Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In the Absence

I have had a long computer/blog silence, I realise. But I have been stymied by helplessness and frustration. My psychic energy is being drained, making it difficult for me to write anything of any substance.

Perhaps the reason for this is that I am dismayed by so much that has developed and continues to develop in South Africa and even in Grahamstown itself. During the time of my silence, Grahamstown has seen the brutal murder of a priest who has meant so much to so many people, including one of the brothers in our community. The Rev. Clive Newman was passionate about justice for the poor, ministry to prisoners, and education of not only many children in South Africa but future priests. He was an excellent example for young students to follow when it comes to such passions. I have been involved in a court case, which has not even begun to be heard by a judge, of a young man who has broken into our monastery seven times and has stolen numerous computers, electronic items and even clothing. We were even helping him and his child through our scholarship programme. No justice for him or for us. The last time I was in the courtroom while waiting for a judge to hear our case, a man was accused of raping his girlfriend's 12 year old daughter. The defence was so shabby that everyone in that courtroom must have known that the man did the crime. He and his public defender were trying to delay the trial so that "he could make some money". In the meantime, one of the witnesses didn't turn up. So his trial was delayed after all. And in Grahamstown, the water infrastructure is collapsing to the point that there might be ecoli and dangerous metals at alarming levels in the municipality's water, say some scientists from Rhodes University. As one young activist from the township said at a public meeting about the water, (this was the most poignant thing contributed), "all we want is to make our tea and be clean and how can we do that when the water is a brown sludge?!?"

Nationally, Julius Malema, the leader of the African National Congress Youth League, has been mouthing off racial and violent epithets. These vicious pronouncements have been creating great division in the country. Another murder of Eugene Terreblanche, the leader of the AWB, a white supremacist Afrikaner organisation, is then seen as a direct result of Malema's hate speech. It probably wasn't. Since they caught the murderers, it turned out to be a worker's dispute, but you know how these things go. The timing of the crime made it so. Malema is being "reprimanded" by the ANC. Based on past history, that doesn't mean very much. In the meantime, the World Cup approaches in South Africa. Sure the stadiums are pretty much completed, but all the thousands of people hired to do that construction are now jobless. So much for job creation. The people in townships without electricity or plumbing including a toilet, and the rural poor still without good health care or education are ignored even further. Often they have to take to the streets and rage to get their voices heard. But the World Cup will happen, and it will be a great thing for South Africa, especially for those who are due to make a lot of money.

South Africa is a land of such beauty and tragedy, and I am not just talking about the landscape. I am including the people in my description as well. The two ends of the spectrum are not subtle. They are extreme, and the tension of these two extremes doesn't seem to get any easier. Alan Paton captures this so well in his novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. Things don't seem to be changing from when he wrote that book in the 50s. The "New Democracy" is becoming more of a discouragement.

Twice a year, our monastic community is in retreat for 10 days. During this time, we are in silence, and we have more time for prayer, study and reflection. Occasionally we do have guest conductors come and address us. In Grahamstown, we have been fortunate to have a very good theologian, Janet Trisk, living here and have used her for our last few retreats. In December before she moved on to Pietermaritzburg, we made sure that we took advantage of her wisdom again, and she spoke to us about hope and despair.

Hope and despair are so intertwined in each other. Hope exists right in the midst of despair. I have seen so many examples of this in South Africa, sometimes to the point of not knowing of whether I am hoping or despairing. This uncertainty is an uneasy feeling, and I find that often I want to avoid approaching it in my writing.

Maybe that same uncertainty is why I can't even be sure God exists as any kind of certainty. All I have as evidence sometimes is just simply absence. So then what do I do now? Where do I look for hope?

I can look exactly where Jesus has been pointing me all along, toward our earth, toward the other. What do I believe in? I believe in the divine in humanity. Is that dangerous? Is that belief misplaced? Yes, often it is, and yet, I do it anyway. In the Gospel According to John, Jesus says, "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." I can believe in the very power of relationship and love itself. And somehow God's absence points me in that direction.

Perhaps I can finally realise the reality of the incarnation. The Way, the Truth, the Life is when the words of the Word of God finally become wordless within us and translate into love. And love transcends mere words and translates into action. Here is where God can be found. Here is where God makes Her home.

The model of the Trinity should be our best teacher. In that Trinity are the different manifestations of God. God is different "persons". And God is the relationship of the three through kenosis, the emptying of one person into the other. It is a continuous cycle, a continuous giving. Imagine if we could do that for each other!

Signs, glimpses of this kenosis exist. They may be all we will ever have. God is present when we do hope. We must recognise this when all seems chaos, meaninglessness, absence.

Do I trust humanity? No, not always. Have I been hurt? Has humanity betrayed my trust? Yes. Sometimes I am justified in my mistrust. But I can trust the glimpses of what humanity is capable.

Our community life offers me one of those glimpses. Five times a day, I go to church and recite or chant the psalms, words of others who have been betrayed and have betrayed as well. I will go to church and pray. I can trust this. Pray to whom? Humanity? God? Absence? It doesn't seem to matter. I will be praying to and with others. We will be verbalising the same words in unison. Some will inflect them slightly differently, and yet there will be another voice that joins me in my prayer. Our choir will have its own distinctive sound. It will be one rendering of words recited for centuries, keeping alive ancient songs and poetry, setting the stage for more to follow. Then the Word eventually becomes wordless. The words that we pray no longer become the focus, but the union with each other from our far past, into our present and far into our future. We are all doing hope.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Not Yet and Right Now

The following is a sermon I will be preaching tomorrow in our church here in our monastery church in South Africa. It is perhaps one of the most difficult Gospel passages from which to try and foster any sign of hope. (Luke 21:25 - 36) However, thanks to some remarkable people who have fostered hope for me -- my monastic brothers, two women who live with us and also work to make the promise put forward in Luke's Gospel a reality for children and families affected by poverty and AIDS in areas that have been forgotten by many including our own South African government, a fellow preacher in Port Alfred, a philosopher named Rene Girard, who has offered insights into how Jesus's willingness to be scapegoated has exposed the insidiousness of all the scapegoating and victimisation in the world and a theologian named Jurgen Moltmann, who has made eschatology no longer a matter of depression but worth risking all for -- I think I have made at least a fair attempt at finding the light where I least expected it to be, in the simple contradiction of living.

Advent 1C

Certainly for parts of this Gospel this morning, it would seem rather difficult to sing “Alleluia” either before or after them. I find myself trying to weave ways around this apocalypse rather than to face it directly, being foolish enough to think that I could avoid the ominous signs of sun, moon, stars, the towering waves of the sea, the screams of terror and confusion of the people, the deafening rumbling of earth. Ultimately, none of us can avoid these kinds of calamities, and … none of us have. We have all experienced earth shattering events in our lives, in the world around us, in the atrocities, violence, cruelty, destruction of the last two millennia ever since Jesus spoke these words to a group of Jews having no idea that their own Temple, their central place of worship, their place of security and safety, their locus of identity, would be destroyed only some 40 years later.

But if we were only to get entangled and sucked into the vortex of these catastrophes, then, from our own cowering we will miss what would happen next. Because “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Precisely at the moment where we would want to run for cover, Jesus compels us, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.” Just imagine it! Just as the world is falling down around our ears, the new Kingdom is sweeping in. Jesus is saying to us, Just imagine it! Isn’t it wonderful? Well, no and yet, yes it is. Isn’t it glorious? Well no, and yet yes it is. Isn’t it a time to rejoice? Well, no and yet, yes, yes it is. There is never a better time for this Son of Man to come and to come with power and great glory.

It is the time to begin again, to begin the new church year again and to wait in expectancy, vigilance and … dare I say it, hope. It is the time to hear and believe the promise of something else other than our own fear, own injustice, own destructiveness and despair talking back at us. To hear the promise of our redemption, where we no longer have to live in drunkenness, dissipation and anxiety about this world to try and avoid the inevitable, that nothing lasts, nothing is permanent. All will pass away. Eventually, we will have to let it go. And if we do, we can set our imagination free and see the Son of Man breaking in on a cloud already. The theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, wrote in the Theology of Hope, human life must be risked if it is to be won. It must expend itself if it is to gain firmness and future. If however we are thus to risk expending ourselves, then we need a horizon of expectation which makes the expending meaningful …

Advent is the invitation to live meaningfully when so little has any meaning to us, to stand up with our heads held high in contradiction. We can stand in terror and joy. We can stand knowing that our redemption is drawing near and yet is here now exactly at the point where it may seem that nothing can be redeemed. We can stand in the contradiction of this promise being right within our grasp and yet elusive, beyond our comprehension or understanding. We can set our imagination free when to do so is dangerous and risky. We can endure when nothing else seems to and stand before God.

We can see through the choking and blinding haze the Son of Man coming in power and great glory.

Is it a time to sing, “Alleluia” before and after this promise? Well, not yet and yet, yes, right now.



Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Zion Song

Just recently, I have returned to using a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron to help jumpstart my writing a bit. One of the tools that she recommends for a daily discipline of writing is called Morning Pages.

The Morning Pages is a practice of producing three pages a day preferably right when one wakes up in the morning. Cameron calls those pages a “brain drain”. I like what that suggests: they are a kind of morning cleansing, an emptying out before being filled with all the hecticness of a day. They are also a way of getting down on paper the angsts we go through in everyday living -- the emails to answer, the documents and articles to write, the class to teach on Wednesday, the sermon to preach on Sunday or the pressure to complete the next blog entry that is long overdue and then seeing dust on the blinds that I just dusted last week.

Julia Cameron says that there is no wrong way of doing Morning Pages. “They are not meant to be art or even writing. Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid or too weird to be included.” And I would add that nothing is too private, secret or dark to include either. On the mornings I can get up early enough to do them, they are an excellent preparation before we start our prayer day at 6AM with Vigils.

We have offices, our monastic liturgy, five times-a-day. Can it be tedious? Indeed. The psalms can be monotonous and never ending. The Scripture passages can sometimes sound like they are from a different planet. The collects can be so carefully crafted and yet distant and lifeless.

But, the offices are our Opus Dei, the Work of God, our very reason for being monks. Whether I like it or not, they are the great dialogue between humanity and God. If that is true, nothing is too taboo, too remote and even disconcerting that can’t be spoken. Not even our darkest passions and violence are off-limits. God knows them anyway. As Jesus says, “…For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matthew 10:26, NRSV) He even compels us to shout what is told in secret from the rooftops.

My preparation of Morning Pages is a small microcosm of the entire day of monastic prayer, and with that practice, I not only exercise my writing skills but my receptivity to the Divine Office. If I can reserve my criticism of my own Morning Pages, then, who am I to criticise the Divine Office.

My own voice together with the other voices bouncing around the monastic church brings to light the complexity and diversity of the human condition and the language to express it, including my own judgmentalism, prejudice and resistance to prayer. We sing in unison that one antiphon, canticle or psalm, with one language, that one dialogue with God. Whether it is our experience or not, we are bound to be vocalising someone else’s, maybe giving voice to someone who can’t speak it themselves. If we really look deep enough within ourselves, we might even find we are giving voice to an experience we have denied owning up to for a long time.

Most of what we chant each day is songs, poems. Some to me are not great art and some are. Some I can chant or recite easily because I can empathise with the sentiment. Others require words coming out of my mouth I don’t necessarily want to say or to accept. But ultimately that shouldn’t matter. They are all part of that catharsis that speaks to and for millions, and like it or not they are our language … all of our language as human beings.

One of the Psalms that exemplifies that cleansing most for me is Psalm 137. It is a song of exile, of Israel in Babylon. The first part is a moving lament full of longing and mournful reminiscence. And then, it abruptly changes tone to a startling rage, a rage many of us would be uncomfortable repeating. The translation of the psalm below is from The Message, which captures the true bite and relevance for our own day.

Alongside Babylon’s rivers
we sat on the banks; we cried and cried,
remembering the good old days in Zion.
Alongside the quaking aspens
we stacked up our unplayed harps;
That’s where our captors demanded songs,
sarcastic and mocking:
“Sing us a happy Zion song!”

Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song
in this wasteland?
If I ever forget you, Jerusalem,
let fingers wither and fall off like leaves.
Let my tongue swell and turn black
if I fail to remember you,
If I fail, O dear Jerusalem,
to honor you as my greatest.

God, remember those Edomites
and remember the ruin of Jerusalem,
That day they yelled out,
“Wreck it, smash it to bits!”
And you, Babylonians – ravagers!
A reward to whoever gets back at you
for all you’ve done to us;
Yes, a reward to the one who grabs your babies
and smashes their heads on the rocks!

I have to admit that most monastic breviaries (office books) omit these verses, including our own. Many religious writers and theologians, including monastics, throughout the centuries have tried to spiritualise these verses by describing them as rages against our sins. The psalmist, however, probably didn’t even consider that interpretation. No, I think this psalmist really meant children here. These attempts to tone down his meaning are a dishonesty.

Robert Alter writes about these verses, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line. All one can do is to recall the background of outraged feeling that triggers the conclusion: The Babylonians have laid waste to Jerusalem, exiled much of its population, looted and massacred; the powerless captives, ordered – perhaps mockingly – to sing their Zion songs, respond instead with a lament that is not really a song and ends with this bloodcurdling curse pronounced on their captors, who, fortunately, do not understand the Hebrew in which it is pronounced.”

Alter’s commentary reminds me of a story told in the film Amandla, an excellent documentary about the music of the anti-apartheid struggle here in South Africa. One woman who was a recording star in the 40s talked about the cheery songs black Africans would sing for their white oppressors, mainly to sell records. Those who supported, upheld and benefitted from apartheid and who could buy the records had no idea that they were hearing songs about them “getting what’s coming to them”. Welcome to the human experience!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Coltrane recording

About a decade ago, I did a presentation to a group of people who came to our monastery in Grahamstown for a week-long immersion into the Benedictine world. My subject was the mutual influences of monastic music and monastic spirituality upon each other. In discussing Gregorian chant, I tried not to get too technical but focussed on the searching, dynamic, even restless quality of the melodic lines. They were always seeming to probe something more than themselves, trying to get at something intangible, ineffable, reflecting often the architecture of monasteries in the Middle Ages.

I then decided to take the idea a step further. I tried to trace the influences of chant forward into musical history all the way to jazz. I finally ended up discussing John Coltrane. He made his greatest and most adventurous recordings in the 50s and early 60s and died too soon after them. The recording I played was his famous interpretation of "My Favorite Things". The saxophonist was certainly influenced by the technical elements of chant using the church modes, which were the musical scales, the building blocks that made up chant.

But even more so, I wanted to emphasise Coltrane's same restlessness. In many ways, he is not easy to listen to. To me, his playing sounds like he is never satisfied, has never found home, always trying to probe, penetrate through to something beyond him. And he had much musical talent and genius with which to do this. Often he played the same melodic patterns again and again, slightly modifying them, sharping and flatting notes here and there, changing rhythms, beginning the pattern on a different beat or offbeat. His playing was as unnerving and mysterious as prayer. At the same time, in that discomfort and mystery, I have always heard a great humility. His prayer was never settled and never finished.

When I presented this idea to the group, I went as far as to say that because of these reasons he displayed the values and passion of a monk. I certainly experience my life as a monk the same way. It is a restless life for me, one of constant searching and when I feel that I have found what I am looking for, then, I know I am exactly at the point where I need to start all over again.

One of the participants felt that it was a bit of a stretch for him to see this connection between monasticism and Coltrane. Over the years following, I have done the same presentation to different groups and even lectured about this at our arts festival in Grahamstown. But for some reason, I felt I wasn't able to capture the clarity, impact or even conviction of what I said that night. So, I was beginning to question whether I really was taking things a bit too far.

Then, I read a poignant portrait of Coltrane written by Tom Dowd, the recording engineer for the Atlantic Record sessions and felt vindicated. Dowd's description of Coltrane's routine before recording sessions brings me right back to my original conviction of which I won't hesitate to express again. He writes:

"...He would stand in a corner, face the wall, play, stop, change reeds and start again. After a while he would settle on a mouthpiece and reed that felt most comfortable to him, and then he would start to work on the 'runs' that he wanted to use during the session. I would watch him play the same passage over and over again, changing his breathing, his fingering, and experimenting with the most minute changes in his phrasing. Once in a while he would go back to the mouthpiece he had abandoned earlier. He never lost control: every step had a reason and almost everything he played was acceptable to everyone but him. Until he felt comfortable that he had exhausted all of the possibilities, he would continue to play the various permutations.
As the rest of the band members started to arrive, he would nod a greeting but never stop playing. He was deep into another world. He set the atmosphere for the sessions ... "

I have no idea what religion Cotrane was or even if he was part of any church, and I am not sure it matters that much. What I hear in his playing combined with the passage above speaks volumes to me about faith itself. He is the living example of St. Augustine's statement: Our heart is restless until it rests in you. Coltrane's heart was restless and because of that, he was one of the most creative musicians of the 20th Century. I believe faith is the one thing that keeps us from settling for anything less than resting in God. If our lives are authentic, then, we will be suspicious when others are trying to convince us or we are trying to convince ourselves that we have found God. As Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of Mark (13:21 - 23), "False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray if possible the elect... But be alert!"

The great Trappist monk, Thomas Merton writes about contemplatives in this unsettling way, “The contemplative is one who would rather not know than know. He [she] accepts the love of God on faith, in defiance of all apparent evidence.”

I can now look to Coltrane's example for a source of courage and strength to travel that "dark and unknown path" of not knowing and to keep searching even when I know I will not find what I seek. Writing poetry for me is a contemplative act. In some ways, I am writing the same poem until I get it right and at the same time hoping I never do. Below is one "permutation" of that life-long poem that is never finished inspired by Dowd's tribute above.

Coltrane recording

He came to recording sessions an hour early
faced the wall and practised,
blowing a massive column of air
through furious fingers and snapping keys.

As other musicians arrived,
he acknowledged them
with a small nod, without
a break in his endless patterns.
He clamped down on that reed
and tried to bore inside of that wall,
see its own patterns and play them.

But sheets of notes bounced hard
and ricocheted around
the sound booth containing him
as if he were under observation.

If he found the scale, the run,
the harmony that shattered the glass
his search would be over.
He would have nothing else to play.
He would have to wrench
the sax from his mouth
and lay it down for ever.

And so he continued
to pelt the wall until
it caved just enough
to give him enough room to breathe
into another voice.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

An Introduction

Welcome to my site. I am an Anglican Benedictine monk living as part of the community at Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery. This monastery is a house of the Order of the Holy Cross, in Grahamstown, South Africa. Grahamstown is a university town and includes many other excellent primary and high schools. This population is about 40,000 to about 50,000 people when all the students are here. Our monastery is located in a rural area just outside of the town on 50 hectares of land. We are blessed with beautiful fauna, flora, scenic landscapes and exotic wildlife. Very few flat places. Our work consists of prayer first and foremost. Then, we provide a ministry of Benedictine hospitality to guests who come from all walks of life from all over the world. Organically growing out of both of these is our hospitality to the people and particularly children of the immediate area. We help children to have better educations from primary school on up to a tertiary education. This work includes the establishment and administration of scholarships and an intensive After-School tutoring programme. So naturally we are pretty busy.

My position here consists of providing the publicity for all of these projects and the news of our monastery. I edit a newsletter named Uxolo, published bi-annually and maintain the news for our website, I am also the novice master who is responsible for helping people discern their vocation to the monastic life as well as forming new men when they join our community.

So I was a bit reticent about beginning a blog. Would I have the time or the energy to maintain it? But the other thing I do is to write. I write every day whether it be poetry or any other piece of writing. Some of it has been published. Some of it has not. Some of it is garbage. (Don't worry. I don't plan to inflict you with it.) And some of it is well written. Such is the nature of writing every day. You have to dig through the mud and sand to get to the pearls. Some of those pearls are the mud and sand, just in a different more refined form. After some thinking, I realise that maintaining a page would not be quite the burden that I thought it would be.

I have named my blog The Monk on the Hill, with a nod to Paul McCartney and John Lennon's song, The Fool on the Hill. But it is also the title of one of my poems. It evokes the expanse and beauty of the hills in which we are settled as well as this beautiful country, South Africa. Hope you enjoy this site and if you have comments, I would accept them.

I thought it seemed only appropriate to post as my first piece of writing the title poem of the site. I wrote it a number of years ago as a reflection of the whimsical nature of many of our children. They instil in me a childlike desire for the impossible.

The Monk on the Hill

When the wind lifts the scapular

of the monk standing on the crest of a hill

he thinks he could fly .

A small child wanting to come with him

grabs hold from behind

keeping them both earth-bound

to dust and dry grass.

The monk's habit is smudged

by tiny feet

climbing on his shoulders,

as if together they were a

flightless bird.

(published in New Coin)