Monday, March 2, 2015

Don't Be a Dope

I have been working my way through a book my favorite monk, Thomas Merton, wrote near the end of his career.  The Springs of Contemplation reads almost like a transcript of a retreat Merton offered for a small group of nuns at a convent near Merton’s monastery in Kentucky.  This little book reads like a conversation.  We are able to see the kind of question one of the nuns would have posed and, then, we are able to see how Merton responded.  I find most of the information interesting, although some of it is too narrowly focused on life at the monastery to be of much use in my own life in the real world.

At one juncture, a nun asked a question about contemplative prayer.  Both Merton’s monastery and the convent were “contemplative” communities.  That means their monastic intent was to live life as much as possible within the Presence of God.  At least with this definition of contemplation, I also can live contemplatively.  However, it won’t be in the context of the monastery.  My context is a family, a college community and a group of friends.  Contemplative prayer can be a part of my life, just as it was for Merton and the nuns.

So the question to Merton---how to teach contemplative prayer---was not an usual request.  In fact, I find it an interesting question.  I also would have been quite intrigued with how he would answer that one.  However, Merton began to answer it in an unusual way.  By the end I had to laugh.  And maybe that was the point!

So, Merton, how do you teach contemplative prayer?  Merton answers us in this fashion.  “Well, there’s got to be a completely Zen-like approach.  When you ask a Zen master, ‘What is the meaning of Zen?’ he hits you over the head, or something like that, and then leaves you to think about it for a while.  Under no circumstance will you ever get a lecture on Zen.”

In the next paragraph Merton leaves the Zen example and shifts to a story about a Sufi master, a real master who had visited Merton’s monastery, Gethsemani.  One of the zealous monks at Gethsemani asked the Sufi master, “How do you attain union with God?’  We are told, “The Sufi just laughed and said, ‘We don’t answer questions like that.’”

These were both good questions, I thought, so why did Merton laugh them off with the Zen and Sufi story?  I would like to know about contemplative prayer.  And surely, I would like to know how to attain union with God.  Why not answer them, I wondered?

It was in the next paragraph that Merton helped me see his point.  Again, Merton does it with a bit of a laugh, but he simultaneously makes a great point.  Merton offers this insight.  “Zen people stress the fact that if you weren’t such a dope, you’d know that you are united to God, that God is already that close.”  I had to laugh.  I guess I am a dope!  If I were not a dope, I would know that I already am united to God.

After laughing at myself, I realized Merton’s “answer” was not surprising.  It makes perfect sense that we are already united to God.  Let me explain why I think this is true (now that I have it pointed it out me). 

We are already united to God simply because we are alive.  As I understand the Divinity, God is the very Presence of everything that is present.  God is the Being that surrounds, supports and nurtures our being---nourishing the very possibility of the life of every one of us.  For me that is a truth---a given.  The real question for me is not whether it is true.  The real question is whether I know it?  In most instances the answer is No.  No, I don’t know it. 

In my mind I differentiate my being from the Being that Holds me and my life.  When I differentiate myself from God the Being who Holds me, then I can forget that God.  I begin to assume I am independent---that I am on my own.  When I get to this place, I have no sense of being united with God.  I have become an individual---on my own in a world and trying to make my own way.

This forgetting the Buddhists call “ignorance.”  I have become ignorant of my own truth---which is God’s Truth.  When I am in this place, then I begin to wonder how to practice contemplative prayer so that I can be united with God?  I laugh again.  Practicing prayer is good.  In fact, it can be a wonderful way of “remembering.”

One way to see contemplative prayer is to understand it as “practicing the Presence of the Holy One.”  As I practice this, I begin to live more and more into the realization that I already am united to this Holy One.  I laugh again.  It actually is simple.  But I have made it so hard.  Then I recall Merton’s words: Don’t be a dope!           

Friday, February 27, 2015


Recently I wrote a piece on self-forgetfulness.  This idea came to me from reading one of Thomas Merton’s latest pieces, The Springs of Contemplation.  Essentially Merton says that progress on the spiritual journey requires that we become self-forgetful.  Unless and until we begin to become self-forgetful, our “self” will be front and center.  Another way of putting it is to recognize that our ego will be the driver of our attention and actions.  To be guided by our ego is not bad, but ultimately it is not spiritual. 

To be guided by our ego is to be centered on ourselves.  In a word, we will be egocentric.  Again that is not bad; it is spiritually shortsighted.  Unless and until we are able to put God in the center, we will make little or no spiritual progress.  The Lord’s Prayer from the lips of Jesus put it very simply: “Thy will be done…”  One cannot be egocentric and pray that prayer, “Thy will be done…” 

That is why the idea of self-forgetfulness appealed to me.  It strikes me as an important building block to the spiritual journey.  In saying this I realize we cannot pull this off in one easy step.  We cannot immediately decide to become self-forgetful and, voilĂ , it is done!  It will take small steps and grow incrementally.  Another point Merton made helps me see how this process can be facilitated.

Merton talks about self-justification.  I know this concept all too well.  I can recount too many instances where I know that I did something and then offered my own justification for doing it.  Basically, self-justification is our way of saying, “Don’t blame me!”  Self-justification is our way of taking ourselves off the hook.  Most of us have experience in this matter. 

Merton is helpful to me because he offers insight into the relationship of self-forgetfulness and self-justification.  Merton rightly observes that we cannot be self-forgetting if we are self-justifying.  That seems profound to me.  It is the kind of thing I want to keep in the front of my mind in order to gage my spiritual development.  Let’s listen to Merton’s words.  He says, “You can’t forget yourself if you are constantly trying to justify your relations with other people.” 

At that point Merton takes a creative turn.  He links the concepts of self-justification and love.  Hear his words: “Self-justification is really a matter of not wanting to believe you are loved.”  In effect Merton tells us that if we do not believe we are loved, then our ego---me---is all I have.  If no one else loves me, then I am on my own.  I have to justify myself.  This seems so true to me.

Then Merton adds to his insight.  He declares, “If I do not believe I am loved, I’m going to want to be justified.”  This intrigues me.  Merton is not saying that I am not loved; in fact, I might be loved.  But if I believe that I am not loved, then I will move into self-justification.  Behind this statement is the assumption that if I believe I am loved, I do not need any self-justification.  This is profound.  It means that love is justifying!  If I am loved, I already am justified---justified by the lover.

Without love, I move into self-justification in order to assert my own being.  If I do not believe I am loved, then I have to justify myself.  In my own way I have to assert my being and, perhaps, my importance.  Effectively, I am saying, if no one else will do it, then I have to do it myself! 

Merton puts it well when he says, “If no one else justifies me, I will justify myself, usually by trying to dominate everyone else.”  With these words from Merton, we can see the potential destructiveness of self-justification.  Without love, I am tempted to move into some form of domination in order to prove my right and my might.   

So far, this might not sound very spiritual.  But I would argue that any time we are talking about love, we are implicating spirituality.  In this reflection on self-justification, we point to the importance of love.  Obviously, it is nice if we know there are others in our life who love us.  That already takes us off the self-justifiying hook---or, at least, should take us off the hook.  With other humans who love us, however, my experience is we are not taken of the hook.   

Too often we are loved by others, but we don’t believe it---or don’t trust it.  So we continue to perform---trying to earn that love.  Or we become self-justifying---trying to prove we deserve that love. 

Ultimately, there is one super solution, namely, God.  My own spirituality affirms the biblical notion that there is God and that God is love.  This means by definition there is a Lover of us all.  There is One who loves us individually and as a whole.  That may sound theoretical.  The key is to actualize that Divine Love into actual experience.  When that happens, we know deeply that we matter and that we are supremely important.  When this happens, we have no need for self-justifying.  And if I know this, forgetting myself is easy.           

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Caring for Nature

For some time now I have been aware of the reports and, sometimes, controversy over the whole issue of climate change and nature.  Some folks think we are heading toward a climate crisis—global warming and the like.  Other folks scoff at such an idea and assume everything is fine.  Most of us are scientifically not savvy enough to have a clue how to think about it.  I know I am not smart enough to be an expert.  In fact, it is a struggle to know enough to have an educated opinion.           

What I know is I trust science.  Having said that, I also know quite a few religious people put no faith in science.  In fact, quite a few religious folks think there is a basic conflict between religion and science.  I do not find myself in that camp.  I see science and religious as compatible, but different, ways of seeing and understanding our world.  I like to think I am both scientifically appreciative of knowledge and religiously motivated to see the Spirit involved in our world and in my life.             

Lately, I have been doing a little more focused reading and thinking about the natural world and the human threat to that natural world.  I know many religious thinkers have focused on this issue.  I am aware Thomas Merton, the 20th century monk I enjoy reading and teaching about has a good take on the human relationship to the world.  I would agree with Merton that all the major religious traditions speak about this.           

Within the Jewish and Christian traditions there is the shared Genesis story of creation.  While I have no interest in the debate over evolution and creationism, I do have an interest in the fact that the Genesis creation stories (there are two versions of the creation),  always affirm the goodness of God’s created world.  Step by step the Genesis story says God created something and then affirmed the created something to be “good.”  Humans are part of this created something.  Granted, Genesis talks about humans created in the “image of God” and this is special, but it does not mean that we are so special, we don’t have to care for the world in which we find ourselves.           

This is the place where the conversation or debate begins.  Are humans taking care of the world in which we find ourselves?  Sadly, some would say it does not matter.  The world is here for human domination.  We can do with it as we please.  This attitude says the world is there for whatever purpose we want to make of it.  We can use it as we please.  But I wonder if there are not places---even in this view of the world---when the “use” becomes “abuse.”  This is where the folks who see an environmental crisis looming.           

Scientifically, there is sufficient evidence for me to think there is some kind of serious problem---maybe even crisis---looming.  Part of the human problem is the scale of time.  For us one hundred years is a huge time period.  In ecological history one hundred years is a drop in the bucket.  We see in the oddity of one summer’s weather or the weirdness of one winter season a predictor.  That is highly unlikely.  But cumulatively, I do see problems.           

A recent writer on this topic, Thomas Berry, helps me see some of the scope of the issue.  Berry was an active Catholic, a priest and a scholar of both science and religion.  When he talks, I listen.  He puts it pretty starkly.  He says, “our ecological destruction is causing the end of a geological era…”  And he comments further that this awareness is “absent from the concerns of most theologians and lay people.”           

He helps me with some further commentary.  He says, “We are changing the chemistry of the planet, we are disturbing the biosystems, and we are altering the geological structure and functioning of the planet…This process of closing down the life systems of the planet is making the Earth a wasteland…”  Clearly, these are strong words.  I can see why people cavalierly dismiss by saying, “I don’t believe that crap.”  Such dismissal announces, “there is no problem,” and life goes on as usual.  But what if there is a problem?           

That’s where I am.  I do think there is a problem.  I have no clue how big the problem.  But there is a problem.  The problem may be a crisis or it could become a crisis.  But where there’s a problem, it seems to me we should be working on and enacting a solution.  I put it this way.  It is time to begin to take care of nature.  Too many of us have a “couldn’t care less” attitude about nature.           

That seems to me to be the simple, but stark, choice.  Do we care about nature and will we theologically work with God to treat it like the garden God envisioned?  Or do we take a “couldn’t care less” approach to nature and participate in turning Earth into a wasteland?  I don’t need proof to take a stand.  I am opting for the “care for nature” perspective.  It is not just for myself.  I am old enough to escape any serious consequences.           

But I think of all the babies being born.  It is highly likely they will live to 2100 and beyond!  What kind of earth am I bequeathing them?  Will it be polluted wasteland or paradise?  I am convinced God wants me to care…to care about nature.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lent: Season of Preparation

As we think about the season of Lent, we realize that there are many different ways in which we prepare for the life that God has in mind for us.  And I do believe God has something in mind for us.  I see Lent as a time for raising our consciousness---a time for becoming both intentional and using discipline.

As I look back over my life, there have been obvious times of preparation.  Every time that I went out for a team sport, there was a time to prepare.  If I made the team, I began by going to practice.  Day after day, I worked on the fundamentals.  I never saw practice as drudgery; I loved playing.

All of the foreign languages that I have learned involved times of preparation.  I had to learn new words---new ways to create sentences.  I had to get used to hearing different sounds.  But what a thrill, after I learned, to live life in a new and different way!

Both of these examples---playing sports and leaning a new language---involved times of preparation.  They are good examples to have a sense of what Lent is about.  Lent is like basketball practice or word drills in German.  Some of us might be disappointed that Lent only prepares us for the life that God has in mind.  We would rather skip Lent and go straight to life!  For most of us, this skip is not practical, and maybe not even possible.

If I do not choose Lent to prepare this space for God, I probably will fill my emptiness with other silly or meaningless things.  Lent is not the object.  God and the life that God has in mind are what I am choosing.

Often, when I want to choose the life that God has for me, I do not know what exactly I am choosing.   Lent is a spiritual discipline.  It is not egocentric.  Lent is that time to prepare for what God has in mind.  Lent is that time in which I prepare to give myself wholly over to God and the divine will.  Only then I can pray:  “Thy will be done.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I like to read in monastic spirituality because the monks and nuns are so clearly focused on the spiritual life.  It is their central concern in life.  Monastics set aside the usual normal things that occupy most of us in order to be singularly occupied with the search and life with God.  That does not make them more than human or even more spiritual than any of the rest of us.  But it does give them a singular advantage. 

One of the things I am most sure of is the fact that much of the spiritual life is actually simple.  I do not know any monk who would not confirm the fact that much spiritual life is simple.  Of course, there can be some complexity at times.  But by and large, the spiritual journey is simple.  We probably are too self-serving to say that spirituality has to be complex.  If that were true, then it takes us off the hook from even trying.   

In addition to being simple, I also am confident that much of spirituality is practical.  This means much of the spiritual journey is applied rather than theoretical.  Again we do ourselves a disservice if we assume spirituality is mostly doctrinal stuff.  Of course, there are ideas---doctrines.  But that is more true of theology.  Spirituality is actually more practical---more applied.  For example, it is more about praying than about a doctrine of prayer.  It is more about experiencing God than coming up with ideas about God. 

I was made aware of this again when I was reading a new book (for me) by Thomas Merton.  I have read so much of Merton, but I know I have not read everything that 20th century monk wrote.  I like him so much because he has such a clear, helpful way to put things.  Even if he is talking abut something about which I know a thing or two, Merton still puts it in a way that I find very helpful. 

The book I was reading grew out of a retreat that Merton was leading for some nuns who lived in a convent very near Gethsemani, his own monastery in Kentucky.  The book, The Springs of Contemplation, reads like a transcript of Merton responding to questions by the nuns.  At one point Merton makes a comment that fascinated me.  Although he was talking about the “religious” (monastic language for those who have chosen to be monks and nuns), it seemed to me to apply to all of us who want to be spiritual.  I suggest that when he says “religious,” we put our name in its place.

Merton claims, “For any religious, self-forgetfulness is a real litmus test.” (94)  This sentence affirms that self-forgetfulness is a good thing for monks…and maybe for all of us.  In fact, if we cannot muster some self-forgetfulness, then our spiritual journey probably will be stuck at the beginning.  I see this as a very important point for us.  And it is likely obvious that self-forgetfulness is not a desirable concept for most folks.  It seems to be counter-intuitive.  Our American society encourages just the opposite: self-importance.  This is probably why so many of us find the monk’s option for life hard to grasp. 

Merton pursues this idea of self-forgetfulness as it is a key for life in the monastery.  He says, “if people are more or less self-forgetful, they are probably in the right place, they are where they belong.”  Let’s pursue why Merton thinks that people (in this case the people he is talking about are the folks who enter the monastery) need to cultivate self-forgetfulness.  In simple terms, if I am not able to begin the process of forgetting myself, it will be difficult to think about life any other way than self-centered. 

I am convinced most of us grow up in such a way that we are self-centered.  This is not inherently bad.  But it is pre-occupying.  We are taught to make our own way.  While we may not think we are #1, nevertheless we do think we are important.  Most of us want to get our own way in life.  Again none of this is wrong.  In fact in good doses, I think it is healthy.  Clearly, it is better than seeing ourselves as scum and dregs of the world. 

However, it may not be the way to engage and begin to develop a spiritual journey.  Core to the spiritual journey, as Christians understand it, is to be able finally to utter the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “not my will, but Thy will be done.”  To pray this prayer---and more importantly to put this prayer into practice---is to step into the world of self-forgetfulness.  To practice doing someone else’s will is to forget our own will. 

In worldly terms this surely seems like a step backwards---a step towards immaturity.  In spiritual terms, however, to be able to practice doing God’s will is a tremendous step into a mature, spiritual realm.  By practicing self-forgetfulness we are able to practice compassionate self-presence.  We are able to be more fully present to others---to God and to our neighbors.   

Self-forgetfulness is simple and practical.  It is also a challenge and counter-cultural.  I have a hunch that it will turn out to be extremely rewarding if we can live more and more into the reality of it.  But it is paradoxical.  It is like the axiom, “it is better to give than to receive.”  Only the fully spiritually mature and the saints know the full truth of it.  Beginners like I am can receive hints.  And that’s enough for me---to start with.     

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Real Me

Who am I?  That is a question almost everyone entertains and, perhaps, spends a good deal of time in life figuring out the answer.  It is not unusual for us to come up with a few different answers in the process of living our lives.  I am confident I would have answered that question differently when I was ten years old than I would today as a relatively mature, older guy.           

I know there are some religious traditions that scoff at the idea there is even a real me.  For example, Buddhists question whether there can ever be a self or a real me.  Of course, we can pretend there is one; we can act as if there is one.  In my world of illusion I can have a self-illusion.  I am sure there are some psychologists who do not believe there is such a thing as a real me.  I am hoping they are not correct.           

As a Christian and Quaker, I am captivated by the early Genesis creation account that humans are created in the image and likeness of the Divine One.  I value that affirmation and hope in some sense it is true.  Along with the early theologians of the Christian Church, I can understand that I have lost the likeness to God.  Through sin and other human foibles, I am more unlike God than I am like God.  My spiritual pilgrimage is to grow more and more into that likeness.  But I never lost the image.  Even in the midst of my bad news, the good news remained that I bear the imago Dei---the image of God.           

Since I have lost the likeness of God, I wonder if that has not played a role in my quest for the question, who am I?  Since I am not like God, I am not sure who I am.  At birth we are given a name, but not an identity.  Early childhood years find people telling me who I am or giving me identifiable taglines to use to describe my identity.  In my case I was a farm boy, a fairly bright guy, a good boy, etc.  These became part of my answer to the question, who am I.           

But at some point---and I think it was in high school---I became uneasy about these more superficial identity badges.  I did not think they were wrong; in many cases, I was all of them.  But the were not the real me.  And at that point, it is appropriate to say I had an identity crisis.  Perhaps calling it a crisis gives it too much drama.  There was not much drama; there was a great deal of befuddlement.  I simply was not sure who I was!           

The real me question has interested me since high school.  I like the way the 20th century monk, Thomas Merton, dealt with it.  Merton talks a great deal about the “true self.”  Merton’s words have become well known to me.  “For me,” wrote Merton, “to be a saint is to be myself.  Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”  That has been an apt and wonderful way to talk about my journey spiritually through life.  It has been a quest to discover my true self and to live out that truth in my world.  I hope I am making progress.           

Other philosophers, theologians and psychologists have been on the same quest.  A recent book given to me by a friend has a whole chapter on this kind of quest.  John Neafsey authored a book with a title I very much like: A Sacred Voice is Calling.  For Neafsey, there is a link between the Sacred Voice and our discovery of our true self or the real me.  One of the points Neafsey deals with is exactly how it is that we discover our true self?  How will we know “that’s it?”           

Neafsey suggests we will know, in part, by “a felt sense of authenticity.”  That resonated with me: if it feels authentic, you are on the right path.  Then he quotes William James to make his point.  “I have often thought that the best way to define a person’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon them, they felt most deeply and intensely active and alive.  At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘This is the real me.’”  Again that resonated with me.           

Personally, I doubt that anyone can know with absolute certainty “this is the real me.”  But I do think we can be very confident that we know it.  That confidence will come with a high degree of authenticity.  I believe James is correct when he says we will feel most deeply and intensely active and alive.            

I would add that this sense of the real me will endure over time.  This contrasts with a simple mountaintop experience when I tend to feel this deep and intense aliveness.  A mountaintop experience is short-term.  The real me endures over time.  It endures through thick and thin.  It can suffer and it exalts.  It is not contingent upon my circumstances.  It is not conditional.           

Likely, I will always be fascinated by the question, who am I?  Merton is correct in my opinion: to find myself means I also find God.  That is my quest.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Meaning of Silence

One of the blessings of teaching is the chance to continue to read good books.  And often, it means the opportunity to re-read some of my favorite books.  In spite of our society’s penchant for the new and novel, I learned some time ago that there are classics that stand the test of time and continue to speak to humans in all walks of life.  Obviously there are classics in music, in architecture and in books.

One of the classics I have had a chance to read again is Quest for God by the great 20th century Jewish rabbi and theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Heschel is one of the theological giants who came to this country as a result of the Nazi craziness of the 20th century.  Heschel was born in Poland in 1907.  He was educated in Berlin, Germany.  When he was lecturing in 1938 in Frankfort, Germany, he was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Poland.  He was encouraged to leave before he would be killed.  So he fled to London and in 1940 arrived in New York City.  He spent five years in Cincinnati teaching at the Hebrew Union College, leading Reformed Jewish Seminary

In 1946, Heschel left for New York where he spent the rest of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University.  He died in 1972.  I read Heschel when I was in college and continued to follow him until he died.  The thing I most liked about him was his spiritual journey was not simply about being a theologian.  He was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, and just as involved in protesting what he felt was an unjust involvement in Vietnam.  He was deeply steeped in the Old Testament Prophets and, like Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, felt like he had to be a prophetic witness for the civil rights of African-Americans and the withdrawal of US troops from Southeast Asia.  Seared in my mind is a picture of Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. marching side-by-side in a civil rights’ march.

Heschel was also a deeply spiritual man.  This is the side of him that comes out in the book, Quest for God.  The range of spiritual issues he addresses is impressive, but one that struck me in my recent reading was his word on silence.  About silence Heschel says, “Twofold is the meaning of silence.  One, the abstinence from speech, the absence of sound.  Two, inner silence, the absence of self-concern, stillness.  One may articulate words in his voice and yet be inwardly silent.  One may abstain from uttering any sound and yet be overbearing.”  Let’s unpack this rather dense quotation.

The first level of silence that Heschel describes is the easier one to understand.  The first level is simply the human gone mute.  This level hears no sound.  There is no speech; silence eradicates all else.  It is clear to me that most folks do not live in this level of silence—almost ever.  Ours is a noisy world.  Much of the noise is fabricated by humans.  If you live in an urban area, there is the constant din of street noise.  Individual people normally have music playing in their ear or constant talking on the phone. 

This is not soulful.  The soul needs some silence.  The soul craves “sound-less bites” in contrast to the cultural use of sound bites.  The constant drumbeat of sounds provides no respite---no space for rest.  There is no opening for something more profound to enter the picture.  This is what Heschel addresses in his second level of silence.

This second level of silence moves from the external sounds to the internal place of silence.  At this level the idea of silence becomes metaphorical---“inner silence,” as Heschel calls it.  At this level of inner silence, we move toward stillness.  I like the way he describes stillness: as absence of self-concern.  It is at this point Heschel becomes more complex.  What does he mean by absence of self-concern?

This is where silence becomes spiritual.  To become spiritual, we move from the ego to the soul.  By definition the ego is self-concerned.  After all, for the ego it is all about me!  Self-concern keeps the ego up front and in control.  The ego speaks---continually speaks.  It may be literal words, or it may figuratively be the ego demanding that it all concerns me.  For Heschel this is the world of sound.  That is why he counsels that we solicit silence.

The spiritual quest and journey necessitate both levels of silence.  Certainly we need those times of literal silence.  We need the occasions where we unplug: turn off the phone, turn off the tv, and take the music device out of our ear.  Quiet and be quiet.  The absence of sound becomes the crucible for the Divine to begin working on our soul.

This Divine working will be transformative.  This work will lessen our self-concern.  This work will lead us into deeper places of stillness.  In that place of stillness we are prepared to hear a Word bigger and better than any words we ever will use.  At that still place in the heart we will know we have come to our center, the primordial meeting place of our soul and the Holy One.