Tomorrow is NOW

Today’s the day! Today is the day set aside for special prayer, awareness and action on behalf of creation. The Orthodox Church has been commemorating this day since 1989. The rest of us Christians are taking a little longer to wake up to our need for practical conversion and spiritual transformation in the way we relate to God’s good creation. Better late than never!

Yesterday’s post suggested a few ways to make our commemoration of the day less “churchy” and more “grounded.” It was based in the conviction that we don’t need more prayer; we need more action. We don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer (more about that later).

Here is another simple exercise… I just completed it myself. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home points to numerous ways world organizations, nations and communities can move forward and the way individuals — believers and people of good will — might see, think, feel and act.

Here is the fruit of my personal “examination of conscience.” In other words, where I felt a special need or where I felt I could immediately adapt my behavior. Again, they are what I am attending to today — you will certainly come up with a different assortment. The references in parentheses indicate paragraphs in the encyclical where more is said about this suggestion:

— Reduce, reuse, recycle. Preserve resources, use them more efficiently, moderate consumption and limit use of non-renewable resources. (22, 192)

— Stop blaming problems on population growth. The real threat is excessive consumerism and waste. (50)

— For genuine change, put the common good first. (54)

— Be consistent. Pro-life, environmental and social justice movements are all connected. (91, 120)

— Make public transportation a priority and a more pleasant experience. (153)

— Plant a tree. Take mass transit. Car pool. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. Chilly? Wear a sweater. Little things add up. (211)

More than anything, here’s my ultimate favorite. It’s a practice we had at home as kids. What a transformational consequence of prayer it would be if we paused to thank the Creator for our food, for the earth that provided it and for the laborers who brought it to our table.

— Say grace before meals. (227)

In all honesty, here’s the one that presents the biggest immediate challenge at our house. We are much too tied to our iPhones, iPads and “mindless television”:

— End the tyranny of the screen, information overload and distractions. Watch out for media-induced melancholy and isolation. Cultivate real relationships with others. (47)

Above I claimed that we don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer. I promised more about that later. Well, here goes! This is the suggestion (admonition?) that calls for my deepest personal conversion:

— Get down from the ivory tower and stop the rhetoric. Get to know the poor and suffering; it will wake up a numbed conscience and inspire real action. (49)

We will all mark this World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation in ways that are meaningful and practical for each of us. If you’d care to reflect on the forty or so suggestions that come from Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home, you can access the list [here].

Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things

Who doesn’t like the musical, Annie? It’s theme song, Tomorrow is one of those melodies engrained somewhere in the recesses of our minds that surfaces just when we seem to need encouragement the most!

Well tomorrow — Tuesday, September 1 — really is a special day. When Pope Francis released his prophetic encyclical on ecology and the environment – Laudato si – back on June 18th, a leading Orthodox bishop who had been asked to help present the document, said: “I should like to mention that the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided as early as 1989 to devote the 1st of September of each year to praying for the environment.”

Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon then made a request: “Might this not become a date for such prayer for all Christians? This would mark a step towards further closeness among them.” So what’s the Pope to do? Of course, he followed suit by endorsing what the Orthodox Church has been doing for 25 years!

Most of the recommendations I’ve seen for tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation strike me as disembodied, cerebral, too “vertical” — focusing on “saying” prayers or going to church. Seriously, isn’t that just the sort of heavenly-minded spirituality that has got us into the bifurcated mess we find ourselves in?

So here are a few more creation-centered ways of marking a day that is to refocus our attention on the Earth and how all life is intertwined:

  • Sing “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, the sun’ll come out tomorrow” along with Annie. Be child-like again — the way you were playing outside in nature when you were a kid! Here is a YouTube [link]. Consider: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Mark 10:15
  • Sit aside running water (we have a creek 3 blocks away). Listen to the gurgle. Wonder at the leaf floating atop the passing water. Imagine the stream’s source, it’s destination. What’s all this got to do with your Baptism (or ceremonial washing common to all world religions)?
  • Walk around your block — actually any place will do. This time get out of your head and dismiss every thought about what you have to do next. Just consider what you see. Pay attention. Attend to nature’s persistent poking forth. Marvel at the minuscule. Consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air — just consider them, resist making this about you and your worries. Simply consider what you see — as they are, for what they are!
  • Go get yourself a Fall plant from the Garden Store. Fantastic purple-blue asters are coming into our markets right now. Reverently transform your yard with autumn splendor. As you dig the hole and carefully pat down the earth around your favorite Fall selection, remember that human, humus and humility all share the same root-word.
  • Spend some time — whatever you have — getting the following poem into your bones. It is surely as relevant today as when Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote it in the 1880s:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Finally, just be grateful. Say, “WOW… Thanks!”  If tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation gets more us us doing that it will have been a rousing success.

Tubs, Tissue Paper and Umbrellas

The clerk at CVS had just spoken of his fear that the roof was going to blow off during the storm front that had just passed. Now we navigated some of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes consolidated in the Target parking lot. Though unspoken we both tried to dismiss concern about the weather for our outdoor wedding three weeks to the day.

Antique baskets for the table and altar flowers need to be packed carefully. We were in search of tissue paper and solid plastic tubs. The price of plain white tissue paper — neatly folded and encased in crystal clear cellophane — could rattle the rafters!

“Do we have paper towels at home? We could use paper towels and they’d be right there ready to go at the wedding.” Once again, the ingenuity of the man I love shone forth.  We moved on from paper to plastic.

Who knew storage tubs came in so many sizes and could be marketed for so many distinct purposes? The price caused us to ask if cardboard boxes might serve as well. We even considered emptying tubs we already have tucked away in the basement for this one-time wedding use. In the end we bought two more imagining additional uses, protestations that we already have too much stuff not withstanding!

Target’s automated doors swung open to a world awash in infinite shades of gray. Thankfully the rain had stopped, the wind had subsided. Remnants of a white and green umbrella obstinately poked from the trash bin near the exit, certainly a casualty of the recent rattling storm. Being the unabashed dumpster-diver that I am, of course it required my inspection.

“Honey, you are not taking stuff home from the Target trash bin!” Mortification washed across his face as he distanced himself from me.

“But, look, it’s perfectly good… three of the pins just need to be reattached”, proudly claiming new-found treasure, feeling satisfied in my ability to repair and reuse. Besides, at 65 I am long past caring what others think of me retrieving what someone else too quickly trashes.

One thing I am not so good at is keeping my spirituality firmly grounded in the stuff of life. For example, last week regulars here read this only slightly veiled self-revelation of my own conviction:

The monk … feels in a confused way that he must live within a certain ill-defined ecclesiological space, at a point where the partitions erected by the separation have not prevailed and where already those walls are yielding which, as Metropolitan Platon of Kiev said one day, certainly do not rise all the way to heaven.

I can hear my bother-in-law John saying, “What the hell does that mean!?!”

So, my apologies for the many times I get too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. Yet, never will I apologize for reveling in such wisdom. It’s the way I’m wired. Besides, the intellectual and mystical tradition of the church is also a place to find God and to be pursued as well as cherished.

But my personal need for spiritual growth is to keep myself grounded in the equal wisdom of spiritual giants like Wendell Berry. Regular readers will recall that I quoted the Kentucky farmer two weeks ago:

No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.

My brother-in-law would say, “Amen to that, brother!”

Tubs, tissue paper and umbrellas are more than utilitarian. They reveal values, priorities, how connected we are with the physical world, revealing our true spirituality! Preparing for a marriage has a way of bringing this to the forefront — perhaps we all need to renew our covenant of love with the creation that makes it all possible.

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The reference to “the monk” recalls my August 20 post and is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf, p. 128.  The Wendell Berry quote was first cited here in an August 12 post.

Homeland

Tomorrow we head off to Omaha. That’s where I want to be to celebrate my 65th birthday on Sunday — with people I love and in the place that will always be home. What can be a six-hour drive will be one of indeterminate length because of Jeb the Dog. He’s family and I cannot imagine a birthday without him.

Stopping every 100 miles or so is not a burden — we use Jeb’s need for “exercise” as our excuse. Truth is, we’ve plotted a pretty handy course which correlates Jeb’s needs with antique malls, casinos, candy stores and Made-Rite hamburger restaurants. Without frequent stops, how else would we have discovered that the highest point in Iowa — we’re talking altitude — is on a farm-place just across the state-line from Worthington, MN?

Driving through farm country Monday evening after attending the wake of a 63 y/o man in Northfield — something we are also doing more and more these days — heightened our anticipation for our trip to Omaha. Timely rains have yielded beautiful landscapes and the promise of an abundant harvest. The elongated shadows cast by the 6 pm sunlight remind all who are lucky enough to see just what inspired Claude Monet’s obsession with haystacks!

For this nostalgic occasion I will try to quiet anxious voices reminding all who will look or listen that we have created a perilous ecological crisis. This Earth — who ancient peoples reverenced as mother, the “home” we all hold in sacred trust — labors under the weight of our blissful ignorance.  Dare we acknowledge this as the consequence of our collective greed?

Returning home through farm-country I will take along two poignant assertions by Kentucky farmer-writer Wendell Berry: “I’m not interested in spirituality that is dependent on cheap fossil fuel, soil erosion, and air pollution.” Or even more to the point, “No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.”

Milestones increasingly recognized as a gift — like turning 65 — are not times for rancor or remorse. So, I will hold as bedrock and birthright an even more foundational quote: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)
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This reflection was inspired by Eric Anglada’s review of Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, edited by Chad Wriglesworth in the current issue of the National Catholic Reporter [http://ncronline.org/authors/eric-anglada]

Life in the Garden

Breathtaking! Absolutely amazing precision within a process that took more than nine years resulted in sharp photos of Pluto! OMG… literally Oh, My God! How many billions of years old is the universe? Consider what we have just seen for the very first time! Consider for a moment more, human ingenuity achieved this incredible feat.

That sharp black and white photo of Pluto’s craggy surface — much more complex, variable and revealing than scientists had anticipated — has been fixed in my imagination. This Pluto voyage completes NASA’s decades-long mission to investigate all the planets of our solar system. For a generation old enough to remember President Kennedy’s outrageously bold aspiration of a moon landing, NASA’s achievement is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Another image is becoming fixed. Slowly, as the stunning achievement of planetary exploration settles into our consciousness, something else becomes obvious. Each and all of the planets in our solar system appear to be devoid of life as we know it. Even the Mars probe has yielded scant evidence of water on the Red Planet or other conditions necessary for life.

That awareness could make us feel terribly alone. Or, allowing this evidence to seep into our consciousness could be awe-inspiring! Rather than a testament to our insignificance it may awaken an awareness of our inalienable dignity and moral duty. Think about it… our home truly is what Thomas Berry aptly coined “the garden planet of the universe.” The authors of the Genesis creation accounts could not have been more accurate than to say we have been placed in a garden and it is ours to tend and till.

Sadly, there is mounting evidence that we are killing it. Somewhere along the line we got the impression that Earth exists for our “use.” Just like our original forebears we became drunk with the original sin that we are the masters of good and evil. That we are as good as God! We have bought “the lie” that the Earth exists as a reservoir of passive resources for our economic exploitation. Supply is infinite and parts are replaceable! Slipping from the perch of inspired scientific research we fall into believing all we discover exists primarily for our commercial exploitation feeding an insatiable consumption.

Coincidentally, a storm ripped through Minneapolis the same weekend the spacecraft began sending back photos of Pluto. The winds tore through three lead branches of our seven-year old Hackberry on the boulevard in front of our house. City crews have marked it for removal due to the damage. We are heart-broken — it was itself a replacement for a diseased tree and was only now taking on the promise of its mature potential.

Our shredded tree stands as a gash and scar in our front yard — sentinel of a changing climate. Nature’s desperate attempt to communicate that something is terribly wrong with this picture. Scientific evidence is incontrovertible except for those who choose to live in denial. We cannot sustain our obsession with removing Earth’s bounty naively counting on more… always more!

Like the Tree that stood in the center of Eden reminds us, we live in a paradise.  But we live within limits as the Genesis account attests.  We have also been set in relationship with all other creatures brought into being by the one Creator. We are not God. Given for us to tend and till, neither are we sole proprietors for whom this Earth was created.

All is not right in our garden. With such incredible scientific feats revealing the truths of our universe, will our generation be the one to finally learn from the torn and shredded tree — the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Whose Side Are We On?

Disclaimer:  You will not want to finish reading this post.

Did you feel it? Probably not! The earth beneath our feet shifted a bit from its old axis yesterday.

There are moments that are truly transformative — yesterday was one. America changed forever on September 11, 2001. When the history of the 21st century is written, I believe 9/11 will pale in comparison with all that July 9, 2011 symbolizes.

There were no catastrophic deaths; visible edifices did not crumble in flames. Like a poor girl from an obscure town on the fringe of an imposing empire giving birth in Bethlehem of Judea, what happened yesterday in Santa Cruz, Bolivia will likely go unnoticed by world leaders consumed with their presumption of power.

Like the irrepressible pressure that builds over eons causing the earth to quake — or the indomitable life-force within a tulip bulb that splits darkness, dirt and cold to blossom in Spring — forces building over centuries converged yesterday and found insistent and incisive expression.

It is as if the Book of Revelation found apocalyptic voice once again: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

Here is a sampling. Beware, its tough reading — you will want to “zone-out”, stop once you get the gist, keep it at arm’s length if you succeed in making it all the way.

  • There is an unjust global system that results in exclusion. Individualism is at the heart of this injustice. The rule of money is fueling this injustice.
  • Keep fighting for justice — Focus on people and interpersonal encounter not abstract ideologies; be moved by their suffering.
  • A just economy is one that serves people —where the quest for profits dominates, the earth is destroyed, and there is an unjust distribution of goods.
  • The economy must foster conditions that are compatible with human dignity and that unlock the potential of each person by respecting all of their rights as a person and allowing each one to flourish.
  • A just distribution of goods is not a task for philanthropy or charity alone; there is a moral obligation to ensure this just distribution.
  • An inclusive economy enables all people to fully participate; solidarity and subsidiarity are only fully present when participation is real.
  • All people and states are interdependent; we need global and international action to achieve justice.
  • The Church is not innocent when it comes to the sins of colonialism.
  • Our faith is radical and countercultural.

Pope Francis chose remote Santa Cruz, Bolivia — hardly an epicenter of economic prowess or political prestige — for his prophetic exhortation.

Like a “voice crying in the wilderness”, Francis proclaims “the way of the Lord.” And let us not miss the poignancy of the location, Santa Cruz — are we not being invited to look upon the holy cross on which the Body of Christ hangs today?

I confess my tremendous resistance to paying more than pious lip service to Francis’ moral vision. Social and economic structures in which I am enmeshed serve my interests. I prefer not to see those who are excluded or on whose backs my security is built.

My hunch is most of us are in the same boat, heavily invested in the status quo. The more structures serve our personal interest, especially as we age, the more we resist change.  This seems to be the bane of the powerful, the truth of the ages!

But change we must. Change we will, willingly or not. Like the indomitable life force of a tulip or the irrepressible pressure of tectonic plates, the earth is shifting under out feet — and in this an always compassionate but insistent God is alive and active.

When the history of the 21st century is written, with whom and on whose side will we wish we had stood?
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I am indebted to Robert Christian at millennialjournal.com for his marvelous synopsis of Francis’ speech. The above sampling of themes are lifted from his post.  I heartily recommend his entire summary to you [link].

Life Moves On

Folks say you can walk across, even jump across, the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park a couple hundred miles north of here. In fact, you’d have a few places to choose from — seems the actual headwaters of the river is a matter of serious civic pride and a cause for some dispute. There are at least three rival claims to the source of the Mississippi. Who’s to know?

Back in grad school in St. Louis — where there was absolutely no dispute about the size or source of the Great River — we tinkered with a silly but intriguing riddle: Can you step in the same river twice? Think about it… the current is constantly moving; the water you step in first is not the water you step in the second time. Even the fish and undergrowth are constantly awash, shifting, changing. Or, when those disputed waters in Itasca are frozen solid in a Minnesota winter, are they still the origins of the Mississippi?

Such mind-benders have intrigued mystics and confounded students for thousands of years. But they are important. Like a metaphysical crossword puzzle they tease us into looking at how something can be the same when everything about it changes. Does anything ever remain the same? What is the “same”? What, if anything, remains?

Forget about rivers! Are you the same person you were twenty years ago? We want to believe so but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Even the cellular make-up of our physical bodies is said to turn-over entirely numerous times during our lifetime? Who or what is the “me” amid all this flux and change?

Back in St Louis during the early 1980s I learned that Heraclitus, a resident of Ephesus during the 6th century BC, was the source of this riddle about stepping into a river twice. I remember him being portrayed as pretty much of a fall-guy or foyle for later philosophers — mentioned only to introduce the question which future thinkers would then be given the distinction for resolving.

In self-defense you need to know that I don’t think of Heraclitus very often. In fact, years go by! However, he made a surprise appearance recently in something I was reading about Thomas Merton. What Merton wrote stopped me in my tracks — something you cannot do with a river, by the way! I really liked it!

I like it so much that I’m willing to risk family once again telling me, “Read your blog… don’t know what the hell you were talking about.”  Aware of the risk, here’s what Merton wrote that hit me up-side the head:

This is the tragedy which most concerns Heraclitus — and which should concern us more than it did him: the fact that a majority of [people] think they see, and do not. They believe they listen, but they do not hear. They are “absent when present” because in the act of seeing and hearing they substitute the clichés of familiar prejudice for the new and unexpected truth that is being offered to them. They complacently imagine they are receiving a new light, but in the very moment of apprehension they renew their obsession with the old darkness, which is so familiar that it, and it alone, appears to them to be the light.

We live only a few miles from the Mississippi. Jeb the Dog takes me for a daily walk along a creek that empties into that river.  This afternoon, as Jeb leaps into the creek to tease and torment Mother Mallard with her five ducklings, I will remember Heraclitus.  His riddle, his question, this nudge toward deeper conversion, transformation, change will remain with me for a while.

Wherever you are, whatever river invites you this summer, be like Jeb the Dog — leap boldly into its free-flowing current.  Savor what it means to be fluid, alive, changing. Stay with the flow!

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The Merton quote is from his 1960 article in the September issue of Jubilee, “Herakleitus the Obscure”, paragraphs 264-65.  My source is from In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB.  Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 2015., pp. 67-68.