Merton strikes back – Seeds of Contemplation

I think contemplatives are a bit subversive. Of course, that could be their nature – by spending time in contemplation they are able to force us, if we actually take the time to pause, to set aside our preconceptions and listen to our true self. The creative force that resides inside.

I’m not sure what has drawn me to read New Seeds of Contemplation except it helps me see myself more clearly. Today’s journey into the realm of Merton has left me with 3 questions or points to reflect upon. [Note: the text below is a direct quote and not reflective of my personal preference when it comes to pronouns – it is the way Merton wrote in 1962.]

  1. Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him.
  2. My chief care should not be to find pleasure or success… or even things like virtue and wisdom… my pleasure and my one joy should be to know: “Here is the thing that God has willed for me.”
  3. The right of another man is the expression of God’s love and God’s will… in respecting the right of another… He [God] is enabling me to share, as His son, in His care for my brother.

Number 1 seems intuitive – my perception and description of God lies more in who I am than who God is. I wonder how much I project of myself onto my image of God. I would guess that isn’t uncommon – the “God” we see is God inside reaching out to God in others.

My chief care… should be to know: ‘Here is the thing that God has willed for me.’” How “simple” things would be if “being happy” was not the end that I sought but that realizing what I do as part of God’s plan is enough to make me happy? Again, intuitively it makes sense: acknowledging what I do is really part of God’s greater plan. But what happens when I don’t sens that fulfillment? What happens when my doubt sneaks in and derails the understanding of God’s presence in my actions?

I think, to sense doubt comes when I forget my principal responsibility – being what I’m created to be and nothing more or less. Sometimes the doubt surfaces because it should – what I do doesn’t really live into God’s mission (at least as I perceive it) and the work I end up doing is simply drudgery or even “make work”. Thinking back… the question is the answer. That makes more sense now. If I’m simply making work without an understanding of how that work might further God’s plan then I have become misfocused; if I ask that question of myself then I may not be doing God’s work. Interesting…

The 3rd reflective point may have to wait for another day. But first blush tells me that the idea offered is essential to finding an “end” to senseless issues of today: violence, racial tensions, and societal mistrust. When I respect the rights of another person I am actually witnessing to God in them and in me. By not respecting the rights of another I actually do not respect God’s presence and creative power in myself – I sell myself and my creativity short.

A simple answer to a complex question: how to create a harmonious community? We do that by honoring each other and through that honor we actually ensure our own respect. But society teaches a “zero-sum game” if someone else wins then I lose. The truth is when it comes to people – all can win.

Troublesome but enticing on a “Friday” afternoon.

Peace

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Francis and Clare – the Rebels from Assisi

I have had an inexplicable affection for St. Francis and St. Clare – for more years than I care to admit there has been a special place in my heart for animals and all living creatures in general. Stories can be related about me carrying a small brook trout 6-8 blocks in a bucket because I had caught it and couldn’t figure out how to set it free; about me sitting at the end of my driveway feeding a baby robin with an eye-dropper filled with homemade sugar-salt solution; and even picking up turtles off the road.

Yet there more to the mystique of Francis and Clare. They are people (yes, I think they still live in us today) that literally gave everything to tell God’s story. Often against the conventional wisdom of their day. Francis was the son of a wealthy business man who left everything to become a monk and formed a rule of life that espoused having no possessions (nothing – no books, no personal home, all things held in common that were necessary for life). He had a certain charisma that led Clare to join his order and ultimately create a woman’s order with the same rule.

I wonder what their profession was like? I think their society looked at them with skepticism and may have thought them to be “out there” – yet they had what it took to stick with it. I wonder if our society would be more accepting of their profession. In reality, I doubt it.

I see much of our society as being in a different place than Francis and Clare.

“More” is what is important and how life is judged.

Instant gratification is the name of the game (IM, texts, cell phones) and if you aren’t forever connected you are “odd”.

Having enough isn’t enough, you have to have plenty to leave behind a lot.

However, part of me says it was easier back then. “They” didn’t have stuff competing for their attention. “They” didn’t have to be “afraid” of what lay ahead because there was little contemplation of what happened in the next generation.

What am I asked to do today? I know that what lies ahead can’t be effectively worried about – all the worry I put into “10 years from now” most likely won’t have a dramatic impact on that time. What am I asked to do?

One thing I keep coming back to as I think about these things is the belief about scarcity and enough is not always enough. I’m not sure why that would be but… But there’s something that binds me to the false sense of scarcity. Why? What do I do about it?

That is part of the journey.

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Unexpected things growing

Eastern black swallowtail caterpillar

Eastern black swallowtail caterpillar

Finally, after being a homeowner since 1998 we decided to put in a small raised bed with a few (three to be exact) vegetables that “grow well” in southern Virginia. We chose simple things: chives, flat-leaf parsley, and heirloom iceberg lettuce. We may have been a little late getting started but supposedly those all can be directly planted in May. Alas, ‘tis not so – at least this year.

First, the chives had nothing to do with growing, there were possibly 5-10 plants at best and definitely nothing to claim as growing. The chives ended up looking like weeds or bad grass plants. The lettuce germinated well then never set (I didn’t know lettuce would bolt if the temperature was over 70). The parsley did well although a little slow to start then “overnight” went from okay to overabundant.

As I pondered what to do with my failed garden I noticed two caterpillars on the parsley leaves. It was hard to distinguish them at first because they looked like bird droppings. Upon further investigation and after some research I identified them as eastern black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. Now the waiting continues.

The irony of the whole story is I have been trying to plant flowers to make our yard more butterfly friendly but hadn’t ever gotten around to getting plants set up before the weather turned. Now it turns out my “failed” garden is a haven for caterpillars and butterflies – and I didn’t even intend it to be one. Odd… very odd.

And now, I hear God chuckle just a little.

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“Would a person like me be welcome in this Church?”

This morning I was posed an interesting question, “Would someone with my religious background be welcome in this church?” While not completely out of the blue it is a question I’ve never had to respond to, at least in my current role as priest and pastor. But there’s always more to the story…

A gentleman, new to our area, stopped by the Church and was walking around and looking at headstones. I went to greet him and struck up a conversation. In which, he mentioned that he was looking for a church (maybe religious) community to join. After asking what he knew about the Episcopal Church (essentially nothing) I asked what his upbringing was; his mother was Unitarian and his father had converted to Catholicism when marrying his step-mother.

An opportunity: tell him about the foundation of the Episcopal Church from the Church of England (including Henry VIII). Then shift to how St. John’s is part of that tradition but something more. Segue into the present-day Episcopal Church and we’re home. He was genuinely interested in the religious, cultural, and social aspect of St. John’s and was fascinated by our architecture.

As we were parting and after I invited him to “join us on any Sunday, we worship at 10:30” he asked the opening question. To say I was caught off guard is an understatement. Yet by piecing what I told him together I assured him this was a place that he would be more than welcome.

What makes a church/our church a place that is welcoming to “someone with my religious background”? What in the enduring life of faith of a church is an invitation to join? I believe the Episcopal Church has a history, when being true to its foundation, of welcoming those who really don’t know what they believe except that they do.

Our Church (St. John’s) is a place that comes from the earth and lives a life of honest uncertainty of a lot of “things” in society. This church invites people to come and explore their faith and in return “all” someone has to believe is: God is our creator and we are intimately related; that Jesus came to save us from eternal separation from God as the Son of God on earth. And that somehow, in ways we cannot describe in concrete terms, God is still working at this very moment and in this exact spot. Besides that, all else is “up for grabs” or at least depends on where you stand.

What do you think? Is “this Church” a place where “someone like me” is welcome? What can we do to make it a place where “someone like me” is welcome?

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Blessings in mid-September

It is days like today that I realize I’m truly blessed to be at St. John’s. Today capped a great week of yard upkeep and upgrading. Steven finished his driveway marking project by installing reflectors on the posts that flank the driveway. Now it will be much safer for people to come to the Parish House after dark.

I also found an anonymous gift on the patio – a new bench. This will be a welcome addition and a fine replacement for the bench that finally gave up the ghost a couple weeks ago when the cast iron legs corroded through. I’ve performed a successful test of the stability and design of the bench and report all is well.

Bert and Charles visited with a cart and sprayer to help knock down the weeds growing along the bank of the pond and in many of the weedy gravesites. This summer has been terrible for weeds and they have been growing like weeds (pun intended) all summer. I hope this starts knocking the weeds back so we can better see the Church and some of the older graves on the grounds.

Most important though was a visit from Eddie Cotten (the second eldest member of the church at 95) this morning. He was out Central Virginia to take care of family business. He had stopped by to see his son-in-law’s headstone that was put in the churchyard last week. It is fascinating to talk with him and find out more of the historic tidbits of the Church: the personalities (Lucy Upshur was one of the first liberated women in Chuckatuck, she wore pants and farmed), the hidden secrets (an unmarked grave plot someplace in the yard, a headstone that seems to have disappeared), and the nature of this Parish.

Most moving of his stories was his recounting of his time in the Marine Corps during WWII. He told me of his participation in the initial occupation force in Japan and his unit was the front line as USS MISSOURI sailed into Tokyo Bay for the surrender. I knew parts of that story but to hear more touched my heart.

These are the days that make me proud to be a member of this Church and our wonderful country.

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Silence – not what you might imagine

An interesting weekend in New England and one that was especially needed after the past 2 months. I was able to go on retreat at Emery House in West Newbury MA with the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. Interesting for me because until recently I would have never imagined that I would go on a silent retreat. The focus of the retreat was:

For God Alone My Soul in Silence Waits – amidst the tyranny of distractions and demands on our attention, Jesus comes knocking at the door of our soul. This quiet weekend retreat will include teaching on quieting the heart and on listening and stillness in prayer.

A couple items that were striking; (1) Hope is a memory of the future. (2) Forward thinking is drawing from your miracle memory (the fact that you are currently here) to learn from looking backwards to see what you’ve faced, to get to where you are, to see the possibility of the future.

 

Another metaphor for silence: Silence is not, at least as I understand it, the absence of sound. Silence is a stillness of soul and spirit. Silence is time set aside to be and do what I am called to do. A possible implication is that I always have silence with me – if I choose to seek out the silence and dwell in it.

More to come…

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On the lighter side: Questions about Santa Claus

At this time of year it is important to remember the child that dwells within and wants to know the answers to the imponderable questions about Santa. Here is an exchange about Santa overheard recently.
Questions about Santa
1. Why does Santa live in the North Pole when there are bears there? Do the polar bears chase Santa? Why don’t they eat him? Doesn’t he get really cold?
2. How does he get into the house? Does he take a plane so he can visit everyone?
3. What do his helpers do for the rest of the year?
4. How old is Santa? Is he in his 90s, or more like 1,000??
5. Is Santa a Christian or a Muslim or what?

Answers
1. He lives at the North Pole and won’t get eaten by the Polar Bears because he was raised by Polar Bears. He is from someplace above the Arctic Circle and his parents were bearherds (like that word?). He doesn’t get cold because he is Santa – the mixture of being raised by bears and being from that far north make him impervious to the cold.
2. Santa moves a lot like the transporters in Star Trek – he materializes in the new place with the toys he needs and then gets transported to the next place along with the gifts. That’s one of the things the elves do: the transport and do the maintenance on the transporter, and they meet him with bags of goodies along the way.
3. The helpers are busy year round – think of the maintenance they do on the transporters and training they have to have. They are expert craftsmen and skilled maintenance workers. And they have to train the new reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh.
4. No one really knows how old Santa is but rumor has it that he was around at creation. Santa is outside religion – he’s not any specific one but is able to reach to all people.

Follow-up questions
The problem with magic is the person is very literal and if I say something is magic, he says it is pretend and not real. I like the idea of Santa being raised by bears.

Follow-up answer
Not magic – transporters work and they’re hidden like the Ark in Indiana Jones. The government has them locked away in Cheyenne Mountain Colorado so that no one can use them for bad purposes except Santa.

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