Pilgrim Path

This blog is the work of a seeker and poet. Walking stick in hand, I head out into the world, not of the world, but in the world. My words and my friends carry me along and light the pilgrim path of spiritual journeys.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


So this is the way we grow old...
Time is a scruffy kid racing outside our reach
And each time we think of friends
We become distracted.

Just for a moment...
While I can,
I am thinking of you.


Monday, June 06, 2011

COMPLINE – part two

A standard selection of Psalms are also chanted as part of the Compline service. While some might become bored by the same chants nightly, I find them soothing and assuring in their consistency. And while some sort of prayer or hymn to the Virgin Mary is included in all of the various Divine Hours, the Commemoration sung during Compline is particularly moving:

O Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy!
Hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope!
To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
To you do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping
In this vale of tears.
Turn, then, most gracious Advocate
Your eyes of mercy toward us;
And after this, our exile, show unto us
The blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Then, after a few moments of silence, the Abbey bell is rung for the Angelus – a prayer said silently in commemoration of the Incarnation.

As the bell continues to peal, the Guestmaster walks back to the area where the retreatants and guests are seated and opens the low glass gates to allow us to enter the monks’ area. First, all the monks process in a double line toward the abbot. Once at the front of the line, each monk slowly bows to receive the blessing of holy water from the abbot. After the monks have received the blessing, each of the retreatants and guests do as well.

And so begins The Great Silence until the Vigils service at 3:15am the next morning.

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Friday, June 03, 2011

COMPLINE – part one

There is about a quarter-mile oval driveway in front of the Abbey. It’s a favorite walking spot for many retreatants, especially some of the (ahem) older ones due to its nice flat surface. It is also a favorite spot because you are far enough away from the Abbey that at least a softly spoken conversation is possible. While personal talks are possible, telecommunication is decidedly difficult. Fortunately, at the end of the driveway is a rather imposing hill (or knob, as it is known in Kentucky) atop which stands a tall pedestal with a statue of Saint Joseph. Usually a cell phone signal is attainable at some point up the hill.

Since Compline, held at 7:30pm, is followed by the Great Silence (no speaking until morning), this short time after dinner is valuable as an opportunity to a catch up with fellow retreatants and to make some tentative plans for the next day. Gradually, conversation ceases and the Abbey bells begin to ring marking 15 minutes past 7pm. Retreatants who are usually scattered all over the front of the oval driveway and grassy areas begin their deliberate walks back to the church.

Special booklets marked “Compline” are usually sitting on the table behind the area where we sit during the service.  After picking up a booklet, I move to the right side (just a habit), bend at the waist and enter a row and take my seat. The monks usually enter the church one by one, arriving from various locations. A couple of minutes before 7:30pm, the Abbey bells peal as a reminder to those monks who have not yet entered the church. At 7:30pm promptly, Abbot Elias sharply raps a piece of wood at his seat and we all rise to begin the service.

Compline is one of my favorite services of the day. The lighting in the church provides a gentle mood. The words of the hymns are meaningful: 

                              “Before the ending of the day,
                               Creator of the world, we pray
                               That with thy gracious favor thou
                               Wouldst be our Guard and Keeper now.

                               From fears and terrors of the night
                               Defend us, Lord, by thy great might;
                               And when we close our eyes in sleep
                               Let hearts, with Christ, their vigil keep.

                               O Father, this we ask be done
                               Through Jesus Christ, thine only Son,
                               Who, with the Paraclete and thee,
                               Now lives and reigns eternally.”

Wow! It just occurred to me now as I typed this words for the first time ever, how strongly similar the words and intent are to the bedtime prayer my mother taught me and which we recited every night as she tucked me into bed:

                              “Now I lay me down to sleep,
                              I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
                              If I should die, before I wake,
                              I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I think I just figured out why Compline means so much to me.

(to be continued…)

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Thursday, June 02, 2011


Long before my journeys to monasteries for retreats began, I was already familiar with the term Vespers, or Evening Prayer. Perhaps it is my Scottish heritage and old stories from the “motherland.” In any event, it is the single monastic Daily Office (service) that I knew.

At Gethsemani, Vespers is held at 5:30pm just before dinner. I usually try to arrive a bit early as the sharper angled and weaker light rays of that time of day usually create interesting effects on the stained glass windows and in the Abbey itself.


These effects often create a sense of peace that helps slow the heart at the end of a work day. It is easier to take on a prayerful or contemplative mood to match the softer lighting. The opening words of each service seem particularly meaningful:

“O God, come to my assistance.
O Lord, make haste to help me.”

At the end of the Vespers service, the retreatants slowly leave the Abbey by a side door that leads to the Retreat Center. After making several twists and turns in staircases and hallways, we all end up in a line ready to serve ourselves  dinner from the hot (well, maybe lukewarm) trays of food in the kitchen serving area.

We take our selections on our trays to the dining area where most folks sit alone at individual tables. Since silence reigns during mealtime, there is not much sense in finding a pal to eat with. (Although, I think that with the exception of 1 meal, A, D and I took every meal at the same table. Occasionally our desperation caused us to resort to scribbling notes to one another on D’s ever present pad of paper. Personally, I enjoyed playing a game of charades myself in trying to get A and D to figure out what I was trying to say.)

The 6:00pm dinner is a bit lighter in fare that the midday meal. Keep in mind, that the final service of the day, Compline, is just a short hour and a half away and it is after that service that The Great Silence (bedtime) begins.

After finishing dinner and piling up our dirty plates, there is usually just about an hour before Compline. It is a perfect time for a short walk around the oval driveway in front of the Abbey. We were also fortunate in that each night, the weather was usually just perfect for that stroll where we often took the time to catch up with one another about our experiences of the day.

( to be continued...)

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011


After arriving at Gethsemani, we unloaded my SUV and dragged our luggage up to the retreat center. We opened the door and found a check-in desk manned by one of the monks (angels). Since monks (angels) don’t wear name tags, I’m not sure of his name, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was Peter. After announcing our names to “Peter,” he scratched a number after each of our names and handed each of us a set of keys: one to our room and one to the “outside” door. We were told to guard these keys carefully. We were then ready to set off toward our rooms, but before we left “Peter” advised us that the Abbot preferred that we not take the route through the Garden (how ironic, eh?). Instead, he handed each of us a slip of paper with some instructions…

          1) Take the elevator to the 3rd floor
          2) On the 3rd floor, turn RIGHT, go to last door on RIGHT
          3) Go down 7 steps and enter the BALCONY door
          4) CROSS the Church Balcony
          5) Disregard sign DO NOT ENTER
          6) Enter and you are on the 2nd floor
          7) Go on flight up for 3rd floor
          8) Find your room

While I didn’t hear the melodic voices of thousands of angels, I might as well have. Soon enough, the bells of the Abbey tower would ring out, summoning us to Vespers.

(to be continued…)

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

THE JOURNEY BEGINS – the players    

We may have Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City”, and the eight million stories in television’s “Naked City,” but I am guessing there may be just as many stories (if not nearly as salacious but always fully clothed) at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky. Many of the tales may lay hidden and never be spoken. Others yet will slowly unwind as the dance of silence between monk and retreatant slowly evolves from a mere head nod to a full-fledged conversation.

Last week, I had the pleasure of my fourth retreat in ten years to Gethsemani (as she is named in shorthand by all who know her). Each retreat experience has been different, not so much by whom I happened to be traveling with at the time but much more by where I happened to be on my own journey. Before we get to that however, I will share some information about this year’s traveling companions.

When we began planning this trip, we had about 7 or 8 men who had expressed an interest. It was a very diverse group of folks whose sole bond of commonality was knowing me. We worked with a tight schedule and had to make some adjustments which ultimately caused us to lose a prospective retreatant (or several) along the way. In the end, there were 3 of us who journeyed out of Chicago, down the length of Indiana and crossed over into Kentucky.

Retreatant A. is a long tenured Art professor at an Illinois state university who specializes in Central African art. But A’s life experiences and ceaseless quest for knowledge (not to mention unique knick knacks) gives him a broad background that he freely shares with others without seeming pedantic. Always cheerful and ready for an adventure, A. spent 15 years of his life as a Jesuit before marrying his charming wife, raising a family and now basking in the glowing faces of deeply loved grandchildren.

Retreatant D. is a senior massage therapist at a very popular and classy men’s spa in Chicago. He is a spiritual seeker who has learned to trust his instincts as he creates his own map for his spiritual journey. (Believe me, there’s a map – I’ve seen it on his SmartPhone!) D. is also an adventurous sort. I knew when he said he wanted to come that I would need to find a way to get a camera into his hands as he would walk and walk for days all over the grounds and see things I’d never see with my own eyes. You will witness the truth behind this if you stick with me (and if the words agree to flow out of my fingertips for a few days longer).

And then there is me.

That’s enough for now. Stay tuned for more on this amazing retreat experience soon...

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani

San Francisco de Asis Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico


Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I'm just back from a men's retreat in the Cleveland, Ohio are this past weekend. Years ago a wrote a couple of poems after a retreat and I always enjoy reading and re-reading upon my return even years later, so here they are:


I went out to the woods
because their was a fire
in my heart that needed tending.
I know that words alone
cannot contain or change
the shape of this sacred flame.
And so I give myself the gift
of time to listen to the sound
of my heartbeat.
On holy land I cast off false illusions
and shed plates of armor
revealing a tender place
where love and I can live
and grow and thrive and welcome
each other home.


Fourteen billion
year old molecules
crashing, caroming
randomly becoming
fire, water, earth and air
heading toward
this one,
perfect morning
where truth reveals itself,
for just a moment,
to those with ancient eyes.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011


As I’ve said often and elsewhere, those items considered a bit “off-center” tend to easily catch my eye. With all due respect to the people of Santa Fe, New Mexico, it is easy for me to find curious objects that attract my attention in that creative Mecca. My difficulty always comes in discerning which items speak so clearly to me that they end up in my suitcase. The mosaic cross shown below fairly leapt off the art gallery wall:

Growing up Presbyterian, the concept of Christ on the cross was not part of my core beliefs. After all, we are the Resurrection people. But in the ethnically, if not religiously diverse city of Chicago, it was not uncommon to see the image of Christ on the crucifix.

As a young person, the physical image of a kindly Pope John XXIII and his plan to cast open the windows of the Roman Catholic Church by means of holding a Vatican Council sounded exciting and intriguing even though ecclesiastically it had no effect on me.

In time, through Catholic friends, I learned that priests had begun facing parishioners during mass. Shortly thereafter, the Roman Catholic mass began being spoken in English in my neighborhood. The Council had moved forward by allowing “native” languages and indigenous cultures to be incorporated into the body of the mass. And so we come to the amazing mosaic cross I found in Santa Fe.

I hope you’re able to get a close look at the cross. It’s completely covered by small, clear pieces of mosaic tile in varying sizes. Beneath the tiles that cover the horizontal arm of the cross is a colorful rendition of the Last Supper. Imbedded in the ends of the arms are metallic religious medallions.

Above the scene of the Last Supper on the vertical arm of the cross is a picture of the face of an angel along with a red cabochon stone. Below the Last Supper is the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, again with a red cabochon, this time, below the picture.

This cross just mesmerizes me. It looks like nothing I’ve seen before. It’s appearance is similar to that of a stained glass window but without the need for any background light. This cross represents to me a synthesis of European, American Southwest and Mexican cultures. In my journeys as a pilgrim, I have always found that when faith is freely expressed in a heterogeneous environment, the best of all cultures thrives. And in those environments, over time, Universal truths learned in the crucible of daily living are revealed through beauty in art.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Being raised “sporadically” as a Presbyterian, I had what one might call a “deprived” childhood when it comes to religious art. The only picture I remember seeing at church was hung behind the choir. It was the classic portrait of the Western European/American version of Christ painted by Walter Sallman:

We are taught to take our prayers directly to the Triune God. Intermediaries don’t play a significant role in our life of faith.

However, when you grow up in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood (Brighton Park in Chicago) where rosary beads, scapulars, communion dresses and missals are the essential tools of ones’ faith, it is easy to become captivated by these “exotic” accoutrements.

While I found these instruments of faith to be interesting, my curiosity was particularly heightened whenever I caught a glimpse of an icon of some saint or another. (One of the great feats for a Protestant was to pass by the front of a Roman Catholic Church on a “Holy Day of Obligation” and sneak a peek inside as a door was about to close.)

Through the many doors that God has placed before me, I’ve been blessed in my adult life with a broadly ecumenical point of view. I’ve learned about and participated in a wide variety of religious observances and come to respect them deeply. Just this past spring, I was permitted to join an Icon Writing (yes, writing, not painting) workshop. You can read about that experience and see my result at:  Icon Workshop - 2010.

Over a long span of my life, icons have intrigued me. A few years ago, during one of many trips to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was fortunate enough to accidentally arrive during Spanish Market – a festival of art and music.

One of the aspects of Santa Fe that I adore so much is that the people of the city wear their faith like another layer of clothes. Their faith is ever present. And so, it was no surprise that much of the artwork on display and for sale carried a spiritual theme.

(In an amazing bit of synchronicity, as I was putting this piece together in my head, I received an email that pointed me in the direction of book on Russian iconography. It is titled: Hidden and Triumphant – The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography by Irina Yazykova and translated by Paul Grenier.)

In the foreword to this book, written by Wendy R. Salmond, I found some words that explain part of my fascination with icons:

“The icon preserves the canon by standing at the border
between two worlds, awakening the viewer’s spiritual
vision through the workings of the physical eye. All
icons are canonical when outer form and inner content
harmonize, bringing the viewer face to face with the world
of spirit in a state of prayerfulness. Like a heartbeat,
eternal time flows through such icons, undisturbed by the
restlessness of human time reflected in the history of continual
stylistic change.”

While walking up and down the streets of Santa Fe that shoot off the central plaza, I came across a booth that displayed a less conventional collection of icons. Enjoying all things “off-center,” I stopped and gazed at all the remarkable work. The artist’s name is Christina Miller (www.iconfusion.com).  After a while, Christina caught me hovering for some time and we struck up a conversation. After speaking to Christina, I think I know why I am so attracted to her work. Christina is a true artist with a genuine soul who shares her joy through her work. Here is a picture of one of my favorite icons of hers that I own. It is called: Bellini Madonna.

At the time I bought it, I didn’t realize that Bellini was a famous High Renaissance artist who painted many pictures of the Madonna and Child. There are a couple of aspects of this icon that pulled me in and grabbed me. First, it is not all that common to find an icon depicting the Madonna alone. Second, the depiction was executed using only black and white paint. Despite these deviances from traditional icon writing, I still found the work to be effective in its ability to draw me in, quiet my heart and allow me to center myself and pray.

I have more pieces by Christina that I plan to share with you as this series continues.


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Monday, December 27, 2010


Christmas is over and New Year’s will be here in a few days. The run-up to Christmas is always so fraught with hyperactivity that it’s hard to take the time to really enjoy the holiday. Usually, sometime ON Christmas Day, I find myself with enough time to become reflective. One of the best parts of the holidays is the opportunity to work with memories both old and new.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been changing my Facebook profile picture every few days to reflect some childhood memories of Christmas – sitting in the big spinning chair in front of the Christmas tree so confident that I’d been a good boy, standing in front of Uncle Don who came to our apartment dressed as Santa and made me feel so special, and finally, bundled up in a snow suit sitting high atop a pile of snow in my childhood backyard. Those are the simple, old memories that are quick to come by. Prompted by old photos, it is still easy (at least for now) to reconstruct the details.

For some reason, this year, an obscure, unphotographed memory has been popping into my head. Because of the holiday season, I guess I’ve got a little more time to pay it the proper attention it deserves. Like the others, it’s a childhood memory.

I grew up sporadically attending Brighton Park Presbyterian Church with my mother. I don’t really recall my father attending church with us but he did always give us rides back and forth in whatever current incarnation of a Rambler we owned at the time.

Brighton Park Presbyterian Church felt like home to me because I had several relatives who also attended church there – my mother’s sister, Aunt Bessie, and her son, my cousin, Douglas. Another cousin, Margaret, and her husband, Norman, who was the son of one of our former pastors, also attended. It was easy to feel comfortable there. Besides these relatives, anyone who was friends with these kin also treated me with kindnesses.

The particular memory that has been picking at my brain is of a friend of my cousin, Douglas. I believe I am remembering his name correctly – it was Jim Hardin. He was a tall, distinguished and good looking young man who I believe was a teacher. I recall one night riding in my cousin Douglas’ car to go visit or pick up or drop off something at Jim’s apartment. Douglas was always very good at getting me to tag along with him and I was happy to go because Douglas is a good guy who is fun to be around and who has a wonderfully explosive laugh. It may have only been one visit, but I remember it to this day.

Jim lived in a very neat apartment with lots of dark wood furniture. There were bookcases filled from floor to ceiling with books and there were display cases with glass sides that were lit from inside that seemed to me to hold museum-like treasures. My recollection is that there were busts and other artifacts that looked as if they had come from ancient Egypt. This apartment was nothing like the apartments of my relatives – this place was magical.

I can’t recall a thing about what Douglas and Jim discussed that night but I know they were content to let me take my time staring at these amazing, odd items. I’d always looked up to Jim (of course, he was also about 6 ft tall) but this visit to his apartment raised his value in my eyes.

In wasn’t until these memories came to mind this year that I realized the influence that Jim might have had upon me and my life. As some of you know, I was a Chicago Public School History teacher for a few years at the start of my career. I know there are others, including Mrs. Florence Zvetina at Gunsaulus Elementary School and Miss Fay Hasan at Kelly High School, who also led me to that career choice.

But there is another aspect of my life that I believe may be even more influenced by Jim Hardin. I am a collector of objects from far and wide that may not mean anything to anyone but me but with which I enjoy filling up every available space in my house in order to feel comfortable.

I’ve had a bit of writer’s block for a while as some of you have probably noticed. I’m hoping to break that logjam by starting a new series about Curious Objects. These items, along with my insatiable desire to tell stories, should keep these pages full, at least for a little while. Stay tuned…

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Monday, October 18, 2010


From my journal:

Integrity, or the lack of it, has been an issue for me recently in my relationships with other people. Since December, my low level depression has deepened. On occasions, I have felt a loss of control of my thoughts and emotions.

In my interpersonal relations with dear friends, they have noted an undercurrent of anger. After months of personal introspection, I was able to identify the sources of this anger. In the past few weeks, I have begun dealing directly with the lack of integrity of the people involved and also begun taking actions to "step away" from these toxic relationships.

Having identified the lack of integrity as a source of my anger and increased depression, I intend to live a fully open and honest life where integrity will be a capstone. I know in my heart when my words and actions are aligned and true. Now I must listen and heed my heroic heart.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010


From my journal:

Searching for a Heroic Heart

Why the long line of dysfunctional men in my family? I hesitate to call it weakness as I probably don't have enough facts to be so judgmental. But how have I attained almost 58 years with so few strong, positive role models. It seems the men I admire most are those I've encountered in my men's work or when discussing men's work. I may not be in regular, systematic contact with most of these men, but they are authentic and possess integrity and I know that if I needed to, I could send an email or pick up the phone and they would be there to listen to me. Sometimes we don't need answers; sometimes we just need someone with a strong, kind heart to sit and listen and send us back to the world more whole.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010


From my journal:

Why am I here? After a year of many detours and false starts, I am looking to return home. Pain and anger have fallen off my soul like scales from eyes that are now able to see. I am home in the company of men who are willing to share this journey with me. Today is a blessing long desired. I am truly blessed.


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Thursday, October 14, 2010


I picked up my friend, John, who lives in SF at a Starbucks near downtown and we headed out to Plano, IL (a suburb about 25 miles west of Chicago). When we arrived at the LaSalle Manor Retreat Center (affiliated with the Christian brothers), we were greeted as we pulled into our parking space with a big smile and open arms by Steve, a UCC pastor from Vermillion, South Dakota and co-leader of this retreat. Steve summoned his two teenage sons, Caleb and Seth to grab our luggage out of the back of my SUV. We had begun our retreat with an extravagant welcome!

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010


For about 7 years now, I've attended a men's retreat organized by the Shem Center for Interfaith Spirituality. Formerly held over Dr. King's birthday weekend in January, this year's retreat was held over Columbus Day weekend at LaSalle Manor Retreat Center in Plano, IL. I have just returned from this event attended by 27 incredible men from a diverse range of places. The theme of this year's retreat was The Male Heroic Heart and was led by Brother Joseph Kilikevice, founder and director of the Shem Center, and Steve Miller, a UCC pastor, from Vermillion, South Dakota.

Over the next few days, I plan to give you a glimpse of the retreat through general descriptions of our activities and my journal entries. Stay tuned.

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Let's see if we can't get this spot jump-started...

Thursday, July 15, 2010


We missed the bus to Tobermory,
so we drowned our tears
at the Keel Row Pub.
Grizzled, stinky whiskered fishermen
in yellow slickers pounded down pints.
We ate our greasy lunches,
and drank our opaque ales
as we huddled ‘round a wee table
in a midnight dark corner
at midday,
and laughed
until the ferry boat came.

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Monday, July 12, 2010


Some old men sit on porches,
on swings, in rockers.
Others walk a pier,
fishing pole and tackle box in hand.
If they’re lucky,
a young ‘un tags along.

But my old mind wanders
to a solo spot
atop Staffa,
a small Scottish isle.

Walking through foot high wild grass,
I lift my legs in exaggerated motion.
Just ahead, hundreds of feet
below this hillock, I hear the sea.
Stepping gingerly, I find rock steps,
leading me to a stone shelf
made just for me to sit a while,
and be alone with the sea and the waves
and my old man thoughts and dreams.

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Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Yes, writing; not painting. This was a distinction that was clarified in the early minutes of the Icon Writing Workshop in which I participated this past weekend. We learned that… “…everything involved in the writing of a liturgical icon has spiritual meaning tied to Scripture and reveals different levels of manifestation of God's Presence within the iconographer.”

Being an impatient sort myself, I won’t make you wait any longer before I reveal my finished icon:

This was my first ever effort at writing an icon, and if you’ll pardon my lack of humility, I’m pretty proud of it. I know it isn’t perfect, but neither am I.

My teacher’s name is Joe. I’ve known Joe for a couple years now. I first met him at a birthday party for our mutual friend, Tim. That night is memorable as one in which a group of folks who barely knew one another laughed themselves to the point of tears on several occasions. Who would have guessed that Joe was a skilled (and quite well known) iconographer as well as a gifted teacher?

The workshop began on a Friday night with a couple hours of background info and a chance to get our feet wet by applying a little bit of paint to our boards. We resumed our work on Saturday morning at 9am. Throughout the day, we were introduced to a number of techniques and learned when to use them. At some point in the day, a transformation (dare I say a transfiguration?) took place.

Although we were all working on producing a copy of the same icon, Saint Michael the Archangel, there were subtle differences from individual to individual. My first Rubicon was painting the eyes. A prayed aloud to not let Saint Michael look like Bart Simpson.

While there were many sets of eyes painted by my colleagues that were far superior artistically to mine, I was comfortable that the eyes I had painted were right for my icon.

Having successfully negotiated that hurdle, I relaxed a bit as I added color to the wings and the robe. In order to give more of a sense of life to the icon, it was necessary to add some shading to the face and hands. It was then that I became entranced by my icon. Despite there being 11 other people in the room, I felt alone and in a prayerful place with my icon. I was working on shading the right hand.

It was a delicate hand and graceful, too. I still get goosebumps when I remember working on capturing the correct shading on that hand. Saint Michael was speaking to me but not in words. I was content to work slowly on this small section of the icon to get it just right. In those moments, the icon became my muse both in the sense of spurring me artistically, but also spiritually.

My mind turned to all those people over the centuries who have written icons and imagining how they too had been affected by their work. I simply smiled as I felt I had joined a communion of artists. In a couple weeks, the church that sponsored the workshop will be featuring our work at the 11:30am mass. The head priest will be present to bless our icons. How cool!

I don’t think this will be my last icon. Joe is talking about having an Advanced Icon Writing Workshop. But even if he doesn’t, I think I know how to get started. I’ve gained confidence in my ability to do this. But most of all, I look forward to continuing a centuries old tradition and communicating with my own personal representation of the holy.


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Monday, May 24, 2010


On a pleasant Sunday fall afternoon in October, 2001, my friend Bob and I prepared to leave Chicago for a weeklong retreat at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky. After finally getting Bob’s SUV packed, he turned the key, started the car and clicked the radio on. The news reader reported that the bombing of Afghanistan, in response to the attack of 9/11, had begun. Bob and I looked at each other. He wordlessly reached for the radio volume dial and turned it to the off position.

After a “last supper” breakfast that included meat (forbidden at the monastery) , we arrived at the abbey on an early Monday afternoon. We grabbed as much of our belongings out of the SUV as we could and made our way to the retreat center to check in with the guestmaster. We were surprised to find a mingling crowd of men in various states of check-in. When it came to our turn, the guestmaster shuffled papers somewhat endlessly before apologizing that they had overbooked and that Bob and I would need to take a room in the monk’s quarters. I’m not sure how others would react to this news, but as for me, I felt that I’d hit the monastic lottery at my first attempt.

The rest of the first day was spent settling in and getting familiar with the grounds and labyrinthine staircases. After a day of travel and expectation, I was looking forward to The Great Silence – the time after the last service of the night, Compline, when monks and guests alike were expected to retire for the day. Due to the early start of the monastic day – 3:15am – the last service is held at 7:30pm.

Compline is a beautiful service that is identical every night. The same prayers and psalms and songs are chanted and sung each night concluding with the blessing of the Abbot with sprinkled holy water as we processed past him. To my surprise, we were shepherded off into a side chapel after Compline. As obedient oblates (of a sort), we quietly moved into the chapel and each found a seat.

After a very short time, a small, stooped, ruddy-faced monk carrying a large pile of books with all sorts of scraps of paper bookmarks entered the chapel, mumbled a blessing and opened one of his books. Without introducing himself, he began by speaking the title of a poem, the name of the poet and then the poem itself. He didn’t keep his nose in the book, but neither did he look us in the eyes. His upward glance from the book was just that: upward and a glance, to his holy audience.

Finishing the poem, he closed the book and moved it to the nearby altar while quickly shuffling through the other books, almost as if panning for gold. A-ha, you could almost here him exclaim. Before long, you were deeply immersed in the listening of another poem. It seemed the most natural thing to close one’s eyes in order to more deeply hear the words. As he finished the poem, it was my turn to inwardly say, A-ha.
The second book was closed, placed on the altar (the symbolism was deep), and then the book shuffling began again. A third and final poem was read. There was a certain rhythm to his reading. Perhaps it was a rhythm learned from years of chanting psalms. To my ears however, his words sounded like a lullaby.

(to be continued…)

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Saturday, April 24, 2010


I was prepared to write the next installment in the "Boys in the Hood(s)" series about some of my encounters over the years in monasteries - but my amazing life got in the way.

I've mentioned my dear friend, John, before. We have a remarkable friendship which survives many miles of distance. More often than not, there is a daily exchange of emails between us. Sometimes I bleed all over the laptop with stories of my life. I tease John that his "drive-by" return emails overlook my trials and tribulations. But the next day we carry on just the same.

John writes a remarkable blog that you should add quickly as a bookmarked destination. Now, if you are the stubborn or lazy type, here is a quick and easy link to the posting that I specifically want you to read: Lost and Found and Lost . John's blogs often resonate with me. This one appeared at a perfect time.

Just last night, I was set to meet another dear friend to attend a Medieval choral music concert that was being performed at the neo-Gothic Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. We usually meet for dinner beforehand. When I am able, I try to scoot out of work early on occasions like this in order to take advantage of my membership at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore. I was fortunate that despite already having selected my purchases, I found myself standing in line to check out when in a moment a "book will find you and on that day you will have the courage to take and read." Somewhere, sometime over the past few weeks in my hyperactive perusal of book reviews throughout the Internet, I saw the title of this book: "Making Toast." I was intrigued.

Three years ago, I made a retreat in the dead of winter to Saint Benedict's Momastery in Snowmass, Colorado. It was a true pilgrimage as the trip from Denver to Snowmass involved a four hour ride in a van packed with strangers and driven by a young woman who was a ski fanatic overwintering in Colorado from Australia.

I had opted to spend my time in a hermitage - away from the retreat house. As a result of this choice, I was responsible for my own meals. As I wrote at the time...

"My time away allowed me to stuff all the baggage of everyday life away and to see and live a bigger life. Simple tasks like preparing a meal - even making toast - became holy. Without a dayplanner filled with appointments and events, I was able to take pleasure in the choices before me. Instead of "going smaller," I felt more connected to the "bigger life" promised to all of us."

Roger Rosenblatt's new book is not about retreats, but it is about a deep spirituality. It is about the work of grandparents who are thrust into the daily life of their daughter's family when she dies at age 38 of an undetected heart defect. Their daughter's husband and three children most cope with this loss and somehow manage to go on. With simple yet heartbreaking words, Rosenblatt writes about the grandfather's heroic efforts to learn how to "make toast" exactly how each of the three grandchildren like it. I am grateful for having had the experience of knowing how "making toast" can be holy.

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Friday, April 23, 2010


My friends know that since 2001, I’ve made it a habit (sorry) to try to make a retreat to a monastery at least once each year. I’ve made multiple visits to Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky (former home of Thomas Merton) and to Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I’ve made one time only visits to Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass, Colorado and Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan . In addition, I’ve made a one day visit to New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa and Pecos Abbey in Pecos, New Mexico.

With only one exception (which shall remain nameless), regardless of the religious order or affiliation: Benedictine, Franciscan, Cistercian, Episcopal, etc., the sense I each got at each monastery was that they were truly sincere in living up to the Rule of Saint Benedict that guests should be welcomed as if Christ. But that sense is not exuded through the venerable walls of these institutions, rather through their residents – the boys in the hoods.

When visiting a monastery, whether it is for a single day or for a retreat of several Days, it is most common to encounter the Guestmaster. This is a role identified by Saint Benedict in his Rule. He is the monastery’s face to the outside world. My experience has been that the Abbott (head of the monastery) usually selects the more affable or outgoing monk for this role. From Brother Aelred at Mepkin to Father Carlos at Gethsemani, these men are charged with bridging the vastly different worlds of the lay visitors and the monks.

One of the most important reasons that I find myself returning year after year to a monastic retreat is the ability to share in the life of the community. From the very early pre-dawn service of Vigils (or Matins) to Compline at the close of the day, guests are encouraged to participate in the religious life of the monastic community.

But treasured moments on monastic retreats can spring up at the most unexpected times in unplanned interactions with the resident monks. They happen in liminal space and time when the sacred and the secular meet and wallow in each other’s goodness and grace.
I hope, over the next few days, to jot down some of my favorite memories of these glimpses of heaven.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010


The most obvious intent in making a retreat to a Trappist monastery is to share in the life of this community of devoted servants of God. There are numerous opportunities to worship with them at services named: Vigils, Lauds, Mass, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. But just as rewarding is the chance to some spend time in nature.

The grounds of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani are a blessing. Just across the highway from the Abbey and Retreat House lie undulating hills and woods with numerous winding paths that call us to explore. On the first day of my retreat, I found myself taking steps toward this land. Although this was my third trip to Kentucky and the monastery, this was my first experience in early spring.

Fields, bushes and trees were in various states of bloom, showing off colors not seen at other times of the year. Mesmerized, I carried on along a path until I sensed a small body of water – a pond. I made my way through some higher grasses and came upon a beautiful body of water. Just as I moved the last blocking branch of a bush from my line of sight, I saw a blue heron take flight from the surface of the pond. Its long neck and graceful wings reminded me of a ballet dancer. I felt a sense of gratitude for having witnessed such beauty.

A simple smile crossed my face.

I turned around and headed back to the Abbey as there was a service of Sext due to begin in about 25 minutes. I don’t remember much of that walk as I felt surrounded by a sense of beauty and belonging. I realized that it had been some time since I’d allowed myself to relax enough to see the real world around me.

I entered the shadowed Abbey and sat in silence prior to the service. One by one, each of the monks slowly entered and blessed themselves with water from the holy font. I closed my eyes and recalled the sight of the heron taking flight. Suddenly it occurred to me that this gift was not intended for me alone. Each day, scenes like this occur whether I am there to witness them or not.

A simple tear of joy fell from one eye.

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Monday, April 12, 2010


It's been a while since I've had the chance to get away for a week on retreat. I'm just back from a week in Kentucky where I spent several days at The Abbey of our Lady of Gethsemani and the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill. It seems it took getting away for me to realize just how much I missed getting away. It was a time of rest and renewal. Nature always plays a significant role in my recharging and I was blessed with several days of beautiful spring weather that gave me many opportunities to walk and even to just sit and pay attention to the world. There will be several postings over the next few days (I hope) as I process my time away, but I'd like to begin by repeating the words of Thomas Merton who lived at Gethsemani for many years:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Not do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

(Photo of abandoned North American Van Lines trailer that rests in the woods across the highway from the Abbey of our Lady of Gethsemani. Thomas Merton would sometimes steal away to this trailer to read, write and ...)

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Friday, March 19, 2010


What is your accent color?
No, not the one that acquaintances see
when they first meet you. I’m talking
about the color that your holy friends
remember you by when you’re not

in the room. I think, I hope, I’m red.

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Chapter 2 - In the Gap

No one was surprised when wee Georgie vanished. There was a history in his family of menfolk disappearing; uncles, great-uncles and cousins. It was almost as if the otherwise quiet men just sat around with their engines idling until the NASCAR starter tree light flashed green and they were out of there.

George’s story was a little different. He’d been born a "change of life" baby to a youngest daughter. All that math conspired to place him not quite midway between two generations. He shared little in common besides a gene pool with his brother who was eleven years older. George’s nephew was a mere five years younger. Family holiday gatherings were made all the more stressful by George’s mostly futile pleadings to be allowed to sit at the adult table.

A book about George’s childhood might well be titled "In the Gap." Besides being stuck between generations, George was the only member of the family of his generation born in the United States. His folks, his siblings and all the rest of his relatives had been born in Scotland.

In school, while bright enough, he wasn’t quite in the upper echelon of academic performers. He was neither popular nor shunned. George was also just good enough in sports to avoid the shameless taunts of the jocks.

Because of his unremarkable skills, George was often dismissed and sold short. His ability to "get by" became a source of great inner strength. He didn’t need to rely upon the accolades or assurances of anyone else to carry on. So when George took off one late teenage weekend claiming to visit a friend who was away at college and didn’t return there was an initial sense of family concern but not alarm. A quickly sent letter settled the matter in good order.


Idyllic childhood memories
evaporate like morning dew
under the harsh light of learning
truths fin’lly ripe for consumption.
Pray give us strength to withstand pain
inflicted by those not able
to turn from our destructive habits,
falling back on their cruel nature.
When will we gird our souls to halt
transmission of these ancient pains
on innocents now freed to fly
and simply sing their songs to us?

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010


After years of rising at 3:30am, Brother George had refined his sense of sight, allowing him to discern the hour of his rising without the use of an alarm clock or watch. He was always the first to stir despite many brothers who’d lived in Saint Aelred monastery for decades longer. As sexton, it was his responsibility to press the button that set the bells to ringing, calling all to the service of Vigils. (It had been many years since he had to pull on a rope to sound the bells.)

With a twist and a shove, he hoisted himself to an upright position on his sway-backed bed. Bending over he flapped his hands around trying desperately to locate his sandals. It would be a very rude awakening to set foot upon the cold, clay tile without benefit of footwear. With success at hand, he reached for his walking stick and took four measured steps to the wall where the bell button was located.

Brother George coveted his role as sexton, most often during the early morning hours as he roused the other monks from their slumber and called them to their place in the abbey for Vigils – waiting for the light. But what he particularly enjoyed was the extra time it gave him to sit, meditate and write poetry.


Fourteen billion year old molecules
crashing, caroming
randomly becoming
fire, water, earth and air
heading toward this one,
perfect morning
where truth reveals itself,
for just a moment,
to those with ancient eyes.


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

A piece I came across that moved me...

by Thom Satterlee

Language, he asserted, was a habitus... What

precisely he meant by habitus is not explained,
but the context in which the word is applied to
language would suggest a sense of "clothing... "
— Anne Hudson,
"Wyclif and the English Language"

All morning he read from a thick volume
propped on a stand. He read and he read,
and when he closed his eyes
he continued to read
until the words took off their clothes
and laid them down on a hillside
that vanished whenever a cloud
passed between it and the sun.

All his life Wyclif had wanted this:
The words undressed and he going to them,
a child to a fair, burning to see
if Faith wore her hair in a braid,
whether Why held out its hands, palms up,
and where Simony put his coins
when he stood naked in the light.

But no: Wyclif had gotten it all wrong.
He was not going to see the words.
They were coming toward him
with their arms loaded with robes
stacked so high he couldn’t see their faces.
And before he knew it, invisible hands
began measuring him with ropes
stretched between his wrist and chest,
from his hip down to the ground,
around his waist and around his neck.

The fitting took all day. He tried on
Son and Friend, Scholar, Reformer,
Heretic; he slipped into Priest,
wore also Doctor Evangelicus
and Morning Star. Some robes
hung too loosely; others pinched his neck.

In the end, he had to wear them all
and learn the sadness of being a word –
only one surface to show the world
while he lived underneath the layers
and listened for the barely audible
sound of his own heart beating.

P.S. I'm thinking of introducing you to a new character who
has sprung forth from my heart...a Poet Monk named George.
Tune in on Wednesday to see if he makes an appearance.

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Sunday, January 03, 2010


My dear and wise friend, Christine, over at www.abbeyofthearts.com, has posted an inquiry for her readers. She asks us to name a word for the year. There are many very wonderful answers over there and I encourage you to read them. Here is what I wrote:

"I read your post a few days ago, but didn’t feel the tug of a word right at that moment. However, in the interim, I’ve found the word “authenticity” or, I think, more appropriately, the word found me. It is not an easy word in many ways. It doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue. Upon reflection, that is probably on purpose, just to remind us that we need to work to let our “authenticity” glow."

With light and love,

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