About Robert Whalley

Most of my ministry was in tertiary chaplaincy in the San Francisco Bay Area and Melbourne Australia. In my early sixties I was ordained in the Anglican Diocese of Wangaratta and served as Bishop’s Chaplain and Education Officer until retirement. I also taught in secondary and tertiary institutions, including the University of San Francisco, RMIT University, and the Theological School at Trinity College, University of Melbourne, specialising in Christian ethics and spirituality as well as the life and writings of Thomas Merton.

Lost Together With The Others — Introduction

 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.

Life and Death and the Other Thing

It is mid-autumn at the end of March 2020 and next month I observe my 74th birthday anniversary and begin my 75th year, three quarters of a century, with a mix of disbelief, awe and increasingly simple thankfulness. I’ve got room to do this. Since we are currently blessed, cursed and set apart to live in the midst of interesting times provided by a worldwide virus, I approach this threshold with my partner in the context of what could appear to be a rather cushy monastic enclosure. It’s far from severe poverty if two men and two cats are restricted by a modern plague to home-based solitude with more than enough books and food and an abundance of appropriate technology. We abide as semi-hermits remaining intentionally connected with friends, family, neighbours, and the whole world through screen and web and prayer. 

Still there is a silence here which encourages another level of wondering and pondering. A seminary professor of mine defined Eschatology as both “The Last Things and The Things That Last.” And anyway you look at it, these are end-times. We may not know it all, but we understand it will be different for awhile yet. And that very difference can focus us — on who and where we are and have been, who we’re with, what we’ve done and haven’t done,  and finally on what lasts and why it matters. It is an opportune time to look at life and death and something else. Anyway I keep telling myself that. 

I’ve never been very clear about the likelihood I might someday die, but even as a kid I knew it was around. I have vague memories around polio, of handwashing and stories of the public pool closing in Sacramento, of somebody’s daughter with a limp or someone else’s distant cousin in an iron lung; or maybe I just saw pictures in Life Magazine or on the television my brother Tom won at the California State Fair in September of 1950. Other people’s grandparents died too, and on June 17, 1957, my mother’s father died two months to the day after he had exploratory surgery for liver cancer on my eleventh birthday. Two days after he died I went with my family to view his body at the grey Victorian mansion housing Clark, Booth and Yardley Funeral Directors. We entered through the side door and I remember how silent the building seemed and my grandfather lying still in the wooden casket and my grandmother leaning into my father and sobbing quietly. 

In 1962 I remember going to Sam’s Rancho Villa on Fair Oaks Boulevard with my parents and a couple of their friends in Sacramento during the Cuban missle crisis for prime rib, mashed potatoes, horseradish and assorted desserts and the surprisingly quiet conversations at all the round tables which I assumed were about the nuclear arms Nikita Kruschchev sent to Fidel Castro. I think we were driving home after when we heard the news that “somebody blinked” and America was safe until a year later when JFK was shot in Dallas and we drove into Sacramento to pick up my grandmother and all the flags on Capital Mall were at half-mast.

And I remember, though through a bit of a haze, the early evening of Thursday, June 6 1968 and walking from my dorm at the University of Oregon to a playground a block away from our dormitory to smoke too much Jungle Juice. Then I was suddenly convinced I was the same boy who had played at the playground at McKinley Park in Sacramento ten years before and would now have to walk down to Highway 101 and south to California. When my friend with the pipe asked me how I was I started to tell him this and he assured me I was having a bad trip and assured me, after he counted backwards from five to zero, I would vomit and immediately feel much better. He did so and I felt better and we walked back to the dorm. Later I was reading on his bunkbed as he sat at his desk studying for a final exam and the music on the local radio station was interrupted with what initially seemed to be a retelling of John Kennedy’s assassination but then I realised that his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy, who we’d seen the previous week sitting on the back of a convertible while campaigning for the Oregon vote, had just been shot in a Los Angeles hotel after winning the California Primary. 

Death touched the family again when I was in my mid-twenties and my eighty year old grandmother was close to dying of leukaemia. She had a remission for several months and when it ended my uncle, her eldest child, flew out from the East Coast, and I stood watching from the front window of the house as he — followed by my mother and my aunt – carried his mother in his arms from her home to the car to take her to the hospital for the last time.

It hit closer a decade later when I was painting my parents house. and fell through the roof of a carport to the concrete below. I could hear my back crack. A noisy ambulance drive and an hour later I was getting an xray thinking, “If I can just walk after this I will be much more thankful than I have ever been.” Three months later I wrote this poem.

At 5 O’clock

Leaves fall 

as branches lighten

in late October afternoon:

the surprising structure of tree

emerges as freshly thought.

One man, walking 

With something else on mind,

is surprised by the fact of it

and breaks stride for a moment to see.

Man and tree stand

in late October afternoon;

A surprising structure emerges.

And then fifteen years later and almost twenty four years ago, six months after my fiftieth birthday, on a late afternoon in November, 1996 when I was ninety minutes outside San Francisco with my first cousin and her family in Fairfield for a long Thanksgiving visit. The weather was warm and I was wearing bermuda shorts. My cousin asked me about the black spot on the back of my leg. I looked in the mirror to see a sunken patch of skin slightly above the back of my knee. 

So the following week I went to San Francisco General Hospital to get a small biopsy and returned to receive the results the following week. When I got to the second appointment I was met by the doctor, another nurse and a woman from the office of pastoral care, who all assured me they would be there for support: that I had a melanoma. The doctor explained they would arrange for a CT scan of my lymphatic system, take a deep excision as soon as possible, and arrange for a an interview with an oncologist who I saw a few days later. The specialist said that if the deep excisions showed malignancy and the scan indicated the cancer had spread into my lymph gands they would begin a series of chemotherapy  treatments extending over a number of months.

Of the week following I particularly remember keeping still in several positions and laying on a sheet on the surface of a large flat  machine while a larger machine positioned above me was adjusted to take pictures of my lymphatic glands. While this was happening I listened to the occasional clicking sounds from the machine above me and two technicians several feet way softly talking to one another in a language I did not know. I was aware of the thin hospital gown I was wearing and the nubby texture of the sheet on top of the metal machine. Then I somehow felt the air in the room somehow charged with a presence of radical caring which was breathing us all – somehow centered there yet still equally linked to some larger dimension of reality. Language falters here, but then I knew I was, we were, not alone, and this realisation was an instant relief for me.

A few days later I awoke with a dream where my mother and a cousin of ours were visiting a small valley where our family had lived many years before. We drove through narrow roads between full orchards flanked by lightly wooded hills on each horizon and came to a country crossroads with one of those one-stop stores that sells gasoline, sunglasses, soft drinks, beer, candy and a limited menu of food with small tables and metal chairs.  When I told the man at the cash register our family had lived there long ago he asked for the name and I said it was Storey. He then said he knew Grace Storey, my great-great aunt who had died in the 1950s, that she still lived nearby.

We went back to the car and, while my mother and second cousin thought that the man at the counter was slightly off focus, but I believed he knew her: that in this particular valley as people aged they moved moved farther into the mountains, somehow becoming one with the rocks and the ground and the air: silent and slow, yet deliberate and deeply aware and still somehow alive. When I woke up I realized that Grace Storey could both be a proper name and the title for that dream. 

I recall the third image came to mind again when I was talking to a student at USF, sharing that one image of heaven I carried was that of a really great party. A place offering the best drinks and hors d’oeuvres, flowers everywhere, great lighting, windows with great views on all sides, with the music of wonderful conversation, effusive and effervescence and something else too: with everyone taking turns serving refreshments, sharing conversations, seeing what’s happening, somehow all full of sense and witness and promise and presence.

And on at least one wall there’s a large flatscreen television where various of events play themselves out. Every genre: history, comedy, triumph and tragedy, art and science, noise and soft music, light and darkness all appear and go through their paces. And it seemed as though every once in a while someone would leave the party and appear on the long narrow screen going through all the events of their life and, when they returned to the larger room, others would asked how it had gone. And then I remembered I had written a poem twenty five years before on the same theme: 

Afterlife

A red leather walnut panelled heaven

like a clubroom.

God strolling by, drinking aperitifs

before dinner – damask, sterling and Spode.

That’s one side of the vision.

Another would be an agape orgy.

continual coming in celestial light

beings merging, mingling,

with melody of sweat and endless orgasm.

And, of course, the tennis court afterlife:

elegant reprocity: whites, reds and green,

a courtly dance that rallies around eternity, 

and, at every point, serving God.

Or maybe awe:

the spirit seeing

what it could never comprehend

and reverberating in total wonder.

Or all of the above,

a place beyond place,

An air beyond description,

a ringing light… An is. 

That old poem, the more recent dream, and the image I shared with the student all combined with a certain amount of role distance, simple denial and tentative faith to carry me through the worried days before the results of an early morning deep excision in the outpatient clinic showed the cancer had not spread, the lymphatic system appeared clear and, with scheduling annual skin checks, I was pronounced well and safe. But this series of ideas and images still remained to this day. And even after all the years these are not easy stories to share, still harder to explain. 

It is helpful for me to note they follow a pattern pointed to by Mircea Eliade and Victor Turner, two academics at the University of Chicago writing about liminal rites of passage, thresholds where (quoting Wikipedia):

“Participants stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes… During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” 

And for awhile after the cancer scare my life got pretty malleable. The threshold between living and dying opened on to a different kind of journey where encountering these supposed contradictions was somehow softer. I was easier about knowing what I didn’t know, what I couldn’t easily expose or explore concerning these places between. A few years following, I also started reading about the phenomenon of synesthesia and that began to open up another way to reflect about, clarifying my experience a bit more. My online dictionary begins to defines synesthesia as “a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway”— but it’s more than that. 

For one thing, it’s not uncommon. Cribbing from Wikipedia’s font of information, I find that Vladimir Nabokov, Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman, Nikola Tesla,  Duke Ellington, Rimsky-Korsakov and drummer Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead all had it. Each of them offering unique symptoms or gifts differing depending on your point of view. While Beverly Hills – Englishman painter David Hockney perceived music as color, shape, and configuration, the Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky’s synesthesia combined color, hearing, touch, and smell. It may not be a common occurrence, but seems quite lush and seductive to me. Quoting the scene in that movie with Meg Ryan, “I’ll have what she’s having.” 

Or maybe, if I’m really honest, I won’t. It’s not easy. Writing in “After The Ecstacy, The Laundry,” Jack Kornfield recounts that one “famous study of American spiritual life found that the majority of those interviewed had had a mystical experience at some time in their life. However, the researchers also discovered that most of those people would not want it to happen again.” Kornfield asks why this is then offers a convincing answer. “What we have no words for, we cannot understand; it does not fit into our view of what is real. And if we stumble upon it… we may be taken by surprise, and frightened.” But It might be worth the fright, to take the risk. what if reality is that large, can contain larger contradictions, offer more options of experience and perception? If we only see what we look for, maybe we’ll miss a surprise that is more than frightening. And maybe we’ll miss a miracle that might be nearer than we had known.

Personal experiences require a public vocabulary. For most of my years in chaplaincy I began to use a half-dozen Greek words to dress my understanding with a little more authority, sort of like putting good slipcovers on an old couch, to illustrate these different ways of experiencing time and space, of coming to horizons. Two of these are Chronos and Kairos. I first used them in a sermon two weeks before Easter  1993, some 27 years ago and I’ve been riffing on them ever since. Here’s a sightly revised version of what I said then:

I have this fear that the 90s is the decade when nobody is going to get enough sleep, where waking up is very hard to do. In addition to the chaplaincy at San Francisco State University I work part-time as a resident minister, on the campus at the University of San Francisco. Sometimes I wake up at USF in the morning and after coffee I go to the gym for a workout, or do the daily office at home, maybe meet a student for breakfast in the Union, finally walk over to Haight Street to catch the 43 bus to Forest Hill to transfer the M streetcar to our headquarters in Ecumenical House at SFSU.

 And there mornings when I’m standing on Haight Street and I am still not awake after a lot of coffee and various activities, not awake, just percolating lightly. So I stand there waiting and start making some plans for the day, ruminate a little bit about what I need to do, who to see, plans, all this mixing with memories too, maybe taking out the datebook and checking the schedule while I wait for the bus to get there. But not really awake

And then when I get on the 43 bus and we start moving, turn on Cole Street, turning again at the Tassajara bakery, and then right up the hill to the medical center at UCSF and when we get to the top of the hill by the dental clinic I look to the right and sometimes what I see is amazing, shocking, beautiful! With the Golden Gate and the Pacific ocean, the park and the Presidio, Richmond and Sunset districts, trees and houses and sky all together with the clouds and sun and morning fog. With blue and white and grey and green and I swear there are mornings when there are shades of purple and rose that even seem to colour, to transfigure, all the people on the bus. All of us touched with glory! It feels like such a shock of privilege that I want to open my eyes wider and see it all and look in every direction, and take the biggest breath I can take and to say out loud, “Oh God, thank you for all this amazing life!” Being a good Episcopalian, I restrain myself on this, but I think the idea is appropriate even if the action doesn’t seem quite right. To wake up to all this life!

Now the Greeks had two words for these two modes of consciousness and time. Chronos means linear time, like chronometer, chronology and even chronicle. At eight I do this in a nine you do that in the next 20 years the committee plans to do whatever; all that is linear. Chronological time is something to fill up, to plan, to use. But Kairos is the right time. Time to wake up, to plant seeds, to harvest, to make love: to look at that particular flower, or face, or surprising fact of life looking back at you. It is immediate, surprising, recreative, maybe a surprising gift.

If they were new cars Chronos would be a station wagon, built for the long run, to take you where you want to go: “you can put all your history in the trunk and still have room for the future.” But Kairos would be a convertible! “Take away the removable top and see the sky, the wind in your hair, the new view!” I remember when I was a kid in Sacramento, sometimes on Saturday we would go to Lake Tahoe for the day. We had a green Buick convertible and when we got past Placerville on Highway 50, we would take the top down and the road was entirely different! Kairos! The mountains, the water, the air and light, the mystery of it all right there.

So there’s a point in the gospel for today which has to do with Kairos and Chronos and how they meet. Remember the back ground story is that Jesus and his disciples are slowly approaching Jerusalem and dealing both with organisational tension with the troops and the increasing likelihood of his assassination. They stop on the way and hear that Jesus’s friend Lazarus is sick. Then a few days pass, Jesus and his disciples hear Lazarus has died and make the slightly delayed but appropriate visit to the bereaved family.  

The story comes into focus when Jesus arrives and greets Martha. She says, “Lord, if only you had been here, our brother would not have died.” If only! Anne Wilson Schaef writes in the book, When Society Becomes an Addict, we live in a world filled with three “ifs”: “as if, what if, if only.” And here note each of them is in the chronological mode, the way we generally live. And Jesus says, “your brother will rise again. Do you believe this?”  — and I think he is saying, “how awake are you, Martha?” and her response is, “I believe that he will rise again, in the resurrection of the dead, at the last day.” And I’ll translate that roughly as, “I am hopeful, what if, things might change.” – A slightly chronological mode here. But Jesus raises the ante and says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me though he dies, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” And maybe he’s saying,  “Just how awake are you willing to be, Martha?”  Martha response, “you are the Christ, the son of God, he who is coming into the world.” 

But Jesus keeps pushing, the story goes on, the crowd gets involved, the drama builds and Jesus finally says, “take away the stone!” And when Martha says, “Lord, there will be an odor,” (because Chronos has taken a toll and it is going to smell bad.) Jesus comes back and says, “Did I not say if you would believe, you would see the glory of God.” So they take away the stone, Lazarus comes forth, the glory of God shows up at the right time and Kairos wins that day!

But it doesn’t always. Sometimes Kairos and Chronos can get mixed up together and it gets complex. 20 years ago my 80-year-old grandmother got chronic leukaemia, later acute, which was the beginning of the end. We almost lost her several times, but then she had a remission. For a little over 90 days she left the hospital to stay at home, feeling pretty good, it was a surprising time to visit, to remember a lot of times, to say much of the stuff that needed to be said, I had never been so courtly, so solicitous and courteous as I was with my grandmother. We all were. The moment was pure gift

Then the remission ended, the numbers went wrong with white count up and red count down, and on the 93rd day I stood at the window of the house and watched as my uncle, her eldest child, carried her to the car, followed by my aunt and my mother, for her last stay at the hospital. Two things happened as I stood there, I felt the tragedy of it, a terrible sadness like the scene in the last act of Lear when the king comes on stage with his dead daughter in his arms, railing against fate; why should a tree, a flower have life, and not her his daughter. This feeling of tragedy. But the second feeling was like the Sanctos; “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of his glory.” Two impressions, but I knew only knew one thing: “Thank God we matter this much!” It only lasted a minute, I remember it still. I think it relates to Chronos and Kairos and how they fit together for us in this world.

It is not an easy place to stay in the middle between these two modes of reality, two types of time, between everyday tragedy and those special moments of transcendence. Because for most of us, most of the time, the stone is not taken away, the body does not come back. Jesus may be the resurrection and the life, but daily reality and memory tell us that miracles don’t always happen and that means a real temptation to stay in the safer space of denial and death.

But it’s tough when we come up to these big summary statements that are all over John’s Gospel: “I am real food, the bread of life, living water, the resurrection of the dead!” It is tough to reconcile all this in a world where many are hungry for daily bread, fresh water, just life; living poor and dying out, and the good news doesn’t seem to be here just yet. For while John keeps telling the stories of victory over defeat, of a radical renewal of life, “and when I am lifted up I will draw all humankind unto myself,” we seem to be just holding on or even going downhill fast. So what do we do?

Jesus says, “Take away the stone!”  but it is not easy. The stone may be keeping in the pain and the tears, the stone may be what we need to keep ourselves upright, from another disappointment, sometimes we don’t need too much hope, it can hurt! We have made an adjustment, the stone may be part of our foundation. And Jesus says, “Take away the stone!”

In the next few weeks, through Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, we are going to hear stories that stretch our understanding of reality, the good and bad of it, the tragedy and transcendence, Chronos and Kairos coming together in the middle of a deep journey. We need to prepare ourselves to be surprised by the road before us. This might disturb our sense of what is right and wrong and what can happen, it might not jive with what we had known before, and we really need to be ready to take the chance.

There is a great line in one of CS Lewis’s Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy. Some travellers are coming to the end of a long journey, they get to a safe place to rest from their travels, a walled garden, when suddenly a great lion comes over the fence. it is Aslan, the son of Emperor-over-sea. He calls them to come to him and it is more than a little scary. Then he says, “Do not dare not to dare.”

The Gospel that comes in the next two weeks is for people ready to hear good news, to awaken to Kairos, ready to dare to dare to be fully awake, to be a hungry people on a long journey, in sight of a safe place, reaching with empty hands for strong food and drink, hearing a new story and coming to a new understanding of who and whose we are, and how tragedy and transcendence move together and meet in a final miracle.

Do not dare not to dare! Listen with hope, look with all the possibilities, be prepared as you can to see the rock taken away and see Lazarus emerge, see Jesus come forth, see you and me, all lost grandmothers and the whole bus come through the opening into a new and exciting life as the top comes off to reveal a whole new world, with a brighter sky, deeper air and brighter colours than we can ever name. Into the life of resurrection we share with Christ.

(John 11:1 – 44.- St. Francis Episcopal Church, San Francisco, March 28, 1993) 

To begin something old and new…

Quote

I’ve decided to share a work in progress, some poetry and prose selections from a larger project I’ve been working on for a long time. “Lost Together With The Others” aims to be a compendium and revisioning of images, themes and concerns I’ve carried for most of my life. I honestly don’t know if the work will be finished before I am, and I’ve been around for awhile, but over time the process has evidenced a certain sustained consistency. At least it may be diverting. 

William Blake writes that the “fool who persists in his folly will become wise,” and Emerson states that “daily consistency is the hobgoblin of the small mind.” My life probably falls somewhere between. As Thomas Merton says we are better known by our answers then by our questions. My life has fewer answers now, even fewer questions, but at this point there is more appreciation, and that might be enough.

This proto-prologue/preface begins with a poem and continues with an overview: selections from the longer work follow. Since a webpage/blog format encourages, perhaps even demands tentative flexibility, sequence, order and style may all change over time. It may end up somewhat interesting. Check back often, share comments and questions via personal messages or the online spaces provided, and please be kind.

I’m glad we’re in this together. 

Rob Whalley

Welcome Swallows

These birds hallow place by circling, 

Downward defining mystery —

Upwards like frankincense and

Sharp winged harbingers of what cannot be encompassed.

Yet their recurring liturgy outlines

Inchoate centres rising, receding 

And returning they begin again

This sweet inarticulate witness. 

Last night at dusk before dinner with friends

We walked amongst these highflown vortices of

Occasional mystery in plain sight —

And their transparent pentecost mirrors my own life.

When some repeated wandering takes flight

And acquires consistency in its own reiteration

Around an ever-renewing sense that moves me to witness —

An unseen centre that is the journey home.

I saw the Welcome Swallows one morning  a few years ago when I was in the middle of Senior Water Aerobics at our YMCA indoor pool watching Lorraine standing on a rubber mat in front of large glass windows and leading us through some new introductory stretching exercises. Then I looked outside, just beyond her to see  groups of small metallic dark birds, sometimes two or three together, flying in intricate patterns:, circling, up, down, around; defining some collective concern or another kind of gravity by the shape of their flight. 

It reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ writing in one of his 1940s space fantasies, where the protagonist encounters an eldil, an otherworldly messenger whose presence both relativises and renews the narrator’s sense of the world. So the recurring shaping of reality by the birds just beyond my windows move me into a further focus of what might be in plain view — somehow beyond my  sight, something to do with limit and freedom and hope.

Maybe Joni Mitchell says it best:

And the seasons they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time.

We can’t return, we can only look behind

From where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game.

My book attempts to juggle four recurring images, to dance through four occasionally consecutive seasons that seem to me to be circling in somewhat arbitrarily assigned patterns for the purpose of making sense of my life and times. 

The first is a somewhat selective but straightforward summary of my life so far: birth and youth; adolescence and early adulthood, some moments of brief but bright maturity and a prolonged but not-unpleasant senescence: sometimes all occurring on the same day. 

The second introduces three or four evolving archetypal images (building a table, taking a journey, letting a breath go and – after a pause – taking in a new breath) that I’ve both wrestled with and shared for the last few decades in my ministry as a chaplain, educator, priest and learning writer. 

The third is my recurring hunch that, for me at least, the meaning of this mystery called Jesus might best be met in two motions; His actions as recounted in the actions of the Eucharist (take, bless, break, share), and the corporate pilgrim journey shared in the fourfold procession of the church year. Michaelmas and All Saints to Advent; Christmas and Epiphany to the end of Holy Week; the season of Eastertide and Ascension; and finally Pentecost.

The final group of images came as a surprise when, at the age of fifty-four, I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area in northern California to Melbourne in southeastern Australia (There was very little choice: I was in love) where my experience of the Church year interwove with these southern seasons and opened a further understanding and a deeper participation of the faithful journey anew (Spring longing and limits, Summer life and shadow, Autumn loss and gain, Winter love and death).

This book will be the weaving of my head and heart over these four occurrences; prayerfully circling through a personal story shared with others and, in that, an incomplete and unfinished journey through history, mystery, tragedy, comedy and holiness unfolding as simply as the action of breathing, and yet somehow (mysteriously, hopefully) burning in every moment.

I am glad to share the journey with you. 

Corona and Communion

I spent too much time in graduate school in the 1980s. One semester I submitted a paper entitled “Serving God” on the theology of tennis. I wrote that playing the game was a sacred dance, a graceful way of hoping, holding and opening to the deep holiness contained in every moment of time: “to serve, receive, and return bright vehicles of meaning.” I concluded by saying that “the only difference between tennis and theology is that “in tennis love means nothing and in theology it means everything.” The paper got a passing grade and almost forty years later I still believe it.  

For I believe that’s what every human journey looks like in the lens of the life of Jesus and the way he moves to celebrate his Eucharist. And perhaps that old paper need be revisited in a world where we watch and wait, with the Corona virus, while churches are closing and spiritual communion is offered online and on television. For if tennis means “serve, receive, return,” then maybe Jesus means “take, bless, break, share,” and that might be a good game for the plague year. Even if we can’t gather around the altar like we are used to, we can still connect with Christ in the very body and blood we share, in the sacrament of any present moment, in the here and now . We can commune where we live and move with that underlying Love — larger than the creation, seen in Jesus, willing to meet with us in every breath taken up and let go.

In the original cast recordings Jesus takes up his life and lets it be blessed with an ever-enlarging understanding of light, love, charity, compassion, companionship. And his hopeful intention makes the world different. Love breaks down or through any situation, for anyone, anywhere, here and now, whatever the end may be — and opens the way up in sharing that life and death action with Jesus’ community, with us all.

So, just as you play tennis with “serve, receive, return,” you can join Jesus with “take, bless, break, share.” It’s a dance you can do on the court, round the altar, at dinner, in bed: wherever and whenever life turns around and the road looks new or the destination might be deadly. Because anybody can go a long way with those moves: taking up life and looking with love on where to go next, being blessed by the hope of a reality that’s bigger and better than we know, being willing to break open and share some new understanding of what can come in the compassionate love that just might be found in the middle of all this demanding mysterious existence. Everything’s included; every purpose, passion, plague. There’s room for all. 

You almost don’t require faith or religion for this one. Thomas Merton quotes Meister Eckhart to the effect that “we should have such poverty [I’ll say a radical simplicity]… that there is no place left for God.” No place for holiness except an unreserved and common emptiness which is somehow full. It is a parable or paradox for the present moment, somehow contained or reflected in the rhythm of a quiet breath taking in and letting go. And this is not unlike tennis. I still remember the  unspeakable joy of a sustained rally at net — when every sense of your body, of the ball, racquet, court, net, light and air and the opponent opposite all reconcile into one momentary and timeless dancing brilliance and you see and feel and know the game is love and love is everything. 

I am not any kind of consistent meditator but I also know something like that can happen in contemplative prayer. Breakthrough moments when you realise that going with the flow, quietly acknowledging the distractions, victories, that inevitable resignation, is its own renewal. It’s like realising that the person who loves you the most (who you love the most) is going to provide the most wildly frustrating and wonderful moments of your life. There’s no place left to go after that. It’s a very simple homecoming.

Because it just may be that faithfully playing the game under the given conditions is going to ensure that every moment might be a winner. If there is no place else left for “God” to work, then “God” might have to be anywhere. Jesus says, “The one who saves their life will lose it and the one who loses their life will save it” and Kris Kristopherson writes, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Maybe Jesus means freedom, maybe Jesus means losing, maybe Jesus just means love in the last place you’d look. Even in the present moment, in this terrifying predicament, love leads us on.

Don’t give up. Keep watching television. Be social on media. Find new creativity in keeping community. But be assured that the tradition and family of Jesus has made wider turns than this in the past and is the better for it now, will be again. We won’t let that cup pass. Just take the body and blood of the present moment, of your greatest hopes and fears, of here and now. Serve, receive, return. Take, bless, break, share. 

Now.