Jesus, the Incarnate Lamentation of God

I offered this address as a video teaching on June 21, 2020, as part of a parish retreat, “The Transformative Power of Lament.” That video can be viewed here.

This weekend we have spent a great deal of time considering how and why we lament. We have talked about God’s ability to hear and hold our lament; about how God wants us to express our sorrow as one part of the deep fullness of what it means to be human. 

But what about God? Is God simply an impassive sort of figure, up there, who calmly, magnanimously receives our cries of grief and frustration with a cosmic pat on the head? Or does lamentation itself somehow bear the image of Divine Life? Can we say that God, that perfect Trinity of Love, is also a figure of lamentation?

Yes, I think we can. And as followers of Jesus, I would say that we must. Because in Jesus, in both his earthly life and in his passion and crucifixion, we see and hear God’s enfleshed lament. God’s anguish. God’s piteous tears.

The idea that God might have a lamentation to offer back to creation was intuited long before the Incarnation, of course. The tradition of the Hebrew prophets already bears the imprint of God’s sorrow over Israel’s brokenness

From the prophet Amos:

Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

Fallen, no more to rise,

is maiden Israel;

forsaken on her land,

with no one to raise her up.

For thus says the Lord God:

The city that marched out a thousand

shall have a hundred left,

and that which marched out a hundred

shall have ten left.

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:

Seek me and live. (Amos 5:1-4)

And then in Jesus, we hear something so very similar, uttered on the human lips of that very same God, who has come to be as one with creation, and thus issues a cry in his own voice: 

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

That is, of course, the pathos of God from the very beginning of our story, from Eden, through the Exodus, to Calvary and beyond —an inability to be fully recognized by creation in those moments of visitation. The Father weeps, in a sense, over our inability to see his face clearly through the tears of our finitude; the Son weeps over the hardness of our hearts, ossified by fear and apathy; the Holy Spirit weeps over our inability to hear her crying out across the the desert, across the void of infinite closeness between us.

Thinking about God as a figure of lamentation changes a few things. First, it recasts a lot of the ideas about God’s “wrathfulness” in a new light. What would be like if you imagined all of those “angry” proclamations from God in Scripture as being, instead, expressions of deep grief, said through tears and sighs? Would that affect how you imagine God’s realationship with the world?

This should not be especially surprising, if we think about it, because as Christians, Jesus reveals precisely what God has to say to the world about its brokenness, unmediated through the prophets, and far from being an expression of vengeful anger or rage, it is an expression of lament. Somehow God knows, in Holy Wisdom, that lament is the necessary message. 

Why is this? 

The theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that it is grief and lament, rather than rage, which God offers to us in Jesus because God understands that lament is the fundamental act which penetrates the numbing self-interest of systems of domination and death; it is God’s solidarity wtih us, God’s joining in our anguish and asking us to learn from anguish rather than acting out of denial. It is in taking up our cross that we encounter the narrow but certain path to wisdom and redemption. The way, the truth, and the life.  Thus it is Only lamentation—that which we express and that which we listen to from others—which can build compassion within us, soften our hearts, and open us up to the mystery of transformative love.  

As Brueggemann writes, “Newness comes precisely from expressed pain. Suffering made audible and visible produces hope, articulated grief is the gate of newness, and the history of Jesus is the history of entering into the pain and giving it voice” (The Prophetic Imagination, 91).

And so when we look at Jesus on the cross, the ultimate expression of God’s lamentation, we are looking at that gateway into newness. We are looking at the articulation of God’s grief over a broken creation, and of God’s deep longing to be so close to us that he is willing to be broken himself. And then, in the resurrection, the definitive evidence that lament, for all its power, is a prelude to something even more powerful: healing, liberation, and enduring life. 

But in Jesus we learn that it is a necessary prelude. There is no shortcut around Golgotha, no avoiding an intentional engagement with grief. This, in some ways, is one of Christianity’s unique contributions to the faith traditions of the world—that suffering is itself a wisdom path, a holy road, one that Divinity itself has trod.

It is not a road for the fainthearted, but it is also not one that we walk alone. God walks with us, and we walk it with each other, to encourage, to listen, to grieve, and to celebrate as one body.

So, as we conclude our retreat, the question is: are we willing to go down that road? Are we willing to go through the gate of newness that is the cross? Are we willing to articulate our grief, and respond to the grief of others? Are we willing to weep with Jesus at the edge of the city, to bear that same fierce love he does, for people, including ourselves, who have not recongized the things that make for peace?

If we are willing, then lamentation is where we begin. 

God bless you on the journey. I will see you out there.

Lamentations of the People

I wrote these liturgical “Prayers of the People” a few weeks before the national protests in response to George Floyd’s killing, but they have taken on a new resonance for me now, and so I share them with you here.

Lamentations of the People

In grief and in undaunted hope, let us cry out to God, the undivided Trinity, saying:
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.

God, your Church is splintered and sorrowful. We are undone by the virulence of the age into which you have called us. We hunger for the bread only you can give; we long for the solace of an absent embrace. Gather us close, hide us under the shadow of your wings, and strengthen us to be your ministers amidst the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our nation is diseased. A pandemic has brought us to our knees, but we have been kneeling before false gods for too long: economic and environmental injustice, systemic racism, the death-dealing myth of white imperialism, the vainglory of unexamined consumption. We need you, the Divine Physician, to heal the heart-wounds we cannot see, so that we might heal the broken bodies and broken systems we can see.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, the world is so vast, and so small. We are overwhelmed by its complexities, yet we are reminded how tightly our lives are knit together. The old lies of extraction and exploitation have laid waste to our planet and have oppressed our siblings in every land. Lead us out into the wilderness beyond self-satisfaction, beyond denial, beyond plunder, and teach us new ways to live simply, humbly, close to the earth.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our communities are being crushed by the yoke of sin: political enmity, economic inequality, gun violence, racism, xenophobia, disparities in health and education, pollution, loneliness, and despair. Our brothers and sisters are sleeping in the streets, weeping in the streets, bleeding in the streets, like strangers in their own land. And so many of us choose to look away. Give us, instead, your easy yoke, your light burden: to open the doors, to step out, to speak out, to trust one another, to be taken where we do not wish to go, to the foot of the Cross, to the tomb, where you will meet us, where real life begins.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our loved ones are sick and dying, from viruses and from violence. The silence of silenced bodies overwhelms our ears. The IV-drip of memories stings and burns as it works its way through our veins. We are weak and helpless, but don’t allow us to be hopeless. Make your presence known to us, especially when we cannot be present to one another. Heal our ailments and mend our hearts.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, you have taken so many away. Their names tumble from our lips, a remembrance, an insistence, a plea. We say their names so that they won’t be forgotten. We say their names so that we won’t be the type of people willing to forget. As we grieve and grasp at the mystery of death, take their names and bind them to yourself; open your everlasting gates and welcome them home.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God of our Sorrows and our Joy, we lament today so that we might rejoice tomorrow in your promise of justice, of healing, and of never-ending life; for you are the One in whom all things are made new, and it is to you whom we turn in trust, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever.

Amen.

How God Sees Us: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on October 12, 2019, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 17:11-19.

In the winter of 1990, the NASA space probe Voyager 1 had traveled to the outer reaches of our solar system, collecting data and images of neighboring planets since its launch in 1977. As it hurtled ever farther outward into the vastness of space, the probe’s capacity to take photographs was nearing its end. But before its camera was shut off, engineers turned the probe around to capture a final image facing back in the direction whence it had come, back toward earth.

Perhaps you have seen or heard of this now-famous photo, popularly nicknamed the “pale blue dot.” If not, I encourage you to look it up. At first glance, it appears to just be a picture of a broad, shadowy emptiness, pierced by a few pale bands of light resulting from the reflection of the sun in the camera lens. 

But if you look closely, very closely, you notice in the middle of one of those bands of light a tiny speck: soft blue, unremarkable, and yet shockingly singular, reposing in solitude amid the immense darkness. 

That speck is us—it is planet earth, viewed from 4 billion miles away.

This tiny dot in a photograph, so small you might miss it, reveals the humble totality of the world we know, suspended in the midst of something so large we cannot comprehend it. As the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote of the image a few years after it was captured, the pale blue dot contains:

“every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species…on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Faced with such an image, we are offered a bracing new perspective on the sum total of our struggles and strivings. They tend to appear a bit less momentous at this distance. 

In the same way that we might go to a mountain top or to an ocean vista in order to gain a sense of our place within the larger landscape of creation, discovering our smallness on the pale blue dot offers both clarity and mystery. 

Clarity, because we suddenly comprehend both the fragility and the preciousness of this home we have been given. Mystery, because the created order and the God who bestowed it are revealed as so truly vast that, to paraphrase the Psalmist, “it is too wonderful for us…we cannot attain unto it.” 

Seeing ourselves from this vantage point invites us into a sense of gratitude and awe that we might miss in the inevitable, persistent anxieties of life viewed at ground level, when it sometimes feels like our lives will be defined by the jumbled detritus of our daily concerns: a stack of receipts, a beeping alarm clock, an unanswered email. 

But within this tension of competing perspectives—the mundane and the magnificent—in which we often struggle to see the forest for the trees: it is here that Jesus steps into our path. He, the Incarnate Son of God, brings together, within his very self, the inscrutable mystery of the cosmos AND the simple dignity of our daily endeavors to get by as best we can. 

He sees us from both vantage points. He loves us from both vantage points. And he invites us to share in his dual vision, to see the world as God sees it—with a gaze that is both attentive to the immediate moment AND understanding of its place in a broader story of creation, redemption, and reunion. 

This dual vision, I think, is what the tenth leper demonstrates for us in today’s Gospel. His turning back and praising God illustrates an additional layer of perception more than anything else. A capacity for recognizing what is really going on.

So we don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of energy pointing fingers at the nine other lepers for failing to demonstrate sufficient gratitude, as if Jesus were chiding them like a 1st century version of Miss Manners demanding a thank you note. Those nine have been through a lot. We will send them on their way without judgment.

ALL of the lepers recognize Jesus as Master, and all call out to him, and all are healed. The nine who go directly to the priests, as Jesus instructs, receive no less of a blessing; they will present themselves in their places of worship and, we imagine, they will be restored into the communities from which, as lepers, they have been estranged as social outcasts. 

But the tenth leper, the Samaritan, offers us an additional gift. He understands that what has just happened is far more significant than the provision of his own immediate relief, his own private healing. Perhaps because he is a despised Samaritan as well as a leper—and is thus one who inhabits the periphery of the periphery—he has a broader, more insightful perspective. People at the margins often do. 

This tenth leper realizes that what Jesus has done for him is indicative of what God is doing more generally—that his healing in fact reveals the abundantly loving, restoring, life-giving nature of the God who desires to heal all people and all things. This is why he is compelled to come back and prostrate himself in gratitude. 

In Jesus he has beheld not just a holy man, a miracle worker, but the fullness of God’s mercy in human form, the vastness of God’s concern contained in the voice of a single man. 

Thus the healed leper understands that his individual story has been caught up in something so big, so wonderful, so mystifying, that he must fall down and cling to the earth and cry out in thanksgiving. It is, we might say, his glimpse of the pale blue dot reflected in the eyes of Christ: both the immensity and the intimacy of God’s love in a single flash of understanding.

And so Jesus says to him, “your faith has made you well.” It is the deep wellness of knowing God for who God is.

And friends, is that not why we are here, too, kneeling before our Lord, to give thanks for the goodness that we have seen in Him? To be made well in the knowledge and love of God?

We are always in need of that dual perspective—to understand, like the healed leper, that God sees us and loves us in our particularity, and to also know that each of us is part of something so much greater, so much more beautiful, than we can possibly imagine. 

This is why we unite our hearts and our voices in liturgy—to assert our brief but nonetheless essential role in the eternal praise of God that echoes out into the deep. 

To step back and see ourselves as part of that pale blue dot, a beloved jewel nestled in the velvety darkness of a universe that God has made and called good. 

And then, as a people healed and made new in Christ, to step forward into our lives, to examine the beautiful, earthy blessedness of our days, and to sing out in gratitude that even in our smallness, we are known and loved and forgiven. To be bearers of the holy vision that gazes tenderly on all that has ever been and all that will ever be.

By the way: that space probe, Voyager 1, is still traveling farther out into space. It is predicted that in 300 years it will enter the outermost edges of our solar system, and in 30,000 years, it will reach interstellar space. Beyond that, who knows? 

But what I find especially remarkable, what I find truly “too wonderful for us” to imagine or attain, is that no matter how far that Voyager goes, no matter how long it wanders in the silent darkness, it will never, ever reach a point that is beyond the scope of God’s presence. It will never, ever truly be lost. 

The same, I think, can be said for us. 

Poems on the Road

I’m on a night train heading through the Oregon wilderness, and I decided to share a couple poems I jotted down recently. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the spirituality of love and desire this past year, and these are small, imaginative windows into that journey, one from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, and the other from Judas Iscariot. Hope they resonate for you in some way. Peace, friends.

Magdalene

I needed you so much that
I whispered my deepest longings into a jar
And poured its dark sweetness upon your feet
Not that you would grant them, but
That you would absorb them into your self
My desire like sweat on your skin

I wept tears of love so pure and burning
that they felt like grief
Salt water sonnets
Braided through my hair like jewels or
Serpents

And just now
In the garden of re-encounter
Which never looks like the old days
When love was initial:
I saw
Briefly, ever so
The glimmer of my longing, and my tears
Transfigured into something selfless and whole
In you

Do not hold on
You said
Not because I shouldn’t love you
(Impossible)
But because my love
Reached its home in
Your heart
The sweetness and the salt are yours now
Ours now
The world’s now
Now, always
Anointing
Washing
Outpouring
Shameless
Free

 

Judas

You offered me the cup, said it was your blood.
Oh how I hated you, and loved you
For your generosity
When all I wanted was to bite your flesh and make you bleed from my desire.
You called me by name once
And I thought I loved you
Purely, selflessly
But now I know I wanted what i thought you were
What I needed you to be
Most beautiful of men
And when I realized that your inner light was as perfect as your shining face
I hated you, because I could not possess you for myself
Apple, flesh, my joy and sweet poison
They killed you and I thought I’d find relief
From your perfection
But there is no rest apart from you.
My tears are silver discs
And I weep, not for you, Who is peace itself
But for myself, because I realize
We could never have been united
Until I let you be Yourself. And I couldn’t.
My desire was misplaced.
I long for you still.
I will join you.
Beyond death, somehow, find me.

The Joy of Normality

Temperamental spring is flirting with the landscape in Mirfield. In the past two weeks we’ve had snow blanketing the hillsides, unannounced rainstorms that drenched me on the way to morning prayer, and profusions of purple crocuses and yellow daffodils carpeting the parish churchyards. A bit like life itself, the weather in England is unpredictable, occasionally frustrating, and always beautiful.

Having been here almost two months (!) I’ve settled into a rhythm of prayer, study, meals, and periodic frivolity that feels more like a new home than like a “trip”. Given how disoriented and adrift I felt in the first couple of weeks, this change in itself feels like a miraculous revelation. It makes me realize how infrequently I am grateful for normality in my daily life back in California: always hungry for what is next, not for what simply is.

There was a piece I read long ago by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that referred to this type of everyday gratitude as “the joy of no toothache.” In other words, it’s usually when we are in some type of acute pain that we finally recognize the joy that was already present in the pain-free status quo. Now that the discomforts of adjusting to life in Mirfield have mostly subsided, I am determined to relish the quiet happiness of simply being here.

But how to hold onto that sense of gratitude? For me, in this place, it has come about through a burgeoning sense of prayerful discipline. I am realizing more and more how the constancy of the Daily Offices (morning prayer, Eucharist, evening prayer, etc.) keeps me attentive to God and to the preciousness of the day at hand. Compared to my life back in the US, when I often let prayer become sidelined by academic anxieties, personal angst, and (let’s be honest) a lot of social media-driven idleness, now the rigor and structure of prayer is the framework upon which I build each day. I don’t always *want* to go and pray the Offices, but I must, and in maintaining that commitment, I find small but perceptible shifts in my heart, an accumulation of movements that are reorienting me towards the Divine presence in moments I might otherwise have missed it.

Robert Browning writes of this type of attentiveness in “Pippa’s Song”:

The year’s at the spring,

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His heaven—

All’s right with the world!

 

The saints often express similar feelings about the miracle of the commonplace (think of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun). It is a mistake, I think, to sentimentalize or trivialize these types of observations. Deep satisfaction and delight in the everyday is not the same as naivety, nor is it complacency. To marvel at the poignancy of God’s abiding in the present does not preclude us from clear-eyed hope, from the work of reconciliation, or from the pursuit of justice; instead, it grounds us in pursuing those aims out of love, rather than fear and stridency.

Of all the things I am discovering at Mirfield—the joys of community, the need to take a more holistic view of priestly formation—one of the simplest and best is this experience of inhabiting the day prayerfully, non-anxiously, without a lot of worry about the future. This hasn’t come easily, but it is a change I have experienced quite dramatically in the past few weeks. I told someone recently that there is a bright line around my time here; beyond June 1st I am unsure of what life will hold, and I am suddenly, truly all right with that. If “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) then I am experiencing faith anew here.

So, if I could offer any bit of advice for the perpetually stressed, among whom I have counted myself for many years, I would say this: forget dramatic transformations, and give yourself over to a gentle discipline of prayer. Focus less on an idealized, perfect end result, which is forever beyond our grasp anyway, and find something simple and immediate that will ground you in this day which God has made for us. It might be the Daily Offices, if you are Episcopalian/Anglican, or it might be something else. If you are already engaging in a practice along these lines, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Please know that in my daily prayers I am constantly lifting up your names. It is a great consolation to think of all the love that has permeated my life thus far, and I can only hope to give some of it back to God, through my relationships with you and through the worship that I offer up each day.

Peace, dear friends. You are in my heart always.

The Ancient and the New

It’s been one month since I arrived in Mirfield; as such, one quarter of my time here is already done. I can already sense little shifts in the landscape. The dawn is brighter as I walk up the hill to morning prayer; dusk lingers a bit longer in the church as we chant the psalms at evensong. There are changes inside of me, too. A bit less disoriented, a bit more confident of how I fit into this place.

So much has gone on since my last post. There was the somber and beautiful Ash Wednesday liturgy, when the priest drew a cross on my forehead with cool, damp ashes that had been sprinkled with holy water. A day of silent contemplation at the College to usher in Lent, during which I alternated between stillness and dizzying anxiety. A weekend trip to the ancient city of York, where I wandered alone through the medieval streets looking for a glimpse of a ghost or two. At the massive and magnificent York Minster I was stunned into silence, not simply because of its visual grandeur, but in recognition of the centuries and centuries of prayers that have been offered up into its lofty heights.  I felt alone, and yet deeply connected to that never-ending litany.

This journey thus far, with its ample opportunities for reflection, have made it very clear to me how I am still learning to be a disciple of Christ on the most basic levels: to look kindly upon myself and my flaws, and those of others; to trust that God actually loves me, personally, and not just as an abstraction; to recognize that grace is imbued into everything, whether I see it or not, because God is far more than I can see, or feel, or guess at. These are simple, incomprehensible truths. I know how much I still have to grow, and yet I am also seeing more clearly how becoming a priest is less about growth and more about fully inhabiting myself as God made me. We are not asked to be perfect as priests, but we are asked to be deeply, authentically ourselves, and that is the hardest thing of all sometimes. That goes for non-priests, too, of course.

Lest you think my entire month has been pensive introspection, there have been tons of joyful moments, too. Case in point: on Sunday afternoon I went to lunch with a classmate; we drove out into the countryside and the hills were so green and vast I wanted to cry. Afterwards we drove up to the Victoria Tower, an old observation structure perched far above the town of Huddersfield, and the wind was blowing and the clouds were scudding across the sky and I thought, yes, to be alive is a very good thing. To be here, breathing and breathless and crying from the wind and the wonder is exactly as it must be.  Come, Lord. Come, spring. I am broken open, and I am ready.

Preparing for Lent

The season of Lent is almost upon us. The preparations at Mirfield have me learning about some very old customs that are quite new to me. Today, for example, is Collop Monday.  What’s a collop, you might ask? Apparently it’s a word that refers to bits of leftover meat, often bacon, which are traditionally eaten up on this day before the Lenten season of fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.  The grease from the meat (at least, if Wikipedia is to be trusted) is then used to fry up the pancakes that are traditionally eaten tomorrow, Shrove Tuesday. Mmmm, pancakes.

All the students at the College went up the hill to the monastery house this afternoon to eat Collop Monday lunch with the brethren. It was a feast, although sadly no bacon to be found. BUT there was brisket, roast chicken, stuffing, and tons of dessert. Gotta get those calories in before the menu is pared down for Lent!

Lent is taken quite seriously here, and many of my classmates have been pondering what sort of discipline they are going to adopt starting Wednesday. If you have been part of any liturgical church tradition, you are probably familiar with the question, “what are you giving up for Lent?”  The idea is that in the relinquishing of a particular habit, or in the adoption of a new spiritual discipline, we are creating space in our hearts to listen to God as we approach the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Week. It’s 40 days of soul-searching, and I could sure use it.

At Mass this morning the homily talked about how in our soul-searching we tend to bargain with God, usually petitioning for favors or for the cessation of misfortune. I do this all the time, frankly, even though I don’t necessarily think God relates to us in that way. I’ve been doing a lot of imploring to the heavens lately as I adjust to life over here and battle some inner and outer demons. Maybe you can relate.

Truth be told, I get really annoyed by people who sneer at anyone who prays with a desperate heart. “Well, he only prays when he wants something!” Come now, we all want something–don’t kid yourself that you are holier just because you pray at other times, too. The fact that we are compelled to cry out to God in any circumstance is a sign of grace to me; it just so happens that our need and our fear is usually the hollow space in which God can enter us, if we let God do so. (See Luke 18:9-14)

The challenge, at least in my case, is to remain open–to allow God to dwell in the space that’s usually cluttered up with the distractions and novelties that pervade my life. And so Lent is a little bit like spring cleaning for the heart; it’s an intentional effort to clear out some room and prepare a seat for the Holy One to come and abide with me as we wait together for new life to emerge.

I’m pretty sure what my Lenten discipline is going to be, but I’m going to pray on it a bit more between now and Wednesday before committing. If you’ve already settled on something for yourself, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

God bless you, friends. If you’re reading this, I am grateful for your companionship on this journey. I’ll write in a couple of days to describe the Ash Wednesday liturgy, which I’ve heard is beautiful.

xo

Tea with the Monks

Sundays are a whirlwind at Mirfield. Mattins (morning prayer) at 7:30 with fellow students and the monks of of the Community of the Resurrection, then a sung Mass til 9, and then I dash off to my field placement church(es) in town: St. Mary’s in the center of Mirfield at 9:45, followed by St. John’s in the nearby village of Upper Hopton at 11:15. Four worship services before noon!

After Sunday lunch back at the College there is a bit of a pause when students are welcome to go up for tea in the large home where the monks live. I didn’t go my first Sunday and decided I would venture up today to meet some of the brethren (as the monks are collectively called).

A classmate and I got into a long conversation with Fr. Eric, who has been a monk with the Community since 1961 when he arrived at Mirfield as an “unwilling” young novice–he said that as a young man he felt the call to monastic life but he was resistant to it at the same time. He admitted that he even kept his luggage packed for the first three weeks at the monastery, ready (hoping?) at any moment to be dismissed and to go back to his regular life. And yet nearly 60 years later he is still there, still working out his calling, still seeking God each day in worship and contemplation.

Given my own struggles (see previous post) I was deeply comforted by Fr. Eric’s frankness. Do we ever really know FOR SURE that the thing we are doing is the only thing we could have/should have done? Whether it’s a career, a relationship, or any other major life decision, we always step into it with an element of blind trust, because we can never know how it will turn out. I asked Fr. Eric if he ever reached a place in his life where he ceased to struggle with his calling and he chuckled. “A retreat visitor once asked me if I ever questioned becoming a monk,” he said with a smile. “Before giving it much thought I answered her, ‘every day!'” He laughed merrily.

There are no guarantees when you commit to a relationship, even when it’s with God. There will be doubt and struggle, and sometimes you will question why on earth you are doing any of this. And when you think about it, God has no guarantees when entering into a relationship with us, either: we are fickle and resistant far more than we might like to admit.

Despite this, God remains committed, and that divine fidelity hopefully inspires our own faithfulness–to God, to each other, and to the loving commitments that we make in this life. Not out of a sense of duty, and not because we are free of doubts, but because we trust that fidelity itself is a transformative practice, no matter the outcome.

Fr. Eric then told us another story about an elderly monk who is visiting the Community right now from the northern reaches of England. He is not a member of their order, but he has a longstanding relationship with them. This particular monk lives alone on a mountaintop; he’s been there for years, waiting and hoping that some others will join him to form a community. Nobody has ever come, though, and so he lives as a de facto hermit. I was both fascinated and shaken by this image of a man waiting for a vision to come true despite all evidence to the contrary. What kind of patience and commitment must that take? Did he ever second guess his decision? How does he know that he should stay up on the mountain?

After the tea ended, with all of these thoughts lingering in my mind, we walked back through the garden towards the College building; the sun had set and the air was damp and icy. My classmate pointed toward a cluster of forlorn bushes and said that before I leave in June, they will be covered in roses. It was hard to imagine it then in the February twilight, but I imagine he must be right; the roses will arrive in their time. A few months from now, on a balmy night, the air will smell sweet and who knows what I will have learned. I can’t quite picture it, but I have to trust.

 

Fire or Fire

This morning I woke up far earlier than I needed to after a night of troubled sleep. In one of those “God, give me a message” moments, I grabbed a book of poetry from my desk and opened it by chance to this:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–
To be redeemed from fire by fire

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

These words, part of “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot, inhabited the dark room with me like a corporeal presence. I have been struggling mightily with things I’ve lost and left behind and the fear of other things I might yet lose. The gratitude that I feel for this three-year seminary journey has often been tinged with sadness, and there have been moments when it all seems bleak and futile. The “flame of incandescent terror” is exactly what answering the call to priesthood has sometimes been for me: a burning away of old comforts and the scorching of my blithe naiveté about what priestly formation would entail, all carried down on the wings of a fearsome Love that feels more like grief. I think that anyone who seeks to follow God, no matter their path or vocation, has at some point felt the sting of what Bonhoeffer calls the cost of discipleship. Who we were must be relinquished for who God asks us to become. The fire of the Spirit is not for the faint of heart, and it demands everything we have to give.

It seems impossible sometimes. But what is the alternative? If Eliot is right, and we must choose to either be burned on the liberating pyre of faith or on the suffocating pyre of our own hardened hearts, then the choices are not in fact equal. Any fear I might feel about following Christ is still preferable to a life of deadening self-interest, and so I continue to turn my face toward the flames of God–however tentatively–and they continue to sting my eyes with their heat.

But how does one make a life of this? How do I let myself be kindled by God’s Love rather than fall back on the same old habits and neuroses that have gotten me by in life thus far? How to die to my old self and yet recognize that I remain a person who wants to be carefree, to laugh, to not trudge along in dreary self-importance? How can I be fully myself–complicated, vulnerable, earthy, needy–in a world (and even a church culture) that sometimes corrals people into a stultifying role that values piety and assurance more than raw presence?

These are some of the questions I’ve brought to Mirfield. I don’t know that they can be answered. But if “Love is the unfamiliar name,” I want to learn how to speak it with greater confidence. I want to adopt it as my own. Even if it burns, as it does, as I know it will.

God, give me the courage to be consumed by you.

Daily Life

I’m still new here and I’m learning all sorts of details about *how things are done* at Mirfield, but what follows is a typical day so far:

6:45AM: Alarm goes off. It’s still dark, and I fumble my way through a quick morning routine before putting on the required attire for all services and most meals: a black cassock (basically a long black robe that buttons down the front) and matching scapular (think of it like an apron that drapes over your shoulders, covering your front and billowing out behind you like a little cape when you walk). Underneath, people just wear a regular shirt and dark pants, and black shoes and socks are a must. A belt around the outside of the cassock and I’m good to go. I grab a borrowed copy of the Church of England’s “Common Prayer: Daily Worship” book and head out the door by 7:15. I might encounter some other students along the way up to the church, but everyone remains silent, as there is no speaking on campus from 9:30PM until after breakfast the next morning.

7:30: Mattins. This is a morning prayer service in the College’s worship space that consists of a few psalms, a canticle, one scripture reading, and some prayers. We aren’t with the monks for this one; they are upstairs in the main portion of the church.

One of my favorite moments of the day is when the students begin mattins by singing “O Lord, open our lips/And our mouth shall proclaim your praise” in the most beautiful harmony.  Since we are otherwise observing silence, this is literally the first sound that anyone utters as the day begins. We use the same language to open morning prayer back home, too, but the resonance of the words is somehow heightened when they pierce the silent gloom of pre-dawn after not speaking all night.

8AM: Mass. This is a very simple Eucharistic (communion) service, officiated by one of the faculty priests, without any singing. It is optional for students to stay for this portion (mattins, described above, is required every day) but a good number do remain. After we receive communion and close the service, everyone departs for breakfast.

8:30(ish): Breakfast in the refectory (dining hall). I’ll talk more about the meals another time, but it is simple, tasty, and eaten in silence. Once you finish your food and leave the refectory, you may talk at leisure for the rest of the day.

11AM: Tea & coffee are offered in the refectory, and students pass through, chat, whatever.  Very casual.

12PM: There is an optional (for students) midday prayer service in the main church with the monks of the Community of the Resurrection.  It’s only about 15 minutes, and is mostly psalms, chanted in plainsong.

1PM: Lunch in the refectory. Students do not need to wear their cassock and scapular to lunch, though you may if you would like to do so. Lunch is simple, often a casserole or a soup, and everyone is chatting and socializing.

4PM: Tea and coffee are again set out in the refectory.  There are usually some scones or other treats, too. As you can see, you don’t go hungry here! Everyone jokes about the “Mirfield Stone”, which is something akin to the Freshman 15.

6PM: Evensong (sung evening prayer) with the monks in the main church.  We put our cassocks and scapulars back on for this one, and it is a required service. The monks are seated in a circle in the middle of the worship space, and we are in a circle around them. Visitors to the monastery are in separate seats. Evensong is, again, made up of a number of chanted psalms, a reading, silence, and other prayers. It is incredibly beautiful to hear the assembly join its voices together; the vaulted ceilings of the church create a sound that envelops you.

6:45ish: Immediately after evensong, the students head back to the refectory for dinner. It’s always lively and the food is hearty. We open and close with grace, so everyone remains at the table until the meal is completed.  Then we all go downstairs to the common room for coffee and tea and more conversation.

9:15PM: Compline. This is an optional, very brief, bedtime prayer service with the monks again in the main church. The lights are dim, there is a single candle lit in the middle of the seats, and a few psalms are chanted. This service ushers in the silence that will be kept by the entire community until the next morning.

And then the cycle repeats itself, day in and day out. And that agenda, of course, doesn’t include classes, meetings, personal prayer and study, and socializing–all of which is fit into the hours not spoken for above. It’s a rigorous schedule, and yet I have found the rhythm comforting, especially since I am so new and sometimes feeling lonely and overwhelmed. Even when you are feeling lost on the inside, there is always another moment of prayer or fellowship approaching, carrying you like a current down a stream. You are carried by the schedule, by the community, and by God, Who is ever present in the ebb and flow of the day.