The words of Walter Hilton rattle in my head as I sit in the Commuter Room at Yale Divinity School. “I am nothing. I have nothing. I seek one thing.” It has been nearly two years since I last worshipped at Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School. I was there for a conference on poetry and worship and during one of the services, I had a profound experience of the presence of God. It is tempting to try and put the experience in the language of mystics. Was it purgative? Illuminative? Unitive? Some combination of the three? I could easily digress on the human desire, bounded by time and language to find the appropriate category, but that seems wrong. Perhaps the only word to be used is ineffable.
I am currently taking a course on English Spirituality and Mysticism as part of the journey that started taking its current shape at Marquand Chapel two years ago. For this week, we have been reading Walter Hilton and Margery Kempe. One of the assignments is to make a spiritual pilgrimage.
I have been thinking a lot about the pilgrim, the alien, and the immigrant recently. Last Sunday in church we read from Leviticus, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien”. Afterwards, I went to a meeting of how different faith communities could work together to welcome and care for the alien.
I had thought that perhaps I should make a pilgrimage to a federal court where there are deportation hearings. Perhaps I should make a metaphorical pilgrimage to Jericho, and join brothers and sisters walking around the federal court building praying that the walls of oppression would come down. If not there, perhaps to some church that provides sanctuary for immigrants.
I had thought that perhaps I should make a pilgrimage to some sacred space tied to monastic traditions like Holy Cross Monastery or The Cloisters in New York City. It would be a more complicated trip, logistically.
I had thought that perhaps I should make a pilgrimage to a digital space. A friend of mine recently died, an activist for those differently abled that I met online.
Yet the idea of returning to Marquand Chapel captured my attention. I looked and found that there was an Emmaus Dinner scheduled for Thursday evening, followed by a worship service in the chapel.
The words of Robert Louis Stevenson join my reflections. “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”. During the bible study there was talk about the process, of going from point A to point B and I wondered again about the human concept of time. T.S. Eliot bursts into my inner dialog.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
We go around the room introducing ourselves, a mixture of divinity students and professors, one prospective student, and myself. I think back to reading Aelred of Rievaulx and spiritual friendship. I want to find a spiritual friend. I want to be accepted. I want to find some way of getting my process back on track. Should I talk about my pilgrimage or my larger journey as I introduce myself? Can I make some sort of witty remark that will endear me to the others? Hilton’s voice pops up again, “I am nothing. I have nothing. I seek one thing.”
We talked about Colossians 1:15-20 and everyone complimented one another on profound comments. There were wonderful comments about the poetry of the section and explorations of Greek and Hebrew words. Yet I kept coming back to seeking that one thing.
One of the verses said, “all things have been created through him and for him” and that resonates with me. We are created for him. We are good. We are created in the Imago Dei. That one thing, to rediscover my Imago Dei, to clear away my brokenness that hides the Imago Dei. Yeah. Hilton is helping shape my thoughts this evening.
I’m not sure, yet where Margery Kempe fits in. I’m thinking that as a blogger, I share a certain kinship with Kempe and her autobiography. Yes, this is a part of my autobiography, posted online.
Next week, I intend to return to the Emmaus Dinner. The following week, I have two other things going on at the same time and won’t be able to make it. Then, we will be into Lent and a Lenten series will be taking place at the same time as the Emmaus Dinners. I will need to figure out which to go to when.
In Orthodox iconography
we often see
the bare foot
of the Blessed Virgin Mary
crushing a snake.
It is a symbol
of her victory over evil
to be a servant
In recent years
the snake has been co-opted
in alt-right iconography,
a symbol of defiance
and fierce independence
leaving little room
Don’t tread on me, Mother Mary.
According to the Pew Research Center, President Trump has the highest rating among Republicans during the first month of his presidency since Ronald Reagan. He also has the lowest rating among Democrats and overall. What are we to make of this?
A starting point is that the problem is much bigger than President Trump. I saw an interesting discussion which may shed some light on this in a Facebook writers group. Someone posted to the group about an article in the Chicago Tribune, Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.
The post has now gotten ninety five comments ranging from “I'm sorry, but this is ridiculous.” and “Hmm, next, ban drama since it may cause negative emotional reactions” to “It's just another type of editing, I don't see anything to get up in arms about” and “This sounds like a great idea. It'll hopefully stop authors accidentally writing very offensive things”.
Others talk about losing the scare quotes and “sensitivity writer” and about how when people see the word “sensitivity” they get all up in arms. Another person noted, “Sensitive to sensitivity as a concept. It's totally meta, man”.
Where does this backlash against sensitivity and political correctness come in? My academic friends may see this as a reaction to emerging counter-narratives and my friends interested in issues of diversity and justice, may think of the quote “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. Yet I’m not sure that helps us find any sort of middle ground, and others suggest that there can be no middle ground with evil or oppression.
I think the blog post by Bishop Doug Fisher puts it into a good context, Desiring a Christ-Centered Life, Not a Trump-Centered Life
“Will you seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” With God’s help, we can do that.
It is Sunday morning. I am sitting at home watching the snow come down and the smoke from the incense ascend. I was supposed to still be at the silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery but it was decided that for safety sake, with the coming storm, everyone would head home Saturday evening. Some people left in the afternoon. Others left right after dinner. I was the only member of the group that stayed for compline. The service had a different feel with it being mostly just the monks.
It was a wonderful retreat and although I was disappointed that it had to be cut short because of the weather, I am looking forward to another retreat there.
I drove up Friday morning, leaving myself lots of extra time. I found quiet roads along the Hudson to drive along and a park to stop and watch the birds and animals. I arrived early and settled in. Since it was my first time there, I was shown around and given a sense of the rhythm of the day.
Instead of room numbers, the rooms are named after saints. I was staying in St. Thomas. The accommodations were sparse and simple but comfortable and comforting. I sat at my desk, looked out over the Hudson River, and read. I had not yet received the book we were reading for the retreat, so I spent time reading God’s Lovers in an Age of Anxiety by Joan Nuth. It is for a class I’m taking on English Spirituality and Mysticism. It provided a good backdrop for the weekend.
The first official event of the retreat was Vespers. The monks sat in the front and the guests sat in the back. I thought about my trip to Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky many years ago, when I got to sit in the choir with the monks. If I had been Roman Catholic and better understood the monastic way, I could easily have become a Trappist. If I had a better understanding of monasticism and had visited Holy Cross Monastery those many years ago, I could easily have become a monk there. As I thought about the class I was taking and the setting of the monastery, I wondered about the role of the mystic, the monk, the hermit in contemporary society.
After Vespers came dinner. The food was also simple, good, and nourishing. After the meal we met briefly to talk about the agenda for the retreat. There would be meditations throughout the weekend based on Rowan Williams book, Being Disciples. We were encouraged to go to as many services as possible. We went to Compline and entered into silence.
I typically try to sleep from nine in the evening until five in the morning, but somehow, after compline and some reading, I managed to lose an hour and the clock on the bed stand said it was ten, so I went quickly off to bed.
In the middle of the night, I awoke to find the room filled with a bright light. Was the light some sort of message? Some sort of metaphor? I got up and looked out the window. There was a barge heading down the river shining a giant spotlight on the shore. I wrote in my journal about it. There are probably some good writing ideas somewhere in there.
Saturday morning, I rolled over and saw that the clock said s five thirty in the morning. I had slept later than I had planned, but it was okay since I had gone to bed later than I had planned. I got up and started preparing for the day. I showered and dressed, discovering that I had forgotten my deodorant.
I had put my phone in airplane mode. I turned it on to see if there were any important messages from the evening. There were none. I noticed that my phone said it was only five twenty, and hour earlier than the clock on the bed stand. I figured that something must have gone wrong with my phone and I set it to six twenty, but then the phone set itself back to five twenty. I’ve seen this happen before when I’ve been traveling in areas with poor cellphone coverage, so I assumed that this was the case.
I went down stairs to sit, read, and wait for Matins. It was quiet and dark. No one else seemed to be stirring. I walked over to the clock next to the refectory and found that it said it was now five forty. Twenty minutes had passed and it seemed my phone was agreeing with this clock, and not the clock in my room. It finally occurred to me that the clock in my room was an hour a head, perhaps it had never been set back when we moved to standard time.
After services and breakfast, during a time of silence in one of the rooms, the guest master and retreat leader came into the room and said they needed to break silence. I left the room and wondered what it was. We had agreed that there would be no politics discussed on the retreat and most people had decided to keep away from sources of news. I had figured that if anything really important happened, I would hear about it, and I wondered if that was what the guest master and retreat leader were talking about.
Later, I found out. Predictions of the coming ice storm had been revised. It would be worse than expected and the guests were encouraged to head home Saturday evening. Perhaps there was another metaphor or message there.
Now, I am home. I’ve lit some incense I brought home from the retreat. I have spoken with my wife and daughter a little bit about the retreat, and I have written these notes. There were plenty of important insights and conversations on the retreat, but I’ll save them for a different time and place. Now, I’ll post this respond to messages that have come in over the weekend, and prepare for the coming week.