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 salt...be light...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)