This Middling Time

Christian or not, the time between Good Friday and the dawn of Easter Sunday morning is the precise mythological and psychological representation of the breathless giving away all human beings feel when they must let go of what seems most precious, not knowing how or when it will return, in what form or in what voice. Sweet Darkness was written in a kind of defiant praise of this difficult time of not knowing, a letter of invitation to embrace darkness as another horizon, and perhaps the only horizon out of which a truly new revelation can emerge.

— David Whyte on his Facebook post this morning.

SWEET DARKNESS
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.
________________________
‘Sweet Darkness”
 From River Flow
New and Selected Poems
 ©David Whyte and Many Rivers Press.

Beyond the Expiration Date

Recent x-rays prove it! My mildly arthritic hips are reminding me that I have an expiration date. Not the sort explicitly printed on Jeb the Dog’s peanut butter — “Best used by August 2016.” But it’s written just as clearly in mild hearing loss and the fact of having shrunk an inch of height since topping out at 6’1″.

Waking from 11 hours of sleep after our first night at the hermitage, Jeb the Dog took me on an early morning walk past the barns, beyond the free-range chickens, aside the lake onto a wooded path to the road. A cascade of new smells enticed Jeb so I agreed to walk to the “T” where we intersected with another gravel road.

As we turned to retrace our steps, an imposing yellow sentinel stood to our right. “Dead End” it cautioned. Blinding eastern sunlight enshrouded its stark warning. Aside, a solitary barren tree pierced the horizon. No other reminder of mortality needed, these starkly alert any who would proceed that we will ultimately find ourselves at the end of the road.

What brought me to the hermitage was most assuredly the pregnant solitude of nature on the cusp of Spring. Perhaps this is the same impulse that has always inspired Christians to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. (Who’d forget that formula once put to memory!). Amid all that converges at this transitional moment in time, I am well aware that Holy Week lies just ahead.

Jesus’ death is intended to remind us of our own. For much of my sixty-five years I’ve given that lip service. I’ve more readily basked in the soft pastels of Spring and rushed to Easter morning ignoring — if not denying — the cold, painful journey that leads up to what I want to celebrate.

This year is different. I’m now on Medicare and can no longer claim that I’m taking “early” Social Security. Arthritic hips, diminished hearing, bone loss are all cautionary signs that a very real “end” lies down the road. Call it my own personal expiration date if you wish.  This year I’m inclined to call it my own pathway into Gethsemane.

Whatever you choose to call it, not one of us is exempt from walking this path. Despite our denials, our clutching to whatever we wish, our refusals to yield control; we have no alternative. Jesus sweat blood, pleaded for some other way. Yet transcending his own ego, surrendering his own self-interest, Jesus yielded to love, in love, for love.

From this solitary vantage of the hermitage, after some sixty-five seasons of Lent, and multiple signs of my future expiration, I am inclined to believe that Jesus did not die for us. He’s not our “easy way out.”  Rather, with love, he showed us how we are to do it.  Because of Jesus, it is possible for us to know the way. In fact, therein lies our salvation.

________________
This reflection is inspired by Living in the Light of Death by Kathleen Dowling Singh, PhD in “Ripening”, vol 1 #2 of Oneing: An Alternative Orthodoxy published by The Center for Action and Contemplation; Vanessa Guerin, editor (2013) pp 41-46.

My Lenten Shake-Down

My spiritual foundations are being shaken to their foundations. On a practical level, I’ve presumed that God became human in Jesus because we had screwed things us so badly that God needed to “work our salvation” through the passion, death and resurrection. Today something else seems to be struggling to break through.

Steeped in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, my “fix it” mentality still deeply colors the way I have interpreted Jesus’ Incarnation. Even more, my presumption about the Son’s mission has pretty well determined the way I have “observed” the season of Lent — Jesus came to save us because we had created a mess and couldn’t fix it for ourselves.  We’d do well to realign ourselves with Jesus’ plan of action.

Though this traditional affirmation remains true, it’s not the whole truth. In fact, it’s only a sliver of the truth and can distort and impoverish a fuller understanding of Christ. That’s what seems to be rattling my foundations these days. It’s a work in progress — it’s God’s doing, nothing I can cause, simply a grace I hope to apprehend.

Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton has had me captivated for the past while. Masterful. Meant to be savored. Perhaps the most significant book I’ve read in the past five years. Not easy, but solid theology that is also spiritually satisfying. Reading something today caught me off guard and sent my head spinning:

The incarnation … was not an afterthought following a failed creation. Christ is the Word, the uncreated Image of God, who has already decided “from the beginning” to enter fully into humankind.

Okay, so what’s new? We’ve all heard that before. It’s simply another way of saying what Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians (1:15-17). Yes, I’ve “believed” this. I’ve even parroted it in my own words. Today these former formulations seem conceptual, abstract. True, but cognitive!

Here’s what flipped my apple cart, left my head spinning:

the heart of Christian spirituality [resides in] the discovery of our true selves already resting in Christ, not “out there” as a separate Object, but “as the Reality within our own reality, the Being within our own being, the life of our life.” (Merton, The New Man, p19).

With images of Pope Francis praying at the Mexico/US border yesterday fresh in my mind, Merton’s words stopped me in my tracks: “If we believe in the incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of God.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p296)

The church teaches virtually the same thing: “In Christ, God became not only ‘this’ man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, ‘every man.'” (Gaudium et spies, #22).

Again, I have long ‘believed’ these words. I have often parroted them. But have they really sunk in? Are they deep in my bones such that I see in others — each and every other, especially the poor and marginalized — the human dignity of Christ?

That’s my challenge as we enter this second week of Lent. God did not become human in Jesus as an afterthought due to our having screwed things up! Incarnation leading to salvation has always been God’s intention from the beginning. How do I get that truth in to my bones, give flesh to this “Word” in my life?

Perhaps we need to spend less time in our church pews and more time at border crossings, less time meditating on the crucifix and more time attending to the many forms of personal crucifixion people endure today.

Christmas and Easter are not dualistic polarities on a salvific timeline. They are the self-same singular impulse of a loving God from the very beginning. Don’t know about you, but this pretty well turns the table on many of my traditional Lenten presumptions and practices.

Getting my head and heart around this will take some doing, certainly more than the forty days of Lent.
______________________
Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN (2009), pp 179-180).

So Much More Than a Haircut

Getting my hair cut provides an increasingly sobering experience. My hair has always been thin, wispy and generic brown, never a thick wavy mane of movie star standards. An assortment of random cowlicks have bedeviled generations of barbers. Now the whirling dervishes are only minimized by a healthy case of male pattern baldness.

Yesterday offered only the most recent humiliation. Yet another new stylist needed to be counseled about the obstinance of the cantankerous cowlick above and behind my left ear. Alyssa actually did a good job for a first-timer. Her major challenge was probably making me feel I was getting my money’s worth — no doubt she could have done her job in three minutes. Yet, she combed, spritzed and primped more than necessary to draw out the ordeal for at least fifteen minutes.

What Alyssa had no way of knowing was how troubling was the black apron she had secured around my neck.  Was she to know how brazenly white the cloth made her clippings appear?  Doesn’t she appreciate that — atop my head — hair retains a dark shade of gray? Neither does she know that my eyes are well-trained to see only the neck taper — oblivious to my invisible tonsure — when she positioned her handheld mirror for my final inspection.

This humbling brush with reality well disposed me for a delightfully sobering piece in the current issue of Commonweal [link]. Peter Quinn also bemoans changes which are only to be expected — at thirty, male pattern baldness. At forty, a first set of bifocals. At fifty, the addition of Metamucil to orange juice. At sixty, an assortment of medication that come with a lifetime prescription.

One day we hear a pin drop. Then, suddenly, we can no longer distinguish conversation from background noise (not that it matters much) at cocktail parties. Knees begin to resemble the coil springs on a rusted ’56 Chevy. We open cabinets and instantly forget what we’re looking for. The Commonweal writer confirms that the ability to attach names to the faces of friends is becoming one of life’s small triumphs.

My haircut prepared me to commiserate with Peter Quinn that the inevitability of the final curtain doesn’t make it easier to accept. I’m as reluctant and fearful as anyone else to face the end. A degree of resignation and acceptance isn’t a bad thing. Sooner or later, it’s all right to think about making room instead of taking it up.

And here is where Alyssa comes back into the picture. Alyssa expects to become a first-time mother on May 7. This balding, white-haired man had the temerity to ask, “Are you scared?” Alyssa responded, “Of course! But there’s no turning back now. It’s got a life of its own. It’s going to happen.”

Then Alyssa added, “But, I’m even more scared about being a parent — it’s not just giving birth! I want to be a good parent. This will change my life. Who knows what lies ahead? …but I’m excited, can’t wait!” Upon leaving, I was moved to give her an extra generous tip.

Others have long made the association between womb and tomb, birth and death, death and rebirth.  If Easter is about more than pastels and bunnies it’s about all that life throws at us, about dying and (expectant) rising.

Alyssa gave me a great haircut, and so much more… she reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s marvelous poem, The Journey of the Magi which more often comes to mind at Christmas. Eliot concludes:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

______________

I am eager to recommend Peter Quinn’s entire article, Last Word: Things Fall Apart, The Failure to Stay Young from which I have liberally quoted.  A link is provided above.

“The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot from Collected Poems 1909-1962. © Faber and Faber, 1974.

True Identities

I bristle when people mispronounce my family name, saying BurBACK instead of Burbach. Why is it so complicated? Football fans don’t say, Roger Stauback! Music aficionados know better than to say Johann Sebastian BACK! It’s BACH, thank you very much!

I’ve heard that my Nebraska branch of the family softened the name to a “k” during the early to mid-20th century. They feared being seen as anti-American and wanted to separate themselves from our German roots. Many adopted “back” to emphatically distinguish themselves from Nazi-sympathizes.

The original Milwaukee branch of the family never felt such need to prove its patriotism and have always been known as Burbach. Names say a lot about how we see ourselves, what we have to prove, about our place in community, about our self-esteem.

Up until about 15 years ago I introduced myself as Dick. I still recall with a chuckle being first told that my name was really Richard. That instruction began when I was about 4. As a pre-schooler I understood myself to be Dickie — though for a time some in the family tried to saddle me with “Butch”. By about the time I began kindergarten I had concluded that my real name must be Dickie-Richard.

Clearly, names carry meaning. They express identity. I fully understand those who go from Betsy to Elizabeth. I have much greater appreciation for what women choose if they take their husband’s name at marriage.  About 15 years ago I decided I no longer wanted to be a Dick and made the shift to Richard. Family and friends seem to have taken well to the shift.

Though I don’t bristle as I do with the mispronunciation of my family name, I am increasingly caught off guard when an old-timer refers to me as Dick. Mostly, I just smile in gratitude that this comes from a really old friend.  Names carry meaning, express identity. My name is Richard — it’s simply who I am!

All this having been said, you will understand why the Gospel (John 20:11-18) proposed for today, the Tuesday of Easter, is one of my favorites. Mary of Magdala is at the tomb, turns, sees Jesus but does not recognize him. Jesus asks, “‘Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.’ Jesus said, ‘Mary!’ She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni!’”

A few things make this one of my favorite passages. It’s so personal, so intimate. Even more, I cherish that Mary did not recognize her dear friend. Who he was now was not who he had been! He’s changed. She had him boxed-up in a tomb. Now he was different and no longer fit her preconceptions!

Do we try to keep Christ in our self-prescribed boxes? Do we feel more secure with the Jesus we have known? Having him out and about — perhaps even appearing to people and showing up in places we wouldn’t expect or approve — can be down right unsettling and disconcerting!

But notice, it is in the speaking of her name that Mary recognizes the one she loves as alive! The restoration of this relational bond, this recognition and expression of personal identity bridges any and all change in externals. Meaning, identity, sense of oneself within community is not just restored, it is recognized as indelible!

Mary didn’t recognize Jesus at first because the way he appeared wasn’t what she was looking for? What would it look like if Christ were to appear to you today? Are you ready to be surprised… maybe even taken off guard?

How would Christ speak your name today? What tone, texture and temperament would his voice express? Which of your names would he use? How would he pronounce it to fully express the meaning, identity and intimacy of your one, unique and indelible relationship?

Allow yourself to be surprised, even changed by your encounter! Who are you, anyway?

What are You Doing for Easter?

No, this post is not left over from last week. You are reading it correctly. What are you doing for Easter? We hosted our family’s dinner celebration. Twenty-four hours later, despite the generous assistance of our guests, we are still in clean-up mode.

But, this question is not about Sunday, it’s about this full fifty-day Easter Season leading up to Pentecost. We are accustomed to doing something for the forty days of Lent, usually giving-up something to make us better. Well, if we really did that well and really got-into what we celebrated yesterday, all the more reason we would want to do something special for the Easter Season!

Rather than giving-up something maybe we could more generously give-back or gratefully give-forward in response to what we have commemorated during Lent and especially the Easter Triduum. Otherwise, what difference did it all make? How do we carry it forward?

Regular readers will recall that rock-ribbed HOPE amid the harsh and painful realities of living has been a recurring theme here in recent weeks.  Are we to resign ourselves to these hard realities and simply go on as if nothing happens at Easter? We need not. We dare not. We should not!

Where is our hope? Can a soon-to-be 65 y/o change his well-worn ways? As I look around, our friends and family still struggle with cancer, alcoholism and consequences of traumatic experiences. Religious fanaticism has not ceased to inspire terrorist violence. More Christians are being persecuted and murdered today than I ever recall in my lifetime.

What’s changed?  Are we to conceded that yesterday had more to do with soft pastels, sugary candy, coconut bunny cakes (of course we featured one in our menu) and bulb plants making tentative appearance from beneath our leaf-packed gardens? If evidence to the contrary is lacking, then it is up to us to provide it! We may not be able to change the world, but we can change ourselves and our small part of the world.

Here’s a sign of hope… Pope Francis. Many of us had pretty well given up hope with the Catholic Church before he made a surprise appearance two years ago. I was resolved that, at least for my lifetime, my friends and family were right: nothing would ever change in the church I was finding increasingly hard to love.

But as America magazine rightly states in its current issue: “…from the moment he took office, Pope Francis brought a new style, tone and clarity to the office of the papacy, opening up new ways of conversing and making decisions, speaking to people in new and direct ways and attracting many people who had long ago written off the church as irrelevant to their lives. His actions help direct us toward the Risen One, the source of all new life.” [link]

And it is not just Catholics citing Francis as a refreshing change. Evangelical Christians are making similar observations. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the last three Republican administrations, in an Easter Sunday op-ed [link] observes that without changing church doctrine, Francis has altered how the Catholic Church is seen.

This Evagelical Christian praises the pope’s special gift for symbolic acts packed with theological content, reminding us that human beings are infinitely more valuable than moral rules, that failures don’t define us.  He observes that Francis criticizes the church — not for its unwillingness to rebuke sinners — but for ignoring the weak and vulnerable. Wehner argues that Francis has his priorities right.

And so should we! What really are our priorities? No, we cannot change the world.  But we can, most certainly, change our own.

Essentially it comes down to What are we doing for Easter?

No Need to Pretend

It began as the sort of rumble you feel as much as hear. We were in the dark. It began quietly but quickly built to a frightening, roiling cacophony of dissonant noise, a disturbing sound that demanded our full attention. No one spoke.

Imagine hundreds of people pounding the backs of wooden pews. Imagine a basilica pipe organ in full throttle mimicking thunder. No, it was more like an earthquake! The darkness was smothering. Only a single candle guided our way.

It was Good Friday. My nephew and I were at Tenebrae at the Basilica of St. Mary. The word means shadow or darkness in Latin. The service takes its name from the responsory, Tenebrae factae sunt — “It grew dark.” It did. It has. It does!

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning while it was still dark, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. (Lk 24:1) Thus begins the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection… while it is still dark!

At the Good Friday service in the Basilica all the lights were extinguished. The Prince of Darkness seemingly triumphs. The vibrating rumble of thunderous noise replicates the earthquake described in the Passion narrative. Like the women coming to the tomb, we had come expecting to commemorate a death.

Unlike the grief-stricken women coming to anoint a dead body, we cannot pretend. A single candle left burning at Tenebrae is processed down the aisle as if it too were leaving the assembly.  We will have none of it!  Unlike the first to show up at the tomb, we know the conclusion of the story.

The roiling quake of death and darkness will not have its way with us! Louder, ever more cacophonous, people pounding our pews.  The organ explodes with an insistent plea. The small flame turns and slowly retreats back up the aisle. Our demanding clamber slowly subsides as the Light of Christ is returned to its central place of honor.

Good Friday 2015. We know the story even in our darkest days, our pleadings before dawn, our confrontation with death. Unlike those who went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, we know the conclusion to the story — for it has become our story, and we know it to be true.

Christ triumphed over death and darkness. Once, for all! We cannot pretend otherwise.

Its 2015 — Jesus Christ is risen! Yes, risen indeed!