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.

 

 

Benediction for Colgate University’s 2017 Commencement

The Prepared Text of the Benediction for Commencement 2017

May you always know yourself to be loved and may your presence always be an occasion of joy for others.

May you always cherish the liberty of your mind and conscience and never fall prey to tyranny or intimidation.

May you never lack courage in the face of adversity or difficulty,
but may you love the true and the good and the just more than your own material or political success.

May you grow to be a true citizen, generous with your neighbors and others in your community, and may your heart run over with solidarity toward the poor, the suffering and the marginalized in your midst.

May you find a wellspring of generosity within you as you accompany those you love in their mourning, and may you never be without the consolation of friends and family in your times of need.

May you find great, selfless, reckless, mutual, and abiding love in your relationships,
and may you be beloved by the children in your midst.

May you cherish the earth and do all in your power to care for it for the sake of those children and for generations you will never see or know.

May you discover the work you were created to do, and
may you gain joy and mastery in bringing that work to fulfillment.

May you, when you reach the end of your long and fruitful life, be at peace with yourself, with all people, and with God.

May God strengthen you and bring success to the work of your hands.
May hope accompany your journey through the days to come.
May God’s abiding presence be with you
All the days of your life.

Amen.

Baccalaureate Mass Homily 2017

Easter 6 Homily: John 14:15-21

Jesus said to his disciples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept,
because it neither sees nor knows him.
But you know him, because he remains with you,
and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me, because I live and you will live.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father
and you are in me and I in you.

Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”

There is a lovely little children’s song called “I See the Moon.” Do you know it?

I see the moon and the moon sees me
And the moon sees the one that I long to see.
So God bless the moon, and God bless me
And God bless the one that I long to see.

I first heard the song on a children’s record by the Iowa folk singer Greg Brown. I’ve thought of that song often when I’ve been alone at night with my loved ones far away– the song imagines the two of us, each alone, staring at the moon from our respective places, seeing the same moon in the sky and being mysteriously united to each other through our vision. OK, it’s not the deepest song, but there is something profound about it, anyway– there’s a longing for communion, a desire to be close, a sense that perhaps somehow we are not as far away from each other as we might feel. If we each look up at the moon at the same time, there is a form of connection. The moon, so far away, somehow brings us together.

But when you think about it, the moon also sees every other person. Or, really, the moon, being a big rock orbiting the earth and reflecting the light of the sun, sees nothing. So, really, the moon isn’t doing anything in this scenario. The active agent– the real energy in the song– is the love between the singer and the object of the song.

Today’s Gospel is about love and leave-taking, about the pain of separation and the reality of our communion. Jesus, as he speaks to his disciples, is preparing them for his death.

To the casual reader, Jesus’ first words in this Gospel reading are jarring: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” One’s mind immediately goes to the question, “Uh, oh– which commandments?” as if Jesus had a long list of arcane and difficult tasks he’s set before us, or like he’s setting up some strict moral conditions for receiving his love. But one must consider the context of John’s Gospel. In reality, there is one commandment that Jesus gives in John’s Gospel: Love one another as I have loved you.

It’s like the moon song, only much deeper: Love is the basis of our union with Jesus. Love is the basis of our union with each other. Submitting to Jesus’ commandments means allowing oneself to love, to be loved, and to live and move and have your being in the milieu of God’s love.

Jesus promises to send the Spirit of truth, another Advocate, to be with us. This word that’s translated advocate is, in Greek, parakletos, a word which was used to describe a person called on behalf of a prisoner or victim to act in his or her defense. The role of the parakletos was to dissipate the fog of bias and deception and to bring justice and truth to light. And it is the truth, of course, which sets us free, which invites us to live in the reality of God’s justice and love. So, this is the work of the Spirit. And where there is truth and justice and love, there is communion. All are essential. Love without justice is pure sentimentality, a self-justifying cover. One cannot say, “I love that person but am unconcerned about his mistreatment, his oppression, his suffering.” But justice without love so quickly turns to violence and hatred. And in the context of both love and justice, the truth humbles us, takes each of us off God’s own judgment throne, helping us see that our own human brokenness is yet another bond of solidarity with both friend and opponent.

The world teaches us some horrible things. We learn to hate from the world. We learn to distrust from the world. We learn to shift blame from the world. We learn to scapegoat from the world. The world cannot accept the spirit because it neither sees the spirit nor knows the spirit.

But you– child of God, you have been called out of the world, plunged in baptism into the river of God’s love. What if love is your true home? What if love is everyone’s true home? What if the Gospel is true, and Jesus’ words are true, and a life of love, truth, justice, and mercy is really not only an option for you, but is the deepest reality in your life?

deeper than your own success
deeper than your own ego
deeper than your plans
deeper than your sins
stronger than hatred
stronger than the divisions
stronger than death or chaos or whatever you fear

The Christian life is a life lived in the Spirit, in love. And all the practices of the Christian life are intended to change our habits of attention so that we can learn that it is truly safe to love because we are loved. It is safe to forgive because we are forgiven. It is safe to side with the poor and suffering because Jesus has already sided with them and with us when we were poor or suffering. It is safe to repent and to change because change is the portal to greater love. Repentance is just a way of saying, “I see that I could love more, and I long to do it.”

So, beloved friends: not to be the bearer of bad news, but the world will probably kick you around a bit in these next few years. Those of you who’ve got sweet jobs or internships will be tempted to think that work is life, that work and success are the meaning of life. Recognize that as a temptation. You are put on earth to love and be loved and to achieve whatever completeness you will find in this life in the service of love. Those of you who are uncertain about your future will be tempted, too– perhaps with jealousy, perhaps with frustration. Recognize these, too, as temptations. You are put on earth to love and be loved and to achieve whatever completeness you will find in this life in the service of love.

And remember, too, the bond of our love and connection across time and place, and remain in it. It is Jesus, always present to us in the Eucharist. When you look at the host when elevated by the priest here today or wherever your life may take you, see in the risen Christ present under the sign of bread the eternal covenant bond of our love, and the bond you have with the universal church, with the saints in heaven and all Christ’s disciples here on earth and indeed with all whom the Holy Spirit has called into God’s family. Your true home is love and your true identity is love and your true destination is Love.

I love you all. Remain in God’s love now and forever.