The theme of Lent is preparation for Easter---preparation for real life. Lent is a special time for me because it allows me a chance again to re-engage a process of making something out of life. Maybe you are like me. I get disgusted at myself when I make life worse rather than better. Lent is always that time and opportunity to listen to God saying, “Oh, you really can do better. Come on, now!”
A key to this process is to let God come into our inner world and reshape us---remodel us. In one sense, when we allow this divine Spirit into our inner world, we become an artist of the Spirit. Unlike a scientist who may be handed a manual, the Spirit grants experiences out of which we make life – make it better or worse.
Albert Einstein pursues this image in this one-liner. He says, “the greatness of an artist lies in the building of an inner world, and in the ability to reconcile this inner world with the outer.” Our inner worlds are built. They are like a house, which will be built. Sometimes, the house is pretty inadequate. It may be thrown up – no real foundation and little protection from the weathering life inevitably brings. A house is a very good metaphor to think about what the season of Lent builds.
Lent is a time of building our inner world so that our dwelling place will be a place of security and comfort. Who wants to live in a house where you are afraid the thing will collapse with the slightest wind? Lent is the time to examine the foundation of our lives. If need be, it is another chance to lay a good foundation.
I can ask a series of questions. Is my life of prayer solid and capable of supporting me through the storms of the seasons? Some houses are infested with termites or other critters. Is my life infested? Is it polluted? Have I regularly taken out the garbage? Spiritual foundations are probably as crucial as building foundations.
This is also a time of checking my insulation so that I may be warm and cozy in the midst of the cold and sometimes brutality of the world’s winter. The weather is not always perfect and neither is life. Cold winds will blow our way. However, God is love and that love generates heat. We will be given this divine heat. May our inner world be insulated to conserve this warm energy.
Finally, Lent is a time to check our doors and windows. Probably not one of us is a hermit…buried deep in the woods or mountains out of sight. What happens when visitors into our lives appear? When they peer into the window of my soul, what do they see? Our inner world needs to be reconciled with our outer world. Are my doors such that I can invite friends into the beauty of my inner world?
I think I have some remodeling to do! In my case, it is likely more than just a housecleaning. In this Lenten season may God give you and me courage to remodel and patience to stay with it. And then may I experience the delight of opening my doors to any and all and say, “Welcome!”
Thursday, March 6, 2014
For the western Christian tradition (all those who are not Greek or Russian Orthodox, etc.), this week has brought us the season of Lent. As usual, my childhood memory of Lent is non-existent. Basically, Quakers did not observe Lent. It is not so much that we were against it as that it was not necessary. Quakers are a funny bunch. At least originally, they sought to be serious about their faith on a daily basis. I still find that laudable. So it meant they were not inclined to set aside days and periods when a Christian should be more serious and others days and seasons when they could lighten up.
On the surface, I still agree with my Quaker heritage. However, I also know the downside of that heritage is that it could produce the sour, dour Quaker who took everything so seriously that there was no longer any spice to life. There was no reason to laugh and, maybe even, celebrate things. To be chronically serious is probably neurotic or worse. So I have tried to give up that part of being Quaker!
But when you do that, Lent makes sense in that way I think the larger Christian world understands it. So I try to participate at that level. I also appreciate this is a thing Christians do that has a similarity in other major religious traditions. Ramadan, for example, is the Muslim month-long fasting period, which has early roots in Islamic history. Not to eat from sunup to sundown, as the Muslim does, is challenging. Probably most Christians do not face a comparable challenge in his or her Lenten resolution.
But this meditational reflection is not so much about me as about some other significant ones whom I watched on Wednesday---the beginning of Lent. I went to an Ash Wednesday service, which is an ecumenically sponsored event with our College Chaplain and the Newman Center, the Catholic campus ministry. It was a meaningful experience, which culminated in most of those in attendance marching to the front of the chapel for the “imposition of ashes.”
I had ashes “imposed” on my forehead. I had been marked! Clearly, now I was identifiable as a Christian…at least for that day. My Jewish sisters and Muslim brothers were not so marked. I must admit (and maybe it is my Quaker uneasiness) that I am not quite sure what to do with it now that I have a marked forehead. It makes me a little self-conscious. That in itself is an interesting spiritual issue.
I also knew a Catholic priest would later be on campus and there would be another Catholic service and many more folks would come to confess sins and be marked.
And later that night it hit me. I went to the Rec Center and at least four of the athletes were marked! I knew nothing of their story. But I was impressed. They were ready to play a game with those ashes on their forehead. What a witness!
I have no idea what any one of them felt or thought. And perhaps, it did not even matter. They did it. And I was proud of them. They stood for something and were willing to show it. It is different than wearing a cross as a piece of jewelry or the Star of David (although this takes more gumption). Wearing ashes on your forehead is not “fashionable.”
So these athletes became “more” in my mind (and this sounds like I had thought of them as “less”). The “more” they became had nothing to do with sports. It had everything to do with their faith, their witness, their commitment, and their spirit.
They became teachers for me. They were models. I was the wimp; they were the spiritual champs. It makes me smile once again at the spiritual irony of life. Yet again, young teach the old. And I am grateful.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
It is commonplace for people to think of churches, synagogues and mosques when you talk about religion. Everyone would say that those are not the only places where religion can happen, yet most of us associate religion with those kinds of venues. I think that is much less so when we talk about spirituality. I am sure there is a wide range of definitions of spirituality, but most folks I know think it is different than religion. While many of us think spirituality may be related to religion, few people I know think the two are the same thing.
I am not sure I associate religion with churches, but I do think there often is an institutional aspect to religion that most of us do not associate with spirituality. And since I spend most of my time teaching “spirituality,” whatever that is, I am more focused on that. So when I am with students, I am often talking about spirituality in ways that are not very connected to the church. Most students with whom I find myself do think they are spiritual in some way, although a high percentage of college-age students do not regularly go to a church.
For example, I am used to talking about spirituality in ways that encompass nature. For centuries nature has been one of the spots that people feel spiritual. It is often true that the ocean and mountains are favorite spots where people feel spiritual. The rhythmic sound and feel of the ocean waves tend to have a positive spiritual effect on folks. The beauty and grandeur of mountains communicate the same effect to people’s souls. One hears words like awe, majestic and inspiring when these spiritual spots are part of people’s spiritual stories.
I am intrigued by the ideas of places and spaces. It is a fascinating study to think about the places and spaces where spiritual experience happens. Ocean shores and mountains are just two of the most predictable places. But it does not have to be place-specific. Sometimes it is more like a space that leads a person into a spiritual experience. It might be a space where one finds oneself with another special person. Time may have a space in routine when the spiritual comes to the fore and creates an experience.
Recently, I encountered the spiritual at an odd time in an odd place. I did not go looking for it and only slowly realized what was happening spiritually. It came right in the middle of routine for me in one of the most unobvious places I could have imagined. I climbed the second floor of our Recreation Center, headed down the hallway to the locker room in order to change clothes so I could go for a run. I have done this countless times. I never do it expecting anything spiritual to happen. I had no forewarning.
As I walked into the locker room, a colleague and general friend had just finished working out. We chitchatted. And then the chitchat began to take on a depth that would have been totally unexpected with this guy anywhere on campus. As far as I know, he is not really interested in spirituality. He is a very curious, open, eager-to-learn kind of guy and I appreciate that about him.
Certainly the locker room is not the place I expect to get spiritual! Spirituality in an odd place is all I could think about as we talked with some increasing depth. Fairly quickly it seemed, the conversation begin to focus on the idea of the “self.” I know I have written about that---probably many times. He became very curious how I deal with the idea of the “self.” He is the kind of guy who knows something about everything---very smart, hopelessly curious and up for a conversation about anything.
As I understand it, our idea of the “self” is created. All of us have a “self-image.” That self-image likely changes over time with experience and growth. I do not think “my self” is the same as it was at age sixteen! The conversation became deeper when I said that I do believe there is a “true self’ that each one of us is---as opposed to a true self that we have. That true self is the self God can know and with whom God can relate.
I am fine saying that true self is my “soul.” It is the person I am at my deepest. It is my “heart.” It is the “heart and soul” people talk about, perhaps without knowing fully all they are trying to convey by this. This true self is the place of spiritual identity and spiritual connection. It is the place of authentic love and of amazing compassion. The true self explains Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Jesus, the Buddha and all the spiritual giants.
We all have that capacity to discover and develop our true self. This became the locker room conversation. It became a spiritual encounter between two guys who had simply come to work out and be friendly in greeting each other. It reminded me of the wonder of spiritual serendipity. I am deeply grateful for the Spirit appearing in odd places. I could have gone to a church only to find it locked. Instead I go to the locker room and find the Spirit. Who would have thought to look for our true self in a locker room with a guy sitting half-naked! Spirituality in odd places, to be sure.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Spirit and body are two important ideas that have been involved in spiritual history for centuries. Concerns with both spirit and body are seen throughout the scriptures in many religious traditions. We don’t have to look to scriptures to find awareness and discussions of these two themes. Every one of us should know a little bit about both spirit and body.
We should know something about the body because each of us has---or is---a body. The body is an amazing thing. It is partly a machine. It is mostly to me, anyway, a miracle. I never cease to be amazed at my body---how it works, etc. The body clearly grows and develops. I marvel at the eight pound little baby. Within a year that baby’s body doubles in size! It is a good thing that is not our annual compounding rate! All things being normal, our early third of life means we have a body that is capable of so much physical prowess. Even in the middle third of life, we are capable of so much. Even today, many of us are graced with bodies that are aging, but not yet worn out.
Of course, we get sick. Sadly, some of us have maladies that make our embodied living more taxing than is true for the normal man or woman. We can ignore our bodies and have them go to pot---literally and figuratively. There are a variety of ways to view our bodies. Certainly our culture “sells” younger, virile, attractive bodies. As such, our culture is really selling some kind of self-image. Our view of our bodies forms a significant piece of our self-image.
And then, there is spirit. That idea is more complex. I think most folks have some sense that they have or are a spirit. It is easy to talk about someone’s “spirit.” We describe people who play sports or music with “spirit.” It is easy to condemn someone for going through the motions---playing or working with no spirit. However, when folks are forced to define spirit, it is more difficult than defining our body.
In all the classical languages, spirit also means “wind” or “breath.” As I understand it, spirit is the breath of life---the animating force that makes us go. In fact, one of the Latin words for spirit is animus. The animus animates us! For those of us who are spiritual, the spirit also points to the Divinity. Christians talk about the Spirit or the Holy Spirit. Personally, I like to think about the Energy of the universe in terms of Spirit. That Energy animates the universe much like my animus animates me and makes me go. In this sense I can talk about the world being animated---being spirited.
Too often in the religious history of these two ideas, they have unfortunately been separated. Too often they are thought about as two different “things.” I join other scholars in seeing this as an unhealthy split. This split has been the reason that so much of religious history in the West---in Christianity, Judaism and Islam---it has been too easy to dismiss the body as important. Or even worse, people identify the body as the problem. The body is sometimes seen as the source of temptation and sin.
It is a short step to assume the body is bad and the spirit is the good element. This can lead to a puritanical perspective and, in my estimation, a warped way of viewing the body and living a healthy life. To speak in this way, is to recognize this might be a comparable spiritually sick view of the body that matches our culturally sick view of the body.
Our spirits are good. And so are our bodies. It is easy to think about the crucial role body plays in life. We are literally born of a body. Mother is woman, womb and wonder. From mother came I. Our earliest nourishment comes from mother’s breast---a very embodied experience. Of course, in our culture the kid moves to the bottle fairly quickly, but think about the power of the word, “nursing” as it plays its role in life.
Life is embodiment, to be sure. But it is not without spirit, too. We would have no body without spirit. In fact, I like to talk about myself as “embodied spirit.” They are not separate things; I am the integration of body and spirit. They are me---to use poor English! Alan is not a body, nor simply spirit. I am embodied spirit.
We could ask, where is God in all this? When are we going to get to God? I reply the whole discussion is about God. My view of God is that God is immanent in everything that is. God is “inside” everything that exists. In this sense God is like the Spirit that animates the world. It is as if the world is God’s body. God animates that cosmic body. God may be “out there.” But God is very much “in here,” too.
Practically speaking, this means that I can become aware of the Spirit of God by becoming more aware of myself---my body and my spirit. If I can become more aware, then I can begin to pay attention to how that Spirit of God is at work in my own spirit and body. With this attentiveness, I am able to begin to act more spiritual in my life and actions.
Monday, March 3, 2014
There are a few books I keep going back to read. Maybe it is because I am getting to the place where I can’t remember everything I read. That may be true, but that was also a problem in my twenties! Even in college, I could not remember everything I read. Unless you have a photographic memory, that is going to be a problem for everyone.
One book I return to time and time again is Gerald May’s book, Will and Spirit. I find that book so helpful, because he develops what he calls in the subtitle a “contemplative psychology.” Until his recent death, May was a psychiatrist who founded and ran a spirituality center in Washington, DC. He spent most of his adult life working at the intersection of psychology and spirituality. He works with some basic concepts in ways that I find quite illuminating.
One such concept that intrigues me and about which he helped me understand some things, is the concept of the “self.” This idea of self is an important one in spirituality work. And it is also central in psychological thinking. In effect, to talk about the “self” is to talk about ourselves. It concerns identity: who am I? At one level, most of us would claim that we know exactly who we are. At another level, perhaps few of us really know who we are! I fall into that latter category.
Of course, I can tell you many things about me. I am a father, a son, a spouse, a friend; I have degrees, am a professor and on and on. But I am not sure any one of these really nails the question, who am I? They tell you a great deal about me; I am not sure they tell you who I am. May helps me get to the core: the real me. He does this with the idea of “self image.”
The minute May introduced the idea of “self image” into the conversation was the minute I realized that perhaps my “self image” and my “self” were not the same. Let’s use a couple of sentences from May to explore how he understands “self image.” In effect, we construct or build our self-image. May says, “Self-image is the product of a complex process of self-definition associated with one’s sense of body, of will, of relationship with others, and of desire or aspiration. It includes intricate combinations of memories and behavior patterns, habits and needs---everything that one could use to describe or characterize oneself.”
This does not mean that our self-image is false. It may be quite accurate as a description of how we see ourselves. And it may relate closely with how others see us. It makes sense that part of my self-image has to do with how I perceive my body. For me this means my self-image is of a man who is getting older. My relationship with others also goes a long way to shape my self-image. And all the rest of May’s definition rings true to me.
So self-image is a good “view” of who I am. But it is not who I am. In fact, it may well be true that I have no real clue who I really am. Thomas Merton, famous monk of last century, talks a great deal about the “true self.” By that he meant something deep, interior and core to who we are. I always resonate with that idea, even if I am not sure if I know my “true self.” I tend to think the “true self” is the same thing as “soul.” I don’t have a soul; I am a soul. That seems central to me.
So where does this take us. For me it has meant that I need to be careful and not assume my “self image” is the same thing as my “self.” To put it simply, my “self” is the real me---the “true self.” My “self image” is the picture I paint of myself. It could be fairly realistic. Or it may be more like those impressionistic painters who were intriguing, but not real to life.
The next thing this means to me is the spiritual journey can only happen with the “true self.” No doubt, much of the early phase of the spiritual journey is coming to have some clue who the “true self” is. In many ways I still am in that early phase of the journey. There is a great deal of unknowing to be done in this early phase. I have to learn that the “self image” is not the “real me.” That does not mean it is bad; it is just not the “true self.”
Then comes the next significant phase of the spiritual journey. At some point, the “false self,” as Merton calls it, might be set aside in order to discover and live into the ‘true self.” That sounds easy enough on paper. But in real life, it can be challenging and, perhaps, threatening. Jesus put it strongly when he told the disciples they had to die to the old self in order to be born to the new or “true self.”
In effect, this means a kind of death to the “self image.” To be spiritual means I cannot be self-defining. I need to be willing to become God-defined. In Christian terms this means getting to the place where I can truly say, “not my will, but thy will.” This normally begins with the “self image” and spells the end of that same “self image.” The joy is discovering this is not finally death, but ultimately life---real life.
Friday, February 28, 2014
The title for today’s inspirational reflection comes from a sentence from my favorite Quaker saint, Thomas Kelly. Oh, Quakers don’t actually have saints in the traditional Catholic sense. But if we did, Kelly would be sanctified. Clearly he was no more perfect than any other human being. He was a man with some significant flaws, but who among us does not have significant flaws?
Kelly died in 1948 at a relatively young age. He had aspirations to be a world-class scholar. In some ways he was on the path to achieve some of that dream. And in other ways, he failed and suffered depression and other maladies because of that. He taught at a couple Quaker colleges and wanted more. He struggled to get a Harvard degree, but that did not bring him the success he sought. He also was spending time in pre-war Germany in the 1930s. There he saw the rise of Nazism and the horrors that would become WWII.
Finally toward the end of the 1930s, Kelly seemed to turn a spiritual corner. His priorities began to realign and a spiritual wisdom and depth appeared in his thinking and writing. He delivered some lectures at Germantown Friends Meeting (Church) which were to become the published book, A Testament of Devotion, which went on to be a best-seller in the 20th century. It is a book I have read a number of times and it still continues to shape my own spirituality.
In one of his chapters entitled, “The Eternal Now and Social Concerns,” Kelly has this sentence. “For the Eternal is urgently, actively breaking into time, working through those who are willing to be laid hold upon, to surrender self-confidence and self-centered effort, that is, self-originated effort, and let the Eternal by the dynamic guide in recreating, through us, our time-world.” This is such a pregnant sentence, let’s take time to unpack it and reflect on it.
I like Kelly’s many ways to talk about God. In this case he calls God the “Eternal Now.” This suggests to me a Divinity Who is always present and available. I might or might not be aware of that Divinity, but It is here---eternally now. And Kelly’s first phrase talks about the activity of that Eternal Now. The Eternal Now is breaking into time. Since you and I live in time---we are creatures of the temporal---that is where God breaks in to meet us.
But there is more. Pay attention to Kelly’s adverbs. The Eternal Now is “urgently” and “actively” breaking into time. That excites me. God is not a ho-hum Divinity. God is coming into our presence right now! There is urgency and activity. You think God does not care? Think again!
Kelly is quite clear why God is urgently and actively breaking into time. That God wants to work through those of us who are willing to be touched, taught, and teamed with each other in an important ministry. Let’s detail that process.
God seeks out those of us willing to co-operate. But there are some ground rules. We need to be willing to be laid upon. That is an odd phrase, to be sure. But the key piece is the idea of our “willingness.” God is not a coercive God. God is urgent and active, but also waits for each of us to be willing. It reminds me of that passage from one of the prophets who responds, “Here I am Lord.” We have to be willing to have God grab hold of us. This obviously has implications which Kelly points out.
Essentially, Kelly tells us that God who breaks into time asks us to surrender. Now that is not a popular word in American culture. But it is what spiritually growing women and men are called to do. We need to surrender self-confidence and self-centered effort. In other words, we have to give up our own agendas---our own egotistical aspirations---in order to will what God wills. And all this is to one point.
We give up our egotistical agendas in order to allow God to recreate us and through us to recreate our world. I do think this is Kelly’s version of “thy kingdom come.” I am confident Kelly thinks God breaks into time and touches as many of us as are willing to begin to be co-creators with that Genesis-God the coming kingdom. That kingdom will not be Eden restored. It will be more real, more magnificent than Eden.
I find that a compelling call. I sense a mission beyond my wildest dreams. Whatever role I imagine for myself cannot compare to this Divine Opportunity. It literally is a chance to turn the world upside down and inside out. It is a mission that goes beyond creative or innovative. It goes to the transformative. In that transformative mission God urgently and actively needs many of us to say, “Yes.”
“Here am I Lord.” Lay hold of me. I surrender and sign on. Not my will, but Thy Will.” I am going to work now---the Divine Work of re-creation.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Even though I read quite a bit, there is always more to read. In fact, I am sure I am losing ground on all the new stuff out there. That is probably true even in the world of religion and spirituality. I am sure there is more being published---in print and on line---than any one person can read. Rather than get discouraged, I simply hope to get my hands on some of the good ones.
My memory may be faulty, but I recollect that some person at Harvard in the early 1700s was the last person who had read all the books in Harvard’s library. I know first-hand the library system there is amazing. It is (I believe) the third largest in this country, after the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. Even when I think about my little college, I realize there is no way I could read all the volumes.
However, I occasionally come across a book that I say, “I must read that one.” This happened just recently when I was reading a review of a new book. The book is by Edward O. Wilson. I know Wilson’s name; he is a famous naturalist at Harvard. Basically, he studies bugs---ants in particular. But he has developed a phenomenal reputation as a world-class thinker and philosopher. He is not an easy read and he is a real challenge for those of us who have some kind of religious affiliation. The new book is entitled, The Social Conquest of Earth. I must read that one.
Somewhere in the book he writes these sentences: “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology…We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.” This sounds so like E.O. Wilson! It is a great couple of sentences and engages me to ponder and digest.
Wilson thinks we need to study bugs of various kinds to understand human development. This is not too surprising, since I know he believes in evolution. But it is interesting that he wants to go to the bug-level instead of the usual ape. But then we get his clue. Allow me to quote from the reviewer of the book, Kristin Ohlson. She says, “Wilson ascribes the evolutionary success of humans and social insects to their complex social systems, which are rare in nature.” He coins a word for these ”insect societies,” namely, “eusociality.” Now since I know Greek, I know the word “eu” is the word for “good or well.” So eusociality is nothing more than good or well societies.
That connects to human development in Wilson’s mind. He charts the usual evolutionary development as humans wander from the sea, develop a larger brain, etc. But then, according to Wilson, we come to the crucial developmental phase which charts our creation of eusociality. Through the words of the reviewer, Wilson notes that “what really took humans over the threshold into eusociality was the emergence of traits that favor a strong ‘nest:’ communication, the ability to read the intentions of others, the ability to divide tasks and cooperate.”
I find this fascinating. It does not bother me to think that we have much in common with bugs! Eusociality is an attractive idea. The opposite would be a-sociality or malsociality---bad or awful sociality. Murderers, Hitler, and others fit into that category. So I find the idea hopeful that evolutionarily we are bred for goodness.
That seems in line with what the Genesis creation story told us so many aeons ago. We were created for goodness. This is where I would add the spiritual dimension to Wilson’s evolutionary tale of human development. I fear that human development is not sufficient in itself to bring us fully into eusociality. In fact, I am convinced there is a religious idea of what eusociality would be called. I think Jesus called it the “kingdom.” He came to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God. Spiritually that was a call to religious eusociality!
Jesus knew well how the Genesis story unfolded. He knew the original couple began in paradise, but they blew it. They sinned and were kicked out of the blessed place. There was some atoning and restoring to be done. That was the message and ministry of Jesus. I suspect the same will be true for the evolving eusociality of Wilson’s vision.
In fact, I would be so bold as to suggest that world peace will come when “thy kingdom comes.” I am not sure we can evolve (or devolve back) into paradise without the grace of that creative God who still loves us and will love us into well being. We will need the grace to discern the intentions of each other and encourage the best. We will need communal love to cooperate in kingdom-building.
That’s the promise of human development with the graceful assistance of spiritual development.