Saturday, March 22, 2014

Blood from a Stone


In 2010, inspired by Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence, I spent a week in Provence, in the south of France. I was eager to tour the papal palace in the stone-walled, water-wheeled city of Avignon, home to Pope Clement V after he relocated the papacy from Italy to France in the early 14th century.

But let’s not kid ourselves. I didn’t go to Provence for the history. I went for the wine.

A day after the palace tour, things got serious as I stood in the vineyards of Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape, the “new house of the pope” in honor of the French papal era. There, surrounded by rows of vineyards hanging thousands of clusters of the Grenache grape, are the ruins of the Avignon popes’ vacation home. With the half-collapsed structure in the backdrop, our wine guide explained the unique feature of the soil in the appellation. A layer of large stones sits atop the clay soil, absorbing heat and helping maintain moisture, and the appearance is that the vines sprout miraculously out of rocks. He then said this: “You can now understand the local expression that making wine is like squeezing blood from a stone.”

Blood from a stone.

Never has a phrase so captured my attention. I lost track of what our guide said for the next 10 minutes, as the long tendrils of the phrase curled around my mind.

Blood from a stone….A heart of flesh out of a heart of stone….Blood dripping down on Golgotha…Water out of a rock….A letter written not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts….A stone rolled away to allow Life to burst forth.

This is dramatic, but for me it was nothing short of a conversion. This was my Damascus road, my Augustinian “take and read” experience, my holy shit moment.

Blood from a stone is not just the story of wine. It is the story of humanity. It is the story of God, pressing stony hearts to produce lifeblood, raising a cold, hard corpse to blood-pumping resurrection life.

Blood from a stone is my story.

After that trip, wine was no longer my hobby. It was an irresistible call. Vineyards would be my sanctuary, wine pilgrims my congregation, and the fruit of the vine my everyday sacrament. I knew that my days as a pastor were numbered. But perhaps wine is not the abolishment of ministry. Perhaps wine is the fulfillment of ministry.

Life and ministry for me up to that point had been strangely disembodied. I was a floating head. Sure, I had a body, but I dragged it along as the necessary housing for my brain and that was about it. And my brain pulled off some great things. My brain is hot. It got me lots of scholarships and degrees, it wrote a good book, and it won me some awards. But my body had no voice. You’ve heard of extra-sensory perception? I had under-sensory perception.

The normal sequence is that youth is lived bodily, a time for physical exuberance, and that growing older slowly moves us into our minds as our bodies become less reliable. Well, I’m 37 and my brain just isn’t doing it for me anymore. It seems intent on protecting me from pain and on mind-blocking me from intimacy. It is time that I meet my body and experience myself as wholly embodied. If I’m going to love God with all of myself, then I best become acquainted with all of myself.

Wine is largely considered a heady thing, reserved for elitists, pretentious snoots, and those who aspire to elitism and pretentious snootiness. For me, wine has become a way that I am getting in touch with my sensuality. The nature and complexity of a great wine is so transcendent that we must experience it with our most basic, earthiest senses.

The discipline of evaluating a wine is really about getting all your senses involved. I behold the color and transparency of a wine with my eyes. I swirl the glass not only to unlock the aromas but to hear the movement of the liquid. I stick my nose as far into the glass as I can to root out the layers of aromas – the blackberries, the violets, the damp earth, the toasty oak. I allow the wine to linger on my tongue and I pay attention to how it hits every part of my palate. What does it taste like? What does it feel like? – the “touch” of a wine. I notice the warmth at the back of my palate and the lightness it brings to my body.

My quest to explore the flesh and blood of wine grapes is also my quest to explore my own flesh and blood. Wine is introducing me to my body. I am learning to pay attention to its desires and to listen to its voice. It is surprisingly talkative these days. It turns out that the things I have often given it are not what it needs and the things I have neglected are what it craves. I am exercising and lifting weights. I am sleeping more. Long walks are no longer merely a setting for deep thoughts; they are exercises in paying attention. I stop to pet the horses and donkeys on my way to work. I am spending less time with people who make me feel heavy and more time with people who make my body feel lighter. I am learning how much touch I need in order to feel loved.

When it comes to my body, blood is slowly being squeezed from a stone.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Praying with the Waves

I have always been a mountain kind of guy. Not in the catch-salmon-in-your-teeth-for-dinner sort of way, which I've only done like 4 or 5 times, but in the relish-the-dry-and-bracing air sort of way. I like pine trees more than palm trees, chipmunks more than crabs, skis more than speedos, and martinis more than margaritas. The problem with mountains is that they have no rhythm. They just can't dance like waves can. And it's the rhythm of the ocean that has become the center of my newest prayer style.

My friend Lara is drawn to the ocean. She took up surfing a few years ago, and it has become an act of worship for her. As she puts it, "When you are in the ocean you quickly realize that you cannot conquer it. It’s too powerful. If you fight it, you will lose. But if you are skilled enough, what you can do is move in rhythm with it. It’s just like God. You will never overpower God, no matter how hard you fight, but you can learn to move in harmony with him."

Personally, I have an irrationally intense fear of jellyfish, so I prefer to stay on the beach. The picture above is from the Santa Barbara waterfront, which I had an opportunity to visit last week, and will be seeing at least twice a week starting very soon. One of the deficiencies of my spirituality over the years has been a sharp divide between my spirit and my body. My spirit I have consider the realm of God and my body the realm of physical necessity. I have not paid much attention to my body except perhaps when I felt pain or hunger. I am working to change that. I am slowly accepting the embodiment of my life and learning that I am not a mind and soul with a temporary physical housing, but a unity of spirit, mind, soul, and yes, body. I am learning to love the Lord my God with all my body. I am learning to taste and see that the Lord is good with the literal tongue and eyes that he has given me.

I have let go of prayers that issue from a disembodied spiritual realm, and I am learning to pray with my body. No setting has helped me to embrace a new embodied prayerfulness like the ocean. I have taken to sitting on the beach at sunset, and yes I realize I am privileged to live in California with its never-ending coastline, and pray with the waves. There is nothing original or novel about this in our great Tradition. Many have "prayed with the elements" over the centuries, particularly my Irish ancestors, the Celts.

My own adaptation of this tradition borrows from Ignatian spirituality. I sit on the sand at dusk and I pray the consolations and desolations of God as the waves dance. As the waves crash, I inhale and receive the Lord's consolations, his goodness, mercy, and presence. As the waves flee, I exhale and I release the desolations, the places where God does not seem present and the parts of my interior life that I do not want. It goes a little like this:

The tide waxes. Inhale. Breathe in the love God.
The tide wanes. Exhale. Release the hurt.
Wax. Breathe in the Presence.
Wane. Breathe out the regret.
Crash. Inhale his tenderness.
Flee. Exhale the heartbreak and grief.
Approach. Take in the fresh air of grace and new creation.
Depart. Surrender the black cloud of sin and guilt. 

I will sit for 10-15 minutes letting the ocean shape the rhythm of my prayer and the rhythm of my body.

The ocean is healing my prayer life, and helping me to listen to my body.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

And God Gave Wine



The Psalms tell us that the Lord gives wine to gladden the human heart. That is one scripture I have absolutely no problem obeying. All kinds of gladdening happen every time I open a bottle of wine. The image of clusters of ripe grapes that will be crushed, fermented, bottled, and poured into glasses makes my heart exult. I love learning about wine, smelling wine, looking at the bottles in my wine refrigerator, finding the perfect wine and food pairings, and introducing people to new wines.

If I never drank another glass of wine, I can honestly tell you that my passion would not change. Wine, for me, is not about the consumption of alcohol. The effect that it has on my body is insignificant in comparison to the meaning and the depth that it brings to my life. Wine has become a ruby, or straw, colored window into the past, into a rich and diverse history of men and women who looked into their wine glasses and found romance and poetry and beauty and God. It has become a pilgrimage companion, accompanying me to places in the world where vines are not just plants but sources of life, where place is not just where you are standing but who you are. It has become a looking glass into the future, as I have come to envision heaven not as an ethereal realm but a vast table where the wine will flow freely and the nations will laugh openly.

The thing about wine is that it was not made nor conceived of by humans. It was discovered.

To continue reading my post, called "And God Gave Wine" head over to Internet Monk, and spend some time there. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Once More Into The Breach

Around this time last year, I posted an entry called "Bud Break." Shoots were popping, renewing the life cycle of the vine that would issue in a harvest and inspire an artistry that would consummate in glasses of wine clinked over candelight. My winemaker friend Wes Hagen says that "Every wine deserves an hour, a table with delicious things, and two people in love." I was in a romantic mood last year, having fulfilled a starry-eyed dream of moving to wine country, and I felt the hope of spring surging through my veins.

It would seem that the cycle of my vines went backward after that, as the leaves fell, the shoots were sucked back into the branches, the sap descended into the ground, and the land went fallow. Six months later, I moved back to Los Angeles, defeated and depressed. I relinquished my plans and assumed that dreams were for others, but not for me. My theology took a turn toward the fatalist, my understanding of work devolved into a necessary evil.

Last week I was offered a great job at a winery in the Santa Ynez Valley, better than the ones I worked last summer. Yesterday I was offered a position as wine specialist in the Santa Barbara Whole Foods. I accepted them both. I am moving back. I am going to try this one more time. I may die trying, but if so, I am going to die pursuing my dreams.

My dreams have been chastened. I no longer have over-romanticized visions of living, working, and writing in wine country. I know that in order to fill a glass with world class wine you have to get your hands dirty and work your ass off. I know that the locals still listen to country music, vote for the Tea Party, and like guns. I know that life in a beautiful place can be spectacularly boring. I must approach it differently this time. And I will. I do not expect this to be a permanent relocation, but more of a stepping stone. I do not expect to become a radically different person. Though I know I will change, I am still the introverted soul who takes long walks in the dark, lost in solitary thought. Often I will raise my eyes to notice the person I walk past, whom I will now likely recognize in a small town, but not always.

I have spent too much of the last year trying to conform to the expectations of others, trying to be whom others wanted me to be. I have become all the more convinced that I must listen to my dreams, honor my questions, let my life speak, cultivate the faith that I have been given.

Dreams do not die, but they may be humbled and transformed.

As I said last year,
Buds are relentless and inevitable. They may look fragile when they first emerge, but they will not be denied. Even if a spring frost comes and freezes the nascent buds, new buds will shortly take their place. The vines will flower, they will produce leaves to make sugar and protect the flowers from the summer sun, and clusters of grapes will develop out of the flowers. Sugar levels will increase, acidity levels will decrease, and come the fall the grapes will make wine.

Buds will break. The process of growing grapes and making wine isn't in itself pretty or inspiring. When the grapes are crushed, the winemaker will have his hands stained with a red that resembles blood. But wine will happen. And it will fuel the power of love.