Friday, November 25, 2011

Carbonated Souls (2011 Retreat Reflections Part 1)

Silence is a constant source of restoration. Yet its healing power does not come cheaply. It depends on our willingness to face all that is withing us, light and dark, and to heed all the inner voices that make themselves heard in silence. (From Chapter 27, "Silence," of the Rule of the Society of St John the Evangelist)
It's been a week and a half since I've returned from my retreat to the monastery of the Society of St John the Evangelist (an Episcopal monastic order). Since I'm a member of the Fellowship of St John, their association of lay and ordained oblates who pray for the work of the Society and try to live in harmony with the SSJE's rule of life and since going on retreat to Catholic monasteries leaves me unable to fully participate in the Holy Communion, it was the best place to go.

I made my reservations and plans months ago. I packed my bags, threw in some books from the library and off I flew. There was nothing specific I wanted to meditate on or contemplate beyond, "Maybe I should be a monk..."

Anxious about arriving on time, anxious about navigating Boston's public transit system with baggage in tow, anxious about walking through Cambridge in the dark, I arrived at the door of the monastery and was kindly greeted by the guesthouse manager. He showed me to my room. We passed by the chapel where Mass was already being celebrated and I could smell the incense. How I wanted to be there for the sacred mysteries! I plopped down my bags, washed my sweaty face and waited for Mass to be over to go to dinner. Dinner was taken in silence save for a brother reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and soon after was Compline, the bedtime prayers of the church.

The next day was a retreat day for the brothers; the noonday Mass and Evening Prayer were to be the only services conducted, leaving me plenty of time to nap. The brother in charge of guests said he'd meet with me after the brothers' retreat day.

For that day and a half, I was immersed in silence. Other than chanting the prayers and psalms, silence reigned. And in that silence I found myself bubbling with anger, judgment and discontent. In that holy space I was overcome by emotion that was taking me farther away from God than I'd been before my arrival. In realizing what was going on, I recognized that God had been making plans where I had not. I hadn't been planning what I'd be studying and reflecting on during my retreat, but God sure had. God wanted me to take in some lessons about humility, letting go, and embracing joy.

When I met with the brother the next day, he remarked that there was a marked shift from the day before. The day before my anger and judgment were displayed on my face, but the next day it seemed lighter. In working to find an explanation for myself about why I'd felt so angry, I remarked that it felt "like I was a bottle of soda which suddenly had no cap"; in the silence all the emotions and feelings and bad habits that had been kept inside by sheer force of pressure and busy-ness came floating to the surface.

I had had an inkling that those feelings were there. They popped up in some form every once in a while, but I didn't expect that they'd launch such a strong assault! And on retreat, no less! I was supposed to be enjoying a refreshing break, a holy silence, an enlightening period of meditation and prayer. I was supposed to be better than that.

That's not how soul-work goes. In the midst of retreat I had no image to protect. I had nothing to do (the monks didn't care if I read my meditations, my friends didn't know what books I'd packed along, and I was more than capable of napping most of the time while I was there). No responsibilities at all. With all this nothing suddenly I was alone in the presence of God, surrounded though I was by the Church. In this one-on-one with God I could start to let go of things, but first I had to know that there were things I was holding onto unexpectedly.

In silence we might just get a glimpse of the Holy. We might just see ourselves in a mirror, and if we wisely refrain from judgment we might get a chance to be born anew. When I noticed how strongly the anger, judgment and frustration were affecting me, God had me look at myself without judgment (or, well, with less judgment than I am capable of). I had to laugh- God certainly had to laugh at watching me fold my arms in silent indignation while I was judging in my heart.

Certainly the jet lag had a role in my state. Certainly being a stranger in a strange land had a role, too. And suddenly being silent and alone in my thoughts had a hand in it, too. Those might have been just the right kinds of pressure to crack the seal on my lid so that some of the negatives that had been dissolved in me could bubble up and out.

Now the struggle is to dissolve something else in me; who likes flat soda all that much? I wonder: who could make me joyously effervescent and bubbly, a refreshing drink made from the waters of life and the breath of the Spirit?

Jesus Christ, the Soda Bottler? The Carbonator of Faithful Souls? Apt image, maybe.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

All Souls' Day - But Which Souls?

Today is All Souls' Day. It follows on All Saints' Day, when the church remembers all the faithful departed who have stood out to us for lives that especially gave us glimpses of the Holy.

All Souls' Day, then, is for everyone else in the church who has died. People who have struggled to live the faith, those lured by the temptations of the world, those whose faith is known to God alone. Today we remember that the assembly in Heaven will be larger than those on the "official" guest list we have on Earth. Who knows who might be there! Will it be many? Will it be few? I can only imagine that Heaven will be full because God is gracious and loving, merciful to the least of us.

But what about animals?

Today I read a heart-breaking story about a dog, Duncan, who saved his owner's life by barking to alert him to a fire. Duncan, sadly, did not survive; he was found curled up in his master's bed where he went when he was afraid. The thought of this dog, so faithful to his owner, dying in fear as flames surrounded him filled me to the brim with sadness. Duncan was also a boxer mix, and boxers always have a soft spot in my heart.

But what about Duncan?

For those whose Heaven is small, Duncan has ceased to exist. Because he was not human, he had nothing eternal in him. He was not in the image of God; therefore he is no more. Their Heaven is too small for God to fit.

For others, Duncan sits waiting at the "Rainbow Bridge" (Wikipedia article), waiting for his master to come. His afterlife is incomplete until his owner, Scott, has passed into death. Duncan is happy, except for one thing: he misses his owner. As kind as this image is, it leaves Duncan incomplete. His joy is half-finished, and it leaves God out of the picture. God loves Duncan deeply.

So could he be in Heaven?

Yes, yes, yes. In reading the Psalms the praise of God's mercy shines through. Psalm 145 declares that "The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made" (v. 9). Psalm 147 reminds us that God gives all the animals their sustenance; God's grace is over his entire creation.

Jesus preached, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Luke 12:6-7). Yes, in the hierarchy of values humans are worth more than animals but that is far from making animals without value! Why else would God make a covenant with not only Noah but with all the animals saved in the Ark (Genesis 9:8-17)? God cares for the fate of all creation, not just humans.

Humankind may be special in God's sight for our capacity to create, to choose the Way of Everlasting Life, to live into holiness and kindness right now, but all creation is still loved by God. If God did not love all creation, it would only be for our sake that creation endures. It would only be because humans still existed that God did not extinguish creation like a candle flame. God's plan is to redeem and consecrate his creation.

We human beings mourn over the death of beloved animal friends and pray for them. That is a glimpse of God's deep well of mercy. To pray for the fate of a humble dog? To attribute to him human characteristics of love, loyalty, devotion, fear, to make this dog a he and not an it? In our best moments, our animals participate in our humanity. They become friends with personalities. They participate in our humanity by our invitation and therefore take on the "image of God" that God has created in us.

Does God ignore it when we pray for others? Could God possibly ignore a plea to remember his humble creation who seemed to live a more Godly life than we do? Of course not.

God loves his creation deeply and will not abandon it to death. Death will not have the last answer; the fear that Duncan had in his final moments will not be the end of it. No, no, I refuse to even consider that terror and agony and isolation will ever have the final say. Christ takes this agony and terror and abandonment into himself and took it to his grave. It is all brought to God. But Christ rose from death on the third day and is robed in glory and majesty to wipe the tear from every eye! "To the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever! Amen!" (Jude 1:25)

So, Duncan, canis Dei, rejoice now, and enter into Master Jesus' rest.

May all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.