Once upon a time there was a young Elm tree, and, sadly, he was miserable most of his days. The weather was so fickle, often just plain awful; one day, too much rain, another snow and hail; ice and cold, burning heat, or terrible winds. Sometimes cloudy days would go on forever with no hint of Sun. And the young Elm would lament bitterly.
Nearby, their lived an old Oak tree, standing silently by as the weather did what it did. Hot or cold, dark or sunny, windy or calm, wet or dry, the old Oak just stood content and still, wearing a smile more often than not.
The young Elm would spy the old Oak, baffled and, increasingly, annoyed. It’s cold and snowing, for God’s sake, what could that old Oak be smiling about? Until one day, the young Elm could stand it no longer, and he said to the old Oak, “Why on earth are you smiling? The weather is horrible… why aren’t you miserable like I am? What do you know that I don’t know?”
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
Rachel refused. She refused to be consoled. Wailing and weeping bitterly, she refused to be consoled.
And, yet, the very next line in Jeremiah has the Lord saying “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;” “there is hope in your future.” Don’t cry, God says, don’t be sad, it’s OK. My immediate reaction on reading that was, “Are you kidding me?”
I’ve imagined Rachel’s response, and let’s just say I’ll refrain from sharing it in polite company. What I can say, is that a perfectly natural reaction would be for her sadness to blossom into anger, even a righteous rage. How dare God offer any kind of consolation in the depth of her anguish. How dare God say anything at all. Where was God when children were being mercilessly slaughtered? How could God allow that to happen?
I can still remember as a young boy watching Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. I remember being awe-struck by the amazing miracles depicted on screen, especially the parting of the Red Sea, even with 1956 special effects. But what I also remember is wondering, why ten? Why ten commandments as opposed to, say, 8, 12, or 15? How many do we really need? And for that matter, why have any at all?
Well, I don’t know if this answers the question, but we humans do seem mightily attracted to lists of all kinds, especially numbered ones. Marketing research has even shown that you’re more likely to click on an article or a video online if the headline references a numbered list. “Top 10 Ways to Lose Weight Fast,” “6 Cutest Animals on Earth,” “5 New Theories for Game of Thrones,” etc. And then besides their ability to peak our curiosity, a numbered list can serve as a practical way of remembering something.
So probably for both these reasons, numbered lists are very popular in most faith traditions.
For our part, we begin with the ten commandments, although, as I found out quite a while after watching Charlton Heston, it could depend on who’s doing the counting. The coveting commandments, for example, are most often counted as one, but Lutherans single out the one about your neighbor’s house, while Catholics single out the one about your neighbor’s wife. And besides different ways of numbering them, we could easily decide to add a few more commandments that seem particularly relevant. I mean, if we’re going into enough detail to mention coveting our neighbor’s ox or donkey, why not include some other specific, and maybe even more helpful prohibitions.
I found inspiration recently, in of all things, The Edicts of Ashoka, ancient inscriptions written by Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century before the common era. They represent some of the oldest examples we have of what today we might call interfaith dialogue. For the most part, Emperor Ashoka is waxing eloquent on a newly arrived faith tradition called “Buddhism.” However, he also spends some time speaking about other religious traditions. Here’s some of what he wrote:
“The beloved of the gods… [he referred to himself in the third person that way] values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause… it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others… The beloved of the gods… desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions… And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows…”
With these words, Emperor Ashoka provides one of our first references to religious pluralism, suggesting a relationship beyond peaceful coexistence, towards finding essential wisdom in traditions not one’s own, and perhaps finding an underlying truth common to all traditions. Whatever his precise intention, the relationship between diverse faith traditions and their various truth claims has remained an important issue throughout our history.
As you listen to these words there are ten thousand miracles, at least, within easy reach.
Easy, if only we accept Jesus’ invitation and abide in the Love of Christ. Then, God’s Truth dawns upon us, and we taste the peace and joy of Christ surpassing all understanding. And with Christ’s joy within us, and our joy would be complete. You would think it would be an easy sell for Jesus, since it’s hard to argue with the appeal of complete joy. After all, we’re all looking for happiness. In fact, right there in the Declaration of Independence it gives as a self-evident truth that we’re all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, examples of which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we’ve come up with limitless ways to pursue happiness.
Maybe in the pursuit of happiness we pursue an iPhone X or the latest smartwatch. Or maybe we have our eye on a new 65-inch, 4K, Ultra HD, Smart LED television. Or maybe a new car will do the trick. Getting a new job could bring us happiness, or perhaps an exciting new love interest. Maybe losing ten pounds of fat will bring the happiness we seek or adding ten pounds of muscle. Our smile filled with freshly-polished, sparkling white teeth might make us happy, or getting a new haircut, or just getting rid of the grey. Maybe a new theology or a new kind of spiritual practice will bring happiness to our door. Or maybe the next self-help book will be the one, the one that uncovers the “secret” of happiness. And then our pursuit will end, because we’ve found it, we’ve caught this elusive creature, happiness.
I know this comes three days late, but welcome to Epiphanytide, the season during which we recognize the revelation of God to us through Jesus Christ. As part of our celebration we’re offering this sermon series on following God’s call. It’s called Gifts for the Journey, and over the following weeks, we’ll explore five ways God reveals Godself to us, five gifts we might expect along our spiritual journey in Christ, which as they’re revealed to us in the fullness time help us discern God’s call. Tonight, we’ll be looking at the gift of identity, asking the question “Who am I, really?”
First, we’ll begin with a story. It’s a very ancient story, and I first encountered it as told by Anthony de Mello in his book The Song of the Bird. Once upon a time there lived a doll made from salt. This salt doll, infused with a curious restlessness, searched far and wide for something it couldn’t quite name. It wandered all across the land, for so long it very often forgot it was searching for anything at all. But still, the salt doll went on, travelling far and wide, fueled by this hidden desire.
It’s interesting how many of Jesus’ parables involve the natural world. His Kingdom of God stories, in particular, direct our attention to the grounded realities of the earth as opposed to heavenward toward more transcendent realities. There are three parables about seeds, for example, including today’s humble mustard seed, so very tiny, lovingly planted in a garden’s fertile soil giving rise to long branches inhabiting a beautiful sky.
And like saplings striving upward we have within us a deep desire, something we yearn for, something we can’t often put into words, except to say the fulfillment of this desire would somehow be ultimately satisfying. I’ll just skip straight to the punchline here and say that this desire living in our innermost being is a response to God’s love for us, a desire planted with utmost care by God, a desire to return to a place of Holy Union with our Beloved.
Where did your monastic vocation begin?
My vocation didn’t start with a particular interest in monasticism, because when I was young I didn’t know what a monk was, or that monasticism was even a thing. But I do remember, as a little boy, being intensely spiritual and interested in God. A seed of sorts was planted really, really early in me. I felt a sense that walking in the light of God’s presence was my calling, that it was my vocation first and foremost, regardless of whether I became a plumber, or a computer programmer, or whatever.
When I was about six or seven, I remember my mom asking me, “Are you looking forward to getting married one day?” And I said, “I don’t think I want to love just one person; I want to love everybody.” I have no idea where that came from, but I remember the conversation. Amazingly, it has carried forward to today.
Now the sad part of the story – I suppose there’s always a sad part to any true story – is that my temperament, my personality, the gift from God of my being open to God’s presence, also left me open to some bad teasing and bullying. In fact, it was so horrific that I was traumatized from an early age. As a result, I basically shut down, my heart closed down completely, in an effort to protect myself.
That severe contraction and closing off of my heart ruined the beautiful relationship I had with myself, with God, and with the world. I also divorced myself from anything that even hinted at spirituality or religion. I was a self-proclaimed atheist.
I feel like that seed – the desire for God which God planted in me – never left. But because the sense of God’s presence had retreated, it wasn’t available to me any longer. Eventually I went into a really severe depression, which lasted for most of my life – from about second or third grade until 2010. As I understand it in retrospect, I think that my depression was less of a disease in itself and more of a symptom: a symptom of my denial of self, denial of God, denial of who I was meant to be.
It’s actually a very long story. Here’s the short version.
The first movement toward any kind of resolution – which I only recognized in retrospect – came when I discovered dance in 1997. At the time, I was living in Washington, D.C., I had an internship with the Environmental Protection Agency, and I basically couldn’t function. I was walking around in a fog. I was just so horribly depressed that I was numb. And yet, somehow – and I think this was maybe God putting his finger lightly, gently, somewhere – this idea came to me out of nowhere, “Hey, maybe I should try something physical, an exercise class or something.” The thought was like a foreign object that had entered my brain.
Then I was walking along near where I lived and saw a poster in a window: “Dance workout.” Where the energy for this came from, given where I was at, I have no idea, but I dragged myself to the class one day. And it was amazing. The people were lovely and welcoming. So I went back. I wound up totally, totally falling in love with modern dance, and in the process, discovering a way of re-inhabiting my body and learning to express myself in movement. And it was a renaissance. My brain started working a little differently, my body started responding differently. I credit the discovery of modern dance as being the initial crack.
There was a lot more to come. Dance led me to yoga, which led to yoga philosophy, which brought me back around to things spiritual and religious. From yoga I got into Buddhism, and I ended up actively practicing Buddhism for quite a while. So I had a good Yoga practice, a dedicated Buddhist practice, I was meditating and learning things from that, and I started to see a therapist. Eventually, I ended up leaving my job and moving to Boulder, Colorado, where I started the Somatic Counseling Psychology program at Naropa University. Soon after I started that program, I also started another independent program on the side, called Hakomi, which is a very particular form of psychotherapy and therapeutic approach based on mindfulness and the body.
It was in 2010, during a four-day Hakomi intensive training on “the inner child,” that I had a spiritual experience which has radically shaped me and my entire life since then. I can’t go into it in detail here, but during one of the exercises, on June 25, 2010, I experienced a profound reintegration of all those parts of myself and my heart that had been closed off and contracted so many years back when I was a small boy. The experience broke me open. I might even describe it as a kind of mystical experience. And the next two weeks after that event were very strange; I don’t know how else to explain it, except to say that I was living in this kind of thinly-veiled reality, having a lot of mystical experiences. It was very, very powerful, and beautiful, and wonderful, and also terrifying. I was crying almost every day for huge chunks of the day – out of delight, out of gratitude.
To share one instance: I go to the gym and I’m on the treadmill, running. And then all of a sudden, I look out from the treadmill and everybody in the gym, every single person – the old lady in the corner, the bodybuilder guy, everyone in between, everybody – they are glowing like a sun. Just glowing. I can’t even say it without crying. Each person was infinitely beautiful, just glowing with this light. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And somehow just by witnessing it, I felt like I was burning up. Now, mind you, the subject of God had not yet come up in my brain. But I said my first spontaneous prayer on the treadmill that day. I said, “God, I can’t take it. It’s very beautiful but I can’t take it. I’m human.” And as soon as I said that, it started to fade. Mind you, I’m this atheist, Buddhist guy. So that left me a little, well – as you can imagine – off-balance, wondering what was going on.
Shortly after that, I found a book of poetry from the Sufi mystical tradition. I had encountered this stuff before, but it didn’t register. Now I began reading at random one of these poems, and a spark of recognition came into me. I realized, “Okay, either he was crazy in the same way that I’m crazy, or neither one of us is crazy, and am I falling in love with God? Is this what’s happening?” I started to read more Sufi poetry and other mystical poets, and realized that they were totally describing what was happening to me – everything I was experiencing. And that gave me a lot of comfort because it helped to solidify for me that, yes, apparently this is what God feels like. It brought God into the picture.
I felt like I was rolling down a hill, like I really didn’t have control over anything. At some point, I felt pushed – I felt an impulse – toward bringing other people on board to help me out with this. I don’t know how else to say it, but I felt myself called to go to a church. It was very powerful and it was that simple: “Find a church.” I was really shocked that God was pushing me in this direction. Honestly, I was pretty resistant, because at the time I thought that all Christians were basically conservative homophobes. I was wishing that it would have been a push to go to a Buddhist temple or an Ashram, or anything else. I might have even considered a synagogue. But the command was strong.
So, because that was the only thing I had to go on, I did some church shopping. I made the rounds of five or six churches, including Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, a Baptist church, the Latter Day Saints. I was just randomly trying places. But nothing seemed to really fit.
Eventually, one Sunday, I happened across a United Church of Christ and went in. The whole experience was just amazing. The sermon and the pastor touched on so many points that reflected this new reality I was experiencing. I was like, “Wow! Really? They talk like that here? In church?” And so I stuck around. After the service, I went and talked to a couple people. The Assistant Pastor, Jason, invited me out to lunch with him and had a wonderfully, grounding, normalizing conversation with me. I was boiling over with all these crazy, mystical experiences, and a new way dealing with morality, and this light coming from everywhere, and this joy like God was going to consume me at any minute, just bursting with it. And Jason had the perfectly appropriate response to help me: he was totally nonplussed. And he started throwing out these theological phrases: “the Christ within,” “mystical experience,” “sharing the resurrection,” and “born again.” All of a sudden, my random experiences felt like they had an anchor in reality and could be a part of my journey.
So Jason did a lot to normalize my experiences. And then finding a home in a church, and committing to it, really helped me grow. Christianity gave me a way to relate to all the stuff that was happening in my heart. It gave me a way to talk about God.
So how did this faith develop into a sense of a monastic vocation?
Ever since my June 25th experience, I only knew what God wanted for me – and it was very clear and felt like a tall order, all at the same time: it was clear that God just wanted me to be present in the world, in a particular way, for God, and out of love, sharing that love with everyone. That was my mission. As I grew in faith, God kept tapping me on the shoulder to point me toward ways I could realize that vocation. For instance, I felt called to more and more radical simplicity. I felt drawn toward celibacy. It was like God had flipped a switch in me. I remember sitting at my computer, literally about to go on match.com, and thinking, “What am I doing?” Whenever I had thought about celibacy before, it had worried me to feel like I was giving something up. Suddenly it occurred to me that celibacy is actually about choosing something: choosing to take all my sexual, emotional, intellectual energy, and direct it in one direction, toward God.
As I was figuring this all out, Jason and my spiritual director, David Frenette, both suggested that I needed the support of a community. At that time, I was so ignorant about monasticism, I didn’t realize that they meant a monastic community. And then Jason was more explicit. He said, “You need to try a monastic vocation.”
After that, things snowballed really quickly. Jason suggested SSJE to me because he had once expressed interest in a vocation with SSJE, so he knew the community quite well. Once Jason actually verbalized it and started talking about SSJE, the idea felt like it had its own life.
I was rolling down the hill.
Did you struggle with the decision at all?
The only really scary thing for me was the question of whether or not this was my life calling. I kept wondering, “Is this where I’m going to end up?” I feel like I was asking God for assurances, because I wanted to stop moving around. I didn’t want to just try it. I wanted to know for sure that this was going to be it. But God never gave me that assurance. My clear sense was basically that God was saying, “I can only tell you what’s right to do now.” So then I just took a deep breath, and here I am.
Even once I arrived, I had to surrender to testing my vocation, and just trusting whatever happens next. Once I was able to surrender to that, life settled into a rhythm and time began to move pretty quickly. Now I’m just living here, living as a monk, doing monk stuff.
What surprises you about living as a monk?
I was surprised at first at how involved the wider congregation is in the life of the community. All the people who worship at SSJE on a regular basis, and repeat guests who come on retreat, make for a larger community. That was a little surprising, because my primary sense of vocation felt like a call to the desert. When I first came here, I was expecting more silence and less connection with people. Even now, I would say that this life has a real tension between a call to the desert and a call to sharing the fruits of the desert with others. I’ve discovered that the more I feel centered in the desert within my heart, the less I feel like I need exterior desert around me. Sometimes I feel like I can bring the desert with me in all situations: washing the dishes, playing video games, offering spiritual direction.
My greatest joy is the feeling of walking in the light of God’s presence. There’s a lot of talk in the Bible and especially the Psalms about peace and joy. In my experience, the greatest joy comes wrapped up in peace – “the peace that passeth understanding.” In this life, I have a sense of really profound stillness and resting, like Nicholas is letting himself totally rest in the stillness that is in the center point, his heart, where Christ’s light is. That’s who I truly am; it’s my real identity. Not a monk or even Nicholas. Just this I-in-Christ, who I truly am. And when I’m resting in that place, my identity becomes alive and it feels real. And it’s not even a question of feeling joy or peace. In a way, I feel like I become joy and I become peace, and that’s the greatest joy that I feel.
It may be tempting today, looking around at the multitude of different denominations and churches, with all their varied practices and beliefs to wistfully look back at the first century of Christianity as simpler times, when we were all at least a bit more unified. It’s in this sort of spirit that we have a yearly week of prayer for Christian unity helping to remind us of our common heritage as followers of Christ, although not all Christians observe the occasion. Of course, there will likely be differences among us for as long as there is an “us,” and there have been differences and divisions among Christians from the beginning, with the very idea of what it meant to be a Christian often not well agreed upon.
When Paul was writing his letter to the Romans in the middle of the first century there probably weren’t anyone even calling themselves “Christians.” Paul himself never uses the term “Christian,” instead he using general terms like “brothers and sisters,” “assembly,” “church,” “congregation” or “saints”. The church in Rome, like many of the churches Paul had contact with, would have been a community composed of people with a variety of religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds, including both Gentile and Jew.
“A life without eternity is unworthy of the name of life. Only eternal life is true.” Those are words from Saint Augustine, his way of articulating the importance of eternal life on our journey along the path of Jesus. We don’t see eternal life, mentioned as such, very often in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but John also must have thought it was crucial since in his gospel it appears over a dozen times. For example, sometimes we’re told that that whoever believes in the son of God has eternal life. Other times we’re given a contrast between the perishable things of this world and the imperishable peace and joy found in the eternal life of Christ.
So, why does John seem to have so much to say about eternal life compared to the other gospels? Well, some say John uses the term “eternal life” as a way of referencing God’s Kingdom, definitely a central theme of the gospels, and I think this holds some truth.