At Their Feet

These plants on my windowsill
watch me day in and out,
looking about my office, they
track my comings and goings,
sniggering at my sweltering
sense of self-importance.

These plants are close to the earth
and hold the long view, knowing that
instantaneously – in a geological sense – I
will be in the earth feeding their fellows.

These plants also cheer me on, when I
close my laptop and play with the rocks
in the silica-now-glass container on
“my” oak tree-now-desk.

These plants weep when
I fail to taste my apple, when
I forget to thank them, when
I refuse to listen to their call
to pinch myself
alive.

These plants are poets of the first order:
Aloe Vera and Christmas Cactus – and when
I am wise, I sit at their feet, in a manner of speaking.

Seeing and Seeing To In 2021

Finally, it comes to end, this 2020 called by many – though not all – an annus horribilis.  For many of us, of course, it has been a strange year with much disappointment and anxiety: lost opportunities, the lack of familiar social and religious comforts, alongside of the pounding presence of never really feeling confident in making plans. 

But I also know of people who have found their footing in this dystopian time – discovering new possibilities in the space opened up and discovering physical and spiritual practices that would have been untapped had this been an annus ordinarius.  I suspect that most of us have had a mixed experience but we are tipped in the direction of wanting to shake off this year because its character of unpredictability is so unsettling.  And we don’t like being unsettled – be it by unemployment, or uncertainty, or illness.  And that is utterly understandable.  But this year also afforded us the opportunity to learn from our experiences. The data of our year – whether it be tragedy, or triumph, or a mix – provides an occasion for taking stock of our place in the universe.  Of course, this is always true but something about this apocalyptic year has sharpened our capacity to look at our lives more acutely.

That feeling of being unsettled, of course, is always just behind the curtain upon which we project our cinematic sense of self.  Down deep, we know that our carefully crafted narratives are subject to another illness, or a shift in relationships, or a fractured spirituality.  But right now, the curtain has drawn open and the film of our life is projected onto a spherical ball with projectile-like spikes.  And the image that results is hard to discern, and so we hunker down, or we shake our fist, or we make an anxious plan.

These responses are neither right nor wrong.  How we respond is who we are, and we are accepted as such by Love.  But Love also invites us to consider if this is how we want to be.  Love invites us to look at whom we have become. It calls us to behold the gift we are and our invitation to growth – both of these now present in our being human.  Our being gift, of course, is radically recast in these COVID-19 days as we realize anew the profundity of presence.  And growth, too, is being drastically reframed for us in these strange days as we ponder that sometimes growing means letting go and being less, doing less, being content with less.  Powerful forces try to negate this message. Yet that little sphere with its spikes reminds us that less can sometimes do more than principalities and powers and doing with less can be more than we can ever imagine.  We have seen strange things in 2020.

Blessings to you, dear readers, as you see, and see to, yourselves into 2021.

The Word Became Fire

The Word became fire, and now
burns within us – warming
hearts kindling the
thought that love becomes us – our
skin glistening hope.

The Word became dirt, and now
dwells below us – holding
us up, soul on soil, gracing
our grasses, grains, gardens;
all our eating now holy.

The Word became wet, and now
rains upon us, now
baptismal bath, now
living spring, now
we are sated with sacred
surging, pulsing, raging.

The Word became air, and now
fills our sails, our souls, our lungs
enlarging; this Word waits
upon us serving us breath, death
abated until the day our flesh fades into
a memory, a word, a poem.

The Word becomes us, making
us fit; it suits us, dressing us
with holy splendor, bending us
back again to our origin:
in the beginning, Word.

Your Hold on My Heart

Yesterday the sky wept, and
the branches of the trees
bled a bit of red. The earth
knows something that
I do not.

I want to read the earth.
I ache to converse with trees,
to listen to the stars, and
to feel the heartbeat of the soil,
but I am a soul too easily
sated with white noise,
with white… but at night
when my pen befriends me
and my guard goes down I
begin to hear, to see, to be differently,
Your hand on my shoulder, Your hold on my heart.

This Too Can Be Home

There is a sprig of hemlock,
Tsuga canadensis not Conium maculatem,
nestled in the round of our Advent
wreath; warmly wrapped by
lights of hope, peace, joy and love,
this gentle bough at home
in my home.

I pinch a bit of it for my nose and
I find myself transported to a
fragrant conifer forest. My
soul is sated and settled in the
womb afforded by four sister trees:
hope, peace, joy and love.

I look above and see tongues of fire
resting on these sacred silva beings:
I take delight in knowing that this too can be home.
I pinch myself and am transported back
to my living room, where the Holy
holds inner and outer as one.

Succor in Solitude

Some months ago, after visiting my middlest daughter, I brought back from her Ottawa home two aloe vera plants. They were about the same size, and I planted them in two available pots, one about two thirds the size of the other. The plant in the larger pots has done well, looks healthy and grown a bit. The plant in the smaller pot is going gangbusters. It has swollen to twice the size of the other plant, and produced a whole host of babies, some of which are nearing the size of the other plant.

I don’t know if these plants are a metaphor for life, or not. But it is interesting that the plant with the most room to grow is the least productive. I read an article the other day about a writer who took a furlough/sabbatical for writing a book. He left the big city and made his way to a cottage, where there were little to no distractions. He set up a plan of how many pages he would write each day for a week, free from the burden of his job, obligations at home etc. for a one-month spacious period of time. But he produced nothing aside from some writing on the first day.

Maybe it isn’t space we need in order to be productive but intimacy, small places and times where we can feel our edges and experience our breath bouncing back at us. Intimacy comes from a Latin root that is the superlative of “inner.” To be intimate is to be utterly within. Our common parlance often understands this word in relationship to sexuality, or perhaps in reference to a special kind of comradery. But there is an intimacy of knowing the self, of being in the presence of our own interiority.

This is not always an easy place to be. Here we see our fears, our rages, our deaths. But these are rich materials for the project that is being ourselves. In this kind of intimacy we see beyond the self we project in the world and we begin the journey of truth. The philosopher Martin Heidegger writes that the word truth in Greek is related to the verb of disclosing or laying bare. In intimate relations the other is disclosed to me; in intimate spaces, I begin to see myself.

In the Christian church today is the Reign of Christ Sunday. The image of Jesus as King of Kings is celebrated. But the story of Jesus begins in a stable, and moves to cross, and ends in closed cave where the story begins again. This so-called king was really a master of intimate spaces, and places us in the same, where we discover the love that reigns in the heart. From the intimate heart comes healing balm, an aloe vera like salve, our succor in solitude.

The Chime of My Heart

Jogging, today, I overshot
the Victoria Park Island
footbridge.

The sight of the Boat House
Restaurant arrested me. After
a quick U-turn I was back on track
but wondered:

Was it the bald trees that muddled me?
Or
Was I hypnotized by the
tick-tock of my feet, or the
pendulum of my breath, or the
chime of my heart?


I was running in that place where the
need to let go of things that
need me to let go of them held sway.

I made my way over the bridge and
wound round the park. Now
back in myself, I saw a goose wink at me:
slipping through a park is not only
prayer, it is also life and breath.

Taking Leave

One of the realities, often lamented and much discussed, in this time of COVID 19 is the amount of time we spend on Zoom, Teams, etc. This is an especially pertinent concern for those of us who teach. And one of the things that I have found that is especially odd about it is the difficulty of taking leave from class. In a normal setting leave taking is protracted, with some people disappearing immediately, some heading out of the class after a bit, and other not leaving at all choosing to stay in the class for study time, or hoping to catch up with me, etc.

But Zoom just erases this. Taking leave is abrupt. One moment you are with someone and the next they have disappeared, sometime leaving you with a hollow feeling. I have been mulling over different ways to end mediated meetings, and decided this semester to try something a bit different with my class. We end each class with a body prayer/meditation. Basically, one of my outcomes for the class is to get the body back into theology, and so at the end of each class we focus on one body part. It might be the neck, the elbow, the skin, the spine etc. I invite my students to shut off their camera, and I walk them through a five minute meditation on a part of their body, thinking about what that body part says about who they are as people as they hold, or explore, or imagine it. I then invite them to give thanks to God, and/or their ancestors, and/or themselves for that body part. This exercise is not mandatory and people are welcome to leave for this last five minutes of class. But often everyone stays.

At the end, I shut off my camera and before my eyes are the names of my students – no faces. I imagine them still feeling the nape of their neck, or the curve of their palm, and then slowly at first and then rapidly, the names disappear and mine alone is left. It feels nice – a silent but significant leave taking. I haven’t asked them, yet, about this experience from the perspective of ending. A few have expressed deep gratitude for the meditative experience, and I am happy for that. But most recently, I have wondered about this experience in terms of bringing a class to close.

Of course, endings are so very important. We spend our lives – if we spend them wisely – in preparation for our ultimate experience of taking leave and so, of being welcomed. Leave taking is a profoundly spiritual practice and in this mediated age we are wise to ask: “How do our small farewells fare in terms of ensuring that it is well with our souls?”

Stars and Stardust

They do not die. We do.
We slip further away
whenever we say adieu,
buried ever deeper:
humans becoming humus.

And so we rot.

Each weeping tear cracks our exterior.
Every grimace of grief shakes our core.
As our shoulders shudder, we do no
other than grind our very being
into dust.

And then a mystery:
green blade rising undoes
our dying. We sprout both
roots and shoots, striding
across heaven and earth.

Stars and stardust, with them.

Institutiones Reformatae semper Reformandae

Today we celebrate the Reformation, although some folk decline to honour this 16th century phenomenon since it resulted in the fracturing of the Western Catholic Church. Yet the term reformation did not begin with Martin Luther, nor did the propensity to right the direction of the church, that band of followers of Jesus that came to inhabit institutions of various guises. What might Reformation mean for today’s institutions within Christianity?

Some folks lament the institutional character of churches, noting that when movements become institutions the original vision of its founder is compromised. Interestingly, the atheist philosopher Alain de Botton, in Religion for Athiests addresses the institutionalization of religion alongside of a host of phenomena in a slightly different key. de Botton has a most interesting take on the kind of relationship that atheists can have with religion. He suggests that there are redeemable (my word!) aspects of religion that can hold truck with atheism: the marking of special time, the practice of ritual, etc. The establishment of institutions is one of these. He notes that religions do a good job of institutionalizing movements as a way to conserve ideas. He suggests that atheists could do the same. And in so doing, he invites us to revisit our understanding of institution.

An institution in this vision is a vehicle rather than an end in itself. I suppose theologians have always asserted this, but the daily life of the institution often betrays an aphorism that I repeat from time to time: institutions will always take care of institutions. I think this true, but this is not a reason not to harness an institution for a purpose that transcends it. The institution can pass along an idea, or in the case of Christianity, something bigger than an idea. It can pass along a vision of the Reign of God in ways that are allow us to critique the institution without the need to demolish it.

In a way, it feels a bit like COVID is demolishing the institutional church, although that really isn’t true. But it is, I think, utterly re-forming it as we turn on a dime to face new realities – or don’t and face institutional death. Of course, the institution will not want to die and will do what it can to live. The question is: can we use skillful means to manage these institutions in ways that reins them in for the purpose of the Reign in which these institutions finally find their end?