The Rocks Ringing

Lapping waves have their own sagas.
Deep in their memories drift tales of
mer creatures, and Behemoth, and Jonah, and
water learning to listen to the One whose
voice stilled the sea, stills me – more water
than not, sitting on the rocks ringing this harbour.

This is not my Island, but still it
claims something of me: my
eyes behold its beauty with wonder, my
ears hear ancestors sing the wind, my
nose knows that sulfur has its own
history, a mystery in its own right, and
my skins feels the rough and cool of
basalt rock with two tongues.

I step mindfully in this place, because
I know that You, Holy One, have inhabited
this land of ice and fire

far longer than our remembering
far stronger than our forgetting.

I step carefully in this place, because You are

under every stone,
around every corner
within every sound

and I pine for Your appearing.

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Finely Tuned in Iceland

We are nicely ensconced in Reykjavik, “we” being Gwenanne, myself and six brave pilgrims from the Waterloo area on a “Fun in the Midnight Sun” tour organized by TourMagination. We managed to negotiate yesterday’s jet lag and were up bright and early, and in time to make it to worship at Hallgrímskirkja, pictured below.

The church is a powerfully intoxicating. Built over 41 years, it looms large in Reykjavik, with its tower designed to mimic the spray of a geyser and the church itself is said to call to mind mountains, glaciers and the rock formation of this island nation called Iceland (Island in Icelandic). Visitors line up to go up the tower, take a handful of photos, and then leave, but we decided to forego the tower experience and worship with the local congregation.

Today is Trinity Sunday and the resident priest Irma Sjöfn Óskardóttir both preached and presided. The service included special guests in the form of a choir from the Dómkirkjan (Cathedral Church) of Reykjavik. They crafted a service that was inspiring, although we really understood nothing, aside from our ability to make out the form of the Lutheran service, with its overarching structure of gathering, word, meal and sending.

As the priest presided in this architectural wonder, with a kind of simplicity that draws heavily on our hunger for transcendence, I wondered how the space felt for her. I recall some years ago – in Keffer Chapel at Luther, where I work – while presiding at communion, the sense that the building was a part of symbolic clothing I was wearing that day (alb, stole and chasuble), mindful that where we are becomes a part of who we are. And then back in Hallgrímskirkjam, I heard the choir sing. I closed my eyes for a time and as the piece came to the end, the music just kept on going, spiraling around the room until it settled into silence. I thought of my colleague, Gerard, playing flutes in various guises and how he flowed through the instrument, and it struck me that the sanctuary was a kind of instrument transforming the voice of the choir; sanctifying it, in a sense. The space itself became God’s handiwork. It was a holy moment for me.

Later in the day, we enjoyed a conversation by Arnfriður Guðmundsdóttir at the University of Iceland concerning how climate change is impacting Iceland, and the church’s response to this. It was quite a different moment in the day, but holy in its own way as Arnfriður spoke of the ways in which hope can found in the tenacity of faith and its passion for justice for people and the earth. Fittingly, we learned that Guðmundsdóttir means “daughter of Guðmund,” and “Guðmund” references the hand of God. She too, was God’s handiwork. For her and for the day, we are all grateful.

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But I digress…

For a good bit of last week I was in Vancouver, attending the Congress on the Social Sciences and Humanities, a yearly meeting of academics and folk interested in the things interesting academics. I look forward to this, and am able to attend most years. Although the event draws in thousands of professors, researchers, and activists, most people connect to a smaller organization. I belong to the Canadian Theological Society, and so am happy to meet old friends and new at CTS’s meeting. There are always great papers given by established and young scholars in a supportive and collaborative atmosphere. The networking opportunity is always appreciated, and the learning opportunities rich.

Most years I attend a few sessions by other groups. This year I heard a lecture on re-interpreting the book of Samuel at the Craigie Lecture, sponsored by the Canadian Society for Biblical Studies, a session on early church authors at the Canadian Society for Patristic Studies, wherein a colleague of mine gave a great paper, and a jointly hosted panel on Indigenous issues, featuring the formidable Lee Maracle.

Most years I spend quite a bit of time in the book store, but for some reason this didn’t happen so much this year. It might be, in part, because of the beautiful setting of the University of British Colombia. I spent a good bit of time wandering about, and made it down to the ocean a couple of times, and into the renown Museum of Anthropology, which had some stellar exhibits of totem poles, and also some work by Bill Reid (see below). It was breath-takingly beautiful.

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I spend a good bit of my life going to conferences. Years ago, when I first started attending conferences, I felt anxious to hear all the right papers, to meet the right people, and to get my money’s worth. Things have changed. I have come to rely on serendipity much more. Also, I plan this activity, but listen hard for that still small voice that says drop your plans and check out that event instead. I usually try to capture something of the culture of the location of the event, realizing that academic work that is done without attention to context just no longer much motivates me. And I work hard now to balance meeting new people and visiting old friends, with spending a bit of time on my own, which allows me to take stock of my work, my life, my passions, etc. I used to want conferences to advance my career. Now I want them to pique my curiosity. And they generally do.

Conferences all have a kind of a soul, in my experience. Each one is different, marked by a kind of “flavour” built upon the interaction, the experiences, the context and so much more. I think I have decided that, for me, this year’s Congress’s flavour was “digression.” Much that happened was tangential to plans, and some of it I am still processing. I was especially moved by my visits to the ocean at sunset, and to ponder how the sliding of the sun below the horizon speaks to the transitory, yet cyclical nature of life, my life. This horizon reminded me that life does not come with certainty, but it is rife with stark beauty. It called me to settle into a trust, and reminded me that faith, which grows out of a call from without, also grows into a call within that is ever reshaping, remaking me.

Into My Desire

How is it that You stay away
but still dwell more deeply
in me: You the Horizon
swallowing an ocean tanker whole;
You the Sea that tides my desire
over and over and over again;
You this perpetual Ache that
washes me from head to toe
so that I know nothing of
myself save wanting of You.

Now, this orange I taste is Your lip
this wind on my arm Your finger tip
this warmth of sun Your breath on my neck
and this spirited laugh that wells from within
is now Your Spirit, spinning me round
and round until I collapse into
my Desire, into You.

Into Loaf

The preferment is now in the oven for the night,
and three loaves of rye are in
gestation. A deep satisfaction comes of this
mixing of primal elements:
water and oil;
salt and flour;
and now a little honey for hope.

Can you imagine a more fitting metaphor for
life? This long night of rising is not dark, though.
The oven light sets this bread on fire. This
brightening in oven is
like Christ in grave;
death is tested and
found to fail as
sour dough takes wings
and makes bread of
tohu wa-bohu, of
chaos.

Tonight I sleep, while the world is born again.
Tonight I pine, waiting for You to slip into loaf.

Dear Mom,

Dear Mom,

It’s been nearly six years since you left us, although you didn’t depart altogether. Every now and then, I find you in my shadow, banging pots about in the kitchen, flavouring this, tasting that. You carried me in your womb, your prayers, your heart and now I find myself bearing you, in divers ways. The other day, for instance, I found myself peeling a potato, and felt you hand guiding mine, sliding along the contours of this root of the earth, sensing that a potato was capable of bearing love, and that cooking for those I love is as holy as was my pious prayers at the altar today, where I sensed you yet again.

You have given me many things, Mom. But one of the best is a respect for women. I am surrounded by strong women: my wonderful wife who has imbibed deeply from her own Mother’s well of wisdom and has also found some wisdom of her own; my courageous daughters who continually redefine success for me; sisters and in-laws whose faith buoys me; friends and colleagues who leave me in awe with their talent, their dedication, their ability to know exactly what to say to me when it needs to be said.

You have given me the gift of eyes, Mom. What a precious gift that is! As yours faded so many years ago, in some small way I think they migrated to mine, and every now and then I think I see through you… well, only in part, dimly, through a glass darkly, as the good apostle says. I will never know what it means to be a woman, but from what I can see from where I sit, it is a marvel and a challenge, a contentment and a frustration; a holy calling.

Men sometimes stereotype women as emotional, but those leaky eyes I encounter here, and there; this turn of the head when cheeks become beds for rivered emotions; this weeping is pleading for justice and a burden for peace and healing. These tears often prophetically announce that things are not as they should be, and are begging for a world more just. I stand in awe of such tears and wish them for myself: to be able to cry peace and righteousness; to be fit to sob for the healing of creation. This I covet when I find myself paralyzed. But the women in my life, Mom, show me the way, just like you did for so many years: be not afraid; look for the opportunities to brighten someone’s world; invite people into relationship; knock at the door until someone opens; be of good courage; pray always and in many ways.

I miss you so, Mom, but I know that you are in a good place. I also know that you are never so very far away. That veil separating us is thinner than we imagine. And I thank God for your example: you were not perfect and you taught me that I don’t need to be either. You taught me that love takes many forms, and it needs to be embraced for its diversity. You taught me things that you did not know you taught me.

Today is Mother’s Day but I think on you every day and know that what made you a marvel was not so much that you are my mother, but that you were you, that you are you. Your being you, unapologetically, reminds me every day that the sacred slips into our lives askew: now in a potato peel, now in a tear, now in song, now silence, now.

Lovingly yours,

Allen

Musings on a Monastery

The latter part of last week was spent at Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre. This remarkable Carmelite Monastery was built in 1894 and sits near Niagara Falls. I was there for a meeting of the Joint Anglican Lutheran Commission (JALC), a group of people tasked with monitoring the full communion partnership of the Anglican Church of Canada of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

I have been a part of this commission for some 12 years, and for many of these years our biannual meetings have taken place Mount Carmel. I have also been at this locale for other retreats. It has a bit of a feeling of a spiritual home for me. The staff here are always warm and welcoming, the food is excellent, and I generally manage a number of trips to the waterfall with each stay. Many people complain about the commercialisation of Niagara Falls, but there is something about the power of the water here that allows me to rise above the kitsch of the streets, and to be drawn into the drama of millions of litres of water racing toward the ocean, like a bird after its prey.

The group that gathers constantly changes, like the waterfall itself, I suppose. Of the 12 people in the current iteration of JALC, only 3 of them journeyed with me to this point from my beginning. I come now to the end of my time, as do many. The commission has three-year mandates, and so it will be reconstituted next fall. Some people will return. Many will not, I think. There were tears in the good-byes, and that says something about the gift it has been to be a part of this JALC.

This goodbye was a bit odd in a way, for me. I opted to stay at the Monastery another night, since I was to lead a workshop in the area the next day, and a trip back home Friday night, only to return Saturday morning seemed a waste of time and a needless emission of carbon. But as the crew left, I felt a kind of homesickness, in reverse perhaps. Sick-at-homeness, might better name it. I mentioned in my goodbye that those who have sojourned with me for these years will “haunt” the halls at Mount Carmel upon my return to this place. Indeed, even as they left, memories from this most recent meeting arrived as precisely that: memories. There is something particularly poignant about recent recollections; their sharpness is a reminder that they will fade; their proximity comes with the realization that these days have left and will not return.

Of course, JALC will return to Mount Carmel, as will I, but we will not meet together. This is the way of the world and the church, and it is the way it should be. A healthy committee needs to be renewed, and committee members need to move on to something new. I have enjoyed my time with JALC, and have been formed in important ways by my fellow commissioners, these dear friends, brothers and sisters all.