So today it is almost Michaelmas, late September after a cold Australian winter, and in Wangaratta, 2.5 hours northeast of Melbourne, it is early spring and currently 7C with a forecast high of 18C. After almost twenty years in the Southern hemisphere it still surprises me that the beginning of spring comes here at the same time the Northern California clime where I grew up starts seeing autumnal colours and a few cold nights. Can it be both obvious and profound that the same world offers, according to the angle of geography, different seasons at the same time? Doesn’t it seem slightly magic to live on a planet where summer can be winter depending on where you are?
Here I am; a man, an old man (not that old, seventy-something is the new late-fifties), lying in bed next to his partner and writing in bed with that first steaming hot coffee cup on the left bedside table by the light, a Mac Book Air balancing gently on somewhat arthritic knees (the right one’s now titanium). But this isn’t just that man because there’s a teenage kid on a California sheep ranch who just wants to live his life but doesn’t quite know where to find it or how to recognise it, a perennial student and pothead, a struggling seminarian, some sort of surprised latent lesbian who emerges in early middle-age, a forty year old gay man trying to get the decor right. These together with the peripatetic printing salesman, pedant, poet and priest — all with the man who’s not yet reconciled to being awake at seventy-something yet trying to embrace it all as if there were no living alternative.
Earlier in the morning, sitting quasi-contemplatively in my 4:00am bathroom break, the girl cat Moxie pushes the door open and walks in to immediately turn around and face the door, waiting for her brother Snooks. We met them almost fifteen years ago in the breeder’s back bedroom in suburban Melbourne where, at first glance, a large moving mass of young interrelated felines seemed to be enacting some primal dance or procession, intensely engaged with two half-open sliding closet doors in a back bedroom with infinite kittens rapidly appearing and disappearing on either side of the doors — moving to attack, to run, return, go ‘round the other door and begin again. Now Moxie returns to the hall and her brother who waits outside
They precede me into the kitchen at the back of the house to be fed at 6:05, tails high like twin vergers leading the procession to high mass. I turn on lights, switch on the furnace, put water in the kettle for coffee, open the refrigerator, spoon meat into their bowls, push the button on the coffee grinder and fill the plunger with fresh ground beans and boiling water to take back to my bedside table. I pick up my laptop computer on the way. In bed with my partner John, who’s reading morning newspapers online, I place three pillows behind my back, pour coffee and start to write this, choosing for the moment to avoid web-browsing, silent meditation, morning prayer, going to the gym or starting the sermon due at the end of the week.
It still surprises me to have spent the last fifty years as some sort of Christian, for most days I despair of the larger institutional church, wonder about quite a few traditions, doubt the phrasing of many of the dogmas and doctrines, and am often nauseated by the more moralistic of my siblings in this dysfunctional family. In the middle of the last century Frank Lloyd Wright was taken to see the Civic Centre of San Francisco years ago. He turned with disgust from the large classically French-inspired domed building on a large rectangular plaza: “Only a city as beautiful as this,” he said, “could survive what you are doing to it.” In my experience he could have been speaking of the church today.
But even with these shadows I am convinced that the essential message of the great religious traditions carries valuable sources for poetics and politics, ethics and education, music and meaning, vocation and community. The centre does hold even as the paradigm is changing, and a revisioning of these ancient truths and wide traditions can offer new hope and healing that is happening even now.
For I also know the history of the Christian Churches is a long and winding river with a wide breadth and diversity of theory and practice; so —when I point to the values of tradition, liturgy and devotion over scripture, doctrine and dogma, of love over law, and conversations over commandments — I do so with a wide range of companions and a deep and shared history, and I am proud to follow and minister in this company, to follow this welcoming path.
Over the last fifty years, I’ve cobbled together a working life as a worker, salesman, student, lay minister, teacher, chaplain, priest and practicing writer. In reviewing that time I’ve gathered journal entries, sermon texts, class lecture notes and reflections on culture, drugs, friendship, nature or nurture, poetry, psychology, sex and sociology seasoned with surprising incursions of loss, love and luck. This continuing story of my life and love is my witness of what matters to me and what I want to share with you.
My own experiences began my exploration of the sacred. This was followed by reflections and reading on my own followed by university classes in psychology, sociology, literature, poetry – finally some graduate work in history and phenomenology of religion, primarily dealing with the experience of prayer and transformation rites. This took me into further dimensions of experience as an active member of a worshipping community, as I continued to explore deeper into the dynamic tradition of discourse and discipleship, shared silence and prayer, intercession and actions in both Buddhist and Christian communities. Then finally, in seminary, I started to encounter the rich resonant wisdom of the primary Scriptures and their radical vision of presence and justice and compassion.
People on the less individualistic, more conservatives avenue, at least within the Christian tradition, would reverse the order: starting with a primary role for studying Scripture in community and, when that has reached a critical capacity, moving on to study aspects of the community’s tradition, eventually combining these two cores with modern concepts of reason and connecting that with the experience of living with the demands of the contemporary world. I believe I have followed a path which may be more fitting for our times.
Ever since I was a little kid I’ve often had the sense of being accompanied, regarded, refreshed by some kind of sweet compassion. Not all the time, but occasionally and consistently — this surprising in-breaking, an awareness of a welcome and sacred dimension to the scene, lighting it from within and clarifying what it might mean to be human: coming with the changing light in the morning, the rhythm of breathing, the fact of our flesh, this sad and amazing, fragile and magnificent world seen face-to-face every moment, every day. All these plausible reasons to believe in a creation made, met and mingled within a conscious and continuing act of love.
Looking back I can remember digging in my parents’ garden when I was four or five, using a water hose to create a river under a rose bush, building a dam with one gesture of my palm, feeling the warm dirt and cold water as I refurbish the world. I can remember learning to swim under water a few years later, diving into a pool and moving from the noise of people talking, children playing, music in the background, and finding a realm of cool silence, wet and bright with bubbles in water, refracted sunlight, moving into new dimensions of motion and flying down to deeper silence or up into the noise and air again.
I remember the joy of riding a bike, pumping my legs and turning corners and exploring new neighbourhoods when I was ten or twelve. I remember playing tennis in my teens, shifting weight and learning to read the court like a song-sheet, responding to the rhythm of the opponent, the court, the flight of the ball, the air and light and weather, arms and legs and sweat and joy. I remember dancing and dating and exploring other people’s bodies and my own with all the intricacies and urgencies of flesh and blood. I remember realising this dance was shared with all the world — every body could do it, had done it, might do it again, soon, and wondering why we all didn’t.
Another strand came into play in 1965 when I was nineteen and went with friends to a liberal, middle class, suburban Episcopal Church where a group of people followed a simple and semi-solemn ritual of confessing faults, receiving forgiveness, listening to lessons, praying for themselves and others; all ending with intentionally incorporating something of the human love of God into their journeys. With music it took less than 55 minutes and, while I looked for rulebooks, expectations and demands, I was surprised to see the same underlying rhythm I found in gardens and water and exploration and getting lost and found and the sweat and sweetness of lovemaking. It both fed me and left me wondering how many other ways there might be to enact and understand, incorporate and step into this dance with whatever might be in, with, under everything that is, which might still be called love.
Since my sense of formal religion was something occurring inside buildings — architecture rather than the sense of experience I encountered elsewhere. I liked architecture, liked the work of designing the world from that first world I had rebuilt in the summer mud garden as a young boy, liked the lines and outlines of the tennis court and the sentences of a poem, but it left me with a question: how does love connect with structure?
A theologian once wrote that “God is a word for God.” After some pause I take that to mean that the word “God” stands for any collections of visions, values or prescriptions that ask for a sacrifice and offer a blessing. “God” can be an agenda to follow, a direction to travel and a list of what to take along the way. For love gets complex, dancing between history and hope and here and now. Evolving visions and values, roles and rules, all build walls, grow and change. offer larger blessings as well as demand more strident sacrifices. Encounters with family and friends calls for further definition about where we come from and where we’re going and why the traveling might matter. So even though one English mystic was convinced that “all will be well,” this need be balanced with a Zen Roshi’s response when asked for a two-word definition of his teachings: his answer? “Things change.” I’d agree with that and add two more, “Jesus wept” and “Shit Happens.” Still the question stays with me; how does the freedom of love connect with the demands that come with structures?
When I am around 5 years old, a neighbour’s daughter who is my occasional baby-sitter, gets married in a large wedding at the local Roman Catholic parish. My parents think I’m too young to go to the ceremony so my maternal grandparents stay with me in the car across the street from the red brick church and I remember looking at the building and wondering what’s happening inside.
Maybe it comes from a scrap of conversation overheard or a picture seen but I am sure the couple are to be married, ”In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Goat.” Even now I see the goat clearly; lovely, clean and white, with a necklace of coloured bells in the centre of the assembled company who are regarding the goat with the respect one gives a to an honoured visitor from a far country who carries an important message, albeit one not easily understood.
Another image from a few years later stays in the shadows but emerges after watching a popular movie in Berkeley in the eighties. Remember the character of Judge Doom in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Tall, grey, menacing, wearing a tall hat with long overcoat and heavy rubber gloves; the one who knows all the weak points of the law, all the codicils to hidden wills. The one out to dissolve the characters of Toon Town.
What I remember is the house my family rents when I am 12 years old, and the landlord, when my parents fall behind on rent, knocking on the front door. I’ve not gone to school that day and my mother, leaving for work, tells me not to answer the door if he comes. So I stay silent and still inside as he walks around the perimeter of the house, tries the back door, looks into windows — for I believe he has the right to do whatever he wants, and I wait for him to open the door, come into my families rented home and throw me out.
All will be well and things change too: Jesus wept and shit happens. For many years I move between those two childhood images of the Almighty. On one hand the sacred one as benevolent bellwether, member of the flock and leader of the pack; animated, omnivorous and polymorphous explorer, getting on top of anything, smart, interested and tenacious; not easily herded. On the other hand the silent judge or overlord holding rules and standards, watching and never to be trusted, keeping secret fate hidden up the sleeve ready to cast us into outer darkness, whatever that is.
The disparity between these two maps still leave me unsure whether to trust the journey or look for the rulebook; if I should consider the lesson of the sunrise or look for the covert agenda under the stated expectations. These two stories and the intertwining dynamics between them are the two recurring and conflicting set of lenses through which I see the larger scape, forming the basic questions I have sought to answer with the witness and work of my life.
I read recently that half the men who make seventy don’t live to eighty. When I told our family doctor he said I was likely to live to the late eighties, but I wonder — and approaching the prospect of death brings the present into abrupt, sharp relief. Not an easy task, for while I was just getting reconciled to more chins and wrinkles, rebranding them as a severe beauty, a new humility to be endured for the next fifteen or twenty years, they were simply preparing me for that final desiccation coming much sooner. Paraphrasing Woody Allen, I’m not sure about death, but I’d still like to be there when it happens to me.
For it hit me in my thirties that the most essential gesture in being human comes at that moment when you are presented with a road ahead, curving on to a future unseeable from the present perspective, requiring a walk with faith, to be negotiated with hopeful ignorance or blessed assurance depending on your history or degree of hope. Some days for me that’s not a lot, some days I allow more.
For on this day, seven hours after I awake, the world changes beyond expectation. I go to the local YMCA, diving into the pool for senior water aerobics to early Beatle songs, showering afterwards and snacking on yoghurt and nuts with friends there. Later I eat lunch out with John, pick up laundry, return home and end up spending the afternoon sitting and writing as a somewhat different person than I was just a few lines back, a few hours before. This day may be unique, but it is not uncommon: it is like that every moment of life, every morning I wake up, every day that I live so far. I get surprised.
But how do I approach this awareness of the curving continuum? Does it depend if we are pessimists or optimists? Sometimes I see myself as incorrigibly incomplete, but on better days I’m an unfinished production in process. The latter balances me better because the “incomplete” side of the equation points to a fear of being found out as lacking, losing the game before it’s over, while leaning on an “unfinished” mode allows transformation. It holds the tension better: something old might die but a new creation can show up right at the same time, on the same screen. I even find the way I use current technology offers avenues and images of larger realities where new connections emerge, offering avenues and images for understanding ourselves in relation to larger realities.
Anyone over the age of fifty knows the vast difference between typing a page back then and writing a document now. Here I blithely run through this black, grey and white world of keys and symbols, pushing squares and watching words appear, both the operating system — which I experience as a benevolent force — and the craft required to attend it has become gentle and more tender than in earlier times.
Thirty or forty years ago sharing words and meaning required carbon paper and mimeograph masters, white-out paste and sometimes thin and easily crinkled erasable bond. I remember one existential moment in 1984 deciding not to sharpen a particular sentence because of the effort required in correcting the choices already committed to the paper. I was aiming to listening to the muse and felt that justified bending to the demands of the craft might stop that process of aspiration.
Getting older broke that yoke. Now I relish doing less, on a good day I intentionally underachieve by allowing twenty minutes for a slow stretching routine, a bit more for morning meditation, breathing fresh air, prayer or time in the pool at the Y, stretching into my limits, meeting where I’m not, letting it all go, and still going on from there. Maybe it’s just me, but the world seems more forgiving and renewing.
And modern technology means this old man revises with abandon with no erasable bonds being broken, no papers torn asunder and, for the present, no memory white-out. It is a new creation right now, a graceful process akin to what one mystic called “continually renewed immediacy,” weaving art and craft, moving from process to product even while keeping evidence of conceptual virginity on each and every page. I find it an exercise approaching the ecstasy of meeting the God-head just in time — for when I touch Command/S, all things become new!
Even at this advanced age I am not sure where I am going, but I am increasingly aware, and thankful, of where I’ve come from and where I am now. I am a man formed in a particular mixture of history and spirituality, psychology and poetry, politics and piety called Anglican Christianity; but I’ve learned much from a Sufi poet named Rumi, lived for months in a Buddhist temple and loved it, and probably have picked up more practical wisdom from good Hollywood comedies and brassy Broadway musicals than I ever expected.
T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ranier Maria Rilke and Mary Oliver float my poetry boat and feed me rich images. Christian writers like Rowan Williams, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr and Marilynne Robinson keep me breathing deeply, and the Buddhist community represented by Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodren and Norman Fischer increasingly offer me fresh air and new hope.
But Thomas Merton tops the page. The writing of this mid-twentieth century monk, poet, prophet, interfaith pioneer and social commentator witnesses a journey of doubt and faith, discernment and delight, poetry and politics that salve so many souls some fifty years after his death. When I was young I found Merton offered answers that helped me, later I saw he shared questions that challenged me, and now I see he made mistakes that surprise me. For all these reasons he remains a friend helping me to connect with life.
So this book aims to be a psycho-social-spiritual look at the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first seen through the lens of my own life and a few others. I’ll tell the stories of my own time; along with people I’ve loved and disliked, movies I’ve seen, failures I’ve survived, times I’ve wasted, tasks I’ve accomplished and oftentimes the unexpected fun I’ve had.
There’ll be some sex and drugs and more musical comedies, plus look at family histories, desire, disaster and dysfunction in a somewhat forgiving way, including the wasted times, breakdowns and breakthroughs, meals and meetings, tables set and journeys taken; all the places where I learned, over and over, to recover, redeem, renew; to breathe and begin again. And in this recollection there is, hopefully, renewal. On the way I try out new connections and new ways of talking about my experiences of Buddhist-Christian contemplative practices. And if that surprises you, get used to it.
In this post-Christendom era traditional expectations have faded away to leave a new silence, open to be filled with new voices and visions. It’s time to open the conversation further, with other sacred and secular gathered communities of wisdom and compassion, responding with our varied visions of wholeness and compassion or a shy common hope in the heart. And we need to approach this together as a whole society, interweaving sacred and secular in a new conversation, for the deepest reality of the twenty-first century is that we are already one — the spiritual task of loving the neighbour has become a political and ecological necessity.
There can be many gifts in being a listening neighbour. My own education and formation as a pilgrim and disciple in the Anglican tradition has been challenged, modified and encouraged to evolve and expand by meeting with radical Catholics, Methodists and Mennonites, a formidable female rabbi, an anarchist Theravada monk, and others Buddhists, Jews, Christians and Muslims of various kinds in honest conversation. I have also been challenged and educated by non-theistic wisdoms; ecologists, economists, feminists, queer communities and political theorists have critiqued and enriched my understanding of my own tradition and journey. I am better for their friendship.
A shared practice of wisdom and justice communities working together in a common direction can ripen to be a fresh presence in the old neighbourhoods. It can add value to the world of friends and family, wellness and illness, issues of money and housing, mind, body and spirit, integrating the whole person within a larger community of shared meaning. We just have to change the way we gather together.
The current post-enlightenment model separates secular and sacred traditions and does justice to neither; delegating issues of public meaning to civic ideologies shaped by capitalism and consumerism while downgrading institutional religion and individual convictions to personal and private piety. and demoting faithful convictions to stained glass sentimental devotions.
Can we encourage and incorporate the best of these age-old visions and values of wholeness and holiness: integrating their critical discernment and discussion learning, knowledge and wisdom into the education of whole persons in our modern multicultural society?
It is not an easy task. Mahatma Gandhi questioned how anyone who thinks they possess truth could be fraternal, can have civil conversation or learn from another, and that’s a fair call. We have to be extremely careful of both heroism and hubris with ultimate visions that concern either profits or prophets.
For every powerful tradition — capitalism, catholicism, communism , confucianism— holds unique visions and makes specific proclamations that can be strident and exclusive. Our world history still reels with their individual claims of orthodoxy. But our various wisdom, spiritual, justice and social traditions still might meet in a world of common orthopraxy — not talking the talk but walking the walk, These might meet sharing actions and occasions in measurable ongoing tasks and achievements, making a difference by creating new partnerships and possibilities. Common priorities might be areas such as ecology, economics, environmental concerns, working with youth and elders, the hungry and the homeless. All in the hope that a common cause in working for justice, love and mercy in common community might, in the end, make a significant difference in the world we must choose to share.
We usually go to bed before 10:00pm. The cats often leading the way through the dim hallway from our circle of sofa and chairs by the back room fireplace and television with the the glow of iPads and overhead lights. Most evenings are quiet, reflective, with occasional music playing or the rhythm of the dishwasher rolling through its cycles. It has been a good enough day, weaving occupation and ease, limits and freedom, intentional choices and routine tasks in a succession of actions and reflections modified by increasingly predictable seasonal and social rhythms as we grow older, become more enmeshed in habits and tradition.
Now John says, “Come along babies,” speaking to the cats and, while they don’t move immediately, they join us after we bank the fire and replace the screen, turn off lights and head for the kingsize bed in the centre of the house. Our common late night chores relate to the realms of toothbrushes and pills, filling water reservoirs in the sleep-apnea mandated CPAP machines, moving daytime pillows, plugging in and placing phones and pads on the table on the right side of the bed and, in my case, inserting an air-pod to listen to a favourite audiobook — tonight a new western take on a twelfth century Tibetan Buddhist text. The cats return to the hallway where they have some esoteric council. I start out on my back, stretching slightly and, listening again to Norman Fisher’s riff on relative Bodhicitta, and turn to my right side, when John — almost asleep – turns to cradle me, his warm belly against my back, and as I lean back to him, Norman Fischer reads,
“Resting childlike in openness of mind in this dream-like life, you will feel protected and at peace. You will feel not only that you are loved but that love is built into the nature of what you are and of what the world is, so that you are never apart from it. Knowing this, you can risk caring and loving. You don’t have to be afraid of it anymore.”
After a while Snooks jumps on the left side of the bed, manoeuvres above our heads and pillows and descends to nest between my chest and the right side of the bed, Moxie jumps onto the foot of the bed and positions herself between John’s shins and my calves. Norman Fisher continues,
“it is clear that as pleasant as love is, it must also be unpleasant, because people are sometimes unpleasant or go through unpleasant things, and if we abandon them at those times and run away from them because they or their situation has become unpleasant, we would have to conclude that there wasn’t much to our loving in the first place.”
At that moment a glitch in the house wireless network turns the air-pod off. I sit in an amenable welter of flesh and blood, memory and projection, past, present and future, not quite asleep or awake, with no voice in my head and unwilling to disturb this evening peace by restarting the necessary app. And at this precise moment I realise this is what it means to be in love.