Embers and Equinox

Happy Fall! For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox arrived on Wednesday at 2:21pm, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. The specificity of that time cracks me up! I love the signs of autumn and as if right on cue, the air began chilling this week and the leaves outside my home began changing and falling. The Church gives us signs of autumn as well. Fall Ember Days were this past week’s Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Ember Days, which are offered four times a year as the seasons change, are a traditional time of fasting, prayer, and reflection. These transitional spaces in the seasons are important and offer us concrete opportunities to look at what is going on around us with fresh eyes. 

Growing up in southwest Florida I saw very little change seasonally, but my mother’s family all live in New England and every time I had the chance to visit around fall and winter I couldn’t help but notice the ‘buzz’ in the air as every blade of grass seemed to change in some magical way. Learning to see things in a new way is very much a part of our shared spiritual journey. Jesus saw God in everything and everyone. This “nature mysticism” was also beautifully modeled by Sts. Francis and Clare. As Richard Rohr shares,

“[Francis’] love for creation drove him back into the needs of the city, a pattern very similar to Jesus’ own movement between desert solitude (contemplation) and small-town healing ministry (action). The Gospel transforms us by putting us in touch with that which is much more constant and satisfying, literally the “ground of our being,” which has much more “reality” to it, rather than theological concepts or ritualization of reality. Daily cosmic events in the sky and on the earth are the Reality above our heads and beneath our feet every minute of our lives: a continuous sacrament, signs of God’s universal presence in all things.”

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014)

I invite you to take a few moments each day to reflect on the “signs of God’s universal presence” around you. Do you feel connected to God through those signs? Do you feel a call to action somewhere in your life? 

O Great Love, thank you for living and loving in us and through us. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with you and all creation. Help us become a community that vulnerably shares each other’s burdens and the weight of glory. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our world. Knowing you are hearing us better than we are speaking, we offer thanks and praise in all the holy names of God, amen. 

Belonging Is Our Blessing

Dr. Saul Levine, Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, writes that “belonging is our blessing, tribalism is our burden.” He notes that, “We humans are a social species, tribal by nature. We’re given to gathering and communing in familiar groups. “Belonging,” our capacity and need for empathy, compassion and communication, is in our DNA.” However, when this desire to belong is taken to an unbalanced or addictive level (the shadow-side), it can manifest in animosity towards the “other” along with all sorts of malevolent behaviors such as deep bias, exclusion, oppression, and even violence.

I believe that the “good” desire for belonging is a remnant of the Divine within each of us. It is a soulful invitation to connect with those around us, to commune with one another, and to seek out relationship– the very place that God often “hides” in plain sight. The egoic pull towards more tribal thinking, which brings along with it that host of ill behaviors, is yet another mind-made trap which springs from duality. The addictive need to separate ourselves from others, to judge those who do not conform to our world view, to distance ourselves from what we perceive to be wrong, unrighteous, unworthy, etc., only adds to a great ocean of suffering.

The radical gift that Jesus brought was a way out of that mind-made trap– freedom from the pain of duel thinking such as tribalism, but it is not easy. Even the disciples themselves often fell prey to the tribal lens that God was on their side (as the chosen people of Israel) and everyone else was “over there,” and that way of thinking continues to this very day with many of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ teachings and actions sought to show that there is no division between God and humans, and therefore if all of us can be equally present with God we can all be equally present with one another. Several times in the Gospel does Jesus invite us to eat of his body and drink of his blood. This invitation pulls us into that radical unity where the very essence of the Christ becomes one with our own body in this world. If we can capture a shred of that reality, then we are one step closer to banishing the walls of tribalism forever. Our highest level of consciousness (salvation) is not when we simply can say I no longer “see” the other, but when we truly can no longer even conceive of an “other” of any kind. When we live into the true reality that God is fully present with creation just as creation is fully present with God, then we have finally shattered the illusion of duality and we are indeed living in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus knew that this was not an easy path. There is a reason he stated that he is the “bread of life” over and over again. He knew that we would need to gnaw on that reality for quite a while before we began to see the truth. But– invite us he does. Let us never forget that God’s unending grace and love is forever calling us into a wonderful freedom from the chains we have created, so that we can become the incarnation of Christ in this world and with one another, no matter who we are.

Symbolism isn’t enough

I have always been fascinated by symbols. These gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words, help people navigate and understand the world they live in. They provide clues to understanding experiences by conveying recognizable meanings that are shared by societies and groups of people. Symbols are everywhere and they can even articulate social priorities or the function or purpose or a place or thing. We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous street signs and their pictographic icons, and personally love the symbols one encounters in a cemetery. Architecturally, we see this all over a city like ours. On each of the corners of the roof of the main Chicago Library building downtown, there are giant owls representing knowledge. At the top of the deco-style Board of Trade there is the figure of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. Churches have steeples crowned with crosses, and their interior spaces are often covered in symbols everywhere you look!

Beyond the literal symbols which hopefully help us maneuver the world in which we live, there is the use of symbols to convey ideas and qualities– symbol-ism. We also encounter symbolism all around us. The statues we choose to erect in our town squares, the people we choose to honor by with the naming public buildings and spaces, even the parables Jesus shared to convey his wisdom teachings are dripping in symbolism. The challenges with symbols and symbolism are first, do we understand the meaning behind the symbol, and second, do we use the symbol to “move” into something new– a thought, an action, an idea?

This week, Juneteenth was declared a National Holiday, which is good and right, and overdue. We must tell the truth, and all of the truth in our teaching of history if we are to create a space of dignity and repentance, and for far too long truths of black and brown people, of indigenous and immigrant cultures, have been conveniently “left out” of much of the narrative– swept under the rug of our published histories. Indeed, we must begin by educating our populations of what the real history is — but knowing what a symbol is isn’t enough. Juneteenth, now known as Juneteenth National Independence Day and historically known as Jubilee Day, Black Independence Day, and Emancipation Day, commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when General Order No. 3 was announced by Union Army general Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom for slaves in Texas, the last state to free enslaved peoples. This is absolutely a worthy commemoration and worth celebrating, but we must also be sober in our acknowledgement that so much work is yet to be accomplished in the full emancipation of formerly enslaved peoples. 156 years have passed since that first Jubilee Day in 1865. 156 years of battles and blood, laws and lies. 156 years of a country reckoning with its identity and the reality that this American Dream has for so many been a lived nightmare for far too long.

Symbolism such as a national holiday is important and valuable, but only if contemplating it brings about some real transformation. When Jesus shared parables with the people it was merely a starting place. Each of them had an opportunity to interact with that truth in themselves and then as a group until that wisdom translated into conversion — into a new way of living and loving. Today we are still presented with that same opportunity. Will we dance through the doorways of truth into a new way of living and loving, moving closer and closer to unity and peace, or will we simply stand starring at the threshold as the invitation becomes faded and forgotten? As this country yet again attempts to move beyond mere words and symbols, I pray we will begin to see real fruits of change and healing– and all in the name of, and for the sake of, a God who deeply loves us.

Images of the Ascension

Forty days after Easter, on a Thursday, the Church commemorates the Feast of the Ascension, the day Jesus is remembered as having ascended bodily into the skies in a dramatic “final departure”, recorded in the first chapter in the book of Acts. I can’t help but be reminded of the many paintings from my art history classes around this subject. Many of the examples you will find are constructed in a similar manner. Jesus is typically the central figure, sometimes surrounded by heavenly beings. He is often hovering above the ground, usually suspended on a cloud of some kind with his arms outstretched and his gaze heavenward. I find there is usually a docile energy to these scenes, an almost disingenuous quality to the hyper-posed figures. Not all the depictions of this subject are like this of course, but it is more common than you might realize. There are, however, two unique paintings of the Ascension which I find much more mesmerizing, even contemplative.

The first, is a watercolor by James Tissot, circa 1886-1894. In this depiction, Jesus is not visible at all. Instead, there is simply a pair of footprints left on the mount, flanked by two strange and stoic angels whose gaze locks with the viewer while they calmly point “up”. Surrounding the lower portion of the scene is a crowd of spectators, franticly searching the sky in shock and amazement. “Do not cling to me…” I hear Jesus saying to us. And while we deeply yearn to accept the beauty and power of Jesus’ request, we can’t quite silence our egoic fear that we have somehow been “left behind” falling prey to our mind-made traumas like the crowd in the painting.

The second painting is The Ascension of the Christ, 1958 by Salvador Dali. Here, in typical Dali fashion, The entire perspective of the painting is turned on its head. The central focus is of Christ’s feet, as if the viewer is underneath Jesus as he ascends away from us. Jesus’ hands are clenched awkwardly, and we see his body encircled in an almost egg-like aura while God (represented by Dali’s wife) and the Holy Spirit as a dove await the approaching Christ. There is a sense of both birth and death in the same instant in Dali’s image. The dynamism of the trinity itself is on full display in this fantastic moment as Christ is both present in creation while absorbed back into oneness with Creator and Spirit.

Both of these expressions of the Ascension compel me to push beyond the conventional images of this scene to the depths of the real mystery at work. Like a breath moving in and out, God moves through creation… out at Jesus’ birth… in at Jesus’ death and burial… out at the Resurrection… in at the Ascension and soon– out at Pentecost. Take a moment of silence to think about that, meditating on Christ’s movement on each of your own breaths. That is the true intimacy we share with God, always moving in us, as near as our very breath.

James Tissot, Ascension, Watercolor on vellum paper Circa 1886 – 1894, Brooklyn Museum

Salvador Dali, The Ascension of the Christ, Oil 1958, The Dali Museum

Teresa’s Bookmark

My gym has a line of large TVs which are suspended from the ceiling over the cardio workout area. They are all usually kept on mute, but I find my eye scanning back and forth across them while I do my cardio. Yesterday evening while working out, I found myself fixated on the coverage of the just-released body camera footage from the Chicago police officer who fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo. The news was looping the footage over and over again and, even though I could not hear the reporting, and even though I do not know all the details surrounding the incident I felt a deep frustration and sadness welling up inside me. It seems that we are confronted with death everywhere we look some days, and in many cases… death that feels pointless… death that can leave us feeling helpless.

In my Community, we are given a patron saint when we take our first vows. Mine is Teresa of Avila, whose writings are regarded as among the most remarkable of the church’s mystic literature, and one of only four Doctors of the Church who were women. She was known for many wonderful prayers and reflections, but one of Teresa’s most famous teachings is a poem known as “Teresa’s Bookmark” that was found in her own prayer book after her death:

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing upset you.
Everything changes.
God alone is unchanging.
With patience all things are possible.
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone is enough.

Wow– There is so much to unpack in this brief prayer, and while just reciting it plucks my soul like a harp string causing it to reverberate within me, I can’t help feeling as though Teresa is asking the impossible. Let nothing disturb you? Let nothing upset you? How on earth is that state of mind possible? Well, I feel what she is inviting us into is a state of soul not a state of mind. The mind will fret. The mind will fear. The mind will evade and compartmentalize, but the soul is always calling us back to the reality of God. The soul is grounded in the truth that “God alone is unchanging.”

The real powerful statement in this prayer for me is that “with patience all things are possible.” Because to have true and deep patience is to rest your hope in God alone and when we can do that, everything is open to us and we realize that our true self cannot be disturbed or upset even while our mind may still be reeling. The Psalmist knew this too. “Ye, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)

I’m not saying reaching this “state of soul” is not challenging at first. But I truly believe that the more we practice this deeply rooted trust in God, the easier it becomes, until at last we truly understand that God alone is enough in every moment and in every breath.

The Gateway of Gratitude

“I have to admit, I have not prayed in a while and I’m not sure how to address it,” my friend recently confessed over text. “It’s almost like I have prayer avoidance.”

This isn’t the first person who has shared something like this with me in the last several months and, if I’m being honest, my prayer-life has also slipped. For me, the absence of weekly and in-person worship, gathering with friends, just regular human interactions have left me struggling to focus on prayer the way I otherwise might. I was ashamed of this at first. As usual, I pressured myself into thinking that as a deeply spiritual person, a monk, someone called into ordained ministry, I should be “better” at praying. It’s sad how easily we shame ourselves for such common and human-like actions instead of digging a little deeper to see what’s really going on. The fact of the matter is we all go through fluctuations in our prayer rhythms at one time or another and sometimes there are real and valid reasons worth exploring.

In the case of my own “prayer desert” I have noticed just how often I find myself zoning out instead– you know those times when you just sit there staring out the window or laying down on the couch to just turn your brain off for a while. I thought at first, I must be doing this out of COVID boredom, but I realized that the inner voice would go quiet after a while and then a single thought or image would materialize in my consciousness. Whatever my reason for doing this it was unintentional meditation, pure and simple. The most common thought was some silly little thing that made me smile that day. I wasn’t trying to think of those things. They just seemed to pop up one by one.

This repetitive action I kept finding myself in reminded me of something Richard Rohr says. “Prayer is sitting in the silence until it silences us, choosing gratitude until we are grateful, and praising God until we ourselves are an act of praise. Mature prayer always breaks into gratitude.”

I have discovered (especially more recently) that gratitude opens the doorway to the soul. When we let ourselves fall into an ocean of gratitude, we learn to see our whole existence as a gift. Not just the joyful parts, but even the sorrow weaves the threads that make up our entire self. What a gift to come to know that person– that authentic child of God. God sees and loves every part of us, the wounded and the healed. Don’t you want to learn to love yourself in that same way? I sure do.

Authentic gratitude, which walks hand-in-hand with mercy and grace, is not something to be taught but realized. We receive slivers of it from time to time but the more we can practice that kind of prayer that Richard Rohr describes the more we fall into that ocean, and the more we move to the deepest part of ourselves where God already dwells. It often takes great strength and practice to incorporate our pain into our gratitude. But once we cross that threshold, we begin to understand Jesus’ words, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) And in Him we will find rest.

So, if you are someone who has been struggling to find focus in your prayer-life, try just sitting quietly from time to time– with no agenda. See where the Spirit leads you in your thoughts and let yourself go there. You might be surprised to find a moment of gratitude which unlocks a whole new door to a Divine Love just waiting for you.

The Feast of Feasts

Did you know for the first 1200 years of Christianity the greatest feast of celebration was Easter not Christmas? Obviously, Easter is still central to Christianity, but by the 13th century this monk by the name of Francis really shook things up a bit. He believed that we need not wait for God to love us through the cross and resurrection; but that the whole thing began with the incarnate love found at the very birth of the Christ child. So, we really have the Franciscans to thank for popularizing Christmas as a major feast within the church!

In his account of St Francis’ life, Thomas of Celano, who knew the saint, describes an interesting interaction between the beloved saint and one of the early friars, Brother Morico.

“Francis observed the birthday of the child Jesus with inexpressible eagerness over all other feasts, saying, ‘It is the feast of feasts, on which God, having become a tiny infant, clung to human breasts.’ When the question rose about eating meat that day, since Christmas was a Friday, he [Francis] replied to Brother Morico, ‘You sin, brother, calling the day on which the child is born to us a day of fast. It is my wish that even the walls should eat meat on such a day; and if they cannot, they should be smeared with meat on the outside.’”

What enthusiasm! Francis wanted everyone to celebrate abundantly at Christmas. He longed for the rich to feed the poor even more generously that usual. “‘If I could speak to the emperor, I would ask that a general law be made that all who can, should scatter corn and grain along the roads so that the birds might have an abundance of food on that day of such great solemnity, especially our sisters the larks’”

In this annus horribilis I find it hard to summon my usual holiday fervor let alone Francis’ gusto. Every one of my seasonal traditions have been upended and it’s all too easy to just sit and wait out the end of 2020 without much fanfare. Then I am reminded of the image Francis provides — the creator of the cosmos poured into human flesh … bound in the limitations of a small, vulnerable, infant. A baby clinging to a young woman for warmth, food, life… The sheer humility with which God ties Gods self to creation in every way and in every moment.

Christmas is not about all the trappings we have made it about from carols to gifts to decorations. As Richard Rohr says, “Incarnation meant not just that God became Jesus; God said yes to the material universe. God said yes to physicality.” We can celebrate and welcome that Universal Christ because, like Francis, we can learn to see it in every blade of grass, every bird, every human. Now that’s something truly worth celebrating!
May God reveal the Universal Christ to you this Christmas and may you celebrate abundantly in your heart this season and always!

Active Waiting

I don’t know about you, but it seems as though nothing has gone according to plan this year. We’ve all experienced a series of disappointments caused by this dangerous and determined virus. From church closures, to holiday plans missed, to annual shopping fun cancelled it has been a great challenge to ‘keep calm and carry on’. Such an unprecedented time we’re living through! Even the Oxford English Dictionary announced that it couldn’t select merely one Word of the Year for 2020, instead offering a list of words or phrases that marked a “rapidly and repeatedly changing” cultural landscape, including the word blursday — when you’ve been sheltering in place for so long because of a global pandemic you have no idea what day it is as they all blur together.

So much of this year has been about waiting… waiting because we don’t know what’s coming next, or when we can return to church, or when a vaccine will be released. This is the typical way that we think of ‘waiting’, as a passive nothingness when circumstances are out of our hands. But this is not the spiritual waiting we are invited into in the season of Advent. Advent, like Lent, is about expectation because we believe in the promise that something is coming because something has already begun. I was rereading The Path of Waiting by Henri Nouwen and he perfectly articulates this kind of spiritual waiting when he notes, “We can really wait only if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. So, waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.” Spiritual waiting is never passive!

Jesus himself beckons us into this active waiting in the Gospel this Sunday, ” Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come … And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” We can wait because we know that God’s unfolding plan is not only unfolding all around us, but it includes us! “Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment …” Nouwen says. I often spend a lot of effort trying to feel like I’m in control of more in my life than I actually am– and this pandemic has brought me face-to-face with that reality. But I deeply believe in God’s unfolding plan and so I don’t seem to struggle with active waiting in the season of Advent or Lent. The seeds have already been sown and while I await the harvest, I continue to tend the field. This year my goal is to take that spiritual practice outward into the rest of my life, and hopefully I’ll learn to rest a little less in my own need for control and more in God’s waiting embrace.

Seventy-Seven Times

How hard is it for you to forgive someone?

When I ask myself that question I immediately start to qualify– well, what did they do? Is it is my family, my friend, someone I don’t really know? We often associate the ease of forgiveness with the severity of the offence or the level of intimacy of the relationship, but in the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus makes no such distinction.

“…how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

I was asked recently to imagine what the world would be like if the Church had only maintained the tenant of forgiveness (especially to one’s enemy) as its core teaching for the last 2000 years. Sadly, once an underdog moves to the top, as was the case when Christianity was officially adopted by the Roman Empire and used as a means of control and identity across Europe (313 AD), it becomes almost impossible to hear Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness. The Church neglected to teach the loving and non-violent message from the Sermon on the Mount, favoring instead much of the stone laws of the Old Testament. We shifted away from bringing about the Kingdom of God here and now in this life (as Jesus instructed) and instead made everything about preparing for the next life, and most certainly how to use fear and shame to illicit obedience.

How far have we really come from those dark ages of spiritual co-dependence and fear mongering? How much have we really matured from the times when wars were waged in the name of religion, in the name of God? What would this world be like if we had been teaching this Gospel message? What would this country be like if those who claim the ministry of Jesus had been, from the beginning, sharing the message of forgiveness. Thank God for our Quaker and Mennonite brothers and sisters who did indeed hold this in high value. How much could we learn from them?

I do not claim to have mastered the practice of forgiveness, but I am convinced it is one of the most important steps to salvation, or higher consciousness. In it’s action lies the central point of all great spirituality… learning to let go— learning to unshackle yourself from the burden of suffering, from the illusion of separation, from the sting of death itself.

In this time where a cold civil war rages in this country, I believe reclaiming the wisdom of forgiveness is the Churches greatest challenge and it’s most important responsibility. And each of us carry that same calling to forgive “from your heart” as Jesus says, and that same invitation into the Kingdom, here and now. Thank God we are given countless opportunities to practice each and every day.

I Am Love

Author, mystic, and teacher, James Finley said, “In the light of eternity, we’re here for a very short time, really. We’re here for one thing, ultimately: to learn how to love, because God is love. Love is our origin, love is our ground, and love is our destiny.”

What I love about this statement is that it points to an absolute indwelling of God in us and us in God. If God is love and love is our origin, our very substance, and our destiny, then we cannot/do not dwell apart from the love of God. Think of all the times scripture points out that we are God’s own– that we belong to God. This is not a claim of possession. This is a true statement of inseparable existence– utter interdependence.

What else could God mean when God says, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26) As Richard Rohr says, “We have heard the phrase so often that we don’t get the existential shock of what ‘created in the image and likeness of God’ is saying about us. If this is true—and I believe it is—our family of origin is divine. We were created by a loving God to be love in the world.”

My point in sharing this is that love is not an action that you ‘do’. Love is what and who you are in your deepest self. Love is already at your core, and yet it is also far beyond you. That is the paradox– just like when we say that God is both hidden and revealed. There is no access to the hidden God except by way of God manifested in creation. We long for God because God longs for us; God eternally desires to give God’s self away in love so we can give ourselves away in love.

In accepting this mutual indwelling found in love, we can begin to grasp the reality that divine love is unconditional. There is nothing to be earned or bargained for, because it is already a part of the Creator and the created– Love and the beloved. And once you can begin to grasp unconditional love, you cannot help but give yourself away, just as God does. This is why love is at once our origin and our destiny.

I hope you have felt such intimacy alone with God. I promise you it is available to you. Maybe a lot of us just need to be told that this divine intimacy is what we should expect and seek. We’re afraid to ask for it; we’re afraid to seek it. It feels presumptuous. We can’t trust that such a love exists—and for us. But it does and it’s already inside you.

Br. Will