Nov 222011
 

Friendship is the theme that has arisen for me in this time of thanksgiving,  a time for offering and sharing our gratitude.   For much of my life I considered the highest blessings to be those exceptional ecstatic or contemplative moments in which consciousness fills with, or is blown out by, awareness of God’s immediate presence.  However, with time  I came to see that the blessing of friendship is even more important.  If we would only realize it, friendship is one of the most direct and beautiful ways that God is present to us, whether or not we are engaged in any “spiritual” practice.

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  1st John 4:16

It’s that simple!  Yet some of us have the notion that the more enlightened, illuminated, sanctified, holy, or, well, “mystical” we are then the less regard we give to friendship as an important and worthwhile experience in human life.  Doesn’t it seem odd that sometimes our obsessions with things like philosophy, theology, and mysticism should lead us into places where we feel a need to justify enjoying something as natural and beautiful as friendship?  Yet it happens, and it happens because somehow we come to believe that our great teachers are pointing us in that direction.  With the rest of this post I hope to show that this is not actually the case, and that friendship is not only okay, it’s highly recommended!

As someone who feels a certain affinity with Buddhism, and who values the dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism, I lament that people often consider the Buddha and his followers as models of this disregard for friendship.  I find a number of things in Buddhist scripture that challenge that belief.

Consider this conversation between the Buddha and his disciple, attendant, and friend, Ananda, where Ananda begins:

This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.

The Buddha replies:

Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html

On another occasion, the Buddha teaches:

With regard to external factors, I don’t envision any other single factor like admirable friendship as doing so much for a monk in training, who has not attained the heart’s goal but remains intent on the unsurpassed safety from bondage. A monk who is a friend with admirable people abandons what is unskillful and develops what is skillful. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/iti.1.001-027.than.html#iti-017

And again:

And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a layperson, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.054.than.html

Yes, friendship does, at least for most of us, include greater attachment, and the Buddha acknowledges this when he says to a grieving woman, “’Those who have a hundred dear ones have a hundred pains.”

He then sings:

The sorrows, lamentations,
the many kinds of suffering in the world,
exist dependent on something dear.
They don’t exist when there’s nothing dear.
And thus blissful and sorrowless
are those for whom nothing
in the world is dear anywhere.
So one who aspires to be stainless and sorrowless
shouldn’t make anything
in the world dear anywhere.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.8.08.than.html

Notice that he did not tell her to give up having dear ones.  Rather he solemnly reflects on the profundity of what we all know in common sense, which is that personal suffering accompanies personal love.  If you aspire to be free of that suffering, he says, then you have to free yourself from personal love, and I swear I can hear the Buddha in the subtext saying, “So, is that the kind of bliss you really want? Hey, if it is then knock yourself out.”

With these scriptures in mind, listen to the poetry written by Ananda after the death of his friend and teacher, the Buddha:

All the quarters are bedimmed
And the Path is not clear to me,
Indeed my noble friend has gone
And all about seems dark.

The friend has passed away,
The Master, too, has gone.
There is no friendship now that equals this:
The mindfulness directed bodywards.

The old ones now have passed away,
The new ones do not please me much,
Today alone I meditate
Like a bird gone to its nest.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thag/thag.17.03.hekh.html

We can hear both Ananda’s suffering and his awareness that his suffering points him back toward the practice of mindfulness, acceptance, and letting go; it bears awareness of both his personal love and a transcendent love.  For all of Buddhism’s apparent renunciation of personal attachment, it is not an effort to induce psychological denial.  It is not an either/or dichotomy in which attachment is a “wrong” to be avoided at all costs and an emotionally disconnected detachment is a “good” to be purchased at any expense.  Rather, I hear an acknowledgment that all at once we can know both the suffering of our personal losses and the bliss of that which transcends holding and losing.

As followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have a number of scriptures that actually extol friendship.

The seeds of good deeds become a tree of life;
a wise person wins friends.  Proverbs 11:30

The heartfelt counsel of a friend
is as sweet as perfume and incense. Proverbs 27:9-10

Jesus speaks of friendship as a special relationship:

Greater love has no one than this, to lay day one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  John 15:13

Both the Gospels and the apocrypha also allude to Jesus having closer relationships with some of his disciples than others, perhaps even what we might call “favorites” or “best friends,” such as Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and James.

And there is this classic teaching from St. Paul about the kind of friends Christians should be with each other:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.  Romans 12:9-13

In the first sentence, agape is the word Paul uses for love.  Christians conventionally understand agape to be a love that is unconditional and charitable in the broadest sense.   The word translated as “devoted” is philostorgos, which means to love each other like family, which is emphasized by the word philadelphia, the love of siblings or the closest of friends.  Koinoneo, meaning “to partner with,” is translated here as “share with” pointing to the commitment and depth of hospitality, philoxenia, we should practice even with those we would regard as strangers.

The writers of the New Testament epistles often speak with terms of warmest affection and personal endearment for their colleagues and followers, frequently referring to them as friends, siblings, and children.   They apparently found no shame at all in this, and even saw the cultivation of such relationships as central to living their faith.  As John says at the end of his third letter:

Peace be with you. Your friends here send you their greetings. Please give my personal greetings to each of our friends there.

Can you imagine the feelings that our earliest siblings in Christ must have felt for each other?  It seems to me that the apostles must have missed each other dearly as they each headed off on their missions to spread the Good News of God’s infinite love and grace. They suffered the cruelties and injustices inflicted upon each other, celebrated each other’s accomplishments, and grieved sorely when they heard of each other’s passing, even as they rejoiced at the ascension of their souls.  They were human after all, and they loved as humans filled with faith in a love that transcends but does not negate the temporary joys and pains of personal affections.

So, I close this post with gratitude for the blessings of friendship by sharing the words of one of my favorite mystics of the 19th century, Albert Pike:

That I can be a friend, that I can have a friend, though it were but one in the world: that fact, that wondrous good fortune, we may set against all the sufferings of our social nature.

May you all enjoy a beautiful Thanksgiving, whenever, wherever, and with whomever you may celebrate it.

Jul 252011
 

Practice

Combining-Meditation-And-PrayerIn Part 2 we reflected on the non-dual transcendence of the one Love that is God, and the possibility that everything is therefore in some way an experience or expression of Love.  But now we turn to ponder the practical significance of these views, as we should do with all philosophical and spiritual insights and propositions, no matter how intuitively, intellectually, or emotionally certain we may be of their truth.

What difference might it make in our lives to live with faith, if not knowledge, that everything is Love?  If we carefully consider this question, we may become aware of how muddy and murky our perceptions and conceptions of Love have been, how much we have habitually judged things as either being loving or not, or perhaps how we have semi-consciously ranked things on some vague scale of more or less loving. So, if nothing else, serious regard for Love as ever-present in, even essential to, the existence of all things and acts may help us be more mindful and immediately present in our experiences and expressions of love.  This mindfulness can repeatedly confront us with our own assumptions, preferences, and expectations of Love, our own biases and prejudices about Love and its many forms. Thus, when we find ourselves reacting to an experience as though it is somehow opposed to Love, this practice begs us to look beyond the surface and deeply into the desires, motives, intentions, hopes, and fears that have shaped our judgments of it, and perhaps those that have played more external roles in the experience.  Most of us know what it’s like to see the mask of hostility on the face of a loved one, initially respond to it with our own defensive hostility, and then later discover the love that was there, even if it was only the other person’s self-love fearfully hiding behind that mask.  Love never left; we just failed to recognize it in our knee-jerk reactions of self-protection, of our own self-love. To some of us it may even be apparent that all hostility and violence in the world is the result of creatures, all acting in their own self-love, competing with each other for survival, comfort, and propagation of their species. In any case, one effect of such a practice is that it can aid us in living with greater openness to understanding others and ourselves, and thus into greater compassion and action for the wellbeing of each and all.

You probably noticed that the last statement strongly implies that a love characterized by understanding, compassion and serving mutual wellbeing is more desirable than one characterized by unchecked selfishness, defensiveness and hostility. This view seems to be something that most of humanity has always agreed with.  Still it is clear that we humans experience and express love in different ways, and that each of us tends to consider some expressions of Love more desirable than others.  We often use words like “true” or “pure” to speak of the most desirable or admirable forms of Love.  But if everything is a manifestation of the One Love, are such distinctions just illusions we should try to banish from our minds?  If all is God, then how can we justify preferring one thing over another, let alone one form of Love over another?  Wouldn’t whatever we find ugly and unhealthy be just as pleasing and acceptable to God as anything else, and, if it is, shouldn’t it be so to us as well?

To begin responding to these questions, let’s recall that non-duality does not exclude duality, but transcends and subsumes it.  Thus a non-dual spirituality does not necessarily put one in the position of denying any meaning or value in dualistic experiences and expressions of Love.  So we should not be surprised to find the mystics of every religion and tradition have asserted the desirability and importance of various virtues to the most whole human expressions of Love.  Where, then, does a Christian look for a guide to living a love that most fully and completely reflects the transcendence of Love in our ordinary dualistic experience?

Let’s consider what we know or believe about how God, or Love, has expressed Itself through this dualistic creation.  First, there is the act of creation as presented in Genesis 1 & 2.   Love somehow makes it possible for duality to manifest and reproduce itself within Love’s unity.  Acting within that duality to create humanity, our tradition asserts that Love makes us in Love’s image, breathes life into us with Love’s own Spirit, and thereby endows us with intelligence and free will, so that we might choose what to do in this creation.  So we can see that Love is creative and giving of itself and wills for its offspring to be of the same nature.

As Christians, we consider Love’s greatest gift to humanity to be the life of Jesus Christ, whom we take to be our chief exemplar of what it means to live the fullness of Love as much as humanly possible.  In one of Jesus’ most significant moments of preaching, the Sermon on the Mount, he extolled a number of virtues, such as those in the Beatitudes, and provided his own version of the law of Love for our dualistic world:

You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.  If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much.  If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.  But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Jesus speaks very clearly in this moment about how human love can come closest to Divine Love.  There is also clarity on another occasion when, speaking for God, for Love Itself, he says:

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. … whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus also teaches that there is no greater love than laying one’s life down for others, which he then did in reflection of Love’s grace continually giving Itself to us.  Love apparently has no limitations with being Self-sacrificing, perhaps because in Its transcendence Love knows that ultimately there is nothing lost; Love knows Itself in all things.

Love, as taught and practiced by Jesus, is what all Christians, whether or not we consider ourselves mystics, are called to do. Nowhere in scripture is the ideal of Christian love more poetically extolled than in 1 Corinthians 13. In the Greek text of this chapter, in the law of Love given in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the Great Commandments given by Jesus, the term used for love is agape, or intentional, careful, gracious, self-sacrificing love that is understood to transcend all knowledge, works, faith, and hope.  Agape is also used in 1st John to say God is Love.  Jesus and the New Testament authors obviously considered agape to be the form of Love in ordinary human experience that comes closest to the fullness of Love Itself.  It may thus be considered the form of love in which all others – such as philia, eros, sturge, and xenia – are most beautifully experienced and expressed.

Finally, let’s reflect on how all of this might be more meaningful specifically in the context of mysticism.  Many of us tend to think of mysticism as being a more or less solitary practice in which one turns inward to more fully commune with God.  This is certainly a profound way to love God, yet if God is Love Itself then every experience and expression of love is, to some degree, communion with God.  To mindfully practice love in our everyday lives is therefore a mystical practice with just as much significance as, if not more than, our solitary practices.  Such a practice makes our mysticism a more complete response to the call of Christ to love God with all we are and others as ourselves, and thus toward a more complete expression of Love’s non-dual transcendence.  To give and receive Love is mystical experience, if we would only realize it.

Agape!

Maranatha!

Jul 222011
 

Love

In Christian mysticism, we acknowledge that God is ultimately a mystery while affirming it is also possible to know many things about God.  In Part 1, for example, it was suggested BlackMadonna_8that it is possible to know God is non-dual, and that God is transcendent in a way that includes immanence rather than opposes it.  Within that scope, our tradition speaks of many attributes of God that we can know, such as creativity, wisdom, understanding, mercy, justice, beauty, and so on.  But there is one word that stands above all others as the supreme attribute through which we can most fully know God, the one that encompasses all others, and that word is “love.”  Our scriptures even boldly declare that God is love.  If we are to take such scriptures literally (in this case I do), and if God is non-dually transcendent, then love must also be non-dually transcendent.  But this is a very intellectual and abstract way of coming to a position on the nature of love, and if there is truth to it then we should find it reflected in our actual lives.

The ways we experience and express love span the entire range of the human psyche and its functions: intuition, thought, emotion, sensation, and action. Love has both conscious and unconscious dimensions, and it is found both “above” in the most sublime realms of illumination and transformation and “below” in the darkest depths of instinct and inertia. Love as an agent of human reproduction encompasses the union of two, their separation, and the birth of a third.  Love can be either passive or active, and it is expressed by the gentle hand of tender caresses as well as the strict hand of punitive discipline.  Love is known in the hottest throes of passionate lovemaking and the coolest musings of philosophy (literally the “love of wisdom”).  The love of self at the expense of loving others, no matter how selfish, shortsighted, and confused it might be, is still a form of love. When we explore the ubiquity of love deeply, we can find its spark lurking within even the most unconscionable desire. Even hate, fear, and apathy, each of which might sometimes appear to be the opposite of love, are still conditions we can experience within the context of a love that isn’t merely limited to feelings of affection, confidence, and care. It is also poignant to me that we actually speak of forms of love, such that our language itself reveals at least a vague apprehension of a single love that transcends the different ways we experience, express, and conceptualize love.  Even the Greeks, who were the source of much of our language about love, didn’t always hold clear and consistent distinctions among the various forms of love they discerned, including agape, eros, philia, sturge and xenia. Plato’s Symposium is a fascinating discussion just of eros, and the views of the participants span a very broad range of experience, expression and meaning.  (It’s also interesting to me that “love” is one of those English words that is both a noun and a verb. An entire sentence can be formed using no other word but “love”, such as “Love love, love.”  This statement means “I urge you to love love itself, my beloved.” Perhaps this is another word game, but I digress.)

In all of these ways we find evidence that love is not bound to dualistic oppositions though it is known in and through them.  Furthermore, the unconscious dimensions of love contribute to our inability to completely grasp the meaning of love.   Yes, we can know many things about love, and we can clearly see that it not only crosses all boundaries of human experience, but we also cannot deny that the whole truth of love is mysterious.  So it is that we can arrive at an understanding of love’s transcendence apart from any metaphysical speculations or extraordinary spiritual experiences.

If we take seriously the equation that God is love, the mystical assertion of the non-duality of God, and the conclusion that ordinary human experience itself reveals the non-dual transcendence of love, then we must consider the possibility that all human experiences of love, from the most spiritual to the most mundane, participate to some degree in a transcendent love that is divine, that is God (and is therefore worthy of being written as “Love” with a capital L).  Indeed, this way of thinking has led many people to conclude that everything is an experience or expression of Love.

But here is the rub:  To describe everything as an experience or expression of Love verges on a statement with as little everyday usefulness to many people as saying everything is an experience or expression of energy.  It might be true, but what difference does it make?   Does it imply that all experiences and expressions of Love are equal and worthy of no distinction in our lives?   These questions lead us directly into the practical dimensions of loving in this world, which we’ll address in Part 3.

 

Jul 202011
 

After the last series I muttered to myself about never wanting to do another series again.  Hah!   Well, here I am doing it again because, when I stopped to look at how much I had written, I found I had too much on this topic for a single post.  I sure can be a long-winded fool!  So right now it looks like this will be a three-part series, beginning with an examination of how we might understand “transcendence” in a non-dualist way, followed by explanation of what I mean by “transcendent love” in that context, and ending with a consideration for how those ideas might shape one’s spiritual practice.

Transcendence

What do we mean by “transcendent“?  In common use, and especially in spiritual circles, it usually means a state of elevation above other things.  We mystical types often speak ofdali-salvador-the-rose-8300094 transcendence as a blissful experience or state of consciousness closer to God and further, if not completely, removed from the pains of mundane existence. In short, we make transcendence something otherworldly. This expectation fits neatly into the dualistic thinking of heaven vs. earth, unity vs. separation, love vs. hate, and so on.  In that dualistic thinking we find it easy to define transcendence as otherworldly because we want to escape the part of existence we have judged to be lacking, wrong, corrupted, diseased, bad, or evil.  In short, we have a desire for a “there” we can get to in order to be away from the “here” we find unacceptable, and our notions about transcendence seem to offer us the way out.

2359295569_17089d2346_o

Buddha in the Earth Witness Posture

Let’s consider, however, that this might say more about the dynamics of our thoughts and feelings than it does about the whole truth of transcendence. Mystics of many traditions agree that it is possible to know transcendence here and now, even while living and moving in this world. They claim that the non-dual One is not only beyond our common world of seeming separation, but It interpenetrates and is present here and now in a way that defies the either/or logic we are trained to idolize. Christianity is no exception, and here are some of its messages from non-dual perspectives: God is the One in which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28); the Kingdom of Heaven is within you (Luke 17:21), and it is also spread out over the face of the entire earth (Thomas 113); Jesus speaks of lifting a rock or splitting wood and finding him there (Thomas 77). From such a perspective it is clear that the One we call God, and thus the experience/state of being closer to God, is not limited to either/or duality; it is both beyond the world as we commonly know it and present within it.  One of my favorite analogies for such an experience/state is lucid dreaming, which means being aware that you are dreaming while you are still in the dream.  Lucid dreaming transcends the usual either/or opposition we make; it is both dreaming and wakefulness, and it is suggested this has significant relevance to mystical transcendence.

At this point, it might be objected that the non-duality of God is traditionally spoken of as both transcendent and immanent.  I appreciate this statement and have often used it.  Yet in the present context it can be seen that this statement is only another way of tackling the non-duality of God through our dualistic language and logic, and it is a way that continues to imply transcendence is apart from the here-and-now as we commonly know it.  To me, that use of the word “transcendence” fails to open to its larger meaning of climbing across boundaries, of being without limitation, and so God’s transcendence would remain limited by being conceptually opposed to immanence; a transcendence that is not also immanent isn’t fully transcendent after all.    I admit it’s a bit of a word game, but I’ve found it to be a helpful one, not unlike a Zen koan.

For Part 2: How can we understand love as transcendent in this non-dualist way?

 

Jan 102011
 

Recently I was drawn to revisit the life and works of St. Francis de Sales.   There are many saints and philosophers I have looked to for inspiration and guidance in Christian mysticism, but Francis de Sales is one that until now I had quickly passed over.  Perhaps he didn’t grab my attention simply because he hasn’t received the same kind of publicity as St. John of the Cross and other well-known mystics.  Perhaps it was because I was in a place where I judged him as too socially oriented.  In any case he did come back onto my radar, and I now appreciate him as another wise teacher of how we can integrate our internal and external lives.

The Spirit mysteriously moves people in many different ways and so, even in mysticism, there is no one specific way that is the way for all.  There are lots of examples of mystic saints whose spirituality has led to a significant withdrawal from ordinary human society.  While the life of a monastic or a hermit can be a genuine calling, many do not feel called in that way despite awareness of their regular need for solitary time and contemplation.  Neither must one aspire to the common image of a mystic as forever moving through the world with feet barely touching the ground, blind to all but the Invisible and deaf to all but the Ineffable, though we can acknowledge there are moments when such a state is welcome and good.  And, for what it’s worth, the Gospels don’t reveal a Jesus who demonstrates or teaches a permanent withdrawal, either physically or psychologically, from the everyday world most of us know.  A summary of his message might be, “Yes, love God with all that you are, seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and be in the world but not of it, yet nonetheless be in this world – be here now – doing the loving works of our Papa.” So it is that some of us are most inspired by saints who have found, demonstrated, and taught ways to be genuine mystics, with hearts and minds as open as possible to God, as well as persons fully present and engaged in ordinary human society.

Frances de Sales seems to be such a saint, and the essential principles in Salesian spirituality are quite compelling.  Here is a list of those principles, care of The Saint Francis de Sales Association:

  • God is love, and all creation is an outpouring of that love.
  • All creation has been made for Christ, with Christ and through Christ.
  • All creation should be treated with respect and care.
  • Jesus is the model for all fully human living.
  • You possess divine dignity and are worthy of profound respect.
  • God has testified that you are good, worthy of divine love and mercy.
  • Despite your weakness and sinfulness, God loves you so much that He sent His only Son to become  human.
  • You are called to be holy, that is, to grow in union with God.
  • Pursuing a holy life is called “devotion,” that is, doing what is both commanded and counseled by God promptly, actively, and  diligently.
  • The  pursuit of holiness must be practical. It must transform your attitudes, attributes, and actions.
  • Acknowledge your sins and failing, learn from them, but do not dwell on them.
  • God gives you talents and abilities, gifts that should be discovered, developed and used for the good of others.
  • Relationships are essential to living a fully human, that is, a holy life.
  • Each moment of each day comes from the hand of a loving God and is graced for your salvation.
  • The only time you have is each present moment. Don’t live in the past; don’t dwell on the future.
  • Living each moment to the fullest with an eye to loving God must lead you to show compassion for others.
  • The challenge of each moment is discerning God’s will, that is, the  particular, unique way that God may be calling you to love Him, yourself, and others.
  • God’s will is frequently communicated through the events, circumstances, and relationships in which you find yourself.
  • God seldom requires you to perform great or extraordinary feats, but He always challenges you to perform everyday actions  with extraordinary attention and enthusiasm.
  • The “little virtues” of  patience, humility, gentleness, simplicity, honesty, and hospitality are powerful means for growing holy.
  • All prayer and meditation must lead to action.
  • The motivation with which you perform some action may be far more important and powerful than the action itself.
  • Freedom is one of the most precious and powerful gifts that God gives you.
  • You are to use that freedom to grow in conformity to God’s will.
  • Intellectual  learning, prayerful reflection, social interaction, work, play and all things creative should be valued as graced by God  and viewed as means for growing into a fully human person.
  • Each new day is a new beginning, a new opportunity for growing in holiness.
  • Let your passion be disciplined.
  • Let your discipline be passionate.
  • Keep things in perspective.
  • Develop a sense of humor.

Two important works by St. Francis de Sales are Introduction to the Devout Life, and Treatise on the Love of God.  The embedded links are for free online versions at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Jan 052011
 

To paraphrase something one of my spiritual teachers once said: “Sometimes ego and Spirit seem to point in the same direction.  Be wary of allowing your distrust of ego to prevent you from following what you believe is the guidance of Spirit.”

Sometimes we find ourselves at a crossroads and can’t clearly sort out the various motives and intentions in our desires to move in some direction.  To oversimplify, we can find ourselves uncertain as to whether or not a particular turn would be driven more by ego or by Spirit, more in selfishness or in selflessness.  When we are at such an intersection, it can be tempting to choose inaction, fearing that our motives and intentions aren’t pure enough, or that our judgment isn’t true enough to ensure that our actions are righteous, healthy, or good enough.  So it is that we become stuck in our want for clarity and confidence.  It’s as if we are waiting until we can sufficiently quantify the various factors to plug into an equation that will solve the problem, or until circumstances appear to force movement in a particular direction.  Yet discerning the urges of the ego from the call of spirit is not really a matter of mathematical calculation, and doing only what external factors drive us to do is often just a strategy to play it safe and have a ready-made excuse if things go wrong.  So we can see that to fully and joyfully engage life is a matter of wisdom that transcends ordinary logic and a matter of courage that transcends playing the odds.

Wisdom

Of all wisdom’s attributes, the awareness of how to be most loving is central.  There are various ways of attaining such wisdom in Christian practice, but for now let’s note two broad approaches:

  • psychological – examination of the self, with the aim of becoming thoroughly familiar with the various factors of the psyche and ways they interact with each other, both internally and in relationships;
  • mystical – opening to the infusion of Divine Wisdom, which is, in effect, a way of trying to remove the personal elements of the psyche from interfering with the action of God’s love in and through us.

We can then divide the methods for both of these approaches into those that are more internal or external.  Yet, at least for an incarnate human, there is no real separation between the internal and the external; these two realms are as interwoven for us as the rays of light traveling back and forth between a candle and its reflection in a mirror.  It is further suggested that the psychological and the mystical approaches to wisdom are just as interconnected, and thus both must be involved in the work of spiritual formation, illumination, sanctification, or theosis.

Please understand that I am not addressing the possibility of Divine Wisdom expressing itself through a human soul without regard to any personal disposition.  Considerations of that possibility lead beyond the scope of this post.  The present aim is instead to consider how we can most fully engage life.  To that end, Jesus taught, “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thine understanding; and thy neighbour as thyself.” (Luke 10:27)  He further said, “anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me” (Matthew 25:40).  These two passages indicate that Christian life includes a responsibility to integrate every aspect of our being as fully as possible in the realization – internal and external – of love.

We can become more attuned to wisdom psychologically and mystically, and thus our ability to experience and express love, to be an instrument of the absolute within the relative is enhanced.  But attaining wisdom is not as simple as having a book of rules and answers to reference; it is a matter of hard-won experience and the grace of inspiration or infused contemplation.   Furthermore, to the extent that we find our wisdom lacking, or the risks of serving wisdom seem to mount, we discover that wisdom alone is insufficient for being as loving as we might.

Courage

Another teacher once said: “Concern yourself more with the presence of love than with the absence of sin.”

Both the attainment and the enactment of wisdom require courage, which is simply the willingness to take risks.  If we never test ourselves and knowingly take the risks of being in error, then we do risk stagnating, growing in neither wisdom nor courage.  That observation is likely to be patently obvious in the most mundane contexts, but it is also true in religious and spiritual life.  Many of us spend our lives with hidden lights, stifling our potentials and putting on a show of meekness that is really a mask over our anxious self-torment in the fear of sinning (“missing the mark”) before God or offending our fellow human beings.   This choice can also be about protecting our pride, slyly avoiding the possibility of having our ignorance, foolishness and vices laid bare, even if it is only to oneself.

This anxious state of being is tragically ironic. On the one hand it connects with a deep sense of genuine humility, while on the other it is confounded by a powerful desire to hide one’s ignorance and vulnerability.  It belies a denial of faith and hope, a refusal to trust that we can, with God’s help, make the best of our mistakes.   It is succumbing to the fear that our sins are not, will not, or cannot be forgiven; and it is being blinded with the misunderstanding that the only remaining option is to attempt minimizing the multiplication of our sins by putting our spirits to sleep and waiting for death.  In actuality, this burying of our talents compounds the irony of this state of being because it entails a willful missing of the mark set by Jesus and his Apostles, who joyfully went about acting in ways that were widely considered sinful and taking the most serious of social risks.

Joy

When we speak of joy in this context, we are not speaking of it in the sense of great personal elation or sensual pleasure, but rather an abiding sense of peace, freedom and assurance.   It bears a kind of childlike innocence and comfort that can remain with us even when we are doubtful and suffering in many ways. It is the Spirit’s lasting affection for the beauty of life, even when the personality is most disappointed with the world and its own existence.  In Christian terms, this attitude is a gift of grace to which we can awaken through the heart-centered embrace of faith and hope in the Good News, opening to the infinite love of God revealed through Christ in us.   It is not that our faith and hope bring that grace upon us, but rather that through them we recognize and welcome what was already present.   In short, joy is the sense of liberation we feel as we more fully realize the presence of God’s loving grace in our lives.

One of the greatest experiences of liberation in this joy is the letting go of fear, gaining trust that we are not doomed to damnation for our sins.  This confidence gives us more courage to take risks, to make mistakes, to accept their consequences and learn from them, and thus grow wise as serpents and harmless as doves.  By continuing this renewal of our minds and the “proving” of God’s will, the ego’s voice becomes more harmonious with the voice of the Spirit; joy is further realized, courage further overcomes fear, and love’s evolution naturally spirals wider open within us and out into the world through our lives.

A Caveat

As beautiful as this process sounds, it should be clear that greater blessings often come with greater challenges.  It is with this thought in mind that the picture of St. John Bosco was chosen to illustrate the face of joy.  His pictures always shine with his characteristic smile, and he was known for his commitment to gentleness and kindness despite the poverty, injustice and violence he personally suffered and bravely confronted in society.  Other exemplars whose great spiritual joy has been accompanied by great personal suffering are the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., countless saints, and certainly Jesus and many of his Apostles.  So it would be foolish to presume we have, at least while here in this present world, ever evolved beyond the experience of fear and pain.  We must all pass through our own Gethsemanes and hang upon our own crosses.  And then, even if we should momentarily be lifted into some beatific transcendence of the ordinary human condition, love leads us back into our humanity through broader reaches of compassion, “feeling with” the suffering of others, calling upon us to respond with wisdom, courage and joy.

Dec 212010
 

For a few weeks I have been ruminating on what I would post for the Christmas season, and then it finally came to me: Who owns Christianity? Who has the authority to codify what it does or does not mean to be a Christian, or regulate who can or cannot call themselves Christian, let alone who is permitted to be Christian?

Recent discussions with dear friends have once again brought to my attention how easy, how seductive, how unconsciously reflexive it can be to think and speak with labels, such as “Christian” or “Christianity.”  As labels, these terms serve as a kind of shorthand conveying a wide range of assumptions and generalizations about the person or persons to whom they are attached.  Sometimes we even label ourselves in this way.  The use of labels also easily taps into my personal beliefs and value judgments that accompany those assumptions and generalizations, and thus stimulates emotional reactions and attitudes toward the person or persons I have labeled.   Almost invariably, these processes occur semi-consciously, and I do not realize that in the process I have dehumanized somebody.  I do not realize that I have started treating a person as an abstraction that I am judging as right or wrong, and thus about which I am either comfortable or uncomfortable.  I do not realize that I have forgotten she is a unique child of God, a one-of-a-kind gift of Love to this world, like that little child in Bethlehem.  I may not ever realize that I have missed an opportunity to welcome, understand, accept, value and coexist with her, to love him, as that precious gift.   One of the ironic things about this pattern is that I do it despite how much I dislike other people doing it, which reminds me of Paul in Romans 7:15.

I know what it feels like to be the object of someone’s labeling, their stereotyping, and how it can harm the potential for us to care for each other as two whole and fully present human beings.   Some of the most troubling labels I’ve experienced are “Christian” and “bad” or “false” Christian.  Even “good” or “true” Christian can be troubling, and perhaps even more so!  The baggage that comes along with identifying as Christian can be enormous.  Many non-Christians automatically assume I fit their stereotype, which seems to be an increasingly negative one that prevents them from being open to anything more than a superficial relationship.  At worst, it leads some people to instantly take a distrusting, defensive and hostile position with me because they are certain that I am going to be judgmental, narrow minded, prudish, condescending and proselytizing.  On the other hand, fellow Christians often automatically assume I share most if not all of their beliefs and attitudes about things, or fit their own stereotypes of “Christian”.   When it’s discovered that I don’t fit their expectations, it’s not unusual for them to act like they are shocked and offended or threatened, as though I have personally challenged their own sense of identity, and then they put me in some other box.  I know I am not alone in these things, and it’s probably safe to say that you have also been painfully aware of them at times.

Experiences with the Christian stereotypes, and having seen myself in all the roles, have repeatedly led me to wonder about the value in calling myself Christian.  Of course, I do it for a number of reasons:  It is my native religious culture, and its symbolism, ritual, lore and language were being poured into my psyche even before I was born.  Through childhood, adolescence and early young adulthood it remained the primary milieu in which my ideas about self, other human beings, and the world took shape.  As I explored other traditions in adulthood, and now well into middle age, despite my willingness and attempts to let it go, Christianity has remained a constant reference point.  These experiences, combined with a growing understanding of how the psyche works in general, and mine in particular, led me to realize that, of all the world’s spiritual traditions, Christianity has the greatest potential to serve as a bridge between the consciousness of my adult personality and the childlike presence deep in my heart.  I came to realize that I just can’t help it that Christ’s love is the spiritual ideal that most inspires me.  I, this adult named “Chuck”, didn’t choose for all of these things to happen, but I do choose to accept them.  I am a Christian because I embrace the reality that the spirit and traditional forms of Christianity permeate my being; it is my religious home.

No matter how much doctrinal testing, prooftexting or Bible thumping anyone might do, nobody can take away my Christian identity, and in that sense I own it.  I also own it to the extent that I accept responsibility for the never-ending process of determining what Christianity means to me, and what it means for me to be a Christian.  In these ways I own Christianity for myself, and in doing so I realize and respect the right of every other Christian to do the same.  But, as noted earlier, I must also admit that even I can’t take my Christian identity away from me.  In many ways it is bigger than me, not controlled or possessed by this personality named “Chuck”, and so I can no more own it than the air I breathe.

Yet I don’t think that is where this issue of ownership stops.  As you might have been expecting from the moment you read the title of this post, if anyone rightfully owns Christianity it must ultimately be God through Christ.  Furthermore, as all creatures are God’s children, I believe we are all heirs and co-trustees of Christianity, just as we are with the air we all share, whether we consider ourselves Christian or not.

And the messenger said to them, `Fear not, for lo, I bring you good news of great joy, that shall be to all the people — because there was born to you to-day a Saviour — who is Christ the Lord….  (Luke 2:10-11, my emphasis)

Emmanuel!

Merry Christmas!

Dec 082010
 

There are lots of different ways of talking about mysticism, but one of the things I haven’t often heard is that it’s about “getting real.”  Do you know what I mean?  Most of the time what we mean by “getting real” and “being mystical” seem contradictory, at least to most people.  Of course, we mystics tend to think and talk a lot about what is really real in a metaphysical sense, but there are a couple of other meanings to the phrase “getting real” that I want to address in this post.

First, getting real often simply means being honest.  If you’re like me, being honest about what is really real means acknowledging that to some degree reality is a mystery our tiny little brains cannot completely solve.   Being honest about this condition also urges some of us to admit that we’d really like to believe we can completely think out a solution to that mystery, or at least have some explanation that sounds good enough to let us get on with living in other ways.   Following it a little deeper than the drive for explanations, our honesty may help us discover that closer to the heart of our being is a drive to know and understand, and that it can be motivated by something stronger than our instincts for comfort, belonging and even survival.  In other words, we can discover in ourselves, or witness in others, that it’s possible to love the truth so passionately that we are willing to sacrifice everything for it.   Of course, getting real in this sense also brings with it the awareness that we can be just as willing to make enormous sacrifices for illusion rather than welcome uncomfortable, painful, or threatening truth.  I suspect the honesty with ourselves that acknowledges both of these drives at once – for truth and for illusion – is intertwined with our honesty about the utter mystery of things.   It seems to be the crux of a cross we can choose to bear or to deny, a cup we can either drink or allow to pass.

Second, as part of the commitment to honesty in getting real, we mystics sometimes find ourselves challenged with accepting that we are really just ordinary human beings.  In all our God-focused weirdness we sometimes lose sight, often willfully, of the fact that we’re wrestling with the same crap as everyone else.  Being mystics certainly does not make us morally superior; we sin, or miss the mark, at least within ourselves, just like everyone else.  Our spiritual practices do not deliver us from that cross we just considered; in many ways it only becomes more present.  We don’t attain some permanent state of angelic consciousness in which we are forever removed from the ordinary psychological and ethical struggles of humanity.  Even after extraordinary events of receiving the Holy Spirit, not unlike Jesus after his baptism, we can find ourselves alone in the desert and repeatedly tempted.  And we all know what it’s like to be face-down in the dirt at midnight, so racked with fear that we figuratively, if not literally, sweat blood as we pray to be spared some great trial, and one that we have almost always brought upon ourselves in some measure.

Aside from all this wrestling, struggling, and sweating blood, I also think getting real for most of us mystics can and should include a good laugh at ourselves and life at least once a day.  Finally, on a more personal note, in this moment it’s important for me to say that I am not just speaking generally about mystics.  When I say “we”,  that starts with me.

Agape

Dec 032010
 

The New Man: An Interpretation of Some Parables and Miracles of Christ

This book has been out of print for some time now, though there are reasonably priced used copies available.  The title and image are linked to free online versions.

Table of Contents

new man

Click here to read the book!

I The Language of Parable
II The Idea of Temptation in the Gospels
III The Marriage at Cana
IV The Idea of Good being above Truth
– The Miracle at the Pool of Bethesda
– The Good Samaritan
– The Laborers in the Vineyard
V The Idea of Righteousness
VI The Idea of Wisdom
VII Simon Peter
VIII The Idea of Prayer
– Introduction
– The Necessity of Persistence in Prayer
– The Necessity of Sincerity in Prayer
– Response to Prayer
– Request in Prayer
IX The Sermon on the Mount
X Faith
XI The Kingdom of Heaven
XII Judas Iscariot
Appendix

If you are a Christian, or any other seeker, who is beginning to look for more than literal meaning to the messages of the New Testament, then you’ll find this book a powerful starting place.  If you’re already well down that path, then you may also find things here that not only resonate with your own thoughts and experiences, but can bring fresh insights and challenge you in new ways.

Dr. Maurice Nicoll provides a profound view of the depths that we might plumb in the parables and messages of Jesus. Nicoll’s concern is not as much with historical or theological views of Jesus, but rather how the Gospel accounts of his life and teachings can show us the way to fulfill our potentials as spiritual beings. In the front of my copy (Fifth Impression), Nicoll clearly states his purpose in “A Note on the Author”:

The intention is to indicate that all teaching such as contained in the Gospels, and many other older and newer teachings, in the short period of known history, is about transcending the violence which characterizes mankind’s present level of being. It affirms the possibility of a development of another level of being surmounting violence.

Nicoll’s poignant interpretations are significantly shaped by his impressive background in medical, psychological and philosophical studies; he was a student of Freud, Jung, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. He believes the central psychological idea of the Gospels is the movement toward rebirth, which is to awaken as a person with a deeper understanding of self and others. Nicoll calls this movement “inner evolution”, and stresses that it must be engaged by the whole person – thoughts, feelings and actions.

One key he offers to using the Gospels for this kind of work is to view the various characters and elements as symbolic of aspects or dynamics of the soul.  For example, he takes up the symbolism of the Pharisee* not so much as a member of an historical group, or even a way of characterizing others in one’s life, but as:

…the Pharisee in oneself, to the insincere person in oneself who, of course, cannot receive any real and genuine psychological teaching without turning it into an occasion for merit, praise and award.

Another significant element of Nicoll’s view is a hierarchical appreciation of the relationship between the human and the divine.  In fact, this seems to be the very basis of his views on prayer.  He posits that prayer is an attempt to communicate upward to heaven, and as such requires persistence to the point of “shameless impudence,” yet, perhaps ironically, with a sincerity born of utter humility: “Unless a man feels he is nothing, prayer is useless….”  Even so, Nicoll makes it sound as though enough pious nagging will force God into serving us as we wish: “Only persistence and intensity can cause the higher level to respond.” (my emphasis)  On face value we might find these views troubling, but it would be extremely unfair to take Nicoll on face value, for he also says:

And let us also remind ourselves that the attainment of this higher level possible for Man is called heaven or the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels and that it is within a man, as a possibility of his own inner evolution or re-birth of himself, and that Man at the level he is on, as an unawakened creature, an unfinished experiment, is called earth. These are the two levels, the higher and the lower, and some very great differences exist between them, as great as the differences between a seed and a flower. Thus communication between these two levels is difficult. The mission of Christ was to bridge, to connect, and to bring into correspondence in himself these two levels, the divine and the human….

Nicoll insists that “by an evolution of the whole psychic man, that is by an evolution of all his mind, his love, his will and his understanding”, the “Man of the Kingdom”, the “New Man” of Christ in us, can be born.  In the end, it seems to me that Nicoll has essentially come around to saying one’s prayers are more likely to receive a positive response as one’s whole being is more attuned to the divine.  In other words, one is more likely to get what is wanted because one is more likely to persistently and sincerely pray for what is most in harmony with the divine.

Some readers will find one of the most challenging themes of the book to be about placing Good above Truth (Nicoll’s capitalizations).  For Nicoll, issues of Truth are inevitably interwoven with differing perspectives of understanding and opinion. His concern is that doctrines and laws too often stand upon that very subjective and all too often self-serving foundation, because the person who has not attained a higher level of Good “can twist the higher Truth to suit his vanity.”  It isn’t that doctrines about Truth are to be ignored, but rather should be seen as stepping stones meant to lead us to higher levels of knowing and being Good.  So it is that even the most hallowed doctrines are misunderstood if they are not considered secondary to Good:

The Mosaic Law, or, at least the ten commandments, are instructions from the side of Truth, as to how to attain a level of Good, where, as commandments, they have no further meaning. But if they are taken as an end, and not as a means of an end, they become stumbling blocks.

Nicoll speaks of this shift of priorities from Truth to Good in the Gospel language of the first becoming last and the last becoming first.  He argues that this reversal is central to the mission of Christ, for it places our understanding of Truth within the context of Good, and not vice versa, which enables us to serve the higher purposes of doctrine, the spirit of the law rather than merely the letter.  This seems to connect well with Jesus’ statement that “all the law and the prophets” hang upon our love for God and our fellow human beings.

Finally, throughout the book it’s clear that Nicoll urges his readers to engage the challenging work of connecting with the higher levels within themselves.  While he speaks much about the honest self-awareness, genuine humility, integrity and commitment such attainment requires from the human being, he doesn’t have much to say about Divine Grace.  This omission is unfortunate because Grace is such a significant element of the Good News.  Perhaps Nicoll would say the capacity and the opportunity to do that work are themselves gifts of Grace.

[* In fairness, it’s worth noting that although the stereotype of the Pharisee is often used disparagingly among Christians, Jesus and the Apostles actually had some good friends and supporters among the Pharisees, such a Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel.]

Nov 232010
 

Happy Thanksgiving!  The following post was originally written in 2008.  I’m putting a revision up on this blog because it continues to capture an important part of the Thanksgiving experience for me.  It also connects with major themes of the previous post.  I hope it connects with something in you.

During the Thanksgiving season, my attention is drawn to contemplating an intimate connection between gratitude and compassion.  I suppose I have always had some awareness that these two sentiments are related; at the very least they can both be easily recognized as aspects of Love.  Still, I don’t always take the time to actually meditate on their relationship.

The inspiration for this meditation developed out of a recurring awareness of how much I experience gratitude in my closest relationships; in my most satisfying moments of serving others’ needs; when I am attentive to the beauty of nature and art; or when my meditations, prayers, and moments of mindfulness are most saturated with awareness of the Divine Presence.  More specifically, this meditation first began with pondering how the sense of pride in feeling worthy of another person’s approval has increasingly given way to feeling grateful for sharing in mutual experiences and expressions of acceptance, admiration, affection, caring, comfort, devotion, empathy, forgiveness, trust, and all the other wonderful flavors of Love.  While I still feel pride, it naturally diminishes in the face of gratitude as I gain appreciation for how little being a participant in Love is dependent upon anything I can do to be worthy of it.

In the big picture, Love has nothing at all to do with whether or not one has earned it or deserves it in any way.  There certainly are aspects of Love that we humans understandably express in greater or lesser measure in response to different characteristics, attitudes and actions; yet Love itself remains ultimately inextinguishable. There is a common adage with which we acknowledge something of this truth: God and our friends love us despite our flaws.

In Western religious language the eternal and all-pervading presence of Love is known as Divine Grace, and many of us consider its realization to be the key to salvation, the deliverance from a life consumed with fear, shame, remorse and self-loathing.  Just as God is understood to be infinite, eternal, and unbounded, so must God’s attributes be limitless.  Love IS.  Love doesn’t depend on us to bring it into existence.  Thus, while we can know Love very directly and immediately, it isn’t something we possess, or something someone else has for us to get.  On the contrary, Love has us. It is living and breathing through us, from and to us, completely encompassing and interpenetrating us, forever without ceasing.

Knowing this, I cannot honestly assume any other position relative to Love than gratitude, and so my angst-ridden struggles to be worthy of being loved increasingly give way to a profound peace.  That peace is grounded in the faith that I think and act more lovingly as the immanence of Love further weans my consciousness from illusions of power and control.  Even so, there is something of me, call it ego if you wish, that resists this surrender to Love.  Every student of his or her own psyche knows this resistance well.

The writings of many saints and sages use words that suggest a kind of internal battle between the forces of resistance and surrender to Love.  Yet it’s somewhat paradoxical, isn’t it, to think of surrender to Love as contributing to a conflict?  In truth the only conflict must be within the part of us that maintains illusions of power and control.  In this one-sided battle we experience the last stand of such illusions in the belief that we must inflict self-derision and self-punishment for our errors and shortcomings.  In short, we mistakenly think we must be less loving with ourselves in order to become more lovable and loving for others.  We thus condemn ourselves to suffering with thoughts and feelings that leave less room for gratitude. So it is that gratitude is a measure of awakening to Love.

Each one of us knows this self-conflict, and here we can begin to discern the connections between gratitude and compassion.  When we deeply appreciate the fact that others are suffering in this same way, compassion is already blooming in our hearts.  The fullness of that compassion grows as the self-conflict of our self-pride/self-derision dissolves in the warm peaceful sea of gratitude for the immanence and transcendence of Love.  The more we know Love within ourselves, including the experience of gratitude for Love, the more freely Love flows through us as compassion for others.  We also find that to express gratitude to another, perhaps when that person feels least deserving of it, can be an act of compassion that awakens her or him to the Divine Grace of Love.  Gratitude is therefore not merely a passive response to Love, but is also realized as an active expression of Love.

It may sound a little trite, but my sincere hope for all of us is that the attitude of gratitude grows in our hearts during this Thanksgiving, and thus Love will graciously shine through us into the hearts of others.

Agape