Jun 042015
 

Recently, I got very ill for a few days. I lost over 6 pounds in 3 days! I was in such pain with fever one night that I was in tears. That has happened once before in my adult life, and the previous experience actually Opnamedatum:  2011-04-29facilitated an epiphany.  In the depths of misery, I realized there are many people in this world who would willingly take some or all of that pain on themselves to give me relief. Just the knowledge that someone would be willing produced a feeling of gratitude that was immensely powerful, and relieving in its own way. I found that this willingness to give up some of one’s own comfort to relieve the suffering of others is part of how I understand the presence of Christ in the souls of all people. I know prayer for others is part of living with awareness of this presence in our own souls. Jesus was constantly uttering prayers for others, and he also knew what it was like to desperately pray to be spared from suffering. So, as I reconnected with these memories in my recent suffering, I thought of the times others have prayed for me, and my gratitude was magnified. When I hear or say, “Christ be with you,” it means, in part, that I hope you know the beauty of both giving and receiving from such willingness.

There is another connection here, which is my awareness of people’s misery in feeling distant from The One we call “God.”  I have felt that misery, and the memory of it is part of whatilluminor drives me to serve those who feel it.  My prayer is that the words I write may in some way comfort others with hope and by knowing that they aren’t alone, at the very least. But it is also my prayer that what I write helps facilitate the realization that, no matter how lost anyone feels, we are all already intimately connected with God right now, no matter what we are thinking, feeling, or doing, no matter how distant God seems.  In this sense, when I say “Christ be with you,” it is an expression of my hope that you know the mystical truth that Christ is with you.

Christ be with you.

Maranatha

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 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

Jun 222012
 

Thanks to my friend, Steve Schrader, for striking the spark that ignited this post.

In a recent blog post at Psychology Today, Carl Routlidge Ph.D.,  spoke of religion as a response to existential threats.  Angst – our deep, pervasive, and often shadowy feeling of dread, doubt, fear, despair, and anxiety in the face of life – is undoubtedly one of the driving factors behind religion.  Christian existentialists have reflected on this truth in great depth, as in Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, to which I must pay homage.  While this post certainly reflects my own experiences and ideas, there is little here that isn’t more fully examined in Tillich’s work.

We have lots of unhealthy ways of responding to angst, and there are examples of such dis-ease in the imbalances of two extreme expressions of our religion.  Look closely and you can find it is the dank and musty secret in the closet behind the veil of a way that seems to be all about doves, rainbows, flowers, and honey.  On the other hand, it is also the searing smokey furnace in the basement underneath the way of hellfire and brimstone, world hating, and self-loathing.   In both cases, the energy of angst is not accepted for what it actually is, and this lack of acceptance amounts to a denial of our fear in the broadest sense.  Some of us even mistakenly speak of fear as the opposite of love, as if it is the very worst evil there is.   Its energy is therefore rerouted into attitudes that not only feel safer to us and others, but also seem to facilitate actually doing something in response to the supposed causes of our more specific fears.  For some of us, it is the barely bridled anger of a militant moralism obsessed with the dichotomy of sin and purity, and for others it is the sticky, saccharine sweet, whitewash of escapist optimism.  Some of us even jump back and forth from one of these extremes to the other.  To some extent, we must fall back on such defensive patterns in order to survive; it is the fight-or-flight response at the level of being itself.  Without it, we would too often be paralyzed in our angst.  We wouldn’t really live at all.

But is this all there is to religion?  Not according to those who have jesus-walking-on-water-benjamin-mcpherson[1rev]knowingly walked on the stormy waters of their own angst.  Accepting angst as something other than an evil to be vanquished is a vital part of an authentic faith.  This may be one of the deeper meanings in our language about fearing God.  According to Proverbs, that fear is intimately linked with wisdom, and in Psalms with humility and the desire for forgiveness and renewal.  As with existential philosophers and therapists, our great prophets, preachers and saints consistently tell us that there is something psychologically and spiritually healthy about standing naked before all the dark frightening aspects and possibilities of our existence – aloneness, uncertainty, impermanence, and pain.

Any genuine path of mysticism must include a deeper awareness, acceptance, and integration of these aspects of our being.  We may be drawn to mysticism as a way that seems to offer the ultimate escape from them but, if we are genuinely devoted to the fullest possible communion with Truth and Love, we cannot avoid them.  This inevitability is profoundly explored in the writings of St. John of the Cross, Mother Theresa, Soren Kierkegaard, and Paul Tillich among many others.  It can even be heard when Jesus describes the Way of the Cross:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? Mark 8:31-37

His own personal angst is more dramatically recorded in his experience in the garden of Gethsemane:

Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.”He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed.  He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me.”

 

He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father!  If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me.  Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”

Jesus in Gethsemane

Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep.  He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation.  For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!”  Matthew 26:36-41

 

Part of the Good News is that it’s possible to discover something wonderful on the other side of all that darkness.  There is indeed a resurrection after the psychological crucifixion of accepting and learning to live with our anguish, distress, and crushing grief.   That resurrection isn’t the end of suffering; even after Jesus’ resurrection his body was still wounded caravaggio-thomasand still knew hunger.  Rather, we awaken to a clearer realization of the context of that suffering and the meaning we can give to it; in short, we can have life more abundantly, just as Jesus wished for us.  Accepting existence in its wholeness, and thus living life in our own wholeness, means no longer having to be constantly either at war with or trying to run away from ourselves, others, the world, or reality itself.  It bestows a peace that transcends the conflicts of our black-and-white either/or thinking without merely hiding them behind angelic fantasies.  With that peace comes awareness of our freedom to simply be; to live authentically; to try and to fail; to fall and get back up; to do something other than punish ourselves in pursuit of illusory perfection; to be co-creators of the richest kinds of beauty; and to know love in all its colors, flavors, scents, sounds, and textures, even when it is unrequited, and even where we once might have found nothing but indifference, fear, or hate.

Some of us also come to see this dynamic of psychological crucifixion and rebirth as only one example of a truly cosmic principle and pattern.  Our mystical experience gives us greater hope, if not genuine certainty, that there is much more to our existence than accidental interactions of energy occasionally coalescing in the form of a human brain destined for cellular decay.  By the same token, however, it can make the possibility of such annihilation fade to near insignificance compared to the awesome fact that there is indeed, right here and now, a virtually infinite amount of something rather than nothing, and that we are free to do with this miracle as we will!

Oh God, thank you just for this much!  Help us embrace our freedom in wholeness. Amen.

Agape

Apr 112012
 

I confess that I have often been a foolishly proud mystic.  In the wizardry of my physical and intellectual prime, I believed that through my studies of psychology and philosophy, through my spiritual practices, and aided by the grace of God, I had left behind many ordinary human troubles, and so much of my own past.  I would read these words of Paul and think I knew exactly where he was coming from because I believed I had already come and gone from there too:

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  1 Corinthians 13:11

And I must have put on a pretty convincing act!  I have received lots of praise for my seeming equanimity, wisdom, integrity, and self-confidence mixed with humility.  It’s not that there isn’t any truth to those appearances, but rather that there has certainly been more of a façade than I’ve been willing to admit to myself, let alone to others.  Even so, I’m quite sure I have often been more transparent to others than I realized, and that they knew I wasn’t as genuinely comfortable in my own skin as I wanted to seem.

Some of you, dear readers, will know what I mean when I say how very tired I am of finding myself trapped in old patterns of thought, feeling and behavior. If it hasn’t yet happened, the time may come when you know what it is like to look in the mirror and see a wounded, bewildered, incompetent, and insecure little child looking back at you through weary eyes under a furrowed and wrinkling brow.  At the relative midpoint of 50 years, I am awestruck by my own inability to be the “grown-up” I have wanted to be.  In fact, it often seems that I don’t manage life as well as I used to do, or as well as I thought I did, and so it is that these other words from Paul frequently ring in my ears:

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Romans 7:18b-19

In my darkest moments it has been easy to fall into the despair and nihilism voiced by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. … And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.  Ecclesiastes 1:2, 17-18

I prefer the older translations’ use of the word “vanity” to the “meaninglessness” in some newer translations.  “Vanity” better communicates the intellectual and moral hubris that the author of Ecclesiastes perceives in himself.   This great lover of wisdom, traditionally held to be King Solomon, understands that everything he has done in the name of wisdom has delivered him to this very moment of realizing just how unwise he really is, and how much suffering he has generated in his conceit.

It can be so tempting to see this unmasking as a regression, a failing and falling back from previous excellence, or a “curse” of the mind and ego-defenses not being quite as sharp as they once were.  Yet I sense that there is more to this process than the inevitable fall of a house of cards.  It feels providential, and so the words of King Hezekiah seem fitting:

But what can I say?   He [God] has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul.  Isaiah 38:15

It is therefore not only conceit that has brought me to such moments, for I see that I have actually been asking for it in countless ways; “asking for it” in the colloquial sense of ignorantly inviting the natural consequences of my actions, but also asking for it in a very literal sense.  After all, seeking wisdom and understanding through meditation and prayer must mean that my own foolishness and ignorance will increasingly be revealed, at least to me.  Yet I don’t think it is only me that witnesses this baring of my soul, because as I become less able to keep up the old façade it more easily cracks and crumbles before others.   And so, as with King Hezekiah, the public embarrassment and private shame of my ego is a constant prodding toward a more genuine humility.

One of the interesting things about this humbling, if not humiliation, is that, despite all the fatigue, grief, and disappointment, it brings a great sense of gratitude and relief.   It is impossible for me to be completely honest with myself about my shortcomings without also seeing how fortunate I am to have not made even more suffering for myself and others.   I can’t begin to count the number of serious traumas and tragedies that have been narrowly missed, and I am so thankful for this with regard to others, especially those most dear to me. That relief is amplified by the freedom in not feeling so compelled to keep up the old façade.

While I often sense a divine grace in this good fortune, as a mystic I am also graced with having come to know that God holds none of my weakness and folly against me.   Without merit, I have been immersed in a baptism of Light and experienced communion with the One Love in which we all live and move and have our being.  To continue in the words of King Hezekiah:

Lord, by such things people live; and my spirit finds life in them too.  You restored me to health and let me live.  Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish.  In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back. Isaiah 38:16-17

My sins may not yet be finally behind my back, but I know that the memory of them offers not only pain, but also a reminder that my own wisdom and understanding, no matter how inspired, will never be perfect as I have at times secretly fantasized.  Perhaps more importantly, such self-awareness stimulates my compassion for those who struggle in similar ways.

God, please help me proceed in humble gratitude and continue leaning on faith, hope and, above all, Love. Amen.

Agape

 

 

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.

Apr 062011
 

In part 2, we considered the possibility that Satan – the voice of selfishness and the temptation to take the east way out – led Jesus to confront his own sense of existential emptiness and spiritual hunger.  In doing so, it was suggested that Jesus experienced compassion for all others who suffer not only with physical hunger but with these deeper issues, and that he also realized such challenges are not best answered through temporary acquisitions the way physical hunger is by physical food. To attempt satisfying our spiritual needs in such ways would be to put economic power above faith.   It was further suggested that Jesus realized our emptiness and spiritual hunger are not wrongs to be righted, not lackings to be eliminated, but are instead natural symptoms of our freedom and the will to live it.  There is liberation in welcoming and embracing them.

For the second and third temptations, I will offer an expanded hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and Satan.

The Second Temptation

The Adversary’s next pitch, this time for political power, amounts to something like this:

Okay, Jesus, you’ve realized your freedom and your will to do something meaningful with it.  You care deeply about all of humanity, and you realize economic power isn’t the ultimate answer.  After all, a full belly doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, does it?  So think about this:  You could fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah and rule all the nations of this world, and in doing so you could command things to be whatever you wish.  You could end all wars, stop oppression of the weak and the righteous, put an end to hunger for everyone, and make the world a utopia.  Just imagine!  The New Jerusalem!  Heaven on earth!  Now that’s something the Son of God should do, right?

This proposition has got to sound pretty good to Jesus, and we can imagine it would be an even bigger temptation than pursuing economic power alone.  But then Jesus hears something to this effect:

Of course, the rub is that all these ignorant human beings were created with free will, which means not everyone is going to want to get on board with your plans.  Unless you want rebels and insurgents undermining everything you do, you’re going to have to make everyone want to get on board.  And, to be blunt, the only way that’s going to happen is if you acknowledge the fact that it’s my spirit running the show down here.  I mean, Jesus, just look around!  Distrust, selfishness, temptation, manipulation, violence – these are things that really move people!  Embrace these principles and, with your powers, you’ll have the whole world eating out of your hand, and the rebels and insurgents be damned! Literally! Hahahahahaha!

Jesus doesn’t fall for it.  Tyranny isn’t the way to peace and love, and so  he responds:

It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

Jesus has realized the wisdom that a 20th century bard would express in this way:

There is no political solution to our troubled evolution. Have no faith in constitution. There is no bloody revolution. We are spirits in the material world.  (“Spirits in the Material World”, by the Police, written by Sting)

The Third Temptation

The voice of Satan doesn’t miss a beat:

Okay, okay, so it’s a religious solution you are here to provide. I can dig it!  So come with me.

Whether in a vision or in actuality, Jesus finds himself atop the temple in Jerusalem.

Look at all those people down there, thirsty for God’s grace,  hoping and praying for miracles, and making sacrifices because they believe they have to appease a jealous, angry, vengeful Father.  And no wonder!  This living hell is a long way from the Garden of Eden, and there isn’t a soul down there who doesn’t know guilt and shame.  I’ve got to hand it to you – you’re right that no amount of money and no king is going to cure those diseases.  What people need is to actually see that God really is with them right now, loving them just as they are, and that they can welcome that love and let it live through them. But what is it going to take to wake them up, Jesus?  If preaching, prophecy and rituals were enough, then things clearly wouldn’t be in such a mess, would they?

No.  What they need is just what they are praying for – a miraculous sign that makes it obvious God is among them.  If you could pull off a great miracle like that, one that would prove beyond any doubt you are the Son of God, then surely everyone will listen to you.  They’ll know how divine you are and that you speak the truth.  All believers will recognize you as the Great Shepherd, and you’ll have the kind of power to change lives that priests and preachers only dream about or pretend to have.  You could show everyone the way to peace and harmony, and they will listen because they will have seen for themselves that you and your Father are one.

Nothing would prove who you are and open the way for the one true religion better than beating death itself!  Jump off of here and let what is written in the scriptures be fulfilled. Let the angels do their duty and catch you in front of all these witnesses!  Go on! It will be a glorious and awe-inspiring event that all of humanity will remember for all time!

Then, slowly and softly, almost in a whisper, the Accuser adds:

And, if you’re not the Son of God…? Well, then you’ll die quickly in a supreme leap of faith and be freed from all of this mess anyway.

So, what do you say?

Jesus answers:

The Scriptures also say, “You must not test the Lord your God.”

This statement may seem fairly simple, but it communicates more than may be apparent at first glance.   Let’s not forget that a temptation is not tempting if one does not feel tempted.  So how is it that Jesus feels tempted?  If, as so many in the Church believe, Jesus knows beyond any doubt he is the one and only incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, if he knows he is possessed with the most miraculous of divine powers, if he knows his path is to offer himself as the Paschal Lamb for all of humanity, then wouldn’t he know that he would survive to complete his mission?  If all of that were true, then how would throwing himself off the temple be a temptation to him and a testing of God?  This act would be tempting to Jesus because Jesus himself is very aware of his humanness and uncertain of the extent to which he is specially divine.  The voice of temptation keeps digging at him, “If you are the Son of God….”  It would be a test of God to prove, once and for all, who Jesus is, and perhaps not only to prove it to everyone else, but also to Jesus himself.    If this is not Jesus’ experience, then there would be little to no temptation or test of God in this moment atop the temple.  In the end, it seems Jesus decides to heed the laws of nature, gravity in this case, and trust God will work through him in other ways.

But what if this line of reasoning is off target and Jesus is quite certain the angels would catch him?  Why wouldn’t he add that miracle to the list of others he’s going to accomplish?  Perhaps Jesus knows such an act would only reinforce the perception that God is most with those who are born special rather than with everyone, including the poorest, the meekest, the sickest, the least of humanity.  Maybe he knows it would only make him seem more an object of worship than a teacher to emulate.  Maybe he knows that kind of confusion is already destined to become a bigger distraction from his message than he would prefer.  Perhaps he knows that even people who might witness such a miracle wouldn’t believe it, and that some of those who at first believed would in time doubt their own experience.  Maybe he knows it would very soon become another point of religious argument and division rather than one of faith and kinship.  It seems reasonable that Jesus could have foreseen all these things and, whether or not it would be a test of God, the temptation to prove God’s love through some grand miraculous event just will not send the messages he wants to send.  In the end, it seems Jesus finds the promise of religious power to also be more of a distraction than an aid to helping people welcome and live with Divine peace and love.

Mar 202011
 

The First Temptation

The first temptation centers on Jesus’ hunger, and at the very least it is the physical hunger he feels due to his fasting. Consider that fasting is a spiritual discipline, a practice taken on in order to cleanse and strengthen one’s soul, and we have a better idea of why the Spirit led him into the wilderness.  Anyone who has taken up such a practice knows the inner voice that offers excuses to take the easy way out, to give in to our desires for immediate gratification and temporary comforts rather than persevere in our devotion to greater principles.  That’s the first role in which the character of Satan makes his appearance, but what could Jesus possibly want that would give Satan an avenue to tempt him this way?  Is it merely physical hunger? As we saw in part 1, it’s not too hard to imagine that Jesus is concerned about the risks he knows await him if he follows through with challenging the authority of religious, political and economic powers to come between us and God’s peace.  So it is that I think his encounter with hunger leads Jesus to specifically face the challenges of the economic powers in his own psyche.

In both societal and personal terms, economic powers are concerned with acquiring wealth not merely for the basic needs and comforts of wellbeing, but for protecting oneself and one’s acquisitions, for the power to help and influence others, and also for indulgence in luxuries.  In his own hunger, Jesus must sympathize with the hunger of others.  It surely occurs to him that he can turn his energies, whether miraculous or not, to the development of economic power, all with the very noble intention of improving the lives of the poor and hungry.  Such a temptation would likely be amplified by knowing that his life and the lives of his loved ones can be made much more comfortable by taking a nice percentage all to themselves.  Perhaps in these thoughts he is not unlike many of us who aspire to make a living through philanthropy and humanitarian service.  Yet Jesus holds fast, reminding himself that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” After all, it was not in a shower of coins that God’s love descended upon him after baptism, but as a dove of  spiritual peace.

None of this is to say that economic power is in itself evil, or that we must all follow a path of poverty like Jesus, although arguments have sometimes been made for both ideas.  To me it seems a simple fact that we all need and want things economic power enables us to more easily acquire, while most of us would also agree that we can pursue such things to excess, and that to do so usually, if not always, becomes destructive in some way.  Despite the universal nature of such temptations, in the most immediate sense we are each alone in feeling them, alone in deciding how we will respond, and alone in our accountability for our decisions.  This does not mean that no empathy, understanding or support is available from anybody else, but simply that nobody else can step into our skin, into our souls, to directly encounter and manage what we’re facing.  The desire to escape the reality of that aloneness and responsibility is often what fuels a pursuit for physical and emotional pleasures to excess and even addiction.  Thus we see that vices of economic power have at their root an anxious sense of inadequacy, an existential emptiness, and an often unacknowledged spiritual hunger, all of which we try to soothe with things like drugs, food, possessions, and experiences of all sorts, including personal relationships and the acquiring of knowledge.

So, through the discipline of fasting alone in the wilderness, Jesus has put himself on a collision course with an opportunity to realize the significance of emptiness.  When it arrives in full force, his key realization is that the greater issue is not his physical hunger, which could easily be satisfied with a piece of bread, but rather it is a deeper hunger that we all share and that no amount of “bread”, literally or figuratively, can ever satisfy.  But what could possibly satisfy such an emptiness and hunger?

In some versions of the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  This statement is a more complete reference to  Deuteronomy 8:3, which is found in the context of an admonishment to live according to the commandments of the Torah.  So a common interpretation of Jesus’ words is simply as a declaration of the importance of scripture, but there is more depth available to us.  Deuteronomy 8:3 draws a direct connection between the word of God and manna, which by the time of Jesus had long been used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment received through God’s grace.  This latter inference is most consistent with one of the central teachings of Jesus upon his return to civilization, which is essentially that the spirit of the law supersedes the letter.  In short, God’s love is our most essential spiritual nourishment.

It’s easy enough to give a religiously correct answer like “God”, or something with even broader appeal like “love”.  But if that’s all there is to it then there should be a lot less trouble in our world with angst about our emptiness and spiritual hunger and with the economic vices such angst can breed.  It seems clear that a faith based solely on doctrinal assertions isn’t enough, and here is where we find more relevance to the practice of mysticism.  While they have many differences, one thing agreed upon by existential therapies and the mystical traditions of many religions is that emptiness and spiritual hunger are facts of our being we all share, and they cannot be eliminated through any of the usual means of seeking security and comfort.  From this point, a further agreement is that, rather than trying to fill our emptiness and spiritual hunger, we must somehow accept them and come to some kind of peace with them.  By being still in meditation and mindfulness with our perceived lacking, and giving up the presumption that we can correct it, even giving up the idea that it is a wrong that needs to be corrected, we can begin to realize our emptiness and hunger not so much as a lacking, but as an openness to the countless possibilities of a wonderful mystery in which we all share.  The emptiness can thus be welcomed as our freedom, our liberation, and the hunger as our will to live it.  In learning to love our emptiness and hunger in this way, we find ourselves prepared to receive the contemplative realization of a more profound unity with the Transcendent Mystery we Christians call “God”, and this unity is Light, Life and Love itself.  The emptiness is realized as fullness.

We’ll examine the second and third temptations of Jesus in part 3.

Mar 152011
 

As often happens, another chain of synchronicities has brought a theme to the forefront.   The comments of friends and acquaintances, and my own recent experiences (including an Ignatian-type exercise related to the beginning of Lent) have highlighted the issue of aloneness for those who intend to follow a mystical path.  Over the coming weeks, I will address this theme in the context of Jesus’ own experiences of aloneness.

For just a few moments, imagine yourself as Jesus, being baptized in the Jordan by the charismatic preacher of repentance and righteousness, your cousin, John.  The water flows over you, and as you lift your eyes up to the sky you receive the Holy Spirit’s message that you are God’s beloved child.   In that moment you know you have a special mission to teach about rebirth to the peace of God’s infinite love, and to do so at all costs.  Somewhere deep inside you sense just how radical and threatening that mission will be to the powers of this world – political, religious, economic – and, at the base of it all, to the powers of the vices in the human psyche.  You have seen for yourself what such powers have done with people who were too radical, and what the final costs will likely be for you.

Retreating to Encounter Self

Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit would lead you directly out into the wilderness to fast, meditate, and pray about this calling?  A thoughtful and cautious person might think: “Am I really up to this?  Do I really have what it takes?  I had better take some time to double-check myself, my motives, intentions, and desires, before I try to take on that kind of responsibility.”  I believe Jesus probably had such thoughts, that he walked off into the wilderness not only knowing he would be tempted, but to actually discover and deal with his temptations, allowing God’s prosecutor to put him on trial; in essence, Jesus was putting himself on trial.

Many of us have heard sermons making it seem as though Satan’s temptations were little more than formal confirmations of Jesus’ divine wisdom and commitment to his mission as the perfect Lamb of Atonement.  It is as if there were no true temptations, just staged opportunities for a barely human Jesus to prove a rebellious Satan’s foolishness.  Well, I don’t buy it.  Unless Satan is less insightful than the average con artist, he wouldn’t waste his time offering temptations that weren’t really temptations at all.  I see Jesus’ experience as parallel to the trials God allowed Satan to inflict upon Job, which were a real test of Job’s faith in the justice, mercy and love of God, a real test of his own commitment to actually hold fast to them even when it seemed God was being anything but just, merciful and loving.  As with Job, Satan’s job is to test Jesus where he is most vulnerable and, being a different man with a different life, he is tested in different ways.

So it is that by reflecting on the temptations Jesus faced alone in the wilderness, we get a deeper look into the psyche of a real human being, one with whom we can relate and feel a real sense of kinship and togetherness.  I believe that in doing so we can find his example far more inspiring and encouraging than that of a man’s body merely being used by the Creator like a sock puppet.  In part 2, we’ll consider the first temptation from this perspective.

Feb 062011
 

jesus-sweating-blood-in-gethsemaneThis is a perennial topic in spirituality, and Christian devotion is certainly no exception. We have our ascetics who have glorified the value of suffering to the point of practicing the most extreme forms of mortification.  We’ve had clergy and elders who have directed the faithful to always quietly submit to whatever abuses, cruelties or injustices they may have suffered as trials of faith.  I’ve heard of Inquisitors who went into raptures of ecstasy at hearing people cry out to God as they burned at the stake.  Mother Teresa allegedly did not allow patients in her care to receive pain medication because she believed it was so important for people to suffer with Christ.

As mystics we seek to know union with God, and to live in accord with our faith in and knowledge of that union. How does suffering, our own and that of others, fit into this context?

The Roots of Suffering

Let’s avoid the temptation to slip into distraction with ontological tail-chasing about why suffering exists at all.  My preference is to begin by simply accepting the existential reality, and from that place begin considering what meaning it has for me.  And, before going further, it may be helpful to note that there are two general classes of suffering:  The first is the basic experience of physical and emotional pain immediately resulting from loss, injury or disease,  and the second is the additional suffering we create for ourselves with our mental responses to the fact or possibility of such things.  While this post has relevance to the first class of suffering, it is actually the second class that is of primary concern.  That sort of suffering is something we have more opportunity to prevent or transform, and not only for our own benefit but also because it so often spills over into the lives of others.

It first occurs to me that suffering reveals our illusions, or at least our attachments to them.  It is actually our resistance to accepting illusions for what they are that causes so much of our distress and dis-ease in life.  Sometimes this happens when we get what we thought we wanted, only to find the reality is significantly different from our dreams.  Sometimes it happens because of the experience of impermanence and our vain struggles to preserve what was.

“Attachment” and “impermanence” seem to be key words here.  It’s simple enough to see how our desires to keep and hold what pleases us must always be thwarted by the reality of impermanence here in this world.  A deeper truth of this is that we tend to define ourselves through our attachments, though we might not realize it, either on the whole or with specifics.   But anyone who has experienced a significant loss – like the death of a loved one, the breakup of an intimate relationship, the loss of a career, an ability, a reputation, a home, or even membership in some group – to some degree knows that anxious sense of having lost something of the self.  Sometimes in these situations we even ask ourselves, “Who am I now?”

So we can see how in the depths of such suffering one often, if not always, perceives a blow to one’s own self-concept, and there is little to nothing we want to protect and preserve more than the self-concept; it is simply the survival instinct, if nothing else.  The truth, however, is that the personal self is temporary.  It is always changing and, despite a more or less constant sense of a “me”, that “me” is obviously never precisely what it was a little while ago.  It is memories of “me” that largely form the collage each of us habitually relies upon for a self-concept, the patchwork emblem we have of the present “me”.  So at best the self-concept is a fluid theory or working hypothesis of who and what we have been and are becoming in this world.  At worst it is an illusion we mistake for a concrete actuality, the psychological equivalent of an idolized statue standing on fragile clay feet, destined to eventually be broken.

The Transformation of Suffering

I think this issue is close to the very core of the mystical impulse.  On the one hand suffering urges us to desire the eternal, to identify with it no matter how paradoxical that may seem.  On the other hand we are drawn to the fleeting unique beauty of impermanent things.  Is there an unresolvable opposition here that begs us to abandon one for the other?  There are many ways we can respond to this juxtaposition, but it seems the general tone of Christian mysticism is to focus on Love.  For us, the value of suffering can begin to be found in its revelation of our illusory attachments and reminding us of our obsession with protecting and preserving the self-concept.  We are thus provided the opportunity to transform temporal suffering from something to be fled at all costs into a catalyst for more fully knowing eternal Love.

Among other ways, people have tried to define Love as the very principle of union itself, the reintegrating power that resolves oppositions and dissolves separation into oneness.  However, when two or more join in love, another one often arises from them.  So it is with all forms of Love as we know it, and so it is that the principle of union is never the last word on the meaning of Love.  Love transcends the duality of separation, union, and the birth of the new.  It is in Love that we know and rejoice in both the eternal, transcendent mystery of non-duality and the temporal ever-becoming, ever-passing wonder of the relative world.

So, for Christian mystics, what are the implications about the suffering of others?  First and foremost it is a reminder of our shared humanity, and that awareness combined with the focus on Love naturally delivers us to compassion, kindness and service.  Yet, as the human heart and mind strive to express something of Love, it is often said that one can only love another to the extent that he or she loves self.  It’s easy to get the idea that one must place self-love first and foremost on some sort of love agenda, as if we would otherwise have less Love to offer others. On the other hand, much has also been said about forgetting self in the love of others, as though time spent in loving self always robs others of Love. But these distinctions reveal our fear that there is some absolute limit to our ability to express Love, if not a limitation in Love itself; it is an assumed lacking that reduces infinite Love to a temporal commodity rather than an eternal good.  Notions such as these are veils on Love’s transcendence of all dualities, for genuine love of self and genuine love of others each have the effect of magnifying the other, despite the suffering that may be intertwined with them.  Like mirrors facing one another, notions of giver and receiver evaporate into the infinite depths of their shared reflection. And so it is that in expressing compassion and kindness in response to the suffering of others, we become a unique temporal flowering of the transcendence of eternal Love; we actually participate in the mystery of the Incarnation, and thus, in the language of our tradition, shine as the light of Christ in this world.