It was November 2011 when I began to plan my suicide.
No particular event prompted it. My grandmother had recently died, which was sad, but not unexpected, and she had lived a long life. I had, just a few weeks prior, lost a local election, but I never really expected to win; I was thrilled that I simply hadn’t come in last place, that I’d convinced thousands of real-life people with jobs and lives to vote for me. To be honest, the personal and professional busyness was probably a distraction from the deeper problem.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety (like many of us), and I took pills, and they worked well, and I basically agree with the diagnosis. But leaving it there doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel true to what I lived. I certainly experienced depression and anxiety to a degree that would register on a clinical level, but I do not think that’s the full story. I’m convinced that these were the psychological damages wrought by a deeper, fundamental problem.
If you’ve been around children for more than about five minutes, I’m sure you’ve gotten frustrated. They interrupt and question when you just want to have a nice conversation. They run ahead, or behind, or zigzag, or sit down when you just want to have a nice walk. Think about that behavior. Now imagine yourself doing it. Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you think about what other people may think about your doing or asking? Name that uncomfortable emotion. Is it embarrassment or, perhaps, shame?
The word in our Gospel reading translated as “persistence” literally means “shamelessness.” Your friend knocks at the door late at night, and knocks, and keeps knocking, without regard for what you think about him. He needs something. Like a child, he is unashamed of his need, unashamed to ask, unashamed to persist.
Children appear in both our readings this morning, and imagining a particularly shameless child helps us to understand not only what it means to persist in prayer, as Jesus exhorts us, but to persevere in a relationship with God. God, Malachi tells us, will have compassion on those who serve God, as parents have compassion on “children who serve them” (Mal 3:17). I imagine this group not just as obedient children, but as shameless children, unembarrassed to revere God, unconcerned by what others, who see no profit in serving God, may think about them. This is the shamelessness of the psalmist, who persists in giving thanks to God despite those who mock him. This is the shamelessness of Saint Paul, who is unashamed of the Gospel (Rom 1:16).
This is difficult. We face enormous personal and social pressures to care about what others think, to conform, to grow up. But when we apply this to God, how easily we complicate our relationship with God. What childlike shamelessness gives us, I think, is single-minded freedom. Think back to that child. How would she express her need, how would she pray, how would she relate to God? Where do you feel resistance in doing likewise? What would it take for you to turn to God like her—unencumbered, unembarrassed, unashamed? Ask Jesus to give you that freedom—the freedom to ask, to search, to knock . . . the freedom to be shameless.
Season of Creation
This morning we begin a 5-part Sunday morning sermon series on the Season of Creation. This “Creation” focus for our preaching and prayers is going on with other Christians throughout the world, across the denominational spectrum. In the upcoming four Sundays, the preachers here at the monastery will focus on themes related to “Creation”: to Learn, to Act, to Advocate, to Bless, and, beginning this morning, to Pray.
Emery House, our rural monastery in West Newbury, Massachusetts, is bordered by the Merrimack River, and so a story about the Merrimack, told by Henry David Thoreau, is particularly endearing. In the first two weeks of September 1839, Thoreau set off on a homemade wooden boat with his older brother, John, to explore the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[i] Later, while living in his sparse cabin at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote about this river experience, his first book. The writing project took him 10 years, not because of the length of the book, but because of the depth of his grief. After the river trek, Henry’s beloved brother, John, had cut himself while shaving and contracted tetanus, dying in agony the following week. John was 28; Henry, 25. In his grief, Henry was destroyed… almost.
Henry David Thoreau’s healing, his resuscitation, came at Walden Pond as he intently watched the goings on of flowers and trees, of birds and animals. Observing the natural wonders, he slowly realized that death is not the end of life but rather an intrinsic part of life. He learned from observation that the very process of decay, diminishment, and death is a life process. It is the way that God has created all of the earth, from the life of the tiniest bird and flower to humankind. Thoreau wrote in his Journal, “Do not the flowers die every autumn? …Yet death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident. [Death] is as common as life. Every blade in the field, every leaf in the forest, lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.”[ii]
Two realizations had happened in Thoreau: in his mind and in his heart. In his mind, he came to embrace a “disindividualized” view of life. Thoreau writes, “The individual may die, but the materials that make up the individual do not. They are subsumed into new forms and so live on,” true for every living thing that has ever been created.[iii] And emotionally, Thoreau’s grief in his brother’s death never went away; however his grief came to be companioned by gratitude and wonder. Thoreau’s love for his brother, John, his joy in the life together they had shared, and his many memories had not died. They actually took new form and lived on. Thoreau realized that death is not the end of life but, rather an essential part of life, by God’s design, and this is something we share with everything and with everyone and for all time. Thoreau said that, in a certain sense, there is no death; everything is part and parcel of life. Thoreau’s epiphany brought to my mind what we pray at a funeral, that at death, the life of this departed one “is changed, not ended.”[iv]
So we look to the whole of creation as if it were an icon, a window through which to know God on God’s terms:
- the window of creation opening our eyes to the majestic beauty of God;
- the window of creation opening our eyes to the panoply of the diversity which God creates, multiplies, shares, and invites; in the beginning, God’s creation teems with beauty and diversity, and God said, “it is good”;[v]
- the window of creation – what is the most massive and mighty, and what is the most tiny and delicate – with a lifespan the prepares and provides for what is next. This is why we call it “the created order.” We read in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…”[vi]
We have an invitation and an inspiration for our prayer as we learn from God’s creation that surrounds us and fills us.
- Be still enough, focused enough, close enough to notice, expectant enough to notice the majesty and terminality of creation. You might ask, “Notice what?” To which I would only smile.
- The autumn season is upon us. The colors and fragrances of plants, and flowers, and trees are changing, preparing the way for the next season. Outside in front of the monastery, the sycamores, these elephantine trees soaring into the sky, have decided this is a year to divest their bark, their old bark. Behold, a fresh skin of bark is awaiting. Very soon these great soaring trees will also surrender their leaves… which leave space for new life to emerge in the spring. In our Rule of Life, we write how the autumn of life prepares the way: “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death.”[vii] Is death an end in itself? Not at all. Death is part of life; death is the portal to the new life that Jesus promises us.[viii]
- See how the creation that surrounds us does not clutch at its life, but rather lives and gives its life. Letting go is an important life practice. I love an ancient word in the church’s vocabulary: oblation, from the Latin meaning an offering, a gift. We live the gift of our lives as an oblation, offering our lives back to God the custody God has temporarily entrusted to us.
We notice, we acquiesce, we participate most fully in life when we live with the terms by which God has created all of life, which is terminal. All of creation is a teacher for our prayer.
We also have an invitation to pray for the creation that surrounds us. So much of creation does not advocate well for itself when faced with human intrusion. One word captures how I, personally, pray for plants and animals, for birds and fish, mountains and meadows. My own prayer word is “channeling.” I pray that I can channel light; I pray that I can channel fresh water; I pray that I can channel the needed nourishment; I pray that I can channel a fresh breeze. I sometimes pray I can channel CO2 to some poor plant. I am placing myself with one hand pointing to the heavens, and the other hand channeling some life I sense this creature, this created thing, needs. I pray, co-operating with the Creator. I pray I can be a conduit of God’s life to this creature in need. If you were to ask me, “So does your channeling prayer do any good?” I would say, “Absolutely!” “Yes, I am quite sure.”
So this is free-form prayer, what captures my heart’s attention in the moment. And yet there are some specific creatures – by creatures I mean plants and animals, trees and meadows, mountains and waterways – some specific creatures that have a particular, ongoing claim on my heart’s attention. Maybe you, also? To what in creation are you drawn to give attention in your prayer? How do you pray to be a channel of God’s light, and life, and love to this creature? How are you drawn to pray? You might not be ready to publish, but I imagine you do have some prayer practice for creation. What is it?
For almost 20 years I have been fascinated with the work of Johannes Fritz, an Austrian biologist, who has devoted his life to saving an endangered bird species, the northern bald ibis. The ibis is a goose-sized black bird with a bald head and an enormous beak. Perhaps you’ve read about Dr. Fritz who feeds and cuddles the baby ibises and then, using his ultralight aircraft, he leads them in flight to a new safer winter migration path that bypasses the Alps. Global warming figures into the urgency of his work. Dr. Fritz has rewilded more about 300 of these ibises. It’s his life’s work. I mention this particular legacy as an amazing example of passion and advocacy. His passion is what I am talking about when I speak of praying for whatever in creation has captured your heart’s attention. Pray as an intermediary. Be like a third point in a triangle, whose two other points are God and the creature that has caught your heart’s attention. Pray your intercession, and then channel the power or provision for what God gives you for this fellow creature. Pray. Do pray.
In our lesson from the Letter to the Romans, we hear Saint Paul say, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…”[ix] Creation is waiting for us to do our own part in the company of fellow creatures.
“i thank You God for most this amazing day, the words of E. E. Cummings:
“i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes….”[x]
[i] Henry David Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849.
[ii] From October 1837 to November 1861, Thoreau kept a handwritten Journal. Thoreau’s Walden was first published in 1854.
[iii] Three Roads Back; How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives, by Robert D. Richardson (Princeton Univ. Press, 2023), pp. 53-54.
[iv] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 382.
[v] Genesis 1 – 2:3.
[vi] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.
[vii] Quoted from SSJE’s The Rule of Life (Cowley, 1997), chapter 48: “Holy Death.”
[viii] John 14:3-10.
[ix] Romans 8:19.
[x] E. E. Cummings (1894-1962):
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
A juggler enters a monastery. He soon discovers that, unlike the other monks, he’s not good at typical monkish things: he can’t cook, he can’t sing, he has terrible handwriting. The only thing he can do is juggle, and what use is that? In despair, he goes one night to a statue of the Virgin Mary . . . and juggles—offering to her, as his prayer, the only thing he has.
The medieval French tale of the “Juggler of Our Lady” imparts a familiar lesson: God gives us gifts that God wants us to use and to offer back in prayer and worship. Our reading from Leviticus this morning gets at something similar: “When you enter the land I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest” (Lev 23:10). This section of the reading is from the oldest layer of this passage, and significantly is directed not at the collective, or to priests, but to the individual farmer. “I have given you, as a gift, this land—you shall give me, as a gift, the fruits of that land.”
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
As many of you know, when a man comes to join the monastery, he passes through a number of stages before finally taking vows for life. Before each of these transitions, he’s given some time of retreat, alone in prayer, to really listen for the call of God, to discern, to confirm his response the question and the choice he has before him.
It was a little more than a year ago when I was on one of these retreats, looking ahead to taking my life vows. I was up at Emery House, our farmhouse and woodlands up in northern Massachusetts. There were a number of things I did up there to facilitate my prayer. I prayed the daily office. I journaled. I met regularly with another brother. But what I didn’t plan to do, or expect to do, was what I still remember most about that time.
It may come as a surprise to many that Jesus was not successful, at least in the ways in which we are inclined to measure “success.” He was a wise teacher and a miracle-worker, and at times he drew large crowds. But he also encountered opposition, right from the very start of his ministry, and from the most religious people of his day. Most people were simply indifferent. When the crowds realized that he wasn’t what they expected him to be, and that he wouldn’t do what they expected or hoped he would do, they turned away. And not all who were attracted by his clever stories and powerful deeds became faithful followers. Even his closest, most trusted friends often disappointed him, and abandoned him when times got tough. He died alone, except for a few faithful women who stayed to the end.
In today’s gospel, we get a glimpse of the frustration he felt from time to time when he encountered the indifference of the crowds and the opposition of religious leaders. “To what will I compare this generation?” Jesus asks. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
It can be difficult to rightly interpret a text when we’re given just a snippet of it, as we are in today’s gospel reading. To better understand it, we need to see it in its broader context.
These verses are part of Jesus’ farewell discourse, given to his disciples after the Last Supper and before his betrayal and trial. He has told them that “in a little while” they will not see him and “in a little while” they will see him again. Naturally, the disciples are confused about what this could mean and struggle to grasp the reality that he is about to leave them.
It is unclear, too, what John is referring to when he records these words of Jesus that he will go away and then come again. Does this refer to Jesus dying and then being raised? Does it refer to his ascension into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit (a major theme in the farewell discourse)? Does it refer to Jesus coming again in glory at the end of time? We’re not sure. It may refer to all three. John is used to speaking to his readers on different levels, so he could have all three of these possibilities in mind.
Notice that there is a kind of apocalyptic reversal here: when he goes away, Jesus says, his disciples will “weep and mourn” but the world – i.e. Jesus’ enemies – “will rejoice” (16:20). It will seem for a time as if Jesus’ enemies have prevailed, but then, Jesus promises them, “Your pain will turn into joy.” He likens it to childbirth, noting that a woman in labor has pain, “but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (16:21). In the same way, says Jesus, “you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22).
Saint Monica, Mother of Augustine of Hippo
1 Samuel 1:10-20
In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Monica for her patience, and perseverance, and faithfulness. She was born in north Africa about year 430, and became an ardent Christian. Not so for her husband, Patricius, a Roman administrator known for his temper and infidelities, nor by their son, Augustine, who took after his father. Monica prayed and prayed for them, and a miracle happened. Shortly before his death, her husband converted to Christianity, and thereafter, the wild son, Augustine, also. Some years later, Augustine would write in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Very autobiographical.
The three lessons from the Bible appointed for today all tell stories about prayer for children. Whether or not we be parents, most likely all of us carry in our hearts people who have garnered our heart’s attention. We carry a deep concern for them, a fear for them, a hope for them, a love for them. We may pray for them, perhaps ardently, either because they have asked us to pray, or because we have been drawn to pray for them. Perhaps we pray because there is nothing else we can do. We are otherwise powerless to make a difference in their lives. So we pray.
Prayer is a mystery, a mystery that begins in God. Our prayer is always in response to God’s initiative. It is God who has caught our attention. Mysteriously, in our prayer for others, we invoke God of the heavens meanwhile being grounded in God’s love, God’s healing light, God’s presence here on earth. It is like we complete a triangle: God, our own self, these other persons for whom we pray. In my own prayer for others I often remember the image given to us by Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century abbess and mystic. Hildegard said we are like mirrors, catching God’s light and then mirroring that light onto the countenance others. Whatever prompts us to pray for others, we are always responding to God’s initiative.
Who Monica’s son, Augustine, would become held a stature far beyond all that she could have asked for or imagined, especially given what a bad, bad boy he was. Monica sets a very high ceiling for hope in how we and others can change, amazingly, miraculously for the better. So we pray our hearts out.
Blessed Monica, whom we remember today.
What’s next? Much anxiety stems from what we don’t know. Fearing uncertainty, we often grasp what we know and have. Nicodemus, a religious leader, came to Jesus sounding confident. “We know who you are.” We know what is possible and impossible. By what you’re doing, “you must be a teacher from God.” Jesus replied, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.” How is that possible? Nicodemus asked. “Can one enter the womb again?” Jesus said, “One must be born of water and spirit.” How is that possible? Nicodemus came thinking he knew what’s possible and what’s true. Nicodemus came at night, a sign that he’s in the dark, that he cannot see, and does not know.
We, too, are often in the dark, trapped, thinking we can see. We get trapped by the certainty that someone will act a particular way. We assume from experience and claim our knowledge. Perhaps you’re like me finding yourself grasping with assumptions, holding so tight that you cannot hear another possibility about that person, or about yourself, or about God. Out of anxiety we construct containers of limiting expectations. We grasp at knowing Jesus and like Thomas we want to see. We want evidence and think we know what we must have.
“Are you greater than our father Abraham?” They were confused and upset. How could those who kept Jesus’ word not see death? They clung to what they knew, to being Abraham’s children, so much that they could not see and understand Jesus who was with them.
In our own confusion and pain, it can be hard to hear, hard to see God with us. What might you be clinging to so tightly that you’re not seeing? What’s getting in the way of receiving Jesus?
Sometimes we cling to who we are or what we have: heritage, group-identity, connections. We cling to the people we love or who love us best, our meaningful relationships. We cling to comfort or privilege, standard of living, status, or success. We cling to abilities, gifts, how we serve, what we do well, including for God.