on joy

This essay is the third of three talks I recently gave to retreat groups. You’ll find the first and second as posts in the last two weeks.

Last fall the maples were late again in catching fire. By the time they lit, the black walnuts, always the first to go anyway, had dropped their leaves. I’d resigned myself to a brown fall by the time the yellow finally began to rise in the trees across around the Guesthouse. A few years ago, everyone would have said it was because it was too wet, or too cool, or whatever they seem to think the least optimal conditions for color in maples. But this year was not the first year the maples were tardy. In fact, they’ve been getting later and later, duller and duller my whole monastic life. So this year, rather than debating the merits of cool or hot, wet or dry, we all nodded knowingly, nearly resigned.

Of course the maples were shy. Who wouldn’t be after two years of pandemic, the fierce rise of nationalism, the deepening of systemic racism and white supremacy, and—underneath it all, so large we still, decades on, have few words for it—the collapse of the climate around us.

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on beauty

This essay is the second of three talks I recently gave to retreat groups. You’ll find the first, “on stability,” last week. Next week I’ll post the final talk, “on joy.”

I had a friend in seminary who was, you might say, quite a character. His enthusiasm for his latest interest—animal, vegetable, or philosophical—carried him on in a tsunami of breathlessness. He was so changeable and so delighted by his own flightiness that we, his friends, found it easy to dismiss whatever latest craze or opinion had caught his fancy.

His favorite mantra whenever he became caught up in a new enthusiasm was “it conveyed me to myself.” He applied this phrase as equally to a meal at the new ramen place on the corner as to a painting he’d seen at a recent show. It conveyed me to myself.

Much as we all laughed at this friend’s use of superlatives and exclamations, this phrase worked itself into me. I have never forgotten it, and it has come to me in very profound and very ordinary moments. Such, I think, is the heart of any mystical experience or apocalypse, in which the veil that normally lies between our eyes and the divine radiance all around us is lifted, for a fraction of a second, and we know all to be love and to be held in love. Such moments convey us to ourselves. Something outside, something of profound intelligence and otherness, looks us in the eyes, actually sees us, and in that mutual gazing, we are known.

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on stability

Below you’ll find an adaptation of a retreat address I recently gave. Over the next two weeks, I’ll post two more talks: “on beauty” and “on joy.” If you’re a longtime reader of my blog, some of these sentences and paragraphs will be familiar.

One of the greatest gifts of monastic life is being able to see God’s mercy at work in your brothers. It’s very easy to see other people’s faults. They have a way of glaring at us. But to see their virtues—and more, to see those virtues grow slowly and eventually flower—that takes time, patience, and an attentiveness borne of selfless love and gratitude. Attention is everything.

Monastic communities have always been spacious places in a crowded world. That space was certainly what drew me to Benedictine life. My whole life I had been driven by a longing so deep and powerful that I couldn’t find a name for it. This longing was a burning secret at the center of my life. And every context in which I found myself was simply too small to hold it, or to hold me.  For much of my life I felt as if I were living on the margins, because there just wasn’t enough room.

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some thoughts on contemplation

I’ll make my curmudgeonly confession: I am over the word “contemplation.” If I never hear it again, that’s fine with me.

The word used to have a specific, even technical meaning within the context of Christian spirituality. Now it’s a trendy hashtag. It signals to readers, skeptics, and the spiritually curious that this Christianity is not like that Christianity. This Christianity is politically progressive, at home with metaphor, and engaged in deeper matters of the heart and spirit than fundamentalism.

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a simple lesson

Two weeks ago I returned from California. The pit of my stomach clenched in anxiety and dread nearly the entire trip home. I got back to the monastery about 6pm and went straight to my room and closed the door. I didn’t want to see anyone, because I thought I might burst into tears.

It was an unusual experience for me. Never before have I felt sad to return home.

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I’ll just have a rest

I’ve been teaching and writing about prayer and the spiritual life for about five years now. It’s such a short time really. And as it goes on, I realize more and more that I know very little about prayer, God, or the spiritual life.

Just before Holy Week, I had the great pleasure of joining Martin Smith’s Compassiontide retreat. In the presence of this mature, authentic teacher, I could see my own immaturity even more clearly. I don’t say all this to put myself down, or to compare myself unfavorably, at 35, to a man who has been praying, writing, teaching, and living the Christian life for a long time. I say it because it’s true. Moreover, it’s a truth I find immensely comforting and hopeful, short-circuiting, as it does, my spiritual ambition, greed, and self-importance.

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fatherlove

We put my father’s ashes in the columbarium two days before my 35th birthday.

Dad would have laughed to see a small crowd of monks gathered around, saying prayers for him, commending his remains to their final rest until the Last Great Day.

I don’t know that he even believed in a Last Great Day. Like any Irish boy from Bayonne, he’d been raised Catholic. It didn’t stick. He was your typical free spirit—untethered and unmoored. He never went in much for obligation, never wanted to be tied down.

A week before he died, I got a text from his sister telling me he was fading. I was in Ireland, having led a knitting retreat for 20 women from all over the world. My dad was in Portland, dying of metastatic cancer so diffuse within him by the time they caught it that they couldn’t figure out where it started. Judy never called or texted. I knew it was important, so I called immediately.

My dad’s voice was breathy and heavy.

“Son, do you think Jesus forgives me?”

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