Blogger’s Note: This post is nearly 2000 words long. I’ll understand if you can’t spare the time. Peace and love, John
I try to nap an hour each afternoon and pray so often lots of people would consider me lazy. Breathe in, breathe out. Be mindful. Let go, John. Let go. I’m coming up on twenty-five years of practicing contemplative prayer. When I started I was in terrible shape: depression, panic attacks, and a constant buzz of anxiety in my body. In contemplative prayer, I sit in the quiet dark with the Loving Mystery, who saves me. Not saves as in are you saved? I mean saves me from despair and gives me hope and just enough sanity to get by. Just.
Axentowicz the Anchorite. I look nothing like him when I pray, except maybe in heart and spirit. (Artist: Teodor Axentowicz. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Contemplative prayer has also birthed in me a paradoxical spirit, which songwriter Don Henley describes pretty well in “Heart of the Matter”:
The more I know, the less I understand.
All the things I thought I figured out, I have to learn again.
The truth is, I don’t know or understand much, nor have I figured out much. The wonderful Lutheran folks I serve as pastor might find this confession troubling. Sorry about that. Each day begins with a foundational proposal: Okay, let’s try this again. This, of course, is life. I often feel embarrassingly inadequate to its great gift. I’m driftwood in the presence of Gracious Light. What little I have figured out, I have to keep learning again. I say a constant, wordless prayer: Have mercy. Teach me one more time.
Last Wednesday was a case study in all that I’m haltingly articulating here. The day proper began at Starbucks with me sipping my summer usual, an iced decaf coffee with a decaf shot of espresso (a.k.a. a redeye or a tall iced what’s the point?). The agenda was light, no troubles on the horizon, no stressful deadlines lurking, but I had a surplus of nervous energy. I was either going to blow soothing kisses to my adrenal glands or spend the hours ahead rushing toward no place in particular.
Hope for the day: identify the sparking nerves and make them behave. (Artist: Bartolomeo Eustachi. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A chance chat with Starbucks regulars Rick and Noreen helped. They had just returned from a cruise—their destination escapes me at the moment—still tan and fresh. Noreen wore a fedora, a stylish cancer accessory. She looked great, but was in the midst of treatments, sixteen or eighteen more to go. “But who’s counting?” they said. I told them Abiding Hope, the congregation I serve as pastor, would pray for them. (After thirteen years in a collar, you’d think I would have some understanding of how prayer works, but I’m as clueless as a toddler trying to figure out a good reason for kale. If nothing else, I think it must please God to hear “touch Noreen with your healing hand” rather than “grant me a true aim as I launch a missile at that 777.”) Be welcome to join me in a loving word to the Creator for Noreen and Rick.
The determined, vulnerable eyes of people looking into the mortal abyss made me slow down. I can think of no better way to honor what fellow human beings are going through than to sit still with them, receive as much of their reality as possible, walk mindfully across the parking lot to my crappy truck—watching along the way for traffic and appreciating the pilgrimage of clouds—and dance and bicker with my path and what lines it.
A gaggle of geese was on my path. They took over five minutes to cross from their morning bath to the sunning yard. They taught me patience on my way to run clean socks to painter son Micah, who had spilled bleach on his shoe, sock, and athlete’s foot. Ouch!
At the church, before settling in at the standing desk, I made a trip to the mailbox, and that’s when I really began learning again what I had already figured out. The lesson, of course, was (and is) to live in the moment. The cliché is “stop and smell the roses.” The blessings as morning turned to afternoon and to evening reminded me of such wisdom, but also granted me joyful humility. Each time I encountered another wonder, I was convinced anew that I have no idea where I’m going in this life and why. I’m vertical, ambulatory, taking nourishment, blah-blah-blahing, and gaining weight, but somehow or other I don’t feel in charge of my travels. It’s as if a great community of mystery appears one lovely sister or brother at a time to greet me: “You thought you were going to the mailbox, but you were also sent out to meet me, to hear my teaching, to receive my anointing.”
On the way to the mailbox and back:
Delicate, almost the size of a Canadian dime
Right by the church door: I don’t know their name, but they seemed to know mine
After work I went to Radio Shack.
Okay, John, go ahead and think you were after a power cable. You came to see me, a nest above a beauty shop sign. I’m glad my birds sang to you.
On the way home from Sally’s nest, an old powder blue Mustang was riding my tail, and annoyance almost blinded me. When I pulled over to let the guy pass, a sibling greeted me.
Thank you, brother from the community of mystery, for walking a block with me! Live well and long.
Late in the afternoon I went for a run on the sidewalk trail at Presque Isle, northwestern Pennsylvania’s treasure which juts out into Lake Erie.
Was I exercising, or did I put my running shoes on to go see a red-winged blackbird swoop across my path? (Credit: Bob Jagendorf. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Wednesday’s spirit has continued to give me blessings beyond its allotted hours. On Friday I went to the bank to pour what turned out to be $138 into a coin counter. At least that’s what I thought. Turns out my mission wasn’t about turning change into bills, but something else.
I had forgotten how to wash my hands. Thank goodness for PNC’s foresight. (Heavens, what have we come to?)
On Saturday wife Kathy and I had a yard sale presumably to get rid of some excess and make a few bucks. As a steady rain splashed our event, two surprises taught me again what I thought I had learned:
Kathy found in a dark closet corner the keys to my late mother’s Mercury Lynx on the leather Jesus fish keychain I made as a kid at summer camp. I drove the Lynx after Mom died and used that keychain into my thirties. “Hi, Mom!” “Hi, Camp Lutherlyn!”
I met a woman–the only person I’ve seen–who wears my round John Lennon glasses. “Blessings, sister!”
Actually, I confess that literal brothers prepared my heart a couple weeks ago to receive Wednesday’s wisdom. I had driven two hours to Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, to officiate at Caity and Ian’s wedding, and lovely Kathy was kind enough to come along. A few hours before the nuptials we saw a small sign along Route 8: Holy Trinity Byzantine Monastery. I drove past the turn off, but Kathy said, “John, you know you want to go see it.” So we did a u-ey, wound through four or five rolling miles of corn fields, saw that the monastery had a book and icon store, and decided to ring the bell.
Father Leo and sweet incense greeted us. I asked about the store hours. “Oh, we don’t have any hours,” Father Leo said. “Whenever anybody rings, we open up.”
We followed him down a hall to a 15′ x 20′ room which looked like it hadn’t seen business for some time. He turned on the lights and said, “Father Michael will be here in a minute. He’s just finishing lunch.”
Father Michael showed up immediately–he must have run. Gentle voice, gentle man–lonely man. After ten minutes of back and forth, he laughed: “I love to talk. We don’t get many visitors.”
Showing us shelves of icons, he wiped the dust off of one with a fingertip: “Father James took care of the store. He worked on this almost full time. He died in . . . ,” Michael said, looking somewhere past us for the year, “. . . in 2012. Abbot Leo and I are the last ones left.”
Kathy and I brought this icon home. It will hang in my little chapel to remind me of my brothers near Butler, Pennsylvania, and of the joyful humility in never being sure where I’m going.
I knew at once that Kathy and I had driven nearly to Pittsburgh for two reasons: to join a hundred people at a wedding and to bear witness to Father Leo and Father Michael. If you’ve never visited a monastery, you might not be able to imagine the love, kindness, wholeness, and warmth of a place where silence and patience are profound.
I wish I had met you, Father James. I’m told you loved animals. So do I. (Credit: The Byzantine Catholic World)
“I don’t know if your abbot would permit it,” I said to Michael, “but could I take a picture of the two of you?”
After another twenty minutes of talk, Leo and Michael lead Kathy and me to their chapel and, in a gesture of hospitality that nearly moved me to tears, Leo opened the gate to the Holy of Holies. And, of course, we talked some more: about the celebrant facing away from the congregation not to disregard them, but to lead them to heaven; about the hand-carved wooden tabernacle that took seven years to make. Eventually, Leo closed the gates, and I took their picture.
The last two monks of Holy Trinity Byzantine Monastery: Father Leo (Abbot) and Father Michael.
I plan to write Michael soon. He told me earlier in the store that he is beyond ecumenical. “We’re all one,” he said. I bet he and Abbot Leo would welcome me to enter their quiet sometime soon, for a couple of days. In my letter I’ll ask. And I have a feeling my friend Mark would like to join me and meet these two monks with long beards and agape hearts.
Two nights ago I sat in the Coleman front yard in my favorite lawn chair, stared at the sky, and thought of Michael, seventy-six years old, and Leo, six years his senior. I toasted them, thought of them alone in the corn fields, wondered how much longer quiet and sacrificial welcome will call this planet home, and asked God to remind Michael and Leo that they’re not forgotten.
My observatory, from which I saw one speck of light. That was plenty.
Dead overhead I saw a single star. The glow of Erie, Pennsylvania, dimmed all but one. How many lifetimes would it take to get there? And was it even a star? Maybe it was a planet. No matter. As it happened, I hadn’t sipped wine in the darkness only to sing the day’s fuss to sleep. I had sat still and looked heavenward to receive a slight kiss of light and an invitation: Let go, John. Let go. The community of mystery will save you. Amen