During my retreat in Glendalough, I’ve been praying a good deal with the image of two men in my life who always seemed more absent than present: my father and grandfather. They were (or are, in my father’s case) very different men. My father was gone before he was ever there: drawn away by drugs and drink. From my earliest memories he is an absent presence and a present absence. My grandfather was always there, always expressed how much he loved me, gentle and kind. And yet, there was something absent about him, too, some secret place shut tight, all but forgotten. I’ve always had the sense that his gentle, kind exterior hid multitudes.
The pain we carry is generational. My loneliness is not simply mine. It’s my father’s and my grandfather’s, too. It’s my whole family’s. It’s the earth’s. It’s the Church’s. Whole generations cry out in and with me. The more fully I move into my own depths, the more I recognize that the choice isn’t to feel pain or not to feel it. It’s how to feel it. Do I allow the entirety of my experience to emerge into the light, to breathe the clean air? Or do I push it down again? How do I choose to suffer, to long, to love? To the extent that I can welcome all of my experience, and the generations of longing and pain and love, I can help to heal my grandfather’s story and my father’s.
In the end, of course, the only point in this life is to learn to love and be loved. That’s what Jesus was talking about when he talked about salvation, the kingdom of God, and eternal life. Love. So simple and so unbelievably difficult.
I’ve sat a lot during the last week with what seems, at present, the central contradiction in my life. I am a monk, by which I mean that at the core of my identity is monk, the seeker and lover of God. And yet, the closer I have moved to this identity over the last few years, the more aware I have become of the deep yearning in me to be a father. In soul terms there is no contradiction. But translated into the world we live in, at some point there is a real choice to make: to stay in the monastery and live my life as a celibate, or to leave, marry, and raise children?
This contradiction is not new to me. What is new to me is the recognition that taken out of the abstract and placed in the context in which I live, I’m not wrestling with this contradiction on neutral ground. Somewhere along the way, I’m sure without really knowing what I was doing, I have allowed myself to be claimed. I have given myself to other people, to my brothers, yes, but also to you readers, to the guests who come to our monastery hungry for meaning and rest, to friends in the area, to the Church, to the gardens and the River. All of that is to say that I have allowed others to love me, and I have chosen, however partially and imperfectly, to love them.
Love means something. Truly to love is to give your life away, to admit to others a claim on yourself and your choices, to acknowledge that your life is not yours to direct as you might wish in isolation. Allowing myself to be claimed in this way requires me to admit, really to take in the reality, that I matter to people.
It hurts to be loved. To be loved opens your heart to all the brokenness, pain, longing, trauma, and loneliness—not only in my own life, but in the life of the planet, of my family, of my community. That is what it means to grow closer to the heart of Christ, the heart bears the suffering of all that is. To love and be loved in this way is the narrow road that leads to life and freedom. It is the only way.
As I learn to love more consciously, I recognize, too, the choice to bring my father and grandfather out of the shadows and into the light. I will never fully know the depths within them. But I can acknowledge those depths. I can choose to love. I can forgive, which is to say I can let them go. I can bless them on their journey, and in that way I can help to heal them and myself at the same time.
To quote Whitman, we contain multitudes. We contain countless contradictions. We contain one another. And also we are contained in one another, held tight together by Christ, the heartbeat of the heartbeat of each of our lives, binding us together in love.
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