Thursday, March 5, 2015

Key to Life

As I have mentioned so many times, when serendipity comes my way, I am delighted.  I always feel so lucky when serendipity hits.  I feel good when I recognize that serendipity has just graced my life.  Sometimes I wonder how many times I miss something that is serendipitous, just because I failed to notice it? 

This time serendipity came in the form of a John Lennon quotation.  I like John Lennon and the Beatles, but I was never a huge fan.  The quotation from Lennon did not even come from some music.  Instead it came rather innocently in some regular mailings that I receive.  Often I do not even read those things.  For whatever reason, this time I read it and Lennon’s words leaped out at me.  I am thankful. 

I also am curious, so I did some research.  It seems that it is pretty dubious that Lennon ever said the words I am about to quote.  But I don’t care.  It is not important to me that they be from him…or anyone else famous.  I also find some folks online don’t like the sentiment in the quotation.  But I don’t care about that either!  Let’s see what he reputedly said. 

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life.  When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wrote down, ‘happy.’  They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”  These words may not be profound, but I find them interesting and worth giving some reflection.

When I was five, I am not sure what my mother told me.  If she told me anything like this, it did not register.  I don’t remember.  My guess is she did not get into philosophy when I was five.  I also don’t remember my dad telling me anything like this.  I do remember him telling me always to thank people when they gave me something, helped me or were nice.  That may not be the key to life, but it has been an important lesson I learned very well. 

I would like to pick out two features of the quotation for reflection.  The first aspect is whether happiness is, indeed, the key to life.  I am sure there is a majority---perhaps a huge majority---who would say that happiness is the key to life.  I could imagine John Lennon’s mother saying that.  But personally, I am less sure happiness is the key to life. 

I am not against happiness.  In fact, I like very much to be happy.  Somehow I don’t think happiness has staying power.  It is more momentary---more episodic.  Happiness comes and goes.  It is like a good laugh.  I love a good laugh.  But it does not last.  So I am not really sure happiness can be the key to life.  If not happiness, then what is the key to life? 

I doubt there is one agreed-upon answer to this.  But for me, the key to happiness has to be love.  Love is a powerful emotion.  However, it is more than an emotion.  It is a state of being.  It is an attitude.  It is a commitment and, finally, a way of life.  Love has depth and breadth in a way that happiness does not have.  Love is both practical and luxurious.  The greatest of all is love.   

The second aspect of the quotation for reflection has to do with understanding life.  I don’t know about John Lennon, but I surely did not understand life at age five.  I am not sure I yet understand life!  But I’m working on it.  The one thing I do understand about life is that love is the key.  And if happiness happens, that is very good.   

One way I try to approach the issue of understanding life is to differentiate “life” from “existence.”  If you have a heart beating in your chest, if you take food, etc., you exist.  Existence is basic.  It is good, but not valuable.  Existence is possibility without realization.  It is potential without any profundity.  Understanding life surely means more than existence. 

To begin to understand life means we realize that we exist, but we set forth to come to terms with the fact that we are valuable.  This happens many ways.  I may realize that I am a child of God and that God loves me.  That makes me valuable.  I may begin to love others.  I make them valuable.  To do these kinds of things actualizes the possibilities I bring to life.   

To understand life is to engage life in such a way that I develop my potentiality.  Every one of us has the potential to be profoundly human and profoundly spiritual.  We have the profundity of existing in the image of God.  And we can develop the potential to become God-like.  We can love and grow that love into compassion for all those in the world with less than we have.
 
The key to life: love, compassion and becoming like God.  That’s what I understand.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Unbelief

I enjoy getting a new book and diving into the ideas contained in it.  Sometimes I have a fairly good idea of what I will get; other times I have little to no clue what I will read.  A recent read is a book suggested by one of my favorite columnists, David Brooks.  I read Brooks in the New York Times online.  One of his columns mentioned a book by an editor of a poetry journal.  It was a book that was intriguingly religious in Brooks’ estimation.  I became intrigued, too, and jumped into My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman.

I had never heard of Wiman, so I had no idea what to expect.  The book is very engaging, but not an easy read.  The are ample examples of poetry, which is fun for me, since I don’t know that much about poetry and probably don’t understand and appreciate it like I could.  I feel like I am growing.  I feel like I am learning and being challenged.           

As I work my way through the book, numerous lines jump out and grab me.  I just hit one of those lines, which I will share and upon which I will make some comments.  Wiman says, “Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.”  When I read that sentence, my immediate response was to agree with Wiman.  It seems right to me, but I was not sure why or how it sounded right.  That is what I want to explore.             

We could give a great deal of attention to Wiman’s claim that sometimes “God calls” us to unbelief.  Intrigued as I am by that claim, it is not what I want to examine.  I am more intrigued that God might call you or me to unbelief.  I would agree with that statement.  But I also know I probably would not have agreed with it when I was at the beginning of my spiritual journey.  And I am confident there are a number of religious traditions that would hold the contrary position and, in fact, likely warn their follower not to go the route of unbelief.  I suspect many traditions feel that unbelief is dangerous! 

When I look at Wiman’s sentence, I realize it would be a mistake to stop the sentence at unbelief.  While I recognize it might be scary to some folks to go to unbelief and, perhaps, get stuck or lost, Wiman calls us to go forward in the sentence.  Wiman says we are called to unbelief in order that  The unbelief actually commences a process.  Unbelief is not the goal; it is the means to some other end.  What is the end Wiman envisions? 

The end is “that faith may take new forms.”  I confess I like this idea.  However, it is a novel way for me to think about faith.  I stopped to realize I don’t usually describe “forms” of faith.  If someone asked me, “what is the form of your faith?” would I be able to answer that question?  Then it hit me.  I began to think I understood what Wiman meant.  It would be fun to call him on the phone and have a conversation to see if my understanding matches his intended meaning.  But I don’t have his number, so my commentary will have to suffice. 

In the first place, I do not equate “belief” and “faith.”  Clearly, they are related, but not the same for me.  Belief is more cognitive---intellectual.  For Christians, belief often is associated with doctrine---the things one believes, i.e. believe in God, believe Jesus is the Son of God, etc.  There is nothing wrong with this, but in my estimation it is not faith. 

Faith is more a matter of the heart than the head.  My favorite synonym for faith is “trust.”  To have faith in God or in some other person, I say I “trust” them.  Faith is not the same thing as doctrine.  And this is what leads me to ponder what Wiman means by “new forms” of faith.  My form of faith always depends on the other one in whom I have faith.  I realize that faith has multiple levels.  If I am talking about faith in my best friend, that form of faith may be utter, unqualified faith.  That is a faith that has virtually no questioning in it.  If it is faith in a relatively new person I have met, that faith is likely more qualified, more conditional. 

Faith and belief are related.  I can tell you what I believe about God.  As a kid, I may have believed God was actually “up in the sky somewhere and looked like an old guy!”  My childlike form of faith might have been a kind of trust in a grandfatherly person.  But as I came to unbelief in that view of God, my faith literally had to take on a new form. 

Today I envision God to be much more like a Spirit or Energy.  I might use personal terms, like God the Mother, but I really don’t think God is a person.  That calls for a new form of faith.  How do you have faith in Spirit or trust Energy?  That is my contemporary question.  That is what my unbelief in the “old God” has brought me to ponder. 

I literally feel like a work in progress.  I am learning to trust the Spirit of Life.  I trust that Spirit of God is creative and re-creative.  That Spirit is present everywhere at all times.  My spiritual journey is to recognize it, embrace it and live in the fullness of that Presence.  This is where unbelief has delivered me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Goal of the Path

When I find a phrase or sentence in a book that arrests my attention, I feel like I just found a diamond.  Of course, it is not materially valuable, but a great phrase or sentence adds value to my life and the way I understand life.  In fact, I wish I had started collecting these “diamonds” early in my life---maybe from college to today.  I wonder how many of these I would have in my treasury?            

I am sure if I were to cull the various things I have written, I would have a minimal list of these phrases and sentences.  They would fill many pages in a notebook and would be a wonderful reservoir of inspiring thoughts.  Even though I don’t have that notebook, I still go in search of the phrase or sentence that stops me in my tracks and lets me exclaim, “Yes!”           

I found one of these sentences recently when I was re-reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s little book, Going Home.  I have read this book more than once.  I have used it in some classes.  Although I am not Buddhist like Hanh, nevertheless I very much resonate with his sense of life and how to make life meaningful and purposeful.  This quotation is not Buddhist-specific.  Maybe that is part of its value to me.          

Hanh says, “True faith comes from how the path you are taking can bring you into life and love and happiness everyday.”  I realize this sentence has to do with true faith.  However, that part does not interest me very much.  I was much more captivated by the notion of our “path.”  I know that “path” is a timeworn image for our lives.  Along with other favorite images, like pilgrimage, journey and others, the image of a path does a good job of portraying how our lives go from point A (birth) to point Z (death).   

Of course, a path is meant to be walked.  We can say that we walk our path day by day.  There is directionality to a path; it goes somewhere.  At my age I confess I am pretty well along on my path.  That equates path quantitatively to specific number of years.  But a path can be qualitative, too.  Qualitatively or spiritually, I might be an old guy, but still early on my path.  I can be old in years and young in spiritual development.  Seen this way, I have a long ways to travel on my path. 

As we said, a path has a destination; it is meant to get you somewhere.  I like the way the Hanh quotation articulates the destination.  He uses three words to describe it: life, love and happiness.  I would be delighted to have my path take me to these three goals.  I would be thrilled to find a path that enables me to live---really live---instead of merely existing.  I want a path that takes me to love and, hopefully, to a deep love.  I want to love life, love others, love my enemies and love the natural world, which is the mother of us all.  And finally, I would very much desire to be happy.  Most sane people would opt for happiness, as opposed to sadness, disappointment or sorrow. 

So I resonate with Hanh’s goals for a path.  The question he poses is whether how my path can bring me to these three goals.  Perhaps, the prior question is whether my path can deliver me to these three.  Only if it can deliver me, can we ask how.  Of course, we know there are many paths that our lives take.  I am sure not all of those paths take us to life, love and happiness. 

Many years ago, I chose a path that is spiritual.  It would take a book to describe the detail of what that choice means.  Succinctly, it means choosing a path that would be different than, say, a material path.  A material path might focus on getting rich with the hope that money would ensure life, love and happiness.  In the short run, money might just do that.  But in the long run, I doubt it.  That is why I cast my lot with the spiritual path. 

My spiritual path includes a role for God.  In fact, I feel like God is a fellow traveler with me on the path.  Often that fellow traveler is a Spirit who offers inspiration and leadership.  I like to think God has desires for me---perhaps directional desires.  I sense the Spirit drawing me in the direction of life---a fuller, richer life.  I sense the Spirit luring me in the direction of love---a deeper, satisfying love that is satisfying to every aspect of my soul.  And I sense the Spirit opening me into a happiness that passes all understanding. 

The happiness I find in the Spirit is not some giddy hilarity I have experienced with girlfriends when I was a teenager or other occasions.  These are nice, but they are more temporary experiences of happiness.  The happiness of the spiritual path is a happiness that endures.  The spiritual happiness is more like well-being.  There is a satisfaction with life in this happiness: that I am ok, that grace abounds and that, as Richard Rohr put it in a book title, everything belongs---me included.  That is the goal of my path.

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

Self-Justification

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.”