Friday, June 28, 2013

Seasons of My River

I have a little river that flows right by my back deck at my house.  Even with my baseball days long gone, I could still easily sit in my chair and throw a baseball and hit the river.  It is that close.  I like having that little river.  In fact, most days I am not even sure it is a river.  Much of the time, it is hardly more than a creek.

I am not even sure why I call it “my” little river.  I don’t own any deed to the river.  I don’t even think it is on my property.  More than likely, it marks the boundary of what is “mine.”  Even to use possessive language about land strikes me as a bit odd.  Of course, I know about laws, property rights, deeds, etc.  And of course, I really don’t want someone coming into ”my house” in the middle of the night to claim some space.  I understand why I have locks on my doors.

And yet, a big part of me thinks all the property---all the land, creeks, rivers, mountains and everything else---is really God’s.  For me to be part of nature is a gift.  It is a good gift.  I have been lucky to live in this land of plenty.  The natural world that surrounds me is gracious.  It is fertile; there is sufficient water.  The trees surrounding my place are wonderfully luxurious in many different ways.  I have been blessed.

And there is that little river---my little river.  It flows on and on.  It is symbolic in many ways, I have concluded.  It is a teacher.  I can be its student.  If I open myself to its teaching, I can learn a great deal.  In fact, I believe it is a source of wisdom for the one willing to become wise.  I want to be open to its wisdom.

One of the things I am convinced is true about my little river is that it has seasons.  Of course, you might say.  It goes through spring and summer, fall and winter just like anything else in nature in my part of the world.  That is true, but it is not what I mean my seasons.  Let me elaborate.

By the season of my little river, I mean the surging and flagging of the river flow.  My little river is quite sensitive to what is going on.  Normally, it is just my little river.  It flows rather steadily---without much ado.  It is easy to overlook in these normal times.  There is movement, but little drama.  There is action, but little reaction is elicited.  In these normal times, I have to be aware and alert if I want to learn anything from my little river.

It can teach me much about how to deal with normal times.  It is quietly effective as a river---moving water effortlessly along.  That teaches me how to be effective in my own normal times.  After all, most of my time is normal.  Most of my time is not dramatic.  I want to continue to learn how to be steady, effective and productive in my own routine times.  That would be a great accomplishment. 

That goes for my own spiritual life, too.  Most of my spiritual life is pretty normal---little drama or fanfare.  I want that to be solid and effective.  I want my own spiritual journey to be as steady as the flow of my little river.

Then there are the times when heavy rains come.  Heavy rains alter the normalcy of my little river.  My little river is quickly sensitive to environmental changes.  When heavy rains come, my little river turns into a tiger!  My little river becomes a pretty big, almost raging river.  The noise level elevates significantly.  It begins to sound like I am at the ocean.  There is rushing water and crashing sounds like waves hitting a wall.  That little river becomes robust and rambunctious.  To be in that river would be like climbing on a bucking bronco!

There are also seasons of my spirit.  There have been a few times when the fresh winds of the Spirit have blown so strongly, that I was deeply moved.  These are the times that I feel mighty and capable of really big things.  In these seasons, I want to imitate my little river.  I want to be responsive and become spiritually effective.  I want to make things happen---to make a difference.

And then there are the times when it gets dry and the dry season may become extended.  During these seasons my little river shrivels.  Its movement slows drastically.  It still flows, but it conserves energy---seemingly settling in order to sustain itself through dry periods.  It has less to give, but is nevertheless an impressive teacher.  My little river knows how to make it through dry, thin times.  It will survive and thrive.

What a great template for soul work.  Anyone who has been at soul work for a while knows there will be those dry times.  We know that even though we go through the motions of spiritual discipline, there may be little or no movement of the Spirit.  My little river teaches me to be patient and to stay with it.  My little river never gets mad and quits flowing.  “Stay within yourself,” I can hear it tell me during these times.

I value having such a wonderful teacher within a baseball throw.  It is mine.  I do not pay for the education and formation.   Like most things in God’s nature, it is gift.  It is a form of grace given liberally to me---and anyone else who wants to be open and see.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Internal Pawnshop

I have been reading a book by one of my favorite monks, Thomas Merton.  As many would know, Merton has been around in my life for quite some time, even though he died in 1968.  I never met Merton, although I feel like I know him.  He wrote quite prolifically before his untimely death in his early 50s.  One book I had never read is The Sign of Jonas.

In this book Merton used the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, as a kind of alter ego.  Many of you will know Jonah as that prophet whom God chose to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Babylonian empire.  Instead of obeying God, Jonah took off in the opposite direction!  He climbed aboard a ship, which soon ran into bad weather.  Feeling like he was to blame, Jonah was tossed into the sea, upon which he was swallowed by a giant fish.  Symbolically, he keeps getting farther away from and deeper from God.  This is an interesting comparison for Merton to be making.

I don’t want to focus on any particular content from the book.  Instead I was struck again how felicitously Merton is able to turn the phrase in his writing.  He uses images and metaphors that capture my imagination.  In many ways he writes with a kind of graphic presentation that enables the reader to identify with the material.  And then, the reader is able to make the ideas his or her own.  It can be quite moving.

Other times, I find Merton to be quite funny.  He will say something that makes me laugh out loud.  I ran into one such phrase as I was reading today.  The selection comes from the year, 1947.  He has been a monk at Gethsemani for about six years.  He is coming to the point where he makes solemn vows to remain a monk at that monastery for the duration of his life.  He tells the reader that he has been spending some time focusing on a different religious order than his own, namely the Carmelites.

The thing he picks up in his reading is the Carmelite focus on poverty.  He has high praise for the seriousness with which the Carmelites take up poverty as their ideal.  And then Merton says, “…I wish I were poor.  Yet I do not want to wish I were poor in a way that might imply that I thought myself rich.  I am not rich.”  I read along and felt like I understood what Merton was saying, although it did not seem surprising or unusual for a Cistercian like him to be for poverty.  I am sure he was not rich.

Then came the sentence that made me laugh.  Merton wrote, “I just sit in my little pawnshop of second-rate emotions and ideas, and most of the time they make me slightly sick.”  As I reflected on it, I am not sure why I laughed.  In some ways Merton is being melodramatic.  Then I realized that I laughed because of the way he had expressed himself.  It may not be that he is comparing himself to the Carmelites.  It may be more the fact that he is expressing the fact that he has some growing and developing to do.  I can resonate with that!

Merton uses a graphic image to convey how he sees himself.  He pictures himself sitting in his “little pawnshop of second-rate emotions and ideas.”  That is a powerful description of his situation, as he assesses it.  I am impressed with this description because it would never occur to me to use the image of a “pawnshop.”  As with most great images, you get exactly what the point is.

A pawnshop is, indeed, rather second-rate.  I get the image of a seedy kind of place.  I don’t think I have ever been in a real pawnshop, but from the movies a pawnshop is rather old, musty and exists for the downtrodden.  There is nothing in a pawnshop that is first-rate.  It is all second-hand kind of stuff.  When Merton applies this image to himself, I don’t laugh any more.

Merton talks about his pawnshop of second-rate emotions and ideas.  This poignancy tugs at my heart.  In a real way he is saying he has no primary ideas or personal emotions.  His ideas and feelings are second-rate---borrowed from someone else.  This is a kind of dependency that is not necessarily bad, but is certainly sad.  In a way Merton is confessing that he has not yet found his own voice---his authenticity.

Of course, I don’t know whether he meant it this way.  But it is how I read him.  Perhaps this is because some part of me resonated with the image of the pawnshop.  I wonder whether part of me also is not sitting in my own little pawnshop of second-rate ideas and emotions?  Am I content with borrowing someone else’s ideas of God, spirituality and meaning in life?  Or am I working authentically on my own experience of the Holy One?

Am I pursuing life deeply enough to have my own first-hand engagement with the Cosmic Giver of Life in such a way that I can be transformed into the amazing person God wants me to be?  I don’t want to be content playing hinky-dinky spiritual games.  I want to be bold for the spiritual gold.  Of course, it is not the Olympics.  But it is a journey in search for the way, the truth, and the life.  I don’t want to settle for some pawnshop of second-rate stuff.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Second Half Spirituality

The title of the reflective piece may suggest spirituality and sports.  They may be related, but that is not my intention.  Actually, the idea for this piece came in an extended article I found yesterday at cnn.com.  Now that in and of itself is a little unusual.  One typically does not find spirituality articles at CNN.  Certainly, one usually does not find spirituality articles being highlighted on the home page.  But that was the case with some extended thoughts from Richard Rohr.

My eyes lit up when I saw Rohr’s name.  He is one of my favorite contemporary writers on spirituality.  I routinely use a couple of his books in my classes.  And he has been a provocative help to me in my own spiritual growth and development.  Even so, I was not quite prepared for the title of the CNN article: “Priest pens spiritual survival guide for recession.”  I learned soon, however, as I read into the article that it was a kind of announcement and commentary on Rohr’s new book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  This obviously explains the title of my own reflective piece.  I found some helpful ideas as I read the article.

Rohr is a Catholic, Franciscan priest who is virtually my age.  Of course, that makes him still young, vigorous and full of life---well, sometimes anyway!  A quotation from Rohr immediately grabbed my attention.  He says, “There always will be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change or even understand.”  No doubt, every person as old as Rohr or myself can already attest to this fact.  We know that these kinds of experiences can knock us down.  But Rohr says, as the title of his book advocates, we can learn from the experience and get back to a decent place.  As he says, we can learn to “fall upward.”

I was fascinated by the next observation made by Rohr.  He asserts that “much of contemporary religion is geared toward teaching people how to navigate the first half of their lives, when they’re building careers and families.”  This Rohr labels a “goal-oriented” spirituality.  I am not sure people in the age teen to thirty-five age group would agree with Rohr, but I get his point.

Essentially, this is a book for those of us in our second half of life.  At l east at that point, most of us know we are not always going to “win”---even if we usually were “winners” most of the time early on in life.  And obviously, those kind of lucky people are fewer than we probably think.  I am sure Rohr is correct: we all will fall---probably already have fallen numerous times.  And in our current economic times, there are falls all around us: jobs lost, retirement funds blasted, insecurities rampant, etc.  What’s to do?

Basically, Rohr offers some timeworn wisdom.  But it nevertheless resonates with me.  There was a good line that jumped out at me.  Rohr says, “You start drawing from your life within…You learn to distinguish from the essential self and the self that’s window dressing.”  I like the idea of drawing from your life within.  I find it important that Rohr does not assume the “stuff” from the life within is all good, positive, and wonderful.  Surely, a good bit of life within all of us is not so good, less than positive, and often not wonderful.  But it is the “stuff” of life and we can and need to learn from it. 

If we made mistakes in the past, that is some of the “stuff” within.  We do not have to repeat those mistakes!  If we discover we have a bad attitude, that is more “stuff.”  We are not condemned by God to have a bad attitude forever.  But we can condemn ourselves!  Again, I like Rohr’s summary statement.  “Those who break through the crisis and lose their false selves become different people: less judgmental, more generous and better able to ignore “evil or stupid things.”

This is the kind of person I want to be.  I know I still have “stuff” that gets in my way.  But my game of life is not over, that I know.  I am in the second half, that is for sure!  But I am still playing.  Rohr gives me a picture of hope of what may be.  “I’ve seen that in the wonderful older people in my life,” Rohr says.  “There’s a kind of gravitas they have. … There’s an easy smile on their faces. These are the people who laugh, who heal, who build bridges, who don’t turn bitter.”

I have not seen Rohr’s new book, but already the words in this CNN article give me hope and some help.  Most of all, it gives me a renewed sense that “second half living” is not my own game to make whatever I can before the buzzer blows, my game is over, and I am pronounced dead.  Actually, there is a graceful God in play with me.  And I am sure I have some valued teammates always ready to help.  Sometimes they even carry me for those periods when I don’t know what I am doing…or am not up to what I could be doing.

Unlike a basketball game, the clock is ticking, but we do not know how much time there is in the second half; our lives are open-ended.  Even if we have only one more day, we can make a difference in our lives and in other lives.  And what more do we have than one more day?  Only today can I live.  I will do it spiritually!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Community Losses

I am sure I learned very young that community was important.  I just didn’t have the language for it.  When I was a pre-school kid, I recall my dad going into the little town close to our farm.  A number of guys (I don’t remember any women) gathered each morning in the local drugstore to have coffee and discuss the hot topics of the night before and day to come.  I was thrilled to be included, but I don’t recall talking.  But I was present.

I am sure no one called that gathering a “community.”  But that is exactly what it was.  It was not a religious community, although I am sure most of the guys went to church somewhere in the little town.  It was not political, although politics surely were central to the discussion.  It was a “community community,” if that makes any sense.  Sports, local news, farm economy and local business news were the fabric of the community.

I have been part of communities most of my adult life.  It is fair to say they are important to me.  It seems I need them, although I suppose I could survive without one.  But I do know life would be immensely poorer.  Communities feed my soul.  They help my life have meaning and purpose.  They are life giving.

I am fascinated with how communities form and develop.  Some communities have lasted for a long time.  I think of communities like the Benedictine monks.  They have been around since the sixth century.  Of course, no monk has lived that long!  But somehow monks join, live there and die.  Yet the community endures and, often, prospers (in a spiritual sense, of course).  This prompts me to ponder a little more deeply.

I just got the news a good friend of mine was moving and would, therefore, leave one of the communities of which I am a part at my college.  The news is certainly not tragic.  After all, she is moving on to a better job for her.  It makes perfect sense why she would do this.  I support the move and applaud the neat opportunity for her.  There is not one ounce of me that thinks she should do anything other than leave me and the rest of the community.

However, that does not mean her leaving will not be a loss for us.  Good for her and sorry for us.  Then I realized, it is not “sorry for us.”  Of course, we will miss her.  A community will miss anyone who is integrally part of it.  If you are not integrally part of a community and leave it, most folks won’t miss you.  Good-bye and good riddance goes the saying!  Good-bye and we’ll miss you is what we will call as our friend leaves.

All this prompts me to consider community losses.  If someone who is important to a community leaves, I think there is a three-step process that enables us to understand what goes on.  It covers any kind of loss.  The loss could be like the one of my friend.  She is alive and well and moving on to a more appropriate place for her right now.  Another form of significant loss is death.  When someone important in the community dies, it is a key community loss.

The first step in the process of coping with the loss is some sadness and grief.  In the first blush of the loss, we realize the role the person played in our community.  This realization makes it clear to us that a real piece of the “communal us” has gone out the door and we will never be exactly the same gang.  Again, if we care about the person and who she or he has been in our midst, it is natural to feel sad and some grief.

The second phase of the process of dealing with community loss is beginning to cope with the “hole” in the community.  The place and the role of the person the community lost are starkly evident.  Coping usually takes the form of statements that say in effect, “We miss her.”  Or we hear memories like, “Remember when she…”  Coping with loss is natural and healthy.  We wished her well when she left.  And now, we are wishing ourselves well as we go forward in our community. 

The third phase of the process of community losses entails filling the hole of loss with the love of a whole community.  Ultimately and finally, a healthy community begins to fill in the hole of loss with the overflowing love of everyone who is left in the community.  It is more like a healing process than it is a miracle.  Our sadness turns to good memories.  Our grief heals into acceptance.

It is a good reminder that all communities are mortal.  Communities are mortal because everyone within a community is mortal.  Perhaps that is one reason why communities are so precious.  They are crucibles for loving, living and, finally, losing.  They are a wonderful alternative to going it alone.  They are healthy antidotes to cynical solitariness.  Real community is always a grace.

I am thankful a recent loss can remind me so well how much I value community.  I give thanks to all those early communal teachers back in that little Indiana town.  And I give thanks to my recent community for all the grace and love it gives me now.  And to the one leaving, “Good-bye and blessings.”  

Monday, June 24, 2013

Stability

Recently I was invited to speak to some people who were on a four-day spiritual retreat.  I welcome these kinds of invitations, because it guarantees that I am in the midst of folks who want to be there.  They are people who know they are on a journey and they are open to have people like me come into their midst and try to offer a thought or two to aid that journey.  I find it to be a humbling experience.

I am on my own spiritual journey.  Sometimes, I think I have hardly made it out of kindergarten!  Most of us know the ups and downs of spiritual journeys.  They are anything but straight lines from beginning to perfection.  My own journey tends to go in fits and starts.  I make some progress and, then, fall back and need to start all over. I don’t think this is unusual.  So I don’t get down about the pace of the process.  After all, it is a lifetime journey.  I’m in no hurry!

The good people who invited me to come into their midst were using some material from St. Benedict’s spiritual tradition to help them in their journeys.  Benedict is the sixth century Italian founder of a monastery.  Benedict sought a way to live more intentionally and seriously his spiritual life.  He did not feel like he could do that in his normal world.  So he opted for a way of life that was not novel.  But Benedict did give monasticism a special focus.

There are many important features to the monastic way of life as Benedict crafted it.  One crucial aspect was the community dimension.  Benedict was sure his own spiritual journey would be aided if he were living in community---with a group of men who were on their own serious spiritual journey.  And so that community dimension is a continuing feature of Benedictine monasteries now nearly fifteen hundred years later.

Since this community dimension is a given for Benedictines, the question arises, what do I need to do if I want to join the community---even fifteen hundred years later?  Not surprisingly, there is a process that we would undertake.  If we were accepted, we finally would make three vows.  Surprisingly, the three vows we would take, if we were to join the Benedictines, are not poverty, chastity and obedience.  The only one of these vows actually made by a Benedictine novice is obedience.

The first vow taken by a new monk in the Benedictine tradition is the vow of stability.  This should not surprise us, if we recall how serious the community dimension is for the Benedictine.  By taking the vow of stability, the new monk promises to align himself or herself (yes, there are Benedictine nuns) to a single community.  In effect, the monk is saying, “you are the people with whom I want to live and this is the place I choose to live the rest of my life.” 

For example, I might make the vow to join the monastery in Snowmass, CO.  If accepted, I expect to live the rest of my life in Snowmass and die and be buried there.  I made my promise and settle in with the full expectation this is my place and these are my people as long as I shall live.  This is not the outlook on the part of very many Americans.  But let’s look at this vow to see its potential and promise.

To vow stability with a community allows me to settle in with a group of people who also have made that vow.  In effect, we all agree to stay put and get on with our more important work, namely, growing more and more fully into the men and women God wants us to be.  We know the community is there to help us.  We know the community is stable; no one is chasing their own career dreams.

There are many things we could explore here, but I want to treat only one thing.  Stability is a commitment to a people and a place.  It is a commitment to a monastery, but more significantly, to the group of people who make up the monastery.  The community could actually decide to relocate to another place and the community commitment of stability would make that move together.  It is a communal commitment to the spiritual growth and development of each person within the community.

The most important thing stability is that it is different than being “stuck.”  To take a vow of stability is certainly not to promise to become stuck!  To the contrary.  A vow of stability is a promise to stay on course of growth and development.  This makes sense to me, even though I obviously am not a monk.  I have made a vow of stability so I can stay on course of my own growth and development.  It is to stay with it instead of stay stuck.

Undoubtedly, there are many folks who are stuck in life where they are.  Ironically, we can have all sorts of freedom---to live where we want, we do what we want, etc.  But we can be stuck.  We can be emotionally stuck or spiritually stuck.  We can look free as a bird and effectively stuck as a car in a huge traffic jam that may not be worth it if we can ever get there!

I appreciate my commitment to stability.  It frees and allows me to get on with my important work of spiritually growing and developing.  Stability frees me from getting stuck chasing the illusions of my life that would not reward, even if I were to “get” my illusion.  I am not stuck on getting rich, famous or any other goal that does not have ultimate worth.  Stability frees me to learn to live life fully present to the Presence of God.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Inclusiveness: Please Join Us

I was moving quickly from my last meeting to my plans for the evening---a sporting event on campus.  So I decided to pop into one of my favorite local places in order to get something quickly to eat or drink.  I knew the sporting event would be starting soon and all my life I have been the kind of person who is almost always on time.  Often I will show up early to something, so I won’t be late.  It seems that somehow was built into the fabric of my being.  I do it automatically; hence, there is no need even to think about it.

So through the doors I went.  Obviously, it was dinner hour and the place was pretty full of people and there was a rather loud buzz of noise as people at each table had to speak a little louder in order to be heard above the conversations of the tables nearby.  But we all know that never works, because the noise level continues to go up, as if each table competes with neighbors!

I thought about slinking right back out of the doors, when I spotted a couple friends of mine sitting at what would be the first table to pass by as one enters the establishment.  So instead of slinking back outside, I stepped on inside to offer my “hello” to my two friends.  They are two women now retired from my college…former colleagues, I suppose one would rightly say.  That may be true---former colleagues---but that does not make them any less my friends.

I had barely approached to say “hello,” when they immediately said, “Join us.”  At the time, I did not think much about it.  I did sit down with them.  We had a pleasant conversation full of sharing memories, as well as talking about life at the college, which they don’t experience in the same way I do.  We managed to speak loudly enough to have the conversation without my feeling that I needed neither a hearing aid nor yell at my neighbors to tone it down.

It was a fun visit causing me to leave a good bit later than I had planned.  I did make it to the sporting event, which was soon over.  On the way home, my mind returned to my stop at the local place.  Often when I ponder these kinds of experiences, the superficial observations surface immediately.  In this case I knew it had been good to say hello and to have the conversation.  I did not mind missing a good bit of the sporting event.  At the superficial level, I could say that it was pleasant and leave it at that.

But so many of our experiences have more depth than the mere superficial.  And often at those deeper levels, there we find the spiritual aspect or dimension.  So I pondered further as I delved deeper into my transitional stop at the restaurant.  What really happened?  What did I really experience?  Slowly the profundity began to emerge.

Those two friends included me when I showed up.  Two simple words created a fascinating process.  When they said, “Join us,” my plans changed significantly.  They were offering table fellowship---in this case, literally they were offering table fellowship.  They included me.

I was alone and they included me.  I like being alone.  After all, when I do psychological tests, I always type out as an introvert.  So I am good with that.  When I entered those doors, I was not looking for anything from anybody.  “Join us,” they said.  It was an offer.  It was an invitation.  It was really a question: do you want to join us?  It was a choice.  That is the way true inclusiveness should work.

True inclusiveness should not have any elements of coerciveness in it.  I think authentic inclusiveness should not even harbor expectations.  Real inclusiveness should simply be that invitation: “Join us.”  In fact, I think it makes a difference that there were two of them.  They did not need anyone else.  Doubtlessly, they went there only to have dinner for themselves.  They had not planned on inviting anyone else into the table fellowship.  Truly, they did not need me.

But they never hesitated.  “Join us,” was their offer.  I could have said no.  I could have exercised that choice and they would not have been disappointed; they would have been fine.  They offered table fellowship, to be sure.  But was there something even deeper?

Yes there was something deeper.  Their inclusiveness was not just an offer of the chair at the table.  It was a chance to join them at the altar of their hearts.  To see it as such moves the encounter from the pleasant to the sacred.  I not only took the chair; I took a place in the center---the center of their conversation, the center of their communication, indeed, the center of their communion.

They taught me a deep lesson about inclusiveness.  It could change the world.  It changed me.  If we include, we could change the world.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Grace of Age---Gift of Youth

I never thought about it too much.  Age is what it is.  Sometimes I am surprised by how old I am.  But I can remember being so much younger and lamenting that I was not older.  Obviously, it is easy to want to be something other than what we are.  But that is a dead-end street.  If I am forty, I am forty.  I can act like a teenager, but that is pretty silly.  Or I can act like an old guy and that is sad.  Age is what it is.

However, age is surely more than chronology.  Chronology measures quantity.  If I am forty, I have lived “x” number of days.  It does not say how well I have lived those days nor how meaningful they may have been.  Chronology tells you nothing about the lows I experienced nor the mountaintop ecstasies I have had.  Chronology clunks along day by day and year by year.  Age is what it is.

We all know that life is not simply measured by number of days and birthdays.  I dare say, a more important measurement of life is meaning and purpose.  I would rather live a few years well than a long, lousy lifetime.  Now we are talking about quality instead of quantity.  Quality is more difficult to measure.  It does not come in units, like quantity.  Quantitatively, a day is a day---24 hours.  But qualitatively, a day may be spectacular---and that is only 2 hours of the total 24 hours.  Let’s look at an example.

I am involved in a situation at the present that serves as an instructive example.  In some ways I am not really involved, but I get to watch things unfold.  I am able to see the living of life in both the quantitative and the qualitative levels.  The quantitative level is easy to see and understand.  A small group of people gathers routinely throughout the week.  I am part of that group.  They don’t gather just to gather.  They have a purpose.  They gather together to execute that purpose.  But the purpose does not matter right now.

What I would like to note is a different phenomenon.  Almost all of the group would be considered young people.  They are not high schoolers, but they are nevertheless still pretty young.  They have much of life still to live.  They are exciting and promising.  It will be a joy to watch them blossom and bear fruit in the world.  And then, there is an older woman who is also part of the group.  Chronologically she does not “fit.”  If chronology were the measure, she should leave…or be ousted.  Blossoming surely is behind her and she can’t have much fruit yet to bear in the world.  Such would the cynicism of chronology suggest.

But I am watching this scenario.  It is developing.  Chronology is doing its thing.  Routinely---step by step---we are brought together to execute our purpose.  But there are interesting qualitative dimensions also developing.  Often these are more subtle and, even, sublime.  They are easy to miss or to dismiss.

One qualitative dimension developing is the interaction of the younger ones with the older person.  In the first place, interaction is not required.  It is volitional.  People are choosing to interact.  That is significant.  This speaks to awareness and intentionality.  Clearly, there is awareness that not everyone is the same.  And there is intentionality to bridge that gap of difference.  How would I describe it?

The interaction appears to me to be the grace of age and the gift of youth.  Let me explain by starting with the youth.  Merely being young---a youth---is not itself a gift.  What I mean by the “gift of youth” is their relationship with the older person.  Clearly, if you have nine younger ones and one older person, the youth dominate.  They are likely to drive the conversation.  But they become gift when they give attention to the older one.  They become gift when they include the other, when they care for the other, and when they make life better for the older one.  If you are older, it is not a given that the younger ones will give.  Will they become gift to me?

On the other hand, I have watched the older one be grace to the younger ones.  The older one has lived much longer, has accumulated much more experience, and chronologically has been worn by the weather of time.  But all of us to whom this has happened do not always emerge as graceful.  It is just as easy to be jaundiced, cynical, uncaring, and spiteful.  Instead of gift, we grump and become a curse.

Without mentioning the word, all this seems so spiritual to me.  And it points to the challenge of spirituality.  It is a twofold challenge.  The first part of the challenge is to learn how to become a gift when we are younger.  This is not always easy.  Too often, being young makes us takers instead of givers.  We have a tendency to grab and not give.  We can be greedy and not so gracious.

And we have already pointed out the pitfalls of becoming older---getting some age on us.  We can become bitter instead of better.  We can become a curse instead of the blessing God wants us to be. 

Me? I am right in the middle!  And probably you, too!!  I am still young enough to be a gift to many others.  And I am aged enough to figure out how to be grace---how to be gracious.  I ask for God’s Spirit to enable me to be young enough to give and old enough to grace.          

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Grace: a Gift for 4¢

My Quaker gang is not known for being ritualistic and, certainly, not liturgical.  When it comes to religious tradition and worship, that is correct.  Compared to a Roman Catholic or Orthodox service, a Quaker service would appear amazingly bland.  But if we are talking about ritual in an ordinary, non-religious sense, I suppose Quakers can be as ritualistic as anyone else.  I think I am fairly ritualistic.

Without going into a big definition of ritual, I am simply using it to mean something like routine.  And I certainly am a pretty routine guy.  I normally get up in the morning about the same time.  I have all sorts of rituals that I go through during the course of a day.  One thing is true about rituals of this sort; usually you don’t have to think about them.

For example, in the mornings I get up before anyone else in my house.  I like the alone time.  It is quiet.  I get dressed and grab some money to head up a little hill to the same place every morning where I buy a cup of coffee and the local newspaper.  Nothing like java and sports to get the blood going! 

I am so regular there, it is as if I could be blind, unable to speak, or hear.  I could walk in and probably find my way to the coffee.  Quite often, I am carrying the right amount of money, so I can hand it to the cashier, grab the paper and disappear down the hill.  In fact, if I wake up grumpy, I can do the same thing: up the hill, get coffee, pay, grab paper and disappear.  There need not be eye contact, verbal exchange, nothing.  I don’t advise it, but it could happen.

The only time the ritual alters is Sunday mornings.  The local Sunday paper appears at my house, so I only need to go up the hill for coffee on the Christian Sabbath.  That provokes my ritual slightly because it means the exact change differs from the other six days; I must subtract the paper cost.  For a long time---it seems like years---the price has been the same.  I never even think about it.  Paper and coffee is $1.84; coffee alone is $1.09.

So yesterday on Christian Sabbath, I must have been psychically forewarned.  Quickly, I put $1.10 in my pocket…enough for the coffee with a penny left over.  And then for some reason, I also picked up a nickel.  Off I went to perform my ritual.

As I entered the store, the kind lady greeted me.  She has been there as long as I have been going and I like her.  I know nothing about her except she is named Rosie, that she smokes and drinks.  She probably swears, too, but I have not witnessed that!  Stereotypically in my mind there is no way she could be religious---much to rough and ready for her to be religious.

As I approached the counter with steaming coffee in hand, she was already making the register do its thing.  Suddenly, I looked at the screen as she said, “$1.19; coffee’s gone up a dime.”  At that moment my heart clutched and I felt exposed as if I had no clothes.  I had trekked up the hill with a solid $1.15 in my pocket and now I was caught: coffee in one hand and a measly $1.15 in the other hand.

Immediately, I presumed on her trust in me and her kindness.  “Oh,” I said, “can I bring you 4¢ a bit later?”  She stuck her hand in the little tray on the counter with a bunch of pennies that people leave and pulled out four.  “You’re good to go,” said Rosie as surely as I can imagine God saying to some serious sinner, “Go and sin no more!”  As I pushed my way through the door with coffee in hand, I began to smile.

I don’t usually get a lesson in grace so early in the morning.  And I don’t ever recall having a mentor of grace named Rosie.  It did not cost me a cent.  In fact, the gift of grace was literally worth 4¢.  But symbolically, it was worth millions.  I began to understand the old, old lesson.  Grace is a gift.  Grace is always a gift and is not dependent on the human or moral condition of the giver.  And grace is usually transformative.

Of course, grace is always a gift.  That’s what the word means in Greek and Latin.  One never “earns” grace.  It is always a gift.  And that means I always can grace anyone I want any time I want and for no reason.  It’s simple.  I can even be a sinner, a jerk, etc. and still be graceful---still be a giver of grace.  Thank goodness we don’t have to be morally pure in order to grace someone.  If that were the case, only God could do it.

Finally, grace is almost always transformative.  It usually comes into a situation and makes it better.  Because it is a gift and, therefore, undeserved, when grace happens, things are typically better than they were.  Thank God…and thanks, Rosie!

There must be a zillion ways for us to give and to receive grace.  Sometimes all it takes is 4¢.  Surely, I can manage that!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Domina Voluntas: the Dominant Will

Because of some work I am doing, I am back into reading one of my favorite authors, Thomas Merton.  Merton had such an interesting, intriguing life throughout the early and middle part of the 20th century.  He was born in France, but spent most of his life in the United States.  He was born during WW I, lived through the Depression, and through WW II.  Of course, then came the Korean War and finally he was coping in the US involvement in the Vietnam War when he was tragically killed in an accident in 1968.

Merton’s life was a pilgrimage through an early phase of hedonism, Communism, and then conversion and baptism into the Roman Catholic Church.  He was moved to join one of the most rigorist monastic traditions available, the Trappists.  So this worldly, urbane guy settled for years in the monastery in the rolling hills of Kentucky. 

But Merton was always a seeker.  He was a writer who continued to chronicle his journey through journals and a variety of other written and spoken venues.  As I was reading his early autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain (probably his most famous piece), I hit these words about his conversion and baptism into the Catholic Church.

Perhaps like many people, Merton’s conversion as an adult and his baptism would be easy to understand as the culmination of a process.  For him there was a relief to have acted and to have been brought through the baptismal waters into the faith of the Church.  All that was true for him.  But he also began to realize that he had not finished a journey.  In fact, he had only begun. 

Baptism was a bit like a commencement.  It is a transition from one phase (preparation) into the real phase (work, service).  He realized that God was not done with him.  God was just ready to begin with him.  This slowly dawned on Merton and then he offers these powerful words.

“But the conversion of the intellect is not enough.  And as long as the will, the domina voluntas, did not belong completely to God, even the intellectual conversion was bound to remain precarious and indefinite.”  Those words speak volumes to me.  Let’s unpack the two sentences and see what Merton is affirming.

In the first place Merton recognizes two conversions, or rather, a conversion of two different aspects of a person.  One conversion is the intellectual.  This is a conversion of how I think about things.  It concerns how I think about the Divine One, how I think about myself, about human nature, human potentiality, etc.  The other conversion has to do with the will.  In the quotation above, you will note the Latin word for will is voluntas.  We get our English word, voluntary, from the Latin root.  So the human will is what we choose to do, what we do voluntarily. It is our desire.

In the quotation Merton recognizes that his conversion and subsequent baptism had more to do with his mind than it did his heart.  His conversion had more to do with changing the way he thought about things.  He had not grown up a person of faith, but he had changed his mind---been converted---to believe in God and God’s work in his life.  This led to a desire to be baptized and be linked to the Church.    It is perhaps too simplistic to say this intellectual conversion represented a change of mind, but that is indeed what happened.

But Merton recognizes this is insufficient.  As he said, the conversion of the intellect is not enough.  It is good, but it is not enough.  More is needed.  In his estimation humans must also be converted at the level of their will.  This is where the other word in that Latin phrase becomes important.  The other word is domina.  It should not be too difficult to see our English word, dominate, in that root word.  Effectively, Merton is saying that the will is the dominating, choosing aspect of the human person, not the intellect.  To put it in practical terms, I might know the good thing to do (intellect), but if I do not actually choose to do it (will), that good thing will never be done.

Another way to put what Merton is affirming, is to say one can be intellectually religious, but according to him, that is not enough.  One has to be willing to become religious or spiritual.  One has to give over one’s will completely to God.  “Not my will, but thy will” is the famous phrase.

Merton knew how hard it was to give over his will to that of the God in whom he had come to believe.  To give over our wills means we willingly choose no longer to be independent, to be the controllers of our lives.  Instead we yield to the Divine Desire which we believe at its deepest level has our best interests at heart.

This yielding, however, is not easy.  It is preferable for many of us to hold on to our agendas, our ambitions, and our plans for life.  We have a domina voluntas---a dominant will.  Until we yield---that is, give up dominating---we are yet spiritual infants.  Lord, help me to grow up.  Convert me, too.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Home and Away

Most people I know have a home.  I have a nice enough home.  It is not luxurious, but it is more than adequate.  If you were to visit me, you would know that my home has that “lived in” feeling.  It is not the kind of place with dazzle and formality.  I have been in those kinds of homes.  I always feel slightly uncomfortable and on edge.  I hesitate to sit down or touch anything.  Even though I am fairly athletic, in those kinds of situations I temporarily become a klutz!

It is pretty commonsense to differentiate house and home.  Many people know the experience of moving into a new house.  In fact, we usually say it precisely that way.  We can buy a house and move into it.  But it takes a while to have the house become a “home.”  That process is likely different for most people.  And the process typically has no time frame.  Some may know how to become “home-makers” much more quickly than the rest of us.  I actually think I am a pretty slow homemaker.

There are intentional things people do to make a “home.”  There are the obvious things like our own furniture and, of course, things like pictures.  Pictures, special books, a favorite desk and so much more make it “our home.”  That is why you would get a “lived in” feeling if you walked into my home.  You would not be surprised to see pictures of my girls and, now, some grandkids. 

My home is unpretentious.  It is the kind of place people would be comfortable sitting down anywhere.  They probably would not hesitate to take off their shoes and relax, if they wanted to do so.  No one likes to spill something.  But if you visited me and spilled something, it would not be the end of the earth.  You would probably be embarrassed, but you would not be preferring suicide in the moment!  I would hope that my home would feel non-judgmental and non-condemning. 

I recently had an opportunity to come back home after some travel.  Most of the time, I enjoy some travel.  It is nice to get away from home and routine for a while.  But like most folks I know, it is always a treat to come back home.  I began to think about this experience of coming home only to realize what a wonderful spiritual analogy it suggests.  Let’s pursue this a bit.

As I pondered it, I realized that home means familiar surroundings.  I already have shared a little about my home, so you have a sense of what coming home means.  It means I can sit in my familiar chair.  I can look out my window and see my trees in their various stages to match the season.  I feel quite “at home.”  In fact, it can be pitch dark in my home and I can make my way with some confidence.

As I thought about coming home after being away, I realized I wanted to explore the analogy with a kind of spiritual home.  Come away with me and join me in that exploration.

The first thing that occurred to me is there is a deeper level of home than place.  The home in which I live is a literal place.  It has an address.  It is specific in that no other place---no other house---has the same address.  You can google my address and find my place.  With cell phones, I never have to give directions; it is easy to find my place.  But there is a deeper level of home than my place.

This is where the literal gives way to the figurative.  What I mean by that is this deeper level of home is a metaphorical place.  It does not have an address.  You cannot google it.  That deeper level is a “soul place.”  Certainly the word, soul, is a tricky, complex word.  Let me simply say that for me, soul is the essence of who I am.  It is my core self---my true self, in the words of Thomas Merton and others.  The deeper level of home has to do with soul.

I would put it this way: home is a deep, soulful place where we connect with the Spirit.  In this sense home is that metaphorical place that is a soulful place.  It is that “place” where my true self is available.  It is that “place” where my soul connects with the Divine Soul---with God, if you prefer.

My own spirituality would assume that God is always ready and willing to make “house calls.”  The Spirit would like nothing more than to go “home” with us.  In fact, I could imagine for those saintly folks, God has moved in!  God co-habits with these kinds of people.

I can imagine this deeper soulful level is co-habitation because the Spirit and the soul are in such intimacy that the language of “visiting” does not do it justice.  This deep homecoming of the soul with the Spirit has been expressed with the symbolic language of marriage by the Christian contemplatives and mystics.  I’m not there yet.  It is fair to say God comes to my spiritual house to visit.  But too often, I am away.  I have some work to do---some homework.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Still Waiting

I am enjoying a new book that I am reading.  It is from the pen of the now famous, Mitch Albom, entitled, Have a Little Faith.  The book is about two of Albom’s friends from his childhood days, his rabbi, Albert, and his black friend, Henry.  Albert Lewis was Albom’s rabbi of the Jewish congregation, Temple Beth Sholom, which was Albom’s childhood synagogue and the only one in his life. 

The story begins in a humorous way with Albom being asked by the rabbi to do the eulogy at the rabbi’s funeral.  Albom is not so sure.  After all, he reckons, he is only a sports writer.  But as I said, he has become famous.  He is the author of the best seller, Tuesdays With Morrie.  So he agrees to do the eulogy.  And he figures, if he is going to do the eulogy, he better get to know the rabbi much better.  Childhood memories would not suffice.

So as the book begins to unfold, Albom heads back to his home area in New Jersey to spend time with Albert.  His first visit to the rabbi took place in the rabbi’s home.  Albom begins with some innocent questions.  “Do you believe in God,” he asks?  Not surprisingly, Albert says, “Yes, I do.”  I loved the next question posed by Albom.  “Do you ever speak to God?’  And Albert’s reply is a classic: “On a regular basis.”

Anyone of us could put ourselves in the place of Albert, the rabbi, in having these questions posed to us.  If someone were to come up to me and ask me if I believe in God, I also would answer like Albert.  “Yes,” I would say.  But as I also would tell my  students, you learned almost nothing with this answer.

If I tell you I believe in God, you may well assume too much.  Especially if you, too, believe in God, you might be tempted to think I believe in God very much the way you believe in God.  This is precisely the place I tell students not to assume too much.  Ask another question to learn even more.  To that end, I wish Albom had asked Albert how he understood the God in which he believed?

And I really wished Albom had asked another question when Albert affirmed that he spoke regularly to God.  I think this is a trickier question than the first one.  If someone were to come up to you and ask if you spoke regularly to God, how would you respond?  Does prayer count as “speaking to God?”  What about meditation?  This is why follow-up questions are such a good idea.

The rabbi goes on to say that in his regular speaking with God, he asks God what kind of plans are in store for him.  Will he be soon taken?  Or will God leave him on this earth for some period of time?  This prompts Albom to confess that he wanted to ask the real question: “What should I say about you when you die?  But he could not.

Albert’s speaking to God was an attempt to hear God’s answer.  “Ahh,” he simply said and glanced up.  Immediately, Mitch jumps in with another question: “What?  Did God answer you?” 
The rabbi’s answer to the question is a classic for me.  Did God answer you?  The rabbi said, “Still waiting.”  When I read that, I laughed out loud.  I thought it was funny for a couple reasons.  In the first place, it was funny because it was unexpected.  The rabbi had affirmed his belief in God and he acknowledged that he spoke regularly to God.  So Mitch’s query whether God answered made sense.  But the rabbi said merely, “still waiting!”

It was funny at a second level because it resonated with so much of my experience.  Whether it be prayer, meditation, or some other spiritual discipline, I have often sought to know God’s desire for me.  I seriously petition the Holy One to let me know and I will surely obey.  Christians call this process “discernment.”  I want to discern God’s mind…in classical language, to know God’s will. 

All too often, the rabbi’s words are my words: still waiting!  Really, there are only two options to this state of affairs.  I can get frustrated.  When I get frustrated, there are two choices.  I either make a guess what God’s desire is and go ahead and do something.  Or in my frustration and I essentially say, “forget it,” and go on my merry way.

So frustration is one option.  Patience is the other option.  If I speak to God and find myself “still waiting” for some kind of response, I want to be patient.  It does not mean God will not respond.  It just means God is not responding when and how I want.  But I am not in control.  Relax.  Be patient.  God is God.  I begin to feel better.

Still waiting?  That’s ok.