Archive for December, 2022

The Fourth Star: Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Praise (Way of Mary Reading Journal #4)

“The secrets of the Divine Majesty

are drunk by the ear

of one who like the lily

has a hundred tongues

and is speechless.”

[Rumi, Masnavi III: 21].

Once Mary has conceived, she rushes off to her kinswoman Elizabeth to share in the delight of their amazing news.

Before they can do more than exchange greetings, Elizabeth proclaims that her baby has “leaped” in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice:

“And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’

(Luke 1:40-42)

This moment feels oddly echoed in Luke 11:27, when an unnamed woman cries out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”

Jesus responds with, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” which may seem like a denigration, but it could be seen as an affirmation that Mary’s faithfulness is something that can be aspired to by anyone at all.

Helminski, noting the similarities between the Magnificat and the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2: 1-10, writes,

“So the story of the fertile blessing of Beloved Mary’s conception of Jesus is held within these stories of barrenness of her mother and [Elizabeth] to whom beautiful fruitfulness was later granted, with resonance to the ancient traditions of such hearts as this earlier Hannah’s yearning for fulfillment and a response arriving from their Sustainer. Without even such a need on Beloved Mary’s behalf, her deep purity and receptivity drew such precious fruitfulness to her. And yet it was not without difficulties, without immense challenges to her heart.”

One of the most painful truths of mature spirituality is that devotion and works of goodness do not ensure a blessed or easy life in the material sense. However, one may discover that as one seeks deeper intimacy with the holy, such Dark Nights of the Soul (as St. John of the Cross describes them) may bring one to the Beloved in an entirely unexpected and new way.

As Helminski explores Luke 1: 53, “[God] has filled the hungry with good things,” she writes,

“[Mary’s] practice encourages us to ‘stay hungry’ for God’s Presence. Is not glorification the practice of all the prophets[?] In praising Beloved Mary, or praising the Prophet Muhammad, or other prophets and messengers of God, we are praising the Infinite Source held within them with awe, to which they are an open door; into that Presence of sustaining Love. It is not we who are self-sufficient, but the Divine Reality that is nourishing us moment by moment.”

In this way God can truly be said to be like our Mother, carrying us within the womb of Her love and taking delight when we hear the voices of prophets and leap for joy inside Her.

The Third Star: Annunciation of the Word (Way of Mary Reading Journal #3)

“Every particle of our being

is a mouth to drink your Love.

Through that Love

even the bitter becomes sweet.”

As a small child I received a beautiful book called The Glorious Impossible, written by Madeleine L’Engle and illustrated with frescoes by Giotto. I don’t remember much about the written content, but I do remember how it began:

“An angel of the Lord came to Mary.”

Helminski writes,

“The Annunciation to Mary calls us to recognize that the creative action of God is limitless. The Gospel account of Luke also affirms this: “For with God nothing is impossible.””

Surah 19 of the Qur’an, known as Surah Maryam, tells the story of the annunciation as well, and parallels Luke fairly closely:

“She said, ‘How can I have a son, when I have not been touched by any man and I am not unchaste?’

[The angel] said, ‘Just like that! Your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me. And We will make him a Sign for people and a Compassion from Us.’”

Surah Maryam 19: 20-21

It’s tempting to be caught up in the biology of such a mystical encounter and fall into the binary of insisting either that “It happened just in this way,” or “It never happened at all.”

Speaking personally, do I think God could have caused this to happen? Sure! Do I think God did make it happen? I really couldn’t say, and it doesn’t matter much to me. I’m far more interested in what the story tells us about the nature of God, and the character of Mary, the “highly favoured one.”

Much has been made of her virginity, a category which is in itself rather dubious. But surely Mary’s lack of sexual experience was not the sole reason God chose her for this. Her response to the angel, which really shimmers in the King James Bible, says a lot about her:

“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word.”

Helminski writes,

“Completely she surrendered, in full trust, to the unfolding of what was to come, which she alone would bear. …We have been given will to accompany the unfolding with the best effort, eyes to discern the best way to proceed, hearts to know by longing, and ears to hear the Words of guidance that have been given through all manner of beings – the angels, the bees, the intimations of roses and wild flowers, the roar of the lion and the song of the nightingales of God, calling us to let go of the baggage weighing us down – the encumbrances of the wayward, resistant ego.”

What’s so fascinating about Mary’s surrender to me is not only that she opens herself to the wild fullness of God, but that unlike other prophets she does not hesitate or say, “O my Lord, please send someone else,” (Exodus 4:13) or “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). She also freely accepts that if she has been chosen to do such a thing, it’s because God thinks she can. This demonstrates profound ego-lessness. She will do it without worrying about what others think, or whether she can do it prettily or even particularly well. None of that matters, because she’s been waiting for a moment just like this: a moment of ultimate surrender to Love and Love’s purpose.

“Does anyone write something on a place

that has already been written over,

or plant a sapling where one already grows?

No; [they seek] a blank piece of paper

and [sow] the seed where none has yet been sown.

…Be bare earth; be a clean piece of paper

untouched by writing, that you may be ennobled by the pen of revelation,

so that the Gracious One may sow seed within you.”

[Rumi, Masnavi V: 1961-64].

“A reed filled with wind,” (‘Seed chat,’ Advent 3, 2022)

“Listen to the reed how it tells a tale,

complaining of separations – 

Saying, ‘Ever since I was parted from the reed-bed,

my lament, has caused [humans] to moan.’”

These lines were composed by the Persian Sufi poet Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, more commonly known in the West as Rumi. They are from his masterwork the Masnavi-ye-Ma’navi, part of the opening segment called “The Song of the Reed.”

In this poem, a reed is hollowed out to make a flute, and sings with mournful longing for the reedbed – its source. Despite its homesickness, this song is an act of bittersweet worship which the reed is proud to offer.For Sufis, Muslim mystics, this story is an illustration of the soul’s longing for the divine, its Source. This story is why, if you ever go to see the whirling dervish ceremony in Turkey, you’ll notice it begins with a solo improvisation on the reed flute.

“Every one who is left far from [their] source

wishes back the time when [they were] united with it.

In every company I uttered my grieving cry;

I consorted with the unhappy and with them that rejoice.”

Locked up in prison, John receives word of Jesus, and sends his disciples to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer is coded – he couldn’t send them back to, in the hearing of Herod’s prison guards, relay the message, “Yep, definitely the Messiah, and by the way I’m staying on 1234 Capernaum Drive!” 

It wasn’t time yet.

The coded message includes a list of wonders that people have witnessed Jesus perform. I will briefly note that back then wider society viewed disability as limitation rather than difference, and so the lifting of such so-called limitations was seen as freedom and integration. But even that assumption is subverted as we remember Isaiah’s earlier proclamation that “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” – talk about God creating accessibility! Today we might re-imagine these transformations as liberation not from one’s body but from being viewed by others as pitiable or less-than. If current society disables, the Kingdom ables, extending fullness of life to all bodies.

This is what Jesus promises, enacts, and, eventually, embodies himself.

His message to John, while coded, contains the answer: Yes. I am the Messiah.

The disciples of John leave to relay this information, and Jesus turns back to the crowds. While the writer of Matthew wants to make clear that John is not the Messiah, they still want us to know that John was an important prophet pointing the way.

Jesus’ rhetorical questions about John might be a bit puzzling, but having heard about John’s clothing of camel’s hair in last week’s reading, the “soft robes” comment makes more sense. “If you were looking for a rich guy, joke’s on you.”

But now – finally – we’re back to the reed. What does Jesus’ reed comment mean?

Well, one answer is that the reed was associated with Herod, as well as mansions and stately homes built along the banks of the Jordan. Imagine some rich guy coming to take in the late morning sun on his waterfront patio only to notice a bunch of people getting dunked in the river by some howling nutbar in a camel’s hair tunic!

So the reed, linked to Herod and wealth, makes sense when joined to the soft robes comment.But I wonder if there might be another, more playful and mystical understanding we can glean from it on this Sunday of joy, with help from Rumi as we draw close to the anniversary of his death, observed by Mevlevi Sufis all across the world on December 17th.

While studying the Masnavi with Omid Safi I learned how reed flutes are made. A reed is sourced, dried, cut, and hollowed out with a knife. Then, to make the holes, a white-hot cylinder of metal is pressed against the stalk, before the whole thing is oiled and cured. An intense process of transformation, most of which involves emptying. This process, Omid explained, is understood by Sufis as a metaphor for surrendering the ego, making space for God to dwell within, and offering up a prayer of longing for the original oneness between the soul and its Source.

We can see then that, in a sense, John was a reed after all – but not one shaken by the wind, tossed about every which way without any grounding. He was filled with the wind, made hollow through acts of worship and purification, and offered that wisdom to others so that they might also become like him.

But he was not the Messiah – only the messenger. Remember, until you add breath, a flute is just an empty reed. And in John’s case, it wasn’t just ordinary breath he was telling us to prepare for. It was the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Rumi straight-up makes this connection, writing:

“The noise of the reed is fire, it is not wind:

whoever has not this fire, may they be nothing!

It is the fire of Love that is in the reed,

It is the fervour of Love that is in the wine.”

Jesus, One who baptizes with fire and breathes peace into us, still points to John to show us a model of faith. But he says those in the Kingdom to come will be even greater than John.

So, friends, I wonder – if the call is to make our house fair as we are able, if the call is to make space through which air and fire can flow and within which a refugee family can find shelter, how can we make room?

Sermon starts at 24:20

The Second Star: Within the sanctuary (Way of Mary Reading Journal #2)

“Stay close,

under the mantle of Your veil;


is not meant

for everyone,

but Mary drew herself


into Your Sanctuary

beyond the intimations of family,

that she might know

Your Heart.”

The story of Mary continues with her being brought to the Temple for dedication. Helminski writes,

“The story is told of her slipping away from her mother and immediately striding up the stairs of the Temple; she did not look back, so readily eager and ineluctably drawn was she to the Holy Sanctuary.”

Both early Christianity and Islam make special note of Mary’s relationship with Zechariah, as mentioned last week, who mentored her in the faith.

My friend Seemi Ghazi, an interfaith scholar and professor of classical Arabic at UBC, writes,

“Zakariyya offered Maryam a sanctuary and trusted her cultivation of her inner world. The physical sanctuary…was Maryam’s prayer-niche (mihrab in Arabic) located within the Jerusalem Temple, but the literal signification of the Arabic term mihrab is ‘a place of struggle or battle.’ Though we revere Maryam for her serenity, she engaged in a profound inward struggle without which her mihrab, as a site of inward battle, could not have become her mihrab as a site of sanctity and retreat. Through struggle Maryam became her own mihrab, ‘Maryam Full of Grace.’”

In Islam, the mihrab is a niche in the inner wall of the mosque which points toward Mecca. A passage from the Surah al’Imran is often inscribed over this niche:

“Whenever Zechariah visited [Mary] in the sanctuary,

he found her provided with food. He would ask,

‘O Mary, from where did this come to you?’

She would answer: ‘It is from God;

See how God grants sustenance to whom [They] will,

Beyond all reckoning.’”

(Qur’an: Surah al-‘Imran 3.37)

In the Temple, the inner sanctum or Holy of Holies was only accessible by the priest. This was a “thin place,” with a veil drawn across it to evoke the separation between the outer and inner worlds. Helminski, echoing Seemi’s wisdom, writes,

“Beloved Mary, immersed in her devotions…joined both within herself.”

In the mystical branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this image of contained and enclosed sanctity is often represented by a rose:

“What which God said to the rose,

And caused it to laugh in full-blown beauty,

[God] said to my heart,

And made it a hundred times more beautiful.”

[Masnavi III: 4129].

In the season of Advent, all of us are called to our own mihrab. The season of winter is a gift because it encourages us to draw inward and contemplate how light is born fragile, like a seed held quietly in the dark earth until ready to blossom in secrecy. Life needs the warm arms of darkness to nurture it before it can burst forth into light. Mary knew that, if her call was to be dedicated to God in every way, she needed deep roots. Only trees with deep roots grow strong enough to embrace the sky.

“And remember [zhikr] in the book, Maryam –

see how she withdrew from her family to a place in the east

and placed a veil [hijab] to seclude herself from them.”

[Qur’an, Surah Maryam 19.16-17]

“Expect God to show up,” (‘Seed chat,’ Advent 2, 2022)

In Lauren’s sermon last week, we talked about waiting, and I confess I was at somewhat of a loss to figure out what more could be said about Advent. And imagine my whiplash when I looked at the assigned readings for the day and found two very hopeful ones grouped with “You brood of vipers.” Yeesh.

Then, I decided to listen to a sermon by the Rev. Traci D. Blackmon. Rev. Blackmon is an ordained minister in both the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, where she serves as the Associate General Minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries. She has been a vocal activist and organizer, particularly through Black Lives Matter and Repairers of the Breach.

The sermon, delivered in 2018 during an annual UCC conference, was about a passage from the Book of Joshua, but I found it strangely appropriate for Advent, for the passage she references details the story of the Israelites finally crossing the Jordan to enter into the Promised Land.

It is not a simple task, she explains, because to ancient peoples water often symbolized chaos and danger. She says, “The image of God parting the waters of the Red Sea and letting the Israelites cross over on dry land remains a potent image of God’s power to save. It is an image which would be fundamental to the Israelites’ developing understanding of their God because this water, which was usually seen as dangerous, is transformed in that moment into a gateway of crossing over into a new way of life.”

And here we are again, at the Jordan, with John demanding first preparation and then entrance in order to be saved. He chose the Jordan not merely because it was the closest place or the only place – he chose it specifically to evoke passage from one way of being to another, and he highlights the seriousness of this endeavour by demanding repentance.

Rev. Traci continues, “It is always challenging to move from one place to another; always frightening to let go of what has been to walk into what will be. Can you imagine what it was like for the Israelites to stand in their present and look into their future? It’s difficult; even when you know something good is ahead, it’s still difficult to leave what has been behind. …But if we just trust God with the first step, we give God the opportunity, my friends, to blow our minds. Have you ever trusted God enough to step into the water? I serve a water-walking God.”

She then outlines four instructions given to the Israelites in the passage, instructions I’m sure John gave to his candidates, instructions to help us gain a world full of the knowledge of the Lord, instructions to keep during this season of Advent.

The first is to wait for God.

You’ve probably noticed that the tendency of our world is to privilege Christmas by jamming December full of light, colour, sound, smells, taste, and social obligations. And let me be clear that taking delight in those things during a dreary time of year is 100% okay! But I know that plenty of people find it overwhelming as well, and this is why I treasure the season of Advent, which encourages us to pause and reflect on what is in store of us when God is finally made incarnate and born through Mary.

Wait for God.

The second is to watch for God.

Does this sound the same as waiting? It’s similar, but not quite the same. It’s not just about keeping watch like a guard, but about taking the lead from we see. That could be something as monumental as listening for God’s voice and guidance before acting or speaking, or it could be something as simple as being playful, keeping an eye out for God playing hide-and-seek with you in the beauty of the new-fallen snow, or the delight in gathering with friends, or in the blossoming of little lights everywhere as people decorate their homes and businesses against the short days and long nights.

Watch for God.

The third is to honour God. John says we must repent, a word with a lot of baggage, but really it just means to turn around, to choose a new way. The old fridge magnet says, “Jesus is coming: everyone look busy!” But if we knew that Jesus would be born into the world tomorrow, and we only had the chance to change one thing about our own little puzzle piece of the world, what would we change? What would we change out there and in here?* How would we carve out a little place of honour for the precious and vulnerable soul to come?

Honour God.

The fourth is to follow God.

How could we possibly follow, not only when we know we’re not perfect, but when God actually comes to us? How do we follow?

Well, we look at where God chose to enter into the world. Not in halls of gold and abundance, but in threadbare and splintery simplicity. And we follow Them there – not to be superheroes, but to enter in with our choicest gifts and say, “This is the birthplace of the Saviour.”

Follow God.

Finally, Rev. Traci adds one more of her own, one she says is not explicitly in the text but that “the text bears out.”

This one is my favourite one, and honestly, it’s the hardest one.

She says, “You must expect God to show up.”

“You must expect God to show up.”

We’ve got an advantage here, friends. The Israelites had seen the Red Sea parted. What problem could it be to part the Jordan?

Like them, we’ve seen greater things even that God being born among us.

Wait for God.

Watch for God.

Honour God.

Follow God.

Expect God to show up.

How will you do these things in this precious season of river-blue hope?

I want to know.

Sermon begins at 24:22

The First Star: Mary’s conception (Way of Mary Reading Journal #1)

“Gardens upon gardens


in our minds,

in our hearts,

and fall from our fingertips

when You smile

in us.

You who are the promise

of fecundity,

the Sun

and the rain of Grace.”

Here Helminski reflects on Mary’s conception and birth to Anna and Joachim. Neither of Mary’s parents are given names in the canonical Scriptures, although they are in some that didn’t make it into our canon such as the Protoevangelium of James and Pseudo-Matthew.

Joachim is described in Pseudo-Matthew as a faithful and generous owner of flocks who gives away a third of his income to orphans, widows, strangers, and the poor. Anna, who shares the name of the mother of the prophet Samuel, is a woman of deep faith. Despite these virtues, they remain barren, a sign of shame in ancient Jewish culture. Of course, this narrative is regularly overturned in the Jewish Scriptures by the blessing of children as in the story of Abraham and Sarah and others, showing that the God of the Israelites cared deeply for those whom society may have seen as cursed.

Both Joachim and Anna receive angelic promises that they will bear a child – Joachim while tending his flocks in the wilderness, and Anna while listening to the sparrows in her garden. They finally conceive Mary, a girl-child.

Helminski links Mary to Miriam, sister to Moses, and gives Mary’s parents and cousins a priestly and prophetic heritage through the line of Aaron. She also details a bit of the story of Mary’s birth from the Islamic perspective, mentioning accounts from historians Jafar as-Sadiq (702-765 CE) and Al-Tabari (839-923 CE). Mary’s connection to Zechariah and Elizabeth, mother of Yahya/John the Baptist, is detailed in the Qur’an in Surah 19. In Surah 3, Mary’s father, who is named ‘Imrān in the Qur’anic text, dies before meeting his daughter. Zechariah is given guardianship over Mary and instructs her in the faith. He is a very different character from the scoffer portrayed in the Gospel of Luke!

It’s interesting to contemplate the parallel between these two couples – Anna and Joachim, and Elizabeth and Zechariah – who deeply long for a child, and Mary, a yet-to-be-married woman who conceives in one moment, without request. Some labour to bring God’s will to birth with tears and desperate longing…and to some God comes suddenly, without warning, inviting them to take part in the dance of Life and Love. (I remember once asking my friend Seemi if Mary turned/whirled when she conceived. Seemi replied matter-of-factly, “Of course.”)

I find myself thinking of the precious pairing of zhikr and sema: both acts of ecstatic praise, but somewhat different in my personal experiences of them. I remember chanting, “Hayy, hayy, hayy” at RumiFest 2019 from around midnight to 2am, our hands rising and falling in exuberant, emphatic motions – and then, whirling by myself during a 6am lull, the holy silence which had blossomed in my heart and emptied my head.

It’s not only formal acts of prayer which are necessary to do God’s will, but the willingness to become a garden – not merely words and actions of liturgy, sacrament, salah but a posture of openness.

We need both to birth the sacred.

The Way of Mary Reading Journal

Last year, a precious friend, Farah, gifted me a lovely book, one that I had expressed great interest in: The Way of Mary: Maryam, Beloved of God, a compilation of theological reflections and poetry from Camille Helminski, a Sufi teacher. I decided to hold onto it for Advent 2022 as by the time I received it, Advent 2021 had already begun and I had already made my preparations.

I was thrilled to receive the book and even more thrilled to realize that if I started it now, in the first week of Advent, and read a section each week, it would take me right up until the week before Lent began. What an adventure!

Helminski divides the book into twelve passages, stations, or maqams, calling them “twelve stars of blessing” and linking each to a moment in Mary’s life.

The entries that follow are my reflections on what I read. What a gift to sit with Maryam for the weeks leading up to Jesus’s great journey, remembering all she did to make Jesus who he was.

I hope you enjoy it too!

“O Mother of the Community,

your robe is blue with stars,

because you shield us

under the heavens

filled with light from your heart,

that Heart that knows us,

each and everyone,

in our deepest beauty

and the strength of your love.”