Holy Week, Monday, March 29, 2010, 6:30 PM
When I arrived today at The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, I was greeted warmly at the guest house by the registrar, who asked, “Have you ever been here before?”
“Twenty-five years ago.”
“Nothing has changed,” she said, assuring me I’d find everything as I remembered it.
When I came here the first time in the summer of 1985, I was working, with the photographer Douglas Gilbert, on a short biography of the great American Catholic fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor. A book called Images of Grace, for which I wrote the text and Douglas supplied a photographic essay. His shots of farmers standing by their trucks in rural Georgia, of side-of-the-road junk shops with their cuckoo clocks and maudlin images of Jesus, and of the unleashed emotions of otherwise sedate white people in Pentecostal services were a wonderful tribute to O’Connor’s fictional territory. That book found its way into a lot of major university libraries, and I’ve had the pleasure over the years of meeting people who used it as their first guide to reading O’Connor.
I came to Monastery of the Holy Spirit at that time to meet Fr. Paul, who had been a friend of O’Connor’s. He was an amazing man, a Yale-educated architect who at one time served as Thomas Merton’s censor. He didn’t keep Merton from speaking plainly and didn’t want to and really served more or less, from what I gathered, as a polite editor. He went on to become the garden master at Holy Spirit and an expert in the cultivation of bonsai trees — the greenhouse here is still a source of income for the monks.
When I met him it had already been 20 years since O’Connor’s death and most of those who knew her had clammed up, being pestered too often by reporters or graduate students writing dissertations. The only ones speaking loudly about her were the descendants of her cherished peacocks, who camped in the trees behind the monastery and screeched throughout the night.
Fr. Paul spoke about O’Connor in a way I’ll never forget. He said, “When she comes here…” He continued talking about her throughout in the present tense, “She likes good conversation, teasing, fun.” At first I thought his use of the present tense a mistake, but as he kept talking about the nature of her visits–and what her funeral was like (he wasn’t delusional) — he conveyed a sense of the eternal present in which by virtue of his contemplative life he lived. For him “nothing had changed,” at least not essentially in his relationship with Flannery, as she, being a Christian soul, was still alive before God. I imagine he frequently requested her prayers for things on his own mind.
Augustine pointed out that the best way to think of how God experiences time is probably as an eternal present — the whole of universal history exists before him at once. Time-past and time-future are both time-present.
The liturgical year conveys this eternal perspective; initiate us into this dimension. That’s why we re-enact the drama of Christ’s Passion each year, pretending when we hold high our palm branches on Palm Sunday, that we don’t know the drama’s outcome. Because from the eternal perspective, Christ is always being crucified and always rising again. Christ was sacrificed “once and for all,” as the Apostle writes, but from the perspective of eternity — in that eternal now — Jesus is also continually offered for the life of the world. He continually conquers death so that we might rise with him.
In the readings tonight, St. Paul says that he rejoices to share in Christ’s suffering so that he, too, might win the prize of being resurrected from the dead. (Forgive the wild paraphrase.) As we go through the services of Holy Week we have the opportunity to enter into the experience of Christ as a living reality. For his Passion happened once and for all but it also keeps happening in the Eucharist — which takes place in our churches but also in God’s eternal present — and it also keeps happening when we join our lives with Christ’s.
This is a journal and I find myself preaching — but probably I’m only trying to get myself to realize something that’s still eluding me. Time for Compline. More before bed.
These things are too high for me. I’m grasping after them, though, because after twenty-five years away, I’m conscious of time as I experience it most, as waning and loss.
“Nothing has changed.”
But have I changed in those years? Do I live more in the light of God’s eternal truth as Father Paul did?
When I started out for the monastery today I was afraid. Anxious about being away from my family, wondering if I’d be lonely here, wondering if God has something for me to learn or whether this retreat might turn out a disappointment.
For one thing I have been thinking way too much about this journal, composing sentences in my head before I’ve even given myself time to experience the place.
I’m reminding myself of the manager in The Commitments — a great film (if raunchy—let the reader be warned) about an Irish blues band. The band’s manager keeps a running voice-over commentary on what’s happening — in the present — as if he’s being interviewed in retrospect by a rock n’ roll reporter from the BBC. The experiences he’s actually having get displaced by the legend he’s creating — moment to moment — for himself.
I trust this self-consciousness will calm down as the experience itself gains traction.
Again, though, why was I so uneasy starting out for the monastery? I came up with the idea of keeping this journal, mostly, I believe, because I wanted to put myself on the line. I wanted to seek after God in a new way through this retreat, and I know writing about things helps me concentrate. Concentrating on God, however, is a risky proposition. There’s a reason at every angelic appearance in the Bible the angel always says, “Fear not.”
I hope God has something in particular for me to learn here this week. And, at the same time, I hope he doesn’t.
“Nothing has changed.” Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so nothing truly has changed in terms of the God “in whom we live and have our being.”
Yet, I know I have changed in those twenty-five years, and the idea of taking stock — of measuring the distance between then and now, in me — probably caused the subconscious tremors.
I think, honestly, I’m more on track than ever, but it’s the nature of life that you never really do know what you need to know for the next phase in your life, because you haven’t lived it yet. Not unless you are given the grace of a wisdom beyond your own. I do know I’ve come to seek that wisdom out and ground myself in it, and I’m wondering how hard it’s going to be.