A Meditation on God’s Will

A Meditation on God’s Will

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. (From a prayer by Thomas Merton)

A reflection with Buddha keeping me company

These opening words of a prayer written by Trappist monk Thomas Merton evoke in me a mirror moment. Yes, the mirror is a cliché worn threadbare, but stay with me. I’ll wager most thoughtful people occasionally stare at their reflections—not out of vanity, but ontological wonder.

If you’re my age, your skin is slowly disappearing behind crow’s feet and spots. Maybe a spare chin is descending. Or you have half-moons like pale bruises under your eyes.

Years, of course, are beside the point. Your pupils and mine are curious. “Who am I?” we sigh. “What am I about?”

We don’t linger for long, though. No answers are forthcoming. Our questions retire with us each night, but never leave.

In my case, they’re light sleepers. Where am I going? What does the road ahead look like? When will it all end? And am I doing good in this world, helping more than hurting?

“Boy,” you’re thinking, “keeping company with Coleman sounds as pleasant as a picnic in a sleet storm.”

You’d be surprised. For me, Merton—known to his fellow monks as “Father Louis”—has liberated humanity by admitting truths about our earthly residency. “I have no idea.” “I do not see.” “I cannot know.”

Precisely. We know precious little. I’m barely fluent in the language of my own soul. Where am I headed? Why was I scheduled for an appointment on this planet?

Thomas Merton in his hermitage. He was younger than I am now when he died. (Credit: Wikipedia)

And where will my road end? Thomas Merton died in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, after giving a lecture—twenty-seven years to the day after he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Clumsy with all manner of devices, he was electrocuted by a defective fan.

God could be accused of calling Father Louis to his eternal reward in a grim fashion, but you won’t hear the accusation coming from me. After the oddities, injustices and monstrosities I’ve witnessed, my chin simply won’t wag over matters far beyond my station. And whenever anybody so much as hints at discerning the Lord’s motives, I call “bullshit.”

Still, I’m not without sympathy. Folks who turn everything from finding lost keys to perishing in a flood to surviving a house fire into an act of God need patience, not criticism.

Existence is as frightening as it is beautiful. “God’s will,” for those who claim to understand it, is a nerve pill. To explain how life works is to solve the Divine Mystery and anesthetize our fears.

Sorry, the collective force of human anxiety and hubris can never tame the universe or peek behind God’s veil. Words like “faith” and “belief” are used in religious conversations for a reason. We “do not see.” We “cannot know.”

But Merton’s prayer doesn’t end with resignation. After admitting that he doesn’t know God’s will, he says, “But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”

So what exactly does the monk know? That God will lead him “along right pathways,” but every how and why remain resolute secrets.

A cross made from branches along a trail in Michigan.

I’ve learned to receive such mysteries as blessings. The yoke of interpreting the inscrutable is broken. I “know nothing about” how God figures into each day’s hairpin curves. I don’t have to speculate about divine appearances along any wayfarer’s road, not even my own. Maybe most liberating of all, I’m under no obligation to prove that God exists or to justify the cross that has kept vigil over my prayers for going on twenty years.

I do pray an awful lot, sometimes with words, mostly with silence. More than anything else I’m an unfurled sail, waiting for a breeze of wisdom and compassion to set me on the right course.

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Words from the Dead in a Frightening Season

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Our beautiful country . . . out my office window.

Voting seasons are generally a drag, but the 2016 presidential primaries in advance of this fall’s general election are scary. In response to a long, humorless essay on the subject I posted on A Napper’s Companion a few days ago, friend Mary wrote, “I am sick and frightened and don’t know where our beautiful country is going.”

To her excellent words, I would add powerless. Today is Super Tuesday, and millions of Americans are looking around wildly for a pause button that doesn’t exist. Will our next president’s greatest gift be barroom brawling? And will the spectacle that is United States government morph from paralysis to legislative deliberations dominated by bellowing, spittle, and locker room insults?

I’m not the only citizen asking these questions and fearing these fears. Friend Judie wrote to me, “I am so ashamed of what we have become in politics.” Mary and Judie speak for thoughtful Americans and, obviously, for me. I’m weary with sick and frightened and ashamed.

As the first votes are being cast, I’m taking this moment to up my personal ante: Shame for others’ conduct is bad, but shame for my own thoughts and actions is worse.

When hitting below the belt is the order of the day, the temptation to counterpunch in like fashion is acute. If you call me a loser, I can call you whatever I please—and think even worse. But this way is neither Christian nor mindful. It’s the way of the lowest common denominator and the reptile brain.

Frightening times can bring out the worst in us, myself included. We’ve been scared before, though. I’m too young to recall vividly 1968, another year that America felt itself cracking to pieces. Think the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

In April of that year, monk Thomas Merton wrote in his journal while on the road: “So the murder of M. L. King—it lay on top of the traveling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse. And it finally confirmed all the apprehensions—the feeling that 1968 is a beast of a year. That the things are finally, inexorably, spelling themselves out. Why? Are things happening because people in desperation want them to happen? Or do they have to happen? Is the human race self-destructive? Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion? Or must one just “love” in an impossible situation?”

Anyone familiar with Merton’s life and work knows how he would have answered his own questions. One must love. In beastly times, love is the mindful person’s center of gravity. Such love is sometimes obliged to fight, but its arsenal is selective. Cruel or dehumanizing weapons, for example, are out. Such love is also sacrificial and can appear not only risky, but reckless.

How difficult to remember in an alarming season that assaulting my neighbor ends in wounding myself. In an informal address in Calcutta in October of 1968, Merton spoke indirectly of love: “And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.

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Flower Power, 1967 (Credit: Bernie Boston on Wikipedia)

Monks from various spiritual traditions, Western and Eastern, heard these words. In the context of what feels like a contemporary planetary crack up—campaign explosions, not to mention real bombs and climate change—Merton probably seems flighty, like a hippie sticking a flower in a rifle barrel. (And the monk himself added a tragic explanation point to 1968 on December 15th when he died of an accidental electrocution in Bangkok.)

If the human race is self-destructive, I want to be the weirdo holding out a daisy. If Christian love and human unity are pitiful delusions, nobody wake me up.

Wherever our beautiful country is going, history has taught us where hatred and fear lead. Call me a flake if I refuse to take the beastly path.

Waking from a Dream of Separateness

Waking from a Dream of Separateness*

In the midst of shamatha—calm abiding—lately, I’ve been having Fourth-and-Walnut moments. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. One of the famous monk’s most beloved writings comes from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which Thomas Moore calls a “mind-bending collection of short pieces”:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . .

As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

But even if it were possible to tell a friend or stranger, “You know, I see past your skin and know we’re family. Do you understand that you’re beautiful?” it wouldn’t be advisable. First, I would appear to be on an acid trip. And second, I would stomp all over the moment with my inadequate words.

It’s better to stay quiet, as I did last evening over a few Lucifer Belgian ales at the Tap House with old college teaching colleagues. One guy, who has been retired for over ten years but looks in better shape than I do, nursed his beer and held forth at length. But this wasn’t a self-indulgent, drunken monologue. Behind my friend’s animation I witnessed his soul’s lightening. He is engaged in a life-long lover’s quarrel with the world: what he loves, he loves recklessly; when he rails, he rails through clenched teeth. He has got the universe caught up in a fierce embrace.

Another shining spirit is a woman I saw at church this morning. I won’t name her because she would be embarrassed, but as she volunteers with more efforts than I probably realize, she gives off life. We had a belly laugh when she showed me a potless plant. Obviously somebody had broken the pot and put the dirt and root system back in the stand. There’s no way I can imagine being alien from this friend.

Yet another church friend hangs his paintings in the office. Parish Administrator Michelle and I love the work of this self-taught guy whose basement is full of decades of canvasses. He and his wife are getting on in years, but their gentleness glows. Being with them for ten minutes can bless a whole morning.

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Hanging on the church office at Abiding Hope

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Taped to my office door, a portrait of me by Meghan, a kid who emits showers of sparks. I especially like my nostrils.

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Barista Abbey wearing a little girl’s crown

Of course, Thomas Merton was talking mostly about strangers in his Fourth-and-Walnut epiphany, and the more I’m able to give myself to the refreshment of siestas and the sanity of prayer, the more I notice great light all around me. Some time ago here at Starbucks, I saw barista Abbey knitting as a young friend made crowns. The kid was happy, proud of trying to fashion power and might out of construction paper. As I talked to them for a few seconds, we belonged to each other.

Unfortunately, sometimes shining people cause sunburn. A young woman here at Starbucks just had a lover’s quarrel of her own via cell phone. After a short, tearful fight, she retreated to the restroom, where I imagine she is crying some more. I’ve never seen her before, but have an empathetic pit in my stomach for her. And now she is gone, out into the 90-degree swelter with her puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and upset heart.

I’m still here in the air-conditioned shamatha of 4:02 p.m., glad that the sad girl was mine and I was hers (though she knew nothing about it). Most of all, I’m grateful not to suffer from the dream of separateness. I belong to everyone. Everyone belongs to me.

*This post first appeared in slightly different form on A Napper’s Companion in July of 2013.

A Man of Second Chances

The late Trappist monk Thomas Merton included the following confession in one of his famous prayers:

I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself . . . .

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Optimism

Me, neither, especially the last part. If you want to know the truth about me, best ask somebody else. But one thing I have learned over the years is that I’m an optimist, occasionally to the point of foolishness. How I know this doesn’t matter. I just know.

At 6:20 this morning I woke up ahead of the alarm. This was a good waking, not the wretched sort when you would pay a $100 or sell one of your nostrils for just one more hour of sleep before heading off to work or chores. I was fresh, mulling over the fine possibilities on the horizon.

Before my twenty minutes of prayer, I listened to The Writer’s Almanac podcast, which concluded with a poem by Rita Dove entitled “Dawn Revisited.” The first lines had me:

Imagine you wake up

with a second chance

Heck, yeah! I believe in second chances, endless chances. (I would like to share the entire poem, but copyright blah blah blah.) The following made my soul’s lungs fill with new air:

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page. Come on,

shake a leg!

Preach it, Rita! Every once in a miraculous while, my spirit’s stirring converges with a friend’s innocent remark or an adagio or a poem. As soon as I finished pray-meditating, I actually wanted to “shake a leg,” and here a voice visited with encouragement: “Come on!”

The poet spoke about three hours ago, and I’m still rolling. Afternoon can be a slog because old wounds and griefs sometimes visit; breathing gets leaden. My past has strong hands, which it uses to grab my throat and back me up against a cinderblock wall. “Listen, little bitch,” the past says, “you’re not going anywhere.” It squeezes harder: “Just try to heal up and move on, punk!”

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Cold, bright day. A new blue page ready for words.

Sometimes, but not today. Sadly, I’m not a fighter, so I won’t be telling the old hurts to “go pound salt.” A story is told about Mahatma Gandhi being confronted by an angry man threatening violence against him. Gandhi embraced the man, who collapsed in tears. I’m no Gandhi, but this is my way. Today, if the past intrudes, I’ll kiss its lumpy head and say, “Not today. I’ll take care of you, but you’re not going to choke me.” In other words, I’ll breathe and keep shaking a leg.

Such mindfulness and discipline take a lot of energy. Still, the sun is bright, the sky is clear, and I have hope. Wednesday, February 25th is a second chance. Actually, I’ve lost count of what chance this day is. Above my desk at the church I have a drawing of a bald man sitting in meditation (in Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura). The caption in calligraphy goes,

Abba Poeman said about Abba Pior

that every single day he made a fresh beginning.

What luck! This morning must be my millionth chance, since I often start over a couple times during my waking hours. The present can be better than the past.

So, goodbye for now. I need to go write on the sky.

An Understanding of Prayer

7:39 a.m. at the downtown Starbucks. 7° with a wind chill factor of misery. A burly guy I’ll call Constance lumbered in ten minutes ago carrying his taut duffle bag. It looks like he’s lugging around a four-foot section of big telephone pole. Who knows what’s in there? The pockets of his fisherman’s vest are tumors of valuables.

After a trip to the restroom, Constance resumes his animated discussion with State Street, jabbing the table with his pointer finger and staring down the swirls of snow. His negotiations are urgent, relentless.

I see Constance a couple times a month. My daughter said years ago that he goes by a woman’s name and sometimes dresses in drag. I’ve only seen him dressed for weather, even in summer, but his name is none of my business. Only death will end his wandering and lonely arguments.

What locks await the cluster of keys hanging around his neck and resting on his gut? Mirage homes? And now, he is pissed: “No! No! You will not!” Silence, then, “I . . . didn’t . . . know! Why are we talking about this?”

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Oh, Constance, may one of those keys open up a home of warm color, a cat waiting for you, and loved ones who agree with your argument.

I pray for Constance. I also pray for the guy who picks up garbage and shovels snow outside my primary Starbucks haunt near the Millcreek Mall. Yesterday was nearly as severe as today. He was bundled beyond recognition when I drove by him on my way to work. I could make out a slit of flesh from his eyebrows to the bridge of his nose. That was it.

“God,” I said. More and more I’m finding that is prayer enough.

I pray all the time, and I mean all the time. This statement is frankly uncomfortable, not because I’m ashamed of prayer. As Constance just said, “No, no, no, no, no!” My squirming comes because I suspect folks would find my practice of prayer weird and pointless.

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The point of prayer: to be spirit still, to let light shine into and through me? (Balcony of chapel at the Abbey of Gethsemani)

In The New Seeds of Contemplation, Trappist monk Thomas Merton describes my context for prayer:

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the wind and join in the general dance.

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Thomas Merton (Father Louis) (Credit: Wikipedia)

As a spiritual master, Merton dares speak of mysteries with certainty. I avoid that. Who am I? But Father Louis, as he was known at the Abbey of Gethsemani, comes up with words that work for me—as much as language can take hold of the Ultimate, anyway.

If “the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness,” then prayer is my daring to join in. I’ve spent years “analyzing the phenomena of life out into strange finalities and complex purposes of [my] own” and have had enough of that absurdity. The best prayer I can offer, then, is impoverished and goes like this: “I don’t know anything. But please fill me. I’m here.”

Intercessions are important, of course, but I hold an unconventional view of them. My prayer for the garbage-snow removal guy was monosyllabic because of what I believe about God. Of course the Creator wants everybody to be sane, healthy, warm, fed, clothed, and loved. So saying anything more than the Sacred Name isn’t essential—like asking snow to make its way to the ground. It’s what snow wants to do!

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Dear Snow, Almighty and Everlasting, fall to earth, cover our cars and houses. Amen. (Credit: Barasoaindarra on Wikimedia Commons)

If God wants the whole world taken care of, then why the hell doesn’t God do it? We’re heading for the good old theodicy conundrum: If God is infinitely good, where does evil come from and why does it exist? My answer is the spiritual foundation of my prayer life: “I don’t know anything.”

Some believers might tap me on the shoulder with familiar answers: “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is ‘no.’” Or “God knows what’s best for you, even when what’s happening is terrible.” Or “God is testing you.” Or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Or, the one I find most irksome: “God never gives you more than you can bear.”

Tell that to the man I hugged whose father died a few months ago and whose mother was going into surgery—anesthesia when you’re sneaking up on ninety is sketchy. Imagine losing both your parents four months apart. Serving up a platitude might get you a well-deserved knuckle sandwich.

After a few thousand hugs like this, I refuse to reduce prayer to a crapshoot. “Dear Lord, please bring So and So through this surgery and grant a speedy recovery.” I might actually say something like this, but I would never do so with a what-the-heck-it-can’t-hurt attitude. And I would never think to myself, “Well, gosh, I’ve prayed like this over and over. Maybe God will hear me this time.” And I won’t try to explain the ways of the Eternal Mystery. The presumption!

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Prayer: whatever I am, whatever I wish, open and vulnerable with the Ultimate Truth? (Figure at the Abbey of Gethsemani)

But as I wait for my cell phone to ring, I pray for the woman in surgery and her son, not because I expect to influence the outcome. I say “help,” sigh, and look beyond these walls, windows, and patrons because my present reality is this: I wish for a dear old soul’s return to health, if nothing else so her son can catch his breath before adding another layer to his mourning. My prayer is, “Please, Lord, please.” At the moment, I am this prayer.

If I’m to join in the general dance, I can only do so as myself—a duffle bag fat with frailty and fear, longing and gladness.

Not surprisingly, most of my prayers are silent. Abide in what is, John. Swim in grace. Dance in peace. Every now and then, I’m aware that I’m praying for everybody who has ever lived, every creature. And though my hands rest in my lap, my spirit arms are open wide, lifting up all of our laughter and lament—yours, too—as if God doesn’t already see!

I’m quiet. My wordlessness says, “Here we are, God, right here in my arms. Beat in our blood. Fill us. We are yours.”

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“Here we are–the Western Hemisphere, at least. Fill us. We are yours.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

The General Dance

When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds of autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own heart; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

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Credit: Gyro Photography

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. 

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance. (Thomas Merton, The New Seeds of Contemplation)

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Credit: Bill Byrne

My wife Kathy is not a napper. I’ve sung her praises in at least one previous blog post, but she and I differ on the matter of midday oblivion. It occurs to me that she and I also approach shamatha differently. My calm abiding tends to be self-referential (i.e. naval gazing), while Kathy mostly looks outward at the world and others to find meaning. This is not to say that she lacks self-awareness and I am captive to my own reflection; rather, we have different spiritual styles.

It helps to acknowledge this. For a couple weeks my karma’s been cramped and bitter, and it may be because I’m stuck in my own awful solemnity, analyzing the phenomenon of my life into strange finalities. In other words, I need to get out of my naval and out into the general dance, which has been going on around me all these days of my funkification.

In fact, the cosmic or general dance—whatever you want to call it—has been getting a bit out of hand, especially in Kathy’s land of shamatha, the Coleman backyard. Check out this short gallery I took a couple weeks ago of God and Kathy dancing.

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Evidence of this being the Coleman’s driveway? A garage at the end; that’s about it.

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A clematis vine taking over the hedge and gardening tool shelf.

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Behind the foliage is a grill. When I cook, I look like Arte Johnson on “Laugh In.”

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Getting in the backdoor requires dancing with greenery.

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The dance isn’t restricted to the backyard. It plays inside, too, on the kitchen windowsill. You have to move plants to open the window.

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An orange tree took over the breakfast table until friend Claudia adopted it last week.

As plant life took over our property inside and out, pineapple-sized grandson-to-be has been shaking his groove thing under the firmament of daughter Elena’s belly.

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Elena with dancing future grandson.

No matter how much I try to turn the joy beating in my very blood to hot dog water, frogs keep inviting me to splash into ponds with them. Mint leaves wait for me to pick them and lift them to my nose. The clematis overtaking the hedge hopes I’ll stand still and receive its gladness. My future grandson is generally dancing and wants his gramps to join him. Kathy says, “You need to go outside and look!”

Forget yourself, Coleman. Go outside. Breathe. Know shamatha. Cast yourself dancing to the winds.

Waking from a Dream of Separateness

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Thomas Merton (Credit: Wikipedia)

In the midst of shamatha—calm abiding—lately, I’ve been having Fourth-and-Walnut moments. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. One of the famous monk’s most beloved writings comes from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which Thomas Moore calls a “mind-bending collection of short pieces”:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . .

After a couple paragraphs of poetic crescendo and decrescendo, Merton closes his epiphany:

As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

But even if it were possible for me to tell a friend or stranger, “You know, I can see past your skin and know we’re family. Do you understand that you’re beautiful?” it wouldn’t be advisable. First, I’d appear to be on an acid trip. And second, I’d stomp all over the moment with my inadequate words.

It’s better to stay quiet, as I did last evening over a few Lucifer Belgian ales at the Tap House with old college teaching colleagues. One guy, who’s been retired for over ten years but looks in better shape than I do, nursed his beer and held forth at length. But this wasn’t a self-indulgent, drunken monologue. Behind my friend’s skin I could see a spirit beyond shining. He seems to be engaged in a life-long lover’s quarrel with the world: what he loves, he loves recklessly; when he rails, he rails through clenched teeth. He’s got the universe caught up in a fierce embrace.

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Kathy’s grilled vegetables, a dog, and deviled eggs

During my first beer last night at the Tap Room, Kathy e-mailed me a photograph along with this message: “Wish you were here to share our fresh garden veggies.” Behind the food I could see my wife shining; she lives as if she were a sail, snapping full in a puff of wind and going where the weather takes her. I’m not adventurous, but I can join her when my neuroses permit and stand clear when they won’t.

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A potless plant: as good a reason as any for a shared belly laugh

Another shining spirit is a woman I saw at church this morning. I won’t name her because she’d be embarrassed, but as she volunteers with more efforts than I probably realize, she gives off life. We had a belly laugh when she showed me a potless plant. Obviously somebody had broken the pot and put the dirt and root system back in the stand. There’s no way I can imagine being alien from this friend.

Yet another church friend hangs his paintings in the office. Parish Administrator Michelle and I love the work of this self-taught guy whose basement is full of decades of canvasses. He and his wife are getting on in years, but—honest to God—their gentleness glows. Being with them for ten minutes can bless a whole morning.

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Hanging on the church office at Abiding Hope

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Another painting from the office gallery

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Taped to my office door, a portrait of me by Meghan, a kid who shines like the sun. I especially like my nostrils.

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Barista Abbey knitting or crocheting something and wearing a little girl’s crown.

Of course, Thomas Merton was talking mostly about strangers in his Fourth-and-Walnut epiphany, and the more I’m able to give myself to the refreshment of siestas and the sanity of prayer, the more I notice multiple daily shinings. Some time ago, here at Starbucks, I saw barista Abbey knitting something as a young friend made crowns. The kid was happy, proud of trying to fashion regal gladness out of construction paper. As I talked to them, for a few seconds, we belonged to each other.

Of course, sometimes seeing people shining like the sun causes sunburn. A young woman here at Starbucks just had a lover’s quarrel of her own via cell phone. After a short, tearful fight, she’s now retreated to the restroom, where I imagine she’s crying some more. I’ve never seen her before, but have a fist in my stomach I’m trying to breathe away. And now she’s gone, out into the 90-degree swelter with her puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and upset heart.

I’m still here in the air-conditioned shamatha of 4:02 p.m., glad that the sad girl was mine and I was hers (though she knew nothing about it). Most of all, I’m grateful not to suffer from the dream of separateness. I belong to everyone. Everyone belongs to me.

P.S. Who broke that pot? Wife Kathy just confessed. I should’ve known.

Second Report from the Ark: Talking Adultery, Contemplating Adrenal Fatigue

Day Three

Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 5:02 p.m., again at Lyndora, Pennsylvania’s Panera Bread. An extra shot of decaf espresso has my iced latte tasting almost like coffee. I wish caffeine didn’t make me jittery; a jolt would be great right now. After waking from an hour’s nap at 3:30, I felt refreshed at first, but now I’m either tired again or nervous. With my temperamental constitution, it’s tough to tell the two apart.

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“Noah’s Ark” (1846) by Edward Hicks. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Overall today has been peaceful. Forty-five minutes of prayer this morning followed by another thirty after lunch have helped. Still, I wonder if naturopathic physician (I never heard of it, either) Dr. Lauren Deville, NMD, might be describing me in her TucsonCitizen.com article “Adrenal Fatigue: The Epidemic of a Stressed Out Society.” If I’m tracking the author correctly, adrenal fatigue works like this:

  • Your adrenal glands, which sit atop your kidneys, pump out epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) in response to stressful situations.
  • Dr. Deville writes, “One of three outer layers of the adrenal glands produces another hormone meant to offset the effects of adrenaline and ‘buffer’ the body against the effects of acute stress. This hormone is called cortisol.”
  • If you experience a normal amount of stress, the adrenal glands can produce enough cortisol to keep nerves and fatigue at bay. If your life is chronically stressful, the adrenal glands get whacked out. They keep epinephrine coming, but cortisol slows to a trickle.
  • The result: adrenal fatigue, and with it depression, PMS, insomnia, sugar cravings and hypoglycemia, low blood pressure upon standing, and recurrent infections.
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So those blobs of chicken fat on top of my kidneys might be making me siesta obsessed? (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve covered all these symptoms, including PMS, which in my case stands for panache-less male syndrome. It’s occurred to me in the past that maybe my adrenal glands were firing out large doses of epinephrine long after stressors had gone away. Turns out I may be cortisol deficient.

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Rembrandt’s Moses looking like he’s about to clobber the Israelites over their heads with the tablets. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Or hypochondria might be the problem. Whatever. Tired, nerved up, goofed up, or lacking cortisol, I’m grateful for this day. While my teaching partner Jeff was back home in Warren doing a funeral, I talked to eleven middle school students about the commandments against adultery or stealing. I decided not to pamper them, to just say what needed to be said. The essential message: don’t cheat (obviously!) and don’t get obsessed with sex, not because God gets especially enraged when people sleep around, but because the whole business will end up making you miserable. Lutherans don’t claim to know the mind of God, but we believe that God gives the Ten Commandments out of love, not in an attempt to be a divine buzz kill.

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“The Only Known Photograph of God” by Thomas Merton. (Credit: photobucket.com)

Funny thing, middle schoolers get awkward and squirmy listening to a balding, pale, fifty-one-year-old pastor talk about sex, mainly due to the yuck factor. We got through the lesson thanks to the little candy bars I gave them to redirect their discomfort. Teaching thou shalt not steal went quickly, and we closed out the afternoon session by thinking about not robbing ourselves. For prayer time, they drew chalk self-portraits and thought about how they can take loving care of the person God made them to be.

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Kind and healthy kid, fond of hair sprouts.

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Accurate: wonderful minimalist kid, brainy, chatty.

Back now to camp for free time. On Wednesdays at Lutherlyn, we don’t have evening classes. The kids head into the woods to play campy games, and we pastors lounge in the Ark, eat pizza, and toast the day.

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The Ark at Camp Lutherlyn, the site of porch sitting, daily postmortems, and many long siestas.

My job is to pick up the pizza. The fatigue-nerves-hypochondria-cortisol deficiency has eased up, who knows why. I should just learn to accept that I’m a strange man.

The Gift of an Unvarnished “No”

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Dom Edmond Obrecht (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

This past Thursday, the last full day of my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, was extravagant and challenging. As usual, I wrote in the morning at the Java Joint in Bardstown, then returned to the abbey for lunch. I had it in mind to ask the guest master if I could enter the cloistered area of the monastery to look at the graves of those who died long ago, some of whom I feel like I knew: Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton’s first abbot, and his predecessor Edmond Obrecht, and the abbots before them. I’ve read so much about them it’s as if they’re friends.

At 1:00 I caught the guest master outside his office. “Do you have a minute?” I said. “I have a question?”

His body language said, “Oh, bother,” but he said, “Sure, come in.”

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Dom Frederic Dunne (Photo Credit: Biographia Cisterciensis)

I said, “It’s a simple question, and I’ll understand if the answer is no.”

“That’s quite a forecast,” he said. “Okay, no.” He laughed. Before I could get my question out, he followed up: “Okay, maybe.” Big smile.

A little awkward. “Maybe’s a start,” I said. “I was wondering if I could look at the monks’ graves in the enclosure after Compline tonight?” The Great Silence begins after Compline, when the brothers go to bed. I figured there’d be no chance of disturbing anybody.

Before my words were out he was shaking his head: “No.”

Silence.

“Okay,” I said, nodding and keeping my word that no was all right.

More silence.

“Yeah, that was all,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “That was easy.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” I walked down the hall and climbed the stairs to my room. Of course, I was crushed—temporarily at least.

IMG_0482Okay, this was no big deal, but nobody likes to receive such a flat out denial to a reasonable request. Nobody would have been around? Who would have been hurt by my walking softly on those graves?

When I reached my room, it was my normal prayer time, so I began to do what I always do, which was try to make myself peaceful before I’m finished being hurt and pissed. So I let myself have some time to be put out. Eventually, as so often happens with shamatha—calm abiding—in the Sacred Presence, truth arrived. My reaction wasn’t about the kind, but honest, guest master, but about me.

No doesn’t work for me on any level. I’m terrible about saying no to myself (this is partially why I’m a diabetic), and I agonize about saying no to others. When somebody says no to me, suddenly I’m an adolescent with a quivering lip. Why? Long story, birth family, blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, during those forty-five minutes I sat in silent prayer after what felt like a rebuke, I understood that the guest master had actually given me a gift.

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During Worship at Gethsemani, Retreatants Don’t Sit with the Brothers

Often in this life, the answer is no. No, no, no! There’s no dressing it up, no making it palatable or painless. It doesn’t matter that the question is reasonable. And this isn’t about the old saying that “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is no.” None of that business of cleaning no up and making it a buddy.

Central to being mature and healthy for me is the ability to say and hear the fullness of no. I’m not there yet, not even close. No kidding, I’m glad now that I heard no unvarnished. Later at Vespers I saw the guest master and thought to myself, “I wish I were more like him.” Thank you, brother!

After forty-five minutes of prayer, my gut relaxed, and I felt in my body what I knew in my head: I’d received a severe blessing. That’s how growth happens.

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Brother John (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

The extravagance I mentioned came in the presence of Brother John, who shared pizza and Chimay Trappist Ale with me in the Norton Speaking Room. Thursday was the Ascension of Our Lord, an observance for Christians and an occasion for monastic partying. On festival days, the brothers crack excellent beer and eat something unusually delicious for dinner. For Brother John, the celebration consisted of two beers and two pieces of pizza. I consumed the same, but under normal circumstances, I’d consider such a meal dainty. John has his hungry ghosts (stay tuned for a future post on these ravenous spirits) under control; me, not so much.

IMG_0466My Gethsemani retreat was crowded with blessings. I enjoyed free-range siestas, long hours of prayer, plenty of reading and writing at the desk by the window, and especially those talking dinners with Brother John. I even appreciated remembering my father’s death and hearing the guest master’s no.

I wish my most important lessons didn’t feel like a punch to the sternum at first, but that’s how learning seems to happen for me. Some foolishness needs to get expelled so there’s room for health and insight.

It’s Sunday afternoon now, back home in Erie, Pennsylvania. For Mother’s Day the Coleman family will go out for all-you-can-eat shrimp, but first I feel a nap coming on. Being away is great, but getting back home is better still.

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Man and Beloved Cat, Together Again.

Apothic Red, Java, and the Weeping Birds of Gethsemani

I used to make retreats hard work. Stick with the program! Pray, read, worship, rest, walk (or run), and write—this last one has always struck me as okay because writing for me is a way of meditating. This Gethsemani retreat has been different. I haven’t turned my short stay into an exercise in competitive contemplation. Relax, Coleman.

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Small Prayer Sculpture in Meditation Room, Gethsemani

I’ve enjoyed a splash of wine in the evening, sitting at my desk, writing, and giving thanks for the cool breeze on my arms and face.

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For Medicinal Purposes

I’ve spent a couple of hours each morning in Bardstown, about fifteen minutes from the monastery, at The Java Joint. It’s unique in my experience: trippy, artsy to the eye, but Rush Limbaugh blusters on the radio—thank God for ear buds and Pandora—and, pleasant as the employees are, the coffee’s, well, ugh. Still, it’s been an amiable second home this week. Oh, yes, and free Wi-Fi.

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A Writer’s Java Joint Perch

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A Bust Vase in the Java Joint Japanese Garden (Suggesting What Many Women Claim, That Breasts Are Like Snowflakes

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Painting in the Men’s Room by Cantrell, 2008 (What Are They Putting in My Coffee?)

I’ve also permitted myself a touch of interior grumbling, which is way out of line, considering what a gift this week has been. Yesterday morning I visited graves not within the monastic enclosure. Mainly I wanted to see the resting places of Fathers Louis (Thomas) Merton, Matthew Kelty, and Roman Ginn. Merton’s marker was so slathered with sacred litter that I had to nudge the leavings aside to photograph his name. Kelty’s and Ginn’s bore pilgrims’ droppings as well. I felt mildly cheated, wanting to pay homage to these monks I regard as spiritual masters, not look at what amounts to big fat red lipstick kiss marks all over the crosses bearing their names. But, thankfully, these harrumphs were fleeting, quietly scolded into silence by a few good laughs at my own fussiness.

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Father Louis (Thomas) Merton’s Grave Marker

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Father Matthew Kelty’s Grave Marker

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Father Roman Ginn’s Grave Marker

I’ve even enjoyed some healthy irreverence. I have to think that Father Louis Merton is buried next to Abbot James Fox for cosmic reasons. According to Merton’s journals, he considered his abbot something of a megalomaniac, and they drove each other nuts for many years. Yet their bodies rest together, Dom James and Father Louis, hopefully having come to terms.

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Contrary Neighbors, Dom James Fox (Left) and Father Louis (Thomas) Merton

My last couple of posts have mentioned the birds of Gethsemani, the singingest flock I’ve ever heard. In all irreverence, I have to say they’re prolific in another common means of expression as well. One photo below shows a chair that obviously serves as a bird latrine. The other photo shows part of a statue called The Epiphany. Lovely work, and at first glance you might think the young Jesus is miraculously crying for our troubled world. Quick, call the Vatican! Ah, well. Turns out that the boy’s forehead is a favorite perch, and the tears are wept by birds lightening their burdens before take off. (How one enterprising sparrow or robin managed to weep into poor Jesus’ eye socket is a mystery.) Everything is sacred, and nothing is sacred.

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The Birds’ Loo (I’ll Take a Pass on This Prayer Chair)

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An Ambivalent Expression (For Good Reason)

I even used to feel guilty on retreats if I napped for too long. It didn’t stop me, but the voice of fervor and time’s winged chariot hurrying near were always on my mind. Not so now. Yesterday’s siesta, so needful, lasted two hours—two hours of snoring and drooling with abandon, followed by fifteen minutes of staring in a stupor at the ceiling. Lovely! In a couple hours, I’ll rest again, for as long as I please.

This is my last full day on retreat. Tomorrow I’ll head to Columbus, rattle around there for an afternoon, sleep one night in a hotel, then get home Saturday. In spite of the rugged stretch in prayer yesterday morning, this week has been joyful, freeing. Some would say I’ve been a retreat cheat, slinking off to a coffee shop in the morning and sipping wine in the evening. But this has been my retreat.

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North American Robin (Just Like One That Wouldn’t Keep Still for a Portrait This Morning, Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Gethsemani’s birds speak for me, in their singing and in their weeping.