how well do you love?

Don Bisson tells the story of an elderly woman who had a dream one night in which she died and went to heaven. There she met Jesus, who asked her “how well did you love?” She responded by telling Jesus that he was asking her the wrong question. She went to church; she gave money to charitable causes; she did what she was supposed to do. She was a good person. Jesus replied, “Yes, but how well did you love?”

I find it so much easier to be good than I do to love well. Because of the particular circumstances of my childhood and the constellation of my personality, I have become very good at performing. I always got good grades, set the table correctly for dinner parties, and wore a smile on my face. And often with resentment and self-righteousness simmering just below the surface. It has been and continues to be the work of my adulthood to learn to love.

The facade of goodness so many of us Christians wear is nothing more than an effort to control God and avoid the poverty of our own suffering humanity. God is not interested in our goodness, paltry and false as it generally is. God would rather have real, human companions, alive and vibrant in their imperfection.

In his extraordinary book The Human Condition, Thomas Keating writes of the need to move beyond our facades and personas of goodness.

The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated. We keep getting closer and closer to our center. Every now and then God lifts a corner of the veil and enters into our awareness through various channels, as if to say, ‘Here I am. Where are you? Come and join me.’

Like the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50), we must approach God from our poverty. Only then will we find what we have truly been seeking: not a self-sufficient goodness, but the deep indwelling of the love of Christ. This love, planted in our hearts, grows–often slowly–but when we can stay out of our own way, it bears fruit far in excess of our meager efforts.

I think what we’re truly afraid of is not that God will abandon us if we aren’t good enough, but rather that, despite all of our efforts, hurts, and fears, despite everything that has sought to draw us away from God, ourselves, and one another, God has been there all the time, filling us beyond our imaginings with the abundant life of Christ. To let in such knowledge would truly annihilate our false self that with Milton’s Satan would rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

I think we’re terrified to look down and see that really Christ is bathing our own feet with his tears, drying them with his hair, anointing them with kisses. What then?

written on the tablet of the heart

As I prepare for my first profession on All Saints’ Day, I find myself facing into an unexpected challenge: allowing people to celebrate God’s work in me. The response to my invitations has been far and away more exuberant than I would have imagined, and I have friends flying in from as far away as London and Los Angeles. I say this exuberance is a challenge for me, because I notice in myself the urge to tell these friends, “don’t come all that way just for me!” I’d feel so much more comfortable if these friends had a conference in the area and just happened to have that Tuesday free to be with me and our community.

 

 

I’ve never known a person who doesn’t struggle with intimacy in some way, and many in the same way that I do. It’s difficult to allow others to care about us, and it’s difficult to allow ourselves to care about others. We all have our ways of defending against unwanted emotional proximity. And when we begin to engage and consciously to dismantle the barriers that separate us from others, the process becomes painful. It hurts to allow others to love us.

Why should this be so? On one level it makes no sense. We all want to love and be loved, to know and be known, don’t we? Well, yes and no. It’s like Jesus asking the man lying at the Sheep Gate “do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6) Jesus is asking that man–and us–a real question. Our answer is generally ambivalent. Do we truly want to be made whole? Do we truly want intimacy?

When we begin to answer yes to that question, and to move more closely to the deepest desires of our heart, we first have to encounter all the ways that we have resisted the movement of love in our lives. This process is as much one of grieving as anything else. In order to heal from our resistance to love, we have to see all the opportunities to love and be loved that we were unable to take because of our own hurt. We have to face into all the times we chose isolation over real relationships with real human beings.

 

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Only honest, deep self-disclosure paired with the acceptance and love of another can begin to satisfy the gnawing emptiness inside us. Self-disclosure and the letting in of other people must first be founded on the encounter with Christ within us. The movement inward through prayer and the revelation of God in scripture and spiritual practice exposes our true identity, held in the heart of Christ, hidden in God. As Jeremiah writes, God writes his Word on the tablets of our hearts (cf. Jer. 31:33), literally inscribing our godly identity at the core of our being.

When we allow Christ to reveal to us our true identity in God, the life that wells up within us overflows its bounds. We then have too much life not to share it and celebrate it with others. Life fosters life, just as love fosters love. It really is a wanton denial of God’s abundant grace not to share our Christ-selves with one another. After all, we are ordained at our baptism to be food for the world, to ignite the whole creation with the fire of longing for God, and to share the Good News of God’s abundant life in Jesus Christ. There is enough hurt and hardship in this world. When it’s time to celebrate, we owe it to ourselves to celebrate and joyfully to invite others to join us.

tikkun olam

Shortly after I entered the monastery a longtime friend wrote me with her concern that I was hiding from engagement with “real life.” How was my life as a monk going to contribute to what our Jewish brothers and sisters call tikkun olam, the healing of all that is?

This friend was only expressing more directly what so many people think of monasticism, even our guests. We hear all the time from guests “This place is so peaceful. It must be wonderful to be here all the time.” While there is a degree of truth in that statement–we do work hard to maintain an atmosphere conducive to prayer–our lives as monastics are not a perpetual retreat. The fantasy that a monk spends his days in tranquility, whether expressed with admiration or disdain, relies on a flat and facile view of Christian vocation.

These are important questions to ask, particularly for those of us who live the monastic life. Monastic life, at its best, is a constant and engaged struggle for holiness. Holiness is the unity of a person with himself and God in Christ that leads him to pour out his life for the healing of the world. We monks are called, as St. Paul says, to become living epistles known and read by all. We are to convey in our very bodies the good news of God in Christ: that good conquers evil and that abundant life is already flowing into the universe, whether we see it or not, drawing all things to wholeness and completion in God.

We monks engage this life in particular ways, most obviously in our commitment to “die to our isolation and separateness as individuals so that we might live together in the strength and power of a spiritual community in which there is fullness and integrity of life, namely, the life of Jesus Christ our Lord,” as our Founder writes. We move toward holiness not only in our community life but also in our private and corporate prayer, our offering of spiritual direction, and our ministries of hospitality. As we learn to die to self and selfishness in our monastic lives, we have more true Self (grounded in Christ) to pour out in offering to the world.

But the monastic vocation is no different, in its fundamentals, from any Christian vocation. Marriage is not meant for the two married people alone. Rather, married life is meant to lead the couple to die to their isolation so that they might live together in Christ. With Christ’s life welling up within them in and through their married life, they have more of that life to give for the healing of the universe.

The distinction we so often make between personal holiness and the work for justice in the world is utterly false. Each one of us is an integral and essential part of the whole universe. Each person is a unique incarnation of the Word of God. Each one of us also has been wounded and hurt in unique ways and needs healing that is intimate and particular to our own histories. As we find and move toward healing in our individual lives, we will find that we have particular and individual gifts–flowing directly out of our individual wounds. And as we give ourselves more fully to the healing of the universe, our own individual healing deepens and deepens.

Our true vocation as Christians, simply put, is to live in and with Christ. As we live more fully into that vocation, in all its uniqueness and particularity, we cannot help but offer our lives for the healing of all that is. For then it is not we who live, but it is Christ living, healing, and loving in us and through us.


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white souls matter

Like most white people in America, I hate talking about race. Whenever race comes up, I feel uncomfortable. But, as  a Christian, I am committed to the life of conversion to Christ. A good rule of thumb for that process is to go where it hurts. I try to lean into what makes me squirm, which means I talk, think, read, and pray about race a lot.

There is no more pressing moral concern in our common lives today than racism and racial justice. We white people can no longer hide behind a veneer of ignorance of the systematic terror inflicted on black and brown Americans. Police violence against people of color floods the news and social media. To remain unaware and uninvolved in the fight to end racial oppression in America is a choice to collude with evil.

We white people who follow Jesus Christ are particularly called to end racism. That call begins–and let’s face it, we white folks are at the beginning of this struggle–with confronting our own willful ignorance of and collusion with the evil that enslaves us. A blog post isn’t long enough to outline thoroughly the social and economic benefits that continue to accrue to white people in a white supremacist society. But it is essential to say that there is no white person living in America today who does not continue to benefit in countless ways from our two centuries of chattel slavery. The Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the theft, torture, rape, and enslavement of Africans and the free labor they provided. In other words, without slavery, we would not have railroads, shipping lines, and factories and all the myriad technological advances that make our lives comfortable and connected today. The fact that I can write this blog post at home and have hundreds of you read it throughout the world rests upon the foundation of chattel slavery. All this is not even to begin to explore the benefits we “enjoy” from the genocide of the native people.

I think that one of the reasons we white people are so afraid to enter the fight for racial justice is that we are terrified of confronting our complicity with evil. We are afraid that if we acknowledge the hell our ancestors created and that we continue to create, we would be destroyed by our guilt and shame.

The thing about evil is that it divides and chains our souls. It leaves us fragmented and unfree. This is what racism has done to white people. Racism divides us not only from our black and brown sisters and brothers. It also separates us from God and from ourselves. It fragments our souls, leaving us dead inside. Racism kills black and brown bodies. It also destroys white souls. Evil leaves no one untouched.

Christians are in a uniquely powerful position here. We have in Jesus a model of one who willingly took upon himself the world’s evil, suffered the annihilation that evil brought, and was thereby filled with the eternal and abundant life of a loving God. This is the paschal mystery. We are right to believe that confronting the enormity of our collusion with the evil of racism will kill us. But the us who will die is the racist, terrified us. And when we allow that part of ourselves to crucify us, we will find that we are filled with the life of Christ. We will then be able to say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”

The choice is before us, and our own souls hang in the balance. Will we choose the crucified life that really is life, or will we choose the easy death and fragmentation of ignorance and the accommodation of evil? With Christ as our model and our light, I pray we will choose life.

Unsure where to begin confronting your own white privilege and racism? The website of the Anti-Racist Alliance has a great resource for white people, including recommended reading. I also highly recommend Tim Wise’s book White Like Me as a way to begin looking at white privilege. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a beautiful and heartbreaking memoir of one man’s experience of being black in America. For a look at the systemic racism that runs throughout our criminal justice system, read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. Father Marcus Halley writes beautifully about race and Christian spirituality on his website.


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why I am a flower gardener

Earlier this summer I took a two-part vegetable workshop at our local botanic garden. The class was fun and informative, and it was wonderful to spend time with other enthusiastic gardeners. But I left the workshop thinking, “Okay, great. But why would you worry so much over an eggplant when you could have peonies?” The part of me that is still stuck in the values of “the world”–acquisition, workaholism, perfectionism, earning one’s keep–tells me I ought to grow vegetables. They’re useful, after all. They feed people, reduce our food costs, and help the environment by limiting the amount of fossil fuels needed to support our food supply. Yes, a home vegetable garden does all of that and more. The truth is, though, that vegetables don’t make my heart sing. Flowers do.

 

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My life as a gardener began before I planted my first bulb two autumns ago. In the 18 months before I entered the monastery, I came up to visit one weekend each month. During that year a half, as I walked the monastery grounds something in me stirred. I longed to get my hands in the dirt, to clear the accumulated weeds and debris from the flower beds, and to see them teeming with beautiful life, a botanic reflection of the prayer that has filled this property for over 100 years.

My gardening life has been and continues to be inextricably woven with my monastic life. I don’t know if the one would exist without the other. Much of my conversion has been founded on the growing understanding that beauty heals.

 

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An accurate translation of the creation story in Genesis is that God created the world and called it “beautiful.” Our most natural state as human beings is to exist harmoniously with the rest of the created world as stewards and participants in the extraordinary beauty of all that God has made. More than that, we are given the unique role of helping to channel God’s work of creation, to sing the universe into being in harmony with God. When we allow ourselves to be channels of God’s creative energy (that is, grace) we become one with God’s Spirit. Such unity does not just make us more whole. It is wholeness itself.

Beauty is a kind of grace. It’s available to all, freely given, found absolutely everywhere, and far exceeds whatever effort we may put into its creation. If we have trouble finding beauty in the world, it’s because we lack the eyes to see it. When I allow myself to be poured out in the act of creation, I find that, paradoxically I am filled beyond my own capacity and ability. This is the profligacy of God’s love for us and all the world.

 

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I plant flowers because I love everything about them. The utter implausibility and grace of economy of the tulip bulb astounds me as much as its perfect form and rich color when it blooms. I’m giddy as a child to plant bulbs in the fall and impatient throughout the winter waiting for their arrival. Despite my understanding of the life cycle of the bulb, they have never yet failed to leave me speechless in wonder when they bloom. And as soon as the tulip fades, there’s the iris and then the peony and then the rose and on and on until we reach the aster and the maple’s majestic blaze. Flower gardening leaves me grateful to be a participant in this extraordinary world that God continues to create and call beautiful. In the face of such  profligate beauty, who cares about utility?

 

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deeper into the heart of Christ

A young man recently said to me “I just like being in charge.” Recognizing something of myself in that statement, I laughed and responded, “Then it will be very hard for you to be a Christian.”

Obedience lies at the center of the Christian life, and it leads, ultimately to the Cross. Many of us squirm at the word “obedience,” because we hear in that word the curbing of our individuality and freedom of expression. But real obedience leads us to our truest selves as they live in Christ’s heart. Obedience brings us to the freedom of the children of God, a freedom that comes through seeking and following Christ before the dictates of our own, limited, wills. As our Founder writes in his rule “There is always an element of dying to self in true obedience. [… Because] real peace will be ours only when our superficial or false self has been transformed into Christ and we can say with St. Paul: ‘I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me.'”

Eventually in every faithful life, we will reach a point–most likely many points–when we realize that we are desperately in need of salvation and, at the same time, totally unable to save ourselves. When this knowledge travels from the head down to the heart, it breaks that heart open. Such experiences are painful. But as we allow the weight of our poverty and need to break open our hearts, there is more room for those same hearts to be filled with Christ’s transforming light and life. As Father Matthew Wright said in his Holy Cross Day sermon, “the wound is where the light gets in.”

I had such an experience during my recent retreat. The offices at Regina Laudis are entirely in Latin, which allowed me to let the sounds of the psalms wash over me. I had been in the habit, though, of praying the Our Father silently to myself in English while one of the sisters chanted it in Latin. One evening at Vespers a small voice inside me told me to stop. I did so and as the haunting sound of the sister’s chant hit me, it broke my heart. I knew in that moment as surely as I have known anything that God was chanting the words of Jesus’ prayer in my heart, interceding, as Paul says, with sighs too deep for words. In some sense I became the prayer, and in that moment, through God’s grace, my own heart was joined with Christ’s.

As we learn to surrender this kind of dying and rising action, we allow God to turn our lives into an oblation for the healing of the world. We cannot accomplish this pouring out of our lives. We can only accede to it. In the moments when we do, we find that the crucified life that we seek draws us ever deeper in to the heart of God.

It is for this reason that Father Whittemore, the great mystic in our Order’s history, calls the religious life a love affair.

Earlier in this chapter I gave several reasons for becoming a monk or nun. Did you notice that I omitted that which many folk outside the religious life imagine to be the true one? I have the feeling that most people think that monks or nuns were “disappointed in love.”

 

Perhaps some of them were. God has many means of drawing souls to Himself. All I can say is that, though I have known a great number of monks and nuns very intimately, I never have happened to strike one who came to the cloister because he or she had been disappointed in love.

 

On the other hand, I have known very many—please God, it is true of all of them—who were successful in love beyond all dreams or imagining. For they have heard in their hearts the whispering of the perfect lover. And it has been their deepest passion and their joy to surrender themselves to Him unto death, even the death of the Cross.

May we all allow our hearts to be broken open, given to the world in a great Eucharistic feast. And may Christ gather up the fragments of our broken hearts and join them to his own.

 

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holy twins

I have just returned from a week’s retreat at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT. The Abbey was founded in 1947 in gratitude for the American liberation of France during the Second World War. From its foundation, the life of the abbey and its community has been rooted in the land. Today the community maintains dairy and beef cattle, chickens, sheep, vegetable and flower gardens, and an orchard. They make cheese, butter, and yogurt; spin and weave wool; sculpt; paint; make pottery; and so much more. They are living the traditional Benedictine life that so many other communities have abandoned: one in intimate partnership with the land, where physical labor and prayer become twin pillars holding up the life of faith and discipleship.

The nuns at Regina Laudis don’t offer retreat programming the way we do here at Holy Cross Monastery. Rather, they invite their guests to join them in the rhythm of prayer and work that structures their days. During my week with them I harvested raspberries, cleared brush, loaded sheep into trucks, cleaned the church, weeded flower beds, mowed lawns, and weed whacked overgrown hillsides. I have rarely felt so alive. It was a hot week, and I came home with a suitcase full of sweat drenched, smelly clothing. But my sweat, the heat of my body, and my beating heart all told me that I was a living, breathing, embodied creature of God, not separate from the earth and its people, but one with them.

I am used to thinking about the unitive power of a community’s prayer. One of the functions of the Divine Office is that it knits the community together into one praying body. We breathe together, and then we sing together. But I came away from my retreat time more aware of the unitive power of work, and particularly of manual labor. Using my body to tend and steward the land left me feeling more whole–with a greater unity of body, mind, and spirit. But it also led me to feel united with the rest of the community of workers and prayers (both nuns and guests). We were all engaged in a common enterprise, and not only a mental and spiritual one, but an embodied one.

The Abbess Emerita, Mother David, writes of the unifying power of prayer and work in her autobiography on the Abbey’s website.

I knew that even if I spent my whole life in social work I could only do a very little. There had to be another way for me to help. It was that search for another dimension in which to give myself that finally drove me into the monastery. Then, of course, the question is, ‘Did that meet your desire?’ Yes, because in complement to that vast world of need that stretches from end to end is that vast world of interior struggle for redeemed innocence, which by morphic resonance communicates faith, hope and charity. It was that interior struggle I took on in entering the monastery. It is my hope that as we seek to live the covenantal life into which we have been baptized, consciously confronting the demons that assail us and opting for the good of one another, the whole world will be changed for the better. I believe that was the vision St. Benedict entrusted to us when he saw the whole world in a single ray of light.

There is an almost inexplicable connection between groundedness in the body and the earth and what Mother David so beautifully calls “the vast world of interior struggle for redeemed innocence.” As we seek to tend the ground as good stewards of creation, we make the conscious decision to act like Adam and Eve before they ate the fruit: humankind in harmony with the earth, one another, and God. This vision of redeemed innocence, a vision the nuns of Regina Laudis live with such faithfulness (though, of course, never perfectly) serves as an antidote to the alienation from self, other, the earth, and God that so plagues our world today.

While I was at the abbey I bought a print of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica (the title photo of this post). The original is by Tomie daPaola. I hope it serves as a reminder to me of the holy twins of ora and labora, that both are necessary for my own and my community’s wholeness. Prayer and work are, ultimately, one thing and they lay the groundwork for contemplation and unity in Christ.

If you are interested in joining our community’s rhythm of prayer and work, check out our garden and library volunteer retreats. If the dates of those retreats don’t work for you, contact our guesthouse manager, Lori (guesthouse@hcmnet.org), and tell her you’re interested in a retreat that includes work time.

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preserving historic iris

My love of flowers began at an early age. My mother enjoys telling the story of the time, when I was around three, that she noticed me in the backseat of the car looking sad. She asked me what was wrong, to which I replied “I don’t feel loved.” “Well, honey,” she said, “what would make you feel loved?” “A blooming plant would be nice,” I said.

All through my childhood, the iris held pride of place in my floral pantheon. At that time I only knew the flowers in florists’ shops. So, the iris of my youth was the plain blue flag iris. At the time I had no awareness of the iris’ incredible range of form and color, nor that such voluptuous blooms come from a rhizome that looks like a dried up lobster. Still, even then I knew that the iris had more grace than the lily and more elegance than the rose.

 

 

It has been one of the great pleasures of my role as monastery groundskeeper to explore the huge range of iris one can grow. As I have done so, I have learned that my own particular taste–not surprising given the rest of my proclivities–favors the historic iris. The older cultivars tend to be simpler in form, closer to their wild cousins. As such, they possess infinitely more grace than their overly large and overly frilly modern relatives. They also fit better into the context of a monastery garden, where the focus is less on spectacular single blooms than on creating a harmonious environment conducive to rest and contemplation.

I’m thrilled, therefore, that we are partnering with the Historic Iris Preservation Society to help preserve rare and historic iris. We are now one of a growing number of guardian gardens, a network of home gardeners and some larger ventures that dedicate garden space to preserving the most endangered iris cultivars.

The program runs on a brilliant and simple model. Each participating garden hosts as many rare cultivars as it can. Once those iris have grown large enough to divide, the gardener divides them, keeps four or five rhizomes for her garden, and sends the others to another guardian gardener, who adopts the divided iris. The only money that changes hands is the cost of postage.

Guardian Gardens maintains a database of all the iris grown by HIPS members as well as those we know are sold commercially. If there are fewer than four HIPS members growing a certain iris, it’s considered worthy of inclusion on the Guardian Gardens ark.

 

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Our newly planted historic iris.

 

The Holy Cross gardens have only recently joined this program, but we’ve already adopted 13 rare iris. It’s really a perfect situation for us. As many of you know, we’re in a several year process of renovating our garden spaces. This renovation includes two large iris beds, one on the guesthouse lawn and one on the north side of the monastic enclosure. The Guardian Gardens program gives us the opportunity to fill those beds with beautiful iris that aren’t available commercially at the same time that we help the cause of heirloom and historic plants.

My understanding and appreciation of the iris continues to grow each year, but I remain grounded in that childlike fascination with the beauty of flowers. It’s incredible that such beauty exists in the world, and incredible that I can participate in its growth and preservation. My hunch as a child turns out to be right–blooming plants do convey to me the love of the Creator, and they help me channel that love in and through my own life as a gardener, a monk, and a Christian.

 

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