Absence Explained

Absence makes the heart grow fonder! Does it? I often just forget whatever is absent. The absence of something annoying might be a long-awaited relief! We might even learn that we live perfectly well without something and no longer care about whatever it provided.

My hope after being absent from these posts for more than a week is that you will welcome the return. It may be asking too much to presume the absence was even noted. Noted or not, I’m back and trust these ruminations are received with continuing interest.

An explanation is in order. Barbara Brown Taylor and John Philip Newell were in town leading a retreat from Sunday, August 2 thru Wednesday, August 5. Either would have had me beating a path to their door. Having both co-facilitate was a feast beyond imagining. My absence from these pages is due largely to the fact that my time and spirit were preoccupied and engaged.

Dubbed Seeking the Sacred Thread, the retreat more than fulfilled its promise to illuminate with clarity and grace the questions and hopes we carry, weaving together sacred threads of the Christian household with other wisdom traditions, focusing on the healing of God’s people and all creation. I’m still ruminating over its richness.

Rather than attempting an impossible “grand synthesis” or over-verbalizing what was often experienced as sheer grace, I will keep it simple. Here are five “sacred threads” which I am still holding, hoping they take deeper hold of me:

  • Seek the light at the farthest edge of darkness — deepest night holds the fullest promise of dawn.
  • “There are seeds in the rottenest of apples!” -Bede Griffiths
  • “Only when we are playful can Divinity get serious with us.” Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Our deepest longing is for belonging… BE longing!
  • There is no room for two — die to yourself in Love’s presence or Love will die in your presence.

Too Late Wise

“Y’know life can be really hard!” A dear friend was summarizing a conversation we had recently. Each of us could recite a long litany of challenges family and friends are facing — death of a spouse, chronic physical pain, frustrating dead-end careers, relapses in addictive behaviors, unspeakable betrayal in relationships, the list goes on.

All this was washing over me as Jeb the Dog took me to Minnehaha Creek for our late afternoon walk. We’ve had a marvelous summer, gardens are well-tended and the world looks lush. Weeks away from summer solstice, the sun now casts a perceptively different shadow. Jeb remains enthusiastic in his obligation to mark designated trees but he too seems to recognize the waning season.

With head cocked, Jeb grieves the absence of once plentiful ducklings from the water. A fresh silver maple now obstructs the creek’s easy flow, sad consequence of the previous night’s storm. Mary Oliver’s lament in her brilliant poem, The Summer Day rippled within my heart, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

In a few days Medicare kicks in. That more than the fact of turning 65 shocks me into heightened reflectivity. Like every Minnesotan’s experience of summer, it all happens too fast, passes too soon! There is no time for regrets. Precious time is now better spent remembering, gathering wisdom from what has been, harvesting all that is needed for approaching winter.

Upstream from where the silver maple diverts the free-flowing creek, Jeb plants himself as a sentinel surveying this place he knows so well. Feet squarely set, he appears oblivious as his chest creases the fast-moving current. A rock we know so well for its musical ripple when the creek dances with a normal flow has been smothered by the swarming storm water.

Again, Jeb becomes my best teacher. With legs squared and eyes fixed on the approaching torrent, he ponders our familiar terrane and the changes transforming our daily routine. Like the now silent rock that lies submerged by the storm, his resolute posture tells all I need to know. Do not fear deep water or the rushing torrent. Stand resolute in the middle of it all and let the waters flow over and around you.

As I officially join the Medicare generation on Saturday and turn 65 mid-month, what wisdom is to be gathered? Is there a harvest to be gleaned from these fast flowing years? By necessity, a new modesty seeks to take hold — I am far less certain about everything for which I once asserted a cocky self-confidence. I recognize a propensity to attack paper tigers like Papal infallibility all the while laying arrogant claim to my own.

If age smooths certain edges, it yields strength and confidence as well. Jeb resolutely squared himself midstream. Just as the stationary rock provides rippling melodies when the creek is running its normal course, so too it remains planted and ready to resume its role once the surge subsides. So too with us — I cannot imagine how we are to remain centered amid life’s litany of challenges without resolutely planting ourselves in a spiritual practice of prayer or meditation.

I increasingly cringe at the “wisdom” and “advice” I so wantonly gave whoever would listen. No longer do I claim to speak for God. In fact, I am coming to recognize the God I claimed to serve was too easily an idol of my own fashioning, one I tried to direct and contain. The Risen Christ breaks boundaries, defies our categories and shows up where we least expect — sometimes among those of whom we would not approve.

Finally, I am getting a glimpse into what Benedict of Nursia taught in the sixth century. This preeminent exemplar of western monasticism prescribed that any who would presume to offer spiritual counsel to others should know how to heal their own wounds first (RB46.6). Only when we have felt the full force life’s torrents wash over us may we presume to understand those who feel overwhelmed or are mired in despair.

Of this I am certain… those to whom I have been consistently drawn for solace or counsel somehow communicate they too have known the overwhelming mercy of God. They too are familiar with life’s torrents and human frailty. They know what it is to feel submerged or planted amid life’s rushing currents.  They simply stand firm with legs squared in the assurance that we are loved — beyond measure, beyond ourselves, beyond time.

Questioning the Inevitable

You have probably noticed. Regulars here will remember that I turn 65 in August. I’m wrestling with that inevitability. Mostly, how can this be? Once again “old people” were right — it descends upon us faster than we can imagine.

Getting an AARP card at 50 is dismissed as a playful hoax, especially now that the organization has dropped “association of retired persons” from its moniker. Most 50 year-olds are at the height of their careers. Many parents are paying far more in college tuition for their kids than contributing to their IRAs.

Even at 60 I was full-throttle in my career. The occasion was marked with a great celebration in our back yard with 60 of my closest and dearest friends. Awards were given to the top five winners of the “How Well Do You Know Richard?” trivia contest. Organizers regaled us with a hilarious skit, “Richard, This is Your Life!”

But 65 is different! More and more people in elevators, fellow customers in stores, even neighbors out walking with their dogs now unreflectively refer to me as “Sir”! I can no longer claim to be taking “early” Social Security. And try as I might, I must not ignore those infernal mailings from the federal government assuring me that I am being automatically enrolled in Medicare.

Don’t get me wrong! I want to be 65! The age is not the issue. It’s just that tables are turned on us so fast. No longer do I feel a creation of my past. As more trappings and traits of who I was are stripped away I discover the irrefutable truth of who I am at my core. It’s as if the future has grabbed the initiative and is now apprehending me like an unknown suitor I am powerless to resist.

My perfectionism and need to “control” will surly be one of my last personality traits to succumb. Even aging is something I want to do well, as it should be done, perfectly if that’s possible. With that in mind I was drawn to a six-month project by writer John Leland who will chronicle six New Yorkers over the age of 85 as they move into their futures. [link]

Leland recounts the popular schtick — old age is presumed to be “a problem to be solved. People’s bodies broke down, their minds lost function, they drained billions out of the health care system.” That more than a stereotype, its my fundamental fear.

About five years ago I started to resent people who would say something inane like, “You don’t look 60!!!” I retained my composure by quietly telling myself, “They don’t know of what they speak! What is 60 supposed to look like?”

Here’s what I’d really like… to be part of a massive rewrite of cultural presumptions. As Leland’s series intends to chronicle, what if we began thinking of our elders/ourselves “not as a problem, but as an asset, a repository of memory and experience?”

Research actually shows that people in their 70s and 80s, far from wallowing in despair, are happier than their younger counterparts. What do “we” know that younger people do not? For almost all of human history, societies turned to the oldest people for advice and wisdom. Now, that wisdom too often sits unheard, devalued, unexpressed.

Rather than seeing ourselves as “old”, what if we initiated a cultural movement — one by one — to reclaim our full stature as wise elders? Note well, I am certainly not suggesting that we perpetuate the status quo in which too many of us pretend to be “young.” That’s precisely the trap which holds us bound and the foolishness that’s sure to frustrate.

Growing old isn’t easy! Some wise elders have even counseled me that it was even harder than they had imagined.  But still, how do we choose to proceed? No one does it perfectly. One requirement appears to be yielding control, as hard as that is for my personality-type.

Of one thing I am pretty certain, growing old well and embracing an invitation to become a true elder, is not essentially a medical problem or even determined solely by our psychological makeup. Rather, I am convinced it’s fundamentally a spiritual challenge, invitation and opportunity.

As I hurdle toward my birthday in August I am increasingly drawn to a prayer poem by the late Elizabeth Rooney, an Episcopalian from Wisconsin who seems to have fully embraced her elder-hood. I intend to take her spiritual wisdom with me into the years ahead:

Oblation

I hope each day
To offer less to You,
Each day
By Your great love to be
Diminished
Until at last I am
So decreased by Your hand
And You, so grown in me,
That my whole offering
Is just an emptiness
For You to fill
Or not
According to Your will.

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You may learn more about Elizabeth Rooney, a “late-in-life poet” [here].

Getting Caught

Fishing bores me to tears. This is heretical in Minnesota and risks ostracization. My defense is that this kid from Nebraska simply came to water and lakes too late to develop any affinity. My spiritual bond with creation is more grounded — planting trees, tending a vegetable garden, composting, walks with Jeb the Dog, the silent symphony of dawn.

Yet, I am not so dry-docked as to be incapable of appreciating a good fishing metaphor. One came from Christopher Pramuk who brilliantly invites us to look at fishing from the perspective of the fish! Maybe fishing doesn’t have to be as boring as it seems.

Imagine the fisher’s lure flashing, dancing, singing in the waters just in front of you, alluring you. Lunging forward, just as you’ve gotten her wholly into your rapacious mouth, just as you think you have gotten her, you discover that it is you who have been gotten. The fisher captures you, your whole self, and will not let you go.

God is like that! God initiates, pursues, allures us. We may think it is otherwise — we are deluded. We may dutifully recite our favorite “prayers” and enact our sacred rites and rituals. But ultimately it is God who ensnares us, it is God who initiates.

Whether fishing or planting, we merely attend — or not — to God’s enticements. It is God, as Pramuk’s fishing metaphor reminds us, who “dances and sings before us, shining from within all things, refusing to be domesticated.”

Perhaps here is the key to my aversion to fishing. Creatures of the deep defy domestication! Fish will always beguile me with their wildness and other-worldliness. Planting, gardening, composting appeal to my need to direct, control and define my world. To the degree this is true, I risk isolation from God. I resist being caught. I remain captive in my own idolatry about who God is and how God is to behave.

Still, God allures — her silent symphony from the deep is beginning to dawn on me.

___________

References may be found in At Play in Creation: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine by Christopher Pramuk.  Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2015., p. 64.

Realignment

Many who cherish the beauty of words grieved the loss of Elizabethan English when the Book of Common Prayer was revised decades ago. Still the Anglicans have it all over us Romans! (Especially after the ridiculous return to “And with your spirit!” babble of a few years ago… Don’t get me started!)  Words matter!

We could do no better than to commit these to memory: “Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” AMEN. (BCP 832)

Episcopalians refer to this as the Prayer of Self Dedication. Yes, it sets a very high bar! But then, how about this… “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” This is probably so embedded in out memories that it has become rote and we no longer recognize the radically of our words.

Asking to consistently do God’s will, not my own — there’s a counter-cultural idea for you! “Thy will be done!” — do I mean the words I say? “Use us?” Using my gifts for the well-being of others?  Parents are the few people I see consistently motivated by other-interest rather than self-interest! I’m not a parent.  Honestly, I have a long way to go!

“Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” AMEN.

Lent would be monumentally transformative for our selves and for our culture if we were to more and more find our words aligned with the will of God. There we’d discover — to our delightful surprise, perhaps to our amazement — they are not opposites in conflict.  Rather, God’s will and ours are ultimately convergent and the very foundation of our personal freedom and welfare.

A Simple Injunction

A big banner photo greeted me when opening the monthly e-newsletter from the Episcopal House of Prayer this morning:

image

During the few years I served on the EHOP board a new walkway to the chapel was installed with five incisive quotes from the world’s great religious traditions.  I had nominated this quote from Psalm 46 and designated my modest annual gift to this project.  I both welcome and need this Biblical injunction.

Imagine my surprise with this morning’s sudden reminder!  Such interventions should not be easily dismissed as mere coincidence.  So today I sit up and pay attention:  Be still and know that I am God!

Funny thing is, Jeb the dog tries to remind me of this in a hundred ways each day.  One look at him sprawled out in a shaft of sun on the dining room rug any given winter day should be instruction enough.

Sometimes life’s simplest truths are the most difficult to assimilate into our daily routine!

Something is Radically Wrong

“When I was young I thought the goal of a spiritual life was some form of bliss or contentment. In my pride, I wanted not only to attain this but to be seen to have attained it. Christian mysticism and Buddhism intrigued me, and of course I understood neither of them.”

This self-admission by John Garvey in the current issue of Commonweal magazine really caught my attention! I became even more intrigued by his honest admission that “being a fool for a while is part of the process.”

Garvey explains that it wasn’t until many years later that he turned around to look at his life and saw that what had led him to where he really was involved a mix of depression, anger, fear, and anxiety. As the wise sage he has become, Garvey observes that “all you can deal with at the start is yourself.”

Seems so obvious, self-evident. But is it? Aren’t most of us inclined to fix everybody else before we get to ourselves? And if we courageously look in the mirror are we not inclined to shift blame?   Even “accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” can be little more than a delay tactic forestalling life-saving major surgery.

Garvey tells of a man who was ordained a Zen monk, and is now an Orthodox Christian. He teaches meditation and asks his students, “What do you hope to gain from this?” They may say something about having a more whole life, serenity, etc.—the usual clichés that surround the idea of enlightenment.

The monk points out that he is a divorced man, a recovering alcoholic, and has suffered through long periods on unemployment—the point being that nothing, including meditation, can guarantee wholeness or any sense of moral or therapeutic achievement.

It is common for people to think of morality as a major end of the religious life, or some sense of “being right” with God, or of being on the right side of a particular issue. Garvey has come to recognize that this need to be right is at best ego-satisfaction and an idolatrous temptation.

What John Garvey didn’t see when he was younger — and why I resonate so strongly with his reflection — is quite simple: the common insight of the great religious traditions is that something is wrong! Something about ordinary human consciousness doesn’t work, and it only gets worse when we try to put ourselves in control, to fix things.

To admit that I need help and cannot somehow conjure it up through my own power is liberating. We must turn from ourselves to something outside ourselves, hoping it will be gracious. We must acknowledge our core interior emptiness.

This is where the Christian story matters so much—brokenness is the beginning of salvation! We must enter our emptiness, return to the radical “nothingness” from which all was created. In a culture addicted to control, power and autonomy this knowledge is hard to come by.

How much more counter-cultural can we get than to believe, to truly profess, that we are the most open to grace when we admit how broken we are. But it is in this that we are saved!

_______________
You may access John Garvey’s excellent reflection [here]. However, Commonweal restricts full access to subscribers.  My post here is largely dependent on his insights so I hope I have done him — and you — justice.