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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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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