a little more love

A friend of mine told me on Sunday that, through her work in a small rural parish, she’s learned to love a little more. I smiled, because I’d recently said something similar to my spiritual direction mentor. I don’t remember the question she asked that stirred me, but I found myself saying, with tears in my eyes, that I’m learning to love in ways I hadn’t thought possible.

For a couple of years before I was ordained, I seriously considered abandoning the ordination process. At that point I had been actively discerning, talking with committees, and praying about a priestly vocation for a decade. I had then strong qualms about our understanding of priesthood and the institutional church, and I wasn’t sure I could honestly make the vows that would be required of me.

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the bondage of self

Self-absorption is my besetting sin. Well, one of them, anyway. The one I’ve been most aware of lately, the one I’ve been praying most for God to take away. It’s small comfort that self-absorption skulks along the shadowy back alleys of the monastic life. It’s a constant temptation to those of us who turn inward. How do we seek more and more the life that is within us without coming to equate our self with this deeper Self?

My own self-absorption has gotten subtler over the years. When I think back to the person I was in college, I cringe, even as I also feel some stirrings of compassion for the ways that I was trapped within myself. Hopefully in twenty years, I’ll look back on today with even more compassion.

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Yesterday evening I texted my mother “I love coming home.” She replied “You always have.” I thought, “What a wonderful thing, to love coming home.” Not everyone can say that. Not everyone has a lovely home to come back to, or people waiting for them with smiles and hugs, or a deep appreciation for the loveliness of their life. And how equally wonderful that that seems to have been true for me throughout my life.

I returned yesterday with a lot of gratitude. I had spent the week before on Martha’s Vineyard. Ostensibly I was “working.” Friends were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and asked me to officiate and preach their renewal of vows. I did some work beforehand. We planned out the liturgy. I wrote a sermon. And the day of the celebration I officiated, preached, and offered stage directions to folks unused to liturgies and churches. It didn’t really feel like “work,” though.

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a little fire (again)

Today marks the end of our August holiday here at the Monastery. I can’t say I’m sad. This is my eighth August here, and I’ve become comfortable with the pattern of the month. The first two weeks I luxuriate in the quiet of the Guesthouse and grounds without guests. I love having more time to read, hike, craft, and write. The third week I begin to feel rested and start to look toward the return of guests to our life. By the fourth week, I’m a little agitated and fully ready to return to the hubbub and the energy of a guesthouse full of people and the fuller structure of our ordinary life.

I’ve come to learn that I do not do well for very long without that structure. I need time, space, and quiet to look inward, but too much of it leaves me staring. I get a little lost in the inner wilderness sometimes. With too much unstructured space for too long a time, I become a bit self-involved. More and more I am the arbiter of what is good and right in my life. If I want to read, I read. If I want to walk, I walk. It’s not that that’s a bad thing, per se. But it isn’t particularly monastic when taken to an extreme.

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A few months ago I took up running. I’d tried running several times in my twenties, but each time ended with shin splints and sore knees. I wanted to give it one more try, though. This time around, I watched some YouTube videos and read some articles for beginner runners. They all said the same thing: start slowly, build slowly, run slowly. As you might guess, slow is not my normal approach, but this time I followed the advice. I’ve gradually built up my endurance, distance, and speed. It’s been about two months. So far, no shin splints and no sore knees.

Recently, our new postulant Marc came with me for my long run. We drove out early (6am on our Sabbath) to a beautiful trail that runs through open fields at the foot of Mohonk Mountain. Over the course of an hour we ran just over six miles, uphill and down, with only one short rest. It may have been the endorphins, but I was amazed. The week before I’d run that trail on my own and had to walk almost every uphill stretch. This time, I’d run them all. The difference, other than the humidity? Marc. We encouraged one another, not with words, but with the very fact of our presence.

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way down tender

I am at the desk in my cell wearing my habit. My feet sit in the cool morning air, a balm after the last month’s heat. The sun shines in off the river, warming my shoulder. Here I am in black and white. Shadow and sunlight, warm brightness and cool air.

I am feeling tender, like I’m bruised deep down at the core of me. Behind my computer hangs a woodcut from “The Ruth Portfolio” by Margaret Adams Parker. And they lifted up their voice and wept still more. Three women huddle together, their faces in their hands, bowed down in their grief. There in black and white, shadow and sunlight. I admired the piece hanging on friend’s wall one day while we were having tea. She took it down and gave it to me. It was too dark for her. Too much sadness to hang there all day.

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always more

Two weeks ago, a professor of art education came to stay with us. He’d seen my knitting monk videos and wanted to interview me for a new project he’s working on exploring the ways that practices of making shape and are shaped by the monastic context. We must have talked for four or five hours spread out over two days. At the end of our time together I told him that I thought I’d probably gotten more from our time together than he had.

There was something holy in the quality of our conversation. I found myself digging into deep places that I’d not known–or had forgotten–were there. I discussed my sense of myself as an artist with him in ways that I haven’t shared with anyone else, even those I’m close to. He invited a vulnerability that I didn’t realize I craved. And he created a context in which it felt safe to bring these aspects of myself to the light.

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solitude in high places

Solitude scares me. Silence, too.

Many people think monks are experts on prayer, silence, and solitude. We aren’t. I’ve heard it said that if the Church is a hospital for sinners, monasteries are the ICU. A friend of mine says she’s a priest because she needs more supervision than the laity. I can relate. Without the structures and strictures of the monastic life, I don’t think I could be a Christian. I don’t have the discipline or the attention necessary to live a Christian life without the support of my brothers, the Office, and the rhythms of the liturgical year celebrated daily.

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