Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fecundity of the Normal

Sometimes I know I am using a word that college students would not know.  Fecundity is one such word.  Rather than choosing not to use it because they don’t know what it means, I choose to use it and teach them what it means.  I figure I am educating them!  I am helping them build their vocabulary, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be more attractive job candidates when they are out there in the “real world.”
Fecundity means fruitfulness.  It is often used when speaking of plants.  It always makes me think of harvest time.  When it is applied to people, it could indicate a very productive or successful time.  It could suggest the outcome of hard work.  It might implicate a very talented individual who applied the talent to pull off significant outcomes.  There have been times in my life, which were fecund.  But it is not all the time.  Growing up on a farm taught me that it is not always harvest season.  Often there is a great deal of hard work and, even, waiting before you see the fecundity.
This leads me to think about my own life---especially my own spiritual life.  A recent experience enabled me to see things in a new light.  Recently I had the opportunity to host a very special guest.  It was a wonderful time.  It felt like life shifted into another, faster gear.  There were so many ideas flying around in the air.  The ideas were engaging and challenging.  The pace of interaction was brisk.  It was a vibrant time.  Everything was good and I delighted in the entire experience.
And then, almost suddenly, normality took over my life.  Of course, it was not really sudden.  A better way to understand the process is to realize that my normal life chugs along and then, periodically, something special---maybe even extraordinary---interrupts my normalcy.  Realistically that better describes what happened.  And it gave me cause to reflect.
I loved the extraordinary time.  But I realized that it was not a period of fecundity.  I was not really productive.  It was not a time of unusual success.  I learned things that might make a difference.  I enjoyed things and that is a cherished memory.  But it was not a fecund period.  Pondering this enables me to feel ok about that.  I learned something important.
Most of the fecundity in my life has come in the midst of normality---in the middle of my routine.  Of course, this is where most of us spend most of our time.  And that is the place in our lives where we are doing the real work.  Real work includes our actual job, if we are still working.  But it implies other kinds of work.  Real work could be the work of spiritual and/or emotional growth.
In spiritual growth and in emotional growth, there may be special times---extraordinary times.  There may be times of ecstasy or mystical experience if we are given the grace or are just lucky.  Those times are wonderful and I would sign up for one in a heartbeat.  But again, spiritually and emotionally most of our time is spent in normalcy and in routine.  And that is the space fecundity will happen.  Why is this true?      

It is true because fecundity is a result of effort, work and sheer “staying at it.”  Ecstasy and mystical experiences are the result of grace---they are gifts.  They are wonderful, but they are not fecund.  They are wonderful, but they are not fruitful.
As I reflect more into it, I am convinced that fecundity is typically the fruit---the product or end result---of disciplined effort.  I believe discipline is the key.  Discipline explains how we “stay at” something.  Discipline is the life of prayer.  Discipline explains the daily meditation that can slowly change lives and result in fecundity---fruitful spiritual living.  Fecundity is never solely the result of luck.  Farmers know that they have to plant the crops, till them and wait.  With effort and some good conditions, fecundity may result.
The same is true with the spiritual life.  It takes commitment, regular discipline and some real patience.  Fecundity may well happen.  The spiritual life may well blossom and bloom into the radiant spiritual life that can be very inspiring and very satisfying.  Discipline is the key.  Commitment without discipline is intentionality without action.  Patience is helpful, because fecundity is almost never instantaneous.  There is almost always a growing period.
The growing period happens in our routine---in our normalcy.  Normalcy is where commitment is made.  It is the arena of discipline and it is a time of patience.  Of course, God may add a pinch of grace.  And perhaps there will come a modicum of mercy.  Within the context of our normal lives something rather amazing can come to be: fecundity.  We can experience more fruitfulness and more fulfillments than we had a right to expect. 
I am always happy with special events and the potential for the extraordinary.  But I admit that I am always happy to return to normal.  The normal is where my own life of discipline is worked out and the seeds of fecundity are being planted and cultivated. Normalcy is the field of my spiritual work.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Grateful Disposition

Every time David Brooks publishes something, I try to read it.  I find him dealing with so many issues that attract my attention.  And he thinks about them in a way that helps me form my own take on things.  Most of what he thinks about is the stuff that would make the world a much better place to live and work, if we would just actualize his perspective.

He wrote a recent Op-Ed entitle, “The Structure of Gratitude.”  It figures, so I thought.  I have actually been doing some things with gratitude in some of the retreats and training sessions I do for groups and for businesses.  What he offered was not novel for me.  But it was reinforcing and refreshing to see how he framed the gratitude perspective and how he articulated its benefits.  Let’s me share some of that with you.

Let’s start at the end, because if the end is not very good, then how he got there does not make much difference.  That betrays the fact that I like where his article finishes.  Brooks says, “people with grateful dispositions see their efforts grandly but not themselves.  Life does not surpass their dreams but it nicely surpasses their expectations.”  Brooks makes a few neat analytical distinctions here. 

In the first place he distinguishes between our efforts and ourselves.  That is simple and profound.  Brooks does not put down the efforts of people.  In fact he claims that grateful people might even be doing “grand” efforts.  And they feel good about their efforts.  There is not hint of false modesty or fake humility.  But the next distinguishing move is to say our efforts are the focus, not ourselves.  This takes care of big egos and it takes care of egomaniacs doing things to gain attention or accolades. 

What a wonderful world it would be if the egomaniacs would change their perspective.  Become grateful rather than prideful.  Take pride in your efforts.  Do good and enjoy the good deed.  Make significant contributions and be grateful for the chance to make such gifts. 

Secondly, Brooks focuses on expectations.  This is a theme that runs throughout his Op-Ed.  That is a great one for me to ponder.  I certainly have expectations.  Most people do; that is normal.  Grateful people understand that life has dreams (or at least, the good life will have dreams).  Dreams are good; they pull us into a bigger, richer future than living life with no dream.  Without dreams we may be condemned to live a nightmarish life.  No fun!

For the grateful person life does not surpass their dreams, but it does surpass their expectations.  Expectations usually shape how we see things.  Expectations often cause a kind of tension in life.  We set up a “if we do this, that will happen.”  Brooks helps us to see more clearly how this dynamic operates.  He opens his article with a story about expectations.  And then concludes that expectations powerfully “structure our moods and emotions.”  I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Then he draws an early conclusion.  “The beautiful emotion of gratitude” structures our moods and emotions more than any expectation.  I like how he develops this argument by offering a quick sense of how gratitude works.  “Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved.”  So true.  He dis not latch on to a key idea at this point that I might have expected. 

There is a clear linguistic link between gratitude and grace.  Grace is nothing more than a gift.  And the only appropriate response to a gift is to be thankful---grateful.  Brooks is correct to suggest that if we get what we expect, there is less reason to be grateful.  To get what we expected does not structure the situation that produces gratitude.  But if I get more than I expected, I tend to be grateful.  “Wow, thanks!”

The next sentence from Brooks nails it for me.  He artfully suggests, “Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.”  I really like the idea that gratitude is the laughter of the heart.  That is better than heartache or a heart attack any day!  Clearly, it is a cause for gratitude.  As he develops his thoughts, Brooks is arguing for formation of a grateful disposition.  I think this can rightly be called a spiritual formation.  If we could do this, it would become a version of building the Kingdom of God.

At one point Brooks employs a quotation from G.K. Chesterton, an early 20th century English writer on religion.  Brooks cites the saying of Chesterton that “thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”  That is delightfully articulated.  Thanks are the highest form of thought.  That is worth remembering and honoring.

And gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.  Who would not want a grateful life that yields happiness doubled by wonder?  That is so good it might be hard to experience.  And that may just why so many of us expect less and get exactly that---less. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

God Has Your Number

Occasionally I am aware that I have lived a pretty long, interesting life.  I do not lament this.  In fact, I celebrate it.  I have been lucky.  Many good things have happened to me that I could not have anticipated and surely not expected.  Perhaps that is why one of my favorite words is serendipity.  I cannot explain why I have been lucky.
That certainly does not mean life has been easy.  Anyone who has lived as long as I have has had problems and setbacks.  Some of them were handed to me for no known reasons.  Other problems and setbacks were of my own making.  Because of stupid choices or wrong decisions, I made life harder for myself.  But overall, I have made it this far and I am very grateful.  With some more luck and some decent self-care, I hope to have some significant time left.
One of the amazing things in my lifetime that I like to think about are the technological advancements that I have witnessed.  It sounds like I was born in the horse and buggy days!  It’s not that dramatic, but when I think about it, technology has been so revolutionary.  I seldom talk about this with students because is seems so preposterous that I am likely to be dismissed.  And of course, if I were eighteen years old, I would have no interest in what someone my age remembers and wants to recount!
When I think about the technological developments, it is easy to think about the revolution that computers have wrought.  I will admit that I am not a “techie.”  In the first place I am usually oblivious to new technological inventions.  Then I become aware of the early, curious techie folks begin to talk about some new thing and I have really little awareness of the thing they describe.  Then more and more folks buy into the technological thing---be it computer, cell phone, etc.  Finally, I climb on board to the technological bandwagon.
All this leads me to muse that in one sense I am a number.  I type this on my laptop computer with my cell phone sitting beside me.  I think about my cell phone.  It occurs to me that I have a special number---ten digits, three of them an area code.  So far as I know, I am the only one in the world with those ten numbers.  If I give you those numbers, you can dial them and my phone will ring.  You can even go to England or China and dial those ten numbers and we can chat!
This seems so commonplace for me, I give it little thought.  Had you told me in the 1950s this would come to pass, it would have been unthinkable.  I have to laugh at the technological advancement that I have experienced and always come to take for granted.  There is no way I want to return to my earlier phone days on the farm when we had a four or five digit number that enabled us to be on a party line!
All this brought me to a spiritual awareness.  My cell phone number prompted me to think of an analogy.  It seems to me that each one of us is unique to God in the same way as my phone number is unique to me.  Of course, I do not think you or I literally have a number that correlates with our relationship to God.  But we are unique.  God calls you differently than God calls me.  I would like to think God has our number from birth.
Like technological advancement, we go through a process of discovery and development.  At some point in life, we begin to discover that we are uniquely linked to God.  God has a special concern (number) for you and for me.  God loves us all, but God loves us all uniquely.  This does not feel cheap to me.  In fact, it feels lavish---God is a lavish Lover!
Discovery that we are uniquely connected to God---that God has our number---is only the beginning.  We can choose to know this and dismiss it.  Too many of us have put the “God-phone” on mute or silence!  God can call, but we won’t hear it.  And if we hear it, we ignore it.  On the other hand, we can take the discovery that we are special in God’s eyes and begin to develop what this means.
If I want to develop---as I have wanted---then we answer God’s calls.  I have tried to answer God’s call on my life.  When my number rings, I have tried to be obedient.  For me personally, this has had some vocational implications.  That might be true for others.  Sometimes God’s call is avocational. It has nothing to do with your particular kind of work---or no work, if you are retired.  Nevertheless God’s call on your life has implications.
God’s ring may be a clarion call to be involved in some special ministries.  It may be as general as simply being a loving human being who works for peace and reconciliation.  It can be as profound as serving folks in your church, in your neighborhood or community.  Some are called to go half way around the world.  Some are called to go around the block.
I am touched and pleased to know that God has my number.  As with my cell phone, I have grown to the place where I think I even have God on “caller ID!”  Of course, I don’t have a little window that lights up with the caller’s name, but when God calls, I know it is specifically for me and that it is my God who is calling.  Amazing!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Sign of the Spirit

A theological assumption I hold is that God’s Spirit is everywhere at all times.  This is easy to think and say, but it certainly is not evident all the time.  Much of my life it would be an assumption with little evidence to show.  Sometimes, however, I become aware that I have just seen a sign of the Spirit.  Sometimes this happens in my own life and sometimes it is something I see or read about in someone else’s life.  I just had one of the latter experiences.

Oddly enough, it came in an article in a newspaper I read on a daily basis, The New York Times.  I don’t read everything every day; that is a big newspaper!  But I do tend to run my eyes over most of the headlines and read some that seem pertinent or interesting.  Recently, one such headline grabbed my attention.  It stated: “Black South Carolina Trooper Explains He Helped a White Supremacist” by Dan Berry.  I had to begin reading.

The scene was a white supremacist rally in front of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia.  A black state trooper noticed one thing, a white guy who “was wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a swastika.”  He seemed ill---potentially in trouble.  The details of the scene are Spartan.  We read, “The trooper motioned for help from the Columbia fire chief, who is also black.  Then with a firm grip, he began walking the wilted white man up the steps toward the air-conditioned oasis of the State House.”

Of course, this was only days after a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans in their church---clearly an act of racial hatred.  Leroy Smith, the State Trooper, emerges for me as a sign of the Spirit.  Of course at one level, it could be said he was only doing his job.  I agree.  But the article gives more details that demonstrate it was more than simply doing his job.  He was also a sign of the Spirit.  His act was caught on a photo and become widely disseminated on Twitter and other social media.

Smith was taken aback at the photo and its popularity, but said he “hoped the image would help society move past the recent spasms of hate and violence.”  That is exactly what I expect the Spirit of God would say to this world.  It sounds a great deal like the words of Jesus or the Buddha or any of the great religious leaders.  “Just say no to violence,” is the mantra of the Spirit.  Then the next section of the article was a clincher.

“Asked why he thinks the photo has had such resonance, he gave a simple answer: ‘Love.’”  If that is not the language of the Spirit, I don’t know what is.  And then, Leroy Smith offered this commentary.  “’I think that’s the greatest thing in the world---love,’ said the burly, soft-spoken trooper, who is just shy of 50.  ‘And that’s why so many people were moved by it.’”  I think this is profound

In fact, I would say it is theologically profound.  Love probably is the greatest thing in the world.  It would be fascinating to go into a shopping mall and ask people what they think the greatest thing in the world would be.  The range of answers might be stunning.  But I think Leroy Smith probably has the best answer---the right answer for me.  It is love.  I think that is why the New Testament writer of the letters of John could say that God is love.  It’s that simple and it’s that profound.

How did Smith come to perform his duty---or his act of love?  He was watching to make sure the demonstrators would not go crazy.  And then he saw one of them---the man whom he was to help.  Leroy Smith said, “He looked fatigued, lethargic---weak…I knew there was something very wrong with him.”  I don’t think the story ever reveals the name of the guy who was helped.  But in the Spirit it does not matter who it was.  It does not matte whether he was black or white, male or female.  It does not even matter that he was a white supremacist!  Some of us may have drawn a line at helping this guy. 

But Leroy Smith stepped right across that line.  We might say he was only doing his job.  I prefer to think he was more than a State Trooper doing his job.  He was a man of the Spirit who did something that became a sign of the Spirit.  He does not tell us his did it out of love.  But how else do you explain it when he himself said the photo had so much resonance because of love?

The powerful thing for me is not simply reading the story or seeing the photo.  The powerful thing for me is to understand this as an act of love.  An act of love is always the sign of the Spirit.  It is always contrary to the hate and violence, which also have so many signs in the world.  Nine dead South Carolinians in their church is surely too many signs of hate and violence.

It is ironic they were killed in a church.  In their own ways, they also were and are signs of the Spirit.  They were witnesses to their faith.  And then, they became martyrs.  I am inspired by Leroy Smith.  Inspiration, however, will also be a mere theological assumption unless it is followed by an act of love.  Then I also can be a sign of the Spirit.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Godspell as Transformative Experience

There are a few journals and things I routinely read.  They inform me of things happening that I probably would not know about until much later.  And they touch on subjects I likely would have said have no interest for me and I get interested!  They alert me to things that I want to pursue---perhaps a book to read or a person to meet.  These things are like regular friends to me.

One of the pieces I read on a regular basis is the National Catholic Reporter.  I know its reputation as a liberal Catholic periodical, but that does not bother me.  I am not reading it for the particular political perspective.  I read it because it helps me stay in touch with people and things in the Catholic world.  The Catholic world is personally interesting to me.  And I figure, any group with over one billion people is worth charting.  I keep up with China and India, too!

Recently, I was drawn to an article entitled, “Author traces lives touched by ‘Godspell,’” by Retta Blaney.  I never heard of Blaney (and she probably never heard of me!).  Blaney’s piece is really about the pilgrimage of Carol de Gierre, who wrote a book about the play, Godspell.  I am sure I was drawn to this article, in part, because I recall seeing Godspell more than once and loving it every time.  I was eager to see de Gierre’s take on the play.

I learned that Godspell opened off-Broadway in Spring, 1971.  I knew it had to be around that time, since I know I was living in Boston at the time.  Intriguingly, de Gierre did not see Godspell in its original period.  Now 63 years old, de Gierre said she did not see the play until her late 40s when she was living in Fairfield, Iowa.  I have been to Fairfield and on Broadway.  The two would not be confused with each other!

de Gierre was so smitten, she moved with her husband to southern Connecticut so she could be close to Broadway, where so much of theater creativity happens.  She discovered Steven Schwartz, who wrote the music for the play, and other cast members who began sharing memories of their early experience with the play.  This led to a book, Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, which I would like to read.

The Blaney had a quotation from de Gierre that I found amazing.  "I like writing behind the scenes," she said. "Rather than write about a musical, I like to recreate the experience of being present at the creation."  I loved that idea of being present at the creation.”  Outside of the context, I would immediately have thought of the Genesis creation some 13 billion years ago, according to scientists.  That certainly was transformative.  But de Gierre meant present at the creation of the play, Godspell.

Her words provoked me, however, to think about the creation of worldly things---like Godspell.  She wanted to get back to the Genesis of Godspell---to go to the beginning of what would be a transformative process that, in turn, transformed so many audiences who would see it.  I can count myself among those folks.

Reading this article put me into my own thoughts about transformation.  It was easy to conclude that any transformation is creative.  By definition transformation changes one form into another---one form trans (crosses over) to a different form.  I begin to think about this in spiritual terms.

No doubt, one of the more dramatic experiences of spiritual transformation comes with a conversion experience.  I know many folks who have had rather dramatic conversion experiences.  They fascinate me, because that has not been my own spiritual experience.  As we know, a dramatic conversion experience can be such that folks say, “one day I was a sinner and the next day I was not.”  They have been transformed.

Others of us experience transformation more like evolution.  That has been my type.  It has been very a slow, hit and miss kind of transformation.  Only gradually do I realize I am being changed from one form to another.  And that change is never without its hitches.  It is not always forward.  There have been relapses; there have been dry periods where nothing happened.  But somehow the Spirit always seemed to be at work.

As I think further into it, I believe transformation is always possible and ever ready to do its work.  And the work can be a dramatic event or a very slow process.  For me it is life-long.  I like de Gierre’s way of putting it: “the experience of being present at the creation.  If you think about it, every day is just such an experience.  Every day we have the possibility of a transformative experience.

Perhaps, the best-known song from the play is “Day by Day.”  I like that as a reminder of the transformative possibilities in our lives.  That is how it will happen…day by day.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mary Magdalene: Common Saint

Following the Roman Catholic calendar of saints allowed me to know that yesterday was the saint day for Mary Magdalene.  I like to follow the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, as the daily readings are called.  Special days for the various Catholic saints are recognized as part of the daily notice.  It is good for me, since my own Quaker tradition does not have anything similar.  Our Quaker tradition does hold some folks to have been more “weighty” than others---a term that allows at one level we are all equal, while acknowledging that at another level some really had a larger impact on the world.

With this kind of language, we can say that Mary Magdalene was a “weighty spiritual woman” in her own time.  And that continues to this day.  The Catholic Church canonized her and now she is St. Mary.  I am fine with that.  It does not mean she is only for Catholics and the rest of us can only look from afar.  Hardly, since Mary Magdalene plays a primary role in the New Testament and, thus, belongs to all of us who hold dear the New Testament. 

We don’t know very much about the “real” Mary Magdalene.  Mary is a very common name in that era.  We also know that Magdala was a place near Tiberias in the north of Israel on the Galilee shore.  It may well be that this was Mary’s home area.  The are other suggestions by scholars, but it does not matter to me why she became Mary, the Magdalene.  I am more intrigued by her role in the faith than her origins.

Our historical options are threefold, if we stick to the New Testament.  Some scholars say she is the “sinner” talked about in Luke 7.  Then she was one of the women who followed Jesus in Luke’s next chapter and ministered to him.  More historically solid is the episode in which Mary Magdalene is at the scene of the cross and the crucifixion.  All four gospels place her at the foot of the cross at the last days of Jesus.  We are told that she saw him laid in the tomb.  Thirdly, we know from the New Testament texts that she is present at the tomb at the Resurrection.  In fact, John’s Gospel has only Mary Magdalene first and alone at the tomb.

So do we have three accounts of one Mary Magdalene?  Or do we have three accounts of three different Marys?  That is historically impossible to tell in all likelihood.  While as a scholar, I am intrigued by this, as a person of faith, it does not matter at all.  And this intrigue only becomes keener when we see the historical tradition become even more embellished.

What intrigues me the most in all of this is the role Mary Magdalene played in the witness of her faith.  She witnesses to three stages of faith, as I want to develop it.  The first phase is the “coming to faith.”  If Mary were the “sinner” of Luke 7, this tells us a bit about her pilgrimage.  The scene is a dinner party at a Pharisee’s house.  Through the course of the meal, the woman who is a sinner is washing the feet of Jesus, kissed him and anointed his feet.  Jesus contrasts her action with that of the dinner guests, none of whom had done any of this.  At the end Jesus forgives her sins, which is a kind of healing.  And then he says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (7:50) She had come to faith.

The second phase of the faith pilgrimage is “growing in faith.”  Here we know virtually no details for Mary Magdalene.  But she surely did grow in her faith.  She began to follow Jesus.  She became a disciple, even if that term were never used for her.  To be a disciple literally means to become a student.  Jesus was her Rabbi---her Teacher. 

Discipleship certainly entails a learning process.  But it is more than an accumulation of knowledge.  To become a disciple was a quest for wisdom more than a desire of knowledge.  That was Mary Magdalene’s journey.  She must have traveled it effectively.  She came not only to the cross, but was there for the rest of the story.  In fact, to begin with she may have been the first and only one there.  This brought her fully into the third stage of the faith, namely, “deep witnessing.” 

I call it deep witnessing because there are times the witnessing can lead to death.  This is capture very well in the Greek word for witness, marturo or martyro.  Clearly, the English word, martyr, is implicated in that Greek word.  The call to faith is ultimately a call to become a witness.  And witnessing has many levels to it.  The process of becoming a saint is tied up with this process of faith development.  Obviously, Mary Magdalene did it exceptionally well.

Finally, the real task is not to learn her story so well I can tell it without a hitch.  The real task is the personal one---my life and your life.  Mary has walked her walk.  She is now St. Mary Magdalene.  All of us are somewhere along the way of our walk.  Some of us may still be the sinners at the dinner table.  Others probably are growing in the faith.  And some are so long on the way, they have become witnesses in their own right.

I don’t like that I have used “stage” language.  That implies we do one stage and, like a step, leave that stage and move to the next.  I do like the phase language I also used.  I move between phases.  I know all too well that in an instant I can be a sinner and we begin all over!  But faith is about progress, not perfection.  Saints are those far into their progress.  I am ok; I am on the way.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Crucible of the Spirit

I try to make sure I spend a little time each day outside.  It was easy when I was growing up on a farm.  Much of that life was spent outside.  In those days even the time on the tractor was outside---exposed to nature.  I know that is probably not good, given the health issues.  I can appreciate modern tractors and combines with their cabs, radios, etc.  As a boy, I leaned to “read nature.”

I learned things like prevailing winds and the clouds that would bring rain and clouds that did not.  I learned to smell the rain and deal with the snow.  I appreciated the seasons.  In an odd way I liked learning from the tough times that nature could deliver---wet springs, dry summers, cold winters.  Extreme and excess can teach us a great deal.  Life is easy when things are going well and there are no hardships. 

As life unfolded for me, I chose things that kept me inside much of the time.  That continues even to this day.  There are rare occasions that call for me to do my profession outside.  Most of my time is spent in controlled environments.  When it is cold, my building and house are heated.  When it is hot, the process is reversed and I am cooled.  All of this is good---it is modern, as we call it.  I am not asking for the good old days!

I try to make sure I spend some time each day outside, because I don’t want to lose the connection with nature.  I wonder if most young people have much connection with nature?  Most of them have spent their lifetimes in controlled environments.  I hope they have learned to appreciate the changing of the seasons.  I hope their can learn to do more than simply whine if the weather is not perfect. 

A couple days ago when I was outside and the weather was not perfect, I realized that it had not occurred to me to return to the inside, which clearly was more perfect.  I realized that my farm background and my involvement in sports had taught me there are times you are going to be outside and that’s the way it is.  There is no reason to whine---at least if you want to do what needs to be done.  And then I had another, deeper realization.

I had the profound experience that my life is pure gift.  There was no way I could sustain my life if nature were not providing the air to breathe.  If nature were to withdraw the oxygen from the air, I would be dead in minutes.  I was in the midst of nature and I was in the bosom of an incredible Giver whose minute-by-minute generosity was sustaining me and the other seven billion souls on this earth.  I did nothing to create it or to deserve it.

Most of the time I am not even aware of it.  Blithely I take it for granted.  Merrily, I go along thinking I am pretty independent and assuming I can do whatever I want to do.  At one level that is true.  But the truth of that depends on the incredible Giver continuing to grace us all with the necessities of life.

I really like the fact that all the classical languages have the same word for “breath,” “air” and “spirit.”  My life depends on breathing and that is nothing other than spirit.  Without the spirit, I am dead.  And I cannot be so bold as to assume it is my spirit.  That is why I capitalize it: “Spirit.”  There is a Spirit bigger than I am and external to me upon which I am dependent.

I took one more step to realize that nature is the crucible of the Spirit.  My spirit is sustained and nurtured by that Spirit and in that Spirit.  The only way out is death.  Otherwise, we are all in the crucible.  Our choice is to be aware or to be unaware.  If I am aware, then I can live with a level of appreciation and thankfulness.  That is what being outside teaches me.  I am more aware.

That leads me to think about the recent words about integral ecology, which Pope Francis borrows from Saint Francis.  He shows how Saint Francis models this awareness of nature and its gifts.  His (Saint Francis) response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists.”

The Pope calls for us to live with the same kind of conviction that nature is the crucible of the Spirit that Saint Francis had.  The Pope says, “Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters…”

I try to make sure I spend a little time each day outside to cultivate the openness to awe and wonder.  I want to continue to learn the language of fraternity with God’s creation and creatures.  I want to see, appreciate and share the beauty of the world.  I want to be a grateful participant in the crucible of the Spirit.