It’s been an interesting week at Egret Isle Farm. It started warm; then it got . . . apocalyptic.
As we step out onto the path of this adventure we are calling, for now, the Serene Disciple Project, I suppose I should begin by introducing myself. Who is Brett Hart?
Even though many of you have known me for years, that’s a more difficult question for me to answer than one might guess. For those of you who are not that familiar with my background, here is a quick sketch. I spent twenty-four years teaching, primarily high school science, and in a parallel career, I worked as a pastor and spiritual director for more than thirty years. While this tells you what I did, does that history really tell you who I am?
I have also been married for almost thirty-four years. I am the father of four children and Baba to three (almost four!) grandchildren. Does that tell you who I am? The problem with explaining who we are through the lens of family, vocation, relationship–even season of life–is that all of these represent disconnected pieces of who we are without really getting at the core spiritual essence of who we are. In fact, most of us have spent our whole lives disconnected from who we were created to be, trying to be almost anyone but our real selves. So, how can I explain who I really am?
In the poem that I quoted in its entirety last week, Thomas Merton begins with an observation that is easy to brush past with no more than an uneasy glance: “When in the soul of the serene disciple / With no more Fathers to imitate / Poverty is a success . . . “ He then he goes on to explain what might be possible in that serene disciple’s soul under these introductory conditions, which form the remainder of the poem. But the premise of the poem contained in these opening words jars us with its counter intuitiveness. Isn’t imitation of the wisdom of those who have gone before good? And isn’t poverty, well, bad? And yet . . .
What if the confusion about who we really are, even the disconnection from who we were created to be, begins with the message that we are not as we should be, that what is most true about us is that we are fundamentally flawed and broken, that we could never be loved and accepted as we are, that really we should try very hard to be someone else? We are taught to imitate. Don’t be like you; be like him, or be like her, or be like them. The confusing fragmentation begins. It doesn’t take long for the endless attempt to remake ourselves, along with the wear and tear of routine failure to successfully pull off the imitation, to begin to take its toll. The injury to our souls is cumulative until, at last, for some, it becomes unsustainable.
The serene disciple begins to be the serene disciple in the silence that ensues when all the clamor to remake ourselves into someone else stops. In that silence a simplicity is born. With a sigh of relief, we can relax into the simplicity–the successful poverty as Merton puts it–of recognizing both that I have failed at the attempt to be a better someone else and that I am a unique and deeply loved creation of God exactly as I am, no longer needing to imitate someone else to be loved and accepted by God. And that poverty of self-renovating effort is freeing. That has always been the core message of the Christian Gospel of unconditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness.
The spiritual practice of the serene disciple begins, then, in the silence, the simplicity, the successful poverty of what I have termed “personal devotion” or “contemplative prayer.” By this I mean simply sitting quietly without judgment, without self-condemnation, and recognizing ourselves as beloved children of God from whom nothing further is required to earn that love. Personal devotion is taking time also to recognize ourselves as children of God, bearing the likeness of our creator and invited to live fully into that divine creative likeness. Everything else in spiritual practice stems from the embrace of that invitation: creative endeavour; exuberant hospitality; and loving, generous friendship. The alternative is often and ultimately regret.
A friend of mine sent me an email that included a list of the five regrets of the dying from a book by Bonnie Ware. One way or another, each of the five top regrets come down to this: I wish I had discovered and embraced who I really was earlier and had not spent my whole life trying to be and do and have what others expected me to be and do and have. I thought about that as I lay on my bed last Wednesday night greeting my own personal apocalypse.
As many of you know, I spent the end of last week in the hospital. In fact, the first Serene Disciple newsletter was dispatched from my hospital room and not my desk overlooking the sunny, green fields of Egret Isle Farm. I will spare you the medical details, but late Wednesday night I had become very ill. At the time, I weakly insisted to Kay that I was fine and didn’t need a doctor but would learn later that I was dangerously sick and had narrowly avoided death. I did end up the emergency room in the little town nearby and was then rushed by ambulance to a larger hospital in Round Rock, Texas. As I lay in my hospital bed over the next few days considering my close call with death, I thought about the Bonnie Ware article I had read earlier in the week. I had spent much of the earlier part of my life trying very hard to live up to the expectations of myself and others. But I had been able to lay that doomed quest aside almost ten years earlier–to accept humbly and gratefully the successful poverty of the serene disciple. I discovered with a quiet smile that I really was without regret.
I returned to the farm, weak and anemic but grateful. Before going inside I checked on the farm: the piglets in the barn, the garden, and the chickens, all the while being followed around by the ducks who clearly missed me. The smell of the cold evening air and the green of the misted pastures were exhilarating. But what struck me most, as I came inside and lit a fire in the fireplace and smelled the beef stew Kay had started in the kitchen, was the quiet simplicity of simply being there without struggle, allowing myself the successful poverty of effort to be anywhere else or anyone else. I could enjoy the cool of the air, the warmth of the fire, and the smell of the food prepared for me by my wife and friend. At the end of a week that was almost my last, that is who I turned out to be: a serene disciple, content, with no more fathers to imitate in whom poverty has been a success.
So, that’s me and, in a nutshell, that is also the Serene Disciple Project. It’s a message of reintegration and reconnection of one’s uniquely, carefully, and lovingly crafted self with creation and creative work, with generous hospitality, and with deep and life giving friendship. That message is worth living out fully in the world and inviting others to join the adventure.
There’s lots to do, so come along!