Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bugs Should Be Kept Out of the Wilderness Area

It snowed this week. And it snowed. And it snowed. And it snowed.

And we didn't even get half of what some of the areas around us got. As has been true all winter long, the path of the storm went south of us, so we were on the edge of it. But even so, it was the biggest storm of this winter, and it was wet and heavy. Mike, our groundsman, worked all day long for several days, and often into the night as well, just keeping our driveway clear so that guests could come and go.

And it is very beautiful. It is majestic. Looking out of the refectory at the River, and the hills, and the mountains beyond, all covered in deep snow and muffled from sound by the depth of the snowpack is breathtaking. And as always, when I am presented with the majesty of our surroundings my sense of awe and wonder is awakened, and because that sense is so involved in spiritual response, my prayer leaps up easily and naturally as I watch this wondrous sight.

But all this happens with some sense of ambiguity. I am captivated. But I am also aware that tens of thousands of people not far from here have no electricity and no heat and some of them are suffering bitterly from the cold. Because of our work in some of the local shelters members of the community know personally several people who sleep under bridges, and it's hard for me to even imagine what these nights have been like for them. And the storm has inconvenienced and endangered countless people in all kinds of ways. The power of nature is a two-edged sword. I'm very aware that I view the beauty of the storm through a nicely tinted plate glass window. And I'm warm.

Nature is often admired most by people who are most protected from it. The reality that stalking and killing are the primary fabric of most of the life around me is something I think of only intermittently. Violence and destruction of life are a daily ho-hum part of the forest that stretches up and down the riverside. I took the title of this post from a story of one of the wilderness areas maintained by the United States Forest Service. At the exit from the area there are pamphlets and maps and some forms where people can write down their comments and suggestions. One of the suggestions received not too long ago read: "Bugs should be kept out of the Wilderness Area." We like our wilderness without wildness. Or inconvenience. Or scratching. It is more beautiful that way.

More importantly, these reflections come at the time when a lot of the world's attention is fixed on Haiti and Chile. What do we have to say about the natural forces that produced the destruction of earthquakes? And what do we have to say about our sense of God in the midst of destruction?

One very common reaction is that such events are evidence that there is no God. "I could run the world better than this". Countless church programs in the days immediately after the quake in Haiti took the topic: "Where is God in what happened in Haiti?", as though our religious beliefs have no place for God in a world where earthquakes happen.

Well, it's a complicated issue, and I won't pretend otherwise. But I will just point out that our Scriptures are a bit more encompassing than we often are. They tend to make room for the human sense of awe in the worst of disasters. Take Psalm 29 for instance. The Psalm pictures God as riding "on the wings of the storm." It describes a great storm sweeping over the Mediterranean area and pounding its way ashore, crashing over the mountains and beating down the forests. The storm roars with thunder and lightning, which the Psalmist describes as "The Voice of the Lord", when he says: "The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor." And at the end of the Psalm he wraps things up after all this power and destruction by saying: "And in the temple of the Lord all are crying, 'Glory.'" And if "all" are crying glory, that has to include the people who suffered destruction and loss in the storm that this Psalm describes.

Is there any room in us for crying 'Glory' in the face of Chile and Haiti?

It's a big question for people of our century. But the people who lived in the days in which our scriptures were written were no less sensible of the destruction and havoc caused by natural forces than we are. That's clear if you read the verses of lament and the questionings of faith that the Psalms present over and over. They had all the questions that we have. But they seem also to have had a larger capacity than we do for a sense of awe at the display of nature's raw power.

It's part of our way of looking at things that we expect that raw power to be muted and we expect to be protected from it. That's what the world means to us, and our building codes and our public services are all mobilized in harmony with these expectations. And it effects our view of God, too. We expect God to be the ultimate protector. And we wonder if there could be a God if we're not protected.

But it's an embarrassing reality that whatever our ideas and our systems may be, God is always going to be greater than our ideas. That's what it means to be finite and to have an infinite God, after all. Whatever we think things SHOULD be like, God is always acting in ways that transcend our expectations. We often find this incomprehensible. Sometimes we find it hurtful.

I also think we need to make room for crying 'Glory' in the face of a God we periodically cannot understand. I try to practice it when the lightning strikes on the hillside between us and the river. That's raw power - having a lightening bolt in your back yard - and we get them on a regular basis. My natural reaction is always alarm and fear, and sometimes anger or even terror. But I also try, as soon as my body has settled the least bit, to turn and inwardly cry 'Glory'.

This doesn't make me any less sensible of the damage that lightning inflicts, nor does it tame my sense of grief and outrage and compassion for the people of Haiti and Chile, nor my need to reach out in whatever way I can. Far from it. But it does keep me in touch with the reality that, as God says in the Book of the Prophet Isaih: "My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts."

God can be my Comforter, my Consoler, my Companion and my Friend. God is all these things to me. God is also my Challenger, and the one who regularly calls me to outrageous things completely our of my expectations.

God is now, and always will be, totally beyond my ideas of who God is. My life proves that.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lent Begins

I find that I have a real zest for Lent this year.

I realize that some of you may be surprised to hear me say something like that. Some may even find it alarming. It certainly is different from the usual sort of remark you hear about Lent, which is more like the noises made by someone about to undertake an arduous and not very pleasant task.

But there it is. I have been looking forward to Lent this year and have given an unusual amount of attention to planning for it.


That indicates that I'm as puzzled about this as you. Or I was, until I had to think about Lent for an Ash Wednesday sermon. And it began to unfold then, and that process has continued gradually in the days since.

It begins with one of my favorite antiphons for this season, which we sing at Vespers during Lent on Mondays and Thursdays. I've always loved this text, and this year it seized me with a particular power.

It begins: "Use the present opportunity to the full". I think what's going on in me has a lot to do with the years I've spent in a meditation practice and how that has developed in me a subsidiary practice of careful attention to whatever moment I happen to find myself in. You may recognize this from posts I have made about the things I notice and the relationship of that noticing to my spiritual path.

This has led to the discovery of a conviction that The Present Opportunity is available in any moment. It's here. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, whatever my mood, this moment of time is the present opportunity. What I need to do is see this moment as an opportunity waiting to unfold. Cannot I just stop and ask myself the question: "What is the present opportunity" and ask it with expectation? Can I ask that with the conviction that an answer will arise, and that it will usually be obvious from the situation I find myself in, whether that is in church, or at a meal, or in a conversation about to begin, or while stirring the latest batch of incense, or whatever? Whatever is, there's an opportunity there. What could it be? What exploration will make it clear? I find real excitement in orientating myself this way.

So my primary Lenten practice this year is going to be to take the antiphon as a mantra. I'll repeat it whenever it comes to mind, wherever I may be, however many times a time I can manage to think of it. "Use the present opportunity to the full." And when I think of it I'll know that there is an opportunity there, and I just have to think of how to use it fully. It might be that I need to be really attentive to how I'm stirring the incense. It might be that the conversation in front of me needs real attention and skill. It might be that the mysterious headache that's been following me around needs to be considered to see whether it has anything to say to me. It might even be that I need to stop what I'm doing and be still for a short time (or even a long time).

Of course it might be ever larger than that. This practice might bring up a change in my future direction, or the discussion of a future direction for the community. It might mean that my attention is being drawn to a really important decision. Who knows what each moment may reveal as an opportunity. And that's what is exciting. The open-endedness of my life is asking to be recognized and taken seriously. I'm just being directed into seeing much more of what is there to be seen.

And all I have to do is ask the question: "What is the present opportunity? Right here. Right now. How do I use it to the full?"

I'm not going to be obsessive about this. (Well, any more than I can avoid, actually.) I'm not going to worry if I don't think of this phrase very often. I know I'm going to get reminded of it regularly when I see it in my breviary, which will be once a day, minimum. I expect that I'll vary a lot in how often it comes up. I'm just going to make myself a little promise that when it does come up I'm going to ask myself the question and pay attention to any answer that manifests.

In addition - the antiphon is longer than just that one phrase. The whole thing is: "Use the present opportunity to the full, for these are evil days. Try to understand what the will of the Lord is."

Now I know there is opportunity there to get completely thrown - the business of 'evil days' is troublesome. I'll analyze all that sometime else. I'm not going to let the whole process get bogged down. What I do recognize is that any time I see an opportunity I know that there are things that are waiting to get in the way, and that's as good a definition of 'evil days' as I need right now. When I recognize the present opportunity, I'm also going to take seriously what might stand in the way of my using it to the full. I'm going to go into this being as conscious as I can that I'm not going to be getting an easy trip down a smooth path. The present opportunity may be something difficult. It may require a lot of work or some significant change. There are going to be things standing in the way That's part of the Lenten path that I'm going to be investigating. There's a beckoning opportunity, and there's the roadblocks that are going to be there ('evil days').

What's being held out is the need for a dialogue - a dialogue between opportunity that I see, and the forces that try to get in the way of my taking advantage of that opportunity. And it's in this dialogue that the will of the Lord will emerge. I believe this, and I'm going to take my stand on this belief. If I look for God's will in this moment, I'm going to find it. Yes, I might be mistakened. I might be seeing wrongly. All kinds of things can happen. But I believe that in the dialogue that I undertake is bigger than just me. I also have to take into account the vision of the people and what they think about the 'present opportunity'. That often provides the steady, correcting guidance that everyone needs.

I'm also not going to obsess about the size of this project. It may end up being tiny. The opportunity might be something that would seem utterly insignificant to most people. It might also be big. It might be the need for a real life change. Probably it will be somewhere in the middle, but you never know. I'm just going to start out on an adventure and see where the path leads.

And of course this adventure has the possibility of being what any really good Lenten discipline is. It may be something that will still be going on for me when Lent has gone, and we're in Easter. Or in "ordinary time".

I hope this makes some sense out of the zest that I'm feeling for the Lenten journey this year. It really does feel like a journey, and I love a good trip! We'll see what happens now.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Transition Back In

I'm home.

Being away was quite a time and coming back has been quite a time, beginning with the trip itself. I came back on Tuesday, which as you may remember was the day the latest snow storm was churning its way up the Atlantic coast. I changed planes in Detroit and had about an hour and a half there, which was a good thing, because it takes quite a while to negotiate the trip from a large plane (far end of the main concourse) to a small plane (other end of Concourse C) in the Detroit airport.

I didn't have any idea what the weather was doing when I started out. There was snow and fog in Detroit, but not a lot of either and it didn't interfere with our landing. On my way between concourses I checked the flight board and everything looked normal. The next time I passed a flight board there was one block of red which caught my eye - a late afternoon flight to New York canceled. "Must be equipment trouble" I thought. The next flight board I came to had several red blocks - several afternoon flights to New York and one to Washington canceled. "Hmmm" I thought. By the time I got to my gate the board was a sea of red - flights to New York, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Hartford canceled and the times of the canceled flights were creeping backward to nearly the time of my own flight to Newburgh.

But there was actually a plane at the gate, which seemed like a good sign and a slightly earlier flight for Syracuse was loading, so I decided to look hopeful and see if that would help. It did.

But just barely. We were one of the very last East Coast flights to get out of Pittsburgh, and it was the a rare event for these days; a flight that was three quarters empty. We got to Newburgh a few hours before the snow began here - a very narrow window of opportunity.

Was it a sign or just a happenstance? I don't know. It doesn't matter. But the fact is that the readjustment to life at home has been a difficult one.

On the physical level it has been a real trial. The friends with whom I stayed in Kansas City knew that my time there was very hard and they went out of their way to take good care of me: good meals, good drinks, late nights (by my standards, at least). Since I was gone two weeks I had time to get used to a wholly different way of living the days and the evenings, and getting out of that and back into my usual routine wasn't easy. My body rebelled. I am hypoglycemic to begin with and dietary and life-style changes are always a challenge for people like me. My body doesn't like adjustments. And it let me know in no uncertain terms. I have been miserable for several days.

The more difficult, not to mention ironic, challenge has been on the spiritual level. In Kansas City I was completely out of my usual routine. No structure of Office to frame my day. No long periods of time into which meditation fitted naturally. And grief - a lot of grief - not to mention a lot of work, in the aftermath of Bill's death and the need for Betty's move.

But contrary to my expectation, this didn't produce any sense of spiritual dislocation. Whenever I could turn to prayer, it flowed. My sense of inner connection remained uninterrupted. It nourished me. It sustained me. I was more grateful than ever for my decision of some months ago to wear my meditation beads. Beads have been an aid to my prayer for years, and now I don't even need to reach as far as my pocket to have them in my hand. They are there any time I want or need them, and in a stressed time like this, it was a great benefit and a comfort to have them. They carried me through all kinds of times, including some periods when everyone else was watching the TV. I discovered that the television slid quite easily into the background while I attended to the Jesus Prayer. I have no idea whether anyone noticed what I was doing. At any rate, it didn't cause cause any disruption. And it did keep me grounded and centered, which I really needed during those days.

The ironic part is that when I got home and back into my usual routine it all fell apart. Here I was, back in the structure of the Offices, chanted with great beauty, and I couldn't attend to them. I had my usual times for meditation and I felt paralyzed. When I tried to force myself to attention and to focus all I could sense was a knot at the center of my stomach which resisted any kind of attention. Nothing I could do resulted in any sense of connection. I was completely adrift.

It lasted several days. It was partly physical, of course. Difficulties with balance in the endocrine system typically produce all kinds of emotional results, with resulting spiritual effects as well. And just letting down after all that pressure couldn't help but affect any kind of inner balance that I had. It wasn't really a puzzle for me. I understood what was going on. But I didn't manage very well when it came to having perspective on it. My capacity for just observing what was going on seemed to have taken a vacation. And I learned once more just how much suffering comes with the loss of one's capacity for noticing and observing. It was a good lesson.

Fortunately the one thing I never lost was the conviction that all of this was (probably) temporary, and was mostly an effect of the transition process I was in. I had lived through a highly stressed physical and emotional situation and had marshaled all my resources in order to get through it. My resources came through in a big way. They gave me strength and stability and they got me through. And the Lord was very good.

But then my resources claimed their need for some time off. I'd been on duty pretty much full time for two weeks and I am, after all, nearly 72 years old. They were right to take off and disappear. It's too bad that I couldn't take a vacation along with them, because that would probably have made the process better. But some long naps and a determination on my part not to press myself too hard did help. Otherwise it's been just waiting.

It's coming along. I'm not totally back yet, but I'm getting there. Last night after Compline I stayed in the Church and just let joy at being in that beautiful deep place fill my heart. Matins this morning lifted my soul at the beginning of the day, as it is supposed to. My attention still isn't what I would like and my brain is a touch foggy. But the process is moving and that's enough to sustain me for now.

Quite an adventure. I want to let it deepen my compassion, both for others and for myself. We are all seized by times like this and we flounder our way through them the best we can. I'd like to be more skillful in negotiating the next one. I'd like to deepen my prayer for people caught in similar conditions. And I'd like to learn to be more intuitive and more gentle with myself in the process. It is, after all, just a human process. It is, among other thing, the laboratory in which we learn to love God in the midst of all kinds of different conditions.

(And having Sushi with a friend tonight will no doubt help.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Still in KC

I'm still in Kansas City for a couple of more days. This week we worked on helping Betty get her cottage cleaned out and ready for moving and got her moved into a very attractive apartment, where she'll have all the help she needs. She is delighted with her new "digs" and there are plenty of people there waiting to welcome her. It's a big relief.

At this point, of course, my regular routine is competely disrupted. But the disruption seems not to carry over to the deeper parts of my life. Prayer, when I turn to it, flows easily and naturally. Actually, more often than not, it starts itself and I just become aware that it is going on, and then I "tune in". So, in spite of not often "doing" what I usually do in the spiritual part of my life, that part of my being seems to carry right on, doing what it needs to do. I know this wouldn't last forever, but I'm grateful for this on a temporary basis, and it feels deeply nourishing.

It sure helps that I'm in a place of great beauty. I'm in a semi-rural part of Johnson County, and the house I'm in is backed up to a completely wooded area. The house is full of glass and both the living room and my bed room look out on the woods, and a small pond and a stream that runs down at the bottom of the hill that the house sits on. At the moment, the whole vista is covered with fresh snow, and there is predicted to be more tonight and tomorrow. The fact that I'm not going to have to do anything about getting out of the house if I don't want to certainly adds to the relaxation. All I have to do right now is see that the fireplace is tended to and enjoy it.

Last night, just at midnight, several geese flew over the house, honking as they went, and then an owl called out. Wonderful to have that to fall asleep to.

And I'm also sustained in this part of the journey by some old and very deep friendships, and the strength of that has eased my journey all this past two weeks.

I'm also getting to the place where I'm longing to be home and back to my community and my usual life by the Hudson River. Hopefully that will happen on Tuesday, and the next time you hear from me things will more somewhat more usual.