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Monday, October 24, 2016

Seeking Soul

One of the fun things about my interest in spirituality is that I am a soul seeker!  I like that phrase, “soul seeker.”  If you are interested, too, in spirituality, then maybe you should see yourself as a soul seeker.  I don’t know all that being a soul seeker means.  But let’s assume it is one part curiosity, one part sleuth, and two parts intentionality.

I think intentionality is key to most spiritual, soulful endeavors.    By itself curiosity is interesting, but usually goes nowhere on its own.  Curiosity is a bit like a puppy.  It is fun to watch; but it is impetuous.  It darts here and there.  There is a great deal of fury, but nothing really is accomplished.  Ultimately, there is no plan, no advancing, no achieving.  These may seem like funny words for the soul seeker, but without a plan, advance, and achieving, then I do not see how one is growing at all.  But we do need one part curiosity.

And then I do believe there is a role in spirituality for being a sleuth.  I admit that I like this word.  The roots of the word go back to the Middle Ages.  It is a variation of the word, “bloodhound.”  By the 19th century it comes to mean “investigation.”  Of course, many folks think of Sherlock Holmes when we employ the word, sleuth.

In that context I hope it is clear why the soul seeker needs to be a sleuth.  I like the fact that the word, sleuth, is both a noun and a verb.  I am a sleuth.  That is the noun.  But I probably will never be a noun---sleuth---unless I “do the verb.”  To do the verb means I start sleuthing!

Sleuthing is precisely the way we go about seeking soul.  As I understand the verb, sleuth, there is no blueprint.  Not one of us is handed a guaranteed “seeking soul manual,” where we will automatically succeed in finding soul if the manual is meticulously followed. Part of me wishes that were true.  But a deeper part of me is really glad I have to be a sleuth.

Here’s the trick.  I am convinced good sleuths have a great deal of intentionality.  Intentionality is the alternative to that “seeking soul manual” which no one gets.  Intentionality is the driving force for seeking soul.  Investigating where and when we might find soul takes time---and intentionality is what pushes us on through the time needed to seek our soul.

Because I do not think there is a blueprint for seeking soul, curiosity has its role to play.  Curiosity leads us to go here, check out there, explore this, and try that---all of which brings experiences, which are the seedbed of finding soul.

I am convinced soul is not found in the abstract.  Soul is discovered in the experience---in the moment with the Spirit.  In that soulful moment we feel grounded, connected, alive, free, committed and so much more.  As we begin to use language like this, we know we are not so much soul seeking as soul finding.  This is great!

But it never lasts---at least the experience of soul finding never lasts.  Seeking soul is a bit like eating.  We can, indeed, find soul---find those soulful moments, events, and relationships.  But because we are creatures of time, they come and they go.  But that’s ok.

As a soul seeker, I mix again: one part curiosity, one part sleuth, and two parts intentionality.  There is always enough intentionality to push on…to pursue the curiosity in me and to start sleuthing in ways and places (often surprising) that will enable me to find soul again. 

I welcome this new day…another chance to seek soul!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Window of Choice

I have been reading very slowly the fully packed book, Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett.  I figure if you become wise, it does not happen with a quick read over the weekend.  Wisdom is more organic.  You just don’t acquire it.  Somehow you grow it.  It takes seriously your experiences and marinates them with reflection.  I think Tippett is correct: we become wise.  And wisdom is not automatic, like growing old is automatic.  If you live long enough, you get old.  But you can live to be very old and not become wise.
Much of Tippett’s book is a series of interviews with the kind of people most of us would like to meet and get to know.  We probably won’t be that lucky, but she is.  Many of them joined her for interviews for her broadcast called, On Being.  Some of them have doubtlessly become good friends.  And all of them became wise.  With her book we get to join the conversation and give ourselves a good chance to become wise.
Recently, I was reading a section where Tippett talks about herself.  In the years after college, she was a hotshot journalist running around Europe.  She lived in Berlin for a while and watched the famous Wall come down in 1989.  She recounts the early spiritual stirrings in her soul.  This surprised her.  And then she comments, “I was living in England when I first circled back to religion in my late twenties, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer drew me with its poetry and its vigorous description of the human condition.”
These early spiritual stirrings eventually led Tippett to study at Yale Divinity School and to a career which she probably could not have anticipated.  She found a way to combine journalism with spirituality and has become rather famous in the process.  I think her fame, no doubt, hinges on the fact that she has a keen eye for issues and for how human beings are trying to live meaningful lives.  And then she can describe these in a way that helps all of us.
I find her way of seeing things to be insightful and her way of writing about them illuminating.  One of the ways I like to put it is she knows a great deal about spirituality without letting that affect the way she sees things.  Sometimes when you know a great deal, it closes you off to new ways of seeing.  That is what is refreshing about her.  I bumped into one such insightful account of hers that includes a look at the old-fashioned idea of sin, but offers a keen, contemporary way of understanding it and, perhaps, avoiding it.
She begins this account by recognizing, “So much of what we orient towards in culture numbs a little going in and helps us avoid the reckoning we actually long for---the push to self-knowledge and deeper lived integrity.”  Most people cannot speak of their involvement in culture in this clear fashion.  We live in culture, but we don’t think about how we “orient” ourselves.  But think about it.  Think about what we watch on tv, what we read, whom we talk to----these are the ways we orient ourselves in our culture. 
This often is not satisfying.  Our orientation to culture---American culture---numbs us and helps us avoid what we might really want.  This helps me understand why there is so much disappointment and disillusion.  We long for things that we don’t get---sometimes, don’t even understand.  She probes a little further with a reference to poetry.  “Poetry, says Marie Howe, hurts a little going in.  It soothes and deepens us and hurts a little all at the same time.”  And then, Tippett hits the nail on the head.  “So do many of the elements that give voice to the soul---silence and song, community and ritual, listening and compassionate presence.  They wake us up---the apt Buddhist language for spiritual illumination.  But there is that window of choice, moment by moment, to go for distraction instead, to settle into numb.” 
I appreciate the idea of a “window of choice.”  We have so many moments where the voice of our soul can speak.  We can be drawn to deep, authentic spiritual moments with the Holy One and with each other.  We can opt for aliveness and have vitality.  There is that window of choice.  And yet, too often we opt for distraction---the tv, the internet, the junk available.  And we settle into numb.  And that, says Tippett, is to sin.
In a poignant sentence she claims, “Maybe this is another way to think about original sin---the ingrained lure of the possibility of going numb, a habit of acquiescence to it.”  Whoever thought of describing original sin as going numb?  And when we do it sufficiently, we truly are living in sin.  This describes myself too often and it describes so many people around me and my world.
We always have options; we have windows of choice.  But we need to wake up.  We need to become aware.  We can quit numbing ourselves and live.  We have windows of choice.  Let me choose wisely. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

That Other Self

I went out for a jog yesterday afternoon like I have done so many times in my life.    In fact, it has been decades now.  It is so much part of me, I can’t imagine not doing it.  And yet I know someday for whatever reasons, my running/jogging days will be finished.  I certainly don’t look forward to that, but it is part of being human.  Everyone understands this about life.

So my day was unusual in no way.  But as I loped along, sometimes slowing to walk for a minute or so, I had a dawning awareness of something.  It was not novel, but it captured my attention and, then, I began to pay attention.

I know I am not a runner anymore.  I am either getting too old, have lost sufficient will to push myself, or whatever, but at best I am a jogger.  And I am ok with that.  In fact, as I indicated already about yesterday’s jog, periodically I slow to a walk before resuming the jog.  It was in such an interlude between jog and walk that something dawned on me.

I realized that I had started out to jog with little intention of interrupting the jog with a walk.  But at some point in the jog, something entered my mind that planted the seed, “Walking would not be as difficult!”  It was as if that other self in me had woken up and spoken up.  And before I knew it, I had slowed to a walk.  Why had I begun to do what I had not intended to do?

Who is or was that other self anyway?  I began to realize I differentiate my real self (the “I” or “me”) from that other self.  In my mind that other self is not as real.  But it certainly is real enough that I opted for the suggestion the other self-made that I begin walking.  It as almost as if I had to look around and wonder, “why did I just begin walking…I came out here for a jog!”

If I am honest, I know I have met that other self countless times.  Probably he has been with me most of my life.  But I always seem surprised when he shows up, suggests things, and I wantonly follow his lead.  I find myself doing things I had not intended to do. 

I am sure psychologists have dealt with this in many different ways.  I know about Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow self.  Theologians such as Thomas Merton talk about the false self.  These are explanations…nice terms to explain that other self.  I think I will go with the other self.  Whoever he is, he is internally strong enough that what he wants is what I do.  And I don’t think for a minute he is bad and the real “me” is good.

Actually, I think they both (and maybe more!) are aspects of me.  And I want to heed both.  I want to look at them in the best light.  Perhaps, they are options of my will(s).  They can be useful when I move through routine or, especially, face new things in my life.  I do not assume one is reasonable and the other more emotional and less reasonable.  They are just different.

Let me suggest they represent various desires in me.  In the example of my jog/walk, I am not surprised I went into that with both the desire to jog and desire to walk.  Both are good and both are legit.  I could have wanted to jog and to smoke.  That would have been a good desire and a less good desire! 

As I focus on desire, I think of desire as one step before my will.  What I desire leads to what I will.  It seems I was taught (or somehow learned) that humans just have one will.  I don’t think that anymore.  In many instances I do have a dominant desire that seems like I will just one thing.  But in multiple instances, I realize I have more than one desire.  Sometimes the complement each other; other times, they seem to be competing.

I do not think one desire is essentially spiritual and the other(s) is not.  Instead, these desires represent the complexity of being human.  That other self is usually not far away from the “me” who seems to be in charge.  That’s good, for I think that gives God at least two possibilities to lead me not into temptation and to deliver me from evil!  That I desire singly: to do God’s will.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The God Delusion

I choose an odd title for today’s inspiration.  But it is a deliberate use of the book title of Richard Dawkins’ widely controversial 2006 book, The God Delusion.  Dawkins is the well-known scientist who teaches at Oxford University in England.  He also is a well-known atheist.  And it is atheism that he is really touting in this book.  Or, I can imagine Dawkins saying, it is the stupidity of the traditional god that he is bashing as nonsense.

Dawkins is an entertaining writer!  He is the kind who would rather provoke than placate.  If he can say something that would raise the ire of a believer, he feels successful.  “Ah ha,” he might say, “now I have you thinking about what you really believe.”  And I would say that is his real point…other than telling you he thinks the God in whom many of us would say we believe is, indeed, folly.  I must admit, this does not raise my ire because I know I cannot prove the God in whom I believe.  I guess that is why it is called faith.

I read Dawkins’ book some time ago, but had an occasion recently to return to it.  So it seemed good to interact with some of what he says.  Maybe it can be inspirational in an oblique way.  The first thing to establish is just what kind of god is Dawkins trashing?  “The traditional, supernatural divinity,” I am sure he would say.  Let’s look at an example.

Early in the book Dawkins defines the god against whom he rails.  “…there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”  Indeed the whole one-liner is italicized for emphasis.  Rather than get uptight and defensive (which Dawkins would only enjoy!), I want this exercise to be a reflective pondering on my part.  Certainly, much of this definition of god turns out to be quite like the God in whom I believe.  Is God intelligence?

I realize I don’t go around thinking about how “smart” God might be!  If I push myself a little further, I realize I think about God more as “wise” than “smart.”  I would trust scientists who tell me certain kinds of monkeys have a kind of intelligence.  And the porpoise apparently is quite “smart.”  Clearly, some humans are pretty smart and some of us are less than smart.  And amazingly, some of us who are fairly smart do dumb things!

But wisdom is another thing.  It is not unusual to see the Greek word for wisdom, Sophia, used to describe God.  Part of what Dawkins is against, is a smart god designing and creating the world.  For many of us that is provocative.  You would not be surprised that Dawkins is convinced the world and every thing in it evolved. 

I would not disagree with him.  The disagreement comes when Dawkins would deny any guiding principle (except things like natural selection).  For him there is no “intelligent design.”  And I do not plan to submit that view of creation.  But I realize I do affirm there is a sense of Wisdom permeating the fabric of creation.  The universe seems purposeful to me.  As sappy as it gets, somehow I have faith that love is one of the ingredients in this human and cosmic evolution (I really have no problems with evolution as a principle).

So is my kind of God (only sketchily presented) the kind to which I can pray?  Dawkins would laugh out loud!  I would laugh and say, “sure.”  But what am I sure about?  I am sure I can pray to that God.  “Will it do any good,” many would ask?  I don’t know.  My job is to pray, not answer the prayers.  Prayer is not manipulative, utilitarian, nor selfish.

So, how did we wind up talking about prayer?  Whether God exists is an intellectual question, which is interesting to me.  But what does it matter, even if I think God exists?  It matters because I think God is love and love is at the cosmic heart of it all.  And I do think God and evolution allow for blessing or cursing.

Prayer is my way of practicing my faith in the God who so loved the world…  I can’t prove it.  I may be deluded.  So Lord, be with me and all of us this day, I pray.               

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Secret of Acceptance

Occasionally in my reading, I run into a sentence or even a phrase that is arresting.  It can be a stunner or a surprise or something that makes me laugh out loud.  It is arresting because it makes me stop.  Usually when I am reading, I just push on.  One sentence leads to another.  It is a bit like life…one day leads to the next.  But occasionally, there is an arrest.

It happened yesterday as I was reading further in the Thomas Merton journals.  No doubt, by now you know that Cistercian monk who died in 1968 is one of my favorites.  He was a prolific writer.  That is not too surprising because there are other prolific writers.  I think of James Michener or some of the science fiction writers whom I do not know.  But Merton is a bit surprising when you are aware of his context.

Every other year I take some students to Kentucky where we spend a weekend at the monastery, Gethsemani, where Merton was a monk from 1941 until his death.  The students and I try to fit into the monastic schedule which means beginning with worship at 3:15am and doing it another six times during the day.  And when you think about Merton also having to do physical work, teach the novices (beginning monks), etc., you wonder how he had time to write so much.

The particular place I am reading in his journal is now 1963.  He has now become famous and has countless visitors heading to Gethsemani to spend some time with him.  That in itself is paradoxical because to be a Cistercian means you basically commit yourself to a life of solitariness and silence!  But due to his fame and the abbot’s willingness, Merton was allowed a steady stream of visitors.  Two Spanish families came to spend the afternoon one spring day.

Merton enjoyed them.  Since he had spent so much time as a youth in Europe, he always felt “European.”  These Spanish folks reinforced that.  It is his reflection after they left that I found interesting.  And then I hit the sentence that arrested me.

Merton muses, “How good God has made all things.  And yet they are no happier than I, I am no happier than they, and for all of us there is a secret of acceptance we have not learned.”  (IV:313)  I can smile when Merton says God makes all things good.  I agree.  But of course many good things screw up.  Sometimes I am one of them!

The next bit in Merton’s quotation is interesting, but I am not sure how I feel about it.  “They are no happier than I, I am no happier than they.”  It does seem some people are much happier than others.  In fact, I have known some who don’t seem to be able to be happy for any reason!  I am going to have to think about this one.

And then I hit the arresting phrase: “for all of us there is a secret of acceptance we have not learned.”  What is this secret of acceptance, I wondered?  I am intrigued by the fact that it is a secret.  I know what acceptance means.  I have accepted and have been accepted.  But Merton must be pushing beneath this obvious level.

I can guess he means something deeper than me accepting you.  Let me make a guess and use a fancy philosophical word.  My guess is he is talking in existential terms.  In effect this means he wonders if his mere existence is acceptable on its own…as it is.

Many of us feel acceptance based on more superficial things---like our looks---or based on what we do---please others, etc.  But Merton is driving deeper.  Is there anyone or anything that accepts us just as we are?

I am sure ultimately his answer is: Of course…God.  That is my answer, too.  If I can get beyond arrested, I will ponder further this “secret of acceptance.”

Monday, October 17, 2016

For What?

One of the things I most appreciate with Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise, is all the other voices she brings into her work.  In effect, she marshals many and various voices to describe, discuss and deploy the wisdom in our world.  Of course, one source of wisdom is history itself.  Whether it is the wisdom of sacred scriptures, like the Psalms, or the wisdom of particular people, like Socrates, history is a rich resource.  And in my estimation folks don’t spend much time reading and thinking about what history can teach us.  Too often, we prefer the stupidity of our contemporary culture!
Another source of wisdom is the wise ones who still are living and willing to teach us.  Tippett brings together so many of the voices, as she has interviewed an incredible variety of people in her work as a broadcaster.  While I know many of the names she brings forth, I also have met a great number whom I did not know.  One especially notable group she has helped me begin to learn is the poets.  I have been deficient in my knowledge of poetry and she is helping me.
Rather than focus on some unnamed wise poet, however, in this inspirational piece I would like to share from a wise one I know, Vincent Harding.  Harding was a revered teacher, speaker and worker for justice for more than a half century.  He died in 2014 after a storied career of making a difference.  He was a fellow worker with Martin Luther King and continued to implement King’s dream in his various capacities.  I heard Harding speak more than once.  More than once, I felt his challenge and appreciated his encouragement. 
In Tippett’s interview with Harding she asks, “When you say that we as human beings have a built-in need for stories, what your work shows is that we human beings also know what to do with stories, right?”  She continued to note that Harding felt like “the young people you work with know how to take those stories as tools and pieces of empowerment in this day, this year.”  I loved how Harding responds.
Harding says, “Yes, as tools for their own best work.”  Harding feels like young people can take the stories of their elders and their sages as tools for their own good work.  And then Harding adds this note that was so perceptive.  He feels “Now is a powerful time in this country for young people and others to be asking the question, What are we for?”  What are we for?  That is an amazing question.  If we come to have a good answer, we should have a good life.  Let’s pursue this.
Harding helps us see how to use this powerful question.  He asks, “Do we exist for some reason other than competing with China or finding the best possible technological advances?  Are there some things that are even deeper that we are meant for, meant to be, meant to do, meant to achieve?”  These two questions prompt me and us to think about how to answer, what are we for?  My first attempt at thinking about Harding’s question is to realize we can be for the more general and superficial. 
I certainly am not dismissing China or any other nation as superficial.  And technology is so sophisticated, it is amazing to ponder.  I never dreamed I would carry around a computer in my pocket and simply call it a “phone.”  Regardless of the technological sophistication, I do not think I exist for technology.  Harding is correct: there are some things deeper that I am meant for, meant to be, meant to do and, perhaps, even achieve.  Let’s consider this for a brief time.
I have lived so far into my life, I hope I have been at work on some deeper and important things.  At this stage in life I would say that I am meant for God and for all that is God’s.  That is both simple and potentially deep.  It is in my real life that being for God becomes particular and specific.  I am meant to be spiritual.  That includes so many things that Vincent Harding also tried to be: worker for justice, giver of mercy and lover of all human beings.  It is challenging.
What I am meant to be is linked to what I am meant to do.  At the simple level, I am meant to live out the justice, mercy and love I am meant to be.  This happens with students, faculty colleagues and even people on the street I do not know.  Every day I am given new opportunities to live out what I am meant to do.  It involves the early morning greeting to the clerk offering me coffee to the late night interaction with the confused student.  Can I be loving and do love?  That is the question.  That is what I am for!
I am not sure I think much about what I am meant to achieve.  Perhaps I did more of this when I was younger.  I seldom think about my achievements.  I prefer to think more in terms of obedience.  Was I obedient to the God who created me, loved me and wants me to do what God desires me to do?  Was I effective in being a servant-leader?  Did I check my ego and make my self available to others in ways that make a positive difference?
“What are we for” is a wonderful, spiritual question that can be asked each new day.  Every day you and I live out some kind of answer.  Make it a good answer!     

Friday, October 14, 2016

Life: a Fragile Thing

It is wonderful when the serendipitous happen.  What this means is I love it when a “gift” comes and I did not work for it nor even see it coming.  That happens more than I probably realized it.  But when I realize it, I can enjoy the moment.  And then, if possible, I can share the moment.

Just such a gift happened last night.  I was doing some “fun reading” which many folks would not consider fun at all.  It was still spirituality-focused.  I have been working my way through the multiple journals of Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk who died in the late ‘60s.  I have taught an upper level seminar on Merton’s spirituality, so at one level I have a fair sense of what he thinks.  He impacted me in my early spiritual and intellectual formation and I suppose I will never “get over” him.  Even in his death, he challenges me and reassures me. 

Since the Cistercian monastic life is lived with so much silence and Merton was such an outgoing, talkative type, his journals became his dialogue partner.  So instead of sitting down and chatting with someone, Merton would sit down and “chat” with his journal.  The good news is that we now have those “chats” in literary form. 

So innocently last evening I was reading along---enjoying the conversation with Merton.  And then, boom, came this sentence, which nearly knocked me for a loop.  As the 1960s unfolded, Merton seemed to get an eerie sense of his own death.  He was not an old man yet (turned 45 years old in 1960), but death comes up in his writing with some frequency.  Such was it in this journal entry.

The entry for December 15, 1962 raises the death topic.  He says,“… this sense of being suspended over nothingness and yet in life, of being a fragile thing, a flame that may blow out, and yet burns brightly, adds an inexpressible sweetness to the gift of life, for one sees it entirely and purely as a gift.”  Somehow at a very deep level, I knew exactly what Merton was describing.  It is not a thought so much as a primal experience that is, then, put into words.  I am sure, Merton would say the words are inadequate to the depth of the experience.

There is power in the experience.  As I read it, the experience is being suspended.  There you hang…over nothingness and yet…not yet.  Somehow you know that ultimately nothingness will get you.  And when it does, life is over.  The thing I like about this Merton quotation is both the truth of this experience and the fact that he is not scared. 

I appreciate the next phrase.  He is aware of life “being a fragile thing.”  “So it is,” I exclaim.  Even big, strong guys at some point come to this realization!  And he goes on.  Life is “a flame that may blow out.”  But it has not yet extinguished.  In fact, it “yet burns brightly.”  That is what I so want to be true.  I want my life to be a flame that yet burns brightly.  I don’t want life to be a dull flame.  I don’t want it to flicker perilously, piteously gasping for just a little more oxygen to survive one more day.

Merton ends where I want to begin each day: life is a gift.  This seems to be the basis for blessing rather than desert.  If I can see life as a gift, then I am positioned to see it as a blessing.  If I somehow think I caused life and control life, then I see what I get as what I deserve.  Now that is scary, because at some point things will happen that I probably won’t think I deserve.

I really do think life is a gift.  Thank God!  And at some point I might be suspended over nothingness, but I want to remember I still am in life.  My flame can burn brightly.  Ah, that is the trick of the day.  My flame “can” burn brightly.  That is different than “will” burn brightly.

It is up to me.  Where can I burn brightly today with my life…this fragile thing?