The Lure of Sacred Space

Sacred space.  It could be the place where you said “yes” to getting married.  It could be a bench where you sat with your best friend after his father died.  It could be next to a tree on a lakeshore where you were filled with gratitude for the beauty of life.  It could be a place where, many times, you have prayed.


One such place for me is in the Abbey Church at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, MN.  I made my first retreat at the abbey when I was twenty-eight years old, and now, twenty-five years later, I have probably made twenty-three retreats there.  “Making a retreat” is a fancy way of saying that I have stayed there for four or five days and done nothing but eat, sleep, exercise, read, and pray.


Most of my retreat praying, the heavy duty crying-out-to-God kind of praying, has been in that church at night, sitting halfway back in a dark pew while looking at the illuminated altar.  It is white with a cross suspended above it, and, barely visible behind and surrounding it, the semicircle of monks’ seating.


During my last nighttime visit to the abbey church, I sat and recollected all the other times I had sat there over the years.  There were times of heavy grief due to death, loss of relationship, and a difficult move from a community I loved.  There was a vocational crisis or two when I was at my wits end and confused about what God wanted or even what I wanted in the deepest center of my soul.


After recollecting all this for quite some time, from my heart came the thought, “There is always the altar.”  Like a mountain amid the changing seasons with their snow, waterfalls, wildflowers and bugling elk, the altar is always there, unmoved, a silent witness to the spiritual lives of all who have gathered around it.


More than that, though, the words “There is always the altar” made me keenly aware that what the altar stands for—a place of offering to God—anchors my life.   I realized then and there that through all the crises of life that have risen and subsided over the years there has been one constant call from God:  to offer my life.


In times of struggle, grief or pondering the sacrifices that are at the heart of love, that altar is the place where I visualize the call to join my life to the sacrificial love of Jesus.  In times of peace and happiness, the altar reminds me that my life is not about me and encourages me to flow outward in service instead of losing my soul by clinging to my own comfort.


One memorable night maybe fifteen years ago, I sat unobserved in the shadows of the abbey church as a monk emerged from the opposite darkness and approached the illuminated altar with a freshly laundered altar cloth in his hands.  With deliberate and sure movement that I associate with a Japanese tea ceremony, he folded up the existing altar cloth, put it aside and then unfolded, crease by crease, the fresh cloth until it covered, edge to edge with nothing overhanging, the top surface of the altar.  He proceeded, for several minutes, to smooth the cloth with the palms of his hands, starting at the middle and moving outward, making it ready for the next day’s offering.


I love that he loved the altar as much or more than I do. Sacred space increases its sacredness when it is shared, after all.  Personal as it is, sacred space can also give us the great gift of drawing us into communion with God and with one another.  Sacred space always prepares us to go forth and be more sacred people.


Old Emails, Kaleidoscopes and Resurrection Light

By some technological glitch that I’m sure I will never understand, my phone ended up with over fifty thousand of my old emails in it.  In a process that lasted several days, I delved into a slow and laborious process of somewhat selectively deleting them from my email server.  If I had followed the advice of friends, it would have taken me less than a day. Their advice: “Just go in there and delete as many as you can at once and be done with it.”


I knew they were right, but could not do what they suggested.  Basically, I saw my life in those emails and I was afraid of a blanket deletion, maybe like one fears death.


The emails from some good friends spanned the entire twelve years of documented correspondence.  It brought gratitude to my heart.  Other emails were attempts to cope with conflict among the flock, and I hoped that the unhappy people found happiness eventually.  There were also quite a few gracious emails from people saying that I made a positive difference in their lives.  It’s hard to beat that, and I realized I should write a lot more of those kind of emails myself.


Sadly, I came across several emails from a young man whom I knew well for years and then drifted out of touch with a few years before he took his own life.  His last emails were excuses for why he could not get together.  At the time of receiving them I was probably annoyed, having no clue about the pain he was carrying.


Reviewing all of these emails put me in a reflective mood, of course, which was enhanced by the coincidence that all this happened at the beginning of Holy Week.  The hardships, though sad to remember, were illumined by Resurrection hope.  It dawned on me that pondering this random sampling of life with the light of Christ shining on it was like looking through a kaleidoscope in its ever shifting wonder. Everything belonged, even the hard stuff.


This led me to ponder the life of Christ as through a kaleidoscope. Without emails, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did the best they could to collect various scenes of Jesus’ life.  In the light of the Resurrection, they wrote stories of a beautiful life in all its shifting wonder.


Jesus is born to courageous parents who love him.  He irritates them as a boy even as he impresses many in Jerusalem with his precocious mind.  Throngs come to him for healing and he calls twelve to be close to him and learn from him.  High fives abound when they come back from a mission of mercy having successfully subdued evil by doing as he taught.  Not everyone likes him, though, and with another twist of the kaleidoscope the view darkens with contentious debate between Jesus and fearful religious leaders.  Sober resolve shows on his face pointing to Jerusalem in the knowledge that death awaits.  There are assertive and sometimes frustrating sessions with his twelve companions in a desperate effort to teach them that greatness lies in serving others.


Then the bread breaks, sweat as blood falls on Gethsemane’s soil, an arrest, abandonment, a cross.  And an empty tomb.  Encounters follow that point the way forward.  Again breaking bread, char-broiled fish on Galilee’s shore, a mountaintop commissioning to “Go forth and make disciples.” The kaleidoscope of Jesus’ life is one with much to grieve and much to inspire.  That sounds like our lives to me.


I’ll end up deleting all but maybe three hundred of those fifty thousand emails.  Some I will hang onto because they are too sacred and evoke too much feeling to let go. Someday, though, by technological failure or through my actual death, I will have to say good-bye to all of them in the Great Letting Go.  But they will not be lost. I suspect that in Resurrection Light the kaleidoscopes of our lives retain all of their parts. But they shine brilliantly beyond our imagination, with our pain and grief touched and healed and our joy and gratitude multiplied thirty, sixty or a hundredfold.

A Confession to the Mother of Mercy

My mom is like a squirrel with its nuts when it comes to chocolate.  She does not put them all in one place because access would be too easy and the ensuing consumption too fattening.  Mom cares about calories, and she loves chocolate.  This is a tough combination.  She copes by hiding the chocolate from herself throughout the house.  If she really really wants chocolate she will find some, but it’s not so handy that she will grow fat from a steady stream of it.


Further, Mom never eats a whole piece of chocolate.  A frequent visitor to Mom’s kitchen would not be surprised to find, next to the olive oil, a Mr. Goodbar, half eaten and rewrapped.  I can remember many times finding a half-eaten Hershey’s kiss, rewrapped in its silver foil, somewhat less shiny for having been worked over once or twice, amid the cans of baked beans, the cookbooks or the salad forks.


One day I was looking for a bottle of multi-vitamins, which Mom keeps in a kitchen cupboard above her small television.  I opened the cupboard and found something that made my heart skip a beat.  It was chocolate, of course, but it was more than just chocolate.  It was the best chocolate known to humankind, a Seroogy’s chocolate meltaway bar, with almonds.  Further, and strangely, it was whole and unopened.


I was alone, and may God forgive me but I opened that blue foil wrapper without much hesitation.  I cracked off a quarter of it and popped it into my mouth.  It was very good, like instantly-addicting good.  Before I knew what happened I had eaten the rest of the bar.


Childhood guilt filled my soul, but it was too late to do anything about it.  So, I tried to cover my tracks.  I went to the kitchen garbage container, pulled out a paper towel and put the candy bar wrapper inside of it.  Then I put both of them inside an empty cereal box’s inner bag, rolled it shut, put it into the cereal box and covered it with banana peels.  I convinced myself that mom would not miss it, or would at least not remember where she has stashed it.  Did I mention I was thirty-eight years old at the time?


After dinner that day, Mom, my brother Glenn and I were in the kitchen together.  Glenn was reading the business section of the paper and I was doing a crossword puzzle when mom got up and opened the cupboard where the multi-vitamins are kept.  She closed the door without taking anything out, and then began opening other cupboards and other drawers.  I grew anxious as it became clear she was looking for the Seroogy’s bar.


She sat down at the table with us and read a few obituaries before rising and again opened the cupboard where the Seroogy’s bar had lain next to the multi-vitamins.  She spoke.  “I could swear I had a chocolate bar in here.”  I thought it was about time to confess my crime when Glenn spoke.  “Mom, you probably just forgot where you put it.”  “Way to go, Glenn!” I thought, my face now showing the sly glee of a six-year-old about to get away with something. I might not have to confess my crime after all, I hoped.


But Mom continued to get up and down from the table opening that cupboard and many other cupboards and drawers until it was clear that she was growing stressed and anxious.  Compassion rose in my heart and arm wrestled for a moment with my inner six-year-old’s fear.  Compassion won, thankfully, and I blurted out, “I ate it!”


Without a second’s delay, without even the smallest fraction of second’s delay, Mom said, “Oh, that’s OK.  I was going to give it to you, anyway.”


This is how I learned to trust in God’s mercy.

Simply Praying

I keep a file for “Lent.”  From it, last week, I pulled out something I once read and liked about the history of the pretzel, from a Christian cookbook by Evelyn Birge Vitz. “The pretzel is a very ancient bakery item, which traditionally was eaten only during Lent.  It appeared each year on Ash Wednesday and disappeared on Good Friday.  It goes back at least to the fifth century: there is a Roman manuscript in the Vatican library dating from that period which shows a Lenten pretzel.  As to the shape: It is made in the form of two arms crossed in prayer.  The word bracellae, “little arms,” became in German Bretzel, then Pretzel.  These early Christians at no dairy products in Lent, so the pretzel was made only of flour, salt and water: It was as simple as it could be.”

I am attracted to simplicity.  Recently I visited with another priest in town in his living room and noted, with envy, that it was completely without clutter.  “Yes, I live a pretty simple life,” he said, “If I don’t use something for a year I don’t hang on to it.”  How is it that I can envy this man’s simplicity so much and yet be so far from imitating it in my own life that features a living room full of magazines, dishes, clothes, and souvenirs from places visited long ago.

Maybe for Lent I’ll declutter the rooms I call home.  Maybe I’ll give up Cheetos and replace them with pretzels.  More important would be to simplify my heart.

I was gifted with a simple and powerful prayer experience the other day that I hope to keep with me for the forty days of Lent.  I was trying to imagine St. Paul’s conversion experience and the love he encountered in Christ that was powerful enough to turn his life upside down in the direction of joyful service toward others.  Then I tried to imagine how it must have felt to have been a leper, a blind man, a tormented man healed by Jesus—the joy, the gratitude, the freedom.

With this preparation it was suddenly natural and easy for me to see my own life as touched by the love of God.  I recollected times when I felt close to God and knew that God was near.  I felt deep gratitude for companions on the journey of life, for Church, for faith, and for life itself, for all of it, even the hard stuff.  And then came my simple prayer.

Bubbling over with appreciation of God, and without thinking or searching for words, I said, “Help me be more for you.”  I said this to God.  It was simple, and it was the most satisfying prayer I have spoken in a long, long time.  I have a strong hunch that if I pray this prayer every day of Lent, God will give me plenty of opportunities to make my wish come true.

Sometimes our faith lives can get complicated.  We wonder why God allows good people to suffer so much.  We wonder why the assurances of faith fall weakly to the ground without inspiring us and search for a way to reclaim a life-giving relationship with God.  There is a time for this; it is part of the journey.  There is also a time to be simple and pray simply with an uncluttered heart.  Maybe you like my prayer.  Maybe you like one of Anne Lamott’s three prayers:  Thank you!  Help me! or Wow!  Maybe you will discover new depth in the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe you will find a simple prayer that is all your own.  Then, when you find one, you can celebrate with a pretzel.

What Will People Think?


The most vivid olfactory memory from my childhood was not the smell of Mom’s homemade bread, nor was it the smell of her sauerkraut simmering.  No, by far the clearest smell I remember was Mom’s hairspray on Sunday mornings, in the car, on the way to church.


Remembering the smell brings the whole scene to mind.  Six of us piled into the station wagon, usually three in the front seat and three in back–tight quarters, with nowhere for hairspray to go, especially in the winter months with windows closed.  Of course we did not file neatly out of the house together.  I was the youngest of four and the first corralled into the car by Mom or Dad, and then we waited for the last one to make it out of the house.  Usually it was Glenn because he liked to sleep as late as he could and also because teenage boys used hair dryers back then.


I waited in that enclosed space a long time some Sundays, all the while being asphyxiated by mom’s hair spray.  To top off my six-year-old aggravation, Mom would spit shine my hair; in the station wagon my cowlick was within easy reach of her saliva-moistened fingers.  It was a relief when all were in the wagon and heading toward St. Anne’s.


But just as I was settling down, Mom’s stress was mounting, and her growing anxiety almost always culminated with the words, “We’re going to be late again…what will people think?”


You might think that this is a sign of superficial Sunday observance, akin to the over attention to appearances that Jesus criticized in the Pharisees who loved to be seen on street corners.   They worried about how they looked and what people thought.  But I can assure you that Mom’s prayer with God’s People on Sunday mornings, then and now, is anything but superficial.  From the moment she slides into the pew after a quick genuflection and sign of the cross, she is attentive to everything that goes on.


I heard her once speak out of exasperation about a fellow church-goer who was complaining about someone on her way out of church.  Mom’s comment to me was, “Didn’t she listen to what she just said?”  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “’Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us!’”  She was not being self-righteous.  She was just noting what was obvious to her and wondering how such a simple and clear message at Mass could be lost on someone else.


Similarly, Mom has seen many of her friends leave the parish, either abandoning religion altogether or joining another denomination.  Again, without judgment but with sincere wonder, she will say, “Won’t they miss the Mass?”  Mom has been a member of St. Anne’s Parish since 1952 when she and Dad married.  They moved into St. Anne’s neighborhood because they liked Fr. Leinfelder so much, but it was not her affection for her priests that kept her faithful to the habit of Mass every Sunday.  It was and continues to be the Eucharist—her faith that when she goes to mass she receives Jesus and his way of mercy is reinforced in her heart.


Now, in her eighties, she gets to church about thirty minutes early, “so that I can get a good parking place,” she says.  I think there is more to it than that.  I think she goes early because she doesn’t want to be seen coming in late, true, but also simply because she can.  With no children to wait for and annoy with her hairspray, she can go whenever she wants.  Going early leaves her plenty of time to sit and contemplate being part of St. Anne’s for over sixty-five years.  It gives her time to ready herself for another predictable and wonderful encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist.  And, I think, it gives her time to watch young mothers hustling their children into the pew well after the opening song has begun.  It makes her smile.  What people think, it turns out, isn’t so bad.

In My Mother’s House

“In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2).

My father died in 2000 and so it’s my mother’s house now.  Probably by the end of 2018 it will be someone else’s house, though.  After fifty-four years living there, Mom is preparing herself to move to a place where she can be around more people.  I admire her detachment.  For years she has been telling her children not to give her things as gifts because they will take up space and make a move harder. She knows that people are what make life joyful or at least bearable, not things.  She will be ready to move when the right place opens up.

While at my mother’s house over Christmas, I woke early.  It was too early to do anything, so I stayed in bed and did a little prayerful reflection.  With Mom’s imminent move in mind, I did a spiritual exercise.  One at a time, I imagined each room of my mother’s house, hoping to attach a sacred memory to each one.  The memories flowed quickly, like honey in July.

In my bedroom I recalled the comfort of my “blankey” in my earliest years.  In the summer months, I like to raise the end not warmed by my body up to my cheek to feel its cool comfort.  I remember, slightly older, staring at my outstretched thumb while in bed and wondering if that thumb would look the same when I became an older man. (It does and it doesn’t.)  I remembered my brother, before we got too old for such things, pushing our beds together and us agreeing to hold hands as we drifted off to sleep.  I remembered when I was ten, leaning on my left elbow in bed while reading Jim Brown’s biography and then screaming as loud as I’d ever screamed for my dad after seeing a rodent scurry along the wall in front of me.  He came.  All was well.  I prayed a prayer of gratitude that my bedroom was a safe and good place to spend most of my first eighteen years.

In the “Blue Bathroom” I remembered the excitement of Mr. Bubble bubble baths.  I recalled both  portable wooden steps that enabled me to see the mirror when I brushed my teeth and the trauma of watching  in that same mirror my mother try to pull out those same front teeth with pliers after a fall from the front porch left them dangling.  I prayed a prayer for suffering children, that they be surrounded by people who love them, and that joy like I experienced from Mr. Bubble would also be part of their lives.

In the kitchen I fondly remembered my big sister making loads and loads of Christmas cookies with me.  I savored that memory because, sadly, she died in a car accident the following spring.  After her death my family began the tradition of having lobster tails for our big Christmas dinner, another happy memory, forty-four of them, in that kitchen.  I prayed for the grace to cope with deep loss in life, for myself and others.

In the basement I remembered hiding in the laundry chute during a game of hide-and-seek and no one being able to find me.  I remembered the countless hours in high school playing pool and listening to Neil Young’s Live Rust with very good friends.  I prayed for the lonely and in appreciation of how good it is to be “found” in our friendships.

I’ll stop the tour of my mother’s house there, but I could go on!  Older translations of the evangelist John having Jesus saying that there are many “mansions” in his Father’s house.  I prefer this translation because its spaciousness fits better with the wideness and depths of the lives we take to eternity.  John ends his Gospel by saying that Jesus did many other things not recorded in his book and that the whole world could not contain the books that would be filled if everything he said and did were recorded.  So it is with our lives.

Memories never end.  We take them wherever we go.  Like my mom, we can move freely from place to place in the expectation that one day all of our memories of places, people and events will come fully to rest in our Father’s house.  Our prayers then, I suspect,  will be prayers of awe and gratitude in the wonder of life, then and now.


I am grateful that back in 1996 the pastor I was serving with, George Szews, asked me to write short essays to be published occasionally in the church bulletin.  He was and is and excellent writer and the name of his column was, in reference to St. George, “Riding the Dragon’s Tail.”  In imitation, I named mine “Chasing Doubt.”

“Chasing Doubt” can mean “Chasing doubt away” in an effort to have stronger faith. It can also mean “Pursuing our questions to gain greater understanding.”  In my columns I hope to both inspire stronger faith and gain greater understanding, for myself and any readers, of the depth dimension of our lives.

Thanks for checking out my blog.  Thomas, Tom, tk, Fr. Tom…