Monday, February 23, 2009

Durham Cloister


Go to your local Benedictine Abbey and you’ll observe an oddity: in the evening, monks walk into the sanctuary for worship together, side by side, two by two. As they approach the center of the choir, the pairs bowed in unison twice, first forward to God, second side to side to one another. What’s all this nonsense about bowing? Monastic life never did appear sensible to busy people. Every time I head off for a weekend at the Abbey, my friends look at me like I’m heading back in time a thousand years. In some ways, I am.

The first bow I understand completely. After all, they’re monks. Isn’t the monastic life a total surrender of one’s life to God? Monks bow with their possessions, their time, their careers, with their whole lives, declaring in that gesture, “It’s not about me. It’s about God.” When you go into the sacred place next time, give it a try. Take a bow. A few years back, I started doing that little bend at the waist when I entered a sacred place. Strangely, something inside my soul brightened. It was like opening the window blinds and seeing the light of morning for the first time. God is already here. That slight bend of the waist simply acknowledged the wonder-filled presence of the Creator of the universe. One little bend of the waist and out flows all that spiritual stuff which gives our spines the shivers of wonder and reminds us what the wise sages have told us all along, that the chief end of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

That second bow is a bit more troubling. I’d prefer my sacred encounter to be just between me and God. We’re into private practice of faith. We’re American. Just me and God. Don’t ask me to walk in together with a stranger. Don’t ask me to bow to the man in the black robe. I hardly even know the guy.

That’s the whole point. Acknowledge the presence of God in the face of a stranger. You’ll find this same expression in the customary greeting in India, “Namaste”. As two people meet, they bow and offer that greeting, which literally translates, “the sacred center of my soul recognizes the presence of God in the sacred center of your soul.” My life is connected with your life. My soul is a sacred space I open to you. I welcome you as a fellow faith pilgrim. Let’s walk together, worship together, learn to love one another. That’s what the second bow is all about.

After that second bow, the monks file quietly into the choir stalls, take their seats and the service begins. Most of what transpires during “the divine office”, as monks call their daily times of worship, most of what happens is antiphonal chanting of the Psalms. They face each other, reciting in simple song the words of ancient prayers, back and forth, line by line, alternating from one side to the next.

Do you see the genius of this arrangement? Five times a day, a monk goes to a sacred place together with other monks. During those services lasting around thirty minutes each, they worship in intentional community, with God and with one another, like an ancient dance, but with words, voice and soul. Daily they encounter God in the face of the person in black sitting across the choir simply because they’ve been willing lay down their souls out of love for God love for neighbor as they bow twice.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


A Sonnet by David Robinson, October 2007

Prepara te ad pressuras, advised
Augustine, knowing well the way of strife,
‘Prepare yourself for pressures’, heed the wise,
By yielding heart and body, soul and life.
With clusters hanging heavy from the vine,
September’s sun sends sweetness to the lush,
While harvesters move slowly down the line,
In vats the grapes to gather and to crush.
Of old did Jesus trod by Galilee
In Cana changed the water into wine
The first unveiled sign of life divine
The winepress on the road to Calvary
'Let every one of you, your pressures fetch
Good liquor from the winepress so to catch’*

The image of pressing grapes in a winepress was commonly used in the Middle Ages to describe the work of God in the lives of believers who were facing pressures and troubles. While the work of pressing grapes is an autumnal event in the northern hemisphere, in February, the vineyards are being pruned back in preparation for the growth of grapes for the fall harvest. This blog post comes to you in the spirit of looking forward to the fruitful harvest ahead while laboring in the vineyard doing the hard work of pruning of the vines of our lives that they would become more fruitful. As Jesus taught, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful" (John 15:1-2).

*quote in final couplet of sonnet from a Doctor of Ministry lecture by Dr. James Bradley on spiritual formation in the 17th century, Fuller Theological Seminary, October 2007. Photo by David Robinson, from vineyard overlooking Botzingen, Germany; Spat Burgunder grapes in early October.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Wall Mural

Mural painting by Stefan Robinson in the old Whitworth Fine Arts Building.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


The first two movements of the soul written in this blog in the past several weeks, including the movement of centering and opening, enables us to store spiritual energy within for the forming of intimacy with God and usefulness for God in the world.As with clay on a potter's wheel, the most important work is what happens to us. Forces beyond us are at work upon our lives, working to center our souls, open our hearts, and shape our lives into the beautiful pattern God intended for us.

The third and final movement of clay is one that potters call “pulling up the walls”. A good potter like Jay Stewart will perform this anti-gravitational wonder in three pulls. I’m lucky to do it in seven. With hands properly braced, the potter forms his fingers as pincers on either side of the thick donut wall. Assuming the right among of moisture on the surface of the clay, steady pressure on either side of the clay wall and steady movement upward pulls the clay walls up. My pottery instructor taught us to throw from our right hand towards our left shoulder to counteract the left to right spinning force of the wheel. Of course, in this movement, about two dozen things can go wrong. Usually, several of them go wrong all at once. The clay gets dry. You hit an air bubble in the clay. You feel a need to itch somewhere on your back and twist your spine to adjust for the sensation. Your concentration wanders causing your outer finger to push too hard against your inner finger. Any of these and the pot moves onto the endangered species list. Moisten the clay, pop the bubble, ignore the itch, smooth out the uneven wall and you’re back in business.

Once the walls have been formed, then the pot is ready for trimming, drying, bisque firing, glazing and final firing. Almost every morning, I head to a cupboard in our kitchen, pull out one of Jay Stewart’s stoneware coffee mugs, and begin my day in quietness and prayerfulness, slowing sipping from a handmade piece of art. In that simple shape lies the whole wonder of the spiritual life. We begin to discover new life with God in this place of grace, as we fill our cup with soul habits that give us strength, gracefulness, beauty and stability. People who avoid “drawing up their walls”, often fail to discover hidden imperfections, interior places that are off-center, or a lack of stability.

Drawing up the walls can happens in our personal lives because we’ve yielded to the center and allowed our lives to become open. The spiritual grace of returning to God means allowing our lives to be centered and opened by a variety of pairs of hands: grace and truth, body and spirit, solitude and community, joy and sorrow, past and future, time and eternity. Between these forces, the clay of our soul takes form, becoming centered, opened and shaped into something of beauty and function in the house of the Potter. As the Bible describes us, “We have this treasure of God’s glory in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us (2 Corinthians 4:7).”