This week in our Monk in the World guest post series we have a lovely reflection from fellow monk Mary Elyn Bahlert. Read on for her wisdom:
‘As if the sorrows of this world could overwhelm me
now that I realize what we are.
I wish everyone could realize this.
But there is no way of telling people
they are all actually walking around shining
like the brightest sun.’
The world was always there for me – gurgling with joy, shining like the brightest sun, fragrant-full, slippery and hard-edged, colorful beyond belief – and there I was, walking around with my head in the clouds, my eyes toward the ground.
I have a good mind, but living from that linear place didn’t work for me forever, thank God. My best thinking brought me straight into a long and deep depression almost 20 years ago. Life has not been the same, since. Today, I am grateful to be alive, and every day offers new delicacies for my delight. The gift of being a Monk in the World is that I get to enjoy what has been there all along, and I get to enjoy it as if it is new, as if it has never been witnessed before.
Many years ago, I learned to pray after reading The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life, by Hannah Whitall Smith (of the American Holiness Movement). That was the beginning of a long, rich, and growing walk as a Monk in the World. I studied theology and became a preacher, a way to offer to others the gift of knowing we are not separate, we are not alone. I found strength and power and growing self acceptance through prayer. After all this time, I still believe we can change the world by praying, by praying for ourselves, which grows us in Love.
I’m as inter-faith as I am Christian, knowing that the Light, the Universe, the Christ, the Mother, the Holy One, El, is in us all. Or maybe we are swimming in this Holy One. I struggle to find words for this life, this living.
I learned to meditate over 4 years ago, and this practice has deepened me. My greatest joy in meditation is that I find myself more present in the moment, moment by moment, day by day. I see things I did not see before. I delight in the branches of the birch tree outside my city window; I watch the seasons and winds bring change to that tree. I say: “I love that tree, and that tree loves me.” It’s true.
When I meditate, I find the boundaries between myself and the world dissolving. I feel the sound of a neighbor’s voice, the boom of a truck on the street, the harsh call of a jay, the wind in the eucalyptus trees, as much as I hear them. I suppose this is being one with all of creation. For me, it is not as clear as that, but I am beginning to understand, to know.
As a preacher, I also served a community of faith. My work as a Monk in the world was very extraverted for this introvert! I had the privilege of being called to be with others in their times of deepest need – learning a diagnosis that would take a beloved woman’s life, baptizing an infant who would not go home from the hospital, as she lay in the arms of her teenage mother, rushing into a hospital emergency room only minutes before the death of a vibrant woman in her 50’s, as her partner lay sobbing on top of her; I’ve sat in silence and watched the minutes tick away, waiting for surgery to end, with a frightened wife. I’ve answered the door to find a man who has not slept in days, smelling of the street, who tells me his long and convoluted story, only to ask me for a few dollars for food. I’ve heard many of those stories, and even though I do not understand, I have prayed with each one, knowing I have not have ever known that particular desperation. I’ve witnessed the suffering of the mentally ill who come to Church, hoping for something; I am blessed by my own illness to be able to see the suffering person, trapped by their mind, underneath what we call “stigma.”
After 30 years of serving as “Pastor,” I am only grateful. For whatever service I have been able to give, I am grateful. The gift has been mine, truly, truly.
All of this is to say that I am still looking to see the light Thomas Merton, one of my spiritual mentors, must surely have seen. The light is so ordinary, I’m sure. I know with a keen knowing that we are all light, that we are swimming in this light. I’ve felt it for a moment when I meditate, I’ve seen it shimmer – just a glimpse! – in the green, heart-shaped leaves of my beloved birch tree.
I am a mendicant now, begging for alms. I am a mendicant, raising my eyes to look into the eyes of whoever crosses my path. I am a mendicant, wanting to trust each day’s needs and gifts to the Holy One. I am a mendicant, looking for Light.
Mary Elyn Bahlert is a poet, speaker, retreat leader, writer and lover of beauty in all forms. She has retired from active ministry in the United Methodist Church and has a coaching and spiritual direction practice in Berkeley, CA. Mary Elyn and her husband are trans-planted Midwesterners who live in a 100 year old Craftsman home on a hill in Oakland, CA.