I had no formal religious upbringing before the age of nine, when my family moved from a little suburb in southern New Jersey to a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a huge cultural shift – and culture shock – for all of us, from minor things (like learning I had an accent) to one big thing: we began to go to church for the first time. I had grown up on a rich diet of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Greek and Roman mythology – great story traditions that informed my play as a child. When I encountered the Bible and the story of Jesus for the first time, I took to it like a fish to water, in part I think because of the groundwork that had already been laid in my heart and psyche by those stories. The difference, of course, was that this particular hero was God, who desired a relationship of love with me, personally, and that there was a whole community of people living out this great Story, capital S. Learning that was hugely horizon opening and ground shaking for me. I was baptized when I was ten.
I am listening more deeply, more intently, and with a greater sense of urgency, than I have ever listened. I am listening to the lonely cry out for human touch and the holy cry out for sacraments shared. I am listening to words of joy and lament from the masked mouths of strangers and friends alike. I am listening to Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American people cry out afresh an old, old song of unspeakable trauma, yet refulgent with hope. I am listening to slow-motion sounds of collapse as political maneuvers falter and fail. I am listening to ice melting beneath the paws of the polar bear. I am listening to the inhalation and exhalation of breath, rhythmically reminding me that every moment is precious, and none is a given. I am listening to the heart of God beneath it all.
Are you listening? I hear you, even as I type this, and I know that you are. Somehow, I hear us, gathered in ourlistening. It is the sound of a single heart learning, re-learning to listen to the Word, and to the world.
In such listening, St. Paul heard creation groaning “in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In such listening, Elijah heard that “still, small voice” which was not to be heard in wind, earthquake, or fire. In such listening, Jesus heard the God he knew as Abba say, “This is my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And he heard another call, to the darkness of Calvary.
If you’re hearing what I’m hearing, maybe we’re listening to the Church becoming more. In this place “within listening distance of the silence we call God” (R.S. Thomas) and within shouting distance of one another, we are finding something precious: a deep church. These are shouts of ‘Why?’ and ‘How Long?’ but also ‘Thank You’ and ‘I’m Here for You’ and ‘Amen.’ We’ve long stewarded this deep church in packets of seeds, but often planted them in seasonal gardens: a retreat here, a small group there, an afternoon of Sabbath rest. In this new place, we’re learning a different way. In between the unmaking of one world and the gestation of another, stricken in conscience, overflowing with questions, and wrestling with demons, we’re learning that spiritual practice, presence, and purpose are the seeds we need to survive.
Blessedly, history shows that these are the causes and conditions that make saints: Christians of depth. Moved by those pressures, we’re doing our inner work because it is the work to be done. We’re learning to pray one distracted word at a time, to meditate one distracted breath at a time, to measure our hours and days. We’re speaking the truth of what truly matters to us and listening to others do the same because none of us have all the time in the world, and we know it. The powerful among us are learning to listen to the disempowered without defensiveness or pride. We’re discovering how to abide like a planted seed in the darkness of impasse because our faith, our impossible “conviction of things not seen,” tells us that seeds were made to grow. We can’t go over or under or around the pain. And so, together, we are going through it, into the depths.
Jesus said, “Pay attention to how you listen.” Let’s keep listening to him, and to one another.
Yours in Christ,
Br. Keith Nelson
Celibate life can prompt some big, existential questions about the nature of human intimacy with God. When I look at the ring on my finger and imagine a similar ring on the (invisible) hand of Christ, I wonder: What does it mean to be invited to share an intimate relationship – the most intimate relationship — with someone who is so utterly mysterious?
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. These words from Matthew find a striking parallel in John’s gospel: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30
Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ [i]
There are some who listen and follow, who find her dwelling and hold her fast. But there are many in the broad places of the world who ignore her. The marketplace is for many things, but not for wisdom. They don’t bother to look up from their tiny screens. Nimble fingers text and tweet faster than hearts can pause and feel.
‘We played the flute for them, but they didn’t dance. We mourned, but they didn’t wail.’ [ii]
With each comment thread, the bitter bickering shrinks the circle. Wisdom has not played by the rules.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.[iii]
Jerusalem, Jerusalem! he cries, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing.’ [iv]
When the words of Wisdom finally find their target, the reaction is visceral. As one body united for the first time and the last, they cry: ‘CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!’[v]
Yet – Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.[vi]
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Or, in Luke’s version, Wisdom is vindicated by her children.[vii] In books such as Proverbs and Job, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, we encounter God’s Wisdom personified as a Woman of great gentleness and strength, offering food and drink, shelter and instruction, scorned by the masses but taking her stand nonetheless. In the book Sirach, the wise elder instructs a disciple: “Listen, my child, and take my advice, do not reject my counsel: put your feet into [Wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck into her collar; offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her bonds… For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”[viii] In the gospels of Matthew and John, we bear witness to a Spirit-led conversation between this multifaceted tradition of personified Wisdom and the early Christian experience of Jesus Christ. For us as for them, Wisdom is Jesus, the embodiment of all good things in Wisdom’s treasury and the incarnation of God, the source and ground of Wisdom. This Jesus is without doubt a Savior to be worshipped and an exemplar of how we are to act in the world. But he is also a Teacher of the heart, what today we are calling “inner work.”
The life to which Jesus calls us is essentially simple. In what does that simple life consist? The simple life – the life of the kingdom – consists in the abundant awareness that everything we receive is a gift that we did not earn or purchase; in the recognition that life itself is the first of all gifts; in the trust that our basic needs will be met; in the generosity that allows us to be the means by which God meets the needs of others; and in the capacity to surrender our inevitable craving for what we do not need.
Worrying is one behavior that leads to increased complexity of life, the labyrinthine complexity of misdirected anxiety. But this particular admonition not to worry is made more specific by a very clear statement: You cannot serve God and wealth. The incapacity to surrender our craving for what we do not need results in service to the wrong Master. And the tiny links in the chain with which that Master binds his unsuspecting devotees are worries. Restless hope of acquisition on the one hand, and undue fear for the security of what we have acquired on the other, results in a zig-zag of interior energy moving in the wrong direction: away from God.
As men who live under vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, we have committed ourselves to “striving first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” in a radical way. On an external level, this particular version of the Christian vocation entails much letting go and doing without: of spouse, children, a household of our own, and a significant measure of individual autonomy, to name only the most significant sacrifices. But as we know very well, these things comprise only the outermost concentric circle in a life of progressive dispossession for the sake of the kingdom. We discover whole hordes of interior possessions, guarded tooth and nail by dragons who feed on our thoughts. In short, we are tempted to worry all over again – perhaps even to justify our worry spiritually.
Before I entered the Society, my daily life often felt history starved. I have always taken an active interest in Church history and the history of art and ideas, and I am on meaningful terms with my personal history, but there was some integral potential in my relationship with history that eluded me. Looking back, I can now say that I longed for direct participation in a way of life infused by the presence of the past – a living presence in dynamic relationship with the present and the future. This living presence is a foundational element of monastic life. It roots, stabilizes, and nourishes the life in the midst of much contemporary change and discontinuity. It orients our movements like a transpersonal lodestar. That is the authentic power of tradition.
I Peter 2: 4-10
For several years, each September, I had the delight of meeting a group of Harvard first-year students enrolled in an introductory Humanities course. Somewhere between reading Plato, the Gospel of Matthew, and St. Augustine, their professor shepherded them over to the monastery for a field trip. Another Brother and I greeted them in our antechapel and we’d begin with an exercise: I opened the gates of the choir grille and invited them to wander wherever they liked for fifteen minutes in silence. I encouraged them to look, listen, smell, and touch – to let their senses lead the way. After being assailed with words and information in their first few weeks of college, they welcomed this task, letting fingertips play across the rough-hewn stones of our chapel walls or lying down on the cool marble floor. When we sat down to speak about their experience, their faces often radiated calm. One young woman exclaimed, “The stones seem almost alive! I could almost hear them speaking.” I asked, “What did you almost hear them say?” She thought for a moment, and said: “Be still – you can rest here.”
“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.”[i]The author of the First Letter of Peter takes up the image of a cornerstone and interprets it afresh in relation to Jesus, our Rock and our Refuge. The cornerstone – often inscribed with a date and ritually blessed – is the first stone to be laid in a foundation. It is the stone which orients the building geographically and orients the builders in their labor. The reference is to Isaiah’s chapter 28, where we read: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’[ii]The stability of a tested cornerstone will bear the weight of countless others. As they take their places, they participate in its fundamental strength. Jesus, the Head of the Corner, speaks to us as the stones of our chapel spoke to that young woman: “Be still: you can rest here.” He invites us, in the words of Mary Oliver, “to take our place in the family of things.”[iii]
Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
And they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
The words of Scripture we hear on this Fifth Sunday in Lent vibrate with a unique beauty, power, and density. Bones and sinew; breath and skin and stench; illness and tears; rattling and sighing and loud, crying voices; graves opened, hands unbound, feet planted on native soil. These scenes from Ezekiel and the gospel of John captivate us again and again because the intensifying momentum of their drama unfolds amid the props and set pieces of the everyday. These are passages filled with the raw materials of familiar, sensory experience: bones fit together and sinews stretch; tears tremble and spill over; stench assaults and offends; breath makes hair stand on end. Bones and sinew, breath and tears orient us on the way through stories that become slowly less familiar, more surreal, more densely charged with a mysterious meaning rising from the deep. We blink and stare in disbelief as the invisible power, beauty, and density of God’s ways is made visible – so undeniably visible that our gawking melts into gazing as it is met by the unblinking eyes of Love. In John’s vocabulary, this is glory: the manifest presence of God.
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
Rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.
At various points in my life I have learned things about the artistic process from people who are genuine masters. As a student and an amateur (that is, a non-professional lover of art) I have admired several traits that masters seem to have in common, especially when they have swooped in and lovingly rescued my work from disaster. A master of any art will not let her media dictate the results of her intended project. Neither, having painstakingly chosen her materials, will she forsake the medium and its potential if it proves sub-optimal once the artistic process has begun. A master has the training, the inner resources, the perspective, and the tools to respond and to adapt, to re-calibrate his vision and expectations if the block of marble or batch of gesso or piece of wood reveal faults or surprises. This is a powerful and mysterious dance to witness: the artist’s respect for the material calls forth a genuinely two-sided conversation. If the student is too deferential or too dominating toward the materials (and I have been both), the result is either a monologue or an argument. Neither produce good art.
Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
In my mid-twenties I worked for a non-profit agency in Boston’s Chinatown. The mission of the organization was to offer educational and social services to new Chinese immigrants and their families. Though generously supported by a base of donors, largely Chinese-American Christians, our budget was always tight. As the director of the organization’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, I had just finished the long process of completing and submitting a complicated grant application that would give us access to some state funding. We did not receive the grant, and I was crest-fallen as I went into my regularly scheduled performance review with our executive director and founder – a charismatic, successful pillar of the community who had emigrated forty years ago. She worked her way through a long list of things she felt I could be doing differently. With each item, I began to feel a gathering energy of discouragement, like yeast molecules feeding on sugars of self-doubt and inadequacy. When she finally paused, I took a deep breath and asked – Was there anything she felt I was doing well? She let out an astonished laugh. “Everything! Your work is excellent!” I saw her face shift and her eyebrows furrow as she reasoned aloud that this must be a cultural difference. She took for granted that I knew what I was doing well. She had seen plenty of grant opportunities come and go, and had intended her feedback only to leaven my sense of resolve for the future by pinpointing areas for growth. After losing the grant, for which I felt personally responsible, I had needed a different kind of yeast: a balanced assessment that included reminders of my strengths, and her confidence in me, in order to make my dough rise.
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?