Saturday, October 1, 2011

Great Silences

Only when one comes to listen, 
only when one is aware and still, 
can things be seen and heard.
        Sigurd Olson

Honeymoon Bluff above Hungry Jack Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Lake Superior Shoreline near Grand Marais, Minnesota

Prairie flowers at Pipestone National Monument

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Once More to the Cabin

June 1989. This was the summer I discovered the cabin. I remember a long day's ride in Dad's brown Volkswagen Camper with the windows rolled down, 139 miles of two-lane highway. Cement became asphalt, then gravel, and finally we turned onto rutted logging road. Aunt Joyce and uncle Mel rode with us.

Dad downshifted and cut the engine. We were in the midst of Nicolet National Forest, over a million and a half acres of woodland in northern Wisconsin. The forest wrapped around us like a thick wool blanket. I remember hearing the wind in the trees and looking up at the towering pines. (All trees appear huge when you're six years old.)

Deeper in the woods, where the road edged a tamarack bog, I spotted the cabin. I remember it appearing smaller than I'd imagined in stories, the facade shingled in muted browns and greens reminiscent of rusty nails and unpolished greenstone. I loved it.

The cabin is the centerpiece to forty acres of woodland that my late Grandpa McIlree purchased for forty dollars in 1941. He and a friend built the structure in his backyard, and then trucked it over 250 miles from southeast Wisconsin. I remember my aunt, uncle, and dad walking toward it without speaking. McIlrees talk so much that moments of silence can get lost amid the broadcast. These moments, however, often say more than the words surrounding them.

This time the quiet was whispering, Listen. This is a holy place.

I stepped through the door and for the first time became aware of Grandpa's presence. An empty gunrack made from deer legs was hanging on a wall, its two hooves pointing at the ceiling. The walls were insulated with flattened cardboard boxes. The place smelled of kerosene and cracked leather and musty mattresses.

I sat on Grandpa's bottom-bunk and climbed up and down the cobwebbed ladder to the loft. I studied rows of small glass bottles in a cupboard covered with dust. The cast iron kitchen pump squealed when I worked it, but no water came forth. Birds chirped outside the window.

And then I understood that to Grandpa, the cabin was a touch of sacred in a tough world. Hunting was always beside the point. Fishing was always beside the point. A place to commune with nature and interact with family and friends, free from life's distractions, was the raison d'etre of the cabin. It was where we could reflect on God's vast greatness in the company of one another.

Grandpa and the family spent summer, autumn, and winter weekends here. Some of Dad's happiest childhood experiences happened here. Aunt Joyce and uncle Mel honeymooned here. And now I too was introduced to the family tabernacle.

For McIlrees, the cabin has come to represent an ideal of life, especially because our family is no stranger to dark rooms within the American experience. We've pressed our hands over several generations against the walls of mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, a suicide. We often forget to act lovingly toward one another, and we avoid talking about hurt feelings.

Memories of the cabin, at times, have provided doorways out of those shadows. McIlrees may not want to articulate how disappointed we feel about a hurtful situation, but we can easily reminisce about the long journey to this holy place, about walking the boggy woods and flushing deer.

And sometimes, after reflecting on our forty acres, we can begin to be honest about our inner struggles and our struggles with each other.

Yet these memories have limited mileage. The family has splintered into sharp, wounded pieces in the roughly forty years since Grandpa's death. We rarely see or talk with one another. Some of us haven't visited the cabin in years, and the youngest generation has never even seen it.

Vandals have since smashed the cabin's windows and stolen everything from it. Gone is the gunrack made from deer legs. Gone are the small glass bottles in the cupboard covered with dust. Gone is the cast iron kitchen pump. The place appears abandoned and forgotten.

The cabin was where family could be experienced as well as remembered. Otherwise, without a space for honest and regular interaction with one another, challenging family experiences just become freighted with more and more baggage. Eventually any family memory becomes too bothersome to recollect. And if that habit becomes the new status quo, I wonder if both the relevancy of our family and the purpose of our forty acres will fade into the past.

The spirit of the place, of our family's sacred connection to nature and to one another, will disappear.

So I return once more to the cabin, because only from within my circle of family can I glimpse my authentic self. Their flaws mirror my flaws. Their talents mirror my talents. This time I walk our forty acres not to reminisce or blame or redeem, but to simply be aware of our shared heritage before any part of it can become unrecognizable. At the cabin I can begin to be honest about my role in those relationships, and by doing so, begin to be honest with God.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Out on Highway 61

One evening last summer I pitched my tent along Highway 61, where the Sawtooth Mountains tumble into Lake Superior. My fire had burned to embers. The loons were quiet in the darkness. I zipped my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.

And then my heart began to race. Pounding apprehension in one of my favorite spots on earth.

This country, the North Shore of Lake Superior, is a source of spiritual power for me. The last glacier scraped its face like a dull razor, and even now, thousands of years after the ice melted, only gnarled cedars and stocky spruce grab the thin soil. No corn. No wheat. Just trees and stones.

You can't hide out on Highway 61. I love how this wilderness demands so much humility. This is a landscape where, like it or not, God speaks to you.

That long, restless night amid the pine and birch began what you've been reading for the past year on Dingo Prayer.

I started this blog in late 2009, and I occasionally published posts. But as I sat drinking coffee in the morning sunshine, I admitted to avoiding another spiritual path. I'd been feeling the urge to push my spiritual boundaries beyond my comfort zone, and then document those experiences on a regular basis. 

I'd felt a  similar restlessness in the past, notably before I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Back then, my body hummed like steel rails before a Soo Line freight, more excitement than fear. But now I knew the vulnerability such a path entailed: drawing closer to God always feels chancy. You never know what you're going to discover about yourself. Drawing closer to God and publicly writing about it is even chancier, because others can judge those experiences. What if people mocked me?

But I also recognized that Dingo Prayer might encourage readers to embrace their own spiritual search. That had always been my hope for the blog.

Bob Dylan, "Train Tracks"

It was time to make a wager. 'Ok God,' I thought that morning. 'I'll be part of this journey.'

And what a journey this year has been.

I began by exploring a forgotten family atrocity in ancient Scotland. I wondered how my direct ancestors, who for centuries had sponsored a religious order founded on the principles of peace and reconciliation, could also torch a church filled with their neighbors. Writing the piece was my exploration of love, anger, and reconciliation within both humanity and myself.

Next I made peace with a memory from Philadelphia, when I followed a man's trail of blood into place of deep spiritual darkness. Admitting to that painful time on Dingo Prayer is what opened my heart to new spiritual practices, like mindfulness meditation (see "Synchilla").

Later that fall I invited cookbook author and master baker Danny Klecko, the culinary entrepreneur behind St. Agnes Baking Co., to be a guest writer. His thoughtful contributions opened my eyes to how daily work can encompass one's spirituality, and I'm proud to call him a friend.

I wish I could write that my most popular post was on Bob Dylan and Lake Superior, but no: much to my surprise, close to a thousand people last April read about my awkward introduction to yoga in Downward-Facing Dingo. I learned that folks love the yoga.

This odyssey is teaching me, moment by moment, that essays on spirituality happen organically. I simply need to breathe and let God show me the way. Letting go of the creative process feels liberating. Letting go feels scary.

Letting go feels like prayer.

And so, a year after I began this journey, Dingo Prayer is going on retreat for the summer. Time for me to sit in silence.

Time, once again, to go out on Highway 61 and listen for what God has to say.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Faith, Learning, & Vocation

I wrote this profile for my alma mater about a year before I started Dingo Prayer. My mom requested that I add it to the blog, and a wise son pays attention to those requests. Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

My experience at St. Norbert College taught me to recognize the value of my faith and strengthened my confidence to live it with others. My core values stem from Presbyterian roots, Scots who anchored their faith with daily readings from the Bible. I grew up hearing stories about family elders who were pastors and activist women, all inspired by a priority centered in the Torah and repeated in the Gospels: And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

I didn’t know who the Norbertines were when I arrived at St. Norbert College, and I wasn’t a Catholic. What soon struck me was how the Norbertines and the college shared with my family the same fundamental understanding of faith. The Rule of Augustine – instructions penned a thousand years ago to center on God while living with people – is the foundation of the Norbertine mission, and it begins with a command: Let us love God above all things, then our neighbor, for these are the chief commandments given to us.

What had been a family motto was renewed as a radical spiritual path: loving God through loving others became my base as I explored my faith at St. Norbert College, and I found there an authentic community where I was both challenged and loved while developing relationships and my life goals. Loving others is challenging and living with them even harder, and the Norbertines are honest and direct about how that fundamental command shapes their lives. Their witness to that radical ideal quietly shapes and inspires the students who call the college home.
The lessons I learned at St. Norbert remain authentic: I am happiest when I focus my identity on loving God than just my identity as a professional. Despite daily battles with selfishness and self-importance, remembering to focus on God has led to my proudest achievements and my best relationships. Whether as a Jesuit Volunteer serving the homeless in North Philadelphia or as a fundraiser in the Twin Cities, by lessening the importance of What I am doing and instead emphasizing the How my life is centered on God helps me to focus better on loving those around me. That skill is the true gift of my St. Norbert College experience.    

Andrew McIlree, ‘06

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Calcutta 1968

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama, 1968

And so I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among those people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible.

And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity.
What we have to be is what we are.
from "Informal talk delivered at Calcutta, October 1968"
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1973

Friday, April 1, 2011

Downward-Facing Dingo

Inhale. The room is hot and smells faintly of cedar. I'm surrounded by attractive women but I can't look at them because I'm holding my torso an inch off the floor. My arms quiver.

Exhale. A bead of sweat slides down my forehead. Meanwhile the women stretch in fluid movements. None of them are wearing much clothing, and nobody pays me much attention.

This isn't a vision of purgatory. This is my first yoga class.

My colleague Mary is an instructor at CorePower Yoga. I'd been too busy for her intro class for months. But today my evening was open, and she knew that as she walked toward me.

"You're coming to my yoga class tonight." A statement, not a question.
"But I'm a guy." My last defense.
"See you tonight," she said.

Yoga? I center my spirit hiking along Lake Superior or watching the sun set on the Mississippi. To me yoga conjured trendy Lululemon apparel, Kashi cereal, and aluminum SIGG bottles -- not the scene for a guy whose big weekly purchase is a pound of Fair Trade coffee.

But I trusted Mary. I decided to trust yoga.

Inhale. Now we begin the poses in silence: downward-facing dog, upward-facing dog, high plank, low plank, warrior I and warrior II. Lunge, stretch, lunge, stand. Exhale. Another bead of sweat falls to the mat.

"Focus on your breathing." Mary steps beside me. "Listen to your body."

Sitting on my knees, I lean forward into Child's pose, my forehead touching the mat. Inhale. My legs respond, immediate and searing, a blowtorch to my kneecaps. I weigh my options: fake the stretch or be patient with the discomfort.

Then Mary pushes my lower back, extending my arms further forward. I grit my teeth. The idea dawns that as Zen's Beginner's Mind opens one to inward discovery, Child's pose is teaching my muscles to begin again, to expand, to release memories of constriction. The pain recedes while I listen to it. Exhale.

Moving into Half Pigeon pose, my nose over my knee, a sense of sacredness like the warm tone of a singing bowl spreads outward from my chest.

And I slip into the groove.

Inhale. My poses no longer seem awkward. I forget my classmates and release my worries. Stretch, lunge, stand. Random thoughts drop away as the movement focuses my mind on the present. Exhale. Lunge, stretch, kneel.

Inhale. I lay on my mat as the lights dim. The class is over, my shirt soaked with sweat, my whole body at rest. I close my eyes. A line from the Bhagivad Gita rises in my mind like a wisp of steam: "A lamp does not flicker in a place where no winds blow."

Exhale. I open my eyes and smile.

Discover what I found at CorePower Yoga

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Polish Sourdough

Pope John Paul II often repeated "Live not in fear!" while spearheading the downfall of Communism and encouraging interfaith dialogue--two major events where his leadership helped improve the world. 

The Polish Pope's call to live without fear inspired St. Agnes Baking Co.'s CEO Danny Klecko to improve the Twin Cities' culinary scene by introducing new recipes. Twenty-five years after Eastern European breads couldn't get baked in the Cities, visiting VIPs eat his Polish sourdough. 

Klecko uses that clout to strengthen his community. Here the master baker reflects on how John Paul II's courageous wisdom blessed his own life's path.

 Klecko photo © Inna Valin
Timing is everything, isn’t it? Even blessings need circumstances to line up if they are going to come to pass.

When I began my baking career in the Twin Cities during the late '70s, my entire industry was completely influenced by Italian and French culinary concepts.

As a Polish American, I felt sadness in my heart because I wanted to introduce my community to the Eastern European bread concepts that had inspired me. How bizarre that at the identical moment, another Pole was splashing hard onto the world’s theology platform. You might have heard of him: his name was John Paul II.

Funny, as the planet fell in love with this saintly icon, my career was given a latitude that I’m certain would have never been available if JP2 hadn’t piqued everybody’s curiosity. One of the most influential concepts to have crawled into my mind was his continuous encouragement to “Live not in fear!” It never ceases to amaze me how often he rebuked trepidation throughout his papal reign.

Those words changed my life. Let’s face it, either you trust God or you don’t. Sometimes reality can be just that simple.

During this same time period, I was going through the book of Philippians, and Ch 2 Vs 12-18 seemed to really stick out. The Apostle Paul mentions “Working out your own salvation.”

Now I know we could hash that statement out--maybe argue as to what exactly it meant--but I’m a grandfather, and these days I don’t have time to waste words. I hope you will be kind enough to let me share my closing thoughts:

When I combined John Paul’s message with the Apostle Paul’s, I realized that I wanted to have an impact in giving God glory, so I got down on my knees and pledged to my Father that I would show no fear. I would  go after aspects of His creation that might bring Him joy.

My categories of conquest were baking bread and feeding nuns and dogs if they were ever in need (of course these visions were inspired by Saint Faustina and Saint Rocco, respectively).

My epiphany or mission statement might seem a little silly, maybe even a little crazy. But when I look back at the saints who have impressed me the most, none of them lived in fear. None of them worried about how the world viewed them. They just gave their best effort toward acts that would please God.

With that said, I would like to send thanks to JP2 for his wisdom. His influence not only opened opportunities to me personally, but also gave me a platform that has had no limits.

(And if you are watching me from a majestic cloud dear Pope, I hope it makes you smile knowing that multiple presidents from America and leaders around the world have stopped through my city--and when they have, they are always served Polish sourdough!)

I’m not suggesting that anybody else try my spiritual formulation. I’m just reminding you that God has a wonderful and specific opportunity for you if you are brave enough to grasp it. Thanks Dingo Prayer--it’s always an honor.

Don't miss Klecko's post on trust and the ingredients of miracles.

And enjoy all the goodness by friending Klecko on Facebook.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Subterranean Homesick Prayer

I didn't expect to be transformed by Rome when I visited the city in 2005, but walking through the ancient Forum was like riding a time machine to the days of the early Church, when everything about my faith was being figured out by people no different than you or me.

From an architectural standpoint, I saw that these Christians in the 1st and 2d centuries had little time, money, or opportunity for building elaborate basilicas. Faith seemed more about learning to understand one another and sharing God's love -- and avoiding persecutors. At times, Christians literally went underground to worship.

Without a doubt, threats of brutal persecution would have made faith lonelier for me.  More than anything, my faith would have needed a strong community to love, challenge, and encourage me. My fellow Christians would have become family, and the church would have felt like home.

The church would have become home.

Alain de Botton, who writes on how architecture affects the human condition, described the intimacy of these subterranean churches in his book The Architecture of Happiness. His writing, like walking around Roman ruins, helped me to better understand the roots of my faith.

It is the world's great religions that have perhaps given most thought to the role played by the environment in determining identity and so--while seldom constructing places where we might fall alseep--have shown the greatest sympathy for our need for a home.

The first attempts to create specifically Christian spaces, buildings intended to help draw their occupants closer to the truths of the Gospels, date from some 200 years after the birth of Christ. On plaster walls in low-ceilinged, candelit rooms, beneath the heathen streets of Rome, untrained artists painted crude renditions of incidents in Jesus's life, in primitive style which might have done justice to the less gifted students of an art school.

These Christian catacombs are only more touching, however, for their inarticulancy. They show the architectural and artistic impulses in their purest forms, without the elaboration supplied by talent or money. They reveal how in the absence of great patrons or craftsmen, with no skills or resources to speak of, the faithful will feel the need to daub the symbols of their heavens on damp cellar walls--to ensure what is around them will fortify the truths within them.
Alain de Botton 
 The Architecture of Happiness, Pantheon Books 2006

Monday, January 3, 2011


Can a fleece pullover deepen your relationship with God?

Recently I caught myself imagining a Patagonia shirt like some people fantasize about a lover's embrace. Winter arrives to this oak savanna with the highballing wail of a diesel freight. Then the Patagonia store, just yards from my workplace, beckons like a glowing potbelly stove.

I wear Patagonia's flannels and fleeces almost every day, but the documentary 180 Degrees South turned me into a devoted customer. Supporting this company complements my own spiritual practice: Patagonia's mission emphasizes sustainable living and environmental stewardship. Their products are organic or recyclable, and a solid portion of their annual profit goes toward protecting wild nature.

The shirt in my mind was a new Synchilla pullover. The brown acrylic fleece feels soft as peat moss, and the texture's sturdiness hints of a cabin's unpeeled logs. The blue trim suggests a bright clean February dawn when the air stings your throat as you step outside. Hardy and warm, the garment is field-tested in the wilderness. Even its seams hold the promise of long hikes amid snowy spruce, hot cups of coffee, laughter and stories around a crackling fire.

I wanted to own a Synchilla.

I sat at my desk and didn't feel like doing work. Instead I pictured myself in my neighborhood coffeehouse reading a book, wearing that fleece. Or sitting with it at the meditation center, observed by the entire group in quiet admiration. I closed my eyes and smiled.

In that moment the pullover embodied a spiritual desire to share my sense of simplicity with the world. 'He owns a Synchilla made from recycled soda bottles!' people would think. 'That man's mindful of the environment and embraces everything in it.' Spending $100 dollars on this fleece no longer just seemed like the right thing for me to do--it was now an opportunity to deepen my relationship with God. And I'd look good doing it.

I returned home determined to purchase the shirt. Soon I'd be the proud owner of a Synchilla. The chore of cleaning my apartment, though, kept me from running to Patagonia. Instead I folded my flannels with their earthy colors and my fleeces with their sturdy zippers. They usually sit atop my bed because I wear them too regularly to put away. As I set them in a drawer, however, I spotted another fleece at the bottom.

This old pullover, my first fleece from Patagonia, hadn't been worn in months. The fabric felt warm and soft, but it was often lost among the other, more colorful and zippered fleeces. It was  never my favorite. I'd rarely worn it hiking. It didn't even match with my flannels. I could forget that fleece for the entire winter.

But the Synchilla would be completely different. Its newness carried the potential of a more authentic way of living.

I held the old fleece to my face. It smelled musty like the drawer. 'Time for you to go,' I  thought. 'You're only taking space.' On a whim, before tossing it in a donate pile, I looked at the faded tag.

Synchilla, it read.

Steps toward equanimity come in all shapes and sizes. These steps are usually humbling for me. This winter my old Synchilla pullover will keep me warm whether I'm walking with my neighbors or hiking in the North Country. By doing so, that fleece might help draw me closer to God.