Mom’s Wisdom

Especially when I was an adolescent sulking about one thing or another Mom used to say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it.” My 65+ years has confirmed, yet again, her profound wisdom.

Today I happened upon something that reminded me of Mom’s counsel. It came from someone I’d never heard of, a 14th century Flemish mystic named John Ruusbroec. What immediately grabbed my approval and appreciation is that he wrote in the Dutch vernacular, the language of the common people of the Low Countries rather than Latin, the “official” language of the Church and academic texts.

Like my Mom’s down-to-earth sensibilities, Ruusbroec had the ability to say profound things with words ordinary folks could understand. Here’s his zinger which stopped me in my tracks, “You are as holy as you want to be.” Whoa! That certainly places responsibility where it belongs.

But here’s the glitch… my 65+ years assures me that, left to my own devises, I am incapable of becoming the “good person” my perfectionism wants me to be. I am slowly accepting that I will never be the virtuous person of my dreams. If Lent showed me anything this year, it was that I am incapable of being my own savior. Rather, I am quite powerless when left to my own devices.

But isn’t that in direct contradiction to Mom’s wisdom and what Ruusbroec counseled? In my robust willfulness I would have thought so. But if the passion, death and resurrection means anything it means following the example of Jesus, “Not my will but yours be done.”

There is something — Someone! — greater than me. There’s a counter-cultural challenge if I’ve ever heard one. Salvation comes in letting go to the One who has the power, and the will, to save us.  Ouch!

Yes, life is pretty much what we make of it. I am as “holy” as I want to be. But my power, my ability to make any of this happen is grounded in my willful choice to let go! This is a slow process, a very slow process. It takes a very long time, actually more than a lifetime!

I’m concluding that our goal is not to “be” holy. Rather, we become holy — and not by ourselves or on our own.  The best any of us can do is to die trying.  That is probably the most important lesson Mom ever tried to teach me.

_____________

I came upon the quote by John Ruusbroec in Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality by Carl McColman, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame IN, 2015, p 124.  Thanks to Carl McColman as well for inspiring my reflection, especially pp 118-119.

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.

Not a Blanket, but the Cross

A profoundly wise woman! Tragically, she died of Lupus at age 39! Now that I have lived many more years than she, I am all the more moved by her insight, faith and honesty — imagine if she had lived a full complement of years. Perhaps she had…

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.
― Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

That Persistent, Inconvenient Necessity to Yield

Those who know me know I like to be in control. Those who love me do so in spite of my controlling tendencies. Call it Lent or simply “getting older”, whatever the reason, I’ve recognized it’s exhausting — even more, it doesn’t work!

Those of us in recovery of one sort of another are familiar with the adage: Let go, let God. It’s wildly popular and often repeated. But how deep do these facile references actually go? Nice words. Wise words. They give the illusion of actually doing what they suggest.

Somewhere in the last day or two I read something that has nudged me, became a burr in my saddle, won’t leave me alone. Adding intrigue to this insistent recollection, I cannot recall where it came from. Reviewing likely sources on various blogs or online sources has been to no avail. All that’s left is its recurring, persistent nudge.

The nagging invitation is quite directive: move from control to consent. Yes, it’s as plain and beguiling as that! Maybe this is what my brother Jerry came to know in his later years. His continuous refrain, almost to the point of annoyance, was: Life on life’s terms!

My husband — one of those people who loves me despite my propensity to be controlling — often repeats a favorite phrase that gets at this same hard-won wisdom: It is what it is! Here, too, his refrain captures the simple necessity to let go, to receive life on life’s terms, to move from control to consent.

This year the convergence of Lent and the fact of growing older seems to be conspiring to teach that there really is no alternative. Yielding, letting go, consenting to all that life brings our way ought not be done begrudgingly, reluctantly, fighting life’s natural progression at every turn.  That’s exhausting and doesn’t work in the end.

Surely the ultimate expression of inconvenient necessity to which Lent nudges us is Jesus in the Garden: Not my will, but yours be done. Yielding, letting go, consent to diminishment that appears even as death!

But this is only half the story. We also need to be reminded that this sort of consent is within human capacity and profoundly life-affirming. No one challenges or consoles us more than Denise Levertov in her magnificent summation of Mary’s singular fiat, her “let it be” —

She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Maybe this year we can each take one more courageous leap — yielding control, giving consent, letting go, saying yes to life on life’s terms.

If you are in any way like me, you may recognize this inconvenient nudge as an invitation to more fully embrace the fact that God is God and we’re not. Finally, we might yield sufficiently to see this as a good thing — in fact, as our very salvation.
__________________
Levertov’s quote is from her poem, Annunciation in A Door in the Hive, New Directions, New York, 1989, pp 86-88.

No Escape


During this two-week Florida escape from February in Minnesota, my brother and I reenact cherished rituals which mark our relationship as special. One favorite routine is to provoke the other with a familiar question, “Anybody ever call you arrogant?”

No answer is needed. It’s our playful way to admit a character defect to which males in our family are especially prone. Simply getting it out into the open has the effect, we hope, of moderating a trait that will most likely remain a lifelong struggle. In any case, it expresses our fraternal bond and gives us a good laugh.

Another well rehearsed routine captures another fact about our lives. One of us will randomly toss out, “You know, life sure is good.” To which the other knows to respond, “It can be!” That’s often expressed along with another dictum well engrained by our parents, “Ya’ know, life is pretty much what you make of it!”

Yes, we are truly blessed. We’ve got it good. It would be easy to mistakenly conclude that somehow we’ve earned our good fortune or deserve the ability to so easily escape winter’s fury. As two white, well-educated, senior citizen, American males we too easily find ourselves on third base and presume we hit a triple!

Folks like us may have a unique and special need for Lent. Perhaps a first indication is that fact we are disposed to so easily ignore it. Lent reminds us of our deficiencies, our dependencies, and asks us to take an extended look at our persistent character defects.

Despite the insulation power and privilege provide, we are asked to admit the truth of our lives. We are reminded of our membership in the vast human family that doesn’t have it nearly as good. Lent exhorts us to be honest about who we truly are. Lent is about deepening the bond of love within our extended human family.

Again today, I am deeply moved by a reflection that hits me right where I need a good shove.  On her blog, Inward/Outward, Kayla McClurg writes:

[Lent] certainly is no escape route, no fast track out of Jerusalem, that ancient icon of hope and pain. It is a narrow path, a lowly path, right into the deepest, darkest heart of the human dilemma—our desire for God alongside our consuming hunger for things that will never satisfy, our fear and bluster, our imprisoned souls. Like a mother hen, how God longs to gather us in under her wings. If only we were willing, or at least willing to be willing, we might begin to learn the Jesus way, a more humble way, a way to be utterly free.

_______________

You may access Kayla McClurg’s full reflection [here].

Transformed by Emptiness

It’s important for us to learn that imperfection is our natural state. For if we don’t, we will forever seek to fill the emptiness that cannot be filled with all manner of things, and mistakenly assume that we’re supposed to do something to change it. But what this emptiness calls for is acceptance and gentle perseverance with the lives we’ve been given. With acceptance comes peace and greater capacity to love.
+ Maryann Edgar Budde

We may not like it, but Lent is that necessary season for us to get in touch with our emptiness, fallibility and finitude. Sound too pessimistic or depressing for our feel-good culture? Well, perhaps it does — unless we grasp the great human paradox of death/resurrection. That’s the invitation!

As St Francis of Assisi — certainly the most popular Christian saint of all time — said so eloquently: “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Francis was not just referring to our ultimate end-of-life demise. He was speaking about the seemingly infinite opportunities and requirement to “die to self” that consistently come our way.

Our friend, the current Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC, expresses this invitation so well in the quote above. We got to know Maryann when she was the rector of St. John’s Church in Minneapolis. Today I can do no better than to recommend her reflection [here] for your prayerful consideration.

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).

Such is Our Duty

This time of year reminds me of a church discipline from childhood I’ve long discarded. It’s called the “Easter Duty,” the obligation each Catholic has to go to Confession sometime during Lent. In theory it’s a beautiful and sensible practice — preparing for a full-blown, no-holds-barred celebration of Easter.

Fact is, no one does it. I haven’t for years. But something is shifting this year, something feels different, something is quickening deep inside. The desire to again look at the directive, perhaps even to reincorporate it into my spiritual practice, is awakening. As with all new growth, it’s fragile and might be easily smothered.  But this year it seems I’m being urged to take a fresh look.

Numerous reasons might be cited. First, and most significantly, my experience as a “spiritual coach” for men in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction has a profound reciprocal effect on me. Everyone familiar with the 12 Steps knows the critical importance of the famed Fifth Step — that arduous encounter with another human being when we admit out loud the exact nature of our wrongs.  This is done after a fearless moral inventory.

One need not be a rocket scientist to see the close connection between the Fifth Step and the Easter Duty. Both traditions are inspired and come to the same conclusion. An honest, accurate and thorough admission — out loud and to another person — of our moral failures with acceptance of responsibility for the wrong we have done engenders the recovery, health, well-being and serenity we seek. Twelve-Steppers understand such acknowledgement is critical and  essential to their recovery.

So, yes, with restored resolve I intend to make my Easter Duty this year. But something more is stirring deep down within this quickening awareness. It’s as simple as the archaic aphorism that has also fallen out of vogue: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” In fact, I would amend that to say, “What’s good for the adult male goose is good for the gaggle of geese!”

Pope Francis prophetically leads the way in gestures like the one we saw yesterday. In a monumentally historic statement the Roman Pontiff and Russian Orthodox Patriarch jointly affirmed, “We are not competitors but brothers, and this concept must guide all our mutual actions as well as those directed to the outside world.”

Like every courageous and prophetic acknowledgement of moral culpability and consequent responsibility to make amends, such acknowledgement is easily ignored, overlooked if not denied, and often subverted by powers-that-be.

Yes, I intend to make my Easter Duty this year. I propose the “gander” do as well — by this I mean Francis’ fellow bishops and all church hierarchs (not all of whom are ordained). Even more, “What’s good for us geese has got to be good for the gaggle.”

We will gather as one Body in Christ to celebrate the unmerited grace of God at Easter. What then might be our corporate, collective “Easter Duty”? …a collective, corporate, fearless confession of our wrong doing with “a firm purpose of amendment”?

Unquestionably, a good place to start would be for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to launch and fully fund a truly independent, unhampered and fearless “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” regarding clergy sex abuse. But this is only a first essential step, the litmus test by which we demonstrate our sincerity to enter into the “repentance leading to resurrection” offered us in the Easter Triduum.

In the absence of such resolve by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, there is nothing preventing leadership within local dioceses from embracing an authentic season of conversation, shepherding us through death to life. I can think of no better place than our own Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis for this to begin.

Is not this the repentance God seeks, “to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6). Would this not be a Jubilee Year of Mercy, truly of Biblical proportions?

It is long past time for each and all of us to perform our Easter Duty!

Threatened With Resurrection

Life is hard! Sometimes it really sucks! Oh, we each have our diversions and delusions. Some of us, by virtue of birth or other unmerited good fortune, have the resources to pretend otherwise. We cultivate the art of social posturing, cosmetics hide our blemishes, consumption deadens a deeper hunger, and we obsess with our frantic pursuit of the “American Dream.”

Believe me, as a white, well-educated, American male I’ve learned how to access and wield power and privilege. I have spent the good part of my life polishing my carefully crafted public persona to a high sheen. I’ve been blessed! …or, have I?

Rarely do we disclose the truth — life is hard, even sucks at times! Rarely are we willing to step from behind make-up and make-believe! Rarely are we willing to let down our heavily reenforced walls of denial.

Good Friday is one day that shoves the truth of our lives in our face. Unless we choose to look away, run away, and deny that we even know this guy Jesus, or those with whom he associated.

As her native Guatemala endured nearly 30 years of violence and repression under a series of dictators, Julia Esquivel did not look away as thousands of indigenous groups were savagely murdered. She refused to divert her gaze or run from the massive violence and brutality her people — and Central American neighbors — were suffering in the 1970s and 80s.

While others lost hope or took up arms, Esquivel claimed the role of activist, poet, and minister. She stood as a witness to God’s justice and compassion.  She found her voice and served as a healer amid a land of suffering.

Esquivel’s poem, Threatened with Resurrection perfectly poses our invitation this Good Friday — to watch, to endure, to keep vigil:

There is something here within us
Which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest,
Which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside,
It is the silent, warm weeping of Indian women without their husbands,
It is the sad gaze of the children
Fixed there beyond memory,
In the very pupil of our eyes
Which during sleep, though closed, keep watch
With each contraction of the heart
In every wakening…

What keeps us from sleeping
Is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall,
Though exhausted from the endless inventory
Of killings since 1954,
Yet we continue to love life,
And do not accept their death!

…Because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary
to arrive at the goal which lies beyond death…

Accompany us then on this vigil
And you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
To live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep
To live while dying
And to already know oneself resurrected!

______________
Threatened with Resurrection/Amenazado de Resurrección
by Julia Esquivel, Anne Woehrle (Translator). Brethren Press, 1994 (first published 1982).