Friday, October 17, 2014

Non-Verbal Spirituality

We live in an age of verbosity!  Put in street language, this means we live in a wordy world.  Maybe other people live in situations where there are not so many words.  But my world is a wordy world.  Just think about how the typical person goes through a day.
It would not be unusual for a person to get out of bed and turn on the tv or the radio---words.  If you have family around, there would be more words.  If we are still working, it would be normal to be somewhere surrounded by words.  Of course, in my college world, there are a million words.  People who stare at computer screens are typically dealing in words.  Often there is some kind of music in the background and the music comes with words.  Meals, social occasions and more tv or computer work at night means a mountain of more words.
As my students would attest, I love words.  Words are an incredible human invention.  We can literally “talk” to each other.  I can tell you how I feel and what I think.  That is marvelous.  In fact, I can learn a foreign language and begin to communicate with people who are unlike me.  They can tell me about life from a perspective I never imagined.  I have appreciated my chances to go to China, India, Brazil and countless other places.  In many instances I need them to speak my language so I can learn their ways. 
There is a downside, however, to words.  Words can be very revealing.  But words can also be concealing.  I can tell you how I feel and what I think.  But I can also mislead you.  I have the capacity to lie.  I can create a world for you that simply is an illusion---it does not exist. 
Controlling people do this kind of thing.  Manipulating is a subtle form of control.  I might be able to manipulate the way you think about me or dictate how you should behave.  If I am really good at misleading words, you might not even know you are being misled!  So words are wonderful, but they also can be wounding. 
Spirituality is no different.  I have read millions of spiritual words during my time as a student and teacher.  Words have tried to capture the majesty of Divine splendor, the miracle of human transformation and the malevolence of humans to humans in the spilled blood of religious conflict.  Here again words can be wonders or wounders.
I am fascinated with the power of words.  Surely Hitler was one who used words to bring cataclysmic wounds to our world.  And Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that was articulated in words that resound even in our own day.  However, it is also true that too many words deal in superficialities.  Too many words are surface words.  There are words, but no substance.
I endeavor to pay attention to the deeper levels of life.  I am convinced this is where much of life’s truth and meaning come to us.  I am convinced the various spiritual traditions of our world point to a spiritual depth that is too deep for words.  In fact, I have watched people go deeper into spiritual experience where it became clear to them there were no adequate words to describe the deeper reality.
I have learned some things simply cannot be talked about.  That does not make them any less real.  I personally have been taken so deeply into the Divine Presence that I literally was speechless.  I knew it, but could never name it.  I am willing to talk about a non-verbal spirituality.  That is about the best I can do.
I realize the silliness of talking about a non-verbal spirituality!  So let me use a few words simply to point to the reality of the experience of non-verbal spirituality.  A couple words that point in the direction of this kind of spirituality are deep and bright.  I am sure I have experienced both.
Deep points to the spiritual experience that takes us radically away from the surface and the superficial.  To be taken deeply into God’s Presence is to shut the mouth to words.  But it simultaneously tends to turn the lips into a smile.  Often I have emerged from a deep spiritual experience with someone only to find them with a knowing smile.  The smile is confirmation that “we know.”  We’ve been there and we know.  There is no laugh; that is too frivolous.  A smile is suggestive.  If you know, the smile says everything.
Light is the other way I have experienced the Divine deeply; there are no words.  Light suggests breadth rather than depth.  A few times I have been taken so far into the light that it seems like I have become luminous.  I have no idea how to express it, but I am confident I become radiant.  Skin color does not change.  But there is an unmistakable brightness that leaves no doubt.
I am happy we have words so that we can communicate.  But I am delighted that some experiences take us so deep and far, that we become content with being inexpressible.  On second thought, maybe smiles and radiance say it all.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Quiet Soul

The evening prayer in my lectionary last night had a selection from a very short Psalm near the end of the Psalter.  Because I don’t live with the Psalms with the same depth as my monk friends, I still feel like I have often encountered a particular Psalm for the very first time.  I know I have read Psalm 131 before, but it felt like I had engaged it for the very first time.           

As I often do, I compared two different translations of the Psalm.  The Jerusalem Bible begins by the Psalmist saying, “Lord, I do not puff myself up or stare about…”  The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) puts it similarly; “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high…”  In this case I prefer the first option.  It seems to warn against feeling pride when it comes to spiritual things.             

It makes me think of the old sports’ adage to “keep your eye on the ball!”  Perhaps if I were to put it spiritually, I would suggest that much of the spiritual journey is simply paying attention.  If I pay attention, then I am not likely to be filled with pride in my achievements.  Dealing with a God who is often experienced as mystery and in mystery leaves me with little reason to feel pride.  I do have reason to be comforted, consoled, and grateful to that God who covets and cares for me.          

The rest of the first line of Psalm 131 has the Psalmist saying that he does not “walk among the great or seek wonders beyond me.”  I actually prefer the NRSV translation on this one.  That translation has the Psalmist saying, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.”  That seems very clear to me.  It actually sounds like wonderful spiritual advice to beginning and sage alike.           

Again I think of some of the things I have heard when I was growing up.  I think of the one-liner my grandpa used to say: “Keep your britches on!”  When I was young, I don’t think I understood what this meant.  As I understand it now, “keep your britches on” means to be patient.  It means that we should not get overly excited.  If I put it in spiritual terms, I suggest it means stay with the discipline.  Keep your journey simple.  Being spiritual is a life-long journey.             

The whole thing is God’s show and we are all actors with bit parts.  Why bother seeking to walk among the great.  Most of the great ones are folks lifted up by our culture.  In most cases there is little reason to idolize them, much less to model our life and behavior after them.  In fact the early church offered an alternative to their Roman culture.  That alternative was what the Latin writers called imitatio Christi---the imitation of Christ.  Certainly this is what the monks seek to do.  And in my own way, I try to follow suit.           

By doing this, there is no reason to seek wonders or occupy myself with things too marvelous for me.  Stay simple.  There is no need to call attention to myself.  Spiritual living is not an achievement; it is a gift.  I just need to remember that I did not create my own life.  And I cannot prevent my own death.  I have choices, but they are choices on the way.  And I know that I have chosen the way which I am told is also the truth and the life.           

I like the next line in Psalm 131.  The Jerusalem Bible puts it this way: “Truly calm and quiet I have made my spirit…”  The NRSV is nearly identical.  It reads thus: “I have calmed and quieted my soul…”  Maybe I like this so much because it resonates with my personality style, as well as my own religious tradition.  To calm and quiet my spirit seems like good advice, as I try to live spiritually in a noisy and chaotic world.           

I wonder whether I prefer the option of a calm and quiet soul (as the NRSV) has it is because by nature I am an introvert?  Would an extravert prefer less calm and quiet and more action?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think the Psalmist is writing a Psalm for introverts.  I think the Psalmist is writing for all of us who tend to get caught up in the turmoil of our own little worlds.           

We all know the demands on us.  Even if we are retired, those demands seem to lay claim to our time and talent.  I do think we live in a noisy culture.  And even if I am alone at my house with no external noise that does not mean it is calm and quiet in my head!  In fact, it is frequently when I am by myself that I notice the noise and tumult in my own brain.  Henri Nouwen famously talked about all the monkeys running around in his mind!             

A calm and quiet soul is a soul that is centered, to use some of my favorite spiritual language.  Quakers talk about “centering.” There is a significant tradition within Catholicism that talks about “centering prayer.”  Centering is a good way to describe what happens with a calm, quiet soul.  To be in the Center is to be with God.  It is a place---a quiet place---where we listen to hear God’s call and then are free to obey.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Meaning of Compassion

One of the books I use in a course on contemplative spirituality that I teach is by my friend and fellow Quaker, Parker Palmer.  Parker’s book, The Active Life, tries to describe what contemplative living looks like for the average person who will not join a monastery.  I like the subtitle of his book: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring.    One of the chapters I like focuses on “action, failure, and suffering.”  It is a story about an angel who wants to alleviate suffering---an angel who tries to care.           

Clearly all of us know there is suffering in our world.  No doubt many who read these inspirational pieces have known some personal suffering.  I don’t know whether suffering is necessary in life, but I am convinced it is inevitable.  Live long enough and you will suffer.  Something the angel needed to learn was sometimes suffering cannot be alleviated.  But suffering can be dealt with.  That is where care and compassion enter the picture.           

I am fascinated by a personal story Palmer shares in the chapter.  I know Palmer’s struggle with some of his own suffering.  That is why his story has a poignancy that touches me.  “In the midst of my depression I had a friend who took a different track.  Every afternoon at around four o’clock he came to me, sat me in a chair, removed my shoes, and massaged my feet.  He hardly said a word, but he was there, he was with me.  He was a lifeline for me, a link to the human community and thus to my own humanity.  He had no need to ‘fix’ me.  He knew the meaning of compassion.”          

I know things like depression are not respecters of intelligence, status, etc.   Parker Palmer is a bright, engaging and successful professional.  And yet, the demon of depression can go after him just as much as someone who has marginal intelligence, might even be disengaged and is unsuccessful.  However, the story in this case is not really about Palmer, but about his friend.  Let’s look at this story from the friend’s perspective.          

Depression is not a weekend problem.  It often lasts for a while.  So when Palmer’s friend decides to help, he is not signing on for an occasional cup of coffee.  As Palmer tells us, every late afternoon his friend would show up.  In fact, this might be the most important thing his friend did---simply show up day after day.  That shows a level of commitment and care that spoke louder than any word could speak.           

I like Palmer’s simple utterance: “he came to me.”  Is that not really the essence of care and the heart of compassion?  To go out to another?  His friend sat in a chair.  And the following sequence touches my heart.  His friend took off Parker’s shoes.  What an act of humility, compassion and service.  My mind races to the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples as they gathered that last night.  And then Jesus enjoins the disciples to wash the feet of others.           

Washing someone’s feet is not an action many of us would be willing to perform.  Feet are often forbidden territory.  Sometimes people don’t even like their own feet.  And yet there is Parker’s friend, sitting in the chair, removing the shoes and massaging his feet.  What an amazing act of hospitality and of generosity.  Perhaps that is part of the meaning of compassion---the willingness to be hospitable and generous.  Like Jesus, Palmer’s friend becomes a model of compassion.           

In one sense that is the end of the story.  The rest of it is Palmer’s interpretation.  He tells us the friend “hardly said a word.”  Often compassion is an act, not some words.  Instead of saying, “I’ll care for you,” his friend actually did.  And then comes the most profound statement from Palmer: “he was there, he was with me.”  That summarizes the action and the effect of compassion…to be there for someone.  Compassion is being with someone in need.            

It is a beautiful story.  In Palmer’s own words his friend became “a lifeline to me.”  In an almost literal sense the friend had become a kind of savior.  Palmer was not dead, but depression is a form of deadliness.  His friend offered a hope---a saving hope.  He was not there to fix Parker, but he was repeatedly there to favor him with grace, mercy, care and compassion.  All that was wrapped up in two hands massaging two feet.  How simple and, yet, how profound.          

His action of compassion link Palmer back to the human community and, especially, back to himself.  One could say compassion is a heart to heart encounter.  Like love, compassion can be given and not be depleting.  In his compassion the friend lost nothing.  I can imagine the friend even saying that he had found something.  By giving he was enriched.  That’s the meaning of compassion.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Spiritually Tired

Some days I am sure there are some spiritual lessons I missed!  There is so much more talk and literature today on spirituality than was true in my growing-up years.  Perhaps there was more in the Roman Catholic Church, but I doubt it---not for the layperson anyway.  In fact, I never even heard “spirituality” language when I was a boy or even a young man.  The talk was always about “religion.”  For the most part, what I learned I learned by going to the little Quaker meeting.  There was the Sunday School hour, which never seemed very interesting or relevant to my life.             

I became more actively interested in religion during my college years.  Part of the reason for this is those college years were the time I was trying to make sense of out my life.  Today I would talk about that as learning how to make meaning in life.  I feel fairly well along that road these days.  But back in college I was trying to figure out how to get started.             

I have learned a great deal from a variety of venues.  Reading books, taking classes, teaching classes and wonderful discussions have all been important in my spiritual journey.  I have learned about spiritual discipline and spiritual friendship.  I have learned a fair amount of theology and talk about Christian doctrine with some knowledge.  I would like to think much of this has been like learning spiritual lessons.           

It seems to me there has been a great deal of emphasis upon growth and spiritual growth.  It always felt like I was supposed to be active and spiritually growing.  I am sure I have even suggested as much to other people in my classes and retreats and speeches.  I certainly am for spiritual growth.  Growth entails being alive---a kind of growing up spiritually.  I do think there is such a thing as spiritual maturity.  I am not there yet, but I am hopeful.  I do not think I am in spiritual kindergarten any more!           

One thing I occasionally experience is something I never heard anyone address: being spiritually tired.  That may strike some as an odd phrase.  Perhaps to others, talk about being spiritually tired makes no sense because some folks may not even believe spiritual tiredness is possible.  I think it is and I feel like I know what it is to be spiritually tired.          

Everyone knows what it is like to be physically tired.  After days of hard work, we legitimately feel physically tired.  I remember my sports days when practice would be so demanding, I would go home “physically exhausted,” would be my phrase.  And certainly most of us know something about being emotionally tired.  I know this experience from times I have been so emotionally invested in leading groups that when it was over, I felt “emotionally exhausted.”           

In both cases of exhaustion the remedy is simple: rest.  I suspect the same recipe works for those of us who may from time to time feel spiritually tired.  Predictable times for me to be spiritually tired are those times following some spurts of spiritual growth.  If we are regular in our spiritual disciplines, there will be times when we become spiritually tired.  When I am in that place, I simply want to “take a break” or “not do it for a while.”  The trick at these times is not to feel guilty.  It is easy to allow our spiritual tiredness to become a double whammy when we load it with guilt.           

I could coin a term for being spiritually tired.  I call it “soul fatigue.”  There is soul fatigue when I lose the energy and vibrancy of the spiritual journey.  Soul fatigue is different from what Quakers have traditionally called “dry periods.”  This phenomenon is well known in classical spiritual traditions.  Dry periods are those times when we experience nothing, even though we still are doing the spiritual disciplines, etc.  This is close to what St. John of the Cross means by the terms, Dark Night of the Senses and Dark Night of the Soul.  These are particular kinds of experiences (or lack thereof) where God seems to be absent.           

Soul fatigue is not a God-issue; it is a me-issue.  Soul fatigue is simply my being tired---not wanting to do anything in the moment.  This is not serious.  It is not terminal!  The answer---the solution---is typically very simple and easy.  Take a break.  Rest.  Let your soul have some space and, perhaps, become available again for some grace.          

When I feel spiritually tired, I try to pay attention and take it easy for a little bit.  Life is not meant to live in a fevered urgency.  And certainly our spiritual lives do not always have to be on fire.  Fires sometimes move to some phase of being embers.  Embers can be reignited and again roar.  So it is with souls on fire.           

When you are spiritually tired, slow down.  Take a rest.  Take some time off.  Taking a break is different than quitting.  Don’t trick yourself.  Treat yourself.  Treat yourself gently and nicely.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Renewed Seeds of Contemplation

If you have some acquaintance with Thomas Merton, famous 20th century monk, and his writings, you might recognize the title of this inspirational piece to be a play on a title of one of his most famous books, New Seeds of Contemplation.  That book might be my favorite from Merton’s extensive writings.  It was originally published in 1961, some seven years before Merton tragically died in his mid-50s.  What many people---even those who might know some things about Merton---do not know is this book actually was a reworking of a previous book.  Merton’s first book was simple called, Seeds of Contemplation.           

I come back to this book by an interesting happenstance.  A friend asked me if I had a copy of Merton’s book.  Apparently she is in a book club or some group that has chosen to use it.  Since she knows I like Merton, she figured I would have it.  Indeed, I do have it; in fact, I probably have three copies.  There is my original copy with all the underlining and notes in the margin.  I did not give her that one!  Instead, I have somehow accumulated a couple other copies along the way, so it was easy to hand one of these to her.           

However, between the time I pulled the book off my shelf, brought it home and then handed it to her, I had time to thumb through the volume again.  Because I teach a seminar on Merton’s spirituality, I have read the book a few times.  It never gets boring to me.  And when I began thumbing through the pages, it was like I had encountered a good friend on the street.  Many of the words and phrases were familiar.           

But with Merton, even this familiarity is never a problem.  It is always refreshing.  I can read passages again that I know pretty well and they seem true all over again.  I realized that just because something was once true and meaningful, that does not mean it ceases to be over time.  In fact, it seems the truth and meaning has seeped deeper into my soul.  Let me share a few of these with you.          

I randomly opened the book near the middle.  I hit a page that was ending a particular chapter.  I read these words: “Ultimately faith is the only key to the universe.  The final meaning of human existence, and the answers to questions on which all our happiness depends cannot be reached in any other way.”  Once again, that made perfect sense to me.  I began to think about Merton’s words.           

Of course, we can think about our faith in religious terms---even Christian terms.  But I know in its root form, faith is not necessarily a religious word.  Sometimes, I prefer the synonym, trust. To have faith is to trust someone or something.  Certainly my faith in God is a form of trust.  But I trust my children, my friends and my students.  I think Merton is correct.  Ultimately trust is the only key to the universe.  Notice he does not say “a” key or, even, “the” key.  He says it is the “only.”           

Faith is the way to the meaning of human existence.  That does not mean little things along the way cannot be meaningful; clearly they can.  But ultimate meaning is more faith and less an issue of fact.  In my case that means faith in a loving God who somehow is graciously working in the world---although sometimes it is difficult to see how and where that grace is at work.           

I tried Merton again.  I closed the book and then opened it near the end of the volume.  Once more, my eyes landed on a sentence that seemed important and true.  It was a long sentence, but because it is on contemplation, I quote it entirely.  “Contemplative prayer is a deep and simplified spiritual activity in which the mind and will rest in a unified and simple concentration upon God, turned to Him, intent upon Him and absorbed in His own light, with a simple gaze which is perfect adoration because it silently tells God that we have left everything else and desire even to leave our own selves for His sake, and that He alone is important to us, He alone is our desire and our life, and nothing else can give us any joy.”           

On one level, this seems monastic and out of reach for most normally engaged people in the world.  People who have jobs, families, etc. are tempted to see this as the bailiwick of monks and nuns who have nothing else to do but prayer and adore.  This is simply not true for me.  I contend that we all can be contemplatives.  Contemplation is not just a monastic privilege.  It is a human privilege.           

I can learn and practice contemplative prayer in such a way that it becomes a simplified spiritual activity.  It is an activity I can do while I am teaching or grading papers.  While times of silence and meditation are helpful to nourish this spiritual activity, silence and meditation are not required to practice it.  Each of us will learn how to tailor our contemplative practice and living to fit our schedule and way of life.           

To live contemplatively is to live in the Presence of the Holy One.  It is to have our life grounded in the Spirit in order that we might live spiritually.  It is less a thing we do and more a way we live.  That is what Merton keeps teaching me.  Finding the book again was a renewing of contemplation for me.

Friday, October 10, 2014

God’s Gift

Sometimes when I am outside, it hits me how majestic and wonderful nature can be.  Since I grew up in rural Indiana, I have always known this to be the case.  However, we live much more insulated lives than people did when I was a little boy.  We live in controlled environments much of the time.  We use air conditioning to keep it cooler in the summer and, then, turn on the heat to keep the rooms warm during the winter months.  I am not complaining and am not suggesting we go back to the good old days!

But I do think living life in an insulated way leads more of us to live more unaware.  Because our environments are controlled, we shape our reality as much as it shapes us.  This does not make us crazy, but it does allow us to live in a kind of illusion.  When it is nearly one hundred degrees on a summer day, it probably is a comfortable seventy-two degrees inside.  We have little awareness of the reality of nature.  And we never give it any thought that we are living in an unnatural world inside our little buildings.

Again, I am not calling for a return to days like those of my youth.  Even if I could call for that kind of thing, it would be naïve of me to think there would be any followers.  Instead I call for a raise in our awareness and consciousness.  This goes to the heart of spirituality, as I understand it.  I do not think we can be naïve and spiritual at the same time. 

So I try to be cognizant of nature.  Fortunately, I go out into nature enough to practice my awareness.  But it does take practice for me and all of us who live our lives more artificially inside buildings.  Because I grew up in the Midwest, the seasons were part of my experience.  I loved all the seasons.  Each has a glory of its own.  There is a marvel in the particularities of spring, summer, fall and winter.  They all have things to offer to us. 

One of my favorite recent memories, for example, came on a pretty autumn day.  The leaves had begun the colorful change.  The sunlight in the fall season is different than it is all during the summer time.  I recall it to be a lovely fall day.  I headed out of my building for a destination on the other side of the campus.  I felt the warmth of the sun, although I still had on a light jacket.   

It was the kind of day you just breathe more deeply as you walk along the sidewalk.  I remember seeing a woman, whom I know, approaching me from the other direction.  Neither of us was walking fast.  It was a day too beautiful to be in a hurry.  Hurry usually destroys the spiritual.  As she came closer, my eyes met her eyes.  As I typically would do, I offered a greeting.  “Hello,” I said. 

We came closer.  She extended her left hand to reveal something.  I looked more closely as the distance between us diminished.  Her hand held a red leaf.  She extended it so that I could get a good look.  “See,” she uttered.  It did look pretty---lovely the way autumn prepares beauty for our pleasure.  While I did enjoy the glimpse of beauty, I was not prepared for anything more. 

As I began to pass her, she held it a little bit higher.  And then she said, “Look what God gave me.”  The profundity of that statement nearly riveted me in the moment and in that place.  Her words shook me out of my half-conscious state.  I was expecting a pleasantry and got, instead, a profundity.  God had given her a gift and she had, in turn, given me a gift.  Gracias!  It was grace.  Thank you. 

In the moment she had become my spiritual mentor.  She had shown me how to see and how really to see such that I could understand.  I suspect most of us, like me, would not even really see leaves.  After all, in the fall season there are so many of them!  Even though they are pretty, at some point we become numb to the beauty…as unbelievable as that might seem.  Her simple words yanked me into full consciousness. 

She had seen a leaf---a lovely red leaf.  I could have seen that, too.  And perhaps, I had seen it.  But my sight and attention was merely in passing.  There would be no hint of appreciation.  Not only had she seen, but had really seen.  She stopped and picked up that leaf.  She brought it fully into her awareness.  She saw deeply.  She had been taught a significant lesson by that red leaf.  That simple leaf became a mode of God’s revelation! 

That deep appreciation in her soul led her to something both insightful and profound.  It was that simplicity, insight and profundity that enabled her to offer me the spiritual lesson I was not looking to get: “Look what God gave me.”  She had been led from the leaf to the Holy One!  And she carried the witness of that revelation in her hand and had offered it to me.  No wonder I was touched.   

It was as if she had offered me a glimpse into what God was doing to gift all of us.  But we live too much time inside---inside buildings and inside our own little lives.  We have eyes, but don’t always see much.  We may be smart, but too often we don’t know much.  I have learned.  I am now open to and looking for God’s gifts.  I am thinking they are all over the place.  Gracias!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Wonderful Spiritual Imagery

Everyone knows there are good days and there are bad days.  Sometimes we hear people say, “life has its ups and downs.”  We probably learn this lesson pretty early in life.  Actually, I think little kids experience the reality of life’s ups and downs even before they have language to explain it.  But they know it deep in the core of their beings.           

I am also sure that most of us conclude early on that there is not much we can do about those “downs” in life.  Of course, some of those less than desirable periods are of our own making.  We do stupid things and pay the price.  But there are other “downers” in life that come our way and we are no more than sitting ducks for malady.  We get sick and sometimes suffer.  I know no person who gets up and says, “boy I hope I get really sick today!”  But clearly not a day goes by when someone in the world does not experience the unfortunate sickness.           

We know that not all illnesses are sickness of the body.  For sure, there are flu seasons, heart attacks, and cancer assaulting people every day all around our globe.  Live long enough and you will die.  We all know this.  We also know there are some illnesses that are not bodily, but more psychological or even sickness of the soul.  Ask anyone who is severely depressed and we can learn this problem is just as debilitating as cancer.  And I am as sure as I can be; there are also sicknesses of the soul.  Depression is a psychological phenomenon.  Its spiritual corollary is called melancholy.  That is not a word one hears much, but it is real.  Melancholy is essentially depression of the soul.  It is an aimless soul, a lost soul.  Melancholic souls do not normally have good days!           

So is that the way it is and we simply have to deal with it?  In some sense the answer is “yes.”  Sometimes we cannot do anything about our malady.  It is hard to heal oneself from cancer or get over depression and get beyond melancholy.  Fortunately there are times of healing.  But healing is never a guarantee.           

We all know that our attitude has much to do with how we deal with those “down days.”  But I will attest, changing one’s attitude is not always easy.  I can laugh at myself when I go to the doctor’s office.  Frequently I am told, “don’t worry.”  “Too late,” I say, “I’m already worried!”  It is as if my attitude slips right out of my control.  Without knowing how it happened, my attitude has me!           

There is one alternative that I always find helpful.  It is a spiritual move.  I know I can always do it, even if I also know it is not magical.  It won’t necessarily heal me.  It may not even cause an attitudinal change.  It makes me feel better.  And more importantly, it always gives me hope.  I was reminded of all of this when I read the morning lectionary and found these refreshing words from Psalm 36.           

Psalm 36 opens with some depressing words about human beings facing evil and hard times.  But by the middle of the Psalm, we find this wonderful spiritual imagery.  The first line affirms, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!”  When we are having one of “those days,” it is refreshing to know that God’s steadfast love is there.  To me this means ultimately things will be ok.  Ultimately there is only healing and wellness. 

The next line always makes me smile.  The Psalmist assures me that “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”  If it is “all people,” then I am included.  I can’t lose.  I cannot be discounted.  If I am sick, depressed or melancholic, it does not matter.  I get to slide under those divine wings, too.  I can be safe and secure.  Ultimately I am out of harm’s way.  

The next couple lines add more fascinating imagery.  We move from under the divine wings to the house.  The Psalmist is exuberant when he says, “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.”  That complex line is brimming with imagery.  The verb is “feast.”  Feasting is not usually the verb of sickness.  We get to feast on the abundance of the divine house.  It is as if God throws open the door to the mansion and says, “Come in…it’s all yours!

And if we want to go out back, then we can drink from the river of God’s delights.  Talk about a deal!  Feasting and drinking become more than we can imagine.  But it is true. 

Finally there is yet another dramatic imagery shift.  The Psalmist says of God, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”  Now we are promised the very fountain of life.  Sickness often feels like desert and aridity.  We are taken to desolate places of body and soul.  And yet, in this very place we are given the wonderful imagery of the fountain of life and light from the very Light Itself.  For this light I am always grateful.  Sometimes it is literally the promise of help in the middle of my hell.