As I look out over the Salish Sea towards the Olympic Mountains of Washington State, I see fewer cargo ships than usual. The Port Workers Union here is on strike. We hear talk that organizations of all kinds everywhere need to be reorganized quickly and wisely to better the lives of us all if we are to reverse the ravages of climate change. We know that change is one of Love’s identifying characteristics and that Love is one of God’s best names.
How will we find the spiritual strength to absorb what is going on and to move into a new phase of our evolution? We ask ourselves, what do we have in our spiritual traditions which can prepare us to participate in what Love needs us to do. To love our neighbours as ourselves is a way to think about it.
In the midst of news of war, famine, drought, violence of all kinds, deadly street drugs and the breakdown of institutions, I remember a story Frederick Beuchner told a gathered group at Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center at Bangor, Pennsylvania in 1991.
Frederick Beuchner was a renowned English teacher at Lawrence Academy, a boarding School in Groton, Massachusetts, before he became a Presbyterian minister and then a writer beloved by Christians all over the world. I clearly remember his telling this small story at that retreat.
He said in his resonant baritone voice, “You know the story of the man who met Hitler and afterwards was asked what Hitler was like, what Hitler looked like? The man replied, ‘Why he looked like Christ, of course.” Frederick Beuchner then looked with his blue eyes over the heads of us all and let us absorb the story. What do we do with this story when we hear people near us saying that they can pray for the starving children in Sudan but cannot stand seeing the faces of Russian leaders or soldiers on television?
I respond to this sort of thing in my own heart with another story, the true story of an Orthodox Russian monk who travelled all the way across Russia with nothing in his knapsack but his Bible and some dry bread. A spiritual guide in one of the monasteries he passed through taught him what is called “The Jesus Prayer.” The Jesus Prayer comes down to us as a tale called, ‘The Way of the Pilgrim.’ The author is anonymous and this little book was probably written before the abolition of Russian serfdom and after the Crimean War, sometime between 1855 and 1861.
‘The Way of a Pilgrim’ was translated into several European languages and read by many. The version many people in our times know is called The Jesus Prayer, a revised translation with expanded notes.
The Jesus prayer which was taught by the original pilgrim is used to this day throughout the world by persons from many different denominations. It is a prayer accompanied by the person at prayer looking into the faces of people he or she meets while walking. It is a prayer of breath and heartbeat and looking. I know many people who incorporate this as a walking meditation. It is so widely used that you probably know some people who practice it, perhaps in times when they especially need this prayer. Perhaps they have used it in times of fear, in hope, in sadness or in joy. I’ve heard people say that they’ve used it in times of childbirth or while they accompanied a loved one towards death. I once practiced it while coming in from being too far out in the ocean during an outgoing tide.
The prayer is simple. It takes repetition to anchor it into one’s heartbeat and breathing so that one no longer has to concentrate on the words. It becomes a part of the heartbeat and the breath.
You can learn it. Here it is.
Breathe in and say to yourself and later just think it, “Lord Jesus Christ.” Breathe out and say or think, “Son of God.” Breathe in again and say or think,“Have mercy on me.” Breathe out again and say or think, “A sinner.” Repeat. Let go of any attempts to understand it more than you already do.
Both these books are available on Amazon and probably in your local library;
The Faces of Jesus by Frederick. Buechner. The text is wonderful and the photos by Lee Bolton fit very well.
The Jesus Prayer: A Monk of the Eastern Church. The Revised Translation with expanded notes. Reprinted 2018 Copyright 1987 St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press
This past Sunday the minister and many members of our congregation wore flame-red shirts or dresses. The banners and hangings at the front of the church were also red. This helped make the service feel like a party, a banquet and a fiesta. The celebration was part of the Sunday service beginning the season of Pentecost celebrating the giving of God’s Spirit to everyone and everything.
In the service, the Divine Spirit is represented by a large white Pentecost candle which is lit and then used to ignite a smaller slender white candle which begins the chain of light that moves, received and passed on, until we are a sea of light as we sit in our accustomed places in the congregation.
It is a brilliant time which marks God’s invitation to the congregation and the whole world to participate in God’s creative work. Pentecost is my favorite Sunday service in the church year. It is illuminating and full of promise as well as purpose. Sometimes there is cake in the church hall after the service. Cake is messy to serve and to eat and can remind us that sharing the community’s transforming spiritual gifts can be messy too.
The photo at the top of this blog entry is of a painting on cotton by an artist who was born in Djeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1991. Its title is: ‘How do the stars touch me? How do I touch the stars?’ Its date is 2023. The artist, Cecila Granara, grew up in Mexico, Rome and Chicago. She studied in London, Paris and New York. Celia speaks of her art as ‘poetry and symbolic iconography.’ She makes no mention of Pentecost or anything like that in what I have read.
For me, the flames touching the stars point towards something beyond words which is unspeakably wonderful.
My husband and I were recently in the South of France when we saw Cecilia’s piece at ‘Chateau La Coste,’ in an exhibition called, ‘Art and Architecture.’ It was a twenty five minute taxi ride from where we were staying in Aix en Provence.
After a well celebrated Easter, many of us hope that we will lightly and also seriously surrender into awareness of our deep oneness with everyone and everything.
Billy Collins poem, Aimless Love, playfully dances us into possible scenes of transformed awareness:
Billy Collins’ poem reminds us of how joyful it is to join in the lives of fellow living creatures and even of things. We feel that creation needs our love at this time. Brian Swimme and other Cosmologists tell us that there seems to be evidence that the universe must have known we were coming. We dare to hope that we each were created with something needed at this particular time. We hope we have what it takes to see and respond to the signs of our times.
We know that we humans are able to imagine ourselves inside the lives of other humans in both their joys and their sorrows. Among the signs of our times are great joy as we come out of isolation because of the pandemic. Other signs of our times are suffering from famine, war, soil and water degradation, mental illness and so much more that is dangerous to, as Thomas Berry put it, “our made of earth community.”
This Spring I read two very clear and beautiful books by Albert Nowlan. In his most recent book, Jesus Today, Nowlan recognizes the widespread acute need and awareness of people’s need for spirituality. In Jesus Today, and also in his previous book, Jesus before Christianity, Nowlan convincingly makes the case that everything Jesus did was motivated by his compassion for people. Furthermore, Nowlan points out that, as compassion demands, Jesus thought of and responded to people as individuals rather than as groups or tribes of people.
Albert Nolan is a Dominican priest from South Africa who played a part in the church’s struggle against apartheid. Both these books which I read are helpful for anyone addressing the signs of a particular time. His focus is on the question of what can be done about the daily suffering of people. He says that Jesus was willing to die for his own conviction that individuals are precious and that, if we look at Jesus with open minds from the perspective of our present time, we will be at a good starting point for addressing the suffering of our time. Nolan addresses the urgent reality of our present situation.
Both books are as clear as a bell. They are fruit of Nowlan’s lifetime studies of Jesus’ deep communion with God and God’s creation. I hope we are able to advance our own deeper communion with God in oneness. We are working on this together.
I offer this poem, which I wrote in 1982, not because I think it is a good poem. I offer it because it came to me and has stayed with me. I hope some poems come to you and stay with you. I hope you honor your insights.
I took a course in American Literature when we lived in Northern Ontario. After reading and being smitten with Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn, I had some thoughts and feelings about the novel’s two main characters, Huck and Jim. They were close friends but their social relationship and power in the community were not equal. Sometimes I identified with Huck and sometimes with Jim.
Jim, who in the story believed he was still an enslaved person, was naïve and gullible but was also honest and sweet in his friendship with Huck. Huck treated Jim badly and got away with it because he was a white boy. He painted Jim blue which humiliated Jim. He tied Jim up and sometimes threatened to ‘turn Jim in’ because Jim was thought to be a runaway.
But, Jim was blessed with natural intelligence. He knew that a storm was coming because of the way the birds were behaving. He recognized the two main fraudulent characters in the story, the King and the Duke, and knew it was best to stay away from them. Jim was stalwart in his friendship with Huck. He was a good friend. When the two boys were together on the river in the raft, just the two of them, they were both sweet and respectful of each other, good friends.
The boys’ friendship issues were more or less resolved at the end of the story. Jim had been given his freedom by Miss Watson and had not known it. Huck did eventually leave. He ‘lit out for the Territories.’ It was something he had thought about and talked about.
My two ongoing questions about the story are: What and where are ‘the Territories’ in people’s stories? And, are Huck and Jim forevermore connected because of their love for each other? I remember that the structure of metaphysical poems is in this order: remembrance, understanding and will.
Many poems are loosely structured in this way. For me, ‘the Territories’ in Mark Twain’s novel could represent understanding or, in more modern terms, consciousness. ‘The Territories’ could be Huck’s understanding that he will need space and movement in the world if he is going to’ grow’ into his true adult self.
In the case of my little poem, ’Witness’ and ‘Testiga’ on pages 22 and 23 of Poems~Poemas, the ‘will’ part of the structure of the poem would be my vowing to remain open to whatever newness I witness.
The insight is the importance of the freedom to be open to what is new.
As we begin this fourth week in Lent, I decide, as I have decided before, that I like the life of a pilgrim. I like to begin every week with preparations that will help me keep focused on one goal that is beyond my grasp. My goal is to allow myself to be transformed into my true self.
I like mystery because I am a mystery to myself and everyone I meet is a mystery to me. Karl Rahner, who was the Roman Catholic of the twentieth century, famously said that Christians of the twenty–first century would be mystics or they would not be at all. Rahner thought and spoke of God as ‘Holy Mystery.’
An adventure like a pilgrimage calls for some taking stock. This is my list of preparations for pilgrimage.
Take note of what your situation and surroundings are and of what you have at your disposal.
Be prepared to use what you have on hand. (You don’t need to go to a store.)
Do what you can.
Last weekend our clocks sprang ahead marking the end of a season of darkness here in Canada. I am glad to see more blue sky today. There is now more light and length in our days. I am glad of this, and yet, I am going to miss the winter long nights darkness with the nuanced sunlight and moonlight that sift through the clouds.
Darkness is part of what many of us have gone to for solitude and reflection on the terrors and disappointments of this time. Famine, war, lies and other breakdowns challenge our minds and hearts.
Meister Eckhart said in the fourteenth century that the ground of our souls is dark in a darkness that invites us to enter into depth. We hope that darkness is part of the transformation of our small egos into a closer resemblance to what is good. We remember that sometimes darkness is the mystery that allows us to see the light in the darkness.
This is darkness which we do not want to be lost to us. One of my friends, who is a Psychologist for children and adults, says that at this time, perhaps because it is springtime, also perhaps because we know the tradition of Lent, we are wrestling more than usual with our personal and also our collective shadow selves. The shadow which we all have is what makes us turn away from or hide from what we cannot look at because it makes us feel ashamed of ourselves and at times ashamed of our entire human race. We seem to have shadow in endless supply.
One variety of shadow that many of us wrestle with at this time is our personal and communal obsession with our phones and devices. This obsessive shadow habit of paying too much attention to our electronic devices keeps us from being in loving community with what Thomas Berry calls,’ our made of earth community.’
For me, the image of us as ‘hubs,’ perhaps like phone booths, is a dark image which stands against our hope to be full of transcendent light and moving towards our hoped for transformation. The ‘hub’ is truly shadow for me. I am aware of it and trying to remember that it is not a good thing.
In contrast to the image of our being ‘hubs,’ I like the image of our being like golden daffodils reaching towards sunlight that is beyond their reach, but is nonetheless life giving. This transcendent hope, for us and for our larger communities, is large and mysterious. It is transcendent hope because It takes us beyond our small egoic selves into a realm which is mystery beyond what we can imagine, the image of our‘ golden shadow.’
Every year I need time during Lent to learn how to carry the list of things which I try to hide from my mind and heart. I need help learning how to not turn away from what is surely part of my responsibility to hold up to the light . I need the strength of character to respond when there is opportunity to say or do something that will help another person or other persons to live their lives. The injustice and violence which keep people from life is both close to us in our communities and cities and also far from us – even across the world. Part of what makes this difficult for us is that we humans are mammals and, like all mammals, we are local-minded. It is a stretch of our hearts and minds to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We need help with this.
One thing that helps me pay attention to shadow is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says we should do. He says we should try to act on behalf of goodness as stand ins for God’s own goodness. . Isn’t that mystery!! It is too wonderful for me to understand but I see the golden hope in what he is saying.
Rabbi Heschel lived during the holocaust and was an active presence during the Civil rights movement, and beyond, until 1972. He was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and with Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Heschel spoke up and spoke out but he also listened carefully and thoughtfully to other voices who said that God has abandoned us. In response to this, Heschel reminded us that God loves us and made a covenant with us that gives us freedom to choose, a covenant in which God promised to give us freedom, even the freedom to destroy ourselves and each other.
He lived his life in the belief that the creator and all loving God will not interfere with our freedom. His stance and perhaps what Rabbi Heschel is most loved and honored for is this recommendation: ‘Praise before Prayer.’
He recommends that we respond to what we praise with awe and wonder.
This is solid ‘pure gold advice’ for us as we try to help God drag our shadow attitudes and behaviors into the golden light of transcendent transformation. May we help each other with this good work!