My First Visit to Gethsemani Abbey

Statue greeting visitors to Gethsemani Abbey.

Statue greeting visitors to Gethsemani Abbey.

I arrived at Gethsemani in the first mega bus of three. The spire of the Abbey church rose suddenly behind a slight grassy hill. Several monks greeted us and led eager groups of about 20 through the cloister, Thomas Merton’s humble grave, and then up the short road to the hermitage where Merton started living full time in August of 1965. The pilgrim crowd, reverently snapping photos in silence, we converged in waves on the cinder block hermitage. It felt something like a flash mob-monastery—all of us interested to some degree in Merton’s spiritual writings, some of us scholars on Merton’s theology, but none willing to take the lead into the actual life of a monk or nun. We were a momentary cloister, a temporary community. Meanwhile the monastery’s average age climbs, and the monks announced this week that they would discontinue producing the cheese they have produced for many decades. Gethsemani Abbey remains a sacred site to many of us, but it is changing, and its long term future is uncertain.

I stood with the others outside the hermitage, drinking coke, listening to a monk tell us stories about Merton’s life here as fire ants, sent forth from their clay monasteries, silently tried to rip my toenails off my sandal-shod feet. We nodded, asked questions, paced through the small rooms, and then wandered outside toward the edges of the clearing to imagine what solitude would be like here. As we made our way back, another group eagerly approached.

At the end of our tour there was still about an hour before the monks were going to chant the mid-day hour, so I decided to head back out to the hermitage to see if I could steal a few moments alone. I passed chatting stragglers, and when I arrived, I went inside, snapped a few photos of the empty rooms, prayed in the small chapel, turned off the lights, picked up a few discarded refreshment cups from the floor, and then sat myself down on the now silent cement porch which had only a few minutes earlier been bustling with pacing pilgrims. A fat lizard scurried across the front of the cool cement porch into a small strip of sun near the edge. She stopped to eye me up and down, putting in a few push-ups before scurrying on. The breeze was cool and it lifted the green leaves of the tulip poplar, maple and oak trees that now surround the monastery. (At the time it was built, judging from some early photos, the area around the hermitage was much more open.)

Monks chanting the noon hour.

Monks chanting the noon hour.

I didn’t have any profound flashes of insight, or visions of Merton banging out drafts of his immortal prose, but I felt a glimmer of the wholeness of solitude, if only for a few precious minutes. I could hear my breath and the wind rising and falling together. I felt peace. I felt God. Then, a hunched figure appear on the meandering path up to the hermitage. My brief solitude at Merton’s hermitage was ended. As he approached I could see large cuffs in his pants, and a few patches. I could somehow tell he was a monk from Gethsemani, no doubt on his way to stay at the hermitage for a few days, as it is still in regular use. I greeted him, and in with a slightly annoyed but honest tone he said, “You must be a straggler?” I said, “Yes, I will get out of your hair” (he didn’t have very much of it). He introduced himself, and told me he had timed his annual week-long stay with the full moon, so as to be able to attend lauds and mass in the mornings without the use of a flash light. I wished him luck, hopped over a few anthills and was on my way down the road back to the cloister, the road that Merton and many other monks and retreatants have taken over the years. The bell rang, and I made it to the monastery chapel in time to hear the soft chant of the monks of Gethsemani. Later I gave a presentation at the Conference on Merton the hermit and the idea of wilderness. It was a beautiful day.

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Merton’s hermitage from the path.

This year I have been lucky enough to visit a couple of sites with sacred significance to me: Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker house in Manhattan and Aldo Leopold’s shack in Baraboo, Wisconsin. In past years I have also visited the site of the saw mill where John Muir worked in Yosemite Valley, the Sacred Grove where Mormon founder Joseph Smith had his visions, and Walden Pond. Each of these sites brings into full color the significance of place in our encounters with the Divine, with life. Each of us famous or not, inhabits a place. Our bodies know that place better than our minds. So, to inhabit the places where my mentors worked and wrote is like meeting them in person, or more awkwardly, meeting them in place. I think this desire is universal in humanity, based on the number of sacred sites, shrines, national historic sites, etc. that exist throughout the world. But just because we hold a particular cinder block hermitage in New Haven, Kentucky to be sacred, should not meant that everything outside that space is unsacred. As Wendell Berry has written, there are not sacred places and unsacred places in the world, there are only sacred places and desecrated places. May we continue to visit and protect the places that inspire us, and inspire the places we are at home in.

Eulogy for my Grandmother Nancy Lee Holmsen

Nancy a few weeks before her death on Jan. 7, 2015.

Nancy a few weeks before her death on Jan. 7, 2015.

When I came to know Grandma Nancy, she had already been deeply wounded by life. My earliest memories of her are filled with explanations for why she could not walk as fast, see as well, or drive. Why part of her forehead was missing. Nancy had faced death several times in her life: Polio, cancer, a brutal car accident, meningitis; and she wanted none of it. She wanted to live!

In a Christian view of the afterlife, we might try to imagine Nancy as a perfect young woman dressed in white. But this would not be the Nancy that I knew. For me perfection is the wholeness brought about by our wounds. More than anyone I know, Nancy bore her woundedness with love, grace and humor. Her love and laughter have been present throughout my life and I will miss her.

Grandma Nancy was a towering figure of my childhood. Grandma’s house was always a place I loved to go. Sometimes, I would stay overnight at grandma’s small apartment and she would cook lamb chops (and after reading some of her journals, it appears that my siblings got a lot more dessert than I did). She would tell me stories about the Salt Lake of the 1940s and 50s. We have a few of her journals, from 1947, 1951, 1953 and 1954. Reading through them was a treat. She was a precocious young woman, taking note of the weather each day and starting each entry with: “Dear Diary.” She had an early crush on a boy named Dick and many, many friends. She called cigarettes “doogies”, saw movies, ate a lot of French fries, did chores, and played canasta. A few excerpts:

  • January 4, 1951: Had oodles of cars following us all night! Ma smelled smoke on me!
  • January 4, 1953: Don and I went to show. Saw ‘Lure of the Wilderness’ at Richey. Baby really was kicking in show. Don’s ma called earlier and we were scared she’d come and catch Don still here.
  • Friday July 30, 1954: Started throwing up terrible. All morning. Guess I’m pregnant again.
  • Tuesday September 28 1954: Went to the hospital with Polio.

She rarely writes about religion or church (except when she writes about not going), but writes passionately about lovers, friends, family and her home on 2nd North. She was a kind friend, a good sister, and a young mother.

Other times spent with Nancy we would just watch TV, or she would teach me how to haggle with Tijuana merchants if the chance ever arrived, (not sure why, but this is a very vivid memory of her). All of us grandkids remember her long natural finger nails which she would turn into eggs that needed cracking on our ticklish scalps. She never missed a birthday or Christmas and her gifts were generous despite her humble income. She loved to celebrate with us and her later journals are a litany of grandchildren milestones, birthdays and time spent with family. She was there for every major milestone in my life, like many of you.

To hear her stories was one thing, but to tell her our own was quite another. Whenever I told her a story, or showed her something I had made, or gave her an update from college, she lent almost comical attention to every detail. “Grandma look what I made!” YOU MADE THIS! NO!?

I love her and she will be sorely missed. However, I want to admit that I could have spent more time with her, cared about her suffering more, listened to her stories again. Nancy’s death has recommitted me to valuing our elders. With their death comes the reminder that we too will one day die. This is scary and sad, but let us also remember that death is part of the precious gift of life. Like leaves on a tree, our bodies flourish for a time and then return to the soil. This is one of our oldest metaphors; earth-lings, shaped from dust, we must all return to our Mother the Earth. We return to the soil, but the Tree of Life lives on. The air we breathe was breathed by Nancy, and now returning to the earth from which she came, the air we breathe is Nancy. It is hard to fully grasp. We want our loved ones to stay forever, we want to live forever ourselves. Why should the living pass back into the non-living?

These are questions humans have asked for thousands of years. And many of our spiritual traditions provide confident answers about what comes next. I am not here promote or to discourage any one of these beautiful beliefs that give us hope of seeing each other again. But I want to say that for me, a mature spirituality is less concerned with explanations for death and suffering, than with how we respond in the face of death and suffering. What will we do with the losses and the wounds that life metes out without respect of race, class or creed? This is for us to work through together, as family and as friends.

For me, though she was not religious, Nancy embodied fully a religious response to suffering and death; one that I hope to emulate to some small degree. She responded with awe, grace, love, hope, joy, humor and peace to life and in death she teaches us to do the same. Despite our wounds, let us follow the example of Nancy’s holy wonder for life, as we do the work of a thousand generations before us of burying our cherished dead. Thank you.

I would now invite us to celebrate Nancy with our stories and memories…

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.