“A Lesson In Secrets” (Maisie Dobbs #8)

Title: A Lesson in Secrets: a Maisie Dobbs novel
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
2011, Harper

LEP reading challenge info:
World: How Shall We Read. Level: 6 Borrowed from a friend

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This is the eighth in the Maisie Dobbs series of mystery novels by Jacqueline Winspear. I read the first seven books about 10 years ago but then went to grad school and changed careers and didn’t have time to keep up with the series. I have just picked it up again.

For those not familiar w/ the Maisie Dobbs series, it is set in the interwar years in England with protagonist Maisie Dobbs, a very bright and thoughtful working-class girl who has, by this point in the series, made very good. Maisie was taken under the patronage of the wealthy Compton family, to whom she was in domestic service as a teen, and also mentored as a private investigator by their eccentric and brilliant friend Dr. Maurice Blanche. Having served as a front-line nurse in France during the war, and been wounded, Maisie is especially sensitive to the impact of the Great War on English society and all around her. She is also a graduate of one of the women’s colleges at Cambridge. Over the course of the series we see her mature in her investigative skills under Blanche’s tutelage and also come to terms with the physical and mental wounds inflicted on her and several gentlemen of her acquaintance by their wartime experiences.

By this installment, set in 1932, Maisie is well-established in her own private investigative practice, and is mourning the death of her long-time mentor Maurice Blanche. The case which occupies her is a special assignment from Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and the British Secret Service (as it is called in the book; now better known as MI6–the branch of the Secret Intelligence Service focused on foreign threats). She is placed undercover as a philosophy instructor at a recently-established college in Cambridge which focuses on peace studies and has many international students, to report on any signs of dangerous foreign activities. Of course her assignment is made more complex when the College’s Principal is murdered during her first week teaching. Familiar characters from past novels make appearances—Detective Chief Inspector Stratton, James Compton, Maisie’s assistant Billy Beale, and so on.

I was first drawn to this series a decade ago by its striking Art Deco style cover art, and its having a female protagonist. I kept reading both because Maisie is an interesting, unusual character and because of the way Winspear makes the effects of the Great War on England a constant theme in the series. I am a historian by initial training with a particular interest in military history, but my American-centric education left me nearly totally ignorant of the huge human and psychic costs of that War on Great Britain. Winspear is a native of Kent in England (where many scenes early in the series are set) though she has lived in California for 30 years. Her grandfather was badly wounded and gassed in the Somme and spent the next 50 years of his life tending his fragile lungs and pulling shrapnel out of his body. Winspear’s interest in the Great War and its impact stems from her relationship with her grandfather. In interviews she has said she also wished to showcase the women of the war generation and the unusual opportunities they grasped as a result of the social upheaval it caused.

Maisie is an engaging and unusual character and one you enjoy getting to know. I recommend starting at the beginning of the series and reading in order, so you can appreciate her maturation. This installment isn’t one of the most dynamic, but it was enjoyable, and it seems to portend a turn in Maisie’s caseload from more mundane domestic cases to ones with national and international intrigue, as MI6 turns to her as the natural successor to Blanche, who, unbeknownst to Maisie, had done extensive work on behalf of the Crown. In this episode we learn a bit about the role of women in the Resistance in WWI.

This series has always reminded me strongly of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. “Russell” fans will like Maisie very much. The two series are very similar, and especially in this episode, with Maisie juggling a post at a university with her detective duties, I had to stop and remind myself which series I was in. Maisie is more an independent operator than Russell, without the partnership of a Holmes, but the similarities are striking—War and immediate post-War period, both girls Oxbridge educated (though Mary Russell is an orphan she is not lower-class, unlike Maisie) and mentored by older male detectives and eventually becoming their equals. Both even have a taste for sporty roadsters. I think the Russell books are a bit more complex and fast-paced, and the Russell-Holmes dynamic adds a dimension not present in the Maisie Dobbs series, but a fan of either one will appreciate the other. I look forward to continuing to catch up with Maisie—the series now has several more volumes beyond this one.

#LEPReadingChallenge18
#MaisieDobbs
#reading
#fiction
#mystery
#JacquelineWinspear

 

 

Picture of a toy convertible sportscar in front of toy pine trees dusted with snow

Christmas Journeys

Here is the recording of the sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket RI on Christmas Eve, 2017.  Text: Luke 2:1-20 and Titus 3:4-7

 

If you prefer to read. ….
Christmas is a time of journeys.
First there are the hectic journeys to shopping centers and malls to find the perfect gifts for loved ones—epic quests which can rival video games for their complexity and hazards. There are trips to the supermarket—when just getting into and out of the parking lot with your car intact is a major achievement.

Then there are journeys to the holiday gatherings and celebrations. Some of us have journeyed from our houses to be with family or friends here. Others of us are hosting those who have journeyed to us. Sometimes the journeys are short—from Seekonk to Darlington—but some may cross several bridges or even a state line, while others of us may make a simple journey to a friend’s house or a local restaurant.

Then there is the journey each of us has made here tonight. We have come from our home, or the home we’re visiting, to this place of worship. Why have we come here? Why have we travelled here, to the manger, to the altar? We have come seeking something. Bethlehem represents where God gathers things earthly and heavenly, where the divine shines forth. [+Jake Owensby, 12/19/2017]

We have each come here tonight on a journey to Bethlehem. We have come here longing to meet God.

We come by different pathways, propelled by different things.

Some of us, like the magi, or astronomers, whose story we will hear next Sunday, have been brought to the manger by our curiosity, our intellectual study, our wonder at the natural world, which has led us to want to praise the God who has set the stars in motion and to know that God more deeply.

Some of us, like the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, have come to the manger because we have had a direct experience of God, in some way—maybe not as dramatic as the heavenly host bursting into song right in front of us, but we’ve had some direct personal experience of God acting in our life which we cannot deny, and which we want to deepen, or build on.

And then many of us have come to the manger tonight Simply because it is what our calendars say to do on December 24. Like Joseph and Mary needing to get to Bethlehem because they were required to by the Roman census-takers. They didn’t choose their itinerary in consultation with a travel agent—it was simply the next thing their life presented them to do. A woman more than nine months pregnant would not choose to go on a hundred-mile hike away from her home. But it was what the business of life required.

Maybe we’re here just to honor our parents’ wishes, or our partner’s, or because we’re on the Altar Guild, or just because it’s what we’ve always done before wrapping the presents on Christmas Eve. Or maybe we’re here almost in spite of ourselves, fighting against grief or loss or sadness, or discouragement, or illness. Mary surely was fighting an aching back and near-exhaustion and great fear and anxiety about what it would be like to give birth. But like Mary and Joseph, even though we have come here with other things on our mind, nevertheless we have journeyed to the manger.

Even though we have journeyed away from our physical homes to come to the manger, I believe each of us in fact comes to Christmas, comes to the manger, seeking home.

By home I mean that place where we know we belong, where we know we are loved unconditionally, and even exuberantly, even with all our flaws and shortcomings, in all our idiosyncrasies. We come looking for a place where we will be warmly welcomed even when we bring with us all the wounds we have suffered and the guilt from wounds we have inflicted on others. Perhaps we come together with family, people with whom we share some ties but also some torments. Or perhaps we come believing ourselves to be desperately alone.

When they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her child …. and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the guest lodgings. ….

And the shepherds went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this they made known what had been told to them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

At that moment, Mary knew in her deepest self that of which she had perhaps had intimations ever since the angel Gabriel had visited her ten months earlier — that her journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was not the main feature Nativity journey. Nor was the shepherd’s journey, nor the journey the Persian astronomers would soon complete. Nor are our journeys to this manger the central story, whether those we have made by car or in our souls.

The largest and longest journey made on the first Christmas was that God, who set the stars spinning in their courses and established the pillars of the earth, and envisioned the mad variety of the natural world, this God became human  The ruler of all creation took our flesh as a squalling baby, and made a divine home in the straw and muck of our humanity.

The immortal and all-powerful God does not shy away from ordinary, finite, and even mundane creatures like us, but rather draws near, eager to embrace us like a lover too long separated from the beloved. [David Lose, Dear Partners In Preaching blog, Christmas 2016]

Gazing at the baby in the manger, we see the immense dignity that we have—that we are indeed God’s treasured children.

And that is not just the case for those standing within sight of that animal feed-bin in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Jesus was not born just for the shepherds, or for Mary and Joseph, or for the magi—Jesus was born for us. When God came to earth, it was so all of us could become, as Paul writes to Titus, heirs of the royal household.. We no longer have to go searching for a place where we are accepted, some physical location over there, which requires a journey, which we have to do on a certain schedule and following directions closely, and when we get there all is still dependent on other fallible human beings being able to welcome us. No—home has come to us, and abides with us.

The early English church historian known as the Venerable Bede put it best:

“[Jesus] was born not in the house of his parents but at the inn, by the wayside, because through the mystery of the incarnation he is become the Way by which he guides us to our home, where we shall also enjoy the Truth and the Life.” [Bede, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 2.7]

Yes, we have all made journeys to be here tonight, and we are all seeking an experience of God, that most profound experience of home, of our true belovedness.

But the amazing wonderful mystery of God becoming human is that God has journeyed to us. And by taking on our flesh, God has made our belovedness something we bear in our very bodies, wherever we are.

As the 20th-century Anglican poet T. S. Eliot wrote,

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

So tonight, we come in praise and wonder and awe.

In closing, I offer the words of a contemporary English priest, Rosalind Brown:

Ponder long the glorious mystery
breathe, in awe, that God draws near;
hear again the angels’ message,
see the Lamb of God appear.
God’s own Word assumes our nature:
Son of God in swaddling bands;
Light of light, and God eternal
held in Mary’s gentle hands.

— Rosalind Brown

Picture of a toy convertible sportscar in front of toy pine trees dusted with snow

Christmas Journeys

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Feast of the Transfiguration 2017

Luke 9: 28-36
Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. One of the feasts on the Church calendar deemed important enough that if it falls on a Sunday it replaces the usual readings.  So we take a detour out of our trip through the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus’s teaching over to the middle of Luke.

In this morning’s Gospel we join with Peter, James and John as they accompany Jesus up a mountain for a time of prayer.  And while there they have a profound Kingdom of God moment.  While praying Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, in a moment removed from normal time and space, as Moses and Elijah had each died centuries before. All three are shining with divine glory.  A cloud, a traditional sign of God’s appearing, encompasses them and God speaks, Peter, James, and John have been ushered into the transcendent realm of God, dwelling for a few moments more in heaven than on earth.

They see Jesus in his full divinity, shining like the sun, and God, in an echo of the words uttered at his Baptism, describing him as his Son, with more authority than Moses or Elijah, greater than the Law and the Prophets.

They had had intimations of his divinity before—as he healed the sick, cast out demons, and fed thousands—and if you read back just before today’s passage in Luke you realize that Peter has just said that Jesus is the Messiah.  But on the mountain they don’t get just a hint, or a growing suspicion, or a partial understanding, of Jesus as holy.  They see him in his full glory, and hear him discussing the events which will usher in his glory permanently: his crucifixion.  And when that crucifixion happens, the veil in the Temple is torn—the veil that separated fallen humanity from God is torn in two.  The human and the divine are once again able to be in close relationship.

When the disciples go with Jesus up the mountain, they see the man they had been traveling with for months—the one they’d probably slept under the stars with and traded corny jokes with, the one they’d seen be hot and sweaty and hungry and tired, as well as tender and compassionate—they saw this man they knew to be fully human—they see him alight with the whole glory of God, fully divine.

This complete mixing, one man totally human and yet fully divine, the prayerful miracle worker who goes willingly to his death as an innocent man, this man is God’s Chosen. In this moment Peter, James and John get a true glimpse of the kingdom.

Linda McMillan, an Episcopal lay woman who writes essays about the weekly scripture on the blog Episcopal Café, writes about the Transfiguration:

“Holiness is out there, sort of free-range and unsupervised. It might show up anywhere. On someone’s face, in nature … or the exhilaration of a deep and pure breath.  This week most of us will seek God in a holy place. But the wise among us will be on the lookout, because wild and untamed holiness is out there beyond the walls and beyond the symbols. Where, exactly? I don’t know, but I’m on the look out!”

This summer here at Good Shepherd we’ve all been on the lookout for kingdom stories, kingdom moments, when love and compassion break through into the ordinary. Not ones which come with clouds and shining glory, but more everyday moments in which God’s more subtle presence is revealed to those who have eyes to see. I’ve promised I’d give you regular opportunities to share the kingdom moments you’ve seen

What are some of the kingdom moments you have seen recently?

(Go out into congregation and have them share any recent recent kingdom moments)

I have two to share myself.

A friend of mine is always careful to engage w/ the people around him, counter helpers and the like—addressing them by name and making it clear he sees them as real people.  Sometimes it takes them (and me) aback, as it is so not a part of our American culture to engage w/ strangers in that way, but sometimes it is clearly a blessing to them, to realize that they are seen as individuals, not automatons.

Yesterday I saw Dunkirk.  A marvelous, if hard to watch, movie.  Tells the story of ordinary Britons who sacrificed, to save others.  One of the plotlines was about a British civilian gentlemen who answered the Navy’s call to take his small sailing yacht to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers—accompanied by his teenage son and his friend as crew.  They pick up a shipwrecked sailor from a torpedoed ship in the middle of the Channel and the sailor insists they must turn back to England—that to go on to Dunkirk, where he had just been, is certain death.  But they continue onwards, compelled by duty and compassion to risk their lives to save the trapped soldiers. I saw such nobility, and even a glimpse of holiness, in their willingness to sacrifice themselves as civilian volunteers for people they did not know.

The human shining forth with a bit of the divine.

What do we look like after we’ve seen God?  How does our appearance change?

I see it every Sunday at the altar rail, when I distribute communion, placing the bread in your palms with the words, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”

When I am on the receiving side of those words, with my palms outstretched, I’ve always heard “the body of Christ” as referring to the wafer in my hands, which I’m about to ingest. And so it is.

But when I stand on the inside of the rail now as a priest, and am the one placing it into your hands, I experience it totally differently.  Each time I say, “The Body of Christ”, I am looking at one of you, in the face.  You, individually.  You are one part of the body of Christ, and I am handing you the bread of heaven. That is my prayer as I distribute communion, that I truly see each one of you as a part the Body of Christ, and that you see yourself that way, more and more each Sunday.

Brother Geoffrey Tristam SSJE has a wonderful prayer he offers for Transfiguration: “So today, as on the day of your baptism, allow God to re-clothe you, to transform you, to transfigure you, that like Christ, you too may shine forth “in raiments dazzling white.”  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Desiring God: sermon for Proper 12 A 2017

I did not record the sermon on Sunday, July 30.  Here are the notes from which I spoke.  The Scripture texts were

Romans 8:26-39

Matthew 13 selections 

  • Silent retreat: what is it?  My trainer was shocked when I said that’s what I was going away to do
  1. 8 full days. Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester MA with ocean view.  If I was going to be silent for 8 days I wanted a good view!  Only talking w/ spiritual director for 45 min daily and making the responses at Mass, though you could go off the property to talk
  2. Silence is seen as gift to self and others on retreat. Different from Trappists or other silent monastic orders, the Jesuits themselves do not keep silence—very active order, and the directors on the retreat did not keep silence among themselves.  It is simply seen as a tool to use in specific times.
  3. Clears away noise so that you can hear God speaking in various ways
  4. Dedicated time to explore different forms of prayer you might not in daily rush.
  5. I spent time praying w/ Scripture, but I also spent time paying attention to God through nature, through drawing, through listening to music, through journaling, through reading
  • Silent and Ignatian: focused on teachings of St Ignatius of Loyola.  Start every prayer time telling God your desire for that prayer time.  Not asking God what God’s desire is for your prayer time, but stating your  desire.  A reverse from what we would expect.

 Paying attention to our desires is a crucial part of our prayer life in the Ignatian tradition.  This is a surprise to many folks who assume that in religious life desire only has bad connotations: sex or material wants.  I desire that person.  I desire that Maserati.  Women especially are taught that paying attention to our desires is selfish .

James Martin SJ :”Why this emphasis on desire? Because desire is a key way that God speaks to us. Holy desires are different from surface wants, … Instead, I’m talking about our deepest desires, the ones that shape our lives: desires that help us know who we are to become and what we are to do. Our deep desires help us know God’s desires for us and how much God desires to be with us. And God, I believe, encourages us to notice and name these desires,…. Recognizing our desires means recognizing God’s desires for us.”…..Desire leads people to discover who they are and what they are meant to do. On the most obvious level, a man and a woman feel physical, emotional, and spiritual desire for each other, and in this way they discover their vocations to be married. A person feels an attraction to being a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, and so discovers his or her vocation. Desires help us find our way. But we first have to know them. The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. … the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. And our deepest desires, which lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are one manner in which God speaks to you directly, one way that, as Ignatius says, the Creator deals with the creature. They are also the way that God fulfills God’s own dreams for the world, by calling people to certain tasks. Desire is a key part of Ignatian spirituality because desire is a key way that God’s voice is heard in our lives. And ultimately our deepest desire, planted within us, is our desire for God. [From Ch. 3 of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything”]

  • One of the passages I read was from Julian of Norwich.  I’ve talked about Julian before—the 14th Century Anglican mystic who was the first woman to write a published work in English
  1. “Our Lord showed me in a vision how intimately he loves us. I saw that he is to us everything that is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing that out of love enwraps and enfolds us, embraces us and wholly encloses us, surrounding us for tender love, so that he can never leave us.  And … I saw that he is everything that is good, as I  understand it. …. Our Lord God also revealed that it is a very great pleasure to him that a simple soul should come to him a bare, plain and homely way.  For …this is the natural yearnings of the soul touched by the Holy Spirit.  “God, of your goodness, give me yourself, for you are enough for me, and I cannot ask for anything less that would fully honor you.  And if I do ask for anything less, I shall always be in want, but in you alone I have everything.”  [selections from Revelations, Long Text, Ch. 5, Barry Windeatt translation]
  • Ignatius and Julian are talking about the same thing that we heard in our lessons today:  those great assurances from Paul in Romans
  1. The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
  2. This is what it means to pray from our desires—praying from those emotions deep down within us that we can’t even put into words.
  3. And Julian’s imagery of Christ being as close to us as our clothing and skin—she knew Paul’s promise  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  
  • Matthew: Disciples should desire the kingdom like that merchant desired the pearl, like the landowner desired the treasure.  As we spend time with God in prayer, our desires gradually begin to align w/ God’s desires, and we become more sensitive to God’s desires  which are already planted in our heart
  • Terrance Klein SJ https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/07/26/want-know-who-you-are-ask-what-you-wantsays our desires help tell us who we truly are and who we want to be.
  1. “To see what it is that you want of the world, ask yourself questions such as these: What pursuit gets most of my time? Why? What tends to be my primary cause of anxiety? What do I enjoy doing when I able to choose my activity? Reading? Exercise? Time with loved ones? Of course, once you know who you are by asking what you love, there is one more Gospel question that desperately needs be posed: Is this a pearl of great price? Is it worth my life?
  2. You have to ask, because life expends itself on its desires, even if they are not acknowledged.