tending the garden of the heart

I always find this time to year to be particularly fruitful for turning inward to tend the garden of the heart. It’s the start of a new calendar year; we’ve just had Christmas; and the weather generally encourages indoor pursuits and quiet reflection. My birthday is at the end of January, a month and a day after Christmas, which has the effect of doubling the feeling of newness and rebirth that mid-winter brings me.

As I look back on the last twelve months, I find myself struck with the enormity of the year that has passed and less certain than ever about what the new year will bring. I end 2016 much more aware of the fragmentation of our world. My year began by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant and moving memoir Between the World and Me. Much of my experience of the year flowed from that point: from the ravages of racism and slavery on communities and people of color to the slaughter and exile of countless Syrians to the efforts, yet again, to steal land from the Native Americans at Standing Rock to the shattering of our illusion of political and social progress with the election of Donald Trump. Politically, at least, it has a been a painful year.

And yet, rather than feeling depressed, I actually feel energized for action. I’m reminded of a very painful relationship I had with a drug addict when I first moved to New York. When we finally broke up, I felt as lonely and ashamed as I ever had. One afternoon, I ran into one of the old-timers from an Al-Anon meeting I was going to. When I told her how lonely I’d been feeling all day, she said “well, did it kill you?” I had to laugh. Of course my feelings, as painful and intense as they were, had not killed me. In fact, from the vantage point of today, the painful and disillusioning experience of that relationship and its aftermath was a powerful spiritual awakening, one of the most important of my life.

In God’s economy, nothing is lost. Suffering, pain, despair, and disillusionment are as much tools of growth and awakening and life as are much pleasanter experiences. There is a Buddhist saying that I often remember: on the withered limb, a flower blooms. And in the dead of winter, when the world seems bleak and lifeless, the tulips underground are preparing their spring unfurling. The one experience does not take away from the other. On the contrary–if we can learn to see with the eyes of faith, this broken world and our messy, painful lives are dazzlingly beautiful for their complexity and their humanity.

I don’t know what the next year will bring. None of us does. But I wish for us all life, depth, and vision for the work ahead. Happy New Year.


You may notice that this post is a few days earlier than it should be. That’s because from Tuesday, January 3 until Wednesday, January 11 the monastic community will be taking our annual long retreat. I’ll return to the blog after our retreat. Thank you all for your support this year. I’ve so loved writing these reflections.

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a radical and absurd hope

This Christmas brought me an unexpected honor: Br. Robert asked me, as the youngest member of our community, to carry the baby in procession to the crèche at the end of the First Vespers of Christmas. I wasn’t prepared for the quiet power of that role. As I carried the baby from the church into the dark ambulatory, followed by a hundred small lights, and quavering voices singing “Silent Night,” my eyes filled with tears and my throat choked. It was an act so terribly terribly small, and the darkness so overwhleming and deep. Yet there we were, our little band of the faithful, carrying these tiny lights and proclaiming that God took human form in a small and vulnerable child, to be with us, to lighten our darkness so that we can lighten the darkness of the world. What a radical and absurd hope we Christians have!

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You see, God comes to us as a small child, not because we’ve gotten this world sorted out and God wants to congratulate us. No, God comes in the darkest dark of our night, when all hope seems lost, because that is when we truly need God to save us. So often we’re looking for God as a blazing fire that will burn away the injustice in our world. Or a superhuman that will remove us from the mire of our humanity. Instead, God comes as the smallest light, a little candle flame that cannot be extinguished. And God takes flesh as a tiny human child to remind us that we do not find our salvation by escaping the human condition, but by inhabiting it fully in all its messiness, pain, and uncertainty.

We Christians dare to hope, nay to assert, that God truly is with us, in us, all around us all the time. Truly the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. We are those little lights.

I leave you with a video of our monastic schola singing my favorite Christmas song: Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming. It says all that needs to be said.

May the light of Jesus Christ shine in your darkness, and may you dare to hope for your and the world’s salvation. A joyful Christmas to you all!

 


For more pictures and videos of our Christmas celebrations, check out our Facebook page.

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more fully born

Last Christmas Eve my grandmother died. As I wrote in an earlier post, I sat by her bedside in the hours before her death, breathing deeply with her, holding her hand, and waiting for her new Advent. I was aware at the time that Christmas would never again be the same for me. I had received a terrible gift–the knowledge that Christmas is not about carefree family suppers, platters of chocolate, and pink-cheeked babies. It is not about happiness, at least not in some superficial way. It is about nothing less than the unity of heaven and earth and the breaking of the infinite into our finite human lives. That God enters our world as a small and defenseless child and allows us to care for him in his vulnerability, ought to shatter our illusions about God and humanity. Instead, we’ve become rather used to the idea, inured to the terror and the glory of the Word made Flesh.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about our complacency and our calling in light of this most wondrous inbreaking:

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God, whereas the world fell into trembling when Jesus Christ walked over the Earth. That is why we find it so strange when we see the marks of God in the world so often together with the marks of human suffering, with the marks of the cross on Golgotha. We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little Earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be–in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved into us. Therefore we adults can rejoice deeply within our hearts under the Christmas tree, perhaps much more than the children are able. We know that God’s goodness will once again draw near. We think of all of God’s goodness that came our way last year and sense something of this marvelous home. Jesus comes in judgment and grace. ‘Behold I stand at the door…Open wide the gates!’

God, who is Truth and Wisdom and Word, makes a home in us to shatter the illusion of our self-sufficiency. And if our hearts are more stable than inn, all the better. God doesn’t seem to mind being laid in the straw. Perhaps God actually prefers this dross to the fantasies of comfort, wealth, and warmth with which we would prefer to surround ourselves.

Such was my experience last Christmas. My grandmother’s bedroom was a creche, and no experience of waiting in a church could have been holier. I sat in vigil with my grandmother, her increasingly ragged breaths like a woman in labor, waiting for God to reach out and take her hand. I also sat with Christ in vigil, waiting for my grandmother’s fuller birth into the eternal. Word and Flesh joined together, our breaths a kind of chant–both sanctus and ‘O Come, Emmanuel.’ In that waiting, my grandmother and I were both changed, both more fully born.

Come, Emmanuel, come, and make your home in us.


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who are you?

Who are you? Many of us answer this question first with our shorthand identity statements. I am a white, gay, Christian, cis-gendered, male monastic. Next with our ideological statements. I am a progressive, feminist, anti-racist socialist. Next with our professional and avocational statements. I am a gardener, knitter, baker, reader, writer, and lover of the natural world. These labels make for quick statements of identity, and they do describe certain commitments and experiences that shape who we are and how we see the world. They outline where our loyalties lie, and also where our blind spots may be. But language conceals as much as reveals truth. The quick and easy identity labels belie our hidden depths. They don’t have space for our desires, longings, hurts, fears, joys, and gratitudes. None of these experiences can be easily captured with language.

I wonder what would happen, when next asked the question “who are you?” we answered “I don’t know.” Such is the most basic and honest answer to an unbelievably complex and personal question. Given our current political, social, and ecclesial realities, we need more honesty of this kind. We need to commit more fully to our silent, even reverent unknowing.

Our political discourse gets noiser with every passing day. We live in a political system that reduces human beings to numbers and colors on a map. When we identify so fully with the labels applied to us, when we actually revel in those labels, we collude with the system of empire that would dominate us and the rest of the world. Perhaps our best response, for now, in the cauldron of our national life, is a silence that holds space for the fullness of our–and everyone else’s–human experience.

Such silence does not mean silence in the face of evil and oppression. But it does mean that before leaping into the political fray, we might give space to touch down into our personal and social depths, to the longing for justice and wholeness and peace that connects us across political and social divides. American Christianity today can witness to this capacious silence.

The gospel reading this last Sunday struck me, particularly given our current political realities in America. When John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, Jesus responds, “Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind recover their sight; the dead are raised to life; and the poor are hearing the good news.” What an answer! John, like much of the people of Israel (and many of us today), wants a savior who will be both political and cosmic destroyer of evil and oppression. Instead, he finds a savior who enters fully into human life, not to teach us how to transcend our humanity, but so that we may learn to live it fully.

It is this humanity that is our most basic connection with one another. In reality, none of us knows who we are. We are all like the Christ child in Mary’s womb, growing to fullness with every passing season. God waits patiently in the growing darkness for our light to be born, so many stars shining in the black sky of our world. Maybe we can wait with God in silent hope and expectation for our deepest selves to rise up. What a revolution that would be.


This reflection is the third in a series of three Advent reflections on fasting. Two weeks ago I wrote about personal dimensions of fasting and last week on ecclesial dimensions.

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hollowed ground

 

I spent last weekend with a small group of mostly Roman Catholic young religious learning about a mode of communication called contemplative dialogue. At the core of this method is silence. Contemplative dialogue groups begin in silence, hold space for silence, and allow statements and questions to emerge from and move back in toward silence.

Out of this deeply prayerful weekend came a pair of questions that resonate deeply for me: What does it mean for the Church to be poor? What does it mean for us to be human? At heart, I believe, these are the same question.

It strikes me that these two questions form the core of our challenge as Christian persons and communities today. Materially, the Church is anything but poor. Every facet of our ecclesial life is encrusted with the trappings of imperial pomp, from our liturgical vestments to our church architecture to our exclusionary hierarchies to our definitions and dogmas. We have been obsessed with numbers, universality, power, and prestige. For centuries we sought to make the whole world Christian, by force and coercion, as often as not. This enterprise, rooted as it is in greed and jealousy, has generally led to oppression, colonialism, and genocide. Church building and evangelism are often just another form of idolatry, attempts to save ourselves rather than turning to the true source of life and salvation.

As our churches empty of people, and our society moves away from institutional Christianity, we are presented with the gift and the challenge of allowing God to birth something new in us. Too often we churched Christians focus in on strategies and solutions to fill the pews again. But what if God is actually calling us to empty pews? We worry about how to pay for the upkeep on our expensive real estate. But what if God is actually calling us to let the buildings go? If we are truly a Christian people, truly a Christian church, then death is good news indeed. For it is by dying that we allow God to fill us with new life. The paschal mystery is no less true for the Church than it is for each of us individually.

In response to my post last week, one of my regular readers introduced me to a quotation from Wayne Muller’s book Sabbath:

This is one of our fears of quiet; if we stop and listen we will hear emptiness. […] If we are terrified of what we will find in rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop moving. But this emptiness has nothing to do with our value or our worth. All life has emptiness at its core; it is the quiet hollow reed through which the wind of God blows and makes the music that is our life.

The Church can be a quiet, hollow reed through which the Spirit of God blows, making music for the world. But in order to be that instrument, the Church needs to return to the silence and emptiness beneath all the pretty clothes, the beautiful music, and the preaching and teaching. We have spoken for too long. We need to return to silence.

Such emptiness can be a terror for us. Or it can be a womb out of which God will draw forth a new life for us as a Christian people. Whatever that life looks like, it will be different than what has come before. New life always is. But until we as a Church move away from our earthly riches and toward the emptiness of spiritual poverty and silence–which, as Paul would affirm, is really the richness and wisdom of God–we will never allow God to enter in. And without God’s life, what is the Church?


This reflection is the second in a series of three Advent reflections on fasting. Last week I wrote about personal dimensions of fasting. Next week, I’ll reflect on national and political dimensions of fasting.

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learning how to fast

As  we move into Advent, I have been thinking about something our Superior, Brother Robert, says from time to time: We don’t know how to feast, because we don’t know how to fast. Like Good Friday and Easter, the one does not make sense without the other.

We have lost the rhythm of feast and fast. The disappearance of Advent as a liturgical and spiritual season is a perfect example of this dynamic. The Christmas season creeps earlier and earlier with every passing year. If a little joy and wonder is a good thing, surely more joy and more wonder is a better thing. No matter that all the pressure and business and shopping and spending of the Christmas season leaves so many people in debt and miserable in the effort to create that magical experience they long for.

We live in a society that is addicted to fullness and novelty. One scoop of ice cream might satisfy a craving for sweetness after a meal, so we eat a whole pint. We think that every craving must be met, every itch scratched, every desire fulfilled in order for us to be satisfied. And so we go beyond fullness to the point of physical and spiritual obesity. This problem is primarily a spiritual one. Addiction to fullness in whatever form–be it with food, sex, material possessions, knowledge, or anything else–divides us from ourselves, isolates us from one another, and dulls our longing for God.

If we don’t allow ourselves the experience of emptiness, we can never know the experience of emptiness filled and longing met. Consciously to move into our emptiness is a powerful spiritual practice. When we put down the bowl of ice cream, when we stop distracting ourselves with all the work that needs doing, when we turn off the cell phone, we have to face into the emptiness that lies at the center of our being. Often this encounter produces intense anxiety. When faced with this anxiety most of us are tempted to throw in the towel and eat something or drink something or check our e-mail yet again.

The solution to this anxiety, though, is to move deeper into it, not away from it. We need to allow ourselves to be hungry so that we can discover what we are truly hungry for. If we’re always stuffed we can never really know ourselves or the God we seek. Rather, emptiness hollows us out and wakes us up. Entering into emptiness is a way of creating space for an encounter with God and offering God the opportunity to fill us with what we need, which ultimately is to be filled with God’s own self.

We would all benefit from a rediscovery of the art and practice of fasting. For some of us this really does need to be a fast from food. For others, perhaps it is work or judgment or buying stuff that we need to withdraw from. Although Advent is not a penitential season, it is a season of waiting and watching, a season of expectation. Our Christmas celebration will be all the sweeter if we sit in the gathering darkness of winter and allow ourselves to long for the dawning of the light rather than turning on every lightbulb in the house in an effort to cast out the shadows. Let’s relearn how to fast. It will make our feast all the more joyous when it comes.


This reflection is the first in a series of three Advent reflections on fasting. Check back the next two weeks for reflections on the ecclesial and political dimensions of fasting.

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costly discipleship

Last week a guest came into the bookshop looking for a copy of Bonhoeffer. She said that in the wake of the recent presidential election, a friend had said “It’s time to break out the Bonhoeffer.” Our conversation got me thinking about Bonhoeffer, perhaps the supreme example of Christian discipleship of the last 100 years. Bonhoeffer spent a year in New York in the late 1930s, studying at Union Seminary and worshiping at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He had the opportunity to remain in America, but he chose instead to return to Hitler’s Germany, where he worked with the resistance and helped to build a Christian community grounded in prayer and committed to standing where Jesus stood–at the margins and with the most vulnerable. At every opportunity to choose comfort over witness, Bonhoeffer chose witness. Having followed Jesus, he followed him to the end. He was executed for treason just days before the war’s end. Bonhoeffer counted the cost of following Jesus Christ, and he paid it consciously and willingly.

This moment in our national life is such a moment for those of us who would call ourselves Christian. Suddenly the costs of following Jesus have just gotten higher. The truth is, discipleship has never been cheap. Following Jesus has always demanded our very lives. But institutional Christianity, allied as it has been since the fourth century with the forces of empire, has lulled many–I daresay the majority of us–into a kind of sleep. It has been easy enough, even for those of us who strive to be committed to the way that Jesus taught and lived, to choose lives of comfort and ease, believing that the faithful life will somehow bring us all the stuff we want: home, family, connection, meaningful work. These are all good and desirable things to have and to want, but they are incidental and not essential to Christian discipleship. True Christian discipleship requires us to stand with the weak, vulnerable, marginalized, and left behind; to confront the forces of empire, whether political, social, or ecclesial; and to give even our own lives as a witness to the self-sacrificing love of our boundless God.

This kind of discipleship is beyond right and left. It requires us to recognize that those left behind include factory workers in Kentucky who probably voted for Donald Trump and would vote for him again as well as Syrian refugees displaced by a war undergirded and fomented by Western imperial powers. While Christian discipleship is inherently political, it is not sectarian. True Christianity stands against all that would destroy and demean human dignity. We who follow Jesus Christ are called above all to build communities grounded in love, a love that knows no boundaries or borders, a love that sees humanity and divinity reflected even in the eyes of the oppressors. We are all, every single person on this planet, icons of the living God. And we are all broken human beings in need of salvation.

Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the second century that “the greatness of Christianity lies in its being hated by the world, not in its being convincing to it.” (Letter to the Romans, 3.3) If we are truly living lives grounded in a relationship with Jesus Christ, the world will hate us. Right and left will sneer. We will find ourselves at cross purposes with the mainstream, including our families and friends. Our churches will shrink, as will our church budgets. We may find ourselves congregating once more in homes rather than parish halls. But the time has come to let our old Christianity die, so that it and we can be reborn as a people truly living the way of Jesus.

Rather than seeking to evangelize the whole world, we should seek to be a blessing to all nations, a small band of people whose entire lives are given over to loving one another as God has loved us and to being transformed daily into the image of our crucified God. We must, as the Church, learn to die with God so that we may live with God.


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riding the monsters down

Like much of America, I spent the day after the election feeling sick at my stomach. I had certainly hoped that Hillary Clinton would be our next president. But as I have sat with the reality that Donald Trump has been elected president, I have felt an odd sense of relief. Not relief that Mr. Trump will take office, but relief that our collective denial must now end. Something in our common life has shattered with this election. We can no longer ignore the incredible fissures that run through our national life. One thing this election has made clear is that there are a lot of working class white people in this country who are furious that they have been lied to, ignored, and talked down to.

Who can blame them? The anger of those who voted for Mr. Trump is perfectly understandable. The American dream is a lie. One can rarely, through one’s own efforts, with enough hard work, “make it.” There are millions of people in this country who cannot pay their bills, cannot go to college, and cannot find hope in the darkness of their lives. Some of these millions are rural white people, some are urban people of color. All have been left behind.

Please don’t mistake me. I’m not suggesting that we ought to make peace with or ignore the evils of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, or homophobia. We must resist such evil with all that we have and all that we are. But condemning the people who express such views only stokes our own self-righteous fury, further dividing us from one another. At such a time, we must first seek the unity inherent in all that God has created.

In reflecting on my post last week, I was reminded of another dragon-ish quotation that helps me to understand the one thing needed in our common life today. In her book Teaching a Stone to TalkAnnie Dillard writes

In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us.  But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for another, and for our life together here.  This is given.  It is not learned.

We have the opportunity as a nation to ride the monsters of hatred, violence, racism, misogyny, anger, and despair to our deepest levels, beyond all division. This process is not an easy one. As the recent election has shown, true unity and healing does not come from pretending that we are all one. It comes from engaging the violence around us and within us and allowing God to take us to the deepest levels of existence, where we are already one with one another and with God. This is the only way to healing. I pray that with God’s help we may take it.


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