There are some things you just can’t ignore. Last week I was driving to Vespers at the Monastery of the Risen Christ, and I was late, a typical state of being for me. You might think we late types stroll along with great aplomb, but usually, I worry and try to mentally hurl myself through time and space to somehow arrive earlier. Surprisingly, this approach has not actually worked yet, despite trying so hard I feel an internal pushing force.
As I neared the monastery, a group of vultures caught my attention and drew my eye to the meadow, at which point I had to stop the car in the middle of the empty road: a bald eagle flew low above the grass, quite close by, with prey in his talons.
In thirteen years, I’ve never seen a bald eagle on the Central Coast of California, and had I been on time, I’d have missed it. I know just enough about Native American spirituality to know that if you have the good fortune to receive a message from Eagle, the Divine really wants to get your attention. This message was unmistakable: I’m here.
I’m here when you’re running late and when you’re on time, when you’re messing up and when you’re succeeding. You can’t actually screw this up because I’m here regardless, and you can’t fix it for the same reason—I’m here so there’s nothing to fix.
There is perhaps no message I’ve resisted more strongly until now. How, you may ask, as I have, can this be true for the victim of a drive-by shooting or children caught in a war zone? I have no answer for that, and at the same time, this experience gave me a deep certainty that this here-ness is true.
It keeps popping up this week, or maybe more accurately breaking through. As I try to finish this presentation at work and everything else slips farther and farther behind: I’m here. As I fail again and again to live from my heart: I’m here. As I notice the flowers on the trees: I’m here. I’m here with you and inside you and with and inside everything else. I’m here.
Friendship is a curious and wonderful thing. I spent last weekend with college friends whom I’ve now known for more than half my life, twenty-three years to be exact.
I find our friendship remarkable because we remained connected through a span of time in which human beings—at least in the western world—behave in ways that are designed to alienate people. I don’t mean that we were bad people, just that we were in our twenties, a period when we struggle so hard to establish an identity that we can feel threatened by others’ attempts to do the same. Now we can joke about our differences, but there was a time when we—or at least I—took those aspects of our personalities so seriously that we could have allowed them to pull us apart.
And that would have been a great loss because I can confess the important things to these friends, from jealousy toward women who can wear cute, flat, bad-for-your-feet sandals to my deepest heartbreaks. These are generous, funny, smart women, and we can laugh or be silent together, drink good wine or eat onion rings with equal giddiness.
These two know me at so many levels. They know I didn’t learn how to clean a toilet until my junior year of college. They know I will always be the last one ready to go. They have listened with great love and patience to my self-doubts and my fears that the world was falling apart. They have held the preciousness of my self when I couldn’t and reflected it back to me until I could find it again. They have done this not once but many times.
One of my favorite hymns, The Servant Song, says, “I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.” I’m not sure that we can offer one another anything more essential than sharing our joys and sorrows. I know that Heidi and Molly will do exactly that for me and that we will be together until the end of our journeys, and that is a tremendous gift. I love you both. Thank you.
This week may have been about not losing sight of the infinite, which of course I learned by losing sight of it in many small ways. Like eating three—OK four, but they were small—croissants in one day, panicking over approaching work deadlines, or falling back into my default position of resisting doing things such as the dishes or writing this blog. But somewhere in the midst of that, I heard for the first time the phrase, “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”
Of course I’ve known those words most of my life, but I’d never heard them, especially that word “surpasses.” I’d always heard, “There’s this state out there that you’re supposed to achieve that you don’t understand yet because you’re not advanced enough, pure enough, whatever you’re supposed to be enough.” Turns out this is not what “surpasses” means. Plus there’s that pesky little “all” in there.
This peace is not understandable ever, no matter how smart you are or how holy you are; your mind cannot grasp it. I don’t know about your mind, but mine is not fond of admitting the existence of things outside its purview.
Jim Finley says something along the lines of, we think there’s a corner to turn and then we’ll be able to grasp all this, but there isn’t. That’s the story our mind tells, but as Finley points out, there’s nowhere to get to because “all this” is infinite.
On first blush, I am not a fan of this situation because I really want to get to that un-gettable place. I want to believe that at some point in my life I will have better time management skills, and that will make it all OK. But on second glance, there’s a spaciousness that opens up when I admit the possibility that, as William Stafford says, “there will come a time when all we have said and all we have hoped will be all right.” That time is any moment we choose to accept existence, including ourselves, as it is.
Note: The Stafford quote is from the poem “A Message from the Wanderer.” “The peace that surpasses all understanding” is from Philippians 4:7.
Here is what I learned last week: we absolutely must let God love us because it is the only way to help others see that God loves them. Or if you are not into God, we must allow ourselves to experience that the core of our being is divine—essential, complete, creative, unconditional, fully connected—love.
I’m not sure we’re here for much else than to realize that and practice it so that we can help others realize and practice it. I learned this most recently at the Living School for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, though I suspect we spend our lives learning it.
Our group of forty-five was invited to walk around imagining the words “Holy to God” were marked on our foreheads and to read those words on everyone else’s forehead. Then we formed a circle and simply looked each other in the eyes while listening to a song with the lyrics, “Everywhere you turn, you see the face of God.” People were weeping. I think they were weeping because it is true.
Then we left the circle, and I started worrying about who I would eat dinner with and whether I would be left all alone while everyone else went out and had a fabulous time together. A few minutes later, someone who I hadn’t connected with in the circle walked past me and stopped and saw God in me, and on the inside, I ran and hid. At that moment, I wasn’t capable of accepting what she saw.
I’ve always thought all the unworthiness stories I carry around inside contributed to self-improvement, but they are just another form of ego. They prevent us from seeing ourselves, and therefore others, as the love that we are.
Living in and from this love nature is obviously not going to be easy on the day the person in front of you at the grocery store is paying his bill in unrolled pennies and your spouse calls to tell you the washing machine broke and flooded all over your new wood floors—or even on a typical day at work, not to mention in a war zone. I couldn’t even hold onto it while staying at a nice hotel and having all my meals prepared for me. But that’s why we practice.
I had a bad case of the wanting-to-be-importants earlier this week. For me, this generally takes the form of wishing that I had achieved something so impressive that the whole world—or at least everyone I was ever likely to meet—knew of my accomplishments, was favorably impressed by them, and considered me in the top 100 or so human beings of all time. I am not exaggerating.
This model presents a few logical and operational problems. For example, this definition would yield a thousand or two important people out of seven billion. Given that every one of those seven billion people can probably think of at least one person who is personally important to them, the math is a little off. Not to mention that it’s pretty rare to find something that the whole world agrees is a worthwhile accomplishment.
The real danger, though, is not logistical but spiritual because this world of importance is not only all about me but the me it’s about is an external-to-me creation. It’s like seeking to save myself through universal applause.
Salvation has already been taken care of, not because I am Christian but because I exist. As Richard Rohr says, “Incarnation is already redemption….The Earth is good” (from “The Eternal Christ in the Cosmic Story,” an interview with the National Catholic Reporter). That doesn’t mean we don’t do terrible things to each other and to the Earth, but we do them precisely when we are trying to create some version of ourselves rather than get in touch with the reality of ourselves, which is God.
We say this in a lot of different ways in a lot of different faith traditions. It’s impossible to articulate because it’s impossible to say what God is. It doesn’t mean that you or I created the universe single-handedly, which tends to be how we think of God. For me, right now, it means something like this: the very atoms of the universe—including our atoms—are made of God-stuff, and there is God-spirit in each of us connecting us to each other and all of creation and God. And if that doesn’t make us important, nothing is likely to.
When we returned to the vanpool stop, a.k.a. the Walmart parking lot, one evening this week, two baby and two adult birds—a kind I’d never seen before—appeared to be searching for each other with no success even though they were only a few feet from each other.
The babies were tiny, still fluffy, and looking as if they shouldn’t have been out of the nest. They had somehow gotten onto the pavement while the adults were up on the grass in one of those small islands of partially neglected nature that we interestingly dot our parking lots with. The babies were so small they couldn’t get from the pavement to the grass because the curb was taller than they were, maybe three or four inches, no taller than my shoe.
The adults appeared to be calling and looking for the babies but never in the right direction. It’s possible the adults and babies literally couldn’t hear each other because of the noise from the nearby highway. I wanted to show the adults how to search visually for the babies, how to methodically cross and recross a space the way humans do. I wanted to lift the babies up onto the grass that they kept trying to look over the impossibly high curb to see.
But I know just enough about nature to know there was no way to help. Touching the babies would make them smell like human, and their parents might reject them, never mind the perhaps impossible task of catching them. The parents would probably not interpret my attempts to guide their search as anything other than a threat. In reality, I didn’t even know whether they were really lost or this was just part of how these baby birds grow up, a type of being pushed out of the nest.
I think this is so often true, that there’s nothing we can actually do to change the course of things unfolding in this existence, though we’re trained to think we can. I don’t mean that we never affect each other or that one person’s generosity can’t completely change the course of another’s life. Those things happen all the time, but this helplessness is also true, and perhaps at least as often. Maybe the only thing we can do when we find ourselves next to an impossibly high curb or watching a loved one search for something we are powerless to provide is remember that everything we are looking for is only three feet away.
As William Stafford says in the final stanza of the poem “Afterwards,”
Maybe people have to go in and out of shadows
till they learn that floating, that immensity
waiting to receive whatever arrives with trust.
Maybe somebody has to explore what happens
when one of us wanders over near the edge
and falls for awhile. Maybe it was your turn.
Yesterday, I started with a visit to the dentist and wrapped up the evening listening to a concert of Hungarian hammered dulcimer and vocals. I never would have believed beforehand that I’d find the same thing at both events.
My general attitude toward getting my teeth cleaned is resentment. Surprisingly, thinking that I shouldn’t have to waste my time in the dentist’s chair does not prevent plaque and tartar from growing in my mouth. My hygienist is extremely conscientious and always tells me places of concern to brush or floss more thoroughly, which I rarely appreciate because I don’t want to spend any more time on the nightly routine than I already do.
Yesterday I was lying there with my mouth open in my usual resentful way thinking that I would hate to spend the day looking at other people’s mouths when it occurred to me what a tremendous gift my hygienist was giving me. It is utterly amazing that someone is willing to stick her fingers in my mouth and scrape plaque off my teeth. It is remarkably generous that she cares enough about other people’s teeth to remind me over and over again to take my time flossing.
At the recital in the evening, the two musicians did twenty or so pieces, and the dulcimer player looked at his music for only one of them. About halfway through, I was thinking, musicians are incredible—how do they keep all that music in their head at once? I couldn’t do that. Then once again an awareness of the immensity of the gift they were giving us in the audience hit me. These musicians were willing to share their abilities with whoever happened to walk through the door.
Before yesterday, I wouldn’t have equated resentment and admiration, but it turns out they can sometimes both be about me. They prevent me from seeing and appreciating the generosity of those around me, from receiving the gifts they are literally pouring out.