Thursday, December 10, 2009




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At the Barn

Yesterday was quite warm…the temperatures climbed into the sixties in the afternoon. It turned colder overnight so it was chilly and windy today. And sunny. It is supposed to get very cold tonight, down into the low twenties. Yesterday I worked most of the day in our bonsai pottery barn, boxing and sending out the many Christmas orders that have come in. Hal, our UPS driver, came by in the morning and parked his van in front of the barn. He called us outside and pointed to a four-foot black snake that was apparently roused from its hibernation by the warm weather. I do not like snakes, even though I know black snakes are not poisonous. We stood around it and it curled up a bit and then after a while slithered off into the nearby field. I had my camera and took some pictures. I will see if I can somehow label them. We have a lot of fun down there. The work is consistent but not really hard or laborious. The barn is big. It was a dairy barn years ago, when the monks first came here. About fourteen years ago, we cleared it out, put in shelves and then ordered containers of bonsai pottery from Japan and China. We have a very large selection of very fine pottery, tools, wires, books and other bonsai essentials. You can follow, if you like, these links to check out our bonsai, food items, and other store items.

Gifts Divine and Human

These are busy weeks for us here at the monastery. We are packing and shipping out our Christmas Season orders. Most are food items – fruit cakes, different flavors of fudge and jellies and delicious coffee from our monastery in Venezuela. There are other items, too, like our books and other religious items from our Abbey Store. We are managing to ship hundreds of orders per day. There are many more orders than we anticipated, and that is good. We do all the shipping out of our large bonsai pottery barn and by now, after several years of learning the ropes, it is a smoother operation. We have a lot of fun down there – the spirit of the season easily finds its way into our work areas as well as all the other areas of our lives.
Orders come in from all over the country. The order form leaves ample room for those who wish to send good tidings to friends, family and loved ones. It is nice feeling to know that we are doing something to add some joy and gratitude to the lives of so many people.
Day before yesterday, I was double checking an order to make sure the items were correct, as well as the sender and recipient’s information. The name and address of the recipient caught my eye. Tow boxes of fudge were being sent to a Veterans Hospital in the Washington, DC area. I immediately recognized the name of the facility – it is a large hospital complex where men and women are sent who have been wounded in wars, and most recently the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was a card, addressed to the staff who would accept and give the gift to a patient. The words read, “Many thanks for your sacrifice and service to our country….no reply necessary.”
I stared at the two boxes of fudge and wondered who it is who would receive them in a few days. Someone, I thought, whose life may well be forever changed because of a terrible wound, either mental or physical, or both. A man or woman who gave their all, and who hopefully will recover and move on to a normal life. A life, I would bet, of more sacrifice freely given for loved ones, for a cause, for a country.
The box is now on its way north.
I do not know if the person who opens it will need help to do so. His or her hands may be damaged, or gone. And it is possible that he or she will need help with what can no longer be seen, but only spoken about. But there are those who care for our wounded, those whose hands will touch with love, whose eyes will see for another, whose voice will guide those who need reassurance, a sense of hope, a sense of belonging again in a world that may have seemed to have betrayed them with violence.
It is Advent, a time of waiting, awaiting the surprise that will be God among us. We do not know the full implications of that. We can only hold each other in prayers, and in love, and, for our men and women in the military, a deep sense of gratitude. We are here because they are there, in places far away from home.
But someone will receive a small package in the mail, perhaps today or tomorrow. It was sent with a lot of love. Love that can travel miles and somehow carries the deepest gifts of the heart. Kind of like God, who came from afar and gave us the gift of himself, a gift that we spread this time of the year, a gift that may have to be opened with the help of others. But that is the mystery of it all, is it not? We await the coming of God, only to discover that he must be given away, again and again. It is as wondrous as a sensitive touch, a caring smile, the holding of a hand, the opening of a package for one who no longer can. The meaning of Christmas, from a God who asks that we love as the one reply to this gift of life.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Judy, Rocky, Red and Our Church

Our Lay Cistercians had their Christmas Party earlier today. I stayed for a while, took a few pictures, and then walked through our Abbey Church on my way back to the cloister area. I thought about the beauty of the church, as made by monks, and the beauty of people, as made by God.

The Photographs

I just posted a slide show of photographs I took many years ago while in Ireland. They are all black and white, which I prefer, and there are more to post. I have to go through them and select which ones. I used available light for the indoor pictures and, from this vantage point of some forty or so years later, I am surprised as to how well they came out. We flew over to Shannon from New York's Kennedy International Airport and toured much of the country in a van. We stayed in on a small farm in Ballyhaunnis, County Mayo. Lived the simple life for a few week. Like, VERY simple. We took the Queen ELizabeth 2 on the way back home and I have more pictures from that trip, too. Anyway, hope you enjoy the slides.
Rather cold here today, in Georgia. We were supposed to get snow last unusual event...but the snow never arrived. Maybe it is still on its way.

Old Photographs

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Passing of a Legend

I read that Liam Clancy passed away in Ireland. I saw the Clancy Brothers several times over the years, the last time being at the Bob Dylan Thirtieth Anniversary Concert that was held in Madison Square Garden in New York City. That was a good number of years ago. The Clancy Brothers sang Mr. Dylan's "When The Ship Comes In." It was a wonderful night, so many artists contributing their time and talent to honor one of the living legends of American music.
When the Clancy Brothers sang, I felt as if I was transported to the most beautiful parts of Ireland. Irish music and people are beautiful. The Brothers were a real gift to the world. I believe that music can raise hearts and change them. Music can and does make a positive and healing difference in this world. I will miss the Clancy Brothers but am glad they are together once again, in a place not really all that far from here.
We were supposed to get snow today but it never arrived. I feels cold enough to snow, but the skies are clear and no clouds are on the horizon. Perhaps it snowed further up north.
This essay of mine ran in today's paper, the Rockdale Citizen. I write a column for the paper every Saturday. The office is right here in Conyers and it has been a pleasure to me to write for them.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Advent Artist

There were artists here several years ago and I wrote about them. I was thinking about them early this morning, sitting in church in the darkness of a predawn hour. What came to mind was how I watched them paint. Each artist did so differently, depending on many things. An artist’s style is unique. Like a voice to sing with, or a fingerprint, or a way of seeing. The slow movement of a brush across stretched canvas or other surface reveals the unique signature of the artist.
I remember watching a woman’s hand as she applied a dab of color to her rendition of our Abbey Church. How she envisioned our church had much to do with the uniqueness of her style. She was expressing something of herself with the form she painted, the colors she used – their tone, texture, the soft placement of the medium on the canvas.
The world teems with self-expression. But the world is a big place. Perhaps it is better to limit myself to the every day.
A bird builds a nest, sensing within her a stirring of life, the tiny start of an egg. The bird has exquisite timing. The nest will be ready when it is time for the bird to settle into it, lay her egg or eggs, then warm the tiny chicks with her body and feed them with care. She will have to travel a distance to find food and yet will know her way back to her young. Some kind of knowing there. A pattern of behavior that is expressed through a synchronization of mating, sensing, building, waiting, birthing, feeding, flying, finding a way back, and, perhaps, repeating the whole routine when what she has raised with care flies away, but with no looking back, no sorrow. That is a kind of knowing, too.
I have read about organisms – are they called microbes? – tiny creatures who live, even thrive, in the hottest and coldest places on earth. Scientists have discovered these and marvel at how life finds a way to adapt to and inhabit places that were previously thought to be absolutely devoid of life.It was taken for granted that the conditions ruled out the possibility of life. But a kind of knowing thought otherwise. And so tiny creatures are at home in the only environment that suits them. They would perish in what we assume to be a normal habitat for life.
Kittens are born blind yet find their way to the warm underside of their mother, where they suckle. Instinct kicks in and the earliest hunger is satisfied, even before the little kittens can see. A kind of knowing moves them to a source of food that will be good for them. And the mother will hide them to keep them out of harm’s way and, later, will teach them to hunt and fend for themselves. I have seen this here at the monastery. I know I am learning something from a different but sure kind of knowing. A kind of knowing that guides the blind, keeps the defenseless safe. A knowing that prepares them for a larger world. A knowing very different from mine. A knowing as impressive as human knowing.
My eyes adjust to the darkness in the church and I can find my way in there. I never have to think about the magic of my eyes – they seem to know very well just how far to widen or narrow their lens-like retinas, allowing for just the right filtering of light. I do not know how my eyes know how to do that. And how does an image travel to the brain? How can flesh and blood see? And, more, how can it be that we see, interpret, remember, associate, and seek to better see and understand all at once – all in a single glance? Something, huh? It happens all the time, even when we dream, and the real meaning of it all escapes me. But there is persistence to it all. Perception, in all its fascinating and connected circuitry, is relentless in its capacity, its seeming need to render experience graspable, intelligible. As if experience, the world itself, has a mind, even a heart, and wants to be known. It “all” beckons and we are obviously curious. In fact, in seems that we have no choice in the matter. An infant looks about with a curiosity. A dying man hopes that his curiosity will not die with him.
Someone knows us.
We come from that someone.
My mom and dad are gone, but something of them lives in me. I am the living expression of their love. The man and woman whose flesh and blood and spirit are truly one in me and who are inseparable in my being. I do not think about it all that much. But I did think about this morning, very early, for Christmas is nearing and I miss them. I wonder how and where they are, and what kind of knowing they “have” and share. Are they more deeply existent in the living design that is the “knowing” of all creatures, creatures great and small?
I do not know. I like to think so. I like to think that God has drawn them more fully into the mystery of life.
Is hope a way of seeing? Is hope a hint of where our knowing comes from and where it should lead? Is the purest hope that which hopes for the unseen – and all the love and beauty that lives there, somehow beyond death? I hope so.
Maybe you are an artist, you from whom we came. No, you must be that, an artist. We live in your design and you are yet at work in us, all about us, from the tiniest of living things to the farthest reaches of the universe.
I have read that we are made, in part, from carbon, a carbon that only comes from star-matter.
A burst or a bang from which the universe was born. A knowing arrived with it. A design was your dream, from the very beginning.
I hope to see my mom and dad again. I hope that is part of your design, you who live before time and in time and of time and beyond time, all at once and in me, along with a man and woman who fell in love and poured their very selves into me. I know that is true – I felt it this morning, in the dark, a dark place in which my eyes knew how to see. Yet a place in which I can easily lose my way.
Christmas nears. A beckoning to see with the heart. A promise to satisfy the hunger of the heart. A fidelity to the eternal destiny of all things. A very telling movement of the hand of God on the canvas of life, the most wondrous movement of divine artistry, a signature in the birth of a baby. A Child for whom we wait. A kind of knowing, there. I feel it in me, a movement in my blindness toward the Source of Life.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Many years ago I was in Milan, Italy and was waiting in the train station for the train that would bring me up to Geneva, Switzerland. I knew that the train would cross the Alps on the way and I made sure I had enough film for my camera. The train had yet to pull into the station, so I looked about at the other people waiting on the platform. There was a young man, dressed in work clothes, who was leaning against a railing, his head turned away from the bustle of the terminal. I do not know if he worked there or was waiting for his train. There is a woman walking past him, carrying a shopping bag as she makes her way toward the end of the tracks. And another man is off to the corner of the picture and he, too, is dressed in work clothes that make me wonder if he is a porter, waiting for someone to assist. The photo is in black and white. I like it. Looking at it these days, some forty years later, the three people are present to me even though they traveled on long ago. The train came; people were helped as they boarded or disembarked and went their ways. But in my mind’s eye they are still on that platform, waiting.
I like the picture because I caught stillness at the right moment. I captured on film a vignette of what much of our lives is about. We are all waiting for something or someone. Redemptive possibilities, large and small, await us in a new town, a new relationship, a new way of living in this world. We all await our arrivals. But every now and then we are still in our waiting, for there is no need to go anywhere save the places of our lives, places we occupy until the hoped for something or someone comes. Such waiting was made internationally famous in the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot.” Most recently, the magnificent novel “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy traces the plight of a father and a son who survive a near total destruction of all life on the planet and who slowly make their way to a nameless coast, despairing of a redemption that no longer seems possible. Yet it emerges out of the desolation and destruction which is the sole landscape of the book (now also a film). Redemption is a strange and unexpected grace that we carry within ourselves and is perhaps ushered into being when we have played our last and seemingly fatal card. It rises from our despair when there is nothing left for which to hope. But rise it does, comes it does. It is on its way.
I remember what the Alps looked like, and I did take pictures as the train passed through those magnificent snow covered heights. But the memory of the men and woman in the Milan station are clearer to me. I shared their waiting. And I still do.
Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time when we are asked to ponder the very meaning of time – our moments, hours, days and years. We tend to fill time with experiences that enhance it. We like to dress up time. Rarely do we let it be, and in that stillness allow it to reveal what it carries. For it carries a promise in that the Incarnation has redeemed time and our waiting. Someone is coming, reaching out to us from the very beginning and end of time and in that reach touched every instant of existence with his presence. God is among us, using time and our lives to gradually reveal the fullness of his work among us.
The truth of human life is that we must wait. Advent offers us time to ponder the goodness of whom we await. We may be tempted to fill our lives with whatever we can to rob time of its tediousness. But the stillness that comes our way – as we find it in a train station or in the slow reading of a novel, allows us to savor the wealth of the present moment as it opens our hearts to the beauties of life, beauties as simple as two men and woman waiting in a station in Milan, and perhaps going somewhere to ease the larger waits of their lives. But I saw them, and remember them. They were, and still are, beautiful on that long ago platform, waiting.