Sunday, January 27, 2008

All Dogs Go to Heaven


Twilight and evening bell,
and after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
when I embark.
~Alfred Lord Tennyson

You may think it morose, but I take strange delight in walking among gravestones. In most European villages, you cannot help walk among gravestones if you visit any church building, as the churchyard is packed full of graves. Every trip into a rural European church building offers people an all encompassing reminder of their mortality.

In America, we prefer life and death to be served up on separate platters. Living in a culture that treats human death as the ultimate taboo, we hand over the bodies of our deceased loved ones to professional morticians in funeral homes who take care of all the unpleasant details surrounding our mortality. The dead are placed into expensive airtight, waterproof, metal caskets and lowered into machine dug graves in beautifully manicured lawns. Our cemeteries are often located far away from where people live, in the countryside, outside of town, where people must make special trips to honor the dead.

Then make a special trip. Take a drive. Visit the dead. There’s nothing morose about it. Give death a chance. Step out of the predictable world of the living. Step into the world of the dead. Walk among gravestones. Go sit on a granite tombstone. Ponder the names you see written there. Mr. Miller once sat where you sit, full of life and vitality, expecting to live and live and live a little more. Look at the dates, when he was born, when he died. Underneath your feet rests his bones. Listen. It is almost peaceful here. Feel the wind in the trees. Hear the birdsong. See the red and gold leaves catching rays of the setting sun scattered across the green lawn. Come back to this graveyard next week. Next week bring flowers. Clear off the dead leaves and weeds. Honor the memory of Mr. Miller and all those who have passed on before us in the grand processional of life and death.

In my wife’s homeland of Denmark, people make regular trips to the graveyard to honor the memory of the dead and tend to the grave plots of these family members. Each plot is surrounded by carefully trimmed hedges, beautifully landscaped and fussed over like little victory gardens. When the Danes visit the dead, there is a quiet but playful attitude present. Honor is given to the family members who died. Humor is give to death itself. As Danes stroll along the gravel paths, laughter bubbles up out of various clusters of people like some ancient spring of water.

I like walking among gravestones. I like the quietness, the green lawns contrasted with the dark tones of granite. In Danish graveyards, you find huge stones dug from the fields of the deceased love ones, now adorned with names and dates of the very people who tilled those fields. I do not tire of reading the names of husbands and wives, sons and daughters, lovers and friends. The human race parades across gravestones telling the old, old story. We all shall die. The wise sayings and ancient symbols point our souls beyond stone and grave to the unseen realm of eternity, singing the ever new story. We all shall rise and live again. St. Benedict, a monk from the 6th century, wrote, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” A Benedictine monk I know once told me to spend more time with elderly people. I asked him why. He told me that senior citizens would teach me how to die, and assured me I wouldn’t begin to live until I learned that lesson.

I live near the graveyard of the Pacific, the mouth of the Columbia River, where over 2000 ships have been wrecked over the years. As you stand upon the heights of Cape Disappointment on the Washington side of the river mouth, looking over this graveyard, you’ll find a plaque with the epitaph of English poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, the words of his poem, Crossing the Bar:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

Sunday, January 20, 2008



The simplicity of resting—
there is much profoundness in that.

~Khandro Rinpoche

The Southern porch. There is such a marvel as the Southern porch. Most homes in other parts of the country only hint at the idea. Call it the stoop, the front steps, or the entryway, but don’t call it a porch until you’ve spent time down South. Southerners believe in the genteel architecture of the porch. Their homes are built around this institution. The Southern porch is more than just the outer part of a building attached to the front or back of a person’s home and its also a whole lot more than merely a place to wipe your feet and shake hands. That concept belongs to busy, city dwelling Northerners. The Southern porch is people, family and friends gathered round to enjoy lazy summer nights, slapping skeeters, listening to music and just letting the evening slide by. I might be making more of it than I should. There’s a lovely attitude among my Southern friends that seems to say, “Boy, don’t go and ruin the thing by over analyzin’ it. Jest sit down on the porch swing, watch them lightnin’ bugs do their little dance. I’ll be inside fixin’ us somethin’ cold to drink. Holler if you need anything.” With sweetened ice tea in hand, ice cubes clinking in the quiet evening, we sit there on the porch, listening to crickets and cicadas, take in a thunder and lightning show if one happens along, and soak in the cooling grace of the evening.

After six years of life in the South, we returned to the Pacific Northwest. We don’t have porches up where I come from. We have cedar decks. Our homes are made of wood because we live in the land of big timber. Why do we build roofless cedar decks in a rainy climate? It may be that we’re descendants of pioneers who came over the wide prairies, over the Rockies, down the mighty Columbia River and settled here 150 years ago or so. Our ancestors built log cabins with their own sweat, fashioning a new way of life for themselves without anyone telling them they couldn’t. That rugged pioneer spirit is still hanging around. A little rain seldom dampens the spirit of someone born and bred in the Pacific Northwest. As the Patagonia ad tells us, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing’. We believe it. So we build cedar decks. We light up the grill, invite over some friends and settle down on our cedar deck and enjoy sitting around on our decks doing as little as possible. Cedar decks have nothing to do with doing. They’re a place to be. In the Northwest, we love nothing more than to settle into a deck chair on a sunny summer evening and spend some time with friends. We like to hear the raspy call of the Stellar Jay, smell the pungent scent of the evergreen trees overhead, feel the texture of cedar boards under our feet, and experience the warmth of the summer sun mixing with the cool air coming off the Pacific. Like Southern porches, a cedar deck is a soul place, a place of returning and rest.

These resting places come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. We all have them: places where we go to care for our soul. We are often alone in such a place. Solitude seems to encourage such interior gardening. It doesn’t seem to matter if the place is next to a building or outside alongside a lake, under the canopy of the stars. Some are formal, some informal. They can be full of sensory delight or stripped of all sound and sight. What matters most is what happens there or perhaps more importantly, what does not happen there. In such places our souls are watered like thirsty gardens on a summer day. We cease striving and begin anew to bask and luxuriate like a cat sleeping in the sun. We stop and listen like a robin on a dew drenched lawn in early spring. Once you’ve traveled to such a soul place to drink water from that well of life, you want to return again and again. It is easy to forget to take time to get away, yet you find your imagination sneaking off on a daydream holiday to such a place while surrounded by the mundane tasks of daily living.

I suppose every culture and region has such a place, a place outdoors to go and do nothing. Balconies, lanais, gazebos, patios, verandas filled with Adirondack chairs. They all came from that same place within the human spirit, the place of doing nothing, the place of the soul, the place of grace.

1. Khandro Rinpoche, as quoted in Joyce Rupp, Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 51.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sunday, January 13, 2008


It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place any one could imagine. The high walls which shut it in were covered with the leafless stems of roses which were so thick, that they matted together.... ‘No wonder it is still,’ Mary whispered. ‘I am the first person who has spoken here for ten years.’1.

Across the landscape of Old World Europe, travelers discover a common design: the delight of the enclosed garden, tucked away in the heart of places where people live. From aristocratic manor homes to peasant cottages, the enclosed garden is evident. The transforming power of such a place is captured beautifully in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic story, The Secret Garden, in which imperious Mary and sickly Colin find springtime freshness and health as they explore the enclosed secret garden of Misselthwaite Manor in the Yorkshire moors. To this day, you can find enclosed gardens attached to grand manor homes and castles all across the face of Europe. But you will also discover small fenced-in gardens attached to cottages and old stone homes, places where people have been growing their own vegetables and flowers for centuries. I do not know the origin of the European enclosed garden. I do know of an Italian monk from the 6th century, Benedict, who set aside space within the architecture of the monastery for silence, prayer and natural beauty. Among monks, such a place is known as the cloister, an enclosed garden where beauty grows.

As I’ve retreated to Benedictine monasteries across the North American continent and across Europe, I’ve always found an enclosed garden, a cloister, a space for silence and natural beauty to fill the soul. What’s remarkable about the cloister is how little ever happens there. In the middle of the architectural plans for a community, some wise designer set aside a place for the absence of activity, a space where next to nothing happens. A wise design. The ancient planners of monasteries, like the designers of manor homes, recognized something that most contemporary folks have forgotten: the quiet of nature refreshes our souls. More and more, even in corporate America, designers are recognizing the need of the human soul, the need for a place of natural beauty, a place where little if anything ever happens.

Come along and we’ll go visit a European cloister garden. The place is on the northwest coast of France, a tidal monolith known as Mont Saint Michel. High atop the rock perches a Benedictine monastery founded in the eighth century, now a United Nations World Heritage site. Leave behind the dozens of tour busses and hundreds of cars parked at the edge of the sea in the expansive parking lot. Walk through the medieval walls of this tidal island into the busy village marketplace. Ignore all the hawkers and shop keepers hustling their tourist trinkets and locally crafted wares. Head up the cobblestone pedestrian street, then further up stone switchbacks and stairways. Enter through the great gate of the monastery. You’re in for a good climb. Move on up through the outer courtyards, through great rooms, up more stairwells, past the scriptorium along the northern face, along stone pathways higher and higher up until you come upon the high courtyard just outside the Abbey Church. Instead of heading through the high arched doorway into the sanctuary, find the narrow pathway that leads along the eastern walls overlooking the mainland. Come through a narrow door and step into the jewel of Mont Saint Michel, the cloister garden. Perched over 200 feet above the sea below, surrounded by an arched cloister walkway, the small enclosed garden invites weary travelers to come and rest. Take off your shoes. Feel the cool grass between your toes and the warm sun on your face. Sit and bask in the natural beauty of the cloister. Do what pilgrims have done for more than a thousand years: rest your weary soul. Do nothing. This place invites us into a strange new way of living.

Sit still here in the secret garden of the soul and listen. Soak in the quietness. Rest for a time. For all who have found their way to that interior cloister garden, while you bask in the sun and quiet of that place, offer your own invitation to others in the form of a prayer of blessing for all weary travelers who haven’t yet found their way inward on spiritual pilgrimage into the secret garden of the soul.

1. Francis Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1998), 78-79.