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

Letter to friend

You have been in my mind lately old friend. How are you?

Things move slowly here in the southern part of the USA – summer’s been unpredictable at best, and I feel like an old farmer – complaining first of too much sun “a drought a drought” I grumble, then too much rain “a flood my plants are drowning”…reminds me of a scene in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurais where the youngest of the group berates the villagers for hiding rice (I am sure you know the scene).

It has been almost 15 years here in this city of Richmond full of restless ghosts of old wars, and rolling hills and tamed wilderness, so much like England!

And The Work goes on – fighting fascism with kind words, fighting racism with a handshake. My poetry itself has morphed into I know not what – a verbal embrace, a greater tolerance for speech that seems to go nowhere, not even therapeutic.

I realized, not sure why it took so long, that when Our Master says “Be ye perfect” he means “sing a new song”! And I also realize that we (all, most) sing a handful of songs over and over – mostly dirges. It is hard to sing a new song. Hard to learn the tune, hard to learn the lyrics, difficulty harmonies.

So now instead of looking for speech that does something (therapeutic), I am more interested in joining in the chanting of psalms – same ol’ complains, same ol’ issues, sung over and over, sometimes shouted loudly. Instead of the usual husbandly complaint: “Here goes my wife again whining about X” I now can honestly say “Here is my wife again reciting her Psalm.” And I can join her in that, and together we can transmute it into gold.

I find that I am now able to pay attention. Maybe it is age? That is pretty much all my words have been doing – paying attention (see below – apologies if you’ve seen any before – consider it my psalm then).

The kids are grown! Oldest is 14, and youngest is going to be 8! Yikes! I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled!

How are you? How is your Work going?

————————

Downtown

I felt suddenly the weight of the downtown
Tall office buildings on my shoulders
Renew us Spirit and the whole world
I begged, my fingers holding on to the prayer rope
As if it could float

The wind blew cold
blew me
Across the street away from the legless, homeless man
Who sits on the corner of the bank plaza
begging
Not today, I prayed, not today again

A leaf scratched along the street
Like a broken heart, given up dreams
Startling me from my prayers

This winter, which never really started
And which will never end
Begging the question, undecided, passionless
This winter stands for nothing

Almighty set up your kingdom upon the world

After Hurricane Irene (2011)

i miss the wind
blowing the family together
huddled on a sofa
watching the trees bend and bend and snap

i miss the torrential rain
drenching our conversations
softening them like hard earth
hushing harshness

i miss the day dawning without electricity
neighbors stepping out gingerly
greeting each other and standing
in stunned solidarity
over the blurring of picket fence, garden

when God blows through
nothing is left standing
but our love for each other

Others

My life is best understood
As that time I walked into a room
Where the beautiful woman had just left
By another door
All that is left is the hush which settled like her perfume
Upon those who were left behind

And I
I came in late, just late
Left to imagine the excitement of her appearance
From the way the remainders
Slowly woke up into the dreariness of the present
And that scent, subtle flowery sunlit

Her tangible absence lingered
The door closing on the other end of the room
All eyes slowly turning back to their magazines
And cell phones

And I
I was left to hold on to the dissipating
Essence of her charm and grace and
Her rapidly approaching ugly and bitter old age

But this side of the door
She is immortal Venus
This side of the door
I breathe deeply from her beauty
Which I did not see
But know so well

Release

It is white
electric
And boundless – stretching in all directions
She said in the dark after we made love

I touched her curves still moist with sweat
Like a potter running his hands in wet clay

Boundaries, curves, delimitations
Uncovering and recovering hidden sacred grottoes of pleasure
Suffocating, intoxicating
closeness

The one word for me is embrace
No, she said, release

Posted in Thoughts

Romuald’s Rule as a ladder

Sit in your cell as in paradise.

This is the first step, and amazingly (as we shall see) the final step of the journey in the way of the psalms. If your cell is paradise then you have reached a state where you accept the divine unity of all humanity in Christ, and this is how we join the fellowship of contemplatives, and also the work of caretaking for one another. This is true charity, true love of neighbor.

Cast all memory of the world behind you.

At the beginning of the way, everyone is tempted to bring in whatever experiences in life brought them this far. But previous experience is of no value in this stage. Not because they are wrong – they might very well be right. But simply because we have not developed the capacity to discern. Forgetting the world is a technical term which describes the act of abandoning all false beliefs and protecting oneself from idolatry, that is, of preferring one’s experiences and insights to whatever God will bring us. To demanding that all God’s words and signs be comprehensible to our reason, and acceptable to our emotional level. The expectation that the way is within our capacity as we are at the beginning is hubris, ad very dangerous. Because of that all memory of the world must be cast aside. It is also a calling for a conversion of life, to a second birth, and to develop a beginner’s mind.

Cautiously watch your thoughts, as a good fisherman the fish.

That is called "vigilance." The word "caution" does not mean intrusiveness. Caution, in fact, means watching without disturbing. Let the thoughts come and go without actively seeking to arouse or suppress them. This requires tremendous indifference to shame or praise, to attraction or repulsion. This process teaches holy indifference.

The way is via the psalms – do not leave it.

Why would the way be in the psalms? Because they train us in holy indifference. We can observe cautiously, without disturbing them. We will not change the words of the psalms, so when they are imprecatory we say those words without being disturbed, and while we feel the full gamut of emotions and thoughts which arise from those words, we continue on without taking ownership of the sentiment, without grasping.

If, in your beginner’s fervor, you fail to do the whole psalter, do a little here and a little there.

This is good stewardship. A preference for quality over quantity. The way of the psalms is a gentle way: one starts with one psalm, with a half a psalm, with a verse. Slowly building up our spiritual hearts to a greater range of feelings, and a greater capacity to all-inclusive love without grasping. If someone starts on the road to lifting weights he or she does not go straight to the heaviest possible. IF they do they will either fail, or get hurt. The proper training begins with light weights, and slowly increased over time, working on form and technique. The same applies to yoga or running. Why should it be different in spiritual life?

Studying each with your whole mind and spirit.

The proper way to study Sacred Scripture, any scripture, is to engage it with all our capacities. We study the psalms as poetry, we study them as prophecy, we study them as love songs, we study them as curses. We also memorize as many of them as possible. We try to apply verses of the psalms to daily life. We sing them, chant them, mumble them. We cut our spiritual teeth in them, and we develop our spiritual vocabulary with them. We allow their colors to expand our palette of colors. We are stretched emotionally and spiritually into a greater and broader range of "holy emotions" through them.

When your mind wanders during the reading – don’t quit, hurry to refocus.

When…not if! Any "way" any road, is a road by virtue of two borders. Without a clearly defined two borders you cannot know you are on a road. One border is the psalms as a training in holy indifference and in all-inclusive love. The second border of the psalms is a training in focus and concentration. Reading the same things, over and over, day in, day out, year in, year out. Without variation, without change. Unhurriedly. Imagining at all times that you will be doing this very same thing for Eternity. The overwhelming boredom of it all. This allows you to develop your capacity to be present and focused on the task at hand, no matter how menial.

Place yourself in the presence of God with fear and trembling, as if standing before the emperor.

This is the heart of the way of the psalms, and of the way of the monk: pay attention to the incarnation of Christ through the Spirit – by His light I see light. Realize that the very chanting and reciting of the psalms is a God-breathed gift. "Fear" is a holy emotion, achieved only after some time in the way. It has little to do with earthly fear of punishment or embarrassment. The way of the psalms as a way of holy indifference means that earthly fears and other considerations are non-existent in the spiritual path. Fear of God in the way means nothing else than all-inclusive Love.

Destroy yourself completely.

This is the consequence of the previous step. To be completely destroyed is to realize that Love is the greatest of all gifts, and to let Truth and Wisdom be your lifeblood, as opposed to opinions and judgments. The False Self is eradicated and only the Real Self is left.

Sit like a baby chick, content with the grace of God, who, unless its mother gives it something, knows nothing and has nothing to eat.

This is the final step of the way, which is also the first step of the rest of the journey. At this point, after learning how to be indifferent and how to love inclusively, how to pay attention, and how to listen only to the True Self, the disciple fully realizing their True Self understands that True Life is complete submission to the authority of Jesus the Christ in every area of your life.

Posted in Thoughts