Friday, July 26, 2013

Beginner's Grace, by Kate Braestrup

Kate Braestrup
Kate Braestrup's first book, Here If You Need Me, her account of her work as the chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, is the one book I have given as a gift more than any other. Whether or not you have any connection -- to Maine, game wardens, Unitarian-Universalist ministers, or God (in whatever form) -- I defy you to read this book and remain unmoved.

When I searched an on-line book site for yet another gift copy of Here If You Need Me, I spotted Kate's newest book, Beginner's Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life.  I confess, if anyone else had written a book with this title, I'd have clicked past it in a heartbeat, but given its author, I just as rapidly clicked it into my electronic shopping basket.  And she's done it again:  I would (and most probably will) give copies of this book to friends of all faiths and no faith whatever. In the latter case, I'll include a note directing them to Chapter 16: Prayers for Agnostics and Atheists.

Maine is a harsh place. Severe climate, vast expanses of wild space both on land (17 million acres of forest, give or take) and sea, and dire poverty in much of the state add up to a challenging terrain for a law enforcement chaplain. Yes, the Warden Service oversees fishing and hunting permits, but these are also the officers who get called in when people go missing in the woods or in the water, which they do regularly. It's Kate's job to provide spiritual comfort to the wardens, the survivors, and whoever has volunteered to step in and help in any given crisis. If this sounds like a tall order, it is. Staggering, in my view. Yet for all her remarkable qualities, the Dr. Reverend Kate Braestrup is pragmatic.
I accompany game wardens to accidents and drownings and search-and-rescue operations in the Maine woods. Regardless of the circumstances, community ministry brings us into close contact with people whose socioeconomic and religious backgrounds vary widely, and who may share with us little more than birth, illness and death -- the common features of human experience. Whatever theological or doctrinal systems a chaplain begins his ministry with, the work itself has a distinctly streamlining effect. A chaplain doesn't have a leisurely hour in which to explain God. The suffering is right there, and its urgency demands an immediate response. We don't give a lot of sermons out in the field or in the woods or streets. Instead we are called upon to offer the spiritual equivalent of triage. We're asked to pray.  
We certainly feel inclined to pray in moments of crisis and trauma, but she reminds us that in calmer moments, most of us will pray in some form or another to express a train of three thoughts:  "Yes. Wow! And thanks."
I won't claim that prayer can get you a new car or find the lover of your dreams. It won't help you gain status, assert your dominance, or otherwise please your ego. It won't even make life easier.
What it can do -- what prayer, at its best and at our best , has always done -- is help us to live consciously, honourably, and compassionately. Because I am not stronger, more self-sufficient, smarter, braver, or any less mortal than my forebears or my neighbours, I need this help. As long as prayers help me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer. 
Chapter 6 is 'Pausing on the Threshold for Prayer'.  In 1996, Kate's husband, a Maine State Trooper, set out from their house in Thomaston, just a few miles from where I grew up. His cruiser hit black ice on the bridge over the Georges River, and he died in the resulting collision. The author of this book knows what it means to see a loved go out the door on a normal day and never return. Will a prayer at the threshold prevent such tragedies? Of course not. But it will make everyone pause for just a moment and express love and appreciation for each other. One of her closest friends during Kate's teenage years was a Catholic, and she recalls waiting (impatiently -- 'the movie starts in 15 minutes!') while Natasha's father delivered his blessing, the same blessing he delivered every time a member of his family left the house.
"May the Lord bless you and keep you,
May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you,
May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you
And give you peace."
As it was, dancing impatiently on the linoleum in the Belfiores' kitchen, my hand on the knob of their back door, I watched Natasha roll her eyes and submit to this exotic ritual: a father's blessing. I was envious. 
As Kate reminds us, "goodbye" is a contraction of "God be with you".  She is not particular about the wording you choose for such blessings -- she's rather fond of George Lucas' prayer, "May the Force be with you."  At their core, these prayers are all ways of telling someone, You matter. And I wish you well.  We often think these things, but we too rarely say them.

She advocates modifying or composing prayers as we need to. There are many childhood traumas which leave us viscerally averse to certain words and images, particularly if we've grown up in severe religious environments.  Maybe we are just desperate to get away from the image of God as the white senior citizen lounging upon a cloud. Kate is adamant that any prayer which "gives us the willies" needs to be changed. Because the bride cringed visibly whenever the Lord's Prayer was read aloud but acknowledged that her Catholic groom's family would expect to hear it at their wedding, Reverend Braestrup came up with the idea to read the prayer in the original Koine Greek, the language in which it was first recorded.
The bride's folks were charmed to hear the words as Jesus might have said them; the groom's mother felicitously recalled some Greek ancestors; and though "Our Father who art in heaven" made the bride tense and miserable, Pater h'emon, h'o en tois ouranois went down a treat.
On Mothers' Day, she led a church service as they prayed "Our Mother who art in heaven..." mostly because it expanded her experience of the prayer and reminded everyone that God has no gender.  I also like her adaptation of the 23rd psalm:  "You are my shepherd, I shall not want, for you make me to lie down in green pastures..." Who is 'you'?  In my case, I can say only that it's an ineffable, unknowable force which is far greater than I.

Many of us are squeamish about ideas and images of the divine.  Maybe we have a vague sense of some overarching power. As someone who often faces loss, death and tragedy, Kate Braestrup has more cause than most of us to visit the topic of theodicy -- why do bad things happen to good people? What kind of a deity would stand by and watch my loved one be murdered? You talk about mercy, and compassion and love, but where was God when my child fell through the ice?

Her answer: In any disaster, look for the helpers. Look for God in the ones who are coming out to do whatever they can to help. Tragedy happens. It always has and always will, and no amount of prayer will prevent it.  The sacred manifests itself in love. If you choke at saying "God" in prayer, for whatever reason, try substituting "love".
I believe absolutely, implacably, irretrievably and indefatigably that nothing matters more than love. I believe all human souls are called to become as loving as they possibly can be, given the limitations that time and luck will inevitably impose. Love is the point, the purpose, and the ultimate value; it is consciousness and empathy, alpha and omega, beginning and end. God is love. 
She talks about physicality in prayer. She cites the ritual prostrations of Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs. She talks about people who pray as they run. She mentions the story of Christ washing the apostles' feet at the Last Supper, and she talks about the simple, comforting gesture of laying a hand on the shoulder of someone who is suffering. We have bodies, and they too can be instruments of prayer.
You can just allow your body to arrange itself in surrender and allow yourself to yield before all that is vast, incomprehensible, and stronger by far than your own soft self.  
Lest her readers bend down to praise her as a saint, Reverend Kate freely shares stories to illustrate her very human proclivities. When her dentist confides that her ex-boyfriend is coming in to have a tooth filled, she encourages him to be stingy with the novocaine. When a colleague asks her to lead a prayer service at the Maine State Prison, she objects that it's full of convicts, and she is the widow of a State Trooper and a law enforcement chaplain -- "I don't do criminals".  But she does manage to choke out a vague prayer for the ex, and she pulls off the prison visit rather nobly.  And she speaks also of the times when it is appropriate to refrain from any words whatever, when just silently holding a hand is the best prayer for the occasion.

And for those of us who remain uncertain about what or whom we're praying to, here we find one gorgeous image:  we are crossing, very humbly and gently, a velvet bridge. We may not know precisely what's on the other side, but the crossing is the important part.
In a poem entitled 'On Prayer', Czeslaw Milosz answers an imaginary atheist with love, "You ask me how to pray to someone who is not," he writes. "All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge."
To set foot on that bridge requires not certainly but deep humility. If the other end of the bridge turns out to rest on nothing, well then, walking the bridge together in love shall be a fine and sufficient gift.

Postscript:  This is from Kate Braestrup's blog. If I failed to get the point across that this she a laugh-out-loud funny woman with a tremendous heart, read this.
It is fundraiser for The Community School, a place for kids who, for whatever reason, don’t or can’t manage at the regular local high school (kids like me, come to think of it!). It’s a good cause, for which eight local worthies (fire chief, police officer, restauranteur, et al.) are paired with real dancers. They are teaching us how to dance -- more or less -- and will perform with us so that, presumably, we don’t look completely ridiculous. When asked what sort of dance I would like to perform, my mind went completely blank. “Salsa?” the instructor suggested, and I said sure, why not? Here’s why not: The Salsa is a very sexy dance. And I am NOT a sexy person. (I’m a minister, for Christ’s sake!) So I did what I usually do in such circumstances: I complained. Christian Clayton, dance instructor at Swing-n-Sway dance studio in Rockland, had to listen to me whine as he commenced the mighty labor of creating a latin swan out of a teutonic, middle aged goose. Every week, I clomped grimly through my routine, an expression of acute disapproval on my face while Christian made encouraging noises in the sort of voice nurses use with the senile. From what I could see in Swing-n-Sway’s enormous, merciless mirror, the audience was in for a disappointing experience. (Fortunately, it will be brief: The whole dance only lasts a minute and thirteen seconds, and yes, I counted.) The spangled costume is not going to help. Then, during an Easter lunch at which I was enlivening everyone’s holiday repast by complaining, my friend Lucinda said, with her usual perfect calm and dry accuracy: “Well, luckily, this isn’t about you.” Ah! Right! It isn’t about me! Thank God! It’s about… love and service—and I can do love and service, even if I can’t do the salsa.

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