on balance

Brother Bernard has asked me to talk this morning to the Associates who are here on retreat. My topic is “balance.” Naturally, in the balance of my life here at the Monastery, I sat down yesterday afternoon to ponder what I could say about balance.

The Holy Spirit has a sense of humor, and must also take the long view. I signed up for “balance” months ago. In the meantime, I managed to fill up the two weeks prior to this talk such that I’ve been desperately wanting more balance. There’s nothing like being without something to remind you how much you love and need it.

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a faultfinder contending with the Almighty

It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m super grumpy. It has been a long week, full of meetings, sermon-writing, and garden work. I haven’t been sleeping well, either, which makes the fatigue more acute. Which, of course, means it’s been the perfect week to take out all my brothers’ files to review their list of infractions and add new ones (or repeats of the old ones) to my churning miasma of resentment. And, of course, we had to stand in the glaring sun for our Christmas picture. Now when everyone examines it, all they’ll see is my squinting eyes. Because, of course, I’m the one they’re looking for in the photo.

So, when I pull out of the Monastery parking lot 20 minutes later than I’d intended, I’m primed for a fight. At the end of the driveway there are three SUVs. On the grass nearby I see three people surrounding a large wooden crate with a few holes in it. I’m immediately suspicious. Who are these people, and what are they doing–without permission–at my monastery?

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puppy love

This past Sunday I presided at the Blessing of the Animals for the first time. Our little church up the hill was as full as I’ve seen it with humans and their animal companions. We had four dogs, a cat, and a frog. And a lot of barking, laughter, and pauses to regather ourselves.

I’ve never been a big dog person. I mean, I like them, but I’ve never really understood them, not like cats. When I was growing up, we had the most perfect cat you could imagine. I picked him out from a litter a friend’s cat had born, a sweet little ginger boy. On the drive home, he was so scared by the movement of the car that he burrowed into the seat at the small of my back, and from then on we were bonded. The first year we had him, he slept draped around the top of my head.

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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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