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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

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Truth-Telling

There are some of you, dear readers, who have taken me aside privately and said, “Erin, your blog… it’s too much.”

“Too honest?” I ask.

“If you want to call it that,” replied one.

I wonder what it is about religious people that makes it hard for us to stomach one another’s truth. One another’s pain, grief, struggles.  I think it’s the fact that we’ve traded in righteousness for self-righteousness.

Myself, I can’t stand a memoir or a poem or an autobiography that skims over the Awful.  Not because I enjoy rubbernecking at a car crash (though we all do, don’t we?), but because it is okay to commune with the broken person.  The perfect person is out of my reach.  I have nothing to chat about with the perfect person.  I fear the perfect person.  But you give me an alcoholic, a former bulimic, a guy with a stutter, a mother with an anxiety disorder, and I’ll love them with my whole heart and read everything they ever write and probably ask them to preach at my funeral.

Perfect people are so boring and tedious as to be odious.

 

I had a boyfriend once with whom I went to an old used bookstore. Encountering the poetry section, I found an old book of Bukowski poems, plopped down on the floor, and read a few to him.  He was scandalized.  For those who don’t know, Bukowski regularly writes about alcoholism, sleeping around, and despair– and often uses pretty salty language.  Even with me censoring the roughest words, this fellow could not handle the fact that I loved this poet.  He encouraged (demanded?) me to not buy the book, and to read more lady-like poets like Dickinson.

 

It takes a little bit of the Awful, a little bit of honesty, to earn readers’ trust.  That’s part of why I don’t censor very much of what goes on this blog, and why, if I ever write my memoirs, they will include the stories of how I called the family of a sick baby by the wrong name and the times I decided to run away and start a new life as an office assistant because I didn’t feel like doing this ministry thing anymore.

But… it also takes a little bit of admitting the Awful, a little being-completely-honest, to earn your own trust.  I feel that a lot of people spend a lot of time convincing themselves that everything is fine– deep breaths, that wasn’t so bad, there are children starving in Africa, stop complaining.  It’s true that there are children starving in Africa, but one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read is that the starving children don’t negate your own Awful experiences.

You still hurt deeply.  You still feel great loneliness.  You still debate your call, the meaning of your existence, and your aptitude for human life.

The Church is supposed to be that place where all your Awfuls get plunked down at the altar rail for God and everyone to see.  And then they’re left there and you don’t have to carry them home with you, because everyone else takes a piece of them and shoulders the burden for you (instead of judging and throwing you out for being so scandalous and sinful).  The Church is supposed to be that place where you can quote Bukowski and Plath, because sometimes that’s your truth, and not be told, “Sweetie, don’t you think you should just stick to Mary Oliver?”  The Church is supposed to be that place where you can (even should, even must) confess all your sins.  And then be freed and forgiven– by God, by yourself, and by the congregation.

One of my favorite parts of our worship services at my church is the confession of faith, followed by these words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Glory to God! Amen.”  But sometimes the printed words of confession that we read aloud together don’t seem like enough.  I want the space to lament.  I want the space to go into detail, with the hope that hearing my struggles will help others.

That’s what this blog is for me. And I pray that it’s that for you, as well.

 

So I’m keeping on the way I’ve been writing.  Thank you to those who have been encouraging. Thank you to those who have offered criticism.  It is important to keep the conversation going.  My answer to your being scandalized by my words is this:

Truth-telling is closer to godliness than perfection.  Therefore I will seek to be truthful rather than perfect.  Truth-telling is the medium of the Gospel.  Therefore I will seek to be truthful for the sake of the Kingdom.  Truth-telling is the way of trust.  Therefore I will seek to be truthful in order to earn both your and my trust.

______________________________________________________________________________________

If you’re interested, here’s one of Bukowski’s more tame, hopeful, and popular poems:

“another comeback” (source: Charles Bukowski, Come On In! New Poems, ed. John Martin (ecco: New York), 2006.)

climbing back up out of the ooze, out of

the thick black tar.

rising up again, a modern

Lazarus.

you’re amazed at your good

fortune.

somehow you’ve had more

than your share of second

chances.

hell, accept it.

what you have, you have.

you walk and look in the bathroom

mirror

at an idiot’s smile.

and you know your luck.

some go down and never climb back up.

something is being kind to you.

you turn from the mirror and walk into the

world.

you find a chair, sit down, light a cigar.

back from a thousand wars

you look out from an open door into the silent

night.

Sibelius plays on the radio.

nothing has been lost or destroyed.

you blow smoke into the night.

tug at your right

ear.

baby, right now, you’ve got it

all.

Hopes of a Hopeful Young Clergy Looking Out Toward the Rest of Her Ministry

I want to be a truth-teller.
I want to have honest lips
(for true love is truth-telling).

I want to be a God-revealer.
I want to have loving eyes
(like God’s).

I want to be a Christ-bearer.
I want to have open arms
(like Jesus’).

I want to be a hymn-singer.
I want to have a dancing tongue
(that I might praise my God).

I want to be a promise-keeper.
I want to have a strong spine
(so as not to let my sinful nature get the best of me).

I want to be a joy-bringer.
I want to have a broad and constant smile
(for the Gospel lives in broad smiles).

I want to be a heart-warmer.
I want to have warm palms
(to hold hearts in).

I want to be a peace-maker.
I want to have gentle knees and elbows
(that do not jerk or jab).

I want to be a Gospel-sharer.
I want to have calloused feet
(to persevere).

I want to be a LORD-lover
I want to have wide, wet eyelids
(wide in wonder, wet with love).

I want to be a sister-pastor.
I want to have soft forearms
(for woman and children to lean upon).

I want to be a prophet-weeper.
I want to have a leaking heart
(spilling love).

I want to be a burden-easer.
I want to have strong, broad shoulders
(to carry the load).

I want to be a silence-possesser.
I want to have large pores
(for the silence to seep in through).

I want to be a soul-healer.
I want to have deep lungs
(for bright, bellowing laughter)

I want to be a Spirit-vessel.
I want to have a wandering mind
(for the Spirit to stumble out of).

I want to be a hope-haver.
I want to have a crooked neck
(from permanently looking upward).