At the end of many retreats I have been on, I have been asked to distill the time into a short reflection. Sometimes this is called “graces” or “contemplation time.” At one camp I attended, which is beautifully situated on a mountain in Eastern Kentucky, we were asked, “What will you take with you off the mountain?” This is partly a physical description, but it is also an allusion to the Transfiguration of Jesus, where he and a few disciples are brought face to face with God and themselves, and are forever changed. That is what has happened at the Monastery this year. I have been brought face to face with God and have been changed.
So, what will I take with me off of this mountain? It may actually be impossible to relate what will be taken with me. I know that I have been transformed. From a new appreciation of the Gospel of John, to a deepened prayer life, to the creativity the Brothers fostered and encouraged in me, I know that I am changed. But how? The Psalmist says that “the human heart is a mystery,” and I would add that the changes to the human heart are even more mysterious.
Then, perhaps the “how” is not so important, and the “why” is truly what I’m after.
Why have I been transformed? Because I was loved. From the first hour I arrived, I was loved fearlessly and courageously. The Brothers, the staff, the congregation, all of them took a leap of faith and loved me and all my fellow interns, wall to wall, foibles and all. On good days and bad, in the midst of conflict and tranquility, there was never a lack of love and encouragement. It was in this love that grace was found. It was in this never-failing environment of love that I climbed up to the mountain top. And it was with these Brothers and this assembly, that I came to experience the ever-flowing waterfall of God’s Grace. There, I saw a vision of a world transfigured into the City of Light. And in that, I was changed. How was I changed? In truth, those changes will only be revealed in God’s time. All I can do is walk down the mountain and take the transformation with me.
And so, like Peter, James and John, and Jesus too, I come back to the question, “What will I take with me off the mountain?” “Faith, Hope and Love – and the greatest of these is Love.” Fearless, graceful, fiery love. As it is written in the Song of Solomon, I will take “a love as strong as death.” And I will let the rest come in God’s good time.
I remember a question the Superior asked me during the phone interview that preceded my being accepted into the internship program: “What do you most fear about coming to the Monastery?” My answer: “The silence.”
Silence has always been hard for me, not just because I’m an extrovert by nature, but because silence can say so many things, and trying to figure out what it is saying has made me nervous and left me feeling alone and isolated.
So, silence being a major part of life here was something it took me a while to get used to. I’ve discovered that you, in fact, learn quite a lot about people when you’re not talking to them. Reading body language is hard for me, but big gestures and facial expressions – when I’m close enough to see them – are things I’ve gotten a little better about interpreting.
I’ve also noticed that, at least for me, silence is what I make of it. Since I can’t with certainty tell what one particular silence means, I can decide how I feel about it. Do I feel left out, or do I take the silence as an opportunity to think through some things that have been bouncing around? Or do I simply just be? It’s amazing the freedom that silence gives you: It’s all in what you make of it.
The attempt to simply “be” is something that came up in my very first session of spiritual direction back in September, and which has stayed with me the entire time I’ve been here. I think it’s one of the things I’m packing in my bag to take home with me. “Don’t do anything. Just sit there.” Whoa. Now, that was counter to almost everything I’d heard my entire life.
Over the past few months I’ve also learned that simply “sitting there,” simply being for a time, does not mean ignoring my responsibilities. Rather it means that when I’ve completed everything that is required of me, I shouldn’t just find things to do to fill the silent and/or boring spaces. Instead, embrace them, sit with them. I’ve come to call these times “the time when I hang out with Jesus.” I’ve also learned that, during these times, I don’t have to have an agenda, I don’t have to know what I’m going to say, I don’t have to say anything, I can just sit. Distraction characterized that space for me for a long time, and even still I find my mind wandering at times, but I’m getting more confident in my ability to bring myself back.
And sometimes, when distraction comes, I’ll offer up a prayer, “So, there’s obviously something I’m worried about, would you help me work on that, even though I don’t know what it is?” See, I’ve also discovered that I don’t have to be so preoccupied about praying the “right” way or using a particular method. Sometimes just sharing a jumble of confused emotions feels as valid to me as a well-thought-out prayer, and probably more honest.
I know I’ve unpacked some bags and worked them through while I’ve been here. And I’m packing up some things to take away with me. I’m not sure if I’m taking more or less away, but for me it doesn’t matter; it’s leaving myself open to this experience that’s been most important.
My internship with SSJE at Emery House has been an unparalleled experience – life-enriching to say the least. Amidst the quiet offered by the beautiful grounds of Emery House and the wisdom circulating among all of the Brothers, I have caught a glimpse of what it means when people use the phrase, “find yourself.” I recently reflected to a friend this very idea, telling her that I think that phrase is misleading: You hear about people going off to foreign lands to “find themselves,” as if they are going geocaching and the person they are to be will be waiting at some coordinate, or received like a nicely packaged parcel. But what I have found here, in the balanced flow of monastic life, is that every day when you wake up you are finding yourself, and you have to look. It’s hard work. I have found I constantly have to remind myself that I have to fight for who I truly am. This place has been host to a me I’ve never known before.
When I signed on for this internship I came with the intention of learning about both agriculture and a new form of Christianity that I had never been exposed to before. I had no idea that I would learn so much about myself. At such a vital time in my life – having just graduated college and frankly having no idea what the next step would be – I couldn’t have come to a more suitable place. Spending nine months at one of the most beautiful sites I’ve had the honor of being invited to, among some of the wisest souls I’ve met, following the most balanced routine I’ve ever had, completely shifted my mode of thought and planning. It has made me stop and pay attention. Before, while my intentions were in a good place, my priorities and methods of discernment were anything but sustainable. In fact, I had no idea what the word “discernment” even meant, much less how to go about doing such a thing. I just thought, “Well I have an education which has put me in debt so now I have to make some money. Uh, how do I do that?” Well, I have learned in my time here a wholistic approach to such a question, one that encompasses attentiveness to my own needs, desires, and ambitions, in the context of a realistic and meaningful life. Though my position as intern is only temporary, the bonds I have built here are never ending. This place and the people I have met will occupy a permanent spot in my heart.
If “do this in remembrance of me” is the most obeyed “commandment,” as Dom Gregory Dix once said, a close second is “sing to the Lord a new song.” And the Hymnal 1982, used in most Episcopal churches (and at least one Roman Catholic monastery), is a good place to start to get a sense of the sheer quantity and scope of music composed for the Eucharist.
A quick scan of the footnotes of the 300s section of the Hymnal – and the Eucharist section of the Service Music – is both international tour and time travel. Music and texts from nearly every century from the start of it all, and an astonishingly broad geographical spread: England, France, Greece, United States, Wales, Italy, Germany, Syria, Ireland, Slovakia, China, Canada, Austria, Russia and Spain. The Hymnal generally, not to mention the various supplements, adds yet further richness to the treasury: Scotland, the Netherlands, Bohemia, Finland, Ghana, Ukraine, Sweden, and more.
And, of course, within each of the various national treasuries of music there are tremendous varieties of styles and ethnicities. “American,” for example, includes Native American, African- American, and a multiplicity of other immigrant sources: Puritan, Shaker, Moravian, Scandinavian, etc. We also have music and texts from the Jewish traditions.
What we find in our own hymnal and supplements is, of course, but a fraction (if a good cross section) of the music written for the Eucharist, globally speaking. It is probably fair to say that more music has been written (and improvised or passed down orally) for the Eucharist than for any other single human “happening.” No other thing that human beings do has been the inspiration for so much musical art. And speaking of “art,” we remember also the masses and Eucharistic music of the great composers: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Faure, Verdi, Durufle, Messiaen, and many others. Much of this music is heard more in concerts than in liturgies, yet the source of the inspiration is the Eucharist. Music for the Eucharist, extending back over a thousand years, is at the heart of the vast treasury of Western music.
The very heart of the Christian message is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; the Eucharist is its sacramental continuation. The message is a fire with the power to leap across every fence, every boundary of geography, language, and ethnicity. We can’t “time travel” to the future, but one thing we can bet on: Yet more new songs will be sung to the Lord. In the meantime we can sing our songs, and not ours only, but the songs of the whole world. And so we find our unity in Christ erupting in song.
Your life will be transformed if you awaken to each new day as a gift, rather than as a given. The new day is not an accident. The new day is teeming with the signs and sustenance of God’s presence, and promise, and provision. You may have only as much as one more day to know God, to love God, and to serve God, which Saint Ignatius of Loyola defines as the “Foundation and First Principle” of the reflective Christian life in his Spiritual Exercises. Don’t miss a moment of it. First and foremost, we are a human being before we are a human doing. Before you set off doing all that needs to get done in the day, make sure you have the right posture. Get your bearings; find your center; remind yourself how to be. How do you wish to be? The answer I would give is: Be grateful. Don’t miss the opportunity to pray and savor your gratitude for what is so clearly good in life. Start now and start small. If you awakened this morning to your alarm clock, be thankful that you can hear, that you have eye- and hand-coordination to reach out. If you arose from your bed without assistance, be thankful. If fresh, potable water is available, be thankful. If you can look outside your window, whether you see sunshine or rain, beauty or sadness, be thankful for the miracle of your eyesight. If you can sit upright in a chair without having to be strapped in, be thankful. If you can drink a cup of tea using your own hand, be thankful. If you are continent, be thankful. If you can breathe without mechanical assistance, be thankful. This could be a way of your “praying without ceasing.”
We celebrate the Holy Eucharist as a living reminder and template of how to live our lives all the time: eucharistically. The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek, meaning “great thanksgiving.” It’s not that we live very ordinary, horizontal lives, and then have these special liturgical occasions to create a “spiritual moment,” a fleeting, transcendent experience of God, to then return to our ordinariness. When we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we are reminded of the real presence of Christ, who is really present in the ordinary present. For us to stay in touch with the presence that is present requires practice. For this practice we don’t need a special cushion on which to sit, nor a special lamp to light, nor a special icon on which to gaze, nor special incense to smell, nor special prayer beads to finger, nor a special prayer or mantra to recite. None of that is in any way bad or inappropriate. It may well help. It is simply not enough. What is enough is here and now. The Psalmist reminds us, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118: 24). Gratitude consecrates our life and labor and makes us real, and makes us really present to the real presence of Christ who is at work within us and around us now.
Say “Yes” to the life you’ve been given, to the hand you’ve been dealt. Many people wake up to discover that the script they’ve been handed in the play of life is not the part they thought they were trying out for. To live in gratitude is to accept how little of life is actually within our own control. This is an acknowledgment that God will be God, that it is God’s world on God’s time, and that we are God’s creatures, alive according to God’s good pleasure. God operates; we co-operate. Living a yes is to accept the good gifts of life that actually are there, free of resentment for what is not there, or no longer there.
Practicing gratitude will not take away the many challenges and suffering you face in life. But claiming the weight of gratitude for the wonder of living will re-balance the scale of your life. Practicing gratitude will put your life’s very real difficulties in a new light. Even in the most sorry times of life, claiming, clinging to what abides that is still so amazingly good, will put a lilt to your gait, encouragement to your heart, light to your countenance. Truly.
How to Live Gratefully –
Savor your life.
Take time to remember and reclaim what is so amazingly good in your life. Consider this: At the conclusion of a recital, or concert, or play, the audience typically applauds, sometime with great enthusiasm and bravos. Why? It’s not that the playbill either designates or requires this response from the audience. Nor is the applause primarily an act of courtesy toward the performers. Rather, the audience needs to express their gratitude because the experience would otherwise be incomplete. And so for you, personally. Complete the daily chapters of your life by remembering and appreciating what has been so very good.
Express your gratitude.
Expressing your gratitude to another person is a transformative experience, for the speaker and hearer alike. People are so easily taken for granted. Whether they be people whose labor is menial or whose labor is in leadership, people are so easily taken for granted. You change their day, perhaps change their life, by expressing your gratitude for who they are and what they do. Thanking people is a eucharistic action, and it is as transformative as the prayer of thanksgiving we pray over bread and wine at the altar.
Pray your gratitude.
We have been created in the image of God. God longs to be thanked at least as much as we do. The Psalmist asks rhetorically, “How shall I repay the LORD for all the good things he has done for me?” (Ps 116:10). Start with gratitude. Express your life’s gratitude to God. Before you ask God for anything, say thank you.
Keep your ears open.
People will want to thank you. Let them. They need to speak their gratitude; you need to hear it. Respond to them, “You are welcome,” and say it from the bottom of your heart. And keep your ears open to hear God’s gratitude for you. There is no one else like you, God knows. You are the apple of God’s eye. You make God’s day. God cannot get enough of you, and has made plans to share eternity with you.
“Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” – Colossians 3:14-15
“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1943-45)
Life has become rich for us Brothers at SSJE. We are mindful, more than ever now, of how much we have received from our supporters and benefactors and, by your hands, from God, who has inspired your generosity to us. In particular we are grateful for:
Our renovated Monastery. It was only a few years ago that we were wondering if we would be able to stay in this beautiful Monastery, which was desperately in need of costly renovations. The generosity of our Friends and benefactors (including so many members of the Fellowship of Saint John) has enabled us to remain in this sacred place, so ideally situated for the type of ministry we do and so hallowed by the prayers of many Brothers and countless guests and visitors over the years.
Our employees and volunteers. We simply could not provide the ministry we do without the help of our very creative and dedicated staff, and scores of others who advise us or contribute in other ways to our life and work. We are acutely aware of being part of the Body of Christ, with its many parts all working together.
Our postulants and interns. In our Rule of Life we say, “New members bring with them the promise of new life for our brotherhood.” New life has come to us in the persons of our five interns this year and in the four new men who have entered the Community since January. They have enriched our common life by their energy, enthusiasm, and good cheer, and by the many gifts they bring.
Yes, life has become rich for us Brothers at SSJE. Our hearts are overflowing with gratitude. As Christians we try to express our gratitude to God primarily in two ways: in our worship and in loving service. Worship is the foundation of our common life. We gather in the Chapel several times each day to offer our praise and thanksgiving and to pray for the needs of the Church and the world. We also celebrate the Holy Eucharist – that “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” which the Book of Common Prayer reminds us is “the principal act of Christian worship” – six days a week. “Eucharist” means “to give thanks.” The chief end of our worship, then, is to express our gratitude to God – in words and in music and in movement.
Gratitude is also the reason for a life of service. With the Psalmist we ask, “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?” This is our answer: Let me serve God by serving others; let me give what I have received.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk of the last century, once wrote:
“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace ….
Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to the praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference …. We live in constant dependence upon this merciful kindness of the Father and thus our whole life is a life of gratitude – a constant response to His help which comes to us at every moment.”
“Our whole life is a life of gratitude,” said Merton. If this is true, how can we cultivate a spirit of gratitude? Here are some suggestions:
• By deepening our awareness of the beauty and grace already present in our daily lives.
• By noticing acts of kindness and compassion.
• By leaving judgment to God.
• By keeping alive our sense of wonder at the world and its inhabitants.
• By looking for signs of God’s presence and activity in our own lives and in the lives of others.
• By recalling what we owe others.
• By listening, watching, expectantly.
• By praying the “General Thanksgiving” every day (Book of Common Prayer, p.101).
There are many paths that lead to gratitude, and to God.
I came across a story recently about a woman Zen master named Sono who taught one very simple method of enlightenment. She advised everyone who came to her to adopt an affirmation to be said many times a day, under all conditions. The affirmation was, “Thank you for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.”
According to the story, many people from all arenas of life came to Sono for healing. Some were in physical pain, others were emotionally distraught, others had financial troubles, some were seeking the liberation of their souls. No matter what their distress or what question they asked her, her response was always the same: “Thank you for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.” Some people went away disappointed, others grew angry, others tried to argue with her. Yet some people took her suggestion to heart and began to practice it. Tradition tells us that everyone who practiced Sono’s mantra found peace and healing. (The story comes from an essay by Alan Cohen.)
Sono knew the way to profound peace and joy was through gratitude. Hers is a practice you might adopt for a day, for a week or for a lifetime. Notice the changes that come as we become aware of gratitude, the realization that we have been given a gift. Truly, life becomes rich.
“The man and his wife heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” – Genesis 3:
Soon after the Monastery’s renovation began in July 2010, it became obvious that there wasn’t going to be much left of the old Cloister garden. With changes in shade patterns from the large plane trees along Memorial Drive, the garden already had been in a state of decline. Then, since the Monastery sits on a relatively small plot of land, the old garden soon became a staging area for the project. Scaffolding, electrical conduit, heating and ventilation piping, copper plumbing pipe, plywood, drywall, granite blocks, brick, mechanical and tool storage cabinets all had a presence at one point or another. There was lots of foot traffic from contractors, laborers, electrician, plumbers, HVAC installers. In short, the garden was no longer a garden.
When I was about fifteen, somebody I knew mentioned that they wanted to be a monk, and I remember how – though I didn’t even go to church at that time – something about that struck me very deeply. Something inside me said, “That’s what I want to be.” I didn’t really even know what a monk was, but I had this extraordinary sensation that that is what I wanted to be.
I’ve come to realize that vocation is not something God suddenly presents you with, or ‘zaps’ you with, but is rather that which lies at the deepest core of your identity. And there are moments in life when something touches that core, and it resonates. It can happen almost unconsciously. When I heard that person say they wanted to be a monk, I didn’t know much about monks, but something told me, “Oh, that’s what I want to be.”
Q: What did you do with that impulse?
Nothing. After the impulse came, I forgot all about it. The time wasn’t right then; it was just an intimation of something that would bear fruit much later in my life. I didn’t even remember the experience until much later.
As I got older, I had a profound experience of religious awakening, and soon after that a very strong sense of vocation to be a priest. I remember spending an entire night in prayer, as it were, wrestling with God, and saying “I don’t want to be a priest, this is ridiculous.” But by the morning I had said “Yes” to God, and I went to talk that same day to a vocations director about ordination.
As all of this was going on, I started reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, and Saint Augustine’s Confessions, and I slowly became aware that my deepest desire in life was to deepen my relationship with God. As that relationship deepened, and as I began to read monastic literature, this core of my being was touched again, in a profound way, and I sensed a real thirst to become a monk. I tried to put it out of my mind, and I remember telling God, “No, I’m not going to do that, but I will be a priest.” Yet I began to visit monasteries, particularly in France and Belgium, and I felt drawn to one Benedictine monastery in Belgium, called Chevetogne. A few years after I was ordained a priest, I went there to test my vocation and spent a year as a novice.
Q: So how did you end up coming to the Monastery?
After I left Chevetogne, I spent many years working as a parish priest. When I thought about the religious life, I told myself that I had tried it and it hadn’t worked. In fact, I remember saying to God. “Well, can you leave me alone now?” In many ways, I thought that it was over, that I must not in fact have a vocation to be a monk. While I still occasionally went on retreats, for many years I really tried not to think about the monastic life, because it was unsettling to me.
Then, in 1997, I decided to visit a friend in Washington D.C. and to make a trip down the East Coast. Someone said to me, “Why don’t you stay at the Monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge – it would be an interesting place to visit.” So I went on this trip to America, and came to the Monastery. I went into the Chapel on the day of my arrival, for Evening Prayer, and to my amazement I had a powerful experience of ‘coming home.’ I just knew that this was it. The deepest part of my being had been touched again, but in a really important and decisive way. But I remember thinking to myself, “How can I be home? I’m thousand of miles from home, in a strange country.” And yet it was absolutely clear to me that, somehow, this Monastery was the place I had been looking for. I’d never known it existed and now I was in it, and I thought to myself: “I have come home.”
There’s a real particularity to being called to the monastic life: You’re never just called to be a monk, but you’re called to be a monk in a particular monastic family. So while I’d visited many monastic communities, in England and Europe, some really lovely communities, I didn’t feel that I was called to any of them. Then when I came to SSJE, I knew that this was the family that I was called to join.
Q: What was the time like between that moment of clarity and coming to the Monastery as a postulant?
I went back to England and began to think that all of this was impossible. How could I leave my country, my family, my job, to go and live thousands of miles away? Moreover, I was actually very happy as a parish priest. I was enjoying my life. In retrospect I think that it’s much better to test a monastic vocation from a place where you have a genuine choice, a place where you’re choosing to test this vocation even though you are happy in your life and work. I think God honors that sort of choice. So while I loved my life as a parish priest, I also knew that, at the Monastery, my deepest core had been touched. And the time was right; I was mature enough to make this step.
Timing is very important in voca vocation. I often tell people who are interested in the monastic life that vocation is like a fruit on the tree. You don’t want to pluck it too soon, but you don’t want to leave it too late. You need to know the time to pluck it. Knowing the right time is a matter of prayerful discernment, of patiently and slowly developing your relationship with God, so that you can hear God prompting you when the time is right. And sometimes that takes a long time, since it happens in God’s time. We often can be very impatient, but God has lots of time.
Q: Once you got to the Monastery, did you ever struggle in accepting your vocation?
Some of my early challenges had to do with living in a foreign country. I had assumed that because English is spoken here and in England, it would be easy to adapt. But it was quite challenging really, and I got very, very homesick.
And then, the experience of monastic formation itself is very challenging. It asks you, in many ways, to lay down your life. While there’s the promise of receiving it back in a new way from God, it is a painful challenge. As a novice, I struggled every day. It was very difficult, and I often wanted to leave, to be honest. But that struggle taught me to live day-by-day, to take each day at a time, and to say “Yes” to God for that single day. It’s not helpful to be constantly asking yourself, “Can I do this for the rest of my life?” During the time of formation, you learn that you’re only called to say “Yes” to God for today.
Q: Do you think everyone has a deep purpose, something that they were made to do?
I think each of us is unique and created by God for a particular purpose. Each of us has a vocation in life, and we so often know that we’ve discovered it when we experience that feeling of ‘coming alive.’ As Thomas Merton describes it, there are these embers of vocation inside each of us. Occasionally, when we brush up against that purpose for which we were created, those embers are fanned and burst into flame. We have the experience of being fully alive. When I got to this Monastery, I felt an incredible sense that this is what I was made to do in life; that this is who God made me to be; that this is where God was calling me to be. I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful than to spend all my days worshipping and deepening my relationship with God in this place.
Q: What advice you would give to someone who was trying to discover his or her vocation?
Don’t be anxious: God never stops calling us. Stick to your prayers and stick to your ideals. God never gives up on us and God never stops loving us, really.
Sometimes we experience vocation as disturbing us. You know, my experience of coming here to SSJE was like an experience of falling in love, and like falling in love, vocation is not always very convenient! I had to uproot everything. But God loves us too much not to disturb us. God wants us to dive down deeply into life, so that we experience life profoundly and abundantly.
God loves us too much to allow us to live our lives in the shallows. In fact, there are some words about this which are very precious to me, and which actually made me come here to the Monastery when I’d all but given up on becoming a monk. The words were given to me by a wonderful nun I used to visit in Oxford. I was telling her about my struggles, and she sent me a card with these lines from Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows . . . .
The lines are about the importance of catching the tide. You have to go now, because if not, you’ll miss the chance and risk spending the rest of your life in the shallows. That’s what propelled me here: I read those lines and thought to myself, “If I don’t do it now, then I’m never going to do it.” My fear of coming here was very real; I was quite frightened. But I was more frightened of not coming, of missing my life, of living the rest of my life in the shallows. I really did have this sense that if I didn’t do this now I was going to miss living my life to the full. It felt like a real question of life and death, a divine imperative: “I must go. I have to do this. This is my vocation. It is most deeply who I am.”
God Shows Up
I’ll spare you the hilarious picture of me arriving for my recent four-day retreat at SSJE with a duffel bag packed with six shirts, three pair of pants, three sweaters, multiple pairs of shoes, and a knapsack stuffed with a computer, two theology books, a thick volume of poetry and a journal. (I was confident they’d have a Bible and BCP.) Did I think that I would change my clothes for each Office?
Or spend all four days reading? Had I planned on writing some great sequel to the Dark Night of the Soul?
I’ll spare you the details of the gyrations of my mind – you know, the wildly spinning thoughts that usually come with too much coffee, but in this case, are induced by the closing off of usual stimuli – people, books, music, TV, internet, work – and the introduction of something novel: silence, simplicity, space to breathe.
I’ll spare you these details because if you’ve ever been on retreat, you might understand. And if you think that someday you might want to go on retreat, I wouldn’t want to frighten you off with my clumsy attempts at the spiritual life that feel, most days, more like wet corduroy chafing between my chubby thighs than golden silk, skimming over a lithe body.
God shows up. In fact, God – it seems – is there the whole while. And God is about as beautiful and sly as a chameleon that changes color in order to be camouflaged.
God is in the gentle gaze and smile of recognition from an old monk who, years ago, heard your first confession (and offered absolution, than God).
God is in the firm and funny words of the preacher who reminds us of the words of the desert father who said, “Your cell will teach you everything. Now go there and shut up.”
God is in the silence of the room and in the rushing traffic bearing commuters on Memorial Drive – the world moves so quickly!
God is in the glint of the early morning sun on the Charles and in the taut muscles of the crew team, pulling their oars in shells that glide across the water. They make it look so easy.
God is in the fragrant and generous bowls of couscous and the miso soup and the vegetable curry and in the date nut bread spread thickly with real butter.
And God is in the worship – perfumed with incense, strung together with the liquid chants of ancient times, populated by the faithful, and a delight for the eye in stained glass, swirls of marble and soft brown wooden stalls. Yes, God’s in the Communion Bread and the Cup, too. But we already knew that.
So, I’ll spare you the details, but assure you: God is alive and well in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I’ve been praying for some time over words of our founder, Richard Meux Benson: “If only we can show people that we are living upon a truth and loving it, they will soon catch the life.” ‘They will soon catch the life.’ Life is something that we have been experiencing here at the Monastery in new and wonderful ways. This Easter has been so full of new life for us, and it’s been mirrored in the trees, which have been in flower for such a long a time here in Massachusetts. In the same way, I feel that we are in a season now, in our Community, full of new life and hope. Our world is really flowering.