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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midwives of the creation

The garden teaches us wholeness. We are not separate from the earth. Molded from nothing and filled with the breath of God, we and the earth are both a part of the body of Christ. When we walk on the ground, we are walking on Christ’s back. When we breathe the air around us, we are inhaling Christ’s breath. We are, in every moment of every day, in perfect unity with the God who created us and who sustains us moment by moment with the divine life and love.

Gardening is itself a prayer. There are moments in the garden where everything in creation seems to be in sync. The gentle play of light on the tulip illuminates the web of soft undertones on its pinky white skin, and that same skin shines with an iridescence that cries out in praise to the Creator. At such moments, I feel humbled and awed to have been chosen to participate in the revelation of such aching beauty.

As every gardener knows, there are also moments of agony and longing in the garden. And not only when the deer eat the buds off of the roses just before their first bloom. There are also the long, dormant months of winter when the ground is frozen, the landscape bare, and the only sustenance of color comes from stacks of seed catalogues and memories of spring. At such moments I am as much a gardener as I ever was. My winter garden is a garden of hope and longing, and I remember that longing is a true and deep kind of love.

Such moments as these remind me that the earth and I are not separate at all. Rather, the earth is as much a vehicle for conversion and redemption as are my relationships with my brothers in the monastery. In the garden I am revealed to myself. My humble desire to praise the creator with the work of my hands and my self-serving, iron-hard will to have my way at all costs grow together like so much wheat and weeds.

In his beautiful book of gardening meditations, Inheriting Paradise, Vigen Guroian tells the story of the Armenian genocide during World War I. A group of Armenian men were sent on a forced march to their death. During this march a priest named Ashod leads the men in swallowing the dry, parched earth as their Eucharist. Guroian sees in this story a reminder that “we belong to the earth and that our redemption includes the earth from which we and all the creatures have come, by which we are sustained, and through which God continues to act for our salvation.” (p. 12)

So it is with our work in the garden. We gardeners are privileged to participate in the great sacrament, Being itself. We are midwives of the unfolding creation. In allowing us this privilege, God reveals to us at deeper and deeper levels our unity with ourselves, one another, the whole creation, and, of course, God. Christ invites us into the heavenly garden, and we can see, if only for a moment, the shining oneness of all things. Such moments are deeply healing. They are why I garden.

 

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