Three words

Unconditional, unexpected, undeserved. These three adjectives modify, expand, and clarify the noun “love”. God’s love is all of these, and the experience of this threefold love is transformative.

The undeserved is quite obvious. It is not “undeserved” in a moralistic or pietistic sense. It is actually undeserved in a realistic sense: what could the limited creature possibly do to deserve the love, or even the passing glance, of the Eternal Creator?

The unexpected is again how things work. There are many things I can think I do not deserve, or do deserve, but which I can calculate the odds of getting them. Even if the odds are astronomical, I can still somewhat grasp the possibility or impossibility of the event. But God’s love is unexpected, and even unexpectable! It will always come as a surprise – a deep transcendent twist which changes everything – when it appears it is as if all context for all thought has now shifted a step to the right.

Finally it is not only undeserved and unexpected, but it is also unconditional. This means that there is no condition I can meet to be loved. There is no context that could possibly justify or facilitate such love. Further, there is nothing I can possibly do which would create a condition which would prevent God from loving me.

This threefold love is the Way of Jesus. The encounter with this threefold love in the street we are walking down, the road we are driving on, the supermarket aisle we are shopping in, the concrete encounter with the very real transcendent threefold love has a cost. The cost is a deep transformation of the very fibers of my being from being the lover to being the beloved.

The clarify, usually, especially in some spiritual literature, a person is described as the lover who pursues and tries to woo a shy and demure Beloved, who is God. This is how we all approach spiritual life – we are the pursuers, the goal is the pursued. We are the hunters, and God the prey. Think through it for a while and you will see an exaltation of agency, of human free will.

What I am calling an encounter with the threefold love takes that idea and flips it over on its belly. Suddenly I realize and see quite clearly that God is the one who pursues, woos, hunts, chases me! I am God’s Beloved.

But it goes even deeper. In the Song of Songs there is a deep realization that “I belong to my lover and my lover belongs to me”, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

This mutual possession flattens the distance between God and person until it becomes meaningless to hold any separation between them. One whom God loves is not capable of being away from Gos in any meaningful way – not physically, not mentally, not spiritually.

Such a beloved then finds themselves joining the circle of beloveds across space and time, all those who have recognized that they are not the lovers, but rather the loved – the circle of the beloved by God.

If you realize this, your job then is to take first this admonition “don’t rouse, don’t arouse love until it desires.” But with that in mind all those who themselves beloved are to ““Rise up, my dearest, my fairest, and go.” Go where? Go and wake the ones loved by God who are sleeping but whose hearts are awake!

Posted in Thoughts

The Axe Man

There once was an axe man. The king asked the axe man to chop down the trees in the magical forest. Eventually the axe man’s axe was getting blunt from much use. As he did not have a whetstone he said to himself, “I will go around the kingdom and find one. Surely someone has a way to sharpen my axe!”

So, he put the axe over his shoulder and off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

He came across an orphan girl, who was gathering berries in the forest. The axe man approached her and said, “Sweet orphan girl do you have a whetstone? See my axe is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The orphan replied, “Dear sir, I am an orphan. I do not have a home, or even food! See here I am gathering wild berries. And there, you see the meager fire I started with a few twigs. I do not even have a name!”

And the axe man said, “You do not have a whetstone? How will I grind my axe?”

And so the axe man swung his axe and chopped the orphan girl to bits. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

He came across a little hovel off the main road. He knocked on the door and after some shuffling, a very old widow cracked open the door. The axe man removed his hat and said, “Dear madam, do you have a whetstone? See my axe is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The widow said, “Dear Mr. Axeman,” she said through the crack on the door, “I am a poor widow, and live alone. My teeth are all gone and I cannot eat meat, so I have nothing that cuts, and nothing to sharpen it either.”

And he said, “So you say you have nothing that cuts, and nothing to sharpen it either? You do not have a whetstone? How will I grind my axe?” And so the axe man swung his axe and broke down the door, and he kicked down the widow and chopped her to bits. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

He came across a gardener and asked, “Dear gardener do you have a whetstone? See my ax is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The gardener stopped working for a moment, took off his hat and wiped his brow. He looked at the axe man for a moment. He said, “I too work for the king. I am responsible for planting all these trees in his forest, which you chop down. I do have a whetstone but I will not lend it to you for any price!”

And he said, “So you do have a whetstone but will not let me use it for any price? How will I grind my axe?” And so the axe man swung his axe and chopped the gardener to bits. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he looked through the gardener’s tools, but could not find a whetstone. He then piled all the gardener’s belongings in a pile, and threw the body of the gardener on top and set it all on fire. After watching the fire for a while he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

The axe man then came across a knight, who was sitting by a small fire. The knight eyed him suspiciously but continued to cook his meal. The axe man, holding his hat in his hand said, “Dear noble knight do you have a whetstone? See my ax is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The knight looked at the axe man and replied. “I do not have a whetstone. I have a magical sword which is always sharp!”

And axe man said, “You do not have a whetstone because you have a magical sword? How will I grind my axe?”

And so the axe man swung his axe at the defenseless knight and chopped him to bits. He then used his axe to smash the magical sword into many pieces and flung them in different directions in the forest. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

Later that day the axe man came across a small cottage which belonged to a witch. He came to the door and knocked. From inside he heard, “Enter!” The witch was standing by an open fire pit, and was stirring a large cauldron with some foul-smelling liquid. He walked in and asked, “Witch! Give me a spell to make my ax always sharp! See my ax is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The witch cackled. “So you want a magic axe heh? Just like that fine young knight that I helped so long ago?”

“Yes,” said the axe man, “I want an enchanted axe that never loses its edge.

“It will cost you! You will have to give up cutting down trees in my magical forest for a whole year!”

And he said, “So you will make my axe magical as long as I do not cut trees down on your magical forest for a year?” And so the axe man swung his axe and chopped her to bits. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

Eventually the ax man came across a ferocious dragon that was terrorizing many villages in the magical forest. The dragon was curled over a pile of loot puffing on a pipe made of human bone.

The axe man said, “Dear dragon, I see you have terrorized many villages, plundered them of their gold and silver and killed thousands of people. In all you looted do you have a whetstone? See my ax is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The dragon replied, “Why yes I do! Here it is!” The axe man was delighted. He sharpened his axe and it was so sharp it could cut through a small tree in one swing.

The dragon then said, “Your axe is very sharp! But I fear that soon it will be blunt again. Then what will you do?”

The axe man stopped swinging his axe and sat down sad. “It is true, the ax will eventually fail again!”

The dragon then said, “I have an idea, I will let you use my whetstone which I pillaged from the village every day, all I ask is that you help me as I go about destroying villages.”

The axe man frowned, “But how about the king? He needs magical trees!”

The dragon nodded, and puffed thoughtfully on his pipe for a while, “I see you are a wise and loyal ax man. Well, whenever I am not going to pillage and destroy villages, you can spend your time cutting the forest for the king.”

The axe man was very happy, “That is wonderful! You have a deal! When shall we start?”

“There is no better time than the present,” the dragon nodded wisely. The axe man then placed his shining and sharpened axe over his shoulder and off he went whistling following the dragon.

Posted in Thoughts

The Judas Syndrome

I confess that there are quite a few things that stick in my craw about church. First of all there is the whole institutional nature of it. I am with Donatists who were less-than-welcoming to those who were converted both into and out of, and then back into Christianity following the fashion of the day. I think the church should be truly  again in the side of any power – be it the pagan Cesar or the Christian Holy Roman Emperor. Don’t matter. If “it” has power, than Christianity will challenge it, first by demonstrating powerlessness, and second by refusing to hide. It is a sort of bold weakness.

The second thing that really annoys me are those Christians who fall into what I call the Judas Syndrome, from here in John 12: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” The story then goes on to clarify that he had his own agenda, and it was much less than noble caring for the poor.

And here’s the issue, I have most frequently seen people condemn the activities of others more vociferously in direct inverse proportion to their own interest in that activity. For example, people will claim it is a waste of money to buy tickets to a concert for a band they do not like, or shake their heads with much disdain when complaining that “Americans” spend more time caring and have more passion for the Super Bowl (or some other sporting event) than for the “real problems” of the world.

I know, it is not even an intuition, that this betrays only their own motives, or prejudices or preferences. People who do not follow sports think that following sports is trivial. Why? Because their own self-esteem demands that whatever they follow be non-trivial, in fact be very important.

I have set in countless meetings where someone would intone piously “I know the Lord has great plans for me!” I am yet to hear anyone say, “The Lord just sort of hopes I will survive another year without a major screw up!” Or, “God is calling me to be mediocre.”

I remember laughing out loud when talking to New Agers (are they still around?) who would all of them be certain they were Cleopatra in a previous life….you know, someone Had to have been a slave or something. But no!

I digress. The Judas Syndrome is actually quite dangerous, and sneaky. Pretty much our whole lives are ruled by either vanity or self-pride. A slight difference between the two: vanity is based on illusion. It is believing your own press releases. It is easy to spot by everyone who is not you, or your doting parent! Pride on the other hand is usually based on actual facts, but it is a misplacing of credit. For both of these problems humility is the cure.

Let us take the example of playing the piano to tease out the differences. if someone says, “You play the piano?” here’s how the answers would go.

Pride will say “I worked very hard to be the best pianist in the world!” While, again, you may indeed be a good pianist, pride would claim it was all your work. How about your teachers? How about your parents? How about your genes? How about your socio-economic status which afforded the luxury of such an expensive instrument, lessons etc.

Vanity would say something like, “I had a couple of lessons, but the teacher did not grasp my genius. There is no point in going through all these hoops anyway, because I am so talented that it would simply be too hard for others.” And so on. It is always other people who are to blame for the vain person’s failings. Or, even worse, they could actually be quite good and say, “Oh no I just tickle the ivories!” This is false modesty, and its only purpose is to elicit a response from others which stroke their egos, “Oh no! You are brilliant!”

A good step towards humility will say “I play the piano well. It is a gift I have.” It is both factual (assuming that is that the person does indeed play the piano) and it places the credit where it is due – it is a gift.

True humility would probably say something like, “I was given a gift of playing the piano, I took responsibility, with the help of so many people like my family and my teachers,  for nurturing it and developing this gift to its fullness, so that I could in turn help others to achieve their gifts.”

It is not just the wording that is different, but the way the person sees themselves in the world. The humble person is one who can truly see reality as it is. they do not deny gifts (false modesty), and they do not deny they are gifts! They also understand they are not alone, and that they owe so much to so many for so long.

A truly humble person is a sight to behold. Not meek, in the sense fo a scared little rabbit. But not vainglorious or puffed up like a peacock either.

Finally, it is important to note that people are complicated, and they can be humble about certain things, truly humble and completely vain about others! This is because, until we are fully anchored in Christ, we have many many “mes”, many many centers, but that is for another time.

For now the work is simple – feed with attention, intention, unconditional positive regard your humble selves – those are your allies. refuse to react to your vain and prideful selves, instead reprogram them, one at a time, one occasion at a time, to be humble. Train your selves.

Posted in Thoughts

3 things only

Occasionally, or is it inevitable, we reach a level where we want to grow. Be it physically, or mentally, or emotionally, or spiritually. One way or another we all need to grow, and as you grow in one area the other areas need to grow as well to keep balance. As you grow intellectually, you should take time to work on your physical and emotional health. Otherwise you become unbalanced, and unhealthy behaviors begin to solidify around you. You become tangled and knotted.

But how do you start? As with most realms of human endeavor you are faced with multiple, and conflicting, schools of thought when it comes to training. Myself, I subscribe to whatever school brings the most result with the simplest method. That is just who I am. Some people are like Scholastics of Workout – highly complex regimens with multiple cycles and complexities. They thrive in obscurities and complications. Others, like me, tend to be more “Petrine” – wanting a simple fisherman’s faith.

For example, just recently I started lifting weights. This is a new activity for me, since I have always been a runner. From all the multiple schools out there, the multiple programs, the multiple techniques, I had to choose something to get me going. And since I tend to prefer simplicity I went with the most minimalist approach I could find. In this more minimalist school, weightlifting consists of only three things: picking something heavy off the floor, lifting something heavy over your head, and carrying something heavy over a certain distance. That’s pretty much it. Within those three simple tasks there is potentially a lifetime of learning.

As with the body, so with the spirit
But what has this to do with Religious life? Well I find that the rules which work for the body apply equally well to the spirit. So this is what I consider the three spiritual exercises that every Christian, and most especially religious, should practice: fasting, vigils, and almsgiving.

I will take each in turn briefly, starting with the last:

1) Almsgiving
The root for “alms” is the Greek “eleos” which means compassion, mercy, kindness, pity for those afflicted, etc.
So the giving of alms is the same thing as being compassionate. You see someone on the road and you have compassion for them, like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:32-37).

So, while in one sense almsgiving means “giving money,” I think this might end up being a cop out. It would be interesting to If all you do is drop some coins in the little bucket of the homeless man, but at the same time you avoid making eye contact, you avoid asking him or her their name, you avoid giving them money next time because you have given once already, and so on, then I would say that you are not really practicing almsgiving.

Almsgiving is not tithing, by the way, as the giving of your first fruit is quite different than the need for constant compassion.

2) Vigils
This is quite simple: stay up praying. Anyone who is a parent knows very well what it is like. Either we are up praying for a sick child, or we are up praying for the safe arrival of a teen who went to a party driving and is not home yet.

I would like to point out a critical difference: to worry is not to pray. Worry might get you praying, but if you continue to worry you are not exactly praying. A good vigil should scour the inside of your cups, so that you are left pure inside and out. Exhausted as well, but purified. Which parent, after a night of high fever, or worse, sitting in the emergency room does not feel “cleansed” when the fever breaks in the morning, or the doctor tells us that everything is fine?

Traditionally there were a couple of different ways of counting the “watches of the night” – by older Jewish reckoning they had three periods: from sunset to ten o’clock; the second or “middle watch” was from ten until two o’clock (Judges 7:19 ); the third, “the morning watch,” from two to sunrise. The Romans, being perhaps a little more organized about this cut the night watches into four periods: from sunset to 9 p.m., from 9 p.m. to midnight, from midnight to 3 a.m., and from 3 a.m. until sunrise (around 6 a.m.).

So, by all means let your worry take you to your knees. But once there I would suggest that you leave your worries with God. This is no different from when you walk up to the altar and kneel to receive Communion, you should bring your worries and your joys, your successes and your failures. But if you bring gifts to Jesus, and then pick them up and take them back with you that is not true discipleship. If you give, and then you take it back you are hardly a friend….As the BCP says: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”

More importantly, vigils are, at their heart, an exercise in awakening, or in staying awake. The funny thing we find in spiritual life is that we have these moments of wakefulness and then we promptly fall back to sleep.

So we can and should be practicing vigils 24 hours a day, seven days a week! Peter says in his first Epistle: “Be sober, be watchful your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. resist him, firm in your faith.”

This is the true spiritual dimension of vigils, which staying up at night are merely its outward form. Resist sleep, resist unconsciousness, resist walking around like a zombie. Be awake and stay awake, vigilant.

3) Fasting
This one is harder. It is always great to hear people talking about fasting during Lent. But please do not be like someone who once told me that they loved fasting at Lent. I was impressed and asked them how did they manage to love fasting, since that is a particularly advanced spiritual discipline. “Oh,” they replied, “It is easy – I just keep reminding myself how great I will look in my Easter dress!” Sigh. That is not fasting, that is dieting. Far be it for me to suggest that you should or should not diet. That is between you, God and your physician. But let’s not confused one thing with the other.

The other approach, much more common among the enlightened elites at monasteries, is to regulate fasting. Take this from the Didache, also called “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles” and is dated by most scholars to the late first or early 2nd century. It was considered by some of the Early Church Fathers as part of the New Testament, but eventually it did not make it. Here’s what it says about fasting: “Your fasts should not be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays. You should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”

Because, certainly, Mondays are the Devil’s day no? Who fasts on a Monday? Freaks! Whatever. This happens more often than not, and in monastic life we call this developing scruples. It is a really annoying stage, sort of a spiritual adolescence, where you see things so clearly as black and white, and you have no qualms in pointing out everyone’s hypocrisy. Takes some time to temper that enthusiasm, and develop a more grounded and rounded faith.

Again, there are deeper meanings of “fasting.” At once being hungry should help develop compassion for those who are hungry; being hungry also is a way to physically remind ourselves of our starving spirits who crave for God’s Love. And we can take it further, how about starving our egos by refusing to talk about ourselves, not even once?

You will know if you are fasting if it is hard and painful. If it is easy and enjoyable, and if you could keep it up for a long time, it is at best a diet. Fasting from things will purge you from the inside out, and cannot (and should not) go on for very long.

The point of the work
All other spiritual disciplines will end up in these three. You either will be compassionate or you will not. You either will be able to overcome sleep (both real and metaphorical) or you will not. And you will either be willing to suffer deprivation and hunger (again both real and metaphorical) or you will not.

These three exercises are the quickest way to get the bottom of who you really are. When you are hungry you will tend to be more mean-spirited, more selfish, more greedy. Actually not “more” – those traits will be more in evidence, I should say! They will come up more quickly. The same happens with vigils – it is amazing how the sleep-deprived then to be direct, blunt, even rude. Just not enough energy there to lie! Again, almsgiving forces us to care about others – and there is nothing more annoying in the world than being told that I should care about someone else!

A program
Twice a week you should physically fast. The early church did it. If twice a week is too hard can you at least hold back from eating on Sunday until after church? There are numerous health benefits from fasting btw, and you will fit better in your Easter dress!

Once a month you should vigil. Pick a night where you can sleep the next day during the day, maybe a Friday and until Saturday. If all night is not possible, go until sometime past midnight. But do not do it watching TV or any other form of entertaining. Just you, the Bible, maybe a devotional book. Perhaps a notebook etc. But really it should be you and God, alone.

Every day you should give alms, which is a churchy way of saying “you should give a rat’s ass!” Care about others, every day! Look them in the eye and give. Make it personal! Everyday you should pray the Prayer attributed to St. Francis. Every morning. Pray it and mean it.

Also everyday you should pray for the Holy Spirit to help you to stay awake and vigilant. Pick a prayer word and try to remember to say it as many times a day as possible, for example.

And finally, it goes without saying that everyday you should fast from egoistic behaviors. You should also fast from negative emotions.

If you include these basic exercises into your spiritual routine, you will reap countless benefits.

Posted in Thoughts

Deep sacred reading

Reading sacred texts is not the same as reading regular texts, books, magazines, newspapers. In fact, in many ways, it works in almost the exact opposite way. Working on sacred texts, with their often difficult language is not simply a work of increasing our vocabulary, or polishing our syntax, even though having a better vocabulary and being able to write with ease and grace are indeed valuable skills to learn. Working on the language of sacred texts is at the deepest levels about working on self.

When we approach the numinous, when we are before the Burning Bush, we remove the sandals of language and are struck dumb. At that level there is a momentary stopping of the constant inner babbling. But we are still a word in God’s lips. We have always been one – God called us forth from the nothing through the Word.

So work on sacred texts at its deepest level is work on self, and work on self is, traditionally, described in the language of purification. It is a process of refinement, of removing the excess, of filtering out impurities, until only the essence is left. This essence is a potent distillation of our body, mind and soul.

Nowadays everyone takes multivitamins. These multivitamins are small little pills which can be easily swallowed, but they carry within them the distilled essence of a variety of minerals which can be found scattered and diluted in plants and animals. What the multivitamin does is it condenses all of these beneficial elements into one small and potent pill. For example to consume the equivalent amount of vitamin A in one pill a person would have to eat two or three carrot sticks, a cup of spinach, some asparagus spears, some broccoli, plus some apricots and peaches. This is to match one ingredient in a multivitamin. I am not saying don’t eat your veggies, this is not about diet, and there are many other side benefits to eating all those things which a pill cannot equate. But that is for another discussion.

In a sense, when we reach our Burning Bush, when we reach this deep core of silence, we are left with just the multivitamin of our selves. To get there we will need to purify our bodies, our spirits, our minds, our souls. We will need to distill them to their most basic essences. Everything which is not beneficial will have to be discarded as pulp.

There are four ways by which we practice this purification and condensation. These are:

  • Prudence – that is, right perspective and thinking. This is the inner language – the words we think before we speak. Practicing prudence means we learn to take into account our prejudices, and to weigh carefully our words, and our actions. In the Rule of Benedict this kind of skill is the next to last rung on the ladder of perfection! It states: “The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’ (Sextus, Enchidirion, 134 or 145)“
  • Justice – that is, right social actions and relationships. To be just is to be able to discern how a relationship needs to be pruned or corrected to enable the Holy Spirit to move more freely, more abundantly within and through the lines of connection between people. This heals Creation in profound ways and accelerates the Second Coming. Justice is living in Isaiah 40. Where every action is making the way clear for the Lord. “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened.  Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together;  the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”
  • Fortitude – that is, right effort (perseverance). A common error many fall into is called the Sunk Cost Fallacy. This is the kind of error that says that if you have gone so far you might as well keep going. If you invested so much money you might as well keep spending. If you have put so many years on a relationship you might as well keep going. Accepting our “sunk costs” is very painful, it is humiliating. It requires a lot of fortitude to be able to pull out of such a trap. Perseverance is not about effort, about keep it going no matter what. It is about the right effort, orthopraxis.
  • Temperance – that is, right intention and internal relationships. While we control our external actions and words with prudence, we control our internal drives and desires with temperance. It is not a case of self-denial, but a question of appropriate indulgence. There is a difference. If we begin with the premise that the Lord our God is a good and loving God who creates a good and loving world, then pleasure, joy, peace, happiness, are all good and natural states to live in. In fact it is pain, sorrow, sadness, and death which are a result of the Fall. Temperance is to return our inner lives to that ideal back in the beginning. The first work in temperance is to understand the right and wrong ways to be a human being. The second and final step is to chip away everything that is sub-human in us.

It might seem strange that all these practices are required just so we can get to some texts with difficult language, but this is because we are, at our deepest core, words, or a word. And not just any word, not a symbol, or some abstraction. For the Word was made flesh. So there is never a separation between words and body, thoughts and actions, feelings and imagination. It is all embodied, because the Word was embodied.

Working with language, then, is also a good way to move deeply into our essence. The work is clearly outlined in James’ epistle chapter 3. The brother of Our Lord says: “Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.” He then goes on to outline the external, observable fruits of what he calls the “taming the tongue”: “Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom.”

So when talking about words and language James goes on to point out about living a life filled with mercy and good actions. What has that to do with words? Everything! But only if we understand the Word that resides in our core, the Name which is our sacred and secret name, the Logos which is our very essence. It is all connected. So here we have a beginning of a way of training ourselves to go deeper into language. Scriptural language, sacred texts, are sacred not because they are printed in special gold ink, or because the pages are made from discarded angel feathers. They are sacred because their specific arrangement of thoughts and even sounds vibrates at the deepest core of our Word – they are in harmony with the Word.

What happens when you strike a tuning fork? It vibrates at a certain frequency. If you place that fork next to another one which has a similar pitch the second fork will also begin to respond in kind. This is what happens with sacred texts. We need to learn how to read sacred texts with an ear to these subtle vibrations. We need to be purified so that we can notice these vibrations and cooperate with them, enhancing the harmony, amplifying the response.

Posted in Thoughts

Slouching to Bethlehem

The article above came at a good time. Synchronicity being what it is I know darn well there are no coincidences, only “God incidences”. I have been asking myself lately: do I know who Jesus is?

I was walking back from lunch the other day with a colleague who is an evangelical. We frequently have religious discussions during lunch. He finds it surprising that a mainline Protestant, even worse, an Episcopalian can actually know the Bible. I, on the other hand, find it surprising that an evangelical and avowed Tea Party advocate is able to have a rational discussion for one hour without foaming at the mouth and going into convulsions. So it is good – we surprise each other, and meantime learn to love and respect each other.

On the way back from lunch, as we cut across the gravely parking lot which stands on the site where Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was enacted into law in 1786, he revealed to me a deep crisis of faith he suffered a few years back. He saw a news story about a car accident near his home town. It was winter and rainy, and a mother and her toddler were driving home. The driver lost control and crashed over a bridge into a frozen river. The mother managed to escape but not save her child.

This event plunged him into deep depression and he lost his faith in God. Up to that point he was certain that God was in control. It was a long road back to him to the faith, and he confesses that to this day the whole incident makes him what he calls a “wounded Christian.”

I have wondered about this ever since. Maybe this is a reason why a right-wing nut like him (I speak fondly) can be such good lunch company and so open to conversation. It takes some wounding to break us out of our certainties. Or maybe I should say, breaking out of our certainties is what wounds us. Yes physical pain hurts, but having your certainties broken can be devastating.
To be honest, I fear people who are certain! They got life figured out. They got God figured out. And they know just who Jesus is. As Yeats said: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”Paradoxically, what I yearn for now is a healing that comes from brokenness – dropping my certainties which are just idols anyway, dropping my prejudices. I think it is the work of healing and transforming my False Self, removing what is unhealthy (egotism, fear, greed, oh the list is long) and cooperating with the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life which “wounds” me. But it also heals me. Go figure!
So I am dusting off the old Tree of Practices and looking at how I can add more balance to my spiritual walk. The most critical thing for me is to pursue health in all its forms: physical, mental, spiritual. And there are no shortcuts, alas. No pills. Only damn hard work, day in and day out.I am working at deepening my family’s roots in our neighborhood, deepening our life in church, deepening my studies. I am eating better and working out more. I am trying to get 8 hours of sleep a night. I am reaching out to experts, spiritual mentors, teachers and guides; to friends who walk this walk. I am prayerfully seeking anyone who can point out my idols – and help me smash them against the Rock – because, you see, I want to know the Real Jesus, not the one I am certain I know…

THE SECOND COMING (William Butler Yeats)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Posted in Thoughts

Cell is your zip code

“Because the very process of condemnation is another form of conditioning what is. If one would understand the whole process of the self, there must be no identification, condemnation, or judgment, but an awareness in which there is no choice – just observation. If you attempt it, you will see how extraordinarily difficult it is. Because all our morality, our social and educational training, leads us to compare and to condemn, to judge. And the moment you judge, you have stopped the process of inquiry, insight. Thus, in the process of relationship, one begins to discover what the ways of the self are.” (Krishnamurti)

The many sayings of the Desert tend to be short, sweet, and direct. For example, “Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything” is one of those. Surely there is no instruction that is clearer? And yet so much is left out. It is a saying, a teaching, that must be lived to be understood. Being still, being stuck, on our own without ‘entertainment’ is a difficult, sometimes boring, sometimes horrible thing to do.

It is also a step taken in faith. I surrender all my activities, all my plans, all my power and become spiritually immobile (sometimes physically as well). This place where I am ‘stuck’ where I am poor in spirit is my cell, and it will teach me everything.

So what is a cell? I could answer that by adapting Jesus’ words and say that where I am poor in spirit there is my cell.

In my experience there are three types of concentric cells, each moving closer to a center, The Center. They are the cell of place, the cell of time, and the cell of self.

Cell of Place

This is the more common understanding of the word ‘cell’. It is a place I go to physically. It can be a jail cell as a punishment or a monk’s cell. Even though they are quite different places, what defines them is the knowledge that they are deliberately apart from the community.

When I enter my cell I have chosen to turn my back on the commonwealth of people. What do I seek there in this cell? At a minimum I seek an entrance into the second cell, paradoxically as it sounds. I seek to be able to be present to and with God.

There are some austerities to this cell, as with every cell. ‘Austerities’ are another technical word which mean the proper alignment and execution of relationships. The Cell of Place requires physical rootedness. In extreme we would talk of solitary confinement, but a good example of the Cell of Place would be the writings of Wendell Berry.

Cell of Time

There is much literature on the need to be in the ‘now’, this is a standard trope of all spiritual disciplines. Some words used there are the distinctions between ‘chronos’ and ‘kairos’, a horizontal versus a vertical component of time. When I make a decision to enter the cell of time, I am choosing the ‘now’ more than the ‘when’.

The austerities of this cell deal with our relationship to time. On a trivial level, for example, in this cell you cannot look up the weather forecast! In fact, ‘forecast’ is forbidden here, as much as bringing a prostitute into a monk’s cell in Athos would be forbidden.

Cell of Self

To fully enter into the third cell the austerities of the first and second cells must be fully embodied. A good exercise in identifying our absorption of these is to ask ourselves “what if I am stuck in this particular place and time forever?” Just as it is. No change possible. Once we get over the horror of such a thing, and begin to find acceptance, then we uncover the third cell.

There are ‘selves’ in the other cells, but they are discardable. The language is to call them ‘false’ but they are not false in the sense of untruth or even lies. There is no moral judgment to be passed on these selves. They are, perhaps, better thought of as veils, layers of clothing. The closer we are to the center cell the closer we are to the Source of Light and Life, and thus heat. It makes good sense to drop some layers no? No violence needed, no self-reproach. Why would you reproach your rain jacket, which served you well outside in the rain, when you come into the house? You just take it off and hang it to dry.

***

Of importance to note is that none of these cells need to be geographically bound. Even the cell of place can move! Jesus went off away from people and disciples. It was not always the same place. It was a way to have a mental and physical opportunity to come closer to His Abba. This mobility of cells leads me to a deeper understanding of the saying I started with. I am capable, right here at work, in the supermarket, wherever, to enter into my cell(s) and engage all that is happening to me from that place. I bring into the fold of my cell the young lady at the checkout counter, or my colleague at the cube next door, or my child across the dinner table.

Within my neighborhood I have places with few people, and places with lots of people. Places that are noisy and places that are quiet. This moves my cell from being simply a room set aside and makes it into a spacious room for my intentional communion with God revealed through Creation.

Posted in Thoughts