Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Vacare deo

One of the expressions monks used to use about what they do is vacare deo, which literally means to empty oneself for God. It is an ideal of the branches of monasticism which focus on the contemplative side of things. The idea is to let go of what is extraneous in one's life and not fill it up with other things, but allow God the freedom to move in. I have always thought of it as related to Jesus' promise in his high priestly prayer that "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them" (John 14:23). Keeping the Word provides room in the heart for the love and presence of God. Clearing out life's underbrush. Opening space for the not-self, the One who is seeking me/you/us, not my/your/our stuff.

The last few weeks have been bliss on the underbrush-clearing front. We had our long silent retreat at the Monastery from the end of July into the beginning of August. 10 days of silence, no director, reduced schedule. We're pretty good about the silence. But we're not silly about it. If something really (I mean, in actual fact) needs to be said, it gets said and whatever it is about gets dealt with. I loved it, as I always do.

On Saturday, August 7, the day after the retreat ended, much of the community went to the monastery at New Skete, near Cambridge, NY, for their open house and a talk by Fr. Michael Plekon, who used to be a Lutheran and is now OCA. He has been a friend of our Monastery for a long time. The whole outing was fun.

I preached on August 8 (not a sermon I wrote down, so not in the OHC sermon blog), and then took off for vacation. I have been staying at the House of the Redeemer in New York, where I have been president of the Board for some years. I enjoy getting to know the current situation and trying to be helpful (or at least staying out of the way) as deep cleaning and renovation projects take place. And of course I love New York City. I usually look forward to times there with an almost childlike eagerness for the activity, the noise, the hustle-bustle, the energy of the City.

But this year something different has been happening to me. I am usually driven to do things on vacation. There are museums to visit, shows to see, friends to look up and reconnect with. I have been doing that, of course, but most of what I have been doing is being quiet. Most of each day is spent reading, getting a bite to eat, napping, reading some more, doing very little. I think without intending it, I have been practicing vacare deo.

I don't know where it will go or what, if anything, will come out of it. I think I am usually so full of myself that simply putting the projects aside, letting go of some of my concerns, allowing my imagination a freer space, I am letting something new in. At least I hope so.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Wanting and Being Wanted

I have tried to write about simplicity, and find that that attempt opens many doors. One of them opened for me yesterday.

I was sitting quietly, enjoying the silence of our retreat. When I do that images, memories, ideas wash over me. And sometimes not. But yesterday the images were of religion in Orange County, when I was working there in the 90's. The images were of religious seeking. There is a lot of it there, or at least there was then, and there are a lot of religious professionals and religious establishments to cater to that seeking. It would be easy to caricature some of it, but I am pretty sure I don't need to do that for those who may read this blog.

The common denominator of those images was wanting. Wanting things -- a better job, a happier family life, a healthier relationship, better health. Wanting good things. Getting involved in religion in order to clarify, identify, find and follow a better path to them. And then as I reflected on these, I realized that I knew a lot of those people, and while they verbalized their desires as things, actually a lot of those desires were more for a life of greater order, stability, productivity, meaning, significance. To have a better job is in some ways to be a better person -- a person who can be productive, a person who is respected for good reasons. To have a happier personal life is to be better at relationships, more loving, more sensitive. To have better health is to be a better integrated self. And so on. The "things" are objective correlatives of deeper personal possibilities.

A fundamental constituent of our lives is desire. We want things, money, what money can bring us. We want sex and we want love, and we mix the two up all the time. We want power, in small as well as large ways. We want recognition. We want answers. We want security. We want. We want. We want. We want so much that we never stop wanting. Wanting seems to be essential to our nature. I can tell you that becoming a monk does not make wanting stop!

And so, it should not surprise us that religion structures itself to deliver on the desire front, as much as any other human activity. You have questions? We have answers, say some. You feel alone? We have community, say others. You're poor and want not to be poor? Come and see Reverend Ike sitting on his golden throne (ok, I couldn't resist one little dig, even though Reverend Ike was in New York and not in Orange County). And those are the less sophisticated religious establishments. The ones that have been in business a long time have honed their appeals quite a lot finer. In fact, most respectable religions offer a smorgasbord with spiritual dishes for most wants and needs.

Is there anything wrong with this? Well, no. If wanting is our nature, then following that nature's needs is not only good marketing, it is in fact a very good, rational way to serve those brought to our doors. It is good if it helps us discern real wants from illusions, and to discern more and more genuinely our nature and its directions.

But the truth is, we never stop wanting. Nothing is ever enough. Have you ever been in a truly wonderful store, filled with things of beauty and quality, the sort of place where you don't have to ask yourself the question, Is this real? Is this the best? And then, being in that store, have you ever looked around to see the other shoppers, the ones who have the money to be there as customers (unlike ourselves, for whom this is a sort of vacation from our Target/WalMart lives)?

How many of those people who can afford to be there seem happy? How many light up in delight when they see the perfect watch, the perfect crystal vase, the perfect scarf, the perfect whatever? In the presence of such beauty, perhaps unsurpassed in the world, are they illuminated with joy? Do their faces show their awareness of the good they can have if they act on their desire?

Well, some of them, perhaps, sometimes. But when I have been in such places, I am struck by their serious, not to say grim, countenances. And I am puzzled. I am usually delighted to be there. Perhaps it is because I can't afford to buy anything there that I am free to see these things for their own excellence and be happy that such things exist, that human beings can have such skill and creativity to make them. But wanting in the context of being able to get often gives us a strange experience -- calculation, fear that someone else will get a better one perhaps, expectation of buyer's remorse later on.

In fact, it is the wanting that animates us, not the getting.

If wanting is deeply embedded in our DNA, perhaps that is a clue to a larger reality. Perhaps it is part of the image-of-God thing in creation. Perhaps the One who made us also wants. I know this thought departs from the philosophically strict concept of God as without parts or passions. He may be without parts, but the God we meet in scripture is certainly not without passions. He pursues the people of Israel with an almost insane intensity. One may sometimes wonder, listening to the old biblical stories, Why does he bother? It's like watching a friend pursue a love affair that is entirely too one-sided. Nothing good can come from it, we think. And of course, nothing good comes of God's pursuit. It leads to the Cross. And, then, to the Resurrection.

If we can't stop wanting, we also can't avoid being wanted. I imagine God's infinity sometimes as an infinite capacity for wanting his creation, every creature in it, including (especially, from my point of view) me.

There is this mutual energy in wanting. I can't fill my desires, no matter how hard I try. And God keeps wanting me, in ways I can't begin to imagine. The things we think we want are really simulacra of God, and that is why everything we get, except perhaps a taste of the divine, leaves us dissatisfied. We really are the rich people in that great shop. Deep down we know that things won't do it for us, that at some level we are wasting our substance on anything but the Real Thing.