Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Monasticism of the Closet

Free-standing closet from an art exhibit 
in the Berkeley Center of Yale Divinity School, 1973.

“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet…,”Jesus advised in the KJV translation of Matthew 6:6. The NJB renders this “your private room.” I am told that this was a pantry, which would be at the center of a house of Jesus’ time. Like pantries today, it had no windows, so to keep stored food fresh and protected from critters, outside temperatures, and sunlight.

In his book, Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton wrote: “Some people may doubtless have a spontaneous gift for meditative prayer.” Beside it I wrote, “I think I do.”

This is more happenstance or grace than achievement on my part. I can go into a meditative state at will. I use it to begin my morning prayers, or as I approach a tense situation. I even use it when my blood pressure is being checked at the doctor’s office.

I once wrote that it may be sheer laziness on my part: I enjoy having to achieve nothing, to be at rest and at peace, given my busyness, schedule and work ethic. I also have described as difficult sitting with Henri Nouwen meditating on the Host for an hour, but I realize not because of the silence, rather because of the focus and the restless companionship of Henri. Centering Prayer has always seemed busy to me, having to return to one sacred word or phrase over and over again. I have found lectio divina helpful, though, but for the purpose of elucidating a text.

Merton writes that meditation is less about “method” and “system” than cultivating an “attitude,” an “outlook”: “faith, openness, attention, reverence, expectation, supplication, trust and joy.”

He warns against going simply by feelings, declaring, “A hard and apparently fruitless meditation may in fact be much more valuable than one that is easy, happy, enlightened and apparently a big success.” He suggests the movement of meditation follows the “rhythm of the Christian life, the passage from death to life in Christ. Sometimes prayer, meditation and contemplation are ‘death’—a kind of descent into our own nothingness, a recognition of helplessness, frustration, infidelity, confusion, ignorance.”

Thinking of my own contemplative proclivities, I have realized that my version of the monasticism of the desert is my monasticism of the closet, a version of Jesus’ pantry. It was the one place I was “safe” from shaming and bullying, as well as from the demanding and distracting world. I was carefully taught that God loved me; so my closet served as a retreat where I could rest in that love, a love that prompted my coming out in ministry with others. I feel for those who instead got the message that God was a God of wrath and hate that preferred they stay in the closet.

I felt safe enough in God’s love that God and Jesus were the first ones I came out to as gay. That did not mean our “conversations” were not filled with angst and fear and doubt and wrangling. But, thanks to my parents and my church and my Christian elementary and junior high school teachers and my love of scriptures, I grew in trust of God’s love. “When one is simply obeying God, a little effort goes a long way,” Merton writes.

He says that in meditative prayer, God “draws us out of darkness into light—[God] hears us, answers our prayers, recognizes our need, and grants us the help we require—if only by giving us more faith to believe that [God] can and will help us in [God’s] own time. This is already a sufficient answer. … A new realm opens up, that cannot be discovered otherwise: call it the ‘Kingdom of God.’ … But effort is necessary, enlightened, well-directed, and sustained.” (Emphasis Merton’s)

I was blessed with good spiritual directors, from my parents to my teachers, some of whom I only met through their writings.

Today’s quotes may be found in section III of Contemplative Prayer, pages 34-37.

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What Is Your 32nd Floor?

Courtesy of ABC News.

There is a search for the motive of the Vegas shooter, as in any mass shooting. Part of it is that we can’t fathom an irrational act, but part, I suspect, is that we want to find a way to distance ourselves from the act and the actor.

(It’s a bit harder for me to distance myself from the shooter knowing that he graduated from the same Los Angeles area high school and college as my sister and brother and I and lived in our area.)

It’s easier when we can blame an evil act on racism or sexism or fundamentalism or political ideology or ineffective gun regulations or mental health issues, as examples. Did the shooter have an aversion to those who loved country music or just hate that genre? Had he been jilted by his girlfriend or did he have a fatal medical diagnosis or a financial downturn or a narcissistic passion for infamy when fame itself was unattainable?

Every reason gives us a way to exclude ourselves from the possibility of such an evil act.

Though we may never know his mind, we can search our own minds. What is my 32nd floor suite of isolation, anger, bitterness, and envy from which I rain down death-dealing judgments on others below?  When I can’t seem to make “my” unique mark on the world, do I rely on marksmanship to shoot down the ideas, experience, identities, and influence of others?

What is my secret place to which I refuse admittance to housekeepers, whether psychological or spiritual or emotional? What weapons of hurt and chaos and destruction have I hidden there? And how have my weapons become automatic?

I’ve written before that I don’t agree with Jesus that the thought equals the act. “One who lusts has already committed adultery.” “‘You shall not murder,’ but I say do not even be angry with a brother or sister.” I believe one who does not give in to temptation is better than one who does.

But maybe I’m missing Jesus’ point. Even to entertain the temptation distorts my soul, disfigures the beloved child of God that I am. Many of us in this political climate want to return “an eye for an eye,” failing to realize that even that form of justice was intended to limit our retribution, not even the score.

I—and I believe each one of us—was “comped” a suite on the 32nd floor of our minds upon birth where we could wreak our secret vengeance on the world, even if it meant hurting innocent people, sometimes especially if it hurt innocent people. After all, we too were born innocent: it’s the world’s fault that we’ve been injured, ignored, and excluded. Somebody’s got to pay, even if that someone is simply one caught in our crosshairs on a given day.

What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. Those shots were shots heard ‘round the world. What happens in Vegas or Paris or Orlando, what happens in Washington or Moscow or Beijing, what happens in Puerto Rico and Niger and Kabul and the West Bank and North Korea reverberates throughout our global web and wounds everyone, distorts our souls, disfigures our outlooks, and disrupts our planet.

These thoughts came to me as I read and reread and read again Thomas Merton’s words contrasting two kinds of monasticism represented in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in Merton’s final book, Contemplative Prayer: 
The conflict between the rigid, authoritarian, self-righteous, ascetic Therapont, who delivers himself from the world by sheer effort, and then feels qualified to call down curses upon it; and the Staretz, Zossima, the kind, compassionate man of prayer who identifies himself with the sinful and suffering world in order to call down God’s blessing upon it.  … Thus the Zossima type of monasticism can well flourish in offbeat situations, even in the midst of the world. Perhaps such “monks” may have no overt monastic connections whatever (p 28). 
We are in an “offbeat” time when we need monks like Zossima—and may I say, monks like you and me—called to identify with the sinful and suffering world in order to bring God’s blessing upon it. 

Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer is one of two texts for a contemplative retreat I will be co-leading for Columbia Seminary’s Spiritual Formation Program at Sacred Heart Monastery, in Cullman, Alabama, April 30-May 4, 2018, entitled “Beside Still Waters.”

Related Posts:
Wounding God (Charleston)

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Saint Francis Feasted on Poverty

On the coincidence of my 32nd birthday and the 800th anniversary of the birth year of Saint Francis of Assisi, my friend Linda Culbertson gave me a beautiful book about him with text by Lawrence Cunningham and photography by Dennis Stock. To prepare for his feast day today, I decided to reread it now, 35 years later. A saint’s feast day is observed on his or her first day in Paradise.

I had thought that Francis’s gentle spirit, from his love of the earth and its creatures to his befriending a ravaging wolf, is just what we need in these days of human-caused climate change and dealing with the ravaging wolves of our time, from fearful electorates to elected officials who feed off their anxieties and fears.

What struck me reading the book this time is how Cunningham clarifies that “the simple life” many of us try to follow is not equivalent to poverty: 
In its essence, poverty means radical insecurity about the basic means of life. Poverty is literally not knowing where the next meal is coming from, or the frantic fear of getting ill because there is no money for a doctor, or the gnawing despair when one recognizes the gap between the next possible time when money will come and the actual needs of the household. It is, in short, a knowledge that the world is not solid, secure, and benign. Poverty is not only want; it is the fear and dread that derives from want (p 58). 
Like many of us, I have only experienced that fear and dread intermittently. That’s why I chose for my ordination (and for my memorial service) my most often read words from Jesus, words of God’s Providence, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. … Look at the birds of the air… Consider the lilies of the field… Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Consider reading the whole text: Matthew 6:25-35.)

But as I contemplate what a chronic experience of such fear and dread can do, I realize what creates ravaging wolves, whether at the polls or in poor neighborhoods. The way Francis befriended a ravaging wolf was by persuading villagers to make sure it is fed and cared for: a social safety net that is mutually beneficial. Francis tells the wolf, “I understand that you did these evil things because of hunger.”

Francis wanted to depend solely on the providence of God, ultimately exemplified for him in the poverty represented in the cross. Joy for Francis came in self-sacrifice, even in—especially in—a world that did not value (and even hated) such service or such servants.

“If one lives purely in the providence of God and after the manner of Christ’s self-emptying, one’s awareness of the world as gift is sharpened,” Cunningham writes. Poverty provided Saint Francis a feast those who are rich often miss.

I think here Celtic Christianity can claim Francis as one of their own, as he viewed the world as a sacrament of God’s presence, and of Christ’s presence. 

For Francis, “cortesia” should characterize our relationship with the world.  For us, “courtesy” is simply “manners,” though in today’s world simple manners would go far toward healing our relationships, politically and personally. 

According to Cunningham, cortesia was far more for Francis: “Cortesia was a way of seeing and a way of acting towards others. … Cortesia is the recognition of rights, duties, gifts, and privileges as they exist in relationship. … The implicit notion in [Francis's] simple observation [of earth as mother] is that the earth is courteous to us…and we, in gratitude, owe an act of courtesy to it.”

Other of my posts that reference Saint Francis:

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Photo (Hawai'i, 1985) and text Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.