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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why not mercy?

In the kitchen in the monastic enclosure there is a stack of salad plates. Actually, there are two stacks of salad plates. One stack, about ten deep, is of clear glass. The other is a stack of four or five white ceramic plates. One or more of my brothers believes the plates, being of similar size, should all be in the same stack, either the glass on top of the ceramic or the ceramic on top of the glass. Another one or more of my brothers believes the plates, being of different materials, should be side by side on the already crowded countertop. I suppose, given my less than neutral description, you can see where my sympathies lie.

You might think the challenges of living in a monastic community had to do with deeply spiritual or theological issues. Mostly you would be wrong. Mostly, the challenges of monastic life have to do with the salad plates. To stack or nor to stack? Some days, I’ll walk into the kitchen and the plates are stacked. Five minutes later, I’ll pass through again, and there they are, side by side. Later in the day, they’re stacked. And so on. At least, in our community, we don’t resort to the passive aggressive note: PAX. Dear brothers, we all know that the plates, being of different materials, should be side by side (cf. Lev 19:19). Of your charity, please follow this principle. Yours in Christ.

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the freedom to choose

The greatest freedom we have is to choose the good. I know, it’s not very sexy as far as freedoms go. But there you have it.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Paul writes to the Galatians (5:22). For years, anytime I read or heard that passage I stopped after joy and peace. What else could I want? Perhaps it’s a matter of getting a little older, or having prayed a little longer, or of having healed a little more. Now I long most for self-control.

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this life

About a month ago, I was late to see my spiritual direction mentor. I turned out of our driveway behind a construction truck going 40 in a 55 zone. The road is one-lane each way for about 7 miles. The trend continued. After we split into two lanes, I was able to pass. But when we went down to one lane again, same deal. What should have been a 20-minute trip took 45. What should have had me wriggling with impatience and aggression didn’t. Strange.

On the way home, for no conscious reason, I decided to drive the speed limit. I’m not a particularly aggressive driver (at least, I don’t think I am), but I’ve always felt that if the speed limit is 55, it’s good to go 60. And I’ve tended to get aggravated if those in front of me have a different philosophy. Still, I was already going to miss Vespers, no matter how fast I drove. The day was sunny and clear, the clouds alive in the blue sky, the river sparkling. There was no rush.

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the greater love

In 1941, as German bombs dropped around her, Caryll Houselander wrote about what it means to love in the midst of evil, suffering, and death. She describes Christ’s passion as the work of love, not only for his followers, but most especially for those who persecuted and killed him:

Yet, quite equally, [his Passion] was all done to save sinners; knowing perfectly well that men had caused all the evil He was facing, He suffered it all for their sake, to save them from the only death that could be worse than His, the death of their souls. He died to overcome sin and save sinners, and His last prayer was that those who had caused Him all this might be forgiven, and united to His Father by His suffering. There was no question of blotting out men, of destroying sinners, but only of saving them, of delivering them from the wounds of their own sin. (This War is the Passion, p. 24)

I find the last line of the above quotation, like much in Houselander’s extraordinary book, strikingly resonant and challenging today, 80 years on. Have we learned so little? Grown so little? It would seem the answer is yes.

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on joy

This essay is the third of three talks I recently gave to retreat groups. You’ll find the first and second as posts in the last two weeks.

Last fall the maples were late again in catching fire. By the time they lit, the black walnuts, always the first to go anyway, had dropped their leaves. I’d resigned myself to a brown fall by the time the yellow finally began to rise in the trees across around the Guesthouse. A few years ago, everyone would have said it was because it was too wet, or too cool, or whatever they seem to think the least optimal conditions for color in maples. But this year was not the first year the maples were tardy. In fact, they’ve been getting later and later, duller and duller my whole monastic life. So this year, rather than debating the merits of cool or hot, wet or dry, we all nodded knowingly, nearly resigned.

Of course the maples were shy. Who wouldn’t be after two years of pandemic, the fierce rise of nationalism, the deepening of systemic racism and white supremacy, and—underneath it all, so large we still, decades on, have few words for it—the collapse of the climate around us.

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