Yes! Thank You!

This is one of my favorite blog entries of the year—the one in which I choose a few of the myriad things that inspire me to say “Yes!” and list them out. Here is this year’s offering:

I am grateful that there are so many ways to say this same thing:

  • “Love is our origin, love is our ground, and love is our destiny” (Jim Finley).
  • Everything comes forth from God, is an example of God, and returns to God (my paraphrase of Richard Rohr’s paraphrase of St. Bonaventure in his book Eager to Love).
  • “Love is the essential structure of reality, the metaphysical basis of all that exists, the eternal pattern of the universe” (Ilia Delio describing Bede Griffiths’ approach in her book Christ in Evolution).

I am grateful chocolate-covered carrot bits are not a thing.

I am grateful for transformations of all kinds:

  • the bursting forth of flower buds into full blown blossoms
  • the changing and falling of leaves
  • the caterpillar’s chrysalis and the emerging butterfly
  • sobriety
  • the breaking open of our hearts in the presence of suffering

I am grateful for how often what I’m reading is grammatically correct and perfectly proofread, all things considered.

I am grateful for generosity of heart in so many forms:

  • parents rising in the middle of the night to tend their sick children
  • people sending money across the globe to those they will never meet
  • people smiling at others for no particular reason
  • animals caring for other animals in all those videos careening through Facebook feeds
  • plants growing to support all life on Earth

I am grateful for imagination—in a world that has never been at peace, the concept still exists.

I am grateful for the Sunday comics and beautifully illustrated children’s books.

I am grateful for all the people who so grace my life with love, perspective, good humor, and, of course, good food on a daily basis, including everyone reading these words. Happy Thanksgiving!

Note: I will be on vacation next week. May everyone be well fed.

Wave the White Flag

I love it when my friends tell me exactly what I need to hear and I actually listen. Sometimes I ignore or resist their good advice, but now and then, it goes straight in.

This week a friend and I were talking about how change happens in life. At a time when things were shifting for her, a friend of hers said, “Well, you’ve gone over it mentally every way you can for months. Now all you have to do is give up.” She asked, “How will I know when I’ve given up?” Her friend said, “That’s when it will change.”

Though I’ve spent plenty of time resisting this truth, it’s still true. I also think we’re on God’s time, and we’re unlikely to give up ahead of the universal roll-out schedule. We still need to practice, though, so when the time comes, we’re ready to do it.

The spiritual journey is so odd when considered with the same lens we use to do the grocery shopping or complete tasks at work. We can’t rush it, we’re not in charge, but if we don’t participate, it doesn’t work. Participation mostly means practicing giving up.

I am of course not the first person to say this. Teachers in every wisdom tradition have been saying it for a long time. God’s will, non-action, falling into grace—it’s all the same thing: we’ll only find what we’re searching for when we give up thinking we’ll get there by ourselves. It also helps to realize we don’t even know where there is.

We need to strike out in some direction that we think is right— another strange twist—we just shouldn’t get too attached to the destination we’ve chosen. Julia Cameron describes this in her book The Artist’s Way. She says we go out looking for apples and end up with oranges, only to discover that’s what we wanted all along. But we never would have happened upon the oranges without leaving the house in search of apples.

None of this to say I’m particularly good at giving up. That’s why I write myself reminders like this; that’s why we practice.

Heart Homework

When I first learned about the Pure Land sect of Buddhism in college, I understood that the monks said the name of Amitābha Buddha over and over in hopes of saying it with perfectly attentive consciousness because then they would attain enlightenment. I thought, that’s stupid, what does saying the Buddha’s name over and over have to do with enlightenment?

Turns out I wasn’t listening very well. First, according to that master spiritual resource Wikipedia, this chanting is a mindfulness exercise that can lead to a high state of consciousness different from enlightenment. Second, what you say matters much less than whether you pay attention when you say it. If you can say Cheez-Its with perfectly attentive consciousness, enlightenment might be right around the corner.

I recently read an explanation of how our interactions with the same wisdom teachings change over time. The author (apologies for not remembering who it was) pointed out that the teachings remain the same but we become more “transparent” to them. The interior stuff blocking their entry gets removed over time.

God must have wiped off a tiny pin head of space on my interior window recently because I’ve been seeing myself trying to figure out with my mind teachings that can only be grasped by the heart. Up until now, I simply resisted them, concluded they were wrong, and complained to God that I couldn’t get to wherever it is I’m supposed to be going.

This approach is like trying to solve an algebra problem using arithmetic and, after failing, saying that algebra doesn’t work. It’s true—algebra doesn’t work when approached solely with the rules of arithmetic. But that doesn’t mean algebra isn’t true. You just need to learn an entirely different way of approaching mathematics in order to do algebra.

I never took this, if I can’t do it, it’s not true approach in school. I assumed it was true, paid attention in class, did the homework, and learned. In life, on the other hand, I often start with resistance, especially in matters of the heart.

I’m not recommending that we throw away our ability to approach things critically, but I might try setting aside that tool occasionally and doing the heart homework to see what I can learn.

Whose Will?

“What should I do?” is a question I ask God fairly often. Or so I thought. Recently it appears that actually I’m asking myself, and the question is closer to “What is the one step I can take that will keep me on the invisible path that makes me right and perfect?” Because as anyone who reads this blog knows, I’ve maintained a perfect record of right-ness and perfect-ness so far.

Discernment is the practice of getting in touch with God’s will. “What should I do?” is not about stepping into the divine flow in a way that is most beneficial to all of creation, including me—which might be what following God’s will means.

In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Poemen says, “To throw yourself before God, not to measure your progress, to leave behind all self-will; these are the instruments for the work of the soul” (from the Benedicta Ward translation). All this time I thought I was practicing discernment, I was just measuring progress. “Should” is a dead giveaway that we’ve substituted progress measuring for the will of God.

Much of my thinking, say 99 percent, is about how well I’m doing and how far I’ve gotten, in other words, progress. But progress toward what? Seeing as we really don’t know where we’re going, trying to figure out how close we are to the end seems dicey at best.

I’m fairly certain that God doesn’t do “should.” God invites but doesn’t obligate, loves but does not impose. Laws are useful, but God is inviting us to freedom, which begins in our hearts. Only our hearts are big enough for freedom.

“Should” is a giveaway that I’m not leading with my heart. There is no room in love for how things ought to be according to me, only for how they are.

So how does discernment work instead? I have absolutely no idea. When I experience it, I’ll let you know.

Standing in the Muck

It was one of those weeks that makes me grateful other people can’t see into my head, which was more than usually full of all that muck we rather wish we didn’t carry around inside of us— fear, a sense of inferiority, frustration, meanness.

A religious sister once couldn’t overcome her inability to be patient with the other sisters in her community. She asked St. Thérèse of Lisieux what to do. St. Thérèse didn’t say a word about how to treat the other sisters but instead counseled her to be patient with her own impatience.

I decided to take St. Thérèse’s advice. I wrote myself a list of questions: Can I be loving with my cruelty? Can I be understanding with my frustration? Can I tell the voice that sees only lack that it is enough?

The answer was yes—for a few seconds at a time every now and then. Did it make a difference? It depends on what you consider a difference, I suppose. Was it all sunshine and butterflies after my first few attempts? No indeed, not even after many attempts. Was I more loving to those around me? No way to tell without popping over to the alternate universe where I chose to be overwhelmed with feelings of self-pity or take a sick week.

Though a sick week sounds pretty good—and sometimes we need those—other times we just need to stand in our own skin and be OK with ourselves as we are. There is that saying that the only way out is through. I’ve always pictured that as a relatively unpleasant journey, but maybe the only way through is love and acceptance.

The Terror of Now

Not all learning by experience is pleasant. Like when your mom tells you that the melted, unsweetened chocolate that smells fantastic doesn’t taste good and you don’t believe her and so she tells you to try it. And then you believe.

After a few such incidents, we realize that we can learn from others’ experiences, and we don’t actually have to eat a large piece of horseradish root to accept that it’s kind of hot. OK, some of us do.

Taking others’ word for it is not quite the same, though. There are plenty of things we accept but won’t truly understand until we experience them, everything from just how scary the wicked queen in Snow White is to the level of sleep deprivation an infant subjects her parents to.

Many people—including most recently for me Richard Rohr—have said that we spend most of our days living in the future or the past because our small self, or ego self, is terrified of the present. The current moment is always beyond the ego’s control, and it doesn’t much like that. The people saying this are smart and deeply spiritual, so I have been happy to believe them. I could certainly verify that I spent little time in the here and now.

Then, for a few weeks, I focused on bringing myself back to the present as often as possible, which consisted of a lot of bringing back and not a lot of staying. Even so, my ego freaked out, as if the wicked queen/hag were standing directly in front of me with an irresistibly red apple.

Terror is not difficult to recognize, and when it shows up while doing the dishes or cooking breakfast—in my kitchen, absent saber-tooth tigers—ego protection seems a pretty reasonable explanation. It’s fascinating to watch when I can remember to watch it and not run away immediately.

It’s even interesting to watch myself run away, which I’ve done for the last week or two, under the guise of needing to get things done. Now that I can recognize the running away, though, I can at least choose whether I have the oomph at any given moment to confront my ego fear. And maybe, when all is said and done, that fear is really no more threatening than unsweetened chocolate.

Beyond Reason

No matter how you look at it, this is weird: Sitting, standing, bowing, and singing with two old men you don’t really know in a room on a mostly deserted hilltop. That was my Tuesday night.

The local Benedictine monastery has three resident monks, none of them young. This week, one of them is out of town, and on Tuesday, I was the only lay person at Vespers, the evening service in Catholic liturgy. So there we were, two monks and I, chanting the same psalms Benedictines have chanted for around 1,500 years and looking out through the chapel’s glass doors on a stunning vista of emptiness.

At multiple times during the service I thought, what are we doing here? What can we possibly hope to accomplish, two old men in robes and one middle-aged woman self-consciously trying to hit the right notes? We couldn’t be smaller and more inconsequential, and this thing we are doing is illogical.

I imagine many a parent spending hours on a carrot costume for the school vegetable play has wondered much the same thing, as perhaps has a teacher carefully marking every paper when only a few students will thoroughly read her comments. This is labor all out of proportion to any possible result. The purely rational mind finds these actions incomprehensible.

And perhaps that is the point. I absolutely cannot say why I was at Vespers, and that is why I will go again next week. Though a parent could list off the wonderful qualities of his child, that list wouldn’t account for the parent’s love. Maybe something at the heart of the inexplicable is calling to us. Maybe, if we listen, it will say what we are most longing to hear.