Thursday, July 31, 2008

Monking Around

(Picture of the monks of Mepkin)

-Click here to see my pictures from my most recent trip to Israel/Palestine.
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I get in the car, drive for less than a minute and find that I’m back in this crazy world of rush and noise. Not much has changed in three weeks. Monday night I returned from my three weeks at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery close to Charleston, South Carolina. This is the same order of Thomas Merton and this specific monastery was actually started as a plant from his.

With hopes of starting a Christian community in Israel/Palestine, part of my motivation in going to Mepkin was to learn from this classic form of community and spiritual life which has been practiced now for roughly 1,500 years. Beyond this, I hoped to simply encounter and hear from God in a deep way, through what Richard Foster calls the “recreating silences,” to learn about contemplation and prayer. My hopes were far exceeded.

Participating in the three pillars of Benedictine spirituality: the Liturgy of the Hours (seven daily community prayer times, based largely on the psalms), Lectio Divina (meditation and prayer through Scripture) and manual labor, I became one of this community of 20 monks. What a crowd! Ages ranged from Br. Leo, age 25, to Fr. Christian age 94 (with 3 Phds.!). I think only with time will I see how deeply this experience has shaped me.

There is much I could write about from what I have begun to learn, but I think I will just touch briefly on one topic, what I have called dirty, or earthy spirituality.

Coming into the monastery, I had somewhat of a romantic view of what deep prayer and life in a monastery entailed, even though I had been to several before on short visits. I sort of expected my experience and the spirituality of the monastery to be an “otherworldly” experience. Soon I discovered that this place was full of quirky characters who farted, fell asleep during the prayers, swore, got cranky, and also loved God with a deep, quiet love (I think there was at least one resident saint). I discovered that life in the monastery was pretty mundane and everyday, just like life in the “real world,” but that this wasn’t an impediment but rather an aid to prayer and meditation.

I learned that some of the most basic, mundane things like food, sleep, work, and other people are the most important parts of “spirituality,” not just the ethereal times of private prayer. Some of the most powerful experiences were shoveling chicken manure, picking eggs and walking under a pristine dawning sky (while getting bit by mosquitoes). Our otherworldly view of spirituality is a mistaken (and gnostic) view of our relationship with God. That is the beauty of the incarnation. As we say at my church: matter matters!

This “earthy spirituality” slaps you in the face in the Psalms. As I mentioned, the Psalms is the main component of the Liturgy of the Hours and chant the whole book out loud every two weeks. What a powerful experience! In reading these Psalms I was confronted with: betrayal, hate, sex, blood, war, the poor, justice, the land, and sights, sounds and smells. These are not what we would consider proper prayers (and thus many of these Psalms are actually not found in our lectionaries nor talked about much). A “gentleman” wouldn’t be able pray them (nor for that matter, a Buddhist or Muslim), they are too dirty, too earthy. Surely, this is not the stuff of spirituality! Yet it is. It is in bringing to God all that we are and seeing him in all that we do. It was in the mundane, everyday events of life that God could be encountered, what someone called the sacrament of the mundane.

The poem below tries to bring this point home and to summarize some of my experience.

Earthy Spirituality: Ode to Mepkin Abbey

3:20 AM: Vigils
With the monks I sing “Lord, make haste to help me,”
Otherwise I might pass out from lack of sleep
At this seemingly ungodly hour,
when the candles flicker and the dawn awakes.

5:30 AM: Lauds
As I struggle to find the right page in the Psalter
all of a sudden everyone’s bowing. I look a fool, again!
Finally, I found it!… and nearly rip out the worn page
(to the enjoyment of my neighbor)
It’s the Magnificat, the hauntingly beautiful song of Mary.

7:30AM: Daily Mass
I’ve already committed sacrilege (or is it the unforgivable sin?):
I kneelt with my back to the Eucharist: Sorry, Jesus!
Then as “we fly to your patronage---” I discover I’ve blasphemed,
I just worshiped Mary. I guess it depends on your perspective.
At least they still let me take Eucharist, being a Protestant and all.

8:45: Work time #1
The super Christian mystics speak of “infused contemplation,”
True spiritual union with God.
All I’ve encountered is infused constipation
A mind clogged up with the same old thoughts.
Yet slowly, as I sort these eggs, my mind begins to be freed for prayer.

12:00 Noon: Sext
“He prepares my hands for war” is a bit of an awkward prayer,
For a pacifist.
From there we go straight into Solomon’s bedroom in Psalm 45.
Looks like he’s got a cute new wife…
Yikes! Is this really Biblical?

1:15 PM: None
“We thank you, Lord, for this [simple, vegetarian] meal”
And I can’t help noticing my 94 year old neighbor
Who has just thanked the Lord in a slightly more noisy and smelly way
I wonder what heaven will be like with these guys

1:45 PM - Work time #2
I’ve already had three naps and its time to shovel some chicken poop,
Or “shit!” as brother, so called, Placid says. I hadn’t heard that in the liturgy yet.
“Maybe it’s a Catholic thing,” I think
as my soul slowly rises in prayer amidst the shoveling and sweat

8:00 PM: Vespers
The end of the beginning and the beginning of the next
In my three weeks I have learned at least this:
That monasticism is all of our vocation,
That God is a God of this earth
And that true spirituality sees the holiness of the mundane (and profane)
Seeing God in all things.

Friday, July 4, 2008

My Monastic Adventure and Israeli Response to Terrorism

Part 1: Links to my pictures from Israel/Palestine
Part 2: My Monastic Adventure
Part 3: Commentary on the Recent Violence in Jerusalem

Part 1: Links to my pictures from Israel/Palestine

Click here to see pictures from my trip to Jerusalem!

Part 2: My Monastic Adventure

Tomorrow I embark on a new summer adventure: being a monk for a month. I will be spending a month as a guest at a Trappist monastery in South Carolina called Mepkin Abbey.

I will take part in all the components of their life including silence, meditation, prayer together seven times a day, and daily work. I am hoping that this will be a special time of drawing near to the Lord and really learning about silence, solitude and prayer. I also hope to use this as a time of discernment related to future calling and ministry.

I will be checking email about once a week as well as my cell phone messages. Please do pray for me during this time. Also, if
you have prayer requests, please send them to me as I will have plenty of time to pray :).

Part 3: Commentary on the Recent Violence in Jerusalem

Many of you have probably seen the latest news of violence in Jerusalem: a Palestinian living in Israel attacked a bus while driving a bulldozer killing several people. What a tragedy. Immediately this was declared the latest act of Palestinian terrorism. This man, however despicable the act, was not a terrorist and did not belong to any terrorist organizations. The Israelis responded with calls to cut off this man's whole neighborhood from Israel with the infamous wall. This is to affectively isolate and withdraw the citizenship of everyone in his whole town. Furthermore, his home, which houses 22 people (!) is scheduled to be demolished. What a tragedy.

In the US it would be as if a school shooting was done by a black student from a poor inner-city neighborhood and then the US government demolishing this student's family's home and then calling for his whole black neighborhood to be punished by removing their citizenship and booting them out of the country. This is collective punishment and this is racism. Inflicting pain on others does not do away with our own pain and
it does not provide security. Let us pray for both the victims of this attack as well as for the family of the attacker.

BBC does a good job in covering the story. Please read the story at:

Thursday, July 3, 2008

2 Weeks in Israel/Palestine: An Unmerited Gift

(From left: Jonathan, Stewart, Phil-a friend from Wheaton, and Justin inside the Jaffa gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.)

I returned last night to my parent's home in North Carolina after 49 hours of travel (51 if you include the drive to the airport on both ends). What an amazing 2 weeks it has been. Praise the Lord!

This trip has been in the works since December when I first heard about the GAFCON conference and realized that it would be crucial to somehow be in Jerusalem at the time when so many leaders would be gathered together, including likely leaders from my own church. I was right. These last two weeks,an extremely important time for global Anglicanism, have also been an critically important time for my and my church's eventual work in Israel/Palestine. God worked it all out and put all the pieces together in a miraculous way providing the finances, the invitations (last minute) to the conference, and the connections with just the right people while we were there.

The first five days or so were spent together with Justin (a close friend of mine from Rez. and someone who I will likely be working with in Is/Pal) and with Fr. Stewart (the pastor of my church in Chicago). Justin and I, who have both been in Is/Pal before, spent these days taking Stewart around and introducing him to the Holy Sites, our friends, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was deeply touched by the sites, places and stories that he encountered. We were so blessed to spend this time together with him.

Following this time was the GAFCON conference, an incredible week long conference in Jerusalem of the 1,200 most important conservative Anglican leaders worldwide. This was truly an international gathering with the strongest numbers coming from Africa where Anglicanism is strongest today (over 10 mill. in Nigeria, for example, if I am not mistaken). Here I was likely the youngest delegate, with most of these people being pastors, bishops and archbishops representing large numbers of constituents. This was a historic gathering, which came together to deal with the future of Anglicanism. The result was also historic. In essence, a document called the jerusalem declaration was written and a new body was created made up largely of the Global South Anglicans and conservative Anglicans in the North which no longer is under the archbishop of canterbury and no longer associated with liberal Anglicans. Please see to read more about the results of the conference.

The last few days I spent in the West Bank. I spent two days visiting the family of one of my close Palestinian friends from Chicago. His family warmly received my and welcomed me in. They showered me with gifts and love. What a blessing this was for me. Then I spent a night in Bethlehem seeing some of my friends again. This was a wonderful way to end the trip.

This trip further solidified my plans to return next year long term to work and many details came together towards this end. Ft. Stewart's presence was very key, as now he truly understand the situation on the ground there and is committed to himself and Rez. supporting me in that direction. His understanding and support is invaluable. I am very grateful to him and to God for this. Also, I was able to meet and connect with important leaders doing work presently in Is/Pal who I plan on partnering with in the future.

The faces and stories all crowd my minds' eye. They are too many to write in this simple blog entry, but I hope to get a chance to share them with you personally. To all who supported my in this venture through prayer or through finances, thank you. I can't tell you how important this trip was for me and how important your involvement was. To those who prayed, I could feel it. More than ever I recognize the importance of spiritual protection and covering when I am there. You provided it for me this time and I am grateful. God protected me, both physically and spiritually this time.

Praise him for this trip and for what he has accomplished and will accomplish through it.