Five years and counting

Yes, I do try to post once every three years or so...

Hard to believe that it has been five years since I began this path. If I were in a community, I might be taking final vows about now. I was reflecting on what I have learned in this short time.

Love is stronger than death. Love is stronger than anything.

It's okay to be imperfect. Which is good since perfection is unattainable anyway.

Most people spend their energy, time and money on things that, now, to me, seem ultimately insignificant.

It's okay to be insignificant. Which is good, since I am ultimately insignificant as well.

Also I have learned to let go of what is lost. Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. Loss is neither bad nor good. It is simply the way life works. It is a waste of energy to be resentful about it. It is better to grieve, honoring those who are lost, and then let it go. Knowing that all things end makes me appreciate and honor each precious, fleeting moment. Grieving reminds me that I am human. Without loss, there could be no renewal, no growth. The ability to grow in wisdom is part of our humanity. And, after all, grief, too, will one day end.

Some things have changed in my life, although my continuing practice tends to make those changes seem like background noise. Most significantly, my work life changed dramatically two years ago when the company I worked for was sold and all the employees laid off. So I no longer commute to NYC for work at all. I now work at home full time. This enables me to stay "in cell" nearly all the time. I don't have a car so I am not tempted to run errands outside the house. I have groceries and pretty much everything else delivered. I rarely leave my apartment except for church or choir.

And no... I am not lonely :-)

Speaking of choir, another change is that I am retiring from my vocation of choral singing. I am getting older, and my aging voice can't keep up. After 43 years, yes, I am grieving this loss. Singing in choirs is the only social thing I still do; I will miss the music and I will also miss the community of singers, my tribe. But I will grieve, honor, and then let go.

The outward form of my daily practice has changed very little in five years. Life has a gentle rhythm marked by the Daily Office. I still keep daily periods of prayer, study, reflection and work. The Rule of Life that I wrote five years ago continues to be my guide.

I do face some significant challenges. Without a car, it is difficult for me to get to church regularly and that part of my Rule is a concern. Two years ago I suffered a pelvic injury that has left me with some difficulty walking; as a result my life is way too sedentary. And of course there are always money issues.

Though I must cope with them, these challenges are not very important in the grand scheme of things. The sweetness of surrendering to the totality of Divine Love makes everything else seem immaterial.

I am happy.


Still here, and still still

People have asked me whether I am still pursuing the Solitary path. I am, indeed.

I just have not done so well with pursuing this journal!

I have settled into a rhythm of daily life. Work and pray. A lot of quiet time. A little pleasure. There is nothing severe about my rule of life, nothing dramatic. It feels gentle. Serene. I am content.

At the moment, I am not pursuing the "official" status with the Diocese of New York. I may yet do that. But right now is not the time. The time may yet come. Who knows what the future will bring?

My life, for the most part, is very still. But not stagnant. I think this stillness is a difference between youth and age. Younger people speak of growing. Reaching for something: more self-improvement, more experiences, more knowledge, more happiness, more accomplishment. As I grow older, I find that I no longer feel that push toward outward expansion. My growth is inward. I feel my life centering, drawing in. Becoming simpler. Instead of more, I want less: less activity, fewer things, fewer people, less movement, less distraction, less noise.

Of course there are challenges. Simplicity doesn't happen on its own. I may not want distractions, but they come anyway. I try to face them, handle them, dismiss them... and get back to the quiet.

And being content does not mean that I have no need to tend to my spirituality. Again, contentment is not stagnant. It is the contentment of a gardener, mindful of the activity of the Holy One.

So that's where I am, here and now.

Mortal, can these bones live?

The reflection below was written 13 years ago, during Holy Week, 1996, at a time when I was struggling. I had occasion to share this with someone, and thought it might be good to post it here as well.

A journal of Holy Week, 1996

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and Love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such Love and Sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

--Isaac Watts

For me, the Holy Week experience is a cornerstone of my faith life. The liturgies are so rich, so evocative. This spiritual journey is such a deep and powerful experience for me each year. The ultimate meaning of human suffering, life and death, love and redemption--in a way that cannot be explained, only experienced. Each year it becomes more three-dimensional for me, gains more depth, as I grow in my own humanity.

I remember the year that I first grasped the dimension of love in it. It was the year Damian died. I learned to see love reflected in grief. At his funeral I had a revelation, as I saw the love with which we celebrated that funeral Eucharist, and especially as we censed the coffin and sprinkled it with water to recall the promises of his baptism. It was done with such love--sorrow to be sure, but also love... Two months later, it was Holy Week, and we mirrored that same action, experiencing the same feelings. Only this time it was the body of Christ. Visions are hard to explain, but it was as if I suddenly saw love radiating through every plane of relationship--the loving care of a lover for the body of his beloved... the loving care of those who prepared Jesus’ body for burial... the loving care of my friends for me... the loving care of God for us. The rhythms of the ceremonial actions, the rhythms of the words, the deeper alpha rhythms of the liturgy, the music which in its intimacy can contain joy and sorrow and love in one note. It was the first time that I felt so deeply loved by anyone, loved by God. It was the most astounding vision. Right now as I am writing this I can’t help the tears flowing because it was such a deep feeling.

For the first time in twenty five years I am reluctant to begin the Holy Week services. Too much emotion, too much activity.

Palm Sunday

Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, is the overture. Holy Week begins. We begin our journey as we recall Jesus beginning his final journey. I am uneasy. The experience is powerful, and right now I don’t know if I have the capacity to bear it. The depth of these experiences feels to me like a very loud sound, from which I shrink. Too much sorrow... too much love.

The colors of the day are a deep red, recalling the blood of Christ. Festive decorations are removed from the church, leaving it simple and empty, with room for what is to come. The service begins with the procession recalling his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While it is filled with grandeur, there is a mood of solemn anticipation, because we know what will come next, just as Jesus knew. We must now confront our own destiny, just as Jesus confronted his.

In the midst of the service, the tone changes dramatically. As together we read the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, we must encounter what that story means for us, today. When the reading tells of the death of Jesus, we pause for a few minutes of silence, and kneel in reverence and reflection.

At this service there is a hymn which contains these words: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Despite my apprehension, I cannot resist. I am now fully in the experience of Holy Week.

When this dry soul those eyes shall see,
And drink the unsealed Source of Thee,
When Glory's sun faith's shades shall chase,
Then, for Thy veil, give me Thy face.

--Richard Crashaw, after Thomas Aquinas

Maundy Thursday

Thursday night’s service is very complex. On Maundy Thursday we commemorate the Last Supper, and a lot happened at the Last Supper. The most important thing is remembering the institution of the Eucharist. When we celebrate the Eucharist tonight, we will take the consecrated bread, which for us contains the presence of God, and carry it out of the church to another altar, an Altar of Repose, where it will remain until Friday. This year, I too have felt removed, absent, set apart somewhere in my own Altar of Repose.

Right in the middle of the service the entire congregation briefly adjourns to the parish hall and shares a ceremonial meal similar to the one they might have had that night, breaking bread together as they did. After this meal, most of us keep a fast until the end of the service on Good Friday.

Also that night, Jesus gave the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” So the mood of the service is intimate, suffused with warmth and love for one another. To demonstrate what he meant by that commandment, Jesus took the role of a servant and washed the feet of his disciples. Lloyd will repeat this action to call to mind his servant ministry, and wash the feet of members of the congregation. He has said that this is for him one of the most meaningful actions he does each year. It is a simple, loving, intimate thing and sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.

But when the meal had ended, Jesus was betrayed and arrested, and we also recall that this evening. The organ is kept silent until the Vigil on Saturday; the fact that we sing everything unaccompanied lends to the intimate feel of the service. After the meal, we return to the church, and in a stark ceremony we remove all ornaments and decorations from the altar and sanctuary, preparing it for Good Friday. The church ends up looking bare, empty. It is a mirror of the emptiness of my own soul.

The service ends very abruptly because it doesn’t really end here; it will continue tomorrow. By tradition, instead of filing out in an orderly way, everyone scatters in different directions, to recall how the disciples scattered and fled when Jesus was arrested.

During the night on Thursday, a Watch is kept before the consecrated bread, the presence of Christ, his body for us. The tradition comes from that night when Jesus was praying in the garden, awaiting his arrest, and Peter and James and John, his disciples, kept falling asleep. Can’t you watch with me even one hour? asked Jesus. So now we take turns, each to pray for an hour in the night before the sacrament. I love doing it, and sign up for 3am. In the silence of the night, in a darkened church, in a small circle of dim light from a few candles, with no distractions, I have had some of my best conversations with God. There is a suggested series of meditations I use, taking account of my life, dropping the barriers between me and God, being honest before him and admitting my need of him. In the darkness I suddenly have a fantasy that it is my body in the tabernacle, and God is the one keeping watch, waiting for my resurrection.

Heaven was his home,
but mine the tomb wherein he lay.

--Samuel Crossman ("Love Unknown")

Good Friday

On Friday at noon, we recall the death of Jesus in the traditional Good Friday service. The church, stripped of all ornament, is stark and bare; a visual shock. Yet the service that takes place here is wrapped with love. And that is the point: Love and Sorrow are inseparable. No matter how bare the church is, it is filled with Love. No matter how barren, how desolate your heart, Love is there. There is no place where Love cannot go. Even on this, the darkest of days, Love is here.

A cross is brought into the church. Behold the wood of the cross, the deacon sings, whereon was hung the world’s salvation. We respond: O come, let us worship.

We sing a motet by the 16th c. Spanish composer Victoria. The words in Latin are dulce lignum, dulces clavos, dulcia ferens pondera -- "sweetest wood, sweetest nails, sweetest weight is hung on thee." It seems a contradiction; how can the cross be sweet? Few non-Christians -- even few Christians -- understand why there is so much love in our celebration of Good Friday. But love is what it was all about. As I sang Victoria’s music, I felt so much love, I thought my heart would break. There is an old Hasidic story that says God wrote his name on the outside of the human heart, so that when the heart breaks, God’s love will fall inside. Well mine did, and it did.

We keep a ceremony called the Veneration of the Cross, in which we take turns to kneel before a crucifix and kiss the feet of the crucified one on the cross. Any other gesture of veneration is suitable, too, such as touching the feet of the corpus, or gazing upon it for a moment. It took me a few years to get into this ceremony, because it is so intimate. Now I find it necessary, as an expression of my love; the Watch the night before will have prepared my heart. It is well to acknowledge Jesus’ suffering, to recall that God himself suffered, and therefore God is in solidarity with human suffering. We remember that the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ death and rising is that we are reunited with God in the fullness of life, a life larger than this time and space. That is why this day is called Good.

Friday night we observe Tenebrae, the service of darkness, recalling the time Jesus lay in the tomb. We start with nine candles lighted, and chant a series of readings and psalms. After each one, one candle is extinguished, until at last the church is left in darkness. It is very dramatic. As the church is progressively darkened, I feel my spirit darkening as well.

In the service, we chant Psalm 88. The words mirror my own inner deadness. I have become like one who has no strength, lost among the dead. Do you work wonders for the dead? Will those who have died stand up and give you thanks?

I too am now entombed, stripped of everything of my own devising that might separate me from the love of God. In this emptiness of darkness, we are prepared for the light to come.

The hand of the Lord came upon me,
and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord
and set me down in the middle of a valley.
It was full of bones.
He led me all around them;
there were very many lying in the valley,
and they were very dry.
He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?"
I answered, "O Lord God, you know."

--Ezekiel 37:1-3

The Great Vigil of Easter

Saturday night is the Christian Passover. Our Saturday night service, the Great Vigil of Easter, our most important service of the year, is packed with Passover imagery. Jesus’ death and resurrection took place on the day of Passover. To Christians, the story of Passover is a “type,” a metaphor, foretelling Christ. We tell the story of Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, we sing the song of Moses, we even sing a derivative of “this is the night” that Jews would recognize. We believe that as the blood of a lamb caused the angel of death to pass over the Israelites, so the blood of Jesus, the lamb of God, saves us from the angel of death; and as the Israelites passed from bondage to freedom through the water of the Red Sea, so we pass from death to life through the water of baptism.

The Great Vigil of Easter begins in a church still dark following Tenebrae the night before when we extinguished the candles one by one. But this darkness is vibrant, with hushed excitement and anticipation. We turn off all the lights so that it is pitch black. In the darkness, a fire is kindled. This is no gentle flame; it roars to life. The fire blazes up in the dark as a symbol of the light of life, Christ rising from the dead. A large candle, the Paschal Candle, is lit from the fire, and carried through the church with the chant, “The light of Christ”. Everyone has a small candle which is lit from the Paschal Candle as the light spreads to each of us.

By the light of the candles, we recite the story of salvation. By the light of the Paschal Candle, the deacon sings an ancient chant that calls to mind the Passover imagery. Then we tell stories of salvation from the Old Testament -- Noah and the Flood, Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. In the early church, this service would have begun in the middle of the night, and the storytelling would have gone on throughout the night, as they recalled God’s saving deeds in history.

I am assigned to read the story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. I wonder if this was done deliberately, to make a point to me. Upon seeing the valley full of bones, Ezekiel said, “...and they were very dry.” I thought to myself, yes, that is me alright. Very dry. God asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” In my heart I turn to God and ask him back the same question, about myself. Ezekiel is asked to prophesy to the dry bones, which then take on flesh, and breath, and live. God then explains that the bones are a symbol for Israel, and declares “I will raise you from your graves; I will bring you home.” I turn to the Lord in my heart and ask, “When?”

Then I am to sing Psalm 30 in response to the reading. “You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead.” I sing lines that seem very distant to me. “O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health... you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.” I do not feel this, and must sing it on faith; in the hope that one day I will feel this way. If God could do it for a valley full of dry bones, why not for me?

Then new Christians, having now heard the story of salvation in history, are baptized and we all renew our baptismal covenant, reminding ourselves that we are in relationship with God, and this salvation we have heard about is ours. It is a joyous occasion and I have seen many new Christians in tears of joy as they begin their new life.

Then it’s officially Easter! Light has broken through the darkness and, in a flash of recognition, we know the Risen Lord. Even to me, it is truly glorious, bright and shining. We sing alleluia over and over, ring bells, and throw on all the lights. The place erupts in joy as we celebrate Christ rising from the dead, defeating death on our behalf. We celebrate this first Eucharist of Easter with all the festivity we can find, and we don’t stop for fifty days.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Today, I say the words. I appreciate the joy, even if I cannot feel it directly. I know it is there. Here in the grave, I can see it shining out there. Some day, when the time is right, I will rise.

A Love Song of John of the Cross

(sincere apologies to those who have seen this already)

Last Saturday night I participated in singing the premiere of a new work by Steven Sametz, Two Love Songs of St. John of the Cross. Steven wrote the songs following a conversation about my spiritual path. I had offered him two excerpts from John's poetry as the texts for the songs. The first of the two poems is the one after which this journal is titled, which I wrote about last September. I'd like to share the second one now.

As a spiritual director, John of the Cross wrote poetry for his directees. The poems were filled with captivating imagery, and easy to remember. Each line of each poem contained a deeper meaning, and John wrote out detailed explanations of his poems, line by line. Thus the reader could easily call to mind a rich and meaningful teaching, by remembering a simple phrase.

This poem, two stanzas from Cantico espiritual (The Spiritual Canticle) is typical of John's writing, in that it stands equally well as a romantic love song (a rather torrid one, in fact) or as a spiritual song. John of the Cross was a lover—in love with God; and he counsels us to approach faith as a deepening relationship of love. His wisdom has continued to guide spiritual seekers for over 400 years.

Mi Amado, las montañas,
los valles solitarios nemorosos,
las ínsulas extrañas,
los ríos sonorosos,
el silbo de los aires amorosos,
la noche sosegada
en par de los levantes de la aurora,
la música callada,
la soledad sonora,
la cena que recrea y enamora.

My Beloved, the mountains,
and solitary wooded valleys,
strange islands,
and resounding rivers,
the whistling of love-stirring breezes,
the tranquil night
at the time of the rising dawn,
silent music,
sounding solitude,
the supper that refreshes, and deepens love.

This is that sweet song, in which the soul sings of her Beloved. He is strong and magnificent as a mountain; comforting as the cool, shady woods; filled with unexpected delights like an exotic island; possesses her powerfully like a roaring river; thrills her with a touch like a breeze on the skin; fills her and satisfies her like a delicious meal; opens her eyes to the unexpected, like the dawn. As they rest together in the tranquil night, the soul delights in these feelings like being filled with glorious music that can be heard truly only in silence. There is a luxurious silence, and wonderful music in which we, too, may simply breathe, rest and delight in the presence of Love.

As an aside, I found an interesting article about the resonance of Sufi thought in John of the Cross, living as he did in 16th century Spain with its Islamic influences.


My approach to Lent has changed drastically over the years. Like most people, as a child I was taught to give something up, without being taught why. It came out like a New Year's resolution, something that had to do with self-improvement, like dieting. Usually you gave up something lovely, like chocolate. As if chocolate was bad, as if anything that good had to be wrong. It seemed like the point was to intentionally make yourself miserable for 40 days. No one seemed to know why, or what you were supposed to get out of it.

Later, I began to think that it had something to do with developing your willpower so that you could resist Satan. You took on a Lenten discipline like an exercise, to prove you had the strength to say no to temptation. Clearly, this was during my (thankfully brief) evangelical period.

Even after I got past that phase, I still thought Lent had something to do with self-denial. Not in the sense of sharing Christ's suffering. It was in a period of my spiritual life when I went overboard with repentance. Self-denial, to me, was equivalent to self-punishment, which I was certain I needed, and certain God wanted.

I broke out of that pattern after escaping from an abusive marriage. One year, I told that cruel image of God I'd created to fuck off, and gave up self-denial for Lent. It was the best Lent I'd ever had.

But I still thought Lent was supposed to be about self-improvement, or self-actualization perhaps. Maybe it was about improving my relationship with God, or even just with myself. A time to focus on my spiritual life and make it better. In those days, I really thought that was something I should do.

Once that theme developed a bit, I thought Lent was about right living. I thought that Lent was a time to put one's life into proper balance. During this period, instead of giving something up, I would take something on, such as reading, or an extra devotion, or acts of charity.

None of these things are wrong. For someone else, anyway. But it wasn't until much later that Lent began to work for me.

Lent has now become for me a time of purgation, in the most classic sense: stripping away all the barriers to my intimacy with the Divine. As I think about my need for the Holy One, I try to identify what is holding me back, what is getting in the way. What keeps me from loving, and allowing myself to feel loved, deeply and fully, by the Lover of Souls? What's in the way? Is it fear? shame? inattention? busyness? grandiosity? anger?

For me, Lent is no longer about my self-discipline, will power, righteousness, or moral purity. It's not about earning points by doing good deeds. It's not about fixing or improving anything. It's not really anything that I do. I am not the one who removes those barriers. It is an act of grace. God does it. I just have to stop resisting.

Any Lenten activity for me comes from living into God's radical, unequivocal acceptance and love for me. I ask myself, if there were no barrier to my intimacy with the Holy One, how would my life be different? What would I do? Then, I just try to go there... and live as if I knew, without reservation, that the Lover of Souls loved me.
stained glass

The Last Time

I have not written too much here recently; I have been depressed over the loss of my feline companion, and also fighting a respiratory ailment which, while not serious, has left me feeling even more inert.

Four days before Jeoffry suddenly became ill, I noticed him doing certain things he had not done in awhile. For instance, one night he slept on my bed. He'd slept on my bed every night for many years, until about three years ago when he stopped (no doubt due to my increasingly loud snoring). That night, I was surprised to feel the familiar soft thud as he hopped up on the bed, and felt him curl up behind my knee as he used to, purring contentedly. I didn't understand why he suddenly decided to do it again, but I was grateful for his presence. A day or two later, he did another thing he hadn't done in ages; he climbed up on my chest while I was watching television, and nestled there with his head on my shoulder. After that he went outside and visited with an elderly neighbor he had not seen in a long time; and made his rounds in the yard more thoroughly than usual, stopping to survey his kingdom at length from several different vantage points. Another day he nagged me to play one of our wrestling games, in which he would end up rolling gleefully off the back of the couch to land in a heap on the cushions... which he seemed to think incredibly fun. All of these had been favorite activities of his, in which he had not engaged recently.

The next day, he suddenly developed heart failure. Three days later he died. When I look back on those few days, now, it seems as if he had been making a farewell tour of life. I think he knew that his time on earth was ending.

This made me start thinking about beginnings and endings. When we are young, life is a series of beginnings. Our first step, first words, first day of school, first date, first child. We start college, we start a new life, we start over, we start many things.

At some point we reach an age when life consists more of endings than beginnings. There is less future in my life now, and much more past. There is not as much of life left ahead of you. I was surprised one day to realize that I probably will not become the person I always thought I would be; time has run out on some of my dreams. As more and more people leave my life -- most recently my beloved Jeoffry -- I am very aware of those endings. There is an old thought about hermits, that a life in enclosure is something like being entombed. I understand where that thought comes from. When I close myself up in my apartment for days at a time, I do feel a bit entombed, as if it is a preview of the final leavetaking that will happen some day. Like Jeoffry, I, too, have become conscious of doing more and more things for the last time. Maybe this is not the last time, but there is a last time for everything.

Life is, by its nature, transient. There will be endings, good and bad. I would really like to be able to do what Jeoffry did: honor the people and activities in my life that have been important to me, with a good ending. When I knew Jeoffry was getting old, I became especially mindful when I held him, wondering each time if it would be the last time. I let my senses memorize how he felt in my arms, the softness of his fur, the gentle rise of his breathing, the shape of his little feet, the sound of his purring. I should be as mindful of everything and everyone I value. Since I cannot usually know when the actual last time will be, perhaps I will begin treating every time as if it were the last time, and savor that last time, as fully as I can.


Don't surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes soft,
My voice so tender,

My need of God

Khwāja Šams ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī, c. 1320-1389

my sadness

On Friday my beloved kitty died of heart failure. He was my faithful companion for 14 1/2 years, my alarm clock, my reality check, who loved me and made me laugh and kept me from taking myself too seriously. I tried my best to make him happy. I hope he was happy. I have been so sad since Friday, I hardly feel like doing anything. I know that he is safe in God's hands, but I miss him terribly.
  • Current Mood
    crushed crushed
quire westminster

The danger of rules

Composing my Rule of Life for my application to the Diocese has set me to thinking a lot about rules in general.

I know that for many people Christian faith is about rules. They see the Bible as "a blueprint for life" which seems to mean that it is something of a rule book with directions for right living: do this, don't do that.

I certainly will not criticize any Christian who hungers and thirsts after righteousness. Jesus emphasized that they are blessed. May God grant us all the courage to take responsibility for our behavior and become the best people we can be.

However sometimes I think there may be an inherent danger in focusing too much of one's attention on following rules. Leave aside, for the moment, the constant undercurrent of guilt and anxiety about making an error, and the effect it seems to have on interpersonal relationships when people focus that anxiety on others. More seriously, if you are not careful, you could begin to believe that your behavior has the power to influence God's opinion of you. In that way of thinking, if you follow the rules, you'll be right with God; if you don't follow the rules, you'll end up in Hell. You may believe that you have the power to make the Holy One not love you; or even that you can control your own salvation.

Grace doesn't work that way.

I am finding that many people I talk to misunderstand the purpose of a Rule of Life. We're not talking rules as in rule books. It is a Rule in the sense of a ruler: a way of measuring. It articulates, not so much what I promise to do, but my understanding of what God is doing in me. These are not the things I must do to be saved and to earn the love of God. These are the results: the evidence of my love affair with the Holy One.

By tradition, a Rule of Life contains vows, and that is, I think, the source of the confusion. I wish I could change that, but if I wish to travel the more traditional path within the Church, I think I'll have to accept that traditional formulary.