Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fragments of Retreat

The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.
-- Jeremiah 8:20 , Proper 20, year C, RCL,
17th Sunday after Pentecost

I began my return journey to Christianity with Thomas Merton, smitten with his beautifully and thoroughly articulated retreat from the world: not so much smitten with his faith or with the object of his faith, Christ, but with the trappings of his faith and the arc of his story. I didn't want to know Christ as Merton knew him, I wanted to be Merton. I wanted his intellect, his limpid prose style, his wit, his voracious appetite for reading, his prolific writing, his retreat from the world. I wanted his hermitage. I wanted to be a cowled monk moving through a countryside of darkness and snow in one of his poems.

So I booked a retreat at a Trappist Monastery.

The 6 months leading to my retreat, rather than being the time of preparation and tranquility that I'd envisioned, was a time of confusion and restlessness. Everything, it seemed, had thrown itself into question. So for six months I juggled breviaries, sat fitful zazen, had a session with a sympathetic RC priest, fretted over arcane details of history and ecclesiology, developed an irrational animus against Pope Leo XIII -- and, finally, on a sunny afternoon, set out for St Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts with two bulging bags of books and zafu and zabuton. And, on an equally sunny afternoon three days later -- after vespers but before compline in monastic time -- I headed home. What, if anything, had happened ?

I, as I had intended, witnessed and experienced a small glimpse of monastic life. With the monks, I rose at three for Vigils and maintained silence in the retreat house. I read, I wrote, I ate meals in communal silence with my fellow retreatants as a rather frenetic CD discourse on the Book of Luke played. I enjoyed my room, small and spartan as a cell, with a door that led to a tiny fenced off garden -- just like the Carthusians' ! I thought -- where I spent hours reading. I sat two sessions daily of zazen, heartened by the unexpected sight of meditation cushions piled in the corner of the monk's chapel. We had a daily conference with a monk, Father G., who gave a series of eloquent disquisitions on being made in the image of God.

The image of God ! There it was, right out of the gate, a stumbling block, a massive conundrum, a flaming hedgehog of an insoluble koan. I had already once made the mistake of positing the vice versa -- oh the look of pity and contempt that had earned me ! And now I had been reading about the Trinity, both economic and immanent, until my eyes were bleeding -- generation, procession, spirations both active and passive, mutual indwelling, circumincession, perichoresis -- relations more arcane than in quantum mechanics -- was this a monastery or a bubble chamber ? And into this volatile mixture throw the Imago Dei ?

My head exploded.

"Maybe," I thought, "I have lost my religion." At a Trappist monastery, of all places. Or maybe I never truly "had" it to begin with. I thought back to our confirmation, where Bishop Bud had asked us, "Who's the most important person in your lives ?"

We went around the table giving our answers, some teenagers, myself and a serious man of about my age. Only the serious man got the right answer: Jesus. The rest of us had named parents, spouse, friends. Wrong. Dead wrong. It was JC. My cheeks reddened in shame. And now, three years in, was Jesus "the most important person in my life ?"

I clung to the late Jesuit and Zen Roshi, Father Thomas Hand's Heart-Sutra-derived description of the Trinity as Emptiness-Form-Flow, and to Raimon Panikkar's "Christ is the symbol of the whole of reality."

But wasn't I simply trying to adapt Christ to a different religious world-view ?

Didn't I need to let go, let go and let go some more ?

In the corner of the monks' chapel,
green for ordinary time,
a pile of zafus.

A monk asked laywoman T.,
"Do you believe in God ?"

She replied, "Mu !"

After vigils,
below the tip of the hunter's sword,
a shooting star.

At Mass,
incense rises into shadow.
Outside, day breaks.
Fog lies in the valley bowl,
awaiting the sun.

At compline,
in the dark chapel,
the monks sing Salve Regina,
and a sord of geese passes overhead,
west to east,
honking their antiphon,
to the hymn
of motherhood and grief.

To you we do cry,
poor banished children of Eve.

O clemens, o pia, o dulcis

Whoever has no house now, will never have one,

Whoever is alone will stay alone,

Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,

and wander on the boulevards, up and down,

restless, while the dry leaves are blowing.

-- Rilke

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Religion is a vexing enterprise. For example, I opened Merton's masterpiece, "New Seeds of Contemplation" and read --

a man cannot enter into the deepest center of himself

fortunately, most of the men who try this sort of thing

Christ prayed that all men may become One

you and I and all men were made to find our identity in the One Mystical Christ

there are 2 things that men can do about the pain of disunion with other men

you cannot be a man of faith unless you know how to doubt

the real purpose of meditation is this: to teach a man

I read until the clang of those two little three letter words -- man,men,man,men,man,men -- began to give me a metaphysical mal du tete.

I found the pronoun "she" in a chapter on the BVM, but also this sentence; contemplating the sanctity of the Immaculate Virgin, what great things He has to accomplish in the souls of men

Men !

Yes, I realize Merton was a male monastic and lived in a primarily male milieu, and that he lived in another era, and that he did have great respect for many women religious and wrote freely about it in his journals -- but, still, I was getting vexed by the text. This was not just "man" used as the generic default for human, this was particular usage: he's talkin' 'bout boys, not girls.

I was listening to a podcast last week on the topic of "God the Father." It was part of a Catholic adult education series given by a parish priest. The speaker stated that God, who, after all, passes all understanding, is neither a man nor a woman --

BUT --

one had to conclude that, in being Transcendent, God is quasi-gendered -- and, QED, Masculine ! (Girls, we are the immanent ones. Stuck in the lactating, menstruating, parturiating muck and mire of our bodies, babies clinging to our aprons, incapable of Viagran heights of transcendent contemplation, and, if we aspire to Holy Orders, apt to destroy the operative ecclesiological metaphor of Priest as obligatorily-penis-endowed alter Christus, the Bridegroom of the Church, who is, of course, a girl. Do you follow me ? )

I couldn't wait to get home and purge my iPOD of the rest of the transcendent father's teachings.

One doesn't need to travel far in cyberspace to discover that the gender divide is alive and well (and fiercely, smugly and triumphalistically defended, mostly by men, but, oddly enough, by women, too.) As one to whom the Ultra-High-Church liturgies and sacraments of Roman Catholicism seem the absolute pinnacle of spiritual expression, I am coming to realize that that this is a world from full participation in which I am -- by dint of accident of gender -- forever excluded.

Contemplate the images at the New Liturgical Movement website -- look at the papal altar party, the gorgeous vestments, the absolute lack of women. Scroll down and you will see one photo with the blurry outline of two, tiny, gray-habited nuns, milling like ground doves around the base of the fabulous altar.

Contemplate the recent Vatican pronouncement -- what was it -- that ordaining women is a worse offense than raping altar boys ?

OK, Dalai Lama, my "own tradition" probably does contain that which is necessary for -- for salvation, for enlightenment -- but much of it is being held hostage by old men in gorgeous dresses who have made idols out of metaphors and a full time vocation of preserving the patriarchy. And who consider me unclean and incapable of transcendence. And whose idea of ecumenism is to have everyone join their shop, the one true shop, the only locus of valid holy orders and valid Eucharist, all else being fake.

OK, I get it. And, yes, I also get that where I have landed -- Episcopalia -- is relatively free of these vexatious issues, and that maybe the scandal of the English Reformation has borne some late and salubrious fruit.

It, of course, is not just sexism, but -- even more exuberantly -- heterosexism -- that spews from the common Patriarchal font. And yes, I am vexed and pissed, uncharitably so; challenged to forgive -- something that doesn't think it needs forgiveness ? Because it writes the rules ? And has the Truth ?

Am I irrevocably apostate because Pilate's question -- What is truth ? -- resonates so deeply with me ? Am I acquiescing to "the dictatorship of relativism" ?

These are my sour reflections on the eve of a long anticipated retreat at St Joseph's Abbey in Spencer. I think I will bring along my zafu and zabuton.

Sunday, September 05, 2010


There is a ubiquitous pleasantry afoot, which seems to have replaced "you're welcome" as a response to "thank you," and that's No problem. It's mildly annoying. It implies that the whole transaction could well be viewed as a "problem" but for the incredible generosity and kindness of the utterer of "No problem."

A problem, etymologically speaking, is something that is thrown forth -- something troubling and unclear that one must confront, a conundrum or perplexity that needs unraveling. We are, I suppose, on some levels, all problems to one another, ciphers, riddles, loci of babbling unclarity, texts to be translated.

Communication is vexing and fraught, especially to those of us whose neuronal fight-or-flight systems are congenitally in overdrive and who are perpetually at risk of tranmogrifying into Travis Bickel asking our mirror image You talkin' to me ???

"You're welcome," on the other hand, cuts through the problem problem. Hospitality replies to gratitude; it's practically an exchange of lovers.

There are moments, though, when the problem, the capital P Problem, of self and other and of self and world, seems to unravel, even disappear.

And all that is left is "No problem,"

gratitude and welcome everywhere.