Wednesday, December 23, 2009


One of my regular daily practices is to go out to my back yard, weather permitting, and do some tai chi and qigong routines.  Chi/Qi has an elusive meaning but it refers to "energy" or "spirit."  And I do find these exercises both refreshing physically and also spiritually.  It feels like a contemplative dance or wordless prayer in motion where the Spirit is my partner.  It seems like every time I go out to do this practice I see one or two little neighborhood hummingbirds.  I just love seeing them!  Today, in the midst of my routines a white dove came by and stayed on the roof of a shed in our backyard just a few feet away from me.  I was just thrilled.  I whispered to it that I would dance for it.  Later it left and the neon green, black, red, and yellow hummingbird came shimmering by for a visit.  God is present in all that is but sometimes it is easier than in other moments to see, and be aware, and be delighted.  I hope someday to always be alert to those visitations.  This life is a gift, and God puts so many good things in our path to see and enjoy.  Merry Christmas, happy holy-days, everyone!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Waiting for Clarity

People are asking me how the wine is coming along from the pinot noir I started this fall.  That was the case last night with a student at a dinner at the seminary.  I told her that the wine is still in larger containers doing its slow, quiet work of settling and clarifying.  The wine is very cloudy now and I will wait for a few months to see if it clarifies by itself.  I have clarifying agents that I can use if it becomes necessary that will help clear the wine without altering the taste.  Once it is nice and clear I'll bottle the wine.  Well, when the seminary student and I were talking about waiting for clarity we both smiled and I realized that we've got another theme in spiritual life here!

Often in spiritual direction I am sitting with people, sometimes for months or even years, as we wait together in prayerful attentiveness as my friend is seeking clarity about various life questions:  What direction am I being called into in ministry?  How do I best respond to this relationship?  How should I address a particular concern with my spouse or partner?  What does God want from me in my workplace?  If I take this particular job I'll have to give up many other important things.  What is the right thing to do?  My prayer life seems to be changing, but what will that do to my relationship with God?  I keep getting variations on the same dream--I wonder what this is trying to tell me?  Now that I'm moving to retirement I wonder what I should be doing in my life?  There are a whole host of questions that come with faithful, reflective, contemplative living.  The Christian spiritual tradition offers various tools for discernment, for seeking God's direction (our deepest, truest direction) amidst the various pushes and pulls and interests that come with important life situations and decisions.

Out of these many contributions from the Christian tradition, I'd like to highlight an aide to discernment that comes from the Quaker community--the clearness committee.  Although I'm not going to go into detail about how a clearness committee process works in this reflection, I would like to emphasize some aspects of it from which we can all benefit.  A person (or people) is seeking greater clarity and sense of direction, of God's direction, in a particular life question.  He or she calls together some members of the community to sit with in one or more sessions that is marked by prayerful silence and questions of a particular kind.  The members of the committee believe that the truth that the person is seeking already resides within that person.  But the various considerations and interests that come with living in this world cloud his or her knowing, and the committee's job is to ask the kinds of questions that help the person engage the issues deeply and clear away the clouds to discover that inner truth or direction.

Whenever we are seeking clarity about a life issue it can be helpful to have people that can be with us, non-judgmentally and faithfully, in ways that are like a clearness committee.  A spiritual director-companion, a some friends, a pastor or therapist, some wise elders in your faith community, some family members that can be loving but also a bit detached from the situation, a colleague at work or school, or others that God may provide for you can be invaluable if they can help you freely explore your own deepest concerns and desires about the issue.  These are not people who are trying to tell you what to do--they are not advice-givers.  They trust that God resides within you and your deepest inner knowing will take you where you need to go.  They can sit with you in prayer, be a companion you in the waiting for clarity, and can ask you the kind of questions that help you do your best inner sifting of values and concerns and open you to the imaginative and prayerfully intuitive work that will eventually clarify your truth.  Sometimes that inner direction comes quickly, but many times it is a process that takes a long time before you have clarity.  Having some faithful friends can be helpful--they can be "spiritual clarifying agents."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Endings and New Beginnings

I love to get out for walks.  Always have.  And one particular route I often take is along the San Pablo Bay on a regional trail system.  When I come upon the "trail's end" sign it gives me pause, both literally and as an opportunity to reflect on endings and new beginnings in life.

The season of the church year when I am writing this meditation is Advent.  In the quirkiness of the church's liturgical calendar the end of the year has already happened and a new year begins with the four weeks of Advent that lead to the celebrations of the Christmas season.  This is also a time in nature's cycle when, in my part of the world, the days are shortening and the darkness is increasing.  Things are getting colder.  In Michigan, the land of my birth, much of the plant life has gone into dormancy for the winter and it looks pretty dead.  Endings are all around.  And yet, spiritual traditions often whisper of new life and hope.  Advent is such a time of anticipating new birth.

It seems that my life has seen many small endings, and new beginnings.  I expect that is also true for you.  Experience teaches that the end of one trail may open up the possibility for a new journey to begin, new territory to explore, new life to be lived.  But those times where endings are happening and new beginnings might not be clear yet is often touched with melancholy, darkness, unknowing, perhaps even disorientation or grief.  These are times where we are invited to live in hope...that life will emerge anew, and sometimes unexpectedly, beyond our control.

When Teresa of Avila, one of the great spiritual Doctors of the Church, died in 1582 there was found in her prayer book the following words which have become known as the "Bookmark Prayer."

Nada te turbe,
nada te espante;
todo se pasa,
Dios no se muda.
La pacientia todo lo alcanza.
Quien a Dios tiene nada la falta:
solo Dios basta.

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

Endings are bound to happen. Change is a constant in this life. But the love of God is everlasting and with that love is a creative energy that will not be thwarted.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A New Covenant with the Earth

About 20 years ago I was at a diocesan clergy conference with the Rev. Herbert O'Driscoll, an extraordinary Anglican preacher and educator on homiletics. His topic for the conference was developing what he considered to be important scripture themes for this time. One of those themes was "a new covenant with the earth." That thought of a new covenant has been for me a profound way into a spiritual re-framing of our relationship with the earth in a time of a growing ecological crisis that has been largely due to our wanton misuse and exploitation of the world's natural resources.

In Christianity we have had several "covenant" understandings that we should examine and see how often the fruit of those understandings have been destructive. Two ancient Judeo-Christian mythic stories come to mind for me. The first version of the creation story (yes, there are two versions) in Genesis tells of the "days" of creation culminating in the creation of humanity on the sixth day with this warrant:
God blessed them, and God said to [human beings], "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28)

The theological warrant for domination of the earth is drawn from that story. The second version of the creation story in Genesis 2 is slightly different in that God places the human in a garden (of Eden) and the human's purpose there is "to till it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). Husbandry is the purpose of humanity in that story rather than domination. In the first version humans are clearly at the top of an order of domination. Humans are more removed from the rest of creation and are given authority to subdue and dominate it. In the second version humans are closer to creation. Humans have a job tending the garden. They are still somewhat removed because they can name things (and therefore exert some control) and eat from everything but the forbidden fruit but the relationship is closer to being a steward of God's creation.

In a later mythic story a "covenant" is established between God and Noah after the great flood that destroys all living things except that which was saved on the ark. In Genesis 8 and 9 that covenant includes: God never again cursing the ground because of humans and never again destroying every living thing (8:21-22); and giving over every living thing to human control (9:1-3). The primary theological warrant that humans are removed from the rest of creation and given dominance by God over creation still seems to be in place. An anthropocentric hierarchy over creation gets firmly established.

This has largely been unquestioned (at least within Christian thought) until we began awakening to the ecological crisis we have been causing with this deadly sense of privileged domination. Native Americans with traditional spiritual understandings see things quite differently. Humans are a part of a whole community of creation, sharing a kinship with other beings. There is no radical separation from the rest of creation.

Eco-spirituality in Christian theology looks at the domination motif as something we need to repent from. Separating humanity from the rest of creation violates the relational basis in life--we are actually a web of interdependent, mutual relationships which we should tend and provide care for mutual benefit. All creation is a part of a sacred body--there is no separation or hierarchy between the material and spiritual. God, though not fully contained in creation, is not radically separate from the cosmos. And we are accountable for our relationship with the earth to Christ.

So as we look to Thanksgiving Day and other times of gratitude for what the earth so generously provides for us to sustain our lives, this would be a good time to make a new covenant--a new sacred promised relationship of mutuality with this good earth and with the God that so delights in all creation. We have much to do to repent from our exploitative ways and repair our relationship with this earth that is our home. Let this 21st century be the time of a major new Earth Covenant that embraces the wisdom of many faith traditions in the shared commitment to reformed practices, a renewed relationship of respect with the earth, and a boldness to challenge narrow economic, political, social, and personal privileged self-interests.


Here’s a little postscript. After writing this meditation I took a walk by San Pablo Bay and it came to me that students of Celtic influences on Christian spirituality may take issue with my rather blanket indictment based on the later tradition’s relationship with nature. There are some medieval sources that see nature as graced and we benefit from this branch of a more “earthy” spiritual tradition in Christianity.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Many things need good containers and certainly that is the case with wine making. I use good food-grade plastic containers and glass carboys that hold up to 6.5 gallons of wine. These containers have fermentation locks which allows carbon dioxide to escape during with wine's fermentation process but also keeps outside airborne yeasts from coming in and contaminating the wine. There's a familiar saying attributed to Jesus in three of the gospels about not putting new wine in old wine skins (Matthew 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-39). In those days new wine would be put in new wine skins because fermentation would continue and the new skins would be flexible and pliant enough to expand. Old skins would harden and not expand with the continuing fermentation, resulting in burst skins and lost wine.

In the past 25 years there has been interesting work done on approaching faith and human maturation developmentally. Building on Jean Piaget's theory of child cognitive development and Erik Erikson's work on adult psycho-social development, James Fowler, Robert Kegan, and Elizabeth Liebert are some of the writers who apply this approach to spiritual life and faith development. I think of increasingly large "containers" that hold our understanding of God, reality, relationships, faith, and meaning. Sometimes we grow out of an old container and need a new one that is larger and more expansive. At an earlier time in our life we probably needed a concrete, literal understanding of scripture. God was seen in human terms. Rules and laws gave a safe structure to understanding the "right way" to live. Later, as abstract reasoning develops we might begin to question some of the earlier ways of understanding. We might begin to understand that there is a place for myth and metaphor, the power of symbolic truth as well as literal truth. Hopefully, church and authority structures are flexible and expandable enough to hold us in our questioning. (Which is, unfortunately, not always the case.) And we might come to understand that the way we understand God changes over time--and that eventually we may find that no container can completely hold God or our spirit.

In spiritual guidance work we try to provide a safe and respectful container that is flexible and expandable enough to hold our group or directee so they can do the inner work they desire to do. We try to honor where the person is in their own faith/spiritual development and be available to them as they form their questions, discover their sense of wonder and mystery, explore meaning, and seek wisdom.

How flexible and expandable is the wine skin of your spirit? What would happen if you burst that container?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Connected in God's Love

I write this entry on the occasion of All Saints' Day in the church's liturgical year--November 1. Our society just widely celebrated Halloween, the evening before All Hallows' (Saints') Day. Today and the day following (All Souls Day or All Faithful Departed) is a special time for the Christian community to remember and give thanks for being connected through God's love with all those who support us in our lives, the saints who have gone before us who are witnesses to the spiritual foundation of our living, and also our personal circle of people who have touched our lives but have died.

That sense of being connected, even with those who are no longer living, is a powerful spiritual dynamic which can have a positive and negative side to it. In grief we might feel deeply connected to a deceased loved one and have that as a consolation--but we might also feel the pain of disconnection and insurmountable distance. Some of my directees or former parishioners have had things they wished to say to a loved one but death or incapacity came too soon for that to be expressed. And sometimes we miss people terribly. Times like All Saints' Day can be a special time, poignant and tearful perhaps, where we can be with a community that honors those who have been important to us and pray for them, and remember that by God's grace we are in communion with all the "saints" past, present, and yet to come.

Scripture gives us some hints of that connectedness. I think of Jesus' words in the gospel of John that he is the vine and we the branches (15:5); or Paul's moving statement of faith: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39).

That connectedness as a spiritual reality is something that I can occasionally intuitively, prayerfully, sense; and often just simply take on faith. There are times when I will pray to God to "pass" this or that little message onto my deceased loved one. Or some moment will come that reminds me of someone who has died or is geographically distant and I'll just speak to that person as an act shall I name this...imagination? that on some deep level we are all still connected? I know that in my heart, my inner world, there is room aplenty for the living and those who are no longer alive on this plane of reality; time and space are not such linear things there. That ancient Celtic intuition of "thin places" seems to be much more accessible.

I love this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (p. 395):
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I am curious about the frequent association of wine and life celebrations. My wife and I just returned from a trip to New Jersey to join family and friends in celebrating her mother's 80th birthday. Wine was raised in toasts to her. The long table for the feast had flowers, food, water, and red and white wine ready for use. In this situation the occasion was to celebrate a major milestone birthday.
Earlier in the year another gathering of friends and family had celebrated the memory of my uncle and we grieved his loss and appreciated his legacy of love and care. Again, food and wine played a central role in our ritual of honoring a loved one.

In the Christian Sunday ritual of worship that I normally participate in bread and wine are central elements used to celebrate the life and death of Jesus and the empowerment of those who follow him. That these are nurturing gestures speak powerfully, even to our deep collective unconscious needs for life symbols. "This is my body broken for you, eat this in remembrance of me. This is my blood poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins. Drink this in remembrance of me." That goes deep into the psyche, offering a pathway to restoration and wholeness.

I would expect that other religious traditions have powerful rituals involving wine as well (and would enjoy your sharing about those practices). How has wine been used with celebrations in your life?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Patient Waiting

A couple of days ago I put a sample of the new wines in a hydrometer and measured them to be sure they have completely fermented out. A while ago I was concerned that the fermentation had stuck, remember? Well, the good news is that they have completed fermentation. And there is no bad news!

Now the wines will sit for a while yet to let the lees (the dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation) settle to the bottom of the containers. Then I'll "rack" the wine (transfer it using a plastic tube) into another container, being careful to leave as much of the lees and other sediment remaining on the bottom of the secondary fermenter.

Waiting plays a major part in wine making: waiting for complete fermentation (or you could have exploding bottles!), waiting for lees to settle and set on the bottom of the container, waiting for wine to clarify, and waiting for wine to mature. The waiting is active in that I know what needs to happen and what to anticipate, as well as how to look for the signs of when it is time to move the process to a new step. But the waiting requires patience, and trust in the process.

As a spiritual director, as well as a wine maker, waiting has a very important role in providing companionship to another person or group in their spiritual life. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a great 20th century French philosopher, paleontologist and geologist, and Jesuit priest had an evolutionary understanding of faith life, the cosmos, and the future of humanity. He was able to envision God at work over eons of time and in human spiritual history. He applied that vision of the slow and faithful work of God to a student who we was mentoring. I often share this letter of his to my own directees, and try to follow its wisdom in my own life:

Patient Trust in Ourselves and the Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are, quite naturally, impatient
in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that
it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
And that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually—
let them grow, let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don't try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you; and accept the anxiety
of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Depth Perspective

I have to admit that I was very anxious and agitated today as I was on my third trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles trying to get all the documentation and procedures in order so that I could finally complete my first registration of one of our cars and a camper trailer in the State of California. I knew that we would be paying heavy late fee penalties because it hadn’t been clear (to me, at least) what the rules and procedures were when we came to the Golden State. Well, things went fairly smoothly this time and I got it finished up. Whew!

On the drive back home I came upon a beautiful vista of the San Francisco Bay’s north part, San Pablo Bay. The wind had picked up lately and there were white-capping waves on the bay, and the scene was gorgeous. The view reminded me of an analogy I have of spiritual life/soul being multi-layered, with the possibility of being consciously aware of those different levels all operating at the same time.

The analogy is that of our soul being like the ocean. On the ocean there is a surface level where the sky meets the water. The sky might be clear or cloudy, the weather can vary, and the water might be calm or churning with violent waves. I too can see my own surface level and notice my anxiety today. I’d been all stirred up and felt out of control about getting that car and trailer through the DMV. It’s been pretty wavy, windy, and turbulent on my soul’s surface and I’ve felt vulnerable and a bit angry.

Going deeper in the ocean there are various creatures that live there. Some are quite beautiful, some seem ugly perhaps. Some are gentle, or shy, or skittish, or attractive, or powerful. Others might be aggressive and predatory. You get the idea. What creature in my inner world might be coming into view today? I suspect that with the way I was getting all twitchy with having to go to the DMV I was projecting my fear of some sea monster onto the agent I would meet! But likely the monster was more my own inner defensiveness than whomever was “out there.”

There are currents and tidal forces that run through the ocean’s waters. And so too in our soul. Less seen than gently or strongly felt, the currents and tidal forces of our lives pull at us and move us in our moods, emotions, feelings, and instincts. Attractions and repulsions inhabit these realms. We can try to move against those currents or with them but they are best recognized as real forces that have an impact upon us; and that we need to respect them, and discern as best we are able the wisest way to respond to them.

There is a place of great mystery and darkness in our inner spiritual world, just as in the depths of the ocean. This, too, is the place where the divine Mystery, the Holy Presence, dwells… and meets, and is, that which is beyond our normal consciousness of the self we think of as “me” or “you.” It is still and silent there, for the most part. Ancient…timeless. We cannot so much know with our rational knowledge about that place in ourselves as sense it through a graced-wisdom, a heart-knowing. But not everywhere is still and silent in that deep inner place. There are also vents in that dark floor bottom where springs of the Spirit gush powerfully, birthing new creativity, new possibilities, and renewed life.

In my better moments I am aware that something like this is going on inside me right now. I can send my awareness like a deep-sea diver to visit those various depths. And in visiting those parts of my soul, I will gain some wisdom. I may become aware that although a part of me is still trying to work through my feelings about the DMV and change my attitude, another part of me can – at the same time – be at peace in that dark, quiet place where the One abides and discover the new creativity that is gushing out right now and enjoy the new life that I’m being given.

Did you think this was only going to be about wine making?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Ignatius and Benedict

In wine making there is an intense period followed by a less intense, more gradual period of fermentation where the juice is converted into wine:  primary fermentation and secondary fermentation.  I've mentioned these in previous notes.   This activity of conversion or transformation has its rough analogy to spiritual life, although there are plenty of variations on this general movement.  William James, the psychologist that did early studies on spiritual development wrote of people that were "twice born" (having a rather dramatic spiritual awakening) and "once born" (those who had always sensed a spiritual connection in their life).

I've heard Ignatian spirituality contrasted with Benedictine spirituality as the difference between cooking with a pressure cooker and a slow cooker.   The Ignatian approach is systematic and employs imagination in meditations and devotional exercises in an extended intensive retreat to bring about change, commitment, and greater clarity in God's call.  However, there are modifications that can adapt Ignatian spiritual exercises over a much longer period of time than the intense eight day or thirty day retreat.   But there is a systematic and intensive focus on transformation that was part of Ignatius of Loyola's purpose in developing the 16th century Spiritual Exercises.  And Ignatian exercises primarily focus on the individual's spiritual life.  There are adaptations to community spiritual discernment, but it is more individual-oriented.  There was a time, especially in my mid-20's to early 30's, where the spiritual ferment was rapid and intense.  The tools I tended to employ in my spiritual life were more akin to Ignatian exercises, although I wasn't exposed to that particular tradition until later when I was studying Christian spiritual traditions and had contact with a spiritual director.

Benedictine spirituality is a community-based long-term shaping of its members so that they might become a "school of Christ's service."  The 6th century Rule of Benedict, drawing upon but moderating other monastic rules has been the basis for western monasticism to this day.  It has its influence beyond the monastery through retreatants seeking quiet and the rhythm of the daily prayer offices.   Some of these retreatants become regular visitors and later friends of the monastic community and find ways where the Rule influences their lives outside the cloister.  I'm in a vowed relationship as an oblate of St. Gregory's Abbey, a Benedictine community of men within the Episcopal Church, in Three Rivers, Michigan.  Having a relationship of 30 years with that community, reflecting on the Rule, and applying this spiritual tradition to my life has influenced and aided that slow, steady, process of spiritual deepening for me. 

Does this description of spiritual life bring up questions or comments about your own experience and thinking?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I'm wondering if it has been too cold lately for fermentation to continue.  No bubbling in the fermentation locks has been noticeable for the past couple of days.  We have the heat set at 65 degrees overnight and the temperature hasn't gotten too much warmer during the daytime in our house.  It could be that the yeast has gone dormant because it is too cold--so fermentation is stuck.  It is likely to get hotter so I'm just going to wait a while and see if that gets the yeast going again.  It is also possible that most of the fermentation was complete shortly after I racked the wine to the secondary containers and so further change isn't easily apparent.  So, wait a while...test out the situation for a bit, observing if there is subtle change or not, or if there is anything that is required of me.

Sometimes in spiritual life it can feel like we are in a stuck place.  Nothing seems to be happening.  No apparent growth or change or even particular interests are evident.  Occasionally we do get stuck.  I may be resisting change.  Sometimes I just want to be in a "holding pattern" and feel the comfort of that which is known and familiar, including my present understanding of God and my relationship to God.  Sometimes we might be unconsciously resisting spiritual movement--I might feel that there is something in me that is holding back but I don't know what that is.  Or maybe I feel a little numb about my relationships, including that core Being, or bored, or disconnected.  Maybe there is something I fear I am being invited into so I unconsciously defend myself.   Having a trusted spiritual friend or group to honestly share those times with can help us move through the experiences of stuckness. 

And sometimes what feels like stuckness isn't really what is going on deep within.  Sometimes God is working at a dark level below our conscious awareness.  Perhaps in our prayer we can give God permission to do that deep work--that slow, subtle healing and transforming work in those places beyond our awareness.  Maybe we will only see the product, the fruit, of that work later on in our life; or have it reflected back to us by others who can see the evidence of that interior work of grace more clearly than we are capable of seeing in ourselves.

Have you had times of feeling spiritually stuck?  What did you discover through those experiences?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Awareness of the shadows

There are two things that come to mind for me related to wine making that I would like to mention as "shadow sides."  One is a technical consideration.  Not all yeast is helpful!  The wine maker has to do the best he or she can to keep everything clean as possible to guard against contamination by airborne yeast, or yeast that had already been on the grapes.  We start with killing off all yeast on the grapes by adding sodium metabisulfide to the must, covering the must with plastic, and letting it set for twelve to twenty-four hours before adding a special wine yeast.  Once fermentation is underway and throughout the process the wine maker uses fermentation locks and carefully lessens the chances of contamination of the must by unwanted yeast.  If such yeast gets into the fermenting wine it can be ruined--turned to vinegar. 

Of course, concern for contamination and an unwanted change shows up as a spiritual issue too.  In a conversation about bread Jesus warned, "Watch out--beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod." (Mark 8:14-15).  Now, this is a tricky statement that might lend itself in our time to anti-semitism.  The Pharisees were a branch of Judaism in Jesus' time that were not always opposed to Jesus, some were friendly to him and they shared some important beliefs in common with Jesus.  The warning seemed to be more particular to a tendency to a legalism that could blind some of those members to compassion and justice.  Herod also seemed marked as spiritually corrupt and a collaborator with the Roman occupiers.  We should be careful to safeguard ourselves against forces that can corrupt us or blind us to genuine need in the world.  We shouldn't take our continuing spiritual health for granted.  However, we should also be careful not to be over-obsessed with spiritual purity.  Let's live spiritually aware.  Let's be discerning about forces that might distort us or oppress others, but also move in the present and into the future with joy and trust in the power of the Spirit at work in and around us.

The second shadow I'd like to speak about in the art of wine making is an awareness of addiction, dependency, and excess.  Alcoholism is a disease that affects many people directly or indirectly.  No one chooses to be an alcoholic any more than someone chooses to be allergic to something.  The effects of alcoholism can be devastating, and the recovering process often has an essential spiritual component.  Excessive use of alcohol can be death-dealing.  Moderation in using most things is likely to be a virtue.  It surely is the case for using alcohol.   St. Benedict of Nursia, in his sixth century Rule for monasteries urged moderation in food and drink--including wine.  Some people need to abstain from drinking intoxicating beverages for various reasons.  We should always respect that choice.  We all need to be prudent when taking powerful chemicals, drugs and alcohol alike, into our bodies.   Sorry if this sounds like a health safety lecture, but I have seen people I loved hurt and killed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Harvest blessing ceremony at Terra de Promissio Vineyard

A Wine Maker's Spiritual Reflections

August, 2009. This month my wife, Ruth Meyers, and I moved from Evanston, Illinois to northern California and are now living near its Wine Country. Ruth had accepted a new teaching position as professor of liturgy in Berkeley at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP). I will re-build my spiritual direction ministry in this part of the country. Shortly after our move we needed to go to a memorial service for my Uncle Don in Arlington, VA. At a family gathering I met another of Don's nephew's who is friends with the owners of a vineyard in Sonoma County, Charles and Diane Karren. Since I'm an amateur vintner I was looking for any contacts with vineyard owners where I might get some wine grapes. I subsequently contacted Charles and he invited me to participate in a simple ceremony blessing the vineyard that the family does every year as harvest time approaches.

September 6. Ruth and I just returned from blessing a vineyard in Sonoma County--Terra de Promissio "The Promised Land." The owners are a lovely family and are generously giving me enough pinot noir grapes to make six or so gallons of wine under my new "Third Incarnation" wine and ale label. (More on the naming of my private label in a future entry.) Harvest time is likely to be late next week. Generosity of spirit and abundance permeated this time.
Lord of the harvest, bless Charles and Diane, their family, and all who work with them. Bless and protect this good earth and the vines and fruit of this vineyard. Protect all who labor at the harvest and may they all be justly and generously compensated for their work. We bless you and give you our thanks--you who are our Source, our creative Presence, and our true Life.

September 12-13. This was winemaking weekend. Harvested pinot noir grapes courtesy of Terra de Promissio vineyard in Sonoma County with the help of Charles and Sonya. Ruth and I de-stemmed and crushed over 12 gallons of grapes on all of Saturday. I pressed two gallons of must (grape pulp and juice) into about 1 1/3 gallons of blush and added special wine yeasts to both the blush and the 10 gallons of must for pinot noir red wine. This is a time of hard work, but also joy and anticipation.

September 16. I love the transformation process in winemaking. Primary fermentation is a very energetic time where the wine yeast begins the process of converting the grape juice and pulp (must) into wine at a rapid rate. This period lasts about a week and is the most intense time in the transformation process. It is quite sensual...the juice roils with the effects of the yeast. If you get close to the fermentation vat you might hear the sounds of the rapid release of carbon dioxide gas. You may see the plastic sheet cover of a vat billowing from the escaping gas. There's a rich yeasty smell that permeates the area. Heat is generated by the activity of change so I have to break up the "cap" or "hat" of pulp on the top of the must daily to allow the heat to dissipate in order to protect the yeast from dying out. I love this process of transformation ALMOST as much as I love the way the Spirit works in transforming our lives.

September 18. This morning when Ruth and I were praying our simple morning prayer devotional we read part of Matthew's version of the great (revolutionary) Sermon on the Mount in the fifth chapter. Jesus calls the crowd of listeners "salt of the earth" and 'light of the world." As I've been working on this wine and seeing the power of the tiny yeast cells and how it acts on the other elements it reminds me of the many times that Jesus used bread yeast or wine and vineyard metaphors. I can imagine him saying to us, "You are yeast for the realm of God! Be yeast in this world."

Later September 18. The yeast has been doing its work and now is the time to press the fermenting crushed grapes and rack both the previously pressed blush and the newly pressed red wine must into secondary fermentation containers. I have a little basket press and I put cheesecloth into the basket and enclose the grape pulp in the cheesecloth. The put the top of the press on the pulp in the basket and slowly turn the press--squeezing the red juice out of the pulp, down a chute, and into the secondary fermenter.
What came to me as I was pressing the grapes was that all of us at times experience pressures and demands. We feel squeezed by the stresses and strains of circumstances, obligations, uncertainties, and challenges that occur. These intense times are like primary fermentation and pressing. There are tough periods in life-- perhaps exciting, or exhausting, or but perhaps also pretty overwhelming. I know that this major relocation from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay area has been that way for me. It brings me down to my essence, like the pressing of grapes.
Although I don't have immediate recollection of that particular image in scripture, one that is used repeatedly for spiritual life in stressful circumstances is the refiner's fire that purifies the gold or silver.
But in one of the most beautiful of the psalms, in my opinion, it is written:
Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thought from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
(Psalm 139:1-6, from the Book of Common Prayer p. 794)