Unbind him, and let him loose!

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. It was my first Sunday back after my twelve-week medical leave. The gospel reading was John 11:1-45, which I recited from a paraphrase of scripture called The Message.

It is good to be back from my medical leave, and hearing the story of Lazarus again moves me to say something bold:

Continue reading “Unbind him, and let him loose!”

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.

Photo Mar 13, 2 11 34 PM

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.

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 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.

Hidden with Christ #3: The Theme

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 want to start writing here about the insights I gained from this retreat. I’m not sure how much of a narrative this will really be; I’m not sure how understandable this will even be. I’m not sure I know how to talk about this, at least not yet. But I’ll give it a go.

Part of the reason I don’t know how to talk about this is because of my Myers-Briggs personality type. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a test that assigns you one of sixteen categories, based on how you answer questions. It indicates things such as where you get your information, and what makes you energized. The last time I took the test, my type was INFP, which means “Introversion + iNtuition + Feeling + Perceiving.” But the most interesting part of it was how I scored on it. The second letter of the type is either an S or an N, which means where you get your information, from either “Sensing” or “iNtuition.” I was almost literally off the scale on intuition, which means I get my information not by simply observing the details around me, but by seeking patterns and layers of meaning within it. Or, to put it crassly and just a bit hyperbolically, I learn everything I know from inside myself; I have no connection whatsoever to the outside world. It’s all inside. Deep, deep inside. Which means that I sometimes have trouble relating information I have to other people…it’s stored in me in a way that’s somewhat different than how I learned it. I’ve added layers of meaning, and sometimes I don’t have the words to use to describe those layers. And sometimes, it just doesn’t make as much sense outside of my head as it does inside.

Well, this actually has a connection to the topic of the weekend. We learned about how so much of us is hidden, even those of us who aren’t “N-monsters” like I am. Neuroscience has shown that our true motivations, our true “selves” exist deeper than we know, at a level so far hidden that we simply can’t know about it. Our brains have layers of motivation and activity that are impossible to think about. Like an iceberg, a great deal of who we are is hidden from our conscious minds. And there are centers of the brain that do a very good job of weaving together narratives to make sense of what we experience. But that’s all they are: narratives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are not lies, exactly, but they have been shown not to be reliable. And so, and this is I think one of the greatest insights I found on the retreat: what is true about us may be deeper than thinking can think, deeper than feeling can feel.

But the point of the retreat was much more than the existence of our hidden selves; it was that that is precisely where Christ dwells. Our retreat leader, Dr. Martin Smith, referred frequently to the third chapter of the letter to the Colossians, particularly verses 1-4:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (New Revised Standard Version, emphasis mine)

If the most important and true part of our selves is hidden, then the author of Colossians tells us that what is hidden there along with us is Christ. And through the act of contemplative prayer (a type of prayer that is similar to meditation, in which we attempt to quiet down our mind and our thoughts in order to connect with God), we can receive something Dr. Smith calls intimations, subtle hints, intimate signals, that come from God to us. These intimations tell us that our true identity comes from God, and is promised through our baptism. They tell us that we bear the living Christ within us, and that when we focus on this connection, we can experience it.

This is the promise of the resurrection: not merely that we have been given life “after death,” but that the risen Christ has come into us, into the very depths of our being, a place that we cannot consciously connect to, but a place that is very much there. This is not new wisdom, Dr. Smith reminded us. While science has only recently shown evidence of this “hidden self,” Christian mystics, solitaries, and hermits have known about this for centuries.

This is heavy stuff, if I’ve explained it well. I’m going to end this post here. In my next post, I’ll describe some of the implications of this insight about living our lives hidden with Christ in God.

Hidden in Christ #2: The Sermon

As I said in my last post, this is one of a series of posts I’ll be writing in the next few days 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 I think that it will take several blog posts to unpack it.

Sunday’s sermon contained a very powerful image. It was the First Sunday in Lent; the gospel reading was Matthew 4:1-11, the story of Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness. The preacher began by talking about lanyards, and remarked about how she learned how to make them when she was young and at camp, about many lanyards she made in her childhood, and how useless they all were. Then she read an excerpt from a poem called “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins, in which he describes the lanyard he made at camp as a gift for his mother:

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
‘Here are thousands of meals’ she said,
‘and here is clothing and a good education.’
‘And here is your lanyard,’ I replied,
‘which I made with a little help from a counselor.’
‘Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.’ she whispered.
‘And here,’ I said, ‘is the lanyard I made at camp.’
‘And here,’ I wish to say to her now,
‘is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.’

And then, this preacher did a wonderful thing. She said (something like) this:

“We are now in the season of Lent, the time when people who follow Christ all around the world spend our time making lanyards for God.”

I don’t recall the details from the rest of her sermon. But this image sticks with me. The idea that all of the acts of piety we do, all of the things we give up, the things we add, the acts of charity and fasting and prayer and self-negation, all of these things are no more than a lanyard to God. Nothing we do can compare, nothing can even come close, nothing can even be in the same cosmos, as what God has done for us. And so our acts of piety are good, but not if we think they’re “evening the score” with God, or that God is impressed by them.


Featured image: By TheBendster (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hidden in Christ #1: The Monastery

This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be writing in the next few days 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 I think that it will take several blog posts to unpack it. So I’ll start by describing the monastery itself, and some reflections on the structure of the retreat in general.

Holy Cross Monastery is a Benedictine monastery in the Anglican Communion, and is affiliated with the Episcopal Church. A number of monks reside there, and the primary ministry of the monastery is to provide for individual and group retreats, like the one I attended. This was a special retreat program, but one can also spend several days there on one’s own, for a “self-guided” retreat.

I was there for less than 48 hours, but it didn’t take long to begin to appreciate the rhythm of the place. The monks gather for worship five times a day, for the “daily office,” Matins (7 am), Eucharist (9 am), Diurnum (12 noon), Vespers (5 pm), and Compline (8 pm). Guests are welcome at all worship experiences, and I took advantage of these opportunities. It was so deep and holy. Not only was there a rhythm to the day, but I could just glimpse the rhythm of the church year as well. Each office follows a particular pattern, but that pattern is adjusted based on where you are in the liturgical year, and where you are in relation to Sunday. I liked that. I resonated with the idea that worship moves in concentric patterns, around the day, around the week, around the year. I imagine that over long periods of time, worshiping like this would yield a deep and subtle wisdom about the nature of time. And the chanting…oh, the chanting and the incense were wonderful. Just wonderful. This was my kind of worship.

And I felt a rhythm to the place beyond worship as well. There were only three items on the schedule for our retreat, three items that repeated themselves throughout the time there. They were: worship, teaching, and meals. That’s all it was. 7:00 Matins; 8:00 breakfast; 9:00 Eucharist; 10:30 learning; 12:00 Diurnum; 12:30 lunch. Et cetera. It was all about feeding our souls, feeding our minds, and feeding our bodies. And all the food was exquisite. The food for the body was prepared by a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America (right across the Hudson River); it was simple yet absolutely delicious. The food for the soul, as I described above, was simple and holy, yet deeply rich. The food for the mind, the addresses by Rev. Martin L. Smith, were also deeply rich. I’ll get to them in future posts.

This was a “silent retreat,” which meant that from the evening address on Friday through to the morning address on Sunday, all attendees were expected to keep silent. Words of worship were an exception. The monks did speak at meals to share a few brief announcements. And certainly Rev. Smith did speak during his addresses. But other than that, silence. And let me tell you, for an introvert like me, silent retreats are awesome. There were about thirty or forty of us there, I think, but I never learned anyone else’s name. I never found out where anyone was from, who they are in their “normal life,” how many kids they have, what they think of the weather, what they think of President Trump. I didn’t realize how much I dislike small talk with strangers, how much anxiety wells up in me, until that small talk was taken away. I could sit in the common area with my journal or a book, sipping my coffee, while a dozen others were in the room. And I had no fear whatsoever of being interrupted. I had no anxiety about how much to open up to someone, how much to say, how much to keep silent. There are probably several good reasons for silence at a spiritual retreat: Rev. Smith said that we didn’t want to get in the way of anyone’s conversation with God, prevent a revelation that might be unfolding to that person. But I think for introverts, it’s just an awesome gift. I can imagine it’s hard for extraverts, but you know what? There are plenty of places out there for them. I’m glad to have a place for us too!

And that’s enough for today. I will talk more about the retreat, including the labyrinth I walked there, over the next few days.

Featured image: Daniel Case at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.