All the Boys I Could Have Been

My father is dying.

Stage IV lung cancer, for which he isn’t seeking treatment. I know all that from his sister, Judy, who called me during our long retreat in January. My phone began to buzz around 11.15 in the morning, not long before Eucharist. The day had already been a beautiful one—bright sunshine, deep quiet, prayer that was robust and gentle and full of love. I felt happy.

When I saw that Judy was calling, I knew immediately something was wrong. She and I hadn’t talked for a couple of years, not from animosity, but because we weren’t close and don’t feel we should pretend to be. I chose not to break the quiet spell of the morning and to call Judy back after lunch. I honestly thought my father was probably dead, and that Judy was calling to tell me. I’d been waiting more and more impatiently for that news for the eleven years since I’d last seen my father.

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planting tulips in a time of war

This fall the maples were as late catching fire as I can remember. By the time they lit, the black walnuts, always the first to go anyway, had dropped their leaves. Everyone said it was because it was too wet, or too cool, or too whatever. I can never quite remember what are supposed to be the optimal conditions for orange and red maple leaves.

It was a season of synchronicity. While I waited for the maples, the UN released a report on the state of climate change and the natural environment, urging the world to action and telling whoever was listening that by 2040 we could expect violent climactic events. As if the wildfires in California, the tsunamis throughout the Pacific, the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico and Houston weren’t violent enough to count.

While all this information was settling in, while I was pushing the despair that threatened to the edges of consciousness, a friend sent me a poem from Edward Harkness. It begins “There’s no word for it so far, the word / for what it means to be in love with you / in our sinking world.”[1]

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the grounding of my spirit

It was the garden that saved me.

Scott had said to me many times that I was welcome at the monastery as often as I wanted to come. I didn’t believe him. Some part of me knew, though, that if I were really to discern a vocation at Holy Cross I would have to act as if I believed I was welcome. For the eighteen months before I joined the community, I visited every month.

The monastery grounds captivated me the first time I saw them—the grand sweep of grassy hillside down to the tall sentinels of the woods and the majestic expanse of silver brown river, all crowned with steep green hills and the Gilded Age silhouette of the Vanderbilt Mansion.

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a long goodbye

This will be the last reflection I write for this blog, at least for the foreseeable future.

These days, I find myself longing for silence more than speech, for learning more than teaching, for the ordinary spaciousness of the daily more than the excitement of the special. I don’t have much to say these days, which makes writing regular reflections a challenge.

And, at the same time, there is a deeper sea change about in my life.

I’ll let you in on a secret I’ve held since I entered the monastery three and a half years ago, though you may well have picked up on it by now. I have long wanted to be the Thomas Merton of my generation. This fantasy is more than passing. It’s come to symbolize and, in mostly subtle ways, to shape my inner and outer journey these last few years. I’ve planned out the books I’d write and the awards I’d receive. I’ve practiced my responses for Krista Tippett. I’ve even come up with the title The New Yorker would use for their profile of me. It would be called “The Millennial Merton.”

I hope you’re laughing by now. Because, as important as this fantasy has been for me, as I’ve revealed it to a few people I trust over the last weeks, it has come to seem utterly ridiculous. It’s funny in that poignant way that so many of our inner conversations are funny. And like the boggart in Harry Potter, laughing at it steals its power.

As I’ve shared this part of myself with others, I’ve felt, by turns, embarrassment and liberation. The embarrassment has passed; the freedom has remained. So it often is with self-disclosure.

This fantasy really isn’t any different from any other fantasy of success and recognition. It’s just the same old “I’m going to famous one day” story dressed in a monastic habit. And in that sense it is so deeply human, and also, ultimately, a stumbling block on the road home to God and Self.

A dear friend reminded me this week that the world needed Thomas Merton in his time. Today, the world no longer needs Merton, at least not as it did when he was alive. Now the world needs Aidan Owen, and millions of others, to be fully themselves.

I’m reminded, too, of a Hasidic anecdote about Rabbi Zusha, who told his disciples that when he dies God won’t be asking him why he wasn’t Moses. Instead, he’s afraid God will look him in the eye and ask, “Why weren’t you Zusha?”

As I say, this fantasy and this stumbling block are perennial features in the human story. There are also some of us who, from background and training, fall prey to it more often and easily. I am one of those. My whole life I have been “successful” in whatever context I’ve found myself. And, for a host of reasons, some beyond my control and some not, I have fed on that “success” and seen in it the way to wholeness and healing. But like any idol, or any drug, it ultimately leaves me hungrier and emptier than I was before.

None of this is to say that I have no depth, wisdom, or experience or that I lack authenticity. Much of my inner work over the last 12 years has been to shed the masks as I’ve realized that they were masks, to continue to ask myself “what is my deepest desire?” and “who am I?” Beginning this blog, writing it weekly and then mostly weekly, and now stopping to write it, have all been important parts of that process.

My deepest desire has always been to love and be loved. Just that. That simple, that plain, that ordinary.

Twelve steppers know this desire as the desire to be a person among persons. You might also call it the desire to be utterly real.

I was talking to my therapist, who has spent a great deal of time at Buddhist monasteries, about my fear of dropping the fantasies of success. “I’m terrified, in a primal way,” I said to her, “that underneath all the words, and the piety, and the wisdom, and the accomplishments, when I get down to who I really am, I’ll find nothing at all.” Her face lit up, and she exclaimed, with joy, “Absolutely! Wonderful! When you find that nothing, you’ll just be and be in relationship with whatever else is happening or being.”

Her words made intuitive sense to me. To be nothing is also to be everything, and, at the same time, is just plainly, ordinarily, to be. One of the reasons I love walking in the woods or sitting by the river is that the woods and the river have no expectations of me. I can simply be with them. They don’t even expect me, as I so often do, to be myself or to know myself. That’s freedom.

The punchline to a great cosmic joke came last week when someone said of a friend of mine, who is indeed quite wise, that he is the closest thing we have today to a Thomas Merton. I laughed out loud at a joke that only I got. “Okay, God” I said. “I’ll let him be Thomas Merton. I’ll just be Aidan.”

In this just being Aidan there’s that mixture of grief and freedom that so powerfully attends, at least for me, experiences of surrender to God. In that just being there is the acceptance of my poverty and of my inability, ultimately, not to need God and other people to carry me through this life. The grief lies in seeing all the useless effort I’ve put into self-sufficiency; the freedom comes in allowing myself to be carried and loved, as just plain Aidan.

You may be familiar with the famous Merton quotation about that point of nothingness underneath all of our striving and posing. But in case you aren’t, I give it to you here:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

“I am” and “nothing” are a breath away from one another.

I am grateful to all of you for reading these reflections over the last few years, for your comments, challenges, insights, questions, and stories. You have helped me to grow. And I pray that God will bless you with more and deeper life.

With love and gratitude,


a little artifice

We have just finished our annual eight-day, silent retreat here at the monastery. A line from Henry James comes to mind: “Something, it seems, has happened.” But what, exactly? And how to articulate or understand it? I hardly know.

From the Gospel of Thomas, which Fr. Matthew Wright shared with us during our retreat:

Jesus said, ‘If those who lead you say to you: “See, the kingdom is in heaven,” then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: “It is in the sea,” then the fish will go before you. Rather, the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the children of the Living One. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.’ (Logion 3)

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where are the midwives?

I first noticed her on the headboard of my bed, her protuberant backside proclaiming her pregnancy to all the world. It was so large and full that it seemed a wonder her spindly legs could hold her up. It wigged me out having her so close to my head. What if she wanted to crawl on me while I was asleep? After looking at her for a moment, reigning in the impulse to swat her flat, she turned and crawled into the darkness between headboard and wall.

Over the next week I found her by the bedside lamp and, finally, on the wall by my sink. Each time her belly was even larger than the time before, a moon waxing to fullness. One morning I opened the cupboard that holds my sink to find her nestled into the door jamb, weaving a dense blanket for her young to hatch. Its soft white threads glowed in the light as she stood guard, an icon of potentiality.

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baptism by fire

As the wildfires of Southern California rage near our monastery in Santa Barbara, I can no longer escape the message of our Advent lectionary. For years now I have been impatient with that lectionary. The first Sunday of Advent begins not with Mary’s ‘yes’ to stoke our own enthusiastic longing for the divine child, but instead with the destruction of the world.

Until the fourth Sunday of Advent (Christmas Eve this year), that’s pretty much the tone of the readings: keep awake, the Lord is coming, repent, return, prepare, look out for the fire that’s about to consume the world. We long for a savior, yes, for the coming of the Word made Flesh. But do we really have any sense of what that coming might look like? This Advent I’ve paid attention to the readings in a different way. I hear the coming of the Word in the context of Amos:

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (5:18-20)

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a new materialism

A few months ago the poet Nikki Giovanni gave an interview with Krista Tippett. She posed a question that has haunted me: “What would happen if we spent as much time looking in the Manger as we do looking at the Cross?”

The traditional story goes that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, forever staining their progeny. In his (and in the traditional story it is always ‘his’) love for humankind God sent his son to die on the Cross to make the payment we never could. With many Christians, I have, for years, turned away from the idea of substitutionary atonement as a kind of divine child abuse. But I have only recently begun to see that the entire structure of Christian thought and practice has been horribly compromised by the idea of original sin.

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