Prayer and Play. And Treehouses.

treehouseTwo Christmases ago, Miska gave me a splendid coffee table book, New Treehouses of the World. I have never owned a treehouse, but my cousin Tim and a few of his pals built a magnificent tree fort that I envied as a child. Tim was a few years ahead of me, and the fort was in disrepair by the time I was old enough to have been able to enjoy it. However, in seminary, I stayed with my aunt and uncle several nights a week, and each day on my way home from class, I’d pass that rotted-out beauty and pine for what might have been.

The book sat on my dresser for an entire year unopened until last December when I was packing for two days at Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist monastery where I planned to retreat. I was exhausted and in much need of a spiritual infusion. On a whim, I tossed the bulky Treehouses into my backpack. I had not opened the book in the entire year prior, and this beefy hardback was not the sort of book you take on travels. Nor was it the sort of spiritual tome one would normally consider part of the reading list during days with the Trappists. Yet there it was in my North Face pack, and I couldn’t possibly tell you why.

On the drive north, I began to think of what God might have for me during my time, and the word that repeatedly returned to me was play. This was not the word I would have picked, which is at least half a reason for thinking it’s something to pay attention to.

I pulled into the parking space for the retreat house, aware that the crisp air and the tree’s brittle branches matched the tone of my soul. When I stretched out of the car, an old, very fuzzy grey cat slowly strolled my way. The cat, acting as guestmaster, purred a hello, turned to point me toward the front entrance and then, having done his duty, slowly patted away. I’m not one to pause for a cat, but I stood there for a moment chuckling. The greeting struck me as magnificently playful.

That evening, I laid on the twin bed in my monastic cell; and though I had planned to spend time in focused, contemplative prayer, my brain had all the perkiness of cold molasses syrup. I opened a book of Thomas Merton’s spiritual letters to read, followed by a volume of poetry and a couple theological works. I thumbed several pages of each, but they all made me weary. Run out of options, I pulled out the treehouse book and into the wee hours of the night, I gobbled up pictures of play spaces from around the world. I remembered my boyhood fantasies and my love of rugged spaces. I considered what it would be like to craft one of these tree abodes, hopefully building it with my sons. In that little cell, I played.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, that theologically prolific fourth-century bishop, reminded us that “man is the play of God.” God’s high creation, his own image, came as an act of play, of joy and delight and imagination run wild. When our theology is so serious and our discipline so stringent that we no longer have hearts at play, then we have massively missed the point. Prayer and play, these are two ways of talking about the same thing.

Easter Blessing



People of the risen and conquering Jesus, lift up your weary hearts. Lift up your sorrowed eyes — your Jesus has risen from the dead. Easter’s for real. Jesus lives. And all the dying and all the deaths that lay claim on you have been crushed by the power of Jesus Christ, the one who descended into the very bowels of hell and marched out with a victor’s dance. Rise up and live. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. Amen.

The Ground of Love

snow light over barn

The earth, O Lord, is full of your love.

The Psalmist prays this singular line fixing our attention on the center truth of the universe. Interspersed among other words describing acute distress, affliction, lies, entangling wickedness, rage and derision, this single-line prayer, in the most literal sense, grounded him.

These sparse words grounded him in God’s kind faithfulness by grounding him in the very dirt on which he knelt. The earth, goes the prayer, is full of God’s love. Not the temple. Not his friendships. Not the fulfillment of miraculous provision. Not even, in this case, Holy Scripture. But the dirt – the boulders and the pebbles and the shrubs and the miles-deep stratum of soil, rock and shale – course with the relentless love of God.

And this love of which the Psalmist speaks is defined by compassion, tenderness, a heart-rich kindness that will not let loose. The Latin word is misericordia, a tenacious love pursuing those whose hearts know too well the miseries of this world.

The ground on which we walk and live, struggle and weep, dance and make love, pulses with God’s active, tender mercy. In the truest sense, we are held up, every moment of our life, by love.

A Prayer for Around the Table

Prayers around the table, everyone holding hands while keeping one eye squinty-open in the direction of the turkey or ham or turducken or tofu, is a sacred moment. Here’s a good prayer, if you’re looking for one:

Give us this day our daily bread, O Father in heaven, and grant that we who are filled with good things from Your open hand, may never close our hearts to the hungry, the homeless and the poor; in the name of the Father and the of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. {The New Clairveaux Abbey}

Or simpler fare from yours truly:

Thanks, God. This is grand.


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.


Confession and Desire

Miska and I have a running joke that if I were ever to go completely unhinged and do something stupid like have an affair, I'd manage to keep it under wraps for about 19 seconds. When guilt hits, I go blabbing. When I was in second grade, I went running to my mom, in tears, confessing the evil I'd done. "What happened, Winn?" my mom asked. "I cursed," I answered. "I said upchuck." How my mom held back the laughter, I'll never know.

Recently, Miska, in a strange turn of conversation, was forced to cough up that she had snooped around to find out what gifts I had bought her last Christmas. She logged into my email. She poked around my Amazon account. She didn't happen upon her information; she executed MI5 style tactics. I'm surprised she didn't waterboard the boys to make them talk. I like surprises, so I was irritated by her admission. More, though, I was impressed. Given my psyche, I can't fathom engaging in that chicanery and then just tooling along as if nothing happened. 

My confessive compulsion is a bit much. However, the act of confession, of saying the truth about something, is an immense gift. We tend to think of "confessing our sins" as necessary bookkeeping, knocking off a litany of all our inappropriate behavior so that God will then knock these same items off his list of things to smack us for. Confession, I believe, is closer to the moment when I stop playing coy with Miska and admit I really crave her touch. Or when Seth falls flat on the hard ground, spread eagle with his face smashed into pavement — then amid tears and pain makes it plain he wants nothing but his dad to gather him up and hold him tight. Of course, there's nothing I want in that moment more than to rush to his side and pour love over his hurt.

In Scripture, confessing our sins is simply the way of speaking the truth to God so that we can stop living in the far away corner and get on receiving love. Confessing our sins isn't the point. Forgiveness is the point. Love and friendship is the point. Living the good life – that's the thing God's working in all this. Lent is the season of clearing the air, of confessing what is, the season of getting on with the good life.

Confession is about healing that pours into our cracked places, our alone places. Confession is about coming clean with the fact that, left to our lonesome, we are lost – but also owning the fact that we dare to long for much, much more. To confess is to say the truth about ourselves and our place and our desire. Confessing how we've trespassed the commandments is a humbling thing. Confessing how we've abandoned good and true desires — that's a terrifying thing.

Orthodox priests speak this prayer after private confession:

May God who pardoned David through Nathan the prophet when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial, and the sinful woman weeping at his feet, and the publican and the prodigal son, may the same God forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this world and in the world to come, and set you uncondemned before his terrible Judgment seat. Having no further care for the sin which you have confessed, depart in peace.

Clear the air. Say it clean. Then depart, without a care. In peace.