by Charles LaFond
“Tenemos” is a Greek word originally referring to the cultivated land that wrapped around the temple – a set-aside bit of holy garden one had to cross in order to enter the temple. The tenemos was like the moat that wraps around a castle. Our senses, touch, sight, and hearing are that same tenemos – that same temple-garden, which is the gateway from physical life to the spiritual world within and around us.
One day I was walking near the pond of my New Hampshire writing retreat, Blackwater Bluff, and there was a heavy mist on the ground clinging close to the tall grasses and bright yellow wild orchids. The mist was only a few feet high. I sat down so as to be engulfed in the mist – it was like entering a moist, foggy world where vision was nearly impossible – and mysterious. Then I stood up and my head pushed back up into the clarity above the mist, and I could see shapes and colors and beauty again at a long distance. Suddenly I began to understand the spiritual life not as something we attain, way out in front of us, like some reward for self-discipline or heavenly peace; nor the finish line of a race. Rather, I began to understand what the early Christian Celtic mystics were saying about the spiritual life and the physical life being parallel – one atop the other, and each within reach.
The Celtic priests referred to heaven as being a foot above one’s reach. Our Roman Christian heritage has trained us that, like the altar in our great cathedral, the HOLY is way, way, way up there, way beyond the floor where we are allowed to sit, way up those great steps, up past that rood screen, past the choir stalls, past the altar rail (designed as a barrier) and way up around the “high altar” where only priests may roam in cassocks. But that is a lie. The holy is not way out in front of us, past a lifetime of self-discipline. The holy is here, where we are, close around us and within us. Messy, Green.
Our homes and our physical senses can be our tenemos, the grounds around the temple of our inner life. They are not so much a barrier to the Holy as they are a laboratory for the holy – a place in which to explore what we long for – the good and the unhelpful. Whether we take the time to wander the gardens of our inner life is another question entirely.
Most of us spend our time being entertained by the noise of our society, the internet, television- so as not to have to face the demons within us- fully anesthetized. Yet the moment we face our demons, seeing them, befriending them and sequestering them with the welcome of God, they lose their power: light overcomes the darkness. All too often, rather than explore the holy garden of our tenemos, we hang out in the parking lot with cars and smog and noise on the hot asphalt of our lives.
Liturgically, Easter is tenemos – the grounds through which we wander past the cross and the grave to the empty tomb and then to conversion – the work of sorting things out in God. To miss Easter’s work is to not bother wandering all the way into the resurrection garden.
Each of us has a life to live and most of us a home in which to live that life. Our work as Christians is to make time in our home, not just sleep there, exhausted from the work it takes to pay the bills. Perhaps a smaller house, and time to enjoy it is an improvement on our luxurious homes and the demands they place on our lives to pay the bills. Sometimes I wonder if the ridiculous standards of living we have chosen are little more than our new Egypt and we, still its slaves.
Our Easter calling is to be alert to the Holy which is swirling around and through us. This is no time to go back to busy-ness as usual. Our work is to arrange our home and our life so that we do not miss what God is doing and saying in our lives. Blackwater Bluff is, I admit, blissful with its overstuffed chairs, cozy woodstoves, woodland strolling paths, unearthly silence, and old friendships. But like any home, it is a place from which to see God’s coming. Any home is. But only if we keep our eyes open.
There’s a story of an ancient holy man who is asked by a disciple, “What can I do to connect to the Holy?” His master said, “You can do as little to connect to the holy as you can to make the sun rise in the morning.” The man was saddened by this answer, despairing at all he was doing to advance the church. He turned to his master and said, “Then why do I do all that I do – all the prayers, all the meditation, all the fasting and worship?” to which his master said, “So that you are awake when the sun does rise.”
Our lives and our Easter experience are our tenemos – the grounds around the temple of the Holy. And the Holy is not way out there – something towards which we strive. The Holy is here, within which we must live -awaken, listen and feel.
image:Blackwater Bluff Farm and Pottery, Webster, New Hampshire, Photo by Jeremy Winnick