Friday, February 29, 2008

Living Stones

Living Stones

We recently were given our annual retreat. Our retreat master this year was Damien Thompson, the Abbot of our monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. He is a warm, friendly man and impresses me as being much at peace with life, with what it means to be human in an ever changing world. He is a gifted story-teller and in his talks he shared a lot of his experiences over the years, experiences that have been markers for him in his life-long search for God. He is very laid back, very easy to listen to.

He talked a lot about living in the present moment, for it is there that God reveals Who He is and what He is about. If life is an ongoing revelation as to God’s coming to us, no small part of that revelation is His presence in each and every human being. It is a very “in your face” means of communication. Damien reminded us that it is here, in the lives of this monastery, that God is most present to us. I think it is true that we often look elsewhere.

Damien talked twice a day, in the early morning and late afternoon. The talks were given in a large room called the Scriptorium. It is on the south side of the building. We often meet there to discuss house policy, to watch an occasional film, to hear lectures and, every Sunday, to hear our own Abbot speak to us on the Rule of Saint Benedict.

As Damien spoke one afternoon, I looked across the room at the large wall. The walls in the Scriptorium are made of carved stone. The stones are of different sizes and were perfectly chiseled so that they fit next to and above and below each other just right. The sun cast a soft golden light on the wall, and the colors and textures of the stones were especially beautiful. Shades of creams and browns and sands shone in the late afternoon light. Each stone has a different natural design, as unique, I suppose, as fingerprints. There are gorgeous patterns of swirls, curved lines, speckles and colored layers upon layers. I wondered where the stones came from. I asked one of the monks earlier today and he told me that they came from a quarry in Tennessee. Now I wonder if they were chiseled here, or were they brought here ready-made so as to be placed in accordance with a pre-designed architectural blueprint. I will ask about that.

I listened to Damien as I gazed at the stones. He was talking of our community and how it important it is for us to make a real go of it in terms of loving each other. We are all so different, in many ways. We are a small gathering of men but in that paucity of numbers lives the rich design of God, revealed in an eternal and different way in and through each monk. Damien called us to realize that as human as it is to make preferences among such difference, it is the call of Jesus that we find Him and love Him in everyone. No one is to be left out. No one is to be deemed less worthy of being accepted, loved, embraced as a brother.

The stones looked lovely, especially in the late afternoon light. I then noticed that the same light was shining on the monks. It was easier for me to see the near perfect pattern on the wall just above and behind them. It is not as easy to see the light of God as it shines on each man here, a light far more warm and revelatory than some sunlight on a wall.

It is written that the church is made of living stones.

I am grateful to Damien for reminding us that God has made his home in the sometimes stony flesh of the human heart. He has gifted each of us with patterns and ways of being in this world, this monastery, that are unique. Some day, the peoples of the world will be given a way to nestle near each other as near perfectly as the stones on our Scriptorium walls. And the Light that made that happen will shine from without and within each living stone, a church raised by God, carved from this journey of being human and struggling to find a way to fit with each other.

Thursday, February 28, 2008



Judy wrote me a handwritten letter. Her penmanship is beautiful and I had recently written to her how beautiful it was, so easy on the eyes. She writes with a small and graceful script. In her letter to me, she thanked me and wrote that she had to work hard to make her handwriting legible. If she writes slowly and with care it is, she discovered, easier to write legibly and, I might add, lovingly. I have the impression when I read her words that they are born from a kind of love, and gently placed on the paper.

When I first met her, the word that came to mind was gentle. She walks gently, looks about her with gentle eyes, and writes in a way that I imagine as being a soft movement of her hand across a page, so that the words flow as gently as she is gentle.

She wrote me about being in our retreat house parking lot one morning. She can remember exactly where she was, when she looked up and saw a leaf, golden in color, falling to the ground. “It fell so gently,” she wrote. And I smiled when I read those few words. Then, as she remembers, she looked to the ground where the leaf had come to rest and there were, in the soft mud, the prints of the geese – are they footprints? - as they made their way down to the lake. And Judy saw beauty there, and one thought quickly flowed to another, and she remembered feeling a presence, the presence of God, as if God had left his presence along with the falling leaf and the footprints.

In those few sentences, I saw a world, a gentle world of a woman looking above her and below, and in a swirling leaf of gold and in the yet moist footprints of winged creatures, she knew God to be near. It was all one world to me – the falling leaf, the delight of her being captivated by it, her downward glance at the tracks of the geese. It all offered a sense of God, something which I could take in from a few well crafted sentences. In the parking lot, Judy would have not seen it all at once. It would take a turn of her head, then a feeling in her heart, and a sense of wonderment. Could it be that God was really there with her?

She became, as the letter evolved, apologetic, or perhaps bashful, about what she had experienced. I think that she may have thought that I would judge such connections made from leaf to geese God to be off the mark – that God is not near falling leaves or walking geese.

If the word “God” is appears in a sentence, it follows that the words that precede it and follow it take on a special and heightened meaning. We use the word “God” as a way to anchor a sense of his presence in our lives. And so it is that when writing about God, the meaning can get quite specific, tied down to a place or a way of thinking, or loving, or seeing. I suppose we take some comfort in knowing that we have a word for the divine and that we can connect the word to seemingly adequate points of reference. We like to “map” God. We like to know that we “know.”

It is written that when asked about God and the Kingdom, Jesus looked about his world, his very immediate world, and replied by talking about seeds and leaven, the birds of the sky and mustard trees, of treasures hidden in fields. It seems that he delighted in knowing that the ways and presence of God are all about us.

We need people who help us make connections between what falls to the earth, like a leaf, and how it is that it reveals the soft and gentle ways of God. We need a way to assure us that when we see footprints on the earth that it is good to make an association between divine, human and creaturely presence. We all move in and through God. His footprints tread tenderly on the surface of the earth and the winding paths of the human heart. We look for God constantly – for it is God who is the source of every longing for love, every longing for the good and beautiful to last forever.

It takes a gentle soul to really see things for what they are. Revelations do not come readily to those who press too hard at the ever present surface of mystery. Many come here and enter our church and perhaps press too hard with words and insistence on the door of the house of God, asking that the Mystery speak, and speak clearly. Maybe on one such day, not long ago, there was a man or woman in the church, awaiting a sure sign of God. In their rush, they may have passed a woman in the parking lot who was gazing with awe at a gently falling leaf and then at her feet, at the tracks of webbed feet that wound down to the lake. She may have said something about a presence she felt, but was never asked. And she may have been to shy to tell. Only later, would she write gently on a page, and share her happiness that came with a falling leaf, and tell-tale tracks.

All about us is falling, even the universe, and we are falling with it. Someone walked through it a long time ago, and left tracks we can follow. They are there now, and they will be there when we come to rest. Love moves gently through us all, through all that is, leaving its mark, and we look about and make the connections, feeling it as close as a leaf, as near as a moist track, as gentle as a word written on a page.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Communion Calls

Communion Calls

Before I came to the monastery, I was a parish priest for twenty years. Once a month throughout those years, I brought communion to people who could not make it to Mass. Such visits are known as communion calls. They were usually done on the first Friday of each month.

I had my list and drove to each person’s home. I would often stay for a while, but had to keep my eye on my watch so as not to keep the next person waiting. I knew that the people looked forward to my visits since most of them were elderly, lived alone, and did not have many social contacts. I had with me a small metal container, called a Pyx, into which I placed the hosts that were needed for the visits. And I had a little green ritual book, with a few ribbons, to mark the places where the prayers for the sick were. Most of the people knew the prayers by heart and would recite them with me, which I liked.

I was thinking about the people I knew in those days, early this morning. We had an unusual event late yesterday afternoon – it snowed for a while and there is a light blanket of snow on our fields this morning. When I looked out the window, for some reason, while gazing at the peaceful beauty of the scene, a memory came to me of Pops, a man I used to see every first Friday. He once told me that he loved snow when he was younger but as he aged it became such a worry for him. He was afraid of falling – and he did not get as many visitors.

Pops lived with his daughter and her family. His daughter’s name was Agnes. I cannot remember her husband’s name. They had an adopted daughter who at the time was a teenager. She was a very pretty girl and I heard, years later, that she became a model. Agnes would answer the door when I came to the house and after setting up a small table with lit candles, she would excuse herself and return after Pops received communion. He sat in a comfortable recliner chair and he had a small dog, a really cute dog, who would come to me with his tail wagging, would sniff my shoes, and then, seemingly satisfied that I was okay, would jump onto the recliner chair right next to Pop. There was just enough room for him. He snuggled against Pop’s thigh and was very quiet, but attentive, as Pops said his prayers and received the small host, the presence of the Lord. After receiving, he would close his eyes for a few seconds in prayer, then open them and look at me for the okay to start talking. And talk he did, about his life, his loves, his worries, his hopes. Agnes would come back into the room, offer me a soda, and then sit and join in the conversation. The little dog never moved, but always listened.

Vincent lived in a small apartment. I often had trouble finding a parking place near the building. He was originally from Greece and was on in years. He wore tailored suits, and donned the best of them when I visited him. He had quite a hair-do. The grays and whites were arranged in a style that reminded of Elvis’s early look. Vincent kept a large shrine to the Virgin Mary in his living room. It filled one corner of the room – a large shell-ike structure in which there was a statue of Mary. It was surrounded by plastic flowers and at her feet were always arranged fresh fruits, one of which Vincent always offered me before I left. “It is special, very special,” he would say.

Helen was a very large woman whose size, I think, confined her to her bed. Her husband was a small Chinese man and I never heard him say a word. He smiled a lot, and I could tell that he and Helen loved each other very much. Helen was once in the Air Force and there were pictures of her in her uniform on the walls of her bedroom. On the table near the bed was her favorite picture which she pointed out every visit I made – it was a black and white photograph of her and her husband taken while they were on their honeymoon, in Hawaii. In the picture, she was much thinner and towered over him. He was smiling in the picture – and I noticed that his smile had stayed much the same over the years.

Margaret lived alone in a huge house. She never married. She had a lot of cats. I would be reading the prayers and cats would be at my feet, in my lap, sneaking up behind me on the couch where I sat. She often told me that the cats liked me. There were pictures of Richard Gere all over the place. She said she was related to him. I wondered about that but never said anything. “Real cutie pie,” she would tell me. She was in her eighties.

I am sure they have all moved on now and live in the communion they once received every Friday. Pops. Margaret, Helen, Vincent – they are ageless and have become a part of me, in my heart, the place of all communion.

I think we, who are here on this earth, live in this communion but cannot quite see that yet. We can taste it. We can love from it. We can hope for it. We somehow take into our bodies and hearts the fullness of the life that is all around us. We are in a living banquet and are rather modest in the ways that we celebrate it. It is a banquet with honeymoons and smiling faces, cats on the sofa and doggies at our feet, of women bringing sodas and old men anxious to speak their hearts and their loves. All of this was never far from the reception of communion. All of life is a communion call – as if God is the ever present first Friday Visitor, asking that we be with him, receive him, welcome him.

I look at the beauty of freshly fallen snow – it is rare, here in Georgia, to have snow. Just yesterday I was telling a group in our retreat house that I used to love the sound of falling snow when I lived in the northeast. There was that pervasive hiss as the snow fell and touched the earth. Even when the snow stopped falling, there seemed to be a sound in the air, the sound of snow, a peaceful yet rich sound. Something like a communion of white, of innocence, of purity. Billions of hosts, coming softly to the earth, covering everything. A gift from God, as is everything, coming from above, arising from below, whispering to me as to where he is, communing with us.

The whole universe is a Mass – feeding us every day. The banquet of God, this life we live. It is special, very special.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Dylan and His Cactus Plant

Dylan and His Cactus Plant

I was over in the retreat house and had brought my camera with me. It was snowing, which is a rare event here, and I wanted to take some photographs of the gardens adjacent to the retreat house. I walked into the parlor, near the front door, and a young boy was standing there, near the door, looking out at the falling snow. He turned to me and smiled and in his hands he held a small cactus. He raised it and smiled and said that he bought it in our store and how nice Father Gerard was, the monk who sold it to him. “He told me that a flower will bloom from it, right at the top.” And with his gloved finger, he pointed to just where the flower will sprout.

I asked his name and he said “Dylan.” And he smiled again. I think that the falling snow added a special glow to his face and eyes. I asked if I could take his picture and he said he would like that, so we went into a large room and he never let go of the cactus. I took several pictures of him. Natalya, a regular guest to our retreat house, stood nearby and commented on how beautiful was Dylan’s cactus and that she was sure that the flower, when it sprouted, would be just as beautiful. Natalya is from Russia and is pursuing her doctoral degree. She is very pretty and writes beautiful poetry. Dylan beamed when she spoke to him. Later, when I downloaded the photographs, I looked at them and they turned out well. Dylan was so at ease in front of the camera. I love the expressions on his face. His mittens are of two different colors. He has his stocking cap tucked under his arm. His smiling face and the cactus are the most prominent features in the photos. Natalya is out of sight – she was behind me as I took the photographs. And, of course, the conversation is not there, either. But the words that she spoke to him with encouragement and affection surely enticed from him that beautiful smile and the gentle look in his eyes.

I do not know if I will ever see Dylan again. A lot of people come through our retreat house and, as Guest Master, I am privileged to meet them and chat with many of them, if only briefly. There are those with whom I talk with at more length. Some of the encounters grow into friendships, though such gifts are not possible to tell at the outset. Friendship evolves and blooms, according to its own beauty and pattern.

Someone recently wrote to me and in the letter she included a commentary on one of my other photographs. It was a color photo of a tree. I took the picture in autumn and there are shades of browns and greens and yellows, all visible in the leaves of the tree. She wrote of shades of human life, shades that spoke to her from the colors of the leaves. Everything in life seems to be a living icon – trees and colors, stones and walls, bridges and cacti, mismatched gloves and a young boy’s double joy of a tree in his hands and the sight of falling snow. The picture I have of Dylan is silent and yet there were words from Natalya that prompted his smile. Well, photographs do not say what they are about – but is it not true that they do kind of speak? They tell us something.

Voices surround us. Voices well from within. The colors and shades of life form for many a pattern of love, of beauty. We speak words of encouragement to each other, putting each other at ease. All the shades of life that hit us from all side and shine on everything and everyone bespeak a pattern, a design of intricate love.

I hope the flower on Dylan’s cactus blooms and I hope it is beautiful. He is young, and probably will not remember the words spoken to him by Natalya, words that made him smile, made him at ease. I hope he always is given that in life. Maybe he will become fascinated with growth – the growth of a cactus that he held in his hands, the growth that was and is the world about him.

He may think the monastery to be a strange place. I do not know. We did not speak about that. But I do know that he saw the beauty of falling snow here and was grateful for the kind and encouraging words of Father Gerard and Natalya. And so he smiled and held a gift that he hopes will bloom.

We hold Creation, this gift from God. We hold it in our hands and hearts, with mismatched gloves and smiles. It will all bloom, someday. The best of voices tell us that. The voices of God, in all its tones and shades, asking us to be still and to trust what we hold. Listen to love, in every room of life. Hold and offer every gift you have been given. Time is the blossom of God, held in the hands of a little boy, who waits for its flower. Mismatched words, perhaps, like a Dylan’s differently colored gloves. But it is how we must hold onto what we have, and each other, as the colors speak, and the poets write of what the trees say and what the heart needs to know.

The Happy Bus Driver

The Happy Bus Driver

I once knew a happy bus driver. I do not remember his name, but he drove the De Camp bus, the #66, which went from Montclair, New Jersey to Manhattan. I used to take it all the time. They were real nice buses, with a lot of lights and buttons on the dash. I used to sit up front and watch the world slide beneath the wheels.

It was New Year's Day some years ago and I took a bus into New York. I met some friends for brunch and then went to the Port Authority bus terminal to catch the #66 back home. I recognized the bus driver from previous trips. He was always so friendly. He took my ticket with his usual sincere smile and I found a seat near enough to the front to see the lights and the road ahead. After giving the number of passengers to the dispatcher....a guy who stood near the bus and always wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat...the dispatcher whistled and with a wave of his hand okayed the departure of the bus. The bus was full. So off we went into a new day, a New Year, on toward my home town.

Troubles started half way home. Traffic was backed up for miles on Route

3. The bus stopped. It inched forward and stopped again. The red and yellow rear lights of automobiles, trucks, vans and buses twinkled for miles ahead. I heard grumbling behind me. At first it was barely noticeable. A few coughs, a little swear word or two. But then the grumbling increased in volume. It sounded like a terrible human orchestra tuning up for a song they did not know at all.

The bus driver looked at me in his rear view mirror and smiled. "Watch this," he said. And he then turned off Route 3. I had never seen that done before. In my experience, stuck bus drivers always stayed stuck. They preferred, for whatever reason, the slow crawl as opposed to pulling off the road.

The bus driver started to sing Christmas carols. He had a good voice. His voice had that smooth Perry Como quality to it. When Perry Como sang, even the worst things in life were given a silver lining.

We went through Rutherford, a part of Lyndhurst, a section of Clifton.

The bus driver knew the streets as well as the words and melodies of the carols he was singing. As he guided the bus along, the mood of the bus changed. People began to sing, and smile, and everything seemed as twinkly as the lights on the dash of the bus.

Bernard Lonergan was a Jesuit theologian. Some have called him the greatest religious thinker since Aquinas. His stuff is complicated. I tried reading him more than once, but got stuck a lot, not unlike the vehicles on Route 3 that New Years morning. But Lonergan once said something to a friend of mine and I have never forgotten it. Religious maturity, said Lonergan, has a lot to do with "sitting back and realizing that God is the driver of the bus." By "bus," Lonergan was referring to human life, the cosmos, history....this vast mystery we are moving through and that has a Driver and plenty of lights. Lots of twinkly lights.....headlights, rear lights, dashboard lights, stars, human eyes and hearts, dispatchers who sport western wear in an eastern metropolis, happy bus drivers, and words that come from human hearts.

Well, we all got to where we were heading for that day. There was no extra charge for the songs, for the happiness of that bus driver and his wondrous detour.

I saw him in Montclair months later, in a diner. I asked a friend of mine about him and he said to me "Yeah, lives alone, not far from here. Drives a bus and he's crazy. Sings all the time." I felt sad when he said that. But then there are those among us who loathe detours and who have little patience with those who sing through the blues.

God will get us where we were all made to go. It is a good ride. Trust the lights, the detours, and listen real close to you heart when things seem to get panicky. Listen for a song, a soft melody. It will ease you and help you to trust the God who is just ahead in the driver's seat. Some say God does not exist. Some say he is crazy. Don't pay them any mind. Just listen to the song, and watch the lights. We are all moving somewhere...

The Peaceful Man

The Peaceful Man

For many of us, peace is hard to find. We know it exists and we can experience it many ways. The ways and means vary as to how it comes to us, how we find it. Amidst the hectic activities of our days, we may clear some time to be alone, to still the voices in our heads and to savor a bit of solitude. There are many disciplines that foster the experience of peace. Here at the monastery, we are familiar with many of them and we try to live and foster peace as much as possible. But even here, it is not easy. Peace eludes us as well. We certainly have an ideal setting for it – all these acres free of the many varieties of traffic that jam the highways of outer and inner roads – the landscape of our culture and the interior roads of the mind. It is hard to secure a lasting sense of peace. A monk may work at it in the relative serenity of the cloister but there are times when peace flies out of one’s hands, like a bird that one holds for a while, but which soon fears the foreign grasp of human hands, and struggles to be free again.

Peace, in a lasting sense, is something from which we are estranged. Try as we might to realize it or even describe it, it never seems to feel at home with us very long. It senses our dis-ease with it, and takes flight.

A man came to stay with us for one night. He arrived late in the afternoon, on a bicycle with a small trailer hitched to the rear wheel. I met him by our gatehouse. He was a strong looking man, with a full beard and a friendly face. We shook hands and began to chat. I introduced myself and he told me that his name was Jerry Nelson. He told me that he needed a place to stay for the night and that he would be no trouble for anybody. All he needed, he said, was a place to pitch his tent. I was at first hesitant to let him stay, since I did not know who he was or where he was coming from. It is hard these days to welcome the stranger. He anticipated my hesitancy and took out some papers from his small trailer. He handed them to me and they were newspaper articles about him and his journey. One article had a picture of him accompanying the story and I trusted the connections that were becoming apparent to me. I told him to stay, and we walked down by the lake, where I thought it would be most convenient for him to pitch his tent. We chatted for a while. It was nearing time for Vespers, our late afternoon chanting of the psalms, which is followed by dinner. I asked him if he would like to have dinner, and he said yes. I headed back to the church as he started to set up his tent. I sat in church and read the articles he had given to me and was astounded. He had biked from Washington, D.C., to Oregon, stopping at churches and Veterans Homes along the way, giving talks so as to raise awareness of the plight of Veterans, in particular those men and women who really never found their way home again after the experience of war. They may have been brought back to this land of the free, but the experience of war imprisoned them in a place of mental anguish and spiritual death. It is to these that Jerry has given his life, his passion, his words. After Vespers, I headed back down to the lake and brought him back to the retreat house, where we had supper together.

I tried to make him feel as much at home as possible. I felt guilty that we had no rooms available, and told him as much. He assured me that it was okay, that he had everything he needed down in his tent. And he told me more, about how he never planned far down the road, that God always took care of him. He learned, he said, not to plan too far down any highway, to take things a day at a time, and that when evening fell, he would be given a place to stay. I sensed volumes of spiritual wisdom, hard won, behind every word he said. His face had a weathered but serenely wise look as he spoke. There was a gentleness to him and something that gave me the impression that he had learned to receive every aspect of life as a gift, a gift from God. I thought how every mile that passed beneath his spinning wheels had given him something. He carried a lot more in his trailer than bare necessities of life. The little that he had housed a heart of movement, of giving, of a wisdom that matured through suffering and surviving, and emerging from his own experience of war as a messenger of good will, peace and compassion.

We parted ways that night and I told him I would come down in the morning, Sunday morning, and bring him back to the retreat house for breakfast. When I came over to the retreat house on Sunday morning, he was already there, sitting in the parlor, drinking coffee out of a paper cup. We went back to the kitchen, picked up a few things for breakfast, and chatted again. He told me that he had to be on his way.

I came back to the retreat house a short while later – I had to go to a meeting with the other monks – and when I came back, Jerry had folded his tent, packed his trailer and was gone. He left me a little key chain and a note. The key chain is small, and has a little string of plastic beads of different colors. The pamphlet attached to the beads reads that the colors are for different things – black for Good Friday, red for Pentecost, white for Christmas and Easter, blue for heaven and truth, green for the Trinity, yellow for divinity.

I felt sorry to see him go. I wanted to do more for him, perhaps to keep something of him here. He embodied a truth that I felt was real. But it is a truth that needs movement for its realization, for its very life. A kind of truth on wheels. I told him the night before that I envied him and admired him. He smiled and asked me what this monastery is about – specifically why we have to stay put. I told him that it is the way we seek God, by simply being still. He thought about that and then said that he understood. “But,” he said, “If ever you want, you just get yourself a bike and you can ride with me.”

I hope to see him again. I told him he is always welcome here. He can pitch his tent and give his wheels a rest anytime.

What is peace?

I hesitate to define it, as if it is something we can settle with words and then go about getting it.

It is movement. It is listening and speaking, stopping here and there along the way, resting by a lake, chatting over a meal, then moving on. It is like me here in this place of stillness, into which rides a man on a mission who needs a place for the night, to rest.

It is learning so slowly about the God who gave us colors and beauty and who came here, for a while, and who said that peace is here, and that it will come, but that there must be suffering first, because the world will not understand it or take readily to it. It is a kind of peace that disturbs. We may want to hold it for a while, but it has to move. It has wheels, wheels spinning fast, of different colors.

I finger the beads on my little key chain – the colors I touch symbolize all the truth we need to know and live. The truth is within us, within each of us, at times still, at times moving, seeking rest by a lake.

Bread on the Waters

Bread on the Waters

Thousands of people come here to the monastery every year. It is peaceful here and I suppose that most come to rest for a while in the quiet that we try to offer. I am sure that it is the hope of many who come that they will better grasp a sense of God, or meaning, or a renewed sense of direction in their lives.

Every now and then people come who have no such expectations.

A bus load of kids arrived recently. I knew that they were coming. They were kids of special needs – some were autistic, others were physically challenged. They came from a school far from here and had been on the road in a yellow bus since four in the morning. Their teachers and some aides were with them. I met them in the retreat house after Mass and chatted with them for a bit. They had brought large bags of bread and were excited about going down to the lake to feed the geese.

I went down with them and watched as they lined up at the shore line and tossed bread to the geese. The geese by now know that people mean food, so they honked and squawked with what I guess was delight as the kids threw pieces of bread to them. There was one goose out in the middle of the lake that made his way as fast as he could toward the banquet of flying bread. He moved fast across the water, making a racket and leaving a widening wake behind him.

Standing behind the kids, I enjoyed watching them as they fed the geese. One kid was so taken with it that instead of tearing off little pieces of bread, he tossed the entire loaf into the lake and laughed as the geese fought each other for a piece of that soggy and floating treasure.

One boy turned around and looked at me. He dropped his bread on the ground and came over to me, told me that his name was Charles and took my hand and held it as he talked to me. He asked if I was a monk and I told him yes. He said that he was happy. Happy to be there and feed the geese but he saw that I was by myself. It was then that I noticed that all the kids seemed to be paired – they had a buddy system.

Those kids remained in my heart all day. I had to go to work, at our bonsai pottery barn, and thought about them as I wrapped pots. Later, as lunch time approached, I want back to the area near the retreat house and told their teachers that it would be fine if they all had lunch in the retreat house. I knew that they had planned to eat their lunch outside but it was a chilly, windy day. I would have had lunch with them but I had to get back with the other monks at mid-day prayer.

Most people, I think, assume that we embody and offer here some sense of clarity about God and his ways in this world. I suppose that is okay. Much of the language that is heard here – human conversations, the chanting of the psalms, talks given by monks in the retreat house, the homilies and almost the sum total of words here, all bespeak of God and the human. And we speak and listen, in the hope that when the words are tossed, we are somehow fed.

Does it all work? I suppose it does, to some extent. We often hear good “reviews” as to what is said and heard here.

What is that phrase? Something about tossed bread on the waters, tossed, perhaps, in the hope that something good will happen.

I think of those kids, who, when they were born, had their toes counted with love to make sure that they arrived in this world in perfect shape. How long did it take till it was known that something was wrong? With an inability to speak right, or see right, or think right, hopes were painfully lowered and lives were altered. Hearts were set on a path of lifetime care in intense, concentrated ways. The kids would be different.

High above the shore of our lake stands our magnificent church. It is clearly beautiful. Striking in its form, it offers a place where people seek God and pray to him. How hungry we are for God to come, and answer our prayers. Yet, how far away God must be, for much of what we pray for is forever late in the coming. We pray for peace which eludes our grasp. We pray for health, which is bound to fail. We pray for each other as we stumble through life, hurt each other, somehow miss each other, not knowing how to communicate the love we feel, the love we need, the love whose absence makes such a wound of this world. Yet we persist in our prayer, and toss to the silence of God our words. How and when will he speak?

On the shore I watched those kids as they tossed their bread. Bits of bread, and the occasional loaf, sailed through the air and onto the waters. They tossed in such a happy and carefree way. I watched their glee as the geese came. The tall, majestic house of God rose behind them, a place where at that moment other words were being tossed to the infinite mystery of God – thrown to another far shore.

Some day, I believe that all that is of God will rise. Every word that has ever been spoken to him, no matter from how far, and how desperate and how angry, has been heard. No matter how foolish sounding to the supposedly learned, or how futile to the pragmatic among those of us who have walked this earth, God has heard and will answer every cry. God will rise.

I watched the kids yesterday and daydreamed later, as to how the lake before them would surge and rise, and from it would rise fantastic things – a great wooden ship with sails of spun gold, and a magical circus with dancing bears and angels who swallowed fire and tossed diamonds to the shore, and a castle with jeweled windows and vast streets on which people laughed and danced as they beckoned to the children on the shore. And the kids ran across the waters, seeing as clear as day the wonders that rose before them, and felt their bodies as being whole and good, and their minds as fresh and as bright as can be. And Charles would look back at me, and run to me and take my hand and ask me to come, come and see, come and go with him.

But I of course know that only bread was tossed and the shore brought to them only geese. But their bread is the only prayer they now know, and they tossed it with all their hearts, pieces and entire loaves, over and over again, and I know that God will come. And, somehow, I think that their prayers of bread are more honest and far reaching than any prayer could ever say.

The Little Way

The Little Way

There is an ancient custom in all of our monasteries of having a book read to the community during the main meal at mid-day. We take turns as readers and this week it is my turn. The book is a collection of meditations on the Incarnation, by Ladislaus Boros. In the section I read aloud yesterday, he referred to the writings of Saint Therese of the Little Flower – Therese of Lisieux. She was a French Carmelite nun and was only twenty-four when she died, in 1897. Her writings were published after her death and they became a literary sensation in France and then all over the world. Her spirituality, as reflected in her writings, became known as “The Little Way.” She embraced small, ordinary things throughout her life. She believed that a way to God could be found through attentiveness to and a love for the little things in life – the things that make up any ordinary day. I believe that the reason her writings caused such a huge sensation among the average reader was because her words helped people see and love God in the ordinary. As simple as that may appear, we need to hear again and again in our lives words that help us take to heart the presence of the divine in our everyday lives. We tend to look at some far horizon for a sight of the miraculous when all the while it is right at our feet. In the brief selection I read yesterday, Boros wrote of how Therese could look at a flower, or a rubber ball, a sunset or a scene from a train window while passing through the Alps, and from these she would ponder the loving presence of God and write of that love. It was as if God spoke to her through windows, through flowers, through a bouncing ball.

As I read the words from the book, I occasionally glanced up to see the clock, so as to be ready when the bell rang, to finish the section in an area where I could pick it up again the next day. I looked from the clock to the monks in front of me, who were taking their meal in an attentive silence, listening to the words of the ordinary as I read them. Sun streamed through the windows, casting a lovely light all through our large refectory. My voice filled the room, sharing words written a long time ago about the very things I saw in front of me. The sunlight was beautiful, as was the scene of the monks, their heads lowered in a kind of reverence, taking in the nourishments of words, food, water.

We intake so much during any given way in order to live. I suppose it is normal that few of us pause to give thought to all that we absorb in a day in order to live, to understand, to appreciate what we see. We need food and drink to live. We need words and symbols to understand and to see. We need each other to learn how to love, how to live good and peaceful lives.

We need saints to help us look at the lives that we live, and to see the sublime in and through the ordinary. God is, for many, a far and lofty Being. He may seem so far – be it in the heavens or in some imagined life beyond this one. These days, His existence is debated in several books that have reached best-seller status. But every now and then a person comes along who sees things with such beauty and who writes about them. And so it is that a train window becomes a tabernacle. A rubber ball becomes an orb of revelation and a flower speaks the eloquence of God. And we listen – and recognize that God is here, in our midst. He may seem to be silent but He speaks through the saints. And what he says through them can be salvation for any one of us. For the words of saints rivet our eyes and hearts to the right here in our midst – to the seemingly ordinary things and people that come our way every day.