Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 28, 2008

The Sap is Running!

My plan for this gray Wednesday (February 27) had been to go upstairs and work on my sermon for Sunday week.  All that changed, however, when Bill came in with an announcement: The sap is running!  That meant it was time to drop everything else, grab some bright orange buckets, and head for the trees.

In fact, the sap was not only running – it was, in some places, overflowing the collection buckets. Down at “the lines,” where plastic tubing is used to link a stand of trees together, Bill said it was flowing like water from a faucet.

Our property has about 300 maples altogether; we’re tapping 95 of them right now. Some trees are quite close to the house, so several of us went on foot, taking a bucket for each hand. Bill, meanwhile, loaded his pickup with twenty buckets or so, and headed down the hill.

It’s a simple thing, harvesting sap from trees. Each maple has one or two taps driven into it, from which hang galvanized aluminum buckets. You gently slide the lid off the bucket, lift the bucket off the tap, and empty the sap into your collecting bucket. Then you replace everything, thank the tree for its gift, and go to the next tree.

So simple, and yet so astonishing. As I watch the sap flow, without noise and apparently without struggle, a deep hush settles over and around me. The sap runs clear and sweet – there’s nothing quite like a fresh, cold, cup of it – and the trees give so generously. How many times a day, especially in winter when the branches are bare, do I pass by stands of trees, heedless of the life flowing within?

For some reason, this thought brings to mind some favorite words of Howard Thurman, who tells us that “hope is the growing edge”:

“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit…Look well to the growing edge!”

Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 24, 2008

Sap Moon Fireside – with Eclipse!

Each month, weather and calendar permitting, our convent hosts a Full Moon Fireside and invites any and all to come. During the warm months we gather down at the fire pit; in the winter we meet in our great room, around a roaring fire in the fireplace. We generally drum together for the first half hour, then have some kind of guided meditation, followed by conversation on a pre-selected topic.

This past Wednesday night was the first Fireside we’ve been able to have in a while. The November and December full moons had come too close to Thanksgiving and Christmas for us to try and host an event; in January, most of us were away. We won’t be able to have one in March, either, for Moon will be full on Good Friday.

This month, happily, several things came together to make it an auspicious night for a Fireside. For one thing, the sap in our maple trees is running now, and the steam of the boiling liquid was rising steadily from the evaporator on our front porch. Another factor was knowing that a total lunar eclipse would be starting just about the time the fireside was scheduled to end.

For days, the forecast had been for partly cloudy skies. We were praying that the clouds would part long enough for us at least to get a glimpse of Moon going into eclipse. At dusk, we were hopeful; looking out the kitchen window it seemed – could it be? – as though the sky were clear.

Our drumming began at 6:30, as usual. Sometime after seven, we forewent our usual meditation to show a portion of “The Future of Food,” which we’d been wanting to share with people for some time. This is a very powerful film about the industrialization of our food supply, dealing especially with the issues raised by genetically modified food.

Around 8:30, we looked east to a crystal clear sky and Moon, still rising. Some fifteen minutes later, we saw Earth’s shadow make the first small dent in the luminous disc. Bundling up, we went outside for a better view, watching transfixed as the stars got brighter, and as the shadow continued its slow progression, coloring the moonlight a strange and beautiful rust red. What struck us especially, in addition to the color, was that Moon in eclipse seemed less a disc, and more what it really is – a full, round sphere. This was particularly evident when we looked through a pair of binoculars.

It was a frigid night, so from time to time we took refuge, either indoors by the fire, or in the steamy makeshift sugar house. At some point, Sr. Helena Marie went into the kitchen and brought mugs for everyone, inviting us to dip them into the boiling sap. That put the seal on what was already a magical evening.

In my life I’ve had wonderful eclipse experiences, both solar and lunar. But never have I stood on a porch with friends, a mug of sweet sap warming my hands, watching a silver-yellow disc becoming a rust red orb. Truly a night to remember.

Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 19, 2008

Buzz is gone

When Sr. CB and I returned from Trinity Institute in January, the first news we heard was that Buzz had disappeared. He had gone out late one afternoon, as was his wont, but hadn’t returned at his usual time to demand supper. Those left on the farm looked for him everywhere, for several days, but found no signs of him alive or dead.

For a while, we held out hope that he’d been trapped in someone’s garage or barn, but four weeks later he still hasn’t shown up. We may yet be joyfully surprised, but we suspect that Buzz Lightyear, the Great Vole Hunter, has himself become prey – perhaps to coyotes, or maybe a great horned owl. It’s the kind of thing one learns to expect with cats who insist on going outdoors, as Buzz did. But of course we’re still sad.

I had a very soft spot in my heart for Buzz, who despite his strong feral streak was extremely affectionate. He also looked a lot like Theo, the black cat I gave up when I came to community. He liked to sleep in the Novitiate, on the third floor, curled up on someone’s bed. When I saw him like that, it always gave me the feeling that all was well.

Sr. Catherine Grace has written a great blog about Buzz. I’ll just share some photos. Here he is in some characteristic postures: (1) wanting to come in (not long afterward, of course, he’d be wanting to go out again), (2) in watchful alertness, and (3) sniffing the plants to see if there’s anything he wants to eat.

So long, Buzz, old buddy. I’ll be missing you!


img_2681.jpgBuzz in the leavesimg_2799.jpg

Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 19, 2008

Nicodemus’ Journey

After many years of preferring the Synoptics, I’ve come in recent years to love the Fourth Gospel. I’ve been helped along in this by John Sanford’s Jungian interpretations in Mystical Christianity: a Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John, which cured me of any lingering temptation to try to understand these passages on a literal plane.

During Revised Common Lectionary Year A, we’re treated during Lent and Easter to a long series of delicious Johannine passages. It started yesterday, with Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish leader and Pharisee Nicodemus (John 3:1-17), and continues next week with the story of his conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42). On March 9 the passage is the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45), combined with the “dry bones” prophecy of Ezekiel (Ezek. 37:1-14). I’m looking forward to preaching on these texts at St. Andrew’s Brewster.

We’re told that Nicodemus first comes to Jesus by night. He appears twice more in John’s narrative: first in chapter 7 when he speaks up somewhat timidly on Jesus’ behalf (“Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” 7:51), and then at the crucifixion, when he joins Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body away for burial (19:38-42).

Suzanne came back from a weekend at Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, with a report of the morning’s sermon. If I’ve understood correctly, one of the brothers talked about the significance of Nicodemus’ journey – from coming to Jesus at night, when no one could see, to embracing him in the full light of day, at the foot of the cross. This brother then invited the congregation to compare this with their own faith pilgrimage – don’t most of us start tentatively, with a small glimmer in the dark? The brother’s interpretation certainly rings true for me, in terms of my own faith journey.

For the most part, the Pharisees get an unfair bad rap in the New Testament – a reflection of first century religious politics in which the early Jesus-followers were struggling to be recognized as Jews. Even so, Nicodemus strikes me as an almost sympathetic character, or at least someone with whom we can identify.

Even his questioning of Jesus, which some commentators portray as entirely doltish, sounds to me like good rabbinic sparring. In fact, it takes me back to my law school days (ancient history by now) in which professors would draw us out with questions. Even if he got a brilliant answer from a student, Prof. Aronowitz would press the student to explore its dimensions further: “Do you really mean to tell me, Ms. Smith, that…?” I wonder how he’d have responded if Ms. Smith had come back, Jesus style, with, “You are a teacher of the law, and you have to ask me?”

Identification with Nicodemus may be John’s point, actually. As Sanford says of all the characters in this gospel, “a meeting with Jesus is also a confrontation with himself.” So why should it be any different for us?

Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 15, 2008

The Props Are Taken Away

What is the purpose of Lenten fasting? Why do we make our lives more austere during these forty days?

Certainly not to feel “moral,” or “holier than thou.” All that does is stroke the ego, and thus defeat the whole purpose. As Jesus reminds us, those who try to impress others – or, for that matter, themselves – with their piety “already have their reward” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) – a reward of definitely lesser goods.

Nor does the prayer for Ash Wednesday in the Book of Common Prayer, beautiful as it is, quite say it for me. It speaks of “worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness” so that we may obtain from God “perfect remission and forgiveness.” Such penitential piety certainly has a place in Lenten spirituality, but I’m not convinced it should be the main event. It’s not that we don’t regularly fall into sin, and sometimes even into wretchedness. But excessive focus on these, I fear, puts us in danger of excessive self-centeredness.

This verse of our community’s morning Lenten hymn, attributed to Gregory the Great, comes closer to expressing it for me. It’s verse 4 of Hymn 152 in the 1982 Hymnal:

Give us the discipline that springs/ from abstinence in outward things/ with inward fasting, so that we/ in heart and soul may dwell with thee.

A beautiful Ash Wednesday prayer, from Englishwoman Janet Morley, in All Desires Known: Inclusive Prayers for Worship and Meditation (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1988, 1992) also speaks to me:

O God/ you have made us for yourself/ and against your longing there is no defence./ Mark us with your love/ and release in us a passion for your justice/ in our disfigured world;/ that we may turn from our guilt and face you/ our hearts desire. Amen.

For me, what Lenten austerity is really about is turning, shifting our focus. It’s about taking away some of the props and distractions that we’re used to counting on, forcing us to seek deeper and more lasting sources of sustenance. Thus we’re drawn more deeply into prayer, into a more immediate relationship with the Holy One, “against [whose] longing there is no defence.”

In Lent, we’re invited, as Martin Smith tells us, to do what Jesus did, and hand ourselves over to the Spirit. What this does is expose us to the truth (in Greek, aletheia or “unhiddenness”) which “happens to us when the coverings of illusion are stripped away and what is real emerges into the open.” This truth “consists not in new furniture for the mind but in exposure to the reality of God’s presence in ourselves and the world” (A Season for the Spirit, p. 6).

Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 11, 2008

Lenten Intentions – Surrender

As I mentioned a few days ago, my spiritual director invited me to think about one or more specific intentions for Lent, something to guide me through these forty days. As I pondered this, I knew that “giving up,” in the usual sense, was not the point; the community’s Lenten practice is austere enough already. So, what else might I do?

For inspiration, it made sense to turn to the book that has been my Lenten companion for the last five or six years. This is Martin Smith’s book of daily Lenten meditations, A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the Days of Lent (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1991; it’s now been reissued by Seabury). Martin is an Episcopal priest and former brother and superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE). Over the years, I’ve found his Lenten book to be a continuing source of insight and comfort. Even though I’ve read it five times, I always seem to find something new in it.

Opening it this year, I found almost immediately what I was looking for. In the very first meditation, for Ash Wednesday, Martin writes about how Jesus was driven into the desert, “a place of forces that cannot be resisted, flash floods and winds from which there is no escape” (p. 5). In going into the desert, Jesus handed himself over to the Spirit, which, like the wind, blows where it chooses (John 3:8).

Martin continues,

Perhaps this word “surrender” should be enough for my prayer on this Ash Wednesday. Not the surrender of submission to an enemy, but the opposite, the laying down of resistance to the One who loves me infinitely more than I can guess, the One who is more on my side than I am myself. Dwelling on this thought of letting go, and handing myself over to the Spirit, will bring me much closer to the experience of Jesus than the word “discipline”… (p. 5).

This year, I feel drawn to make ‘surrender’ my prayer for Lent. In doing this, it’s important to keep in mind that, for me, surrender is a tricky concept. In my life I have often yielded too quickly when I should have stood up for myself, or engaged in uncritical surrender when I should have asked questions – some of the traps for the Enneagram Nine. I must remember that surrender is different from resignation. Also, that it’s the Heart of Life I’m surrendering to – not another person, not any particular institution, not some notion of “fate.”

For my prayer practice, I’ve posted Martin Smith’s words in several places, including my prie-dieu in chapel, and am using “surrender” (or sometimes “help me surrender”) as a mantra in silent meditation. Saying the mantra while working through a set of wooden prayer beads seems to help me stay centered. A prayer shawl over my shoulders keeps me mindful of “the One who loves me infinitely more than I can guess.”

Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 8, 2008

Lenten Intentions: Giving up? Taking on? Or letting go?

In January, knowing that my prayer life had hit a rather drifty stage, my spiritual director suggested that for Lent I become more focused. “Why don’t you draw up one or more specific intentions?” she asked. “We can talk about them next month.” She proceeded to schedule our next appointment for Shrove Tuesday – Ash Wednesday Eve, in effect.

As early as elementary school, I remember hearing kids talk about what they were going to “give up for Lent.” If asked about Lenten intentions, “giving things up” may still be the first thing many people think of. Others deride this whole notion, and say that what we really should be doing in Lent is “taking something on.”

I’m not part of this latter group. For one thing, by this time of year, I’ve usually “taken on” plenty! Also, over the years, I’ve found it personally helpful to practice some kind of Lenten austerity – usually giving up sugar. In my new life, of course, this has gotten much more intense. If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll see that our life changes quite a bit at Melrose during this forty-day period. We are, indeed, giving many things up for Lent!

What’s helpful for me to remember, though, is that this austerity is only a means to an end. We give up accustomed ways so that something different can happen. We let go of some things so that a new thing may come in.

One fast I haven’t mentioned is the “Alleluia fast.” For Lent, we simply stop saying or singing “Hallelujah” or its Latin equivalent, and this goes on until Easter. But it takes some of us one or more glaring mistakes to catch on. I knew about the Alleluia fast, but did it stop me from singing the very first Alleluia in the morning office, when I should have omitted it? Of course not! Embarrassing – but I did have company.

In reflecting on how this had happened, I realized that I’d simply been on automatic pilot. One of the things Lent does, I think, is help us get off automatic pilot and learn – as Thoreau would put it – “to live deliberately.”

In my next post, I’ll let you know in what direction my Lenten intentions are heading, in what might be considered a 21st century version of “Walden.”

Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 7, 2008

Ash Wednesday – Lent Begins

Lent begins today, February 6 – almost the earliest in the year Ash Wednesday could fall. (February 5 would be the absolute earliest, for a March 22 Easter.) My UU colleague Tricia Brennan tells us that Lent/Easter won’t occur this early again until the year 2160, and notes that if we google the question “how do you know when Easter is?” we’ll learn everything on the topic (or more) than we’d ever need to know.

It was only Saturday that we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation, commemorating the day that Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to Jerusalem to be consecrated to God (Luke 2:22-39). Now, four days later, we have him in his early thirties, being led (or, as Mark’s gospel puts it, “driven”) into the desert for forty days.

Some of my more alert church school students, quite reasonably, used to question the chronology of the liturgical calendar, which has Jesus born (Dec. 25), then baptized as an adult (early to mid-January), then consecrated as an infant (Feb. 2), then “transfigured” midstream in his ministry (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday), then driven into the desert as a prelude to that ministry (Ash Wednesday itself). But of course literal chronology is not the name of the game here.

Yesterday was Shrove/Super Tuesday, an odd juxtaposition, perhaps. We went out together in the morning to cast our primary ballots, and then came home and directed our attention toward final pre-Lenten preparations. Last night we had our own version of Mardi Gras – an eclectic, fat-laden supper of pancakes, fried potatoes, quiche, cookies, and (in a nod toward something healthy) “killer kale.” Those of us who drink wine had our last glasses until Easter, and the chocolate has been put away till then.

Since we won’t be watching TV or seeing movies (exception: see below), we stayed up late watching two lovely ones last night: “Ratatouille” and “Off the Map.” Our original plan was a double feature of “Off the Map” and “Bagdad Cafe,” but we couldn’t find the latter in our local video store.

Lauds (our morning prayer service) was at the quite civilized hour of nine, followed by Eucharist with the imposition of ashes. We’ll have Vespers with meditation at 5:30. In the house, we’re keeping silence and observing a modified fast: Unbuttered bread and coffee or tea in the morning, brown rice with cheese sauce at 3:30. (I’m told the brown rice is a scaling down from something that had its origins in a simple meal of plain fish, but had grown into an elaborate production of sauced fish and seafood.)

Our Lenten observance was decided at a house meeting by consensus. We will fast from the following: (1) desserts (except simple ones – fruit or pudding – on Sundays), (2) meat on Wednesdays and Fridays (we rarely have meat anyway, so this is somewhat academic), (3) TV and video (except for “edifying” movies during Sunday evening recreation), (4) alcohol, and (5) sweets (including chocolate but not including our own maple syrup). We also decided to observe an “attitude of silence” (work conversation only) except on Sundays. The introverts like this last provision better than the extroverts do.

We also decided to scale down on food shopping (“We will eat from our own stores, purchasing only raw milk and minimal butter.”) and observe portion control (each sister to implement her own version, with single, reasonable servings and no seconds).

So far I’ve told you about the “what” of our Lenten observance; in future posts I promise to say more about the “why” – and specifically why it has become an imporant part of my life.

Posted by: Sue Spencer | January 26, 2008

Religion, Violence, and Self-Reflection

Earlier this week, Sr. Carol Bernice and I were fortunate enough to attend the Trinity Institute, an annual two-day symposium of lectures, worship, and reflection sponsored by Trinity (Episcopal) Church, Wall Street. The theme was “Religion and Violence: Untangling the Roots of Conflict.” So much has been written on this topic – generally about “those people” who are violent – that I was a bit skeptical about hearing anything new. Once at the Institute, however, my doubts were quickly put to rest.

In his introduction, General Seminary’s Mark Richardson said the purpose of exploring this topic was not to ask, “Why are THEY so violent?” but rather the more challenging question, “How do I/we contribute, and how can we be converted?” The interfaith panel of speakers more than delivered on this promise of challenge.

Black liberation theologian and Union Theological Seminary professor James Cone’s address was entitled “God and Black Suffering: Calling the Oppressors to Account.” Asserting that the injustice of institutional racism is itself violent, even if it hides behind a veneer of civility, Dr. Cone reminded us that it was mainstream Christians, not fundamentalists, who used religion to justify slavery.

Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth, and daughter of the great Abraham Joshua Heschel, similarly questioned the notion that fundamentalism or religious conservatism is the root of religious violence, pointing out that in Hitler’s Germany it was the most liberal theologians who became Nazis, not the neo-orthodox thinkers like Barth and Bonhoeffer.

Catholic writer James Carroll, perhaps best known for Constantine’s Sword, about Christianity and violence against the Jews, spoke on “The Nonviolent God: reforming theology as a way for peace,” noting that his central concern is “religion and WAR,” rather than “religion and violence.” Returning again and again to the holy city Jerusalem, the “city of peace” but also the place of animal sacrifice in the Temple, Carroll asked how we might “unlink the link” between the impulse to worship and the impulse to kill. For Americans, he hit closest to home when he tied the theme of blood sacrifice to the “fervent American civil religion” growing out of the U.S. Civil War. Perhaps, he said, “the soul of America” needs to be saved from what made it America.

Finally, Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic scholar, spoke on “Islam in a Pluralistic Society.” His focus was on “mastering our own inner violence,” starting with the humility that comes from an awareness of our need for God. Barred from entering the U.S. by our State Department, this gentle-spoken man’s address came to us from London via cable connection.

I hope to have more to say about all of these speakers in future blogs. In the meantime, if you have the right software, you can view them at

Posted by: Sue Spencer | January 15, 2008

“In Defense of Food” – Pollan in Person

Last Monday, some friends invited us to go hear Michael Pollan speak at the launch of his new book, In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto (New York: Penguin 2008). It was taking place in Madison, Connecticut, way the other side of New Haven, but the distance and traffic didn’t deter Deb, a new and passionate locavore. Having been impressed with Pollan’s earlier work, the informative and thought-provoking Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin 2006), I was happy and grateful to tag along.

Madison’s R.J. Julia bookstore did a great job organizing the event, which turned out to be Pollan’s first appearance promoting the new book. They realized he was likely to draw a large crowd, and shifted the venue to a large new building in town that could accommodate not only the book audience but also an indoor farmers’ market.

We arrived in time to graze the market for about an hour, circulating through the aisles to sample hoophouse-grown greens, artisanal cheese and bread, Connecticut wines, surprisingly good, and a variety of handmade, herb-scented lotions and soaps. Having brought along a small cooler bag, I found plenty to purchase and take home to the sisters, including a signed copy of In Defense of Food.

Pollan, a tall, fit-looking man in his early fifties, is as good a speaker as he is a writer – warm, funny, and engaged with the audience. His “manifesto” appears on In Defense of Food‘s cover: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Inside, the book is devoted to unpacking those seven words. The aim, Pollan says, is “to help us reclaim our health and happiness as eaters.”

Eat food? Sounds simple. But early in the book Pollan states that “most of what we’re consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all.” He takes an entire chapter, 14 pages, to define what food is (hint: it’s not GoGurt) and offers a list of criteria for distinguishing food from pseudo-food.

To get real food, for example, Pollan recommends that we avoid eating anything that our great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food. We should also shop only the periphery of supermarkets, avoiding the center aisles. Better yet, we should avoid supermarkets entirely, patronizing farmers’ markets instead.

How did we get to the state of affairs where “food” needs 14-page definitions? And what is it that food and eating needs to be “defended” from? Pollan finds two culprits: nutrition science on the one hand, and the food industry on the other. Together they form what he calls the “nutritional industrial complex.”

For its part, nutrition science has promoted “nutritionism,” a form of reductionism that emphasizes isolated “nutrients” over food. Meanwhile, the food industry is happy to seize on the findings du jour of nutrition science (carbs over fat? fat over carbs?) to promote the “healthful” qualities of its products. But this only serves to camouflage the reality of the diet they’re selling us.

This is the disastrous “Western diet” of refined grains, highly processed food, and a superabundance of cheap, empty, sugar and fat calories. Over the last 25 years, despite our professed health consciousness, this diet has made us both sick and fat. Even worse, it threatens the entire planet, springing as it does from agricultural monocultures that pollute the environment and narrow earth’s biological diversity.

What to do about this? In response to a question from the audience, Pollan said that we need to “vote” in two ways, both with our forks and with our ballots. This includes paying attention to legislation like the Farm Bills that come up every year. It also involves making sure that good, nutritious, real food is available to everyone – not only those who can show up at a book promotion/boutique farmers’ market on a Monday night.

“It’s all about food” is one of our catch phrases at Melrose. Michael Pollan appears to agree – and also reminds us that food is all about justice.

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