Wrestling with God on the Chama River

It is near sunset at Christ in the Desert Benedictine monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. This is the last of four monastic communities I am visiting as part of my PhD dissertation research. I have found a beautiful bend in the Chama River to watch another day pass into night. A mostly full Sister Moon slowly peaks her face over the eastern yellow mesas to watch in silence as Brother Sun sets beyond the red mesas in the west.

I am fatigued from so many miles on the road. Moreover, for about a week before arriving I had spiraled into a strange, dark place that has surfaced intense fear and feelings of unworthiness and that old demon-friend, anxiety. My heart still feels tender from the emotional self-flagellation of the imagined emotional distance of someone I love very much. Yet, I am grateful to be in such a beautiful place and my feet feel heavy with a longing to root into the very banks of the river and to cast my lot with the ebb and flow of the Chama for the rest of my days; or to wade in and float down the river for as far as it will take me.

I kneel down and squish fine clay between my fingers from the tea-with-cream colored river. She whispers rumors of summer, and the buds of the willow and the cottonwood and the scrub oak whisper back. My heart pounds with nervous thoughts, and struggle to return to the present lapping of water against muddy shore, only to be lifted up again into stories of loss, loneliness, jealousy and unworthiness.

I stand up and shake my head, fingers throbbing from the cold water. Tree swallows appear out of nowhere and begin to flit and warble around me like the water that caresses the unseen stones of the riverbed. Two dozen or so fly upstream, pause, and then work their way back down. I pray that the tiny birds could, in an instant, make my own rough crags smoother, bit by precious bit.

A single bat appears, fluttering awkwardly against the acrobatics of the swallows and a pang of sympathy fills my tired heart and a smile comes to my lips. Some of us move slower than others I reassure myself. Brother Wind blows pink and tin colored clouds up and over the striped cliffs that wall in the river, whose brick and mortar are made up of layer upon layer of ancient tropical soils and primordial sandy seas. My heart sinks again with a pang of absence and loneliness. Standing still I mutter ‘Holy One’, over and over again. The sun disappears behind me, the blue sky fades to grey, the moon shines fluorescent and I walk back to my guest house cell in silence. My heart aches, but is somehow stronger, deeper, more open and receptive, ready to be filled.

The next day, as I am gathering my few effects after a wonderful interview, the Brother I was speaking with recalls a story about two Tibetan monks who had once visited the monastery. They loved the community so much that they stayed for over two months. “They fit right in,” said the Brother. During a conversation he had with them, one of the Tibetan monks asked what the river was called that ran through the monastery. “Chama,” the Brother had said, which he explained was a Spanish pronunciation for Tzama, which means a place of contest, or wrestling in a Puebloan language. He told them that the eastern confluence of the river had been a center for Puebloan competitions and games before Europeans arrived. The Tibetans nodded and said that in Tibetan Chama (which they must have heard as Tara) was the name for the Goddess of Mercy, the feminine aspect of Buddha. The Brother looked at me, smiled and paused, “So,” he said, “mercy flows through the monastery.”

I thanked the Brother for his time and left his small office. His story tugged at the memory of the night before on banks of the Chama. I recall the mysterious passage from the Book of Genesis, where after his family has crossed the Jordan River, the Hebrew Patriarch Jacob remains behind alone. That night he is visited by a mysterious figure who wrestles with him until dawn. The assailant knocks Jacob’s hip joint out of the socket, but Jacob is able to extract a blessing just before dawn. He is renamed Israel: the one who strives (or wrestles) with God. Jacob called the place Penuel, he saw God (sometimes rendered as Angel) face to face and lived.

The spiritual life is often allegorized through this imagery of wresting or struggling with God. Many thousands of people come to places like Christ in the Desert each year to wrestle with their complicated lives, emotional demons, their health problems, relationships, or to seek the presence of the Divine. Though I am here for academic research, my monastery visits have also been deeply nurturing, and part of an ongoing vocational discernment in my life. And though a lot of my time during these visits involved working, chanting, interviewing the monks, or writing notes, I still had time to reflect or take long walks.

I am used to wrestling with anxiety, fear and self-worth, I have for most of my life. Contemplative prayer has taught me however that there is an important dimension to wrestling with God: Mercy. In the past, I have been tempted to see contemplative prayer as a kind of medicine for anxiety, a means to the end of not feeling anxious. If I am feeling sad, I should pray so I do not feel sad. This view of the spiritual life is common enough, but it misses an important dimension of prayer. In Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, the author blends Western psychology with Buddhist mindfulness to help readers see that our pain can be a tool for transformation. The method of Radical Acceptance involves learning to be radically present to whatever we are experiencing without judging or by allowing it to feed the stories we tell ourselves about why we are sad, anxious or fearful. Rather than a means of suppressing or alleviating our suffering, contemplative prayer can also be a tool for harnessing it in the service of personal transformation and growth. Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr often says that “if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” I have certainly transmitted my share of pain by hurting people I love, but most of this pain seems to be directed most often back at myself.

For so long I have seen my pain as a symptom of my own failings: I am anxious because there is something wrong with me, fear is a defect, I am lonely because no one likes me, etc. Yet in addition to being aware of our suffering, Radical Acceptance teaches us to begin to look on our suffering with compassionate eyes, or in Christian language, with mercy. Mercy is that undeserved, ever-present grace that is at the core of our being. In Christian language it is the Holy Spirit, for Buddhists it is Buddha-Nature, for Hindus it might be an aspect of the Atman. Over the past several months, and again on the Chama River, my own pain and anxiety, the stories of unworthiness and fear of rejection that I continually tell myself are still there, but their power over me is decreasing. The pain is real, but I am getting better at not avoiding it or channeling into self-destructive narratives. It is in this wrestling to face my pain, fears and doubts with mindful awareness that I am finding deeper and deeper wells of mercy. But paradoxically, when I stop wrestling against my pain and allow it to teach me, I feel like I am more open to change. There is a River of mercy running through all of us, it is wild and beautiful, and once we realize we are already in its flow, it will take us as far as we are willing to let it.

Deep Roots, Entwined Branches: Reflections on the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Laying on cured grass just outside of a closed Forest Service campground in the foothills of the Idaho panhandle, cool air condenses into dew on my sleeping bag. I shiver between sleep and wakefulness. The stars keep me company. I watch Cassiopeia slowly swing around the North Star, and around 4:00 am, Orion becomes visible. It is strange that only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. There are dozens of other constellations whose faces I do not recognize, and whose stories I do not recall. Then, in the east, an almost imperceptible glow begins to put the trees and hilled horizon into dim relief. Venus, Mercury and Jupiter line up to greet the day. Morning is approaching.

I, along with five other members of the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance are on our way to the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions supported by a small grant from the Sisters of Charity Halifax and we have stopped to camp for the night after a long day of driving.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was first convened in 1893 in Chicago to coincide with the World’s Fair. This year it is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah the Axis Mundi of my first religious tradition, Mormonism, and the place I lived and taught World Religions for two years before I moved to Vancouver. In 2014, I attended the Society of American Foresters annual conference in the very same venue, and when I heard that the Parliament was coming in 2015, I felt a pang of synchronicity. I studied both forestry and theology in graduate school, and though it was a small coincidence, it felt like Life reassuring me that I was on the right path.

Arriving in Salt Lake City, we found the Salt Palace Convention Center packed with about 10,000 people, representing at least 50 faiths, from 80 countries. The first Parliament excluded Native peoples, Mormons and Atheists, but this year just about every possible belief and practice was present. We began by going through a ‘smudge’ purification ritual officiated by a kindly Paiute elder, and then making an offering of tobacco to the sacred fire. It was good to start the Parliament by acknowledging the Spiritual Ecology of the First Peoples of this land.

The Parliament was a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual and religious diversity: mandalas, labyrinths, spontaneous dance parties, flash mobs, meditation gurus, chanting, even a procession of people dressed like angels. Exhibitors hawked every kind of spiritual ware from prayer beads and Native American jewelry, to sacred texts and icons. It was a cacophonous mosaic of the world’s spiritu-diversity. Overwhelming at first, I settled into the rhythm of the Parliament, and to try and drink from its convention-shaped wisdom.

The mission of the Parliament is “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” This mission was on full display throughout the Parliament, as most sessions focused on issues of poverty, cooperation, women’s rights, violence, terrorism, climate change, ecology, and more. I attended dozens of the concurrent sessions –from Pagans respond to the Pope, to Vedic Cosmology. I was even lucky enough presented a few myself.

In ‘Religion and Ecology in the Anthropocene’, I looked to the future religion in an ecological context of human domination. I presented Spiritual Ecology as an emerging and increasingly popular orientation that transcends religious affiliations. Our Panel headed up by Suresh Fernando, Maya Graves-Bacchus and Alysha Jones then defined spiritual ecology and presented the vision and mission of our organization. It was a wonderful conversation! In my second presentation ‘Trees, Forests and the Sacred’, I started with a poem on Sacred Groves, and then rushed through a PowerPoint on the types of sacred trees and forests. Then I invited participants to leave the air-conditioned convention center and spend time with actual trees in Temple Square. We reconvened in front of the LDS Temple and discussed our experiences. It was a very powerful way to bring home the importance of trees in our spiritual lives. My third presentation was as a short guided meditation on cosmology. Wandering through the phases of cosmic evolution, we meditation on the 5 elements focused on each in our bodies and in the earth. But enough about that!

Along with the hundreds of concurrent sessions there were six plenaries sessions spaced throughout the week which addressed Women’s issues; Emerging Leaders; Income Inequality; War, Violence and Hate Speech; Climate Change and Indigenous issues. The speeches and energy in the massive plenary hall was electric, and I was deeply moved by most of the speeches and speakers. The diversity of voices were not there to convince us of their beliefs or doctrines, but to challenge us to live up to our best moral teachings. Not that their beliefs and doctrines did not come through in their talks, or that they needed to check them at the door, but that the Parliament was simply not the place to debate the metaphysical truths of religious belief. It was a place of convergence in common cause, and a space for sharing the unique perspectives each tradition brings to the works of justice, mercy, poverty and ecology.

I was particularly inspired by the number and diversity of women leaders. Eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, writer and Course in Miracles enthusiast Marianne Williamson, Ayurveda teacher Mother Maya Tiwari, theologian Dr. Serene Jones, Indigenous Grandmother Mary Lyons, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, indigenous youth activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Primatologist Jane Goodall, writer Karen Armstrong, evangelical climate activist Katherine Hayhoe, religion and ecology scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker and so many more. The Parliament was a welcome place for those who sought to advance the equality of women. There was also a surge of energy focused on the reemergence of the Divine Feminine.

On the role of women, it was stated plainly, the world’s religions have a mixed record with respect to treating women with dignity. Parliament Board member Phyllis Curott reiterated,

“The dignity, safety and equality of women is the global human rights struggle of our time. The world’s religions can no longer contribute to or allow the denigration of half of humanity…Women, and men, of faith and spirit are gathering in Salt Lake City to fix this broken moral compass and call upon the world’s religions to stop the deprivation and violence against women and girls; to stop harmful teachings and practices that justify discrimination and abuse; and to ensure that women are fully involved in decision-making within religions.”

It was humbling to once again realize how much privilege I carry in the world as a white, cis-gendered male, Christian; and to realize that my place of privilege has led to the suffering of bodies that do not look like mine. Speaking of the recent attack on a Gurdwara in Wisconsin where a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four others, Sikh woman Valerie Kaur lamented that:

“100 years after my family has called this country home, and 14 years after 9/11, our bodies are seen as perpetually foreign, and potentially terrorist. Just as black bodies are seen as criminal, brown bodies illegal, trans bodies immoral, indigenous bodies savage, and women’s bodies as property.”

It is always a hard reality to face; that my demographic has caused so much suffering to women, to immigrants, to blacks, to indigenous communities, and to the LGBTQ community. It reminded me of something Jim Wallis said in relation to the violence facing so many African Americans in the US: “If white Christians in America acted more Christian than white when it came to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children.” These are hard words. The Parliament was a call to repentance. I am trying not to internalize guilt, but to channel it into the energy we need to build a better world, and the energy I need to continue to strive to be a better man, a more conscious white person, and the kind of Christian that takes God’s love seriously, for myself and for the other.

There was no illusion that religion is often tangled up with this discrimination, violence, terror and hatred around the globe. Fundamentalism, extremism, patriarchy, terrorism and capitalism were all called out for their negative consequences, faults, flaws and mistakes, but there was very little bitterness, vitriol or blame. For all its faults, religion was overwhelmingly embraced as a force for good in the world, a force that is capable of acting out of a deep and Divine source of love toward those that we might otherwise fear. Each speaker drawing from their own traditions and experiences, in the face of insurmountable problems, was able to expose the center of love and compassion at the core of all our religious and spiritual traditions. They admonished us to access this core with the intention of serving our human siblings and the earth community. Each speaker was grounded in respect, love and hope for the possibilities present in this remarkable gathering.

While the problems we face were certainly front and center, the good we have accomplished was also with us. Discussion of the transition from the UN Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals cited that fact that globally, extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990. Eboo Patel discussed his work with Interfaith Youth Corps, which works with campus groups around the USA to build interfaith relationships and to make it known just how much interfaith cooperation has succeeded in the past. New Thought Minister Michael Beckwith talked about the potential of moving the economy from a model of Success 1.0 and 2.0 with an emphasis on personal profit, or personal profit tempered by philanthropy; to what he called Success 3.0, which focuses on the impacts our enterprises have on other people and the planet before personal profit. Jane Goodall spoke to the evolutionary origins of violence, and how human beings, unlike chimpanzees face a choice. We can act on those evolutionary impulses or we can transcend them. The Parliament was a pep-rally for actively choosing goodness over evil, forgiveness rather than revenge, and hope rather than despair.

One thing I noticed at the Parliament was that young people were a minority. This really hit home when I sat around the table with old friends from Utah and we realized that though most of us had attended BYU (the LDS owned College in Provo, Utah), most of us had left the Mormon Church. Few had transitioned to other faiths as I had, and most were still carrying the wounds of lost belief, residual guilt, and bitterness. My friends have left for many reasons, but I wished that they could have heard the plenary speeches which called us to forgiveness and hope. Yet, for most young people, the damage has been done, and the thought of returning to the religions of their upbringing is near impossible. I do not blame young people for leaving organized religion, as I said, there is plenty to point fingers at, but it makes me sad none the less. Especially at a time when their voices and creativity are so desperately needed to address these mounting global issues and problems. If religion wants to survive, it must find a way to engage young people in ways that are authentic, meaningful, and hopeful.

Yes religion can be insular, exclusive, moralistic and violent, but at the Parliament of the World’s Religions I realized that we were part of something much greater than a collection of religious institutions in dialogue. We are part of a global Interfaith Movement that is predicated on the assumption that we have something to learn from other religious traditions, and that the problems of the world are a test of how well our traditions serve humanity and the earth. Some predict that religion will go away. I am not convinced of this. Yes, religion will have to change as it always has—as I realized in the wet grass of the Idaho Panhandle, it is only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. As we continue to dialogue, to seek understanding, to cooperate on global projects to combat climate change, poverty and discrimination, the roots of our faith may deepen, but our branches will become more entwined. This is the religion of the future.

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.