Monday, January 25, 2016

the unexpected retreat

Times Square Jan 2016
In early January I came upon an interesting symposium put on by the wonderful folks at City Seminary in New York City. The topic, Women in Leadership and Ministry, wasn't what really grabbed me, but I recognised one of the speakers and read up on a few of the others scheduled to give talks and thought I would really like to meet these people and hear what they have to say. Part of Saturday was to be spent on a prayer walk (what they call Pray and Break Bread) in Harlem. I really wanted to get in on that since we have done something similar in Montreal. So I made my plans (which took nearly a whole day because I had a tight schedule I was working with and a limited budget) and contacted some friends who said, yes, we'd love to see you when you come, so I decided to arrive a day early. Everything was set for an enriching time in New York City from January 21-23. And then winter storm Jonas appeared on the scene.

On Thursday I was about 5 hours into a 10-hour train ride when I got an email informing me that due to the approaching storm, the symposium was being postponed to some future date. I read the email again because it was a bit of a shock and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. What was happening? I had some pretty high hopes for the connections I would make and the input I would receive on this trip. I was also hoping that somewhere in the next 3 days my muddy way would become a bit clearer, that I would not feel so lost. Now, getting the news that my symposium was not going to happen made me feel more lost than ever. What was I doing on this train?

Since I had two pre-paid hotel nights in Manhattan and a return flight already booked, I decided that there was no use in turning back. A few days in NYC are always a treat. After I arrived at Penn Station and checked into my hotel a few blocks away, I walked to Times Square and took in the sights and sounds. I had supper overlooking the square and thought about what to do for the next few days. The next morning I contacted my friends and they let me know they were in the midst of a rather busy time and regrettably, could not meet up with me. Okay, then. It seemed like I was on my own with no plans. I asked God, "What now?" It soon became clear that this was a perfect opportunity to embark on a bit of a retreat - something I had been meaning to do for some time but never got around to.

I started it off by reading Parker Palmer's Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods. So many parts of his writing resonated with me: the idea of being alone and being content, the demands and worries which arrive uninvited, the desire for internal peace combined with the tendency to engage in spiritual striving, the hypocrisies of my life, regret about mistakes and screw-ups, and the notion that one can do a simple task and it be enough. I asked myself the question: What do I really desire right now? And the answer was simple: to be free from the heavy burden of the never-ending demands of school, church, and life for a bit. So I made a simple agenda: find places of silence and solitude and peace in the most densely populated city in North America and make plenty of time and space for contemplation. Take no thought for the upcoming months or weeks or even days. Live in the moment and find Jesus within and without me.

A few phrases from my reading in Romans 8 stood out and became themes for my time in NYC: "Instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us... Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God."

So I wandered through the city and happened upon the New York City Public Library. Inside, I found beautiful, open spaces, artwork, and plenty of reading rooms in which I could sit and enjoy a book. And so I did. I pulled out Thomas Merton's autobiography and read. After an hour or so, I received an email from a family member asking how things were going and if my flight home was still okay. Hmmm. I hadn't even thought of that. I checked my flight status and indeed, my flight was cancelled. Interesting. I felt no panic, no urge to do anything about it immediately. I still had a few more hours before I could check into my hotel for that night (I had reservations at two different hotels due to drastic changes in rates from night to night) so I continued reading.

Mid-afternoon, I walked over to the east side of Manhattan and checked into my hotel. All attempts to contact a living person at the airline were futile, and despite the automated attendant's promise to call me at the hotel within the hour, nothing materialised. I decided that waiting for a phone call that may or may not come was not how I wanted to spend my time, so I looked on the map and found that St. Michael's Cathedral was just a few blocks away, as was the East River. Those sounded like great places to visit on a retreat, so I stepped onto the streets once again. The cathedral was impressive with its large marble arches, ornate carvings in shades of white, and plenty of people milling about, some in prayer, some taking pictures. I sat for a bit and then wandered around for a bit, admiring the beauty. On my way to St. Michaels I had noticed a more humble church which had a line-up of street people outside waiting for the overnight shelter to open up. It had caught my attention, so I decided to see if it was still open.

I trekked for a few blocks in the cold wind and entered St. Bartholomew's Church. Inside the door, a simple wooden arrow pointed to the right and featured the words: Service in the Chapel. I sidestepped the arrow and entered the sanctuary, It was dark and woody with square brown tiles on the floor, the stained glass muted by the darkness inside and out. I sat for a bit, enjoying the warmth and closeness of the space, then decided to check out the service. A side chapel with a large painting of Jesus and Mary at the nativity dominated the front wall. The pastor (rector) was chatting with two people in the congregation so I took a seat near the back. The Friday evening prayer service was short (20 minutes) and taken from the Common Book of Prayer. It moved along at a fair clip; everyone seemed much more familiar with the format than I was, and I struggled to find all the readings in time, missing some of the cues. Nonetheless, it was a welcome point of contact with God and strangers. After the service, the rector introduced himself to me, as did the other two congregants. I told him I was from Montreal and that the event for which I came to NYC had been cancelled. He said, "Well, I hope you find some fun things to do while you are here." I replied, "I'm not looking for fun things. I'm looking for some contemplation." He just stared at me for a moment; apparently this was something he did not hear every day. Then he suggested a visit to another church in New York. I thanked him for the service and left.

I followed 51st street and found a narrow bridge which crossed over FDR Drive to a walkway along the East River. The wind coming off the black water was cold, but the view was stunning. I meandered up the coast for a bit, inspired by the contrast between the dark beauty and the bright lights, then headed back to my hotel. There was still no word from the airline. I tried again but couldn't get through. I checked the train schedule and saw there was a train back to Montreal the next morning, so I booked a ticket and then headed to a nearby soup eatery, sampling a very tasty bourbon butternut soup before I decided on a bowl of their really yummy 12-vegetable soup.

Walking back to my hotel, I realised that for the first time in many years, my mind was not cluttered with the weight of a huge project or the many little tasks that fell under my responsibility or the daunting task of applying for future opportunities. For one whole day I had been content to eat tasty meals, wander for miles and miles in the city, read some Merton, and enjoy the beauty of quiet places in a noisy city. Though I had no clearer sense of where I was headed, I didn't feel lost anymore. As Tolkein wrote, "Not all who wander are lost." That whole day I had not thought of all the decisions and tasks before me, had not even made them a subject of prayer. Instead, I cultivated contentment and that was a blessed change. To have a quiet, content mind at peace with its situation, that is quite a gift.

Back at the hotel, I printed out my train ticket, looked out the window at the snow beginning to fall, and set my alarm for 6:20 am. I did not know what the next day would bring and I was totally okay with that. The next morning I left the hotel just after 7 am and the streets were slushy, heavy with snow. For the most part, the sidewalks were not cleared and the wind whipped wet flakes of snow into my face making it difficult to see. After 38 minutes of trudging through the nearly deserted streets of Manhattan, I arrived at Penn Station, covered in wet snow. I checked the departures and the train to Montreal was one of the few not cancelled. I stopped to buy a few snacks for the trip and boarded the train. During my trip back to Montreal, I received another email from the airline letting me know that the flight they had re-booked me on was also cancelled and they were still working to get me home. I smiled and returned to my Merton book.

Arriving back in Montreal Saturday night, I realised that nearly everything that was supposed to happen on the trip ended up not happening: there was no symposium with interesting talks, I didn't meet up with my friends, I didn't make any connections with theological people, I didn't get to see Pray and Break Bread in action, and I didn't travel outside lower Manhattan. And yet, I knew that everything that was supposed to happen, had happened. I was more content, less stressed, more aware of Jesus in and around me, less focused on my own life and its challenges, and more sure than ever that the path ahead would be full and meaningful and precious, no matter what opportunities opened up for me or what doors closed. It seems ironic that I found a place of quietness, peace, and contemplation in NYC, but it also seems very appropriate. The context of the city is where I live my life, and if I cannot find stillness for my soul in that busy setting, I am indeed lost.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I don't know...and that's okay

Image result for i don't know what to do
Image from
There is a lot of "I don't know" in my life right now. I don't know what I will be doing in three months. I don't know what kind of job I want to pursue. I don't know if I am willing to move to get the job I don't know I want. I don`t know if I I am ready for an academic career and all the pressure that comes with it. I don't even know what's for lunch tomorrow. This place of not-knowing is not an easy place to dwell and I feel a bit lost.

My first instinct when I am floundering is not to pick up some philosophy text, but this afternoon it was cold and snowy and windy in Montreal, a perfect day to sit at my kitchen table with a cup of tea and read some theological philosophy in preparation for my class tomorrow. And today's reading happened to be an article by Paul W. Gooch on the topic of "Faithful Knowing." [1] Basically, he writes about what it means "to know" within the context of faith and how this fits into the general knowing that we do as human beings. Two of the main questions the author asks are: What is it we claim to know as people of faith? and How do we know it?

Gooch starts out by stating that, "The knowledge and wisdom of the life of faith cannot be reduced to propositions that are the conclusions to arguments for the existence of a divine being." What he means is that faithful knowing is not propositional knowledge, that is, it is not knowledge which identifies this is that, or knowledge developed as a skill set (know-how), or knowledge as recognition (I know what that is). These are all valid ways of knowing, but they are not the primary methods for knowing anything about God.

There is another kind of epistemological category (and Gooch concludes it is the one which is preeminent in theology) and that is personal knowledge. This does not merely refer to awareness (I know who that is) nor it is a nod to having met someone in person. Personal knowledge means that we know the person for who they are. To know someone personally means that the knowledge is mutual (we know them and they know us), it is positive (we are not there to do them harm or merely get something from them), it approaches intimacy (we open up about our hopes, desires, anxieties, etc.), and it respects the other's freedom and integrity.

What personal knowing requires is trust, and Gooch positions trust as that which sits between knowing and not-knowing, almost like a bridge. Personal knowing is never complete because we never have total access to what the other person is thinking, doing, or feeling, This is what makes long-term relationships so meaningful; there is always more to be discovered about the other person. What we find in the Psalms are narratives of personal knowing which speak of divine agency, care, and love, of longing and lament, and of crises of trust and frustration about not-knowing. And always present in these texts is the invitation for Israel to trust God in the not-knowing because of what they do know about God. Similarly, what we see in Jesus is also an invitation to personal knowing, to know the Father as the Son knows the Father. We must be careful not to cast the historical person of Jesus as a divine, all-knowing being who never struggled to trust God in the not-knowing. His prayers before his death indicate otherwise. What Jesus shows us is that personally knowing the Father means we can have confidence in God's love and care even when we find ourselves in the dark abyss of not-knowing.

To summarise Gooch's article (because that's what students do): what do we know as people of faith? We know a person (God) through personal knowledge which involves knowing as well as not-knowing. And how do we know it? Through encounter - historical, narrative accounts as well as our own experience. We come to know the character of God through the ongoing dramatic story of God.

It is always interesting to note which words jump out at someone when they are reading a text because it usually reveals something about the state of their heart and mind at the moment. In my reading this afternoon, the phrase which grabbed my attention was this: "Jesus is living presence." Really simple. But the fact that I latched onto this phrase, that it made my heart leap when I read it, let me know that what I am really longing for in this unsettled place is not answers to all my "I don't know's" but the presence of Jesus himself. In this lies all my hope and peace. I read a quote recently from Gary Best: "The home we've never known but always longed for is found in Jesus." Let me find my way home.

[1] Paul W. Gooch, "Faithful Knowing," in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith, eds.Paul K. Moser and Michael T. McFall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 19-38.

Monday, January 11, 2016

a philosophy student's prayer

Anselm of Canterbury. Image from

This afternoon I was doing my reading for a Philosophy course I am auditing this term (pretty dry, heady stuff at times) when I came across these few paragraphs from Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). The first sentence released a bunch of mental tension that I didn't even know I was holding on to. The second sentence caused me to breathe deeply and acknowledge my longing to be unburdened. The third sentence undid me. This is my prayer as a student, this is my desire as a teacher, this is my constant necessity as a church leader. Pray it with me, if you like.

Come on now little man [one], get away from your worldly occupations for a while, escape from your tumultuous thoughts. Lay aside your burdensome cares and put off your laborious exertions. Give yourself over to God for a little while, and rest for a while in Him. Enter into the cell of your mind, shut out everything except God and whatever helps you to seek Him once the door is shut. Speak now, my heart, and say to God, "I seek your face; your face, Lord, I seek." ...

Let me see your light, even if I see it from afar or from the depths. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to this seeker. For I cannot seek you unless you teach me how, nor can I find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you in desiring you, and desire you in seeking you. Let me find you in loving you and love you in finding you.

I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that you have created in me this your image, so that I can remember you, think about you and love you. But it is so worn away by sins, so smudged over by the smoke of sins, that it cannot do what it was created to do unless you renew and reform it. I do not even try, Lord, to rise up to your heights, because my intellect does not measure up to that task; but I do want to understand in some small measure your truth, which my heart believes in and loved. Nor do I seek to understand so that I can believe, but rather I believe so that I can understand. For I believe this too, that "unless I believe I shall not understand" (Isa. 7:9). [1]

Our contexts of work, study, faith community, and even family can become so focused on productivity or providing for others that we cease to regularly practice "coming away." The pull of demanding schedules and needy people is hard to resist, and yet, we must. I must. Periods where I shut out everything else but God bring me back to the truth: I cannot do any of these things unless the divine Spirit of the Creator breathes life into me, so let me "breathe deep, breathe deep the breath of God." [2]

[1] Anselm, Proslogion, Chapter 1, excerpts.
[2] Breathe Deep the Breath of God by Lost Dogs. 1996.

Monday, January 04, 2016

all that Jazz

Jazz, October 2015
"Me and you, Jazz," I often said to my furry, feline companion as I approached another day of working on my doctoral dissertation, "We're going to get this thing done." She was polite enough not to correct my horrendous grammar (it should be "you and I") and most of the time, listened patiently whenever I fretted about a troublesome paragraph or an uncooperative source. To the uninitiated, her frequent yawning during my theological diatribes and her habit of avoiding eye contact by engaging in incessant grooming might have been interpreted as boredom or a lack of interest, but I knew better. She was personally invested in my academic progress. Late on December 17, I handed off a good draft of my thesis. Job well done, kitty.

Serving in a support capacity for a doctoral degree was not the only accomplishment of this extraordinary feline. In her 17.5 years on this earth, she lived in two provinces, moved four times, took two road trips to Manitoba (each clocking in at 30+ hours), waited out a snowstorm in a hotel in Chicago, graced multiple homes with her bigger-than-life presence while we vacationed, welcomed (and intimidated) untold visitors and house-guests, and frightened numerous veterinarians. Aside from vacuum cleaners and small, noisy children, she feared nothing and no none. When we first got her as a kitten, she escaped out the front door, ran into the street, then arched her back and hissed at an oncoming car. Because of this episode, and the fact that she seldom backed down from a confrontation, I took to walking her on a leash outside, mostly for her own protection. She became a novelty (dare I say celebrity?) in any neighbourhood we strolled through.

Jazz was diagnosed with cancer (of the anal gland, if you must know) in mid-August. In general, she showed little sign of distress for four months. On Monday, December 21, things changed. She had no appetite and barely moved all day. She was hot to the touch. It seemed like her time had come. I took her to the vet the next day for her goodbye journey. She hated going to the vet. True to form, she protested and clawed and even bit me when I removed her from the carrier at the hospital of horror. The sudden surge of energy was soon spent and she lay on the table, breathing heavily. The vet examined her and told me that at most, Jazz had a few days left, so I signed the form and the doctor gave us 15 minutes to say goodbye. I had been preparing myself for this moment for four months, so it had not come as a surprise, but it was still hard. Hard to see her suffer. Hard to see her wide eyes filled with I don't know what: anger? pain? dullness? I felt a twinge of guilt, like I was rushing her, but I knew there would be no reversal of her condition; she was only going to deteriorate and there was no point in prolonging her pain. I stroked her, kissed the spot of orange fur on her forehead, laughed at her characteristic antics, told her I loved her, and said over and over again, "Courage, my love." As much to myself as to her.

The next day I got on a plane to spend the holidays with family. It was good to be in a festive environment celebrating life and love with those I hold dear, but I knew returning home to an empty house would require some adjustment. As I sit here and write, I still expect Jazz to come padding into my office and peek around the corner of my desk, eager for some attention or perhaps inquiring about the possibility of tuna for lunch. It is strange not to fill the water dish first thing in the morning, not to have to scoop out the litter every day, not to have a furry face to greet us when we come home. It is also a relief not to wipe up the mess from her frequent vomiting, not to clean up after her occasional bleeding, not to disinfect the swollen mass on her hind quarters, and not to wonder if she has died while we were sleeping or away at work.

For the most part, I am not sad, but there is a void, an unsettling of household life as I have known it for the past 17 years. I am in a transitional time in my professional life as well: my thesis is now in the hands of my advisers and I am set to graduate this spring. After 8 years of studying (as an independent, master's, and doctoral student), I have nothing on the horizon. In fact, the winter semester is a blank slate in many ways, though I have a few things I am working on. There's that void again, that unsettling.

When I pray, I get the sense that the void is a holy place; the chaos and unsettling is where the spirit of God broods. In the uncertainty I hear the refrain, "He's got the whole world in his hands." And in the silence, in the uncomfortable stillness, I hear the words, "Silent night, holy night." The awful unknown is swallowed up in the unknowable One, and in that place of unknowing, I hear God whisper in my ear, "Courage, my love."