A monk, a monastery, and a picture book?!

The day is rare when I give an unqualified “that was so good!” review for the Speakeasy books I read and review. Well, Brother John most certainly deserves such an accolade.

Just a taste of the gorgeous illustrations.

I selected this book to review because my heart loves the Abbey of Gethsemani, monks in general, and Thomas Merton in particular (for prior posts I’ve written about this magical place, click here, or here, among others). I was under the impression that since it was an illustrated picture book, it would be more geared for children, and I imagined reading to my future kids one day about Brother John. In case you’re wondering, it’s not written for children. It’s about the meaning and purpose of life and being the best human we can be.

The book is authored by August Turak, a man in crisis, in deep despair and depression. He is sorting things out at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. There he has a heartfelt encounter with Brother John, who is one of those people whose purity, goodness, servant nature, and love for God just emanate from their very being. This encounter transforms his life.

It’s a beautiful book, short (which means I can regularly reread it) and moving. I can’t do enough justice describing it, so I will quote some pieces and just encourage you to check it out yourself, soaking in the oil paint illustrations and the rich yet simple message.

On our fear of failure (p. 26): “I imagined dedicating my life to others, to self-transcendence, without ever finding that inner spark of eternity that so obviously made Brother John’s life the easiest and most natural life I had ever known. Perhaps his peace and effortless love were not available to all, but only to some. Perhaps I just didn’t have what it takes.”

On taking the first step (p. 30): “Acknowledging that fact [that something’s twisted], refusing to run away from it, and deciding to deal with it is the beginning of the only authentic life there is… We lie to ourselves because we’re afraid to take ourselves on.”

On trusting (39): “We must resolve to act decisively, while trusting in the aid of something we don’t understand and can never predict. We must open ourselves up to the miraculous, to grace.”

I promise I didn’t give away the whole book. If you’re still looking for something for that spiritually inclined yet hard to shop for person on your Christmas list, or maybe you want to get something spiritually moving that you’ll actually read, instead of getting something to collect dust on your shelf – this is your book. I’m going to revisit it repeatedly!

Links: Brother John on Amazon
Author’s website for Brother John

This shows the inner page of the book. Title of the book: "Brother John: A monk, a pilgrim, and the purpose of life." Beneath is a picture of the Abbey of Mepkin, a tall spire of the church with the warm glow of buildings underneath it.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Christmas at the Abbey of Gethsemani, 12-22 & 12-23

I have begun a quest to write for 90 days in a row (and if I miss a day, make it up the next). It’s similar to the 12-Step “90 in 90 days” motto (90 meetings in 90 days). It’s been enjoyable and rewarding even just for myself, but sometimes I want to share what I’ve written. I hope you enjoy – or feel inspired to start your own 90 of whatevers in 90 days!!

12-22-15, Tuesday

Song of Simeon

 

It is 7:27 p.m. when I pull into the dark parking lot of the Abbey just in time for Compline, the last prayer service of the day. The back roads of Kentucky feel so familiar to me now, even in the dark, and the opening organ notes in the church even more so. Let us pray. I wish you could hear it because you sing it, not speak it. The monks’ choral stalls are darkened and the faithful visitors are washed in light so we can read our prayer books. The monks have all the words memorized. We sing psalms, I don’t know what, but the music lulls me. And my favorite prayer, which is sung as well. Oh, save us…save us while we are awake. Protect us while we are asleep, that we may keep our watch with Christ. And when we sleep, rest in his peace.

Eventually, silence, dark. We wait. You hear the sound of the rope that pulls the bell before you hear the bell. Ker-clunk. Ker-clunk. I know the rhythm, the pauses, the majestic grandeur of this bell. It makes my heart ache and my soul sing, though it is so seemingly simple. Sing, bell, sing! I sing with thee! RAP. The abbot raps his knuckles to signal the end of service and we shuffle forward for a holy water dashing on our heads. Now we may sleep in peace. I am ready for my retreat.

 

12-23-15, Wednesday

I walk outside in the middle of the night in the garden of Gethsemani after the first prayer service of the day, Vigils. The clouds make the sky brighter. I wrap my blanket around me as if it is a prayer shawl, a monk’s cowl. I notice I am not afraid of the dark garden like I usually am, skittish of dark spaces and ghosts of monks gone before. I wonder if I have been confronting my inner shadows and I am less afraid of the ones outside. Maybe. Then I notice the trees have lost their leaves and they don’t cast so many shadows anymore.

*****

I’ve decided to accept the truth about my ability to meditate these days. Today, I attempted for 20 minutes and my head kept jerking and startling me back awake. Why try so hard at something that isn’t working? I will walk slow circles around the garden; I will walk quickly on the hiking trails, I will read, I will write. I will forge the path of my own spirituality. Let your life speak. I ask God to speak to me in the ways I can hear God.

 

Mosquitoes, monks, mysteries, and the Milky Way: Are you there, God? Part 2

I have been pondering lately about God, or the idea / being / [what word is even adequate to describe that which?] we call God. One of the questions I went into my retreat with was about conceptualizing “God out there versus God in here, in me.” Maybe you know what I mean … or maybe this question makes no sense. What I’m trying to describe is a God-image of Outside, transcendent, Other (the God-image I grew up with) versus Inside, mystical, Self. Even with mystics, there is a similar difference mystical union (person’s soul can be united with God, but they are two different entities coming together: more commonly found in Christian mystics) versus mystical identity (person’s deepest self, it is discovered, is God … and right there, some of you probably will stop reading, as it sounds a lot like heresy to you. I hope you keep reading anyway.).

I tended to bounce between outside versus inside. When I was in need of help, or asking for something, I tended to direct my question or thought toward “Outside God.” “Oh God oh God, please let me get to work on time, oh God, please heal this patient, oh God, our world is falling apart, please help!” However, when talking about my beliefs, or meditating, I tended to think of things in terms of “Inside God.” I would tell my CPE group, “God is everywhere, God is in everyone. There is no where God cannot be, and God is not “out there.” (This concept of God is also known as “panentheism,” which is different from “pantheism.” Basically, panentheism says God is in everything. Pantheism says that everything is God.) And one of my biggest spiritual practices I developed this summer was trying to sit quietly, reflecting inside, and listening to the truths that were coming out of me … not any outside source. Yet it felt that in practice, my prayers belied my stated beliefs.

So what does this have to do with mosquitoes and monks… and the Milky Way?

While camping, I was reading Wherever You Go, There You Are, and was really looking forward to practicing mindfulness and being in the moment and being still while enjoying the great Kentucky outdoors.

Ha ha ha.

As it turns out, the Great Kentucky Outdoors are a sticky, humid, hot, mosquito- and gnat-filled mess in the middle of August. I couldn’t lay down in my hammock to read or just look at the leafy tree tops without feeling like my skin was being eaten alive by hungry blood-suckers. I couldn’t go on a hike in the woods without gnats buzzing in my ears, flying in my eyes [read here for a poem dedicated just to that experience], and creating such a nuisance that I couldn’t hardly look around me or hear the birds singing or the wind in the trees. And please don’t get me started on the spiders and the spiderwebs … I didn’t know I was afraid of spiders. Now I do know.

So because I had such a lofty goal that I felt I was completely not achieving, I did what any normal human does: I berated myself. “I’m feeling so miserable! Why can’t I just be in peace? Why can’t I use the difficult circumstances as an even better opportunity to practice mindfulness? And anyway, I still have it so good, I have an easy life, it’s my choice to go camping, and I’m complaining about bugs??? Really??” I did not feel very mindful, yet alone holy or in touch with my God-self.

Then I went to the Abbey of Gethsemani (where Thomas Merton lived as a monk!!) for a 5 day retreat. It was amazing! A shower, a toilet, and running water! Air conditioning, and a bed! A patio overlooking a garden! It was so pleasing to me, even while I smiled bemusedly at myself about how enthusiastic I was about human pleasures- luxuries, truly, for so much of the world- luxuries so many have never experienced.

As many probably are, I was fascinated by the monks, particularly the young ones: knowing that these young men were about my age, and were either exploring the possibility or had already committed to a lifetime of being single, of celibacy, of rising daily at 3 a.m., of prayer and study and physical labor and lack of electronics and communication. To turn your back on all that the world has to offer, to live a life of such simplicity (and to give up partnership and intimacy, for the rest of your life???), trusting that your asceticism will draw you closer to God? I understand in theory, but in practice, my emotions were in a state of disbelief while I was there.

After several days, I can’t say I fully understood, but I understood a little better. It was a beautiful thing, to slow down life enough to the point where my most natural inclination was to turn toward reflecting, prayer, and God. There is something so sweet in the stillness of doing nothing: nothing that will gain you any attention or notoriety, nothing that will make an impact on the world, nothing that seems to really “matter” to anyone else. Because that question, of course, is the biggest cry of my generation: “I want to do something that matters! I want to make a difference!” And we run about in a state of interior distress, like a bubbling ocean, desperately trying to find a way to matter in this world, all the while feeling quite uncomfortable in our own skin. Even while I was there, I still experienced that feeling of discomfort in my skin, of being quite sure that I did not deserve this sweet state of nothingness, of justifying my “nothingness” by reassuring myself that when I got home I was definitely going to do “something.” But when I was not occupied by those concerns, I had moments of just being, when I knew that just being really was okay… at least for this moment.

My most favorite routine while I was there was to get up early (which for the monks, is simply their normal routine, at 3 a.m.), sleepily listen to their chants and scriptural readings in the Vigils service, then pour myself a coffee that had been cooking in the carafe all night long, wrap myself in a blanket, and shuffle out to the garden. I’d find the darkest spot that still had as open a view as possible of the night sky and lay down on the sidewalk, still warm from the sun’s rays the day before. I would constellation hunt, which wouldn’t take long (I don’t know many constellations, and the sky was usually not that clear), then let my mind relax to be in awe of the universe.

I love the night sky. I don’t like being cold, and Indianapolis has much too much light pollution and cloud coverage, so I don’t view the night sky as much as I’d like. But when I go camping, I am in awe of stars, and the unimagined possibilities I behold.

There is so much wonder. So much awe. So much glorious vastness, and I am reminded that I am here, so small, that the issues that consume my day-to-day living are merely set here on Planet Earth, concerning me and a few others, and meanwhile this glorious universe goes on spinning.

I had an image, while laying on the warm, hard sidewalk, of my little heart bursting forth out of my body, seeking connection with All-That-Is that I experienced in viewing the night sky. And All-That-Is’s heart- its connecting spirit- was bursting forth from the night sky, reaching down to me. Our spirits connected in this vastness. I belonged, and I was part of this.

And I had what felt like a very profound yet incredibly “duh!”-like and simple realization. This glorious universe, this majestic night sky: I did not create this. And to go with it, I am not the only one in this world. I realized I had felt limited by thinking about
“God inside,” as if “God inside” had to be limited to only my inside. Instead, when I ask about “God Inside,” I need to remember I am asking about everyone’s God inside.

This question of God Outside versus God Inside is not an either / or question. The Spirit inside me is the Spirit inside you. It is also the Spirit that created – or that embodies – the galaxy.

So for a moment, as we were suspended in the night air as stars glimmered millions of light-years away, and I felt Presence beyond yet within me, I held my answer. Yes. God inside, God outside.