in celebration of friendship

The last week three of my brothers and I have been on vacation together in Maine. This trip has been a bit of an experiment. Although the four of us live together in monastic community, there is a difference between friendship and fraternity. The two categories can, and often do, overlap, but they’re not the same thing. It has been a gift to be able to explore and deepen my relationships with these three brothers and in so doing to grow closer to God in them and in myself.

When I was a novice, my novice master told our formation group that we would be lucky to have one true friend in the monastery and luckier still if we lived in the same community with that friend. This bit of wisdom was one of many hard sayings from my novitiate, akin to “there is no such thing as unconditional love, except from God.” Or “infatuation is a form of insanity.” Like many hard sayings, this bit about friendship is true, which is why it’s so hard to hear and to incorporate.

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We have such a skewed vision of friendship. I don’t know that our views are more skewed than they have been in the past. Probably they’re just differently skewed. But skewed they are. We call people we barely know our friends. And we try to rush headlong into the kind of intimacy that can only develop slowly and with great intention and attention. Relationships of any meaningful sort take time. They cannot be rushed or contrived. Like a flower, the bud must develop and, under the right conditions, slowly and gloriously unfold itself.
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a long loving look at the real

My spiritual director told me recently that contemplation is a long, loving look at the real. If God is Truth, then the more I can allow the truth to become a part of my life, the more I can gaze on reality with acceptance and love, the more truly I can be in relationship with God. As C.S. Lewis often prayed, “May it be the true I before the true Thou.” So many of our problems in the spiritual life can be traced back to a distaste for being the true I or for seeing and loving the true God.

A variety of circumstances have invited me into a truer relationship with the reality of death and the fragility of life. I am unable to ignore the real possibility that today could be my last day alive. And whether I die today or sixty years from now, I will die at some point. There will come a time when no one I love is still alive. Those whose memories and stories have sustained and nurtured me will fade away, like fog before the sun, as will I. The church that reverberates with my community’s chant will one day, in all likelihood, be silent. Nature will reclaim the gardens I tend, and the pieces I have knit will return to the earth from which they came.
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a maker’s life

For the last week or two I have been struck forcibly by the gift of my life. The things I have most yearned for–home, family, love, and intimacy–now fill my life. When I reflect on that abundance, the words of Psalm 139 come to me: “such knowledge is too wonderful for me. It is so high that I cannot attain to it.” It’s almost as if the light is too bright to look into head on. I can only appreciate the full gift of my life in small increments, and seen from the side.

I have consistently made choices that have led me into the life I now live. Those choices have often been difficult ones, and they certainly haven’t led to a life free of struggle or longing. But they have led to a life that is larger and more spacious than I could ever have imagined, even as its particulars look nothing like the daydreams of childhood.

And yet, there is an element of grace in my life that I cannot overlook. The abundance I experience is greater than the sum of my choices. My part has been to take up the pieces of my life, to hold them up to God, and to allow God–often through my actions–to make of those pieces what God will. And then to be satisfied, even to rejoice, at the partial, human, messy imperfection of it all.

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back to basics

Lately I’ve been struggling a bit with boundaries. It often seems to me that the limits we place on faith or life or God are far too small, that in reality there are no limits at all. Even while I acknowledge that a complete lack of limits and boundaries leads to a faith that lacks grounding, my own experience tells me that I and we usually err on the side of boundaries that are too rigid and too fixed. And so I push. I push against the limitations I see in myself, in the world, in the Church, etc. I’ve never met a line I didn’t like putting my toe across. This kind of mischievousness is a gift, and one I’m learning to embrace more and more. And, like most gifts, it carries with it liabilities.

One such liability, to which I’ve already alluded, is that boundaries and limitations are helpful to the degree that they create a container for my experience. They provide a context in which to come to know more truly who I am and who God is, even as my sense of those two identities grows ever larger. If I’m always discarding boundaries, then sooner or later I find myself alone in the wilderness with no markers for my path.

As I’ve been pushing against my own boundaries and structures lately, and as they’ve been pushing against me, I’ve also, paradoxically, found myself drawn back to the basics of practice. I have just begun rereading a book I first read in seminary by Charlotte Joko Beck called Everyday Zen. It’s an extremely down-to-earth (i.e., grounded) explication of Zen teaching, rooted in contemporary American life. Beck makes the point that our lives are our practice. Often we long for quiet isolation so that we can find enlightenment. The search for enlightenment, she says, is the same trap as the search for wealth or power or fame–just one other goodie to make me feel better. Rather, the messier our lives are, the better for our practice.

You start where you are, live your own life, really inhabit your experience. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re sad, be sad. Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh has said, wash the dishes as if you were bathing the baby Jesus. Each tiny moment is itself the fullness of the mystery. Each tiny moment is already perfect, complete, and whole. I only begin to see that wholeness, to know it, when I can sink in and welcome everything.

So, right now I’m back to breath, inhaling and exhaling, noticing how my feet feel on the ground, listening to the traffic on the street, living the life I’ve been given.


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the gift of the wall

Eventually, life will bring you to a wall that you cannot cross over by yourself. Such is the place I have found myself lately. As the saying goes, all my best efforts have brought me here. The daily office, life in community, reading theology and spirituality, therapy, centering prayer, spiritual direction–in short, all the tools I have used to deepen my relationship with God have done just that. They have dumped me at the foot of a wall that is too large to climb over on my own.

This experience has been (and to a degree continues to be) painful. In many ways it has been like a mirror, showing me, yet again, all the ways that I use the spiritual life to feel good, to ease pain, to shore up a sense of accomplishment, to garner affection, in short all the ways that my efforts at the spiritual life reinforce the false persona of the good boy and help me feel secure and safe.

The good news, of course, is that, despite all my best efforts, all my striving, I have reached a place where my strength fails me. Or, rather, where I come face to face with my own limited humanity. As those I live with can tell you, I’m not an angel. I don’t have wings to lift me up and over this particular wall looming over me.

The most difficult part of this time has been allowing others to love me. I’ve learned, as many of us have, to believe that others love me in spite of my limitations and shortcomings, that they love me because I’m strong and capable. It’s safer to move through life this way, because it means that I never have to find out if others truly do love me and not just the persona I spend so much time consciously and unconsciously crafting. To my surprise, these people I love do love me. What an astonishing and unlooked for grace, a grace I dared not hope for, even as it has surely been one of the deepest yearnings of my heart.

This wall exposes all the bits of myself I’d rather keep hidden from people. And exposes also the inability, finally, to keep those parts hidden. In that way the wall shatters the illusion that I’m not human, shatters the idolatry I’ve made of my own strength and ability. It isn’t that I’m not strong. I am. Strength has brought me to this place. But, strength ultimately fails because true strength is vulnerability. To quote Paul: “when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The love that I have experienced and am experiencing at this particular time in my life also shatters some illusions. The illusion that I’m separate from others; the illusion that I don’t need others; the illusion that I can’t trust others with what seem to me the dark, shameful parts of my inner life, the parts that really aren’t anything different than any other humans experience with great frequency.

In the end, you see, we cannot make our transformation happen. Conversion is not a project or a goal. God is not something to be achieved. And we cannot, finally, bridge the gap between us and God. Only God can do that. But we can wait. We can acknowledge our full humanity. We can love one another. And, perhaps most difficult of all, we can allow ourselves to be loved and known, most especially in our weakness. In the end, we can even learn to thank God for the walls that come along, trusting that, in the end, we will see that everything is grace.


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an anonymous and obscene faith

Last night I had the honor to preach at the annual PRIDE Evensong at The Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York. I selected one of my favorite texts, the story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), and, as happens with God, the process of preparing the sermon took me places I never expected.

I don’t generally post my sermons on this blog, but this one is an exception. In preparing the sermon, I sensed the Spirit drawing together many strands of my experience, thought, education, reading, struggles, and prayer. As such, the process has led me to greater integration and healing, and deepened sense of the rightness of my life today.

So, here’s a video recording of the sermon. The full text appears below.

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it is enough

Sunday morning, as I was finalizing my sermon, I went searching for a passage I remembered reading in Christian Wiman’s beautiful and poetic meditation on the contours of faith, My Bright Abyss. I opened the book, in an act of synchronicity, to a different passage that went like an arrow to the heart:

What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will become so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seemed to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the deepest love of your life will work itself like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out. Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it. (29-30)

I made my profession of the monastic vow in November. As I prepared to do so, I heard from several wise people that the making of the vow was not the end but the beginning of struggle, fidelity, questioning, wrestling, and, in ever deeper freedom, surrendering to the movement of God in my life. It turns out these wise people were right.

As I’ve written some in this blog, my spirituality is becoming more and more ordinary. The other side of that is to say that there are times when the life with God feels more and more boring. “Is this all there is?” I’ve heard myself asking sometimes. Sometimes immediately and sometimes a few days later the answer comes: “Yes, this is all there is. This is all there ever was, and it is enough.”

During our recent meeting of the Chapter of the Order, we took some time to share with one another a bit about the longing that drew us to the monastic life, and also the ways that longing has changed over the years. One of my brothers said something to the effect that he had learned, in the course of his several decades in monastic life, to feel satisfied. That comment has stayed with me, both as promise and as reflection of a reality more ultimate than the affective dimensions of my life. It gave me pause to remember that, for years and years, I had this sense that life was just about to begin. I don’t know how or when, but some time ago that feeling ceased, and I began to feel, without even having to name the feeling, that I was inhabiting my own life.

I have now been at Holy Cross as long as I’ve been anywhere in my adult life. And there is every indication that I will be here for the rest of my life. The recognition of that spaciousness allows the turmoil of the ordinary to bubble up, the complacencies, banalities, and dailiness, as Wiman calls the experience. The beautiful and paradoxical aspect to monastic profession is that it is revealing to me that monasticism is not the answer to the longing that has run beneath the surface of my life for longer than I had language to describe it. The longing is its own answer, in as much as the longing is longing for God alone, and a longing that God alone can meet, even as every meeting of that longing deepens and expands rather than quells it.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, echoing Meister Eckhart and my brother Randy, there is no such thing as a spiritual life. There is only life. And yes, this is all there is. This is all there ever was. And it is enough.


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everything is holy

Yesterday I had my own Fourth and Walnut experience. It was utterly banal, and all the more real for that.

Walking down the street in Kingston, I became aware that I was surrounded by holiness. All the people walking past me on the street, people as ordinary as any you’ve ever seen, people weighed down with care, pissed off, joyfully humming, people who may never have heard about God or Jesus or mystical union–all were as deeply immersed in holiness as they could be. And I was, too. In the face of such perfectly ordinary holiness, all I could do was walk down the street. An alleluia was not only unnecessary but would, in fact, have tarnished the simple and primitive fact of the holiness and wholeness of all that is.

Perhaps the most striking part of this experience is that there was no flashing light, no overwhelming tears, no joy or terror or awe. It was simple, unadorned, given, realness itself revealed.

Lately it seems as if my spiritual life, which is to say my life, has been turned upside down. The pillars that have held that life in place seem to be crumbling at their base, and the whole structure threatens collapse. The containers that have provided the space for my life in God to unfold–the liturgy, the scriptures, the monastic rhythm, images of God–seem more and more insufficient to the task of creating space for that unfolding to continue. Meanwhile, my relationship with God is as rich and as sweet–richer and sweeter, even–as it has ever been.

I realize, even amid the chaos, that at some point the structures that invite us into life with God must be destroyed for that same life to deepen. As the Buddhist saying goes, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Structures and rules are helpful tools to the life with God, but they are not ends in themselves. Too often these same structures become a shorthand that exempts us from living with integrity and purpose. These rules and structures can also become idols, forms that domesticate the living God, who is fire and hurricane as much as the peaceful calm after the storm. If, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we desire to be the true I before the true Thou, familiar habits, rules, structures, images, and language will eventually reveal their own insufficiency.

A friend recently sent me this quotation from Urban Holmes III on obscenity:

One commonplace access to the chthonic powers of the earth is obscenity. It literally means what does not fit. A trivialization of the obscene is the dirty joke, whose humor is built on the incongruous and is the obverse of our fear of the dark mysteries of life associated, particularly, with the orifices of the body. With all its love for decency and order, perhaps because of it, there is sometimes an irrepressible delight in Anglicanism for the obscene. Is it possible that obscenity taps an energy for mystical union?

The chaos of crumbling structures and certainties about who I am and who God is is perhaps the threshold of the obscene, the gateway into the dark mysteries of life. My intuition tells me that my consenting even to the dismantling of much I have known to be true is also a consenting to be further stripped of what would weigh me down on my path to the heart of God. This “yes” is also a yes to riding the stormy waves into the darkness of the I AM, where everything is holy and nothing is obscene, and where silence is the only response necessary.


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