Thursday, July 31, 2008

Among the Mainers

It was important for me to get out of town this past weekend. In years past, that strategic exit from the city signaled the end of my availability to answer the kind of questions with which my office can be deluged at this time of year. I took advantage of a friend’s offer to play tour guide, and I settled for a few days in the Portland area.

As part of my Maine venture I reached Winslow Homer’s studio in nearby Prouts Neck. I visited the Portland Museum of Art another day and caught a great exhibit on the role of photography in the career of Georgia O’Keeffe. I sat with my morning coffee on benches lining the docks of the Old Port section of the city. I learned about the influence of Portland architect John Calvin Stevens as a tour bus carried me past houses he had designed in the Shingle Style and others he had designed in Colonial Revival.

I drank homemade lemonade, walked along rocky coasts, smelled the unmistakable aromas of Scarborough Marsh, and watched tanks of blue lobsters bubbling out their final hours in dockside shacks.

A surprise of the three days was a chance to visit the Portland Head Light one morning. I walked a little ways from the lighthouse and the museum next to it, pulled out my phone and captured my own image of a kind of structure that has stirred my imagination for as long as I’ve lived in New England.

I read a plaque near the lighthouse commemorating Longfellow's passion for this dramatic corner of his Maine home. Words from his poem "The Lighthouse" line the monument:

Sail on! sail on, ye stately ships!
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse.
Be yours to bring man nearer unto man.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Night Air at Open Windows

I recently had dinner with a friend who for some time in college had seriously considered a monastic vocation. Our conversation reminded me of something I had written awhile ago. It will soon be August, and an anniversary of sorts looms ahead for me.

Leaning against a windowsill at night and breathing in the cool air, I am sometimes awakened to an old hunger for truth, an early yearning for something real and dear. I imagine myself again as someone I can trust to welcome the best there is in a world so large and wild and worth being vulnerable before.

In the language of my upbringing and training, God is in that air, in that wild, fresh darkness right outside a window at night.

And briefly I become twenty years old again, sitting by a window that is not in my parents’ air-conditioned New Orleans home. I become someone sitting by an open window in the 70’s in a seminary building in the rural South where I had recently begun a program of studies that over the next nine years would lead me close to ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood.

When I entered the seminary, the Roman Catholic Church was still within the first decade of energy and upheaval resulting from the "new Pentecost" for which Pope John XXIII had prayed in 1962 at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The final message of that Council in 1965 had been addressed to young women and men, exhorting us to do two things, to open our hearts "to the dimensions of the world" and to find in the Church "the face of Christ." I think I was trying to do both that August day that I walked with my parents into the dim, high-ceilinged front hallway of the seminary.

Even that first day, I marveled at the building that was to be home for most of the two years awaiting me. It was not a particularly elegant structure, but it was a place that would become mine as I explored its four floors and its extensive grounds. I imbibed the flavor of the place through long, solitary walks.

The front driveway late at night, silent and black, led to an empty road and a glimpse of a distant traffic light.

Early morning there were fogs in the front of the house that you could smell and feel through the screens in the doors and parlor windows.

Walks at night on the dark road behind the chapel led to moments of standing and staring into the night sky through the black, spreading branches of the oaks, waiting for a clearer sense of a presence that seemed out there waiting for me.

And indeed, I would realize more clearly years later, God had been there, had been with me in each of those places.

Photo by georgeindenver

Saturday, July 19, 2008


I need air-conditioning before I can try on my new LL Bean Adirondack Barn Coat.

I don’t live in the Adirondacks – or in Maine for that matter. I don’t own a barn or work near one. No coat is necessary on a steamy July day. I have to open the package from UPS, however, and find out whether the color “Dark Mushroom” is something I’ll look good in.

Part of any purchase involves a mental picture. I picture myself using something new or listening to it or drinking it through a straw as I walk across a hot parking lot back to my car.

I take what other people recommend into account when I make a purchase. I trust an auto repair shop because a colleague backs it. I order a CD after an email pal sends me the YouTube video of Richard and Teddy Thompson singing “Persuasion” on Scottish television. I visit a friend’s home to see whether a curtain can really look good hanging from a steel cable system that West Elm sells.

I think I know what I generally prefer, and then a week like this comes along, placing me in three new settings. So much of a good life is comfortable routine, and then three friends say things and I end up in what are unusual poses for a man named John. One day I am serving rice in a soup kitchen. The next day I am sitting with my elbow on the bar of a local tavern. Later in the week I am tasting a decidedly good mushroom soup in an oversized booth at a nearby Cheesecake Factory.

The mushroom soup is darker, however, than the "Dark Mushroom" of the LL Bean barn coat. I still like the coat, though. And I'd still like the soup.

Part of any purchase involves a mental picture. I picture myself wearing something new in a few months when it will be hard to remember temperatures in the 90’s on a Saturday afternoon in mid-July. I hope you will like the look too.

YouTube video of "Persuasion" sung by Richard and Teddy Thompson downloaded by joni39

Photos from LLBean and West Elm

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New England Landscape

It was the right place for me the long Fourth of July weekend.

Travelling to a corner of New England, I was startled to remember that my first abbey visit had taken place twenty-five years ago. Before leaving home on Friday, I searched for any journals I may have kept on earlier retreats with the monks. It was on the ride down that I recalled that my first impressions of the place show up in the large hardcover journal of my first years living on my own after divinity school – a journal I had not thought to look for that morning.

That first visit to the abbey had taken place on a March weekend. My elderly friend Katie had just died in her convent in the South, and I had written in my hardcover journal about the rituals of the monastic day and the support they provided, likening those rituals to the ways Katie had made our own visits memorable. There used to be prayers together – just the two of us usually – in the convent parlor and then a stop before the Blessed Sacrament at the close of each playfully earnest visit.

Between glances at the pages of Mapquest directions on the seat beside me, I eventually remembered writing in the hardcover journal about a vase of anemones I had left in my apartment that March weekend. I had written about how I expected to find the flowers ripe and wilted upon my return home from my stay with the monks.

I got to talk about that stay with one of the monks who has managed to remain in contact over these twenty-five years. Walking together after Compline on Saturday evening, I mentioned how impressed I had been by the chapel that first visit, by the high wooden ceiling and the clear-glass windows through which the pines of a New England landscape were visible. I think that first abbey visit was an occasion for me to be freshly awakened to my Catholic roots and to my readiness to respond to its liturgical life. Beyond anything merely religious or doctrinaire, I found myself quickened inwardly by the rhythms of singing and praying, of community and silence, of ritually meeting in the morning and dispersing into the night.

It was good that evening a week ago to have someone with whom to share those memories. It was good to walk comfortably with a friend under a summer sky that was already retreating into the inky blue against which fireworks show up so magnificently.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Questing and Questions

I recently visited the library of a divinity school that I had attended in my late twenties. It was a rainy summer afternoon, and no one was stationed in any of the study carrels on the second level or sequestered in the stacks nearby. I got to indulge a rare mood of reverie in that public space.

I stood near one of the reading tables where as a student I had been accustomed to spread out textbooks and other course materials. It had been difficult for me sometimes to stay continuously focused on a scholarly article when shelves upon shelves of theological volumes beckoned just a few feet away.

All those books! Some old copies, some recent arrivals – they lined the shelves wherever I looked on my recent visit. They reminded me of the almost visceral yearning I used to experience passing my eyes along the titles during a break from study. I would pull this volume or that, page through it, read an opening paragraph, check on the frequency with which the book had been borrowed and how long ago.

I would mull on why this particular book might have been taken out. Perhaps a professor had assigned it for supplementary reading in a course. Perhaps a random perusal of titles twenty years earlier had led someone much like me to check the tone of the author’s writing. Perhaps a student or professor had tracked down the volume after reading a remarkably perceptive passage quoted in a scholarly journal. Perhaps in a rare instance a reader had stood in the stacks for an hour with the book in his hands, mesmerized by the point of view he was encountering for the first time on the pages in front of him.

I used to be most fascinated by the prospect of someone reaching for the book who was engaged at that moment in the quest for wisdom.

I imagined that searcher aware of the university professors and distinguished clergymen represented by these volumes on the shelves, the religious women and parish curates devoting years of prayerful effort to slim treatises on liturgy and moral formation, ancient scribes and Renaissance saints entrusting to the written page the insights once entrusted to them by exemplars and religious founders.

The fundamental questions of the heart – were the answers to those questions any closer for someone reading this volume of sermons or that history of the Church?

Or perhaps those questions of the heart got their strongest articulation in a conversation with a fellow student standing near your study table. Or sitting with you in a pair of reading chairs by a window. Or opening the library door with you at the end of the academic day.

The heart that once learned to respond to the mystery of the books, however, would never lose its longing for the promise of those shelves and the beauty of the questions they strove to name and honor.

Photo of North Reading Room, UC Berkeley from Curious Expeditions

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stunned by a Paragraph II

From The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

But at night the atmosphere changes. Sounds become muffled, thoughts grow louder. "Only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva take flight," noted Walter Benjamin, quoting Hegel. Time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep in which the world can be comfortably reimagined. My movements feel unwittingly furtive, my activity secret. I turn into something of a ghost. The books are now the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of ­half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page. The order decreed by library catalogues is, at night, merely conventional; it holds no prestige in the shadows. Though my own library has no authoritarian catalogue, even such milder orders as alphabetical arrangement by author or division into sections by language find their power diminished. Free from quotidian constraints, unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A ­half-remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear. If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world's essential, joyful ­muddle.

Read "Stunned by a Paragraph I"