Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Sacrament of the Present Moment (Biscotti and Coffee)

Demitasse and biscotti on the counter in the kitchen
at the House which shall be Unnamed

Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.

--Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

For the past week, the pace of my life has accelerated into what can only be described as absurdity. And taking this perspective on it kept me sane through more than a few jammed days and nights. In fact, this week reminded me of my old life, when staying up all night several nights a week was nothing unusual.   Meanwhile, I have been re-reading a beautiful book, in which  I could  manage only a few lines before dropping off to sleep in utter exhaustion.  The contrast between the beautifully contemplative book, which is titled, appropriately, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, by Jean Pierre de Caussade, and the frenetic pace of my recent week, has left me a little breathless.  My daughter, whose school projects have kept us both extremely busy, and made a normally easy going and full-of-fun girl stressed and anxious, ended up the week completely exhausted and  ill.

On Saturday, she came into the sitting room where I was working by the fire on some embroidery for the faces of some Christmas dolls I am making, and said, "Mom, I want you to come with me for a few minutes."  What greeted me was this beautiful little silver tray of demitasse and biscotti, set on the marble counter in the kitchen.  We make biscotti, she and I, as a kind of grace note in our lives. It is a leap of faith of a sort, grounded on the Hope that there will be a quiet moment into which the little Italian cookie will bring grace and respite, a retreat of sorts. It is a simple thing, Gift, really, but it brings much joy and pleasure, and even a little wisdom!  I put it in lunch boxes, wrapped like a gift in waxed paper tied with French baker's twine, along with a flask of coffee, in the hopes that my husband will take a small break in his frenetic day and Breathe.  We serve it after school at tea at the marble table in the kitchen, which is a kind of ritual.  My daughter's gift of stolen time, in effect, her insistence on Kairos time (which  flows gently, allowing us to be in the present moment) rather than Kronos time (the relentless march of minutes and hours), was arranged in such a lovely fashion that I had to take a photograph of it before we carried it into the drawing room by the big hearth, and spent a quiet half hour chatting. I thought how well my daughter is practicing her growing womanly magic: making of life art (which is a theme of this blog), and her art brought both joy and respite, carved out of seeming absurdity a Gift, when she herself was heavy laden.  This is the nature of Gift, to offer oneself, yes? Talking together, it occured to me that this was a piece of heaven breaking in, making some wholeness, or shalom, of all the absurdity in a manner not unlike Grace.  Grace weaves together the brokenness of our lives into a whole that makes sense only in context.

Family meals are similar, I believe. Carved out in the midst of a busy and stressful day, amid the rapid passing of time, dinner is an oasis of calm and pleasure, in which it is possible, candles flickering and wine flowing, to take stock, to let down one's guard and Be Present.  I have come to believe that this kind of respite is an essential element in life, and no less in family life. Without the table, my family would surely have disintegrated long ago.  But it is equally critical in the life our our spirit, I believe. 

What is this context in which Grace makes sense of broken pieces, in which time is reordered? Though I am a great lover of life, I have never been immune to the occasional call of ennui, or the sense that at the root of life is a kind of agony of decision, springing from the grounded, temporal nature of our daily lives as contrasted with the sense that TIME, and change through time, getting older, and not having time for everything, is an omnipresent and painful feature of our life experience.   My beautiful cousin wrote about this recently, in a Facebook post, in which she reflected on the sense of time lingered loss on Halloween night, with only grown up children and none to costume or squire round the neighborhood for treats or with whom to curl up and watch movies.  In the past, my answer to this sense of ennui was to posit on my life a meaning of my own making, increasingly filled to the brim with impact and breadth.  But now, I am learning, or rather relearning something I discovered long ago: that there is an existential aspect to stepping out in faith in the face of despair, but it is not by filling in every corner.  It is by savoring the corners I already have and surrendering my hours to a series of Present Moments.  We know that at some point our time is going to run out, and at some point, time as we know it will stop for us. And since we know time is limited, that we choose one thing, by necessity limits another.  The answer is not to choose it all, as I once did, so as not to leave anything out.  That is not possible anyway.  It is not even possible always to know that what we have gained exceeds what we have lost when we choose. Loss and Gain, gain and loss.  This was the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard's argument, when he posited the idea that we are suffering from a sickness, a sickness unto death.

This was such a week. I ended up the week not at all sure about the choices I had made with my time, or those I had allowed to overwhelm the time of my daughter.  In talking with my Spiritual Director (you can access his blog and wisdom at http://www.theelvesareheadingwest.blogspot.com/ ) about this, he suggested he would like to see a blog on my reflections on the week.  Notice how he phrased this, leaving little option. I find amusing that his directives usually leave little room for squirming out, which prior to his counsel I was quite accomplished at doing!  But as he is a man not easily dismissed, and he is tenacious, I sat down yesterday to ponder his request.  I do this lest his direction be treated with something other than the reverence it deserves (muttering aside), so I take my best shot.  We are counseled to have reverence for those who give us spiritual guidance, not for their sake, but for ours. This does not mean blind faith. The concept of reverence is something I have spent a lifetime rejecting in one form or another, but I am learning it is the the key to an open heart.  To have reverence is to cultivate a teachable spirit. So if we are to learn and to grow, reverence is the key to approaching what is given to us with a kind of surrender, with the heart of a child.

So as Kierkegaard says of our human condition, if this sickness unto death is the cause of our "agony," what is its cure? According to Kierkegaard, it is to become passionately committed to one of the options, delibertately chosen.  Life is upside down, he said.  Man is finite, God is infinite.  Man is a sinner, God is merciful.  When we recognize this, we may despair. Or we may recognize that it is just this realisation of the human condition that gives us the ability to leap into faith and accept the Grace that makes us whole, that makes sense of our battered and beautiful lives.  Christ came and died to restore the created order, or Logos, in a world cast askew (turned upside down) from our choice to separate from Him, to seek knowledge rather than wisdom.  Hence our lives as battered, reflecting our separation from Life, but also beautiful, reflecting the poetry imbedded in creation. It is essential for each of us to recognize this, Kierkegaard argues, and to act on it, to give over our sense of control over time and destiny utterly, to surrender to Grace and Love.  It makes the Leap into faith a leap into Life measured by a time wholly Other.   And as our time is reordered by eternity, so even the desires of our hearts are changed.

Jean Pierre de Caussade, in his beautiful book, said it similarly.  He said that God speaks to every individual through what happens to them moment by moment. "There remains one single duty. It is to keep one's gaze fixed on the master, and to be constantly listening.  The only condition necessary for this state of self-surrender is the present moment, in which the soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon."  This is not harsh rigidity or stringent mortification, but joy, freedom, serenity--wholeness--that which answers (but not eliminates) the pain of our humanity.  We are set free not to be enslaved, but to LIVE in eternal time. God asks, Caussade says, only our hearts. Only. It is All, for without our hearts open, how shall we Live in Grace?

What is even more remarkable about what Caussade wrote is that if this is true, nothing is secular.  Since God's activity permeates even the most trivial, "we look not for the holiness of things, but the holiness in things", for heaven breaking in the moment.  Even time itself is a holy sacrament, for time is but the history of divine action!  We worship a living Lord, not a static ritual.  It is also not the religion of the specatular or the "big deal," but rather the small corners of life that call to us minute by minute. In this way, we are before God in such a way that his grace might be effectual: we are open to Life measured not in minutes, but in eternity.  We begin to See.

So, try your hand at making biscotti, at carving out moments to cultivate an openness to Grace?  Biscotti  really is very easy to do.  As to the Present Moment, that takes some practice, and I am only learning its ways.  But like me, you can keep a jar of biscotti on your counter, if you like, to remind you to take a moment out and celebrate the sacrament of the Present moment, or as a subtle and charming reminder to those you love to do the same.  I don't like to make them too large as they are often sold commercially, for a small two or three bites is a perfect foil for a glass of wine (like the Italians do) or a cup of tea or coffee.  These twice-baked Italian cookies are a seductive snack at any time of day.  The word biscotti is interesting in itself. It has more than one meaning.  The root stems from bis and cotto: bis meaning "more than one" and cotto meaning cooking. Twice baked, once as a log, and then after having been cut into diagonal strips, returned to the oven for a second baking, they are delicious.  It doesn't take a lot of equipment to make them, and the making is itself a kind of ritual of time.  A wonderful aspect of them is that you can vary them with the seasons, just as we eat.  We can serve them simply in summer, with almond as flavor, and then add cranberries in the autumn, and candied orange peel or cranberries at the holidays. Try adding this ritual to your day. You won't be disappointed.  And let me know what you discover?

I think my favorite, however, is a simple recipe with almond and orange, which is never overpowering or cloying.  For this recipe, I am indebted to Lou Seibert Pappas, though I have made several modifications. Put about 1/2 cup of nuts in a pan and roast in a preheated 325 degree oven until golden, which should only take 8 to 10 minutes.  In a mixing bowl, cream togeither 1/3 cup of butter and 3/4 cup of sugar until very light and fluffy.  (Creaming well is one secret to great cookies).  Beat in 2 eggs, one at a time, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract and 3 tablespoons of grated orange zest (less if you like).  In another small bowl, combine 2 1/4 cups of all purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, a little grated nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add to the creamed mixture and mix until well blended.  Chop almonds into small pieces and fold these in.  Line a baking sheet with parchement paper and divide the dough into two or three flat "loaves"or logs.  Bake in the center of the preheated 325 degree oven until golden, about 20-25 minutes, depending upon your oven.  Transfer to a baking rack with a long, flat spatula and let cool for 5 minutes.  On a cutting board with a serrated knife, slice diagonally at about a 45 degree angle about 1/2 inch thick.  Lace the slices flat on the parchement lined baking sheet and return to the oven for another 10 minutes.  Cool completely on a rack and store in an airtight container.  Enjoy!

Happy Cooking mes amis! A Bientot!