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.

Peace,
Br. Will

This Known Unknown

Remnants of something previously known
Or was it?
A post-apocalyptic expression
Now covering a familiar scene
Windows scream, “LOOK!”
At empty sidewalks… or nearly
A lone explorer traveling at dusk
In search of what?
What solace will you find in this barren place?
Beware the wolves that lurk
No longer safe he dives into a canyon
Heart racing, out of breath, the tears fall
Like tiny streams of pain feeding an empty desert
That agony returns, chest pounding
Cracked open like a ripe pomegranate
Exposed and raw
Beautiful and dangerous
The seeds bleed
And stain the surface they’ve fallen on
How to mend this broken body
How to replace what’s lost
Self inflected
With polished replies
And sharpened fear
And was this real?
Is it desolation
This main street
Or merely a moment in time
The sun emerges again
And life… as it is… attempts to move
But masked in worry
Fails to step forth
Seeds had been planted
But no shoots have sprung up
Even as summer approaches
Spring… Aye
That is the missing piece
He picks up his hat which had blown off his head
And re-entering remembers what he was seeking
Yet still unsure where he will find it
He continues into this known unknown

Change Is Here

I have been attending an annual conference for religious this week. The conference was scheduled to be in Cincinnati, but was moved online to Zoom, like so many other things these days. Our key note speaker was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Michael Curry. He and his staff meet virtually with the leaders of the associations organizing the conference and had a discussion about religious life and the current state of the Episcopal church which was shared with the conference attendees Thursday morning.

If you haven’t seen or heard Michael Curry– you should look him up on YouTube (go ahead, I’ll wait). He’s a very charismatic speaker, perhaps more globally known for the homily he delivered at the royal wedding of HRH Prince Harry. This conversation for the conference was another example of his energizing and stirring elocutionary skills.

While I watched this conversation unfold I was struck by the fearlessness with which Bishop Curry approaches his role as the “head” of the Episcopal Church USA. He views his position as an kind of ambassador– a true evangelist, sharing Jesus’ love with the world and speaking from the perspective of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. He is brimming over with joy! He doesn’t fear parochial reports and the numbers declining in churches. While he acknowledges there are things we can learn from that, he stated unequivocally, “the Church has changed, the Church is changing, the Church will change.” Our job is to step right into the midst of that change, take the hand of of God, and walk on boldly into the Churches next chapter together. It was exhilarating. He said that “he believes that a Church where the people really are praying and living in that Living relationship with God … who we know in Jesus, that kind of Church is a movement that Pilot could’t stop in the first century and the coronavirus will not stop in the 21st, no matter how secular a society may be.”

Personally I have seen this Church do things in one month that I hadn’t thought were possible. Churches with no staff, few parishioners, scarce resources pulling together virtual worship experience all over the world. Small groups of morning prayer, bible studies, pastoral messages, group fellowship, forming seemingly out of thin air! Now believe me, I know full well how much work it takes to organize and produce this type of content– and it was almost comical how clumsy some of the roll out was for some communities, with poor lighting, out of focus cameras, inaudible voices, but it’s come together in miraculous ways, and brothers and sisters– people are being CHANGED! A few weeks ago, many churches didn’t even know how they would pull of Holy Week. Yet, I would dare say that more people attended Easter services at Episcopal churches this year than in recent memory.

What better example of the power of resurrection than this!? The disciples and followers, in their distress and dismay, couldn’t have imagined what was waiting them, and Jesus showed them that the power of God’s love has no holds, that death and disease cannot stop the miracle of resurrection! and they were forever CHANGED.

Even while I weep for those who are suffering and those who have died in this chaotic time, I will REJOICE. For I know that God’s love is more powerful still, and the change we have felt is but a foretaste of the glorious and hope-filled change that is to come.

Be safe and be well.

A New Journey

I remember when the internet was this new ‘thing.’ No one was quite sure what to make of it. I can’t fully remember how it was “marketed” initially, but I recall that there were few things you could search for, in the beginning– some recipes, some business listings– it was pretty boring. But, before you knew it, this strange new tool seemed to explode with websites and information. Eventually, these funny things called “chat rooms” appeared on the scene, where you could discuss cooking or hobbies or news-of-the-day with total strangers halfway around the world! I was amazed. Suddenly, the entire globe started to feel smaller, more accessible. As the internet grew and grew I was more and more fascinated with the seemingly limitless technology at my fingertips! I could research information about history and science in an instant. I could watch videos on culture and goofy cats. And, the first time I used Google Earth to look up a location like the Great Pyramids of Egypt and watched as the Earth on the screen spun and I seemed to descend downward towards the surface, rapidly approaching my destination like a rocket crashing in from orbit, until eventually I was looking at recent actual satellite images of the pyramids– it was as if I had seen the Hubble Telescope images for the first time.

Fast forward more years than I care to think about, and I have greatly taken the internet and technology for granted– using it everyday of my life in some capacity. All of the apps and information at my fingertips seem more my right than my privilege. Can you imagine lugging around street maps or, God forbid, stopping in a gas station to ask for directions? Can you imagine waiting for weeks for packages to be delivered, instead of the precious Prime 2-days?

Suddenly, the stable structure of my daily life, which I rarely think about in totality, is turned upside down. Shelter-in-place means the technology of ordering groceries online or setting up virtual meetings in cyberspace becomes a necessity not just one of many regular options for ‘fun.’ I no longer take the internet for granted these days. The world feels smaller again, more accessible, as I consciously consent to allow the outside world into my home. My church, my spiritual family, must visit me while I sit at my dining table instead of my pew. Recordings of sacred music transform my private space into a sanctuary of sorts. And so, Holy Week takes shape in 2020.

I just finished a beautiful, virtual, Maundy Thursday experience where we gathered via Zoom and shared an agape-style meal, prayed together, shared scripture together, fellowshipped together. It is an entirely different Holy Week. Like my Jewish family, who celebrated a virtual Passover Seder, we are asked– expected– to participate in ancient liturgies from a place we’ve never been before. Suddenly, familiar journeys seem strange and unusual, and everything feels, somehow– new. I find myself moving beyond my rekindled gratitude for the technology that allows us to stay ‘connected’ during all of this, and into an unknown space where I hear the words of these stories, the prayers of these nights, in a totally new way.

What a strange gift to be so shaken out of my comfort zone that these precious moments– this ‘Holy’ week, takes on a new life and makes new demands of us. Whether you join online worship experiences this week or you simply find a quiet time and space to pray, we are all still on this journey together and God is revealing God’s self to us in every moment and in every place. May we be a people transformed by this experience, more conscious of the ties that bind us together– virtual or otherwise, and when we eventually emerge from our tombs, may resurrection be truly felt throughout creation.