The Abbey: In Which a Bishop & an Abbot Struggle to Put Up with Me

The following are 3 (the first 3 of at least a few more, I expect) excerpts from my journal over my long weekend at Mepkin Abbey, which I have written about previously here.

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Friday, February 8th, 7:00 pm

My stay at the Abbey this time is very different from last time. For one thing, they’ve instituted semi-mandatory orientation tours so that you don’t go around confused and anxious the whole time… like I did last time. Father Stan, the Abbot, lead us around paths and roads he knew so well that he walked backwards the entire time, looking at us kindly, and never once had to glance behind him to see where he was going.

He told us that the monastery was designed and built around these enormous live oaks, that in the process of building, they only had to take down one tree. “God took down a few others,” he added in an offhand sort of way.

I suppose I half-expected that I had romanticized the whole monastery experience in my head and that it really wouldn’t be that great in reality, or the second time around.  Well, I certainly romanticized it and it is slightly different, but that does not lessen its greatness.  Brother Paul has put on a few pounds (but then so have I!) and Brother Theophilus has exited the novitiate and is now a full monk with a very full beard, but Father Christian could still outrun and outthink me, at age 98.  The monk with the perfect pitch who serves most often as cantor smiles at me broad as ever. The African American gentleman always raises a playful(?) eyebrow at me, and Brother Robert helps me with the pages of my Psalmbook and hymnbooks, which are indecipherable without aid.

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8:12 pm

My accommodations are different this time.  I essentially have a whole house to myself, complete with 4 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and two tiny but full baths, where last time I had roughly 20 square feet total.  It’s nice, but I am terribly far away from the rest of the monastery.  You don’t have to make any turns to get from the house to church, just follow the main road.  But it’s a long way off, about a five minute’s walk from the last cottage on the road, and so too from the last lights.

Of course there must be no lights along this remote part of the road, lest the stars be obscured.  I appreciate this in abstract theory, but in the distilled reality of stepping out into the void alone in the night, I find my appreciation dissolving rather rapidly.

The monks are kind enough to provide flashlights in each guest room, though mine was all but dead.  On the dark asphalt, it gave a glow so feeble, it looked like a shallow puddle of melted butter in a deep black pot. Not going to cut into the heavy veil of this darkness. As I am occupying this whole house alone, I went from room to room in search of brighter light (this, I imagine, is something like a metaphor for church, but I will leave that to you to parse out, dear reader).  My first and second tries were as pitiful as my given flashlight had been, but the third glowed bright as a handheld lighthouse.

So, off we trekked, my new flashlight and me, finding the night to be darker than I have ever known it to be. This little halo bobbed along on the cracked asphalt in front of me; I followed nervously, tossing my head back and forth like horses do when they get uneasy.

It occurred to me that I might be less uneasy if I could see a bit more of what was around me.  So, I swung the beam of the flashlight to my right and followed up and out along the trunk and limbs of a Mother Willow-style oak.  What was revealed was rather less heartening than I had hoped: mere feet above my head, even inches in some places, long fingery branches dripping with spidery Spanish moss hung eerily, reaching toward me.  Take it from me, if you ever have cause to wander around coastal South Carolina after dark, don’t shine a light up from the underside of one of these mossy oaks. Even M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t recreate the terror I had in that moment.

I tripped and galloped my way toward the nearest cottage, where two more puddles of light were just flickering on, signaling that fellow travelers were entering the road.  I was flooded with relief and tried not to feel silly, a child afraid of the dark.

Jesus 101: Church is that place where one frightened person can be comforted by nestling up close with other frightened people– even strangers– and all their little flickering lights join together to show the way.

So here’s the interesting part: At Compline, the 7th and final worship service of the day, the thing which I was braving darkness and coyotes (or, as it turned out, owls that sound like coyotes) to get to, the monks prayed Psalm 91, which proclaims that she who trusts in the LORD “will not fear the terror of the night.”

And do you know, I didn’t, after that? On my way back to my little house, though alone and cold, I found that I didn’t even have to use my flashlight for most of the journey. What before had been black as coal now had a blue tint, lit somehow by those cloud-veiled stars.

My eyes had adjusted in the dim church, and what before had been suffocating blackness was now navigable, even beautiful.  What’s more, my heart had adjusted in that prayer-soaked pace: what before held terror and isolation now invited wonder and deep, mystical communion with God.

*****

Saturday, February 9th, 4:14 am

I continue to fail miserably at keeping up with the monks.  What page they’re on, what book they’re in… I grin sheepishly down until a brother (most embarrassingly, it’s usually the Abbot, Father Stan, or the retired bishop, Father Victor) steps over to flip pages, points, and return to his stall.

Yesterday I discovered that there are very faint vertical lines to the left of stanzas that call for evil, cursing, or judgment upon enemies (of which there are a distressing number in the Psalms), indicating that they not be sung. I appreciate this, from a theological perspective.  I do not, however, appreciate how fine and faint the lines are, such that I generally don’t see them in the dim church light, and carry on alone asking God to hate someone until a brother (again, usually the Abbot or the Bishop!) rushes over and stops me, as kindly as he can.

All told, it rather gives me reason to want to pray those hateful prayers over the editors of the books….. This, I assume, is not great Christian love.

 

More to come…….. and if you’re interested, I’ll be putting some of the poetry I wrote during my visit on my “Arts” page.

How I Spent My (Preaching) (Horrifying) (Weeping) Weekend

This weekend, I sat in horrified silence in front of the news for probably around 16 hours.

I sat in a hairstylist’s chair and wondered if coloring my hair meant adorning myself, which the Bible sort of frowns on. I decided that God had bigger things on God’s mind right now– communal ethics and violence against the innocent always seem a bigger deal to God than a little self-adornment here and there (see Isaiah, Jeremiah, all the prophets).

I contemplated adopting a dog, because I have love to give and lbs I need to walk off. I decided that my problems were so, so trivial.

 

I dressed up as the angel Gabriel in a Christmas pageant and told a fifth grade Mary good news: You will have a child!

 

I asked God what to preach about, and God said, “Murdered children.”

I told God that didn’t sound great, and God added, “… and the God who loves them deeply.”

 

….It was a rough weekend. But God was so, so good throughout all of it.  Did we doubt it? Maybe only a little.

 

Here’s the transcript from my sermon.

We have gathered in this safe, warm place to celebrate lessons and carols, a time of singing praise and joy to our God.  Praise and joy for the wonder that is the Christ-child. God in human flesh, the most tender and vulnerable human flesh possible—a baby.  Every year we celebrate this mystery, this miracle, this birth, just as we celebrate the birthdays of our own children.  Except that every year He is truly born again.  Because every year, every day, God chooses to come into the world, into your world, into this broken and bleeding world, to restore, and to heal, and to bring peace.

I wonder what it means today, on this day, this year, to say that God comes into our world. I wonder, in this moment of national and international bewilderment, fear, and inexpressible grief, what it means to say that God comes to us as a little child.  A vulnerable child, a child—who is not armed, who does not know war, who wants only the warm embrace of his father and the deep, abiding love of his mother.  A child who bids all people to come to Him, the shepherds and the wise men, and later the Jews, the Gentiles, the rich, the poor, the children…

This little child bids all to come to Him.  He has no security measures in place, He is not armed, He does not have a security team.  Our God is not the kind of God who lives behind glass where we can’t get at Him.  God came in the form of an innocent, vulnerable child; exposed, subject to the death-dealing sins of humanity.  And as we who know the end of the story, we know that in time He is murdered, not as a child but as a man, as the God-man.  He did not have to put on human flesh for our sake.  He did not have to make Himself vulnerable to all the terrible, messy things common to human life—birth, puberty, grief, betrayal, and death.

So why did He come?  And why like that?  And why does He come again every year?  We are tempted to despair.  We are tempted to turn on the news, especially this weekend, and say, “It didn’t do any good.”

But it did.  And it does.  God comes to us as a little child to say that God cares deeply for little children.  God comes to us as a vulnerable being to say that God’s eye is always on the vulnerable ones.  God comes to us as a peaceful being in the midst of violence and terror—for if you remember, Jesus was born into a world where a king could and did order the death of countless baby boys—to show that there is another way, that peace is possible and indeed will win in the end.  For as we who know the end of the story know, after death there is resurrection.

So as we hear this story again today, as we sing the familiar songs and celebrate with joy and anticipation the coming birth of Christ into our world, let us remember that He did not come into Eden, some paradise far off in the distance where babies don’t cry and animals sing them lullabies.  That view of Christmas is a fantasy.  Our God was born into a world of violence, of abused power, of murdered children, of sinful people.  A messy, smelly, broken, vile world.  The same world we lament today.  Jesus who saves us from death was sent into this world.  But let us also remember that He came to change this world, person by person, one repentant heart at a time.  And He’s here with us today, looking you and me in the eye– the One who was sent to the poor, and the vulnerable, and the broken, and the dying, is asking, Whom shall I send?

Will you go, friends?