The Heart of Presence Meditation

I call this practice the Heart of Presence Meditation. It is so named because it works to bring us to a new viewing platform from which we can begin to develop the visionary capacity that sees not through fragmentation or scatteredness, but through unitive wholeness. And it gets there through the intentional and methodical uncovering of an active presence. That is how Jesus and the other Wisdom masters view life and the world. This does not cancel out our ordinary way of seeing, but rather it grounds the mind into the heart and allows us to see from unitive wholeness. This, then, is what it means that the transformed heart is an organ of spiritual seeing and alignment; the heart can see the coherent patterns of wholeness. But in order to move in this direction, we must invite the heart to move beyond its better known capacity as merely the seat of the emotional life of our ordinary self. For here, its capacities of vibrational and empathic resonance primarily encircle the tighter orbit of the ordinary self. And here they are consumed in the reactivity, the self-defense, and the self-promotion of our smaller identity.  

But when we can ground the mind in the heart, a whole new way of seeing begins to open up for us. We can begin to see in and from unitive wholeness. This means more fully appreciating that we are an integral part of the whole. No longer separate, isolated, and apart, and no longer always looking out from the inside to the world that appears to be on the outside and separate—we now can begin to see ourselves as deeply and integrally connected to the whole.

It is from this place of deeper seeing that we can begin to more accurately discern both the meaning and the purpose of our human lives. It is no longer simply about self-preservation and self-enhancement in a dog-eat-dog world; now we can more clearly and more accurately see our place within the whole. And our life purpose can now be seen as how we might serve the greater human collective rather than competing with, or defending ourselves against, the rest of the world.

How is that we can develop this deeper way of seeing? Through the practice of presence; and this is precisely what the Heart of Presence Meditation seeks to develop. It does this by combining several different categories of practice—specifically surrender, attention, and compassion—and utilizing them in concert and complementarity with each other to increase the level of Being and bring us to greater presence. This is precisely what may contribute to our awakening.  But note well: this awakening is not for our own personal fulfillment. Rather, this awakening is expressly aimed at helping us fulfill our contributory work to the greater human collective. Asleep, we battle for our own individual, separate selves. Awake, we see so much more clearly our integral connection with the whole and are then able to find our unique and authentic ways of serving the collective.

Consider the following diagram. It seeks to represent the overlapping categories of Wisdom practice. It depicts the reality that these categories, when practiced in conjunction with each other lead us to active presence. This is the capacity—when attention is freed from the smaller, tighter circle of identified personality—to see reality as it truly is. This gives the us the capability first to see our neighbor in order that, then, that we might see our neighbors as ourselves. (It can be useful to sit with this diagram for a time—not to try to figure it out—but to allow it to give its Wisdom over to you.)

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There are seven parts or movements to this meditation. Each is set to a specific piece of music. The movements of the combined practice have been demarcated and differentiated from each other by the seven separate songs. The pieces of music in this way can help us keep track of the directional flow of the meditation. But these songs have not been chosen to sentimentally or emotionally support the movements of the practice. Rather, they have been selected for the vibrational and resonant character that each brings to its corresponding movement in these spiritual practices. Thus, each piece of music supports its related practice through an evocative felt vibrational sense, rather than through any mental idea or emotional suggestibility.

Let me give you an overview of the seven constitutive and complimentary practices.

1. First, it is so important that we utilize the power and the capacity of our embodiment in this compound practice. Thus, we start off placing ourselves directly and intentionally in our bodies. We also give our bodies voice and prepare ourselves to receive the body’s wisdom. This is the intention of the first movement of the meditation. During this first song, “Blue Aubade” by Slow Meadow, we give permission to our body to express itself as it desires. Perhaps a slow, deliberate, and expressive series of movements might desire to find expression in you.

And rather than be anxious about our exterior appearance, we intentionally work to remove any self-judgment or self-criticism and simply allow the body’s own authentic expression to lead. This part is probably best done standing, but it could be done from a seated position or, I suppose, even lying down. When it is done in a group, I always encourage participants to close their eyes to obviate any embarrassment or any sense of performance that might arise. If you are doing it at home, open or close your eyes as you feel comfortable. When the song concludes, you may sit on a cushion or a chair to continue the flow of the combined practices.

2.  The second song, “Last Sunrise in the Wasteland” by At the End of Times, Nothing has a more pulsating rhythmic movement that lends itself to the physical awareness of the breath—which is our focus of attention here. Not only does attention to breath bring us further and deeper into our embodiment, but it also brings, through sensation, the awareness of our connection with all of life through the exchange that happens with and through the breath. Here is the very physical reciprocal flow of life that pulses through us, bringing vitality and life itself. Thus, our work here is simply conscious breathing. Our attention, then, is on the sensations of our breathing at the nostrils, in the upper chest, or in the belly. Without necessarily trying to change or improve our breath, we simply breathe more consciously. When attention waders, we gently but firmly bring it back to the breath.

3.  The third song is “Only the Winds” by Olafur Arnalds. Here we intentionally soften the heart through the conscious generation of gratitude. But this practice is more than an appreciative accounting for all of the things we possess. Rather, it is an intentional recognition of our “place in the family of things.” This deeper sense of gratitude can be done in the following way: Looking back, we can think of those who have given or even sacrificed themselves in order to bring us to this present moment. This is a conscious awareness of those who have helped to pay the cost of our arising. We might think of parents, teachers, and others who were willing to sacrifice something to contribute to our being. Then, looking forward, we can consider those for whom we might direct the self-donation of our own lives. Who are those for whom you would sacrifice something of significance, or maybe even life itself…?  But rather than any kind of reverie through story, we work to anchor these considerations through sensation in the heart. What sensations do these awarenesses bring…?

4. This then brings us to the center piece of this Heart of Presence Meditation. Here, having consciously brought ourselves into a more pervasive sense of our own embodiment and then having softened the heart and made it more porous through the spaciousness of this deeper expression of gratitude, we now focus on the heart’s interior. Through awareness through sensation, we will now very intentionally bring our attention down into the heart. Rather than viewing the heart from the head, we will actually work to take our attention right down into the heart’s interior in order to see from the heart. This may take some effort, so don’t get discouraged. Here, a clenching in concerted effort will be far less useful than a more relaxed and effortless effort. Remember, this is a practice rather than an easily learned technique, and it is found more readily by surrender than by concerted effort.

The piece of music utilized here is “Mysterium” by Hammock. We will allow its vibrational resonance to lead us to this movement of taking our attention down into the interior of our heart. This perspective leads to an understanding through felt sense that it is here, in the interior of the heart, that divine energy from its unitive source wells up and emerges and breaks into manifested form. It is here that the unitive wholeness desires to divide into structures and form and become manifest in the specificity that is you and the specificity that is me. In this way the transformed heart—even though only a part of the whole—becomes something like a hologram of the wholeness of the divine heart. Here unitive wholeness divides and breaks into manifest form, and you and I—when we can authentically express the fullness of our being—become instantiations of divine love in the uniqueness of our individual lives. The whole, then, is fully expressed in each of the parts. This happens when we fully and authentically express the fullness of our being.

But all this is not just something we can choose to believe in. This is a living reality that can be experienced through felt sense. But it requires that our attention move down into the heart. Remember, again, that this is a practice. Be patient with yourself. It is not about climbing up to some higher level of technique or achievement. It is more about surrendering yourself more fully to what your body and being already know to be true.

Additionally, in my experience using this practice form with groups I have found that some practitioners more easily experience a downward flow into the heart’s interior from “above” rather than an upward emergence in the heart’s interior from “below.” Because this practice takes us beyond space and time, the direction is less important than its sensate qualities. Use whatever feels right to you.

5.  Now more consciously aware through a felt sense of the divine energy that both inhabits and defines us, we can extend our inspired compassionate concern to those around us. During the song “Melodrames telegraphies” (in B major 7th, part 2) by Brian McBride this process begins with a directed intention of increasingly wider circles that radiate the love outward from our transformed hearts. This section of the practice models the Buddhist meditation of loving kindness. But here—instead of praying to the divine, “May they be filled with lovingkindness,” as divine instantiations ourselves we may pray even more directly, “May you be filled with loving kindness.” The direct expression is grounded in our felt sense of being a divine instantiation. I will lead you in this segment of the meditation.

I will be using this form of expression: May you be filled with loving kindness. May you be free from inner and outer danger. May you be whole in body, mind, and spirit. May you be content and at peace.

6. This directed compassion continues and deepens through the next segment that is accompanied by “Thunder Rising” by The American Dollar. Here we employ a variation of the Buddhist practice of Tonglen. Using the reciprocal sensate and physical exchange of the breath, we intentionally breathe in all that is dark and difficult, and we breathe out love, compassion, and blessing. Here we may focus on a particular individual or on humanity in general. We allow ourselves to draw in through the breath that which is broken and in anguish, trusting that this can be touched by a transformed heart (or even by a heart that desires to be transformed). And then through the power of our own intention, we breathe out wholeness and healing. Thus, we take our rightful place in tikkun olam, the reparation and repair of the world. But this is not done through story or any kind of heroic self-narrative. This is simply the very human purpose into which we all have been born. Indeed, it is the expression and manifestation of this divine compassion—generating love through a transformed heart—that makes us fully human. When we can generate tender love and generous forgiveness out of the challenging constrictions of life on this planet, something of essential meaning and importance is gifted to the greater universe. And we have contributed our part to the greater cosmic unfolding.

7. At this point in the meditation our work is very nearly complete. All that needs to be done during this last piece of music, “Structures from Silence” by Steven Roach, is to fall more deeply in the surrender and relinquishment of the Silence. This Silence is more than quiet or the lack of noise. It is the subtle material essence that enshrouds the deep realities we have just encountered and navigated. Its mystery is best met with a profound willingness, trust, and letting go. Centering Prayer fits perfectly in this final segment of the meditation. We simply let go of thoughts as they arise, and we willingly entrust ourselves to this Great Mystery, having touched and experienced our integral part of it.

But this surrender does not empty us in the sense of depletion. It is a letting go of the clutchings of the smaller self—the graspings that keep us shut and taut like a closed fist. The emptiness here is paradoxically at one and the same time an overflowing fullness. It works with our compassionate capacities by enhancing rather than diminishing or erasing them.


Whether you may utilize this mediation daily, weekly, or even just periodically—I am very grateful to have you join me and others who are engaged in this practice. Together, our work contributes to a cumulative value that may beneficially promote the unfolding of the divine purpose and the enhancement of the Kingdom.

Are you ready in this small but significant way to bring your “Yes” to the question of your existence…? Together, then, let’s begin...

To express appreciation, please donate.

 

Song List

  1. Blue Aubade by Slow Meadow            .
  2. Last Sunrise in the Wasteland by At the End of Times, Nothing
  3. Only the Winds by Olafur Arnals
  4. Mysterium by Hammock        
  5. Melodrames telegraphies (In B major 7th, Part 2) by Brian McBride
  6. Thunder Rising by The American Dollar        .
  7. Structures from Silence by Steven Roach

Christophany and Incarnation

There are probably many ways to know Jesus, but there are two general approaches. The first is from the outside, as an object of faith, adoration, or doctrine. This is the method of conventional Western Christianity. This method of knowing Jesus in traditional theology is called Christology. The difficulty in this method, however, is that the object of our knowing is culturally embedded; in other words, our sense of Jesus is dependent on Western methodologies and thought categories. This lens or filter, actually, any lens or filter, is called a cosmovision.

For one thing, this Western cosmovision is a rather biased and slanted perspective that ends up having more to do with Greek thought forms and Roman legal categories than it does with who Jesus really was or what he really taught. That would be problem enough. But this perspective through our Roman and Western lens also makes it extremely difficult to converse meaningfully and sympathetically with the other peoples and religions of the world and difficult to connect with the legitimate experience and thought forms of the rest of the world.

But the other way we can know Jesus is from the inside. We can take our cues here from Raimon Panikkar in what he describes as a very different contemplative knowing of Jesus he calls Christophany. Rather than subject-to-object as in our traditional Western knowing, this knowing is subject-to-subject. The trajectory of this inner knowing is through the disciplined and subtle exploration of our own inner landscape. Where you find Christ is correlative with your own deepest and most authentic self.

By this route we are able to encounter Jesus’ own cosmovision through a dynamism that Panikkar calls interabiding. Because the only cosmovision here is an interior one, this interabiding, then, requires the opening of a new channel of perception within us—what Panikkar calls “the third eye” and what Cynthia Bourgeault calls “heart perception.” The research of modern neuroscience confirms what contemplative transformational methodologies have known all along—that contemplative practice doesn’t just change what you think; it changes how you think. It also changes what you are able to see.

Panikkar suggests that the pathway of this contemplative inner knowing of Christophany skates between the two classic options of our identity vis-à-vis God. On the one hand, I do not exactly claim that I am God; but, on the other hand, neither do I insist that God is completely other (as in the claim of a rigid monotheism). Instead, I discover myself as “the thou of an I,” (God is the I, and I am God’s Thou.) This is the nondual knowing that preserves the sense of the divine interpenetration into human life. 3,61,75

There are certain conditions of life that contribute to this understanding. One is that life is not static; it is a constant flow, moving ever forward. There are no fixed points and, despite illusions to the contrary, no fixed identities. The other condition is that everything in life is related to everything else. There are no distinctly separated objects. Relationality is the principle by which life is put together. Strikingly, these are among the proven verities that come from quantum science. Again we see a confluence of modern quantum physics and ancient contemplative truth.

To see in this way—to see the unified field of this relationality that includes the seer and the seen—is frequently called unitive or non-dual vision or perception without differentiation. But the challenge of this vision and understanding of life is that you cannot see it until you can see it. From our usual way of seeing and from our ordinary consciousness (egoic operating system) this simply makes no sense at all. It requires subtler faculties of apprehension.

It is, nevertheless, how Jesus saw the world; it is his cosmovision; and it is the perspective within which he pitched his teaching. Specifically, what he taught is patterned by a Trinitarian understanding of life. Deeper than doctrine, this sense that life is thoroughly penetrated by the divine was mystically experienced by Jesus from the inside. He both expressed it and lived it as a life gesture of kenosis, by which, through this expression of self-giving love, one enters the dance of abundance. It is precisely in this dance that unity and diversity are preserved in the dynamism of love.

Although most of us had been taught that to follow Jesus required moral merit and obedience, that model and understanding follows the first way of knowing Jesus—knowing him from the outside as an object—here, an object of moral injunction. But if we were to explore this second way of knowing Jesus—knowing him from the inside, subject-to-subject—what kind of difference would it make, what would it look like, and how would we even do that? It would obviously require a sensitivity and attention to our own interiority. This would necessitate a different way of knowing—the capacity to delicately notice and observe our own experience from the inside without judgment. Theological and philosophical categories would have to be suspended in favor of a subtler interior noticing.

This subject-to-subject knowing would be more like the meaning of the Hebrew word “dath,” which is the kind of knowing inherent in lovemaking—knowing from the inside, subject-to-subject. Where you find Christ is correlative with your deepest and most authentic self, for Christ is in you and you are in Christ. This Christophanic interior knowing requires a more refined phenomenology than our usual way of intellectual knowing, our knowing from the outside.

But this capacity for Christophanic knowing is a faculty we already have within us; we come equipped with it. So much do we exclusively rely on our intellectual awareness, however, that most of us do not even know that we have this capacity for deeper seeing and deeper knowing. But just to correct myself here, this is actually not something we “have,” so much as it is a part of our being, our very nature—a vibrational frequency wherein the human and divine flow into each other so that there is an interpenetrating presence. The result is an energetic dynamism in human life that bears the stamp of the divine.

It is in this sense that Theresa of Avila (whom Panikkar references) can hear the divine imperative, “Seek yourself in me and seek me in yourself.” This is the essence of the Christophanic experience. As mentioned above, it is an inherent interabiding. Our contemplative practice assists us by allowing us to relax the contraction that allows the divine penetration to unfold within us, to fill us, and, most importantly, for us to realize it.

But there’s a striking assumption here that goes against the grain of what we’ve been taught. We had been led to believe that the way to God is up and that the human condition is at the maximum distance from God. In our training and upbringing the incarnation was the miracle by which God deigned to try to pull us from the contaminated mire in which we were stewing by sending Jesus, his only Son. Incarnation meant that the divine entered human life in the one person of Jesus, and Advent had always for us been the season in which we tried to wrap our minds around that reality.

But this Christophany, this subject-to-subject knowing of Jesus, reveals something profoundly different—that enfleshment is no impediment to divinity and that the incarnation has to do not just with Jesus, but also with us. The divine enters human life and interpenetrates and enlivens our being, every bit as much as it did Jesus’ being. Consequently, the way to God is not so much up, as it is in. In turns out that we have the same two natures within ourselves as Jesus did.

In Advent we have long been urged to wait and watch and hope and pray. It seems all about the preparation for Jesus’ arrival—his arrival on the planet in the stories of his humble birth in a manger and his coming at the end of time to judge the world. But all of that would seem to be a response to the first way of knowing Jesus—knowing Jesus from the outside as an object of faith, adoration, or doctrine.

Unless…

But there is something else in addition, something far more mundane that further complicates things at this time of year. Besides being the time for spiritual preparation and purification, unfortunately Advent in our culture is also a frenetic time of getting ready for all of the family and cultural expectations that come with Christmas. Consequently, we just never seem to get it right. And by the time Christmas crashes down the chimney and into our living room, we complain that we just don’t feel very “Christmassy.”

The hook of Advent and Christmas for most of us has been sentimentality. We have tried to use our mood to hype us up to a level of concentrated involvement and participation. But sentimentality can only cover the most superficial of ground; it has very little depth. But knowing nothing deeper, we have put all of our eggs in that basket. And then we have always ended up coming up short and being judgmental of ourselves for our seeming failure.

But what if we took direction from the mystical and contemplative traditions and sought to know Jesus from the inside—as I have suggested in this second way? That would undoubtedly put us on a whole different trajectory. But whose birth would we be preparing for during Advent? Would it be Jesus’ birth or would it be our own? Or might it be both—something of a relational birth with two dynamically connected ends that wouldn’t be fixed points at all.

One way that we might express our relationship with Jesus is this: We say that he is the icon of all reality, meaning that he perfectly encapsulates the deepest principle of human life within himself. He demonstrates what it is to be a single or completed human being. But this is not an external standard to which we are to live up. Rather, it is an interior reality about our human nature that is already true.

This is, in fact, the pattern of the Trinity (mystically instead of doctrinally understood). It is in the movement of the Trinity’s flow that I experience that I am a Thou of a deeper I. I experience my deepest “I” as the beloved. But this awareness cannot come from an intellectual or rational understanding; it can only come through experience, which is the result of practice; and it can only come from a relinquishment, a letting go, a surrender.

While this does not preclude a certain amount of sentimentality (we can relax about this), it certainly transcends it. That means that our Advent preparation no longer hinges on getting emotionally jacked up. Preparation may well, then, include something quieter, subtler, and much deeper.

The Inner Work of Holy Week

Holy Week is ground-zero for the Christian Mystery. Will be marking this epicenter with a Holy Week Retreat at Christ the King Retreat House, Syracuse, NY. But there is something here that is far more important than our personally getting something deeper and more meaningful out of Holy Week. What actually hangs in the balance is the development of our fullest humanity, the future of humankind, the balance and feeding of the entire universe. Most often, though, we have no idea of the enormity of the stakes. It’s as if we are living in a dream—sleep walking through life. We are lost in our personal agendas and revelries and our entertainment.

The picture is not completely negative. We have relied on conventional religion to give us a sense of what is really real and to give our lives meaning and purpose. It has helped, but it has not taken us as far as we need to go. It has left us stranded on the horizontal and only told us to believe in the vertical. It has not shown us—not led us to—the faith’s deepest treasures.

We are entering the most holy of days—days that mark Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to face his destiny and to fulfill his purpose. Our conventional religion has told us that we should mark this time with penitence and fasting. The only tie that traditional Christianity has been made between Jesus’ destiny and what he did during this time and our own destiny is that Jesus underwent his suffering so that we might be saved. In this we have been encouraged to believe that, if we just might believe that Jesus emerged back into life following his suffering and death, we would be saved and therefore marked with the reward of eternal life.

While I do not want to negate that pathway or even quibble with its veracity in any way, I just think that it by no means tells the whole story. In that conventional picture God’s hand is forced by the depth of human sinfulness to have to sacrifice his only Son in order to make up for the enormity of human sinfulness. But just as incomprehensible as that is the fact that this Holy Week/Easter scenario has Jesus alone on the playing field going through his tribulation and us fully removed and separate watching from the stands.

But that is not the way Jesus moved through life and, I am quite sure, not the way he moved through death. Jesus was forever inviting his followers into the fullness of life as he experienced it. “Because I live, you also will live.” But he is not referring to ordinary life here; he is talking about “Kingdom life”—the full aliveness in life that manifests the qualities of the divine. That is the life to which we are called. And that—that—is the purpose for which we gather this week.

But that having been said, I have to remind us that this is not for our benefit alone. The goal of this Holy Week work is not increased holiness or sanctity on our part. It is true that we are being called into a process by which we might be deeply healed; but it is also true that our work together might contribute to the healing of the rift between the realms. Yes, our work has both personal and cosmic implications, and its importance cannot be overstated.

But to do this work on that level we must go beyond the path that conventional religion has given to us. Please note that that does not mean throwing out the traditional faith claims with which we have grown up. And that does not mean closing the churches. It just means that we can use conventional religious thinking as the vestibule through which we may enter the more interior rooms of the faith. This pathway beyond traditional Christianity shows us how the outer events of Jesus’ historical life are directly and integrally connected to what beats within our own hearts.

This week, then, will introduce us to the experience of this historical event as having cosmic proportions that can most deeply be felt and experienced within a human heart that is truly open and present. Indeed, it is my hope that this week will afford us with the possibility of apprehending the mysteries of Holy Week from the inside— from that spaceless space within—from the place beneath the ego’s addictive strivings where kingdom life can be found and experienced. All this will happen not through mental belief but through corroborative lived experience.

So we will not so much be celebrating the days of Holy Week as a ceremonial drama, marked as it often is with the daily blow-by-blow drama of the journey through Jesus’s last days. While we will in no way be ignoring these details, our Holy Week work will open up inner passage of transformation. Each of the days can become a gateway to the inner transformational touchstone that must be lived into with one’s whole self in order to be experienced. And the purpose is not for our own personal piety, but for the transformation of the whole world.

So our work will not strictly be historical study or theological reflection. While important, alone they will keep us stuck on the horizontal. Instead, Holy Week requires Wisdom Work. This is a different kind of learning—one that involves the interior parts of ourselves in order to become “fully human.” It entails a recognition of a presence that is our deeper nature and includes attention, presence, and will. It takes us within, but then beyond ourselves, in self-transcendence.

Our biggest obstacle in getting there, however, is that we are stuck in thinking and believing that what our ego can grasp—what we can see and measure with our five senses—are the only things in life that are real. And while we have been encouraged to believe that there is a realm beyond this that we might hopefully be able to access after we die, our lives on this side of the grave have been largely confined to this material life on the horizontal dimension.

But Wisdom Work seeks to give us access to that in us which lies beneath the ego. It asserts and leads us to experience that which is deeper than our individual personality. This—which we might see as the fully opened and fully functional human Heart—is not separate from the Heart of God. Indeed, the human heart that has learned to come alive and to open to its fundamental qualities is integral to—and is a hologram of—the Heart of God.

Did you tremble a little bit on these last words? Did your own heart skip a beat? We are so used to dramatically dividing the divine realm from the human realm. None of us, I guess, want to be caught making the gross heresy of equating ourselves with God.

And yet, in our small minds we work hard to make God a manageable concept. Because the ego must take things on its own terms, conventional religion references God in human terms and human images. In this sense, it tries to leverage some small amount of control over the wild mystery of the Sacred Presence. Wisdom Work, on the other hand, turns it around the other way and uses divine terms to understand our deepest humanity. It harkens back to the ancient formula: “God became man so that man might become God.”

The Wisdom Work that we will be employing this week will seek to awaken the Self that lies beneath the ego. Called the True Self, the Essential Self, or the fully Human Self—this deeper Self can only be accessed when we have become relatively free of the identifications of our social programming and conditioning. We must go beyond what we have known before, and we must become more acutely aware of our previous assumptions. But the effort will be well worth it, for this path will open us to an unconditional love and a fundamental creativity in which our lives will be imbued with a deeper sense of aliveness. And rather than just using our intellectual minds, we will be using all of the instrumentation of our deeper humanity. This Work, then, is not just knowing more, but knowing with more of ourselves and making what is latent within us come to life.

The work, then, is not the achievement of some sort of level of belief. This would keep us trapped in the intellectual center. We will have to go deeper, but without abandoning the intellectual center. Instead, we will have to utilize our moving center and the Wisdom delivered by the body, and we will have to utilize hearts that have learned to be open, vulnerable, and ripe.

There will be nothing to achieve and nothing in which to succeed. We have everything we need for our own transformation—all we have to do is to surrender to it. If that sounds simple, that is because it is; but that doesn’t mean that is either automatic or easy. You see, we have become so linked to our personalities and our cultural and family conditioning that we have virtually forgotten who we truly are. We are so laden down with these identities of ours and so preoccupied with their enhancement and their preservation that we are pretty much tied up in knots. This is manifested by the flywheels of our minds that are constantly spinning and that so preoccupy us that we are essentially unable to be present in the moment we are in.

So here, then, is the inner work of Holy Week. There is an exquisite moment manifested in Jesus life in his final days. Although on one level, of course, it is mind-bogglingly gruesome in terms of its violence and brutality, still on another level the trajectory of this life is the most graceful movement we will ever see in human form. And actually the two of these go eloquently together in that the graced surrender he exhibits comes out of terrible brutality. The contrast accentuates and magnifies both.

But in order for us to grasp the depth of what is going here in the life of Jesus, we must match this trajectory—at least to some extent. That is to say it is only by coming to vibrate at a proximate level to Jesus that we will ever be able to apprehend the depth of his actions. Our work is the work of surrender so that we might be deeply touched by his surrender. Our work is the work of a more complete embodiment in order that we might better grasp God’s gesture that could only come in bodily form. Our work is to open to each other and deeply taste the community that is possible for us in these days in order to more fully grasp Jesus’ sense of interconnectedness.

This is not to say that we have to work out our own transformation. Again there is nothing here to be achieved. There is no success that needs to be won. But the truth of Jesus Christ has both a depth and a fullness to it that it requires a certain spaciousness within the container that will receive that truth. And we are those containers, and developing that spaciousness is part of the inner work of Holy Week.

I invite you to join us either by signing up for the whole retreat or by attending one or more of the various modules and contemplative liturgies that will be offered throughout each day and evening. Please click on “Programs” and then “Holy Week 2015” to view further details. E-mail Cathy Dutch at wisdomswork@gmail.com for registration forms or if you have any questions.

Lenten Reflection: Further Ponderings on Humility

In the previous Ash Wednesday reflection, I suggested that, “Living into our own fullest personhood seems to be contingent upon developing and releasing our talents and abilities into the world.” I also intimated that, while we needn’t be boastful or arrogant about these capacities, neither do we need to be bashful or apologetic about them. And yet we are up against that assumed religious ideal that our eyes should be downcast in self-effacement.

So, if most of us have been raised with the warning that we should not sing our own praises, how can we affirm our God-given talents and skills without resorting to boastfulness? Is there some sort of key or alarm with which we might catch ourselves from toppling over this cliff of arrogance and immodesty?

Unfortunately, we usually try to discern this by observing our external behavior. An inner arrogance, we assume, can be detected by outer boastful behavior. Catch ourselves acting boastfully, we assume, and we can then pull the plug on arrogance. But, really, is that strategy workable or effective? Usually it seems that it is only well after the fact, if ever, that we realize our corrupt faux pas.

Instead of focusing on our behavior, maybe a better direction from which we might work on this issue comes from an inner scanning for fear. Fear? Yes, I am convinced that boastfulness and arrogance are nothing other than one side of the coin of fear whose other side is timidity and faint-heartedness. These are bifurcated responses to the entrapment within a tight and self-limited orbit of the ego’s obsession with self-enhancement and self-protection. Either side of this coin of fear—boastfulness and arrogance on one side or self-deprecation on the other—keeps us from being fully present and from manifesting our skills and talents with power and grace.

Two suggestions of inner work that might address this base fear come to mind. I hope that these might be helpful during this Lenten season. One concentrates our attention on interior emotion, the other on the physical body.

Shockingly, the first is counterintuitive. Instead of distancing or distracting ourselves from the destabilizing discomfort that fear brings, the suggestion here is to befriend this fear. Are you kidding?! No, it can actually be most helpful to develop a curious attitude about this fear. What is its energetic signature? What does it smell like? How do our bodies respond to its signals? A witnessing attitude toward this debilitating emotion means that we aren’t as likely to get completely lost, consumed, and overwhelmed by this fear. We may actually come to be able to differentiate different kinds of fear—that which might be informative and ultimately helpful and that which only serves to tie us in knots and to get in our way.

So when we are even dimly aware of fear’s presence, we can stop and make the intentional effort to face it and to sit with it. Non-judgmentally we can explore it and come to know its various facets. (An even fuller and more elaborate practice along these lines is the Welcoming Practice; it has been fully described by Cynthia Bourgeault and Thomas Keating.)

The other suggestion to deal with fear is to literally and physically stand in a deeper sense of groundedness that reflects our position as a bridge between heaven and earth. When we can stand firmly and unapologetically between heaven and earth, bridging both, we can find our rightful and God-given place in life. In this practice we actually stand intentionally embodying and embracing this deep reality. And as we stand, fully gathered and present, we imagine two triangles—the first whose base goes deep into the earth and whose apex reaches up through our body all the way to the “high heart.” (The high heart is about half-way between the beating heart and the throat.) The second triangle is inverted with its base in the highest and most expansive heavens and its apex reaching down to our physical heart. The intersecting triangles form a diamond in the high center of our chests. The practice, then, is simply to intentionally stand in mindful awareness of these two triangles. When we have an embodied sense of this diamond, it is possible to apprehend that we are a bridge between heaven and earth. And we will know this not as a belief, but as a felt sense.

By assisting us to modify and reduce our fear, these and other related spiritual experiences assist us in finding that sweet spot out of which we may authentically live out our lives—avoiding boastfulness and bragging on one side and self-deprecation on the other. This is about undermining the power that fear has had over us and learning to trust the basic goodness of our lives in order that we might actualize our life purpose.

Can the Seeds of Wisdom be Sown in an Educational Institution?

Because Wisdom is often referred to as that underground stream that feeds all the world’s great spiritual traditions, it seems assumed by many that Wisdom requires a religious container for its fullest and deepest expression.  And that may be so.  I have certainly seen firsthand what the infusion of Wisdom programming can bring to the growth and vitality of a parish.  Indeed, the present challenge to the Church and to other religious institutions is to develop the means by which, through specific Wisdom and contemplative practice groups, people can begin to access these deeper levels of being.  This can actually be accomplished with a minimum of resources.  I am currently working on a book that will outline how this can be done as well as the skills needed to lead such Wisdom Practice Groups.

But what about reaching those who are not connected to a church or other spiritual community…?

I recently led a retreat for a dozen self-selected faculty members from a small college.  The purpose was to introduce contemplative practices to these participants in order to deepen their writing.  From many different departments, the faculty were also from several diverse religious backgrounds, but most were presently unaffiliated.  Although not self-identified as such, perhaps they could be considered in that growing category of “spiritual but not religious.”

Besides some basic Wisdom teaching and the introduction of Wisdom practices, the participants were given stretches of time to work on their writing during this four-day retreat.  But this distinctly differed from other Wisdom programs in more than format.  Because I started out by explicitly inviting it, there was some specifically articulated resistance on the part of some.  Unlike other Wisdom Schools that I usually lead where resistance might be either hidden, unconscious, or passive-aggressively expressed, this was directly conveyed.

Perhaps like any other Wisdom group leader worth his or her salt, I actually delighted in having this resistance so directly articulated.  There is, no doubt resistance in every group, but it is best dealt with when it can be directly expressed and confronted.  My proposed schedule for the group included early morning meditation instruction, a silent breakfast, a mid-morning teaching, an afternoon lectio divina session that utilized selected poetry (rather than sacred texts), group discussion in the evening, and a Great Silence that took us through to the end of breakfast the following morning.  But given the resistance that had been initially articulated, I invited them in that first session to make their decisions about participation based on their own personal needs and desires.  It turned out that one participant ended up attending only a couple of sessions and chose instead to work exhaustively on writing projects that were soon due.  Everyone else, however, attended virtually all the sessions, and all ended up being active and willing participants.

In giving the participants this freedom, I sought to honor and respect the expressed resistance.  Indeed, I knew that what they would get out of this retreat was going to hinge much more on their own willing participation than I my own planned and desired outcomes.  Trying to be relatively free from my own emotional reactivity and intentionally refusing to engage in power and control issues usually seem to help keep resistance within the banks of the river of normal group functioning.

Wisdom does not necessarily have a curriculum.  Although I had been encouraged to submit a full outline of what I would be presenting, I had to demur.  I took the position that—although I committed myself to teaching a meditation practice, to introducing the practice of lectio divina, and to giving the group experiences of extended silence—I had said that I would have to gauge the rest of the explicit teaching material by what emerged from the circle of participants.  Indeed, the initially expressed resistance was amazingly helpful in knowing where and how to start.  But I couldn’t have known that until I sat in the circle and opened to where they were.

But, honestly, here was my deeper underlying concern: While mindfulness and contemplative practice have become incredibly popular and have entered into the everyday parlance of many aspects of contemporary life, including higher education, they are most often employed to open and deepen the capacities of those who use them.  Replete in the literature of higher education, for example, are studies that verify that meditation and contemplative practices improve student performance by increasing their personal investment in course material and improve focus, concentration, and recall.  That is all fine and good.  But Wisdom takes us beyond what we might call high-egoic development.  It is designed to take us beyond ego to the next orbit out.  Wisdom is about dying before you die.  And more than about how one can sharpen one’s capabilities, Wisdom helps us to discover the ways in which we can see ourselves as an integral part of the Whole and how we can serve that Whole.  Knowing that these faculty members self-selected because they wanted to hone their writing skills, I wondered how they would respond to Wisdom’s deeper agenda?

As I do in most all the groups and retreats I lead, I began with explicitly shaping the group norms.  “How we will be together” is most often the first order of business.  This is especially important for those whose regular group meetings and gatherings are of a completely different nature.  Here in a Wisdom Circle we are not proving a point or defending a position.  But as we begin to risk personal sharing and struggle to put deep thoughts tentatively into language and then set these into the center of the circle as offerings, these tentative sharings have the capacity to deepen the group’s inquiry and spark further insight.  And because two of us may see something very differently, it doesn’t mean that one of us must be right and the other wrong.  Indeed, there are no answers in the back of the book.  We are not only reading the tea leaves of life; we are contributing to reality’s ongoing creation.

With the unfolding of our time together, the practices themselves carved a spaciousness into the group process; and the rhythm and balance of our time helped to soften and open hearts.  The teaching inquired into such questions as, “Who is the ‘I’ that is writing?” and “For what purpose am I writing?” and “What are some of the sources of my assistance?”

Slowly but steadily, the group opened like a flower.  Listening was deep and intentional.  The silence began to be sensed as having a formative substantiality.  And perhaps not surprisingly—while at first wanting to deepen their writing—the group flirted with life’s deeper issues.  In our lectio we were drawn to the issues of death and the meaning of life.

On the final night in a sort of recital, they shared with each other in the circle what they had been working on.  Although the writings were of various forms and of diverse subjects, I was completely blown away both by the heart-quality of them all and the warm generosity by which each shared piece was received by the rest of the circle.  The group had found its way to the boundary between utilizing contemplative practice for one’s own devotion and/or development right to the cusp of Wisdom.  And all had deeply shared—except me—for on that final night I acted as facilitator and witness.

The final morning, however, I asked their indulgence to put my own oar in the water.  Although I did not have a reading to share, I tried to express that my life itself was the book I was writing.  And then, using Wisdom’s lens, I shared with them what I desired my life to be.  Instead of presenting Wisdom concepts and principles, I simply used my own life to illustrate some of Wisdom’s perspectives and expressions.  I could tell in both how they listened and in their responses that the teaching had landed in receptive hearts.

So, while their writing may well have deepened as the result of our time together and the practices they had learned, these faculty members undoubtedly were on a new and different trajectory.  Something had shifted in them individually—maybe we can call it a lowering of their centers of gravity; but something had shifted in the group as well.  In fact, I learned in the immediate days after the retreat they had planned a lectio gathering at one of their homes.

Can Wisdom be transmitted without an explicitly religious container?  I do not know the answer to that question yet, but I am committed to its further exploration.  While I continue to hope that the Church will take up Wisdom’s call, I also know our world cannot wait.

I cannot tell you how impressed I was with this group.  Having started out by being so clear in articulating their resistance, they ended up in a most receptive heart space and were able to make astounding connections.  The seeds of Wisdom had been sown in an academic institution, and we will wait to see what fruit they might bear.

Christmas Eve Meditation on the Incarnation for our Times

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 

We are living in darkness and in the shadow of death.  You don’t need a degree in environmental studies, political science, or international relations to know that the world is in a terrible mess.  And despite our own efforts to put our own “best foot forward,” our own personal lives aren’t exactly perfect either.  These days, insecurity and a profound sense of dread are palpable; they are everywhere around us as well as within us.  We may pretend that life goes on as usual, but the smarter part of us knows better.  Indeed, the encroaching darkness and the shadow of death threaten to trample our hope and strangle the breath right out of us.

But out of the deep gloom comes a promise, and it is born out of the compassion of our God.  It promises that the dawn will break and that we will be delivered to an unimaginable peace and freedom.  While the source of this promise is founded in the compassion of our God, the means by which this will be accomplished takes us up short.  We are promised that the life of an individual human being—and on this night we say that the birth of a particular baby—will change everything.  But can one human life turn such an overwhelming tide?

 *

Now is the time when all of our narrower assumptions and most of our shortsighted expectations are being turned upside down.  It’s not that the darkness we have been intuiting is not real or is not dark—it certainly is.  It’s not that the present historical/political drama being enacted in our times isn’t profoundly disturbing—it certainly is.  It’s just that there is another perspective—one that is larger and longer and deeper—that bursts forth like a shooting star across the night sky.

This other perspective bespeaks light and coherence.  Its light pierces the darkness.  It does not destroy the darkness, but rather impregnates it with spaciousness.  And the coherence takes what is shattered, broken, and fragmented on the surface of things and provides it with a hidden organizing principle that conjoins everything together on an unseen level.  It’s as if something from some distant realm is making itself shockingly present—present at a depth in us with which we might be unfamiliar.

*

Tonight we are celebrating the Incarnation—that special color of the spiritual rainbow of the world’s religions that Christianity paints so beautifully.  We have been taught that Incarnation means that God becomes manifest in the life of Jesus, born this night.  All Christian churches will tell this familiar story tonight and throughout this season.  And we have been taught that all we have to do is to believe that this is true, and eternal life will be ours.  I am affirming that that too is right on target. But I am also going to suggest that while that is true, it is true in a different way from how we have been taught.  And I am also going to suggest that that is just the beginning.

You see, we are living in two understandings or conceptualizations of time.  On the one hand, we mostly assume that our lives are being carried across a predictable straight linear line on which past time flows into the present and will then take us forward into future time.  But if we then try to take our traditional understanding of Incarnation and place it within this linear time conceptualization, we will only get the most trivial sense of what this is all about.

If, on the other hand, we could sense that we are also living in a kairos moment—a moment of a whole different quality, depth, and dimension—a moment in which the past and future are saturating the fullness of this present moment—then we might be able to grasp the greater meaning and implications of the Incarnation.

This kairos moment includes the historical moment, but it also takes us beyond it.  It sees and acknowledges the present dark times in which we are living, but it knows that, while these are very real, this is not the whole story.  So while selfishness, greed, and narcissism are the forces pulling us down toward potential decline, collapse, and maybe even destruction—there is another strength, another power, that is pushing us forward in the Omega direction to which creation has been pointing all along.  This direction—although it seems impossible to put into words—has something to do with the fulfillment of wholeness, bringing all the seemingly irreconcilable parts into loving relation with each other.

But here is where the unimaginable power of Incarnation comes in.  It informs us that all this is more than a mental idea, a philosophy, or a theology.  This deeper force that is moving creation forward has become shockingly manifest in a human being, this Jesus, in this kiaros moment.  If you want to get a deeper sense of what this life is all about on its deepest and most meaningful level, get acquainted with this life, this Jesus.  His life—lived as a gift to all in his loving gesture of surrender—tells us everything we need to know about what is essential in life and about this Omega direction in which we are heading.

But don’t stop with an historical study of Jesus.  You see, because his birth comes in a kairos moment, it is not confined to a past moment 2,000 years ago.  Jesus is also born this very night in which the past and the future find their fullness and their completion in this present moment.  Therefore, this person Jesus is fully available to us right now—not just in memory, but in presence and in truth as we make ourselves available to him—in prayer, in song, in silence, in loving service to others, and in care for the disenfranchised.

And that, then, delivers us to the implications of the Incarnation as it desires to deeply touch us.  As we open our hearts to this love we see in Jesus, something comes alive in our own deepest being.  The heart of Jesus and our own hearts, we discover, are not separate—they beat as one.  And that light that is born into the world this dark night is the light that we have always carried within us, but it is now ignited in a burst of recognition.

Although technically we can tune into this inner light anytime—sometimes, in order to sense this, we need to stop for a moment and step off our usual treadmill.  This is a little like my internist putting his stethoscope to my chest to hear the beating of my heart.  My heart certainly (thank God!) had been beating all along, but he just needed to tune into it more intentionally.

And that’s precisely what we do when we gather together on Christmas Eve or when we sit in silence in front of our candle this night.  Our liturgy or our silence is our stethoscope, and we intentionally tune into this overwhelming reality before us.  For some of us, our own recognition will bring goosebumps; others of us will weep quietly; but each of us in our own way will know that we are looking into the deepest truth of life.  And we will know that we and the whole creation—especially the most fragile among and those living in danger—are tenderly bound in the embrace of Love.

Remember the wise men following that dazzling star in that dark Judean night sky?  I wonder if they realized that that heavenly starlight matched the light in their own hearts—their hearts of desire that burst aflame when they found life in its most vulnerable and most open form…  For what could be more open and vulnerable than a newly born infant…?

What could be more open and vulnerable than…you…?

 

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace

Trinity: Dancing with the Stars

As you well know, many parishes have their patron saints—saints after which they were named, like St. Alban’s and St. David’s.  And as I have said before, this is a custom that originally grew out of the practice of building churches over the tombs of the martyrs.  For churches named for saints, their patronal saint days are important celebrations.  These are the days when their particular saints are commemorated, and they become days of special significance.

Well clearly, we here at Trinity do not have a particular saint for whom our church is named; but, honey, we have the whole Godhead!  That makes today a very special day for us.  Today is Trinity Sunday.  Trinity Sunday always falls on the Sunday after Pentecost and marks the conclusion of the liturgical commemorations of the life of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit.  It points to the fullness of the Godhead in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And while we say that the Trinity is a mystery that cannot be fully comprehended, there are some things about which we can speculate.  And we just may want to take our cues for this speculation from some ancient and deep spiritual wisdom.

In the fourth century in Cappadocia –which is the territory that occupies the present day Turkey—there arose a great contemplative wisdom school led by three of the giants of our spiritual tradition—Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.   Moving beyond just their minds and opening their hearts, they touched the power of the archetype of the Trinity.

Now I think it’s safe to say that the religious leaders who initially pounded out the theological concept of the Trinity earlier in that century and put it into the creeds were probably more concerned about political expediencies and organizational uniformity than they were moved by any kind of spiritual motivation.  Nevertheless, these Cappadocian Fathers looked more deeply than the need to bring uniformity to the Christian belief system.  In fact, they looked more deeply than the individual persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and they intuited in the relationship among the three the flow of loving energy that was shared one to another.  Not only did they find the code that pointed to the mystery of God, but they also found life’s very pattern.

What is symbolized here in the Trinity, then, is a mutual outpouring. The Father pours himself into the Son and the Son pours himself into the Spirit, and the Spirit pours itself into the Father—and around and around we go.   And do you know the word that is used for this outpouring?  Kenosis.  You’ve heard me use that Greek word before.  It is the life-giving surrender taught and, even more importantly, lived by Jesus.  It is a dying into full kingdom life through the outpouring of love and through surrender to the flow of the divine energy.

But the Cappadocian Fathers took it one step further.  They saw in the Trinity the inter-circulation of love, the perfect receiving and the perfect giving of love that they called perichoresis.  This is an ever flowing mutually of giving and receiving.  And literally translated, it means “the dance-around.”

Well, off course, that’s it: the dance of life! The dance of reality!  Jesus comes forth from the Father and the Spirit and enters human life—and not so much to die for our sins—although I know that’s the standard doctrinal line—but to illumine the pattern of life and its code.  But this is something that happens more than just between Father, Son, and Spirit.  Jesus becomes the incarnation of this loving dance-around in order to invite us to the dance!

Now, don’t you just know this to be true?!  Can’t you feel that in your very bones?  If you do, you know it not because it’s what you’ve been taught; it’s because you know it to be true through your own intuition and experience.  This is called participatory wisdom, because you know it from the inside.

Now, hang on to that for a minute while I shift gears.

Many religious people are at odds with scientific people because they think that modern science is undermining religious belief.  You know, creationism versus evolution, and that sort of thing.  And of course, if you are only operating on a literal level, you’d better be threatened by science because it will contradict everything you believe is true—but again, only if you’re operating on a literal level.

But I love science, especially what I understand of quantum physics, and I welcome its discoveries.  Because do you know what they are finding?  And their conclusion holds true whether the trajectory of inquiry is in the direction of the smallest sub-atomic particle or the vast expanse of interstellar space.  The energy of the universe, they are discovering, is not located in the protons and neutrons; the energy, they are discovering is not found in the planets or the stars.  The energy is in the very space—the relational space—between them.  Reality, they are finding more and more, is relational, and the energy comes from their abiding relationships with each other.

In other words, Good People, it’s not in the objects—it’s in the dance between them.  Science here seems to be confirming the mystery of the Trinity—this dance-around.  Again, it’s not in the Father—it’s not in the Son—it’s not in the Holy Spirit—it’s in the mutual outpouring between them.  People, it’s in the dance—the dance-around.

This absolutely changes everything.  Don’t you see?  We thought that spiritual life was about us.  We thought we were supposed to attain some certain level of goodness or holiness to please God or to be rewarded by him.  Or if we were really devoted, we thought it was about Jesus and our being like him in order to get to heaven.  And we thought that we could get there by our moral righteousness or by our correct theological and doctrinal systems of belief.  And God love us, we have worked that just as hard as we could.  We’ve tried to be good.  We’ve tried to be righteous.  Our efforts by-and-large have been honest and sincere.  But it’s not about any of that.  We’ve tried to believe all the right stuff, but it’s not about that either.  It’s about the dance.  Or let me repeat the word I used a minute ago.  It’s about the flow—the flow of life that is the dance.  And what the Trinity reveals is that we are invited to the dance.

And so it’s not about being right or good or righteous or upstanding or any of that stuff.  It’s about entering the flow.  How do you do that?  Look at the Trinity.  Here is the pattern of life right in front of us.  It’s a mutual outpouring: perfect receiving and perfect giving.

You see, it’s not really about the protons and the neutrons, and it’s not about the planets, and, look it, it’s not really about us.  We’ve thought of ourselves as these solid little bodies, these little subjects, as if we were solidly moving though life.  But that’s the wrong model because it’s not about the electrons and the protons, it’s not about the planets and the stars, and it’s not about us. It’s about the flow of life that flows with us, and around us, and through us.

And in order to move toward perfect receiving and perfect giving, we don’t have to believe certain things and we don’t have to do more—we don’t have add up moral actions—we don’t have to achieve anything.  We actually need to do less.  It’s about surrendering and letting go.  It’s about getting ourselves out of the way, so to speak, in order for the flow to move through us.  In other words, my friends, it’s about the dance.

And here’s the thing.  The flow isn’t something that we’re responsible for creating.  It already exists; it’s already here.  In fact, we’re already in it, and all we have to do is to open to it and to say, “yes” to it.  All we have to do is not to block it.  But I know, I do, that that is sometimes easier said than done.  Because as we get older—and I know that some of you have considerably more than my nearly sixty-one years—we often get more tired and more fearful; we get stuck in our ways and cranky when they seem to be threatened.  And we are tempted to say “no” to life instead of “yes.”

But let me say this.  “No” will not get you what you most deeply need.  Only “yes” will.  And that is because it is not so much you and your little self that is supposed to fit into this pattern of life.  You have been created with that pattern inside your very being.  Your DNA is the same as God’s DNA.  You have been created for the dance, my friends.  It is your deepest nature.  And it is the dance that will set you free—free to receive and free to give.

I end with a vision.  It is the vision of the dance as it may be expressed here in this parish family—in the family we call “Trinity.”  It is a vision of diversity—different kinds of people with all kinds of differences of belief and orientation.  But it is a vision of the dance here in our little corner of the world—with each of us honoring the others in respect of their differences. But all of us engaged with one another in the flow—the dance of life.  It is a vision of the People of God.  It is vision of the Trinity.

Perhaps this vision is expressed in Rublev’s icon, “The Trinity.”  Andrei Rublev worked in the Moscow artistic school in the first part of the fifteenth century.  He was a painter (or we say, a writer) of religious icons.  More than just an ordinary painting, an icon serves as a window from this world into the divine realms.  They, therefore, cannot be grasped or understood by the intellect alone.

This subject matter of this well-known icon is taken from the mysterious story in the Old Testament where Abraham receives three visitors as he camps by the oak of Mamre.  In Christian interpretation the three guests were linked to the three Persons of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  So while on one level this picture shows three angels seated under Abraham’s tree, on another it represents the dance-around of the three persons of the Trinity.

And while there are many aspects of this icon that might draw our attention and many subtleties over which we might pray, I want to end simply by directing your attention to the open space in the front of the table.  Do you see it?  That space is for you—actually, for us.  For we are invited to complete the circle by joining in the dance.  God desires us to join the dance and enter the flow.

Besides the Cappadocian Fathers, I am indebted to the spiritual writings of Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard, Rohr, and Raimon Pannikar for their work inspired reflection on the Trinity.

 

An Ash Wednesday Meditation

One of the great and enduring graces of our tradition is the liturgical year.  Following a meaningful and coherent cycle, we are led through the celebrations of the Christian year that are informed by the events of Jesus’ life.  Ash Wednesday, as you all know, marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period that precedes Easter.  And if Easter is the pivotal point of our faith, Lent is the time of preparation when we do the spadework and the cultivation for something very new to emerge at Easter.

Although there are many things we can’t control in life (most, actually), I have always believed that the preparatory work of Lent really does influence our experience of Easter and the meaning Easter has for us.  Lent, I believe, is a great and wonderful gift.  But to receive its greatest blessing we must reach for its deepest meaning.

But learning how to move meaningfully through Lent is not necessarily either clear or easy.  Mostly this is because Lent has become a caricature of itself.  We give something up for the forty-day period—call it a fast—and hope that it will do something for us.  Unfortunately it usually doesn’t, and we are left awash in disappointment and disillusionment.  Mostly this is because we are not aware of our hidden motivations to use spiritual experiences like we use everything else—to convince ourselves that we actually can control something or earn something or merit ourselves—even if it is only for forty days.  Of course, that kind of reasoning turns the true meaning of Lent around a full 180 degrees.

But really, we should know that spiritual realities—although they use the stuff of everyday life—are of a different order altogether.  It’s not like we can simply add up the little things we do and think that they will get us to a better spiritual place.  It just doesn’t work that way.  In fact, instead of doing more in order to make our spiritual lives more meaningful, I will be suggesting that we do less.  But let me get there step by step.

What if we were to look inside of Lent and see its deeper meaning?  I know there are all kinds of erudite theological books that propose to do just that, but there is another—a more unassuming little volume—that opens up the meaning of Lent as no other book I have ever read.  And this book doesn’t even propose to be about Lent!

Of course, the book to which I am referring you have heard me mention many times before. It is entitled Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons (1958-2002). The author was a professor of Humanities at Lake Forest College. When he was diagnosed with ALS (usually known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), Simmons left his teaching position and retired to his small New Hampshire hometown, where he wrote this book of twelve essays—reflections on life and living, death and dying.

Although I had read it previously, this book had particular meaning for me when I re-read it while I was recuperating from my cardiac surgery six years ago.  It eloquently expressed both the difficulties and the blessings I was moving through.  And I have returned to it every year since.  If you do nothing else this Lent other than read this book, you will find your life enriched and deepened.  And the letting go of Lent—which is, fundamentally, the subject that this book tackles—might bring you to an Easter joy and freedom that can only be found by relinquishing some of those things without which we fear we could not do without.  But, of course, here is the Gospel mystery that is fraught with paradox—that we find our lives by losing them.

In one of his essays, Simmons uses a Zen story that might serve as an appropriate introduction to our entry into Lent:

A man who was walking across a field was spotted by a tiger that, hoping this was dinner, starting chasing him.  Running for his life, the man ran as fast as his feet could carry him, but the tiger kept gaining on him.  The man was chased to the edge of a cliff, and, alas, he had no other choice but to leap.  The only chance to save himself was a branch sticking out of the cliff’s face halfway down.  The terrified man grabbed the branch and clung on to it for all he was worth.  Looking down, however, he was totally undone by what he saw: another tiger!
Then the man saw growing out of the cliff a small plant.  It was a strawberry plant, and there on a branch was one, lone ripe strawberry.  Letting go with one hand, the man found that he could stretch his arm out just far enough to pluck the strawberry with his fingertips and bring it to his lips.
How sweet it tasted!

You have probably been through a tight time or two in your life.  And probably from your experience in having gotten through that time you likely could have derived a couple or three nifty little learnings, like:  “we mustn’t wait for disaster to strike—we should stop and smell the coffee right now,” and “even when disaster does assail us, we can always count our blessings,” and “it’s always our choice to see the glass half full or half empty.”

But the Gospel takes us deeper than all those pithy sentiments, and Philip Simmons is able to point to that depth.  He rightly acknowledges that life is not a problem to be fixed but a mystery to be lived.  And what is it we are being asked by this mystery?  To be present—to be fully present—and to hand ourselves over to it.  In other words, we find the fullness of life by letting go of all our supposed solutions and trite explanations.  This letting go, Simmons declares, is the first step in learning how to fall.

And so instead of a flashy list of remedies to life understood as a problem, Simmons offers us what he calls mystery points—counterintuitive considerations to turn our worlds upside down.  Here they are:

  • If spiritual growth is what you seek, don’t ask for more strawberries: ask for more tigers.
  • The threat of tigers and the leap from the cliff are what give the strawberry its savor.  They cannot be avoided, and the strawberry can’t be enjoyed without them.  No tigers, no sweetness.
  • In falling we somehow gain what means most.  In falling we are given back our lives even as we lose them.

In thinking about Lent as the preparation for Easter, we might be tempted to think that, just as Jesus rose from the dead and overcame the fear and hatred that got him crucified, so too might we eventually triumph over all the forces that oppose us.  Although we are coming to accept the fact that we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, most all of us hold out the hope that God can do what we cannot and that ultimately God will bring us vindication in the final end.  Undoubtedly that is true.  But understanding things on that level in that sequence puts us way ahead of ourselves and keeps us from the fullness of this present moment (and the strawberry).

Without disclaiming this kind of ultimacy, I nevertheless have to say that Lent is really about something else altogether.  Yes, there may well be some ultimate triumph inherent in the life of faith, but that is not its means and that should not be its motive.  No, there is something deeper.  In Lent we have the opportunity to find the fullness of life in the falling itself.  In Lent we can strive to live more fully in the mystery and work intentionally to give up our efforts to control by needing to understand and figure it all out.  More than assuming that we will automatically come out in one piece on the other side (that is, the Easter side), in Lent we can find something akin to the hidden victory in the vulnerability of the falling itself.  And that is the deep truth that is spoken when the ashes are imposed on your forehead.  It doesn’t mean that you are a sinful wretch; it means that as a human being you are marked with the vulnerability of finitude.

For the truth of life is that we are falling—falling in ways that are painfully obvious, falling in ways that we have yet to discover.  It’s tigers above us, tigers below.  But there is in the midst of the falling that red, ripe strawberry.  Will we reach out to enjoy it?

It just may be that the Kingdom that Jesus is calling us to is not defined by “victory” in the usual way we think about “victory.”  If this is so—and I really think it is—then giving up something in Lent to prove ourselves worthy or to earn some kind of vindication in the end actually cuts against the deepest and truest meaning of where Lent might bring us.

I invite you to mark a very different kind of Lent. Let us, then, explore together all the myriad ways in which we are falling.  This is an exploration in vulnerability—a shared vulnerability.  And instead of being a grossly morbid and gloomy exercise, we may just find grace emerging—and strawberries!

An Advent Meditation

There is a journey sewn into the fabric of meaningful life.  Our lives take us from one place to another.  Abraham understood this—he stepped out into the unknown from his hometown of Haran.  So did Moses—he led his people out of bondage in Egypt through the wilderness wandering to the promised land.  But Joseph and Mary also searched for a suitable place for their child to be born, and they searched deep into the dark night.  And the shepherds and wise men followed a special star to find life’s greatest treasure.

Our own lives also are a journey, a quest, to find answers to life’s persistent questions.  But which questions?  Consider the vast array.  They range from the seemingly superficial at one end of the spectrum, like: How can I entertain and distract myself?  Do you think anyone can see my bald spot?  How can I get rid of my slice?  To questions around the concerns of survival and security, like: How can I increase my income?  What is the safest investment in these turbulent economic times? When and where will I retire?  To questions of power and influence, like:  How can I rise to the top of this corporation?  How can I get my way on this committee?  To the seemingly more profound, questions like:  What is eternal?  What is the value of my life for others?

To identify the questions that lead us on in our lives is to expose the depth and direction of our lives.  Advent is the time when we are invited to consider the questions that are instigating and leading our life journeys.  Finding the right questions, the best and deepest questions, makes an incredible difference in terms of where our faith will take us.

I have seen the bumper sticker that reads, “Jesus is the answer.”   I see the profound truth to that simple and straightforward statement.  But the questions that precede that answer are equally critical and tell us a great deal about the life of the believer who is making that claim.  And we must look deep within ourselves to see if our questions are worthy of this cosmic event that is about to unfold.

Are we looking for safety and security?  Are we looking to stand out in life in order to be valued and admired by others?  Are we positioning ourselves in life so that we can get our fair share of the pie?  Jesus, I suppose, can help us with all these kinds of questions.  And they are reasonable and legitimate ways to use our faith.

But if we want to get to the essence of the message Jesus brought to life—if we want to take up his call to us and travel the path he forges for us—if we want something more than the shallow promise of smooth sailing and success—we have to ask the deepest questions, the right questions.

The best questions will bring us the deepest and most profound experience of Christmas.  And the best questions take us beyond the demands of safety and security, beyond the demands of recognition and acclaim, beyond the demands for excessive power and control.  The best questions have to do with the purpose of our lives for others.  The deepest questions concern the ways in which our lives might embody love, forgiveness, and self-giving.

At this deeper level, like every other level, yes, Jesus is the answer.  But here at the level of the deepest questions, it begins to dawn on us that Jesus will not take away or spare us of all of life’s difficulty and disappointment.  Maybe we don’t have to be constantly entertained and distracted.  At this level, we begin to realize that Jesus will not necessarily bring us enduring wealth and success.  Maybe our achievements of money and power are not as important as we once believed.  At this level, we begin to understand that Jesus will not keep us from illness, aging, and, ultimately, death.  Maybe, even though we our lives do not stretch on forever, we are a part of something that was never born and will never die.  Here at the level of the deepest questions, Jesus can bring us to life’s ultimate meaning and purpose—even, or especially, as we ourselves struggle to keep our heads above water.

So, here we are in Advent awaiting the birth of Christ, God’s fullest revelation of the meaning and purpose of life.  But in order to receive this miracle at the deepest level, we must ask the right questions.  This requires finding the time and place for self-examination; this requires an open and vulnerable heart; this requires letting go of the lesser questions in order to grasp the greater questions.  This is the work of Advent.  This is how we prepare the Way of the Lord.