This is a true statement: I love to pull weeds. I do some of my best thinking while pulling weeds and the other day I found myself sifting through memories of my brother, Paul Wessinger. Paul was passionate about gardens and gardening and our deep friendship first began to grow around our shared love of flowers. Paul loved all kinds of gardens. I think Paul would have liked the monastery cloister garden. In many ways it’s like Paul, off-beat and unexpected. Honestly, it’s like few other gardens I’ve seen. Paul would have liked that because he told me that the older he grew the more he liked the unexpected and the off-beat.
The changes in himself, that Paul often talked about with me, began slowly and gradually, like those germinating seeds Jesus talks about in today’s parable. Paul seemed to loosen-up and grow more flexible, even radical, the older he got. He reminisced often with me and he told me that in his younger years he had been quite rigid and inflexible; later in his life he lost his certitude about many of his ideas and beliefs about God and jettisoned a whole host of rigorous rules handed-on to him for living out his monastic vocation. By the time I arrived at the monastery, Paul was approaching his nineties and his spirit was soaring higher and higher into territories that he never imagined.
Paul Wessinger was an ascetic in the true sense of the word. You knew that the minute you stepped into his sparse, spare cell. But, unlike so many ascetics, his asceticism didn’t harden him. It made him softer, gentler and more pliable. I’m neither trying to canonize Paul Wessinger nor viewing him through a pair of rose-colored glasses. He was a complicated man. Paul could be ornery, difficult and stubborn. He carried the scares of life and living that we all carry. But when I came to know and love him he had surrendered to life. He wasn’t fighting anymore and his heart was firmly planted in the God he worshipped in the person of his Lord Jesus Christ.
When, as a novice, I began to see Paul for spiritual direction, I grew to know a man whose spiritual life was spirit-filled having a moment-to-moment spontaneous quality. Unlike so many of us, he actually liked to be drawn out of his comfort zone. If it was new or different he’d perk up and want to know more. He often had a twinkle in his eye but the twinkle grew brighter whenever he expected something new on his horizon. He loved the idea of engaging life as an experiment; as a way of trying out different ways of being. Whenever someone in community suggested that we might want to try something new and different, Paul would listen-up. He was often the first to speak in favor of some change we were discussing.
Very early-on he told me that there are no “cookie-cutter monks.” By that he meant that I was going to have to draw my own roadmap through the monastic life. He would share with me some very general principles but that it was up to me to figure out the details as I lived out my own vocation. It seemed to me that the older Paul grew and the more his body diminished the younger and more vital his soul became.
I think that there are two things in particular that I began to learn from Br. Paul. I say “began” because they have emerged slowly and sometimes painfully, following patterns of conversion that Paul knew so much about and shared often with me.
First, that there is an inherent tension between the contemplative and the active dimensions of life: my life, your life, our lives. Jesus understood this so well. In today’s gospel he’s modeling his active teaching ministry. He is sharing with others; feeding people longing to hear the good news of God’s saving love. There are other scenes in the gospel that show Jesus literally fleeing the crowds, going off into the desert to be alone and commune with the God he names Father.
Jesus struggled to balance the inherent tension between life’s contemplative and active dimensions. In the contemplative we make ourselves totally available to receive God’s gifts; in the active we give back those gifts by sharing them with others.
Maybe this inherent tension is what underlies our contemporary struggle to balance leisure and work? Doesn’t balance have to underlie what we are able to give with what we are able to receive? Does our propensity toward career, achievement, toward technological solutions in fact make us poorer?
This real difficulty in finding our equilibrium seems to be something of what Jesus is talking about in this morning’s parable story. God so freely sowing the seeds of his saving Word falling on deaf ears and wayward hearts. Jesus names them as “the troubles and cares of this world,” the parched soil of souls’ ensnared by the “lure of wealth [that] choke[s] the Word and [expectation] that yields nothing.”1 Does our can- do-culture “delude [us into imagining] that everything [worth having] is acquired, earned, and achieved? Perhaps the most difficult modern problem is this inability to receive; a sign of pride which [the Desert Fathers] saw as the most dangerous of the seven deadly sins.”2
Paul had come to realize that his life and particularly its specific circumstances, both good and bad, were gifts. To take the whole of one’s life in all its gritty details and see its connection to something much bigger than ourselves, much grander than just gritty details becomes cause for spontaneous deep gratitude and peace. Embracing the whole truth of who we actually are, we experience a lightness of heart. Once we start to take-in what Jesus is sowing in us by word and example, the very natural, very human welling-up of gratitude pours out of us.
The second thing I began to learn from Paul is something about the nature of Truth. I’m using the word “Truth” with a capital “T”. The older Paul got, the older I get, the more it begins to dawn on me that our Truth, our real Truth, is not about what we believe. Truth is about how we are; how we live our lives.
This is so much of what lies at the core of Jesus’ attempt to convince the Scribes and the elders about the utter futility of their wayward interpretation of Torah. Look Jesus said, “You cannot live in union with God simply through formulas or mere words.” How we situate ourselves in this world, how we actually and really live out our lives is what gives us our Truth. When we are dead and gone, no one will remember what we believed or didn’t believe. No one will care. But they might be able to remember what kind of person we were.
We have choices. We can choose ways of relating to life that have integrity and our sustainable or we can relate to life in ways that are dishonest, that leave us empty inside. How we live out of lives and how we relate to others is the Truth that we will take to our graves.
The Truth is that we all come to God and the universe with our hands stretched out. We cannot save ourselves and we cannot engineer our own conversions or transformations. If we try to cure our own faults, our character defects, as the Twelve Steps call them, we will fail.3 There are many times when the soil of our souls is just not ready to receive the Word when it comes to us. But God is generous. He sows freely and gratuitously. He sows repeatedly throughout life’s many seasons. When we’ve failed to show up for many of the previous harvests suddenly, without plan or expectation, the next time God’s sows his Word, the seed finds good soil and then we reap the utterly fantastic harvest of “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”4
So, this morning I give thanks for weeds and gardens, for Paul and for all my spiritual teachers and guides. Join me, please, in giving thanks for all God’s good gifts to us, for the abundance of seed sowed in His Word made Flesh in us every season of our lives. And give thanks and know, as Paul did, that God plants seeds in us transforming and converting us in ways that we can hardly dream, let alone imagine.
- Matthew 13:22.
- Michael Naughton. Teaching Note on Josef Pieper’s “Leisure as the Basis for Culture” An Integration of the Contemplative and Active Life.https://www.stthomas.edu/cathstudies/cst/curriculum/PortlandCurr/NaughtonTeachingNote.pdf
- Richard Rohr. Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2011, p. 62-63.
- Matthew 13:23.