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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Week and Easter…Again

Even if you are a Christian, I have concluded it depends on where you are---what is your context---how aware of Holy Week and the impending Easter you are.  If you are a Christian and work in a mainly secular environment, you may be relatively unaware of Holy Week.  For many it does not dawn on them until at least Thursday.  And of course, in the secular world there is absolutely nothing special about Thursday.

But even in the secular world, Friday often assumes special connotations.  It might be a holiday---a day off.  It is at my College.  So I suppose it is the one day Jews, Muslims, atheists, and other non-Christians are thankful for their Christian brothers and sisters!  But for the Christian, Friday---Good Friday---is an interesting one.

I suspect that for many Christians Friday is simply skipped.  They see Easter a very special and nothing else really matters.  The resurrection is key for them.  Why bother with anything less.  Let’s skip sadness and depression and go straight for the joy and jubilation!

Even as a Christian, that quick move to Easter seems too easy.  It seems to me to opt for a suffering-less Jesus, and by implication, a suffering-less world.  Ever since I began studying some of this Christian faith (instead of just going to church because of family expectations), it seemed clear to me that you can’t have Sunday without Friday.  In fact, the Romans and all the oppressors throughout the ages are all-to-real to be able to skip.  There simply has been and is too much suffering to ignore.

Whatever Christianity is, I believe it is not an “ignoring religion.”  In fact, none of the major religious traditions are “ignoring religions.”  I am very aware that my Jewish sisters and brothers have already this week entered the Passover season.  Passover is that annual remembering of the Jewish suffering in Egypt and God’s liberation of God’s people.  Of course, they were liberated straight into the desert!  But that is another story for another time.

But the Jewish Passover season may well hold the key to a proper understanding of the Christian Easter celebration.  Rightly understood, I think Easter is its own story of liberation.  In this case Christians would affirm the same liberating God chose a different way of doing it.  Instead of a trip through the Red Sea, God in Jesus walked the via dolorosa (way of sorrow) straight to the cross.

You can’t get to Sunday without living (and dying) on Friday.  Knowing this impacts me in a deep way.  Who among us would not want to skip Friday and go straight to Sunday?  But it does not work this way.  The story of Easter is always the story of hope.  But it must go through Friday.  The desire to skip Friday is an option for illusion. 

What is important for me this Holy Week and Easter---important again is how it grounds me in the deeper realities of my life.  Sometimes, I think I live most of my life as if I were in Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week.  I know my own Friday will come, but I put off thinking about it.  I get too involved in my own little secular world to think about death, meaning, and ultimate purpose.  I can even live my Wednesdays without much sense that Friday is looming.

Thankfully, these seasons of Passover and Holy Week are annual events.  If I ignore or mess up this one, I get another chance next year---assuming my own Good Friday does not come.

So I want to resolve to pay attention.  I want to pay attention to fact of oppression, the suffering in reality, and the story of love’s triumph.  And then let me resolve always to be on love’s side!

                  May all be blessed; a new inspiration appears on Monday.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Planning for Serendipity

There are some words I just really like.  Serendipity is one of those words.  It is fun to say.  Especially the last part of the word, the “dipity,” is fun to pronounce.  It seems more poetic than prose, more musical than mere speech.  And I like the meaning of the word, serendipity, too.  Serendipity means finding something very good or nice---something that you were not really looking for or had any reason to expect to find.  Serendipity is always a surprise---a good surprise.  Nobody can be against serendipity.
If serendipity is something that we find that we could not have expected, it seems like the story might end at that point.  The point would be that we should appreciate serendipity when it happens.  And that would be the end of the story.  But I am not so sure.  I wonder if there is not a more creative approach to serendipity?
I pondered the question and concluded that it is possible to plan for serendipity.  I know that might sound like a contradiction.  If serendipity is unexpected and totally a gift---the unexpected---how does one plan for it?  That’s a good question, but the answer came to me.  You can plan for serendipity (in the general sense).  I don’t think you can plan for a specific serendipity.  Let me explain.
I doubt that we can plan for the serendipity of a million dollars unexpectedly falling into our laps.  That is what I mean by specific serendipity.  Having a million dollars fall into my lap would be unrealistic.  I can earn a million dollars through hard work and, perhaps, some luck.  I can play the lottery and, perhaps, win a million dollars.  But neither of these examples is serendipitous.  Hence, I do not think we can plan for specific serendipity.
I do think, however, we can plan for what I call general serendipity.  By this I mean we can do some things that put us in a place for serendipity perhaps to happen.  We cannot force serendipity, of course.  But I believe serendipity wants to happen.  I think God may be in one sense a serendipitous God.  And I think in some ways the universe that we inhabit is often serendipitous.  We can plan to be available to that God and our universe when they are serendipitous.  Again, I will elaborate.
One way to plan for serendipity is to be curious.  Being curious is an attitude.  It is a way of looking at things---a mindset, if you will.   Being curious is a particular way of being in the world.  Curiosity is a childlike wonder that we bring to all our situations.  Curious people are more engaged, more alert, more interesting.  Curious people are not bored, nor do they bore people.  There is an element of fun and frivolity in the curious people.
The second way to plan for serendipity builds on our curiosity.  Be open.  Being open makes us vulnerable to serendipity.  If we are closed people, we are less and less likely to have serendipity come our way.  Or if serendipity came our way, we would probably miss it!  Being open increases possibilities---often hugely increasing them.  Serendipity is the offspring of possibility.
The third thing we can do to plan for serendipity is to ask questions.  Curious, open people naturally are going to ask questions.  Curiosity is the force of questioning.  Openness broadens the spectrum of potential questions.  Asking a question engages any situation and enhances possibility, which as we just saw, often births serendipity.  And this leads to the last thing we do to plan for serendipity.  We listen.
It may sound so simple to say, just listen.  But is so amazing to me how little people tend to listen.  If I ask a legitimate question, then I should listen to the answer---to any answer.  Listening makes me quite receptive.  And if I truly am open, then I am very receptive.  I am not sure how much people actually listen.  Our culture is driven by a fast-paced, technological, sound bite approach to information.  Often there does not even seem to be anything to which we should listen.
So I can plan for serendipity: I become curious, be open, ask questions and listen.  Will serendipity happen?  Not necessarily.  But if and when it does happen, I am much for likely to “get it.”  And as I affirmed, I do believe God is a serendipitous God.  And I believe the universe often provides serendipity.  It is not guaranteed that I will “get it,” but if I plan for it, I enhance the likelihood that I will “get it.”
Serendipity probably is not going to be a million dollars.  It is more likely serendipity comes in the grace of intangible stuff---the grace of the Spirit.  Serendipity comes in small ways, in addition to the big, amazing ways.  In fact, I suspect that God and the universe much more often peddle serendipity in small ways.  It could be the smile from an unexpected face, the gift from an unanticipated person, and so much more.  As I try to plan for serendipity, I am surprised at how frequently I “get it.”
And when I “get it,” I can only do two things: accept it and appreciate it.  Thank God!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Spirituality: Stress Buster

We all know about stress.  Some of us live with a great deal of it.  “Relax,” they say.  “I wish I could,” is often my reply!  There are so many stress inducers in our contemporary life.  Our jobs are often good at inducing stress.  Traffic sometimes does it while we are trying to get to our jobs.  Health concerns have to be one of the major stress inducers.  And of course, relationship issues are guaranteed stress inducers. 

There are a few people who seem to me never have to worry about stress.  Maybe that is because they never have to worry.  Or they chose (somehow) not to worry.  I don’t know how they do it.  Perhaps, it is genetics.  Maybe some folks are bred to have no stress inducers.  No matter what happens, they are unflappable.  But I am not like that. 

Certainly, I think the kind of environment one grows up in has a great deal to do with stress.  No doubt parents teach us a great deal.  I do think they teach us how to stress out.  When I ponder my own home environment, I think my parents were pretty good at teaching us how to stress.   And when one is prepared to stress out, there usually are many opportunities to do it! 

I have no illusions that life can be stress-free.  No doubt, some jobs are less stressful than others.  Maybe retirement brings less stressors in our lives.  But then, health concerns likely become issues.  Many of us already know what it is like to have bad news from a physician. 

So what’s the answer?  If stress is unavoidable for most of us, what, if any, choice do we have?  I am no expert, but I do think spirituality is a key option.  I think people who are spiritual are in a better position to cope with stress than those who are not.  

Here is a good place to differentiate spirituality and religion.  I am not against religion.  I consider myself religious.  But if religion only means believing in some things, i.e. God, Jesus, etc., then that is not what I mean.  For me spirituality is first and foremost a matter of experience.  To be spiritual means that I have experienced God.  It means I hope to continue experiencing the Presence of the Holy One. 

For me spirituality can be an effective stress buster.  If I am spiritual, then I expect to have priorities in place.  If I am spiritual, then hopefully I am grounded.  Of course, it does not mean I hear bad news without being upset.  I may even feel stress.  But if I am spiritual, then I have perspective.  I am connected.  I might be rocked by bad news (or the anticipation of it), but I am not knocked out. 

Furthermore, I think being authentically spiritual means I have a sense of humor.  I recall the words of someone I know whom I consider to be spiritual.  He says, “Humor helps us adapt to stress.  Simple as that.  Stress isn't an event.  Stress is caused by our interpretation of events.  Think of it this way-what causes a stress reaction for one person, is nothing to another.  It is how we interpret an event.”

Spirituality shapes how we interpret events.  Spirituality helps me see things with a sense of humor.  It helps me not take myself too seriously.  Sometimes I am the joke!  There is such a thing as “gallows humor.”  I have had terminally ill people make me laugh so hard I cried.  They were not stressed.  They were sick.  They interpreted their situations clearly.  But they could laugh.  They were deeply spiritual. 

I want to grow into that kind of spiritual depth.  I want spirituality so clear and deep that I have a stress buster.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Spiritual Engagement

Engagement is an “in” word now in the business world.  I have read countless reports on engagement or the lack thereof in both for-profit and not-for-profit contexts.  The argument usually is making the point that engaged workers are more productive people.  And more productive people make the company reduce expenses and are more productive.  This normally goes to the bottom line and makes the company more profitable.  All that makes sense to me.

I suspect there is a similar truth in my own work place, the university.  It probably is true not only for the faculty and staff, but also for the students.  In fact, I wonder if there is not some correlation to engagement in the classroom and student learning?  I would b surprised if there is not some correlation.

Engagement is an interesting concept.  At one level, I feel like I know quite a bit about it.  I have written and spoken about it for a few years.  In fact, I feel like I was talking about engagement before it became a media hit topic.  I have followed sources like the Gallup Organization, which routinely measures the engagement of work forces and tries to correlate that to productivity and happiness.

Recently I bumped into another article in my local paper.  It was a little different look at engagement in that it focused on “trust.”  I have also written some on this issue of trust, so I was intrigued what the author, Joyce Gannon, had to say.  The opening line was interesting.  She writes, “Even when workers are passionate about the day-to-day tasks involved in their jobs, they won’t be engaged in the workplace unless they click with their immediate bosses and trust in how senior executives are leading the company.”  Gannon was referencing recent studies done by Dale Carnegie Training.
I was fascinated to read that this Carnegie study identified four emotions that link to engagement.  “Engagement increases dramatically with four variables: enthusiasm, confidence, empowerment and inspiration.”  It was not surprising to me that the study links emotions and engagement.  For example, it does not take a genius to know that someone who is very angry is not a very engaged person---either at work or at home.        

I don’t want to pursue the workplace or the home, but I was struck by the potential of this engagement study and spirituality.  Surely, I speculated, there has to be some correlation between engagement and spiritual practice and, probably, spiritual vitality.  And surely, I thought, there has to be a correlation between engagement and spiritual experience.  Of course, this does not box in God!  I assume God continues to be able to do whatever God wants to do and whenever God wants to do it.  So my speculation about engagement concerns only the human side of the Divine-human encounter.

Spiritually speaking, what does engagement look like?  In the first place, I am sure engagement means more than simply saying, “I believe in God.”  That may be true, but it is a doctrinal statement.  It does not require any engagement to have a belief.  Rather, I think engagement requires some contact, connection, communication and consequence from that God in whom I believe.  Let me detail this conviction.

I think engagement begins with contact.  Spiritually speaking, contact might happen through any number of the spiritual disciplines.  I might contact God through study, prayer, meditation, etc.  Contact requires at least some effort and repetition.  Spirituality is not some one-night stand!  My efforts to contact God do not bind God to respond when and as I want!

Secondly, repeated contact leads to connection.  Connection might be simply another word for relationship.  Through repeated contact, God and I form a relationship.  Christians might call that “discipleship.”  The words are not as important as the relationship itself.  As with all relationships, the relationship with God can deeper develop.  In fact, the depths are unfathomable.

Thirdly, the connection normally leads to communication.  At some point, God does reciprocate and God and I begin to communicate.  Again, prayer is a classical way this communication happens.  But there certainly are other ways God communicates and I do communicate as well.  And that communication does not always have to be uniquely for me.  The Bible and tradition are both treasures of Divine communication to humans.  I just need to read them for myself.

Finally engagement leads to consequences.  Engagement leads to spiritual meaning and purpose in life.  Typically it brings joy.  There should be a peace in the soul.  This peace can be our island in the midst of life’s chaos and unpredictability.  The consequence of my spiritual engagement is both simple and profound.  I am a child of God and I am loved now and forever.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Best of My Tradition

Occasionally, it is important for me and, probably for all of us, to return to our roots and revel in that.  Tradition is another word for roots.  In my case that is the Quaker tradition.  All of us grow up with some kind of tradition---or with the lack of a tradition.  Not all traditions are religious.  But we grow up with tradition.  However, at some point we usually have to decide whether that tradition is for us.  As an adult, do I still want to claim and be claimed by that tradition? 

In my case, the answer has been affirmative.  As a boy, I did not learn that much about my own Quaker tradition.  Or what is more likely, I heard a good bit about it, but did not pay much attention!  But as I grew older, I came to appreciate more and more that tradition into which I was born.  There are some really good things about that tradition. 

However, I do find that tradition challenging.  Sometimes, I am convinced Quakers of old---those founders of the tradition---were so much better at being spiritual than I am and, perhaps, so many others in our contemporary world.  For example, traditionally Quakers have a solid history of peacemaking. 

Peacemaking is not simply being afraid to fight.  It is not a philosophical-chicken way to opt out of conflict.  Peacemaking---pacifism, if you will, is an active life in the Spirit working toward harmony and healing.  The other facet of peacemaking is the restoring of things in the wake of wars and disasters. 

The best example of that can be seen in the awarding to Quakers in 1947 the Nobel Peace Prize for their post-war reconstruction work in Europe.  My tradition possesses this wonderful heritage and I love reading about it.  I am inspired by it. 

Listen to these words delivered in 1947 at the awards’ ceremony. “The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for others and the desire to help them - that rich expression of the sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race, which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the Nobel Peace Prize today.” 

I long to be able to translate into action what lies deep in my heart, namely, compassion for others and a desire to help.  If I could do that, I would be boldly walking the spiritual path.  I would be able to shed any selfishness.  I could not possibly be self-centered.  I want to live up to my tradition. 

As good as these words are, I like how the awards’ ceremony finishes.  About Quakers it was said, “But they have given us something more: they have shown us the strength to be derived from faith in the victory of the spirit over force.”  The key is faith.  Do I have faith in the victory of the spirit?  Can I translate this faith into action?  That’s the question.  That’s the challenge.

As long as it is solely a question or merely the challenge, nothing happens.  Faith is really not much until translated into action.  A challenge is hypothetical until it is really engaged and executed. 

I realize whatever I do will probably not make the news and, certainly, not win a Nobel Prize.  But I can change the world---my little corner of the world.  That’s how I can add to the best of my tradition.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Engage and Engaging

The Psalms are effective because of their language.  The language of the Psalm is rich, powerful.  It is dynamic; it moves and ebbs.  It flows.  Psalm language uses metaphors and symbols.           

The Psalms understand God as the One who engages and is engaging.  God has a will for us and seeks us.  We have a will.  The question is, will we seek God?  The life of the spirit is one of seeking and finding.           

Everyone is seeking.  The question is whether we find anything…or anyone?  Our movement through the day is seeking.  We have a job, but often are seeking another one.  We might have a job, but does it matter.  If we pay attention, there are questions all over the place.  And usually questions are a form of seeking.  For example, once upon a time, I had to take chemotherapy.  As I would go into the hospital to get the treatment, I wondered whether I would get sick?  Back in the day when I had kids, we wondered whether we would have a girl or a boy?           

The language of the Psalms helps us realize that all life is a religious pilgrimage.  I understand that not everyone would call his or her trip through life a “religious pilgrimage.”  I assume an atheist would not describe it that way.  But surely we are on a journey through life.  I call it a religious pilgrimage because I want my journey through life to have some meaning and purpose.  I don’t want to be on my deathbed and say, “Shoot, life is over and I never did anything worthwhile.”   

I know there are many different ways to imagine this life journey.  If I were to borrow an old image, I could symbolize the journey of life like a Pac Man eating up our days.  Yesterday has been gobbled.  Today is being eaten.  Tomorrow is a looming victim.  Here comes the Pac Man…chomp, chomp, chomp!           

But the Psalmist does not speak of Pac Man.  The Psalmist knows about God and speaks about that God.  God knows that we all are on a religious pilgrimage¾a seeking¾for that One who created us in the divine image.  But like Pac Man, God is after us.  God is seeking us.  God wants to engage and to be engaging.  And the result of that engaging Divine One is that we are destined to be found in the loving protection of this God who loves us.           

Much of the language of the Psalms describes this engaging God.  Some of Psalm language narrates what engaging this God brings to us.  Some Psalm language actually tells us what to do and how to behave.  There is sage advice in those 150 Psalms.  It is a good book for the religious pilgrimage.           

For example, I am stirred by the words of the early verses of Psalm 17.  It begins, “Hear, O Lord, my righteous plea; listen to my cry.”  This is our daily seeking: Hear me, Lord.  This petition beats getting out of bed and saying, “Good morning!”  I am going to try to follow this advice.  I want to pop out of bed and say, “Hear, O Lord…hear my plea, O Lord.  Be present to me this day.  God be with me on my way.”   

The eighth verse of Psalm 17 finishes my prayer.  “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”  I love this language.  I am sure some folks have heard these words and had no clue it was in the Bible---in the Psalms.  It is nice to know this.  It is even better to act on this knowledge.   

To act on it would move us to offer ourselves to this God¾we are apples in God’s eyes and we hide from harm under protective wings.  To be the apple of God’s eyes means that you and I are precious.  We have this treasure in earthen vessels.  After getting out of bed and engaging the Holy One, I want to stay engaged throughout my day.  I want to say to God, “Hear, O Lord---and keep hearing me.”  I ask God to be present to me throughout the day.  And with this Divine Presence, I pray that I can be present---present to all those who come my way.  I want to be present to all the opportunities that are given me.
I want this day to be a day that really counts on my religious pilgrimage through life.  Just as I don’t want to be on my deathbed and be disappointed, neither do I want to go to sleep tonight and be disappointed. 

Not only do I want to win my life’s race, I want to win the race today.  The neat thing about winning my race is that does not mean you have to lose your race.  In God’s world, every one of us can be a winner!  What does it mean to be a winner?  This is where I turn back to my sense that the journey for me is a religious pilgrimage.  

A winner on this pilgrimage to be a winner is to be caring and loving with those with whom you engage.  It is to live with justice and to bring justice to every situation you can.  Winning is to become a peacemaker.  You seek to bring harmony to your little world.  And finally, you become a blessing and your presence blesses.    


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Other Side of Something

I sat down this morning to write something.  I always hope it is somehow inspirational for the folks who read this.  I know there are different ways to be inspired.  Sometimes inspiration is simply gaining some knowledge.  Sometimes inspiration is more motivational.  It can move someone to be or to do something.  Sometimes inspiration is assurance.  There’s a lot to be said spiritually speaking to be assured.  I know how easy it is to feel unsure---to experience doubt.  After all, spirituality does not deal in certainties.  It is more about faith and less about certainty.
So I sat down to write something spiritual---something inspirational.  Often something immediately comes and I am like a vessel of the Spirit.  Words spill out of my fingers stroking the computer keys.  It is as if I am inspired and that same inspiration literally is transferred to the screen.  Other times, it is more deliberate, but it is nevertheless inspirational.  I have an idea and it is developed---more slowly, but surely.
This time I sat down to write something inspirational---and nothing!  Instead of something, I had nothing.  I could fake it.  I have enough knowledge to fill a couple pages!  But that would be a couple of pages without heart---without spirit.  It would be finished, but it would not be fair.  If we are dealing with inspiration, we should avoid faking it.
So it seemed like I was stuck with nothing, instead of something.  Nothing would look pretty barren on your computer screen! What can you do with nothing?  Not much, apparently.  Nothing is not a good thing.  Think about your bank account or empty kitchen cabinets.  When it comes to money and food, nothing is not good news.
But then, it began to hit me.  Perhaps when we are dealing with the spiritual, it is different.  I waited to see if inspiration might come.  Gradually, I realized that spiritually speaking, nothing is the other side of the coin from something.  Maybe when it comes to the spiritual, nothing is not bad news.  Spiritually speaking, nothing is different news and, just maybe, good news.  Let’s pursue this.
I began to sense the rich history in nothingness.  Nothing is the other side of the coin of something.  I think our American culture assumes there always is something; we don’t do nothing very well.  Somehow nothing seems disappointing, if not downright failure.  Why would someone want nothing when that person could have something?  Let’s see.
I began to get a spiritual sense for nothing.  Nothing is like rest.  It is at least a pause.  Nothing allows me to relax.  Nothing moderates or, even, eradicates my busyness.  Nothingness can be restorative.  It is like a balm for the disquieted soul.  To have nothing, spiritually speaking, allows me to be and quit doing.  Nothing eases the pressure of doing---of performing and of perfection.  Perhaps that is a key spiritual lesson of nothingness: learning to be.
A second valuable spiritual aspect of nothing---instead of something---is the fact that nothing allows me to relax focus.  Nothing provides a space---and openness and even vastness---that something does not allow space.  To have something always focuses us---maybe even pinpoint focus.  Something is always this and not that.  But nothing is not focused.  It is spacious. 
The spaciousness of nothing allows us to relax and breathe.  In fact, we can breathe very deeply.  I would even suggest nothing allows spiritual depth and breadth that something never allows---something is always too focused.
As I write these words, I recall how some of the contemplatives---the mystics---of the church were “people of nothing.”  I think of St. John of the Cross, who talks about “night.”  Night becomes an image for nothing, but I can almost hear St. John yelling in my ear: nothing has no image!  An image is something.  You cannot image nothing with something.  And I believe he is correct.
So if I am getting nothing, I relax into that spaciousness.  I don’t need anything---no words, no images and no ideas.  Nothing is literally no-thing---the other side of the coin of some-thing.  To have nothing is to have a chance---a great spiritual chance.  You have the chance to be graced and gifted in remarkable ways.  In the spirit of St. John of the Cross, nothing will lead us into and through the dark night of the soul.  We will be led into the deep mystery that is the Holy One.
There in that deep mystery---we will know nothing!  When you know nothing, words are of no use…experience is everything.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

Part of my spiritual discipline is to follow the Catholic, Benedictine litany.  As I have confessed before, when I was younger, I had no clue what a litany was.  Essentially the litany is daily planned readings.  It includes Bible readings, always involving multiple Psalms and other short readings.  I like the litany because it gives me a plan.  It engages me and I can “do it” without having to think about things.  It is both an effective and efficient way for me to practice some spiritual discipline.
Why I also like using this litany is the fact that the various saint days are indicated.  Again when I was younger, I did not do saints.  Quakers never talked about saints, except maybe for someone like St. Paul.  But he wrote some parts of the New Testament, so obviously he was special.  Other saints were unknown to me.
I began my saint learning in college and graduate school.  When I took my first church history class, I encountered some of the biggies---saints like Augustine, Thomas, and others.  Moving on into graduate school, I met even more of the saints.  I even wrote a doctoral dissertation on one such saint---St. Athanasius of Alexandria, a fourth century church leader who was a rather amazing guy.  This has set me up to look for the various saints, as their days come up, and to let them inspire and teach me.
Today I was pleased to see that one of my favorites, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, was being honored.  Cyril is also a fourth century church leader.  In fact, he and my dissertation guy, Athanasius, would have known each other and worked for similar ecclesiastical causes.  They were leaders in two of the most important Christian cities in the world: Jerusalem and Alexandria.  The only other major city would have been Rome.
On this saint day for Cyril, allow me to share some of the key points in his life and his witness.  One of the stories I like about Cyril narrates the time he sold furniture during a period of a famine.  This caused Cyril to be exiled from Jerusalem.  Actually, I find this a laudable thing for a church leader to do.  I think all spiritual people are called to love and care for each other.  Surely, this is true for religious leaders.  In times of duress, certainly some bold measures are required.  This is a lesson Cyril has taught me.  It is a lesson of courage and prudence---he is both bold and wise. 
Theologically the 4th century was a tumultuous time.  Much of what Christians today would consider “orthodoxy” (or right belief) was being hammered out in this century.  There were also some church gatherings---or councils---that ratified this church belief.  For example, if you go to a contemporary church---Catholic, Episcopal, etc.---that recites the Nicene Creed, you are reciting a creed written and published in the 4th century.
Many believers today may not care that much about “orthodoxy,” but it has been an important issue.  And of course, many other Christian believers care deeply about “orthodoxy,” and these people deem the issue crucial to the faith.  Whatever position I may take on “orthodoxy,” I appreciate that someone like Cyril was right in the middle of the conversation that was to determine what “orthodoxy” would be.  I understand the need of the whole group of believers to come up with some kind of statement.  In effect, it is a bit like a mission statement that many institutions have to write.
The most famous written document from Cyril’s pen is called the Catecheses.  For a Quaker like myself, this is a very strange word.  But then I learned Latin and realized it means “teachings” or “instructions.”  The word is plural.  So these are lectures Cyril delivered in his congregations to people who were being instructed in the faith in order to be baptized.  This teaching would have happened in Lent—the time of preparation.  A few of the lectures also would have come during the week of Easter. 
I see Cyril here in his pastoral role.  He was taking those who were new to the faith and helping them come into the community.  In this he was mentor, encourager, and supporter.  I appreciate the importance of community.  And he was the visible leader of that community.  I would argue that community is always an important ingredient of the spiritual pilgrimage.
I fear today that too many people claim to be spiritual and also claim they can do it anyway they want.  After all, in their minds it is a solitary journey with their own set of rules and belief system.  Of course, people can do it any way they want.  But this version of solitariness is unprecedented and perhaps represents some of the rampant individualism of contemporary culture.  I personally cannot imagine a spiritual smorgasbord of pick and choose.
I appreciate the fact and function of tradition to ground me in something larger than myself.  I value the community that conserves and makes available this tradition.  And I am thankful for St. Cyril of Jerusalem and a host of others who developed the tradition that welcomes me.  I hope to do my part to support and serve others with this tradition and not strangle them.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Spiritual Challenge

I don’t usually pick up the newspaper and expect to be spiritually challenged.  I expect to read the sports pages, check out the news (which is normally a repeat of what I already know from the internet) and look at the obituary section to see who has left us.  Almost never am I spiritually challenged.  Even if there is some religion in the news, it is not often spiritually challenging.
So I was unaware of what was coming when I innocently began to read an article in the “Arts” section!  The article focused on the writer, Ann Pratchett.  She is a fairly famous contemporary writer, although I do know that much about her.  But that did not affect how challenging the article about her was going to be. 
I should have known something challenging was coming when the article began with these words.  “Ann Pratchett does not Tweet.  She does not post on Facebook.  She does not text, or even talk on her cellphone…”  Normally if you were describing this kind of person, you would be describing an old monk or a very old person who is probably “out of it!”  But she is neither.  She was born in 1963, which makes her really young (compared to me!) and she is married, living in Nashville with her physician husband.  So by all accounts, she should be normal!
Then I realized I was already tricked.  I just defined “normal” to be any person who talks on a cellphone, texts, posts on Facebook and is on Twitter!  Of course, most of the people I know do all four of these things.  And I do many of them.  And of course, I am normal and most of my friends are normal, so Ann Pratchett must be abnormal.  I could have dismissed her if this were it.  But I read on and was captivated by her reasoning.
I had to giggle when she was quoted to say, “I really regret even going on email.  I consider it one of my biggest mistakes of my life.  It’s this black hole...So, what, I’m going to expand on that mistake and go on Facebook?”  I giggled again.  That is spiritual wisdom, if I ever heard any.  Spiritual wisdom is always clear about how we spend time and how thoughtful we are about the things we choose to give out attention.
Part of me wanted to stop reading the article and run away to my normalcy.  But I was hooked.  So I read on, only to confront this next spiritual Pratchett observation.  She said, “the distractions of Twitter and the rest are like party chitchat, when the writing mind wants deep conversation, and the writing soul wants quiet and solitude.”  Ugh, I think I spend too much time with “party chitchat!”  I know I have a “writing mind” and a “writing soul.”  These are just particular forms of being spiritual.
Every spiritual person has a similar kind of “mind” and “soul.”  I know this and value its truth for who I am and want to be.  But Ann Pratchett has challenged me in unexpected ways.  Part of her challenge is innocently asking me whether there is a discrepancy between what I say I want and, then, how I spend my time? 
The problem is not “party chitchat.”  The problem is me!  I am not going to give up email.  I don’t plan to throw away my cellphone.  In fact, I have a smart phone that can give me any spiritual material I might want to read.  But it is I that more likely would choose to pull up some dribble---some party chitchat---on that phone. 
Ann Pratchett’s spiritual challenge to me is not to be like her.  I am always a bit suspicious of spiritual mimicry.  The illusion of this mimicry is the assumption that if I give up Facebook (which I don’t have) and my smartphone, I will get a more profound “writer’s soul.”  Rather her challenge to me is to become more attentive to how I spend time.  After all, when God gives me a new day, it is only twenty-four hours.  It is a gift, but a limited gift.  My only real choice is to use it or abuse it.
Seldom do I think of myself as an abuser.  I am not an abuser in the normal sense of that word.  But I am sometimes an abuser in my use of time.  I know the value of quiet and solitude for my own soul work.  I know the beauty and value of deep conversation.  I also know I have never had deep conversation via email.  Certainly the 140-character limitation of Twitter does not constitute deep conversation.
Ann Pratchett’s spiritual challenge to me is not to do anything drastic or dramatic.  I don’t even need new answers or more advice.  I already know what to do to become more spiritually connected and deep.  Knowledge is not the problem.  Commitment and practice are always the issues. 
I remember so well the wisdom of Quaker Thomas Kelly.  When we come up short, be gentle with ourselves.  Begin again.  Begin where you are.  Take it slowly.  Practice the spiritual steps you want for the day.  And when you are given the gift of another day, do it again.  Like life, the spiritual journey is taken one step at a time.  I suspect Ann Pratchett would simply smile---which would be her quiet “yes.”

Friday, March 15, 2013

Night Wisdom

I find it helpful to have a rhythm in my spiritual discipline.  For one thing that helps me from getting stale in my practice.  This was a major question of mine when I began taking the spiritual journey seriously in my college days.  I wondered how people could “be at it” their entire lives.  This was even before I knew anything about monks and the monastic life.  For sure, I would have known how they could possibly do it.
Probably my wondering was rooted in an already too Americanized version of what it takes to have an interesting life.  In the beginning it seemed like I was facing a choice: an interesting life vs. a spiritual life!  If the choice is posed that way, it is not difficult to understand why most people would choose an interesting life!  Or it is easy to understand why most of us would choose an interesting life until we are old or sick.  And then we naturally shift to the spiritual life!  Nothing like a move of desperation to drive us to God!
Of course this is a false choice.  But if we are ignorant of the meaning of the spiritual journey, it will always seem like a poor choice to an interesting life.  At least my stereotype of the spiritual life was one imbued with too much seriousness, too little fun, hardly any adventure and friends that were not able to make it in more relevant ways in life.  Opting for the spiritual was not a bad choice, but quite frankly it was seemingly a sad choice.
And then a funny thing happened.  I started feeling pulled by the Spirit. Instead of needing the Spirit, I felt like I wanted it.  I began to have a sense that my own life would not make as much sense if I lived it on my own.  I had a sense that there was a “more” to life and that “more” was directly tied to the Spirit of God.  Instead of being a sad choice to an otherwise interesting life, I realized not to opt for the spiritual journey would be stupid.
I am many things, but stupid I am not!  So in those college days I began those tentative steps onto the spiritual path.  I did not know what I was doing; I had no roadmap.  But I knew in my heart this was an important thing to do.  And along the way, I began to become aware that having begun the spiritual journey did not mean I had to give up an interesting life.  I could have both! 

I am getting older and still am trying to choose both: spiritual life and an interesting life.  I hope I am getting a bit wiser in the process.  At least I am still “at it.”  I am still after the “more” that I know is a fruit of the spiritual process.  And serendipitously, I often wind up getting “more” out of the interesting life that I am pursuing.  I feel like I am in a pleasant place of compounding interest!
To keep “at it” spiritually speaking means that discipline is embraced as a source of vitality rather than drudgery.  I now understand why the monks go about life the way they do.  Their discipline and way of life are not guarantees of spiritual success.  But those two words probably should not be used together.  Spirituality is not about success.  It is about connection, communication and communion.  Discipline guides and feeds this process.  I have gotten that much wisdom.
So last night when I was reading the words from the litany for Compline (Night Prayer), I was pleased to hit upon these words from Psalm 16.  I resonated with the Psalmist when I read, “I will bless the Lord who gave me understanding; even in the night my heart will teach me wisdom.” (16:7)  Another translation says “in the night also my heart instructs me.”  I like both ideas: wisdom and instruction.  In Hebrew it is the same word, but I like both options to understand spiritually what can happen at night.
Then I laughed because I caught myself assuming something.  I read night and immediately thought about sleep.  I wondered how I could be given wisdom or instruction while I am asleep?  Dreams, I wondered?  But it hit me.  Why do I assume that night has to mean being asleep? 
I have decided to interpret the line from the Psalm to fit my own situation right now.  During the day the Lord gives me understanding.  I am thankful for that.  At night my heart will teach me wisdom.  At night my heart instructs me.  Right now I want to take that to mean I will take some time at night (my Compline time) to allow God’s understanding to be distilled into wisdom. 
I like the image of fermentation.  At night as I ease into rest, I will allow the fermenting of the day’s learning and understanding to become wisdom.  Perhaps the wisdom is the key to the “more” I sensed was possible at the beginning of my spiritual journey.  No wonder it takes so much time.  I am glad I did not wait until I am old or sick!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Habemus Papam Franciscum

It is always risky to use a Latin title.  On one hand, it looks stupid because no one today understands or uses Latin except for a bunch of old Catholic guys in obscure places like Catholic seminaries, monasteries and in Rome.  On the other hand, it could look pompous to suggest that I know Latin and, therefore, know something special.  Certainly this is not the case.
I do know some Latin, although the older I get, the more rusty it becomes!  I like knowing some foreign languages.  By and large, Americans tend not to know foreign languages—which can be our own form of arrogance.  I like Latin because it is a universal language.  It is the universal language of the Roman Catholic Church---all 1.2 billion of those Catholics!  Obviously not all the billion+ Catholics know Latin.  But they are part of an amazingly large group who do have a “common language” known as Roman Catholicism.
I am not Catholic, although I do consider myself one who lives at the fringe of the Catholic Church.  I have been watching with sincere interest the process of choosing a new leader---a new pope.  Every time there is a leadership transition, it gives an institution a fresh start.  This is the case with the Catholic Church.  Any institution as old as the Roman Church welcomes another opportunity to freshen itself.  We are early in a new century and, like so many times before, this century will be a challenge for the Church.  This is true for all churches, not only the Roman Catholic Church.  It is probably true for other faith traditions, like Judaism, but today’s message needs to have a sharper focus on the Catholic Church.
Yesterday I was delighted and excited when I saw the white smoke, which signaled the choice of the new pope.  Soon the announcement was made: there was a new pope.  And then came the drama of the introduction: Habemus Papam Franciscan.  Because I know Latin, I gasped.  At first, I did not think I heard it correctly.  The first two words---habemus papam---mean, “we have a pope.  I did not get the fact that the new pope had chosen the name, Francis.  That had never happened.  At first blush, I thought they had chosen a Franciscan.  I gasped again because the Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley, is a Franciscan.  He was my favorite, partly because he is Franciscan. 
But alas, it was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires---the new Pope Francis.  The impact began to hit me.  A Latin Church leader had been chosen.  He is the first American---a South American---to be chosen.  He also opted to be named after my favorite saint---Saint Francis, the Italian thirteenth century friar.  St. Francis is the “bird lover,” with whom kids identify.  He is the “nature saint,” as I like to think.  More importantly, St. Francis abandoned the world’s ways to pursue a life devoted to serving others.
St. Francis is best known for his life of simplicity and poverty.  It is this which makes him a favorite among my own Quaker group.  We, too, give attention to simplicity.  Simplicity is an exceedingly important message to deliver and to live in a world increasingly fractured by the rich-poor divide.  And that a new pope from a developing world would choose this name and this Franciscan symbolism, I find exciting.
As I began to absorb the news, I realized something significant was happening.  Not only did the Roman Cardinal Conclave choose a new leader for the Roman Catholic Church.  In fact, they chose a new world leader for all of Christianity.  And perhaps, they have chosen a new leader for all the faithful in the world---Christian or not.  Habemus Papam Franciscum---we have a new pope, Francis.  May he imbibe the spirit of St. Francis and, then, imbue the Church and the world with that selfsame spirit.
I truly hope he continues his ways.  When he was chosen Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he did not live in the fancy quarters.  He had an apartment.  He cooked his own food.  He rode the bus instead of taking the car with the chauffer.  I want him to be so powerfully filled with the Spirit that when it is over, he also will be St. Francis!
I truly hope that all of us---Catholic and non-Catholic---can follow his leadership.  Let us work for social justice.  Enable us to care and to share with all those in need and the needy.  Give us the courage to include, instead of exclude. 
I realized yesterday that I felt included in the announcement.  Habemus---we have.  I want to be one of the “we.”  It is first person plural.  Certainly Catholics have a new pope.  But we all do.  Now it is the time in faith and humility to begin the work---the Kingdom work.  Count me in.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My Granddaughter---My Teacher

It is with considerable trepidation that I write about my granddaughter.  Certainly it is not that she embarrasses me.  To the contrary, I am very proud of her.  That is one of the roles of grandparents, as I have learned from others.  Of course, she is cute, smart, and about the most amazing young kid of this century!  And of course, that is totally biased and ungrounded, but that is my prejudice.
Actually writing about my grandkid is something like pulling out too many photos of her and subjecting a friend with more photos than the one picture he or she probably is willing to look at.  I know it takes longer to read this than it would take to look at one picture and say something like, “that’s nice!”
I have begun to realize that my granddaughter is becoming my teacher.  That is probably not surprising to Christians and other faithful people who actually know their Bible and have a deep sense of the spiritual life.  Jesus was pretty clear about the role and function of kids.  Maybe I learned these lessons with my own kids, but obviously I have forgotten them.  But maybe our own kids are not the same kind of teachers as grandkids become.  It’s probably not the kid.  More likely is the fact that I am getting old enough to learn something!  At least, that is my hope!
So what is my granddaughter teaching me?  My easy answer is she is teaching me nothing special and, yet, she is teaching me everything.  Let me be specific.  Here is what she is teaching me.  Be simple.  Be curious.  Be alert and pay attention.  And finally, have fun.  Let’s look at each one of these four lessons and see how spiritual and meaningful they are.  If I can learn and practice these, I am going to grow spiritually.  And probably you will grow, too.
I like the first one: be simple.  It doubtlessly strikes many folks as immature or even un-American!  After all, if we are smart and successful, life should be busy, complex, very demanding.  These kinds of people would likely find the charge to be simple as stupid.  Simplicity gets confused with boring.  Nothing could be further from the truth.
I equate simplicity with clarity of vision and purpose.  Simplicity means I have some focus.  Spiritually speaking, I know my center and live life from this center.  Simplicity means that I can be active, but not frazzled.  If I can stay centered, life can even deliver curve balls and usually make people crazy…and somehow we manage just fine.  If I am simple, it is easy to have enough---enough of everything I need.  And in this case, no need to go stupidly chasing things I don’t need.
My granddaughter’s second lesson is to be curious.  She really has that one down!  I am willing to bet that curiosity is the key to learning, growing, and excelling.  I would like to be excellent in discovering and following my spiritual path.  That is the only “A” I now would like to receive.  I won’t get a transcript with grades, but my life becomes my transcript.  If I make the grade, I will know a great deal about the Divine One and I will have rich experiences of that Holy One.  Because so much of the spiritual journey is a journey into Mystery, I need curiosity to fuel the quest.
Her third lesson sounds spiritual.  In fact, it makes me think she is a budding Buddhist!  Be alert and pay attention.  Thich Nhat Hanh or any of the other Buddhists I read could not have said it more clearly.  Be alert.  Don’t daydream spiritually speaking.  Don’t go to sleep and don’t sleepwalk through life.  Life is happening, whether or not you are alert to it.  And pay attention.  There is profundity and serendipity happening all around you.  God is present for those who can “see.”  God is love…so don’t miss out on this great gift.  My granddaughter does not even need words to tell me all this.  I just watch her and know.  And I know I can do the same thing.
Finally, this is my granddaughter at her best: have fun!  Maybe kids start off being wise---they are little sages.  And then we put them in school to get smart and gain knowledge.  Nothing wrong with that.  But I think the spiritual journey is more about wisdom and less about knowledge.  In fact, I suspect one cannot be wise without being spiritual.  Have fun.
I have known too many people who think that you can’t possibly have fun if you are spiritual.  In fact, it is as if you should have fun in life and, then, when you get old (and if you have to), you get spiritual.  Hence this counsel would be to have fun as long as you can.  Then when you get sick or are about to die, then become spiritual.  Such a view, I believe, has a warped sense of what fun is and, certainly, what being spiritual means.
I look at my granddaughter.  She has fun.  She likes people and likes being with people.  She likes being outside and enjoying nature.  She laughs a great deal. She smiles easily.  She appreciates routine and revels in surprises.  She is amazingly open to new things and, yet, holds on to the good friends of her past, i.e. Pooh Bear!  This is sage advice.  I suspect Jesus would have told me pretty similar stuff.  If I do this, I am going to have some fun.
Thanks kid for the spiritual lesson.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

My Friends and Merton’s Friends

I am preparing for some lectures that will come soon enough.  The main focus is on Thomas Merton, the very well known Trappist monk who died very tragically in 1968.  As I have proclaimed before, I think it could be argued that Merton was the most famous Roman Catholic of last century.  I am sure some would argue that Pope John Paul II would edge out Merton as the most famous one.  That would be an interesting discussion since John Paul had such a long and distinguished tenure as Pope (1978-2005).  And of course, so many people today still fondly remember him.  Since Merton died nearly a half century ago, not that many people remember him.
I never met Merton.  But I do know a couple of the older monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Merton was a monk, who joined the monastery when Merton was the novice master.  Since they knew the Merton of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, this was the Thomas Merton who had grown so much spiritually and in so many other ways.
The later Merton was a man very much involved in the ecumenical movement within Christian circles.  He had lauded the work of Vatican II (now celebrating it 50th anniversary).  Vatican II had opened the Catholic Church to the outside, non-Catholic world.  There still are repercussions from this bold conciliar conference headed by another beloved pope, Pope John XXIII.  One result of this was the encounter of non-Catholics with the whole monastic movement.
It accounts for how I, a Quaker farm boy from Indiana, could ultimately wind up a Benedictine oblate---that is, a lay Benedictine monk.  Who would have thought it!  And this brings me to my story.  I was friends of a Quaker couple who also met and had become friends with Merton.  They were probably Merton’s age, but they did not die an untimely young death, so I got to know them in the later part of the 20th century.
Douglas and Dorothy Steere were “big names” in Quaker circles.  Douglas was a long-time philosophy professor at Haverford College near Philadelphia.  The Steeres had been invited to be official observers at Vatican II.  So we have a number of communications from Douglas and his time in Rome during that amazing gathering.  The Steeres were very interested in the mystical tradition. And that led them to some people in the monastic world, especially those monks from the more contemplative tradition.  It is clear there is some common ground between the spiritual tradition that focuses on contemplation and Quaker spirituality.  That certainly is what drew me to my interactions with Douglas and Dorothy Steere. In some ways they were spiritual heroes for a budding young Quaker teacher, scholar and just human.
It was with real interest, then, when I hit the following passage in one of Merton’s many journals.  It is an entry dated February 5, 1962.  I was still a high school kid, doubtlessly more focused on basketball than on theological basics!  But it soon would connect more deeply with my life.  In retrospect, I can only wish I had been present that morning Merton met this Quaker couple.  But we do have Merton’s words.
Merton writes that “Douglas Steere and his wife were here this morning and I had a pleasant chat with them.”  Merton had not yet been granted permission to move to his hermitage, so he would have met Douglas and Dorothy somewhere on the monastic grounds.  However, it is what follows that so intrigues me.  Merton continues to note, “I liked them both and she especially struck me as a very spiritual person and a very typical Quaker, or what one imagines to be so.  Very simple, direct, earnest, completely good.”
Douglas was the famous guy---professor, author, etc.  Yet it was the spirit of Dorothy that captured Merton.  And that was Dorothy, as I knew her.  I would like to think she was “a very typical Quaker,” but that is probably to give all of us Quakers too much credit!  I love the descriptive words Merton uses of Dorothy Steere (and hopefully of all Quakers).  She was very simple.  Of course this is not a reference to her intellect.
She was direct.  Dorothy was engaging and deep.  She had a compelling spirit that drew you into a sacred orbit that simplified you, too.  She had a centering effect on people.  She was earnest.  This does not mean she was some kind of sourpuss.  In fact she had twinkling eyes and a ready smile.  But is was not syrupy, superficial crap!  She was authentic.
Completely good is hard to fathom.  Did that mean she never sinned?  I hardly think so.  To be completely good suggests to me a pure heart with matching intentionality to be good and to work for the good.  If she were to fail, she would to make that good and move on.
I would like to become this kind of typical Quaker.  I hope all the Catholics and Methodists and, even, atheists can also strive to become typically that kind of human being.  The world will become such an amazing good place then.  At that point we all will be friends.