(An Extended Thanksgiving Reflection)
I need to begin this reflection with a little context; deeply personal yes, but hey it’s my life story. Besides offering important context, maybe it can touch yours.
Recently I got out of an 8 day stay at the hospital and returned to Mepkin. Admittedly it had been a bit of a heavier few weeks of prayer, needing to pray over some weightier decisions as to how the Lord is inviting me to move forward in my healthcare. You see, it’s been just under 20 years of struggling with autoimmune illness, between distinct colon and liver challenges, and boy, let me tell ya, it’s been a labor—a blessing undoubtedly too, yes, but a labor. Something I wouldn’t trade for the world because it has made me who I am, but at once how many times I’ve fallen under the weight of the Cross it seems.
I’ve told some people close to me my favorite station of the cross is probably the 9th station because it reflects this labor—only it’s Jesus falls not the third time, but the 27th time. I’ll mention how I just want to lie with Jesus on the pavement, still, motionless—“Lord, please don’t make me get up; just let me be with you here face to face on the pavement staring understandably, lifelessly, into one another’s eyes.” “Let me just have a moment, let the world drown away for a moment, let me feel the solitude, the rest, let me feel the warmth, the stone, of the pavement.” I confess similarly there have been ample times over the past few years especially where my heart just aches for the Lord, “Lord, I just want to sleep, and to sleep forever.”
Do I really want that? Probably not. I mean, in one sense, I feel in my short 33 years I’ve lived more than a full life, feeling I’ve poured out all I’ve had and perhaps all I’ve got in my heart and soul into the fullness of my life experience to date. To use a sports metaphor, if it were my time, I wouldn’t have regrets about having left it all on the field. And what joy I experience at the feeling of indeed receiving the grace should my life journey be up soon to fall helplessly into the arms of my unfathomably loving Father. God I am so ready. The anticipation of the embrace is just so palpable for me. I thank God for that most tangible Hope and hug of grace and mercy.
At once, Life is too beautiful. How I would miss this beautiful planet and all God has created on it for his pleasure and our enjoyment/stewardship. How I would miss the opportunity to learn to serve and encounter others more deeply in all their unique and varied beauty different from my own. It’s the prolonged lack of a more holistic well-being, rollercoaster fatigue, and the constant endurance I sometimes need a break from. Of course…paradox…as this has been and continues to be the turning point of my experience of the Paschal Mystery in my life that has so transformed my heart and the Divine Gift and gratitude that accompanies that experience of the Paschal Mystery.
Perhaps it is time to tell you about the power of a simple fruit basket.
I returned home to Mepkin from the hospital at just about bedtime. Surprise of surprises, I was also most tired, the combination of bodily labor and a real need for sleep. I was ready to be home but also weary. Being parched, I hoped I could just find a room temperature bottle of water and hit the bed straight away, drifting off with the angels into a most sweet and welcome good night’s sleep in the comfort of my own bed.
The community had already been visiting me in the hospital just about daily and blessing me with such foundational unconditional loving-care. How much it has meant to me to truly experience the faith and trust of those around me to bless me with the acceptance to simply welcome Love—to have the confidence of the community of what I believe deep within myself, that my desires are good and will blossom beautifully in God’s time, so that now I can have the grace to just be a brother, to recover, and from there to open-heartedly wonder at God’s plan for my life as it unfolds organically and patiently and gloriously in his own time. To have been given the gift of faith that the community believes in me enough to give me the space to be valued above all merely for the person I am; for it to have been revealed to me that I truly belong beyond anything I can contribute or do (as much as that desire is there), what more could anyone ask for?
This is nothing new to me of course, I have now been at Mepkin for 14 months and have been connected back further than that, so I know the quality of care of the people with whom I am in relationship here, but I continue to be amazed at just the continual deepening of this experience of Love.
I was about to be blessed yet again in a way that touched me most deeply. After being dropped off to make my way to my room, my brother chauffeur went to scout out a bottle of water for me. With a sigh I opened my door…“Ah home sweet home, bed sweet bed…”
What’s more—sitting on my desk?
A nice round wicker basket prepared with whole fruit, plate & knife, and not one, not two, but three room temperature waters. Living Water. It practically moved me to tears. The simplest of gestures. The degree of thoughtfulness/attentiveness. “Home sweet Home…”
It is through this continual movement deeper into the heart of divine love that I have experienced to date at Mepkin that has had me finding myself echoing in my heart one of my all-time favorite baseball greats, New York Yankee iron-man Lou Gehrig:
“Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…”
For him it was the life he was gifted to live to that moment of his speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 and the loving-care that surrounded him in his sudden ALS diagnosis.
For me it is the gift of having been given to belong to Mepkin Abbey, and of being able to call her “Home.”
In both, the freedom to love authentically.
My dear Lord, how blessed am I…
How blessed indeed. For in sharing this, I cannot but share the larger vision that has flooded my heart since the day I discerned God’s unitive grace in my call to enter into Mepkin.
I invite you to behold an image with me, pausing for a moment as you are moved to contemplate it in your heart and receive it more fully.
This is what I see and believe…
A star is rising over Mepkin,
and a firework is emerging out of the heart of Mepkin to meet it…
Can you see it? Do you believe it? Will you join it?
In the meeting space between is a dream, Christ’s dream—much bigger than 15 monks—a Wonder and a Hope, for all he imagines Mepkin to be.
And let me to tell you what I see…Wonder, Bedazzlement, Warmth. Home. Ever-Expanding Community… as the Hand of God continues to draw all that is Mepkin into the Sacred, through Liturgical Gift and the special people carrying that gift into moment-to-moment unceasing prayer and lived liturgy.
A short digression—I confess when I first entered, I expressed the faith to wonder not whether Mepkin would have enough vocations to survive, but whether it was mobilized appropriately to handle an “explosion of new vocations.” The thing I would change here is that today I can see it is and never has been principally about vocations, it is about living the Gift of Christ. When the Gift of Christ is lived, something beautiful is manifest that testifies perpetually to the presence of the Divine, and that is what God loves and transforms people. Vocations alone cannot do that.
Of course, to borrow from another baseball favorite, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come…” As Abbot Joseph of Berryville has reminded us, God will send us vocations when our hearts are prepared to receive them. God will not call souls into spaces where the image of God in them will be threatened.
But returning to the union of star and firework—my experience that gives this dream credence? I have already let you into some of it. My own experience of home. The power of a simple fruit basket. Whereas in the past my falls under the Cross may have caught pavement, this time I’ve fallen into a net, caught by Mepkin Abbey, corralled in the face of collapse by an outer force pulling me up, carrying me forward as I could not by myself. Thanks be to God for community. “No man is an island.”
But my health experience marks just one facet. As a young monk, I only increasingly experience the revelation of Mepkin on the whole as a community truly living the Gift of Christ. Human, oh yes, but also most Divine in sincerity of intention and truth in action. Come and see for yourself. Stop and stay a while. Grounded by the monks, but extending to all those God has been inviting to Mepkin, God continues to flood my heart with an unquenchable flame of Love as I see the Divine Dream I hold in my heart unfolding before my eyes and Mepkin continuing to live into the city on the hilltop I believe it is called to be, a witness and firstfruits of a Civilization of Love that is counter-revealing itself in the world, against the chaotic backdrop of the more immediately visible world around us.
Life is changing for me personally, and it has nothing to do with any further outcome of autoimmune illness. I’m beholden to the beautiful in all God is doing in whatever outcome his Will chooses to manifest. But I can say that for a reason. I have come into grace and peace and freedom because at Mepkin Abbey I experience home. I am loved. I have family. And that makes all the difference. It’s always been there for me in Christ and the liturgy, but people have made it real, incarnate, embodied. I do not just think or know intellectually that I am loved, I have touched that I am loved.
And for my part, every person that enters Mepkin’s gates or with whom I have the grace to touch hearts through our communal prayer in some way (that is, the whole world) is also a part of that family. Freely I have received, freely I must give. What more can I give than the gift of gratitude and the invitation to all to be a part of such a special place that is so much more than 15 monks but has the fingerprints of God written all over it in the connections of all who have touched and are touching this place past and present, for going on 75 years now on this special year of our anniversary.
There’s a special Word I return to that serves to even further amplify the yearning in my heart to witness the continuing unfolding of the Gift of Christ in the life of Mepkin—from a dear brother discerner that I pray may join us again soon, should it be God’s will for his life:
“Do we dare to fall in love again?” As individuals, as communities, as God-lovers?…
I know I burn for more of that reality each day, and coals smolder in my heart for all to experience that same reality. When I pray as to what the Cistercian vow of conversation morum means in my life, I often come back to the desire and commitment to allow the Lord to make my heart a little more beautiful each day, for himself and for others.
I want to encourage all that read this to welcome the reality that Mepkin is home for you, a place where God lives, and a place where together each of our relatively insignificant and yet utterly essential flames are combining to form a bonfire of Love in the night, for lighting up the whole world with Grace. If you have not experienced it, find a way to touch it.
I would be remiss to not share a couple less personal examples of where I’ve seen this fire of love and Gift of Christ so lucidly visible in the life of the community. I need look no further than the Now to do so. Christ is Present!
For one, Mepkin’s unfolding Truth and Reconciliation Garden, a long labor of prayer and of peace and of dialogue now beginning to break ground, and touching my heart in the way it seems to be falling so perfectly and prophetically into place one step at a time. If God’s hand is not in it…
What’s more… what better example could there be at this precise moment than Mepkin’s 20th Annual Creche Festival, currently underway.
I mean, wow…
Approximately 11000 visitors over 3 weeks, 90 energized and enthusiastic volunteers making it happen, community service, belonging, friendship, fellowship, family, Christmas joy…all wrapped up in the divine creativity of the Lord’s Nativity.
How blessed are we?
A star is rising over Mepkin,
And a firework is emerging out of the heart of Mepkin to meet it.
In the meeting space is a dream
A Wonder and a Hope—
Much bigger than 15 monks!
Yea, I believe the Finger of God is upon Mepkin.
The Gift of Christ is alive.
And yes Dawg (friend of Mepkin), “Mepkin is on the frontlines of a contemplative revolution that could—nay, that is—changing the world.”
I would like to welcome all to come be a part of the unfolding Gift. The Father’s House has many rooms. So whether a brother or sister sharing God’s presence here or away, manner of connection will always vary based on vocation and life circumstances, but nevertheless we are all family, and we welcome you home.
To your heart.
To Mepkin Abbey.
In union with this past Sunday’s Gospel, “Come, share your monks’ joy.” (Mt. 25:21)
Striving after the communion of Love which surpasses all other gifts,
together let us continue to live “something beautiful for God…” (Mother Teresa).