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.

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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.

Sufficient to Our Need, Despite Ourselves

It just feels relentless. Maybe this is simply what its like to be in your mid-sixties — at that ripe time in life where really painful stuff happens with regularity. Here are three current examples, all involving dear friends still in their fifties…

  • Divorce proceedings linger after nearly two years for a friend whose husband announced he hadn’t loved her since 1984!
  • The youth director at our local church returned early from leading a service trip in Guatemala after experiencing two minor heart attacks.
  • A mother of teenage daughters installs railings throughout her home and keeps a cain near at hand as an auto-immune disease steals her physical mobility.

Turning away with a smug gratitude for one’s own good fortune is not an option. With family, friends, neighbors we are bound in relationship. At times it is a painful “binding” for any with a heart that cares.

We can plant seeds in the young that we hope will bear fruit decades from now. Transformational encounters like “Outward Bound” can take our youth beyond self-imposed limits of endurance. We can wax eloquently about every athlete’s career ending in defeat — unless you are among the very few lucky enough to be on a league championship team during your final year of competition. But we just plant seeds. The harvest comes only when we are tugged kicking into our elder years.

All spirituality worth anything will nudge, coerce, entice us to embrace this confounding mystery. Mainline Christian churches too often ignore if not insulate us from pain, loss, suffering. More concerned with filling pews and feel-good sermons, too many of our faith communities have bought into the soft pastels and warm fuzzies of Easter and effectively ignore Good Friday. Too many seek a superficial solace in Sunday communion, forgetting that Christians gather for the breaking of the bread — offering stone, not bread.

Maybe because it is not my tradition, Native American spirituality has much to offer. Limited exposure to Lakota rituals such as the sweat lodge, vision quest and sun dance assures me that every human heart is indelibly imprinted with a greater wisdom. Tugged, pushed, coerced beyond our puny selves and self-referential egos, we are “birthed” kicking and screaming into a life beyond our imagining.

Like it our not — and if it’s the real deal, we won’t “like it” — every spiritual tradition worth our consideration will ultimately provoke a crisis in us. That’s not all it should do, but it is futile to expect a shortcut and foolish to short-circuit it. What good is a spirituality if it stands powerless to offer wisdom and counsel amid an onslaught of human suffering and inexplicable loss? Like the temptations Jesus endured in the desert, we too are called to reject the allure of idols.

Andre Louf (1929-2010), abbot of the Trappist monastery of Mont-des-Cats in the north of France expressed our condition in an especially poignant manner.  He counsels, it is the “holy ruse of God” to allure us through poverty, weakness, radical powerlessness and evident uselessness beyond anything we could imagine or suppose. Dom Andre describes where we will be taken, certainly beyond our will, to that place of ultimate grace:

…precisely where I am at my most vulnerable, stripped of my defenses, where I am totally diminished to an almost fatal extreme of weakness, where there remains but one single hope: that of finally laying down my arms and capitulating before God, that is to say, the hope of exposing myself, of casting myself upon his mercy, of allowing myself to be retrieved by grace at the place and at the precise moment where I was at the point of foundering.

To our ears so well attuned to feel-good, consumerist, self-anesthetizing pop-spirituality, this cannot be good news. Nevertheless, it is the only gospel worthy of the name or capable of addressing the inescapable truth of our lives.

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Quote is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf. Cistercian Publications. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2015., p 75.

 

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!

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!

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