Speak Now: Advent Voices

These are Advent days.  That means that they stand out, that they are – in their own way – strange days.

 

Pope John XXIII, by Bernard Buffet

Today I unpacked most of the boxes packed in June in Cambridge that have been sitting in the heat and then the cold in Hudson until now.  Books on shelves again.  Art and photography unwrapped and leaning on new walls; walls made new by what hangs upon them, as these walls have been standing since something like 1834.  This is likely one of the few Episcopal rectories in which there hangs a stylized portrait of Pope John XXIII, created in 1965, two years following his death.  Late that same year I was walking home from grade school by Town Hall and the Library in Swampscott.  It was trash day, and peeking out at me from one of the barrels along the street was the dead, and highly celebrated, pope.  Some instinct in my young heart took umbrage at this sight.  I pulled him out, and carried him home, and wherever I’ve been since, he’s been there with me.  And now he is here this Advent night.

Tonight I climbed onto the R train and rode to 49th Street in Manhattan, intent on witnessing the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.  It was set to begin at 7:00pm.  I left here at 4:30, sure that I was early.  I was surely not.  I got close, but the crowds were so huge that the one place left to enter would have assured us, as the NY police officer assured the crowd, “a view of two buildings and none of the tree.”

I retreated to the general area, sucked in the light and the energy of Times Square, of Broadway, of couples and families rushing into the theaters, of Christmas decorations blinking and shining everywhere.  A visit to Chipotle and a follow-up at Starbucks assured that the night was a relative success.

On the train, going and coming as often happens, individuals entered and spoke into the human silence amid the machinery’s clang, the shriek of metal on metal and the groanings of the brakes.  First, a man from the Bronx stood at the far end from where I sat, and between two stops he spoke loudly about the power of prayer and wished all a very happy Christmas.  The young men neared me laughed at him, and then gave him a few coins. Later a tiny woman with a tiny voice boarded, again at the far end of the car.  From where I sat, I heard her voice, but none of its syllables.  It was like the sound of a bird outside a window on a clear crisp morning at breakfast time.  It is there, and there is beauty if you are there to recognize it – or perhaps it is only simple nonsense.  Perhaps it depends on what you’re listening for, or whether you’re listening at all!

Forty minutes later I was in the midst of the mass of humanity striving to get within view of the soon-to-be-lit tree with its thousands of environmentally-friendly lights and its five miles (as advertised) of wiring.  Something about being alone in a crowd fosters strange thoughts, perhaps Advent-appropriate.  I have often heard folks saying, in apparent jest, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.”  Tonight as I compare those two individual voices that rose and fell on the train with the huge crowd between 5th and 7th Avenues at 49th, 50th and 51st, I sense in myself exactly the opposite – an unaccustomed thought for me: “It is individuals that I love; humanity drives me crazy.”

In large numbers – the 1,000,000 I sang with on the Esplanade in Boston on July 4 of the bicentennial year, the 4,000,000 I walked among in Paris at World Youth Day in 1998 – we are simply a herd.  On those two occasions a happy and complacent herd (the best kind) but still a herd.  Tonight I speak in preference of the single voice crying out in the wilderness – whether it be wacky John the Baptist in the Judean desert according to Scripture, or the wacky man and woman in the wilderness of the R train as it plowed through the netherworld from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the last night of November 2010.  These voices are largely ignored as they first speak.  But there is grandeur in the fact that they have the strength and the commitment to speak at all.

In the crowd tonight in the general vicinity of the Tree, it was easy to know what to do.  Simply listen for the instructions of New York’s finest, out in force, and keep moving.  That’s alright.  It’s called public order, and I am all in favor of it.

But somehow, I hear something more properly and grandly human in the single voice speaking, as spoke the voice of John XXIII.

Maybe this lesson for the night then, if not for the season:

If you have something to say, say it – and let none of us in the herd tell you otherwise.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Kunitz (died 2006)

The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp_sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
.

Sincere thanks to Steve for introducing me to an instant favorite.

A simple Monday morning

Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York

The day dawned cloudy but has cleared to beautiful sun.  A walk up around the corner by Saint Patrick’s Church revealed air that feels like spring here in Brooklyn – light and fragrant, grace on the breeze.   Passing the parish school front doors, there was a lot of noise escaping from within.  I looked up and saw at a second floor window, above the front door, a mischievous 7 or 8 year old face pressed against the window; eager, I suppose, to engage the world!

A few steps further along, a hearse was parked in front of the church building.  Venturing in, the casket was at the front of the main aisle, open, with two people standing nearby.  A quick prayer for the deceased, and back out onto the street was I.

These two entirely ordinary vignettes – in that they can and do happen everyday – speak of the importance of the life and vitality of the local congregation to the whole church.  In times of stress, discord, uncertainty, shock, if things are good up the street from wherever you are; if there the word is being preached and the sacraments celebrated; if there people in emotional or financial or other dire need are finding at least an open ear, then the foundation is sound.  The foundation is sound.

From a sound foundation, a good builder can proceed.

_________________________________

Over the weekend, since I wrote about this significant moment and change in my life, I have received by so many avenues so many words of support, encouragement, appreciation, understanding and love.  These words, and of course their speakers, have made this a weekend of true grace.  And as theologians will tell you, grace in its truest definition is the actual presence of God.  I am more grateful this Thanksgiving week than I could ever fully say, for your helping me to see that graceful and saving Presence.

I share here a bit more of what I’ve been writing during this time of transition.  A wonderful friend and priest here in Brooklyn, having read the first part over the weekend. said to me, “You think a lot!”  I can’t deny that.  Not always effectively, but a lot.  For me, it is a part of seeing the path.  Then comes the heart willing to walk it.

_________________________

A few months later [after my three months at Glenstal Abbey in 2005] I left the parish and priestly ministry, beginning a leave of absence that, with a few months exception, has endured since.  In July of 2007 the possibility of a 30-day Ignatian retreat opened up for me.  The four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises, with an experienced and marvelous director at Eastern Point Retreat House on Cape Ann, was an amazingly rich privilege.  To spend that much time, in a beautiful space, simply open to the Lord Jesus in the Spirit, amazed me at so many levels.  In the silence, surrounded by Scripture and a group of fellow retreatants, the palpable presence of the living God was almost overwhelming.  There were almost innumerable gifts that emerged from that time and place.  One of the most striking took place one afternoon.  I was sitting on a rise behind the house, overlooking the Atlantic.  Prayer had not been especially fruitful that afternoon.  Eventually I simply leaned back and stopped trying.  I was just there, in the sunshine, in the breezes, striving for nothing.  In that moment, unbidden, I had an experience as near to the voice of God as I ever could bear to hear in this life.  Though not an auditory experience, it was without doubt an experience of being spoken to by One other than myself.  We each have that other voice within us that narrates our living, comments on other people’s behavior, and plans for our next moves through a day.  This was not that voice.

By that day, I had been for almost three weeks consistently, and from the divine viewpoint perhaps almost desperately, asking, “What do you want me to do?”  Throughout the weeks and the emphases of the Exercises, that question remained poised and quivering at the root level of heart and soul: “What do you want me to do?”

In that moment in the sunshine, an answer came whole and entire and unmistakable: “Do you not know that I love you?  That I love you whatever you do, and will always love you?  Simply choose.  Do as you see fit, and trust me to love you.  I call you to service.  It doesn’t matter where you serve, what community, what church, what portion.  They are all my people.  Choose, and go.  I will be with you.”

There was given in this ‘revelation,’ if I dare call it that, a sense of radical freedom.  To know – to know – that you are loved absolutely and always, come what may, sets you on a foundation of surest bedrock.  To know what you are called to do, and to feel the trust placed in you to do it well in the way that you choose to do it: that is a precious gift.  It can only come as a gift.  Standing on that foundation, and trusting in it, you cannot go wrong.  You are free to choose.

That’s what I felt.  That’s what I experienced.

People had been telling me this truth, and bits and pieces of it, through all the days of my life.  But now, for the first time, it took root in me.  And it has remained.

The very success that I felt at Boston College, and for which I will always be grateful, had the ironic side-effect, as I eventually recognized, of moving me again into a place of heavy engagement and busy-ness in life, day and night.  One unintended result of this truth was that I found myself with neither time nor energy to attend in the least to the questions of heart that had moved me to leave priestly ministry.  In the wake of that realization I was faced with a serious question: as good as this is, can I remain here then?  Why did I leave ministry to take these questions of intimacy seriously if I am not giving them any consideration at all?  What am I called then to do?

At that point I needed to give serious consideration to the possibility of returning to priestly ministry in the archdiocese of Boston.  After all, I had made that commitment in 1983 not lightly, but intending it for a lifetime.  And I did give that serious consideration.  But here something difficult and vital entered in.  When I look at the Church and its ministry in 2010, and 2009 and 2008, I see a reality, an emphasis, which looks and feels so different than what I knew in the days of my seminary education and earlier priesthood that I can hardly draw a line connecting the two.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Perfect poem for November, month of the dead, by Wendell Berry

Testament
 

Wendell Berry, born 1934

 

 

And now to the Abyss I pass
Of that Unfathomable Grass…
 

1.
Dear relatives and friends, when my last breath
Grows large and free in air, don’t call it death —
A word to enrich the undertaker and inspire
His surly art of imitating life; conspire
Against him. Say that my body cannot now
Be improved upon; it has no fault to show
To the sly cosmetician. Say that my flesh
Has a perfect compliance with the grass
Truer than any it could have striven for.
You will recognize the earth in me, as before
I wished to know it in myself: my earth
That has been my care and faithful charge from birth,
And toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,
And all my hopes. Say that I have found
A good solution, and am on my way
To the roots. And say I have left my native clay
At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.
Traveler to where? Say you don’t know.

2.
But do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure

Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves. Why settle
For some know-it-all’s despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle

Hereafter, for all anybody knows?
And remember that the Heavenly soil
Need not be too rich to please
One who was happy in Port Royal.

I may be already heading back,
A new and better man, toward
That town. The thought’s unreasonable,
But so is life, thank the Lord!

3.
So treat me, even dead,
As a man who has a place
To go, and something to do.
Don’t muck up my face
With wax and powder and rouge
As one would prettify
An unalterable fact
To give bitterness the lie.

Admit the native earth
My body is and will be,
Admit its freedom and
Its changeability.

Dress me in the clothes
I wore in the day’s round.
Lay me in a wooden box.
Put the box in the ground.

4.
Beneath this stone a Berry is planted
In his home land, as he wanted.
He has come to the gathering of his kin,
Among whom some were worthy men,

Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,
But one was a cobbler from Ireland,

Another played the eternal fool
By riding on a circus mule

To be remembered in grateful laughter
Longer than the rest. After

Doing that they had to do
They are at ease here. Let all of you

Who yet for pain find force and voice
Look on their peace, and rejoice.

Wendell Berry

Decision, transition, the call I hear and the grace I receive

People have been asking me – and fair enough – since I left my work at BC and moved to New York in September, “what are you doing?  What’s up?  What’s next?”  I have been able to tell the fullness of that tale to a few people, but for most who know me, the questions have remained open, or been populated by what people have heard, or what others think might be going on.

It is likely that I’ve let the situation stand thus for too long.  However, I needed to come to a point, in what is a pretty massive transition for me in almost every respect, when I had communicated the full story to folks in authority, whose leadership and authority I respect, and to whom I had not yet spoken in detail.  Those communications I have undertaken in just the last three days.

So here I am to tell you that I have come to New York for this reason.

After years of inward struggle, after hour and hour and hour of prayer, after conversations with spiritual directors and therapists, after sabbaticals and retreats, after ten thousand tons of hesitation, after substantial inward work to get my head and heart, theology and spirituality on the same page, after heartfelt talks with my Mom and with family members, after deeply considering where to go to make this decision real, after coming to realize that I am called to ministry in the church but for reasons I will write of later not in the Catholic church, I have come to New York to become a member of the Episcopal church and to become a postulant for priesthood in the Episcopal diocese of Long Island.  Presently I am living in Brooklyn.  I am serving as a diocesan intern in Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights.  I am working also on communication matters for the diocese itself.

Whew!  That’s that.

I am going to share here a bit of what I began to write – for myself and close friends – in terms of explaining how I got to this point.  I’ll be adding more to this in days and weeks to come.  It’s a lot of words (!), so if it doesn’t really matter to you why, then save your eyes some tiring!  But if you’d like to read, you are most welcome.  And if you’d like to comment, I’ll respectfully hear you.  But for those of you who know me well, you know this move has been made only after much much much serious consideration.

Life is always full of change.  Sometimes it feels like continuity.  Other times it feels like a rupture, like the breaking through of something entirely new.

I am unsure where the balance between those two falls at the present moment of my life.  Inwardly I experience a sense of continuity, that is, of being guided by the same foundational principles and beliefs that have been mine and developing in me throughout my life, and by the same faith in the Father of Jesus Christ.  But externally, when I crane my neck to try in good faith to see this moment in my life as if from another’s perspective, I see massive change indeed.

These words are being written for you, whomever you may be whose eyes scan these lines today.  At the suggestion of a wise man I am writing in order neither to explain nor to justify, but to offer what I can of insight into the moves I am making these days.  This is written for those who care about me, and whom I love.  It is written in the hope that these words will one day stand in the middle of the story of our lifelong conversation with one another; in the center, and not at the end.

I have just spent the years 2006 to 2010 working at Boston College.  By any measurement these have been years of blessing.  Coming onto leave from priestly ministry and pulling away from the ministry to the people of Sacred Heart in Lynn in 2006 was a jarring and difficult experience.  I have learned more than once in my life that transition and change – even when chosen – are not easy.  To come to Boston College, to be able to work at the IREPM and then at C21, to be able to offer resources for the good of the church, to be able to work together with amazingly talented and dedicated people, to be able to laugh with them and to come to know them well, to be appreciated and to experience the success that I did, both in directing continuing education at the IREPM and then in directing the C21 Center – all of this has been radical blessing, beyond my wildest dreams, a portion of my life for which I will always remain profoundly grateful.

If this is true, why did I choose to leave that work?

It is for the same reasons I chose it in the first place.

Living priesthood, as it is lived in the Catholic Church in late 20th and early 21st century America, can be to live an ultimately dehumanizing life.  This was my unfortunate experience.  Am I saying that there is nothing good to be found in that experience?  Not at all.  In fact I believe that for us all the fundamental call of life is to service of one another in God’s presence.  We each are called to do so in our own way.  Many do so in the raising of a family, sometimes combined (and this is always a blessing) with a career outside the home that is life-giving and energizing.  For me the way to serve was priesthood.  I believe that I was called to that way.  In that way I found myriad good things: deep sharing of prayer and worship, privileged invitations to be with persons at some of the most profound and vulnerable points of life, the growth of friendships that endure over years and decades, the opportunity to reflect continuously on the meaning of life and love and on where God is found in all of it.

But I also found a distancing from my own humanity.  I recall the moment when I realized that aside from a handshake and the now-and-then special-occasion hug, I had not known physical human contact in years.  There is such a deeply-embedded and determined culture around priesthood in the Catholic Church that the majority of people interacted with me, when they did, as one example of a type of being known as a priest, rather than as a person like themselves, a believer like themselves, who was called to serve as a priest.

In and of themselves, these things are neither entirely wrong nor entirely disabling.  In some sense this quite deliberate distancing of the priest from the people has enabled the ordained ministry in the Catholic Church to flourish in past ages and cultures.  And even in our time, there are both priests and people who approve of this structure, see it as fitting, and find it to be just right for them and for their way of being followers of Christ.

It was not that for me.  It was different and ever more difficult.  For me, try as I might and did, I found my emotional life, my creative life, my prayer life, my spiritual life, my ability to hope and to love all receding into a place that I could rarely see or access.  I understood the call to priesthood as the call to put my humanity at the service of God’s people.  As the years went by, that very humanity was so removed that I couldn’t find the way to engage it in the service I was giving.  The liturgies continued.  The administrative tasks increased.  People brought their needs, looking for a listening ear, an open heart, a perspective on their lives from faith.  I continued to give all that I could.  I strove never to hold back.  But there was less to give.  The well was drying and no new waters were flowing in.  “Nemo dat quod non habet,” goes the old Latin saying: “No one can give what they do not have.”

I knew in my heart of hearts that the issue for me was intimacy.  Was there a way in which I could be linked, connected, sharing of human life in a depth fashion?  This I needed if the well were to be filled anew.

For years I tried without success to bring this fundamental need to voice, first to myself and then to others.  There was no time, no space, no means of really doing so.  I couldn’t find it.  I wanted to go on but I did not know how to, without drying up within and offering only an outer husk to the ministry.  I had seen 85 year-old men as fresh in their priesthood as they were at 25.  But I had also seen 55 year-old priests going through the motions, their hearts – if they beat still in any more than a physical fashion – apparently empty.

On sabbatical at Glenstal Abbey in Ireland for three months in the summer of 2005 I importuned God with this dilemma of the heart.  Having failed to find a healthy intimacy in diocesan priesthood I wanted to experience a monastic community and to ask how I might fit in there, how true community might live there.

And it did live there.  In very human fashion, with bumps and wrinkles and roadblocks and detours, I found in that Benedictine house real community in Christ.  My heart knew a real healing there.  At the end of three months I knew that mine was not to remain there, but I knew two other things as well: that to belong to others in the Lord, with all our foibles, is possible; and that God had created me and sustained me as free to choose where and how I would live in God’s service.

More to come  . . .