Thursday, June 09, 2011

Column: A morning offering

The photo is of Osamu Nakamura, an artist and hermit living in the hills above Kamikatsu, Japan making tea for us on his mud hearth. (You can read more about Nakamura, and the community of Kamikatsu, here and here, as well as in the book A Different Kind of Luxury.)

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 9 June 2011.

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness. — Lamentations 3:22-23

My mother despaired of me. While my brothers scarfed down bowls of Frosted Flakes doused in milk and toast slathered in strawberry jam, her oldest child sipped a sweet milky cup of tea and nibbled on dry toast before bounding out the door to St. Luke’s. Breakfast was supposed to be the most important meal of the day, but I was uninterested.

My day still starts much the same way it did when I was in third grade. With a cup of tea, black and sweet — and with prayer. I reach for God before I reach for my glasses.

Living with electric lights, central heating and doors that firmly shut against the few dangers that lurk in the suburban night, I probably do not greet the dawn with quite the same sense of relief that my great-great-grandmother living in the Welsh hills did. Nor with quite the same sense of God’s abundant favors. She prayed over the coals when she banked them for the night, that God might be merciful and allow the embers to burst into flame once again in the morning. So that there would be light and heat, and breakfast.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius suggests we likewise bank the coals of our soul, deciding in prayer how to offer the day to come before we go to sleep at night. Then, following the long tradition of beginning each day with a prayer, the morning offering fans that intention into sparkling life. Burning passionately.

Morning prayer solidifies our intentions and sets the tone for our day. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests, too, that it reminds us of where our strength lies. The most important fuel for the work of the day is not found at the breakfast table, but in God. Like my mother, worried that I would not have the energy to get through to lunch, God wants to give us the energy and patience we need to manage.

The depth of what we can offer is well captured by St. Mechtilde of Magdeburg, a 13th-century monastic and mystic. She writes of hearing Jesus tell her, “When you awake in the morning, let your first act be to salute my Heart and to offer me your own.” The call that Mechtilde hears is not to see individual bits of our day as potential gifts to God — or potential sacrifices — but to see the whole of our selves, each challenge, each joy, each pain, each breath, as rooted solidly in God. Grace received, grace returned.

By the time I went to high school, my mother had given up trying to get me to have more than tea first thing in the morning. My mother has gone to her reward, but each morning as I spoon tea leaves into my cup in the kitchen, I remember her desire that I have what I needed to start the day. And when I roll over and hit the alarm in the morning, I remember God’s desire that I have what I need. God’s breath, blowing to life the fires banked in my soul the night before.

Lord God, our strength and our salvation, put in us the flame of your love and make our love for you grow to a perfect love which reaches to our neighbor. Amen. — Psalm-prayer from the Office of Readings, Wednesday, Week I


  1. Lovely column and so nice to see one of my Helfta ladies quoted! Picky historical point: Mechthild of Magdeburg is properly a beguine, rather than a monastic like Gertrud of Helfta or Mechtild of Hackeborn. M of M spent most of her long life in the city and took refuge at Helfta only in her final years when she was failing in health and sight as well as persecuted for her critiques of clerical corruption. The sisters helped her finish Book 7 of the Flowing Light of the Godhead, and her influence probably really sparked the mysticism and writing of the younger women.

  2. Not picky at's always a delight to get some expert commentary!

  3. Oh Michelle, what a lovely and moving post, so evocative. I could taste the tea, imagine the toast and feel the whoosh your unbreakfasted child-self out the door!

    And the idea of the monk in his hut, making you tea, I like that too.

    This is beautiful, reaching for God before your glasses. To that I say, amen and amen and amen.

  4. Such a great blog. Culture opens so many doors. Congratulations. Paul Quintero.