Back Talk by George Merrill


I can’t walk the same distances I once did. Now I take a more leisurely pace and cover less turf. When I was younger I may have covered more territory, but I saw less of it. As my perimeters shrink, my vision broadens.

This is about how my unruly back reconnected me to neighbors, some I’d met, two for the first time.

Again, as it has over the years, my perverse back is dictating the terms of my life. Of the manifold gifts with which my creator has blessed me, a strong back is not one. I can only assume I was issued a leftover, a rebuilt, but not the custom fitted kind that do well and accommodate an individual’s peculiarities. Mine overreacts. It talks back.

I really shouldn’t complain. Generally, it has worked for and with me. At times, my back has even showed a willingness to rejuvenate itself, putting me back on my feet walking with my customarily brisk pace. Not recently, however.

As a result, my awareness has shifted. Getting there (wherever ‘there’ might be) is not as big a deal as it once was. It’s what I discover along the way that’s become the big deal.

Right now, my walking consists of several trips a day from my studio up the driveway to the mailbox and back. A ten-minute walk. Once I leave the studio, I am surrounded by trees. I see some of them from the studio windows and a host more leaving the studio and going to the mailbox. Since it’s no big thing about my destination – a regular mailbox – it’s what happens on the way that’s been energizing. Noticing the trees for one thing.

Of course, living here thirty years I have seen the trees before, but in not the same way. On one trip to the mail box, I hugged a large conifer tree. I’d never hugged a tree. What I had not noticed before was how large the boles of most of the conifers were. The trees must have been there fifty or sixty years. Performing the hug, I couldn’t get my fingers to touch when wrapping my arms around the trunk.

All those years I’d driven down the driveway past the pines, I’d never noticed how, when viewed close up, the bark looks like an alligator’s hide. The bark has the appearance of an assemblage of wood chips, secured to the tree like miniature wooden shingles. Ivy makes its way up some trees, weaving its vines under the wood chips, making it impossible to pull the ivy loose.

The rough tree bark does not make a hug feel like the warm-fuzzy I might wish. I felt self-conscious, too, and looked around to see if anyone was watching. Just squirrels, some sweet gum trees, two maples and more conifers.

When I’m walking unhurriedly, I like to stop and pan the area like a cinematographer seeking the broadest view of the landscape. It also rests my back.

That’s when I saw a large clod of dirt moving across the path directly in front of me. It alarmed me at first. It was about half again as big as my open hand and its movement was slow and unsteady. Moving closer I could see that the lump of dirt was riding on the shell of a huge turtle that I assumed to be a snapping turtle. My suspicions proved correct. I tried moving him to the side of the road where he would be out of harm’s way. He was not grateful at all. As I nudged him with my foot over to the roadside, his neck shot out. Fortunately, he went for my foot which was well to his stern and out of reach even as he moved sideways to get at it. He hissed menacingly at me. Don’t tread on me was written all over him.

I found a stick and tried nudging him to the roadside. He made a grab for the stick, momentarily bit down on it with a crunch, growling and hissing and, I’m sure, if that stick had been my toe he would have had it for breakfast. I retrieved the stick, kept poking at him until he fell into the narrow culvert, shell side up. He was home free.

Despite his thankless rebuffs, I was committed to his safety. I made it to the mailbox feeling like the good Samaritan despite no show of appreciation from the turtle. Fortunately, goodness has its own rewards.

I decided to go left on the intersecting road and walk a little further to my neighbor’s mailbox. Along the road between mailboxes is a gully. It was filled with water from the rains.

As I walked along I’d hear a ‘squeak’, and then a ‘plop’ as a basking frog, alarmed by my presence, made for the water. Walking further, the same: a squeak’, a couple of ‘croaks’ and ‘plops,’ frog after frog abandoned his day in the sun to take refuge in the water. I had no idea my presence could be so intrusive. After all, I didn’t even know they were there much less see them and still they were offended at my simply walking the road and minding my own business. I was beginning to feel like a pariah.

My day was redeemed when, returning to my own mailbox, I saw at the entrance to the driveway a good-sized butterfly. She was not gloriously adorned like a monarch; in fact, she was plain with her blue-black wings that had a small smidgen of white at the base of each. She was standing on the ground, her wings fluttering occasionally, as if to maintain her balance. She rocked slightly forward and then backward, as though she were trying to gain a footing to take off. I stopped close by, my foot inches from her, fully prepared for another rejection. She took wing and flew in zig zag circles, but, to my surprise and delight, quickly returned to exactly from where she’d taken flight; near my left foot. She obviously did not think I was a danger or some kind of creepy man to hiss at or flee from; for that moment, I was just a neighbor out there standing by my mailbox.

As a part of my healing I’ve found checking in with the neighbors now and then is important. It’s easy to forget they are so close and except for one turtle with an attitude, most are a comfort. In that brief walk, my world grew slightly bigger.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Smartphones by George Merrill


On trains, on busses, on airplanes (before takeoff), in parks and at restaurants…even in churches and at ball games, the presence of smartphones is as ubiquitous as mosquitos on a summer night. At the dinner table with the family assembled during holiday gatherings we see smartphones placed accessibly where forks and napkins once rested. Like a predatory animal, the smartphone is ready to spring, but by no means on an unsuspecting prey – this is a prey half anticipating and even welcoming the next assault. With solitary souls sitting contemplatively in their living room by a cozy fire, we can rest assured a smartphone is somewhere within reach.

For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, smartphones remain post-modern man’s constant companion. Few leave home without one.

I’ll never forget last Thanksgiving when I went into the den and found my step-daughter, her husband and four teen age grandchildren lounging in various kinds of repose; the adults typing on computers, the four grandchildren texting while the football game on TV played vainly to the den’s unheeding fans who were otherwise occupied in cyberspace.

Welcome to the digital age.

In 1654, philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote; “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in room alone,” and I would add, be anywhere without his or her smartphone.

I am not a digital junkie. I would love to brag that I was able to beat the seductions of electronics, that I was above the mediocrity that it sows and that I live my life intentionally conscious of my thoughts and whereabouts. That is not the case. I simply can’t get the hang of how to use a smartphone.

I compose essays on a computer. I send emails. I text, but I could hand deliver my message to Baltimore from St. Michaels in less time that it would take me to text it. I carry the phone with me only occasionally. I check the weather to see what to wear that day. I simply cannot manage the several digital techniques required to negotiate a smartphone’s functions much less keep abreast of the new terminology that identifies its ever-increasing applications. Even with Facebook I’m always fearful that I’ll get snagged in some advertising pop-up or press the wrong button to inadvertently become friends with someone I really don’t like.

In short, it’s not character that has kept me from being seduced by the immediacy of the digital world, it’s that I’m electronically challenged. I write essays on my computer and use the spell check so my manuscripts are mostly ‘tdypo’ free. Not always.

My wife, Jo, is a digital whiz. She’s as at home in the digital era as crabs are to the Bay. She can buy, sell, enquire, research, and do most of her Christmas shopping on line. She can stay in constant contact with grandchildren or just play games, do word puzzles and happily entertain herself for hours with her smartphone.

I am a grunt in this online world, a wayfaring stranger often lost in the wilderness of cyberspace.

St. Paul once observed that our weaknesses can be our strengths.

There’s growing concern about the effect electronic communication is having on our psyches and on our culture. What is at risk is our ability to be focused, be alert and attentive to what may be going on at the moment. In short, the digital era with all its conveniences is invasive, and like a persistent fly, constantly demands our attention. The smartphone is messing with our minds.

Georgetown computer-science professor Cal Newport is not optimistic that will power alone can easily tame the “ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.” He recommends a month long digital detox, a period of purification to declutter the mind by taking a complete break from all optional technologies. His observations parallel the process of achieving sobriety in alcohol addiction: those in recovery learn that one drink is too many, a thousand is not enough. For Newport, one technology can be too many, a thousand is not enough. Few, if any, alcoholics believe that after detox you can manage controlled drinking. Newport on the other hand, claims that after digital detox, and a period of total abstinence, one may slowly reintroduce technologies carefully, a little like learning to sip rather than gulping. He holds that controlled messaging is possible.

I confess that I am speaking with forked tongue in this matter. In writing this essay I was not sure I knew what the difference was between an iPhone, smartphone and an android. I googled my question and got an informed enough answer so I understood the general idea that they are, for practical purposes, similar although they may perform different tasks.

The glut of information immediately available to us in the digital age is both a blessing and a curse; it presents problems of its own. The ability to assimilate information is no indicator that we’ve learned anything. To “know” is more than having factual data at hand. A reflection on this very issue long before our digital era is found in T.S. Eliot’s poem, Chorus’s from the Rock:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

A young boy once asked his father; “Dad, where did I come from?” His father long dreaded the day, but he’d prepared himself well. He researched the data appropriate to teaching a youngster about human sexuality. He went on at some lengths with the boy, from physiology, psychology, biology and even romance. The boy remained attentive, but began to look perplexed.

“Any questions?” the father asked.

“I thought we came here from Chicago.”

Wisdom is in understanding the question first. Learning the appropriate answer follows.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Shall We Gather At The River by George Merrill


I’ve not sailed for several years. I miss it.

I’ve arrived at that unhappy confluence where age and agility meet to send a strong message; for my own safety, at this stage in life, I’d be wise to consider other forms of recreation. I began sailing as a boy at fourteen on Raritan Bay and later on Long Island Sound. Today, although I live up a creek, my sailing days are over.

The other day I felt nostalgic about sailing on the Bay. We’d frequently go from home on Broad Creek to the upper reaches of the Tred Avon River for overnights. I remembered one late August morning motoring down the river. It was sunny and cool that day and I was in no hurry to get home. We had anchored up the river and in the morning, it was one of those still and lazy days when I didn’t ever want the trip to end. We were going just south of Oxford and probably doing three knots. I could hear the muffled gurgling of the motor’s discharge as it merged with our wake.  It made the boat sound as if it were mumbling about how slow we were moving.

Suddenly just ahead on the starboard bow something broke the water. I couldn’t make anything of it.  The surface broke again and then on the port side the same thing happened. Sure enough, dolphins were gamboling downriver with us, finding us agreeable enough to become our traveling companions. For me it was a first. I’d only seen dolphins in pictures. There’s nothing like seeing them surface – as if they were covered all over with mercury making them appear silver and shiny.

They followed us for some distance and finally, near Benoni Point, they submerged one after the other and I didn’t see them again.

Boating on a river is magical. Unlike being surrounded by the expanses of a wide-open Bay, which is a freeing kind of sensation, like watching stars, sailing on rivers is different. The shoreline provides visual boundaries, as the lure of a changing landscape captures our attention always anticipating what’s around the bend. Rivers meander, so that we make it around one bend only to find another waiting for us. The muffled sound of the motor and the hull’s smooth transit as it slides through the still water, sooths the spirit. It’s mesmerizing. Unlike the adrenaline rush I feel on a broad reach in a twenty-knot wind, this is gentler, like gliding.

I remember the sensation from childhood on a day liner going up the Hudson.

My grandfather skippered the Clermont and the DeWitt Clinton, day liners that left the west side of Manhattan to ply the Hudson River up to Bear Mountain and back. I remember being aboard watching the shoreline steadily rise on both sides as the liner made way north. I don’t remember the water ever being turbulent perhaps because the river was sheltered from wind on both sides by hills and mountains. And too, with the river’s meandering path, the wind couldn’t find a straightaway extensive enough to build up velocity. I remember motion as smooth and calm, the rhythmic thumping of the engines sounding like a heartbeat. Sometimes my grandfather let me stand by the wheelhouse.

I suspect those of us who have motored or sailed the Chesapeake Bay over the years have probably sailed more on its tributaries than on the Bay itself. The Bay has more rivers and streams than our bodies have capillaries.

Rivers characteristically meander. They lend themselves as the perfect metaphor for a spiritual journey. Nobody travels a spiritual journey in a straight line. If it’s going in a straight line you can be sure you’ve gotten off course. In this post-modern era, we have lost the sense of the holy that indigenous people have always felt about rivers and other bodies of water. The Ganges, the Jordon and with our own Columbia River, natives venerated them as sacred. “Shall we Gather at the River” is a beloved protestant hymn celebrating our ultimate reconciliation with God. Moses may have made it to the mountain top, but he was first launched on a river.

The first time I sailed up the Chester River was in late August. We’d sailed from Broad Creek to Corsica Creek to spend the night before going to up to Chestertown. We anchored just off what was then the Russian Embassy’s retreat compound at Pioneer Point, originally the John J. Raskob estate. It was a strange sight to see this lovely mansion, a traditional piece of   Americana, with the Soviet Union’s flag, with its hammer and sickle on a red background, flying from a pole on the lawn. It seemed sinister to me. We were being invaded by commies. As we sat in the cockpit having drinks, we’d take binoculars crouch down in the cockpit and furtively spy on the Russians walking around on the property. Odd they didn’t look all that different from Americans.

As a child, my mother read me Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows. I’ve remembered parts of it all these years; the charming antics of the characters like Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad. Rat introduces Mole to the river that he lives on. Mole becomes enchanted with it and launches into a paean – lauding the river.  Grahame’s description reads like a psalm or even a canticle to the majesty of nature, something worthy of St. Francis of Assisi.

“Suddenly he (Mole) stood by the edge of a full/fed river. Never in his life had he seen a  river before – this sleek, sinuous, full bodied animal chasing and chuckling, gripping things  with a gurgle, and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shake  themselves free . . . all was a-shake and a-shiver, glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble”

You can feel Grahame’s excitement.

The river is inanimate yet it’s alive; ‘this sleek, sinuous and full-bodied animal’ –  it’s beautiful. The river turns this way and that, it takes hold and lets go; it plays, romps and teases playfully like a child. It’s like a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of some inward and spiritual grace, the grace of pure joy. Its properties mediate something divine – is it the beauty of holiness? Grahame sees and hears in the meandering waters of a river, in its inexorable course to the sea, a description of the passages our own lives take.

Speaking of the mystical properties imputed to water; when the Spanish first sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, for its expansiveness and the sense of sanctuary it conveyed, they named it, The Bay of the Mother of God.

Holy Water is not confined to churches. God includes it as a part of nature’s largesse.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


Better Kind than Right by George Merrill


“Sometimes it’s better to be kind than to be right; we do not need an intelligent mind that speaks, but a patient heart that listens.” So, said Gautama Buddha over 2500 years ago.

Buddha once said that everything changes; I believe there are a few things that don’t. Kindness is one. I learned this over fifty years ago in the school of hard knocks.

In my professional life as a clergyman and educator, I served in various hospitals as a clinical supervisor for clergy and religious professionals performing pastoral care. My task was to provide seminarians and clergy of all denominations a hands-on experience ministering to people in various kinds of personal crises. The settings I served in were general hospitals and a state-run drug dependence rehab facility.

Student pastors and clergy would spend summers as a part of a chaplaincy staff, like interns, and minister to the patents. Each encounter they had with patients would be written up and a verbatim account presented to me as their supervisor. We were exploring listening skills and helping develop a deeper sensitivity to how people behave in crisis and how we can be most helpful.

In short, these were supervised opportunities to deepen the student’s awareness of listening and how it can grow into the art of hearing.

Hearing is not as easy. In fact, many students were alarmed at the discipline required to simply hear what others were saying. In the normal course of our communications, we are typically forming what we are going to say next even while the person we’re with is still talking.

In the various kinds of psychotherapy and in the practice of spiritual direction, an expression emerged, first in psychiatry and then in general counseling; “Listening with the third ear.” It’s a special kind of listening.

The reason we have trouble hearing is fairly uncomplicated. We spend our days with an agenda. I’d go further and say, an agenda every minute. It varies with what we’re about at that moment, but once our agenda is established, we don’t surrender it easily. And then too, people in crisis often don’t get a good hearing because their suffering evokes so much anxiety in the listener that he or she can’t wait to change the subject. Perhaps the most common response to someone’s painful suffering is to issue reassurances or try to encourage the victim not to complain, but to look on the bright side of things. It’s a form of being in control.

For a person, hungry to have their struggles taken seriously, premature reassurances are the most effective ways to shut significant communication down.

Empathy and compassion are not hot items in today’s world. We’re more inclined to respond to someone’s pain with “get over it” than by just sitting still and listening.

In the modern sense, listening with the third ear is a little like Buddha’s timeless observation twenty-five hundred years ago about kindness: better to be kind than right. Folk wisdom teaches us that no one really likes a know-it-all with the exception of the know-it-all.

The various schools of psychotherapy and the disciplines of spiritual guidance require a mode of thinking different from what we are accustomed to. The end of both disciplines is not so much problem solving, but heightened awareness. The heightened awareness is only the instrument in helping to solve problems. Advice in both disciplines is used sparingly, if at all.

I have my own story going from listening to “hearing.” It was a shocker.

I am a young, newly ordained priest. I’m two years out of seminary. I want to help people. I have completed my internship in Clinical Pastoral Education and am reasonably well equipped to do good in this world. To put it more succinctly, I’m full of beans and, as beans go, they are good beans.

A woman from my parish in Connecticut was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital called the Institute for Living. I was told she had a ‘nervous breakdown,’ the kind of catchall lay diagnosis popular during the early sixties.

I receive a notice she wants to see a priest. I eagerly go to perform my pastoral duties.

I knock on the door. The woman takes a while, but finally opens the door. I see that she looks distressed, maybe angry or depressed, but I am not certain. She is dressed fashionably and has a veneer of the upper echelon of old Connecticut families, many of whom are parishioners where I serve. I do not know her.

I introduce myself saying that I am the chaplain on call and understand that she wants to see a clergyman (it’s ‘man’ in those days.) She looks at me skeptically for a moment as if she were trying to figure out just what to say. I am a good listener, or so I think, and I give her the appropriate time to tell me more if she chooses to. I wait eagerly.

She speaks.

“You know, this is the fourth time I asked to see a priest and now you’re here, about a week late.” She is angry. I am intimidated and a little antsy about just how to handle it.

I immediately respond with a profuse apology saying among other things that the schedule at the church just before Easter was hectic and many things had been delayed and I’ve been behind for a week as a result. I assure her I came as soon as I was able.

For a moment she is silent, as if digesting what I said. She then looks at me conspiratorially as if she has a secret to reveal. With a beatific expression on her face accompanied with a steely voice she asks me if it would be all right to tell me something personal in the strictest confidence. I assure her what she says will be confidential. In a voice void of emotion, she says; “You know what you can do with your busy schedule, your church duties and your Easter obligations? Stick it up *+#@.”

How do I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? This is alien turf for this young and unseasoned clergyman.

I am floored, completely blindsided. I momentarily freeze. My words stumbling, I offer a lame apology and suggest I might come another time. To my eternal shame I remember saying “When it’s more convenient.” She replied, “Don’t bother, you’re too busy.” I am shaken.

After I left, I wrote up an account of the visit and took it to my supervisor, Al, a kind and gentle man. We processed the interview together. He chuckled good naturedly and helped me see what had happened. I had simply not heard, or more accurately didn’t want to listen to the rage she had for feeling so discounted and abandoned by the clergy. She wanted to vent on me and I didn’t want her to. I tried to talk her out of her feelings by elaborate explanations and apologies. It was my way to be ‘right.’ To her credit, she’d have none of it.

I have no way of knowing whether the great and venerable Buddha ever faced a whopper like this. but I do believe if he did, he wouldn’t try to get in the right by justifying himself with excuses; I imagine he’d say nothing. He’d just be kind and unruffled, look at her with soft eyes, listen attentively while breathing deeply.

Always best to be kind than right.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

In a Certain Light by George Merrill


To live a long life is a blessing. Too bad we forget so much of it.

Scattered memories remain, however. Typically, those of annual holidays- Christmas and Thanksgiving. Fragments of the holidays appear in my mind like lingering embers of a once hearty fire; some glow brightly, others faintly. To which log did any of the lingering embers belong, I wonder?

At Christmas, I imagine colored lights at night. At Easter, it’s the daylight, bright, dazzling and always yellow. Daffodils were in bloom. My ancestral home shaped my sense of Easter. We were typically home at Easter.

The picture accompanying this essay is the house I was born and raised in.

The particulars of the house shaped my lifelong romance with light. The house was a Tudor, with timbered braces, a hip roof with slate shingles and windows everywhere, it seemed. I had a keen sensitivity to light and shadow which found expression in my early interest in photography. I was taking photographs and processing them at age eleven.

In the house, I recall light vividly; the lighting at night in the living room was illuminated by the flame shaped bulbs in brass sconces secured to the walls. The sconces cast light on the stippled plastered walls revealing the course texture which was not apparent during the day. In late afternoons, the large French windows in the living room emitted an explosion of light. For me, the house captured the visual delights of day and night.

A sense of place is a particular feeling a locale has or once had for us. It’s a mixture of temperament, experience and mystique. Thirty years ago, my brother, sister and I returned to our childhood home. As we went from room to room, my siblings talked circumstantiality about the things we did as a family, citing occasions that stood out in their minds.

My siblings thought the house seemed smaller. I didn’t. It looked about the same to me. There had been interior alterations, not the least of which for me was the removal of the sconces and the stippled plaster walls. The walls had been replaced by smooth sheetrock. Inset lighting in the living room was installed in the ceiling. It was cool light and not like the soft, warm glow from the sconces.

If I had to summarize my impressions of “going home” it was how the daylight fell in every room, shining through small-paned windows. In the house, most windows were alike.

The feeling of intense familiarity came through my perceptions of light. As a child, I’d look out into my immediate neighborhood through these windows as if they were coordinates, the meridians and parallels sectioning off my world into discreet divisions. The windows were my first instruments for being oriented to my place in the world, like navigators who, seeking their location, fix their whereabouts by latitude and longitude.

The light from these windows influenced how I try making sense of my life. The making of photographic images was one exercise; one photograph, single framed like a window pane, was a search to see what its relation to the larger window of my experience might be – like we might see where the odd pieces fit in a jigsaw puzzle.

The word ‘home’ is emotionally loaded.

For those with no home, the thought of going home is a persistent ache; it’s a tenuous hope to be realized in the future. I see street people and media pictures of migrants. I imagine that they are hoping that one day they’ll find a home with the belonging and safety they crave. And, there are some like my neighbor whose home recently burned down. The lost home feels like a sudden death in the family. The family gathers to grieve the loss – like mending a broken life. They struggle to salvage what they can from its ashes.

Today is Easter Sunday here in the Christian world. The discovery of an empty tomb begins while it’s still dark, and for Christians the event releases divine light into the world. Easter celebrates Jesus resurrection from the dead.

In a curious way, Jesus speaks of his death, not only as leaving but returning. “In my father’s house, there are many mansions (homes). I go to prepare a place for you.” I understand this as a preparation for our ultimate reconciliation with God and with each other.

Among Christians, the concept of heaven is by no means the same.

Some see it as a kind of family reunion. Obituaries refer to the deceased as having “gone home.” Some think heaven is here on earth and we create it for ourselves or we don’t. Others regard heaven as a kind of gated community; only the right kind of people are permitted entrance. Others see it as our ultimate reconciliation with each other, to God and to the world. Many people who report near death experiences will tell us they saw a bright light at the end of a tunnel.

Bodily resurrection while explicit in scripture, is not universally held by Christians. Because the idea is so counterintuitive many Christians struggle to believe it literally although they continue to practice Christianity, faithfully.

I understand death and resurrection as transformation. To what I don’t know. But I know that matter – and I believe spirit, too, cannot be created nor destroyed, but only transformed.

It’s a mystery for sure, but perhaps the poet T.S. Eliot put it best when he wrote:

“. . . and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know it for the first time.”

It’s about seeing home in a certain light.

Woo Woo by George Merrill


Heard the expression, ‘Woo woo?’

It’s how skeptics describe those of us who can’t credibly be called nut jobs but who nevertheless hold unconventional beliefs that lack common sense or have little or no scientific validation. Those beliefs may include certain spiritual manifestations, having mystical experiences or employing ancient forms of medicine. I’m woo woo.

I am not offended by its flippant implications. There is a difference between being woo woo and being a nut job. Being woo woo, if you ride gently with this condition and don’t get strident or dogmatic, is like surfing; it can lift you up enough to offer you new glimpses of what’s beneath the surface of life’s happenings but still land you on a shore. It can be a wonderful ride. A nut job typically rides the same old again and again and gets furious because he gets nowhere.

Woo woo’s blessings offer the possibility for discovery. The old and familiar can become new and amazing. I have had such experiences in my life. I was a boy then and at first, and dared not tell anyone as they might think I was a nut job. Actually, I thought I was a nut job which is why it took me so many years to claim the experiences as my own; to welcome them as gifts, mystical ones, and to be grateful that I’d been given them.

I’ll briefly describe two.

I’m a native of Staten Island. My family roots go back to the late 1600’s with the arrival of Richard Merrill and Sarah Wells from England. They owned a farm. My family and I used to take late fall walks on the rural parts of the Island. A favorite was on a hill above historic Richmondtown, near St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

One day we went to walk the field. It was fall, cool and clear. The air was brisk with a briny tang as the wind blew in from the Atlantic over Raritan Bay. The golden hay covering the field undulated like a lion’s mane heaving in the wind. In the distance, I could see the spire of St. Andrews.

I was standing near a small stand of trees. I began to sense that the entire scene was getting brighter, the way people often claim they feel before fainting. I felt steady on my feet, clear headed, but I began to see the landscape before me vibrating, as if every blade of hay, tree leaves, their trunks even the sky were all pulsing with auras of energy. It was mesmerizing.

I remained transfixed. It lasted but a minute or two. When the landscape seemed normal again, I did feel (but not understand) as though I may have momentarily seen deeper into what vivifies life itself.

I had neither life experience nor even a vocabulary to give the moment expression. Over the years I recollected it from time to time, wondered its meaning, but could make no sense of it. I had another experience similar – another hilltop moment- when on a high point on the Island overlooking Manhattan and New York Harbor where, for a minute or so, the scene before me seemed to vibrate and pulse with energy, as if the whole world had a heartbeat. The inanimate Manhattan skyline, also shivered with energy.

I was a few years older then, maybe eighteen when that happened. Over the years I began taking such moments seriously as one way of knowing. I had been introduced to Impressionist artists where I noticed how the colors in their paintings had a vibrancy that, too, trembled with inner energy.

Mystical experiences, as I’ve come to understand them, are more likely to occur when we’re younger. I believe this is because as we grow older we construct psychological firewalls to protect us from greater awareness. Awareness can be unsettling. It may leave us out of control.

I never spoke of the experiences to anyone. Maybe they were like the Bible records Mary’s reaction when the angel visits her; she is left wondering what manner of salutation this could be. It was so out of the ordinary. It took me half a lifetime of experience and enough of a vocabulary to even describe for myself what happened. It wasn’t migraines. I knew I had been visited with a fleeting moment of intimacy with whatever it is that constitutes the heart of the universe.

I’ve learned in the meantime that since 1960 science has been investigating the prime building blocks of the universe once assumed to be atoms. Some researchers believe the more fundamental units of all matter are vibrations. A theory has emerged popularly known as the ‘string theory.’ It posits that everything, our bodies included, the planets and the entire natural world is composed of strings that vibrate, and that there is, not only metaphorically, but literally a music of the spheres. These vibrations perform their cosmic symphony, and their combined orchestrations determine how we comprehend what transpires within us, as well as heightening our consciousness of the world around us.

The mystical experiences reported in the great religions can seem bizarre. I imagine them as blips of basic truths, a peek through the keyhole of the universe In reading about scientific discoveries I’ve found liberation from much of the post-modern world’s spiritual vacuity. The wonders of discovery create spiritual adventures; I am seized by what’s amazing and reverberate with the awe of it.

I’ve wondered whether mathematicians and physicists approach God (at least those who are inclined to) more humbly than theologians. Theology gets preoccupied with establishing moral high ground than standing in awe of a stupendous creation. Math equations demonstrate how stunningly intricate we’re fashioned – “wonderfully and fearfully made” a psalmist once wrote – and how breathtaking a universe we live in. As a boy, long before Einstein formulated the equation E=mc2 he dreamed of riding on a light beam. Call it woo woo if you must but look where it led.

I write this with the belief there are many of us who have had experiences of heightened awareness that don’t seem to fit anywhere. The inclination, because they seem goofy, is to dismiss them. I offer the thought that they may be invitations to discover in the commonplace of our everyday world, what’s extraordinary.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Keep An Ear To The Ground


We don’t listen to the voice of the earth.

The present administration continues ordering significant reductions in the restrictions the Environmental Protection Agency had in place to preserve the health of the planet.

The voice of the earth is a metaphor. It describes the planet as a living organism. To hear her voice is frequently a spiritual experience because it broadens our humanity by providing us access to something that transcends us but also lives deep within us. For example, most religions express spiritual wisdom through the images of the natural world. The two are interconnected, the spiritual and planetary. Some astronauts, after returning from space flights were reported to have been overwhelmed with reverence for the planet, and knelt down and kissed the earth. Sometimes you have to leave home for a while and then return to actually see it for the first time. Listening to the voice of the earth is our best chance of having a home to which to return.

Consider how the debate over land use might go if the earth were taken seriously as a living organism? How might we relate to the land if she were understood as companion rather than commodity to buy and sell? We rarely hear discussions about land except as real estate and property. An understanding of the ‘living’ earth would move the discussion from ‘use’ to that of a partnership or a relationship with the earth. Because economic stakes are so high, it’s difficult to shift our prevailing paradigm of the earth as fundamentally raw material and real estate to one of neighbor. As soft as this may sound, the central fact of our lives physically and spiritually is that we’re inextricably tied into the planet earth( and to each other) as intimately as our bodies were once integral to our mothers’. We wouldn’t ever have gotten here without either mother or the earth. As we grow up we may cease to need mother, but there’s no way we’ll ever live without planet earth.

An old proverb says that we are what we think in our hearts. My purpose in this essay is to invite consideration of ‘what we think in our hearts’ about the planet earth and how those assumptions may be guiding our relationship to and deliberations over the land. It’s an invitation to include the voice of the earth in our deliberations.

Late one autumn afternoon I went on the front porch of my house to be outside and rest. I fell into a kind of half sleep, alert, but in a dreamy sort of way: I saw my front yard as one might see things in a dream, with curiosity and attentiveness to whatever passed in front of my eyes but with no sense of myself as an observer. It’s as if I were simply part of the landscape.

A few butterflies, monarchs, made their way in and out of the petunias, lighting on one for a moment and then moving on. Bees, too, hovered languidly over the potted flowers on the porch but never landed. Perhaps they stayed cooler on the move. A hummingbird, with feints and dodges, tried working herself around wasps which had placed themselves, like watchdogs, around the ports of the hummingbird feeder. The hummingbird was trying for a sip at the feeder. In the yard, a solitary squirrel rolled around in the dirt. A blackbird, sitting on the edge of the birdbath, would dip his beak into the water. Then holding his beak upright, as the water descended down his throat, he’d shiver all over, as though he were sitting at a bar, belting down shots of straight whisky. At the edges of the creek the water lapped rhythmically, and everywhere the crisp dry leaves of the oak, locust and cherry trees shook and whispered to each other coaxed on by the southeasterly breeze. Everything pulsed with life. I heard the voice of the earth.

What was she saying? Something about the stupendous diversity of this planet’s happening we call life. I know names for only half of what I saw in that hour in my front yard. There were trees; Locust, Cherry, Sassafras, a Hawthorne, White Birch and Pines. There were squirrels, blackbirds, robins, a bluebird, jays, yellow finch’s and a ruby throated hummingbird. I saw ants, yellow bees, wasps, and I listened while a carpenter bee drilled away on the fascia boards of the house. And I was there, too, as one among all these creatures, watching a hazy sky, and listening to the water and the wind. Other life forms were there that I couldn’t see, like fish and crabs, creatures that lived under the earth and the millions of cells and bacteria which attend my body at every moment. My front yard is busy place. I am a busy place. So are you. We’re alive.

If the voice of the planet earth were telling me about her great diversity, what then might this mean for my relationship to her? One thought I’ve had is that like members of a family, we share a common heritage, although we have individual differences. How the families of all living organisms regulate their differences assures mutual survival. To regulate the differences of humans and the other living species on planet earth is first to recognize the differences and respect them.

I’m again on the front porch. This time it’s early morning. There’s still no rain. Why so little rain here, why too much there? The reasons the planet has for fire, drought, storms are still inscrutable. Our critter cousins on this planet seem to behave strangely to us: bats see with their ears, fish never close their eyes and breathe under water, and bears sleep away a whole winter. Wooly bears turn into tiger moths. But we must seem weird to them, too. Animals must wonder why we change clothes all the time, eat with implements and mate at any time we want. As strange as some life forms may seem as compared to others, we’re all a part of that amazing happening called life. As goes one of us, so eventually go all others.

This is what I heard voice of the earth teaching me one day on the porch.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Dog Fight by George Merrill


I’ve been thinking about women, recently.

Since I am married to a strong woman, it’s prudent that I should, and that those thoughts be about her. But, it wasn’t my marriage that brought the subject of women to mind . . . this time. It was a Victorian essay I stumbled on in reading a collection of English writers. It was, of all things, about dog fights. What do women and dog fights have to do with each other? More than I first imagined.

The essay was written by John Brown, a cultured Scotsman, born in 1806. Biographical data portrays him as a likeable man, well connected socially and with many friends. He was a physician, a writer and noted as an enthusiastic a dog lover.

Brown writes that he and his friend, Bob “. . . got to the top of the street, and turned north when we espied a crowd at the Tron Church. ‘A dog fight!’ shouted Bob and was off: and so was I, both of us praying that it might not be over before we got up! And is this not boy-nature? And human nature, too and don’t we all wish a house on fire not to be out before we see it?”

Brown continues:

“The crowd round a couple of dogs fighting is a crowd masculine mainly, with an occasional active, compassionate woman, fluttering wildly round the outside, and using her tongue and her hands freely upon the men, as so many brutes.”

An appetite for violence, I believe, is very much a guy thing, not only today, but from our origins. For eons, both physical and social power has been in the hands of men. And, to protect the power, violence was the means of securing it. Brown makes just this point. He sees women as attempting a moderating influence on men’s violent inclinations. However, he turns their concerns into a caricature by describing it this way: “…fluttering wildly round the outside, and using her tongue and her hands freely upon the men as so many brutes.”

From Brown’s essay and my own experience, I think despite the rebukes of ‘compassionate’ women, it’s hard to keep boys from being boys. I remember my mother breaking up a neighborhood rock fight. We were playing war – although undeclared. Our weapons of choice were iron ore rocks thrown across a half-dug foundation, like lobbing grenades on our foes. To this day, I bear a scar on my forehead from some kid’s direct hit sustained during the combat. My mother was livid and actually much more effective in bringing this skirmish to an end than the women Brown describes in his essay. If this fascination with fighting ended with boyhood it might make an amusing story. I am persuaded that, with males, the propensity for violence lasts our lifetime. Those least aware of this design flaw are often the most afflicted with it and typically the most lethal.

If I step back and take a long look at this phenomenon, and how resistant men are, not only to the counsel of women, but to treating them as equal partners, I find it extraordinarily sobering.

Florence Nightingale’s (a contemporary of Brown’s) experience with the British Army perhaps lays out this phenomenon in all its self-destructive machinations and madness. During the Crimean War, the British were losing soldiers at an alarming rate, not directly from being shot or maimed but during recovery, from gangrene, sepsis and other infections that finally killed the wounded. Nightingale identified poor sanitation as the cause of the deaths. She fought tooth and nail to legitimize herself with the Army’s male hierarchy who were suspect of having women involved in a “man’s business”’ in this case how the brass was being unwittingly complicit in the death of their own soldiers. They made her task twice as difficult with their suspicions, which to use an old Army term, left the Army command for some time shooting themselves in the foot.

Suffering enormous indignities at the hands of a male dominated institution, she nevertheless persisted and helped the boys clean up their act, quite literally. She was responsible for saving hundreds of men’s lives.

Another historical whopper was how Allied Chemical’s male officials went on television on a smear campaign when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. A fortune five hundred looking company executive (graying at the temples) on TV told us how her findings were not credible since women were well known to be hysterical, that she was unmarried, and because of their frailty, women’s scientific acumen had always been in question.

In both these instances and others that were to follow, the issue came up again and again for women: knowing that their voices were not being heard, much less heeded. Like black voices in the American story, even today many women feel they are not being heard. The #MeToo movement has caught the ear of many men.

I suspect the message is clear: even now, as the sexual abuse scandals unfold, the old boys are having a real struggle growing up and I think a goodly number are still living their lives out in a protracted adolescence. An historical overview of recent history reveals that women only succeeded in the right to vote in 1920. The pill exploded on the gender scene in 1960, affording women the choice over their own bodies. Men previously held the power over reproduction. The pill flipped the equation. The pill, more than anything, may have let Pandora out of the box – in a manner of speaking – by enabling women greater freedom of choice. Viagra, as we know, is covered by most medical plans. Birth control pills are not. The ERA, assuring no discrimination on the basis of gender is still not ratified by all the states. On equal pay for men and women, the jury is still debating.

On gender issues, my wife and I see differently on one issue: women in combat. She makes a case for the importance of choice and having the opportunity to serve in the Armed Forces if women should wish to and are qualified. Her issue, as I understand it, is primarily the freedom to choose and not be automatically excluded on the basis of gender.

I struggle with that, not about the desire for choice, but about choosing combat. As I feel about the matter, it’s troubling enough for me that the guys are energized by the fray, but it offends my sensibilities that women might be also. Somehow, as I imagine it, the woman brings to our evolutionary tasks another dimension, a more holistic one, one that cultivates the skills of healing and reconciliation, rather than the art of dominating by force. This may be a vestige of my own atavistic male chauvinism, but there you have it.

I’d welcome a conversation about the complementarity of men and women in the long haul of our human journey. I’m not confident that I see it clearly.

I am confident of this: I haven’t seen a dog fight since I was a grade school kid. I remember it was neat, but I kept wondering what I would do if one turned on me.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Mixed Neighborhoods by George Merrill


I presented a reading the other day in Easton. A number of Shore writers were celebrating the eleventh anniversary of The Delmarva Review. The day before I had learned of the shooting at the Mosque in Christ Church, New Zealand. The occasion became an eerie confluence of events.

The essay I read had originally appeared in 2008. I wrote about hospitality, the ancient custom of offering sanctuary to the stranger, and the divine imperative of making space for others. The story, however, was not as abstruse as it might sound. It revolved around a specific incident when I shot a blacksnake in my yard. Why? Snakes scare me. I shot it because it creeped me out. In the essay, I wrote: “Killing is remarkably easy; all we need is a motive, some legitimacy and a weapon. The rest is duck soup.”

As I read my essay, the subject of hospitality and xenophobia, its inhospitable opposite, had been dramatized the day before by the shooting tragedy that took place half a world away. A man feared that sinister foreigners were encroaching upon his white world. He had a motive, he legitimized it, he found weapons and the rest was a nightmare.

In the essay, I had used the snake as a metaphor for those “others” whom we either fear or loathe, but who do us no harm nor do they intend to. They are simply one other part of our human experience and its ecological realities. Sharing space is the name of the game.

Where I live on the Shore I share space with a bewildering array of living beings; foxes, deer, buzzards, groundhogs and, of course, snakes, to mention a few. Whether we reside in cities or rural areas, one thing is sure; we’re living in mixed neighborhoods.

The prevalence of social media has turned our world from pockets of insularity into a mixed neighborhood. In our increasingly electronically connected world, if we didn’t know it before, we know it now; everyone is your neighbor and for good or ill, we can learn instantly much of what his or her business is about.

Mixed neighborhoods trouble some people. They prefer being “with their own kind.” As hard as many are trying, there is no way we’re going back to the days of tribal identities, racial purity or ethnic superiority and national supremacy. Hitler put a formidable military and political machine behind his attempt to make Germany racially pure. Fascism had touted a thousand-year Reich. In its grandiose attempt to be great again, Hitler’s Germany went down in flames in only six years.

It’s heartbreaking to be hearing again the familiar fascist slogans in today’s public discourse. Some are subtle, others blatant. It’s still the same organized and systematic brutality: the lies, deceptions, the institutionalizing of hate, the manipulation and the messianic grandiosity that characterizes the racist mind – the kind we saw in Italy and Germany during WWII. What’s happening to us?
One thing I know is that we are awash in information but with little or no skills in discernment. Discernment involves possessing a set of substantive values to guide judgements. Right now, they are in short supply.

An unflinching look at the human condition reveals this unpleasant reality. At heart, we are both hyena and lamb. We are just as capable of the heinous acts we decry as the ones of generosity and kindness we applaud. Our behavior will depend on which critter we have been feeding. Here’s a graphic instance of what happens when the hyena gets overfed. According a New York Times account, the shooter in Christchurch “. . . walked up to a wounded woman dressed in black who lay on the pavement crying ‘help me, help me’ and shot her twice more.”

Social media today has become the trough of easy access from which malignant ideologies are nourished, perpetuated and proliferated.

This electronic neighborhood it’s created has become supercharged and overcrowded. In overcrowded communities, diseases spread. We are inundated with disturbing happenings and virulent ideologies as millions of people worldwide walk around indiscriminately ingesting data with phones. A demagogue can gain more global visibility on Twitter or Facebook than he ever could at a rally. Available space limits the audience at rallies. With social media, the sky’s the limit. You can even make visual documentaries to inform the world as you insult, kill and maim your enemies. Insidiously, hatred is becoming a form of entertainment. Violence already has.

One of the most chilling aspects of the Christchurch tragedy was how the perpetrator presented the carnage on line with sublime detachment. He created a reality show, a form of entertainment. He turned what was gross amorality into a playful show along with a manifesto to legitimize it.

When racists work to keep the neighborhood “pure,” you can be sure the whole neighborhood will go.

Humanity began as family groups (after we graduated from our time as pond scum.) We organized as tribes, settled in villages and then became citizens of nations. We organized around color and religion. Each new stage in our evolution created a particular challenge. How can we be good neighbors in a global community with all its bewildering variations? How do we regulate our differences and make space for others? How can we be hospitable?

Get to know the neighbors is a start.

I have six grandchildren who have already, or will be having, educational opportunities abroad. The countries include South Africa, Spain, Scotland, Costa Rica, Belgium, Italy and Panama. One other grandson is in the Air Force and will soon be deployed to Okinawa. These children enjoy the privilege that makes such opportunities possible. There are growing numbers who will also study abroad. And therein I find hope.

Children who are so positioned in life to be influential can, in their formative years, develop a broader view of who we are as a global family. My hope is that these young people will have an experience of being amazed and energized by differences and not be afraid or critical of them. They will make acquaintances and perhaps even friends from worlds and cultures distinct from their own; they will see people with differing habits.

I believe today’s frenetic tide of chauvinism flows contrary to the set our future’s current is taking. The world is a big place. Regulating differences requires a compassionate understanding of our place in it.

My hope is in our children who may become the voices of sanity in an ‘adult’ world that’s lost its way.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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