festivals, bike rides, and trepassing

The weather is just beginning to cool off in Pensacola, and the annual Greek Festival signals a new season.  It is one of my favorite times of year on the Gulf Coast.  I returned from Ireland last Friday, it was one of the best trips of my life and I'll post some thoughts in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, a piece from my retreat last month at Manresa, in Convent, Louisiana. 


South Louisiana is largely a landscape of endless sugar cane fields.  Solomon Northup's harrowing account of slavery in similar fields will forever color my view of them.  Somehow, land can carry the scent of many years past.  Every September, I find myself on a long run along the banks of the mighty Mississippi.  The Jesuits were the first spiritual teachers to suggest to me that imaginative powers could be used for good!  My imagination has historically gotten me into trouble.  Many of these runs have found me accompanied by my favorite writer, Thomas Merton, and fully colored by divinity.  

But on one particular rainy Saturday during my retreat, I decided to take my bike out as far as I could stand it.  And after more than a few miles, I found myself bored and hot.  One or the other may be tolerable.  Combined, they beg for change.  I spied a road down off the levee which seemed like it might hold something interesting.  So off I went.

The Manresa House of Retreats is arguably the flagship of American Jesuit retreat houses.  It is truly a magnificent spot.  Greek revival architecture gives a timeless feel to the place and the otherworldly and grand St. Mary's Hall was constructed with the aid of slaves in 1842.  Everything is impeccably well done.  So to go from such a stately scene into rural Louisiana poverty is particularly striking.  But the thing that hit me the most was an old run down mobile home with a prominently displayed "NO TRESPASSING" sign.  I have always found the thought of a trespasser finding such a sign compelling to be comical.  As if one might say, yes I intended to trespass until I saw that sign!

And it seems that those who have the least objectively desirable (or available) property to be stolen are somehow the most protective of it.  I think of one desperately poor client of mine who once took out his wallet to get his driver's license.  It was literally chained to his pants.  He was, of course, consulting our firm about the possibility of filing for bankruptcy.

But the no trespassing sign had the affect of bringing to mind the all too often election of another kind of poverty.  Not a poverty of geopolitical or economic circumstance.  Or even a poverty of indifference of some sort.  But a jealously guarded spiritual poverty. 

One of the most oft reproduced paintings in the Christian tradition is that of the third chapter of the book of Revelations.  Aside from that text as a whole being nearly completely lost on me, the artist's image is that of the Christ knocking on a door that all too clearly has no outside door handle.  The occupants must make the affirmative steps of opening the door from the inside.

For many years I had equated bad religion with the need to keep spiritual doors closed.  I had a canned stump speech that I could rattle off without much thought.  Exhibit A almost always invoked the lunacy of the Spanish Inquisition and the insanity of the Crusaders evangelizing by death and conquest.  For more recent evidence, parasitic televangelists made for easy targets - plundering the slender means of hapless widows and the weak minded.  These narratives were embedded in my psyche as veritable no trespassing signs.

One of the staple tort cases for law students involves a spring gun that was rigged by a property owner to indiscriminately kill trespassers.  We can do this in our own way, even if we are not foreclosed to the idea of faith and spirituality.  We rig intellectual and spiritual spring guns to ensure there are no unwelcome trespassers which may challenge us.  As much as this is a legal error, it is also a grave spiritual error.

Many of us resultantly live spiritually impoverished lives.  There may be little appreciation for the absolute mystery that constitutes the Master Painter.  A deeply vibrant spirituality is often the product of a lifelong exploration rooted in curiosity.  In our own ways, we elect to hold onto spiritual poverty.  Sometimes out of a lack of awareness and often due to something of a spiritual anemia.  We need to leave the doors wide open in what may feel like a scary spiritual neighborhood.  This may be accomplished by the comparative study of another faith or tradition and practices which are foreign to us.  Or by looking to God in the text of great literature and poetry, or contemplating the rising of the sun on a pilgrimage.  Whatever it is, the Divine calls us to fling the doors open and invite trespassers of a different kind.

When I'd had all I could handle of the outward leg of my bike ride, it was time to turn home.  And as I did, I crossed Highway 44 and made a stop at St. Michael's.  It is a small church, but unlike so many today, its doors are open and unlocked.  As I left my Cannondale by the front door, it occurred to me that maybe it was crazy for a church to be wide open in the middle of the day.  Or for someone like me to leave my bike there where it could be easily stolen.  But I was all but overwhelmed with this sense that if someone needed my bike that bad, they could take it.  Hadn't the priest in Les Miserables offered all of the church's silver to the thief?  Perhaps we've had trespassing all wrong.


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