Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Notes from my Knapsack 4-18-19

Notes from my Knapsack 4-18-19

Jeff Gill


Going back, looking forward



Weeding in my flower beds is a useful exercise both for the look of the landscaping, and for the good of my body, maybe even my soul.


You can't be detached or disinterested and do a good job weeding. You have to be on your hands and knees, up close and personal, and your fingers generally need to dig into the soil.


Yeah, there are tools. Every year there are ads for products that you can use standing up, on a long handle, letting you weed or till or poke at the earth from your lofty five or six feet elevation. And they generally don't work other than in a transitory, surface level fashion. You gotta get the roots, and to do that you gotta get down.


From which vantage point you see things differently, of course. The ground now inches from your face, and the world around you when you look up, pause and take a breath. Even the cool of April allows a gardener to work up a sweat if they are pulling and cutting and hauling.


For a moment, weeding around a sturdy stand of daffodils, I looked up just a bit, glancing away from sprouting dandelion sprays of toothed leaves flat on the ground, and looked into the heart of those spring flowers.


Perhaps it's because I'd recently spent three days on retreat in a place where I sat often in an old stone cathedral, but there right in front of me was a glowing hallway of green pillars, a space defined within the cluster of daffodil stems, the soil level, the verdant uprights all around a shadowed but well lit space, the glow from above filtered through the yellow blossoms.


That space within was both small – perhaps six inches high and about that in diameter, but it felt in a rush like a vast space for a tiny occupant. It's a feeling not unusual for a child, kneeling on the sidewalk looking at an ant in a crack, strolling like a city dweller between the buildings, or if you're poking at a stone or log and when it rolls over, seeing the complex community of bugs and worms and beetles suddenly in motion, and you can almost glimpse what that looks like the other way round, with you as the giant, but the scurrying occupants of underneath the normal sized ones.


I saw myself, for a moment, standing in that span of half a foot, but marveling at looking up into the golden light above, and surrounded by vibrant green pillars all around me. For that moment, I could project myself into that reality, not quite virtual, but not what I actually am, either.


And then I went back to weeding. That's what grown-ups do, after all. But the moment has stuck with me.


No matter our age, if you get out into nature, if you look at small details, if you can change your frame of reference, you can go almost anywhere. To the edge of an event horizon and back, into the background of an ancient oil painting among the cast of characters, down into burrows in the ground or up the bark of a tree.


Children do this easily if we let them. If you're older, it takes a little more attention, but it's worth the effort. Because it changes how you see the work ahead, and the work has to get done.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's still got more weeding to do. Tell him about something small that made a big change in perspective at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Faith Works 4-13-19

Faith Works 4-13-19

Jeff Gill


Silence is more precious than gold



When I first came to Newark thirty years ago, I was asked to participate in some ecumenical programs on behalf of our church, and in going to meetings I made a friend. Father Thomas Shonebarger was the priest at Blessed Sacrament, an active clergymember in our community, and promoter of much that could be shared in common among Christians.


He and I ended up having many conversations that ran far beyond our meetings at the Old Landmark Restaurant, now a parking lot off courthouse square, but where they had the best French Onion Soup I'll eat this side of heaven.


Father Tom became a mentor in ministry to me, and for the whole working group he was our theological grounding. He'd suggest each year in Lent that we should spend some time "contemplating our mortality." That phrase has stuck with me. "Contemplating our mortality."


He also told me about his seven years as a monk, where he discerned his calling to the priesthood, and back into the parish. We talked about parish ministry and he shared from his experience and wisdom; I should note that he was 57 when I left here for West Virginia, the age I am now. And he encouraged me to visit his monastic home, the abbey where he had been a brother, and from which he became a parish priest -- Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. His novice master was Thomas Merton, and when Merton died in 1968 in Thailand, Father Tom was one of his pallbearers, one of his last acts as a member of the community before leaving it to rejoin the Diocese of Columbus. But he kept in touch, and said he thought I would enjoy visiting there.


Three times I came to Gethsemani as a day visitor, and finally, 26 years later, I went back to stay for three precious days. I visited Merton's grave, remembered Father Tom in my prayers -- he died in 2012 at the age of 75 -- and kept the pattern of the monks for the time that I had from Monday evening to Thursday morning. Which included getting up each morning at 3 am for the first of seven services each day (which isn't so bad when you remember they go to bed at 8 pm), and the practice of silence.


I've done silent retreats before, but usually at the Loretto Motherhouse 12 miles to the east.  For me, it was a long-standing goal to spend at least a few days and nights at Gethsemani; if you have never heard of Thomas Merton, not to worry, but his life and legacy loom large on the American religious landscape even fifty years after his death, and his connections to central Ohio, Licking & Muskingum Counties, are a sermon in themselves.


What I found at Gethsemani, though, was unexpected. I discovered the Psalms.


As I said, they start early, those Trappist monks do, and seven times a day plus the Eucharist (what you might know of as Mass) gives you many opportunities to sing and chant or just listen to psalms read or shared together.


At Gethsemani Abbey, they go through all 150 psalms every two weeks, and more really, as quite a few get repeated for certain occasions. But ever since the first French Trappist monks arrived in December of 1848 they have prayed the psalms daily, and observed one form or another of a cycle that takes the community through the entirety of the Book of Psalms again and again. You see the words on the page, you hear the tuneless music of the chanted psalm, and you listen to your own voice and those of others softly singing around you.


On a weekday you become a part of a psalm or two at 3:15 am Vigils, 5:45 am Lauds, 6:15 am Eucharist, 7:30 am Terce, 12:15 pm Sext, 2:15 pm None, 5:30 pm Vespers, and 7:30 pm Compline. The names of the monastic hours comes from Latin and represent the rough approximation of time the medieval world found good enough: such as three hours after dawn, six, nine, and vespers for evening. Up with the vigil in the middle of the night for most of the world, and lauding the sunrise, and "Compline" simply means completed.


They sing them still, even after I've come home, whether we're paying attention to them or not. And somehow their faithfulness to the psalms keeps them alive for me in a new way now that I'm back here, words of faith and songs of hope, in a cycle that only God can bring to completion.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; yes, he was silent for three days! Tell him how long you think you could keep your peace at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.