Thursday, April 29, 2010
I am experimenting with various pitcher shapes these days, trying to find one shape for water and one for wine. The wide-mouthed one on the right might work for wine.
Pitchers are like teapots; they have a physical character all to themselves which has a lot to do with body shape. A tall, thin one can look like a skinny school-master while a wide-based one could look like a happy grandmother. Like the animated teapots and teacups in Walt Disney movies, the shape of the pot invites us to anthropomorphize them into human likenesses when, in fact, they are not human.
We do that to God too sometimes. We project onto God the face and body-type of what we expect, depending on our perceptions of God or how the church or our clergy have treated us. Is God the old man or the Santa or the hippie earth-mother?
God is none of these. But what God is, I am sure...God is the one who is filling our pitcher with our favorite drink before we have even finished pouring!
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
My favorite time of the day at Blackwater Bluff is the early morning. My favorite meal is breakfast, which has a lot to do with that, I admit. I like waking early - about 4:30 or 5:00 and making coffee to sit in the dark for a while. I watch the flames come back to life in the wood stove as a new set of logs is piled onto last night's coal-bed. And I wait with Kai. We wait together for the sun to rise.
Sometimes I wander into the studio to check on drying pots or to see that the kiln fired correctly. I then slide open the door to the chicken house (pictured above) to collect the day's offering and to thank them, out loud, for their gift of protein with which I will begin my day. They seem to be glad of the thanks. It seems the right thing to do.
The fears which may have plagued me in the middle of the night seem to loose their power as I begin my meditation time - me, God, a candle. When I meditate in my meditation room, Kai, my dog, lays down in the hall outside so that his head just peeks over the edge of the open door. From there he stares at me as if he is encouraging me (because sometimes prayer is dull and I am tempted to blow it off).
Easter always follows Lent and sunrise (even if unseen) always follows the darkness and fears of night. The sun does not take away the fears, but it places them in context of what we can see around us so that the fears and the evils in which we are moving are offset by the Hope and Faith that is ours for the taking. As Theresa of Avila has so beautifully said, "all shall be well....all things shall be well...all manner of things shall be well."
Sunday, April 25, 2010
One of the items I make for the Canterbury Shaker Village is the great old-fashioned teapot. People who browse the Museum Store at the Shaker Village are not just looking for merchandise. Most of what can be found there can be found elsewhere. What people are looking for is a souvenir. And by that, I mean the French, etymological sense of the word. The direct translation is "up -come" which is to say that to buy or have a souvenir is to draw up from the memory an event so that it comes into the present.
In religious circles, the theological word for this is anamnesis - the drawing of a memory or past event into the present. "Do this in remembrance of me..." in which an act that happened ages ago is drawn into the present like a thread being drawn through a tapestry to add to its color and depth. In church, when we say the Eucharist, we are experiencing anamnesis and we have a souvenir in the bread and the wine. Something that happened in the past which is re-happening in the present.
By buying one of my teapots, people are seeking, in many cases, an icon to a simple lifestyle they saw in the Canterbury Shaker Village and in the remembering of the lifestyles of the Shakers. To make a cup of tea is to slow down. To sit with tea and be present to it is an important religious act in many cultures around the world both at meals and in religious ceremony.
Each teapot that comes off the wheel (I made 8 yesterday!) is set on the shelf to dry with a simple prayer asking God to breathe peace into the lives of those who drink their tea from this pot.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Times of rest and reflection are valuable to the body and to the soul. In my 20's and 30's I would fill my vacations and even my spiritual retreats full of so much busyness and activity and travels and chores that it was impossible to feel anything or think too much about anything. And that is precisely how I liked it. Work, noise and activity were my anesthesia to life. My motto was "If you don't have time to feel pain, then the pain does not exist."
That did not work very well. I mean, actually it worked like a charm to avoid the pain but it did nothing to reduce or dilute the pain. Nowadays I find that sitting with pain or sorrow, regret or confusion, betrayal or grief is the very best way to manage it so that the pain is dealt with and not expanded into bad choices or internalized cancers.
Currently I am on vacation. It has become, what our culture has begun to term a "stay cation." Money is tight and I had a hard internal job to do which required all my presence to myself to do and lots of time to consider afterwards. That kind of discernment cannot be done well on the run. So rather than take this week as a spiritual retreat in Rome (Plan A) using a small monastery in Rome's Travestere district, I decided to take the week as vacation and stay home to tend the garden, clean the house, make pottery, go on two walks a day with Kain, swim in the Blackwater River (whew! cold! but refreshing and so fun for Kai)and have close friends over for the kinds of dinner that requires all day to cook slowly (Ie: inexpensive meat!)
My job this week is to consider my life. What is going well? What is not going well? What would I like to change? What needs to be taken on? What needs to be let go of? (oops..a preposition at the end of my phrase-- my dead parents are rolling!)
As I walk and cook and make pots I am trying to think and pray. It means I am feeling pain I would like to anesthetize but it also means that I am sensing clarity which can come in no other way. The silence and the thinking breaks down the silos of compartmentalizing which so easily infects religious leaders and the exercise and fresh air and cool, long nights of sleep are slowly reviving me after a long season of stewardship work through two years of recession.
One of my projects in the pottery studio is a set of large jars for the Canterbury Shaker Village where I sell my pottery. These large jars could be used for all sorts of things including a great way to slow-roast baked beans! But I am making these for burial. When people die and they go to get their remains cremated, the funeral homes are selling them (in the midst of their cloudy-headedness of grief) jars for the cremains (the remains of ground bones which comes after burning a corpse) which can cost $500 - #$1,500 - for a lidded jar! Just a jar for goodness sake!
So I am making lidded jars for cremation- simple and un-decorated - like the Shakers would have insisted on. People buy them , keep them on the mantle piece and tell their children that it is for when they die. It seems morbid but it is just good planning - and economical at $250 per urn.
I keep cookies in mine. My will says "take out all but two of the cookies, place my cremains in the jar, seal the lid with epoxy (Lowe's for $3.00 - the kind that mingles two gels into one mix is the best) and bury me in a garden."
So as I make each urn, I think and pray for the person whose remains will one day be lovingly poured into it by grieving family members. Who knew that I would spend my vacation doing this? It is a great honor to participate in the lives of families this way. With every pot, I am reminded that we are bust the ashes and dust of the earth to which we will all one day be returned. The measure of our time on earth will be how much we loved others and how well we made choices which did good and not harm. The rest is up to God.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
I keep three spices on the table at all times in small dishes I made for the purpose. Spices bring out the flavors of food but taken alone they are very strong. I like cracked pepper, and although I know that freshly ground pepper is always better, having it ready in a dish on the dinner table is easier. But I like it course so that I can taste the pepper. I have at least one if not two kinds of sea salt. I prefer the gray, moist version from the French coast but it is pricey so I usually default to kosher salt. And red pepper flakes are a must in this house. I love hot spice. I even learned to put hot pepper flakes in my peanut butter when I was living in Haiti. There they call it mamba peekay and it is wonderful on hot toast.
Once, when in front of a bunch of kids doing a children's sermon, I had to explain theodicy (why bad things happen when God could stop them.) The children's eyes were big and trusting and expectant. Kids know something is up. They know bad things can happen. They just want honest answers.
Now, I admit that if I were in charge, bad things would not happen, but then people would not be free to do whatever they wanted to either. It is one or the other; freedom or sinlessness. Bad things mostly happen on earth because of big and small evils done by humans. And like the wind currents which can change on the other side of the world because of a butterfly's wings flapping in this hemisphere, so too the evils which occur in Sudan are linked to my buying prepared food. Here I am being lazy and rich but the effect over there is that children starve. The two actions, when multiplied around the billions of people in the world, are magnified.
I do not believe in Evil. I only believe in evils. Evil sets God up as some sick watcher at a human game of death. But evils, those are the little choices we make - very small - seemingly inconsequential - which add up and hurt people.
When the children asked me why there is so much sadness and badness in the world, I admitted that I did not know. Any other answer they would have figured out to be a lie. But what I could say, and still can say, is that the pain and sadness I experience in life at the hands of others does get transformed by God into strength ; into a depth and a strange kind of shadows which raise the good of life into greater relief if and when I have eyes to see it.
In other words, pain and sadness and loss and grief are not pleasant when taken all at once but they do add something to life which would be missing without them. I think without them we would all be as spiritually shallow as your average rain puddle. And our spiritual depth connects us to God and helps us act with better choices. It is all designed for our becoming better and better with each generation.
Pain is like spice. Take a spoonful of nutmeg into your mouth and the taste is strong, gritty, earthy and bitter. But place that same spoon of nutmeg into some stewed apples and the apples change into something entirely different and quite delicious. Then taste the apples without the nutmeg and they seem dull.
Friday, April 16, 2010
This photo was taken by one of my brothers at the monastery one day in the cloister garden while I was waiting for another brother to meet me there. We were going to look over the garden and consider what I would work on that afternoon. It was a cold day and I kept my hands under my cincture and my scapula, not out of monastic tradition (though the "custody of the hands and eyes" is an ancient monastic practice)but because it was cold out and I had been waiting a long time. Even now, as I see this photo I can see how forced the smile was - not because I was unhappy - I was quite happy - but because I was angry at my brother for leaving me to stand there for 45 minutes in the cold.
But this photo is also another kind of image for me. It is a kind of icon (icon simply means "image".) This icon reminds me that although I am no longer a novice and may never have been much of a monk (Brother Paul warned me that it took 50 years to become a monk and I think he was right!) I was in a very valuable "class" of sorts. I was being taught a few things which I needed to hear God say to me. What I sense God was saying includes the following. They were sayings meant for me, in my life, but others may sense that some ring true for them too:
1.Love the Gospel of John because it was written by people in fear who love Jesus and that is often going to be your situation as well.
2. Get the help you need to be in a constant state of conversion - a constant state of becoming God's hope for you.
3. Use the silence of your day and night as a laboratory for your conversion and your love-making with God.
4. Take time each night to consider your life - ask the hard questions about what wrongs I have committee no matter how small, so that goodness is given more and more spaciousness in your life.
5. Let go of grudges and judgment and unforgiveness for it only constipates you in every way.
6. Take time in the morning to pray so that you sensitize yourself to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit and so that you can hear in the midst of the noise of the life you live.
7. Get therapy - lots and lots of therapy! No. Seriously. Get therapy. You have had a hard life and you need to seek real healing.
8. Seek after truth and embrace it, lead where it leads and cost what it costs.
9. Choose your friends carefully and love your friends deeply.
10. Make time for deep rest, because it is only rest that will allow you to see clearly what needs to be seen and hear clearly what needs to be heard.
That monk's habit did not make me a monk but it was what I wore while I was being taught what I would need to know to make me a man.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
This was my first icon. I asked a friend in Athens to write it for me. He was an ex-Athonite monk with a twinkling smile and hands that looked like they had pulled on the mooring ropes of the Noah's Ark. The Icon is on carved wood with a thin layer of plaster and is about 18" by 14". It hangs in the center of my meditation wall and is an icon of great comfort and power for me. I use it when I am feeling frightened or sad or both, because the image of Jesus with John The Evangelist is one of welcome and comfort and intimacy.
In his new book on Goodness, Desmond Tutu makes the case for a balanced life in which there is a regular re-collection so that wrongs are caught early, before they become big and unwieldy like a huge kudzu-covered life. Tutu says that with daily prayer and "deep rest" we have the ability to see when we are making decisions which hurt us or others. He argues the same argument of Martin Luther King - that we are on a long, wide arc towards goodness and that to get there we must be very careful to make good choices often.
After two years of working hard to keep the effects of a national recession from debilitating the diocese we have been successful. Only 43% of non-profit organizations in the US have been saved from drops in their contributions and The Diocese of New Hampshire is, I am pleased to say, one of those. But I am now very tired and will take nine days to sit at Blackwater Bluff to rest - my first rest since November.
I do not plan to do much. I will garden and thin trees. Hike and swim the Blackwater river with Kai. I will make pottery and pickles and some good meals for friends. And I will sit with this image, glad to be in relationship with a God who would become human and then welcome me to lay my head on his chest.
Friday, April 9, 2010
My dog Kai and I are making a small life in the woods of New Hampshire. When I am in pain, he seems to know it and I wish I knew more about how dogs can sense things like that. The dog I had to give away when I went to the monastery would sleep in my office at the church, but when a parishioner was in my office and in pain, Puck would wander over with stealth as if a ghost and put his tiny Yorkshire Terrier face on their shoe as he lay down next to them on the floor - from which he would stare up at them in silent solidarity.
Kai also stares. And dogs tend not to stare in general. They glance but they do not stare (well, sometimes when putting dinner out they do, but that is entirely different.) Dogs do not like being stared at. They like a glance and both happily and frequently give one back but they seem to break their no-stare rule when a person is in pain. They look at you in long-lasting solidarity.
Feeling the pain of life seems to be the key ingredient to growth. I wish it were some other way. Indeed it can be another way for those sad souls who have found ways to so compartmentalize their inner life that pain is not really felt as much as it is ordered and labeled and placed neatly in various mental shoe boxes in the crawl-spaces of the mind. For those people, growth is stunted or delayed until the boxes are opened and dealt with or until those sad implosions when a person opens the closet of their mind or it is busted open by life and all those shoe boxes tumble down on them and open at once in a tsunami of devastation.
But if we can feel pain as it comes to us without anesthetizing it with any of our modern, American intoxicants like work or sex or food or codependency or shopping - if we can really feel deeply the pain in the quiet of our prayer life and hand it up to God with tear-stained faces and helpless - yes, I mean really helpless begging for help - then there can be hope.
Hope is so different than faith. So much has been written about faith. It is the diva of Christian theology, walking red carpets of churches in shimmering Hollywood ball gowns and high heels and tiaras. But hope huddles in the crowds in a trench coat and bad hair under a floppy hat. Hope simply stands there keeping fear at bay - but only just.
Kai, when he sits there present to me but also staring off into who-knows-what, seems to be so rooted in the present moment that he becomes an icon to me - inviting me to do likewise. Faith has always had a futureish feeling to me. I like faith - don't get me wrong - I mean I am a priest and all, and it is a major part of my prayer and of my experience, but hope has a present-humility about it which appeals to me and soothes me when my mind keeps wanting to dart down the road of the future like an excited puppy or a nervous stock-trader.
When Kai just sits there and stares off into the present, he invites me out of my anesthesia (my drug of choice tends to be over-scheduling my life and my day) and into a safe-house of love in which I can sit with my pain and despair and feel it so deeply that it teaches me things I need to know about life. Not a lot but enough.
While I was a monk, I became the priest I had always wanted to become. While I am a potter on a farm in New Hampshire I have become the monk I had always wanted to become. And now, in my work in the church, I am finally becoming the man I had always wanted to become.
And in the end, I can see that life has been the anvil and pain has been the hammer and God has been the forge which is making this tool called "me." And though I find the blows hard and the fire hot and the anvil unyielding, I can sense that my "becoming" is well on its way.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
I hosted a dinner for a friend's birthday in which this was the second course. It was a dinner which highlighted four wines from a winery in Vermont to which a small group of my friends and I went for a day excursion. This winery specialized in ice wine but also in fruit wine and since this was a summer party outside I chose a raspberry wine (first course; a rhubarb wine(second course; a maple wine (desert course) and a red Merlot (main course). It was one of those dinners you host very infrequently but it was fun to pull off and the wines were under $15 each though tasty.
This second course - the cheese course - was a soft, warm, aged brie with an olive tapinade on crustini and the wine was a rhubarb wine (pictured above thanks to a photographer at the party who wanted a souvenir.)
We sat at a huge wooden table cut from one Pine tree plank which sits 12 people. We ate and drank and told stories about the birthday boy. We laughed a lot and cried a bit and though nobody was even tipsy, people were having a great time - all loosened up and enjoying good, simple food. The cheese had been 60% off at Market Basket - they said it was old...isn't cheese supposed to be old!? The tapenade came from a bottle I found on a shelf at Building 23 1/2 in Nashua for 50 cents a jar. I guess the crate fell off the truck. The bottle was fine. This course cost me about $1.40 per person (a $1 of which was the wine!) I keep these records when I entertain so I remember what I served people - nerdy.... but....me.
I love the Anglican manifestation of the Eucharist with its candles and linen and silks and musical chants from the 1500's. But I must admit that when I wonder what Jesus really meant when he said "do this in remembrance of me," did he have in mind what we do in church or what we do around a long table on a summer night with good friends and some wine and some simple good food. In Holy Week it seems OK to ask "Who died?" in a play-acting sort of way because the mood can be sobering and should be. But in Easter, I would hope that church is a bit raucous and fun; with laughter and good food afterwards - a party rather than a wake.
Monday, April 5, 2010
The chickens are all excited about spring. They seem happier and plumper and calmer. These two are the explorers of the group. They are usually to be found in the pottery studio if I leave the door ajar even a bit. They are friends and they tend to travel with each other. I call them Thelma and Louise.
This morning, when I went to get the eggs for my morning meal I was aware of all the eggs around the world that were handled yesterday. I was aware of the merging of the pagan ceremonies around eggs and fertility with the Christian ceremonies of new life and hope and potential. The eggs had just been under the butt of a hen and were warm and smooth and brown and very big.
In a split second I was able to see, with gratitude the giftedness in my life - the gifts of friends, the gift of support through life, the gift of clarity and prayer and meditation and exercise and a simple egg on toast.
Of course there is the grief of Holy Week. It still echos a bit like music in the rafters of a great cathedral three seconds after the choir stops singing that last strong note. And that echo of betrayal and sin and evil - the narcissism which Jesus came to modulate still hangs in the air a bit like last night's fried fish smell. But the hope of Easter - that truth will win out even when it seems everyone around you is rooting for Barabbas - that truth smells fresh today and is cool like night spring air and full of the potential for healing. This is a week of healing.
My eggs will be fried today, in a browned butter with a bit of curry powder in it and served on toast with a bit of mango chutney on it. The excitement and the self-gratification of sin is, I admit, enticing, but the simplicity of this egg in the creativity of a new Stonewall Kitchen recipe for fried eggs (who knew there was a new recipe for fried eggs!?!?), that simplicity of life seems to be part of the Easter Healing. Wake up, stand up, live, love, tell the truth, breathe, pray, taste, limit, channel. It can feel dull but it is a good thing.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Egg tempera on wood, Greece, 2000, the Anastasis Icon from 7th century Chora Monastery in what is now Istanbul.
Jesus is raised from the dead, emerging from the almond-shaped symbol of both the female reproductive organ and the intersecting circles of heaven and earth - the "mandola- from which we get the word "almond"; Jesus arrives in power to crush lies and manipulation forever and establish a reign of truth. He arrives from the grave with the female hips of a life-bearer, accentuated by a waist band and the gyrating legs of a strong-man pulling Adam and Eve from their helplessness by loose wrists. Satan is at his feet amid the coffin and the implements of Jesus' betrayal and death in darkness of lies and "obscura" which is the dark night of sin's confusion. On Jesus' left are John the Baptist, King Solomon, King David and Moses. On Jesus' left are Abel (the first innocent to die at the hand of a loved-one, Cain, who killed so that he could have what he wanted, when he wanted it). Behind Abel are Peter, John and James and an unidentified disciple.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
The title of this bog came from Phillip, a friend of mine and spouse to one of the diocese's clergy. He and Miranda hosted and sculpted a liturgical "wake" last night at St. Andrew's in Hopkinton which was one of the most beautiful and creative liturgies and worship opportunities I have ever encountered. And having been a monk and a liturgical consultant, I have seen many impressive liturgies. The monastery in which I lived was world-renowned for their lavish and stunningly beautiful liturgies and I was particularly missing the SSJE Good Friday Liturgy (one of my favorites there - other than the Great Vigil) when I realized that I needed to, as my spiritual director said once "bloom where I am now planted."
The liturgy was very simple and very inexpensive (about $20) but stunningly moving and engaging. The lights were low. Tea (only tea - but good teas!) was available in big mugs and fresh hot cross buns were overflowing from a huge bowl - such a symbol of bounty - like, I suppose- a buffet at a wake - overflowing and bountiful.
There was a small circle of chairs set for intermittent gatherings of those present (it was drop-in from 8-11 pm)and between two huge, ancient beams was a coffin -and on it was an almost life-size icon on wood in paper and gold leaf and paints. The long icon covered the entire coffin and was of the Christ layed out in wrappings; quite dead. It was stylized and very beautiful - serene and peaceful and elegant and honest and unpretentious.
At the foot of the coffin was a small table with tools for those of us who had come -spices we could smell and place on the body, incense we could burn at His feet as would have been done in the burial caves, tall, Orthodox beeswax candles for memorial to other griefs - past funerals - deaths of friends or friendships or hopes or dreams or lost innocence or lost naivete. There were tulips to place on the coffin - on the icon. The tulips were fresh and bright and optimistic and simple (about $10.00 worth - breaking no parish budget).
There was a prayer bench next to the coffin and a few Windsor chairs (Hopkinton is, after all, a bit elegant!) There was no music to dull the sadness or anesthetize the pain and stillness of having to sit with one's own thoughts or lack of them. The speaking was only occasional - an invitation for those around the room to gather, to sit, to talk about the beloved who was dead - this Jesus. We spoke of Jesus as of a friend who had died today or recently. We spoke (those who could without tearing up) of our sadness and our complicity and our hopes. We sang a simple chant - a few lines, in shaky accapella, and then went back to mourning - everyone doing it in their own way. After a couple hours of people arriving and others leaving, we ended by Phillip's covering the icon with the shroud of the coffin, blowing out the candles, stepping back - away- slowly - backwards. And then singing an ancient Christian chant of the dead. We left in silence - taking home some of the Hot Cross buns. There is one here this quiet mourning - morning - with my coffee before I head off to lead a Holy Saturday retreat with the above icon of the Myrrh Bearing Women at the empty tomb.
What Phillip and Miranda offered to us last night was stunning in its simplicity and in its creativity and power too. There were so many tears last night. So much disappointment and so much grief of past hurts felt and done. So much confusion with God answering none of the questions. Not even the one Phillip spoke when reflecting on how the disciples must have felt in the time between horror and awe - that in-between time of numb dismay. Phillip, breaking the silence of the evening said simply "REALLY?!?! ...... I mean, REALLY!?!? This was your plan God!?!?!"
Easter is so hard to see in Holy Week - ant that "obscura" - that dark night is a healing thing. The tears and confusion seem somehow very healing - Like lancing a boil or pushing a dis-jointed shoulder back in place. A painful relief tears can be.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
The O Nymphios Icon
Egg tempera on wood, Greece, 2001
Icon for the first four days of Holy Week
The beautiful thing about this icon is the face of Jesus. It is sad for the circumstance but not sad for himself. He is not defenseless and yet he chooses not to be defensive in this moment from Matthew's gospel.
A friend once told me that "there is no need to be defensive if you are right and true. Your enemies will not believe you and your friends do not need it."
Pilot asks the most important question of all. "What is Truth?" and Jesus steps out into the crowd and shows him. Jesus believed that Rome was wrong and that love and honesty and truth and fidelity were right. He gave himself over to that surety, following the truth he had discerned in his quiet prayer time with God in the dark of early morning.
"Speak the truth, lead where it will, cost what it may."
Such a leading! Such a cost! Such a Resurrection! We all just hope for God to make good out of horror and God seems always to do so.