Extraordinarily Ordinary

Where we were on 9/11 remains etched in our consciousness — meeting with an elderly woman named Hildegard. Those of my generation remember where we were when Kennedy was shot — Sr Monique’s 8th grade math class. My dad recalled spontaneous parades down main street in Hartington, Nebraska on Armistice Day, 1919.

Today, November 30, I vividly remember where I was thirty-five ago on this day — St. Francis Xavier Church on the St Louis University campus. I was a graduate student. It was Sunday. John Kavanaugh SJ was presiding at the popular campus liturgy.

In his welcome, John announced that Dorothy Day had died the previous evening. Like other moments indelibly etched in our consciousness, there was an audible gasp. We recognized the world would never be the same, grieving our collective loss.

Day was more than the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, she was the moral conscience of a nation. She spoke truth to power, not only regarding Viet Nam, but in the way our culture denigrates the poor and dismisses those on our peripheries. Visiting the U.S. these thirty-five years after her death, Pope Francis cited Dorothy Day (along with Thomas Merton) as exemplars of the very best American Catholicism has to offer.

We too easily assume those we want to call “saints” live with some super-human grace, operating on a different spiritual plain than the rest of us. Not only is that bad theology, it’s simply wrong! As David Brooks has pointed out in his current best-seller, “often enough they live in an even less ethereal way that the rest of us. They are more fully of this earth , more fully engaged in the dirty practical problems of the people around them.” (emphasis mine)

That was certainly the case with Dorothy Day. Brooks is only the latest to observe that “Day and her colleagues slept in cold rooms. They wore donated clothes. They did not receive salaries. Day’s mind was not engaged by theology most of the time, but by how to avoid this or that financial crisis, or arrange for this person to receive that treatment.”

Again, nothing super-human. Nothing ethereal, just down and dirty living the ordinary stuff of life with others. Brooks makes this point by quoting a 1934 journal entry in which she describes a typical day: woke up, went to Mass, made breakfast for the community, answered correspondence, did some bookkeeping, read a book, wrote an inspirational message to others.

Included in that day’s routine activity Day records that someone came looking for a special outfit for a 12 y/o girl, a recent convert came to share some spiritual writings, a Fascist appeared trying to incite discontent among the residents, an aspiring art student arrived with some drawing of Catherine of Siena, and on and on.

This sounds a lot like an ordinary day that passes with no special note, polar opposites of 9/11, the day Kennedy was killed, or the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month! Yes, there are the iconic images of an elderly Dorothy Day placing a single white daisy in the barrel of a heavily equipped police officer’s gun. Mostly, invariably, she just lived everyday as it came, doing whatever needed doing, attending to whomever she was with.

To emphasize the point, David Brooks cites the German medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer. He did not hire idealists for his medical mission in Africa. Nor did he want anyone with a righteous sense of how much they were giving to others, or those intent on doing something heroic for the world.

Brooks emphasizes that Schweitzer “wanted people who would perform constant acts of service with the no-nonsense attitude that they will simply do what needs doing.” Isn’t that the way it is for most of us, most of the time? Take it as it comes! Do what you can do, especially for those who need it most.

Thirty-five years later I am reminded to make this my routine, day by day.
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I enthusiastically recommend David Brook’s The Road to Character, New York: Random House, 2015 from which I took inspiration for this reflection. My quotes are from Chapter 4, locations 1855 and 1866 of the Kindle edition.

Live the Life You’re Given, Not the One You’re Not

Laparoscopic surgery ranks right up there with GPS as a marvel of modern life. Just had the procedure a couple of weeks ago for a hernia. But as marvelous as it is, I’m learning it provides no miraculous return to “as good as new.” There are some things — like a bit of arthritis in my hip — that are a function of age and will not change.

What are we to do? Well, within the range of options I’ve chosen to smile. Yes, smile! Seems like a new companion has arrived to stay so the best thing to do is to become friends. The temptation to complain and play the “poor me” card surely pops up. I’m skilled at playing the sympathy card!

But as my parents, and other elders deserving of emulation have taught, we really are about as happy as we choose to be. Somehow they smiled, spoke mostly of what is good and praiseworthy, cultivated gratitude. Their sage advice might be: Smile anyway! Live the life you are given, not the one you’re not!

Are episodic hurdles like hernia repairs and chronic conditions like arthritic hips misfortunes, a tragedy of our inevitable diminishment? Or, can we smile? Can we befriend these physical inconveniences as the companions they are, even befriend them? Can we receive them — even invite them — as reminders and bearers of true wisdom?

Just wondering… do we fear death to the degree we fear living, really loving, being truly alive, fully human? In the much loved Canticle of the Sun Francis of Assisi speak of “sister death.” It is said the last words he spoke were: “Welcome, sister death!” What’s that all about?

Yesterday, returning about twenty freshly washed plates from Thanksgiving dinner to a shelf over my head I wondered, “Should I be doing this?” A cautious fear of falling accompanied my navigating an icy driveway. Can such new-found cautiousness lead to an ever greater curiosity rather than some debilitating concern with diminishment?

Yes, we are about as happy as we choose to be. As my parents used to say, “life is pretty much what you make of it!” I first remember them saying that when I was a disgruntled adolescent. Now at 65, a renewed curiosity about what they were trying to pass on accompanies me.

I wonder… is our fear of death commensurate with our fear of living, really living life as it comes to us, not as we wish it to be? Are we free to really, fully live only to the degree we embrace our finitude, our finality? What is the wisdom of true elders?

More and more, I’m curious about whatever comes to us as a function of age with enduring truths that will not change.

Thanks for Everything, Even Death

Ending! So many endings! The end of the year is fast approaching. My scooter went into storage a few weeks ago. The patio furniture has been returned to the garage rafters. Trees are barren now. Even our Thanksgiving gatherings are primarily focused on gratitude for what has been.

Brittle brown stubble, a bit frost touched, marks once lush pastures at Wellsprings Farm. Sunset encroached on my days at the hermitage while dawn’s laboring toyed with my eager, expectant eyes. Ice settled the lake’s surface to a silent sheen, a blanket of white crystals acccenting nature’s somnolence.

Call it culmination, fruition, fulfillment, ending, whatever! There is a certain finality built into all things. Ultimately, we all die. Once death leered on the horizon, frightening, tragic, to be fought and denied, or simply ignored. Eventually, a certain silence dawns. Our eyes eagerly pierce and parse its darkness.

An enduring gift of these recent hermitage days echoes still, blanketing my anxious questioning, casting light beyond my fears. The gift? A poem by Michael Dowd:

Without the death of stars, there would be no planets and no life.
Without the death of creatures, there would be no evolution.

Without the death of elders, there would be no room for children.
Without the death of fetal cells, we would all be spheres.

Without the death of neurons, wisdom and creativity would not blossom.
Without the death of cells in woody plants, there would be no trees.

Without the death of forests by Ice Age advance, there would be no northern lakes.
Without the death of mountains, there would be no sand or soil.

Without the death of plants and animals, there would be no food.
Without the death of old ways of thinking, there would be no room for the new.

Without death there would be no ancestors.
Without death, time would not be precious.

What, then, are the gifts of death?

The gifts of death are Mars and Mercury, Saturn and Earth.
The gifts of death are the stardust within our bodies.

The gifts of death are the splendors of shape and form and color.
The gifts of death are diversity, the immense journey of life.

The gifts of death are woodlands and soils, ponds and lakes.
The gifts of death are food: the sustenance of life.

The gifts of death are seeing, hearing, feeling — deeply feeling.
The gifts of death are wisdom, creativity, and the flow of cultural change.

The gifts of death are the urgency to act, the desire to fully be and become.
The gifts of death are joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

The gifts of death are lives that are fully and exuberantly lived, and then
graciously and gratefully given up, for now and forevermore. Amen.

Yes, for all that was we give thanks. For all that is and will be we give thanks. For all endings, even death, we give thanks to the One in Whom we all finally abide.

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“The Gifts of Death” by Michael Dowd taken from Evidential Mysticism and the Future of Earth, Evidence: Oneings, A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation, vol. 2, #2; 2014, pp. 22-23.

The Moon is Always Full

The moon is full even when we only see a crescent.  Seeing is a matter of perspective, of alignment with the light.  Again, the moon is always full!

I’m still at the hermitage and this wonderfully insightful and illuminating image may be the most indelible gift, among many, I take home later today. It comes from something I was reading by Cynthia Bourgeault, a modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer and internationally recognized retreat leader.

Bourgeault was speaking of the human conscience. Surely few concepts from childhood religion raise more hackles or bring up more resistance than conscience. It’s given a bum wrap! It’s not the stern voice accompanied with a wagging finger admonishing us for our faults. It’s lightyears beyond memorizing a rule book and conforming our behavior to its prescriptions.

Rather, Bourgeault would say, the mature well-formed conscience is “the heart’s own ability to see the divine hologram in any situation, no matter how obscured, and to move spontaneously and without regard for it’s personal well-being in alignment with that divine wholeness.”

It brings a sense of “obligation” that arises out of both a willingness and mysterious ability to do whatever is consonant with the good. Our felt obligation becomes a desire, an impulse, to align our being and doing with what is right, true and beautiful.

It’s as if we recognize the full radiance of the moon even when only a sliver is visible. The mature, well-formed conscience not only enables us to see but to, in fact, become visionary.

Bourgeault suggests this is what enabled Francis of Assisi to embrace the leper. We cherish this image because at some deeply human level we recognize — Bourgeault calls it “the eye of our heart” — that only that gesture would restore the image of God in the brokenness of that situation. She further suggests this moral alignment, this ability to see fully, enabled Jesus to accept death on a cross rather than meeting violence with violence.

Eons away from the wagging finger of stern elders, lightyears from conforming behavior to a list of commands, we are enticed to live freely and spontaneously in the full and free embrace of the Light.

It’s a matter of alignment and perspective — of seeing that even a slice is sufficient.
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My source is “Seeing with the Eye of the Heart” by Cynthia Bourgeault in Evidence, Oneing: An Alternative Orthodoxy, vol. 2, no. 2 (2014), pp. 41-48; a publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation. The article is an excerpt from Chapter VII of Bourgeault’s book, The Wisdom Way of Knowing, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Thinking Too Much

At the hermitage this weekend. Just want to share a couple of things that have attracted my attention this morning:

“Jesus and other mystical prophets testify that when it comes to wisdom, it is not the years that count, but the mileage — the roads we have traveled. Our unique lives vary widely in their breadth, scope, and depth, and older does not necessarily mean wiser. The latitude of any life is defined in less quantifiable dimensions: the intensity with which we have lived, our deliberate choices, the tragedies we have endures, the failings and disabilities we have integrated.” -Joe Grant, MDiv

And then there is always the incisive and insightful Mary Oliver:

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I
      come to any conclusions?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?

I say this, or perhaps I am just thinking it.
      Actually, I probably think too much.

Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
      is tending his children, the roses.
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Quote from Joe Grant, MDiv is from his essay, “Growing Down to Earth, Maturity in Meekness” published in Ripening, Oneing: An Alternative Orthodoxy. Vol. 1, No. 2; Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013.

Poem by Mary Oliver is from A Thousand Mornings: Poems. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012, p. 7.

We Should Know Better

I’m really sad and disheartened this morning. A dear niece who is bright, funny and someone I deeply care about posted something mean-spirited on her Facebook page. There is simply too much fear-mongering and superficial solutions being thrown around these days. She should know better. So should we all!

My niece’s posting noted that the Tsarnaev brothers found guilty for the horrific Boston Marathon bombing were refugees. With the latest terrorist attack roiling Paris, you can figure out the intended political message of the “prepared” image she chose to re-post on her FB page.

(BTW, why do we have such an outpouring of moral outrage when 129 people are killed in France and so quickly “forget” nearly twice as many Russian citizens who were killed in the flight from Egypt? Could it be that the French are more like “us” and our generation has learned to demonize the Russians as our enemy? The recent massacre in Beirut hardly registered in our consciousness. Just wondering what this is all about!)

What I take as my niece’s “painting with broad strokes”, guilt-by-association or “extrapolation from the specific to the whole” is dangerous and unfair. In my opinion it’s also stupid and xenophobic!

My angry side wanted to post the following: “Does the fact that the son of your Dad’s cousin was sentenced to death for first degree murder mean that our whole family are felons and should be denied our civil liberties?” Is our whole family guilty by association and to live in shame?

In addition to a lifelong love for my role as uncle, I cherish the role of family historian and keeper of stories. It’s easy to forget our own truth or glamorize the stories. I want to remind my niece — and the extended family as well — of our heritage.  It is identical to many.

Centuries of exploitation by the British led our Irish ancestors to flee poverty and famine between 1842 and 1855. The failed social revolution of 1848, and repressive measures attempting to prop up remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, lead our German forebears to flee their homeland in 1850 and 1856.

At last count we now have 31 Governors feeding into what I call ignorance, xenophobia and fear-mongering. As our Governor Mark Dayton has said, Minnesotans are better than that. President Obama has also tried to call Americans to our better instincts all the while fully supporting French efforts to apprehend the terrorists and retaliate forcefully on ISIS in Syria.

Most of us call ourselves Christians. This Advent we would do well to pay special attention to the story of our salvation, our liberation from slavery to freedom. Let’s place the Flight into Egypt front and center this year. Let’s remember Jesus’ own “post” on the social media of his day. In the poor, the naked, the infirm, the homeless, those seeking refuge we see the face of Christ.  Or, we don’t!

If nothing else, we would do well to see our own!

Too Many Losers

Know the difference between winners and losers? Winners are those who have failed more than losers! No, this isn’t some clever turn of a phrase. It’s the truth! Yes, winners somehow overcome their fear of failure. Or, they let go of their need to be in control or to appear perfect.

Winners are those who understand they will fail — again and again. More importantly, winners accept — even invite — imperfection, mistakes and failure as part of the process of growing, living, learning. It’s as if winners somehow turn fear on its head by indulging the freedom to fail. They seem to live by some liberating appreciation that winning really is more fun than losing!

Case in point… I’m a really crappy swimmer. I’m scared to death of water. I could probably “save myself” but I make very effort never to find out. Pools are not fun places for me — I’m not in control, paralyzed by fear, avoiding any risk of “jumping” into deep water! Imagine how much fun I have missed because of my fear of failure, unwillingness to make a mistake, of not being “perfect.”

Here’s a true confession… this distinction between winners and losers came to me while reading about Thomas Merton’s fascination with Zen Buddhism and Russian Orthodox theology. While critically noting what he judges to be “mistakes”, Merton expresses admiration for each tradition’s willingness to ask bold questions and rend “profound insights into the real meaning of Christianity — insights which we simply cannot ignore.”

Perhaps his ability to admit his own limitations and partial understanding, Merton appreciated Buddhism and Orthodoxy’s freedom to make mistakes “in order to say something great and worthy of God.” He muses, “One wonders if our theological cautiousness is not after all the sign of a fatal coldness of heart, an awful sterility born of fear, or of despair.”

Yesterday Pope Francis gave us a picture of what this might look like in the concrete while a guest at a large Lutheran church in Rome. A Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man told him of her pain in not being able to take communion together in each other’s churches.

Saying “life is bigger than explanations and interpretations,” Francis suggested that we should not be held captive by abstract theological principles. Ultimately, we are each bound to follow our well-informed, mature moral conscience.

“It is a question that each person must answer for themselves,” Francis said, suggesting that even the church’s authority is below that of God’s in such personal matters. Francis offered a pastoral response to the woman: “There is one baptism, one faith, one Lord, so talk to the Lord and move forward. I dare not, I cannot, say more.”

Live! Jump in! Swim!  “Pick up your mat and walk!” Or expressed in yet another way, “love casts out all fear.”  In that grace, we are set free.  In this truth, we are all winners!
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My reference to Thomas Merton quotes Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, Liturgical Press, 2015. p. 12.
You may read the Reuters report of Pope Francis’ visit to the Lutheran Church in Rome [here].