Epiphany at 4th and Walnut…

When I was working on a faith development analysis of Thomas Merton, I found two contrasting moments in Merton’s life that both occurred on Walnut Street in Louisville, Kentucky.

The first occurred after Merton completed his first visitation at the Trappist monastery, Gethsemane. on the Monday after Easter in 1941. He was headed back to New York, sad to be leaving the monastery where he had experienced intimations of what his monastic vocation might be like.

In his first volume of seven journals, he reports that he was feeling confused as he arrived in Louisville to await his train that would return him to New York. “There is a huge gap between the monastery and the world, and Louisville is a nice enough town but I wasn’t happy to be thrown back into it…. I couldn’t figure out, half the time, whether it was morning or afternoon. The sign “Clown Cigarettes” on, I think, Walnut Street, made me laugh wanly. I didn’t want to see any of the city, or any of the people.”. Merton reports that he fled to the Cathedral, then to the public library, until his train was to depart.

In powerful contrast, we overhear Merton’s reflection at the same place on Walnut Street, on March 18, 1958, some seventeen years having transpired for him in the crucible of the monastery, admitted for “monastic therapy as he would say. The power of this epiphanic revelation is dazzling to the reader of Merton, contained in the book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp. 153-4. This recollection of experience and spiritual musing has been a touchstone for me for my forty years of wandering in my wilderness. I quote it here to punctuate my recent monastic swim across the River Jordan. I hope that you will find it enlightening, challenging, and mostly, a joyful moment of re-cognition.

“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 those 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, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.

The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.

Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even
better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstakes.

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that 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.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.” Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” pp.153-4 (Note: Merton’s daily journal entry for March 19, 1958 contains a brief but similar reflection, Volume 3, pp.181-2)

The centering mantra that I placed in my soul for safekeeping was Merton’s spiritual revelatory exclamation: “Thank God that I am like other persons, that I am one among many.” I use it in almost every prayer session, with a deep sense of the freshness with which it occurred to Merton on that March morning. Liberated from the illusion of specialness, framed either positively or negatively. Healed from the narcissistic wound of isolation or elevation. It is a journey that continues, but is aided by other pilgrims who are making their way. Merton’s epiphany continues to stimulate my desire for both solitude and solidarity. Blessings.

Solitude AND Solidarity

I continue to swim in the waters of monastic spirituality, revisiting some old texts from my past.

The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiographical account of how Thomas Merton wound up at a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, has been the centerpiece of my reading. It’s my fourth go at this work which led many people to consider the monastic path. It was written in the fresh winds of his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his quick journey into a cloistered path of spiritual development. Each time I read it, I find a different angle on what was going on inside of Merton’s head, heart, and soul.

My first reading was that of a seeker who was fascinated by the passion of a young man’s quest to find God. The romanticized journey caught my imagination of a world of which I was completely ignorant. Merton’s travels and questions pressed me to my own wrestling as to how I might make sense of my religious tradition as well as opening me up to fresh possibilities.

My second reading was from an academic perspective. I was trying to do a faith development analysis of his life, how he was moving through his life within the monastery to solidify his identity as a Roman Catholic, then as a Trappist monk, and then transcending the boundaries of a tight system of thinking to become inclusive and valuing of other traditions. I used his journals, beginning with Seven Storey, to get a first-hand account of what was going on in his thinking, what doubts were arising, questions that troubled him, and breakthrough moments of revelatory insights. Fortunately, there are now seven volumes of his personal journals available to review, mostly written during his time in the monastery, and largely unedited.

The third go was almost casual as I was returning from my ten-year sojourn in Texas back to Georgia, reconnecting with the monks and monastery that I had been away from for a decade. It seemed like a good place to start, though this reading had a more casual feel to it, light, almost as entertainment.

And now the fourth, following my extended retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit retreat house in Conyers, Georgia prior to, during, and after Holy Week. My personal reconnection with Merton and several of his spiritual classics prompted my purchase of a new copy, a 50th Anniversary Edition, to revisit his circuitous journey into the monastic community where he encountered prayer and work (Ora et Labora, the Benedictine way), silence, stability in community with other monks. This formed the crucible for what Merton called “monastic therapy, a process that would transform him.

As Merton describes it, there is the basic motivating factor for the monk is to connect with God. The person commits to being in a cloistered setting, set apart from the world in order to be freed from distraction. This is so that one can center on God, becoming more focused on an awareness of God’s presence. The word that emerged for me and many others who have experimented with various modalities of prayer is “centering”. One literally practices the intentional act of centering in God’s presence. One monk commented that the impulse is to give God “more room” in one’s life. That image appeals to me, especially in the face of my busyness. More room for God, indeed. From my experience, easier said than done.

This centering accentuates your solitude, your deep connection with God. Becoming a monk sets the stage for contemplation, which is deepening awareness of God’s presence. A monk is sacrificing all the obvious things that satisfy one’s senses. The smallest sacrifice builds willpower to make God the priority in your life, as opposed to things that are transitory, passing. As one old monk told me, “It’s about discipline, learning, training yourself to say ‘no’, to turn away from self-centeredness, to embrace the larger reality which is God”.

The monk leaves the world that he knows in order to enter the process of sanctification, But the world is still there, now in the form of a community of faith. The reality of “the other” remains. It is redefined in terms of stability as you take a vow to stay in that particular group of monks. One is walking away from the values of the culture: “me first”, get all you can get, as much as you can, a drive for worth via success, to compete, to win, to acquire. Instead, the value championed in this intentional community is love: love of God, love of neighbor.

It’s the dynamic of the spiritual polarity that drives the process: solitude and solidarity. The commitment to be alone with God in a contemplative attitude tends to the solitude side of the equation. Being honest with oneself, looking squarely at one’s brokenness and self-centered tendencies, while simultaneously being embraced by the love of God that loves you in spite of yourself…that is the trick. That is the experience of grace, which miraculously frees you up. Having experienced this grace at several moments in my life, I know of its transforming power. And also, to quote again from St. Ringo of Starr, “it don’t come easy.”.

Solitude asks that the monk set aside significant time in the day for prayer, being alone with God. This can be during the appointed hours during the schedule of the monastery, dedicated to private prayer. This happens in common areas where monks are in the posture of prayer, and silence pervades. It can happen in the cloister garden, or on walks in the forests or fields. Solitude is the center around which the monastery revolves.

One monk expressed an adage that I once heard from my beloved grandfather. The monk used Latin, “Nemo dat quod non haber”, while my granddad drawled it in a South of God wizened accent, “Dave, old man, you can’t give what you ain’t got!”. Taking care of your own spiritual needs is at the heart of the demand and necessity of solitude. It’s a piece of spirituality that seems to be difficult for many clergy to grasp, due to their desire to not be selfish, to take care of others. But tending to one’s own soul fuels one’s spirit so that you can give back to others. This dynamic captures the essence of paradox.

While this paradox of solitude is in play, the context for this Trappist/Benedictine life is in community, a specific group of people with whom you are STUCK. Each one brings a particular and peculiar way of being to the dance. Some will endear themselves to you, while some will disturb you, get under your skin, drive you crazy. You are sharing long hours in the choir chanting Psalms, singing hymns, listening to prayers. Their habits and personalities that they brought with them from their previous life, they are dragging them behind as they enter this new environment. Their odd mannerisms, their off-key singing, their manners are all too evident and in play. That is the context for this spiritual ripening.

Here the task is to see one’s connection to your brother, to learn to love each one as an expression of God’s Creation, a fellow member of the Body of Christ. The love that is demanded is one that is freed of agenda, of need for the other to be like we would want him to be. Rather, we allow the other to be their own person, rather than made in the image of how we wished to God they were. That’s a qualitatively different kind of love than most of us were raised on and experienced in the world. It is a rare breed of love.

This creative tension between solitude and solidarity is what produces the juice that ferments in the soul of the monk. Taking time to be alone with God while doing so in the crucible of community is a seeming paradox but actually accentuates two equal truths of human life. We are solitary souls, each responsible for our life choices AND we are essentially connected to others, both in our smaller circles as well as the whole of humanity. Living in this seeming contradiction with a commitment to both sides of the equation, the monk trusts God in the process to bring about good things for our souls and God’s realm.

In my life outside of the monastery, I have been imagining how this tension might be fostered and nurtured. The solitude seems easy enough in terms of committing to the alone time in centering prayer. Over the past month or so, I have been able to carve out and dedicate more time for my silence, being in the presence of God. Finding additional ways of connecting in solitude will be the challenge as well as maintaining my commitment when I get busy in the Fall.

The solidarity piece seems more difficult as my community is not as clearly defined and limited as it is in the monastery.. There are constant changes in terms of who I am in community with. Sometimes, it’s a group of priests/ministers who are struggling to figure out how to be faithful, how to lead a parish in a certain situation. Sometimes I am with a group of scholars who are wanting to find ways to influence the common life in our community. Sometimes I am with community leaders who are seeking to respond to a current crisis, such as homelessness. And sometimes, it’s just regular friends and acquaintances wondering how we can live together in the middle of such a polarized time. The lack of stability seems to hamper this personal initiative to improve this non-agenda love, but the need and press are great.

In addition, I am aware that I have unconsciously “cocooned” in groups of like-minded people who share my values and tastess. Rarely am I in the uncomfortable situation of interacting with folks that hold a position that is diametrically opposed to my worldview. They may hold radically different political views but those remain submerged as we move through polite,”comfortable” conversation.

Where are the places where actual interaction can occur? I am intentionally seeking that in both of my communities of Glynn County and Atlanta where the divisions of which I speak are alive and well. Race, economics, culture, and politics provide a rich platform on which to play. This is long, hard work that requires intentional commitment and a patient heart to listen appreciatively to what the “other” has to say. I must overcome my tendency to avoid difficult conversations and guard against my defensiveness.But this is my task, my challenge if I am to embrace the monastic spirit of solitude and solidarity. While I might wish to live this out in the defined monastic community, that seems to not be my lot.

Solitude and solidarity is the dialectical tension that seems to be my challenge in my next chapter of life. With the resources of Merton and other pilgrims, with the support of friends, and the press of the world’s needs, I enter this path with hope and faith, praying that my love will increase, deepen, and widen, adding an expanded dimensionality to my soul. Blessings.

Death Starkly Faced

His face looked porcelain, an odd shade of white. It’s a shade I had seen before on my mother’s face in the emergency room. And my Dad’s in his hospital bed early in the morning. Stark. There is no question. This once-living human organism was no longer alive, breathing, vital. Death now dominated where life once reigned.

The face I was observing was that of Matthew Torpey, or Father Matt as he was called in the monastery. His body was on the oak funeral bier, placed in the center of the nave in the Abbey of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. At his head, the Paschal Candle offered scant light to the scene, but functioned more symbolically as a testimony to the Resurrection hope that Matt and his brothers shared in this Trappist monastery.

Father Matt entered Gethsemane monastery in 1950 in Louisville. He was a student of Thomas Merton during his formation as a Trappist monk. He transferred to Conyers in 1967 and spent the rest of his life there at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. His birthday was September 1, 1927, the exact same day as my mother’s birth, an odd connection.

Through the night, a series of monks sat in vigil, beside the body, chanting the Psalms as is the tradition. This morning, around 9AM, “monk time”, which means a few minutes late, we would celebrate the Funeral Mass of the Resurrection, celebrating his life and witness, and claiming our hope in the face of this stark death in the Risen Christ.

As I gaze upon Matt’s alabaster face, seemingly an unrecognizable mask, my mind travels back to my grandmother’s funeral in a funeral home in West Georgia. She had gone through the typical embalming process, and had a make-up artist “make her pretty”, while the tinted spotlight tried to cast a golden-pink glow on her face. It didn’t work for me, making the point of the denial of death which folks in our culture readily embrace. Even the preacher’s flowery words about Miss Glennie rang false as he tried to make her saintly, ever-encouraging, always with an affirming word. Not a whiff of the reality of the grandmother that I loved who would famously “call a spade a bloody hoe”. Yielding to my Scot’s genetics of the deceased, I pointedly asked the young preacher if he had ever even met my grandmother. Professional tip: don’t lie about the dead.

My friend, Francis Michael delivered the eulogy for Matt on this day. He was careful to tell the truth about Matt, both his wisdom as well as his peculiarities. Francis Michael relied on Matt as he entered his monastic vocation, finding him supportive and incisive, an art for those who seek to mentor others.

Following holy communion, the monks carried the body on the bier out to the graveyard located just behind the Abbey, where the monks from the past are buried, their graves marked by a simple cross with names engraved. There is no casket, only a shroud, the monk dressed in his cowl and curiously, with his shoes on. They lowered Matt’s body down into the Georgia clay using white cotton straps. Once carefully placed, the Abbot, then other members of the community began to shovel dirt over the body, along with red roses lovingly tossed into the grave by family members and the community.

As I made my way from the church to the graveyard, one of the monks, Kallistos, kindly brought a chair to place on the porch that overlooks the grave, affording me a literal bird’s eye view of the proceedings. Normally, I would have been at ground level, to the side. This time, I was able to see directly down into the six-foot depth of the grave, and the reality of the moment seemed to quicken. There was a cool breeze on this clear morning in May, bringing a shiver to my body. Was it the temperature or the starkness? Perhaps both.

As in the past experiencing Trappist burials, I was moved by the reality of death that was faced rather than cosmetically covered over. In my own Anglican tradition, death is acknowledged but somewhat hidden by the closed casket and the ornate funeral pall that covers the burial container, thus “making all equal’ as we say.

This Trappist way is so “in your face” that there is no room to miss the stark reality. It is only in the cold, clear light of the reality of death that the full bore of Easter Hope has power. Much as in the original setting of a broken, crucified Jesus was witnessed and placed in a tomb on a Friday that we now call Good, only then can the depth of hope be embraced.

In this same space, the community had celebrated the resurrection hope of the Easter Vigil just weeks before. The Paschal Candle brought the first light to the darkness of the darkened abbey, and now was placed beside the grave of Father Matt, a reminder of our hope even in the face of death.

When I first began going to the monastery almost fifty years ago, there were around one hundred monks in residence. Many of those that I knew well have died, most living into their nineties. I have attended many such burials as described above. Maybe it’s my own aging self that sees from a different perspective that sharpens my eye to this reality. Regardless, the power of the burial ritual makes our culture’s normal practice seem pale in comparison.

There is no denial of death in the Trappist world, but neither is there a timid affirmation of the Easter joy of resurrection. The hard, stark truth is that one must go through Death to get to Easter. There is no bootleg left or right to avoid the pain and suffering of loss, only straight up the middle and “through”. That is why the Church included the Passion narrative at the end of Palm Sunday, recognizing that to get to Easter, one must travel through the Cross. Simply. Starkly.

As the days pass, I find myself returning to those highly valenced images again and again. From the view of the portico, the depth of the grave seems deeper. The face of the deceased appears more lifeless, as if it were never animated. But so are the images of a community gathered in hope. The faces of brothers in a circle around the gaping grave, tossing roses and dirt into the hole in their community. Their voices seem stronger as they affirm their faith in a continued connection with Matt, a connection that even death can not sever.

Father Matt Torpey. Blessed be his memory.

Return To Merton Roots

My time away at the Trappist monastery re-minded me of my deep connection with Thomas Merton.

When I first visited the monastery while in college, I found myself drawn to The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s reflection on his visitation and eventual entry into monastic life as a Trappist monk at Gethsemane, located outside of Louisville, Kentucky. His literary style was my initial attraction but it was his transparency in writing about his soul, wrestling with vocation, that hooked me. I began to read voraciously his works on contemplative prayer, the monastic life, his valuing the insights of other traditions of faith, and his ethical connection to social issues surrounding race, war, and poverty. Merton became a home base for me as I tried to figure out my own South of God background as well as explore new ways of connecting to the Holy.

On one particular retreat at the monastery, I found a piece of gray paper on the nightstand by my bed. It was in every room in the monastery’s guest house, though I had never seen it before. It was a passage from Merton, a passage that grabbed my soul. It reappeared to me on this recent trip, oddly through social media. It comes from his writings in his journals in 1953-54, with 1954 as the year of my birth. Like any classic passage, it proves timeless and changes its face to meet the dawn of new circumstances.

“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. 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. Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Thoughts in Solitude, p. 79

This passage has grabbed my heart, soul, and mind every time I have come across it. Some soulfully strategic monk placed this by the bed of every person who happened to be visiting the guest house, wisely discerning that it might be the word of encouragement, a moment of grace, a pregnant push that might assist a pilgrim who was traveling and found lodging in this house of prayer.

It has been that for me.

At one point in my journey, it normalized my sense of wonder at the very mystery that I was experiencing as a young man, trying to figure out who the hell I was in the messiness of life.

One particular day, it called me to go further, and dive deeper into the ocean of mystery that both beckoned and evaded me, reassuring me that God would be there regardless of my wanderings.

It was there and was read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested that night before my ordination to the priesthood, emphasizing the process that I had been engaged in.

Merton spoke across time and space to me in moments of decision, of crisis, of failure with kind, compassionate words of reassurance, of grace, something that in the words of St. Ringo “don’t come easy”.

And most recently, the words shook me to a recognition of my mixed motivations in my life. I did want to please God in what I did, but I lacked the “purity of heart” that Merton articulates, for there is a significant portion of “me”, spelled EGO in the mix. To face one’s impurity, comingled with pure love, has been my fate, leaving me breathless and clueless at times. Presently, it leaves me wondering what is next in this journey. And in that incisive moment that cuts like a knife, I am leaning into the grace that is promised, that the Divine Presence will be with me.

When you read this pregnant passage from Merton, what grabs you? Where does it meet you at this time in your life? Reading the passage slowly, not rushing through it, but savoring the words, the phrases, can lead to a deeper meditation on your life and soul. Classically, it is referred to as lectio divina, diving reading, used by monks for centuries as they chanted the 150 Psalms in common prayer and in their time of solitary devotion. What might this passage be prompting you to reflect upon?

I hope you will take the time to pause, to read, to meditate, and reflect. Try it on. Think of it as playfully engaging the text to see what gifts might emerge. I would love to hear what arises out of this encounter with Merton’s wisdom and spirit. Blessings. +


My recent days at the monastery allowed me some time to revisit a method of prayer that I have been using for years.

It began when I was in college, inundated with overwhelming academic pressure and newly discovered distractions, leaving me in a vortex of spinning thoughts. A fraternity brother and I went to a Transcendental Meditation Center newly opened in Atlanta in order to learn how to meditate. This was following a time in which the Beatles traveled to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who was teaching a method of meditation using a mantra ( a prayer word). After an interview with an instructor, we were given our mantra, a two-syllable word, that we would use to focus on our breathing, in and out, to assist us in taming the “monkey mind? of distraction. It did help me to focus and gave me a coping mechanism to enable me to calm my mind.

Soon thereafter, I discovered the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. The Trappists, namely Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and Basil Pennington, were bringing forward a method of contemplative prayer which they named Centering Prayer. I was most fortunate to befriend a monk, Father Tom Francis, who had been trained in teaching this method and he kindly gave me a series of sessions to train me on how to employ this practice. It involved meditating for twenty minutes twice a day, using a prayer word of your own choosing that would help you to center. The method reminded me of TM although there are distinctions.

Centering Prayer has been my main way of pausing, of praying, to regularly stop in the busyness of the day, to allow me to shift out of my mental activity that whirs with analytic thought. This strategic pause allows me to engage the right hemisphere of my brain that is intuitive and sees connections in my world. Both functions, the analytical, slicing and dicing the world into the smallest parts in order to understand it better (the left hemisphere), and the integrative, wholistic, intuitive function of the right hemisphere, are important. But as psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist points out, our Western culture is dominated by the scientific, analytical function. My meditation times give me that gift of taking a “pause for the cause”. My aim has been for a balance, a proper Anglican “via media”, but the culture tends to get the best of me at times. My time away at the monastery reminded me of that deficiency and called me to be more disciplined and intentional in my practice.

Through the years, I have continued to study contemplative prayer within my own Christian tradition. I have appreciated the expansive work of Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, on Centering Prayer. She studied extensively with Thomas Keating and has put her own mark on the tradition, emphasizing the self-emptying, kenotic way of being in the world. I also took a number of classes at Drepung Loseling in Atlanta, a Tibetan Buddhist center in their uniquely pragmatic methods of increasing compassion towards one’s neighbor. And I have followed Jon Cabot-Zinn’s scientific research on mindfulness, specifically its use for stress reduction for medical professionals.

Most recently, I have studied with Shirzad Chamine who has written a popular book, Positive Intelligence, that focuses on methods to calm our ego’s frantic activity to control our lives. Using a method that promotes “mental fitness”, he offers methods that engage sensory prompts that frees us from the cognitive saboteurs that entrap us in a cage of obsession.

All of these methods have similar goals and means by which to settle your distracted mind. The basic process is that of sitting comfortably. Some recommend shutting your eyes, other methods prefer a soft gaze forward. I am pragmatic: do whatever works best for you.

Take three deep breaths, inhaling through your nose, adding a bit by opening your mouth at the end of inhalation. Hold briefly, then exhale, mouth open. You are slowing your rhythm, filling your lungs with oxygen. Then, breathe mindfully, paying attention to your breathing, with a natural inhalation, followed by a normal exhale of the breath. You are focusing on your breath, and/or your two-syllable word that frees your mind from the chatter and clutter of thoughts. If you are new to the practice, be prepared to encounter stray thoughts entering your mind. Without judgment, with patience, return to your focus on your breath or your chosen mantra, or both. Again, experiment as to what works best for you.

If you are beginning, you might start with 5-10 minutes per session, ideally one in the morning, one in the evening. The standard in most practices is 20 minutes, but that may seem like an eternity when you are in your early meditation practice. Again, pragmatism is not a bad way to start: Do what works for you. The main thing is to be committed to the Pause, in order to quiet the ego mind and liberate the free presence which offers integration.

There are many books that will take you deeper into your practice. And, there are apps on your phone that will prompt you and time your meditation. There is actually a Centering Prayer app available. But the main thing is to just do it…PAUSE. It will provide you with a center for your Self that is a beneficial addition in this world filled with distraction. Blessings.

Late for Easter

On the first Sunday after Easter, we heard the 20th Chapter of the Gospel according to John, recounting the events of the Resurrection. Jesus appears to his disciples in a locked room where they had been hidden away in fear.

There was only one problem: Thomas was absent. We are not told where he was or what he was doing, no “hall pass” offered. Thomas was missing in action.

When he did return to the group, his fellow disciples excitedly told him about Jesus’ appearance to them. Thomas’ response was that he needed to see him for himself, not just rely on the experience of others. He wanted to see this Risen Jesus for himself, to touch him. For this natural desire to see his rabbi, Thomas was given the appellation of the Doubter…Doubting Thomas.

He was not so much the Doubter as he was Driven, driven to experience the Resurrection for himself.

Thomas was late for Easter. Fortunately, Thomas was there when Jesus made another appearance, inviting Thomas to touch his wounds to make sure it was really the Crucified One, now the Risen One.

And Thomas did reach out and discovered for himself the Jesus had risen…risen indeed! His response are words that have resounded through Christian history: “My Lord and My God!”.

Allow me two side tracks.

First, my ordaining bishop, Judson Child, had a holy habit of voicing those words every time he elevated the consecrated bread and wine at the altar. Only, Judson used the Latin form: Dominus Meus, Deus Meus!”. My Lord and My God!

Working alongside Bishop Child at the Episcopal Cathedral of Atlanta, I heard and witnessed this act of piety as he celebrated Holy Communion, with me by his side, a young priest in formation. It should come as no surprise that I followed his lead by using these words of adoration as I celebrated the rite of Holy Communion. It gave, and gives me a sense of connection with Judson and with Thomas, which I value deeply.

Secondly, it is not by chance that my firstborn is named Thomas. The name was what we call “over-determined” by a variety of connections. One was the monk that I mentioned a few weeks ago, Father Tom Francis, who has served as my long-time spiritual director. And then there is Tom Malone, my therapist and teacher, who schooled me in the art of intimacy. And, my original spiritual siren who pulled me toward the contemplative life, Thomas Merton. Those three, my spiritual trinity.

But underneath it all was my native attraction to Thomas, the Disciple. His refusal to be satisfied by listening to others’ experiences, and his drive for his own encounter with the Holy. Thomas gave me a place to be in the Church. He provided me permission to bring my questions and reservations.

Just a thought: Why not follow Thomas as an example of faith? He was driven to experience the Easter moment, not just going along with what others said.

Much of what I saw in the Church was people merely socialized into a tepid agreement with the belief system of whatever religion they happened to grow up in. They grew up in a church, were taught certain beliefs and practices by their parents and families, and simply continued the tradition in their generation. My friend, John Westerhoff called this “inherited faith”. In the faith development world, we called it Conventional Faith, in which one sort of fell into following a line of belief and action. There had been no moment of decision, of choosing a faith in which to stand.

Thomas bids us to do better, to dive deeper.

Clearly, we all stand within a tradition of stories that tell us about others’ experience of God, of what Jesus taught and did. And yet, we are asked to make it our own, to decide what this Easter event means to us, what it demands of us. We have to make it our own.

So, if you were like Thomas, and were late for Easter, don’t settle for just going along with the crowd. Make an intentional decision to pursue this faith question with a passion and honesty that might make you, and others, uncomfortable for a minute, but will yield a faith that is your own.

It’s not the easy way, but it is the way Jesus took for himself in his forty days in the wilderness, hammering out his vision of the realm of God, wrought from the very stuff of his inherited faith of Judaism. And then, there is the climatic scene in Gethsemane where Jesus’ struggle comes to a head, but he finds the resolve to follow through with his commitment, even unto death. For me, it’s the essential moment of Jesus’ identification with our humanity, my humanity.

It’s what Thomas committed to do in a most uncomfortable moment in a crowd, “I have to see for myself.”. It’s what people of faith have been doing ever since, even if they happen to be late for Easter. Blessings.

Leaning Into Easter

Easter arrived early for me this year.

4:30 AM to be exact. It was the appointed time for the Easter Vigil to begin.

It was on an Easter Vigil some 45 years ago that I first experienced the power of sacramental worship as the new fire of Easter was lit by the Abbot of the monastery, using that flame to light the Paschal Candle. We followed the new Paschal Candle from the field to the darkened abbey church, which looked to me like a tomb. The Abbot knocked on the door three times, and then slowly opened the creaking doors. The single candle was processed into the utter darkness, providing an arcade of flickering shadows on the walls. Each person had a candle that was lit from the Paschal Candle, which brought a progressive flood of warm candlelight. The liturgy proceeds with readings from Scripture, but explodes as the lights are suddenly turned on in the Church, as the Easter tidings of Good News is proclaimed by the Abbot who is serving as the Celebrant: Alleluia, Christ is Risen! And the people respond joyfully: The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

This experiential worship was new to me, having been raised listening to erudite sermons from learned biblical scholars. I was fortunate that I did not have to endure lengthy guilt trips sermons, threatening with hell fire. But, my experience was mainly in my head, an intellectual journey. This Easter Vigil engaged my whole self: mind, heart, and soul. I knew that first night of my experience of the Paschal Mystery that I had to have this in my life. I tried finding it within my Baptist heritage with “high” churches, but it felt thin to me. I looked longingly at the Roman tradition but the authoritarian pieces proved problematic for me. Finally, I discovered the Episcopal Church in the form of a vibrant parish on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, that satisfied my hunger for a sacramental form of worship.

It was good to reexperience those feelings, those connections again this year. It felt right to be in the middle of this community celebrating the Risen Lord, even if it was early in the morning.

Back to my triptych dream that happened here at the monastery the night before my ordination to the priesthood thirty eight years ago. To recount from my most recent two articles, the first dream sequence was of my processing in a line of robed monks into a natural worship space set in a maritime forest, simply being present. The second scene was set in Six Flags, an amusement park, with a show being presented in a geodesic dome on the oceanic experience. The ironic joke in the dream was that instead of the advertised lecturer, the expert Jacques Cousteau, we found that the speaker was the building maintenance manager at my Cathedral. And when I looked carefully, I found a mechanized production of cogs and gears…a machine. When I observed what I was seeing, I exclaimed that it was not real. Jacques Cousteau quickly cautioned me to not tell anyone. A comedic segment, but one that proved deeply disturbing.

The third and final segment is relatively brief. I am in my current vehicle, a green CJ 5 Jeep, with the top down. In the Jeep is my companion from the second segment, David Fikes, sitting in the back. Riding shotgun is the Dean’s Administrative Assistant, Woodie Patrick, a close colleague and friend, part of the staff community who celebrated the end of the work week at The Piper’s Roost, or Churchill Arms. The three of us are riding across a ridge in a place that looks like Ellijay in mountainous North Georgia, where my family had a cabin. In the dream, I see a cabin in the valley below, with the typical Jungian features of the lights on inside and smoke coming out of the chimney, indicating life inside. As I look, I turn towards Woodie and comment that it reminds me of my own cabin. Woodie looks back at me, with profound seriousness and says “Don’t ever lose that!” End of dream.

I admit that this final section seemed simple to me, a reminder to pay attention to the warmth and relationality of life. I now see it as a clue that I missed. It was not just about holding on, of maintenance, but rather, an exhortation to lean into this part of my life, my relationships, my marriage, my family, my friends, my faith. This time away at this holy monastery has brought to mind how I allowed career and projects to siphon off energy from these vital dimensions of my life, not attending to them like one does a garden, anything that you want to grow and be healthy.

A serious, intentional retreat affords one the time and space to reflect deeply on how one is being spent and how one is investing time and energy. It is a good time to express repentance for wrongs and mistakes, and then take action to amend one’s life, to resolve to do better. I have been blessed during these weeks to have my long-time spiritual director at my side, as well as my friend and fellow traveler as we have taken this long, strange trip together for the past forty-five years. And, also to meet the godly new Abbot and receive his spiritual care.

My final surprise of Holy Week was to be invited to have Easter Lunch with the community of monks in the Refractory. This was a special celebratory meal, with a convivial time prior to lunch being served. I was able to visit with my old friend, Methodius, the stained glass master, who is now 95 years old. An artist whose work greets me each day and night in the spectacularly meaningful glass windows in the Abbey. It was a gift to renew our friendship.

I was lovingly greeted by the Abbot at his beginning remarks to the community. I was seated next to Tom Francis, Francis Michael, and the Abbot. The lively conversation, hilarious stories, deep musings, reflection on the early morning’s Easter Vigil made for a fine time. But the main thing for me was the grace and love that I experienced in this remarkable community. I am grateful for this rare opportunity to spend this Holy Week with these holy people.

My hope is that you experienced a joyful Easter and will continue to sense the wonder of this season of rebirth and renewal. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a bell to go ring. Easter blessings.

Surprises By The Score

I am at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. It’s a Trappist monastery that was founded in 1944 by a group of twenty-one men that came from the monastery outside of Louisville, Kentucky, Gethsemani Abbey. That is the monastery where Thomas Merton was a monk, and a contemporary with these pioneers heading into South of God backwoods. Being here for Holy Week is quite a treat, though the circumstances not ideal. It has been full of surprises, most of them good, but not all.

Take this morning….please. Rim shot.

My long-suffering Dell laptop crashed most inconveniently, as if a crash is ever convenient. Fortunately, I brought my Surface tablet so I can get by…barely.

Last week, I was telling you about a three part dream that occurred the night before my ordination to the priesthood. The first segment was in a Cathedral setting but in a maritime forest like that of Cumberland Island. I felt comfortable being myself in this church that seemed to celebrate the natural beauty of Creation. It was reassuring as I had worked hard to find a church, a tradition where I could be my True Self and not some holy wannabe facsimile. I was centered, at peace, at home.

The second segment was one of classic comedic stripe. The setting shifted to Six Flags Over Georgia, an amusement park outside of Atlanta. I was there with one of my best friends, David Fikes, a fellow South of God refugee. We had both served on the staff at Northside Drive Baptist Church and had both made our way to the Cathedral of St. Philip. He is my brother in so many ways, and the godfather to my son.

David and I were walking through the park as we came across a geodesic domed building that was known as the Chevy Show. You would sit on wooden benches as you watched a film that simulated you riding in a Chevrolet car, usually a Corvette, at breakneck speeds on curvy and challenging terrain. You could feel yourself leaning into the curves naturally and if you paid attention, you could witness everyone in the room doing the same.

When Fikes and I got there, there was a sign that normally indicated the next show time. Today, it not only told what time the next show was but the topic: The Oceanic Experience. And the presenter was listted as well: Jacques Cousteau. How could it get any better? So David and I hustled in to get a seat. There were the normal benches, but now with seat belts installed to keep you secure when the “show” went into motion. And there were special form-fitting seats against the wall, like those I remember from the Mercury astronaut days. Fikes and I took our places, backs against the wall.

One note: the “oceanic experience” was the phrase Freud used to descriibe religious experience, something I studied during my doctoral work. And who better to talk about that ocean than the intrepid Cousteau? Suddenly the “show” began.

The building simulated the rolling waves of the sea. Creatures like a dolphin, an octopus, a barracuda, would emerge from the floor with realistic movements making one feel like you were underwater, observing these creatures in their natural habitat. But then the surprises started to come.

Standing at the front of the room was not the advertised Jacques Cousteau, but rather Chris Collins, the building maintenance man at the Cathedral. That was the special, comedic message for me from my unconscious. And, I got the joke and the warning.

I undid my safety strap and crawled to where the sea creatures were. There were holes in the floor where creatures had emerged, and when I looked into the holes, there were gears and cogs all turning round and round. As I saw what was really going on, I looked over to Captain Cousteau, the real oceanic experience expert, and I said, “This isn’t real!” to which he responded, “Shhhh, Don’t tell anybody!”

Suddenly, the entire building flippped, upside-down. End of the second segment. Imagine how much fun I had interpreting this part of my pre-ordination dream with my analyst. I should have run. But as St. Elvis used to intone; Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread. Well, uh huh.

I had my initial sense of the dream’s meaning, and particularly it’s warning. My analyst had his Jungian interpretation, and my monk/spiritual director had his. What sense do you make of it?

Next week, I will share the third piece of the dream, much more domestic, but still a warning.

One more current surprise to share. On Palm Sunday, I drove across the highway to the property the monks own called The Woodlands. It is a green cemetary that has been developed, providing natural burial of bodies as well as placement of cremains. I drove up to a house that serves as the center from which one can borrow an electric cart to make your way to the burial grounds.

Sitting in a cart was an older woman who I initially took to be a greeter. I introduced myself as interested in information about the cemetery. She informed me that she was about to go to her husband’s grave to place a palm branch on it from today’s service. She asked if I woulod like to ride with her. I paused, wondering if I was walking into a Flannery O’Connor story, but then agreed to the adventure.

Off we went on a long ride across a dirt trail, crossing Honey Creek via a gorgeous bridge. There is a steep incline that leads to a magnificent open-air wooden chapel that overlooks a meadow, What a heavenly view! And to top it off, there is a belfrey with a bell that you can ring the old-fashioned way. Way cool.

She then took me to the grave of her husband of 52 years. He had served in the Army and after retiring was ordained as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. He had died two years ago and was buried without a casket, as is the policy of this green cemetery. They mound the grave with dirt, and she placed the palm frond on that mound. Her daughter who died of breast cancer is buried there as well, with her receiving the same gift of a palm frond.

My new friend and I talked for a spell, about her going to Agnes Scott College, witth her husband attending Georgia Tech. That’s how they met. I told her about my love for Scotties, namely Caroline Westerhoff, who was my supervisor in the vocational testing program for ordination in the Diocese of Atlanta. Caroline was bright and sharp, sharing with me her hard truth that she could easily see me as a prophet, but not so sure about a priest. That was hard to hear but I knew that it was spoken out of love for me. That’s why when I was approved to be ordained, I asked my sharp Scottie to preach the sermon…and she did.

So I was surprised by my new friend, buoyed at just the right time by her companionship on a surprising ride to the graveyard, and reconnected to my beloved supervisor who had such a profound impact on my life. I have the rest of Holy Week here in this sacred space. What other surprises await this “old man” boy?

I will get to the last segment of my dream in next week’s article. I hope you enter into the full drama of Holy Week and emerge with a joyous Easter. I know where there’s a bell I am aiming to ring! Blessings.

What Dreams May Come

I am at The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. It is a Trappist monastery that has served as a spiritual touch point for me most of my life. Many of my monk friends are now dead, buried in the cemetery behind the east end of the church. I miss them. But a few of my old compadres remain and brighten my spirit.

It is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, and the spirit of the receptive Mary, accepting the startling message of her pregnancy, is all around the space and time. The Salve window at the front of the church has a modern portrayal of the Blessed Virgin Mary with an emergent Jesus seemingly in utero. The concluding liturgy of the Daily Offices of the monks is Compline, which offers a special veneration and appeal to Mary. This spiritual ethos formed me in ways that I can’t fully comprehend, leaving me surprisingly receptive for what this day might bring.

When the Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta, Judson Child, asked me what day I would like to be ordained to the priesthood on, my response was quick: The Feast of St. Mary….the Feast of the Assumption in the Roman Catholic world. As the day approached, I came out to the Monastery for a retreat to prepare for this long-awaited event.

On the night before my ordination, I had an unusual dream, with three distinct parts, as triptych is you will. It is not unusual for me to dream and to remember them, thanks to a habit I developed after encountering Ira Progoff in an Intensive Joiurnal workshop that we offered at the Center for Faith Development. However, this dream was unique in that there were three distinct components and was lengthy

The first section of the dream had me in a procession of monks, vested in cowled robes. But rather than the familiar habitat of a church, we were in the maritime forest, like the one I was familiar with on Cumberland Island, the southern most barrier island off the coast of Georgia. I was in the line processing into a space which had the familiar appointments of an altar, a lectern, and a pulpit. As the line arrived, I veered to the right toward the pulpit, and ascended the stairs, just like had done at the Cathedral. I stood their, silently, looking out, with no anxiety, simply being there in the space. That was enough. Being there, Fully present.

It was a profound lesson offered to me as I was preparing to embark on my journey as a priest, a lesson coming from the wisdom of my unconscious. But alas, I was young snd had lots to learn the hard way, obviously.

I will share the other two segments in my next two articles. But I want to share a key moment for me in my recent visitation to the Monastery.

I arrived on Wednesday and went to the office of Compline, as I said before, the final prayer service of the day, concluding with a gorgeous, lilting hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the dimming light of a day ending. It has been my favorite service for many years. After the liturgy ends, the Abbot give the abbatial blessing with the aspergillum flinging holy water on the heads of the monks who come in procession, bowing before the abbot , before heading off to Grand Silence and sleep.

I was seated in the back of the church and the abbot made a special trip to the back to welcome me to this house of prayer. What a special grace for me to receive his hospitality at this time in my journey. I am going to use this time here to read, study, write, and pray. I have a load in each of those four buckets. But my plan is to focus on the last one, prayer. If you are of the praying persuasion, offer one for me.

Next week, I will share the middle segment of the dream, which has the classic ironic twist of a dream, and a warning that perhaps I should have taken more seriously about the nature of the church. Blessings.

Shut Up and Listen

CBS Sunday Morning was a complete surprise for me when I stopped being responsible for the worship on Sunday morning. How had I survived without it?

I knew about Charles Kuralt, and had read some of his journalism, namely On the Road.. I actually went to his cabin in Montana while I was working at a hospital there one summer and heard the legend. He literally was “on the road” in more ways than one.

I was introduced to CBS Sunday Morning late in the tenure of Charles Osgood and enjoyed his bow-tie quirkiness. And I struggled to transition to Jane Pauley, like some folks do when you change priests in a parish. But I have learned to love her, her style and presence. And the anchor of hearing the trumpet sound of Wynton Marsalis always cues my attention each Sunday at nine, right after I give thanks that I am not sitting on top of a congregation in this crazy bifurcated nation. Truth is, the division over race, gender, and sexuality has always been there, but just not as uncivil.

I enjoy most of the stories that air on this show, particularly Steve Hartman who tends to do the human interest angle that brings a smile and warms my heart. Today, the segment that caught my interest was an opinion piece by Dan Lyons, who was also hawking his new book. He was encouraging us to listen more and speak less. It was expressed in a terse manner by four letters: STFU. I calmed it down a bit by translating: Shut Up and Listen.

The point is still made, and apparently needs to be, as we have become a nation of “over-talkers”. I am reminded of the comedic Seinfeld/David take on “close-talkers” but this is no laughing matter.

It is more productive to ask rather than tell. To listen rather than talk.

Lyons says that we are wired to talk and fill up the space. He claims that social media’s effect is to train us to respond rather than pause to seek to understand the perspective of the “Other”. And, he goes further to point out that in the social media arena, one’s value is measured by how many followers one has, how much attention one attracts by putting out one’s comments and opinions.

Lyons notes how people who are deemed to be wise ask more questions than they proclaim, that they famously take copious notes on the thoughts of others. He points to Barack Obama and Richard Branson as famous examples of using silence and listening carefully.

My early education as a minister was learning how to listen. That was always in tension with the other discipline one is taught in seminary: proclaiming, speaking, or preaching. They seemed to me to be in creative tension, healthy, in that one was careful in how one communicated thoughts and ideas, but also was equally careful as to how one attended to what others were saying, especially when engaged in pastoral care and therapy.

Carl Rogers provided me a basic listening technique of paraphrasing what one was hearing from another person, in order to check and see if you were getting the message clearly. The cliche line was “what I hear you saying is….” followed by your best effort at capturing the message being delivered but also looking for the feelings and emotions connected. This less mechanically delivered remains one of my best tools for clarifying what a person means and intends. Paraphrasing to check to see if you are interpreting the message being sent is a great starting point.

In my training as a coach, the emphasis was on asking the right question that draws the other into a deeper understanding of the situation. The word most coaches use is “probing”, but I prefer a more playful word like “diving” as if I am diving deeper into the stuff of this person, not giving answers or advice, which is the deadly sin of coaching. Rather, I want to dive in, deeper and deeper, driven by my native superpower, curiosity. My best teacher, Chuck Gerkin, who earned his stripes at Grady Hospital, the heartbeat of Atlanta, told me early on that the question that will carry you far is a simple one; what’s going on?. That phrase still comes to mind when I am talking with a client, another person, or a friend and it brings a thankful smile. What’s going on?, indeed. Shades of Marvin Gaye.

Finally, in consulting, specifically in organizational development, one of the leading theorists. Bernie Schein, offered a powerful image to me for listening to folks in a business context, that of, humble inquiry. I admit I loved the term the first time I read it in Bernies’ classic text by the same name, Humble Inquiry. Rather than hawking some reworked technique of how one asks a series of questions, and in what sequence, Bernie got to the heart of the matter by naming the very starting point of interaction…humility.

Humility implies that you know that the person with whom you are engaging is a person of intrinsic worth. It’s not dependent on where they happen to be in some corporate hierarchy or the number of prestigious degrees they have behind their name. Rather, one comes to the encounter with a sense of the value of this person’s unique perspective. The humility has to do with the deep realization that you don’t “know it all” and sincerely approach the “Other” as one who can teach you something if you will only listen and attend to what they are saying.

I have to pause to note that this humility is not a part of our current culture. Rather, there is often a contempt for the perspective of the other, particularly if they are coming from another point of view. People from the “left” hold those from the “right” in contempt, having no value, just as those from the “right” quickly charge those on the “left’ as being “woke”. There is no humility around. As they used to say about Elvis, “Humility has left the building!”.

I hope we will begin by listening and heeding the admonition of Dan Lyons: Listen instead of talking. The bottom line here is to practice the art of listening rather than speaking. Asking good questions out of curiosity and clarifying one’s understanding of the point of view of the other is paramount to this quest in listening. Try it next time you are with another person, or in a group. Exercise your ability to listen well. Not only will you potentially learn something, but your companion will feel valued. For me, this is a spiritual exercise.

As the signature Sun logos of CBS Sunday Morning ended this segment on listening, Shhhhhhh.