A New Day Every Day

A friend shared something the other day that seems simple but that had never occurred to me before. Today, everyone you meet—including yourself—is encountering a day he or she has never encountered before. In other words, we are all, every moment, doing something we’ve never done before.

Of course in one way I exaggerate. Many things we’ll do today, we’ve done thousands of times. At forty-two, assuming (falsely) that I’ve brushed my teeth morning and night every day of my life, we’re looking at upwards of 30,000 brushings. But just because we’ve done something before doesn’t make it the same.

I can attest that playing a soccer game is very different at twenty-five, thirty-five, and forty-two, and simply walking changes from two to thirty to eighty—or the day after you pulled your hamstring at any age. We might find it almost unbearable to pour a cup of coffee the day after a loved one has died. Much of what appears repetitive is not simply because we are not the same day to day, nor is the world or the people we meet.

And that’s incredibly hopeful. “Behold, I make all things new,” God says in Revelation, but that’s hard to believe sometimes. It’s tempting to believe that my own fears and failings are stronger than the Creator’s evolutionary Spirit moving through all of us, but the odds are on God’s side.

Seeing each day with new eyes, we can be astounded—awe-struck even—by its unfolding beauty: a bright red leaf on a tree we see every day or the smile of someone we’ve known for years. At the same time, remembering that each step is a new step might help us go easy on ourselves and others. I don’t know about you, but the first time I do something, I don’t do it that well.

May this new day be a graced one for you.

Nothing Less than Love

This week I learned something from the source of all ancient wisdom: Facebook. Well OK, from a quote from the Tao Te Ching that my mom posted. The part that jumped out at me said,

Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

That’s a gigantic claim. Using definitions from dictionary.com, it means, approximately, “Having deep sympathy for yourself and a strong desire to alleviate your own suffering, you can bring all beings in the world into harmony.”

How does that work? I stop getting down on myself for not doing the dishes and suddenly there’s a ceasefire in Syria? Sounds preposterous.

A couple of days later, I saw this quote from Jim Finley that I’d written on an envelope: “refusal to let anything less than love define who you are.” Ah-ha, instructions on how to be compassionate toward yourself.

We generally define ourselves by our internal judgments — by what we think we have and haven’t done well — or by others’ opinions of us, both of which are much, much less than love and will never lead to reconciliation. They’re designed to do just the opposite, to keep us off balance so that we’ll continue to lean on them for support. The problem is, they can’t bear our weight.

Love, on the other hand, is freeing and freely given. It doesn’t reserve itself until we’ve reached some self-defined and non-existent perfection. It is always and only present, always giving itself away as our lives, as Finley would say. When we let Love define us, when we admit that love is what we are, we can see it accompanying us through our suffering, we can have compassion.

But there’s still that bit about reconciling all beings. Looking with the eyes of love, we can see that preposterous things happen every day: a woman gives half of her last tortilla to a child traveling alone to escape violence, an alcoholic stops drinking, the Berlin Wall comes down. This whole compassion thing might be worth a try.

 

Which Show Is Going on?

This is the week it all falls apart. By which I don’t mean, this is the only week in my life things have ever fallen apart, but rather, this is a fine exemplar of the type.

Here are some possible distinguishing characteristics of this type of week:

  • The second week back from vacation
  • The second week into trying to establish new habits
  • The week I realize a deadline is much closer than it seemed only a few days ago
  • The week I get caught up in getting things done
  • The week I start to believe I can impose a routine of perfection on my life
  • The week there must be some cosmic explanation—like solar flares—for my moods because I sure can’t figure out why I’m being so difficult

Here is how the script goes: I think I am pretty on top of it, as in, walking around with my own theme music. For example, this week, a friend said she was feeling anxious, and I thought, oh, I have these great new habits that could help with that. Then reality happens. For example, I count the number of days until a deadline. Music changes to Psycho theme.

Act II: This could go many ways. I could look at the week’s distinguishing characteristics and realize none of them are actually a big deal. I could breathe in God loving me through and through and through, Psycho music and all, as Jim Finley would say. I could go for a walk or do something creative.

But I like to save all of that for Act III, heighten the suspense, build dramatic tension. Act II consists of confusing my self—hidden with Christ in God—with any number of exterior, ego-driven criteria. For example, why am I so bad at ironing or keeping plants alive or meeting deadlines?

If I choose to argue with the voice asking that question, I’m doomed. We’ll never make it to Act III because the voice will not have a logical conversation. It will simply place me again and again at the beginning of Act II.

If, on the other hand, I can remember that my life is not about me, that I am part of a much bigger Whole, then I can see that the show is already going on and inviting me to join in.

Spiritual Vegetables

Sometimes we would rather not do what is good for us—like eat our broccoli. I like broccoli, but the homemade hot fudge sauce I drowned my ice cream in last night was fantastic. I don’t recall ever applying the word “fantastic” to broccoli.

Here’s the thing, though: when I finally fix a spinach salad after a few days without vegetables, my body is so happy. It’s a little bit like that with living in and from a place of love.

There are days—a lot of days—when I wish that our achievement-oriented consumer culture told the truth, when I want to feel complete from finishing a project at work or finding the perfect dining table. There’s nothing wrong with either of these pursuits. Both of them deserve to be enjoyed, but that satisfaction is not going to last. Something will always come next.

Almost every day I reach a point where I think that staying present, reminding myself to approach everyone with love, and letting God lead are impossible and aren’t, after all, going to change the world. But you know what? They are.

We won’t be able to see it directly or prove it or explain it or predict it. That’s hard because we all want to be right. Maybe people can tell the difference between someone who is irrational and someone who is following a deep but invisible knowing, but maybe they can’t. Recognition is not the point.

Jesus asks the apostles whether they’re going to leave him, and Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy answer. Saying, “We’re stuck with you because you’ve got the best game in town” is not the same as saying, “We’ll never leave you because we love you and we think you’re great.”

But Peter got it right for once. We are told to love God and neighbor because only that will satisfy the yearning of our hearts, only that will allow us to see how we are already one, how our world—our universe—is already whole.

Teaching Love

At some unconscious level, we all know that our lives are “infinite love infinitely giving itself away as every breath and heartbeat,” to quote Jim Finley, because that is what is really going on in the cosmos. But I hadn’t heard it so clearly spoken aloud, and certainly wouldn’t have described myself that way, until I entered the Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation.

If you’ve noticed a change in these blog posts over the last couple of years, that’s the Living School at work. In a world where religion often becomes associated with anything but, the Living School teaches love. Not Valentine’s Day love but something deeper and more demanding—a love that invites you to look at yourself and practice letting go of whatever in you resists loving, a love that accepts and includes that darkness without requiring any guilt or shame, a love that recognizes the interconnectedness of all being, a love that unites, a love that transforms.

And our teachers insist that the way to this love is by becoming more and more present to this world, to this moment. Wherever we are, whoever we are with, and whatever we are doing, that is the place God is concretely present—in us, in the person checking us out at the grocery store, in the tree growing in the parking lot, and in the relationships between us. Though we may transcend old ways of thinking and knowing, the purpose of doing so is to enter ever deeper into life, not to escape it. After all, the cosmos, as God said, is good.

I think the Living School is food for a—perhaps the—particular hunger of our world at this time. It doesn’t take more than a glance in any direction to see that we are in desperate need of a way to love each other, of a vision of spirit and life as inherently dynamic and unitive.

Next Thursday, our cohort will complete the formal course of study in the Living School, though of course this learning will never be complete. To all of those who have made this journey possible—faculty, staff, supportive friends and family, and most especially my fellow students—a deep bow of gratitude. Send us a prayer or a good thought or some positive energy that we might be good stewards of our mystical lineage, that we might keep growing in and sharing this love, that we might feed others as we have been fed.

Note the first: If you are interested in the Living School, applications are open until the middle of September.

Note the second: Blogging is discouraged during the ceremony, so the next post will be in two weeks.

Finally in Favor of Falling

Sometimes you hear things over and over again—or think you do—and then one day, you actually listen.

I don’t know how many times in the last two years I’ve encountered Richard Rohr’s advice to let and fall into God. It’s not so much that I’ve doubted the wisdom of the idea as that it’s sounded terribly unpleasant, somewhere between a colonoscopy and complete financial ruin.

Then a friend reframed it for me. While talking about visiting one of my favorite places, New Camaldoli Hermitage, he said, “I can’t wait to be there and fall into the place.” Now that is a falling I can embrace—a falling into peace and silence, into the invisible care and attention with which the monks hold each of their visitors.

If a bunch of humans can offer such a welcoming landing, God might be capable of at least matching them.

My friend went on to say something brilliant: “That’s probably the attitude I should have in every moment, including this one!” I have probably heard this before, too, but something about seeing retreat time and right now compared in that way flipped a switch. It became clear to me that we have the choice to enter rather than control the experience of each one.

I tried it—only for a few seconds mind you—and it was a radical shift of being. Instead of trying to cram the moment into the shape I imagined it ought to be—a trapezoid perhaps—I entered into it with trust, like in those group bonding games where you fall backward and let people catch you. And they do. And it did. Existence opened up into the unfolding that is actually always happening. Nothing was different from the moment before; I was just paying some attention to what is instead of what is inside my head.

Then I started thinking about how extraordinary the experience was, and it ended. I’ve tried to return to that radical shift, and unsurprisingly, it hasn’t happened. But I’ll keep practicing.

Out in It

Before I left for a recent backpacking trip in Colorado, someone asked me what I liked about hiking in the wilderness. The seemingly easy question stumped me. The phrase that came immediately to mind—“It’s great to be out in it”— makes perfect sense to me but is less than understandable to someone who’s never been.

Vista of mountain peaks

The view from the Continental Divide near Williams Lakes in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Lizzie Henry.

The key lies in the prepositions “out” and “in.” The “in” speaks for itself: in a meadow bursting with purple and yellow wildflowers, in the presence of a bald eagle soaring over the shore of a lake tucked against the flank of a mountain, in the midst of an endless panorama of peaks stretching away in every direction.

It seems the “in” would be enough, but you can get most of that on a day hike. The “out” is equally important: out of daily routines and obligations, out of a habitat created by humans, out of the endless string of decisions we think are so important. Once you’ve packed your bag and hiked a few miles, the number and type of choices you have is dramatically reduced: where to sleep, how to cross a stream, whether to eat freeze-dried lasagna or chicken teriyaki for dinner. The things you do are equally basic: walk, pitch a shelter, cook food, sterilize water.

Columbine and Indian paintbrush

Columbine and Indian paintbrush. Photo by Lizzie Henry.

I feel free when backpacking, unencumbered despite the heavy pack. Perhaps this feeling comes from letting go of some control and focusing for a while not so much on what or how well I am doing as on simply existing.

It would be misleading to say that it was an idyllic trip. We argued. I worried about whether the route I had chosen would work. I packed too much trail mix. I fell in the mud.

But something about the beauty of the place and the simplicity of the way of living made it so much easier to see how small those things were. The important things were clear: the fragile beauty of the columbine, the joy of one of my companions who jumped up and down with her 35 pound pack on when she got her first glimpse of the vista from the atop the Continental Divide.

It’s great to be out in it.