Nuns, Gardens and Prayer

Today, I pulled into the Kroger lot, parking near a green Toyota Tacoma pickup. As I walked toward the store, an elderly nun, with white coif and black habit, hopped into the front seat. Seated beside her was a second, more elderly, sister. They sat in that front cab so naturally that I could see them shifting into four-wheel drive and dirtying up the mud flaps with true abandon. I imagined them heading back toward the convent, with Toby Keith or Sugarland – or even better, Cash and the Avett Brothers – thumping.

My guess is that these sisters are from Our Lady of the Angels monastery, our local Trappist community tucked into the Blue Ridge foothills. Our Lady of the Angels is known for two things: prayer and gouda. Their Dutch-styled gouda is the absolute finest I’ve ever tasted, and you typically have to order it months in advance. Several Christmases ago, friends brought us a nice chunk off the 2lb gouda wheel they had purchased. I watched that wheel the rest of the evening, hoping that somehow God would be merciful and allow some small sliver to remain when the evening was done. Marvelous as the gouda is, however, the sisters want everyone to know that cheese is more their hobby than their passion. On their old order forms, they gave a reminder something like this: “Thank you for your order. We’ll get to it when we can. Our first work is prayer.”

Not that they are creating a strict dichotomy between the two. Rather, the sisters weave a rhythmic life and insist on a pace that allows even cheese-crafting to be patient and prayerful, not stressful and harried. One of the beauties of cloistered life is that (at its best) those who give themselves to it seek to carve space for holistic living where peeling potatoes and tending to the animals and compline prayers all blend into one life of joy and faithfulness, one life where even tedium is welcomed for whatever gifts it brings. They do not so much seek complete removal from the world but rather a way of creating boundaries so they can live in the world more fully, remembering the joy found in the oft-forgotten details, in the subtleties that most of us rarely notice.

Vigen Guroian, an Eastern Orthodox theologian and friend, likes to say, “I think gardening is nearer to godliness than theology.” In the garden, we dig our fingers into the grit of this world. We find ourselves immersed in the life to which we are called. Good gardening requires patience and slow attentiveness – and probably a little luck, all of which explains why I’m so awful at it. “True gardeners,” Vigen says, “are both iconographers and theologians insofar as these activities are the fruit of prayer without ceasing.”

There’s something shared between the sisters in their cheese shop and Vigen in his garden. This is something we can all share, in our labor or our craft, amid the mundane as well as the exhilarating moments. We can all seek God in the work of our hands, in the immediate space around us. We can, in “whatever we do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father.”

I imagine two Sisters winding through the country roads the twenty miles or so back to their monastery, tapping the dashboard in harmony with the Soggy Bottom Boys. Every mile and every note a prayer.


Tapped by Joy

Last Saturday night, we sat on our back deck, breathing brisk October air. I loaded the wood into the chiminea and set it ablaze, announcing time for s’mores. On the grocery run that morning, Campfire marshmallows (the ones the size of two fists) somehow hopped into my basket. The boys had sighted these a few times and, wide-eyed, asked if we could try them. When Miska noticed these white gooey behemoths stuffed in one of the grocery bags, she rolled her eyes. “That’s the Texan coming out in you.”

Miska arranged our goods on the deck near the fire. She noticed the marshmallows, the Hershey bars, the hangers for roasting. She looked around, then asked a question providing one beautiful slip-of-the-tongue. “Did anyone grab the graham crappers?”

We laughed and laughed.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I read Robert Farrar Capon yesterday, and he told me that even God’s divine justice – such an ominous and grave reality – is rigged in my favor, rigged because of God’s bold act of decisive love. Later, Anestis Keselopoulos countered the small, miserly stories we often repeat, reminding me of the good news: “The Church forms the potentiality for the entire world to be gathered together.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This morning before school, Seth said, “Dad, you’re my football buddy and my coffee buddy and my steak buddy – oh, and beef jerky buddy.” He took a breath and continued, “Mom, you’re my artist buddy and book buddy and cake buddy.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Joy’s always waiting to tap you on the shoulder. Joy comes in a millions ways.

The Lingering God

I wonder if you’ve met this God St. Francis knows. A God who isn’t tapping his fingers, asking you to hurry it up. A God who lingers, who kneels, who adores. A God who is prejudiced in your favor.

I think God might be a little prejudiced.
For once He asked me to join Him on a walk 
through this world,

and we gazed into every heart on this earth,
and I noticed He lingered a bit longer
before any face that was

and before any eyes that were

And sometimes when we passed 
a soul in worship

God too would kneel

I have come to learn: God
adores His
                                                                             {St. Francis of Assisi}

Give Us Your Joy

If someone has loved you well or helped you remember the things we must remember, if someone’s voice has pulled you through the fog or if their words have landed true, if someone has shown courage – or kindled your courage, if someone has stuck around or concocted beauty or reminded you to laugh, if someone has joined you in your wake, cursing your isolation or your demons, if someone has taught you when to listen generously and when to walk past fools, if someone has been a lover or a friend — tell them.

And tell them often. We all need to hear the goodness that’s in us. Don’t hold back; don’t cache your words or the innocence and hope they carry. Don’t be timid with your enthusiasm. We need all the light we can get in this world – don’t you dare veil any of yours. Heave whatever you have upon our shoulders, and let us feel the weight of your joy.

image: bartimaeus

Go Looking for It

Joy will surprise you, sneak up on you like a quick-hit kiss. I’m thankful joy comes when we least expect it, when we least deserve it. Some of us tilt toward the sour side, and we need a disruptive shock of laughter or foolishness to punch us in the seat of the pants. Having two boys is good for this. Well, sometimes — let’s be honest.

That said, being surprised is not enough. We need to look for joy, scout it out. I say it’s good to be greedy on this score. The more joy you receive, the more you can give away. And God knows we need more joy in this world.

Listen to the Words

Last evening, bedtimes were late. The boys were hungry. Miska was (rightfully) stressing about oral surgery she would have today (all is well, thanks for asking). I sprawled on the couch, surrendering for just a few clicks to a deep weariness. This fatigue has lurked around our house for a while; though Miska has carried it further, we’ve traded it back and forth.

I waved Seth over, and he crawled onto the couch with me. I stroked his hair and squeezed him tight, this boy adding sinew and muscle and inches by the day. Since it was bedtime and, truth told, I didn’t feel like walking up the stairs to his room, I said we would commence our nightly ritual right there, prayer and blessing as the two of us lay like twin-pops across our leather sofa.

Seth buried his head in my shoulder, and I began:

God, thank you for my son Seth. Thank you for his strength and his courage and his good heart. Thank you for the joy he brings me. Help him know you are real. Help him know you love him – and that I love him. Amen. Without a pause, I raised my thumb to his forehead, made the sign of the cross. Bless you, my son.

Seth looked up, beaming. “I want that on my ipod.”

Don’t we all? Aren’t we all craving for someone to see us, to notice what is good and true in us? Aren’t we taken aback on those far too rare occasions when someone speaks a word that zings right past the trivial and pierces our hidden question, our smothered neurosis, our muted desperation?

And we need to hear these true words like an echo, an echo stuck on “repeat.” For some sad reason, we cling to the violent, wicked and demeaning words. Yet the words that bring life, the words that prompt tears, the words that catch our breath or make us nervous or hint that a rich vein has been struck — those words we let loose. We don’t receive them. We know a million reasons to cast them askance: perhaps the one speaking is biased or doesn’t know us well or is simply playing nice. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps is a joy-killer. Beauty can’t sprout where it isn’t welcome.

We need to hear these true words. We need to speak these true words. Listen for them. These words are life.

First Stories First

The Bible is about God.

Perhaps it seems frivolous to clarify this, but I believe it’s a truth we’re on the verge of losing. These days, everyone caters to us because everyone wants something from us. The game is to find out what we want – and then beat the other guy in promising how fast they can get it to us. It matters little the trade, most everyone’s in on the racket — our corporations schmucking for brand loyalty, our politicians grabbing for votes, our pastors and priests (and of course, I wrestle with these demons) clamoring for affirmation and dollars. It’s easy to see why we might get the idea that everything really is about me. But this me that everything seems to be about isn’t the true me. None of these shucksters really know me, nor do they care to.

When the Bible enters this milieu, we assume that Scripture (or God) does the same. The Bible dashes after our questions. God rushes, like a zealous car salesman, to push a model than meets our every whim. But though we may drive off the lot with all the bells and whistles, are we any better for the transaction? Are we any more joyful? Any more alive? Any more human?

We may finagle a god who makes us comfortable or endorses the life we are set toward (with minimal adjustments as a nod to the Almighty). We may sigh contentedly if we locate a god who delivers quick pithy lines to our struggles, the immediate relief we demand. But if we settle for this god we think we want, we will never engage the true God who rules over the Earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Mary and Peter and Paul, the God who raised Jesus from the dead. If we are committed to the God we think we want, we will never know that the questions we are asking aren’t the right questions at all.

God is God, and we are not God. And the Bible is the book that tells us both of these things.

If I you will allow me to indulge in a moment of ridiculous oversimplification: some of our most vitriolic theological battles of the last two centuries seem to pivot on this question: Is theology fundamentally humanity’s story or God’s story. I have no desire whatsoever to enter the slugfest, but between these two choices, I opt for the latter.

But – it’s no better to go the other extreme and say that God (and God’s book) is so otherly, so divine, that we ought not expect it to engage the complexities and harsh realities and the wild joys of being human. By this way of thinking, you go to the Bible to discover whether or not it is okay to kill, but you have to go to a shrink to talk about why your heart feels like it may break in two. In other words, you go to the Bible to hear God’s story, but you have to go everywhere else to learn your own story.

The Scriptures – and our wisest voices over the centuries – have refused this dichotomy. They have taught us that the Bible is about God, first – but that it is about us second. And it must be in this order because the way we most truly know ourselves is to know God. As Augustine said, we know ourselves better in God than in ourselves. Our stories matter because God has made the remarkable (and at times seemingly foolish) move to intertwine our story within God’s story. God does God’s will, but God doesn’t rush past us. God wills that humanity be more than a blip on the celestial radar. Quite the opposite – in Jesus, God vested God’s full self in the human condition. Jesus was not a lab experiment. Jesus is the revelation that God is not distant. God goes local. God knows, as Hebrews tells us, all our human travail and weakness.

God knows these dark spaces intimately because God has suffered them, with us. Our pain matters – not because we are the center of the story – but because the God of the Universe endures our pain with us and longs for our pain to be no more. Our joy matters – not because the Universe will melt if we are not sated (our burden is heavy, but not that heavy) – but rather our joy matters because Jesus defeated everything opposed to joy and invites us into God’s kingdom where joy is evermore.

And every place where sin and death prevail and every place where joy is thwarted, every place in our story where we encounter injustice or loneliness or longing for freedom or a place of belonging – those are the places where Jesus wants to make our stories new.


There’s much to lament in this world. Every day offers a hundred reasons to cry. But, I also believe every day offers at least a hundred reasons to laugh or sing or make love or give an extra big tip or do something that costs you much – but brings a revelry all its own because you feel the pleasure of having done right, done well.

If it is the easy thing for us to slap a cheery word on top of misery, then we need to connect with the reality of sorrow. But if it is the easy thing for us to wallow in dismay, then we need to jump heavy into joy.

For many of us, joy is the harder effort, certainly is for me. I’m not sure why. Perhaps we have been disappointed too often. Perhaps we are comfortable in the gloom. Perhaps we don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear what the Apostle John calls the “river of joy overflowing.”

The good news is you can find joy just about anywhere. For instance, this week I found joy in my seven-year-old:

Seth: Par Fat? Par Fat?? Mom, this is going to make me fat?!?

Miska: No, Seth, that’s Parfait. Parfait.

Joy can surprise you at any turn. Watch for it. I’ll bet you find it.

Holy Fools

I believe in purgatory, as should anyone who passed through junior high. Seventh grade, I believe, and I was on the basketball squad. I didn’t play much, only at the end of games when we were behind so far that there was nothing for the scrubs to screw up. I was tubby and uncoordinated, not the best year of my life. We were playing Reicher, the Catholic school where all the guys were at least a foot taller, had hair in all the right places and seemed oh, so incredibly cool.

Thirty minutes or so before game time, I walked in front of a small cadre of Reicher toughs. Nerve-wracking, let me say. Intimidation. I wore my green and white uniform, too tight, too short, too polyester. I was directly in front of them when I heard: “There goes Santa Claus.” Followed by lots of snickering and chuckles.

I kept walking, exposed, like a fish flopping on the beach while everyone gathers round and points. It was the gym shower-scene every boy fears, only it was out in the open, with total strangers.

We all have a story like this. The fear of being foolish, of being mocked or scoffed or dismissed, taunts most of us. For my boys, it shows up strong the first few weeks of school. They are desperate to go chameleon and blend, just blend. One of our boys has become obsessed, when in public, about whether or not his hair sticks up. This, the boy that would go weeks without showering if we’d let him. Somewhere in his elementary-school world, he’s been told that hair sticking up is totally not cool, foolish.

Later, our tactics to keep from ever appearing foolish grow more sophisticated. We become snarky or sarcastic, knowing that if we make others seem foolish, the light never turns on us. Or perhaps we grow distant and aloof because, if we never show desire or passion (nothing that would get us noticed), then there is nothing for others to ridicule. Some of us choose our words with impeccable care. Some of us spend many of our waking hours gulping down shame. Some of us are crass, mean and cold. Our words slice others up. Everyone supposes we are the rocks, the ones who even though we’re SOBs are exceptionally self-assured. But if anyone could see, they’d know we’re shivering inside, a flopping fish stuck in junior high.

This must be why I like so many characters in the Bible who come across as brazen, unashamed holy fools. Peter, David, Mary Magdalene, just to name a few. They cried and ranted and slept with the wrong women and stormed off and were generous to a fault and unleashed fits of rage and joy that were in every way unseemly. If you’re looking for models for careful, calculated un-foolishness, look elsewhere.

But, they loved. Oh, how they loved. And they lived. And God called them friends. Proverbs rejects “the fool.” However, for the wisdom writer, the fool is the one who arrogantly stands apart from God, detached and wooden (but entirely “together”). The ones who stumble toward God, awkward and a screw-up and forever on the verge of making a scene – that person is beautifully foolish and God’s friend.

Buechner put it well, “If the world has never lacked for damned fools, it has never lacked for holy fools either.” I should hope not.

Let it loose, I say. Live wide-open. Live. Foolishness is underrated.