Winter Retreat (Day 1)

Monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist
Cambridge, Massachusetts

February 10, 2015

Travel. Arrival. Settling In.
Part One
Of Scholastica, Clement, John, and Genesis

Gracie the Dog and I set out this morning from Garden City NY just after 5:30 am. A blessedly uneventful drive through Connecticut brought us by 10 am or so into the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Just west of Boston, in Newton, snow was still falling as we passed through. The side streets of Cambridge and Somerville are jammed with snow, considerably narrowed. As one drives through to either side are huge irregular piles of snow, sometimes with a snatch of red or blue or green peeking out, sometimes with a side-view mirror protruding. They, of course, are all not mere snowbanks, but car and truck snowbanks. I suspect someone who knows well the shape of various makes and models might have fun guessing what’s underneath!

We stopped at Little Sisters of the Poor in Somerville to visit Mom. While there, I went with her to Eucharist in their quite lovely chapel on the second floor. We had good conversation and I promised a return visit this Friday. Off then to Arlington to visit my friends the amazing Bell family, and there to leave Gracie to visit these days her buddy Lily.

I was telling Brother Luke here after Eucharist this evening (yes, I have been to Eucharist twice today once in the Roman Catholic church and once in the Episcopalian – more on that later!), that the most onerous part of the journey was struggling through between huge snowbanks on partially cleared and narrow paths to move from the University parking garage to the Monastery. I made it, received a good welcome from Guestmaster Tom, unpacked and slept an hour before heading to the chapel for some prayer time and then the evening Eucharist.

I am in room 4. Each room is dedicated to a saint. Number four’s patron is Saint Clement. I take this as a beautiful reminder of the four years I spent in the (now no more) Saint John’s Seminary College across the Charles River in Brighton. The College was housed in Saint Clement’s Hall, a building composed of sections built, I believe, circa 1940 and 1956. Though only those few years separated their construction, one was definitely known as the ‘old building’ and the other as ‘the new.’ That structure for years now is owned and maintained by Boston College. Back in the time I lived and studied there many amazing people taught and learned there. In the time B.C. has had Saint Clement’s, there are still wonderful people there, some of whom I was privileged to come to know decades later when I worked for Boston College.

“. . . under the protection of Saint Clement . . .”

Perhaps this little retreat should all be under the protection of Saint Clement. I am told the name can refer to four or five different meritorious fellows throughout Christian history. I am going to take the name on the door of room 4 here on Memorial Drive, and on the building across in Brighton, both to refer to Pope Clement I who died as a martyr around 98 AD.

There is a letter from late first or early second century long attributed to Clement. It is addressed to the church at Corinth, after disunity had erupted among them, leading to several elders of the community being removed from office. In the midst of trouble all around, and is our day not certainly the same, Clement in chapter 20 speaks of the beauty and the order of creation as to be highly valued and as an example to humanity of the harmony that likewise could exist among us. This is what he wrote:

The heavens, revolving under His government, are subject to Him in peace. Day and night run the course appointed by Him, in no wise hindering each other. The sun and moon, with the companies of the stars, roll on in harmony according to His command, within their prescribed limits, and without any deviation. The fruitful earth, according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and beast and all the living beings upon it, never hesitating, nor changing any of the ordinances which He has fixed. The unsearchable places of abysses, and the indescribable arrangements of the lower world, are restrained by the same laws. The vast unmeasurable sea, gathered together by His working into various basins, never passes beyond the bounds placed around it, but does as He has commanded. For He said, “Thus far shalt thou come, and thy waves shall be broken within thee.” The ocean, impassable to man, and the worlds beyond it, are regulated by the same enactments of the Lord. The seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, peacefully give place to one another. The winds in their several quarters fulfill, at the proper time, their service without hindrance. The ever-flowing fountains, formed both for enjoyment and health, furnish without fail their breasts for the life of men. The very smallest of living beings meet together in peace and concord. All these the great Creator and Lord of all has appointed to exist in peace and harmony; while He does good to all, but most abundantly to us who have fled for refuge to His compassions through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory and majesty for ever and ever. Amen.

Words still beautiful and true and quite applicable the better part of twenty centuries later. These words ring out to me especially tonight because, at both Eucharists at which I was present the first reading was from the account in Genesis of the seven days of creation, to be precise the fifth and sixth days, including the creation of man and woman and their relationship to one another and to all other creatures gifted with ‘the breath of life.’

At Little Sisters of the Poor the priest-celebrant, whom I had not seen for twenty years or more methinks, noted today as the celebration of the sister of Saint Benedict, Scholastica. He told the story of her fervent prayer overcoming her brother’s reluctance to remain overnight at her convent and to continue the rich conversation they had been sharing. Benedict said he had to go. His sister prayed and such a storm erupted that he could not possibly leave the place. “You see,” Scholastica said (on what turned out to be one of the final nights of her earthly life, “what you would deny me, God has given me.” You go girl! Tell that wise man where to stay, and why!

It happens that I am staying this week at a Benedictine house. Their hospitality, as has been true at every Benedictine foundation I have ever visited, is exemplary. One does indeed feel as if they could not be kinder if you were indeed the Christ. And here is a place of valued respite, quiet (even silence) and peace.

Continue reading “Winter Retreat (Day 1)”

“Wild Kingdom” or “Chance of Reign 100%”

English: Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae, Japa...
English: Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae, Japanese Knotweed, inflorescence; Karlsruhe, Germany. Deutsch: Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae, Japanischer Staudenknöterich, Zugespitzter Knöterich, Spieß-Knöterich, Japanischer Flügelknöterich, Japanischer Rhabarber, Japanischer Buchweizen, Japanischer Schirmknöterich, Infloreszenz; Karlsruhe, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Texts: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34]


For three months of the summer of 2005 I lived with the Benedictine monks in the community of Glenstal Abbey 9-miles outside the city of Limerick in Ireland.  In that region known as the Golden Vail, sharing the day-to-day life and routine of the almost fifty members of the monastery community, it was for me a powerful and golden summer.

The simple and profound way of life that Benedict bequeathed to his brothers and sisters 1500 years ago is often summed up in the short phrase, “Ora et labora.”  “Prayer and work.”  At Glenstal we gathered together in the abbey church several times every day, beginning at morning’s first light and ending with night prayer in the early evening before bed.  The brothers are doing the same today, and have done so every day since I was there, and for decades before.  And each member of the community, in turn, had one or more areas of work that were his sole or sometimes shared responsibility.  One was the cook.  One was the infirmarian.  One was the guestmaster.  One was the head of the school Glenstal runs.  One was the Abbot, and so on.  I worked in the library.  I helped wash the dishes every evening after dinner (though that was just because I liked to!).  And I was given the task of dealing, in one small section of the monastery’s many acres, with the dreaded Japanese Knotweed.

Fallopia japonica,” to give the plant its official moniker, was carried into Ireland some years ago because someone thought it was decorative, and easy to grow.  At least the second of these has proven to be uproariously true.  There are now laws against the plant.  It is plant enemy number 1, or thereabouts.  It has no natural enemies to contain it, and it is the enemy of all.  Native species of plant are undone by it, pushed out of the way, and gone.

As one Irish website reports it now: “Japanese knotweed is a tall perennial plant, an aggressive, invasive weed which is found along river corridors, road verges, railway embankments, gardens and on waste ground. It spreads very quickly and often becomes a serious problem in the areas that it invades, causing environmental damage and costing public and private organizations large amounts of money to contain. Tarmac and concrete often do not stop the spread of Japanese knotweed. It has been known to push up through foundations.”  Fallopia japonica is frighteningly aggressive, grows so fast that you can almost watch it, and had come to live at Glenstal Abbey.

So Brother Anthony elected to send the neophyte lily-white American out to do battle with this dreaded plant form.  I was armed with a spade, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow.  Anthony brought me to the current battleground, introduced me to the foe, and withdrew.  I started digging.  And digging.  And digging.  You have to get the d- (blessed!) thing out by the root, without breaking the root, or it will come up again by morning.  I was both amazed and horrified to find that the Japanese knotweed root-system has runners that spread way out underground from what you see above-ground.   I followed them 8 and 10 feet from where the plant appeared, pulling them up as I went, and carefully placing them in the wheelbarrow.  If any fell to the ground they would take root again and start to repopulate each tiny square foot that I freed at great personal cost.  I will tell you: I wish I had half the energy that plant has!

Each evening at vespers I was happy to sink into the chapel’s hard seating, lean back, sigh, and let the singing of the psalmody wash away that day’s struggle with fallopia japonica.

As much as I grew to detest that plant (with all due respect to the Creator!), at least as much was I shocked to find the spirit of Japanese Knotweed described by Jesus in the parable in Mark’s Gospel as being the spirit of the reign of God.  The kingdom of God is like seed that is dropped on the ground; it sounds almost accidental.  There’s little sense of purpose and intent in it.  But it grows, without care, all by itself, until the harvest is ready.  The kingdom of God is like mustard seed.  Mustard seed is not only a modest little seed, as Jesus notes, but it is also one with a voracious appetite.  Place it in the earth and it grows crazy, as Jesus no doubt knew.  It’s hard to control.  It makes a mess.  It gets all over the place and is likely to compromise whatever else you may have had in mind for your garden.

The scholar John Dominic Crossan illuminates what those of us who are not up-to-date on all things plant-life might miss in Jesus’ choice of starring plants in his parable: “The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like.”

What?  Let’s make sure we have this straight.  Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of God is invasive, uncontrollable, and basically a nuisance.  Let it in and nothing will ever be the same.  And, it must follow that if the Kingdom of God is described fittingly in this way, well then so must be the Ruler of that Kingdom.  It’s just as we’ve always feared, by Jesus’ own testimony.  Let God in, and you’ve given away the farm.  Nothing will ever be the same.  Set any limits you want.  God will overrun them, sooner or later.  Assert your control all you want.  It won’t work.

It’s kind of like the reverse of the story about a man who bought a house with an overgrown garden. The weeds had long since taken over the garden and it was a mess. But slowly the man began to clear the weeds, till the soil, and plant the seeds. Finally, he had made it into a showcase garden. One day the minister from church came to visit, and when he saw the beautiful flowers and plants, he said to the man, “Well, friend, you and God have done a marvelous job on this garden.” To which the homeowner replied, “You should have seen it when God had it by himself.”

The Kingdom starts small and quiet, but it doesn’t end there.  It might be nearly invisible for years at a time.  So you might look at your life, or at the state of the world, or at what we do here from week to week as we gather, and wonder if anything is changing at all?  Is anything growing – in me or around me?  Has the reign of God taken root?  The answer is a definitive yes according to today’s Scripture.

It’s like the little guy – just over 5 feet tall – who showed up to try out for a lumberjack job in Alaska.  The man in charge wanted to take care of this quickly and discourage the little man to go elsewhere.  So he gave him the heaviest, largest ax, brought him to a tree hundreds of feet tall, and yards in diameter, and told him to chop it down. Within minutes the tree had been felled. The amazed foreman asked him where he’d learned to chop trees so powerfully. The little fellow replied, “When I worked in the Sahara forest.” “You mean, the Sahara desert.” Said the little lumberjack: “That was after I got there.”  He may have been small – like the mustard seed, like the innocent knotweed when it arrived first as an immigrant to Ireland, like the reign of God when it is first announced – but once he came, everything changed.

Where can we see the kingdom of God growing, the reign of God being revealed?  It may be in the most unlikely messes, practically unimaginable.  I hear Jesus’ parable today, his yes subversive speech, and my imagination is engaged in new ways.  Perhaps yours as well?  Is the Kingdom of God being birthed in the suffering streets of Syria?  Somehow, in that clash of power and yearning, somewhere in that bloodbath of the innocent, somehow . . . could God’s own Kingdom be coming about?  Could the end of that story be something dramatically other than sorrow and pain?  In the political tensions so obvious in the United States in this election year, could the reign of God be evident here?  In the dueling speeches on the economy, in the diametrically opposed takes on what is self-evident in the immigration crisis, in the dearth of truly civil discourse, somewhere deep within this muddle is the fallopia japonica of God’s Kingdom taking root?  Is it sending runners underneath our lives, connecting our deep sorrows, our losses and grief, with the plentiful support and relief that others have been strengthened to provide?  Is it running wild in the background of our church’s life, bringing new things to happen in ways unforeseen, attitudes, methods and approaches that will bear new fruit in a future we cannot yet see or hear or touch?

If Jesus is right (how is that for a preacher’s phrase?) – if Jesus is right, then the answer to all of this is yes, in a manner we’d best not strive to define or limit.  The God who took the eighth and youngest son of a small-town sheep-owner and anointed him King of Israel, David the Great, can do it.  Is doing it.  Through Samuel God chose David, gave him the Spirit, and then to all appearances walked away to see what would happen.  “In this corner, the sitting King of Israel with no desire to give up his seat, Saul!  In this corner, the pretender to the throne, a teenage shepherd with beautiful eyes, David.  And offering no further guidance or assistance that anyone could measure for the longest time: the God of Israel or anyone who spoke in his name.”  It looked like a recipe for disaster, and it really was.  But it was also, and no less truly, another planting of God’s seditious, destabilizing, and sanctifying mustard seed.   That seed is still being scattered on the ground. We are still sleeping and rising and paying it little heed.  But the seed is sprouting and growing.  And the good harvest will come about, in its time.  In its own time.

Jean-François Millet: The Sower, 1851


Glastonbury I

Glenstal Abbey. "Pax" over main entr...
Glenstal Abbey Gate

Glastonbury Retreat 2010

Who would have thought that I’d be rooting around in the top of the closet in the monastery guesthouse looking for a blanket?  It’s intriguing to me that on the day I set out to this place of prayer to lift up this moment in my life, with all its change and transition, the world around me transits as well.  This bright, dry, 90-degree summer turns on a dime and becomes a dark, wet, barely 60-degree season that looks and feels more like late October than mid-August.

Like most monastic settings, and indeed many places of Christian prayer, times of common prayer here are signaled by the ringing of a bell.  This evening the bell rang when a human hand moved it to call the community to prayer.  But it rang as well throughout the evening and during the prayer, shaken by the wind, by the finger of the spirit.  Walking back to the guesthouse there were leaves and small branches strewn all around in the darkness.  It really has the look, the feel, the smell of autumn.

Sometimes seasons seem to change suddenly, though I am more than sure that we have a lot of summer left yet.  But tonight, with the early darkness and the waving tress striking the chapel windows, the feel of that later season has been real.  It made me think of Halloween trick or treating, of plans for Thanksgiving, of where to shop for Christmas!  It made me look around for the blanket here, which I did find and put at the end of the bed.

That coming season is one in which, like tonight, it feels good to be inside, to be sheltered, to be embraced by light and warmth, the sound of human voices and the feel of real affection.  It feels like the embrace of God, hugging us in the darkness and asking that we not be afraid, assuring that there is no reason for fear.  Fear, the Word of God sang tonight at compline (night prayer), has no season of its own, no season at all: “God’s faithfulness is a protecting shield.  You shall not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day.  . . . You have the Lord for your refuge; you have made the Most High your stronghold” (psalm 91).

These assurances are given and received in every season, in light and darkness, in heat and in cold.  They are simply true.

Surrounded again by a Benedictine welcome, I recall vividly in an instant so much of the feel of the summer of 2005 at Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick, Ireland.  There I first felt the assurance given that enabled me to follow a path that led in new directions, yet based on the foundations and the principles and the faith that I’ve known and celebrated all my life.  That assurance was renewed at Eastern Point in Gloucester during the 30-day retreat in the summer of 2007.  And these days, these bright days and these dark nights, that assurance means more than ever.

The beginning of next month I leave behind the day to day experience of almost everything familiar to me, for the purpose of moving deeper into what is most fundamental – the experience of knowing God in God’s people.  Both the leaving and the arriving feel massive, and yes, there are the pangs of fear.

But then I arrive here, on a night like this, wild and wet and realize anew that there is nothing to fear.  There is everything to trust.