Good News! My new book, Desert Spirituality for Men, is now available to order from my publisher Wipf and Stock.
Here are some endorsements:
“Equal parts travelogue and diary, confession and acknowledgment of the many people who helped him along the way, Desert Spirituality for Men speaks eloquently of one man’s journey as scholar and teacher, priest and human person marked by God’s grace in the ups and downs of his life. There is indeed wisdom here for men, but also for all of us discerning vocation and life’s meaning in our uncertain times.”
Dr. Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Harvard University
“The buoyant narrative style of Brad Karelius carries us along. His mode of writing permits him to gives us his passion as a priest, his deep embrace of the desert, and the specificity of his rich lived encounters. . .. In his compassion, Brad is wise; more than that, he offers transformative vision and transformative practice. As with all his work, this book is a gift to be treasured.” -Walter Brueggemann, Columbia University
“Thanks so much to Brad Karelius for the wealth of material from his wonderful explorations of prayer.”
Bendicta Ward, Oxford University
“Brad Karelius is a compelling storyteller, weaving tales of men’s spiritual experience with the challenges of desert terrain.”
-Belden Lane, Saint Louis University
“In this book, visits to the desert alternate antiphonally with vivid sketches of some of the very different men who through the course of Karelius’s long life have shaped and disciplined and tutored and kindled his spirit. … This modest but moving book . . . belongs as much in the cab of a pickup truck as on any library shelf. Got a lonely trip ahead of you? Take it along. You’ll be glad you did.”
-Jack Miles, University of California at Irvine
Here is a description of the book:
Inspired by Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, Belden Lane, and Thomas Merton, Desert Spirituality for Men reveals the transformative and healing power of the desert—for
men who actively seek God. Blending a memoir of his son’s fight for life, reflections on his own desert retreats and response to the Lord’s persistent desire for relationship, Brad Karelius offers guidance to men in their holy longing for God. An Episcopal priest for fifty years, Professor of Philosophy for forty-five years, husband, and father, Karelius also tells about the power of his friendship with six remarkable men, and he describes some of their well-founded prayer practices which will sustain and nurture any man in his quest. This book will encourage men of all callings and stages in life to plan their own retreats to the desert—where God lives and gives life.
Phone customer service 541-344-1528 for order today.
(The following is Part One from Encountering Your True Self with the Desert Mystics, presented June 4, 2022, at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California; a ministry of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange).
Thank you for joining our conversation, here in person at the Center for Spiritual Development, and on Zoom.
I want to thank Sister Karin Nuernberg CSJ, Steve Bruce, and Sonya Longbotham for their help in shaping this event today.
I am only a fellow desert sojourner with you. The deserts of California have been a soul-saving refuge for me during the many years of health crises for our son Erik. In my retreats during Advent and Lent, the desert landscape purges my anxieties and fears and opens my heart to gratitude. I was surprised to be embraced there by the love and joy of the Lord.
I asked myself: why was I, a male priest, asked to be the presenter today on the desert mothers/ammas? I believe the answer is that the Holy Spirit invites me to enter the lives and teachings of these holy women, so that I may know them as companions on my journey with God.
This past February, in Part 1, we encountered Moses the Black and Anthony of the Desert. We discovered that Moses had three obstacles to his life with God: Vindictive Pride, Restless Passions, and Raging Violence. His core spiritual goal was apatheia (apa-they-a), fierce indifference to unimportant things, learning to be indifferent to what does not matter. He found peace at a desert monastery, dying to much of what had been his violent, reactive life.
Anthony the Great traveled far into the Egyptian desert for hand-to-hand combat with armies of demons and wild beasts. He practiced silent prayer hesychia (Sikea), “moving into a deep quiet resting in the heart of God, without resorting to any language at all.”
In this desert wasteland, where your life is stripped to essentials, you must learn to ignore the False Self (all the efforts you exert to hold up a persona, a reputation in the eyes of other people, your sense of self-importance).
Henri Nouwen writes: “If we enter the deep silence of God’s presence in the desert, we would lose the false self and meet God in our nakedness alone.”
Spiritual writer and teacher Belden Lane shares: “The desert place is where we loosen our grip on the false self: that projected an image of wholeness and competence that we constantly present to everyone else. Jesus invites us into the desert to claim our True Self. What we are most deeply in him.”
Belden Lane continues, “When you aim the indifference of Apatheia at your false self, the true self is set free to live in all its joyous expansiveness.”
Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Mary the Harlot
From the faint shadows of church history, the desert mothers/ammas have recently reappeared in the studies of desert spirituality.
I have turned to several women from Benedictine religious communities to help me shape my presentations today:
Sister Laura Swan OSB
Sister Mary Forman OSB
Anglican Sister Bendicta Ward (who died this past week).
And Episcopal seminary professor Mary Earle
Benedictine Sister Laura Swan writes:
“Women’s history has often been relegated to the shadow world: felt but not seen. Many of our church fathers became prominent because of women. Many of these fathers were educated and supported by strong women, and some are even credited with founding movements that were actually begun by the women in their lives.” 
Among the desert fathers and mothers, women outnumbered men two to one, yet it is the stories of the men which have been preserved.
For its first 300 years, Christianity was essentially a home-based religion. In these house churches, there was no ordained priesthood. Liturgy and prayer were often extemporaneous. If the Eucharist evolved from the Jewish seder meal, women would have taken part in the breaking of the bread.
Women held leadership positions as deacon and presbyter. As Christianity became accepted in the fourth century as an established religion, church leadership became more public, and women remained in the home in this power shift.
Factors such as plagues, social instability, theological debates and conflicts in the church, caused men and women to seek a deeper relationship with God, retreating to the desert for a less compromised life with God.
In the seventh century, Sophronius wrote the story of Mary of Egypt, based on a two-hundred-year oral tradition from desert monastic communities, originating from Zosimas.
Zosimas grew up living in Palestinian monasteries, becoming a disciplined orthodox monk. At the age of 53, he had become full of himself with pride. He believed that he had “mastered” asceticism and contemplation. The abbot (perhaps sensing Zosimas’ inflated ego) sent him off to a monastery near the river Jordan, where the monks were very austere). Zosimas was happy there. When Lent arrived, the custom for the monks was to go out into the desert to spend Lent in solitude. Zosimas crossed the river Jordan, traveling into the desert searching for a holy hermit.
On the 20th day of his desert retreat, in the distance he saw a shadowy figure. It seemed to be a naked person, whose skin had been blackened by the sun and who had short, white hair. Zosimas quickened his pace, but the other person ran until Zosimas came close enough to shout to ask her to stop. The shadowy figure crossed the river Jordan, while Zosimas pleaded for her to stop. The other person spoke to him by name, asking for one of his cloaks to cover her nakedness. He threw it to her, and both knelt in the desert sand to ask for blessings. Zosimas begged for her prayers and blessing.
As the woman turned to the east, she was lifted up from the earth, which frightened Zosimas. Finally, he asked her to tell him her life story. He said, “God seems to have brought me here so that I can tell others about you.”
The woman said, “I am ashamed to tell you my sinful actions, but since you have seen my bare body, I shall lay bare to you also my deeds.”
Mary came from Egypt. At 12, she left her family, going to Alexandria, where she threw herself “entirely and insatiably into the lust of sexual intercourse.” She lived this life for 17 years, not taking money for sex but living by begging and spinning flax.
One day during the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a crowd of men ran toward boats to go to Jerusalem. Mary went with the men, attracted to the crowd of potential lovers, offering her body to pay for the journey. Once in the boat, she lured the men into wanton acts and, when finally in Jerusalem, she did the same with other men there, hoping to distract them from their attention to God.
When the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross arrived, she followed the crowd toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jesus’ Tomb). She tried to enter.
“I mixed with the crowd to get into the church where the holy cross was shown and exposed to the veneration of the faithful; but found myself withheld from entering the place by some secret but invisible force.”
Four times she tried, but the invisible force blocked her way. At a corner of the church, she rested, exhausted from her attempts. She awakened to her sinfulness and sobbed. She repented with fervor. Beside her on a wall outside the church was an icon of the Theotokos, Mother of God. She prayed to Mary for help to enter the church, promising to renounce the world and do whatever the Virgin Mary directed.
Mary remembers: “After this ardent prayer, I perceived in my soul a secret consolation under my grief; and attempting again to enter the church, I went up with ease into the very middle of it and had the comfort to venerate the precious wood of the glorious cross which brings life to man.”
Rushing back to thank the icon, she heard a voice saying to her:
If you go beyond the Jordan, you will there find rest and comfort.
Mary hurried away. Someone gave her three coins, with which she bought three loaves of bread. She reached the church of John the Baptist near the Jordon.
“She prayed in the church and washed her face and hands in the holy water of the river. She received the sacraments at the church, ate half a loaf, drank from the Jordan, and slept on the ground. Next day, she crossed the river in a small boat. She let the Virgin Mary lead her into the desert, where she lived for 47 years.”
The first 17 years were the most difficult, fighting many demons: the desire for rich foods and wine; lewd songs danced in her mind; To combat these demons of memory and addiction, she imagined herself back in Jerusalem in front of the icon of the Mother of God, praying for her help. She fought her sexual addiction, begging Blessed Mary for help “for one who was in danger of drowning in the sea of the desert”.
Living in complete solitude, Mary lived off wild plants. Her clothing wore out to nothing. Illiterate, she let the Word of God teach her.
Mary finished her story, as Zosimas fell to the ground, weeping at her feet. He promised not to tell her story until after Mary died.
Zosimas went into the desert seeking the counsel of a wise sage, never thinking it would be this woman. Mary went off into the wilderness to be absorbed into anonymous obscurity, but it would be Zosimas who would bring out of the desert her witness of repentance.
The power of Mary’s prayer overwhelmed Zosimas. Mary discerned his disorientation, saying:
“Father, why are your thoughts troubling you and deceiving you about me, that I may be an evil spirit and my prayer false? Be assured, sir, that I am just a woman and a sinner, but protected by holy baptism. I am not a spirit but earth and ashes, entirely flesh, in no way calling to mind of spirit or phantasy.”
Zosimas asked Mary about her time in the desert, how she survived in the desolate wilderness. Mary said:
“When I think from what evils the Lord has freed me, I am nourished by incorruptible food, and I cover my shoulders with the hope of my salvation.”
Mary seemed to have a deep knowledge of sacred scripture, reflecting:
“I feed upon and cover myself with the Word of God, who contains all things (Deut. 8). For man does not live by bread alone, (Matt. 11:44) and all who have not clothing will be clothed in stone, having discarded the outer covering of sins (Job 24).”
Zosimas wondered who had come out here in the desert to instruct Mary. Mary responded:
“Believe me, I have seen no one since I crossed over Jordan until I saw you today, not even an animal or any kind of creature since I came into this desert. Never in any way did I learn letters, nor have I ever heard anyone reading or singing them, but the Word of God living and active itself teaches man knowledge.
She asked Zosimas to leave, and come back in the following year, returning on Holy Thursday to bring the Sacrament to her at the banks of the Jordan River. Zosimas returned the following year, bringing the Sacrament in a small chalice. He waited at the Jordan River. Mary appeared on the opposite bank, made the sign of the cross, walking across the river to Zosimos. She received the sacraments and prayed to the Lord that now she might depart in peace.
She asked Zosimas to return the following year. They prayed for each other, and Mary again walked across the river.
A year later, Zosimas returned to the desert, searching for Mary. Then he spotted a figure lying on the desert sand, hands folded and facing east. It was the dead body of Mary. Standing next to her body, he prayed the psalms and wondered how he could bury her.
There was some writing in the ground above her head.
“Father Zosimas, bury the body of lowly Mary. Render earth to earth and pray for me. I died the night of the Lord’s Passion, after receiving the divine and mystic Banquet.”
Zosimas wondered how his feeble hands could dig a hole in the hard ground. A lion appeared, bowing its head in deference, beginning to dig a hole for the burial. Zosimas covered the body and returned to his monastery. Then he revealed all that had happened, and the monks celebrated Mary’s memorial service “with awe and affection.”
Anglican Benedictine Sister Benedicta Ward of Oxford, considers hidden meanings within the story of Mary of Egypt:
*The inflated ego of a monk seeking salvation by his own efforts contrasts with Mary, the sinful woman who receives salvation from Jesus because of her desperate need.
*The three loaves of bread that Mary takes with her into the desert remind us of the loves of the prophet Elijah.
*Mary passes over the Jordan River as a sign of baptism.
*She walks on water.
*A lion comes out of the wilderness, as a sign of the Prince of Peace.
*The only requirement for liberation from addiction is the awakening to the need for God’s help and openness to receiving the salvation of Christ.
Abba John the Dwarf shares a parable:
There was in the city a courtesan who had many lovers. One of the governors approached her saying, “promise me you will be good, and I will marry you.” She promised this, and he took her and brought her to his home. Her lovers, seeing her again, said to one another, let us go to the back of the house and whistle for her. But the woman stopped her ears and withdrew to the inner chamber and shut the door. The old man (Abba John) said that this courtesan is our soul, that her lovers are the passions, that the lord is Christ, that the inner chamber is the eternal dwelling place, those who whistle are evil demons, but the soul always takes refuge in the soul. (Sayings of John the Dwarf, 16).
Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung would have explored the archetypal story of Mary of Egypt. Beyond the supernatural overlay of her powers and abilities, I believe that the lasting effect of her story is found at that moment of conviction, when Mary came to herself and turned to Mother Mary and Jesus. Any one of us here who has experienced addiction and recovery for ourselves or within our family circle, knows that Easter moment of turning one’s out of control life into the management of the Lord Jesus.
Evolving over 200 years of oral tradition, the Story of Mary of Egypt knits together symbolism and real stories of women penitents, presenting a story of salvation with a human face.
From the Canon of Saint Mary of Egypt:
“The power of Thy Cross, O Christ, has worked wonders, for even the woman who was once a harlot chose to follow the ascetic way. Casting aside her weakness, bravely she opposed the devil; and having gained the prize of victory, she intercedes for our souls.”
Remember your own awakening to sin, addiction or separation from God and you’re turning back toward God.
What part of Mary’s story personally resonated with your own life?
Names and Terms
Abba Zosimas (AD 475-525). The Reflections of Abba Zosimos by Dorotheus of Gaza
Sophronius the Sophist, Patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 560-638). Wrote The Life of St. Mary of Egypt, which is traditionally read on the 5th Thursday of Lent in the Byzantine Rite.
Abba John the Dwarf of Thebes (c. 339-405), Coptic Desert Father, Sayings of John the Dwarf.
Moses the Black, AD 330-405
Anthony of the Desert, AD 251-356
Mary of Egypt AD 344-421
Syncletica of Alexandria AD 270?-350?
Apatheia (apa-they-a), fierce indifference to unimportant things, learning to be indifferent to what does not matter.
Hesychia (Sikea), Silent Prayer: “moving into a deep quiet resting in the heart of God, without resorting to any language at all.”
Swan OSB, Laura. The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories about Early ChristianWomen. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.
Forman OSB, Mary. Praying with the Desert Mothers. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005.
Wheeler, Rachel. Desert Daughters Desert Sons: Rethinking the Christian Desert Tradition. Collegeville, MN: 2020.
Earle, Mary C. The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness. Harrisburg, NY: Morehouse Publishing, 2007.
Ward SLG, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Oxford, UK: Cistercian Publications, 1975.
Lane, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance. Wipf and Stock, 2018.
Fess, Hugh. Saint Mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse. Oxford, UK: Cistercian Publications, 2005.
Ward SLG, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987.
 Land, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, 24.
On a mild December morning, I am walking in the desert near Lone Pine, California, on a cattle trail through spindly creosote and fragrant sagebrush toward Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada mountains. In this desert landscape, where I feel most alone, God enters my empty soul. God is very close here. Every stone, every wild plant, every desert creature breathes prayer to the Creator. I inhale the grace of this present moment.
As I share this memory, perhaps you can remember your own experience in a desert place. Walking in desert spaces reminds us of that spiritual place within us that yearns for God. Other desires and passions obscure that spiritual place.
In hard rock mining in the desert for gold, a piece of quartz is placed in a mortar, ground into fine, powdery dust, mixed with mercury or other chemicals in a crucible, and placed in intense fire. The result is a clump of black ash or slag, and a tiny button of pure gold. The desert provides the mortar, crucible and furnace to reveal that holy button of soul. Anthony the Great is an early pioneer of Christian monasticism and finding our desert spirit.
“Ironically, you do not have to find the desert in your life; it normally catches up with you. Everyone does go through the desert, in one shape or another. It may be in the form of some suffering, or trauma that occurs in our life. Dressing the desert up through our addictions or attachments—-to material goods, or money, or food, or drink, or success, or obsessions, or anything else we may care to turn toward or may find available to depend upon—-will delay the utter loneliness and the inner fearfulness of the desert experience. If we go through this experience involuntarily, then it can be both overwhelming and crushing. If, however, we accept to undergo the experience voluntarily, then it can prove constructive and liberating.”
Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Hermit.
The traditional biography of Anthony the Great presents a superhuman warrior of God who fights armies of demons with his bare hands. Anthony is presented as a kind of Spiritual Ironman superhero. Pushing that aside, we can enter his raw desert struggle for his true self. In the Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius, we read simple language and unstructured wisdom crystalized from a long life as a desert mystic. Abba Anthony urges a transparent honesty before God, as he teaches, “Whatever you find in your heart to do in following God, that do, and remain within yourself in Him.” This wisdom is meant to be lived, not studied or analyzed.
Born into a wealthy family, at eighteen, Anthony’s parents died, leaving his younger sister in his care. He placed her in the care of a convent. One morning, he attends mass, grieving for his parents. He hears the Gospel story of the rich young man and Jesus’ words, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). Does this remind you of another saint? (St. Francis of Assisi) Anthony does this and leaves the city. He becomes a disciple to various ascetic monks living in the nearby desert, who reveal to him essential virtues and describe their spiritual battles with Satan. His heart is stirred up, and he strikes out into the desert alone, looking for a fight with the demons. As in one of today’s superhero movies, the Devil throws everything at Anthony. Anthony travels out into the wilderness, the dark energy of evil growing ever intense around him.
Anthony finds an old tomb hewn into a rocky cliff side. He decides to live there and has a friend roll a stone to block Antony in. The hand-to-hand combat with Satan grows more intense inside that cave/tomb. Anthony is assaulted with doubts: guilt about leaving his sister behind. Satan tries to break Anthony’s trust in God. Anthony prays the Jesus Prayer over and over:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He ties knots in a rope to mark each series of prayer. While he was asleep, demons entered the cave and untied the knots. An Angel or Theotokos (Mary the Mother of God) comes and teaches him a complicated knot that the demons cannot untie.
In the darkness of the cave/tomb, Anthony practices silent prayer, hesychia (Sikeå), which Belden Lane describes as:
“a form of prayer that involved a cessation of all words and thoughts—-moving into a deep quiet resting in the heart of God, without resorting to any language at all.”
This spiritual warrior, Anthony, fortifies himself for battle with little sleep, and little food and little water.
Anthony survives by weaving baskets to trade for food, a common work for desert mystics.
Satan is relentless with his assaults on Anthony. A friend comes with food, rolls the stone aside to enter the tomb, sees Anthony badly beaten, carries him to the village for healing. But Anthony returns, ready for more combat. “Give me your best shot.” Satan sends in the wild beasts.
Derwas Chitty, one of the major scholars on the desert mystics, reveals: “Then at last his urgent prayer is answered, and the quiet light of the Christ disperses the demonic fantasies. Complaining, “where was Thou? Why didst Thou not appear from the beginning, to cease my pains?’ he hears the reply, ‘Anthony, I was here: but I was waiting to see thy contest.’
Anthony spends 15 years in this cave/tomb.
Pilgrims visit St. Anthony’s cave every day, climbing 1158 wooden steps. It is located three-hundred meters above St. Anthony’s Monastery, near Zafarana, Egypt. Look for St. Anthony’s Cave on Google Earth. The entrance is very narrow. At the far end is a small chapel.
Anthony goes further out toward the mountains. Crossing the Nile River, he comes to an abandoned Roman fort. He locks himself within the rock hewn walls and won’t let anyone inside. Friends threw food over the walls for him. At this point, Anthony is well known for his holiness, drawing pilgrims who seek his counsel. Some arrive outside the fort, and they hear a furious battle going on inside. Other monks come to ask his counsel. He speaks through the thick walls, saying: “fortify yourself with prayer, fasting and contemplation.” These spiritual seekers camp out in huts and caves dug into the mountain, becoming a colony of disciples. Eventually, Anthony comes out of seclusion to guide these people in their life with God.
After years of spiritual warfare, one would expect to see a battered, gaunt Anthony. However, he was said to come forth from the ruins with a youthful, radiant body.
Anthony becomes Abba, or spiritual father to these disciples/monks for about five years. Eventually, Anthony returns to seclusion further up on the mountain for the next forty-five years. But he continues to counsel and give spiritual direction to any persons who could find him.
There is a story about Anthony being followed by a satyr, a male nature spirit, who seeks God and asks Anthony to pray with him. An historic painting depicts this encounter, with Anthony holding a staff with a tau cross.
Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God/’ The old man (Anthony) replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.
He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.
Our modern, skeptical mind tooled in rationalism hears all this about spiritual superhero Anthony and spiritual warfare. Is this coming out of primitive folk religion? How can we relate to this? Is it more than occultism and exorcism?
Listen to this insight from Father Ron Rolheiser:
“Authentic spiritual warfare is to be pictured this way: Inside our world and inside each of us there’s a fierce battle waging, a war between good and evil, and these are the contestants: Hatred is battling love; anger is battling patience; greed is battling generosity; bitterness is battling graciousness, jealousy is battling admiration; choosing to remain inside our wounds is battling healing; holding on to our grudges is battling forgiveness, ego and narcissism are battling compassion and community; and self-hatred is in a bitter battle with the acceptance of love and God’s unconditional embrace. Paranoia is waging a war against metanoia. That’s the real war that’s going on, in our world and inside each of us.
In the meantime, there will be spiritual warfare, primordial battles all around.”
Anthony’s spiritual charism spread far and wide as he healed the sick, exorcised demons, comforted the sorrowful and reconciled penitents, urging everyone to put the love of Christ before all things. Many were drawn to the solitary desert life. Monasteries were built in the surrounding mountains and so many monks came there that the desert became a city of monks.
The desert continued to be a spiritual battleground, and the monks found solace in the wild beauty of the land. Anthony compared a monk out of the desert to a fish out of water. A philosopher asked Anthony how he could live out there in long solitude without books? Anthony would point to the mountain side covered with spring wildflowers: “My book, O Philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is present when I will, for me to read the words of God.”
At age of 105, he knew God was calling him. Looking to heaven, he sees a crowd of saints cheering him on, as he dies.
O God, as you by your Holy Spirit enabled your servant Anthony to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil; so, give us grace to follow you with pure hearts and minds, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I will present the Desert Mothers at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, CA, in person on campus and online, Saturday, June 4, 2022, 10 a.m. to noon. Here is the link for further information: https://www.thecsd.org/events/encountering/
 Lane, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, p 24.
(The following is Part One, Abba Moses the Black, from my workshop, Encountering Your True Self with the Desert Mystics, presented at the Center for Spiritual Development, The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, Saturday, February 5, 2022.)
I am only a fellow desert sojourner with you. For over thirty years, the deserts of California have been for me a soul-saving refuge during chronic health crises in our family.
This desert landscape purged my anxieties and fears, and I was surprised to be embraced by the joy and love of the Lord.
I asked myself: why was I asked to be the presenter on the desert mystics? I believe the answer could be that the Holy Spirit invites me to enter the lives and teachings of these desert mystics so that I may know more deeply God’s forgiveness, compassion and love. I hope that is also why the Spirit has drawn you by the hand to join me this morning.
From ancient times, God has been leading people to the desert, to the edge of life. Abraham, Moses, Mohammed, the Hebrew people in the Exodus, John the Baptist and Jesus.
Writer and teacher Belden Lane writes:
The wilderness is a place of suffering, out on the edge. It is a place of letting go, a place for dying, and yet also a place for coming alive. The desert is where things fall apart and where things may come together for us in unanticipated ways.
It is a place of love, where God meets us where we are, in our deepest longings.
With the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, some Christians did not believe that a truly Christian society could be created between the Church and the Roman Empire. They saw withdrawal and asceticism to be a purer way. So, they left the cities, heading out to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. At first, living solitary lives as hermits in caves or holes dug into cliffs and more and more men and women moved out into the desert, they formed clusters that became the first monastic communities, an alternative Christian society. These spiritual desert families could be led by an abba father or amma mother who cared for their spiritual welfare.
These monastic communities were well established by the time of Abba Moses in the 4th century.
Saint Moses (330-405 AD) had many aliases: the Ethiopian, the Black, the Robber, the Strong. The Egyptians mocked him as the Black because of his much darker skin. Later in life, he accepted this as “a badge of honor.” A ruthless robber, he is remembered for his superhuman strength and later repentance.
We are counseled that as we hear his story, in which Abba Moses moves from profound sinner to luminous saint, we need to realize this was a slow process.
Kidnapped from his homeland, Moses became a slave to an important Egyptian. He eventually gave Moses his freedom because he couldn’t be controlled and was said to have murdered someone. Moses was a huge, powerfully built man and that slave owner may have felt intimidated. Abba Moses became head of a ruthless gang of robbers, descending into a violent life of deceit, malice, anger and lust.
The story goes that a shepherd had insulted him. In his wrath for vengeance, Moses waited until night to swim across the Nile River (a task requiring great strength) to sneak into the herd of that shepherd, killing four of his rams, the most important part of the flock, decimating the future of the flock and ruining the livelihood of the shepherd. He tied the 4 rams together, swam back across the Nile to the other side, cooked some of the meat, feasting on it, and sold the rest of the meat to buy wine and to party with his gang.
A wanted man, always on the run, one day Moses hides out at the monastery of Scetia (seet-ia) or Skete (scate) in the Nitrian Desert of Egypt (between Alexandria and Cairo). The monks are still there today after 1600 years. Hiding in a corner somewhere, he witnessed the monastic life, the serenity and peace. The Spirit of God touched his heart, pressing through his superficial passions to a much deeper place in his soul, connecting to his longing for God. Where did that come from? He wanted to be like them and was called to repentance.
I imagine Moses looking down into the abyss of his sins. He would fall into dark nothingness were it not for the Lord’s firm embrace of love. Moses could only honestly repent if he faced his violent past, allowing God’s love to sustain him. He confessed his sins to Abba Marcarius, who taught him about Jesus and baptized him.
The monks were skeptical, thinking he only wanted to hide out with them. But Moses persisted, retreating to a monastic cell for fasting and prayer. The monks finally allowed him into their community. He surrendered his ego to the authority of the abba.
A common theme among the desert mystics: the soul grows toward God with the help of a spiritual director. Moses found that spiritual counsel with St. Isidore.
Moses had three obstacles to his life with God and in the monastery: Vindictive Pride, Restless Passions and Raging Violence.
He acted out his vindictive pride ruining the life of that shepherd when he stole the 4 rams. Even in the monastery, the monks abused him because of his black skin. He was deeply hurt but did not respond. The community must have confirmed his spiritual progress, because they ordained him a priest, a very rare occurrence among the desert fathers.
Quoting from the original Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Sister Benedicta Ward SLG of Oxford University:
“It was said of Abba Moses that he was ordained, and the ephod was placed upon him. The archbishop said to him, ‘See, Abba Moses, now you are entirely white.’ The old man (Abba Moses) said to him, ‘It is true of the outside, lord and father, but what about Him who sees the inside’ Wishing to test him the archbishop said to the priests, ‘When Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, drive him out, and go with him to hear what he says.’ So, the old man (Abba Moses) came in and they covered him with abuse, and drove him out, saying, ‘Outside, black man!’ Going out, he said to himself, ‘They have acted rightly concerning you, for your skin is as black as ashes. You are not a man, so why should you be allowed to meet men?”
This difficult story expresses Abba Moses’ core spiritual goal, apatheia (apa-they-a), fierce indifference to unimportant things, learning to be indifferent to what does not matter. At this desert monastery, Abba Moses dies to much of what had been his violent, reactive life.
For the desert mystics, apatheia was holy indifference to the values of the dominant Roman culture, the military industrial complex of Rome.
In this desert wasteland, where your life is stripped to essentials, you must learn to ignore the False Self (all the efforts you exert to hold up a persona, a reputation in the eyes of other people, your sense of self-importance).
Henri Nouwen writes: “If we enter the deep silence of God’s presence in the desert, we would lose the false self and meet God in our nakedness alone.”
Spiritual writer and teacher Belden Lane shares: “The desert place is where we loosen our grip on the false self: that projected an image of wholeness and competence that we constantly present to everyone else. Jesus invites us into the desert to claim our True Self. What we are most deeply in him.”
The False Self is always with us. It served a purpose as we fall back on it in trauma of early childhood. It protects us from being hurt by childhood wounds and teaches us how to survive in a dangerous world. The false self is that nagging voice that still says: don’t mess up.
Belden Lane continues, “When you aim the indifference of Apatheia at your false self, the true self is set free to live in all its joyous expansiveness.”
A second obstacle to Abba Moses’ spiritual life was that his earthly passions had been running his life, leading to violence, assault, and murder. The frenzy of those passions swirled around him constantly, which he countered with profound austerities: going sleepless for days, standing up for long hours, limiting diet to 12 oz a day. Demons assaulted him with lustful thoughts, and he almost broke under all this. You can see this was a slow, painful process, 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Within this spiritual warfare, his horrible old deeds haunted him.
Slowly, his love for Jesus purged the physical passions. And grace brought him home to God.
A third obstacle to Abba Moses spiritual life was Violence. Was it rage from the abuse he experienced as a slave? Violence had been Moses’ DNA. One day four thieves come to pillage this monastery. Moses recognized his old gang members. He tied them up in a bundle, carried them like the four rams, to the abbot of the monastery, dumped them on the ground and asked: what do you want me to do with them. His instinct was to brutally beat up these guys, but the Spirit took that away and. Of course, you know that those four robbers also would become monks.
In the year 405, at the age of 75, Abba Moses heard that a band of Berbers planned to attack and pillage the monastery. The monks wanted to put up a fight, but Moses said no.
When the assault on the monastery began, seven monks were seated around Abba Moses. He urged the monks to run away, but said he would remain, saying:
“I have been expecting this day to come for many years past, so that the teaching of our Redeemer might be fulfilled, ‘Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword’”. And they said to him, ‘We then will not flee, but will die with you.
One disciple hid behind palms leaves and saw all seven brothers murdered, but then he saw seven crowns descending from heaven and placed over the heads of the dead monks.
Abba Moses, a vicious robber and murderer, was transformed by the desert and the grace of Jesus Christ to be remembered as Moses the Black and an apostle of non-violence. Very little is known about Abba Moses in the African-American community, The Fellowship of St. Moses the Black has a mission of equipping Orthodox Christians for the ministry of racial reconciliation and to share the Orthodox Christian faith with the African Americans.
What do you imagine that Abba Moses and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might say to each other about non-violence?
Contemplate the following quotations from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, by Sister Benedicta Ward SLG. Consider how these sayings may connect with your life with God today.
A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So, he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man (Abba Moses) said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Abba Moses said, “The man who flees and lives in solitude is like a bunch of grapes ripened by the sun, but he who remains amongst men is like an unripe grape.”
I invite you to join me at my seminar on the Desert Mystics, Saturday, February 5th, from 10 am to noon (Pacific Standard Time) on Zoom. This will be Part One of a Two Part series. Part One is an introduction to the Desert Fathers, especially Moses the Black and Anthony the Great.
The seminar is offered through the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange.
Part Two will be offered Saturday, June 4, 10 am to noon (Pacific Standard Time) focusing on the Desert Mothers. This seminar will be offered again on Zoom and also in person at the Center for Spiritual Development.
Here is the link for more information and registration.
(The following blog is from a chapter in my new book, Desert Spirituality for Men, to be published by Wipf and Stock in February 2022)
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The most important advice I can give to a man seeking a deeper relationship with God is to work faithfully and consistently with a spiritual director. Spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication with him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with God and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”
Spiritual direction can help you explore your experiences of God, discern important decisions, heal trauma from the past, and grow into God’s deepest desires for you.
The process begins in your prayers as you listen to God’s call for you. Speak with a member of the clergy or someone you know who has been under spiritual direction. Local retreat centers can help you find a spiritual director: someone who has been through a certification program for spiritual direction. Above all, expect that opening yourself up to spiritual direction will take time and commitment.
Spiritual writer and priest Henri Nouwen advises:
“The goal of spiritual direction is spiritual formation—the ever-increasing capacity to live a spiritual life from the heart. A spiritual life cannot be formed without discipline, practice and accountability.”
Nouwen believes there are three disciplines that will complement your experience with spiritual direction: the discipline of the Heart, the discipline of the Book and the discipline of the Church.
The discipline of the Heart involves contemplative prayer, inviting God into our total being, including all that has been hidden and secret.
The discipline of the Book involves reading the scriptures and spiritual writings. You will find that as you read, the Spirit may connect words and phrases to where you now are in your life, what you are currently seeking and pondering. After I began spiritual direction, meditation on scripture helped me to hear those words in a new way, as if they were written for me.
The discipline of the Church will be a challenge for some readers of this book. You may be a spiritual seeker of God, but you do not have a life in a religious community, or, for some reason, you have left that community. The problem is that the Christian faith is communal, not solitary, requiring that if we are to grow with God, we need to have life in community. In regular worship in the Church, we experience the Gospel narratives of Jesus through the liturgical year, an annual calendar of seasons commemorating the life and teachings of Jesus. Our sometimes-messy experience of human relations in a religious community is rich fodder for reflection with a spiritual director.
In our individualistic culture, we can be drawn to the self-reliance of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, how they found a rich spiritual life in their deprivation, silence and solitude. Eventually, they found that physical and spiritual survival in the desert required the help of others, which birthed the first Christian monastic communities. It may be ironic, but successful solitude is always dependent on others. In contrast with the iconic New Yorker Magazine’s cartoons of the solitary guru living in a cave who is visited by eccentric spiritual seekers, Jesus called a community of disciples to follow him.
“The more we let the events of Christ’s life inform and form us, the more we will be able to connect our own daily stories with the great story of God’s presence in our lives. Thus, the discipline of the Church, as a community of faith, functions as our spiritual director by directing our hearts and minds to the One who makes our lives truly eventful.”
In 1990, my psychiatrist Robert Phillips, MD, recommended spiritual direction for me and sent me across the street from his office to the Center for Spiritual Development on the campus of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, California. I had a general idea about spiritual direction, but little experience. I knew it was something deeper than pastoral counseling. I was apprehensive that someone was going to criticize me about my imperfect life or dictate a curriculum for perfection.
Somehow, I ended up with Sister Jeanne Fallon who had recently returned from missionary work in New Guinea. I sensed the fire of God within her. My own life was a frenzy of multi-tasking busyness for the Church. God was in the far distance, and Erik was in and out of the hospital. Sister Jeanne’s exploratory interview awakened in me the realization and the fear that I was actually trying to hide from God. Even after two years of intensive psychotherapy, something lurked in the dark shadows of my consciousness which made me anxious about proceeding. Since that moment of enlightenment, I have asked many clergy about their spiritual directors: most do not have one or if they do, they see them infrequently.
The Spirit urged me to stay with Sister Jeanne. She invited me to begin the year long Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola which take a year to complete. During our weekly meetings, she guided me through this five-hundred-year-old Jesuit program of daily meditation on scripture and contemplative prayer. This experience opened my heart to the actual presence of Jesus as companion and friend, and the secrets in the dark recesses of my soul came out into the light of God’s compassionate love. After I finished the Exercises, Sister Jeanne sent me to a Jesuit priest and recovering alcoholic. At that point, I was attending Twelve-Step meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, newly aware of long-term compulsions and addictions. I took a Moral Inventory, admitting to myself, to God and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs.
I began the Confession with this prayer: “Almighty God, my inventory has shown me who I am, I admit to my wrongs, yet I ask for Your help in admitting my wrongs to another person and to You. Assure me, and be with me, in this step, for without this step I cannot progress in my recovery. With Your Help, I can do this.”
With this priest, I shared a detailed confession. I had written everything down so that I would not try to evade the hard reality of past behaviors. It was this priest who sent me on to Father Gordon Moreland SJ at the House of Prayer for Priests in the Diocese of Orange, located in the foothills of the Saddleback Mountains.
I remember my first encounter with Father Gordon, welcoming me at the entrance to a compound of Southwestern-styled buildings. As I sat in a chair facing him in his office, the windows behind him revealed a vast desert garden. We shared a common interest in desert landscapes and plants. Over months and years, that chair became a sacred space for encounters with the Lord.
For many years, Father Gordon had been novice master to young Jesuits, fostering their spiritual formation (some of them would become bishops and cardinals). He spent thirty-five of his sixty-nine years as a Jesuit in the Diocese of Orange where he became a revered retreat leader for its priests. In 2021, he moved to the Jesuit retirement residence in Los Gatos, California.
I remember that my early years with him were filled with tears and anxiety about Erik’s health crises, and epithets and curses of anger and frustration about my parish and diocesan ministries. I would arrive with heart ache or rage-driven fantasies and leave with a spiritual infusion of God’s love and affirmation from Father Gordon. He did not act as a therapist, analyzing my interior life and making prescriptions. In Father Gordon I found a mellow, mature soul to whom I wanted to be accountable. That is something I learned from the Twelve-Step experience: to be accountable for my life and practice bringing everything into the light. As I look back, I believe that as I talked with Father Gordon, I was practicing being real and honest with God.
For twenty-seven years, I committed myself to meeting with Gordon every month.
The four gospels of the New Testament in the Bible are presented as eyewitness accounts of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are also persons who come into our life as “eyewitnesses” to the living Christ, persons whose deep encounters with the Lord radiate their living faith to us and, by their words and presence, draw us closer in faith and friendship with Jesus. A Gospel is an evangelium, “Good News.” Father Gordon Moreland, SJ has been an evangelion of Jesus to me.
As I sat with Father Gordon, I always held a yellow legal pad on my lap. I would write down phrases he said, scripture passages, and spiritual reading to be explored later. Writing helped me to listen. From these notes during my last year With Father Gordon, I have gleaned only a small part of The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus ChristAccording to Father Gordon Moreland SJ, but here are some of the things he would tell me.
God is love and joy. Most people think of God as power, an entity to cope with, to dread, or to hold in awe. St. Paul shares his own experience of God in the Epistle to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
God is joy. Joy wants to diffuse itself into creation, creating humans who are capable of joy. What God wants from us is joy. Erik radiates that joy to everyone around him. I frequently talked about that nagging critical voice in my head, reminding me of past sins or being negative about people close to me. Gordon’s advice: focus more on seeing myself as the Lord sees me. It helps to remember with gratitude moments of joy.
God is love, personified. God is joy, personified. God is mercy, personified. This creates a new matrix for thinking about God as other than the serious, chastising Judge, watching our every move.
Gordon remembers notorious criminals in prayer at his daily mass. For instance, he remembered in prayer Andrew Cunanan, who murdered Gianni Versace in 1997. Father Gordon prayed for him during an early morning mass. He sensed Cunanan’s presence, who was so full of guilt that he could not accept the Lord’s help. Gordon experienced the blessing of the Lord on his prayer friendship with murderers and the unfaithful departed. He wants to help them let go of their sins to the Lord and pray that they will experience a surge of joy from the Lord. “You cannot welcome the Lord Jesus if you are still given over to your corporal sins.”
I often arrived at the House of Prayer heart-heavy. Memories of dark, depressing times would rise up and become vividly real again. Was this the work of the dark spirit creating resistance to Father Gordon’s words of light and hope? Gordon responded: Jesus said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” He shared his memory of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542-1591), who knew dark times when he was beaten and persecuted by his Carmelite community for his reforming efforts. Yet, locked up in a dark cell next to the monastery latrine, he wrote the Spiritual Canticle, proclaiming his love of God in dark times. As a teenager, St. John had worked in a hospital caring for men with syphilis and dementia. He would clean them with such reverence that people were much taken by his servant persona. In John’s love for these dirty, sick men, he saw Christ in them. This experience made him aware of God’s love.
In my imagination, I see John of the Cross locked up in a tiny, dark room next to the nauseating smell of the monastery latrine. At night, he was in total darkness. His food was bread and water and salted fish. God seemed distant and the fire of his faith was almost out—only embers remained. But the living flame of God’s love did not abandon him. Later, when he escaped captivity, the fiery ardor for God rekindled, inspiring the mystical poem The Living Flame of Love (c1585).
Father Gordon advised:
“It is so important to be in touch with God’s love for us more than our love for God.”
“Let yourself be loved by God. Know yourself as beloved.
“The Lord loves me more than I love me. I am safe in His hands.”
“The Lord loves Erik more than I love Erik. Erick is safe in His hands.”
A friend to China. Gordon made more than a dozen month-long trips to China, touring the back roads-less-traveled with Chinese friends as guides. He carried in his heart remembrance of Matteo Ricci (1552-1620), the Italian Jesuit priest whose profound missionary work pierced the confines of the Forbidden City to encounter and counsel the Emperor, syncretizing Confucian values and traditions with Christian values and traditions. In his travels, Gordon asked the Lord that he might be a friend to China and waited for confirmation from the Spirit.
At the end of one visit, he was at dinner with his friends and several military officers. You can imagine some tension there between Chinese officials and this lone American. Gordon did not speak Chinese, but his expressive face communicated the love and joy of the Lord. All the people at the table stood, raising their glasses, toasting Gordon: “Welcome to a friend of China.” The Lord Jesus seemed to confirm Father Gordon as spiritual ambassador to China. At the end of the evening, he was asked, “What did you think of this evening?”
Gordon responded, “I am a religious man, a Jesuit priest. Before I came to China, I asked the Lord that I could be a friend to China. One thing I am certain of is of God’s love for all of us.”
A guest answered, “On behalf of the Third Regiment, I welcome you as a friend of China.” Gordon told me this story several times, radiating some of the joy he must have communicated at that memorable dinner. The Spirit must have infused the dinner guests with the joy of the Lord, because two men in their fifties approached Gordon as he sat in a car ready to leave. Smiling, they greeted Gordon, saying, “We love you.”
There has been a lot of progress in the country of 1.5 billion Chinese. Though four-hundred million live on one dollar a day, there is a burgeoning middle-class and indeed more billionaires in China than anywhere else. A systemic command-economy has pulled two-thirds of the people out of poverty in just seventy years. The United States has not been able to do that. We need to acknowledge, even applaud this accomplishment.
Rather than “spiritual direction,”Gordon preferred the term, “spiritual conversations.” As a teenager working on his family’s farm in eastern Washington State, he planted new grapevines. Gordon slowly learned how to train two lower branches and two upper branches of the new vine plant on a long wire trellis. The trick is to guess which sprouting buds can be encouraged by pruning correctly. If you choose poorly, then you can lose part of the crop. Working at vine cultivation requires developing intuition, learning to see how the plant wants to grow. The analogy is clear: the task of spiritual direction is to draw out a person’s deepest desires.
Gordon referred to the special dignity of the penitent. I remember hearing private confessions at my parish in Santa Ana. Some people carry their sins like heavy rocks in their spiritual backpack. Shame and guilt wear them down. Previous counseling from other clergy often added to the shame of these penitents. When I look back to that spiritual inventory of the Fifth Step with the Jesuit priest, I remember feeling like Lazarus: The Lord had set me free. As I arrived at a Twelve-Step meeting in Dana Point, California, on a dense foggy night. Several men were outside the entrance welcoming everyone, glad that they had shown up. Listening to those testimonies of recovering alcoholics that night, one of whom was at the time a student of mine at the college, reminded me of an Easter Sunday service, but there was more Easter resurrection there than I have ever felt in church.
When Father Gordon transitioned from the Northwest to southern California, on Ash Wednesday, as he imposed ashes on parishioners, he was especially struck by Latinos, and how they would wear the penitential mark on their foreheads with pride. These ashes are not mortification, as taught by ancient theologies. We glory in our penance. We are worth the blood of the cross of Jesus. It is not that we forgive and forget our sins; it is better to know you are forgiven and remember your liberation from sin and death. I am remembering how through our many years of marriage; Jan and I continue to learn about forgiveness with each other.
Gordon tells a story about a crooked, bent tree that grew beyond the corner of a house, a “wounded tree,” obscured under the lattice of the roof. It worked its way out into the light. The forestry person pronounced the tree as “broken,” but now the tree had become strong, growing to one-hundred feet in height.
From his own life with God, through all the struggles for faith within his own humanity, Father Gordon experienced the love and forgiveness of the Lord. He has lived his evangelion through a radical love for the unfaithful departed, helping them to let go of their sins and embrace the joy of the Lord. You may ask him: What does God want from us? More obedience, following the rules, spiritual perfection? God wants a relationship with you. The trick is this: We love because God has given us the ability to love.
My prayer is that these words and my experience with Father Gordon will encourage you to seek a spiritual director and to make that time together a priority. You and I need the help of these spiritual friends to be reminded again and again that we are beloved by God.
 Step five in Alcoholic Anonymous is called “Confession”, when we “admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrong.” This step involves a written inventory of our wrong and should be shared as early as possible in recovery.
Let us now consider “the elephant in the sanctuary!” As you and I look over the faces of worshippers gathered on a Sunday in an American church, the majority will be women. Are American women more spiritual and faithful to their religious traditions than men?
Marta Trzebiatowska and her team of sociologists have seriously studied this question, revealing:
“Since 1945, the Gallup polling organization has consistently found that, on every index used, American women are more religious than men and not by small margins.”
The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank in Washington, D.C., studies demographic trends and social issues. Recently, they published The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World, observing that “women are generally more religious than men, particularly among Christians.”
The Pew report reveals: “In the United States, for example, women are more likely than men to say religion is ‘very important’ in their lives. American women also are more likely than American men to say they pray daily and attend religious services at least once a week.”
“A few sociologists have theorized that the gender gap in religion is biological in nature, possibly stemming from higher levels of testosterone in men or other physical and genetic differences between the sexes. Christian women are more religious than Christian men…. Christian women report praying daily more frequently than Christian men by an overall average gap of ten percentage points….Scholars of religion have been examining possible reasons for the gender gaps: biology, psychology, family environment, social status, workforce participation and lack of ‘existential security’ felt by many women because they generally are more afflicted than men by poverty, illness, old age and violence.”
David Voas, head of the Department of Social Science at University College London, reflects on this report:
“I’m not an expert in genetics, but there appears to be some fairly compelling evidence (for example, from studies of twins) that genes do affect our disposition to be religious. And if that’s the case, it’s at least plausible that the gender gap in religiosity is partly a matter of biology. If true, though, I doubt that it’s because there’s a ‘God gene’ and women are more likely to have it than men. It seems easier to believe that physiological or hormonal differences could influence personality, which may in turn be linked to variations in ‘spirituality’ or religious thinking.”
As America became more secularized without state support of religion after the 1820’s, Tzrebiatowska reports that, “the division of the life-world into relatively distinct spheres initially insulated women from many of the secularizing forces that bore on the public sphere…(That) the home should be the primary site for religious edification and socialization seems to explain why secularization should have impacted on men earlier and to a greater extent than on women.”
Why do American men struggle with spirituality?
We have inherited the values of critical thinking and science from the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. We now live in a secular culture suspicious of religious experience and dogmatic theology. Religion can be defined as that which connects all of life together. In medieval Paris, France, for example, religion encompassed all aspects of daily life. There was no separation between the sacred and secular. Religious rituals were celebrated in a world of spiritual enchantment. This world view radically changed in 150 years, as early scientists sought knowledge in the Book of Nature rather than the dogma of the Bible. At a time when it was assumed that everyone believed in the Christian God, Rene Descartes (1596-1656) inspired the shift from religious orthodoxy to the primacy of the individual conscience.
German sociologist Max Weber described this process as the demystification of the modern world. Nature and the cosmos no longer invited mystical contemplation. Instead, they came to be seen as material systems to be studied. The emerging modern world required rational control. Descartes contended that creating a “buffered self” was the best defense against the siren call of old superstitions.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes:
“The buffered self is the agent who no longer fears demons, spirits, and magic forces. More radically, these no longer impinge; they don’t exist for him; whatever threat or other meaning they proffer doesn’t ‘get it’ from him.
“This super buffered self… is not only not ‘got at’ by demons and spirits; he is also utterly unmoved by the aura of desire. In a mechanistic universe, and in a field of functionally understood passion, there is no more room for such an aura. There is nothing it could correspond to. It is just a disturbing, supercharged feeling which somehow grips us until we can come to our senses and take on our full, buffered identity.”
Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism, describes how ambitious, hard work, accumulation of capital, and the pieties of thrift and simplicity became spiritual virtues of the Protestant Reformation. Success in your profession may be evidence of God’s predestined blessing.
As Enlightenment values for reason, and Reformation values for the work ethic came to the American colonies, each colony had its own established state church, supported by tax money. They legally required all citizens to attend church services. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, influential leaders in the American Revolution, affirmed the Enlightenment’s teachings so that the Constitution expressed the radical idea that every person must be free to choose his or her spiritual path. No one can be compelled to follow any religion in which they did not believe.
When these state churches were disestablished, men who provided leadership to these churches lost status, which diminished interest in participation. Men who worked in government had to deal with people from different religious traditions. Men were more likely to travel extensively for their business or military service. These factors would also have diluted any sense of uniformity of religion and influenced men’s disaffiliation.
This process of disenchantment of the West, through the European Enlightenment, Protestant Reformation and in the American Constitution, resulted in the reality that religion became purely a private matter in the United States.
Noting the displacement of the fire inside us for communion with God with the pursuit of success in the world, a whole publishing industry burst forth, speaking to masculine spirituality.
In the early 1990s. The early book on the men’s movement was Robert Bly’s Iron Man, which sparked exploration of what is unique to men and their spirituality. Masculinity to Bly meant spontaneous wildness and taking risks. To awaken to Bly’s ideal of the true self involves austere, elaborate initiation. Modern Western culture has tamed and suppressed natural male instincts. Mythologies from different cultures give directional clues to an inward awakening. Was Bly countering the feminist critique of masculinity?
A best-selling book on Christian masculinity is John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart (2001). After twenty years, the book continues to be number one on spirituality for men within evangelical Christianity. Eldridge, a Christian counselor, and lecturer, invites men to recover their masculine heart and return to “authentic masculinity,” connecting with their deepest desires. I found kinship with Eldredge as he shares his own retreats in desert and mountain landscapes.
The book has three parts. Part One describes men as image-bearers of God. Men are made to “come through.” As a man, do you have what it takes? Part Two contends all men carry a wound. We all carry a false self that we project to the outer world, expressed in extreme ways in anger or passivity. Healing comes if we bring those wounds to Jesus and recover a restored masculine heart. Part Three, Eldridge describes the Core Desires of a Man’s Heart: battle, adventure, beauty. Within the heart of every man is the heart of a warrior who wants to fight for something important and precious. Within the heart of every man is a longing for exploration and adventure connected to God’s call. Within the heart of every man is a “beauty to rescue,” to be found in nature, the arts, and in a personal relationship with God. We will find our deepest longings and desires in relationship with God. He asks important questions to his male readers: “Who am I. What am I made of? What am I destined for?”
Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and liberal Roman Catholic, represents the other end of the masculine spirituality spectrum. He has been much criticized by conservative Christians for his lack of orthodoxy—something he has in common with many spiritual mystics. In reading his books From Wild Man to Wise Man and Falling Upward, I can see influence from the analytical psychology of C. G. Jung, his emphasis on archetypes, common figures found in dreams and cross-cultural mythology as clues to the collective unconscious.
Professor Armin M Kummer of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, reflects:
“Rohr believes that most contemporary men possess no internal motivation. Their choices are driven by the external motivators, money, sex, and power. They are in the grasp of groupthink and other forms of social control that are opposed to individual consciousness and personal conscience. The traditional masculine enterprise of creating and producing has been replaced with making money as the primary goal in life. In Rohr’s view, the contemporary willingness to dedicate life to the production of items of no social benefit has led to men’s emotional stunting. Relational and social skills have withered because men live their lives at odds with their phallic energy, the masculine drive towards intercourse, and the beginning of life.”
Richard Rohr OFM also contends that men carry a wound, which he calls “father wound,” based on the missing presence of a man’s father. If accumulation of wealth is a man’s ultimate concern, there is little time to nurture relationships with children.
Rohr defines spirituality as “having a source of energy within which is a motivating and directing force for living.” This is similar to Rolheiser’s definition of spirituality: how we channel that fire within us. Spirituality for men, according to Rohr, “would emphasize movement over stillness, action over theory, service to the world over religious discussions, speaking the truth over social niceties and doing justice instead of any self-serving ‘charity’.”
In his recent book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Rohr considers the first half of a man’s life, the restless pursuit of power, sex, and money, at the cost of one’s inner self, creating an underdeveloped persona called puer (boy-child). To find our true self, the self that God implanted in us as our spiritual destiny, there is an unavoidable suffering that must come upon us. As you have read this book up to this point, you can hear my “Amen” to this.
Rohr writes about the false self and true self:
“Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real…. Your True Self is who you objectively are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God… It is your substantial self, your absolute identity, which can be neither gained nor lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality, or formula whatsoever. The surrendering of our false self, which we have usually taken for our absolute identity, yet is merely a relative identity, is the necessary suffering needed to find ‘the pearl of great price’ that is always hidden inside this lovely but passing shell.”
Drawing on Eastern and native American religious traditions, Rohr lifts up the role of mentor who can guide and teach a younger man, just as Jesus offered spiritual formation for his disciples. And he encourages desert retreats of silence and solitude and contemplative prayer as resources for building friendship with God.
Contemporary writers on men’s spirituality seem to be motivated by the diminished self-identity of men caused by the women’s movement.
I believe that a way forward for men in rediscovery of their spiritual selves will be found in opportunities for connection with the spiritual lives of women.
I have experienced this in two ways.
For forty years, I have shared ministry with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, a century-old Roman Catholic religious community in Orange, California.
One of their charisms or spiritual gifts is public work for justice and peace. Sister Eileen McNerney CSJ founded Taller San Jose in 1995 as a response to increased gang violence, youth unemployment, low high school graduation rates and rising teen pregnancy rates. The Hope Builders program enrolls two hundred young adults and helps them achieve and maintain self-sufficiency. Women and men receive training for employment in construction and medical services. I know that the contact with the Sisters by young men in the programs and business professionals who mentor or teach in the programs has stimulated their spiritual renewal. “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words.” The Sisters of Saint Joseph, in their life-changing ministries of peace and justice, are visible testimonies to the joy of life with God.
Another ministry of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange is the Center for Spiritual Development. Spiritual directors are trained at the Center, which also offers seminars on a wide-spectrum on spirituality for men and women who seek a deeper relationship with God. Men who may have no religious affiliation find a welcoming “side-door” for spiritual exploration.
A second experience for me of how women have enriched my spiritual life are the five women priests who have been my colleagues. As a self-driven Alpha male, focusing on fund-raising for low-income early childhood centers and an after school youth center and growing the parish, the multi-tasking can take on a manic momentum. In close partnership with my female clergy colleagues, I had help with paying attention to relationships, conflict management, and taking time at staff meetings for prayer and scripture, reminding us for Whom we are laboring. Before I would send an angry letter to the bishop or another party with whom I had disagreements, I learned to submit the letter to one of my female colleagues for editing or deletion. I found balance in my professional life and gratitude for the priesthood through shared ministry with these remarkable women.
As a man, passing through the eighth decade of life, I look back with regret and sorrow for things done and left undone. I see the faces of persons I have hurt, disappointed, and neglected. I remember bad choices that had serious life-changing consequences for me and those I loved. I remember addictive behaviors and the deceptive inner voice that urged me on: “You can do this; you are in control.” Thank God I lived long enough to come to this place of contemplative reflection. Thank God for that awakening of the Spirit to help me see that all along, in my frantic restless wanderings and hell-bent fixations, I was somewhere within my deepest self, seeking God. Thank God I had the help of Sister Jeanne Fallon, CSJ and Father Gordon Moreland, SJ to remind me as spiritual directors that I am God’s beloved.
Lord God, my prayers do not conjure your presence. You have always been present throughout my life and I did not know this. You are present everywhere for everyone. The problem has been me being present to you.
The awakening I experienced of God’s love for me and all creation came at the end of praying through the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola for a year with Sister Jeanne. At the end of that year, she guided me through the Contemplation to Attain Divine Love. I remember that there are four parts:
Remember how much God has done for me.
Think about the way God “dwells in all living things and in me, created in God’s image.”
Consider how God cares for and nurtures creation.
Consider how God inspires us to work for justice and mercy in the world as His active presence.
On our last day of that year together, Sister Jeanne invited me to pray the Suscipe Prayer, a prayer of self-surrender of my life to God, acknowledging that all I need to thrive and serve in this life is God’s love and grace.
You and I, in our desire for deeper connection with Jesus, find a helpful brother in Augustine of Hippo, the Black bishop from north Africa, and his autobiographical Confessions (c. 400 A.D.). By that time, Christianity had been legalized in the Roman Empire, the age of physical martyrdom was over and the spiritual work for Christians had become an inner struggle. Some men and women took to the deserts of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt to seek solitude, silence, and contemplation with God. Listening to Augustine’s voice as I read the Confessions, I recognize a person praying to God, like the voice I hear of the Psalmist in the Bible. The quotation at the beginning of this chapter describes our search for God without knowing that it is God for whom we are searching. For thirty-four years of his life, Augustine searched restlessly for meaning and fulfillment in the world. His intense intellectual mind drew him to be a rabid devotee of various Greek philosophies and cults, an ardent lover of women, and ambitious in his teaching career—receiving an academic appointment from the Roman Emperor himself. A desire for God moved within him, but he thought this restless activity in the world had nothing to do with that. The journey inward was not self-initiated. He was in a garden, thinking about thinking, and the way God works, a surprise: he hears a child’s voice chanting “Take up and read.” He opens a book to Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strike and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts.”
With clarity of mind, heart, and soul, he chooses baptism and Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
Augustine of Hippo joins you and me in awakening to the knowledge that we are beloved sons of God. This is where a man who struggles with his life with God must begin. Augustine prays for all of us as he says to the Lord: “You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though each is the only one in your care.”
Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, Editor: David Vincent Meconi; Translator: Maria Boulding Chicago: Ignatius Press, 2012.
Some people come into our life, and we are never the same persons. Their presence, friendship, and honesty with us in times of discernment help us to shape who we were meant to be: our true selves.
I first met Coach Tom Hamilton in May 1960. I was soon to graduate from Wilson Junior High School in Pasadena, California. A classmate and I snuck into the Pasadena High School varsity spring football practice at the old Smokestack field on the campus at Pasadena City College. Was it coincidence or God’s amazing grace that I would be there on that special day? We lined up for “non-contact” scrimmage. Before we started, varsity coach Dick Simmons announced with a bold voice, “I want you to meet our new varsity head football coach Tom Hamilton.”
And so it began.
In the first play of the practice scrimmage, Rick Flood, a pulling guard two years older than me, blasted through the line, crashed into me, and busted my nose. Blood spirted from my nostrils, flowing down on to my clothes. Coach Hamilton walked me over to the sidelines, told me to lie down and be still. They later escorted me off the field and admonished me to come back when I was actually a PHS student.
Little did I know that for over forty-four years, Tom would become my best friend and mentor.
Coach Hamilton began a long, successful run as PHS football coach that fall at the new Pasadena High School campus on Sierra Madre Blvd. I remember that in tenth grade, all our home football games were in the Rose Bowl, because the Pasadena City College field was being renovated. Imagine: high school athletes playing football in the famous Rose Bowl: the site of Super Bowl, National Collegiate Football championships, Olympic Games and FIFA Women’s World Cup Soccer. On the PHS team, I made lifelong friendships with teammates Bruce Corker, Pat Cayce, Gary Griffith, Dennis Cosso, Rob Johnston, and Greg Vartanian. Coach Hamilton’s first year of coaching in 1960 was a disaster, losing every league game.
Those first three years at the new PHS campus were a building time for the program, which finally culminated on November 1962 in the annual rivalry game between the two Pasadena schools, John Muir High School and PHS in the venerable Rose Bowl. The intense rivalry drew fifteen-thousand fans. Both schools celebrated Homecoming to draw out the loyal alumni. PHS had lost this game the previous eight years. With the score tied 14-14, seconds to go, quarterback Phil Olwin ran a broken play into the end zone for a touchdown. That victory highlighted our senior year. The football team joyfully carried Coach Hamilton on their shoulders off the field. Coach Hamilton’s career took off from there through the 1970s. The football team rarely lost a game and usually beat John Muir High School.
With a student body of 4200 students in grades 9-12, PHS channeled hundreds of young men through sports programs. I was a face in the crowd, a mediocre athlete. Tom Hamilton coached me in football and baseball. Teenagers have special radar for hypocrisy and facades. I could see in Tom an honorable, good man. I think that was the spark that inspired further contact with him when I was in college and seminary.
A lesson Tom gifted all of us in athletics was this: there is a place deep within us, when we are beyond thirst, beyond tired, when we do not believe we can give any more, there is a place deep within us where we find the fire to do that which we did not think we could do! I believe Coach Tom helped us connect with the fire deep within us, that is the awakening of our true self.
Coach Gary Griffiths remembers:
“He was just the most unforgettable person I’ve ever met. The most principled. I think the thing that sticks most in my mind was his concept that you play by the rules to win. Everything was done in the right way. So many coaches were unscrupulous. He set an example for all of us coaches to follow.”
Arcadia High School football coach Dick Salter remembers his beloved friend:
“The coach I respected most was Tom Hamilton. He had such high integrity. More than anything else, he was a great person. He was a person of high character and great motivational skills for his kids. He ran wishbone for a while, he ran an unbalanced line like Michigan State, he ran the veer for a while, the I formation. He would adjust to the personnel he had. When he had a good quarterback, he’d run the option. That’s why Tom did so well. He utilized his people well. Even if you lost to him, you felt good, because he was such a good person.”
Former PHS football player Mickey Segal, President of the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation, remembers:
“Coach Hamilton was an inspiring leader. He was able to get 110% performance from every player. But more importantly, he was able to teach and develop character and responsibility in each and every one of us.”
After I graduated from seminary in 1970, I visited Tom at a football practice. He invited me to pray a blessing for the team the following week. From that day until the 1990s, I drove at least one-hundred-fifty miles almost every Friday night to be with Coach Tom and Coach Gary, as the chaplain to the PHS varsity team.
A mental image burns in my mind:
We are in the Rose Bowl locker room, the most famous football stadium in America, for the annual Turkey Tussle football game against John Muir High School. Tom has helped the players focus again on that fire deep within. We kneel on the Astroturf carpet, in a compact circle, clasping heavily taped hands, the Muir High School drums beat a primal cadence that echoes within the bowels of the stadium and right outside our locker room door, and I pray, yes, I pray for victory. Has there been another day when we felt as alive as that day, felt more like brothers, and blessed to be with Coach Tom Hamilton?
From the wisdom of Celtic spirituality, there is the counsel to remain planted where you are, to stay in place, to resist the allure of seeking greening pastures.
Spiritual writer Philip Sheldrake reflects: “The desert tradition of monastic life, by which Celtic, especially Irish, spirituality may have been influenced, placed a central emphasis on the importance of staying in one place, specifically the ‘ cell ‘, in order to find God.”
The commitment to be planted where you are is an invitation to the Holy Spirit to help you dig deep into the soil of your life and the needs of the world around you.
When both of our careers had achieved some success and the lure of “bigger and better” tugged at our conscience, Tom had several opportunities: assistant coach at the University of Southern California; head coach and athletic director at Santa Monica High School, where he could focus completely on football; coach at an Orange County high school.
Tom decided again and again to remain where he was at PHS. Those decisions were hard, because the demands on coaching were soon to take a dramatic turn.
I frequently visited Tom at his home in Altadena with his life partner, Dr. Lynne Emory, a kinesiology professor at Cal Poly, Pomona, and acclaimed historian on women in the Olympic Games. I would find Tom in his garage working on carpentry. He built a fabulous dining room table, cribs for grandchildren and bookcases. Or I would find him working in the garden with Lynne. He would drop everything and take me into the living room of his modest home. Lynne made coffee and Tom had Royal Crown Cola. We talked. There was a presence in him. He was my best friend, and only after he died did I learn that many men like me felt like adopted sons.
Tom was “father-confessor” as I struggled with a decision to go to Maryland as rector of a large, well-to-do Episcopal Church. He helped me focus on where my real passion was and still is: urban ministry in a struggling, multicultural, inner-city church in the Logan Barrio in Santa Ana. He helped me to remain in place, and from that decision, new ministries were birthed: an after-school tutoring and youth center to counter rising gang violence and an early childhood education center for the poorest families of Santa Ana.
Once when our son was in the hospital in Pediatric ICU and his life seemed like it could end, I received a surprise phone call from Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of Why Bad Things Happento Good People. His own son had died ten years earlier. We talked about what it feels like being a religious professional, and how God can seem far away when we are in crisis ourselves and our loved ones are suffering.
Rabbi Kushner quoted from his recent book:
“One of my favorite aphorisms comes from a nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi who once said, ‘Human beings are God’s language.’ When we call out to God in our distress, God answers us by sending us people.”
I do not believe God caused Erik’s many health crises and suffering. God was with us in the people He sent: medical staff, therapists, and Coach Tom’s many phone calls and personal visits.
In the dark nights of my soul, Tom Hamilton has been God’s language to me. He always accepted me where I was. If he did not hear from me for a while, he called me. He helped me to stay in touch with the fire that burns within and to resist the allures of the false self: who I am, what I do, what I have, what others think of me, and to focus on my true self, which has something to do with spending myself for the needs of others.
In the late 1970s, a shift in the demographics of the Pasadena Unified School system challenged Coach Tom Hamilton to adapt to a new cultural world. Coach Hamilton became “Coach Ham.”
For decades, Pasadena had some of the best schools in California, influenced by connection to California Institute of Technology. When I attended PHS in the early 1960s, the quality of education was comparable to an excellent private school today. The student body was mostly white, with perhaps five percent African American and five percent Asian-American. Some of my classmates were born in Manzanar and other World War II relocation camps.
My father attended John Muir Technical High School in the 1930s. The school covered the northwest sector of Pasadena, including a vibrant Black community dating back to the 1880s. Jackie Robinson and his brother Mack were outstanding athletes at John Muir, being on the same sports teams as my father and his brothers Earl and Kenneth. As I read Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I noticed brief mention of his high school days. His experience of racism at the school and segregation at local recreational facilities affected his remembrance of those early days in Pasadena.
In 1970, a federal court ordered desegregation busing because of “de facto” segregation in the northwest sector of the district, which could affect equal access to quality education. White students dominated the other areas of the city. The Pasadena Unified School Board fought the court decision for a decade. As a result, Pasadena High School became very multicultural and there was a significant white flight to schools in Arcadia, San Marino, and La Crescenta. Private schools went on wait list and new private schools were launched.
The demographics of PHS and its sports teams changed to be more honestly reflective of the real world. Tom became a multicultural coach. The classroom teaching and coaching roles changed. As mothers and fathers had to both work to support family, teachers and coaches became support persons for homework and academics, health care, and father confessors.
The lure of violent gang life encroached on Pasadena schools as well as the Logan Barrio, where my parish was in Santa Ana. The Bloods and Crips gangs preyed on vulnerable youth, offering alternative “family” and a downward life leading to prison, drug addiction or death. Sports teams and coaches like Tom Hamilton saved many young men, giving vision and hope for the future.
How did Tom adjust to this cultural shift and establish rapport with the black and Latino students? He was the same coach, the same mentor and teacher, who cared deeply about each player.
One of these young men from the Black neighborhood of northwest Pasadena was Stacy Harvey. Stacy joined the team, as gang life tugged at him and his friends. He came to varsity football in the last years of Tom’s coaching. Physically and charismatically bigger than life, he was a natural leader as quarterback. I have this indelible memory of Stacy in his last game against John Muir High School, 1982. The play was quarterback keeper. From the 50-yard line of the Rose Bowl, Stacy blasted through the middle of the line and, like a Sherman tank, continued straight up the field with two Muir players hanging on to him, carrying them all toward a touchdown.
When defense was on the field, I often sat with Stacy on the bench and our friendship began. I stayed in touch with him as he went off to Arizona State University. He had an outstanding four years playing football, culminating in his team’s victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. As a linebacker, Stacy led the team with eleven tackles in that game.
He had a long career in management with Los Angeles County Public Works, raised a family, and stayed connected to his PHS friends in the northwest Pasadena neighborhood. Our friendship became closer during the five years we worked together on the Board of the PHS Alumni Association. The school has a history going back to the 1880s, thousands of alumni, but Stacy and his classmates of 1983 were the only ones to launch an alumni association. The Alumni Board met every month. Around the table were the men and women who grew up with Stacy in his neighborhood. All the men had played football and remembered me as a priest to the team. I am grateful to be drawn into the lives of these men and women and to see their devotion to their families, their church, their careers and especially to PHS. Because these neighborhood friendships had deep roots, like any extended family, there were intense arguments. As President, Stacy had a forceful presence, too authoritarian sometimes, but he could motivate these folks to donate scholarships, organize campus work projects and fund equipment for athletic programs.
Stacy had a big heart spiritually, but his physical heart grew weak. I visited Stacy at Huntington Hospital after his heart bypass surgery. This health crises had also been a spiritual catharsis. He knew that he almost died and intended to make amends with friends and family. God was close to him. A few weeks later, Stacy died in his sleep.
Powerful expressions of love and appreciation for Stacy filled the Pasadena High School auditorium at his memorial service. Twenty of his teammates from Arizona State University attended, as well as dozens of rival John Muir High School football alums. Stacy’s son spoke about Stacy’s legacy in sports and as his beloved father.
Ironically, a few weeks before he died, Stacy had planned a picnic at Brookside Park to thank all the people who helped him during his illness. The afternoon of that planned picnic was the day of his memorial service. Lifelong friends from the northeast Pasadena neighborhood, a devoted extended family, celebrated the reunion that Stacy had planned.
Coach Tom Hamilton’s life was also cut short with lung cancer. Tom did not smoke, but I wondered about the effect of those years of smoggy days in Pasadena and his coaching outside at the football field. Up to then, he seemed to always be in training, walking several miles early each morning around the Rose Bowl with his beloved Lynne Emery. The cancer drained him. He struggled for each breath. I have this memory: I am with Tom at his home. A bleak winter day. I help administer morphine under his tongue to assuage the panic that comes with a dying lung. I hold his big hand and gaze out the window at a bird on a barren tree branch. I felt so helpless. There are no words to say, just hold on tight and channel my love for him. Coach Gary Griffith was a caregiver for Tom in those last days. Two days after my visit, Gary called me to say that our beloved Tom had died.
October 31, 2019, I am again at the Rose Bowl. This time I am with former coaches and players to dedicate Tunnel Four in memory of Coach Tom Hamilton. It was a few hours before the annual John Muir High School-PHS rivalry football game. Coach Hamilton’s son, Tom Hamilton, Jr and his family welcomed the gathering. Later, in the football game, Tom flipped the coin at the traditional coin toss before the game began.
Here is a portion of my presentation at this dedication:
“What is a successful coach? Not the win-loss calculation. Not the number of his players that went on to Division One universities or the National Football League. For Tom, it was the nurture of the whole person during those tumultuous years of late adolescence, so many temptations pulling at them. You, his former players, are the proof of a coach who chose long-term commitment through all the hassles and impediments to teaching and coaching. You returned to the school yourselves to teach or coach at PHS.
“I was talking with Coach Skip Robinson of Pasadena City College a few months ago, reflecting on how Tom was my best friend. Skip said, ‘I felt like his adopted son.’ And now I have met many men who describe a feeling of special relationship with Coach Tom Hamilton.
“Tom is imbedded in this Rose Bowl. He played in the first Turkey Tussle game in 1947. Most of the home games of his early coaching years were right here in the Rose Bowl. When he retired, he walked around the stadium every morning at 6:30 a.m. with his beloved Dr. Lynne Emery.
“I believe the last time Tom came to the Pasadena-Muir game at the Rose Bowl, he entered with me through this Tunnel Four. As we walked through the tunnel down the long steps to the grassy playing field to be with the team, it took at least a half hour, because the aisle was filled with former players, now fathers and grandfathers, and police officers, who wanted to greet again their beloved coach.”
In a reversal of the image of the stairway to Heaven, I imagine this: Coach Tom Hamilton and Stacy Harvey walking down the stairs of the Rose Bowl, slowly passing by former players and coaches, friends and fans, and teammates, as they walk arm in arm onto the Field of Glory.
This prayer wells up within my heart: Lord God, as I wrote this reflection on Tom and Stacy, you awakened in me again my love for these two good men, my friends, and my grief still aches. Thank you, surprising and generous God, for inviting me into their lives, for the genuine gift of deep, honest, joyful friendship with them. Rest eternal grant to them and may Light Perpetual shine upon them. Amen.
Sheldrake, Philip, Living Between Worlds. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 1995.
Pat Williams, Vince Lombardi on Leadership: Life Lessons from a Five-Time NFL Championship Coach. Charleston, SC: Advantage Media Group, Inc, 2015.
Hung, Steve, Tom Hamilton, PHS Icon, Dies of Cancer, Pasadena Star News, March 15, 2004.
Brad Karelius, Dedication of Tunnel Four in Honor of Coach Tom Hamilton, October 31, 2019.
Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World. New York: Knopf, 2009. Inspire: Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation.
“Great numbers of water birds are in sight along the lake shore—avocets, phalaropes, ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in flight over the water in the distance, wheeling about in mass, now silvery, now dark, against the gray blue of the water. There must be literally thousands of birds within sight of this one spot.”
Owens Lake 2021
photo by Author
The silver Freightliner 18-wheel truck lays on its side in the southbound lane of Highway 395 in Olancha, California, four hours north of Los Angeles. My Oldsmobile Bravada, a heavyweight car, shakes in the hard, buffeting desert wind, as I wait in a line of cars in the northbound lane. The road is littered with hundreds of plastic water bottles bearing the logo which is on the side of the truck: Crystal Geyser Water. The bottling factory is a mile north. The beverage holder at my car console holds a half-opened bottle of Crystal Geyser. Through the cottonwood trees to my left, I can see Olancha Peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which appears on the water bottle label. The truck driver sits on the ground, supported by a bystander holding a compress to the man’s bleeding head.
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
Saturday morning, brilliant sunshine, 75 degrees F. Our son Erik and I begin our walk around the Big Block. I hold on to his upper arm as we begin the climb up the street that will encircle our neighborhood. Erik is alert with his supersonic hearing, responding to every distant sound: dog barking, leaf blower, car door closing, baby crying. He laughs or repeats nonsense phrases. He kicks at a wall, stomps on a dried sycamore leaf, thrusts his leg out toward a bush, laughing. Erik is alive with joy, living only in this present moment.
Erik especially enjoys stepping into the recess in a lawn where the concrete top of the water meter is placed. I tell Erik, “Now don’t step into that hole.” He heads right for it, steps into the hole and laughs. We repeat this at least a dozen times as we walk the one-mile parameter of the Big Walk, up hills, and down hills.
Erik is 37 years old, but mentally 4 years old. That is the age when encephalitis ravaged his brain. I remember when I was 37 years old, pastor of a busy urban parish, propelled by caffeine and the prioritized daily task list in the Franklin Planner. My mind frantically moved in all directions, lamenting an overdue project from yesterday, anxious about a critical board meeting tomorrow. There was no Now, especially a joyful Now. As I experience walking beside our son Erik, in these retirement years, I can give myself fully to being present with Erik, relishing his robust joy at being right here now with me.
I shared with my spiritual director, Fr. Gordon Moreland SJ, last month a nagging issue for me. “I am looking back on my life with deep regrets about my behavior toward people I have wounded. A dark, judgmental energy has been haunting me, causing me to blurt out, ‘I am sorry! I was so stupid!’”
Fr. Gordon responded, “Whoever comes to mind, pray that they will experience a surge of joy from the Lord.”
He expanded that counsel with a more radical spirit:
“The people in your life who have died: let them know you are praying for them to have a surge of joy.
For the Unfaithful Departed, help them let go of their Capital sins (Greed, Lust, Envy, etc.) and embrace the joy of the Lord.”
I remember that Fr. Gordon expanded this counsel in his Christmas Letter:
“The Divine Trinity is the very personification of love. This is the love of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity is also an extravaganza of joy. And that joy diffuses itself by being poured forth into creation. Most especially the Trinity create other persons to share that joy. And we as human beings are the recipients of that joy. Jesus made two things pretty clear; He wanted us to share His joy and he wants our joy to be complete. This is what God wants of us, as Saint Paul proclaims in Philippians, ‘Rejoice always. Again, I say rejoice.’ (Ph. 4:4ff)
“Praying for the eternal happiness of all people means I no longer have enemies, because I no longer carry the heavy burden of resentment toward anyone. At the least, I unburden myself and I am liberated to make room to welcome joy.”
Joy is central to our life with each other and with God.
On the one-year anniversary of the breakout of COVID-19 virus, I am waiting in line at Albertson’s Supermarket (six feet behind the person in front of me). They are out of Lysol wipes, paper towels and TP again. Everyone is wearing masks. I look at the people around me, faces mostly covered, pushing shopping carts, heads down, a mother trying to herd a brood of school-age children who cannot attend school. There is no joy here, only the daily grind, trying not to get sick, trying to pay bills, trying to help children keep up with schoolwork.
St. Patrick’s Day is a couple of weeks away. In past years, celebrants would pack Patty’s Pub, Irish jigs playing as gallons of Guinness pour from wooden kegs. Perhaps the virus census will improve so that bars and restaurants can open again. Festive celebrations, vacations, reunion with family and friends can foster joy once again. But a day or so after the event, we return to routine, ordinary time.
I remember this: a mid-morning hike on a cow trail along Olancha Creek, climbing westward toward the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains. In the early days of spring, an icy wind blows down from the mountains. Olancha Creek is dry as a bone, easy to cross to the other side. Enormous granite boulders and coarse gravel litter the landscape. This cow trail makes it easier to walk through dense, scratchy great basin sage and spindly creosote.
Sweat trickles into my eyes. Breathing is labored as I climb the trail. One step after another. The mind slows into No Mind. Then the sound. I stop suddenly. Listen! Water flowing over rocks. I continue climbing, move back toward Olancha Creek, which is now gushing with water.
I see a large, flat rock and collapse to rest. On the ground beside my hiking shoes, I see black obsidian chips. A Paiute once sat on this rock, chipping an arrowhead. Where I am hiking had been a substantial settlement of the Paiute people.
Breath and heart rate return to normal. At that moment, I am filled with a surge of well-being. In this desolate desert place, on this rock, gratitude pours out for my family, my friends, the priesthood, the gift of being here. My heart fills with thankfulness to God. This is genuine joy. It is more than a feeling. The sudden awareness becomes an open door to my heart to invite the Lord to be with me.
I cannot make joy happen. Joy visits us as part of the life we have been living.
Spiritual writer and monk Ron Rolheiser shares:
“Joy is always the by-product of something else. As the various versions of The Prayer of St. Francis put it, we can never attain joy, consolation, peace, forgiveness, love and understanding by actively pursuing them. We attain them by giving them out. That is the great paradox at the center of all spirituality and one of the great foundational truths within the universe itself: The air that we breathe out is the air we will eventually breathe back in. Joy will come to us if we set about actively trying to create it for others.”
The 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite John of the Cross echoes this counsel in this poem: