Holy Waiting in a Holy Universe

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Come Lord come,

Alpha: A Holy Flaring Forth! A Big Bang! A Cosmic Christ!

Omega: A Holy alphabet chanting itself into being!

A Universe singing to itself.

Halleluiah! Christ has come!

Adventus means coming. This year, on November 30, we end Ordinary Time in the Liturgical cycle and begin a four Sunday celebration leading up to Christmas. This year I am trying to deepen my experience of Christmas by making a small Advent Wreath on my personal altar and having daily contemplative devotionals leading up to Christmas day. Growing up, the secular rituals of gift giving, and the sentimental retelling of the nativity scene were fun, but this year I am trying to take more seriously what a story about a child born in a barn has to do with my fledgling contemplative spirituality within the Anglican Church.

The exact date of Christ’s birth may be unknown, but the choosing of December 25th as a fit day for celebration comes to us thanks to the Winter Solstice. It is on this day that we celebrate the sun ending its six month droop in the sky, and hence beginning his slow march back toward spring and summer. We celebrate the coming end of long darkness.

Advent then is a time of Holy Waiting for the end of spiritual darkness; of anticipation for Christ’s birth, but also hope for his return. In Trinitarian Christianity the event of Christ’s birth is referred to as the Incarnation. God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Mormons might call this a Condescension; see 1 Nephi 11).

What has humbled me most about this idea is that it means that Christ did not just descend to the earth and then leave when he died 33 years later like some Holy Alien. According to the familiar words of John “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). If Christ is the Word of God then Creation is the alphabet. Another analogy from Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:15-17). Jesus as Christ is an Icon (image) of God in Creation. Christ is both the expression of God and the Image of God. Thus, we might say, as many have that the Incarnation began not just with the blessed birth of Jesus, but also with the Great Flaring Forth of the universe 13.8 billion years ago from a single point trillions of degrees hot. This is a tremendously powerful notion for me. At the center of a sometimes silly pastel plastic Nativity scene, is not only our God and our Savior, but a reassurance that we live in a Holy Universe.

This year I have created an Advent Retreat called Holy Waiting in a Holy Universe. I have divided the four weeks of Advent into the traditional four elements (Fire, Air, Water, and Earth), juxtaposing scriptures about each element with scriptures about the Coming of Christ. I hope that each day I will deepen my understanding of what it means to live in an Incarnational Universe. The gifts I give to family and friends will be offerings that remind us that we live in such a universe. Blessings to you and yours during this time of Holy Waiting and please feel free to follow along with me on my Advent retreat!

Download a Pdf of it here: Holy Waiting in a Holy Universe: An Advent Retreat

My first advent Wreath!

My first Advent Wreath!

Holy Ground

ShackThere is something about being in a place that our spiritual, historical or literary ancestors have once tread. Ones that walked, worked, wrote or traveled through a place or landscape. The practice of retracing their steps is an ancient human practice, we call pilgrimage. I didn’t go on foot, but between a lovely wedding in Chicago among family and an amazing Religion and Ecology conference in New Haven among friends, I was lucky enough through the grace of some old friends to visit several of these places over the last week. While in Madison, Wisconsin we travelled by car just north of Baraboo to a small shack on the western shore of the Wisconsin River. It was here that Aldo Leopold, Yale Alumnus and ecology saint wrote his famous A Sand County Almanac. The locale is no pristine wilderness, a sandy soiled pine forest that gives way to riparian grasses and shrubs at the river’s edge. But walking the numbered stations of the Leopold Foundation’s pamphlet, like an ecological stations of the cross, those typical trees took on the spirit of the Leopold family, who planted the trees in an act of ecological restoration. The shack as temple in a sacred grove. A temple, not of worship or divinity, but a tangible shrine to one of the early voices to suggest that humanity was not conqueror of Nature, but citizen. As we stood on the sandy river shore in silence, water lapping against the sandy ground, a flock of 15 sand hill cranes passed overhead on their way to their nightly roost. The water was deep blue and the air was chilly when the sun passed behind clouds. There was nothing otherworldly about the experience, but it certainly enriched my love for Leopold and his contribution to the ecology movement.

CWOn foot, I seek an inconspicuous corner of 1st Street in East Village, Manhattan. The St. Joseph Catholic Worker House of Hospitality has been in continuous operation since Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day founded them in 1936. When I arrived, a small crew of volunteers that included two Mormon missionaries, were serving a simple soup, and a smiling woman made the rounds topping off coffee mugs. The guests sat mostly in silence, some in quiet conversation. I struck up a short conversation with a volunteer and he immediately offered to let me serve some coffee. We chatted about the project, the place, and Dorothy Day, the movement’s founder, who is currently being reviewed by the Vatican for Canonization. The Catholic Worker Movement is a lot like other homeless shelters, but more than that it was an early socialist attempt to live the Gospel by fulfilling Jesus’s command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. They espouse a simple philosophy of Christian pacifism, agrarianism and personalism. They serve daily meals and give free clothing away and house several dozen people on a temporary basis. A drop in the bucket in a city of 8 million, but just looking around I could feel of Dorothy’s spirit, silently fulfilling the most basic of Christian practices.

A young parish priest opened the Rectory door of Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights and asked “How can I help you?” I told him I was a reader of Thomas Merton, and asked if I could see the chapel. Without hesitation, he slipped into tour guide mode, opened the door and showed me to the room where Merton first met with Father George Barry Ford. A small hand painted portrait of Merton hung on the north wall. The Priest showed me into the church and guided me toward the back of the chapel to a small baptistery where Merton was baptized. The church was beautiful, built in 1936 in a Baroque Revival style. A little too ornate for my taste, and nothing like the Cathedrals I had visited throughout the day in Manhattan. But the place help a special presence as the place where Thomas Merton worked out his conversation and eventual decision to join the Trappists in Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky. Merton went on to become one of the most influential Catholics of the 20th century, and his writing is widely read.

I am no expert on these writers, but they have all, Leopold, Day and Merton influenced by thinking, the way I live my life and the subject of my research. Being in the places where these wonderful human beings worked out their own questions, ideas and lives gave me a kind of strength and assurance that I was at least moving in the right direction.

 

Between land and sea

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Wreck Beach Sunset with Great Blue Heron

 

I live on the western most tip of Point Grey in Vancouver. To get to the beach, I take a long stairway through the Pacific Spirit Regional Park that descends the forested sea cliffs. Many days I feel my feet carry me from my desk toward the setting sun and the soft hush of the shore. Each time I emerge from the tree covered stairway onto the rocky beach, it feels as though the sun were setting on the first day of creation; when time was not so worried about passing; the sun seems to perch over the northern mountains for hours. Yesterday I was lucky enough to watch two Great Blue Herons fish the lapping shore. Walking up and down with spells of statue stillness and then lightning strikes of their beaks. The sea gulls hung around awkwardly, hoping for a dropped fish, but also mimicking the Herons along the small waves, their small legs too small keep them above the tiny crests of the waves. I took my shoes off and stood ankle deep in the frigid water. A group of Harbor Seals played off the coast, and one curious seal cruised the shore line keeping an eye on me, perhaps wondering if I was a smelt fisherman. As the sun sunk, four more Herons arrived, flying over my head to roost in the alders. One of the Heron’s I had been watching, finished for the day, came and perched on a protruding log near me. We just watched each other as the sun set. I snapped photos, and she shifted legs lazily. Standing on a smooth rock the rising tide washed over my feet and I watched the sun and the Heron watched me. It was a moment of grace that I had not expected.

Grafting New Branches onto my Tree of Life

This Sunday I will be confirmed as a member of the Anglican Communion through Vancouver’s oldest congregation–Christ’s Church Cathedral. In the vast sea of Christian denominations, Anglicans would consider themselves Reformed Catholics, but represent a wide diversity of belief from Catholic to Evangelical. In the US they are most well represented by the Episcopal Church. There are some 80 million Anglicans worldwide making them the third largest sect of Christianity in the world. For friends and family who may have questions about what this means, let me say a few things about my decision. First, I am not converting to a new religion; in fact, I would not describe my decision as a conversion at all. I was baptized into the Body of Christ as a Mormon at the age of eight. I remember it well–the smell of the chlorinated water in the small font, my father’s voice as he spoke the Trinitarian formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, the momentary immersion, the cold wet clothes, and the family dinner at the Spaghetti Factory. This was my entry point into Christianity, and I am not abandoning it. In fact, the Anglican Communion fully recognizes this baptism; confirmation being a formal welcoming into the community, an initiation, and for some a renewal of baptismal vows.

I have been attending Catholic and Anglican congregations for several years now, and as many of you know I recently spent a wonderful month at a Trappist monastery in Oregon. I have also been practicing Zen Buddhist meditation, which I will continue to do. For me, the decision to be confirmed in the Anglican Communion is not a conversion to or profession of a wholly new set of beliefs or dogmas about the nature of God, scripture, salvation, revelation, resurrection or life after death. My beliefs continue to evolve and nuance. How I experience God continues to evolve and nuance. As I have said elsewhere, I now claim to know less, not more about God than I did as a Mormon.This decision rather, marks my commitment to the practices of Eucharist, contemplative prayer, and liturgy.

The Eucharist, or partaking of the bread and wine during Communion, has become a deeply spiritual experience for me. Unlike the Protestant experience where the bread and wine are viewed as symbols of Christ’s action which we then reflect on; the Eucharist participates in not only Christ’s death and resurrection, but also in the archetypal nature of God-in-the-world. Celebrating God’s body in the world, is a deeply spiritual, even cosmic, experience. Believing in Transubstantiation is not believing in magic; but believing in the Real Presence of God in the world, and celebrating that Presence as often as possible.

I learned to pray by first thanking God and then asking Him for things. This way of praying can be useful, but contemplative prayer has taught me that God (the Absolute, the Ground of Being) is also found in stillness, solitude and silence. This wordless way of prayer has become a daily habit, as I continue to practice both Zen meditation and Centering Prayer.

During Holy Week, Christians throughout the world participate in reenacting the final week of Christ’s life. This congregational participation and form of public prayer is what we call Liturgy. Placing myself within the Liturgical calendar which brings natural and sacred narratives together throughout the year has really enriched my life and helped me to be more present within it. Learning to chant the Psalms and marking the hours of the day with sacred readings has also been an amazing (if not challenging) addition to my spiritual life.

In addition to these spiritual practices, I have also been impressed by the Anglican Communion’s commitment ordain women, include LGBTQ persons in all aspects of church life, their sincere move toward full marriage equality, and a deep commitment to ecological and social justice. I do not think the Anglican Communion is the the One True Church over Mormonism’s similar claim; it is simply a truer (small ‘t’) church for me because of the points just discussed. And while I still have my doubts about some of Joseph Smith’s teachings, I am certainly no defender of King Henry VIII as the founder of the Church of England that eventually became the wider Anglican Communion. The tradition that he officially founded in 1534 through an act of Parliament had been bubbling up from the bottom, seeking reform and distance from Rome for over 100 years; and continued to struggle with how far to take Protestant reforms long after he had gone. Curiously, there is no one personality associated with these reforms; no Luther, Calvin, Smith. Anglican reformers–priests, poets and lay people alike–loved the imagery, sacraments, liturgy and tradition of the Catholic Church, but wanted to be free from the Pope and the corruption of the Church at that time. The Anglican Communion has thus become what I see as a thoughtful middle path between Protestant and Catholic, and I like that.

There are still many things that I love about the Mormon tradition and our people. I am not discarding 30 years of my life and my identity as a person of Mormon heritage. I am proud of my ancestry, my family, my time as an LDS missionary, as a BYU student. I am grateful for my upbringing in a loving family and LDS Ward and could not have asked for more loving, supporting and wise parents and mentors. To take this into a familiar motif, Mormonism is the rootstock out of which my spiritual Tree of Life has grown; that tree has borne much fruit. I am not pulling out my roots and planting a new tree. Yes, I am pruning back the branches of Mormon ordinances, beliefs and practices; but I am also grafting more branches onto my beloved Tree and working so that they will continue to bear fruit that will bless my life and the lives of others.