Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

A Poem
The hungry darkness prowls the street.
A whisper troubles him.  A word
long dead arisen from—who knows
the where, the when? Enough to shake

his long complacency. A spark,
a light, a star—the whisper grows
in corners, flickers, and is gone.
A child, he hears.  Ah, he will take

precautions, weave unwelcome in
closed doors,  a bed of straw to greet
the newborn danger, ox and ass
to trample weakness.  His mistake.

Straw burns.  The shadows cringe, retreat
as night goes up in flames upon a wooden stake.

©2012, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virgina Dale CO

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Advent's Other Truth

On the Tuesday of the sixth week of Easter, in the days before the Solemnity of the Ascension, the first reading for Mass is Acts 16:22-34, the story of Paul and Silas in jail in Corinth.
What an odd story. The story teller sets up certain familiar expectations. The good guys are in jail for doing the right thing according to God’s rules. As Peter said earlier in Acts, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And Paul and Silas were obeying God and following in Jesus’ footsteps by casting an evil spirit out of a slave girl. Unfortunately for them, her owners had been making a profit on her as a fortune teller, and apparently a successful one. But her success depended on the evil spirit. No spirit, no fortune telling. No fortune telling, no fortune for her owners. So they had Paul and Silas thrown in jail on trumped up charges.
Paul and Silas are not your typical prisoners, at least by the standards of a first-century Greek jail. They don't grouse or sing songs of "O poor me." They pray and sing praise to God. Here is a novelty that gets the other prisoners listening. Even in jail they are doing their job, preaching the good news to captives (see Luke 4:18).
Now comes the punch line for which the storyteller has set us up: our God is bigger than those old Greek gods, and he's gonna prove it! Drum roll! Earthquake! Gates thrown open! Chains torn off! As the Easter theme song plays in the background, they all go free!
But they don't. Paul and Silas and the other prisoners all stay put, right there in that broken down jail. Of course Paul and Silas get a new family of Christians out of it, and maybe some other new Christians among the other prisoners, though the storyteller walks away and leaves them there in the jail while he follows Paul and Silas to the jailer’s house and, eventually, to freedom. Now, at last, after the startling little hiccup in the story line, the grand finale we’ve been expecting since the jail gates were thrown open: Paul, with his inimitable chutzpah, refuses to sneak away quietly as the magistrates want him to do, nervous as they are over the fact that they have dared to throw two Roman citizens in jail. No, Paul orchestrates a grand departure, with the magistrates themselves leading the two erstwhile prisoners out.   Another drum roll!  Trumpets!
But during the delay, before all the fanfare, when Paul and Silas make the decision to stay in the jail among the broken chains, behind the gates hanging off their hinges, they actually preach a less recognized gospel but an essential one.
The hinge between Luke’s gospel and his Acts of the Apostles is that dramatic moment on the hilltop when Jesus took leave of his disciples. He had spent forty days since the resurrection instructing them, but now it’s time to go, as he had warned them he must. He led them out of Jerusalem as far as Bethany. There, according to the gospel, “he parted from them and was taken up to heaven” (Luke 24:50). In Acts, Luke expands the story:  “… as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven" (Acts 1:9-11). We celebrate this event next Sunday under the title of “the Ascension of the Lord.” An older custom dictated that after the gospel was proclaimed at the Mass of the Ascension, the Easter candle was extinguished as a sign that the One who had been visible among them for so long was indeed gone from their sight.
It’s an evocative enough symbol, but it always felt to me like a betrayal. At the Vigil, the inextinguishable Light appeared in the darkness as if from nowhere. The candle made its way majestically through the gloomy church. The Exsultet, the incense, the alleluias, all of it, proclaimed that the Light was with us and death, as John’s gospel announced, could not take him from us again.
And now, on the Ascension, the unquenchable Light of the world was quenched. Christ was gone. All that was left of him was a dead candle. That may not have been what the ritual meant, but it’s what it said to me.  It was not an unreasonable reading. The language of the two ascension accounts in the gospel and Acts implies very vividly that he had been with them and then he left. For a long time, I thought of the Ascension liturgy as the funeral after what must in fact have felt like a second death to the disciples. Promises of a mysterious Spirit to come must have seemed cold comfort with their beloved Master gone again, this time apparently for the long haul. 
 Paul and Silas in jail tell a different truth. The echoes of Easter are unmistakable in many of the stories of the disciples in Acts, and here they ring out loud and clear. The prison in Corinth, like the prison of the tomb, like the prison of the Upper Room, stale, stuffy, dark,  is broken open by an earthquake like the one that set the dead free to wander the city at the time of the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:51-54). But Paul and Silas don’t leave. They are no longer trapped. They are not afraid. They just don’t go. They stay right where they are with the other prisoners.
And that is the other truth of the Ascension. Jesus didn’t leave. He doesn’t leave. He’s right here with us in this our present prisons, whatever they may be. We can’t see him with our bodily eyes, but he’s here alright. We can all name the moments of light by which we’ve read his presence. He said he wouldn’t leave us, and he hasn’t. And he won’t: ”Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
At the same time, he’s not here to stay, because neither are we. Remember all those gospel stories in which Jesus unlocks jail cells of one kind or another—sickness, isolation, sin, paralysis, even death itself? He always finishes off unlocking the doors by telling the newly liberated captives to get up and get moving: pick up your mat and walk, go show the priest your clean skin, go home and tell no one yet, come along with me, Lazarus come out, and, perhaps the one that captures them all:  Go, and sin no more. Go on, get going, you don’t belong here on this bed, behind this begging bold, in this tomb. Not anymore.
That basic story is still true. Healing and rising from the dead are a very long process indeed for most of us, but we’re on the way. We’ve been baptized, we’ve received the Spirit, we are forgiven. In one way or another, bit by bit, day by day, our jail cells are being thrown open and our chains cut loose.  It can happen so slowly that we may not even realize it for quite a while. Or, if we do, we may look around and figure the familiar jail cell is safer after all. Better just stay here. It was not for nothing Jesus asked the paralytic at Bethesda, “Do you want to get well?” (Cf. John 5:6). Wellness, freedom, life, carry us into uncertainties, responsibilities, unknowns that may well give us pause here on the threshold of our ruined jails.
But Paul and Silas stand as reminders that the One who has broken open our jails hasn’t left us. He’s still right here in the familiar cells with us. He will stay until we’re ready to leave. He doesn’t believe in dragging people out of darkness into the light, or even in carrying us, it seems. He waits instead, and waits very patiently, for the day when he can lead us out, walking beside us all the way, as promised:  “I am with you always.”
After all, Paul and Silas did leave the jail. When it was time.

Copyright 2012, Abbey of St. Walburga

Monday, April 30, 2012

They Went Away (John 6)

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" ….As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him (John 6:60, 66).

They went away.  Of course they did.  He spoke to them not merely in parables but in riddles that baffled even the brightest among them.  It was all very well for him to talk about manna.  They knew that story; of course they did.  Some of them were doctors of the law after all, men who lived and breathed and taught Torah.  Manna was clear:  the Israelites were starving in the desert, they called out to God for help—though their prayer most often took the form of grumbling “why’s:” “Why have you done this to us?”  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt with its luscious fleshpots, its melons, its leeks, to starve us to death here in this desert?”  And, later, after the dailiness of manna got old, “Why can’t you vary the menu?”  God listened as patiently as the parent of a two-year-old who has just learned the two key words of toddlerhood:  “why?” and “no!”  But God didn’t send them loaves of ready-baked bread, like the ones the angel brought to Elijah in the desert generations later (1 Kings 19:5-7).  No, God sent them ingredients.  They woke up in the morning to find the desert whitened with dew that evaporated under the sun and left behind something that looked like “fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground” (Ex16:14).  Their first response wasn’t “We give you thanks, O almighty God, for these and all your benefits.”  No, their first response was another question:  “manna” means “what is it?”  And without even knowing what it was, they had to figure out how to gather it up, how much to gather, and how to turn it into bread. (Can’t you just imagine the unrecorded conversations back home at the tent:  “What do you mean, make it into bread?  Look, I learned how to make bread at my mother’s knee.  That is not flour! You see if you can make bread out of it!”)  The hearers who found Jesus’ words so difficult seem to have forgotten all the questions.  What they remember is:  God gave it, the people ate it, all was well.

But Jesus was asking them for a bigger stretch of the mind than manna ever required.  He served them up a platter of conundrums seasoned with distasteful hints of cannibalism and sweetened with an unexplained promise of “eternal life.”  They couldn’t make any sense of it.  Remember, the “bread from heaven” to which we are accustomed draws all its being and power from Jesus’ death and resurrection, but those staggering events hadn’t happened yet when Jesus first talked to them of his flesh made real food and his blood made real drink.  What on earth was he talking about?  Or, more accurately, what in  heaven’s name was he talking about?  They couldn’t get past the bad taste his words left in their mouths.  So they went away.

It isn’t any wonder they left.  What is a matter for wonder is that the followers from Galilee, not a teacher of the law among them, stayed.  The words can’t have made any more sense to them then than they did to the others.  But they had learned Jesus’ habit of tell-and-show.  They had often heard him throw out strange statements like, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,”  followed by startling demonstrations like a man delivered from an evil spirit, or Simon’s mother-in-law healed or crowds of sick people made well by his word (see Mark 1).  The stories make it clear that they didn’t quite understand those episodes either, not till later.  But faith is born blind, like a kitten with eyes as yet unopened.  The kitten might not be able to write the Summa Theologiae of its universe.  It might not be able to explain “Mom” and “milk.”  It might stumble around in the dark for a while.  But every kitten has a pretty unerring sense of where to find Mom and milk, the sustenance of its life.  The disciples couldn’t possibly have unraveled, then, the meaning of  Jesus’ words, but they had crossed the divide the doubters couldn’t reach:  they had chosen to put their faith in the Speaker, even when the meaning of his words left them behind, panting, “What is it?” 

They wrestled with plenty of questions themselves.  Some they asked, some they didn’t dare to.  But they got the essential point long before they grasped the explanations.  They caught a glimpse of “who” before they really understood “what” and “why.”  So they stayed, not because of the words but because of the person:  “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life—(even though, they might have added, we have only the dimmest hold on what they mean, hindered as we are by the limitations of our experience, our language, our minds.”)

Things don't seem to have changed very much, even on this Easter side of the cross that makes it all possible.  Even Jesus’ question remains the same:  “Do you also want to go away?”

©2012 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Holy Saturday Mourning: A Poem

The fisherman had aged, they saw, when dawn
at last broke through that endless night.  He had
no words to strengthen them, his bluster gone
to silence. One by one they came .  Grief bade
them gather there. The shadowed room was clad
in memories. Furtive eyes sought out the spot
where He had stood.  The big man’s shame burned hot.
The One with whom he’d sworn to die was dead.
And he was not.

©2011, Abbey of St. Walburga 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

But If Not: a Meditation for Holy Thursday Evening and Good Friday

The story is told that in late May, 1940, over 300,000 British, French and Belgian troops were trapped by the German army on the beaches and in the harbor of a little Belgian town called Dunkirk.  There seemed to be very little reason to believe they would survive.  But for reasons still unexplained, the Germans withdrew briefly to regroup.  From the British forces a single terse message arrived in London.  It contained three words:  “But if not.”

Commonplace words oddly chosen.  But the British commander obviously knew whence they came and what they meant.  They come in fact from the Old Testament Book of Daniel.  The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, has set up a vast image of gold and commanded that whenever the people heard any kind of music, they were to fall down and worship before it.  Images of gold and music, Swastikas and fiery words and jackboots, the props change but the story does not.  Three young Jewish men, faithful to God’s commandment that they worship no other God but the God of Israel, refuse.  Malicious tattle-tales betray them to the king.  He asks them if it true that they have refused to worship the golden image.  Do they not know, he asks, that if they do not obey, he will have them cast into a fiery furnace?  “And who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15).  The three young men reply, “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up (Daniel 3:17)” .

Those who received them also understood.  “We believe that God can save us, but if not, know that we will not bow down before Hitler’s army or the Swastika which they have set up.” 

These seventy and more years after Dunkirk, the thing that astonishes is that not only the British commander who sent the message but also those who received it recognized the words and what they intended to say.  And so, it seems, did the British public, though they were not told immediately the extent of the Dunkirk disaster or the peril of the troops  Churchill said later that he had “feared it would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history.” He expected only a few thousand men to be delivered during the two days he thought the British Navy would have to take troops off the before the Germans blocked the evacuation.  He added, “The whole root and core and brain of the British Army, on which and around which we were to build, and are to build, the great British Armies in the later years of the war, seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity.”  The British destroyers dispatched immediately on May 26 could not sail into the harbor or close to the beaches because the water was too shallow. 

But on May 27, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping began to call for the use of what became known as “the little ships of Dunkirk”—small boats of every kind, from merchant marine ships to small fishing vessels to pleasure boats.  Hundreds were assembled.  Some ferried men to the large Naval vessels waiting in deeper waters.  Others sailed back and forth across the dangerous waters of the British Channel, carrying men from the beaches back to the English coast. 

On May 27, the second of the two days the British authorities had projected, the Luftwaffe began to strafe and bomb the beaches and attack the RAF planes flying protection for the ships.  The evacuation went on.  It took nine days.  Men died on the beaches and in the boats, but the rescuers carried on.  By the ninth day, 338,226 troops had been saved.  On June 4, the BBC reported that the commander of the rear guard had inspected the shores by motor boat to ensure that there was no one left undelivered before he himself boarded the last ship for England.  It was indeed what Churchill called it:  “the miracle of Dunkirk.”

Seen in retrospect, the words of the three young men and the British commander move me deeply.  In fact, the whole episode of Dunkirk undoes me every time I read of it. 

Seen in prospect, the words terrify me.  They have never been confined to the furnaces of Babylon or even the beaches of Dunkirk.  We hear not the exact words but their echo in later biblical stories.    The Jews of Jerusalem in the second century BC, for whom in fact the Book of Daniel was written as a sort of coded message, made much the same response.  Threatened with destruction by a Syrian despot if they would not abandon their own religion to assume the practices of the Greeks, who then ruled the world The author of the First Book of Maccabees writes, “They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant.”  (1 Macc 1:63 (RSV)  Some two centuries later, Jesus, threatened by the determined wrath of the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees, again echoed the words from the furnace:  “Father, if it be possible, take this cup from me.” “Cup” is a biblical image for one’s destiny.  “Take this cup from me.  But if not, your will, not mine, be done” (cf. Matthew 26:39 and parallels).  We hear the same echoes from the martyrs facing the wild beasts in the Roman arenas, from men and women on crowded cattle trains to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, from Middle Eastern Christians under Moslem threat today. 

But the story that frightens me the most is not one of the great epics of human persecution and courageous defiance hurled even in the teeth of death.  I am fairly safe from those.  The story that frightens me most is quieter and less widely told.  It’s the story of a young woman who died in a strictly cloistered Carmelite monastery in 1897, so unknown and so unremarked that her Sisters wondered what on earth they would write about her in the obituary customarily circulated to other monasteries.  She was introduced to me as to many as “the Little Flower,” but there was nothing little or flowerlike about her.   Through a life not more than ordinarily difficult, she grew into a tower of steel, wrapped in the deceptive fluff of late nineteenth century pious language.  But nothing could have been worse than her own Dunkirk.  Trapped in a body literally disintegrating under the then invincible onslaught of tuberculosis, she entered into a darkness deeper than Gethsemane, in which she could find no sign at all of the God she loved so profoundly.  No doubt she prayed, “Father, if it be possible, take this cup from me.  But if not…”.  No one came to take her off that beach, but she did not surrender.

She frightens me because I suspect she is not the last.  Oh, most of us now won’t be besieged by a Babylonian king or Hitler’s army or the chief priests and Pharisees or even tuberculosis.  But what about the forces around and within us that whisper daily, “What would it hurt to give a little? All anyone is asking of you is a little compliance, a few small dishonesties, a compromise with conscience here and there.”  But the thing is that though the characters and the props and the music change, the story is repeated. Nebuchadnezzar, the chief priests and Pharisees, Hitler, all wear different names and speak with different voices now, but they are still there, and more are coming behind them.  I can talk myself out of following the example of the young men in the furnace.  What are Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonian music to me?  And I can excuse myself from joining in with the stubbornness of the Maccabees who resisted their Syrian conquerors to the death.  I can even talk myself out of being too literal in imitating Jesus, whom I claim to follow.  After all, he was divine as well as human, and I am very far from anything like divinity. So I can thank God there are no beaches in my world, even as I weep over the miracle of Dunkirk.  But when it comes right down to it, I find it much harder to dismiss a little nun who grew up in ordinary stuffy bourgeoisie, took on a habit much like mine, though hers was Carmelite and mine is Benedictine, lived the humdrum daily routines of the cloister, and died not so terribly many years before I was born.  And I know that the darkness into which she went so went so courageously after her Lord lurks in the corners of my monastery too, as prayer sometimes dries up and busy-ness overwhelms and nuns my age fall prey to the pains and illnesses brought by advancing years.  And, thanks to the Internet, I also see beyond the walls and know that I am not alone in watching the dark troops advance along the humdrum highways of contemporary culture, looking for whom they may devour (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). 

In the face of the advancing night, they rise up in the mind:  the young men facing the furnace, the Maccabees, Therese.  But especially on Good Friday, Jesus, who is not so easy to dismiss after all.  All of them ask me:  when Dunkirk comes, what message will you send?

©2012 Abbey of St. Walburga

Notes: This reflection was inspired by a homily preached at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament (Hanceville AL) by Father Joseph Mary Wolfe, MFVA. 

Some of the versions of the Dunkirk story that circulate on the web report the British message as “And if not.”  But the King James Version of the Bible, which the British would have known, says “But if not.”  I recommend the articles from Wikipedia on the Dunkirk evacuation and the little ships, with their links to things like Churchill’s famous June 4 speech, “We will fight them on the beaches.”  

The crucifix pictured at the head of the post hangs in the monastic refectory (dining room) of the Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale, Colorado.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Branches and Cloaks and All

Small sacrifices grudgingly made and seasoned with grumbling. Comforts lost to another's need. Half an hour of naptime on a sleepy day. A few days' use of the electric wheelchair that gets me painlessly to the farther reaches of the monastery in a week when my foot isn't hurting at all. (The foot injury is minor and mending.)  As extrinsic as branches cut from someone else's tree. As unnecessary as a cloak thrown down by someone surrounded by an excited crowd. So much for the palms I bring to acclaim the strange Savior who spurns a richly caparisoned palfrey in favor of a donkey on this Palm Sunday
Today's preacher, St.Andrew of Crete, whose words we read at the Office of Readings, suggests that instead of palm branches or cloaks (or small comforts grudgingly given) we lay down ourselves, not stripped of those unneeded cloaks but fully clothed in the Christ to whom we are come to acclaim. 

 He introduces this odd image gently enough. Let us prostrate--lay ourselves down-- before him by being humble.  Clearly he does not intend us to fling ourselves down literally in the roadbed. That would be rather extravagant, but he was a Cretan after all, and an ancient one at that. Perhaps they did those things then. No, surely he just means that we should become humble of heart.  No need for show.  Of course, St. Benedict, in Chapter 7 of his Rule, “On Humility” does expect us to match the deed to the word.  But let us not exaggerate.  Perhaps a little deeper bow at the creed or before receiving communion. Nothing too flashy, of course. Not like that worshiper in the next pew who goes all hunched over after the consecration. That's a bit unnecessary. But a tasteful mid-sized bow rather than the usual head bob. Yes,  that should do it.

St. Andrew doesn't stop there, however. He adds to his suggestion that we prostrate before Christ by doing his will.  Oh, now, we have to be careful with this one.  St. Andrew doesn’t mean for us to lay our wills down there at his feet for him to trample on.  Of course not. We have all had plenty of experience of wills trampled by those older or more powerful than we—unheeding parents, impatient teachers, indifferent bureaucrats, officious officials of one sort or another.  No, thank you, we are not interested in playing that part again.  Of course, it’s true that self-will can be a bit of a problem, especially for those around us.  Ask any parent whose two-year-old has just learned the art of the red-faced, puffed-cheek, arms-akimbo, foot-stomping “No!”  But we are adults, are we not?  Reasonable people, surely?  Willing to give a little here and there, bend a bit before the breeze, give up a little bit of what we want (A half-hour nap? A convenient wheelchair? Oh, surely not so much.) We don’t want to become doormats.  And anyway, Jesus never walks on people’s wills.  He asks.  We can always say no.  Well, yes, we did agree to follow him.  And, yes, he laid down a lot more than his will in that ugly story we read at length in today’s liturgy.  And, yes, no doubt the Father asked—but the thing is that he didn’t say no.  On the contrary.  Oh dear.  A short nap missed, a few days on foot down the hall are beginning to look rather small.

Now St. Andrew is back to suggest laying down not our pride, not our will, but ourselves before him.  Not the old self in the patched cloak or the dirty rags, but the new self, clothed in him.  The fresh, clean, obedient, willing, loving self we would like to think we are.  And we are, actually, at least potentially.  But our tragedy is that we can still say no, we can still cast off this amazing garment, we can still go back to the dirty rags, the patched cloaks, the foot-stomping no, the proud, unbending neck.  We can always go back. Our freedom, our call.

I wonder if one of the reasons we celebrate Holy Week with such powerful dramas of word and music and props and processions is to remind us that we can, but we don’t have to, not anymore.  That’s what the end of the story means, is it not? The part we don’t read till Saturday night and Sunday, after all the miserable, gory, tragic verses have been read. The part where the tomb stands empty, the bread broken by familiar hands. and all that light shining around us as the Voice says, “Lo!  I make all things new.  Even you.”  The part where we answer not “No!” but “Alleluia!”

©2012 Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Paradise: A Snatch of Memoir

A word of explanation.  I am reading a wonderful book entitled “How to Craft the Personal Essay,” by essayist Dinty W. Moore.  It has writing exercises, so I’ve been writing different sorts of things than my usual religious reflections and poetry.  Of course, part of being a writer is wanting to rush out and push the fresh pages of a new manuscript into the hands of any possible reader, and then going home to cower in one’s room, terrified that the chosen victim might actually read what you’ve given her and, worse, tell you what she thinks of it.  A blog is the perfect solution.  You don’t have to read the “pages,” and I don’t have to watch you do it.  So the fruits of some of these exercises, including this one, will appear now and again in this blog.

Once my family lived in paradise, for about six weeks.

My parents probably didn’t recognize it as paradise.  Its name was not Eden but the Berystede.  It boasted many trees, but none of them bore apples.  We never saw a snake in one either.  The Berystede was a small British hotel inhabited largely by English stereotypes, staffed by men and women from Wodehouse, and planted inconspicuously along a quiet road in the village of Sunninghill in Berkshire.  The year was 1955.

My parents’ view of it was likely colored by jetlag.  We moved in straight from endless days of fighting off mosquitoes in Texas (me), looking in vain for famous tennis players at the Forest Hills Inn in New York (my mother), getting locked in a restroom on an eternal flight to Paris (me again), touring Paris in a French-speaking taxi to the accompaniment of drunken warbling (my baby sister, to whom they had given red wine for lunch at the Pan Am commissary for want of drinkable water or milk), and being driven in a stupor from the London airport (all of us). 

My parents also likely failed to recognize the heavenly aspects of  the day-to-day management of three small children, ages 1, 8 and 10,  in a hotel normally undisturbed by the small boisterousness of that species. Actually, most of the boisterousness emanated from  my eight-year-old brother, John, who born a fearless explorer of a fascinating universe.  He talked to everyone.  He asked questions about everything.  He investigated anything he could reach with his fingers, and sometimes with other appurtenances.  (He distinguished himself in later life by getting his knee stuck in the gutter that rimmed a public swimming pool, requiring rescue by a bemused life guard.) The elevator operator became his special friend.  The man wore a dark uniform and had magic powers.  He could make the elevator doors open and close.  He could drive the little box at will up and down the three floors of the hotel.  He could call out the number of the floor as we arrived there. (It can’t have been too difficult.  There were only three.) We had never seen an elevator before, that I recall. Unlike my brother, I ,  hobbled and starched by shyness,  did my usual best to make myself invisible. (I’m sure J.K Rowling got the idea for Harry’s cloak from me, or would have if she had known me as a child.)   I confined my boisterousness to our rooms, where I whined that I was bored, socked my brother just for the heck of it, and generally exhibited the restlessness of a child confined by her mother’s fear of seeing disapproval on all those staid British faces if her children did not obey the rules. 

We mostly didn’t know the rules, of course.  To us, it was England, not our homeland, that was the New World.  We had just been plucked out of our northern California home and dropped there by my father’s decision to use his seniority with Pan American Airways to bid for an open spot at the London station.  We had put in weary months of expectation, preparation and trepidation.  The preparation consisted mostly of my parents’ teaching us British vocabulary gleaned, I suspect, from novels,  and of breaking it to us that they didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving in England.  John was found in tears one day, sobbing that he didn’t want to go to England, because he didn’t know how to speak English.  And we wondered nervously if the English celebrated Christmas.

Once arrived, we quickly learned that this place did indeed have a whole new set of rules, besides the familiar ones like saying “Please” and “Thank you.”  We learned that we were not supposed to ask loudly and suspiciously “What is that?” in the dining room, wonder where they kept the comics, or run down the carpeted halls and staircases and into other hotel guests, most of them at least middle aged.  I don’t remember if John ever tried to slide down the bannisters, but I’m sure he thought of it.  His only previous experience of bannisters had been catching his head in one when he was three.  We lived in a two-story house then.  He had poked his head experimentally between the railings and then discovered he could not remove it.  It had taken quite some time and a lot of loud noise for him to grow tired of standing and sit down to rest.  His head then popped out of its trap.  He had inserted it while sitting down and then stood up.  The opening was wider at the bottom than the top.  My mother had never noticed that.  One had to notice things, with John.

Indoors—and this was England in early spring, so we were often indoors—we soon tired of the two or three rooms we lived in, the unfamiliar board and card and paper games my desperate parents supplied us with, and the confinement.  My recollection of those hazy weeks is tinged with pinkish walls, heavy carpets, thick air, and inactivity.  Though I probably repeated loudly and often my mantra, “Mommy, there’s nothing to do!”, what I really yearned for was something to read.  Story books.  I’m not sure anyone yet understood that about me.  I’m not sure I understood it myself, that deep, unquenchable hunger and thirst for anything narrative.  My father certainly grasped it soon and kept me well supplied once we had moved out of the Berystede into the house on Coombe Lane and he had discovered the cheap English-language bookstores in Beirut. 

However, when I was five, my grandmother’s radio and the enchanting novelty of our first television had taught me  that if you run out stories around you, you can just make up your own in the space behind your eyes.  This was where the Berystede became our Eden, John’s and mine.  We had grown up in the pocket handkerchief yards of San Francisco Bay Area suburbia.  Here we were surrounded by acres of green mystery where no one saw or scolded us.  We could hide in the clusters of bushes, run across the expanses of lawn, long to climb trees we were as yet too small to aspire to.  Mostly we used this heaven as a backdrop for the stories we made up and acted.  I did most of the inventing and directing then.  Look for me in Jo March. 

Although I think we created it on Coombe Lane rather than at the Berystede, the longest playing story we shared in our English years was called “Jim and Mary,” as in, “Let’s play Jim and Mary.”  The choice of Jim and Mary was dictated by the size of the cast at our disposal.  Our little sister still too small to be usefully conscripted into any of our dramas.   Jim and Mary were a married couple because we didn’t know of any other way for a male and female character to go adventuring together.  We had never read any stories of brothers and sisters taking to the jungle (where I distinctly remember riding down the river on the African Queen, though I can’t have seen that movie till years later)  the forest (Sherwood, where we sometimes became Robin and Maid Marian once we had heard those stories), desert islands (where we sometimes played the Swiss Family Robinson  or  Robinson Crusoe and Friday), and any other venues that captured our fancy. 

We did add other stories to our collection of scripts later.  Indoors, we often played house under a blanked spread over the card table, or we played pilot and air traffic controller amid a spread of papers.  My father regularly had to update his heavy flight manuals, whereupon he donated all the outdated pages to our prop collection.  He also taught us to read them, after a manner of speaking.  I remember specially how  tricky was the approach to the Hong Kong airport—which couldn’t have appeared in those manuals, now that I think of it, because Daddy flew through Europe and the Middle East from London.  Hong Kong had been on his San Francisco route. I was always the air traffic controller in our various scenarios, routine or emergency, and John was always the pilot.  When my father taught me the principles of aerodynamics, I told him I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up.  I meant, of course, a commercial airline pilot just like him.  He broke it to me then that girls could not be pilots. When I was older, he added to this conversation, “You can’t even learn to drive a car. (which was true—I was a terrified flop at Driver’s Ed) How  could you possibly learn to fly an airplane?”    So I learned when I was ten to settle for the role of air traffic controller instead.  I doubt there were any women air traffic controllers either, but Daddy was kind enough not to tell me that. 

To my surprise, Google informs me that the Berystede is still alive and well and  living in Sunninghill these nearly sixty years later.  The staid and stuffy  comfort it offered us is long gone.  It has become the “Macdonald Berystede Hotel and Spa, Sunninghill, Ascot, near Windsor.”  The new Berystede boasts “contemporary design, secluded gardens and gated entry, 126 individually-styled luxury bedrooms,   AA Rosette Restaurant with roof terrace” and “luxury spa with outdoor hydro pool.”  In England?  The only warm summer I remember there was in 1955.

Even the address has changed, though the building seems not to have moved.  Sunninghill is not and never has been in Ascot, but whoever heard of Sunninghill?  Even in 1955, the official mailing address of the house on Coombe Lane was “Sunninghill, nr. South Ascot.”  The postal service felt no need to mention Windsor. Ascot was famous enough in its own right as the home of the Ascot race course, scene of the famous Royal Ascot Week, when Royalty and Society gathered in flowered dresses and morning coats to gossip, sip tea (or, I suspect, something stronger) and occasionally watch the horses run.

 Neither Sunninghill nor Ascot was anywhere near Windsor in those days.  Windsor was six miles away.  Driving there from Sunninghill for shopping was a major expedition undertaken only for the most important items.  The local population of Sunninghill was horrified when my mother took her laundry to the laundromat in far away Camberley until we got a washing machine, and Camberley was only five miles from Sunninghill.

According to the web, the years have banished the flavor and the character and the children from the Berystede.  The gates have slammed shut behind us, and we can never now go back.   I don’t really want to.  Sometimes Eden is better remembered than inhabited.  In the paradises of the mind, there are neither apple trees nor serpents but only faded daguerreotypes of innocence playing Jim and Mary among the trees in forests long ago and far away.

Copyright 2012, Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Take a Break

Silence is a long, slow draft of mercy.

Go out on the porch of your mind.  Go on, it’s free.  Shut the door on the secretary that yaps at your heels with her ever-present, ever-growing, every-urgent list of to do’s.  Lock it if you have to.  Now, look for the rocker.  It’s over there near the railing. Chilly?  Pick up the wooly afghan that hangs over the back of the chair.  Too warm?  Look, you’ll find a tall, cold drink and a paper fan on the little table at your elbow. 
It’s not for nothing that St. Ignatius of Loyola recommended beginning a Scripture meditation with “composition of place.”  The imagination is a blessed tool for disengaging from the secretary still rapping on the glass door you’ve closed in  her face and for engaging in the unexplored landscape around you.  You can create your own circle of comfort from the remnants of scenery stuffed into the ragbag collection of the mind.  You can pull out the pieces of unfinished mental knitting you dare not quite admit you enjoy working on:  questions like “In that story about Jesus calling the tax collector Levi and sitting down at table with him and his friends, where are the Pharisees and scribes who raise a vociferous objection disguised as a question?  They couldn’t be sitting at table.  They wouldn’t, their question implies.  They’re talking to the disciples whom they accuse of eating with sinners and tax collectors.  Jesus overhears and answers them.  So, what is the geography of this scene, and what does it mean, if anything?”  Or, “What is the meaning of life?”  Or “Where did Robin Hood meet Maid Marian/”  These are just bits of my own quirky knitting.  You get out your own. 

The secretary is frantic now, but you no longer hear her much.  You’ve gotten yourself involved in mowing the lawn and planting the rhododendrons in the beds before your inner eye, or hunting out those wretched Pharisees, or turning over what you remember reading about Robin Hood and Maid Marian.  You’ve gone out of yourself by going into yourself and out the other side.

 Don’t worry too much about imagining God into the scene in order to baptize it into prayer.  Who do you think gave you the landscape and the knitting pattern?  God is into creating worlds and forming chaos into patterns. The Word is the one who spins, sorts and evaluates many of the words, questions, and answers we find running around the landscapes of the mind.  The Word is always willing to sit down on the porch and chat about them – pursuing, completing, rearranging, whatever.  The Word is within and beyond us, so just relax and let the Presence emerge as you distance the secretary and relax on the porch.  It will.  You may not recognize it, though.  God doesn’t seem to care much for the boxes in which we work so hard to confine him.

It won’t last forever.  Eventually, you’ll have to turn your back on the scenery, stuff the knitting back in the bag, and unlock the door.  The outraged secretary will scold and shove piles of papers into your arms.  But as you close the porch door behind you and head for your office, you will quite likely find that a smile lingers on your face and memories of landscapes and knitting settle into a comforting background to telephones and computers and papers and more papers.  And you’ll know that you can go out there again.  The porch is a habit worth cultivating.  The porch and the Presence.

Copyright 2012, Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, January 13, 2012

Choose Your Ruler

In the first reading for today's Mass (1 Samuel 8:4-7, 10-22a) the prophet Samuel asks a question of the Israelites that he might just as well have asked us this morning:  whom will you choose to rule over you?  A king just like everyone else has?  (That was their demand.)  Or God?

Look around you, he says.  Those who have chosen conventional rulers--in our day, maybe social approval, material success, power even on a domestic scale, or any one of the other little rulers who serve the great god Ego--how have they fared?  Samuel suggests you'll find them impoverished victims, even slaves, of rapacious tyrants.  The gospel story (Mark 2:1-12), under the image of the paralytic to hint that you'll found them bound and paralyzed, like the prey of poisonous spiders trapped and wrapped in shrouds of web.

And those who have chosen God as their ruler instead?  The evangelist Mark suggests that you'll find them skipping down the road, mats under their arms.  Free.  And happily heading for home.  Look!  There's one.  He and his four friends are chattering and laughing.  And there goes another one.  She just turned back for a minute to wave her thanks to Jesus.  And there's another...

Copyright 2012, Abbey of St. Walburga