Thursday, May 26, 2011

Touching the Eternal

A friend of mine was here this morning.  His name is Paco and we have a shared interest in photography.  His work is beautiful – he has a good eye.  He can raise the ordinary to its proper, and often overlooked, place in the realms of mystery, beauty, wonder.  He takes everyday scenes and these are kept in his albums, pictures through which grace is captured.
He sent me an email not too long ago about how photography captures the eternal in the split second of a moment.  A beautiful image is like a window through which the eternal can be seen.  I liked what he wrote.  I can see it in what he photographs.  An old ship off the coast of Argentina.  A path through a wooded area.  Pictures of his grandchildren.  Waves stilled by his camera, as they rose against the shore of Argentina. 
We spoke of many things this morning.  We chatted about our families, our current hopes, some disappointments.  The photographs called to mind our losses – he had a photo of his mother, a beautiful woman.  It was taken in 1936.  She is smiling, wise, her life ahead of her.  I thought of my mom, who is gone three years today.  I told Paco that.  She, too, was beautiful and I must find a picture I have of her that was taken about the same time as Paco’s photo of his mom. 
Paco spoke of eternity and how it is that God lives in the eternal.  He is not bound by the constraints of time – though I suppose that at one time he was.  And how is it that we know the eternal?  That we intuit something that is so mysterious and that cannot be defined via the categories of time?  Maybe we are somehow made from the eternal.  It lives in us but we lack the language to capture it.  And so it is that the lens of a camera steals something from the passage of time, and enshrines it in beauty. We cannot speak the eternal.  But a photograph is a near approach, a touching of the eternal.  We know what we cannot speak.  So we take a picture.  We treasure something that was and yet still is, in the picture. 
The taking of a picture pulls one into the present moment.  The present moment demands all the attention, the care, the observation that one can give with the timely press of a shutter.  Life moves on, but a choice was made to suspend worries about the past, worries about the future, and to give the present its claim.  It is quite Zen-like.  In fact, there are books that suggest the relatedness between a Zen mind and a photographer’s eye.  Abandoned ships and rising waves say something, once stilled.
While in New Jersey not long ago, I drove down to the old Essex Catholic High School building in Newark.  I went to high school there, from 1962-1966.   I did not go alone.  My twin Jimmy was alive then, and we traveled to school every day.  We took a bus from our home town and got of the bus at Branch Brook Park.  I do not remember as much as I would like about him.  A psychologist said that his death was so painful for me that I suppressed many memories of him.  It has taken me a long time to deal with that.  I do not understand it, but it is true.  But bit by bit, I try and remember him, how he walked, what we spoke about, the sound of his voice, his likes, dislikes, sense of humor, hopes.   I drove around a bit that day, down Second Avenue, then on to Summer Avenue and along Mt. Prospect.  Driving down Second Avenue, the building looks enormous.  I guess that is because that area is higher, looking down on the building.  I can remember walking down that hill, to the school, early in the morning with Jimmy.  That memory is as fresh as if we walked yesterday.  It is one of the clearest I have of him.  He walked just ahead of me, on a spring morning.  The air was cool and his jacket fluttered as he walked.  He held his books close to his chest.  And he was walking briskly.
I should have parked the car and taken some pictures from that vantage point.  He would not be in the picture, but I would like to have it.  He walked there once.  I remember it.  He walks in another place now, out of time, in the eternal.  I like to think he still walks with me, some time.  But maybe he has always been just ahead.  I will be sixty-three in a few days.  Maybe he will turn and look behind, from wherever he is, and wait for me.  I hope so.  I would like to touch him, touch what is eternal.
I want the picture.  Well, next time.  I will be there again, trying to capture something of the eternal, of the stillness that is born through every second of time, a stillness that was once walking just ahead of me on a long ago spring day.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Memory Days

These closing days of May are filled with memories for me, for my family.  On the sunny side, there are my ordination anniversary, my sister’s wedding anniversary and the anniversary of my solemn profession as a monk here at the monastery.  On the not-so-sunny side, it is the week of the death of my twin brother, and also our birthday, and the anniversary of my mom’s death.  I tend to keep a low profile and thank people when they wish me all the best on the good days.  The memories of sad times I keep to myself.  I guess that is okay.  My mom was fond of saying that no body wants to listen to bad tidings.
Anyway, I was thinking a little while ago about being here, being a Catholic, a priest, a Trappist monk, a soon to be sixty-three old man who dabbles in religious currents and yet at times feel as if I am treading water. I have not moved all that far all these years.  I have read a lot, traveled a lot, met a lot of people, seen a lot of things.  All of that is pleasant to look back on, really.  I can get quiet and remember such warm experiences I had in London, in Beijing, in Irish villages, in big cities like Manhattan and Los Angeles.  How much do I know of God?  I really do not know.  We live in such a verbose culture, a culture that thrives on words and images, enticements and upgrades, new things galore – I do not know how God is or what God is amidst all these accoutrements of culture.  God is easy to package.  We do it every day here at the monastery.  We pray – but do we pray?  What is prayer?  Sometimes I think the whole created universe is a living prayer to God, a wondrous response to God, an alive and thriving need for God to be near, to come back, to perfect what is so in need of a miracle.
God seems far away to me.  God is either that, or God is very close, so close that he is in the very living heart of all that is.  In all things – and in all memories, anniversaries, birthdays, good times and bad times.  In tears and in laughter, in being born and in dying.  The way I see it, there is no getting away from God.  It is like you cannot get out of your own skin.  God covers us, is in us, makes us burn with desire, makes us angry when we cannot know about him for sure.
So I move on to a new year, a new gift of life, of being here.  I might have one wish, and that would be that those I loved and who have died could still be here.  But we all must move on, some earlier than others.  I never minded that, at least not consciously.  I always figured that Jesus died young, and tragically.  And so did my twin.  So I have long been at peace with untimely death.  I think I learned that from my mom and dad. 
So, here I am.  I have very little figured out on the religious map, other than I am on it and heading somewhere.  The details are at times confusing to me.  There are times I have run out of gas.  Or felt so tired and discouraged I wanted to pull off the road.  And there were times when the going was great, and all seemed well with the world and with those whom I traveled.
The church is in troubling seas these days.  Maybe it always was.  Like everything and everybody else.  But we are here, and I am glad to be moving.  I have no idea about the finer points of the big picture.  But I am grateful to be on it, grateful to be on God’s map. And I am glad you are here, too, with me, near or far. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Toy Box

Not very far from here, in a house on the north side of Atlanta, there is a wooden box.  On the side of the box is a faded and chipped painting of a bear with a hat and a bow and a big smile on his face.  The box is in my sister Mary’s house and it was out toy box when we were small children.  She has kept it all these years and now it holds other toys for her own grandchildren. 
I remember the toys that used to fill the box.  Model airplanes – especially a shiny metal one.  The wings folded over the top, just like they do in “real life” in the old war movies, and it was one of my favorite toys.  There were wooden boats that came from Norway.  And hundreds of small soldiers from all kinds of eras – knights and damsels, gladiators and senators, Indians and cowboys, military men, pioneers and space travelers, aliens and animals.  There were covered wagons and little horses. Plastic caves and palatial towers and turrets, drawbridges and plastic moats.  Stuffed animals, big and small, ferocious and cuddly. Wind-up dolls that walked when wound and laughed when squeezed.  All kinds of cards were there, too, the kind that came with bubble gum.  Baseball and football cards, cards with aliens and cards with cartoon characters.  There were plastic rocket ships that had a metal top into which we used to slip caps.  We would toss them into the air and when the thing landed on its head, the cap would explode.  I can still remember the smell.  I can also remember the smell of the toy box, a dusty wooden smell, and the sound the toys made when we would go through layer after layer, looking for something special that we wanted and would not give up till we found it.  And on rainy days, we drove mom crazy when we emptied the entire box on the floor and spread its contents for what we thought was the biggest war in history.  Tanks and dinosaurs and knights and spacemen  all sharing the same floor.  And we seven kids all shared the same toys, with all the variations that made them up.   
I cannot remember the time of life when I moved beyond needing the contents of that box.  Was it sudden or gradual?  I do not know.  But I do know that there came a time when I no longer looked inside to see what was there.  Life beckoned me elsewhere, to places made available through bikes and longer walks, new friends and different needs.  I do remember one time in my adult life when the going got rough, telling Mary that there must be a way to crawl back inside the box and come out the other side to a land of youth, of a kind of Never Never Land where things never die and are always, well, fun.
At times I wonder if what we really do is graduate from one set of toys to another, to more sophisticated play things.  Like computers, telephones, cars, jet planes, hi-techi things.  But maybe such things are given us when we are young until we are ready to move beyond them.  They are like stepping stones to new years, new challenges.  So, maybe the toys I have now as an adult are best used when used for others.  But that takes time to understand, time to discern, time to know the importance of giving away what we are and have and learning from what was given to us as children. 
There is no going back to what once was.  There is no door in the toy box.  Its contents filled my days long ago and I grew into new places, new people.  I cannot ever go back to what was.  But I can move ahead, hoping to share who I am, and what I have, and in that way keep the best that was in the little wooden toy box.  Life needs to be shared, again and again. 

Judgment Day

Today is supposed to be Judgment Day.  I have not followed the news carefully, so I am not sure what is supposed to take place.  I also hear that the end of the world is to follow, on a specific date in October.  It is early morning.  There are no dark clouds on the horizon.  I do not hear any trumpets.  The sky is clear – no legions of angels.  Maybe it will be a quiet judgment.  Or maybe it will come in the mail. 
I had a revelatory experience a few days ago. I have several film cameras and am always taking pictures – a LOT of pictures.  I tend to let the rolls finished rolls accumulate. So, I brought seventeen rolls to a big store in the mall to be developed.  I went back to pick them up a few days ago and the woman behind the desk found all the envelopes but was dismayed because whoever processed the film did not place the prices on any of the envelopes.  She started to get frantic.  I told her not to worry.  She had to open each envelope and count every print.  She was almost finished – it took about twenty minutes – and then she smiled and heaved a sigh of relief.  She then pressed some button on the cash register, and inadvertently deleted all the accounting she had done.  She got very upset, very embarrassed, and said she would have to start over.  I did not mind, but I told her I had to go and would come back in a day or two.  So, I went back later in the week, and she was all smiles.  Everything was ready – it only cost thirty-dollars, which is incredibly cheap.  Then I noticed that she added a lot of extra savings coupons.  I did not really deserve them.  But she smiled and said it was “okay.”  We chatted for a bit.  She is from India and told me that she is from Mumbai and her husband is from farther north in the country.  She also said she was Catholic, when she found out I was from the monastery.  Anyway, she was so friendly.  I am glad that there were no people on line when she pressed the wrong button.  That may have titled things in a very wrong and nasty direction.
So that little mishap had a happy ending.
Now as all that was going on, there were a lot of people who were taking in the Judgment Day news with no small measure of fear.  I read stories about the supposedly coming Judgment causing division in families.  Believers arguing with non-believers to the point where people took sides and now they are no longer speaking with each other.  So much for the unifying grace of religious aspirations.
Well, I confess I did not take it seriously.  I have a feeling that some of the monks looked to have some sweat on their brows.  But we are all still talking with each other, though the day has a ways to go.  Maybe the trumpets will blare after lunch.
I have some more film to be developed.  I told the Indian lady I would be back during the week.  I do not care if she presses the wrong button again.  It will give us time to talk.  I want to ask her about India.  I do not think they have a Judgment Day, at least not one that is akin to ours. 
Well, if we get past this day, I will head down to the store soon and bring my film. I have a feeling she will avoid the delete button.  Perhaps she has discussed the mishap with the worker who originally ran the bar code tickets. 
Maybe God forgot about Judgment Day.  Or is giving us all a reprieve.  Well, we have several months till October.  Big Delete Day. 
God is good.  Maybe he has coupons to give.  A lease on life, a discount on everything.  A new beginning.  For everybody.  Everywhere.


Summer is upon us and the warmer weather has a way of enticing my memories of long gone summers.  When I was younger I used to spend many summer days down in Belmar, New Jersey.  It is a small town on the Jersey shore.  It has long had a reputation as a summer haven for high school and college kids.  I am sure it still enjoys that reputation.  I would go to a small bungalow on 15th Avenue, which was owned by close friends of mine.  We would spend hours on the front porch, which had a hammock and chairs.  At night, we could see the passing cars and passersby.  People walking their dogs, or young couples walking along and holding hands.  Older people, too, would walk by, taking in the cool of the evening as they headed in the direction of the boardwalk.
There was an enormous nightclub several blocks away which catered to the young crowd.  The place was always packed and from the porch we could hear the howls and the laughter as the crowd there moved into full swing.  The name of the club was Bar Anticipation.  It was and still is the place “to be” in Belmar on a hot summer’s night.
I was there in the winter a few years back. The town was deserted, since most of the houses were summer rentals and were closed up.  The boardwalk was closed for the winter months.  Main Street had a some places open, since there is a resident winter population in the area.  But the streets near the beach were practically deserted.  I stayed a few nights in the bungalow on 15th Avenue with Bill, friend of mine.  His family owns the bungalow. We had a heater and some blankets, so the nights were fine.  In the evenings, we sat on the porch with the TV on in the room behind us, the volume turned low.  A bottle of wine was opened and we toasted each other and talked about old times, all the summers we enjoyed in that house, the memories flowing as easily and as readily as the wine.
The little bungalow is the kind of place that we know well at a particular time in our lives, and then we move on and leave it behind.  Yet its simplicity and its comfort is something we look for again and again all during our lives.  Many new places are silently compared to the elegant charm of a modest beach bungalow in Belmar.  It is as if it was a place that good memories were born, and it would be something of a miracle to reduplicate that process in all the later places of our lives.  But memories that glow are born from special times, special places.  I am fortunate that I can go back and savor the times that were, in the very place those memories came from.
When I was last there, Bill and I sat on the porch late into the night.  Bill wanted to go out, but I talked him into just hanging out there and chatting.  He asked me several times if things were okay, if I was sure I did not want to go out.  I told him no, that it was good to be there, to be at peace.  I could hear the ocean, its waves rhythmic, even, marking time with each roll on the beach.  Like days and years, as they come and then go.  But that night, all seemed still, and good.  Time rolling on, the taste of wine, a good friend, a return to what is beautiful and good in this life.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Big Feast

I remember the metal box my mom used to store her recipes.  It was small, the kind you use for placing index cards.  In fact many of her recipes she wrote on those cards and there were little tabs, well worn from her fingers, that separated meals into different categories.  And the box had decorations on it – pieces of celery, bright red tomatoes, and sprigs of parsley.  The little box contained a world of delicacies, from soups to desserts.  I can still remember the taste of mom’s spaghetti sauce, or her vegetable soup, or a dish she called chicken roge (I can remember the taste of that, too, but am not as sure about the spelling).
She never varied that much from her recipes.  She may have added to them, but did not alter them when she cooked.  I suppose it was easy for her to follow the laid out directions.  In the back of the box were recipes cut from newspapers and magazines.  These were folded neatly, filed away I guess for a future meal. 
Maybe there is something to learn from her recipes and what she did with them.
A few days ago I was riding with Brother Mark and we chatted as he drove.  We were talking about the seemingly infinite array of opinions and interpretations that flood the airwaves and other media day in and day out.  In the more abstract realms of thought – like theology, spirituality and, yes, politics, arguments and discussions are endless and can get quite heated.  Nothing is ever settled for good and as time passes the opinions and angles proliferate and these in turn redefine previous positions and the like.  It is hard to get a firm handle on anything.  It is as hard to get down to concrete data, to keep one’s feet on the ground.  It is hard to see straight, to know what is right or wrong or even in the middle. 
Mark said that maybe we are not meant to know the inner workings of things.  The essence of life teases our imagination but we can never find it, never coax it out of its shell.  And all about us and within us are shells, delicate coverings for what lies beneath.  But the inside is not ours to know.  Is the inside God?  Who knows?  The debates rage on, never arriving at an answer.
That little recipe box contained a limited set of directives that, if followed step by step, provided culinary delights.  I grew up on these, quite literally.  I suppose that mom wavered from time to time, maybe blending in a seasoning or two, or allowing the pot to simmer longer than suggested by the recipe.  But basically she was happy to work within limits, limits that gave forth wondrous results.
We are bounded by limits.  We live through the eternal, but with a finite way of seeing it all.  We try and catch a taste of the eternal with our recipes of religious certitude and longing, even though these can never be adequate.  But we must live, and think, and celebrate our lives.  God knows we must have sustenance, and he provides.
God is the Grand Chef.  The universe is his recipe box, filled with all kinds of surprises, mixtures, simmering times, cooling times.  And all the peoples of the earth, of time itself, are invited to share the preparation of the feast.  We do so in different ways, and at different times.  We all live by a promise and a hope that God is preparing something wondrous, something good, and we are asked by him to have patience until the time it is ready to be served to all the peoples of the earth.   

The Pin Cushion

Father Luke was the monastery tailor here for a long, long time.  It is more than “as far back as I can remember.”  He may well have been at it before I was born.  He has a fantastic memory.  I will ask him.  I do know that up until recently, he made every piece of monastic clothing here.  If it was white and black and had a belt and moved, Luke made it.
He has settled into a different routine these days.  He is still active, moving about the monastery, going to the offices, interested in everyone and everything.  But he has eased out of the tailor shop.  Brother Roger has picked up the reins, or, as the case may be, the threads.
I was in the tailor shop not too long ago and on one of the large tables there lay an assortment of outfitting necessities.  There was a scissors, several bolts of material, strips of cloth, a measuring tape, and what looked like a tomato.  But it really wasn’t a tomato.  It was a pin cushion.  A bright red pin cushion with little felt green leaves, and light green stripes down the side, and a lot of pins sticking out of it.
My mom had one just like it.  I stared at it for a while.  I did not pick it up, for as I looked at it, just the looking was enough for it to work its magic.
It brought me back.  Brought me back many years.  Mom used to keep it in her sewing box, along with a lot of other sewing stuff.  Spools of colored thread, scissors, hundreds of buttons, strips of ribbon – some which had the names of us seven kids on it.  She used to sew the names on the inside of our shirt colors.  It was by no means a fancy box.  In fact it was a shoebox, which was of just the right size.  Everything fit, and it was always easy enough to find.  When she wasn’t darning a sock or sewing on a label, I remember that the box was kept up in mom and dad’s bedroom, on her dresser top.  Sometimes she would ask me to go upstairs and get it, and I can to this day remember what else she had on her dresser, surrounding the box with the little red tomato cushion.  There was a porcelain ballerina whose delicate dress was broken, and mom’s silver handled brush and mirror, and a picture of dad, and her jewelry box.  As I looked at the red tomato pin cushion in our tailor shop here, these things from way back gradually took shape in my mind. 
I do not know whatever happened to mom’s pin cushion.  So many things have a fitting role to play in life, and then as we move on, they vanish, or get lost or discarded.  They don’t seem to find a neat fit into a changed world, and we leave them behind.  I guess that is inevitable.  But it is something how the sight of something so simple as a pin cushion can evoke in my heart days and memories that were, and somehow still are, a living part of me.
My sister Mary has a lot of mom’s stuff at her house.  I do not know – maybe she even has the pin cushion.  But I know it best to let it be.  If it is there, fine.  If not, well, that is okay too.  Everything has a life, for a while.  And then they and we all move on.
Yet I know that all those things at Mary’s were vehicles of love, real tender, human love.  The sewing box held simple but necessary things – things that kept us together, looking fit, patched, named, darned.  The work of God through a mom’s hands, eyes, and the careful threading of just the right colored thread through an eye of a needle.
Luke seems to have let go real well.  He did his thing for years, and is now about other things, other tasks.  I wear his love, as I once wore my mom’s. 
Pin cushions seem to hold more than pins, don’t they?  Memories have a point, too, and they stick just as well and stay for a long, long time, in the soft red cotton or the human heart.