Chuck Dunning

Aug 202014
 

O Cherished One,
O Vital One,
  love emanates from your presence in this world.
  It floats around you
as the atmosphere of a well-tended garden,
fragrant with the scents
of many flowers, fruits, and herbs,
and with the aroma
of the soft, damp, fertile earth
in which they are rooted.
Your atmosphere of love hums with life,
the hum of countless bees
passionately gathering nectar
for the richest honey. 
It flutters and dances with grace and color,
not only of the blossoms
but also the butterflies and birds
drawn to their bounty.

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   It offers both the warm stirring light
and the cool soothing shade,
and thus inclusively nurtures
a diversity of creatures
according to their own natures.
It rests peacefully
under the twinkling blanket of night,
and then at each new dawn
sparkles with the dew of awakening,
quenching the thirst of rebirth.
What a joy it is just to breathe in
the atmosphere of your garden!
Yet it is a blessing beyond reckoning
to pass the gate and be welcomed within.

Agape

May 072014
 

St. Isaac of Stella wrote:

Love incited by something external
Is like a small lamp
Whose flame is fed with oil,
Or like a stream fed by rains,
Where flows stop when the rains cease.
But love whose object is God is like
A fountain gushing forth
From the earth.
Its flow never ceases,
For He Himself is the source of this love
And also its food,
Which never grows scarce.

It’s been several years ago now, but after meditation on those words, and a moment of contemplative stillness, I wrote the following poem:

Deep within the well of this heart,
sliding down in the silent darkness,
sinking into the caverns of spirit,
I found You, Beloved One,
the hidden waters,
a mighty rushing in the stillness.

There at Your edge,
where I might have plunged
and fulfilled the fantasy
of a supreme union,
I found instead
the fear of oblivion in You,
and upon this halting
I piled remorse and shame
for my self-judged unworthiness.

Still I dipped a begging hand
into Your ceaseless current,
washed the tear-stained dust
from this mask of sadness
and sipped a drop of Your cool purity.

Such sweet wine You are,
Beloved One,
for this single taste
bestowed an unimagined sobriety,
a joyous awakening to the memory
that this resistance to Your fullness
is among the greatest gifts from You.

In these depths,
all things left within me
that had seemed to interfere
with my dream of perfection
were revealed as channels
for a unique upwelling
of Your goodness.

You created me to be Your lover,
my Beloved.
By Your will we are two
who are nonetheless one.
Never let this be undone
so long as there are others in this world
who thirst for You.

There are many things we could draw out of these two poems, but today my focus is drawn from the very first line of St. Isaac’s work.  So long as we think of God as something or someone entirely separate from and outside of ourselves, external, I believe we are missing a vital point of St. Isaac’s mystical statement.  For those of us who have been  in traditional religious institutions, a great deal of our spiritual thoughts, sentiments, and practices have indeed been incited by something external.  Our attempts to love the Great Mystery we call God can often be almost entirely directed by doctrines and authorities urging us to relate to God as anything but present within our own souls and those of others.   So it is that many of us are led into the recurring misery of feeling that God is separate and distant from us, unresponsive to our prayers and devotions, and that we must therefore be far too corrupt to merit God’s thirst-quenching love.  Yet, it is possible to break free of this psychospiritual tyranny and rediscover the presence of God as Love within us.  But it would be an incomplete understanding of St. Isaac to think this means we should turn all of our attention within, giving our time and energy only to that inward experience.  To accept that the Kingdom of God is already within us begs the further realization that it is within everyone else and all of creation, just as Jesus taught.  In that realization, our love for things external to us, certainly including other people, is directly connected with cherishing and serving God, or Love itself.  Finally, my poem ends with a kind of Christian Bodhisattva vow, a commitment to not make the spiritual life about trying to escape from the world’s suffering, but rather to accept the fact of our presence in this world, and to answer the call to transform that presence for the good of all.

Agape

Apr 242014
 

As a topic of interest, mysticism includes thinking about theology and other spiritual subjects, and states or events of consciousness are certainly among them.  In fact, it seems to me that those of us who are fascinated by mysticism spend a lot of our time thinking and talking about these things.  To people just beginning to scratch the surface of mysticism, it could even look like that kind of thinking and talking is pretty much all mysticism is about!  But mysticism isn’t just a topic of interest, or even a way of thinking.  Mysticism is a way of life, and this article will join others in this blog by trying to offer an approach to its practical dimension.  Said another way, today I’m inviting us to consider how to bring mysticism into our everyday ordinary experience and action, and more specifically by considering the practice of empathy.

What is Empathy?

Here is a definition of empathy provided by Merriam-Webster:

the [capacity or] action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

Let’s note that empathy can be in thought or in feeling, and in both at the same time.  This is an important point, because most of us lean more toward either thinking or feeling in our way of connecting with and understanding others, some of us are at one of the extremes of this polarity, and all of us can find one or the other more challenging at at times.  Therefore, as it is defined here, empathy is possible for anyone to practice at anytime, although each of us will vary somewhat in exactly how that practice comes most naturally in the moment.

How can Empathy be Mystical?

Mysticism is about the faith and hope in, and the pursuit of or opening to, realizing direct, unmediated, union with the Divine One.  The essential mystical experience is thus a complete loss of any subject-object duality between self and God, and involves a dissolution of all concepts, feelings, and perceptions of any “other,” even if it seems to have been only for a brief flashing moment when reflected upon from ordinary consciousness.  Yet empathy actually requires the subject-object duality of perceiving another entity with its own inner experiences.  So how can it be mystical?

Many mystics who claim to who have had the essential mystical experience have realized in its aftermath that at the deepest levels of their being they were already intimately connected with God.  In fact, Genesis 2:7 makes it clear that the Nishmat Hayyim (nishmat = breath, spirit, or soul; hayyim = of life) that animates Adam is God’s own breath or spirit, which in Christianity we call the Holy Spirit.  This breath is obviously not literally the air we breathe, so the analogy informs us that the Nishmat Hayyim is just as necessary and universally present to all human beings, both around us and within us, as the oxygen that is essential to our physical existence.

Those mystics who have received and realized the essential mystical experience can know this truth as immediately as we each know our own existence – we are all children of the Divine One, each of us always in direct communion with the Holy Spirit, and thus we are always in communion with each other in our deepest or highest dimension of being.

For example, the Book of Acts records the Apostle Paul  as preaching this:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth … he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. … ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

In her Revelations of Divine Love, the great mystic St. Julian of Norwich similarly says:

Our soul is so fully united to God of His own Goodness that absolutely nothing comes between God and our soul.  …  It is more worshipful to behold God in all than in any special thing.

And this is also the greatest significance of  words Jesus Christ speaks in prayer according to the Gospel of John:

I have given them [my followers] the glory you [God] gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am.

And yet, it isn’t possible to be fully present to our individualized places in creation, and thus in dualistic interactions with others, while simultaneously having our awareness completely dissolved in the Divine One without the faintest hint of subject-object duality.  It is possible, however, to be mindful that our individual beings are occurring in and of the One, just as the more or less distinct thoughts of a mind are nonetheless each expressions of and united with the mind that thinks them – their essence is one.  In fact, just as the words prayed by Jesus suggest, the fully realized mystic can be immediately aware of union with and in the Divine One that both encompasses and flows through all our dualistic perceptions of self and others.

Sacred-heart-of-jesus-ibarraranBecause each human being is one with God at heart, it follows that empathy, the capacity or act of seeking deeper understanding and communion with another human being, leads us into deeper and more complete communion with the Divine One.  The scriptures teach us not only to love God with all that we are, but also to love others as ourselves, because both are necessary for the most complete experience and expression of the unity Jesus prayed for us to know.  This is also the deepest understanding of Christianity’s tradition of regarding an encounter with a stranger as a potential visitation from Christ.   To practice empathy with this understanding is therefore to engage it as a mystical practice.

How do we Practice Empathy?

As noted before, there are two primary categories of empathic experience – thinking and feeling.  While we may find ourselves spontaneously experiencing either or both, to actually practice empathy requires us to intentionally engage these potentials.  In other words, the practice of empathy is the conscious choice to try understanding and/or feeling what another person thinks and/or feels.  It’s that simple!  Yet, as simple as the explanation is, the application can be more complicated, and it has a number of dimensions that can be attended to and refined.  Rather than go into a more lengthy examination of those dimensions, for now I prefer to offer some steps to actually develop our abilities to empathize.  We’re going to focus primarily on empathy for the feelings of others, because most of us get much less training and practice with this in Western culture than we do with paying attention to and understanding the thoughts of others.

Step One: Perception and Identification

This step requires that we turn our attention toward the experience of another person with the intention of identifying the thoughts and feelings the person is having.  This requires not only listening to what the person says, but also paying attention to facial expressions, gestures, posture, and other non-verbals or “body language.”  At this point, the aim is not to analyze, critique, or judge the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the person, but to try recognizing them as clearly as if they were our own.  Such recognition in thinking includes the ability to accurately restate the other person’s thoughts, but in our own words.   It also includes the ability to understand how one idea connects with another in that person’s chain of thoughts.  In feeling, empathic recognition includes the ability to actually experience some degree of the sensations or emotions of the other person.  Empathic thought and feeling begin to combine when we not only share in the feelings of another, but we are also able to name those feelings and understand how they are related to the other’s thoughts.

Step Two: Enhancing Perception and Identification

For this step, I suggest you try an experiment, and that you repeat it often.  During your ordinary daily activities, find times to carefully observe another human being.  The person might be someone you live with, a stranger out in public somewhere, or, as a last resort, someone in a movie or some other video medium.  As you observe the person, pay attention at a physical level and try to recall or imagine what it physically feels like to do whatever it is the person is physically doing. If the person is walking, call up the feeling of your feet impacting the floor or ground, the movement of your legs and arms, and so on.  If the person is talking on a phone, feel the phone in your hand, pressed to your ear, etc.  Is the person drinking a cup of coffee?  Feel all the sensations of holding the cup, smelling the coffee, and sipping the warm liquid into your mouth and swallowing it.

Once you have conducted this experiment several times, start to bring in the emotional dimension.  Listen to and watch people having emotional experiences.  As they do so, make an effort to share in those feelings to a manageable extent.  If the person is laughing, recall not only the physical sensations of laughter, but the happiness that goes with it.  When people laugh at themselves, feel the added emotional “flavor” of that experience. (We all know what that’s like!)   Similarly, seeing an angry person, imagine what that anger actually feels like.

Step Three: More Fully Integrating Empathic Thinking & Feeling

A useful tool in identifying emotions, and thus to integrating empathic feeling with empathic thinking, is building a vocabulary rich enough to distinguish subtle differences in the intensity and combinations of emotions.  There are many models and resources available for anyone interested in developing a vocabulary and understanding of emotions, each with its own appeal, but I’d like to offer Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions as a good starting point. (This model doesn’t entirely suit me, even though I find it immensely useful.  For instance, I prefer the word “affection” where Plutchik shows “love.”  I don’t agree with labeling an emotion as “love,” because love isn’t simply a function of emotion, yet it can be experienced and expressed in any emotional state.)

1000px-Plutchik-wheel.svg

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions
(Click for Expanded Image)

As you study the wheel, try to recall how each emotion actually feels, and how it affects your thinking, behavior, speech, and so on.  It may help to remember specific moments in your life when you felt each emotion.  Then, as you practice perceiving the feelings of others, use your growing vocabulary and understanding to more fully connect with their personal experiences.

Empathic thinking can be even further integrated by trying to identify what the feelings seem to be about.  What is it that’s so funny or angering?  Why is it so?  How can this feeling affect the way a person thinks and behaves?  What has it been like for me to feel and manage this emotion in my own experiences?

In working with that last question, and with the previous recommendation of recalling similar experiences of our own, we are engaging the aspect of empathy that we commonly call relating.  Relating to others can be a very helpful aspect of empathy, but it can also distract from empathy when we allow it to lead us into hasty assumptions about what others are experiencing.  It’s therefore important to be mindful that relating may offer us clues to deeper understanding of another person, but we cannot take this for granted; there is much room for error.

Step Four: Communicating Empathy

At this point, we are no longer merely observing and empathizing with another from some distance, but reflecting back to the person our effort to accurately feel and/or understand their experience.  Perhaps the most basic way of doing this is to simply state an awareness that the other person is experiencing some feeling or feelings, and ask them to speak about it.  Just these two very basic acts of empathy — (1) recognizing the fact that another is experiencing something, and then (2) opening to share in that experience — can be immensely powerful!  On the one hand, they demonstrate to the other person that we are loving them in one of the most fundamental and unconditional of ways.  On the other hand, these acts also welcome the honor of a clearer connection and deeper understanding of the other person’s experience with less potential for distortion and misunderstanding from our own assumptions.

Once an experience has been communicated to us by other persons, we then have the opportunity to test and refine our empathy for the experience.  We do this by reflecting upon it with our own words, summarizing and paraphrasing what they have said, appropriately expressing relevant emotions through our own non-verbals, and perhaps also offering some insight about the experience’s meaning in one way or another.  As they receive the reflection, they can indicate to us where our empathy is or is not accurate and helpful, and we can then work with them to gain clarity.   In this process, we may use the practice of relating their experience to our own not only to more adequately feel and understand their experience, but to reveal to them and ourselves that we have these things in common.  In other words, accurate empathic relating is a very intimate and profound way of communing, of realizing union, with other human beings.  It is one of the most beautiful ways of loving others as ourselves, and thereby more completely loving God.

Conclusion

While the practice of Christian mysticism is commonly understood to include thinking about theology and other spiritual subjects, it also has a practical dimension without which it is only a topic of academic interest, at best.  Certainly there are many forms of ritual, prayer, and meditation that come to mind for mystical practice.  Yet we should also realize that mysticism as a way of life is incomplete if it isn’t integrated into the social dimension of our everyday experiences.  The practice of empathy is one of the most meaningful ways we actualize the mystical life.

No one has ever seen God. But if we love one another, God lives in us. God’s love is made complete in us.We know that we belong to God and God belongs to us. God has given us the Holy Spirit.  1 John 4:12-13

Blessed_Virgin_Mary

Agape

 

Apr 182014
 

On this Good Friday, following up on the recent Holy Week Meditation, I’d like to offer two poems that resonate with key themes for meditation.

The first poem is about being in the most frightening, painful, and despairing of moments in life.  It is about those moments when all looks so bleak that we cannot see any way out that doesn’t threaten us to our very core.  It is about our own passages through the Passion.

Becoming the Unknown

This is the dark whirling dance;
No pretty songs to twirl upon,
But groaning, pining whines
For the spirit of merciful redemption
Grinding upon the bloody stonesjesus-swetaing-blood-in-gethsemane
Of judgment’s unbridled execution.

Oh, Peace, where is your sweet breath?
No one kisses with your cool lips
Or embraces with your gentle arms.
The gifts of friendship and relief
Fall around your feet as autumn leaves
Driven down in cold merciless rains.

Harmony, I cannot find you in this fog,
Just the groping, tripping gate
Of feet clumsy with confused intentions;
Grimy, unwelcomed, mixed motives
Twisting haunted howls of confusion
Around this burning blistered tongue.

Compassion, why play hide and seek?
If you charged into this dream
You might share your fruits so freely,
But you sulk in stinking corners
Of ugly self-pity and self-loathing –
These seeping self-inflicted wounds.

Rebirth, is blood truly the price to be paid?
Flesh and heart and soul rendered
Into a stew for the feast of laughing gods?
Shall lightning bolts of betrayal
Illuminate this ancient melodrama,
This tragedy played out heedless of these tears?

Here it is, the present fact of life’s strange song:
Lonesome, hopeful circling,
Casting about for a hidden mooring
In the throes of nature’s raging storm,
Churning gut and mind beyond nausea
Within the swirl of becoming the unknown.

The second poem is about the promise of rebirth, but a rebirth that will not fully come until we stop clinging to what must pass.

Crucifixion

Even under clouds of angst and confusion,
scourged by guilt and pierced by remorse,
with thorns of shame encircling our minds,rosy cross
and the bitter cup of betrayal at our lips,
grace awaits all surrendering souls,
not in a bargain struck by compliance,
but in the gentle joyful awakening
of foolish resistance finally falling away.

In this moment, right here, right now,
at the intersection of body and spirit,
in the mingling of darkness and light,
we participate in the mystery of crucifixion
where the flower of life is ever blooming.

Look! The precious petals are unfolding!

O Living One, help us accept the cross of our existence, transform our own suffering into compassion for the suffering of others, and thus welcome the eternal rebirth of every moment.

Maranatha

Agape

Amen

Apr 142014
 

During Holy Week, it isn’t uncommon for Christians to take time in reading, meditation, prayer, or dialogue to reflect on the themes of the coming Easter celebration.  For most Christians, Easter is a time to celebrate the physical resurrection of Jesus as proof of God’s love for humanity.  We often speak of everything that led up to it — all the betrayal, physical suffering, and emotional anguish suffered by Jesus — as if those things are just necessary plot elements in an elaborate melodrama written by God.  It’s as if they merely point to that one moment when the laws of nature seem to be overruled so that Jesus can rise from the dead, all with the single purpose of bolstering our hope that we don’t have to fear death.

Excuse me, please, but I find this perspective on Holy Week to be a little vain.  To me, it is heavily interwoven with our desires to hold onto our own self-concepts, to avoid the reality that all things must pass, and thus try to maintain the many illusions that we create for own comfort.  In other words, we can too easily focus on the Resurrection because what we really want from God is a promise of a glorious immortality.   We hope to be delivered into some idealized state of perfection in which we will never have to experience radical change again, and then we can spend all eternity feeling completely satisfied with ourselves.

So, let’s consider an alternative to this way of thinking about the Passion of Jesus.  Let’s deeply consider two moments that many of us find powerfully compelling and hard to reconcile with the notion that the Passion is merely prelude to the Resurrection.  The first is the time Jesus spent in Gethsemane, so desperately fearful about what was ahead of him that Luke says an angel came to give him courage!  Even after the angel appeared, Jesus was still so distraught that he was sweating blood as he prayed.  Does this sound like the behavior of someone who knew it was all going to conclude in a glorious supernatural event?!  Even the miracle of an angelic appearance didn’t snap Jesus out of his horrible dread.  The second moment of this nature is when he was crying out on the cross, feeling abandoned by God.  Once again, we should stop to seriously and prayerfully reflect upon whether or not this is something that would be said by a human being so thoroughly united with God that he knew all things.  No, Jesus obviously doesn’t have complete confidence that he will be resurrected to a life after death the way it is later portrayed by some of the gospel writers.  These moments show us that Jesus was far more like us than many of us want to believe.  He was a human being confronting the facts of his suffering and death, and he was miserable and afraid because of it.

Of what benefit is this view of the Passion?  The short answer is that the story of Jesus is thus an even more meaningful example to us of acceptance, faith, and love.  It wasn’t foreknowledge of his resurrection that carried Jesus through his ordeal, but rather it was his commitment to what he felt in his heart was worthy of sacrificing everything, including his own existence.  What was it that was so worthy of such sacrifice (literally meaning “to make sacred”)?  This is a question we will revisit.

It may well be that the author of the earliest gospel, Mark, recognized that this story of willing self-sacrifice was not only an important part of the story, but that it was the most important.  After all, the original version of Mark ends with 16:1-8, and thus all we have is an empty tomb, a young man only claiming that Jesus will appear again, and the three women running away in fear.  We are left with a lot of unanswered questions, and Mark therefore evokes both our instinctive fear of the unknown as well as our equally deep-rooted hope.  How fitting this is!  And it is especially fitting for those of us who, like the three women, don’t have the benefit of actually seeing Jesus risen in the flesh.

This is where we can return to that question about self-sacrifice.   For you, what is worth the sacrifice of everything, even your own life, with no promise at all that there would be anything but oblivion afterward?  Surely there are many answers people might offer, but consider for a moment the possibility that they all come down to love in some form — love of family, of friends, of country, of humanity, of freedom, of truth, or, perhaps ultimately, of love itself.

Let’s follow that question with these:  How am I willing and unwilling to make such sacrifices?  How am I avoiding or entering into the darkest unknowns love points toward?  More specifically, how am I letting go of my treasured notions about myself in order to be more completely and wholly devoted to love?  How am I putting a narrow love of self above a more expansive and inclusive love?

If you’re like me, you encounter lots of different “voices” in yourself when you turn within to meditate and pray with such questions.  One voice is critical, judgmental, and unforgiving.  Another voice is accepting, comforting, and encouraging.  Another is defensive, fragile, and desperate. Still another is disinterested, apathetic, and indifferent.  Yet another is tempting, seductive, and self-indulgent.  And there may be others.  From what I can tell, this is all very ordinarily human, and we are all challenged to deal with a complex reality of mixed and muddied attitudes, motives, and intentions.  Penetrating just a little behind these veils reveals that we are mysteries to ourselves, and thus brings into question our pretense of certainty and deep conviction about many things, not the least being our religious beliefs.  Just this little bit of honest self-awareness can be terribly uncomfortable, at least at first, and so it can be seen as a significant step in taking up the cross of Jesus and beginning the work of sacrificing our illusions.

Embracing the mysteries of life, both those within and without, leads back to the very questions that have driven many of us into religion, even if we weren’t fully aware of them.  This can be frightening because it forces us into some degree of confrontation with the truth that we don’t really know everything that we want to know, or even think we should know.  It forces us to, in some way, admit that we have uncertainties and doubts about many things that we would rather be able to take for granted.  In fact, many of us have been raised with religious admonitions that such uncertainties and doubts are unacceptable, even evil.  But Jesus himself experienced them!  Unless we are willing to say part of Jesus was unacceptable and evil, then we have to rethink the notion that uncertainties and doubts have no place in our faith.

Logically, faith cannot exist without uncertainty and doubt.  Where there is complete and undeniable certainty, there is no room left for faith.  Faith is therefore not the opposite of doubt, not the cessation of uncertainty, but rather it is an ongoing response to doubt and uncertainty.   Yet faith isn’t merely the choice of one possible answer among many, but is instead a deep conviction about and commitment to something that we feel in our hearts is worthy of our devotion even in the face of the most threatening uncertainties, like those suffered by Jesus, and worse.  The aim of penetrating into our doubts and uncertainties is therefore not to abandon faith, but to refine it, making it increasingly focused upon the one thing that is most worthy of devotion.

Suppose I speak in the languages of human beings and of angels. If I don’t have love, I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal.  Suppose I have the gift of prophecy. Suppose I can understand all the secret things of God and know everything about him. And suppose I have enough faith to move mountains. If I don’t have love, I am nothing at all.  Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give my body to be burned. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Now we see only a dim likeness of things. It is as if we were seeing them in a mirror. But someday we will see clearly. We will see face to face. What I know now is not complete. But someday I will know completely, just as God knows me completely.  The three most important things to have are faith, hope and love. But the greatest of them is love.  1 Corinthians 13:12-13

Despite what many preachers would have us believe, we don’t need to be obsessed with the promise of resurrection in order to live our faith well.  In actuality, if our faith is like that of Jesus, we love more freely simply because how we express love right here and right now is what matters most to us.  This isn’t a path of works alone, doing good things because that’s what is expected of us.  It is a path in which unconditional love increasingly becomes the driving force of our lives, shaping our faith, hopes, and our works in its own way.

O Mysterious One we know as Love Itself, help us in every moment to willingly give all for love, to make every moment sacred with love, to greet our doubts and uncertainties with faith in love, to seek the changes love begets as the continual rebirth we most desire. Amen.

Agape

Apr 102014
 

As many of you know, ChristianMystics.com was the previous host of my blog.  I’m very grateful for the start I was given there, and for the companionship we enjoyed in the social networking that was then a part of that site.  This new site preserves all my blog posts from the previous, and provides an opportunity for me to reconnect with all whom I enjoyed engaging in the depths of mystical thought and feeling, and hopefully we’ll make some new friends here as well!  I look forward to any dialogue that we might share.

While I don’t have any new essays to share at this time, I do have a few new poems I offer to welcome you to the new site.

in rapturous communion

As each clear morning’s twilightthis mockingbird sings (1)
creeps into the indigo sky,
this mockingbird leaves his nest
for a perch high in the open air,
silently ascending to be present
for the passing of the coldest hours
into the warming of a new dawn.

He turns his breast to the rising gold
and feels its rays reaching in
to caress his sonorous heart,
stirring forth the first song of the day,
a joyful fanfare for the light’s return,
and thus he once again joins
the chorus of life unleashed.

Oh, how he sings his nameless love
for the light of the Cherished One!
Not merely for reviving his heart,
but for freely beaming Her warmth
into the naked wonder of being,
illuminating all the glorious world
with which this grateful mockingbird
celebrates in rapturous communion.

 

sighs of content adoration

O Beloved Vital One,
this creature sighs in content adoration
upon remembering your unconditional charity,
the unlimited grace that is your nature,
requiring no sacrifice, penance, or petition
in exchange for your generosity.

Like the soft quiet air of an Alpine glade,
you freely wrap yourself around us all,
and enter into each as the very breath of being.
You are the bearer of morning’s cool mist
and our window to the sun, moon, and stars,
the fabric in which all birds and bees are weaving
the flowing tapestry of Nature’s polyamory,
the ever-present sylphan dancer
with whom all flowers are gladly swaying,
the moving aria all leaves honor with their applause.

Sweet Atmosphere of Life,
within the sparkling gallery of constellations
hangs your Libran sign as a reminder to all
of the selfless harmony you inspire in our souls.
In this celestial form, O Vital Spirit,
with stable stance you patiently wait,
your strong arms hinged upon a sensitive heart,
your cupped hands reaching out,
always ready to receive, to hold and support,
to carefully weigh all things in the balance
by the invisible gravity of love.

And so it is that every creature’s
blood-reddening respiration,
and every artist’s or lover’s thrilling inspiration,
is a testimony to your boundless affection,
our dear Vital One,
and why this creature gratefully
and joyfully sings your praises
with sighs of content adoration.

 

A Blessing for Kindness

May you be
strong enough to be kind
to those who call you a weakling,
wise enough to be kind
to those who call you a fool,
truthful enough to be kind
to those who call you a liar,
peaceful enough to be kind
to those who call you a threat,
and strong, wise, truthful,
and peaceful enough
to be kind to yourself
through all curses, praises,
or indifference.

Agape

 

These poems are also on my poetry site.

Dec 122013
 

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As many readers of this post already know, 2013 has been a year of exceptional experiences, both pleasant and hard.  Now, as the nights grow longer and colder, and the inevitable turn of the calendar approaches, I find myself especially moved to share some of my reflections. In this particular moment, the reflections welling up within me come out of a Skype call with my dear friend, Drew Drummond, whom I first met by Skype in January of this year.

Drew and I met because I was fortunate enough to be invited by Carol Clyde, then Director of the TCU Leadership Center, to go along with a group of its students on a trip to Scotland in March.  That trip was done in partnership with Drummond International and  Columba 1400, both of which are rooted in the Drummond family’s warm, generous, insightful, and encouraging spirit.  In its own ways, each of these organizations serves an approach to leadership that understands and promotes the centrality of humanitarian ideals.  In short, I would say they facilitate the emergence of leaders guided by love.  That sounds like a very simple concept, and in many ways it is, but only a little thought reveals there are many skills required of such leaders, and such skills must actually be exemplified by those who would teach them.  In this way of leadership you have to practice what your preach if you expect to be taken seriously for very long.  Drew and his colleagues — like Hilary Black, Don Ledingham, Guy Matthews, Jackie Gillies, and many others — certainly do that, and I want to share some specific memories from my experience with them that gave rise to this post’s title.

1497578_10100483102854984_1350236294_nOur visit in Scotland began in Edinburgh.  We were invited into the Drummond family home and a delicious dinner, made for us (about 30 people!) by Elizabeth Drummond herself, became the hub of a wonderful evening. We all shared in discussion that was both cheerful and deeply meaningful, highlighted by the talks on leadership and values given by Drew’s father, Norman, and Don Ledingham.  Norman also gave copies of his splendid book, The Power of Three, to everyone in our group. He even took the time to personally autograph each one.

When the hour grew late and the students began to make their way back to our hostel, the Drummonds kindly invited Carol and me to stay for awhile longer.  Norman and I took the opportunity to dive deeper into some attitudes and ideas we shared, and it was then that I began to feel a stronger sense of connection with him and his family.  (As an aside, Norman is a great admirer of Nelson Mandela, and I’m sure he is now grieving the loss of Mandela as well as celebrating his life.) In particular, Norman and I reflected on these questions:  What does one do after witnessing the ugliness of humanity, and especially after having awakened to it within oneself?  What does one do in response to one’s own suffering?  We agreed that the people we most admire are those who have become even more committed to, and infused with, faith, hope, and love.  I was so moved by our resonance that I actually performed one of my poems on these themes, which is something I had very rarely done for such a new acquaintance.  He received the poem graciously, and before I left he gave me an additional gift.  Norman, a Presbyterian minister, gave me a book that has been a constant source of insight and inspiration for him and his family, The Greatest Thing in the World.  It is a book that begs us to seriously consider what it means to realize that love is “the greatest of these,” as Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 13.

554982_10100242012322349_11264296_nThe next morning, our group was to participate in community service.  We were scheduled to give our time and effort to a charitable organization, the Cyrenians, working most of the day on the new gardens of the Midlothian Community Hospital.  The weather had turned to snow the night before, but we were hopeful of it clearing.  Still, the snow continued and our coach bus was slipping and sliding as we crept into the hospital entryway.  Much of what had been planned was rapidly becoming impossible, and so we had to quickly regroup and figure out a way to accomplish something useful to the hospital.  Thankfully, our hosts had lots of options, and in no time we had devised a plan to split up our group and take shifts between working out in the cold and warming up inside with hot chocolate, coffee, and tea. This arrangement didn’t last, however, because our students soon decided that what they really wanted was to keep warm through the work (and a little horseplay!), and get as much done for our hosts as possible.  I was very proud of the whole bunch!  It was wet and chilly, and the work could be hard, but there was no whining and complaining and we all simply focused on making the best of the situation.

Following that day, we had a wonderful drive through the Scottish countryside on our way to Columba 1400’s training center at Staffin on the Isle of Skye near Drew’s childhood 988397_10100483087939874_65911300_nhome.  We were treated to countless amazing views of mountains, glens, lochs, castles, and farms.  Along the way, Drew and Hilary had worked out a very special treat for me, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream with a quick visit to the town of Dunning  out in the countryside near Perth.  We stopped for a brief walk through the cemetery at the edge of town, which also permitted us a good look at a strawberry farm and the town’s picturesque golf course.  I felt like a kid being granted the wish of visiting a storybook kingdom!

We had many more miles to travel that day, so we didn’t linger there, although I will do so as soon as I can get back.  Instead, we were soon back on the road, with me feeling eager to call my mom as soon as it wasn’t too early in the morning back home in Haltom City, Texas.  At our next stop, I couldn’t wait any longer, and so I called to tell her and my sister of where I’d been and what I’d seen.  It meant a great deal to me to share that moment with my mom, a widely respected genealogist and the leading authority on the Dunning family in America.  I didn’t know then how much more meaningful it would become; less than 3 months later she was gone.

1468743_10100483089786174_91679446_nLater that night, our group arrived at Staffin, and we settled in for our stay over the next few days.  There were so many of us, that several roomed just down the road at Quiraing Lodge, including Hilary, Drew, and me.  It is a beautifully remodeled house that sits at the mouth of the Stenscholl River and overlooks Flodigarry Island.  The dining room has a nice window that looks out over the bay toward the island, and I have warm memories of sitting at the table there with Drew  and Hilary at various times, getting to know each other better over tea and biscuits.  Of course, by then we had spoken with each other several times by Skype, and had already developed a professional friendship, but it was in those moments that I realized there was more than that growing between us.  We began to talk more freely of our histories, hopes, and dreams, of the beliefs and values that guide our lives, of our families and our roles in them, and soon we even shared what we were sensing, thinking, and feeling about each other.  We were discovering kinship.

Especially precious to me now are those moments when Hilary and Drew listened to me speak of my mother, her love for Dunning history, and my relationship with her as she carried on after the death of my father and through the ups and downs of her emotional and physical wellbeing.  They also spoke of their beloved elders and the changes in their relationships that time necessitates.  That comfortable room, with its big solid wooden table and view of the cold gray sea, was a wonderful setting in which to experience the warmth of shared laughter, heartfelt mutual understandings, and the misty silence of bittersweet feelings that cannot be spoken.

The last experience I want to recount for you is our group’s trek up to the Old Man of Storr.  The Storr is a very rocky hill on the Isle of Skye that overlooks the Sound of Raasay.  1461052_10100483092071594_609280839_nThe Old Man is a 50-meter tall spire of rock that stands with others in an area called the Sanctuary at the base of the Storr’s cliffs.  It is a striking place that actually deserves the adjective “awesome” in every sense. It’s been used as a location for many movies and photo-shoots.  As part of the experiential aspect of our leadership training, we made the climb all the way from the trailhead at the base of the hill.  It’s a steep 5-mile hike that includes stunning views of the islands, the sound, other peaks, and high mountain lochs.  However, looking up from the base, the length and difficulty of the trail is hard to appreciate in such a big and dramatic space.  In hindsight, I recognize that it was yet another example of how the ability to grasp an accurate perspective of a landscape is often impossible until after you have actually crossed it.

Anyone who has hiked in mountains knows how this goes.  You look up and see what seems to be a fairly easy trail, but not long after you are into it you find that it takes unexpected twists and turns, and that it has unforeseen places that are especially rough, slippery, or steep.  Furthermore, you come to unmarked forks and must choose which one to take, even though it’s not clear which will be the best way to get where you want to go, or even what “best” might mean at that moment.  If you are with a group, everything becomes more complicated by differing levels of fitness and hiking experience, differing ideas about what makes for a good hike, and differing opinions about which path is best from any fork.  Now add to that a few significant weather changes (yes, it went from clear and sunny to dark and snowy, and back again), and what had seemed like a casual stroll to see some cool rocks can turn into a true odyssey! I’m pleased to report that we worked together very well, and it led to a wonderful gathering at the base of the Old Man.  Watching and feeling the magical waves of snow and sunlight wash over us, we celebrated the unity and harmony that had grown amongst us, and each person’s unique contribution to the spirit of our little community.

Again, I was so moved by the moment that I asked to read a poem for the group. It was one that I had written many years before, yet it expressed so much of what that very moment meant to me, and of what I hoped I might help them know in their own lives. As I look back on it now, the imagery of this poem fits the Scottish landscape with its wooded lowlands and rugged snow-capped peaks.

Tree and Mountain

The tree meditates
and its leaves grow
youthfully green,
dance in summer winds,
age in noble red and gold,
and then fall
to leave the silvery limbs
outstretched in prayer.

And so may this meditation be
the chant,
the song,
the liturgy,
the ecstatic act of living,
of life flowering through me,
of being lived.

The mountain meditates
and gathers snow,
pours down streams
of tears of joy,
reveals veins
of precious beauty,
and opens it dark eyes
of timeless depths.

And so may this meditation be
the breath,
the silence,
the stillness,
the wonderful fact of mystery,
of mystery flowing through me,
of being mystified.

O mysterious Life,
O living Mystery,
Let me be Thy meditation.

In the recent talk with Drew about that trek to the Old Man of Storr, I began to see how my experiences in Scotland could be taken as metaphors for my overall experience of 2013.  There have been many unforeseen changes in the path and the weather of my life over the last 12 months, and many unexpected opportunities to meet and connect with new friends.  Along the way, I have been frequently reminded of the significance of practicing mindfulness, of being as present and aware as possible in the moment.  As part of that, I’ve constantly gained deeper appreciation for the profound wisdom of simply accepting the present reality as it is, an acceptance that includes our intentions, which are vital to that reality.  There is an amazing stability of heart in this practice of mindful awareness, acceptance, and intention, one that neither denies nor gets lost in the twists, turns, ups, and downs of our full humanity.  Likewise, the value of practicing reflection as a compliment to mindfulness has been repeatedly reinforced, for it is often only in reflection that we draw out the deeper meanings of our experiences, meanings that then shape the intentions we carry with us into the next part of our journeys.  While such reflection is important to do within the chambers of one’s own heart and mind, the events of 2013 have also reaffirmed for me the blessings that happen when people open those chambers to each other. In doing so, we encounter the very soul of others, and we see the image of our own reflected in each others eyes, hear its voice echoing from each others mouths, and feel it reaching back to us in each others embrace.  All of these things are the essential lessons life keeps offering about living it well, and sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting, but always offering if I will only listen.

Agape

(Click here to see more pictures from the Scotland trip)

Note: This was first published on my Facebook page, here.

 

Nov 262013
 

spilled chaliceEach year at this time I try to give renewed contemplation to the theme of *Thanksgiving.  Because my experience in life has led me to appreciate the deep significance of gratitude and its expression, I try to dive into this theme and emerge with a perspective somewhat different from previous years.   This year there have been lots of opportunities to engage this meditation without waiting for this particular season of reflection, and it has led to a perspective expressed in the title – Thanks for Nothing.

About halfway through this year, on June 6th, my mother, Joyce Dunning, died at the age of 85.   I am grateful she died relatively peacefully, surrounded by family, Joyce Dunningaware that she was leaving us, and spiritually ready.  It was also a blessing that, as she had hoped, she died before she lost the ability to live independently in the house where she and my father raised my two sisters and me.

I can’t adequately say how grateful I am for the lives she and my father lived and gave to their family and friends, and the many ways they made the world a better place than the one they were born into.  Both of them were children of the Great Depression and abusive alcoholic fathers.  For part of my mother’s childhood, she lived in a dirt-floor shack, enduring both physical and emotional hardships.  My father, Buddy Dunning, also had a difficult childhood, one that was very unstable as the family moved from place to place, often more than once a year, due in large part to his father’s alcoholism.

Even so, my parents resolved that they would learn from their parents’ mistakes rather than emulate them.  So, while my parents were demanding, and sometimes perhaps even more harsh than they needed to be, they nonetheless provided a home for their children that was far more stable, safe, and healthy than either of them had known.  It was a home in which faith, hope, and love reigned.

Certainly, I am profoundly thankful for the home they made, and the mutual trust, understanding, kindness, and warmth they engendered among my sisters and me, and that now lives in our extended families.  In many ways, we are each very different people with our own lifestyles, attitudes, and beliefs, but we also each learned from our parents that these things, even as cherished as some of them are, are nonetheless superficial compared to that which underlies as well as transcends everything.

In addition to losing my mother this year, Susan and I also lost our two beloved cats, Lefty and Rio.  We will always be grateful for the joy, comfort, peace, and companionship they shared with us.  Now their memories and spirits are added to those of the other four-legged family members who still live in our hearts, each having helped us become better human beings than we might otherwise have been.

I am also immeasurably grateful for the loved ones who have stood with me, knelt with me, cried with me, laughed with me, and listened, counseled, or sat in silence with me, not only through this trying year but also many times past.   My amazing spouse, Susan, and her sweet family, have been through it with me every step of the way, each sharing in the grief and the joys because they all loved my mother, Lefty, and Rio as their own.   Countless friends and coworkers, many of whom have been coping with their own significant challenges, have reached out to offer sympathy, compassion, and support in their own ways.  Even the simplest gesture has touched me deeply.

So, what in the heck could I possibly mean when I say I am giving thanks for nothing?!  Simply this – the events of this year have quickened my appreciation for the fact that my deepest and most abiding gratitude is not for any thing, no object or possession, and not even for the physical presence or memory of loved ones.  That for which I am most thankful is quite literally no thing, and no mere idea or attitude.  The name I find most appealing for this no-thing is Love, although another might say Truth, Spirit, or God.

Love in this ultimate sense, this Divine sense, is that which brings all things into being, brings all things together, and gives rise to all that is new through the joining and passing away of all that was and is.  This Love has no opposite, nothing to resist it, no place where it is not.  If such words seem to make no sense, then perhaps they can serve to point beyond the limitations of our sentiments, language, and logic toward the essential Mystery with which every spirituality and science has its own love affair, its own way of embracing an ever more complete knowledge and understanding, each in its own way giving thanks for that No-Thing in which everything has its meaning.  My mother and father nurtured in me this gratitude, this love for Love itself, and I am thankful.

Maranatha

Agape

 

* Even though I view thankfulness as universal, and this holiday as an opportunity to remember and celebrate the spiritual unity of humanity, it is nonetheless true that many Native Americans consider Thanksgiving Day as a National Day of Mourning.  In my thankfulness, I also remember that much for which I am thankful has come with the cost of horrible atrocities.  I wish to honor the many contributions, both willing and unwilling, Native American people have made to the USA and the world.

Oct 292013
 

Grace is the outpouring of God’s unconditional love, literally without conditions, which is to say without requirements and without limits.  Beyond welcoming and accepting it, there is nothing anyone must do or not do, or believe or not believe, or profess or not profess to receive it.  It is as universal as the sun, moon, and stars that shine on all people, as ever-present as the earth beneath us all.  And, as with the air around us all, we can hold our breath as long as we wish, but it’s still there for us when we’re ready to breathe again.

The New Testament is commonly understood as telling the story that Jesus was born to be the one and only channel of Grace into this world.  Yet, if Jesus is the one and only channel of Divine Love, even if he is considered the most necessary channel among many others, then that love would no longer be unconditional.  Instead, we can understand the New Testament to tell a story about just how powerful Grace can be, with Jesus showing us the way to let Grace flow through us to others, and thus more fully realize our very lives as Grace in action.

With these understandings, the only meaningful questions about Divine Grace are about whether or not a person welcomes, accepts, and expresses it as freely, as unconditionally, as it is given.   Of course, none of us do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grow in that direction, if we want to do so.

Agape