On this lovely piece of property where Scott and I get to live and cultivate, we have planted in the past half decade over one hundred trees, though you would not suspect since the groupings limit the eye’s ability to correctly ascertain how much it is seeing.  We have a hedgerow of Leland Cypress, a dozen and a half new redwoods, several October Blaze maples, currently blazing right on cue as if they were in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  We have beech and birch and liriodendron (dropping their large golden leaves just outside my study’s window as I write) flowering plums, katsuras, two elegant cedars, a Colorado Blue Spruce on which to hang blue lights at Christmas, an Atlas cedar from the mountains of the Maghreb, planted to honor Trappist monks living amidst the poor, wantonly slain at Tibhirine in the far south of Algeria many years ago, their simple witness too much to bear to religious fundamentalists.   The surviving monks stayed on.

We have a Jujube, yes, like the candy and from which the movie palace sweet acquired its sticky name.  A dozen Japanese maples huddle together in the slash of shade on the house’s northern perimeter, along with a Hinoki cypress, their aesthetic sister, under which sits a Buddha now covered, after many years, in moss, befitting somehow his mission.  Douglas fir create a partial screen in front, where we removed many reedy old cottonwoods (farewell, Nebraska…).   This fenced land has seven old live oaks, Valleys, deciduous, majestic, with canopies that in the summer create total cover, and, in the winter, through which stars shine one does not otherwise see.   After several years of raking up their immense drop, I learned recently it is best for the trees to leave the leaves in place.  Ah.  O.K.

Fruit trees produce an abundance of apricots and figs and a smattering of peaches and pears too small yet to eat and enough pomegranates for the holiday table.  No cherries to speak of, not a jujube in sight, but plenty of quince, about a century late for jamming purposes.  The old plum tree produces hard little miniatures with stones too big for their skins.  The apricot has cankers, and will have to be removed.  Older and wiser orcharders told me you can’t really grow apricots in this part of Sonoma County.  I did, but not for very long.

But these are not the woods I have moved into.  Even saying I have moved denotes an inaccurate placement of the pronoun, and the wrong case for the verb.  Am being moved?  Moving?  Have been moved by?  Shoved?

Maybe wrong verb grouping altogether.  The more precise one is deform.  I am being deformed, or I am partially deformed, with some movement apparent towards a total deformation.  The forms, on which I have staked my life, actually, are melting.  No, withering away.  Falling apart.  Crushed by their own weight.  You get the picture.

The forms:  metaphysical assurity, moral absolutism, perfectionism.   More colloquially: understanding (of incalculable value), controlling (hello?), tasking, an inheritance of both Jansenist and Puritan forbearers with instructions on how to cram jam full a day, or perhaps a life, and maybe  even naming, Adam’s forlorn task.

Sometimes I can escape my body and float above and look down on this poor chap and all his efforts, genuine, sincere to a fault, and yet with a moral calculation to please and control the divine just enough to ensure some predicated outcome.  Some acceptance.  Some redemption.  Some abject atonement.  Some fulfillment of the tasks necessary, finally, to be found worthy.

Alas, no task, no matter how arduously performed, or how often, even to the end of one’s days, qualifies one.  There is no competition.  There is no reward.  No atonement.  No justification.  Your categories, dear Bill, are backwards.   Well, not even backwards.  No longer applicable.

The past eighteen months of my life have left me with one knowing, if you will: the divine (my awkward word) is not to be managed.  It is not to be defined.  It cannot be understood.  It cannot be manipulated.  It cannot be secured.  It cannot be disciplined.  It cannot be metaphysiced.  It cannot be natural lawed.  An asteroid rammed into Jupiter recently the size of the Pacific Ocean, and plot, if that happened to the earth, history is, shall we say, altered for all time. That being the case, in what lies the meaning, if at all, of our treasured lives.

Our imaginations have failed us, or at least not kept up pace.  Physics, particle, astro and otherwise, has over taken metaphysics, and all on which therein relied.  The universe is an immensity we cannot even though barely glimpse.  Hubble is the photographer to the divine court, and the billions upon billions of galaxies it suggests are a tribute to the divine imagination, always changing, or as Thomas Keating says, always just a bit ahead of where we might be.  To us, he is generous.

My precious categories are being shattered.  Missouri Valley Thomism (yes that’s the nomenclature used by Aristotelian metaphysicians at Saint Louis University and Jesuit environs mid-last-century) into which I was intellectually birthed 40 years ago is like an antique side car, clanging along next to the vehicle who dimensions I do not know nor cannot fully fathom but in which I find myself delighted to be travelling at a clip I cannot measure .

Eighteen months ago while on retreat I had an experience.  I attended to the experience, using what I had at my disposal, and did so sincerely.  Nonetheless, the experience got bounded by my limitations.  What else could I do?  I have my understandings.  I have my notions, formed by those I have thought much brighter than me, with candle power in excess of my own.  I have been attending to the One who was at the heart of that experience for a long time.  But my categories are so short, so clipped, so narrow, for all their breadth.

The divine, how can one say anything of this, I, like you, am experiencing is More.  Ahead.  All.  Ether.  Cupping the immensity of the universe in the anthropological hand which we provide him.  (So interesting, no?,  that humankind in inventing language did not create a fourth pronoun-set for the divine, instead relying on the third person singular masculine, now so entirely inadequate yet nonetheless clogging the pipes with its accreted corrosion).

We know so little.  And yet.

Saint Francis knew enough to touch the leper on her sores.

In Sonoma County, persons of accidental means are creating winter shelters for those whose accidental means have left them shelterless.

Paul Farmer is carrying medicine up the mountainsides of deforested Haiti to heal the sufferings of the most abject of human beings.

A woman I know has taken Bodhisattva vows to unite herself with those who suffer.

Parents are kissing their children good night before kissing each other.

Someone you love is weeping today with the immensity of which she carries in her heart.

We can’t pray disease away, nor keep our loved ones , let alone the worthies of every description in every place, from pain.  And every one is worthy.  So we do what we do.  And we pray for whom we pray.  Praying only changes us.  Our hearts.  Our capacity.  Our breadth.  Our deepening into mystery.  Our total trust in That which we intuit with our advanced evolutionary brains and hearts and souls to be at the source of all of this splendor and yet somehow imbedded in this immensity of suffering, too.  That must be suffering, too.

We can evade the suffering for awhile, some of us with those accidental means, seemingly for a long while. We can robe ourselves so finely that we forget our nakedness and the absolute reliance we have on others to sustain us.  We are no isolates, no independent actors, no self-reliant individualists.  We are only together even if our vocation calls us to be apart.  Our sinews are threaded to bones other than our own.  How different this is from the daily action agenda our electronic devices spew forth each morning.  How different from what I have planned.

So I am grateful to be in the forest, the place filled with the immensity of trees in which I am small and yet happy.  Fog in the morning, appropriately.  Deep shafts of light between the arched branches.  A soft floor for the inevitable falls.

And yet we are called into the desert with such regularity: the scorching sun, the altered vision, the parchedness of the land and the throat, the psychological lizards, the emotional cacti, mainly the sense of being in some untenable way, desolate, alone.

And the terrible news is, there are times the desert is the requisite place for our necessary tutelage.

And the time there leaves a lasting impression.  One is shy to forget their instruction: To give up the old categories.  To stop praying in the old ways to the old gods.  To stop idolizing the drossed bulls we have fashioned with such sincerity from our tired and ineffective beliefs.  Beliefs appear as so much smoke.  You thought you could grab them and hold them but they are elusive and now gone, a repetition of a mirage, leaving only the faintly acrid odor of ash.

If anything, we leave the desert with trust.  A mighty and de-glamorized trust.  Only trust.   It is a world away from belief.  There is no dogma to explain either the desert or the beauty of a supernova other than the dogma of awe.  To admit the paucity of the moral imagination and enter the realm of awe feels like salvation to me.

Mother Teresa (who I am not used to quoting) said: Do one thing.  Don’t take on the suffering of India.  Hold one outcast.  Spike Lee, likewise whom I’ve never quoted, says: Do the right thing.  We actually kinda know what that is, and it’s gonna cost us.  There is some whiff of suffering involved.  Chosen suffering, or at least a pinch thereof.

We are not in charge, really, of anything.  Our bodies will do what bodies do, and our minds, too.  History has a damnable tendency to repeat itself, and asteroids just fly into whatever planet they damn well please.  And yet, we are the recipients of grace, of beauty, of all of this created splendor.

And of the knowing beyond knowing of something More.  Something  Other.  Something Deeper, Penetrating, Mysterious.
God, the commonly held word to capture something beyond even the imagination and the limits of the limitless universe, appears to have endowed this evolving creature Homo Sapiens, (ah, sapientia, wisdom) with a capacity to feel deeply this knowing: of empathy, of relatedness, of love, our best word, our very best word.

In this must our wisdom lie.  It is contrary to imposed suffering, injustice, war, violence, exclusion, shame, power.  We know just a smidgen about it, but the yeast of that smidgen is enough.  From it love bread will rise.  We can trust, and we can gain our fill.  What else offers such hope and possibility and insight and vision and splendor.  What else?