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.
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.