Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Mysterious Presence in the Darkness

In the spring of 2003, while on sabbatical from our parish work, my family travelled to the west coast of Ireland. This photo is of the Gallarus Oratory, an early Christian site located on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. My then thirteen year old daughter Bekah, no doubt chilled and made grumpy by a raw wind blowing in off the North Atlantic, stands in the doorway, reluctantly consenting to a photograph.

Chet Raymo, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College and a part-time resident of the Dingle Peninsula, wrote about the oratory in his remarkable book Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain. I offer a somewhat lengthy excerpt from the book. Please read on. You won't be disappointed.

Of all the places Irish men and women built for prayer before the coming of the Vikings in the ninth century, only one remains intact. At Gallarus, on the Dingle Peninsula west of Mount Brandon is a structure that must be counted as one of the most remarkable in all of Ireland, even in all of Europe: the Gallarus Oratory. The building is about the size of a one-car garage, rectangular in plan, in the shape of an overturned boat. it is built of unmortared stone, beautifully fitted together, with corbeled side walls about a yard thick curving upward until they meet at the ridge line. A small trapezoidal opening at the front may have once been closed by a door of leather or wood; an adult must stoop to enter. A timy arched window at the rear admits a shaft of light into the gloom. The structure is as weathertight today as when it was built.

Everyone who sees the Gallarus Oratory for the first time is stunned into silence. They have never seen anything like it, and never will. Inexplicably, almost miraculously, it has survived the ravages of time, in particular the predations of farmers seeking building stone. There are other structures like it on the Dingle Peninsula, but all exist only in fragments; the Gallarus Oratory has the look of a building that was constructed yesterday. Exactly how old it is no one can is almost certain that the building was in place before the Vikings came ravaging along this coast in the year 850.

Perhaps the Gallarus oratory survived because it early became and remained a place of pilgrimage, or perhaps because even from the earliest times people recognized it as something of an architectural masterpiece. The oratory, as its name implies, was meant for prayer, and one cannot enter that cool darkness without feeling a sense of mystery that provokes a contemplative response. What sort of prayer took place in the cool cave of the Gallarus Oratory no one can say at this remove. Perhaps a tiny oil lamp flickered in the waxy darkness. Was there an altar against that back wall? Surely no seats or benches in this restricted place. It is hard to imagine an exuberant congregation singing a Te Deum--the voices crushed back to earth by the weight of the corbeled stone. Rather, one imagines a single person, or two, or three, prostrate in the dark, praying as Thomas Merton defined monastic prayer: A silent listening of the heart.

A few years ago, I spent the night in the Gallarus oratory. I can't say exactly why I went there late in the evening, or why I intended to sit up all night unsleeping in that dark space. I suppose I wanted to experience something of whatever it was that inspired Irish men and women to seek out these rough hermitages on the edge of civilization. They were, to be sure, pilgrims of the Absolute, seeking their God in a raw, ecstatic encounter with stone, wind, sea, and sky.

The sun had long set when I arrived at the Gallarus, although at Ireland's latitude the twilight in summer never quite fades from the northern horizon. It was a moonless night, ablaze with stars, Jupiter brightest of all. Meteors occasionally streaked the sky, and satellites cruised more stately orbits. Inside the oratory, I snuggled into a back corner, tucked my knees under my chin, and waited. The darkness was palpable, pungent...I could see nothing but the starlit outline of the door, not even my hand in front of my face. The silence was broken only by the swish-swish of my own breath. As the hours passed, I began to feel a presence, a powerful sensation of something or someone sharing that empty darkness. I am not, as you surely know by now, a mystical person, but I knew that I was not alone, and I could imagine those hermit monks of the seventh century sharing the same intense conviction of "someone in the room." At last, I was spooked to the point that I abandoned my interior corner and went outside.

A night of exceptional clarity. Stars spilling into the sea. And in the north, as if as a reward for my lonely vigil, the aurora borealis--the northern lights--danced toward the zenith. How can I describe what I saw? Rays of silver light streaming up from the sea, as if from some enchanted Oz just over the horizon. Shimmering columns of fairy radiance, black night made suddenly phosphorescent.

The Gallarus Oratory was built for prayer at a time when the world was thought to be charged with the active spirit of the Creator: every zephyr blew good or ill; springs flowed or dried up at the deity's whim; lights danced in a predawn sky as blessings or portents. Today, we know that the lights dance for reasons that have nothing to do with our supplications or with a deity's willfulness; electrons crash down from the Sun, igniting luminescence. But our response to the lights might be prayerful, nonetheless: wonder, thanksgiving, praise. If we are attentive and knowledgeable, the lights will lead us into encounter with the ineffable Sprit that stirs the universe into a ferment.

As the Sun brightened the eastern sky and the last shreds of aurora faded, I was suddenly startled by a pair of swallows that began to dart in and out of the Gallarus Oratory, hunting insects on the wing. I followed them inside and discovered a nest with three chicks perched on a protruding stone just above the place I had been sitting. The mysterious presence I had felt so strongly in the darkness was not a god, nor fairy spirit, nor angel, nor demon, but the respiration and featherings of swallows.

(DSH Photo: Rebekah at the Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland; May, 2003)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


"You just got home from a three-day Zen sesshin three hours ago and now you're drinking a beer and watching NASCAR. Chock it up to the multi-faceted complex world of Dave!" said Sukie.

Well, it wasn't just any beer; it was a Sebago Brewing Company Frye's Leap IPA. And it wasn't just any NASCAR race; it was the Aaron's 499 at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama (Confederate flag, anyone?). And it certainly wasn't just any finish; on the last lap, Carl Edward's 99 car went airborne and flipped into the catch fence, crashing back down onto the frontstretch in a flaming wreck. Edwards extricated himself from the flames and actually ran across the finish line.  Rookie Brad Kaselowski went on to win the race with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. right on his bumper. The video of the final lap has become a top YouTube pick.

Several years ago, when I confessed to my best friend that I was a NASCAR fan, he very nearly disowned me. He was so disgusted that he couldn't even respond. My co-workers are mystified, if not appalled. My wife has learned to tolerate my occasional Sunday afternoon race viewing. My daughters shrug their shoulders and say "whatever." My dog falls asleep on the living room rug.

I've even been to a few races. And, yes, I've been to the spring race at Talladega with my brother, nephew, and another friend. (Oh, by the way, he's the same friend that I was a Civil War reenactor with for ten years. But I'll save that one for another post...). I've been to the August race at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. And I've driven over to the New Hampshire International Speedway for the mid-summer event.

What a minute, you may be wondering, aren't you the Episcopal priest Zen student hospice chaplain contemplative guy? What's up with the NASCAR thing?

Isn't there a contradiction here somewhere? You bet. Chock it up to the many selves of the self that is no-self. The bottom line is that I don't worry about it much. Life is too short.

In those immortal words of Darrell Waltrip: Boggity, boggity, boggity! Let's go racing, boys!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Back Home

When I arrived at the office this morning after three days of being on retreat with my Zen community, one or two of my co-workers asked: "So are you refreshed?" Mmmm...refreshed? Well, maybe. Never really thought of a Zen sesshin as being refreshing.

Challenging? Demanding? Exhausting? Yes, by all means. Illuminating? Depends on what you mean by "illuminating." The light gets cast on the whole inner enchilada. And much of it ain't pretty. 

But then there are moments of ease, of clarity, of delicious pure awareness--of how the sunlight with shadows of branches blowing in the wind is cast on the warm hardwood floor of the zendo, of the geese and ducks splashing in the pond water out back, of a night full of stars, of a teacher who quietly assures me that I'm not a total shit or a basket case after all but fully human, a fellow journeyer on this amazing endeavor of coming alive, of having one's heart stretched and melted and transformed in the crucible of practice.

I inevitably dread going on sesshin and I'm always happy to come home. And I also know that, as hard as it is, sesshin is the most important work I do, that we do together. As I'm often reminded by my teachers, this going on retreat is not a private affair. It's about saving all beings. It's about transforming a world of suffering. As we sing every evening at the close of the day...

I vow to wake all the beings of the world,
I vow to set endless heartache to rest,
I vow to walk through every wisdom gate,
I vow to live the great Buddha way.

(DSH photo: Boundless Way Zen, April sesshin, 2009. Note: that Teddy Bear sitting on the floor wearing a rakusu in front of David Rynick is actually James Ford. He had to leave, with his wife Jan, after the close of day ceremony on Saturday evening. Such are the hazards of being Zen teacher and parish minister!)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gone Sitting

I'm leaving this afternoon for a three-day retreat (sesshin) with Boundless Way Zen at Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire. Our meditation hall (zendo) is their event center atop a hill surrounded by apple trees and a small duck pond outback. Weather expected to be warm over the weekend. Back Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our Solemn Obligation

Last October, during Parent's Weekend at George Washington University, my family had occasion to visit the World War Two Memorial on the National Mall. The memorial was dedicated in May of 2004 and commemorates the 16 million who served, the over 400,00 who died, and all who supported the war effort from home.

No sooner had we arrived than a tour bus from Texas pulled into the parking area. Onboard were a group of WW2 veterans, some of whom disembarked from the bus under their own steam, many others with the assistance of their caregivers. Walkers and wheelchairs were unloaded and distributed.

Twenty-four bronze bas-relief panels flank the north and south ceremonial entrance of the memorial, with walkways gradually descending into the inner oval with its pool and fountains. I watched an elderly gentleman with a dark blue Navy Veteran cap, his chair being wheeled down the entryway. He asked to pause at each panel--on the south side depicting the Pacific theater of war--and gazed intently, describing to his caregiver what each scene portrayed, from Pearl Harbor to enlistment to shipbuilding to the Navy in action to jungle warfare.

Walking a few paces behind, I listened intently, and drawing nearer, introduced myself, shaking the man's outstretched hand. He said that he had piloted an amphibious landing craft during the war, delivering Marines onto islands held by the Japanese. He said that it was his honor and privilege to visit the memorial. He was grateful for this tribute to his generation.

As he approached the last two panels, one depicting an impromtu battlefield burial and the next a celebration of VJ Day, I noticed that he was silently weeping and wiping his eyes with his handkerchief.

I accompanied him further on and watched as he looked up and read aloud a quote from Admiral Nimitz carved into the stonework:

They fought together as brothers-in-arms. They died together and now they sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation.

I asked if I might take his photograph. He graciously agreed and turned his wheelchair to face the camera. And I thought how much this man reminded me of my own father.

Jack Heald served as an officer aboard the USS Converse from November, 1942 to January, 1944. His destroyer squadron won a Presidential Unit Citation for "extraordinary heroism" during the Solomon Islands campaign. Among other harrowing episodes, his ship was struck amidships by a torpedo that failed to detonate. Years later, his youngest son, then a boy, opened a closet at home where his father kept his dress uniform and stared up in awe.

Walking alongside that elderly Navy veteran, I regretted that my father did not live to see the World War Two Memorial. Dad never talked much about his war experience. I encouraged him to write it down but he never did. In an effort to downsize and clean-up before she moved to retirement housing, my mother threw away the letters my father had sent to her while he was in the service. Even now, she regrets having done so.

One summer evening, driving home from a USS Converse reunion in Bath in 1989, my father began to talk. But mostly about how the ships themselves had changed over the years, about how much more spacious the accommodations were onboard a modern destroyer than the "tin cans" he and his fellow veterans were crammed into, with barely an inch of steel separating them from a torpedo and the watery depths.

Every day the ranks of my father and mother's generation--many have called it the "greatest generation"-- are diminishing. As a hospice chaplain, I am keenly aware of their passing. We owe this generation our love and respect, just as we do all people, both the living and the dead. But this generation is passing away now, before our very eyes. And soon there will be none left. They carry away with them the many-faceted singular stories of their lives, each story precious, each life unique and irreplaceable.

These men and women deserve our heartfelt thanks and our attentive, listening presence. Many of them sincerely feel that they have nothing special to share, nothing that anyone else would want to hear, nothing of value to pass onto in the next generation. They are mistaken. We owe it to them to pay them homage, to honor their legacy, and to pass their stories and memories along to the next generation. They are each one of them heros, each one utterly ordinary and divine.

This is much more than an obligation. It is our solemn honor and privilege.

(DSH Photo: US Navy Veteran at the World War Two Memorial, Washington, D.C, 2008)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Love at First Sight

It was love at first sight. Michael drove his battered Oldsmobile sedan down the dusty farm lane and parked it alongside the other cars in the field. My eye was immediately drawn to the pink and yellow form bobbing atop a spring adhered to his car's dashboard. As I walked closer, I saw the saffron robes, the bald head and the pudgy hands folded in its lap. A bare foot peaked out from under a fold of its robe.

Michael and I had arrived at the farm for a traditional seven-day Zen retreat or sesshin.

"It's a Dashboard Monk. I picked him up at a joke shop in the city," Michael said.

I was speechless.

Michael read my mind. "I'll see if I can find you one. Give me your address before we leave."

Several months went by and I heard nothing more from Michael until the day a mysterious package arrived in my mailbox. It had a Brooklyn, NY return address. He hadn't forgotten me after all.

I hot-glued the little Buddha to the dinghy dash of our '93 Honda Civic. He proved the perfect adornment for our otherwise trashed car. With the rear wheel wells rusting away, a left front parking light duct taped in its frame and the pearl green paint sloughing off the hood in sheets revealing the silver undercoat beneath, the monk sat placidly like a lotus in muddy water.

We went everywhere together. He became my friend, teacher, soul mate and dharma brother, all rolled up into one. If the road was smooth, I patted him on the head so that I could watch him bounce and sway on the spring. I made up ditties and sang to him.

No matter how rough the road or deep the pothole, Dashboard Buddha always came back to the stillpoint. Sitting unperturbed with those pudgy hands folded neatly in his lap and that hint of a smile on his pink lips, he was the embodiment of equanimity, peace and joy. No matter what my mood, he reminded me of my essential nature. And this is what he said:

Nirvana is right here, before our eyes;
this very place is the Lotus Land,
this very body, the Buddha.

I eventually sold the Civic to my friend George, the owner of a local gas station, for a hundred and ten dollars. When I dropped the car off, I cleaned out the refuse--miscellaneous papers, plastic Diet Coke bottle tops, old banana peels, Snickers candy bar wrappers--and threw it all in a black trash bag. Finally, I carefully chiseled off the Dashboard Buddha, dusted him off, and put him in my pocket for the ride home.

In place of the Civic, we purchased a new Toyota Yaris. Reluctant to mess-up the Yaris' pristine dashboard, the monk now sits, on perpetual retreat, atop my writing desk.

I'm thinking he may have to come out of retirement. The open road beckons.

(DSH Photo: Open Sky and Dashboard Buddha: Rt. 295, Portland, ME)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Burning Like a Ceaseless Flame

Several years ago, on a Friday evening, an hour or so after sunset, my daughter Bekah and I drove out to Springbrook Farm in search of spring peepers. We parked the car off the road by a broad low-lying meadow on either side of the farm's namesake brook. In the spring, the brook floods from snow melt and rain. And so we walked down into that watery meadow. Wearing sneakers, Bekah was brought up short by the flood and retreated. But I waded out into the middle of the meadow, all the while with the water threatening to overtop my wellies.

Out in the midst of that meadow, under a sickle moon and a sky full of stars, I stood still listening. The whole place seemed to sing. Soon the high-pitched shrill of the peepers overwhelmed my ear's dynamic range. My whole body became a tuning fork struck by the reverberant voices of hundreds of tiny frogs.

In his book The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, Chet Raymo, scientist and mystic, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College, writes of a water meadow near his home in North Easton, Massachusetts:

In spring...the water meadow teems with life...Red-winged blackbirds take up residence in the young alder and willow trees that are colonizing the meadow. Canada geese and mallards, in faithful pairs, swim among emerald shoots of new grass. Then comes the magic day in April when the entire surface of the water meadow begins to sing, the choiring of spring peepers, a hallelujah chorus in celebration of new life. 

Of course, it's not new life at all. Life was there all along buried in the frozen mud or in rock-hard seed cases on the branches of trees. Life doesn't come and go; life persists...

Often I have taken off my shoes and rolled up my pants, and waded out into the midst of all this animation. Every sense is stimulated by the brash exuberance of living things...

Behind the water meadow's rich diversity of life there is a molecular unity (evident in images displayed on the color computer screen) as beautiful as a cathedral's rose window or flying arch. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, one of the greatest of Gothic builders, hoped that his cathedral would reveal the divine harmony that reconciles all discord, and that it would inspire in those who beheld it a desire to establish that same harmony within the moral order. The molecules of life, revealed by science, achieve the same effect. They inspire a reverence for the invisible harmony--of form and function, of complexity and simplicity--that is the miracle of life. Here in the water meadow it burns like a ceaseless flame.

Check-out Chet's blog at Science Musings.

(Google Image Photo: West Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral, France)

Monday, April 13, 2009

To Plan a Death with Dignity

I hope many of you were listening to NPR's Morning Edition today to hear the story by correspondent Richard Clark entitled: Catherine's Choice: To Plan A Death with Dignity. 

Catherine Royce, a former dancer, executive director of Boston's Strand Theater, and writer/editor was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig's Disease) in 2003.  Two and a half years ago she offered an essay on NPR's This I Believe entitled I Always Have a Choice.  Catherine died on March 30th, having chosen the timing and manner of her own death, with her family and friends gathered around her.

In her memoir Whevever I Am, I'm Fine she writes:

You know the path I am on. I feel the urge to continue down the path more insistent every day. The things that used to pull on me, to get my attention, to distract me, no longer worry me. The only thing that consistently captures my attention is love in its many forms ... and searching for love as it manifests itself all around me every day ... Here is what my letters to you have taught me. Wherever I am, whatever I am doing, whatever is happening to me, I’m fine.

Here's this morning's story with a link to her This I Believe essay.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter!

Now that church is over, the real work of Easter can begin...chocolate, anyone?

(DSH Photo: Easter Candy, 2009)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Show Me Your Resurrection!

Being a somewhat revised and updated version of a sermon preached on Easter Day, April 11, 2004, at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Yarmouth, Maine.

In a recently published collection of radio talks, The Rev. Carl Scovel, minister emeritus of historic King's Chapel (Unitarian Universalist) in Boston, tells of a Zen Master from Japan who visited a Trappist monastery in the U.S for an extended stay. It was the Abbot's hope that his monks might learn something about meditation from their visitor. The master was so impressed by the devotion of the monks that he offered to conduct a sesshin--a traditional Zen retreat--for those who were interested. Several of the monks signed up for the retreat and, on the first day, they were given their koans.

My Zen teacher, James Ford, offers that the simplest definition of a koan is a 'problem' given by a Zen Master to a practitioner to lead him [or her] to self-awakening. His teacher, John Tarrant Roshi, further states: In koan work we are given a question that is impossible. This question is life. We are given instructions that are vague and inadequate by necessity, since they are intended to turn us inward. They support us not in belief but in discovery. After a koan has been assigned and some time has passed, the student is expected to make his or her response to the teacher in a one-on-one interview.

On the occasion of the retreat at the Trappist monastery, the first monk entered the master's room and found him seated between two copies of the New Testament, one in English and one in Japanese. The monk bowed before the master and sat down and waited. The master said in broken but clear English: You know, I like Christianity, but... He paused and glanced down at the books before him, then looked up again at the monk. But he said I would not like it without the resurrection. The master then leaned forward so that his face was quite close to the monk's. Show me your resurrection he said. That is your koan. Show me your resurrection.

As Scovel suggests, the Zen master might be speaking to all of us who presume to be Christian in life more than name. But for how many of us is belief in the resurrection yet one more item among our already cluttered collection of antique mental furniture, a kind of cozy but inert fixture in our minds, a relic of bygone days and of an essentially obsolete world view?

At first glance, belief in the resurrection seems to be a black or white, either/or proposition; either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn't, so make your choice. Which is to say, either we install yet another old piece of mental furniture in our minds or we reject it out of hand, without a moments further thought.

But the resurrection as koan doesn't let us off the hook quite so easily. It demands that we go deeper. It challenges us to come awake. It invites our response. Show me your resurrection!

The fact is that we don't really know what happened at early dawn when the women who followed Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb with spices to prepare the body for burial. Every gospel writer sees it somewhat differently. All are trying to imagine an event at which they themselves were not present.

Richard Holloway, retired former Bishop of Edinburgh and Anglican Primate of Scotland, likens the resurrection to the Big Bang. Scientists hypothesize that the Big Bang was the originating event of the universe and yet is not available to them except by theory and experimentation. Just as scientists attempt to explain an event that is hidden from them by reading backwards from the present reality that is before them, so the gospel writers attempted too imagine the resurrection by reading backwards from its effect on the disciples. Whatever the originating event was and however we interpret it, all that we see is its consequence in the lives of those who encountered it.

If the resurrection means anything at all to us today, those effects and those consequences must be made evident in our lives. As did those earlier disciples who encountered the Risen Christ, we must show our resurrection.

The people who deserted Jesus in fear and fled from his dying somehow found the courage to proclaim the meaning of his life; and that transformation, that turnaround, is what we mean by resurrection...It follows, therefore, that if we say we believe in the resurrection it only has meaning if we are people who believe in the possibility of transformed lives, transformed attitudes and transformed societies.

To believe in the resurrection is to dream God's dream of a world transformed. So let us dream and imagine a world transformed. And let us ourselves become that transformation.

And all the while that Zen master leans ever closer to us and says: Show me your resurrection!

Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs correspondent for the New York Times, writes of Awakening to a Dream in a recent op-ed:

I have this routine. I get up every morning around 6 AM, fire up my computer, call up AOL's news page to see what outrage has happened in the world overnight. A massive bombing in Iraq or Madrid? More murderous violence in Israel? A hotel going up in flames in Bali or a synagogue in Istanbul? More US soldiers killed in Iraq?

I so hunger to wake up and be surprised with some really good news--by someone who totally steps out of himself or herself, imagines something different and thrusts out a hand.

I want to wake up and read that President Bush has decided to offer a real alternative to the stalled Kyoto Protocol to reduce global warming. I want to wake up and read that 10,000 Palestinian mothers marched on Hamas headquarters to demand that their sons and daughters never again be recruited for suicide bombers. I want to wake up and read that General Motors has decided it will no longer make gas-guzzling Hummers and the President has decided to replace his limousine with an armor-plated Toyota Prius...I want to wake up and read that the President has announced a Manhattan project to develop renewable energies that will end American addiction to crude oil by 2010. I want to wake up and read that Mel Gibson just announced that his next film will be called Moses and all the profits will be dedicated to the Holocaust Museum...

When we wake up in the morning and listen to the news, it still sounds like a Good Friday world out there. We hunger to wake up to an Easter world. We hunger to be surprised by the evidence of transformed lives and attitudes and societies.

And still that Zen master leans ever closer and says: Show me your resurrection!

What response will you make?

(DSH Photo: Easter Lily, 2009)

Holy Saturday

It's Holy Saturday, that strange, threshold day after Good Friday and before Easter Sunday. This morning, it is still overcast after a light rain in the night, yet with that sweet sense of something stirring, something coming to life. It is a day to be still and to watch.

(DSH Photo: Gilman Road Barn, Yarmouth, Maine)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Beloved Disciple

My mother had called to let me know that my father had a part in their village church's reenactment of the Last Supper. Would I like to go? It was Holy Week of 1997 and Sukie and I were on sabbatical, so were free from parish duties for several months. 

I told my mother that I had planned on attending the liturgy for Maundy Thursday at the Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, so politely declined her offer. However, almost as soon as I had hung up the phone, it struck me what a rare and precious opportunity I had just passed up. I knew how committed my father was to his church and how much his participation in these reenactments had meant to him in the past. 

I called my mother back the next day and let her know I'd be coming. What time would she like to be picked up?

That Maundy Thursday, when we arrived at the church, candles were alight in the windows, flickering yellow. We entered the sanctuary lit solely by the candles placed around the windowsills as well as on a long table at the head of the church. The table was arrayed with goblets and plates of food. A recording of Gregorian Chant playing in the background further established the hushed, prayerful atmosphere.

The actors--the twelve disciples plus Jesus himself--were seated in the pews with the rest of us where, from their places, they in turn stood up and addressed the congregation, telling the tale of their having been called by Jesus. Each disciples' narrative ended with the question: "Is it I, Lord? Is it I?" referring to their anxious self-examination in light of Jesus having said that one who sat with him that night would betray him.

My father played the role of the apostle John. John also happened to be his given name. Earlier that day, he had borrowed my Birkenstock sandals to "authenticate" his role. He did a fine job with his lines, conveying them sincerely, at times passionately. I was moved at how fitting it was that my father should play this role of the Beloved Disciple--the disciple whom Jesus loved--as he had sought sincerely throughout his life to be a faithful follower of Christ. As he had aged, the grace of that devotion became daily more apparent, as he lived a life of love and service in his community, as he played with Bekah and Anna, then seven and fours years old.

After the play, the congregation was invited forward to receive communion at the table behind which the apostles stood or were seated, with the figure of Jesus at the center of them all. I took the bread and wine, then quietly congratulated my father. I was happy not to have lost the chance to be with him in that way. Surely, I thought to myself, because of my parish duties and my aging father, the opportunity would likely not come again. I was grateful for the grace that had opened the way for me to call my mother back and to accept her invitation.

I drove my mother home that night, back up the hill over the dirt road made muddy and rutted by the late March thaw. Leaving, I looked up at the sky and saw distinctly the Hale-Bopp comet with its milky white tail against the dark night sky. I turned off the car and parked by the side of the road to get a better view. Sitting in silence, I was amazed by that comet streaking across the heavens, some twenty-two million miles away. It would eventually be dubbed the Great Comet of 1997, one of the brightest to be seen in many decades.

It was true that I would not again see my father play a part in his church's reenactment of the Last Supper. Dad died of leukemia in February of the following year.

This year, his gentle and gracious spirit is alive in me. And I'll offer thanks for his life tonight when I go to the Cathedral for the liturgy of Maundy Thursday. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Dawn Chorus

We had a soaking rain with high winds yesterday afternoon into the evening. The back yard is now an expanse of water and mud. I opened the window in my study this morning to hear the exuberant dawn chorus of the birds of early spring. Chief among that chorus is a song sparrow perched in some shrub along our fence. Among others I hear a robin, several juncos, cardinals, chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, the incessant calls of crows, goldfinch, pine siskin, hairy woodpecker and a phoebe, newly arrived in the neighborhood, off in the distance. And another song--"brilliant and musical"--of a fox sparrow? Certainly not an oriole, it's too early yet.

(Photo from Google Image: Song Sparrow)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Olson's House

Over the years, my relationship with photography has been an intense, passionate affair. There have been long stretches when I have given myself to it heart and soul. At other times, my camera bag collects dust in a corner of my study, where I walk by it day after day. Almost always the camera within calls out to me and I feel that beckoning as a twinge of longing in my gut. As I mentioned in a previous post, the creative life is a weird thing. That which I love the most (and do most well) I often do the least.

The last few years, my favorite excuse for not picking up my camera is the advent of digital photography and all its associated software. Just as I was beginning to feel really comfortable working with film, the whole industry changed. My film of choice--Fujichrome Velvia--was relegated to the sidelines. I've never been particularly proficient at using a computer and whatever victories I've won on this front have been hard won--with great blood, sweat and tears. 

Yes, I've taken a course in Photoshop for Photographers at the Maine College of Art with a brilliant twenty-something nerd, who taught at the speed of light as he gulped down vast quantities of coffee. His jeans, festooned with chains upon which hung keys and other paraphernalia, slipped down low on his slim hips as he darted about the classroom gesticulating wildly and extolling the unfathomable wonders of Photoshop. Don't get me wrong, I loved the guy. I just couldn't understand most of what he was saying.

So, there's this pre-digital era of my photography, which I have come to dub the classical era. I pine for this long-lost period, now shrouded in the mists of time, when I was actually proficient with a camera and produced some good work. 

This period culminated in the summer of 2005 when I took a week-long class at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport with Alison Shaw entitled The Colors of Maine. Imagine shooting every morning and evening at beautiful locales on the coast of Maine with an exceptionally gifted teacher at your side. In the afternoon, out of the hot sun, my classmates and I sat inside and critiqued each other's work. At the end of the week, there was a clambake. After the feast, with the wine still flowing freely, the whole school gathered in an open-air studio and had a slide show featuring the best work of every participant in every class. Oh, my...

With the help and encouragement of my friend Bill Curtsinger, of National Geographic underwater photography fame, I scanned a few of my best slides from that classical era. Over time, I'd like to share a few with my readers. Here's one of the Olson House, a saltwater farm in Cushing made famous by Andrew Wyeth's painting Christina's World. I publish it now as a fitting tribute to Wyeth, who died on January 16th.
A few weeks ago I downloaded Apple's photo software Aperture. Yesterday, I publicly vowed (to my brother, Geoff) that I was going to master it, come hell or high water. I went to bed last night with the User's Manual.  Pray for me. Maybe this time it will take.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Night is for Stillness

it is night.

The night is for stillness.
   Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
    What has been done has been done;
    what has not be done has not been done;
    let it be.

The night is dark.
    Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
    rest in you.

The night is quiet.
    Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
    all dear to us,
    and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
    Let us look expectantly to a new day,
    new joys,
    new possibilities.

In your name we pray.

From: Night Prayer: A New Zealand Prayer Book; 1989

(DSH Photo: Winter Solstice, December, 2007)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What I Wear is Pants

This is not a hermitage--it is a house. ("Who was that hermitage I seen you with last night?...") What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe. Who said Zen? Wash out your mouth if you said Zen. If you see a meditation going by, shoot it. Who said "Love?" Love is in the movies. The spiritual life is something that people worry about when they are so busy with something else they think they ought to be spiritual. Spiritual life is guilt. Up here in the woods is seen the New Testament: that is to say, the wind comes through the trees and you breathe it. Is it supposed to be clear? I am not inviting anybody to try it. Or suggesting that one day the message will come saying NOW. That is none of my business. (Thomas Merton Day of a Stranger 1981)

What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe. 

Merton teaches us that the spiritual life is nothing special. It is life itself. This life.  

I awake this morning before dawn and step out into the dim light of this spring day. My morning psalms are the what-cheer cheer cheer of the cardinal, the caw of crows calling off in the distance, the gentle fee-bee song of the chickadee. The yard is almost empty of snow. White pine branches broken off from the ice storm earlier this winter litter the ground. A mug of freshly brewed tea warms my hands.

(Photo by Thomas Merton of hermitage porch at Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky)