Friday, May 23, 2008

Sudden Comfort

The windows are open in the house.

The sunlight of a breezy May evening tosses branch- and leaf-shaped shadows across the books along my shelves.

No matter what concerns exercised my heart and mind this week, a great beautiful day has arisen in these last few hours.

The decision to postpone dinner until I had sat with the day, its quiet and the bold Lord of its hopes was taken at first, I confess, hesitantly.

I have these words, though, now and I offer them for what they say of sudden comfort and surprise.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tea and Madeleines

There’s a distinctive pleasure to a visit with a friend who knew you in your twenties.

Yesterday morning I had a pot of tea and – appropriately – two madeleines on the table in front of me. The spring weather had moved into a sunny mode, and other customers who strolled into the coffee shop, sitting at tables around Steve and me, were in a good mood.

Two men in their fifties, Steve and I have a common history on which to draw in our conversations. We were both students for the ministry three decades ago, and we make easy allusions to people who taught us and advised us and studied with us in that earlier chapter of our lives. Two gay men, we share a perspective on the experience of church that has evolved over the years. We will see one another at services later this morning.

When people know one another in their twenties, there is a shared landscape that remains fresh and ready for their later reflections on life’s mysteries and questions. What might take long, nuanced explanations to make real to someone you meet in your thirties or forties or fifties can rise around you as effortlessly real as the morning sunlight out of which you have just walked on a Saturday in May.

A topic into which Steve and I delved yesterday over our madeleines was the discernment process by which we had each of us separately come to the decision almost thirty years ago to abandon a career in ministry.

It had not been for either of us a simple or obvious step to take. We had each of us grown up with a solid admiration for the men who had embraced this life and lived this lofty vocation. We had made close friendships with men who shared so many of the key values by which we ourselves wanted to live and grow spiritually and intellectually. So many practical questions about our lives had gotten answered by deciding to pursue the goal of celibate ministry.

It’s just that we were gay. And there were things we might soon be ready to do and be that weren’t the stuff of seminary catalogues and brochures. I had even begun to see a divinity student named Ken from a nearby university.

The focus of yesterday’s conversation, however, was not the ways we had each of us eventually claimed our identity as gay men and as people of faith and prayer. Rather, it was the way we had each of us faced the daunting prospect of changing our lives, no matter the reason, no matter the precise circumstances.

When and how had it happened that a discernment process earnestly and sometimes fearfully pursued with spiritual directors and formation superiors arrived at the awareness that – well, that it was time, that it was right to go?

I offered the memory of having secretly waited through session after session with spiritual counselors for some dramatic enlightenment – Paul-at-Damascus style – that I was no longer required to pursue the ministerial path I had selected years earlier. Wasn’t clarity going to be blinding and undeniable? How else would I be free to go? How else could I expect the people around me to understand that of course a good man like John might leave the celibate ministry if it meant being true to himself?

It had been an almost random conversation with my spiritual director one evening after a community dinner that surprisingly completed the long discernment process. He asked to talk to me, and we sat in my room while the noises of clean-up in the kitchen drifted up the stairs. He was kind. He was thoughtful. At a certain point he simply asked what kind of evening I would prefer to be having – an evening with the community like the one that was going on downstairs or an evening with a special someone like Ken. It was a simple question to answer at that point. I admitted to an affection for the people downstairs, but I would prefer being with Ken – or someone like him – exploring a different kind of evening, engaging in a different kind of conversation.

My spiritual director smiled quietly. “Well,” he said, “there’s the answer you’ve been searching for.”

I stared at him a little in disbelief. No, I was ready to tell him, I was simply telling you what I would want to do. Wasn’t there a bigger question than that for me to answer?

It turns out there wasn’t. Not in the mind of this wise spiritual director.

Now thirty years later, and Steve was facing me across the pot of tea and the madeleines. He had listened to my narrative before offering his own. It was a landscape through which we had both traveled years ago, but its simplicity rising around us on a sunny morning in May could still prove disarming.

Photo of a madeleine from Blue Vicar

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

It's About Yes...

Back in December I had begun an Advent practice of sitting more regularly with prayer in the evenings. After a few days of hospitalization, I had sensed that I was entering a new time in my life. I would do well, I told myself, to place myself in God’s presence in the lively expectation of hearing things that I needed to hear.

The seeds of that expectation had been sown during the summer. On an evening of retreat, I had walked beside a pond and berated God for playing with my heart at times. It was an unusual stance for me to take in prayer. In response, I distinctly heard a question posed within: “What do you want?” The question seemed to come from that place in my heart where I usually listened for God's guidance or comfort.

Through the season of Advent I had copied down sayings that came from that place during my evenings of prayer. This winter’s early Lent sent me back into those evenings. With the great feast of Pentecost this past Sunday, I typed out the sayings I had collected in my prayer book since Ash Wednesday. I present them here in the event that they speak to others who are readers of Writing Cabin.

You need this.
You need me.
February 6, Ash Wednesday

There’s no problem here.
February 8

Not yet, not yet, not yet.
February 11

What you do matters.
I want you to be happy.
February 15

This you will always have.
Me you will always have.
February 22

This isn’t about how, it’s about yes.
February 23

Nothing has to get done.
Sip each day’s peace.
March 1

Rest. Don’t figure this out.
March 7

I want you wholly awake.
March 10

What is your heart’s desire?
March 11

Let me be the joy in your heart –
believe in my guidance.
March 15

You’re not the only one
who wants what is good for you.
April 12

All love is well given.
Take it all.
April 21

Say thank you.
May 4

Lazarus, come forth!
May 10

Two Warm Trees by Willoughby Elliott from Harrison Gallery

Monday, May 5, 2008

Scarlet Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak

We are reconciled, I think,
to too much.
Better to be a bird, like this one --

an ornament of the eternal.

from "The Lark" by Mary Oliver

It is hard to learn things about yourself when you have given yourself the benefit of the doubt for so long.

No one should be running to a dictionary whenever an unknown vocabulary word shows up in a reading passage, right? Hard-learned lessons teach us how to sketch out a meaning from context rather than let ourselves be consistently derailed by every unfamiliar term. The skill with which we pick up the thread of meaning later in the sentence or later in the paragraph justifies that judicious move forward over a text. Our education allows us to do this verbal fast-forward again and again without our – usually – suspecting that we have deprived ourselves of anything essential.

Marc last week asked me out of the blue who my favorite authors were. Tempted at first to review the literary canon that acts as the underpinning of my undergraduate and graduate degrees in French and English and theology, I opted instead to name the two authors whose works I would automatically pick up from my bedside table if the volumes were there: contemporary American poet Mary Oliver and American naturalist Edwin Way Teale.

I think of myself as their loyal champion, a devotee, a spiritual younger brother. I trust them, I trust their worlds, I trust their words. I subscribe to the values enshrined in their writing.

However, I was startled recently to come across a chapter by Edwin Way Teale that left my mind’s eye feeling blind. In descriptions of his Connecticut farm, I kept coming across the names of birds whose color and shape I could not picture. On one page he mentioned wood thrush and veery, purple finch and catbird and scarlet tanager, yellowthroat and rose-breasted grosbeak and chestnut-sided warbler and great crested flycatcher. On the next page he catalogued the presence on his farm of phoebe and flicker and towhee and meadowlark, barn swallow and woodcock and nighthawk.

My mind nodded through the lists. Yes, these were birds with wings, birds who sang and built nests and flew south. I was attentive to how Teale described them and their habits in the meadows around his house. On the other hand, I kept substituting a new mental marker whenever the name of a different bird was mentioned. In time the mental markers were perched on a clothesline, and I may as well have been picturing the caricatures in a New Yorker cartoon. I wondered what I was missing.

Was I missing anything essential by not knowing the realities behind the markers? Were there compelling reasons to slow down my reading just because the words were technical or unfamiliar? A Google search for images to match the markers in Teale’s chapter gave me my answer.

What had made me think earlier that I could remain ignorant of this beauty? How long had I succeeded in relegating this startling display of nature’s richness to the background of my knowledge of this world? I am missing something, I know now. And there has to be something I can do not to miss it anymore.

Photos (top to bottom) of Chestnut-sided Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Bluebird, Blackburnian Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager from Mentor Lagoons