Recycling a sermon I preached almost thirty years ago –

Between Two Mountains and Beginning Lent, 1992, All Saints’. San Francisco

One of the things I do for sustenance and substance is to live and work as a resident minister at the University of San Francisco. This means I have an apartment on the sixth floor of an undergraduate dormitory to do what one brochure calls a “ministry of presence.” I meet, enjoy, work with, serve, students in my place or their room or the hallway or the dining room or the laundry room, at the library or the gym or at an evening weekday mass or in the elevator. It is pretty informal, unstructured. But sometimes there are things like field trips and yesterday we had two: in the morning we went out to Lincoln Park for a guided tour the refurbished Palace of the Legion of honor and last night we saw Anna DeVere Smith in a performance of “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992″ in between I napped. It was a pretty full day. And then it hit me late last night that the events of the day, the things we’ve heard and seen, were like the geography of the lessons for today.

It is not difficult to see the two mountains in the Old Testament and the Gospel as paintings, though actually I can never read anything about Moses on Mount Sinai without seeing a movie spectacular. Mention the 10 Commandments and I see great clouds, thunder and lightning, big music, Charlton Heston and Vista-Vision! It is important to note the Sinai is a part of the background for the mount of the Transfiguration and the gospel lesson. The gospel seen as a kind of icon. It looks backward to Sinai as it looks forward to the resurrection. The mount of the Transfiguration’s: Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Now I see this without cinematic affects, but more with the pure clarity of a mountain on a spring morning. No music, but very fresh air; a clear, deep, eloquent silence. The scene is a timeless moment, same time as and history as God sees it, a rich resolved tapestry where love prevails. A deep and profound silence. I think of the opening lines of “Sunday in the Park with George.” “Order, design, composition, tension, balance, light, harmony.” 

It is natural to take a deep breath and say, “Yes, this is as it should be.” And it is tough not to feel a little grandiose in this scene. Yesterday coming back from the Legion, although balance and harmony, all those beautiful paintings, great carving, the Rodin sculptures. the curves of the building itself all affected me. Riding home on the 38 bus I saw people’s paintings, was more was aware of more of the life and harmony of who we are, I felt like I was looking at the world as an artist does. It felt like a kind of grace by association. I started to redesign Geary Street.

And that’s why I can relate to go to proactive Saint Peter who speaks up, as ever, in the Gospel. Always saying the wrong thing, good old Peter, the original extrovert. Earlier in Matthew he had gotten into a disagreement with Jesus about the forthcoming death in Jerusalem. Peter, “this must never happen!” Later he will tell Jesus, “I will never desert or deny you!” Here it is, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish I will make three dwellings.” Grace by declaration is such an Anglican thing too. Let’s arrange the truth, set it to music put the flowers over there, and now we bow. Good St. Peter, his problem is that he is always ready to break in and talk too much, to wrap it up too nice and too soon, for there is always more.

So finally God interrupts him, “this is my son, the beloved, listen to him. And when the disciples heard this they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” For it is terrifying to listen to the word of God, enfleshed in the world, “Listen to him.”

And listen to him in Golgotha, the last mountain. When we’re heading for in 40+ days and nights. The terrible fact of the cross, the deepest obscenity, noontime of the hottest, foulest, longest day of the world. Listen to him, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Terrifying not just because his death but ours as well. The death of hope, of change, the death of the best picture of what we look like and why and how we love. How can we respond?

As T.S. Eliot writes in The Love song of J Alfred Prufrock:

“And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin

When I’m pinned and wriggling on the wall

Then how should I begin

to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume?”

How can we presume to respond to the cross? 

Last night I almost walked out on Anna Deveare Smith. I told myself it was because I needed to get home and finish the sermon for this morning, but it was really because of her show: a one-woman performance re-creating the cacophony of the LA riots. All the different voices of anger and sadness, innovation and denial, justice, compassion and hope. All the different people separated by colour and  class, geography, prejudice, and pain, crying out for reconciliation. The same cry really: “My  God, why have you forsaken me?”

And after coming home in the front seat of a cab – because I really didn’t want to ride the 38 Geary after seeing that play – I wondered, how can we dare to begin to respond to the reality of the cross,? Not only then but now? Is there a way to live with it that does not lead to deep despair? For justice focusing too much on the beauty of the transfigured life can lead to a rarefied view of the world; fixating too firmly on the other direction is just another way to fall out of balance. How can we balance between the two, how can we fully respond?

We live in the city of hills and valleys, and I think we are called, for the most part, to stick to the valleys. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig writes that Zen is for valleys and I think the same is true for us. Summits give it the big view, bright moments out of time, to remember and learn from and reflect on. But we can’t and shouldn’t spend much time there in the business of living. Urban Holmes writes somewhere that Christian conversion is “a marinade rather than a glaze. We are transformed by being soaked in the gospel.” And this plain process takes time.

The season of Lent is that time. Time to make adjustments, to take a deep breath and listen, with a naked intent; for self-examination, repentance, fasting, prayer, self-denial, reading and meditation. Time to mindfully and prayerfully get on the journey. Not always on the mountain, down in the various valleys where we live and breathe in all that. Market, Mission, Montgomery, Castro, Masonic, Ashbury, Haight, and even Waller: all the common roads that run between sides of history; between the riots and the Rodin’s. So we come here, to almost the beginning of the season of Lent to get underway. We come to a table between two crosses, between the suffering Son of Man and the reigning Son of God, to take food for the journey into the depths of our daily life, which is finally, by the grace of God in the journey of Jesus, the way home.


Recycling a sermon from a few years ago, Advent 4

Let’s start by setting a scene where one character meets another, meets a stranger who seems to have some deep authority and an important message. They meet in a large room and, as the curtains are drawn and the lights come up, this messenger pours forth a whole new understanding of what the world is and how we are to live in it. The messenger gives his good news: 

“It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale!  

“It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality— one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale”.

And Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in the 1976 Oscar winning film, “Network”, can only look and say, “I have seen God”, and Arthur Jenson, the television network chairman played by Ned Beatty, smiles and says, “You just may be right, Mr. Beale.”  

But he just may be wrong too. For that may be one, very powerful way of envisioning the world, of making sense of what to do and how to be, what matters and what lasts: but there are other ways as well, and that’s why we’re here, to enlarge our hearts and minds, and to deepen our understanding of other, even truer, ways to be in the world; maybe just as one old prayer puts it , to “keep our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, lest we grow hard”

So, here’s a second – and again somewhat edited – scene with a few similarities to the first where a young girl is met by a messenger who says this:

“You have found favor with God and you will bear a son who will be the child of the Most High, who will reign… forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’… Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”

So my question is this: how do you see this, make sense of it, how do you connect this announcement of Good News with your own life?

I like movies a lot, and I think one of the best films on the life of Jesus is a low budget 1960s movie called “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”, directed by an Italian named Paolo Passolini and made on the island of Sicily. The way he films this scene is especially wonderful. Mary is a beautiful young girl, and when she sees the angel, a gorgeous creature, her eyes light up in amazement, love, rapture.

You can see absolute joy in her eyes to receive this message, to let it come into her life. And then we follow her through the film as she follows Jesus. We see her when they nail her son to the cross and take his body to the tomb, we see her two days later when she goes with the other women to anoint his body and finds instead an angel at the door to the tomb announcing that he now lives; and it is the same angel! You can see that old joy in her eyes, it is an old face now, wrinkled by the years, but the same eyes, and the joy when she sees the same angel. 

So what angels do we see? What messengers do we make room for in our sometimes so crowded lives? Most of us don’t live in the movies or in scripture for that matter, though we may find them important for our envisioning: so we don’t often get androgynous Italian youths telling us that we are blessed, will bear fruit for the healing of nations.
Nor do we hear, as Mary will hear from Simeon, that a sword will pierce our heart as well. But we do get a lot of messages about who we are and what matters, what we can take for granted and what we can give to one another, we hear these messages on the television and the movies and the radio as well. And sometimes they are very loud. They color our understanding of who we are and what we’re about. And they make it difficult, sometimes, to listen carefully when some surprisingly good news comes to us, as it did to Mary, and is almost too good for us to believe. But it is important be awake to come to take the chance.

For I believe that in the very centre of reality, in the deep heart of holiness, there is only one angel, only one message. It may come at different times, with a different emphasis, be heard in a different voice, using different words. But it is the same, and it is this: that God has come to dwell in the midst of humanity. As the angel’s message to Mary announces God’s intention to meet with her in unspeakable intimacy, to conceive a place where God’s love might dwell in the very centre of humanity; so God’s message comes, in all times and in all places, to tell us the same truth: that God is desirous of living with us. 

God has come to build a home in our hearts, to make our human being a sacred place where steadfast holy friendship may be found, announced, created, made flesh, to make a meeting place where our – and every – life may be redeemed from unmeaning and insignificance. 

For we, like Mary, are called to be a place, to live a life, which consents and opens to God breathing deep into all our individual being, our limits and loves, our history and hope, our talents and tragedies. For Mary it was to take a unique part in the birth of God with us, in giving human life to the one we call Lord and God, this Jesus whose birth we celebrate in this coming season of Christmas. That is one unique task, but it is a model for our call as well. For the messenger asks us, like her, to be willing participants, birth-givers in our own way and with our own God-given disabilities and abilities, taking our part in co-creating an unspeakably intimate and unbelievably great conspiracy of Holy love. 

That is the heart of the message announced by the angel to Mary, and to us today as well. God is coming near, is here, here in the middle of your life. God is willing to meet you, is with you, from before your birth to after your death, and in all the intervals from here to there. God wants to keep company with all of us, all of the time. This is the greatest truth, the Good News that comes with Jesus and which, perhaps, has been forever, but angels, I think, always begin their message with the word “Now!” 

Unfortunately we usually don’t. We say, “Someday”, or “I remember” or “What if” or “If only”. We so often hide from the promise and presence of God’s word meeting human flesh in glory. We hide in the shade of the tamer paler stories and slogans that are announced on every other street corner and on every channel: so many other announcements, messengers of wisdom, calling for allegiance and conformity: “Experts agree.” “You get what you pay for.” “Early to bed early to rise.” “Better not to try than to fail.” “Only take sensible risks.” “Play the percentages.” “The world is a business.” “Don’t get hurt again.”

And the Angel comes to us and says, “Now” in every moment and waits for our response in every instant. It is a response that requires amazing audacity and an even greater humility: and it is asked of each of us right now as it was asked of Mary so many years ago. Listen, Meister Eckhart said this in a sermon some 700 years ago.

“It is more worthy of God that He be born spiritually of every pure and virgin soul, than that He be born of Mary. Hereby we should understand that humanity is, so to speak, the Son of God born from all eternity. [For] When we humble ourself, God cannot restrain His mercy; He must come down and pour His grace into the humble, and He gives Himself most of all, and all at once, to the least of all. It is essential to God to give, for His essence is His goodness and His goodness is His love… God brings forth His Son in thee.”

And the voice of the angel is heard, and the word of the angel is now. And the gift of the angel, which we see in the promise of Mary, and know most fully in the life of Jesus her son, is that we, each and everyone of us, are blessed by God and welcomed into the joyous company those who offer life and live in Christ.

May it be to each of us according to this word.


Apocalypse and Advent

What was most important to you 24 hours ago, or two months ago, will be or next Wednesday at 2:00pm or ten years from now? What or who will you love, hate, fear? What will hold your interest or bore you, what will change in the world around you or in the intimate connections that are crucial to you right now? And where is there an insight or vision that will speak to this swiftly passing world? 

The liturgical readings for Advent bring these concerns and questions into focus with a form of biblical writing called Apocalyptic Literature; visionary, poetic, image-laden language, prophecy, poetry and predictions that comes when the people go through tough times. When the temple is destroyed, when kidnappings occur, when terror reigns and the future seems so different from the past that it is almost beyond belief, when hope gets thin and you need a vision that makes room for beginning again. These Advent lessons bring visions of enforced endings and perhaps tentative beginnings. 

 In the middle of the 1980s several television shows in the US focussed on the probable effects of a nuclear holocaust. I remember their visions of the light and the wind and the fire that would follow the dropping of the big bombs. And even if some of us were to survive that end-time, it would be to reap a miserable harvest in a silent world, because bees would not be there to pollinate the flowers and birds and animals would have been  blinded by that false light. So the spring following the holocaust would have fewer colors and little song after that infernal gray blossom fell from the sky. 

I was taking classes in Berkeley, where there’s a great bell-tower in the centre of the campus, and whenever I would hear the bells striking the hour I’d try to stop what I was doing and look at the possibility that it all might end right then. Looking around while the bells were ringing, and people, animals, insects, trees and plants were moving together in the cool air and the soft light and think to myself: “It could all be over, finished, end now.” And I’d try to breath into, live and pray through, love that moment. And when the bells stopped ringing and the sounds of everyday came back I’d look around thinking; “There is a chance, we are not dead yet — And  perhaps somehow we are newborn, like children full of new possibilities, full of graceful innocence and promise, full of beginning.”

For to look for, to live out the possibilities and the message of love, forgiveness and renewal, the way of beginning rightly in the face of all the endings, is to assent and assist in the birth of God’s grace, God’s very face in our daily and real world. It is to allow mystery and forgiveness and renewal of God’s purpose, life and love, to begin once again. And it is to begin right where you are. No matter where you were yesterday, two years ago, wherever you may be three years from now, on the anniversary of your birthday or on the day you die. You are still right in the middle of your life. As the American baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “Wherever you go, there you are!” And that’s the only place where we can learn to love, to let our love grow and ripen, and make our life and ministry matter. 

I’ll admit it isn’t easy to live in a world lit up by death and birth. Most days we make our way between history and hope cobbling together an identity from need and custom, meeting the marketplace and minimizing the pain; and though there can be a fleeting feeling that we’ve missed the sign for some important turn, we generally go our own way.

But an apocalypse or an Advent, the time and place where beginning and ending flash into consciousness, can be both a kind of wakeup call, a lens enabling us to see both farther into what might be and closer into what is. It clears our sight for a moment to reveal the present time as a world bigger then we know, more full of intent and information than we’ve supposed, more intimate than we could have hoped for.

So “Wherever you go, there you are!”. It is one hope: of a world woven together by love: where we come to reach for Christ, and let Christ reach out to meet the world in our ministry. To get a grip on Christ so that we may learn to hand him to the world and hand the world back to him. As members of that body, proceeding into the world God loves, day after day, year after year, time after time, in our work, in our play, in our fear. In being present as we can with faithful hearts to family, friends and strangers; in tasks, hobbies, jobs and joys, in the times of frustrations and puzzlement and promise, in agreements that must be honored, in situations that must be met. All these are places where we act out, serve out, flesh out, and live out the reconciling life of Jesus – in serving love of every kind – in the ministry of acceptance, love, and forgiveness in the middle of our lives.

And this is our hope. That in all beginnings, middles and endings, the love of God in Christ recalls and remembers our lives so that our daily liturgies are transformed into that one great Eucharistic celebration. That we shall come to move like Christ in all these places with the grace of the God who comes to meet us this Advent. Right here and right now, in the sight of the end-times, we find our end, our goal. In sight of the last things, we have faith that this insight, this action, this liturgy, will last. 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon: Wangaratta Jazz Festival Jass Mass, Feast of All Saints’, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Maybe everyone here this morning has been asked this question: So how do you like Jazz?

The question was asked of me by the son of some friends of my parents in 1961, when I was just 15 years old, living near Fairfield, California, an hour northeast of San Francisco and not far from the Santa Rosa you’d see in George Lucas’s  “American Graffiti”

And did I like jazz?

Well, I knew my mother liked Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Forrest, Turk Murphy, Paul Whiteman: I knew my Dad liked Benny Goodman, the Dorsey’s, Red Nichols, George Shearing and Lionel Hampton,

But did I like jazz? I liked Spike Jones and his City Slickers and still do, liked Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Bobby Darin, Movie musicals, and sometimes Vince Guaraldi: Hell, as a tall scared teenager, I pretty much liked anything that liked me back. I liked the Kingston Trio! And I didn’t know if I liked jazz.

But this California kid who was a year older and therefore knew more about everything in the world put an LP on the turntable and handed over the red and black cover to a record called Round Midnight by Miles Davis and we listened to the cover track, and I liked it a lot and it touches me still 50 years later.

Listening to the soft sexy sullen sound of Davis’ trumpet, muted yet moving you on, weaving with an elegant, economic sound; recasting Monk’s original melody, by minimally curving the sound in a way that remembers the music that isn’t played, teasing out the intentions, the intervals, the pauses, pointing to the silence,

Then Coltrane comes in with his saxophone and warms it up, ebullient, effervescent, bubbling up with real enthusiasm, and pointing, in all his breathing joy, to what truly holds it together, those connecting links we can’t quite hear. And in the end the wit of Miles Davis and the warmth of John Coltrane dance around all the notes of the song and leave you with something that feels like loss and gain and joy and jazz and love. And I liked it a lot!

For maybe that’s one of the first moments, the places where I became a little bit of a theologian, a bit of a believer and a priest and a fan of jazz all at the same time; because I heard something of the joy in the middle and the silence under it all, of what hangs it together, holds it tight enough that you can play loose with it: the foundational sound, the salutary note, that song and that silence that has to do with wholeness, with holiness  with each of us and all of us, and not only here and now, but  always.

So when T.S. Eliot writes: “you are the music while the music lasts,” I think he’s on to something.

Because putting voice and instrument to music and melody is what we’re about, because the way we sing our song is our basic task, liturgy, vocation; It’s both where and why we meet the world, and how our ministry works it out.. Because what I got that afternoon with Davis and Coltrane, with Monk in the background, was an entrance into a deep sharing, discovery, discernment, delight in all the great and lively sounds of life: and I remember it still and it still leads me on to practice, to stretch out, to play with more expectation, more risk, more joy, more life!

For you are the music while the music lasts.

Because everybody makes ministry and music, as they make love and life. As they make sense and sound, sharing their take on the business of being alive: all the tones and turns and tunes, times and places, all the criticism, caring and crying and crowding, prayer and power and praise that happen in all the living and dying moments that come along and are over too soon.

For you are the music while the music lasts.

So we listen and replay and sing out! From nursery rhymes to funeral dirges, from bar room ballads to football club songs: From Hollywood to Tamworth, from Stephen Sondheim to Slim Dusty, from cacophonies to carols, as the world goes wrong and ‘round, as facts and finances and friends rise and fail, even as life runs short in the in the face of death, we still sing.

For God makes this gift of music and we take up our vision and voice and instrument, rhythm and rhyme and melody and make sound and song and  joyful noises in the world, because it keeps us breathing deep and together and sounding good and because nobody shuts their mouth when they’re making love!

Because you are the music while the music lasts.

That’s what this building, this tradition, this place we’re in today, really stands for: a two thousand year old melody played out in stone and brick, stained glass and wood and tapestry and flesh and blood and word and voice: a sustained tune on what the world might mean and how we can sing along, play along, improvise in our own way to all those old songs that tell us where we come from and where we’re going and why all the traveling.

This Cathedral is named for the Holy Trinity, which points to this trio of trusting in the happening and heart and hope of God, meaning love; that God, meaning love, makes, meets and mends the universe in every moment of time and every place and space; that God, meaning love, is the beginning, end and centre of our shared reality, that God, meaning love, is the light and the life and the lead that we follow when it comes time to take our turn and breathe our breath and sing our song.

For you are the music while the music lasts.

And that just might be what Jesus is about, right there in the middle; someone who teaches and walks and lives and breathes and dies and breaks through all false notes and all wrong rhythms with the promise that love wins in the end, will outlive the deadening demands and expectations of any little world that deifies money or violence or lust or power over one another. Jesus takes another route through that world and says a self-giving, neighbor-loving life, connecting with the whole of life in love is the right way home, back where we started from, and he lives out what he says in every way

You’ve heard the Beatitudes this morning and they’re pretty words, but Jesus walks that talk; his life sings that song: poor, meek and mourning; hungry, thirsty, merciful, a peacemaker who is persecuted, reviled, left out, pinned down to die on that inevitable intersection between what we say we want and how we are prepared to live and give in a world double-crossed with shadows and shortcuts.

And He dies on a cross in Jerusalem and Rome, London, and Wall Street, Melbourne and Merimbula. And in the end it doesn’t matter if he’s Jew or Greek, Male, Female, young old, straight, gay, winner, loser or also ran. He is the forgotten and remembered face of the love and the beloved and the lover, the meter and the music and meaning of it all.

And if we listen to his dying life meeting our living death we can still hear the song that says love lives and is reaching out and singing out and making out new ways to make it true and new and through together in every moment, and we’re here to learn to take up that song with whatever talents we carry with our voices and our vision and our hands and our hearts; and with whatever gifts we live out and give away on purpose and in love.

For you are the music while the music lasts.

In a little while we’ll break bread and share wine, his body and blood, his life and death and life, his magnificent defeat and victorious uprising as we take on the possibility of living that out ourselves, as our daily tune, in our living ministry, how we stand up and sing out and let that love live in our lives. That’s why we’re here in this soft spring morning:. To listen to the music, to sing the songs, to take on death and life and love and to let that melody and meaning and music be heard and handled, make sense and song in our own voices, our own way, our own world, even and especially now, in all the days of our lives from here on.

For you are the music while the music lasts.


Remembering why I loved Tertiary Chaplaincy

For most of the 1990s I found a niche as a layman serving as a 

Resident Minister in a student dormitory and (rather surprising) as an occasional teacher and adjunct faculty member in the College of Professional Studies at the Jesuit led University of San Francisco, as well as the Episcopal Chaplain at San Francisco State University.  I also taught creative writing for several summer sessions at Sacred Heart/Cathedral Preparatory School and facilitated a monthly group spiritual direction gatherings for the Episcopal School for Deacons; which offered a Bachelors of Divinity degree in a part-time format for non-transitional deacons. I quickly fell in love with the work of tertiary chaplaincy (which has been described as both as the creative edge and the lunatic fringe of ministry) and discovered I liked teaching too. During those years I dated a bit, explored the rich and complex communities of queer and creative people in the centre of San Francisco, kept busy enough, happy enough, connected enough, moderately fruitful but primarily single.

At the beginning of every academic year I would meet with the new and returning students in the dormitory and give a little speech something like this: 

“You need to know I have no power in this place,” I would say, “I don’t  hand out a syllabus or course description, I don’t write evaluations or recommendations, and I don’t end up our time together by giving you a grade — although I’m available as a resource when you need to want to talk out some new ideas for a project or a paper, If asked nicely I can do proofreading or papers and, if you like, give feedback too. 

I’m a seminary trained Anglican who’s learned a lot from the Jesuits and I’m a Christian minister who gets strength and joy from that community — I guess my primary aim is not to convert anyone to anything except an increased joy in everyday living. If you’re interested I love talking faith, theology and religion, but I also love discussing politics, movies, literature, life in general. My main focus with you is to be  a dependable resource, on living and learning in community, keeping both sane and social, and enjoying some of the great places to eat, watch and walk in San Francisco. I’ll offer some walking tours of the City later this semester. But my main aim here is to be for you as a safe place in a dangerous journey,”

There would be a silence after that, and some of the students would look away and never speak again. Others would go on to say hello, be polite, and maybe let a relationship grow over time.  But a few, some, of those present would start to explore with me the places where an open-ended open-hearted conversation held in confidence and great respect might lead.

So I had students coming to talk to me about sex before marriage, about cheating on final exams, about the deaths of grandmothers at odd times. I had students coming to me to talk about why they were studying to be accountants or lawyers when they wanted to play music or serve coffee for a few years following graduation. I had students coming to me because they were so happy they had to tell someone, or they were so scared and lonely and they didn’t want to be alone with that. And I tried to honour everybody because it all mattered.

So I offered a few walking toursof San Francisco, and weekly noontime meditation group for students at SFSU and regular morning meditations meeting in my dormitory rooms at USF where we would finish by sharing fresh fruit and warm bagels.  I took some chances when I started a program at 10pm on Wednesday nights after the library closed called “God Meets Monty Python.” Snacks were served and we’d watch an episode of the television show and I’d follow that with a “sermon”  based on the theological values shown by the show. During seminary I had occasionally tried a theological-comedy routine and here was a  chance to live it out! Occasionally it felt like I was going down in flames, but I usually rose again which was part of the fun and led to more freedom, deeper conversations, better relationships with students and staff. 

And I worked out with students, faculty and staff at the weight room and pool at The Koret Health and Recreation Center at USF and audited a class on World Religions with Jacob Needleman at SFSU. I hung around our coffee house there, and around the dorm, dining commons and library at USF. Later a student at one campus looked across the table at me and said, “I know what you do!” When I asked what he meant, he replied, “It’s creative loitering; you hang around and things happen.” I’ve never had such a compliment on my ministry; who could ask for anything more?

One morning I was in a coffee-house 

where a graduate student I just met told me he “didn’t believe all this religious stuff.” He went on to say he would never allow himself to enter a situation where he, (1) “didn’t know all the facts,” and (2) “didn’t have a sense of the eventual outcomes.” I waited for a second coffee while he explained to me that every religious dynamic he could see appeared stupid, senseless, and lacking in basic elements of self-care and self-respect. He concluded by saying that from where he was standing, organised religion appeared to be a deeply toxic activity.

I was impressed he was willing to share this with me and told him that. I also said I had likely seen, in my own relationships with a wide variety of religions, more incidents of deception, dysfunction, and just plain flagrant evil than he could ever imagine. But, I also said, in spite of all the history and hypocrisy I witnessed, sometimes at very close range, my primary experience over the years had been participating in a sequence of wide-ranging fertile relationships with people of genuine value, compassion and love. And that was what kept me in the neighbourhood.

Then I asked him how his own love life was going. He laughed and allowed that it could be better, and wondered why I put that particular question to him. I said that in my own experience, most fruitful relationships and many functional religious lives were less like mastering a law code and more like an ongoing relationship or marriage, a sort of dancing rhythm of give and take, a kind of intentionally unfinished meandering while keeping an respectful eye out for certain key landmarks that might be met on the way. 

For while relationships and religion, like discipleship and dances of any kind, sometimes involve following drawn out steps and prescribed directions in formal patterns, my own experience mores often led to memorable moments of moving off the map in an improvised manner. All this while moving with the oft-repeated rhythms  found in the recurring stuff of life: birth, death, beginnings, endings, getting dirty, washing up, getting lost and found again. And again and again and again. 

And my sense was that we can learn to lean into that possibility, discovering both a discipline and a flexible focus in following the chance that compassion is in the centre of everything. This can enhance a certain quality of clarity, balance and focus: a wide open gaze in facing both predicaments and promises, open to the best and worst, the gifts and graces of every given situation as it comes into view. 

A committed life of discipleship can lead to that kind of freedom. For if the reality of love is in the centre of the wide map of Christian writings and traditions (as so many spiritual traditions tell us), than that love can be found anywhere. It can be discerned in each event of our lives, in good times and bad, even in those dangerous opportunities that meet us unexpectedly. “But it not an easy way,” I told him. “Love can leave scars that can lead you on, and it can hurt, but I am still betting my life in that direction.” 

I am still surprised that faith can so often become most real in the context of an interruption, but it’s so often the case. I remember years before when I was getting ready to begin my Master’s degree and was notified I wouldn’t receive my bachelor’s degree that semester. I had failed to pass one class, and it hurt terribly. I went to see a professor I had been hoping to work with and told him about my failure. In our hour together he touched three topics that stayed with me a long time: the recommendation of a therapist who would change my life: the advice that sometimes you can just do the easiest thing and it’ll turn out all right, and, almost as an aside, a theological quote on the nature of the sacraments. He said, “We know the Bread on the altar is holy because all bread is holy, but we only know that all bread is holy because we know the bread on the altar is holy.” At the end of the meeting we prayed together and shook hands and I walked outside and  the world was changed.

We had been talking faith, religion, sacraments; Christ’s body and blood, baptism, blessings along with Unction, Marriage, Penance and Holy Orders. But as I walked away I knew this template was sparking up the middle of the daily drab and wondrous world, full of food and drink and water and oil and hands and heart, with all the aspects of tuning up and turning ‘round and life and death and much more than that. It felt good but was not easy: like somehow stretching out to grasp foreground and background, both here and there. It was an instant glimpse of all the eternal evanescent existence so easily overlooked and still full in your face in every direction and every moment and always beyond description and belief. And sometimes I still wake up and it’s like the world just got born again and it’s all good. 

For I was finding, over and over again, that true religion so often comes in the stories we share, the risks we learn to take to learn with one another, the times when we tell our incomplete tales and allow a new ending to begin. Then bread becomes body and wine turns to blood and the whole breathing world catches fire again. For me it comes when sharing the old stories and letting them become new worlds. That’s where the Bible makes sense for me, that’s where the dance so often happens. 

To go back to the earliest sources, 

it looks like Jesus’ most popular ways of connecting with people come in moments of healing, times spent sharing food as well as the intentional action of sharing stories. Most of his stories fit into the category of parables. Over the centuries the definition of parable has been degraded to the category of edifying stories that warm your heart and settle your certainties; but in the original context they pack more punch. Most of Jesus’s stories carry barbs to surprise, awaken, turn you around, leave you wide-eyed and open to see where you are (or are not) right now — and even who you might be from here on out. So they’re more like a riddle, a puzzle or even a koan; which my dictionary defines as, “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.”

The conversations with the guy in the coffee house, some of the pseudo-sermons following Monty Python, meetings with other students and staff after oranges and bagels, after a workout at the gym or when the library closed, were all helping me realise that most of the stories Jesus tells serve as templates for transformation.  Like seriously funny jokes designed to provoke an explosive laugh, these face to face encounters both renew and reweave the content and context of the present moment and the future promise.

One theologian, Bernard Lonergan, called humankind “the self-transcending animal”,  and I wonder if that self-transcending comes most clearly in these face-to-face encounters leading to renewal, recreation, repentance, even something like resurrection. One way to see the early written records is as primary evidence leading the conversation further to open our eyes to larger life.  Each moment in time containing an opportunity for Scripture, a Word of Love, to be re-birthed,  renewed and revised in the parables waiting in every unique possibility. any present moment.

Years have gone by and I still think of the guy at the coffee house, the students sharing bagels and oranges in the morning. Lots of laughter and some tears, sharing joy and tension too. Chaplaincy was offering me the privilege of living together in the face of love. Seminary had changed and opened my mind and heart and life in so many ways, help me finally grow up. The task of tertiary ministry and the work following was to take what I had learned  and share it in the vocabulary and syntax of daily life at a busy University. Those early years were opening me to fall in love with the work of theology in a different way.

Thinking back I remember a great conversation with a chaplaincy staff member who, while we were talking, took some yarn and, weaving it between her hands, suddenly opened a cats cradle. I had never seen that before; but in those years I realise I was learning to weave something similar, a new exercise in devotion and joy, somehow opening a connection between tensions and differing directions that stretched out to be a new and vital pattern of living reconciliation. 

Somewhere St. Augustine writes that,“God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” But he also prays, “Not as I think you are, but as you know yourself to be.” And the places amidst these two extremities is where the opening comes in the life of creative discipleship. Keeping the tension between the two sides, allowing room to be challenged and encouraged at the same time. Both relaxed and ready in that tentative and dynamic place, without making it too busy or too businesslike; an ongoing exercise that changes for us in the same way as it changes us. 

In Memory of the murders at The Pulse Bar…

Almost four years ago, on the evening of Thursday, June 16, 2016 fifty people were killed in a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, and fifty more wounded by a gun-wielding self-identified Muslim terrorist and then the Texas lieutenant governor went on TV and quoted Paul about reaping what you sow. The blood of one hundred people spilled on the floors of the bar, the parking lot, the rest rooms, and now on the papers, social media, my iPad, all over the world and I wondered how many more people were now related by blood to those one hundred people in Orlando?

We had got to bed that night after midnight (a very rare occurrence) following a rather splendid dinner party of five gay men complete with carefully curated decor, great food, deep conversation and much laughter. Nobody entered the room with a semi-automatic weapon and a hand gun, but they could have. Certainly there were people nearby who would take their scriptural beliefs and their fight for truth that seriously; who would take life and make death to honour that understanding of holy love. I may be half a world away from Florida, now a citizen of a country where appropriate guns prohibitions were made law twenty years ago after one man with a semi automatic weapon mowed down men, women and children at a national monument; but even in Australia there are people who would honour their God of vengeance by spilling the blood of their neighbours.

Suddenly you felt that your life was not an isolated thing, but existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, ‘We don’t need each other. Elizabeth Goudge – Pilgrim’s Inn

Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94

Who is not my neighbour and where is not God? I’ve wondered about that one since before beginning seminary so many years ago, and since then I’ve known and loved many gay men and lesbians, talked to a few drag queens and met some Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists in my peripatetic career as an occasionally closeted gay man in ecumenical campus ministry in San Francisco, Berkeley and Melbourne and finally as a priest and educator in Bush Australia. You could say it’s been a broad spectrum ministry. I’ve sat with men and women as they dealt with the serious business of being alive, of saying yes to what they believed life called out for them to be: people who sometimes saw a vocation to be an artist in the midst of a family who knew they were born to be a doctor or lawyer, who saw new possibilities for redemption and relationship far from the family fold. I walked with people who faced the fact they loved people of the same gender in a way that other people only saw as sinful, and I’ve had other people sit with me and tell me with no hesitation why some love was hateful and how they came to see clearly what God wants and who God sees as right or wrong or worthy of larger life.

In my best moments I see only that God wants love, is love, that love (using a threefold Christian formula) makes, meets and mends the universe in every instant of time with a relentlessly renewing compassion. But I will here confess there are many moments when I cannot tell my friend, neighbour or the stranger I just met that I believe this to be true because I honestly don’t love them that much. I can preach it in the pulpit and point to it and move through it in the actions of the Eucharist, I can keep trying daily to share it in the actions of my life. But I must admit that I am afraid of those who are armed with the bullets or the books that say I don’t deserve to live, and in truth I cannot love them.

“I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I, the Lord, do all
these things.” Isaiah 45:7

“honour corruption villainy holinessriding in fragrance of sunlight (side by sideall in a singing wonder of blossoming yesriding) to him who died that death should be dead.”
e e cummings

One semester in seminary I had an evening class on prayer and meditation that offered a two part meditation: first thinking loving thoughts and feel positive emotions towards people who were important in our lives, then after a single bell rang, quickly switching to let the opposite negative emotion flow: articulating heartfelt anger after love, curses following blessings. I was amazed how easy the energy flowed from one extreme to the other and wondered what we were learning. perhaps that the purpose of the exercise was to show how close these two passions are to each other; that both of these warmings of the heart need to be carefully attended for the simple fact that love and hate live so close together, and we must keep careful distinctions so that (perhaps) we might finally weave them together into a place where healing can happen.

I try to be a reasonably compassionate man but I could conceivably kill the man or woman who wish to see me dead because of their faithful love; therefore my love, like theirs, is not far from hate. If that is the case then we all might better agree to let love go, keep merely civil, respectable middle-level boundaries, agree to disagree, leaving it at that, forgetting the dogma, doctrine and doggerel of the God-stuff. Unless what that God-space means, where it points, is a place where hate and love can meet in some new way, where festering lilies might somehow come forth with new and fragrant blooms. But could the world be this large?

To change the subject: I was surprised to learn, a few years ago, that some people are genetically wired to dislike coriander. I love it, add it to many dishes, cheerfully make it part of my day. It was a bit of a relief to understand others do not, on a cellular level, have this affectionate choice, even though it makes no sense to my senses, and seems to make their lives a lesser paradise of the delights I live with. I think it is the same with sex; there is a spectrum of flavours and favours that each of us find on our bandwidth which call us to taste and see in ways that make other people turn aside and wonder why we would not want to eat exactly what they swallow with gusto.

But it’s not really that important. I am not prepared to kill for coriander and would not force my neighbour to celebrate cilantro anymore than I would compel them to join me in my allergy to cows milk. And in the end most of us, perhaps a surprising majority, would be more than surprised if any hopeful vision of a larger reality was more concerned with plumbing over compassion. I may be wrong, and I’ll cheerfully admit that this too may be the way I’m wired; but I think we’re all a bit better than this.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me. The Gospel of Matthew 25: 36-37

Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha and one of his closest disciples, said to the teacher one day’ “Oh Buddha, sometimes it seems to me that half of the spiritual life is loving kindness and friendship for others.” The Buddha replied with a smile, “Ananda, you are wrong. Loving-kindness and friendship are all of the spiritual life. Paraphrase from the Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)

Jack Kornfield, the modern Buddhist writer, says in the end there are just two kinds of people: those who aren’t afraid to kill and those who aren’t afraid to die. Most of us would avoid that sort of black and white thinking, but I fear it still may be clashingly close to the picture we see of Good Friday in Jerusalem when Jesus is murdered by the mob as well the scenes that Thursday night at Pulse in Orlando, Florida.

“At least four patrons have said they saw the gunman Omar Mateen drinking at the Pulse bar several times before the shooting. Ty Smith said he saw Mateen inside at least a dozen times… ‘Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent’

In his book called “The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger,” the Benedictine priest Sebastian Moore writes that when we see Jesus, this man of love and light, we see all our shadows and shortcuts, and our reaction to that light can be to push into the dark, pin the other down to death, because we would rather kill than see where we are already dying in our sad and violent separations.

But in the same light of love we can find that we are killing the best picture of what we look like, an icon of the life we are born to live. And that can be where love meets hate, where death meets life; where coming forth from any deadly closet can mean giving ourselves over to a future we cannot conceive.

So perhaps tomb turns to womb when we let what we know die so that somehow the knowledge of a larger love may live, and that is where something like resurrection might happen. That’s what I saw in the conversation of artists born of lawyers, peopled compelled to take leave of the parental path, called by love to come out of their closets. That’s what I learned in the best of my life in the church and a few gay bars and saunas and the ministry of many friends and not a few strangers in my own life, to let God teach me to love in a new way. But it isnt always so.

For reasons I don’t fully understand some people awaken to new and larger life, to come to share that unfinished journey together, while others die in their killing hate. Maybe that’s one of the places Jesus hangs ‘round nowadays, maybe that’s the spark that can come when hate meets love on the worst weekend ever. But how we live that out, move on from the truncated celebration, the fallen love, the spilled blood in the parking lot and on the screens of our iPads, in the heart of who we are together, in the light of such hate, is an entirely different question.

Even though at this time I can hardly find room for any possible answer, what I can do is to stay with it, continue my incomplete prayers (not fully knowing where they might lead) for this world where hate pierces and love embraces the lives of 101 people in Orlando while all of us who loved them hang together and wonder what we can do now.

LTWTO 2.5, on Merton

So here’s a bit of biography of Merton’s early life. You can define him by contradictory statements: he was a noisy hermit, an ascetic who loved beer (and, he says, “to love beer is to love the world”) He was a compulsive and consistent writer who had a very ambivalent take on his art and craft, he often saw himself as a failure and said if he were ever to be a saint it could only happen in the midst of all his contradictions. He was there again for any sort of criticism, beginning with himself. T. S. Eliot said he didn’t edit enough, Evelyn Waugh said he should give up writing books and concentrated on letters concerning  spiritual direction, in the end even the CIA was investigating him, but for a number of people his words, his contradictions, the messy stuff of his life is good news, fresh air rushing through in the inexact work of taking up the heart of life in order to give it away.

He was born in France with an Australasian-American alliance. His American mother parents had moved from Ohio to New York when Merton’s grandfather, called Pop in the family, made a small fortune publishing cheap picture-filled novelisations of silent movies. He did well enough to send their daughter Ruth to Paris to study interior design and where she met the son of family who had gone from London to New Zealand to be choirmasters and schoolteacher associated with the Cathedral at Christ Church,.. Owen Merton and Ruth Jenkins met in a bohemian Paris salon and produced their first son Tom rather quickly after their Anglican wedding. He was born in southern France in 1915, towards the end of WW1 but went with his family to live with Ruth’s family on Long Island, New York towards the end of the  hostilities. He’s from a mixed family; highly  conventional people who delighted in being avant-garde, artistic, racy. But there’s much tragedy. His mother dies of stomach cancer when he is six and his younger brother is two. Merton recalls sitting in the back of a hired-car outside a public hospital in New York City trying to read a letter of farewell from his mother who is telling him she will never see him again. It seems a needless tragedy but research in the last two years shows evidence that the hospital had a strict policy not allowing children in the women’s wards at that time. 

After her death Merton’s father left Tom with his maternal grandparents but came back several years later to take him first to Massachusetts and then to the island of Bermuda where Owen Merton was involved in a menage a trois with a married American couple – a novelist and writer — which lasted for several years and which Tom’s stubborn implacability to the relationship doomed. By the time Tom was nine Owen Merton had admitted defeat, and gone with Tom to a new life in a village in the south of France. He lived there with Owen, then Tom was sent to a local boarding school and, after a year, his father arrived to take him to England where he attended Ripley Court,  a small school near his English family then went on to Oakham school at the age of 13.

I’ve already mentioned my theory that everybody has a table of twelve in the middle of their heads to give them identity and definition — and I bet Merton’s was a mixed bouquet by the time. His father was there – but a bit blurry wavering semi-Impressionist painting – as well as a clear cartoon sketch of “Pops,” the practical American grandfather. The memory of his mother left a sharper impression, both worried and severe, and then there was the American novelist, bitter in her attempt to marry Owen. His father  died when Tom was 14 and he’d appointed an old friend, an English doctor, to be his guardian. He tended to be critical.  and a few years before at his new boarding school his great aunt Maude  had been a comfort to him but he had lost touch with her. He also held dear the visit of a New Zealand aunt to NY where she taught him to pray the Lord’s Prayer. To be blunt, it’s not much of a family.

Oakham changed his mind but might not have been that good for his heart.  He said he would pray daily when he first got to Ockham, but one day the school chaplain said that, “The word Love in first Corinthians 13 could be replaced by the word Gentlemen” Merton became an instant atheist and a Marxist to boot. His table got more heady. Karl Marx would’ve been at his table, along with Sigmund Freud, Mahatma Gandhi, James Joyce, – you can imagine the dinner conversation. This is heady theories of  mind and politics, alienation and youthful passion but also poets, martyrs and mystics like Gerard Manly Hopkins and William Blake were modelling  transformational journeys and invite us to follow. There was a place for hope but don’t you see the disconnect? A boy with such sadness, loneliness, not solitude but endless action, evasion; not silence but such a lot of noise. 

He lasted a year at Cambridge. He drank too much, studied too little, the rumour is he got a local girl in trouble and a court case was settled before a full scandal, but in any case his guardian wrote him a rather brutal letter telling him  he had no future in England and he might do better in America.

It was a chance to begin again. There was enough money put away by his grandfather in a trust fund for his education at Columbia University in NYC with the help of a few part-time jobs and a lot of nights were spent listening to jazz in nightclubs, with afternoons tutoring schoolboys in Latin or answering questions of tourists visiting the top of the Empire State Building in addition to his studies. He tried out for the track team, joined a fraternity, started writing for the Humour magazine and the Literary magazine as well spending most of his time with his work in literature. But he found himself moving from an intense interest in literature, both the reading and writing of it, into a deeper exploration of mysticism that would change the way he saw the world and the way he lived his life. Part of this came from a class on Shakespeare. As Merton writes, “All that year we were, in fact, talking about the deepest springs of human desire and hope and fear, and we were considering the most important realities: “life, death. time, love, sorrow, fear, wisdom, suffering, eternity.” And for the first time, I think, he felt himself surrounded by good, clever, funny friends, both professors and students, people he could trust, learn from, love; men and women to share the journey, to take the faithful path to another new beginning. 

There is often a line crossed in a person’s life which can be seen more easily in others than in ourselves, where there is a motion from abstract thinking about something to doing something about it in a concrete way. For now Merton is ready to suspend disbelief and follow a more logical way as a student and a pilgrim. This required a reorientation on his mind with a higher understanding and value given to actions of the will. But he was also coming to understand himself as a poet and, even more, as a lover.

He was moved reading Aldous Huxley, in Ends and Means, that, “not only was there such a thing as a supernatural order, but as a matter of concrete experience, it was accessible, very close at hand, an extremely near, an immediate and most necessary source of moral vitality, and one which could be reached most simply, most readily by prayer, faith, detachment, love.” Then Tom began the work of training his will, budgeting his time, testing his priorities to meet the possibilities that he read in Huxley, heard from his teacher and friends as well as a visiting Hindu monk named Bramachari, and his increasing attraction and exposure to the Roman Catholic Church.

“I am not an idealist [for] the logic of the poet — that is, the logic of language or the experience itself — develops the way a living organism grows: it spreads out towards what it loves, and is heliotropic, like a plant.” 

As he later writes in the text of The Seven Story Mountain, “The life of the soul is not knowledge, it is love, since love is the act of the supreme faculty, the will, by which man is formally united to the final end of all his strivings – by which man becomes one with God.”

And all his readings, late night conversations, meditations and listening to a sermon in the middle of a Latin mass all came together as a vehicle that would take him, within a very few years, to a new life in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. As he wrote on the early December day he decided to go to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, “I earnestly pray to give myself entirely to God”

Chapter Two LTWTO

Chapter Two

“This is simply the voice of a self-questioning human person who, like all his brothers and sister, struggles to cope with turbulent, mysterious, demanding, frustrating confused existence in which almost nothing is really predictable, in which most definitions explanations and justifications become incredible even before they are uttered, in which people suffer together and are sometimes incredibly beautiful, at other times impossibly pathetic, In which there is so much that is frightening, in which almost everything public is patently phony, and in which there is a the same time an immense ground of personal authenticity that is right there and so obvious that co one can talk about it and most cannot even believe it is there. 

“I am, in other words, a man in the modern world In fact I am in the world just as you are. Where am I going to look for the world first of all if not in myself?” 

Thomas Merton

Just before I dropped out of the seventh grade my parents enrolled me  in a series of ballroom dancing lessons at the Crocker Dance Academy on 38th and Jay Street in Sacramento, where there were diagrams of something called a box step painted on the floor of the main studio. My understanding is the box step was invented and even patented by a man named Arthur Murray, who, with his wife Katherine, founded a worldwide chain of Dance Studios, all with versions of the box step painted on the floor. Looking back I realise we may have had an unauthorised version. 

Doing the box step required six consecutive moves (one, two, three, one, two, three), first the left foot forward, with the right foot moving alongside, but not too closely to join the left foot, (listen to the beat), then the left food joining together with right foot, the right foot moving backwards, the  left foot moving alongside, but at a distance, and finally both feet together. Counting, rhythm, memory and the diagram of the box step on the floor all helped for a while, but it also – to force a pun –  tended to box you in, perhaps encouraged you to think there was only one way to do this, which is not the whole truth about dancing, but is what you have to get beyond in order to really move.

But I didn’t know that then. And I had a strong desire to know how things fit together, what things mattered most, where to put my allegiance, and how to get through all of this alive. So I prepared by making lists and putting things into boxes: including myself. There was a place for everything; what was better or worse, good or bad, to be spurned or to be followed, what I should walk to and where I should walk away. So, in all this, it was very important for me to have the facts. Can you be surprised that I was going to join a church?

 I had a strong desire to know what things mattered most, where to put my allegiance, and how to get through all of this alive. I lusted after firm opinions so that I could make sound decisions. And when I first got into the church I found room for a whole new raft of them: expectations picked up from new friends and old books, ideas from sermons, choir room conversations, opinions on things like high church and low church, Anglo-Catholic and evangelical, liberal and conservative. Ask me something, anything, in those days, and I’d share my, somebodies, opinion. It felt just like life, but not quite!

Over time it started to get more real. The new acquaintances, people I met around the parish church, became friends, close as family, people I not only knew, but loved, and that turned out to be a crucial difference, made me realise the truth that St. Katherine of Hepburn mouthed in The Philadelphia Story: “The time to make up your mind about people is never!” But it took more than a good movie to dislodge this less than adequate map from holding space in my mind, and it still took more time.

For my history held me fast, and that table of advisors and their  cobbled map of meanings was still my true religion. This amalgam of the Book of Common Prayer, various family members, favourite movies and books along with Bugs and Daffy, T. S. Eliot and Joan Didion and my mother and father and the landlord and the goat around a table in the middle of my head maintaining uneasy alliances while generating endless to-do lists pointing in various directions while I was just trying to maintain some internal compass based on a variety of conflicting information just to prevent the ship from capsizing.  

But reading Thomas Merton at the age of 23 I met an author who made the journey look romantic. The Seven Story Mountain  had early tragedy, romantic losses, hints of scandal, and a pilgrimage that tracked through some of the most glamorous places in the world — Ernest Hemingway’s France, T. S. Eliot’s England, Evelyn Waugh’s London and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Manhattan —  mixing holiness, hubris and hangovers in a rich history of cocktail parties, late night conversations and early morning epiphanies happening everywhere from Catalonia to Cuba to Kentucky. And this eloquently romantic memoir was written when the author was not much older than me. 

It was also the first time someone at the table was offering a map that could take me on a journey — and that made me look back at the table in a new way, and see a new way it could make sense in my life. 

We forget the root word for religion comes from the routine of tying a rope or a line back on itself to make a knot: related to realign and reconnect. For although we have turned religion into pious views and attitudes, the original meaning can as easily point to practical actions: how we line our life up. With this definition basic religious actions are found in list making, budgeting and  exercising:  practical, ecological, relational, activities, thresholds, steps and images that get you through the business of life and community. 

So, following that redefining of religion, a god can be re-defined as anything standing at the apex of religious actions, at the top of the tent of values and visions that motivate us. This widens the scope a bit. We’re so used to seeing  basic source material  for our religions in a temple or a church, that we overlook the religious plenitude that surrounds us on the web or at the mall.  Our world is full of icons asking for realigned priorities and measured sacrifices of time and money, offering ways of thinking, feeling, convictions, connections. Just consider the spiritual and religious power contained in a pay raise, a sexual conquest, a sign of acceptance from a person or institution that has power, a new reckoning of knowledge. What mighty Gods walk among us!

But no blueprint can show how you are changed by the act of making love. That doesn’t mean that the blueprint is wrong, for that kind of knowledge tells us how much and how many, where and when; gives line, outline and location. But there are other ways of knowing that differ from the diagram as recipe and formula differ from bread and wine, as studying a road map to beginning a journey, as looking at a house plan differs from moving into a new dwelling.

This disparity struck me when I saw a schematic drawing of a popular sexual act. As an engineering blueprint it was accurate enough; showing all the equipment, where it was supposed to go and diagramming the sequence of action following — but it said nothing about loneliness and hope and desire, what you went to find and how you were changed, lost and found in the mingling and merging, the sweetness and the sweat of it. It didn’t mention how you felt afterwards.

We need to have deeper stories and reminders for that; to tell us who and why, give us hints on the identities and meanings that are possible, and even to stop us in our tracks and turn us around, gasping for new air and wide-eyed, looking at who and where we are as if we are seeing it for the first time.

Certainly recipe knowledge can help you to learn to cook but it won’t give you a sense of a keen hunger or the solid joy of biting into freshly made food carefully prepared for a company of friends. For truth is less like a diagram or a flowchart, and more like watching the changing colour of the sky at sunrise, examining the facets of a fine gem or simply standing face to face with someone you love — open to whatever happens next.

So, for in approaching certain important themes, I believe that only poetry and metaphor need apply. Plain and scientific speech, business and other dialects may offer declarative and straightforward definitions to keep you safe from confusion, but they will also restrict you from the richer allusions and possibilities of perception found only in the more subtle and ambiguous word-choices of careful prose and poetry. These are far more able to reconcile apparent dichotomies; allowing the expanse of image and breadth of allusion to reconcile spirit and flesh, infinite and finite, sacred and profane, life and death, in a way where all might be found in the immediacy of the present moment  

It can be challenging to live with the possibility that a freshly made word might rudely wake us up in the very middle of our daily lives, but it happens. We’ve all known instances when we see a wider horizon, and start to follow a deeper understanding: opening to a world new with resonance, possibility, aliveness —where, quoting Rilke:  “…there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”

For to look fully on any facet of truth can be blinding, may leave you speechless, unable to easily articulate what you have seen. And, in our present mythos we are yoked with a post-modern but somewhat scientific vocabulary and world view, a prescription lens that can both focus and limit, restrict and reduce the realms of possibility. But can we transcend the limits of our present vocabulary and find a realm of discourse that discerns deeper and wider viewpoints that might be, perhaps, more colourful than our present black and white solutions?

So we need to speak of words from other models of discourse, enabling new and paradoxical messages bearing larger concepts of the universe using ancient rhythms and mysterious images — surprisingly solid allusions of poetry to see the heavenly realms more perfectly — chancing to be enlightened but not burnt out in the process.

It’s a necessary peril. For to clearly hear this kind of message you have to stretch both subjective experience and objective language past its usual capacities in order to allow for the times when life opens deeper, love shines more brightly, where you turn a corner and the whole world is suddenly new and different and you deeply want to change your life. 

The first century Greek word for messenger is Angelos, where we get angels. But the idea of angels doesn’t carry much punch lately, partly due to the artwork. C.S. Lewis writes that angels in the bible often had to preface their messages by saying, “Fear not,” where those pictured in most Victorian and popular  art leads you to assume they’re here to softly say something like, “There, there.” 

Neither angels nor religions are particularly sexy in the twenty-first century. The sad fact is that being religious in this part of the twenty-first century is like confessing a variant sexuality was fifty or sixty years ago. Obviously sex has become more popular than religion, but is that all? Nowadays it’s easier for me to state that I find more than one gender beautiful and desirous, my own being primary, than to confess that I am a faithful member of an offshoot of the Church of England. It is now common knowledge, for a vast number of people, that the actions formerly and collectively known as sodomy are now preferable, in many intelligent peoples views, to a propensity to recite the Nicene Creed in a public space. 

And there are understandable reasons for this; for we are passing through an era where we have publicised sex while privatising religion and it makes for an uneven equation. Our recent first-world focussing on the former, how we stretch our collective intimates, has brought increased clarity and honesty on sexual and gender diversity, on various theories and practices of action and affect; while the personal and political aspects have been discussed endlessly, portrayed in various media from scholarly seminars to one-handed websites — some rarified and esoteric, others commercial and vulgar. 

But remember the word vulgar stems from “common people or common practice” and there are good reasons for talking about, showing some strong lights on real life. For we’re finding when we share the actual stories concerning the way we love and the roads we travel, there is a similar commonality of feelings and a shared matrix of participation.

Speaking of my own corner of the puddle I cheerfully confess that the mainstream Christianity I know best is, after sustained reflection, a veritable hotbed of mediocrity: its internal struggles and divisive conversations are remarkably unattractive and its larger cultural irrelevance can almost be taken for granted — but not quite. For even with all the noble ruins of all the great religions in sight I am still convinced that if examined carefully, separating the wheat from chaff and sticking close to what seems to be evident from the radical visions and proposed actions of those early crafters as well as the deep bones of the resulting edifice, there is a simple and astonishingly poetic structure for a common true endeavour, a shared practice of compassion and creativity — even a common conspiracy for a more loving world.

This is not a new idea for me. I have vague memories of a stoned evening in the depths of the seventies when a friend challenged me as to how I could be convinced of the truth-claims of Christianity while being open to smoking grass, making love, and questioning authority — was even proud to enjoy all of them quite frequently. I smiled, passed the joint, and responded that most religions could be defined as dogma or doctrine, but they could also, just as easily, with equal evidence from ancient sources, be described as patterns of behaviour and incidents of charity, neighbourliness, love. And that’s where I was walking. I talked about the way an accomplished practitioner from any tradition would tend a garden, meet a stranger, sit in silence, heal a wound. I admitted that the vocabulary to describe each occurrence could be unique, exclusive, in some cases even restrictive, but the actions would  have much in common.

So maybe it’s time for the great religious traditions of the world to be more forthcoming about – not the way we phrase our sets of beliefs, but how we work them out, massage them into the texture of our daily tasks and what it looks when we are successful and when, more commonly, we are not: actions rather than addages; less theorem and more practice.

And maybe the best way to use recipe knowledge might be as a sort of tentative map — accessing various areas of concern, but with no fixed names and identities, no capitol cities or main ports of call, a reference map that allow spaces to configure and constellate various areas of concern to be explored over time, depending on who we are with and where we are going. This does not have to be an ambitious project.

The simple practice of stretching before physical sport can be one model for this. As a young man I never bothered to do any specific exercises before playing tennis, but then in my late thirties I came home from a good game of singles and realised that I had injured my left shoulder to the extent that every time I turned in the night I awoke in a lot of pain. I realised that there was no longer an option not to stretch before tennis.  It was a good thing to learn. Now, almost twenty years later, I find that regular stretching is helpful in preparing for the day ahead as well as meeting and mending the injuries that have come in daily life. It has become a semi-regular practice for me and I learn from it. Because now when I stretch I take time to listen to the recent history of my body, mind, soul and general neighbourhood, noting where soreness and stiffness need to be honoured, where limits need to be known and acknowledged before they can be touched, moved, released, enlarged. .

This has similarities with the actions of breathing — not just in meditation but in every moment of time: the give and take of it, the rhythm and pace, depth and demeanour. Years ago somebody advised me, “Look at something you think you know until it tells you something new.” So I’ve been looking at, learning to lean into, breathing with breathing, and I am learning that it gets bigger over time and it’s always hard to tell the simple truth of it. 

I can write that breathing is not new for me, is an addictive activity that I started early and never got over, but that just panders to my tendency to play the lounge act of the soul, go for cheap laughs, try to introduce profundity through the family entrance. But the conscious act of breathing is really the most radical thing in the world. Breaking the world all open to a whole new spectrum of interaction, instructions and experience of intimacy that is closer than right next door — like the little girl in the first Poltergeist movie says, “They’re here!” 

To begin to allow breathing to breathe us is to turn around the way we live and move and have our being. It is to lean into the possibility of a meeting place in the middle of the body where “who-I-am” meets something that is both bigger and finer than what I usually see as me, something else that challenges the way I separate the world into categories and choices, me and them, right and wrong, good and bad, all those inadequate and facile dichotomies that get lost and found in here and now. 

To tell a story. Recently I woke at three in the morning to hear the remote speakers in the living room making sounds like muffled drums that stop when I turn off their power source, but when I go back to bed my mind starts racing like a greyhound chasing any available rabbit. It is still new to become aware of this inflamed vigilance, moving like an agitated animal from memory to projection, past to present to future, trying on ways of dealing with any possible crisis or feeling. So I find myself wondering, “Who let this one in the door?” while fully realising that this one is me!

So I observe the running tangent, feel the under-core of emotion providing the momentum for this marathon of reactivity; spraying conceptual gunfire on any perceived danger, continually scanning the landscape for threats and promises; it was not pretty. But I become aware there is a choice in how much I identify with, consent to, the level of my participation, to what extent I take part, in this paranoid procession. 

Again I watch the wild monologue, feel the level of feeling under that, and am aware of another choice on this horizon: that I can go deeper into simply witnessing the process from another viewpoint. I don’t have to feel the fear, run to or from the action, can— let’s say — pet the cat laying next to me on the bed or attend to the rhythm of my breath. I do both of those, slowly withdrawing from the tangent of the man who has not been invited to share his monolog in my head but shows up anyway, and a little while later the cat and I go back to sleep. Maybe meditation is changing me. 

So writing about breathing is about as difficult as writing about sex, altered consciousness or good musical theatre — all the stuff that really matters — because it involves everything I think I am and more, it stretches me physically, mentally, spiritually; and yet it is essentially unspeakable, unremarkable, simple and difficult, as easy as breathing and as easy to overlook. So what I try to do is listen, with my breath, to where I meet the boundaries, without too much thinking, and attend to what happens then.

I started exploring meditation in the summer of 1969 when I took our parish youth to a Saturday event on a ranch in the Napa Valley where we met a Benedictine monk named Dom Aelred Graham. He authored a number of books on the dialogue between Christians and Buddhists as well as one called “The Love of God” which Thomas Merton wrote was the best book he’d ever read on that subject. Graham had even visited Merton in his monastery and helped him plan his trip to the far east in 1968. 

But that day Dom Aelred set a bunch of us down in a circle on the patio, gave some simple and specific instructions and sat with us in silence for twenty minutes. And something unexpected happened for me — an opening awareness of a kind of welcoming but silent neutrality, free of any directional signals I had to follow, or thoughts I had to respond to, where I could simply be a silent witness to the fact of breathing. It was a spaciousness that did not refute or exclude anything, a kind of clear and holy hospitality where shoulders could lower and the blood course and heart beat calm, and when distractions came (as they did) they could be taken and let go. 

I was able to meet with him later that summer as well as occasionally for the next few years, and these conversations changed my life. I remember him quoting a thirteenth century Buddhist monk named Dogen who wrote, “Take no thought of good and evil, only cease to cherish opinion.” and that linked up with a line of St Augustine’s from the early Fourth century, namely, “Love God and do what you will.”  Then he looked at me closely, with all the authority of a schoolmaster, and said: “If you are given something good, you don’t have to protect it, because it will stay with you.  This means that you don’t need to be vigilant, or preoccupied, or overly concerned with orthodoxy, because God, who ‘has begun a good thing in you,’ will see it through to the finish.” 

He told me that a sense of humour was essential for the religious life. For, if “faith” is an assumption that, in the end, “all will be well,” that means there is room to grow, room to breathe, even room to kid around. If the universe keeps faith, we can take the chance to be childlike, because the one thing necessary doesn’t depend on us. Then life is a gift that comes from someone else, somewhere else, and that process is trustworthy, can be relaxed into. So leaning into this world-view allowed room for ebullience and laughter in the tension living between where we find ourselves and where we want to be. 

But for Dom Aelred this was not to be a passive consumer or a quietist. Instead we need to actively practice the religion of Jesus rather than a religion about Jesus, and that means sharing the journey with God. Not with the attitude of a supplicant or child, but in the spirit of an adult and a friend, where the one thing that is important is the return to the Father, the creator, the unitive source, “that we all may be one as you are one.”  It was a kind of vision, where all is found via this open-hearted participation in that one final integrity. 

He gave me an appreciation of the deeper wisdom tradition within the church and its affinity with eastern traditions and texts, showed me how Thomas Merton’s later writing and his contemplative connections might help me weave together the table of my history and hope in a new way, might help integrate the family I came from, the journey I was trying to follow, and the fresh air I increasingly found in the middle of the world — which was somehow growing larger and more intimate at the same time, turning out to be bigger than I thought — and I was finding room to change.

Chapter 1 – LTWTO

Part One – Spring longing begins…

“All theology is a kind of birthday

Each one who is born

Comes into the world as a question

For which old answers

Are not sufficient.

Birth is question and revelation

The ground of birth is paradise

Yet we are born a thousand miles

Away from our home.

Paradise weeps in us

And we wander further away.

This is the theology of our birthdays.”                        Thomas Merton

“The map is not the territory”  Alfred Korzybski

Chapter One

I’ve learned a lot from maps. I was born in Sacramento, California in 1946, almost a century after the city was founded where the American River came west from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and met the Sacramento River in its southward journey down the long valley and through the wide delta to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific.

Sacramento started out mapping its streets squarely and naming them logically with the alphabet marching north to south and a sequence of numbered streets moving from west to east through the grid pattern of the town. It turned out the juncture of First and A streets was in the middle of the Central Pacific rail yards, and First Street would be named Front Street  for its location on the riverbank, but 100 years later when I was a boy numbered streets still marched eastward to 57th and south to where Y Street was renamed Broadway and the next sequence of streets began — numbered again, but with the distinct suffix of Avenue instead. 

There were anomalies, Streets with names like Mission Way and El Dorado Way (where we lived) interposed themselves within the number scheme and other streets like I (named Eye) and L (remaining L) seemed to appear sporadically and were occasionally lost with the sequence of letters jumping  from H to J (Jay) and to M to Folsom Boulevard, the name that O Street took after 30th street, which had been renamed Alhambra Boulevard. 

After 57th Street the Southern Pacific rail tracks curled south then east like a snake hugging the edge of the American River and both H and Jay Street tunnelled under the tracks to reappear between the new district of River Park and the site for the proposed State College before combining and crossing the Jay Street Bridge to become Fair Oaks Boulevard flanked by hop fields and various small farms being subdivided for more new housing.

As I write this, almost three quarters of a century after this chronology begins, online maps remind me of my memories inadequacies. The streets north of A Street and the railroad tracks but south of the River were named North A, B, C and following and current online maps note inner neighbourhoods and outlying towns I don’t remember, and the bus lines I used to know have been renumbered. And now I live, according to Google, 7,815 miles away from Sacramento, California  in Wangaratta, two and a half hours northeast of Melbourne, Australia.

So things change, memories falter or become imbued with personal references and other background music, and the old foundational stories turn with times necessities to take on different shapes, serve other purposes and options, but the grid pattern I remember as a boy served as an initial map of meaning, somehow focussed my life, telling me where to go and when to turn and what to look out for and even mapped out the places where I shouldn’t look. I see them still.

My mother’s side of the family arrived in California early,  some settling near San Francisco and others in Sacramento. Some were gold-miners, farmers and hotel keepers and others supplied workers for the transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad, farmed and  worked for the Wells Fargo Bank. Some were more successful; my great grandfather’s older brother , William Benson Storey, was the president of the Santa Fe Railroad and my grandfather’s younger brother was Herbert Hoover’s family doctor at Stanford University. Most of us were somewhere between comfortable working class or precarious middle class. 

In 1922 when my mother (the youngest of three children) was six years old her parents moved from Chico, Butte Country,  in the north of the Sacramento Valley, to Suisun-Fairfield, Solano County, on the outer edge of San Francisco Bay where my grandfather Chester Storey would become the manager of the branch line of the local narrow gauge electric railway. Their three children graduated from Armijo High School and in the case of their son Herb, went on to graduate from Stanford University. Ruth Ellen attended Chico State College briefly then went to Sacramento to work as a secretary for the State government. She was joined later by her sister Mildred and when, in 1940, Chet Storey inherited money from the president of the Santa Fe, retired from the railway and moved with his wife to the leafier suburbs of Sacramento.

My paternal grandparents, John Whalley and Mary Nuttall, had come to California in 1909 from Haywood, a village outside Manchester in Lancashire, where their families worked in the cotton mills and they had owned a grocery store with a post-office and a lending library. They bought a small parcel of land south of Sacramento to grow grapes and my father John and his twin sister Margaret were born there in 1913. An elder son had died at birth. They stayed on the land for about five years, then moved into central Sacramento where my grandfather took a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad and my grandmother worked as a housekeeper in the public hospital. In the late thirties they moved to Pacific Grove, California where my grandfather died in 1944, After that Mary Whalley returned to Sacramento and lived there until she died in 1969. 

My father and aunt both played tennis and had junior memberships in the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club, becoming part of a fairly exclusive clique of young people. My dad won the state men’s doubles badminton championship in a tournament in Pasadena. My father and his sister graduated from Sacramento High School in 1931 and my aunt became the women’s editor of the local morning paper not long after. My father went into a three year printing apprenticeship program run by the state of California, to be trained as a printer and typographer. After he finished this he worked for a short while at a small paper in Quincy, a village in the northern Sierras, then returned to Sacramento where he resumed working for the state printing office. 

My mother had been working at the State Engineers Office in 1937 when she met my father and they were married  in the Chapel of intercession at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on January 22 the following year.  Their first son, Thomas Herbert, was born in Sacramento on April 16 of 1939 and I was born in seven years and one day later on April 17 of 1946. I  have wondered if being born less than nine months after the US dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki accounts for an more than occasional feeling of having walked into a room where an extended argument has just come to an abrupt and pregnant pause and I might be called upon to make some sort of response. 

 For most of my early life my father was a junior partner in a small printing business, and my mother was a housewife. Sometimes there was enough money and other times we  came home from the tennis club to find the electric power had been switched off for lack of payment. My mother’s parents usually bailed us out.

Early in my childhood we lived  at 838 El Dorado Way, between H and Jay, 53rd and 54th Streets, and when I was 10 my parents moved to a rented house at 951 41st Street near Jay Street . My maternal grandparents lived at 901 44th on the corner of Eye, my widowed paternal grandmother lived on H Street between 27th and 28th and was a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral at 2620 M Street (which had been renamed Capital Avenue), my  father worked at 617 Jay Street and we were family member of the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club at 3951 N Street. As a family we had friends in the neighbourhood and the tennis club and frequently went to visit aunts, uncles and cousins in Berkeley, Chico, Fairfield, Oakland, Oroville and Palo Alto.   

As cultural Christians we were vaguely Congregational on my mother’s side while my paternal grandfather still attended the local cathedral and had raised my father as an Episcopalian — but the tennis club was the closest thing to a church we had in my youth. The club gave me some normative definitions of ways and means to live together. It gave community, a shared purpose, provided a place for both discipline and joy, a safe place for me and my family to go to meet the world.

Sutter Lawn Tennis Club was organised in 1919 and originally had grass courts, but by the fifties there were 5 composition courts and a new swimming pool. Sacramento’s climate meant you could play tennis most of the year and we were at the club most weekends.  I had swimming and tennis lessons when I was 5 or 6, often played doubles with my family and, from late May to mid-September, played around the pool every Saturday or Sunday. But when I was in my early teens and the family was going through tough times I decided I didn’t like practicing or playing strategically: I’d try percentage shots that didn’t pay off, and I had a tendency to lose focus and get too tight when the score was against me. So I played a lot less and we ended up leaving the club anyway. 

When I was a boy my family called me Bobby and, occasionally, Robby, except for my paternal aunt who used to called me “Robair” using an urgent and somewhat conspiratorial voice. I went with Bob in primary school and for forty years following until I changed my business cards to Robert and prepared for a late-middle age life change. When I moved to Melbourne Australia at the age of 54, I decided to open another new door and now prefer to be called Rob.

Two early memories I can date: First, a late summer day with my parents and brother meeting my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin next to the Golden Bears at the 1949 California State Fair on the 100th anniversary of the Gold Rush. The other was during preparations for the New Years Eve party that year at the tennis club. My parents were on the decoration committee, and were dressing up a mannequin dressed as the old year with white robe and flowing beard), when a former Olympic swimmer repeatably rehearsed emerging from the men’s locker room with a small white diaper over his silver racing trunks to celebrate the new year.

The following year we had season tickets to the Sacramento Music Circus where I remember seeing Showboat and Oklahoma. At a meal at the new Sacramento Inn following the second show, we saw the actress playing Ado Annie sitting alone across the room and I insisted on walking over to her table tell her how much I liked the show and that I thought she was beautiful. I was five years old.

At the age of six I began attending El Dorado School on Jay Street, a stuccoed off-white building with a red tiled roofed which I thought looked like a California mission with a centrally placed two story auditorium as the church, kindergarten, first and second grade to the left, middle grades, library and art room in a central wing and the higher grade classrooms in newer wooden temporary buildings to the side. My  first morning in kindergarten when the teacher told a girl named Mary Ann that she had to stop crying which only made her cry more. I told the teacher that someone should slap her face and she led me to the principal’s office who called my mother and had his secretary take me to the lunchroom and give me a peanut butter sandwich. I was happy to see my mother but decided I didn’t like my first schoolteacher. 

My third grade teacher, Miss Hussong, told  stories while chalking large capital letters on the blackboard, then turning the letters into characters in the story. We also had weekly talent shows where I remember sang songs I heard on the radio or saw on Perry Como’s television show.  Once I told a joke I had heard at home and Miss Hussong told me I was very witty. The next year in fourth grade some friends and I were scheduled to go to the auditorium to work on our musical play, the plot shifting depending on what movie I had seen with my father at the Esquire, Alhambra, Tower or Crest Theatre the previous Saturday, and generally I took the Frank Sinatra role, although after seeing Guys and Dolls I went with Marlon Brando. Summer vacation came before we ever had an opening performance. 

My parents were nice people. They always hoped for the best, loved to laugh. One summer the teenagers around the pool told my mother that they had agreed she and my father were the most popular adults in the club.  We played tennis and went swimming during summer weekends at the club, and took occasional day trips to the San Francisco Zoo or Aquarium or the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, stopping first for clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf.  I remember summer trips to the mountains, the highway following the American or Truckee River upstream with the convertible top down and the sharp smell of pine forests. They loved to entertain and laugh, were well liked with lots of friends, gave great parties on Saturday nights, and shared ambitious plans for the future with a deep hope that it would all be coming true in the near future. Some Sunday afternoons my mother and I would visit houses “open for inspection” in better neighbourhoods where we hoped to move soon. 

But when things did not go well the family tended to get quiet, avoid the pain in hope that it might go away, focus elsewhere. “Let’s not talk about that now.” So nothing was discussed, everyone kept quiet, looking in another direction. And when I was in my last two years at El Dorado School a lot went wrong; my grandfather was operated on for liver cancer on my eleventh birthday and died exactly two months later on the Friday before Father’s Day. The year before my father had sold his part of the printing business to pay for back taxes and we moved to a rental house, my older brother graduated from high school, started at the local junior college, took a part-time job and moved with a friend into his own apartment, a family friend who had lived with us for two years left the Air Force to return to his parents home in Florida, and everyone in the family worried that my maternal grandmother, who had a nervous breakdown five years before, would be unable to bear her husbands death. My parents argued more, the drinking got worse, and during that summer I remember sitting barefoot in the front seat of my mother’s Buick convertible outside a neighbourhood market while my father went in to buy liquor for a Saturday night, and looking down to see the summer sun shining on one thick dark hair growing on the centre of my right big toe. 

I graduated at mid-term at the end of 1957 and went into the seventh grade early the next year, attending junior high school. My grades went down almost immediately and I would wake up on Monday mornings with reasons for not going like headaches, stomach pains, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea. I fell behind on homework and my grades went down and I would not walk into a classroom late for fear that other students would look at me and  know about some betrayal that I did not understand; some vague disease that kept me home  in the mornings behind semi-closed venetian blinds and made me fear crowds and avoid kids my own age. Finally I refused to go to school more days than not, and after the Easter vacation in 1958 I refused to go to school at all, and I didn’t want to talk about it either. 

About that time I remember looking at the paperback rack by the checkout stand at that same neighbourhood market, seeming saw a copy of a famous stripper’s memoirs, “Gypsy – soon to be a musical starring Ethel Merman,” and asking my mother to buy it for me. I loved the story of 1920s and 30s vaudeville, burlesque and Broadway, and in 1959 when the musical came to San Francisco’s  Geary Theatre with the National Company my mother and I saw Ethel Merman striding down the centre aisle demanding her eldest daughter, “Sing out, Louise!” 

Then my mother and I were both seeing therapists and my parents were advised to not pressure me on return to junior high classes. And now my parents marriage was close to breaking up and rather than going to the tennis club on Saturday’s we were driving near the town where my mother grew up and a sheep ranch that my aunt’s husband managed for his father’s infirm sister and cleaning up the abandoned bunkhouse with plans for making it into a weekend retreat.

Sometimes on Saturday mornings we’d stop at the Italian grocery on Folsom Boulevard and get salami and cheese and bread rolls and beer and Pepsi Cola, then we’d drive through the downtown and past the redevelopment building sites west of the State Capitol. We crossed the Sacramento River on Tower Bridge, driving over the Yolo causeway, which flooded during wet winters, and past the University campus at Davis to Solano County to make a right turn off the highway at the Giant Orange where we sometimes got fresh fruit. We drove through Dixon on the narrow road bisecting green or yellow flat fields of grain or bright  safflower and sometimes after autumn harvest sheep were feeding in the stubble barely separated from the road by spare wire fences that looked like musical notes should be hanging on them. 

In 1960 my brother married his high school sweetheart and, when my uncle’s aunt moved to a nursing home, the main house on the ranch became available and my mother and I stayed there more often while my father came down on the bus or train most weekends. But after he was released from the hospital following a liver disease my father rented a small apartment downtown and my mother had movers empty the rental  house in Sacramento  and her cousin  from Oroville helped us with a final cleanup and then the drive to the ranch with the movers arriving with the full van the next day. It rained hard as we drove down through the flat fields on dark roads. I remember opening the last gate and closing it behind us as we parked by the garage at the back of the house. I had felt lost in the house on 41st street where all I knew was where I wasn’t; but at least people knew who I had been, and who, I assumed, I should be — but now no one knew me at all and I felt like I was becoming invisible, castaway in a far off desert. I would return to Sacramento four years later to start a long journey as a peripatetic tertiary student, but I didn’t know that then.

My mother used to have what she called “A Happy.”  This was a particular and sudden unsought but seized upon sense of joy which would show up in the present moment like sun breaking through clouds or fog. Sometimes it came in looking out a window, other times with the radio music or company present or something one of the dogs did. But to her it was a gift she was quick to receive and share. She would say, “I’m having a happy,” and we would all go to the sun porch ( with screened windows all ‘round, walls painted green with white wicker sofa and chairs, potted plants and orange covered cushions)  which she called the thinking room — and we’d sit there with a certain sense of privilege brought about by fresh tea or coffee, the dogs or the canary, the morning sunlight, the sounds of the chickens ‘round the corner or a tractor in the distance; some present transient glory inviting us to wait, watch and respond to what was right in front of us, happening here and now.

I think it was the greatest gift she shared, this availability for responding to certain instances of freely given life: an ephemeral light brought into close focus by an acquired appreciation to be shared that came in listening for unintended humour or wisdom in overheard conversation, insights that came in witnessing some performance of street humour, music, drama, comedy, pathos; in light-filled sunrooms or in sidewalk awakenings where the evidence of glory walked into our daily life and made itself available to share in newborn thanksgiving.  Looking back there a number epiphanies of the daily kind which opened into laughable and fresh-breathed mystery. Like Robert Browning’s poem on his Last Duchess, “She liked where ere she looked and her look went everywhere,” and accompanying her on these forays into the land of happy always seemed a gifted adventure.

Other stories came into play in those four years when, following the advice of a therapist, my parents did not enrol me in the local high school. I was very shy around people my own age and tended to be stilted with adults I did not know well: becoming one of those hidden adolescents trying to figure out the answer without understanding the question: scared, precocious, and very anxious to find a world where I would fit in, where I would make sense. I worked occasionally for my uncle around the ranch, but had no real friends outside immediate family: I worried that I would die and no one would come to my funeral. I was very anxious to find a world where I would fit in so I watched old movies on television and came home from the local library loaded down; some popular psychology and sociology, but mainly humour, biography and fiction. Looking back I recall three authors who gave me hope.

Elizabeth Goudge’s book, “Pilgrims Inn” was in my grandparents bookcase before I could read, and I recall sitting on the floor puzzling over the sketches of the main characters on the covers and inside the binding. When I was 14 or 15 I start reading it. The Elliot’s, a family in post-World War II England move to an old house on the English coast and find themselves recipients of a surprising love. Walking in nearby woods at dusk, Nadine Elliott has a realisation of the connectedness of life and the compassion it calls for: “Quite suddenly you felt like your life was not an isolated thing, but one that existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, ‘We don’t need each other’”

J. D. Salinger’s first novel, “Catcher in the Rye,” was rich reading for an apprehensive teenager, and the two stories in “Franny and Zooey” touched me more deeply. The second story begins when a young acting student returns to her parents New York apartment home to have a religious breakdown/breakthrough. Her older brother Zooey accuses her of withdrawing from the family structure in order to pray. At one point he says something like, “How can you claim to be a pilgrim, to follow holiness, then turn down a cup of consecrated chicken soup, which is the only kind of chicken soup we have in this house?” And when Franny says she no longer want to be an actress because it seems to be egocentric and self obsessed. Her brothers responds, “The only thing you can do now…the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to — be God’s actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?”

And then he reminds her of something their older brother told him when they appeared together on a radio show together; “to shine my shoes… for the Fat Lady.” He pictured someone with cancer listening to the radio, “sitting on a parch and swatting flies on a hot day” and asks if his sister is listening to him; “I’ll tell you a terrible secret… There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady… Don’t you know that… secret yet? And don’t you know… who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy… It’s Christ Himself…”

When I was seventeen I borrowed Joan Didion’s early first book, “Run River”, from the Rio Vista library.  Set in the nearby Sacramento delta, Didion’s early work was loaded with scenes from the birthplace we shared: meals at the Capitol Tamale Parlor on Tenth Street and the shady veranda  at the Senator Hotel around the corner by the park. In Slouching towards Bethlehem she shares a reoccurring sense of anomie writing that, “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss,” and I found that comforting. As a native daughter and a pilgrim who had traveled far, she offered words, memories and meanings that linked me deeper to the city where I was born, the place I had left behind, and her memories grafted onto the lost years I was trying to rehabilitate. At that time my father told me he had received a letter from Didion’s father following the death of his own father in 1940. I don’t remember whether the senior Didion was president of the school board or on the board of the bank at Eighth and Jay Streets, but when my father shared the kindness of a leading citizen writing a sympathy letter to him it fused another facet of my own identity as a writer and a fourth generation native of Sacramento.

That summer after my father’s stay in hospital and our moving to the ranch I remember him pouring out tall glasses of ice tea from the carafe in the refrigerator and going out to his vegetable garden to hand water the plants, pick off tomato bugs, and gather fresh produce for dinner. He would end up sitting in an old red kitchen chair that had been appropriated from the wash-house to rest by the shade of the grapevines — sitting in the late afternoon sun with an appreciation of the garden that was almost palpable, was healing to us all.

It reminded me of times we shared when I was younger and taking the bus down Jay street with him on Saturday morning at the quiet print shop for a few hours, ending with  lunch across Jay Street at an Italian cafeteria where high-hatted chefs lavishly cut slices off a massive side of rare roast beef for a dipped sandwich on a French roll. Sometimes we’d walk over to the capitol and look at the rotunda, check out the red and green chambers of the Senate and the Assembly.

I remember the two of us on Saturday train rides to San Francisco to the Oakland Mole when I was 10 or 11 and catching the “San Rafael” across the bay to the Ferry Building where the foot of Market Street met the Embarcadero and the city spread out like a open promise with un-numbered possibilities radiating out like the streetcars and taxis and trains and buses as noisy and fresh and rich as Benny Goodman’s big band sound.

Over those years my father came down most weekends and my parents marriage got better and in 1963, when I was 17, he moved down to manage a local  branch of a large Sacramento printer in the nearby town where my mother had grown up.  

When I turned 18 years old, I took a nationwide tertiary entrance exam and scored extremely well on the verbal sections and amazingly bad on the quantitative part. My totalled score enabled me to return to Sacramento, stay with my maternal grandmother, and attend the local junior college without a high school diploma. I was back in school but felt as though I lacked some crucial secondary socialisation, feared that I missed a special ingredient. I would spend a lot of time trying to make up for that.

Later that year my brother gave me a book by the editor of Esquire Magazine called “What Every Young Man Should Know.” It contained a one page list of all the proper clothing that the young man in the know should know about. educating myself in the serious business of being an adult, which seemed to be mainly a matter of getting the right accessories I checked the list as I could afford to buy the items. At the same time I decided that I join a fraternity, a tennis club and a church as well. This, I assumed, would give me a series of walls and safety nets to make the world make sense. I would have all my bases covered.

So fast-forward to the early nineties when I’m working as a tertiary chaplain in San Francisco and speaking to a priest of a nearby parish about my lost adolescence and unorthodox education. He surprises me by saying he respected my parents for easing the pressure and taking care of me that way,  then told me that the previous year his high-school hating teenaged son had dropped out of school, run away from home, and was now living on the streets of the Haight Ashbury district of the city.

That opened a new and kinder light on my history, but there might have been other options. Looking back I’ve wonder if family therapy, facing and discussing problems and feelings, answering questions and telling the truth — maybe attending a  few AA and AlAnon meetings or two would have made a difference; but that’s judging what was done then by what’s on the horizon now, and it’s a far different world. Looking back from here it’s clear that the the father was prone to drinking too much and likely depressed, the mother was uninfluenced by feminist writings and heavily co-dependent, the elder son was moving away from his family of origin in instinctual and understandable survival mode, and the younger son was smart, deeply scared and almost certainly gay. Nowadays it could be a TV series, though I am still not sure if it should be labelled comedy, drama or farce and looking back I still don’t know whether I want to laugh or cry or simply change the channel. 

  Nor am I sure whether I was hobbled or helped by the years at the ranch: the solitude, the sense I didn’t fit in anywhere — lost with a growing hunger to be seen, known and valued. But there was more to it too, more to be seen if I had known to enlarge the lens of my looking. 

I remember one warm summer evening on the ranch when I was fourteen sitting in T-shirt and shorts with my back against the warm stucco wall on the front porch on the west side of that 1930s California bungalow ranch house watching the sunset turning white clouds mottled rose over the brown rolling hills some thirty miles away and something happened that surprised me. 

Maybe vigilance was the focus for me at the time; trying to make sense of the world without a formal education or a peer group, figuring that if I look for all the clues the puzzle would make sense, and the chaos turn into order that I could control or at least understand. These things were on my mind that particular evening when, just for a moment, I became aware of a subtle change in the air. 

I know now there is often a moment in a summer evening when the earth baked by the sun since morning starts to give up its heat to the cooler evening, when a fresh breeze announces that day is ending and evening beginning with a kind of give-and-take rhythm, almost a scent of silent music, and in that instance I didn’t feel alone.

It was just one moment and changed nothing: but all these years later I still wonder if the land I wanted to escape from in those days might have also been a place for faithful pilgrimage and might have contained, in those warm sunsets and silent mornings, the eloquent offering of a compassionate wisdom I’m still yet to fully understand.