Sunday, April 27, 2008

On the Importance of Creating a Daily Practice

When we join the Urban Abbey, we commit to following a Rule of Life that has four components: (1) Pray daily; (2) Study scripture; (3) Serve others; and (4) Show fellowship. Notice that while all four of these components of the Rule are important and integral parts of our life in the Abbey, only the first states specifically how often it should be done: pray daily. It doesn’t say “pray once a week in church,” or “pray when you remember to,” or even “pray if you feel like it.” It says pray daily.

In many ways, life in the Urban Abbey is much harder than it is for members of traditional spiritual communities that live together, since the personal discipline required to follow the Rule can be much greater. When we live in a community and all we have to do is roll out of bed and go to chapel at the appointed time, it is hard to not pray daily. Prayer simply happens in a monastery and the community member need only show up as the rhythm of regular, ongoing prayer goes on around them. We get a taste of how supportive this external schedule can be in our community meetings and retreats. At these community events, the Daily Office is used to structure our time together and provide prayer opportunities that busy Abbey members may not always be able to find space for in their daily lives.

And, yet, we have all committed to following the Rule of Life and the first part of this Rule says we will pray daily. What is a busy Abbey member to do? Don’t those people who thought up this Rule know that mornings are very busy and we have to get to work, get the kids to school, attend a very important meeting? And, yes, we understand that morning prayer is not specified – daily prayer can occur in the evening, but then there’s dinner, going to the gym, and more important meetings. Maybe even church committee meetings! Doesn’t that count?

Well, no, it doesn’t count. All of these activities are important and worthy of our time, but none will feed us the way daily prayer will. When we skip this most important of daily activities we deny ourselves the spiritual food that we need to sustain all our other important life activities. If you pray daily you will be amazed at how much more you have to give to your work, your kids and all those people you go to meetings with.

Several years ago, after I had a serious accident requiring major surgery (some of you remember this!) followed by a diagnosis of an unrelated but equally serious illness requiring daily medication, I came to my senses and realized I needed to start paying attention to my body. Daily. I had been an on-again, off-again yoga student for years and had heard one teacher after another say “You will never experience the power of yoga until you establish your own daily practice.” So, I decided that I would try.

I got up a half hour earlier each day, spread out my mat and sat there trying to remember how to do the poses. It was hard without my teacher nearby, so I got books, which I glanced at often, sometimes from an upside-down position, and I kept at it. Every day. I had heard that it takes 30 or 40 days before a repeated activity becomes a habit, so each day that I got out my mat and got down on the floor, I put a check mark on my calendar.

Then, one day, after several successful weeks, I slept through my alarm and in my hurry to get to work and some important meeting (that I now remember nothing about) I skipped my yoga practice. I felt off all day. I was distracted, annoyed by everybody and everything. I didn’t make the connection until I glanced at my calendar and saw the evidence of missing my daily practice: the coveted check mark was not there for that day. And I suddenly knew I’d been provided an important lesson in establishing a daily practice: do it every day and soon you will find you cannot live without it.

To establish a daily practice, we need to give ourselves a specific assignment, and it needs to be realistic. If you have only 5 minutes to give to prayer, try saying the Lord’s prayer or (my favorite) choose one of the “Daily Devotions” in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP, pp. 136-140; see online version And, remember: prayer can take many forms and it isn’t always necessary to pray with our lips, using words. An early morning walk or run might be your way of praying. Our own presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is featured on the Runners World website,7120,s6-369-374--12358-2-1-2,00.html describing her regular practice of running as a form of “body prayer.”

My own current practice involves (as you can surely guess by now) twenty minutes of yoga followed by either p. 137 in the BCP or one of a selection of prayers I’ve collected over the years and keep in an old tea box, but it also involves writing. I use a spiral notebook and I write to God. (This morning, I received this message as I wrote: “Teach them the importance of a daily practice.”) For me, a writer, it works. You may benefit from a different way of praying.

Praying daily doesn’t need to consume a lot of time, but what it does need is regular attention. You should pray every day and it may help you, as it did me, to keep track. You might try getting a package of sticky gold stars from the craft store and giving yourself one on your calendar for each day you say your prayers. We all loved getting those stars when we were kids, and you might be surprised how motivating they still are.

Find a daily practice that works for you and stick with it for 40 days. Every day you do your practice, give yourself a gold star or a check mark on your calendar. If, in 40 days, you feel no difference in your life, this may mean you need to change something about your practice. Find a prayer practice that feeds you. Your way of praying may be different from mine or the next person’s, but there will be one that works for you and you will find it. And when you do, your life will be improved in ways you would never have predicted.



Raima Larter, Abbess, Urban Abbey

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Is This Your Season?

Abbey Chat April 14, 2008
[Reprinted from a recent post to the UA Listserv]

I spent a few hours this weekend digging in the backyard, preparing a spot to plant some tomatoes, herbs and peppers. At this time of year my mind turns to gardening, even though it's too early to plant. In gardening, like life, there is a season for everything, and this is the time for preparation. Planting will come later and the harvest much, much later – but now, in early Spring, we simply prepare the soil and wait.

Evelyn Underhill, an astute observer of the spiritual life, draws powerful images of spiritual formation from the gardening experience. She says: "All gardeners know the importance of good root development before we force the leaves and flowers. So our life in God should be deeply rooted and grounded before we presume to expect to produce flowers and fruits; otherwise we risk shooting up into one of those lanky plants which can never do without a stick. We are constantly beset by the notion that we ought to perceive ourselves springing up quickly, like the seed on stony ground, showing striking signs of spiritual growth. But perhaps we are only required to go on quietly, making root, growing nice and bushy; docile to the great slow rhythm of life." [Lent with Evelyn Underhill, 2nd edition,Morehouse Publishing (1990) p. 98]

In the life of the Urban Abbey we are entering a new season, maybe not yet the season for planting, but definitely a season of preparation…for a new program year and, soon, a new Leadership Team. The Abbess/Abbott joins with 3-5 Abbey members to form a team which takes primary responsibility for the coming year's Abbey events. If you are a member of the Abbey, are you called to be a member of this team? Is this your season for making root or, perhaps, for sending out leaves and flowers? I ask each Abbey member to give some thought and prayer to this question and consider whether you are called, at this time, to serve the Abbey in a leadership role. Over the next few weeks we will be forming a new Leadership Team, aiming to have a complete group in place before the June meeting (date yet to be determined). You might consider discussing your possible role in theLeadership Team with your listening group, since the listening group can help us discern a call we may not hear so clearly ourselves. Others often see in us those qualities we have difficulty seeing in ourselves. (I speak from recent personal experience!) I would be happy to talk to any of you about this possibility if it interests you, if you wonder whether what you feel might be considered a"call," or if you see this possibility in the future of another Abbey member. Please email me if you would like to discuss this.

Raima Larter, Abbess, Urban Abbey

366 Day 204 - April 24 - We wish this rule to be read often

If there is any chapter in the rule that demonstrates Benedictine openness to life and, at the same time, models a manner of living in the midst of society without being consumed by it, this is surely the one. Guests are welcomed enthusiastically in Benedictine spirituality but, at the same time, life is not to be frittered away on work, on social life, on the public bustle of the day. The community is to stay as self-contained as possible so that centered in the monastery they stay centered in their hearts. More, this balance between public and private, between openness and centeredness, between consciousness of the outside world and concentration on interior growth is to be remembered and rehearsed over and over again: “We wish this rule to be read often,” the rule says plaintively so that the monastic never forgets that the role of the committed Christian is always to grow richer themselves so that they can give richly to others.
--Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, Insights for the Ages

Seton's Thought
I hear the call to walk the fine line that combines “of” the world and “in” the world in these words. I like to walk and tramp in various places, often listening for God in the process. This reading makes me think how sometimes I try to walk the curb at the edge of the sidewalk or road. Depending on the place I am walking this can be easy or difficult. The call to “read the rule often” is an important call when thinking about these walks – sometimes I lose focus and think I am more skillful than I really am and take more risks than I should. More often I become complacent and quit walking the path requiring balance; I take the easy way out and stop walking altogether. May I be reminded daily of the need to keep walking, searching, and searching for the balance between “of” and “in”…

This is a posting from my Flickr page, where I have been taking a picture each day since January 1st and adding some thoughts or comments on Sister Joan Chittister's reflection on St. Benedict's Rule of Life. I may, on occasion, post other pictures and items. You can see other postings in this series on Flickr at

Do you have photographs (such as this one that Seton Droppers took) of Urban Abbey events that you would be willing to share? If so, please contact

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Emergence: In honor of Earth Day

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…”

In my “other life” I am a scientist. Throughout my career I have studied how it is that life can arise from seemingly inert matter. My work has focused on trying to find what it is that drives atoms and molecules together into the complex forms we know as DNA, proteins, cells, tissues, and organs. How do atoms and molecules arrange themselves into entire organisms that live and move and even think? Scientists call this a “big question” but, so far, we do not have an answer. We do, though, have a name for the process by which this miraculous thing happens: we call it Emergence.

What could be a bigger question than how life emerges from molecules? Well, how about this one: Where did the molecules come from? Physicists have recently determined that the sum total of all the atoms and molecules in all the planets, stars and galaxies accounts for only 4% of all the “stuff” of which the universe is made. About 22% of the rest is something called Dark Matter while the remaining 74% is Dark Energy, neither of which is well understood. Astrophysicists say that, at some point in our universe’s history, ordinary matter emerged from dark matter and energy in a process somewhat like cooling a pool of water to 32 degrees. The ice that forms
is the ordinary matter solidifying from this watery, mysterious dark “stuff.”
The newly solid ordinary matter goes on to collect into stars and galaxies and planets—and eventually us.

To me, this is miraculous. Both the fact that it happened and the mechanism by which it happened are awe-inspiring. How could a thinking person not be awe-struck by the complex and intricate process that happened in just such a way that you can now sit here and read this essay with eyes and brains made of molecules that used to be dark matter?

The late Alan Watts, a mystic, one-time Episcopal priest and prolific author (among other things), described the planet Earth as “peopling” in the same way that an apple tree apples. He imagined visitors from outer space, out touring the neighborhood and looking for signs of intelligent life, but bypassing the early earth with not so much as a glance, saying, “It’s just a bunch of rocks.” Several million years later when they come around again, they stop, pointing and say, “We thought this planet was just a bunch of rocks—but, look! It’s peopling. It must be intelligent after all.” [Alan Watts, “The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are,” Random House, 1966]

So where is God in this? As the creed says, we believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Is God the explanation
for all the gaps in the scientific creation story? (Just what is that dark matter, anyway?) A “God of the gaps” who enters our faith only when science has not progressed far enough to answer all the questions will ultimately disappoint us, since the gaps will eventually be filled.

I confess that I once was very bothered by the seeming gap between science and religion, but I have come to see the two approaches to “asking the big questions” as equally valid, and to understand my own self as one whole, integrated human being who can marvel at the miraculousness of life in all its minute detail and simultaneously praise the One who made all this possible. God cannot be separated from life. God is in every part of life: in our bodies and minds, in our cells—even in our molecules! The universe is alive and we have been blessed with brains that allow us to know this.

I leave you with a quote from Rumi [“Teachings of Rumi,” Andrew Harvey, Ed., Shambhala Press, 1999], a great poet who seemed, every day, to catch a glimpse of the majesty of God and think to write it down:

How can I — or anyone else — ever cease being astounded
That He whom nothing can contain is contained in the heart?

-- Raima Larter, Abbess, Urban Abbey