Koan: How do you pray your life?




summer_day_4-t2I’ve been wrestling a lot lately with the question of what to do with the rest of my life. Perhaps a bit more so now that Lent is underway. A season of contemplation. And of existential realities. How should I go about engaging with it in a manner that feels authentic and brings meaning to it? The poem “A Summers Day” by Mary Oliver beautifully captures this existential question that haunts me like a koan:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


What do I want to do with my one wild and precious life?  How *do* you go about engaging with that question? There are many ways. The Benedictines have what is called a “rule of life.”The word “rule” can often have a negative connotation in today’s western culture. But its meaning here is a bit different. Its not a rule that can be broken as such, or that makes you bad if you fail to live up to it. Its meant as a guide, as something that gives some focus and direction. The garden metaphor is sometimes used in describing its function.

What do you need for a garden to flourish? Its not just one thing, you of course need good soil, nutrients, as well as an appropriate amount of water and sunshine. But you also need to consider other things. How large of a plot do you have? Do you have room to do lots of planting? Or is it more of a patio sized garden right now? What season is it? That will determine what can realistically be expected to flourish at this particular time. Also don’t forget about pruning things every now and then. Sometimes a little pruning is needed in order to bear good fruit.

This approach helps in both giving you a direction and narrows your focus. Back to the garden theme. You can compare it’s function to that of a garden hose nozzle that takes the water from spraying in all directions at once and focuses and narrows the stream.

Mary Oliver in the above poem commented that “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” but then she went on to describe her knowing how to pay attention, of the experience of falling down and kneeling in the grass, of being “idle and blessed.” That really struck me as being prayer *itself*. Her living as a prayer instead of merely speaking one. “What is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” Maybe that’s the answer to my koan? To live with intention, to live a life of meaning and reverence. To live ones life as a prayer. Maybe when you do that, the answer to the question “how should I live my life?” just falls into place, and the koan answers itself….

Haunted by God



A green freeway sign with the words Decide - Yes or No

What do you do when the path ahead looks impossible to transverse? When the road ahead is forked and both paths have a “danger” sign marking them?

I’ve had a couple of friends, that are clergy, say to me that they think I may do well in ordained ministry. Something that I’ve thought about. Never really dared too all that seriously, after all, what would that mean? How would it look to others? What would my friends say? What would my family think? How would it change my own self image? How could imperfect and flawed me be an ordained member of the clergy…I mean, I know we all have flaws…but seriously. Some of us more than others. All of these things come up. But I can no longer deny it. Religion and spirituality have always at some level, been a huge part of who I am. I recall that in Grade 2, so what around 7-8 years old?  I organized a prayer group with my a few of my fellow students. Every lunch hour we would meet up just off to the side of the playground where we had staked a small homemade wooden cross into the ground and we would pray, and talk about God and Jesus to the best of our Sunday School understanding. I remember playing make believe when I was alone, fantasizing that I was one of those Catholic priests that I saw on TV. I wasn’t raised Catholic, but I suppose I liked the collar and how religious and serious they seemed. A drive has been with me a long time for full time religious life.

Finally on the recommendation of a clergy friend I asked my spiritual director what he thought. He should have a more unbiased opinion since we aren’t “friends” outside of that setting. I’ve only seen him a couple of times but I respect him a great deal, not just because he has many years in ordained ministry. But is also a former professor of theology, holds a doctorate in psychology, and is a contemplative (Benedictine oblate). So I could take his unbiased opinion seriously. An opinion, part of me may have been hoping, was that me being a priest was maybe some kind of joke. Something like “Cory, you’re a nice guy and clearly take your spirituality seriously, but ordained ministry? You? Sorry…I just really don’t see it.” But instead he looked at me very intently and a somewhat scrutinizing and said “Yes, their is something there.” And proceeded to encourage me to look into further.

Part of me was actually thrilled. Part of me was terrified. It also just happened to coincide on that very day, with my work insurance coverage that I’d been getting since I’ve been off work injured, being cancelled. I need that money. While I have been upgrading my high school courses to prepare myself for a career change, as I do strongly dislike my current occupation. I’m now forced to do something while I wait to see if I need surgery. I need to work. I have to ask my doctor if he’ll sign me off to return to my job, maybe with modified duties and hope not to injure myself further. I don’t want to. I’m concerned I’ll do more harm than good. I’m concerned my schooling will suffer. I’m concerned I’ll be trapped there forever.. but I can’t have no income. So how do I pursue this path into ministry, something that would require several years of full time studies, when I can’t even afford to be out of work? How would I even personally do in ministry anyway? How would it work being the only one in my household even religious at that? Then be a priest to boot? How……..will I ever be happy if I don’t pursue it anyway?


My spiritual director told me last meeting, that its a blessing to be “haunted by God.” I feel haunted. And I feel this incredible squeeze at this point in my life. Both paths in front of me say “danger.” So which do I choose? There may be only one right answer. But no matter which way it goes. The path seems to be fraught with uncertainty, even peril.