Labyrinth of the Week #6: St. John Neumann, Califon, NJ

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I have started the habit of trying to visit them, perhaps once a week. For more information on labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society.

Today’s labyrinth was at the Catholic Community of St. John Neumann, a Roman Catholic church in Califon, New Jersey. It’s a medieval 8-circuit labyrinth, the first medieval labyrinth I’ve walked this year. The neat thing about medieval labyrinths is that they are divided into quadrants, and I find them more intricate than the more common classical-style labyrinths. (Possibly the most famous medieval labyrinth is the 11-circuit labyrinth at Chartres cathedral.) This labyrinth is made of two colors of paving stones, and it is clearly a work of love, professionally constructed. I was very impressed. It also contained two of the distinctive features of the Chartres labyrinth: the “lunations” around the edges, and the “cloverleaf” in the center.

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The traditional “Chartres cloverleaf.”

Driving to St. John Neumann was wonderful. My GPS took me through many back roads through beautiful woods. New Jersey has some beautiful country. When I arrived at the church, I had trouble finding the labyrinth in the vast grounds. Fortunately, a kind gentleman was outside – perhaps the groundskeeper – and he pointed me to where the labyrinth was.

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I stood at the entrance of the labyrinth, and the question on my mind was this: “What does it mean to have a Ministry of Depth, and how can I live it out?” This question arose from something that’s been on my mind since the retreat at the monastery a few weeks ago. As you may recall, the theme dealt with discovering and listening for the “hidden Christ” within each of us. One implication which the leader drew out was that we are all called to a “ministry of depth” in our own places, in our own ways. I haven’t fully figured out what that means for me, but it’s been dwelling on my heart since then.

As I walked, I felt a sense that a ministry of depth must begin with myself. I am called to continue to explore my own depths, to nurture a sense of holiness there and to seek and listen for God’s Spirit living deep within. And then, through that, I can be a source of depth for other people at church. It’s freeing, indeed. Instead of trying to be the local expert on scripture or church administration or interpersonal relationships (all of which I’ve fancied myself), I can see myself as a journeyman in those areas along with the others around me. Instead, I can see myself as the local “expert” on spiritual depth. I can model and encourage people to look deeper at what we’re doing, to look deeper at what their feelings and beliefs might mean, to look deeper for where there is grace in a situation. I truly believe that if I focus on this, I can be good at it. And I truly believe that it could be a benefit to a church community. It doesn’t mean that I can’t offer some advice and counsel on scripture, administration, or relationships – it means that my focus can be on depth, spiritual depth, depth of faith, depth of relationships. Sounds like a fun new journey.

I Have Walked the Sign of the Cross

Something just occurred to me. While I was at the retreat at Holy Cross Monastery two weeks ago, I had this really brief vision. I saw an image of a map of all the places I’ve lived, and I saw that by connecting those places with lines, it formed the shape of a cross. So this morning, after coming home from church, I pulled up that map of my “Center of Gravity” (remember that old thing?) I played around with it, and I found that, indeed, there is indeed a way to very clearly make a cross.

Here it is without any lines, just markers for my homes over the years:

Cross Map without lines

I looked at that, and I immediately saw the cross. I think I was primed to see it because of PA Route 309. For years, I joked about how important it was to me to live near Rt. 309. Here’s the map again with 309 colored in:

309 Map

You can see where I got the idea that I always lived near that road. In fact, apart from three outliers, which are my birthplace (Minersville in the west), and my two most recent residences (Nescopeck in the northwest and Bangor in the northeast), I’ve been within nine miles of my “lifeline” for my whole life. But it doesn’t look much like a cross, or even a straight line. But let’s go back in time. What is now PA-309 was, until 1968, a federal highway, designated US-309. And it didn’t follow exactly the same route. The map below shows an approximation (in green) of what US-309 looked like in the 1940s.

US 309 Map

That’s straightening out some. Let’s finish up the job, and add a cross-bar.

Cross Map

Now there’s a cross. The vertical comes suprisingly close to all the places I’ve lived save two, it has a very steady (and consistent) curve, and it more-or-less coincides with old US-309 for most of its length. And the horizontal is even more interesting to me right now, because it’s the connection between the place I was born, and where I live right now. Which means that before I moved to Bangor, I never could have seen this cross. The map of my life would be this one curvy line, plus an outlier at my birthplace. It also means that there’s a very good chance that I’ll never see this cross again. I have no plans to move anytime soon, but I expect that I will at some point. And when I do, there’s a good chance that the next location will not fit into this image. Which means that right now, right here, my whole life is the sign of the cross.

And this feels right to me. Because it’s right now, while I’m living here, that I undertook this time off to figure out my self and my relationship to God. It’s right now, while I’m living here, that I traveled to the place of my baptism, and discovered anew what it means to me. It’s right now, while I’m living here, that I figured this out. Of course, I didn’t really figure this out, actually. I received it. It was a gift. A gift that shows that I have been in the bosom of Christ for my whole life. I have been swimming in the waters of baptism my whole life. I’ve walked this journey. It’s there, right in front of me. God revealed to me last week at a labyrinth that my true calling is as a “spiritual mapmaker and mapreader.” God revealed to me today that I’m also a map myself. A map that points to Christ.

Labyrinth of the Week #5: Kirkridge Retreat Center

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I have started the habit of trying to visit them, perhaps once a week. For more information on labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society

There’s a big snowstorm coming tonight. It’s supposed to drop 1,347 inches of snow on us, so I figured I’d better get this week’s labyrinth in today. It might be a few months before I can walk a labyrinth again, or even go out my front door. So today I went to the nearest public labyrinth to my house, the one at Kirkridge Retreat Center. If you’re interested in going, please know that Kirkridge is private property, and unless you’re a retreatant there, you’d be trespassing to walk through Kirkridge’s property to get there. However, the labyrinth is very close to the property line with Columcille Megalith Park, and that is publically accessible. Kirkridge allows visitors to Columcille to come onto their property as far as the labyrinth. I’ve walked this labyrinth at least a dozen times or more, and that’s how I always do it. Besides, Columcille is amazing. If you live in the Lehigh Valley or the southern Poconos, and you haven’t been there, go!

The labyrinth at Kirkridge is very much like the one I walked at Holy Cross Monastery. It’s a 7-circuit classical design, with walls made of rocks. (Fits very nicely in the neighborhood with Columcille, which is basically an enormous collection of creatively placed stones.) It has a central stone at the middle, which seems to attract junk. (Again, like the one at the monastery.) You can’t see it in the picture below, but there was a Starbucks Gift Card on it today. Sheesh. To each his own, I suppose.

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So, I walked into the slightly snowy labyrinth today with the question: “What is the most important learning I received on my medical leave?” I’ve just started to go through my old journal entries and blog posts, to get an overview of the work I’ve done these past few months. As I walked in, I found myself going through the reflections I’ve already done…was the most important learning that I don’t have to feel stuck and follow patterns that are already laid out for me? Was the most important learning that I can say “no” to the dark voice inside me? Was it that Christ lives within me?

Inside the center, I continued to ponder, and I didn’t really receive any sort of answer. I wondered if perhaps the most important learning was that I can’t really see how rich my own past and present are until I have taken the time to reflect upon them. Therefore, maybe as I walk out, I’ll get it…

As I walked back out, nothing. Just a pleasant walk. No insights or wisdom. But then I stood outside the labyrinth, looking in, and I felt…peaceful. I looked at the center, and wondered what it might have been that gave me this peace. I looked at the whole of the labyrinth, and noticed how it vaguely resembles the contours of the human brain. I wondered if I might be looking into the hidden depths of myself, deeper than thinking can think, deeper than feeling can feel. The insight I received from the retreat…the insight that there are depths hidden inside us that we can never truly reach, depths where the hidden Christ lives with us. And I wondered…could that be the answer? Could the most important learning I’ve received be that there is such a hidden place? Or…could the most important learning be something else…something I just received an intimation of…something that exists in that hidden place…and therefore something that I can’t actually touch with my mind? Is the greatest learning of these few months something I can’t even see? Is it something deep inside that will give me peace in moments when I didn’t expect it? And does that mean it’s…grace?

I’ve sometimes compared snow to grace…snow falls everywhere, covering everything, changing everything into a glistening white wonderland. It falls on the good and the bad equally, the beautiful and the ugly. It slows everything down and brings a sublime peace to the world. We’re getting quite a pile of grace tonight and tomorrow. Bring it on.

Labyrinth of the Week #4: Trinity Episcopal Church, Mt. Pocono

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I have started the habit of trying to visit them, perhaps once a week. For more information on labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society

I had some time between appointments in Monroe County, so I made the time to visit an old friend, the labyrinth at Trinity Episcopal Church in Mt. Pocono. I had walked this labyrinth several times before, most memorably during a rough time when discerning whether or not to leave my previous congregation to become the pastor where I am now. I had fond memories of sitting at the center of this labyrinth, wrestling with God’s will for me.

Trinity sits next to a very large wooded area…I assume that the church owns a good deal of the woods. They have done wonderful things with these woods. There are paths you can walk that trace Stations of the Cross, and the labyrinth is a short walk from the parking lot along one of these paths. A kiosk helpfully marks the walk, with a sign of blessing for the labyrinth.

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I like this labyrinth a lot. It’s a pretty standard 7-circuit classical design, with walls made of (what I assume are) local rocks. There are some trees within the labyrinth, and they join the rocks in forming the walls…it’s really quite nice. (You can clearly see one such tree about 1/3 from the right in the featured image.) One feature I love about this labyrinth is the center. A large tree stands tall in the center, and a circular bench has been built around it.

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It’s nice to sit on the bench, and I also enjoy continuing to walk at the center of this labyrinth, repeatedly circling the bench, as it’s really a very spacious center.

So I went to the labyrinth without much of a question in mind. My reason for walking was mostly convenience (an hour between appointments) rather than a perceived need for a spiritual walk. As I approached, I thought perhaps I’d ask, “What should I be working on in these last few weeks before I return to work?” Sounded like a good plan. But as I stood at the entrance, I felt a strong pull to ask instead, “What is my true calling?” I didn’t know where this had come from; perhaps it was the emotions I felt having had career questions at this labyrinth before. But I said, “Okay. If that’s a better question, fine. What is my true calling?”

As I walked, I considered what this meant. I didn’t think it was about a career change, but rather a sense of how to be the pastor I am. As I ponder returning to the office in a few weeks, how might I hold myself? How might I perform my duties? Some ideas floated in and out of my head as I walked, and I received a rather clear answer while walking in the center: I am a mapreader and mapmaker. That is how I am called to lead. That is how I am called to guide people. I have been given gifts of being able to discern paths that we’ve taken before, paths that we’re currently on, and paths that might lead someplace helpful. I have gifts of being able to help people discern what their options are, what directions they might go, how they might be able to reach their goals. I can interpret the world around me, interpret the actions of people, interpret the words of scripture, interpret the whirls of the Spirit. Not perfectly, but well enough to be able to draw up something of a “map” that I, or someone else, might use.

That seems to be a good direction to go with my ministry. To not focus so much on leading people to a certain place, but on guiding them, helping them to follow the path that’s already there. Provide them with a map for that place. I like that.

Hidden with Christ #6: The Leftovers

This is one of a series of posts I’m writing this week about a retreat I attended at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY on March 3-5, 2017. The theme of the retreat was “Living Hidden in Christ with God,” a reference to Colossians 3:1-4. I can’t talk about it all in a single blog post, because there was just so much. It was an incredibly powerful weekend for me, and it is taking several blog posts to unpack it.

So, I’m pretty much done writing about the retreat last weekend. But there are a few things that didn’t seem to fit into the other posts. I’ll mention them here, in no particular order:

Anxiety is a sign of good things to come. I was so anxious in the days and hours leading up to the retreat. I am very grateful that a good friend was available to meet me for lunch halfway, in Mahwah, New Jersey. That broke up my trip to the monastery, and also provided me with a chance to chill out for an hour and a half. But then, in the final stretch on I-87, I got really anxious. I started wishing that I’d never registered for this. I started hoping that something had gone wrong with my registration, and that when I got there, they’d tell me that I couldn’t stay. I felt like this wasn’t where I should be. I should be home, getting stuff done. I should be anywhere else. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I didn’t know if I’d fit in. I didn’t know what I’d get out of it. I often feel this way when trying new things. I often feel this way on my way to someplace unfamiliar. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that these feelings emerged. Frankly, it should have been the most familiar part of the experience. And what’s more, it seems to me that whenever these feelings arise, the thing I’m scared of ends up being amazing. Not that my feelings can somehow predict good things, but perhaps they’re a sign of knowing that there is something coming up that has the potential to touch me deeply, to get into my heart and make some necessary changes. I hope to remember that…anxiety (at least sometimes) is a sign of good things to come. And without a doubt, this was a Good Thing.

The image of the wave. About midway through the retreat, I attended diurnum on Saturday. It’s the noon-time worship opportunity. Diurnum (at least the way they observe it there) includes a ten-minute period of silence, a time for meditation. Meditation is something I’ve become much more familiar and comfortable with in the past few months, so I welcomed this opportunity. Every now and then, I have received a sort of “vision” during meditation, and it happened that day. As I sat in the chapel, I had a vivid image of an ocean wave. It was right in front of me, as if I were part of the ocean. As I inhaled, it rose, higher and higher. As I exhaled, it crashed over me. I was reminded of my favorite thing to do at the beach: go into the sea, and let the waves crash over me. I love to “challenge” them; to try to stay upright as bigger and bigger waves try to knock me down or pull me under. In this image, it wasn’t quite like that. As the wave crashed over me, I was not fighting to stay up; instead, it was completely natural and serene, just like breathing. This image continued for the entire meditation time. My breathing grew deeper, and the waves grew higher and higher, the crashing more and more peaceful and invigorating. I felt like this was an image of baptism, that I was being washed in the waters of baptism over and over, with each breath, like the Holy Spirit was coming into me, as deep as I was willing to go, and then crashing out into the world like a nourishing downpour.

Paul’s thorn. I thought a lot about the “thorn” of St. Paul while I was there. Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9: Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (NRSV). Paul does not describe what this “thorn” is…people have suggested various physical ailments over the centuries; certainly I have resonated with those who have suggested depression. But it doesn’t matter…the point is that Paul saw this thorn as something he wishes was gone, but which Christ has used for good. In fact, Christ was able to dwell in him more fully because of this thorn. Whatever Paul’s was, I suppose depression is indeed my thorn. And perhaps God was telling me over the weekend that it’s simply a thorn I must live with. Throughout these three months, I have found new ways to cope with it, new ways to calm it, new ways to deal with my triggers, but it will never go away. And Christ will use me, broken as I am. Christ will dwell in my hidden places, broken as I am. And I have seen that Christ has indeed used my illness for good. My openness about depression seems to have been a source of hope and indeed healing for some people around me. If that’s what it means for Christ’s power to be made perfect in weakness, I can accept and embrace it.

The deep with. As I was journaling, trying to figure out how to put all these feelings into words, especially when I was reflecting on my labyrinth experience, I came up with a set of words that seemed to resonate: the deep with. I felt like “with” was the right word to explain where Christ is. But “with” isn’t strong enough. It’s different than that…it’s much deeper than that. So I thought that the experience I had could be described as “the deep with.” I haven’t done any more with that phrase yet…but I think it may stay with me for a while. Perhaps I’ll figure out more later.

The two sides of my healing. In the week leading up to the retreat, and in the few days following it, I spent a lot of time working through an “e-Course” called Making Sense of Your Life, by psychologists Dan Siegel and Lisa Firestone. At the retreat, I reflected that during my medical leave, I’ve been seeking (and receiving) healing in two primary ways: psychological and spiritual. I also reflected on the fact that of all the things I’ve done in both arenas, this e-Course and this retreat were the most intense, the most concentrated, the most powerful instances of that healing. I don’t think I would have been ready for them earlier in the process…I think I had to get to the beginning of March before they would work. But both the course and the retreat were so powerful that I can’t imagine this process without them. I feel like I’ve done all I’m going to do in terms of trying new things. I think the remaining few weeks I have will be spent reflecting on and integrating all that I’ve experienced and learned. I think I’ll be ready to return to “normal” life.

 

Hidden with Christ #5 / Labyrinth #3

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I have started the habit of trying to visit them, perhaps once a week. For more information on labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society

…and…

This is one of a series of posts I’m writing this week about a retreat I attended at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY on March 3-5, 2017. The theme of the retreat was “Living Hidden in Christ with God,” a reference to Colossians 3:1-4. I can’t talk about it all in a single blog post, because there was just so much. It was an incredibly powerful weekend for me, and it is taking several blog posts to unpack it.

There was a labyrinth at the monastery, and of course I had to walk it. It was an interesting labyrinth…I saw no mention of it at the monastery or on the website. I honestly can’t remember how I stumbled upon to its existence. It’s near the visitor parking lot, so it would be quite easy for locals to drive there and walk it without worrying about registering for a retreat, or even seeing anyone. That may have been deliberate…I don’t know. It’s a pretty standard 7-circuit classical design, with walls made from rocks. The paths are rather rutted. All in all, it feels like an old, well-worn labyrinth. In the center sits a large rock, and on that rock was a lot of “stuff.” I have seen this in some other labyrinths. Some people seem to see the importance of leaving something there…as a thank you, perhaps? To me, it just looks junky. But to each his own.

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Either way, I walked the labyrinth twice while I was there. The first time was early Saturday morning, and the retreat had just begun. I was so overwhelmed by everything at that point that I really didn’t get much out of it. But the second time was different. It was Sunday morning, and I had just packed up my car to go home in a few hours. I went to the labyrinth straight from the car, and asked my question: “What do I do with what I’ve learned here? Not at church, but today and this week?”

As I walked in, I got the sense that I could have built this labyrinth…rocks and a bumpy, rutted path. Nothing beautiful, but just fine.

In the center, I had a strong feeling that Christ is with me. I had no further words for that feeling. Perhaps a great deal of it was below the surface.

On the walk out, I perceived Christ walking with me. Not next to me, not beside or in front of or behind me, not even inside me, but with me, as though we were one. I thought, “he is walking with my legs,” but that wasn’t quite right; yet it was. I think “with” is the most accurate English preposition for it, but it’s a deep “with.” I got the feeling (intimation?) that the way I go home with this is to keep walking, keep seeking, keep on, aware that I bear the light of Christ within me, in a subtle deep way. Know that we are together, unified, mystically united. I heard a call to continue with mindfulness and awareness, and to also be aware that there is so much more beneath the surface, so much more beyond my thoughts and feelings, so much more that I can only ever glimpse. I may have heard a promise that I will continue to receive these things, these intimations, if only I continue being aware, keeping awake.

Hidden in Christ #4: The Implications

This is one of a series of posts I’m writing this week about a retreat I attended at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY on March 3-5, 2017. The theme of the retreat was “Living Hidden in Christ with God,” a reference to Colossians 3:1-4. I can’t talk about it all in a single blog post, because there was just so much. It was an incredibly powerful weekend for me, and it is taking several blog posts to unpack it.

So, in yesterday’s post, I discussed the theme of the retreat, how the deepest part of ourselves is hidden from our consciousness, hidden even from thoughts and feelings, yet somehow accessible through intimations we receive through contemplative prayer. And how the living, risen Christ lives with us, or in us, or through us (the right preposition is hard here) in that hidden place.

Today I want to discuss briefly a few of the implications of this, a few of the ways I find this to be an important insight, a few bits of wisdom this opens to me.

One set of footprints. It means that living a life with Christ isn’t quite the way we often think of it. We often focus on being “followers of Christ,” which certainly also has scriptural foundation. But this insight allows us to shift our focus away from some sort of conscious “following” to a more mystical deep “union” with Christ. I imagined the famous Footprints poem, which describes two sets of footprints walking in the sand, mine and Christ’s. Through the insight of being hidden in Christ with God, I can picture that scene being different…only one set of footprints…because the only feet Christ has are my own.

Many sets of footprints. Or more accurately, there would be many sets of footprints, because if Christ lives in me, then Christ also lives in you. And in her. And in him. And in all people. So Christ’s footprints would be all over the sand, but the prints would be made with my feet, and your feet. Her feet and his. This means that we are all connected, in a mystical way, through the Christ who lives within us, completely and fully within me. And completely and fully within you. And therefore you and I are unified through Christ.

My breath is not poison. Do you remember when I posted a few weeks ago about my breath? I wrote this:

Breath flows into my lungs, rich with life-giving oxygen. In the lungs, this air is transformed. The oxygen enters the bloodstream through the pulmonary vessels, and is replaced by carbon dioxide, which is a poison, and needs to be exhaled. The process continues…good in, bad out. Good in, bad out. The breath in and the breath out are not the same. Health in, poison out. God’s grace comes into me, but inside me it is transformed into poison…my heart alters it, makes it dark and wrong, and what comes out through my mouth is not what came in.

Well, this way of looking at our union with Christ changes that image significantly. If Christ is within me, if Christ is at my core with me, then the breath that comes in, pure and rich, is not poisoned by me. Instead, it is replenished and revitalized by Christ. And what flows out of me is just as pure as what came in. This is really good news to me.

Recollection and Remembering. Dr. Smith discussed that a word commonly used at monasteries is recollection. In this context, the word means to “re-collect,” to see the fragemented pieces of our lives “collect together” again. Of course, in common parlance, the work recollection means remembering, but then again, look at the word remember. It’s the same word: to “re-member,” to “bring the members of the self back together.” Dr. Smith said that this is what Christ does for us: collect our diverse parts, and bring us back together. Christ is at our center, and when we focus on the center, we receive recollection, remembering, integration. The exact thing that we find so hard to come by in our fragmented, post-modern world. As I reflected on this, I realized that this process is exactly what I’ve been up to throughout my medical leave: recollecting and remembering my life, through contact with old friends and re-reading old emails; through therapy work on old wounds and traumas; through a visit to the place where I was baptized; and more. I’ve been recollecting and remembering, and God has been using that to re-collect and re-member me. This has been a great part of my healing.

The Spirit prays for us. In Romans 8:26-27, Paul writes, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (New Revised Standard Version). If the Spirit of Christ is within us, in the hidden part of us that is beyond thought and words, then perhaps when we pray, it is not only us praying. Perhaps as we flail about with our words and our feelings, the Spirit within us is simultaneously interceding with those sighs too deep for words. And our hidden inner self is praying that as well, even if we can’t “feel” it. That makes prayer seem so much more free and doable, since we can trust in God to actually pray with us.