural apophatic tendency—an intuitive sense of the limits of knowledge—and serious study can bring it to the surface. Apophatic theology claims that God is so far beyond human experience and understanding that all positive assertions about God’s essence are inevitably misleading, distorting, and potentially idolatrous. Instead of making statements about what God is (the thrust of “cataphatic” theology), apophatic theology emphasizes all that God is not: God is not limited (“infinite”), not subject to death and decay (“immortal”), beyond all description (“ineffable”). Because God so transcends our capacity to know him, apophatic theology stresses unknowing: we can do nothing but bow in silent awe before the mystery we cannot begin to comprehend. I confess I’m more at home in the cataphatic tradition, with heavy doses of analogy (“God is like a king,” “Christ is like a bridegroom”). Yet there’s that undeniable tendency for each little summit I reach to open up new vistas of my ignorance. This makes sense, because it’s only when we push ourselves to the limits of our knowledge that we get a feel for what those limits are.

I feel grateful every day to do meaningful work that pushes me, again and again, to the limits of my knowledge. May Pitchford’s work speak to you as it has to me: a grounded narrative of the transformations that the Franciscan way can bring to your life, work, and prayer.