This last week was a challenge. Walking with a friend, I tried to explain away the difficulty of the week in terms of my schedule. It’s true that my days were more fully booked than I’m now used to or prefer. But the week’s challenge really arose from the traffic between my ears.
It was one of those weeks where my habitual faultlines began to show on the surface. I kept getting caught up in my own inner patterns. I could see it all as it was happening, but I couldn’t manage to escape the tentacles of my mental and spiritual habits. Even my sleep became a challenge, so that at the end of days spent wrestling with myself, I couldn’t get the rest I really needed.
Midway through the week, one of my brothers was really generous with me. I found his generosity nearly unbearable, exposing, as it did, my own coldness of heart toward myself and my own needs and patterns. His generosity was prompt, easy, and unselfconscious. He didn’t demand anything from me, not even a thank you. All I had to do was accept. I did, but I hated every minute of it. I got to see, yet again, how small I can sometimes be. There are times I would rather sit alone in a cold, dark room than step out into the sunshine.
This kindness went to work on me. It was a small moment, really, but it made a chink in the armor I’d put on without conscious intent. The next morning, weary from lack of sleep, I sat on my bed writing my morning journal. “What small thing can I do today to make myself available to God?” I wondered. I can go to church a little early and sit there. I sat in the darkened church before Matins with my rosary in hand. The wind was fierce and loud. It raged and buffeted and shook, but the church held fast. Tears came into my eyes, as an image of the church sheltering me rose in my heart. It was the ark carried aloft in the flood.
I have often felt myself to be at the margins of the Church. I’ve cultivated a rather low ecclesiology, in many ways. I don’t go in for titles and honorifics. You’ll never see a plus after my name. Set about by the winds of my habitual faults, though, I could see that, just as the monastic church held me fast against the wind off the meadow, the Church has always sheltered me under her wings. In that moment I could drop all the things I find obnoxious about self-important clergy and an institution that too often seeks its own aggrandizement. I could once again see the Church as the loving mother who has always made a home for me and for all the other outcasts and strays.
I can sometimes get so caught up in the spiritual quest, my own conversion, my rapture at nature, or the great need the world has for justice to prevail that I forget that it’s not really about me. In fact, it’s not about me at all. My life and our common life are about God. If my faultlines are to mean anything at all, they ought to recall to me to my great need of Jesus. And not the Cosmic Christ, though there’s certainly a place for that, but Jesus, the human who walked among us, who lives within us now, and who holds me in his pierced hands (to paraphrase Martin Smith).
Sitting in the church that morning and on my prayer bench in my cell and at my desk in my office, I need a God and forms of prayer that are tangible, personal, and enfleshed. When the winds come, I need to seek the shelter of the church. I need to feel the rosary beads in my hands. I need to speak out loud words that my Christian forebears have been saying for generations. I need the name and the person of Jesus to be my anchor.
More and more, these days, I’m drawn to the traditional language of Christian piety. I know it’s not cool or sexy. I know my rebellious self who prefers the safety of the margins would be disappointed. But there you have it. I am a baptized Christian, a monk, and a priest. I sin (that unpopular word), and I need God’s forgiveness. Without prayer I am totally lost. The Church has fed and continues to feed me, and her life is my inheritance.
One of my friends, and a great spiritual light, often says that she’s a priest because she needs more supervision. I feel the same way about being a monk and a Christian. I need the Christian tradition, the forms of prayer we have cultivated over the centuries, the images that people the monastic church. The simplicity and specificity of the person of Jesus holds me fast and gives me ground. And hackneyed as it may be, I need to know that Jesus loves me, and I need to say that I love him. Without him, I am lost.