Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Curtil-sous-Bernand, Burgundy, France
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!" - Genesis 28:16

It isn't hard to know that the Lord is in Burgundy, France.  I'm staying in the village of Curtil, with my friend, Judy, who has been living here for more than a year.  It is postcard perfect French countryside, with rolling hills, vineyards, and bucolic pastures where Charolais cattle graze.  But it isn't simply the beauty of the place that makes it a "thin space" where the presence of the Lord is manifest.

Many places are beautiful, but this region has been carefully and lovingly cultivated by human beings for thousands of years.  It is not untouched - far from it - but the human presence here is respectful of the land, well-proportioned, and harmonious.  It is sustainable.  People have lived here continuously for a long time.  One of Judy's neighbor's family has lived here for more than 300 years.  They know the place.  They care for it, and it cares for them.

early 11th Century church fresco, Bernand, France
People have prayed here for a long time too.  Many of the village churches are Romanesque.  Some are only ruins, but many are still places of worship where people gather to give thanks and honor the presence of the Lord.  Simple, stone crosses dot the landscape, calling people to prayer, and village church bells still chime the hour and half-hour.

These churches are always open.  Although they are not well attended, what strikes me about them is that they are deeply integrated with the surrounding landscape.  They serve as focal points of the Holy that is everywhere present; unlike the parish churches in my own home, San Francisco, which often feel more like a place of refuge or escape from the surrounding community.  They are often gated and closed: for members only.  In Burgundy, the churches open up to the village and countryside, nodes in an organic network.

L'eglise de Saint-Louis, St. Gengoux, France
Upon entering these churches, one feels how deeply rooted they are in place.  This is, in part, a function of age.  I wonder, though, if it isn't something more than mere longevity.  It has to do I suspect, with the lived experience of the people who have occupied this place.  Perhaps it is more about the way in which they have lived here, and not simply how long they've done so.  The "thinness" of this place has much to do with the stability of the people, their commitment to learn how to love it well over time, their capacity to grow in place, and to do so in community with one another and with the earth.

There is something very Benedictine about Burgundy, and that is hardly surprising.  Some of the greatest Benedictine monasteries made their home here: Cluny, Fontenay, Citaux.  Many of the village churches were originally founded by Cluny monks.  Although many of these monastic communities disbanded around the time of the French Revolution, the Benedictine spirit still permeates this land.  I find here, not a fairy tale timelessness, but rather the fruit of the vow of stability.  People realized that God is in this place, and found a way to live here that honored the Presence.

Cluny Abbey

Like the biblical patriarch, Jacob, we may be surprised by God's presence in a place, even erect a marker of some kind to honor the experience (not unlike my photos), but then we move on.  Jacob was on the run from a reprobate past, cut off from family, determined to make his way somewhere, anywhere, else.  Yet Jacob encountered God at Bethel, who promised that this would become his home.  Jacob initially ran from the promise, but he came back.  He reconciled with the brother he had cheated.  He put down roots.  He came home.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco
I can identify with Jacob.  Like so many people I know, I moved far away from my birthplace, far away from my family, and made a life elsewhere.  The San Francisco Bay Area and, particularly, the Episcopal Diocese of California, became my Bethel: the place were I met God and made my home.

God is, of course, everywhere present, but we humans can not be.  We operate within certain boundaries that define the limits within which we can live deeply in relationship with God, other people, and the earth.  The Benedictine practice of stability - of being rooted in a particular community - recognizes those limits.

In Chapter 4 of The Rule of St. Benedict, St. Benedict describes the spiritual and moral disciplines that the monks must practice in order to become holy, i.e. to become whole, healthy, integrated human beings.  Much of it is familiar wisdom of the biblical tradition:  the Ten Commandments, corporal acts of mercy, forgiving others, guarding the tongue, cultivating humility, praying regularly.  He then concludes,
The workshop in which we are called to work along these lines with steady perseverance is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in community life.
Benedict is telling us that we need a container in which the seed of spiritual practice can take root and grow into a fully alive human being.  If we keep moving from place to place, uprooting the seed, it never has the chance to sink deep roots in the rich soil of relationships to particular people in a particular place over time.  The wisdom of Benedictine stability runs directly counter to the dominant understanding of success in our culture, which is predicated on a commitment to mobility.  We have internalized a perspective that recoils at the "limitations" of commitment.  The result is human beings who are so poor, all they have is money; so rootless, every place is equally exploitable.

Shade Tree, The Bishop's Ranch, Healdsburg
Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove, in his book, The Wisdom of Stability, offers the image of the drip line.
Look at a tree on the landscape out your window and you will notice that it is shaped something like a geyser, reaching up in the single column of a trunk to spray out in limbs, most of them bending back toward the ground.  Follow the downward slope of those bending branches as if they were the fluid spray of the geyser, and you can sketch out a circumference on the ground around the trunk of the tree.  That circle is called the "drip line."  Without digging below the surface, it offers a pretty good sketch of how far away from a tree its roots reach for the water and nutrients it needs to flourish.
Trees vary a great deal in size, and any tree, given the time, can extend its reach through growth.  But it is important for the life of a tree that its extension above the surface does not exceed its growth below.  Stability depends on a tree knowing that its root system beneath the surface limits its capacity to send out limbs and produce fruit.  In short, everything depends upon the drip line.
What is true for trees is true for human beings, communities and ecosystems.  There are limits to growth, and only within the boundaries of those limits can sustainable growth develop.  We must learn to identity and honor the drip line if we wish to be holy.

While the drip line sets certain limits to growth, within its boundaries the conditions for growth may be enjoyed.  People who live within the drip line, who practice stability, develop a knowledge of the requirements for living well in their community.  They are rich in the cultural wisdom, social capital, and meaningful relationships that nurture personal, communal, and ecological health.

St. James Parish Church, San Francisco
In the parish church I serve, there are people who have lived their entire life as part of the community.  Many have been members for more than 20 years.  They have found God in this place, and have embraced stability as the workshop in which they could cultivate all of the other virtues.  They have learned to recognize and have come to embody the drip line of our neighborhood.

In so doing, these faithful people help us all to see God in this place.  They become "responsible for God" as Archbishop Rowan Williams put it in his book, Tokens of Trust
So many people are glad that someone is committed even if they're not sure they themselves want to be. 
It's easy to make fun of this, and some Christians find it maddening.  But it isn't complete nonsense.  It suggests that many of us are becoming aware of dimensions in our humanity that are not properly looked after by any of the things that are normally supposed to make us feel all right.  And if people are on the way to some bigger recognition, perhaps they need to go at their own speed and in their own way.  They have to work out whether they really have enough confidence in those who are "taking responsibility for God" to make them take the final step of belonging.  And when they can do that, then they begin to discover something of what is involved in fully believing.
My visit to Burgundy has deepened my appreciation for the practice of stability and for those who are willing to "be responsible for God."  Their deeply committed belonging to a particular community has given them grounds for trust in God, providing a beacon of hope for all who pass by; and, an invitation to others to belong to this particular place, and so come to believe.

We are on the verge of a civilizational transition of unprecedented proportions: the convergence of energy depletion (peak oil), economic stagnation (peak globalization), and environmental collapse (peak pollution).  Learning to recognize the drip line will come to have renewed importance to the welfare of our communities.  Those who already practice stability will be critical to the resilience of communities engaged in the urgent process of relocalization of all that is necessary for our common life.   Belonging and believing will be tremendous gifts to a world in which the foundations are crumbling and people are grasping to rediscover what - and who - is truly trustworthy.

remains of 2nd century baptismal font, Lyon, France

Monday, August 22, 2016

Suffering for the Sake of the Name

Lloyd "Jay" Butler
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ – Acts 9:10-16

Saul – who would become St. Paul the Apostle – had a vision of the Risen Lord and was struck blind.  He is waiting for Ananias to come and restore his sight.  Previously, Saul persecuted the followers of Jesus, so Ananias is none too happy to receive this particular assignment.  In fact, he is afraid.  Saul’s reputation as a brutal enforcer of Jewish orthodoxy preceded him.  But the Lord assures Ananias that the one who, in his blindness, caused so much suffering to those who invoked the Name, will himself experience much suffering for the sake of the Name. 

At first blush, this sounds like the usual tit-for-tat.  Saul did a lot of bad things to people, and now he is going to get what is coming to him!  But that is not why Saul suffers.  This isn’t a matter of retributive justice, but rather of conversion.  Saul suffers in the process of becoming Paul, someone much more and much different than he could possibly have imagined.  He suffers for the sake of the Name.

“Suffering for the sake of the Name” had a very specific reference for 1st Century Jews.  In the religion of Israel, the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple wore a crown that was engraved with the Holy Name.  Only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, where the Presence of God dwelt, and only on the Day of Atonement. 

The ritual of the Day of Atonement involved the sacrifice of two goats.  The first goat was killed and its blood, which represented the life force, was used as a substitute for the High Priest’s life.  The High Priest would take the blood into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle it on the kapporet, the place of the presence of God, and then sprinkled the blood in the other parts of the Temple.  This ritual act symbolically renewed the world, embodying the movement of grace from heaven to the rest of creation.  In his person, the high priest represented the presence of God with the people.

When the high priest emerged from the Temple, he placed his hands on the second goat, transferring the sins of the people to it and then driving it into the desert.  The High Priest symbolically carried the sin of the people in order to remove it, so that they, too, could participate in the renewal of the world.  In the Letter to the Hebrews and in Paul’s own writings, Jesus is described as the sin-bearer who renews the world, the High Priest par excellence.  He suffers for the sake of the Name. He enters into the reality of human experience and embodies the presence of God with us, removing the barriers that prevent us from receiving this Presence.  Ananias is told that Saul/Paul, will similarly suffer for the sake of the Name. 

What is true for St. Paul is true for all those who have been baptized into the Holy Name of the Trinity, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.   We are invited to suffer: to undergo an immersion into the reality of the world, to carry the joys and sorrows of others, and to embody the presence of God for them.   In this sense, “to suffer” is not only to experience pain, but to willingly and consciously enter fully into human experience.   It is certainly not to suffer pain for the sake of pain, or as a form of punishment, but rather as an act of compassionate solidarity for the sake of healing and renewal. 

What are we willing to suffer – to undergo – for the sake of the Name, in order to be bearers of the presence of God and renew the world?

Like Ananias, we are often afraid to enter into the experience of others, especially when that experience is painful.  We resist reality, preferring to edit out the parts we don’t like or that make us uncomfortable.  The invitation to spiritual maturity is an invitation to accept reality in all its manifestations.  In this sense, conversion is a movement from a self-centered and limited ego consciousness into a wide open awareness and acceptance of all of our experience.  It is a movement from “small mind” into “big mind” that embraces suffering in the service of a larger wholeness.


I do not know how my step-father experienced his dying.  I do know that, near the end, Jay accepted death, even welcomed it.  “I’m done,” he said.  “I want out of this prison.” His body had become a prison.  Jay was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis some 18 years ago.  Eventually, he lost the use of both legs and his right arm.  Swallowing food had become impossible. 

About a year before he died, the disease began to affect him cognitively as well.  Short-term memory was hit and miss.  His personality also changed.  Jay was always a gentleman, never speaking ill of anyone, kind, generous, and self-deprecating.  As his world became smaller and the disease process took its toll, Jay became angrier and more fearful. 

Fortunately, my mother is a retired nurse and was able to care for Jay at home.  In the final months of his life, Jay and Mom benefited from home hospice care as well.  I was able to spend the final month of his life with them, leaving just five days before he died.

I do not know how my step-father experienced his dying.  I do know how I experienced it.  It was painful to watch someone I loved suffer so much.  It was awful to see how Mom became a prisoner in her own home as Jay became a prisoner of his body.  I was angry and resentful that their lives had come to this place. 

What was most surprising, however, was discovering the expectations I carried about how someone is “supposed” to die.  My ideal was that dying should be a fully conscious process, entered into with courage, trust, and even curiosity.  One should be grateful for the care one receives and avoid becoming a burden as much as possible.  The closer one comes to death, the more transparent to God one should become, a window into an abyss of love.  We do not have to be afraid of death. 

I have witnessed people die this way.  The possibility is a matter of faith, and I still have hope for such an end.  In being open to Jay’s dying, I had to accept, however, that we are not in control of how we die, much less how other people die!  This is, perhaps, the ultimate experience of powerlessness.  We all must undergo dying – our own as well as those we love. 

Jay was not in control of even his response to his dying.  The disease process robbed him of that privilege.  The only thing left to him was resistance or surrender.  In the end, he chose surrender and entrusted himself to God. 

What I came to realize was that in his powerlessness and absolute vulnerability, Jay’s suffering was not meaningless.  He suffered for the sake of the Name.  He became transparent to God in spite of his disease.  It was precisely with respect to what he could not control that he surrendered to love; Mom’s love, my love, the love of friends and family, the church’s love, God’s love.  MS robbed him of everything until nothing was left but love.

Jay was so much more than his disease.  I remember the whole arc of the nearly 30 years I was privileged to know him.  He underwent so much more for the sake of the Name than just MS, and not all of it was painful by a long shot.  He experienced joy for the sake of the Name too.  What Jay taught me in his dying, however, was that we can trust what we cannot control.  We can be open to reality as it presents itself to us, moment by moment, and discover God there at work to make the whole creation new. 

How much can we suffer for the sake of the Name?  Everything.  We can be open to the full range of human experience.  Ananias could overcome his fear and resistance to God’s reconciling work.  Saul could even become Paul.  No matter how blind to reality we become, we can begin to see again.  And accept.  And heal.  And, finally, surrender to Love.

Thank you, Jay, for being my Ananias, for releasing me from a blindness I didn’t even know I had.  Thank you for this final gift, and all the others you’ve given me.