God’s Bathroom Mirrors – Br. Keith Nelson
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Before I came to the monastery I worked for a number of years as a Parish Administrator at a large Episcopal Church in downtown Boston, situated on a bustling street filled with high-end fashion boutiques and office buildings. The church kept its doors open throughout the work day and served as a hub for all sorts of programming, from Twelve Step meetings to homeless ministries, lunches for the elderly and concert series. On any given day I could be found coordinating a harpsichord delivery, scheduling a repair for our broken elevator, or trying to assist a young woman who periodically slept on our front steps – often simultaneously.
Dennis was our custodian. He greeted me daily when I arrived at 7 am with a huge smile and would yell one of his nicknames for me: “Special K!” or “K Dog!” or often just “Brother!” Short, thin, and feisty, Dennis had lived a very hard life but had an indefatigable spirit of joy and a deep, inspiring love for Jesus. He sang hymns at the top of his lungs over the sound of his vacuum cleaner, and accurately understood his work as a ministry. Dennis lived his emotional life extremely close to the surface and was frequently overwhelmed by it. He often needed to visit my office on the third floor to vent his feelings.
One summer, the mirrors in our women’s restroom were stolen literally off the wall – not once, not twice, but three times. We on the staff were used to all manner of smaller, disposable items walking off, but the bathroom mirrors? Dennis was most incensed of all, and his righteous indignation escalated with each incident – understandably. He loved the church and viewed this situation as a direct offense against the Almighty. Who would steal God’s bathroom mirrors?
The first time I was dumbfounded. The second time, I had to laugh at the sheer absurdity at the situation. The third time, I didn’t know what to feel. Until Dennis showed up in my office. This time, instead of listening to Dennis rage at the heavens and reflecting back his feelings and needs, I knew what to do: I joined him. I was so, so angry at the entire situation and had not realized how repressed my anger had become. We closed my office door and screamed at the top of our lungs. There were definitely expletives involved. When we were finished and out of breath, we prayed, and he gave me a hug. He said in his gravelly voice, “Brother, it’s good to know that you get angry too.”
In today’s Gospel lesson, a segment of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers perceptive teaching about anger. I do not believe that Jesus is condemning our human experience of anger itself; we know from the Gospels that Jesus himself felt anger. Rather, Jesus teaches that the unchecked cultivation of angry thoughts will spill over into our life and relationships in ever-widening ripples. Physical murder of another person is but one possible, eventual result.
Anger, like desire, is a powerful raw energy source. To live skillfully and compassionately with our sisters and brothers requires a commitment to noticing and addressing the root causes of our anger. While Dennis was a bit prone to let his anger burst forth explosively, my own first tendency was –and is—to ignore my angry feelings as impractical, unhelpful, or unworthy of God until I implode under their weight. Jesus calls us beyond either scenario.
If you can identify with either response to anger, you may find guidance in one of the many disciplines of contemplative prayer in the Church’s tradition, such as the Jesus Prayer or the contemporary practice of Centering Prayer. Such practices assume the perspective that all our thoughts and feelings belong. A space of safety, gentleness and sanity opens in the heart in response to God’s love, which exists independently of our fleeting thoughts or momentary feelings. In light of the truth that we are so much more than our thoughts and feelings – that we are beloved of God, and no thought or feeling of ours can change that – we are set free to name and acknowledge our thoughts and feelings for what they are. Then, God can use them to enlarge our lives, call us into reconciled relationship, and build up the kingdom.
The traditional language of spiritual combat that pervades Lent can sometimes give the impression that we are meant to beat down every negative thought and feeling that comes our way. Prayers to “overcome spiritual enemies” or “subdue the flesh to the spirit” can remind us of carnival games where we wack mischievous moles with a gigantic mallet the moment they pop up. Instead, I believe Lent invites us to ask for Christ’s help to tame and soften our surface-level reactions or impulses by pausing, getting curious, and reaching within for a response moved by the Spirit. With Christ in our thoughts and feelings, we grow in compassion for ourselves and others, and wade slowly into new spiritual depths.
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Brother Keith, thank you for this reminder about healthy and godly ways to handle anger.
I guess I’m ready to let go of my pre-conceived ideas of what contemplative prayer should be like. For many years I have practiced the Jesus Prayer and lectio divina and the Daily Office and have longed for the day when it might blossom into “pure” contemplation, without all those distracting thoughts and feelings. Thank you, Brother Keith, for that wonderful, freeing image of playing spiritual “whack-a-mole”! Gradually I’m learning to let prayer be just what God is giving me moment to moment and not to try to force it into something it isn’t.
Thank you, Keith, for this important reminder that the Holy Spirit allows us to show compassion for all the various parts and sides of ourselves as each makes its presence known. We need not banish any of them but may welcome each into the healing Light.
Thank you! Beautifully written/told. And excellent suggestions for disciplines to learn to become the observer in our own lives. Using these spiritual disciplines has certainly helped me better choose which emotions—especially anger—are pertinent to the situation and how I want to express them if they are. We all need to be reminded that God gives us choices and we need to work those “muscles” so that we have options available to us.