Uni-Versitas: Start with Wonder

Albert Einstein and Augustine of Hippo are different people. They are also the same. Having now exercised remarkable powers of observation and obfuscation, allow me to explain.

einstein1_7.jpg
Einstein. A genius, obviously.

Albert Einstein of Theory of General Relativity fame was a troubled failure of a student who became a theoretical physics superstar. He began as Steve Erkel but later became the Tom Brady of the 20th century science world, although rather wanting in groupies I should think. Albert stumbled his way through grade school having revealed a rather less than stellar academic prowess. But his was a great mind waiting to bust out of the starting gate and take a stab at the big world he observed. Better than most as it would turn out.

We’ll call him a good candidate for the Ellen Show.

Augustine of Hippo was a troubled saint-in-training, a self-proclaimed failure whose frat-boy lasciviousness (constantly horny for the lay person) and subsequent coming to Jesus moment is wonderfully outlined in his Confessions. It was the first of its kind. Memoir and theology wed together in a single book. It happens all the time now. Not so much then, however, when even average brains were pushed around in wheel-barrows.

st-augustine-writing.jpg
Augustine of Hippo. Kinda has frat-boy written all over him, doesn’t he?

Frankly, as much as I love the guy, he needed to chill a bit on the whole self-flagellation thing. He commits pages to the ravages of soul he encounters from stealing some of his neighbour’s pears. Really, dude? No “boys will be boys” pass on this one, huh? Like, I’m not trying to justify thievery here, but let’s get a grip, shall we? I sin more before morning coffee than this guy ever did, and he gets to be famous?

He’s more Jerry Springer.

What Gus and Al bring to the table however is exactly the same. A stretch you say? Perhaps. But, in a non-dualistic world, where everything is allowed to be interconnected, the starting point for science and for spirituality are one and the same.

Wonder.

My love for science is birthed from the same place as my longing for God. Frankly, I think they work the same turf, just with different conclusions for different reasons. But, in this uni-versitas, one truth, wonder reserved for black holes and quarks feels tellingly like that which the mystics experienced in the throes of contemplation.

For the sciency types, wonder is of the curious kind. The more rational, sensory kind where eye-balls matter more than Bibles. Observation, experimentation, hypothesis, theory, deduction. Repeat. One can hardly look to the heavens without asking how the hell all that stuff got way out there. It really is quite stunning. Go deep-sea diving and one has both dinner and questions. Or perhaps gaze out across the horizon and discern just how flat or round the earth might be (I leave the conspiracies, snickering and finger-pointing to you).

The greatest explorers, scientists, and theologians all began with the same premise. Wonder. But, it is in rather short supply in a world more concerned with body image or retirement savings than all this silliness.

What’s needed is a healthy dose of children. Not by way of breeding (although not entirely a bad thing), but learning from them. If you’re looking for answers to quantum mechanics, modifying your car, or the latest stock tips, don’t ask children. They’ll just show up with enlightened curiosity and wide-eyed wonder.

And, what good is that? Our lust for all things pragmatic chews away noisily at us, forcing misplaced expectations. We wouldn’t want to get our hopes up too high just in case today sucks. Besides, who has time anyway, right?

Rush, run, push, pull, grunt, wheeze, talk, squeeze – and that’s just zipping up our jeans. The real business happens once we get into our car for work. Then we practice a lifetime of adulting, or at least adultifying our child selves, silenced years ago in the frenetics of bills and babies, dishes and disappointments. Our playlist at the ready, we fire up the car (light on style, heavy on sensible) and join the rest of the one-per-vehicle parade floats. None of us dares to look at each other unless it’s to offer that you’re-really-gonna-change-lanes-here?! look of exasperation.

It’s almost cliché to write about the curse of busyness. Everyone’s doing it. Both the busyness and the writing about it. We’ve learned little in terms of how interconnected the universe really is, chaos theory notwithstanding. We’re fragmented, frightened and frazzled, all before coffee break.

These days, in pursuit of spiritual development, I tend to read Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson as easily as I might St. John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart (Uncle Wiggy as I like to call him). Their aims are different. Their yearning for knowledge the same. Their process is different, although a case can be made for observation and seeing as central to both. Their outcomes just as mystifying. Just as satisfying.

meister-eckhart-2.jpg
Meister Eckhart (Uncle Wiggy). Brilliant spirituality I like to call Christus Cannabis.

Ironically, I gain as much from reading those whose aim it is to prove God out of existence as those who presuppose that existence. Doctors of astronomy and asceticism, gravity and gratitude, dinosaurs and doxology. They are different, and they are the same. For me, they all begin in the same place. In wonder.

It’s all of a piece. And, if you let it, all of a peace.

_________________________________________________________________________

Picture of Al found here

Picture of Gus found here

Picture of Uncle Wiggy found here

2018 – Re-ligamenting

ligament [lig´ah-ment]
1. a band of fibrous tissue connecting bones or cartilages, serving to support and strengthen joints.

Already a few days in, we butt up against the tail-end of one year and make our way into another. A tail yet to wag. A tale yet to be written. This was a task best left until all the days of 2017 had been fully harvested and I could start bundling them into manageable piles.

For now, I am compelled to say that, in ways that matter most, I am grateful for 2017. On one level, I’m glad to escort its ass out the door, holding it open as it leaves (the door, that is!). However, it is gratitude that wins out over any other, lesser thing. And, as many have said so much better than I, to be grateful is to be always happy or, at least hopeful that happy will return soon enough.

This has been a year of returnings, of homecoming. I am drawn back to previous iterations of my self, albeit with the benefit of failure-bought wisdom. The overweening esotericism of the past few years is moving aside for a much more sensory guy. Less soul and more smell, feel, carry, see…hold.

I’m beginning to think our souls are much more rooted in our feet, hands, nostrils, eyes, and tastebuds than some airy-fairy nexus untouched and untouchable by we mortals. There is no division of labour. We don’t leave the world and our bodies behind in order to attend to our souls. Similarly, in a full-on, head-first dive into our world, waist-deep in shit and woe, we don’t have to leave our souls behind. They’ll get there first.

There is, simultaneously, a greater depth and immediacy to a life lived in one place at a time as a total and complete entity: body, soul, heart; sweat and spit. It buys back from the bleak, divided landscape of dualism, an holistic sense of peace and unity.

I reflected recently Jesus’ little visit to Sheol where he encouraged the prisoners, stuck in limbo, to look up for “their redemption draweth nigh.” A very physical Jesus went to the disembodied not to tell them that some ghostly, spiritual paradise awaited. The opposite actually. A great banquet with Jesus and friends in a great city was being prepared. Their souls would cough up new bodies, not the other way around.

Advent and its fruition at the Christ Mass says something utterly unique, a truth so utterly transfixing, that all the earliest characters in the drama found themselves winging it. Just a lot of gawking, and fear, and shivering with stuttered awe and wonder. In such circumstances, I dare say we would do the same.

The Christmas story says many things. But, at the front of the line is the simple idea that God is, more than anything else, profoundly physical, actual. Not just ideas to think. Right stuff to say or do. God is with us. God IS us. Conversely, it means we are like God.Foot.jpg

There are many out there who, like me, are constantly seeking to nurture something mystical and otherworldly within ourselves as though God were somehow uninterested in the messy little details of our tiny lives. This is not to suggest that we ignore “spiritual” matters in favour of “earthly” ones. It is the growing belief that those are not two sides of the same coin. They ARE the coin. God cares as much about my health, relationships, and the overall physicality of my existence as he does the height of my goosebumps when I pray.

In Jesus, God came not to save our souls. He came to save US. You and me. Body, soul, spirit. In Jesus, God came to realign our past, present, and future into one single unity. He religamented (re-ligion) the disembodied and as such disempowered parts of our humanity. Jesus came that we might become MORE human, not less. And, contrary to what contemporary evangelicalism might have us believe, he came not with some revivalist message of the sweet by ‘n by. 

He came to heal our bodies, our memories, our broken bits. To remind us of what we truly are: beloved but broken, loved but lost. Why?

Because we can’t feast at a table any other way.

I hate waiting

Impatient Businessman

I don’t wait well. Wow, what a stupid and obvious way to begin an Advent blog post. Since I’ve begun this foray into a rather universal bugaboo and done so at that time of year when nothing fresh could possibly be said about the topic, I might as well carry on.

I am one who cannot abide rifts between friends, jagged edges in places where, with a little faith and work, the rough places could be made smooth; broken bridges to reunite two sides of a single stream.

I am told that I am particularly good at defusing conflict. What these same people are too polite to mention, however, is that I’m equally good at creating it. Be that as it may, I apparently have a gift for big picture thinking, peaceful words toward potentially peaceable outcomes.

Damn it.

Ironically (tragically, if you ask me), those who are called peacemakers generally hate conflict more than any others. Hence, the very gifts with which we’re saddled are just that, burdens to be borne more than wings upon which to fly through the mêlée.

I run at the first sign of even a hint of conflict. When they come, I am more unsettled than anyone but, when the time is ripe, the field of battle well-lit and ready, and the stands full of naysayers and side-takers, I will enter the fray, weak in the knees and, with dry mouth, stutter words of “now, imagine how this might be better.”

I’ve had a reasonable rate of success at this. But what about those times of waiting in which no amount of resourcefulness, faith, seeking, pain or bag-‘o-tricks seems enough? When does one say that to wait is no longer a reasonable option? When do we finally reach the point of no return? The statute of limitations on someone’s good promises? The place where it appears waiting was a bad idea to begin with?

Meet a battle-weary, time-scarred, now largely apathetic Israel who only say they’re waiting for the “coming Messiah.” After such a long absence, why bother arousing hope in that which perhaps was a cosmic ruse to begin with? God’s just playin’ around, testing our mettle. Like me, their best approaches, clearest study, best thinking, most robust faith…are for naught. To wait anymore is, well, just a waste of the necessary energy required to just get along.

This was the environment into which “in the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son.” It’s always the environment that God’s Son is most forthcoming. When we can no longer take credit for our astonishing acts of faithful waiting, God comes.

I hate waiting. God loves that because the Gospel of grace, the ultimate peacemaking enterprise, was, is and always will be God’s gig.

adventmusic

Let this Advent be a time of giving up futile fights and endlessly moribund conflicts. Submit to God’s higher waiting; that which is dependent not on our patient endurance, but on God’s perfect track record at keeping promises.

 Pics here and here, respectively

 

 

 

 

A Sunday Prayer

Truthful One,

why do we start as something,

give others the impression that that something

is our true something-ness when in truth

we are something much different indeed?

Living One,

what is the starting place of our deepest self?

When living day to day, how do we know

we’re giving to others that which

comes from living places and not from dead places

merely adorned with glitter and trinkets to make them appealing?

Serving One,

where are the lines drawn between obligation and self-respect?

When does serving another embezzle their need

to capably discover their own inner strength?

When does such a question even matter –

if at all?

Shining One,

how can the coal dust accumulating on my layered soul

be removed to reveal the sheen of love,

framed in hope, birthed of grace that you see?

That I see in my better moments?

Holy One,

I speak no more.

Instead, speak, for your servant is listening.

My ongoing prayer experiment

A while back I began to write about my big prayer experiment. In that piece, I shared the three greatest gifts to my prayer life:

1. Contemplative prayer, I.e. prayer without agenda/lovingly gazing at God.

2. Total honesty in the presence of a God who already knows all my shit.

3. The gift of Intercession.

Nothing has changed with this experiment. I do want to add something, however; something that has utterly revolutionized my prayer life, turning it into something to which I cannot wait to return.

I pray the Rosary.

Big deal, right? Millions do. Well, here’s the thing – I’m a Protestant. We’re supposed to look with suspicion, pity or even hatred at such wayward, Medieval practices believing them to be the rote, meaningless prayers pooh-poohed by Jesus in the Gospels. How could such a ridiculous thing, something held in regard by little, old ladies and superstitious saintly wannabes possibly lead one to the expected spontaneity and relationship we’re led to accept through our more enlightened “salvation prayer” at the end of the 4 Spiritual Laws booklet? Or so we Protestants are taught to think. You remember…the “Accept you’re a sinner/Believe in the Good News/Confess your sins” prayer that, like magic, whisks us from the apparent hell of our present existence into the Thomas Kinkade wonderland of Jesusy goodness? It’s actually a very good prayer. A necessary one.

It’s just so…incomplete.

Actually, I prayed that prayer once, too. Not necessarily that exact prayer, but one just like it. I credit that prayer for bringing a keener sense of articulation and focus to my otherwise meandering picture of me and God. I suppose I could even credit that “salvation prayer” as my come-to-Jesus moment, with the beginning (continuation?) of a journey even deeper into the heart of prayer.

The Rosary has been an important step in solidifying my need to regulate my prayer practice in chronological, tactile and organized ways. It also invites me to see prayer as more than just talking at God. Here, I can sit with another, Someone whose indelible presence ought to leave me breathless and speechless anyway. Although I’ve owned one before, it wasn’t until my dear Catholic friend, Val Dodge Head, gifted me with one I could actually wear around my neck that I began developing a daily practice. Here is the historic Rosary Prayer:

Rosary Prayer

The purpose of the Rosary is to help keep in memory certain principal events or mysteries in the history of our salvation, and to thank and praise God for them. This is the mountain rapids version of the Rosary Prayer. It begins with the Sign of the Cross and the Apostles’ Creed. This is followed, successively, by The Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father or Pater Noster), 3 Hail Marys, the 1st Mystery of Our Father and Hail Holy Queen. There are twenty mysteries reflected upon in the Rosary, all of which are divided into the five JOYFUL MYSTERIES, the five LUMINOUS MYSTERIES, the five SORROWFUL MYSTERIES, and the five GLORIOUS MYSTERIES. The Hail Mary is recited ten times (called a decade) between meditating on the mysteries in question. After each decade is said the following prayer requested by the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.” The whole undertaking is a most imaginative blending of redemptive and mystical theology.

Here is my own adaptation.

I begin and end with the Sign of the Cross. The crucifix acts as The Lord’s Prayer both in and out of my Rosary. For morning prayer, the first bead is always Psalm 63 (King James Version), which I memorized many years ago. If in the afternoon, I’ll choose some other Psalm or a Prayer of St. Columba: “Kindle in our hearts, O God, the flame of that love which never ceases, that it may burn in us, giving light to others. May we shine forever in your holy temple, set on fire with your eternal light, even your Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer.” The Hail Mary beads are replaced by 3 Kyries (Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy). In turn, these are followed, respectively, by the well known Ignatian Prayer, the Anima Christi and the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The decade beads are breath prayers. With these, I practice more contemplative or centering prayer. Phrases such as “peace, be still” or “in the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful” or “holy is your name, O Lord” or, most often, The Jesus Prayer punctuate this time. It is unhurried and allows my mind to cleanse and my soul to pulsate to the sound of God’s own heart. The Mystery beads form a wonderful place for me to pray the daily Lectionary Psalms, various scriptures I have memorized or, on more creative retreat days, I’ll write or read poetry I’ve written. I exit the Rosary the same way I entered, although in reverse order.

The Rosary has been great respite to me since I am living nowhere near the Monasteries I used to frequent in Oregon. God has shown me just how holy even the most unholy places can be. In those places least ideal for luminosity, God has been busily proving me wrong about my previous misconceptions. The mysterious geography of prayer must begin in the cracks and fissures of the human spirit before it gets the added benefit of the babbling brook heard just outside the Monastery gates.

The Rosary has helped. 

Lord, fashion the slow calligraphy of your name

in a once stone heart, broken now as sand.

Spit out the bones of my old, gristled soul revivified on your tongue,

reattached to the sinews of your own holy arm. 

Sear the brand of white hot remembrance into the skin of my brazen back

so that only those I lead can see it.

In the wordless chatter of our silent conversations,

bring up the topics closest to your heart that breaks so much easier than mine.

Let the voices of a hundred thousand saints

crowd out the stifling arrogance of my solitary blethering.

And into that holy community of singing silence,

sing, Holy One, sing.

 

PIcture of Rosary can be found here. Rosary Prayer instructions can be found here.

Examen on a Saturday evening

banquet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it is to be, latent but translucent

that weavings and partings both,

secured in their places best suited

to their emergence or demise,

are laid out on God’s table of cards.

The goodbyes of days that turn to nights

that turn to days that turn to timeless

wonders, the crevices where only God’s

fingers fit. They’re too small for me

because I’m too big in me to see

my own smallness in him.

Wreck all chances for shoddy self-repair

and lay the table for a banquet instead,

where bread on my tongue and

the clinking glasses serve to remind me

of a better meal yet to come.

Image: www.annapolitanbride.com 

A Thursday Prayer of Examen

Lord, tie up my expectations like a pretzel

and replace them with a welcome mat

upon which are written only 4 words:

“Thy will be done.”

Thy will be done

Lord, press into the soft, unmarrowed places

of make believe love and headstrong hypocrisy

your thumbprint still dirty from

pinching me alive.

 

Lord, impale me upon the stake of truth,

not the truth of deception in perfect answers

but the Truth that leaves open wounds

on a heart that only looks for niceties.

 

Lord, sit me down at the base of this wood

pounded together with the same nails

that tore through flesh softer than love,

tougher than hate.

 

Lord, with meddling tongue tied behind my back

let my hands, now free

show my mouth that it’s silence

has gifted those I now serve.

 

Lord, interrupt the long stream of my proclamations

of ideas diminished by my words;

words lesser still than those who listen

for something better than words.

 

Lord, fill my life with the awesome silence

of a boisterous heaven, singing in praise;

for only then will what I say and do

remind others of who you say I am.

 

Painting by James Seward

Life from a restaurant window

Perfectly groomed bushes line the windows looking out onto a courtyard greener, damper and more alive than I’ve seen since moving to Yakima seven years ago. A giant kiln-shaped fireplace centered in the garden sits quiet and still awaiting the passing of the rain and the arrival of others to warm themselves in its heat. KilnI chuckle at the closed table umbrellas standing tall and upright like stoic ladies in green, puffy skirts. Their task here is to keep one dry from the reliable Portland rain. The Yakima umbrella, although rare, acts as a glorified sunhat and is seldom used anyway. There they curse rain. Here, they wait for sun (if indeed they know what that is).

How I have missed the instant plunge into the deeper regions of my psyche, specifically the creative mystic part such an environment always brings. Like these condensation droplets adorning the windows through which I am looking, words almost instantly form in my mind. I need only mop them up and squeeze them onto the thirsty page.

Green lady umbrellasThere are many gifts that come to us from favorite places – both geographic location and the more unnameable geography of soul – suitable to our most natural selves. What has been lacking for me in the dusty, brown, overly hot setting of Yakima has been met in a stable plateau upon which to take a good, long and slow look in every direction. With my feet sunk in a little more deeply into the dusty soil of the Yakima Valley, I’ve known a certain freedom from which to venture into other, hitherto unexplored regions in my own soul. Places in the humility of obscurity, the predictability of nothingness, the garden of faithfulness and the simple, daily routines of life.

From these places, previously visited only briefly with my face pressed up against the glass, I have seen many things. God has pulled me up from the luscious, subterranean waters of my deepest yearnings to the street where the people are. They are those who populate my days and need the nourishment I myself have been given. I am reintroducing myself to the world, seeing familiar and beloved faces again as if for the first time. Ironically, in them, I am finding myself and, even more significantly, I am seeing Jesus. God is equally present above the bald, treeless ground as below it in the dark, thin places where nutrients abound but is largely unpopulated.

Here and now converge more readily as I release the tightly held things I believed indispensable to my wholeness. Slowly, God is revealing to my spirit just how present God is in such places – places formerly reprehensible and ugly. God is nesting more intricately in me. I see God more now and that is setting me free from expectations and demands and leading me to the joys of union, home, and peace…anywhere.

It is the greatest gift I could receive on this, the day of my fiftieth birthday.

Relaxing in my humanity

75px-TMertonStudy

Lately, I’ve been reading the journals of the late Trappist monk, author, priest and activist, Thomas Merton. He has long fascinated me both as a spiritual mentor and as poet and literary figure. In so many ways he is among those I most seek to emulate. He’s artsy – a poet at heart, which means he’s also moody and can take forever to determine new directions because he “lives in his head” too much. He longs for silence and the contemplative life of solitude but cannot escape the draw of the monastic community and the world at large to whom he is constantly being called. “My first duty is to start, for the first time, to live as a member of a human race, which is no more (and no less) ridiculous than I am myself. And my first human act is the recognition of how much I owe everybody else.”

Merton belonged because he didn’t belong. His life away from the world was how he best loved and served it. He was not cloistered to escape his humanity but to better love and live it. “I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am…We must first become like ourselves and stop living “beside ourselves.”” I, like Merton, have learned best from what I haven’t done well than what I have. By how I’ve failed, not passed. By how truly unremarkable and troublesome I am, not my efficiency and accomplishments. I am failing my way to the deeper realities of my own soul.

Thank you, brother Merton, you are helping me to relax in my humanity.

Oddly, I’m finding Jesus there.

Living for tomorrow’s yesterday

I’ve managed to turn brooding and melancholy into a cottage industry. It’s what I love and hate most about myself. I write much about embracing the moment, living into the time as it is given us right now. For example, here. There is an inexorable draw like a lover’s fragrance to mystique in the artist’s emotional vocabulary. It’s hip and sexy to be a little sad which, ironically, is the only thing that keeps us happy…well, keeps me happy. I must drive God up the wall, if that’s what God does when frustrated. There are times my heart seems to hate me. What causes some to shrug their shoulders can paralyze me like well-stuck spider’s prey. Where others build healthy todays on the good gifts of yesterday and the hopes of tomorrow I remain stuck in a yesterday that for me was better than good; it was holy, Otherworldly.

eye

I’m working hard on this (because the meds are only partially helpful). It is hard spiritual work for me, but I’m making baby steps in claiming the brightness and immediacy of now rather than pursuing a pinkish yesterday or projected tomorrow. It’s the best way to show love to those given to us. Presence. Eyes open. Ears tuned and ready. Mouth closed. I love the times in the gospels where Jesus looks directly at those he is about to heal or to whom he is about to speak. To look at someone iris to iris and see past the decor of image and the fear in posture and see him, see her, see me or you as they/we truly are right now is a gift beyond all telling.

soft focus bw

People, places, events, experiences; all of these root themselves deep in us, in me. They become a part of the turning pages of the Spirit writ large on the lives of those of us who believe, who boldly affix our little story to the Great Story. An early morning (late night?) reminiscence that pushed itself upon me is evidence of this kind of existential intrusion that hurts, but that I really love. I write of it here. 

Jesus is convincing me as I continue to read of his deeply personal exploits among us that that, too, is my task. Live in such a way that whoever I am at this moment is the gift I give to another even if that ‘me’ isn’t the stellar individual my inner press kit says I am. The task at hand, together with the I AM God, equally present in every moment, is to better define my past and let it go. Such authentic encounter with people, with places, with…life, is the best, well the only, way to really live for tomorrow’s yesterday.

So be it.