Lord, open my lips
This morning we had one of the best catechesis sessions ever. Totally not my doing, except that I was open to inspiration and ran with it when I saw what was happening. It was also one of the best experiences of lectio divina I’ve ever had.
What happened was this. After a very rocky morning when both Sophie and I lost our tempers before breakfast and acted in ways that were not very pretty, I sat down to nurse Lucia and finally say my Morning Prayer. Settling into the rocking chair in the living room, I first had to answer a question from Sophie about why we pray before meals and I walked through the prayer before meals, explaining all the words and answering questions as they came up. (This is not the first time I’ve explained this prayer to her. We’ve had this conversation before.) Then I told her the grace we said in Italian when I was a student in Rome:
Benedici, Signore, noi e il cibo che stiamo per prendere e insegnaci a dividerlo con i poveri. Cosi sia.
And maybe that was the key to the whole thing. She was already in question and answer mode and so was I. We were already breaking open the prayers to understand them.
So Anthony was perched on the armrest next to me and Sophie was leaning against my chair and Bella playing by my feet and Ben nearby playing at the coffee table. I began to pray the Psalms, reading out loud as I often do. I began with Lord, open my lips and helped Anthony to trace a cross on his lips as I did so and my mouth will proclaim your praise. And I explained as an aside that we cannot praise God unless he gives us the power to do so.
Come, Let us sing to the Lord
And so we began with Psalm 95, and as I began to pray I read to myself the verse from Hebrews: Encourage each other daily while it is still today. and I read it as a personal invitation to me to encourage them, to invite them to praise God with me. And so as I began, Come, let us sing to the Lord and shout with joy to the Rock who saves us I said it as an invitation to the children clustered around me, inviting them to join me in praise. And it was amazing to see how they heard the call.
Soon enough there was an interruption. Sophie asked: “Why does it say that?” when I read, The Lord is God, the mighty God, the great king over all the gods. Do you mean: “What does it mean that God is king over all the gods?” I asked her. She nodded yes. “Well, you remember how the Egyptians and Greeks and Romans and Babylonians worshiped lots of gods that they made up? This is reminding the Israelites that God is greater than all of those gods. That he is king above them all. And if he is king over them all, then they should just worship him instead of all those gods who aren’t so powerful. And who aren’t even real like he is real.”
And so on about how God made everything: the depths of the earth and the mountains and the sea. She got that part easily enough. Then we discussed how the Psalm tells us to bow down and worship and to bend the knee before the Lord our maker and that’s why we genuflect in church and why we kneel down to pray. The Psalms tell us to. And so on to we are his people, the flock he shepherds and Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We discussed how the Israelites were stubborn and not listening to God and that’s why he put them in “time out” in the desert for forty years. We discussed the times we are stubborn and don’t listen to God and we talked about how being in the desert meant they were entirely dependent on God for food and drink. We talked about how when we aren’t listening to God we also can’t find rest.
May we keep pure
Today’s hymn is one I particularly like to sing in the mornings:
Behold, the golden dawn arise;
The paling night forsakes the skies:
Those shades that hid the world from view,
And us to dangerous errors drew.
May this new day be calmly passed,
May we keep pure while it shall last:
Nor let our lips from truth depart,
Nor dark designs engage the heart.
So may the day speed on; the tongue
No falsehood know, the hands no wrong:
Our eyes from wanton gaze refrain,
No guilt our guarded bodies stain.
For God all-seeing from on high
Surveys us with a watchful eye:
Each day our every act he knows
From early dawn to evening’s close.
All laud to God the Father be;
All praise, eternal Son to thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To God the Holy Paraclete. Amen.
Sophie asked me what “May we keep pure” means and I explained, using a metaphor I’d used the previous day when discussing Purgatory, that sin makes us dirty and that in the song we are asking God to help us not sin, to not be dirty. We talked about how icky it would be to go outside and rub dirt in our hair and how sinning is like doing that to our souls. And we talked about how hard it is to not sin, even when we don’t want to, that we need God’s help to be good and loving to each other. We also talked about how God sees everything that we do. And then we discussed the meaning of the word “laud” and of “Paraclete.”
Zion shall be called Mother
And now on to Psalm 87, the Heavenly Jerusalem is Mother of us all. Bella almost immediately pipes up, “What is Zion?” And so I explain that it is the mountain where God’s temple was built, the mountain where the city of Jerusalem is. And I asked her what was special about the Temple, “What was in the Temple?” I ask. And she answers: The Ark of the Covenant, the tablets with the Ten Commandments, the Angels on the Ark. And, I remind her: God’s presence sitting enthroned upon the Ark, between the angels. His glory cloud. His presence with his people.
She didn’t say anything, but I know Bella’s ear’s perked up at the mentions of Babylon and Egypt, of Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia. We talked about how God’s presence, his word, his message weren’t for the Israelites to keep to themselves but they were supposed to go out to all the nations, to be a nation of priests, to tell everyone about God so that all peoples could know him and worship him. And all shall be her children. I didn’t discuss the Marian typology, I thought that might be too much. Another day we will discuss how Mary is the type of the Heavenly Jerusalem, our Mother.
The Good Shepherd: God most high and most wise.
Finally the Canticle: Isaiah 40:10-17 The Lord, the mighty conqueror, will come; he will bring with him the prize of victory.
Here comes with power
the Lord God,
who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
The ball is back in Sophie’s court: “What does that mean?” I tried to explain how ancient kings conquered other people in battle and brought back riches, gold and jewels and all the fine things as prizes of victory. And I asked when Jesus won his great victory and what prize it was he brought from the battle. Bella, sharp as ever, answered: the cross. He brought back the souls of the dead. With a bit more prompting she agreed that heaven was the reward he brought us, eternal life.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.
Now we get to talk about an image Sophie knows well: the Good Shepherd. She wants to know what a bosom is. And I talk about how he carries the lambs like a mother or father carries a baby. He cares for his sheep and he feeds them. What does Jesus feed us? I ask. And Sophie says all the food we eat every day. And Bella adds, with a bit of prompting: The Eucharist. And then she asks why some people don’t drink from the cup at communion and I explain that all of Jesus, his body, blood, soul, and divinity are present in both what looks like bread and what looks like wine. So either way, the tiniest drop of wine, the smallest crumb of bread contains all of Jesus, his total self. And she asks what divinity means. Godhood.
Who has cupped in his hand the waters of the sea,
and marked off the heavens with a span?
Who has held in a measure the dust of the earth,
weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
Sophie really liked this bit. She giggled at the image of God holding the sea in his hand, measuring the sky with a ruler, holding all the dirt in the world in a measuring cup, weighing the mountains in a scale like I weigh the flour for my bread recipe….
Who has directed the spirit of the Lord,
or has instructed him as his counselor?
Whom did he consult to gain knowledge?
Who taught him the path of judgment,
or showed him the way of understanding?
Bella was amused at the idea of anyone being God’s teacher. I was thinking of Job here: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? That passage has been haunting me recently. Had the girls not slowed me down, would I have taken the time to notice the parallel here, or would I have sleepwalked my way through this one as has been usual of late?
Holy is the Lord our God
And now Psalm 99. I thought the girls were slowing down, maybe I should just stop. But then I looked up and saw them watching me. Why not keep going?
Fewer questions here, but then Bella asks about this bit:
You are a king who loves what is right;
you have established equity, justice and right;
you have established them in Jacob.
What does that mean? I tried to explain how kings in the ancient world could be capricious and unfair. Gave a fictitious example. And then explained how God isn’t like that. I think my explanation made sense.
Among his priests were Aaron and Moses, among those who invoked his name was Samuel. They invoked the Lord and he answered.
To them he spoke in the pillar of cloud.
How do we know about God? The Bible, Bella answers. And more specifically, because he spoke with Aaron and Moses and Samuel. He talked to them. He is the God who seeks us out.
Here I also tried to draw a contrast between the pagan gods who are not always that holy and good and loving. I’m not sure Bella got the distinction I was trying to make. Oh well.
Put Your Gifts at the Service of One Another
We closed our session with the reading from 1 Peter 4:8-11a
As generous distributors of God’s manifold grace, put your gifts at the service of one another, each in the measure he has received. The one who speaks is to deliver God’s message. The one who serves is to do it with the strength provided by God. Thus, in all of you God is to be glorified through Jesus Christ.
Unpacking this one was such fun. Like those moments in grad school seminars when everyone is on fire and the ideas are flying and you’re unpacking the text and it just all clicks. Except better because the text we’re unpacking is the Word and the people I’m unpacking it with are my daughters. And I can feel the Spirit breathing in me and in them, we’re all on fire and… just wow.
First there was the difficult sounding “manifold grace” but that’s easy it just means gifts from God. And I so very much love the “generous distributors”. How all the gifts we receive are merely given to us so that we can pass them on to other people. And I love the bit about each in the measure he has received. Even if all we have is little, we can still put our gifts at the service of one another, I told them. Even Lucia. I asked them if she had any gifts from God that she put at the service of our family. At first they said no, but after a time they agreed that her laughter and smiles are gifts to us from God, through her. That she shares them so generously with us. And I asked them how they can share their gifts with everyone else. And explained to them that when it says “the one who serves is to do it with the strength provided by God” means that we don’t have the strength on our own to do the acts of service we should want to do, but that God will help us if we ask him.
I felt this great connection, we were all inspired by this desire to serve each other. I saw it all day today, little acts of kindness and love and service and when I saw them, I pointed them out: Look how Sophie serves Lucy by bringing her a toy! Look how Bella serves Anthony by filling his water cup! At dinner time I heard Bella telling Dom about “three big sacrifices” she made today. And when at dinner she gave up her plate to Anthony who fussily demanded that he didn’t want the orange plate he’d been given but Bella’s green one, I thanked her for the act of love, and praised her for helping us all to have a peaceful dinner. Blessed are the peacemakers. They shall be called the children of God.
The Words Must Precede Our Mind
I maintain that the best catechesis is simply living the faith and especially participating in the liturgy of the Church and days like today bear that out. The Liturgy of the Hours has been called The School of Prayer. Here the Word of God is presented for us to feast on. Here we encounter Christ.
Indeed Pope Benedict writes:
St. Benedict, in his “Rule”, speaking of the prayer of the Psalms, indicates to the monks: mens concordet voci, “may the mind agrees with the voice.” The Saint teaches that the prayer of the Psalms, the words must precede our mind. Usually it does not happen this way, first one has to think and then what we have thought, is converted into speech. Here, however in the liturgy it is the inverse, the words come first. God gave us the Word and the Sacred Liturgy gives us the words, and we must enter into their meaning, welcome them within us, be in harmony with them. Thus we become children of God, similar to God.
I don’t want to create the illusion that it’s usually like this. Usually I pray and they seem to ignore it, playing their games, noisily talking over the prayers. But I figure if prayer is the background noise they grow up with, then eventually they will start to tune in. They will pick up bits and pieces, words and phrases. They become curious, ask questions. And then days like today when suddenly the bud you’ve seen developing suddenly has petals. It’s not a bud at all but a blossom.
No we aren’t saints yet. I yelled at the kids again this afternoon. Sophie fought with Bella, Bella shoved Ben, so many little quarrels. And yet miraculously there were moments when things didn’t fall apart, when I kept my head and we navigated the rapids without crashing on the rocks. Slowly, slowly, I find these moments of hope: maybe this will work out after all. Maybe these words are forming us, teaching us how to think, how to live. Maybe we really can become children of God.
Photos: Sunflowers reaching to the sky, cosmos cheerfully flashing their faces. Finally opening their petals to greet the day. Planting a garden growing prayer, they are so similar. So many days it seemed like our garden would never bloom. And for so many, many days I pray feeling as dry as dirt, the words feeling lifeless in my mouth, falling asleep in the midst of the prayers, the children fighting and yelling, me yelling at them. And then one day you glance out the window and there is the bright bloom raising it’s head joyfully.