Welcome to the View from Blackwater Bluff

Posted on: July 5th, 2013 by
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The Blackwater Bluff was my home. This blog detailed my many journeys while I resided there. This was a painterly HDR photograph of the house taken in 2011.


The original header of the blog was this collage of images:


I wrote a monthly article on domestic spirituality for the New Hampshire Episcopal News. Below are a couple of samples.

The View from Blackwater Bluff, Spring

The View from Blackwater Bluff, Summer

The Book of Common Practice:

Posted on: April 10th, 2013 by
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The Book of Common Practice:
A manual for discerning, deciding and writing a set of guiding principles for your life (A Rule of Life)

Written by the Reverend Canon Charles LaFond © 2013
Web-based read-a-long for St. David’s Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas and others interested in a read-along manuscript on Rule of Life

How this read-along will work…

This book has been announced on www.charleslafond.net under the “Books” section and will be offered on line throughout the spring at www.charleslafond.com by sub-chapter in a series of regular blog submissions every day or so. Every week or two, the almost daily sub-chapters will have taken the reader through one chapter. At the end of each chapter, there will be a series of chapter appendices which may include:
1. Samples of the author’s Rule of Life
2. model documents for discernment
3. support materials by topic for those writing a Rule of Life
4. discernment questions for those writing a Rule of Life
5. group discussion questions about the process
6. group discussion questions about discernment of Rule chapters

When a full chapter with 6-10 sub-chapters each has been placed on line in a series of daily blogs the chapter appendices will be posted and then, a few days later the entire collection for that chapter will be removed from the on-line blog availability and a new set of sub-chapters will begin for the next chapter, again, ending with the appendices. The read-along means that readers may go back through the blog to see earlier submissions of sub-chapters but will not be able to see previous chapters (which will go into re-write for manuscript publication.

As on-line “read-along readers” (you!) read and work with the daily sub-chapters and chapters, it is the author’s hope that feed-back on the web site and on Facebook about read-along reader’s suggested changes, additions, deletions or re-working will be submitted in the comments section as a way for the author to refine the manuscript.
The working (draft) list of chapters will include some of the following and will unfold as the book is being written:

Chapter 1: What is a Rule of Life?
Chapter 2: The monastic roots of a Rule of life and their differing Rules
Chapter 3: Why use a Rule of Life?
Chapter 4: The freedom of a Rule
Chapter 5: The move from the cloister to the kitchen – a Rule of Life for regular folk
Chapter 6: Discretio – Discernment and Discretion as a foundation for a Rule
Chapter 7: Defining the chapter titles of your Rule of Life
Chapter 8: Writing the chapters of your Rule of Life
Chapter 9: Dealing with resistance, accidie and writer’s block when writing your Rule
Chapter 10: Different forms of a Rule of Life: personal, family, leadership group
Chapter 11: How a Rule of Life forms a spiritual life: detachment, non-resistance, non-judgment
Chapter 12: The Rule of Life and the ego: having a Rule and not being insufferable about it
Chapter 13: Living with a Rule of Life which changes with life’s changes
Chapter 14: The rest of a family system and how they deal with your Rule of Life (without smacking you!)
Chapter 15: Rule of Life resources for the writer

Chapter One: What is a Rule of Life

Life by a thousand choices
Most of us, at one or more points in our life, look at some aspects of our life and wonder how we could possibly have found ourselves so content and focused or, conversely, so off track. And most of us, much of the time, fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum if we take the time to even ask such a question and then go the added mile of spending time considering the answer. As I look at the various parts of my life, the food I eat, the exercise I get, the way I handle money, the way I am in friendship or marriage, the things I do to nurture my inner life – how am I doing in these areas and others? Are they centered and healthy or do they need adjustment and of adjustment how much? Do I wait until a mid-life crisis or my deathbed to consider my life or can I find a way to establish how I hope to live and the find a way to be reminded of those hopes in a short enough time period that I can make adjustments and stay on course. This book offers one 2,000-year-old way to establish a hope for your life and live out that hope day-by-day.

This book is intended to offer a technology for use in establishing a hope for the spiritual and physical focus of one’s life and then keep that hope alive and on track. Life is made up of thousands of large and small choices. Some we make with great thought, input from our sages, prayerful consideration and intentionality while others seem to make themselves. But choices never ever make themselves. We make them. Even not making a choice is a choice. The choices we make can be life-giving, increasing the abundance of life or, occasionally, our choices can be ego-driven, narcissistic causing us and those around us great harm.

This little light of mine

Posted on: March 14th, 2013 by

Icon and Candle

The early morning is the time in my life in which “the one thing” of which Jesus speaks to Mary and Martha is alive and well. Before the sun heralds the time in which our society demands productivity, contributions to the GNP and economic investments for growth and stability; there is time to be with Jesus. That sounds rather pious and I agree with my friend Blake who says that he is now willing to exchange piety for goodness. As the sun rises, and the coffee shops begin brewing the liquid-whips which drive our bodies into modern slavery in modern Egypts, one can almost hear the African Angels singing “let my people go” in deep, swaying, longing tones.

This morning I found it hard to sit still for my stillness period. Prayer was OK but stillness was elusive. Ana Hernandez sang to me as she does every morning in her CD. Together we sing her rendition of “this little light of mine” on repeat track mode. we sing it three or four times together, and then I let her sing to me and Kai and the chickens and bees who seem to all lean into the farm house in some kind of mystical collaboration.

But instead of sitting with my candle in the silence I decided it was just the right time to polish silver. Hmmm… Hmmm….

I grabbed all six of the things my mother left me and even the polish she left for me when she died. I wiped and rubbed and polished like Jesus was coming and it all needed to be done before he arrived and I got scolded for stroking silver instead of beads.

Standing at the sink, black dots of spent silver polish flying this way and that, the words “there is only one thing” came to mind. Damn! Busted!

And in my mind’s eye Jesus was just off to the right and behind me, just out of physical sight, by the back door where my dad’s shepherd’s crook leans against the door – the gift he gave me instead of silver. he always hoped I would have a sheep farm. But the strange thing about the imagination-fueled thought, was that Jesus, as I imagined him standing there, looked nothing like the story-book images. He was not beatific, blond or in white floor-length. In fact, in my imagination, he looked a little like James Dean. A lot in fact. He had no cigarette and no scotch but he was leaning against the door like Dean used to in those pictures in his jeans and white tee shirt. He seemed not to be in judgement nor in anger. In fact he seemed to have a slight smile. Like he was amused.

My inner Mary and my inner Martha were trying to have a cat-fight in my psyche when my imagination shifted back to Ana’s song. This little light of mine; I’m gonna let it shine. And in the silver I could see my reflection. My eyes are clear and my heart is full.

The other day I was speaking to a vestry and someone complained that I had not yet mentioned Jesus. In a moment of clarity I noted that indeed I had. Had he not heard me? I was talking about people in church and people in church meetings and people in conversation about new forms of church and new longings for church. The Body of Christ is the church and the light of Christ is in the people who bear the Christ-light to each other and to the world. All of us. Even those not yet in the church or those who have been un-churched or de-churched. That conversation flooded into my mind. I dried my hands, lathered up with lotion (silver polish does a number on one’s hands in winter!) and moved back to my chair and the candle. Mary was no longer smug and Martha no longer sulking. There was just light.

Prayer to open session for the House of Representatives

Posted on: March 6th, 2013 by
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Prayer to begin session for The State House of Representatives and Governor of New Hampshire
March 6, 2013
The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond
Canon for Congregational Life,
The Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire

“We begin with a time of stillness. Most of the spirituality on our planet agrees in the difference between silence and stillness. Silence is a cessation of speaking, whereas stillness is bringing body, mind and spirit to a place of open peacefulness and quiet. I invite you in the silence which precedes our prayer to a period of stillness.”

2 minutes

Let us pray:

God of all mercy, companion us in leadership as we take responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty.

When we try to wiggle out of uncertainty by pretending that we are sure about what we think, forgive us for our pride and arrogance.

Give us the grace and humility to imagine a reality beyond that of which we are so sure; so that we may be right-sized even in our perceived power.

Help us to be against issues and not against people; so that together, we may lead not with power but with integrity – the integer of a wholeness of being, balance and bravery.


A sermon about manure

Posted on: March 4th, 2013 by
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“If it bears fruit”

What limited knowledge I have about the farm which I call my home and my pottery studio is that the soil is good soil. I have chickens and the hay from their stalls is fed directly into the vegetable gardens all year round. The bees which have hives on the Blackwater bluff swing round to tend to the flowers on my land as well as the fruit trees, vegetable garden flowers and the blossoms of the apple trees. I also have a truck load of manure spread in April so that the soil can be overturned and incorporate the rotting death and decay of old life which has been eaten to nourish local cows a few farms over.

It is all about the soil. And today’s gospel is all about the soil. In true Lenten form, we are being chided to address our sins, to be mindful of them not as shame but as healthy guilt; and to make changes to our lives which improve the soil from which our human lives grow. We know from scripture and history that the ancient warriors would salt land when they over-ran a defeated army so that the people would not be able to grow food and would be sure to starve if they had yet to be slaughtered. I lived in Haiti for a year or so in the 80’s and I saw up close what it is like to die of starvation. This hair of the kids in my class went red and soon they got very tired and died. It is slow and it hurts.

“If it bears fruit “

The questions raised by this gospel include “What bears fruit in your lives and my life and what is draining our soil of its nutrients? Where in our lives is the over stimulation, over caffeination, over scheduling and over-owning of possessions draining the soil of our lives of the richness of nutrients? Where is our unwillingness to let things die and rot so that the manure of them can feed new life? Where is the salt of our greed, our manipulation, our wastefulness – where is that carelessness and lack of mindfulness salting our soil?”

I remember a summer’s day in which I was taking a friend on a tour of my farm. She ooed and ahhhed over a summer squash (which was fabulous!) and though my impulse was to reach down and pick it for her to take home, something inside me sputtered, crackled, chilled, hissssssed and withdrew. “I had had a poor crop” a voice in my head said. That squash was the only one I could see. So I smiled, rather too sweetly, and we moved on. She got not my last squash. It was mine..myyyyy ….prrecciousssss…. My inner Smeagol was taking over my gentler Gollum. The next day, I was playing with my dog Kai and his ball went into the garden. In searching for it among the squash plants, I lifted leaves and found six, huge squash. More than I could possibly eat. I had never grown squash so I had no idea they might be UNDER the low canopy of leaves.

This reading is calling us to a new way of living. And though I do a lot of work I our diocese around stewardship and fundraising and published a book on the subject last week (which has had astounding sales even before it hit the shelves on Friday) I am not going to spend valuable Lenten time haranguing you about stewardship even though you have fallen into a rather frightening deficit. I am not here to chide you and furthermore scolding never works well in the raising of money or the formation around stewardship and gratitude. I can do nothing for those who choose to tip God rather than carve off a massive chunk of their blessings as a thanksgiving offering to the Giver of all good things through the ministry of the church. Some of you are giving the Widow’s mite – the very best gift you can give – nearly everything. Others are to frozen by the fears of not having enough or the greed of wanting more that it is spiritually too smoky and constipated to release a death-grip on money.

And besides, I do not believe stewardship and giving are logistical issues. I believe they are spiritual issues with logistical implications and support.

We are not greedy people, we are scared people and our greed is just our version of a scream.

No, giving will not be helped by posters or pledge cards, by slogans or pot lucks, by brochures or thermometers with red markers. Giving comes from a soil which has lot of death and decay in it feeding roots of spiritual life. The best and most generous pledgers are not the ones who understand how to give. The best and most generous pledgers are people who understand that God is God and that they are not God – that all we have comes from God and not from our employers or our banks or our savings.

This church is internationally known for having birthed a saint (Jonathan Daniels) who gave his life away because he understood God and he understood being made in God’s image as creator, self-offerer and lover. To the extent that we too live into our image is the extent to which we live rather than simply exist – the extent to which our soil is rich and sweet rather than dry and salty.

The way to be a great giver – a great self-offerer of your life and your love and your money and your time is not to work at being a donor but to work at being a Christian. It is your prayer life which will loosen you up – sweeten your soil. It is your spiritual practice every day at home and at work; your prayers, your times of stillness with God, your mindfulness about how you are living your life – it is that which will balance your soul and this church’s budget.

Lent is a great time to ask not “How much more should I be pledging?” but rather “How is my life oriented?” “What is my spiritual practice?” “Does my life reflect my being the kind of Christian Jonathan Daniels was?”

“Am I Christian or do I just go to church?”

The movement Jesus started and the movement Martin Luther King started and for which Jonathan Daniels made the martyr’s sacrifice are always in danger of morphing from a movement back to an institution. What is your spiritual practice? What is adding richness to your soil?

They say that when Martin Luther King had his rallies, people would drive and take busses and walk from great distances to show up and work for the cause. But Martin Luther King would stand at the door to those meetings and greet each new arrival in their sweat and dust from their journey. He asked one question of them after a warm and loving greeting: “What is your spiritual practice back at home?” Some would say ‘I pray daily.” Some would say “I meditate.” Some would say I study scripture and pray over passages which encourage me.” Some would say I meet regularly with a small group to pray and read and discuss life as a Christian in a hard world.”

Each one would be welcomed inside for the rally.

But sometimes a visitor would have nothing to say. They would say they work hard for justice or they give lots of money but have no regular spiritual practice which feeds them God. Those people Martin Luther King would turn away at the door – yes, even the rich ones. They would have to make the long trek home not even being welcome into the meeting. They would object reminding him of their fervor for their cause. Righteous indignation can be so invigorating!

When asked later why he did this seemingly unkind thing – why he sent these people home at the door – this act which reduced the ranks and coffers of his rallies he said “ If you do not have a spiritual practice then you will not have the voice you need to speak against injustice and you will not be able to remain still when the police set the dogs on you.”

Your spiritual practice will till the soil, moisten the soil and fertilize the soil. Your giving will emerge not from knowing you are doing the right thing. Your giving will emerge from knowing that you are desperately loved by God; and more than loved, that you are even liked by God. That you were made good and that your life is for letting that goodness sprout, grow and flourish like the palm tree in the hot sun of the love of a God who is absolutely crazy about us. So find or keep your spiritual practice and you will change this church and the world, one person at a time.

Lent 3 – “Love’s Manure”
Third Sunday in Lent
Year C
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Sermon preached by
The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond
for the Eucharist of Lent III,
March 3, 2013
St. James Episcopal Church, Keene, NH
On the occasion of a meeting with the vestry about stewardship, mission and a budget deficit

OK! OK! So… a fat Pig, a Dowager Countess and a Syrian Saint enter this bar right? And the Pig says to the Countess….

Posted on: March 1st, 2013 by


It turns out that toast fried in bacon fat has served me well in the spiritual life.

Today’s reading from Homily Three of Isaac the Syrian taught me a new word. It comes from the Syriac term shapyutha and it means clearness, limpidity, transparency, serenity. For St. Isaac, the soul’s primordial state is one of limpid purity and resembles the state in which Adam and Eve rested prior to tasting from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It makes sense of the limp-wristedness of Adam and Eve in the Chora Monastery Icon of the Harrowing of Hell during what we call The Easter Vigil-the night before the dawn of Resurrection.

I accept how pious it sounds before even writing it down, but still, I long for this shapyutha. I want this core value of the Christian existence in which we do not reject the world as planet but we do reject the world’s noise, silliness, greed, envy, labels, manipulations and so on. To be in the world and not of the world means to love the planet and her people but to not be mired in its fear-based noise.

Limpid sounds weak. Limp sounds weak…especially to men. I wonder how much of the noise and violence in the world has been caused by just this particular flavor of male fear and insecurity. A lot I think.

It turns out that “limpid” comes from “limpa” which is a Latin term which is its direct root and means the Roman goddess of water; referring to her clarity, stillness and power. I love the serenity of the ocean at evensong but have also seen what a Tsunami can do. Limpid is not weak – just quiet and willing to be maligned until an unseen – even unfelt earthquake shows it off in all its power. In the end, what is good prevails.

I long for, pray for and will work for shapyutha in my life. Someone recently asked me to what time in my life I can trace the dawning of a spiritual life. I found an image pop immediately into my head as if downloaded. It was the image of Montreal on a cold winter’s morning at 5:00 AM at the age of ten carrying a bag of 48 copies of the Montreal Gazette. They were heavy, the snow between houses was deep and the sky was midnight blue. The air was frost-laden and only my eyeballs could be seen from under my winter clothing. In deep snow I used a wagon on skis. But in that silence I began a conversation which still today lights my life.

When I got home my mother had made me a full breakfast. She was very British and a bit upety – like the sun is a bit hot. She made the most wonderful breakfasts. Perhaps not the best mother, she was a great human, full of suffering and of God, and a great cook who loved to cook and used it as self-expression and a form of love just as do I and my sister today. Those were wonderful English breakfasts. Kippers on toast, mushrooms on bread fried in bacon fat, creamed haddock. They were so perfectly timed for my arrival, so full of protein and delicious bacon fat – fuel for a long day in a country in which winter is beautiful – but tries to kill you twice a year. My mother made the Dowager Countess of Grantham look like a female version Mr. Rodgers.

But in the silence of the newspaper route and the silence of those massive hot, lovingly-prepared breakfasts, I began my day in such a way as to make very possible shapyutha which has, on my better days, proven to be the secret of life well-lived.


Posted on: February 23rd, 2013 by
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Someone asked me recently who I love and respect in the church as a mentor. I hate that question because the name which comes to my mind first (there are many I love and respect) is Paul Wessinger, SSJE.

I hate the question because the answer I must give, to be truthful, recalls him to my mind and my soul floods with tears as do my eyes. Crying in public is something I do from time to time but which embarrasses me a bit. My father was a quiet man and so did not show his emotions; and my mother was British so she didn’t have any.

(Just kidding to the British…sort of)

Paul Wessinger, SSJE lived in the cell next to mine at the monastery. We would occasionally sneak out to Harvard Square for Indian Food. As a novice, part of my job was to clean his cell when he was in his 90’s and unable to move without pain. His medicine cabinet was an icon to his vow of poverty: a toothbrush, a razor, a bar of soap, toothpaste, a comb and two other empty shelves.

He would, at first, ask if I would like him to leave while I cleaned but I begged him to stay. His transfigured beauty after more than 70 years in a monastic life and in the midst of his physical frailty was intoxicating. He was like spiritual catnip. We talked of prayer, French literature, celibacy, tulip bulbs, poverty, Chinese food, prayer, hope, cranky brothers, the church, monastic life, Indian food, our mother’s Christmas Cakes (they covered them in marzipan and injected them with delicious liquids), teas, Rule of Life, ….the list could go on and on but it is hard to type with tear-filled eyes.

Paul was only a mentor and guide for me for 15 years and when I left the monastery we found it hard to discuss. But I loved and cherish his wisdom and kindness in my life and the model he gave me for being human. Every day I pray to be transformed to be more and more like Jesus. Those prayers are being answer rather slowly. But I also hope that even a glimpse of Brother Paul is somewhere deep in my heart.

He used to say “Pray Charles. Pray as much as you can so that when you can’t for fear or grief or anger at God, you may float down the River on your said prayers. You will need that raft from time to time.”

I miss you Paul.

Click here for a tribute to Paul in the Winter 2010 Society of St. John the Evangelist newsletter (PDF).

Burning witches in Lent

Posted on: February 13th, 2013 by

Pet urns for cremains (the sealed repository ashes after cremation by fire)

Pet urns for cremains (the sealed repository ashes after cremation by fire)

When midwives burn at the stake, one can see them for miles.

In his Second Homily, Isaac the Syrian is speaking of mindfulness, though he would never use the word. He is trying to explain to the reader (his homilies were written as encouragement for hermits of the 7th century) that it is the ability to see one’s faults and, both ask forgiveness and seek amendment of life, which mitigates sin. Perhaps it was all wiped away by Jesus’ death on the cross. Or perhaps that death and resurrection were icons to the work we and God do in our hearts to let our faults be seen in the bright light of our mindfulness and then seek to ask forgiveness and make changes. Isaac reminds the reader that life is short and it is a crucible to burn out the evil and leave remaining only the good.

When a body is burned at the end of life (if cremation is chosen over body burial in a coffin) the only thing left is bone. The funeral home grinds it up in a big thing much like a coffee grinder so that it looks a bit like ashes (it never does – it looks more like white Grapenuts!) because the flesh is sent up the chimney as ash in the fury of the whirlwind created by the flames without the calmness of a reduction chamber.

Until I understood the difference between shame and guilt, I did not much like Lent. It seemed so counter to the joy of Jesus. It seemed fabricated by pasty-pale monks who mope and brood and meander in dull-depression -wearing it like a habit of spiritual superiority – like the burden of power. With translucent skin and scratchy habits draping repressed longings of self-expression – blue veins pumping cold blood under hair shirts in cold monasteries with cold liturgies while marvelous midwives are relegated to the heat of burnings at the stake for heresies they did not commit – the monks not even benefiting from the warmth by exiting their cold cloisters. Christian inquisitors throughout the ages know that a good fire in February will warm hands if you can stomach the smell and the screams.

When I am at a funeral home for the prayers said during the fire (which is surprisingly often given that I am a diocesan priest!) I often think of those innocent white witches burned by the church for healing bodies which the church kept trying to preach as evil, depraved and deserving of agony. The small window of yellow-white flame flickering as a signal of the end of life, draws me to those ancient and recent burnings and I tend to want to ask if the funeral guy if he can open that little door so that I may toss in my clerical shirt before the flames die out completely. But then I realize that the church has also done some good things and has that capacity every day to withdraw from the tyrany of the urgent and march into the challenges of the important.

This Lent many will be tempted to believe churches which tell them they are bad people. And there will be a very hot place in hell for their clergy. Or perhaps Dante is right and it will be icy.

And there will be other gentle churches and loving monasteries whose loving clergy and warm monks will remind us that we are not depraved nor evil; but that though we are not bad people we have done bad things. It is that mindfulness which will generate appropriate apologies and amiable amendment of life. The guilt we need to feel is over mostly small things. Not so much the things we have done but the things we have let ourselves do because we were not paying attention – not mindful. We have so much to learn from our Buddhist brethren if we are willing to hang our smug self-righteousness back up in the Mardi Gras costume closet where it belongs, next to the other complicated, studded black leather outfits with their myriad of buckles and zippers to hold us in so tight.

As I make the 21 funeral urns for a show in April and September in New Hampshire and New York, I am aware that they are more than art. They will, many of them, hold the remains – the “cremains” – of loved people and beloved pets. People will hold them in their hands like Kevin did, like Scott’s wife did, like so many have before and will again.

Lent is not a time to prepare for death nor a time to mortify (“mort” = death) the flesh. Lent is a time to be mindful so that shame is imprisoned in the dank cells it deserves, under lock and key; and guilt can begin to move though us like the hands of a warm, skilled and tender masseuse, working the knots out of our spiritual muscles and inviting new ways of living.

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Posted on: February 6th, 2013 by
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Kai models the one needful thing in my office.

Kai models the one needful thing in my office.

In the fourth ascetical homily by St. Isaac the Syrian, he is instructing the follower in the life of prayer. He says “Persevere in reading while dwelling in stillness, that your mind may be drawn toward the wonders of God at all times.” and then a little later he says “Conduct your works with knowledge, lest you abandon your entire course.”

Though he is writing for a specific group of people who have made a specific series of choices about how they seek to live, this is good technology for the rest of us as well. One need not be a hermit in an athonite cave or skete along the Karoulia to find ways to achieve stillness and study which works on the soul like the bellows works on the fire. Our humanity is infused with God’s creativity which is endlessly curious and loves all things at once. This means that we need ways and times to channel our passions into moments of stillness in the glory of God the way a magnifying glass channels sunlight to a point at which heat bursts a page into flame. I love that our new Bishop keeps handing out books as one of many ways to form our community of leaders. His first meditation with his clergy was to refer to his work-space not as an “office” but as “his study.” It set a tone. It reminded me of who I wanted to be when I was ordained.

When I travel among churches I like to see what my bothers and sister clergy are reading. I benefit from the discoveries of many and I grieve at the abandonment of study by others; wondering what sermons produce when stillness and reading are not providing ingredients to that important meal the listeners are forced to hear on Sundays between the Gospel and the Creed – and in counselling. But more than that, I am aware that when I am able to keep stillness and reading of the source material (the church fathers like Climacus and Isaac, of the 6th century and the church mothers of this one) as a part of my practice, then my soul’s embers glow more hot. That warmth is the setting for the bejeweled ring whose gems of joys and disappointments in life are centered in God who has me on his wheel; spinning, spinning, spinning.

A monk's skete on the Karoulia cliffs of Mount Athos, Greece

A monk’s skete on the Karoulia cliffs of Mount Athos, Greece


Posted on: January 31st, 2013 by


Dostoevsky twice mentions St. Isaac the Syrian in The Brother Karamazov and Christopher Columbus’ son took a translation of his homilies when traveling with his father as a companion. Outside of Orthodox Church circles, few know of him or his writings on Stillness and the spiritual life. A friend of mine, a modern hermit and great spiritual and intellectual mind, has inspired me to work through the new translation from Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, MA which arrived last week. Three of us are reading it. Each is a different kind of Hermit in modern versions. It is an expensive book, but its red and black ink and cloth binding are well worth the cost. It is a physically lovely book – wonderful to hold. It is heavy, beautifully bound and the paper is soft and cottony.

Its more than 70 homilies written in the 7th century will take more than a year to read at one page per day and even one page can be demanding from this hermit. He writes to encourage the solitary but he seems able to anticipate that the solitary life takes many forms.

I have never before now made such a distinction between stillness and other similar spiritual disciplines. I know that my friends with children roll their eyes at the notion that stillness is possible, and that my evangelical friends quietly question if stillness is the lazy alternative to saving souls. I used to think silence was a form of stillness, or meditation, or thinking, or prayer. Abba Isaac is teaching me that stillness is a gift we give to God and its results a gift God returns to us many fold. Stillness, in our culture is a sacrifice. It means giving up the morsel of entertainment or productivity which are our modern addictions – that which distracts us from our inner life and anesthetizes us from our insecurities, pain and fear.

Stillness, I am slowly learning, is like turning up the wick in a lantern so that one may see the room in which one is. It is a fluffed cushion for Jesus who would sit with us and whisper how lovely we are and how much God likes us. Stillness is the unrolling of a map. Once our map is unrolled in stillness; we sit with it. As we roll it back up to move into the activity of the day, there is a twinge of Twilight-Zone-like spookiness as we realize that the map has been added to by a divine pen, the holder of which wants us to find things hidden in God’s game of our becoming God’s hope.