Chocolate Cake

Last year I preached a homily about a student who was burdened by her past but nervous to go to confession. The priest who was hearing the student’s confession early on a Sunday morning brought an enormous piece of chocolate cake and some ice cream to the confessional, and when things got hard for the student, he encouraged her to eat the chocolate cake. It was an extravagant, ridiculous gift that brought joy to the difficult occasion, and the chocolate cake was a reminder of God’s extravagant love and mercy.

This has been an extremely hard year for me–last year was easily the worst year of my professional life, even after the two prior years which were no picnic. The Iceland trip was more than a vacation for me; it was a time of seeing so much extravagant beauty and sharing so much good time with my family. The whole thing left me feeling better than I had before. It was graced and full of mercy.

My best moment, though, happened at a very remote hostel in East Iceland. We stayed at the beautiful hostel Havari, owned by a popular Icelandic musician who goes by the stage name Prins Polo and his artist wife.  They run the hostel and a vegan farm.  The venue includes a small restaurant and performance space.

Havari by day
The Havari Hostel in East Iceland.

They were having a “slow festival” the night we were there, and we enjoyed a nice dinner followed by a lovely acoustic concert. At the end of the concert (which was all in Icelandic), Prins Polo apparently invited everyone to a bonfire by the beach. And then, as we were leaving, he said into the mic, in English, “And we want to especially invite our guests to come down to the bonfire with us” while looking directly at us. So, we made our way down to the bonfire. How does one say no to such an invitation?

The Beach
A daytime photo of the beach where the bonfire was held.

Anyway, we got to the bonfire by walking about a half mile and across the Ring Road (route 1) at around midnight. Iceland is close to the Arctic Circle, so it was still a little bit light outside.

Ring Road at Midnight
The Ring Road, heading clockwise (more or less Southwest) in East Iceland at Midnight.

When we arrived at the rocky beach, we saw a beautiful sight: A small gathering of maybe 20 or 30 old people and young people together with children, enjoying the late evening. The kids played with the fire and the parents kept them safe without yelling or disciplining their children. Everyone was kind. We sat next to a couple who’d traveled from Reykjavik (5 hours, at least) to attend this festival because of their love for Prins Polo.

The Bonfire
Some of the attendees at the bonfire.

We were sitting down on this rocky beach with people we had never met, yet somehow I felt like we were doing something people have always done– gathering around the fire, staying safe, staying warm, telling stories, eating, enjoying the beauty of the place and the goodness of the moment. The owner of the hostel pulled some seaweed from the water, dried it by holding it over the fire, and shared it with the people near him who ate it with enthusiasm.

And then they pulled out a tray and handed it around. When it got to me, I pulled out the piece of cake that’s in the photo.

Chocolate cake. Mercy. I came back to that old story and that homily, and I thought of God’s healing, extravagant love.

Here’s my piece of cake as it came out of the pan. No, I didn’t make it into that heart shape, nor can I imagine God being so heavy-handed that he’d do something so cheesy. But, I mean, maybe I needed something that cheesy at that moment, and maybe God gritted his teeth a little and provided.

Chocolate Cake

To My Brothers in the Catholic Clergy

Dear fellow Catholic clergy,
If you’re not shaking with rage right now, you are not my friend. That said, this will probably make some of you angry with me, but maybe not.  Maybe you’re all as angry as I am.  Or maybe you’ll disagree with my suggestions, which is fine.  This is one deacon’s effort to channel his intense heartbreak into something useful.  If I am wrong, testify to the wrong.
The present situation is intolerable. The one-two punch of McCarrick and the Grand Jury report should have each of us repenting and calling for serious change and action. Our credibility in the eyes of the people, already damaged from the crisis of 2002,  is once again in the toilet.  The long, hard work of building trust and community in the Church is once again in the toilet.
What should we do? I think we should be calling for at least the following:
1. We need to call on every single Bishop in the United States — and probably worldwide– to push for a thorough, honest, and unsparing INDEPENDENT investigation to find out who knew what and when regarding McCarrick and the people who sheltered him and his ilk. THIS IS PART OF WHAT IT MEANS TO LET THE HOLY SPIRIT GUIDE US TO THE TRUTH.
2. We need resignations, sack cloth and ashes. NOW. I don’t know how I encourage any victim to believe that we’re serious if the guilty are not brought to justice.
3. We similarly need an independent, national report that looks at sexual malfeasance and coverups of both child and adult victims. The John Jay report was helpful but obviously inadequate.  Furthermore, it should be THE BISHOPS asking for this. Why? To prove that they have decided to be like the Jesus they claim to follow, they need to be definitively on the side of the suffering. And they–and we– need to be full of righteous contempt for ANY religious leaders who would abuse and mistreat God’s people.
4. We need to be on the side of those who would extend or eliminate the statute of limitations for cases of the sexual abuse or assault of a minor.
5. We need more than “prayers and sympathy.” We need public repentance. We need to cut the sanctimony until we actually have our house in order. We need to be sponsoring events, prayers and rituals, and other services for anyone who’s been sexually assaulted and abused. We need to communicate in word, deed, and expenditures that victims and survivors are beloved by God. We clergy need to sit in the back and listen and weep and just say I’m sorry over and over again. We need to act like victims and survivors are the Church, not like they are our enemies.
6. We need to stop patting ourselves on the back for the Charter for the Protection of Children and Virtus and we should never mention it when addressing victims and survivors by way of justifying ourselves.  It’s true that a lot of good work has been done, but it is not all that God is calling us to do.
7.  Whatever a person thinks he is saving or protecting by participating in the coverup, it is not Christ’s Church.  Christ’s Church is a place for the truth that sets us free.
We cannot sit by and pretend that this will all go away, and we can’t act as if the status quo will save us.  If we don’t have moral credibility, we have NOTHING.  And right now, we have NOTHING.  We need to start with our own repentance and move quickly to decisive action on behalf of God’s broken people.  NOW is the acceptable time.

Loving Things

I hadn’t been to the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist monastery in Western New York State, in about two years. It was my longest time away since returning to the East Coast.  The Abbey had been a spiritual home to me for decades.  I am not sure that I would presently be a Christian, humanly speaking, had I not found the place during my college years.

It was good to be back but strange, as I was there for “business.”  A colleague and I were looking to glean some wisdom from both the way the Abbey runs its retreat house and from the way that the leaders of the monastery were handling the practical and political dimensions of the renovations of their Chapel.  We had our own challenges– we were working on a similar project in a space that folks had very strong opinions about.

We stayed at the main guesthouse, about a mile down the road from the Chapel.  I first came to this retreat house when I was 19 years old, and there are few seasons of my life that haven’t been touched by the gentle silence of the place.  It was here that I first saw a vision of the Christian life that really made sense to me when I was a confused and wounded self-proclaimed atheist.  It was here that my then-pregnant wife and I retreated, in anguish, shortly after getting scary news about the well-being of our first child growing inside her.  It was here that I struggled with my fears of accepting the University Chaplain job at Colgate.   It was here that I prayed while anticipating my ordination.  This place was more than just a place to visit.  It was home.

I realized while I was there that I am very attached to things being as they are at the Abbey, even the things that aren’t particularly good or useful.

  • I still miss the plastic bowls and coffee cups that were in the refectory for decades.
  • I still love the old wool army blankets that sit on every bed.
  • I still love the terrible Cheerio-knockoff cereal that tastes like cardboard.
  • I still love the ratty NAB Bibles in the rooms.

So, in other words, I’m part of the problem when it comes to change.  I am one of the people who’d resist and complain if these things were upgraded!  These things are, objectively, some of the worst things about the Abbey guesthouse.  But that doesn’t matter.  Who ever said that one always had to love the better thing?  One can grow to love the old sweater, the banged up car, the three-legged dog, the McDonald’s fries.

On the other hand, it was such a blessing to be able to attend compline and to be able to chant the whole service, eyes closed, and to feel that spiritual connection that ties me to the place, to the long history of Catholics in worship, and to that singular anchor point in my whole spiritual journey.  Compline, after all, is where my conversion to Catholicism began in earnest.  That’s where I fell in love.

I read a couple chapters from a book I found on the table:  The Great Mystics and Social Justice: Walking on the Two Feet of Love.  I can’t say it is a great book– the organization is pretty uneven and confusing– but the author sure did string together a lot of great quotations.  Here are two from one of my heroes, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement Dorothy Day:

You can strip yourself, you can be stripped, but still you will reach out like an octopus to seek your own comfort, your untroubled time, your ease, your refreshment.  It may mean books or music– the gratification of the inner senses– or it may mean food and drink, coffee and cigarettes.  The one kind of giving up is not easier than the other. 

and also:

The more you give away, the more the Lord will give to you.  It is growth in faith.  It is the attitude of a man whose life of common sense and faith is integrated.

And I pondered my love of the way things are, a love which is good and holy and a sign, I hope, that I am grateful. But I found myself praying, too, for myself and for my friends and colleagues and neighbors back home, that we can learn to give things away—even good things, even holy things. The fundamental human gesture of the spiritual life, after all, is to give back to the Lord in gratitude all the things we’re given.

God, help me to love the things you give me, but help me to hold them lightly and help me to know the moment when it is time to give them back to you in trust.  

 

And I Like Long Walks on the Beach…

The Beach at Marshfield

I have been blessed with a free and solitary week at a cabin on the Massachusetts coastline.  My purpose for coming was to give myself “alone” time to try to get back into writing my book and back into feeling like myself.  It has been a hard and tumultuous year for me.  A concussion and back injury from a fall on the ice in December have made my life difficult and at times painful, and other personal discoveries have profoundly shifted my sense of my self and the world.  I needed time “away,” and the cabin has provided.

When the rainy weather finally cleared after a few days here, I went over to the beach for a walk.  Immediately I was reminded of my late spiritual director’s admonition to sit and stare at the ocean.  He always said it was one of the best ways to let the toxins out of one’s head, and I believe and agree with him.  As I was walking, though, I chuckled to myself about that phrase that has become a much-mocked cliche on dating sites and in the broader world:  “I like long walks on the beach.”  And I thought about that phrase because I was, of course, walking on the beach.  And I liked walking on the beach!  Maybe I’m as basic as all the folks in the dating profiles.

But then I had another thought.  No two walks are exactly alike.  Even if I were to walk that beach every day– every hour!– each would have a unique character.  Why?  Both the beach and I are constantly changing.  And the quality of my experience of walking the beach depends on what I choose to give my attention to and the quality of that attention.

Here is a man walking a large hound.  I bend over to pet the dog and get a closeup.  The dog is beautiful, with soulful eyes and great patience with me.  I am reminded of my beloved dog who died in 2016.  I am reminded that my kids want to get another dog.  I am suddenly aware that the man holding the leash is younger than he appeared when I first saw him.  He says something about it being his aunt’s dog and he gestures ahead to his aunt, walking another dog up the stairs.  I am holding him up and separating him from his aunt.  I stand up and say,  “Thanks for sharing your dog with me.  He’s beautiful.”  The man smiles and walks off.  I look ahead on my walk and see that the dog’s paw prints are already being eroded by the rivulets on the beach.  And all those thoughts spin around in my head and dissipate as other things gain my attention.  Today, a few days later, the dog is not there, nor are his paw prints.  I think of other things as I walk.

I am thinking now of the Mass (and, by extension, every form of prayer and every spiritual practice) as I write this.  And it strikes me that apart from the great objective grace of Christ’s body and blood, so much of what the Mass offers to us can only be attained with a particular kind of attention.  The kind of attention is not all that different from the sort of curiosity that makes the walk on the beach endlessly varied.  A natural attention– a turning toward really seeing, toward noticing what’s different, toward seeing anew something we’ve seen before– can transform a simple act of worship into a profound personal experience.  And a natural attention joined to love and reverence is, of course, an even more powerful tool.  Choosing to pay attention to the graces of the day, the beautiful things around us, the loved ones in our midst, the vulnerable faces of those who’ve just received communion– all of these can open our eyes to what is actually happening, to what God is actually doing in that place and that time.

Whether we are staring at the sea, petting a dog, or trying to become aware of the presence of God, so much depends on the quality of our attention.  We carry our distractions and preconceptions with us always.  But we carry, too, the ability to wake up and begin to notice that we –like everything– are changing and being changed.

 

At the Barge

 

This is a song I wrote a few years ago to celebrate a coffee shop that functioned as the living room of our little town.  The lyrics are posted under the video on YouTube.  Now that The Barge is closed and the corporate coffee chain that took over the space has also failed, I think we’re all feeling a lot of nostalgia toward the place.  The coffee was never very good, but that was beside the point.  It was cozy and inviting and there was always music.  We didn’t realize at the time how good we had it.

A Prayer for Graduating Students

from Colgate University’s 2018 Baccalaureate Service.  

God of Grace and God of Glory,

We have been here many times before, in this Chapel, we who live and work here and we who have been here for a time.  We have been in this place as frightened new members of the Colgate community, overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of this place and worried about our prospects.  We have been here in anger over injustice. We have been here to perform and watch music and dance. We have been here to pray, to doubt, to seek wisdom, to grieve.  And today, we gather again here to do many of those things.  But even more, we are here to say thank you and to say goodbye.  

So, on this day, help us to take the time to say thank you.  For our families, of course, and for those who love us and share in the joy of this moment.  For those who worried about us, prayed for us, encouraged us, and inspired us. For those who stretched us because they saw potential in us. For those who challenged and provoked us.

Thank you for the sheer beauty of this place, even on dark, snowy days.  For the places we called home here. For the places we found solace.  For the places where we celebrated and laughed. For the places where we won and lost.  

Thank you for all the times when we broke through fear, anger, or laziness to achieve something or to love someone.  For the times we got back up after failure. For the delight in finding or cultivating a talent or skill. For these and for all our blessings, may we always give thanks.

And help us to say our goodbyes well this weekend.  Goodbye to the constant presence of friends and colleagues, teammates and classmates.  Goodbye to this concentrated time of learning, to faculty and staff who will remember us and rejoice in our successes even decades from now, to labs and athletic fields, to free meals and free counseling.  Goodbye to everything and everyone that stretched us and made us more capable of love and more capable of understanding.  

Grant us wisdom and grant us courage, that we might learn to bear the burden of the truth: Make us clear-eyed and humbled, yes, but also hopeful.  Always hopeful.  

O Love that moves the sun and the other stars: Thank you for this good life.  Forgive us when we do not love it enough.  

Amen.

The Cabin, Light.

Everything in Iceland is in the middle of nowhere.  One realizes as soon as one is outside the mild urban hum of Reykjavik that there are just not very many people or very many towns in Iceland.  A settlement the size of the small town where I live– a place with a college, a movie theater, a hospital, a hotel, and a few restaurants and bars and not much else– would be the sixth largest population center in Iceland.  So when I say that the cabin near Reykholt was remote, it is worth admitting that it was within a couple miles of a gas station where I filled the car with gas and bought ice cream for the family.  But it was also very far from so many things that most people think of as essential.

The Cabin
The cabin at Reykholt

We arrived at the cabin around “dinner time.”  It was July in Iceland, so all the markers of the time of day were broken.  We had taken a 4pm ferry from Vestmannaeyjar.  En route, we ate salami and cheese sandwiches, fresh nectarines, almonds, and muesli in the car.  Was it dinner time?  Was this food dinner?  It was getting hard to say.

If you depend on the rising of the sun to wake you up, you are out of luck in Iceland.  The sun is always here in the summer, even in the 2am “dusk.”  When do I wake up?  When do I eat?  When do I take stock of my day?  All is light– there is no shadow of the turning of the hours.

The law in Iceland indicates that one needs to leave one’s headlights on while driving.  This is useful, I am sure, on the many rainy days here and during the long winter months.  But on the eternal sunny days of an Icelandic summer, they are redundant.

The cabin was new and immaculately kept.  The walkway from the parking spot to the cabin was made of grey stone river gravel and led to a narrow front porch with a bench, table, chairs, gas grill, and a few small decorations.  I spent my “late” hours the first night reading Halldór Laxness on the bench until it got too cold and ate muesli and yogurt there while chatting with an American friend on Facebook at around 8am –morning, according to consensus.

Inside, the cabin was simple.  Clockwise, one could see:

  • Coat hangers on a coat rack
  • A wifi router on a small shelf, with “house rules” framed underneath
  • A small round table with three chairs
  • A kitchen with a small oven, sink, refrigerator, dish cabinet, pots and pans, silverware holder, and dish soap
  • a bathroom with a lovely shower, a toilet, sink, and extra toilet paper; a shelf next to the toilet holds extra supplies
  • a sleeping area with a large bed and an overhead bunk perpendicular to the bed and mounted into the wall, with a comforter and pillow but no mattress
  • a sofa with removable back cushions

It was not a “tiny house,” but it was close.

The Cabin 3.JPG

We had followed somewhat minimalist principles in packing, so we were traveling with only carry-on luggage.  Almost all the bad packing decisions I had made were based on fear– fears that I’d be unhappy without a few actual books, that I’d feel poorly dressed without a second and third pair of pants, that I couldn’t live without a belt or without four pairs of wool socks.

But the cabin was instructive.  Smack dab in the middle of nothing, with nary a significant store within sixty miles, there was exactly enough.

Well, except that there was no coffee.

The coffee culture in Iceland really seems to bridge the gap between European and American coffee cultures.  One can get American filtered coffee, and everywhere but the gas stations it is served in ceramic cups with free refills from a vacuum pot.  But one can get espresso, Cappuccino, and any other kind of Euro coffee drink here, too, all prepared with care using high quality ingredients.  All of this becomes moot, of course, when one realizes that no one’s preparing coffee anywhere near us.  How do we handle this problem when the clock is telling us that it is morning?

Back when I was reading The Minimalists a lot, I was struck by an article on their web site about how they packed for their long speaking tours.  Both guys carried very little luggage but, to my amazement, they carried both coffee and the gear to make it with.  Given the ubiquity of coffee in the US, I didn’t really get that.  In Iceland, it made sense.

I think the whole world now, for many of us, feels like summer in Iceland.  The old rules and wisdom about how humans work feel less solid and true than ever.  One needs to make decisions about what one needs and doesn’t need.  Fear often leads us to think we need too much.  And in the end, so much of life is tied up in the art of choosing well and in the discipline of a well-considered, realistic fearlessness.