Friday, June 22, 2007

June 22 19th Day of The Last Sabbatical

Journal Entry from May 9, 2003. Beginning a Retreat at St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, MI

Upon arriving in the monastery parking-lot I step out of the car and am at once absorbed by a very physical sense of familiarity, a soft and living presence that is utterly welcoming, utterly and strangely real. These monks are caretakers to a region of altered reality, a sacred blob of air and earth commingled within irregular boundaries, boundaries I cannot see but feel when I cross them, as if passing through a veil or curtain. It has been at least eight years since my last visit here, yet the very same frogs seem to be singing. There is also lightening, and towering clouds. I had forgotten the profound stillness. How could I forget? The air is damp, warm and heavy, charged with something more than electricity. The frogs are drinking the air in great gulps, and then singing about their great love.
Well, I am singing about mine.

In the monastic church the heavy wooden doors shut out the frog choir. Outside the doors the entrance is strewn with blossoms fallen from some flowering bush. Everywhere in the deserted church are candles and tiny grottos strewn with icons and more flickering lights. The air smells of barnwood, incense, and wax.
I think of the old, dead monks of the past who cast their lives into the deep well of this place, whose free spirits form part of the singing cloud that pervades it now. I recall their names. What moments they had in this brief world they chose to squander on the management of this sacred enclave, like gamblers in a high-stakes game. Other former monks cut their losses and left the monastery behind: I know their names as well. Having left this place, were they haunted by the memory of it? Or was it simply another former address where they stayed awhile?
I imagine some future time when every monk has gone, and the buildings demolished, or put to some other use. I imagine people pausing in their business to take note of the strangeness, bumping into the sacred boundary just as I did upon arriving here. “What is it about this place?” they wonder. “Why do I suddenly feel at peace, at home, and loved?”

Fishing with Michael

Michael, becalmed on the river;
Fishless, continues casting.
Michael, a poet,
Imagining verses;
A romantic,
Imagining grace.

Downstream, David
Holds a fish aloft;
Clearly, the outlines of a Smallmouth Bass.
James is floating too.

I watch from my place in the river.
There are stones in my shoe.

The river, a poet,
Imagines us:
Graceful verses
Recited by bass,
Held up by innertubes
And down by stones.

June 18, 2007

Monday, June 11, 2007

Two Mega-Metaphors

JUNE 10 7th day of “The Last sabbatical”

September 17, 1996
And yet there are times, moments, when the flow of events becomes a River in which I wade and fish, every cast a search for missing parts of a story.

June 11, 2007 St. Barnabas

Two Mega-Metaphors for God.
1. The Natural World. Rivers in particular, and some forests. It was at the Delaware River in Pennsylvania that I first talked to trees as if they were interested. The River was like a distracted Grandmother, whispering to herself in the night.
Last night on the Au Sable River we fished late, long after our lines and flies became invisible, long after the owls had begun to hoot and hunt, and (we had eventually to admit) long after the trout had ceased to rise. There were plenty of bugs hatching: just no trout eating them. I caught two, a rainbow and a brown. The River was high and strong from the recent rains.
In the gathering darkness the water seems to merge with air, and for awhile we become as if amphibious, inhabiting both regions. For that time we are a discontinuous arc, linked to the underwater realm by fly line and tapered leader, requiring only a rising trout to complete the circle. Yet even the absence of trout implies a potential completeness.
In the fishless void a scrap of remembered poetry rises to the surface. T.S. Eliot, I think.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

The potential implies the possibility. Gods spawn in the River alongside the mayflies, and merge into one. For Thine is the kingdom, continues the poem. Our casting is a rehearsal for such a kingdom, a ritual with sacred sticks waved lucklessly at shadows.

My Up North fishing partner prefers to be known by a pseudonym, so I will call him Riverdog since he stands guard over the rivers, protecting them from pollution and other forms of disrespect. We sit by the river bank in darkness, discussing ways in which our environment is holding us accountable for our self-indulgent life style. Riverdog tells about his Basic Training in the army: “we will break you down,” he was told. That seems authoritarian and harsh, but is exactly what our planet will do to our species if we don’t stop abusing her.
And exactly what Christ teaches, demonstrates: we are being broken down, shattered, disassembled by the events of life, by climatic change, tectonic shifts, geologic or otherwise.
Will U raise us up? Reassemble us as partners with these waters and these fish?

2. Community. Churches in particular.
At the Eucharist in Mio, Michigan, this morning the congregation arrived early, eager to see one another, reluctant to leave at the end. They lavish much care on their quaint, tiny church and well-equipped parish hall, but what they cherish most is their communion with one another. They greet strangers warmly, anxious to show a visitor how to find the pages in the books. When the visitor turns out to be a priest in disguise, they laugh heartily at themselves. They are thankful for their church, and like to share it with others.

What keeps liturgy from being boring and subversive to community and gospel?
A. Participation… the congregation at St. Bartholomew’s, Mio, are liturgical adepts. They read scriptures & prayers, preach sermons, and sing idiosyncratic service music with laudable enthusiasm.
B. Stories… people need to tell about what they did and what it meant to them. Last week they had held the funeral of a member who was highly esteemed in the community. Two hundred people attended the service for this 93 year old woman. Many funerals for people that old are sparsely attended because they have outlived their contemporaries. But some people transcend their generation
C. It is understandable that people hold back from participation in our life and worship. Worship is like looking over a cliff into an abyss of sorrow, joy, brokenness, and infinite possibility. You know there is no way to appreciate it without jumping over the edge and becoming part of it. But there is a strong temptation to watch from a safe distance, to dabble in spirituality, to watch Bassmasters on TV instead of wading into the Au Sable River in the dark. I notice this when I visit other congregations where I have no personal connections.

The rector of St. Bartholomew’s spoke in her sermon about how God empowered prophets, apostles, and Jesus to take action in various ways. She suggested we do the same by recycling Styrofoam. “It’s mostly symbolic,” she acknowledged. Like Elijah the prophet, we must trust in God to reveal the abundance in the midst of apparent scarcity. Like Jesus, we must join the grief-stricken crowds and seek to restore their lost joy. Only God can bring this about, and most of us make changes only when we have to.
In other words, when we are broken down, shattered, and disassembled. Then we may be ready to become bread.

The liturgy at St. Bartholmew’s was good. It served the community. But when there is healthy community, even tedious liturgy can be endured.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The last sabbatical 6th Day

Journal Entries… March 25, 2000.“Caitlin said: some one should write a book about you, Dad, and all your weird experiences. It would be really good. But probably not until after you’re dead.”
June 9, 2007. Going Up North to fish.
Today I wrote to my friend David:
It occurs to me the potential, unseen, often-unresponsive cyber-audience of the internet makes a servicable metaphor for God. I aim my daily commentary at it, fishing for a response of some kind, imagining a response even when there appears to be none.
Fishing, which is what I am about to do now. Another potent metaphor. We cast out our bait, piercing the surface of observable reality, hoping for some sign of life from below.
Of "signs of life" there is no shortage. Are no shortage? Anyhow, they are abundant.

Friday, June 8, 2007

June 8 5th Day of the Last Sabbatical

U and Thou

It’s too bad we stopped saying “thee” and “thou” in ordinary usage. The lack of a distinct first-person singular deprives us of a means of intimacy, a threshold to mark the passage from acquaintance to friendship, and from mere politeness to personal trust. Its absence from everyday conversation spoils its use for religious purposes as well. If the only time we say “Thee” is in prayer, it loses currency and distorts meaning. Instead of signaling increased intimacy, it increases distance.
I am often at a loss as to how to address my prayers. “Lord…” is a patriarchal term with archaic political overtones. Bewigged Englishmen with no meaningful power? Doesn’t work for me… .
A monk once told me that his prayer life consisted of simply this: whenever I would normally think of “it,” I think of “you” instead.
So there are no objects in the world, only sacraments? Hmmm…


March 10, 2004. In deep silence I hurt, mourn, and behold all the tiny sadnesses, the episodes of loss and regret. I grieve over the vast distances that separate us, even as we cling to each other with great tenderness.
My anger, fear, and dread exist across a void, a vast distance from you, God. From U, God.
Uly One of Israel.
U only are immortal, the maker and redeemer of mankind, and we are mortal, formed of the earth. For so did U ordain…
Even at the grave we make our song: Ulleluia, Ullelulu, Ulleluyu.

U reach, flow, seep across the abyss to touch me- heart and head.
U. Nancy; Caitlin; all the kids; all the people. All U.
I offer my isolation, pain, and fear to U.
U are in it and through it and beyond it.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

June 7 2007 Pilgrimage

Journal Entry

August 24, 2006, Davis CA- This trip is more of a pilgrimage than a vacation. For Nancy, it is an opportunity to revisit places she lived in the 1970’s, places she had left behind, hurriedly and unhappily, and not seen since. For David, it is a chance to set foot in a series of classic punk rock venues and music stores. For me, a quest for havens of sacred practice and true community. Katie’s part is something of a scribe, reporting each stage of our journey into her cell phone. To whom is she speaking?

Pilgrimage begins with a call, an allure, and intimation of bliss.
“Pilgrimage” is to “vacation” as “action” is to “motion;” as “word” is to “noise;” as “grace” is to “luck.”

We are driving through Santa Clara, searching for Nancy’s old apartment-complex. The locus of her memory resembles a dreamscape, crowded with random associations and scraps of memory, scrambled and buried under miles of gleaming new architecture and disguised on streets with unfamiliar names. In a Mexican restaurant painted bright yellow the gregarious owner provides confirmation of structures existing more than thirty years, including the one we are standing in, though not always Mexican, and not always bright yellow. Armed with such knowledge, we renew our search. Then a flash of recognition at a street sign: “Scott Boulevard!” We turn, then turn again, then proceed slowly. “Turn here!” she cries, into a cluster of shaded courtyards and adobe-style apartments with balconies and tile roofs where “my cat would escape and run across the rooftops.” A small swimming pool “where Jason would splash.” Jason the merest infant at the time.

Pilgrimage: from a jumble of disconnected images a pattern leaps out.
Ingredients: persistence; a willingness to endure the chaos, the disorientation; companions willing to accompany you in uncertainty, other eyes through which to see your own past; a capacity to connect with strangers; intuition; trust.

Unlike Islam, Christianity does not require pilgrimage. For Christians, pilgrimage is more of devotional extra, like Stations of the Cross. The Reformation condemned it as a relic of superstition and worse. But the pilgrim’s call seems irrepressible, inevitable, regardless of theology.

June 7, 2007. Day 4 of The Last Sabbatical.

In the end, of course, life itself is a pilgrimage, for “this world is not my home/ I’m only passing through.” Or, rather, it is either a pilgrimage toward some ultimate goal, or it is a vacation from oblivion; it is either an act of defiance and obedience, or it is a random motion taking place on a freak planet, a twitch unobserved on the lifeless skin of an unconscious cosmos. (Come to think of it, is not the cosmos itself a pilgrim, expanding toward ???)
Our life is either a word addressed in darkness to an unseen listener, or it is so much noise, percussion with no beat, dancing with no feet.
Is it grace or luck that I am here, writing these words? That you are there, reading them? Are you there?

It is the pilgrim’s task to discover.