Friday, September 19, 2014

Refreshment, renewal and resistance: the blessings of contemplative prayer...

The invitation, call or even command to "love God" involves a commitment to contemplation, don't you think? Over the years I have discovered that when I am well-rested, prepared and at my peak performance, loving God is simple. It is something I do joyfully - and loving God's people is equally easy. It is when I am tired, parched, ambushed or betrayed that my love of the Lord starts to wobble. Frederick Buechner put it like this:

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness - especially in the wilderness - you shall love the Lord.

Contemplation has become for me both a time of respite as well as resistance. As a resting or hiding place, quiet prayer and reflection is like an oasis in the wilderness. And while I may think I do not need refreshment and renewal, if I pass the oasis by in my hurry to do something else, I always regret it. Always. There is a place for fasting - abstaining from food or engagement with others or whatever form of emptying you choose - but never from resting in the grace of God's love. Since I was a child I have cherished the Advent hymn, "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" taken from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah's poetry.

Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,mourning 'neath their sorrow's load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover and her warfare now is over.


Some contemporary people don't "get" traditional hymnody - it is true these songs rarely sound like anything else we listen to - but their melodies are stunning and they are an excellent way to make the Scriptures part of the soul. Singing this hymn grounds me in God's promises - especially when I am weary and in need of rest - and that is most of the time.

Make ye straight what long was crooked make the rougher places plain:
Let your hearts be true and humble as befits his holy reign,
For the glory of the Lord now o'er the earth is shed abroad,
And all flesh shall see the token that his word is never broken.


So first there is refreshment emotionally, physically and spiritually: then there is challenge. And I think the challenge is simultaneously social and profoundly personal. To choose to step out of the busyness, is a counter-cultural commitment. To ground yourself in the enormity of God's grace - and the whole body of Christ - is to practice living like you are NOT the center of the universe. To discern your place within the whole is to trust that God's love is greater than your wisdom, gifts or energy. Socially this is the polar opposite of popular culture's teaching that EVERYTHING is about YOU:  be all that YOU can be! Politically this is true, too because our vision is on the common good rather than the whims of the individual. Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this:

It seems to me that contemplation makes it almost inevitable that your politics is going to change, the way you spend your time is going to be called into question, and any smug or inferior social and economic perspective will be slowly taken away from you. When anyone meditates consistently, the things that we think of as our necessary ego boundaries—giving us a sense of our independence, autonomy, and private self-importance—fall away, little by little, as unnecessary and even unhelpful. This imperial “I,” the self that most people think of as the only self, is not substantial or lasting at all. It is largely a creation of our own minds. Through contemplation, protecting this relative identity, this persona (“mask”), eventually becomes of less and less concern. “Why would I bother with that?” the True Self asks.

If your prayer goes deep, invading your unconscious, your whole view of the world will change from fear to connection, because you don’t live inside your fragile and encapsulated self anymore. In meditation, you are moving from ego consciousness to soul awareness, from being driven to being drawn. Of course, you only can do this if Someone Else is holding on to you in the gradual dying of the False Self, taking away your fear, doing the knowing, satisfying your desire as a great Lover. If you can allow that Someone Else to have their way with you in contemplation, you will go back to your life of action with new vitality, but it will now be smooth, a much more natural Flow. It will be “no longer you” who acts or contemplates, but the Life of One who lives in you (Galatians 2:20), now acting for you (Father) and with you (Holy Spirit) and as you (Christ)!

The challenge of contemplation is clearly social, but it is equally personal. My spiritual director in Cleveland once had me practice this very simply and very difficult exercise: twice each day he asked me to sit quietly until I experienced myself resting in the palm of God's hand. That was it - no intellectualizing on the scriptures, no breathing practice or yogo postures - just resting until I felt myself surrounded, embraced, filled from the inside out and resting in the palm of God's loving protection. It took about six weeks and I didn't realize it at first - but when I felt this love from the inside out as well as all around me - I knew it was real in my heart.  Again, Rohr observes:

Contemplation is the key to unlocking the attachments and addictions of the mind so that we can see clearly. I think some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear. I find most people operate not out of “consciousness,” but out of their level of practiced brain function, which relies on early-life conditioning and has little to do with God encounter or grace or mercy or freedom or love. We primarily operate from habituated patterns based on what Mom told me, what went wrong when I was young, and the defense mechanisms I learned that helped me to be right and good, to be first and famous, or whatever I may want to be. These are not all bad but they are not all good either.

All of that old and practiced thinking has to be recognized and accounted for, which is the work of contemplation. Without contemplation, you don’t see clearly. Everything is all about you, and you just keep seeing everything through your own agenda, anger, and wounds. Isn’t that most people you know?  Few ever achieve much inner freedom. Contemplation, sadly, helps you see your woundedness! That’s why most people do not stay long with contemplative prayer, because it’s not very glorious. It’s a continual humiliation, realizing, “Oh my God, I did it again. I still don’t know how to love!” We need some form of contemplative practice that touches our unconscious conditioning, where all our wounds lie, where all our defense mechanisms are operative secretly. Once these are not taken so seriously, there is finally room for the inrushing of God and grace!

All three consequences of contemplation are blessings - disciplined blessings, to be sure - but blessings nonetheless. Last week I found myself saying in worship, "From time to time, people ask my 'why are you always urging us to practice slowing down? You sound like a broken record. That is so unimaginative!" And that is true.  But, I continued saying, "I can't help but be redundant when we continue to be so bad at contemplation. When people complain to me that their lives are so busy - when wounded souls tell me they ache for some spiritual refreshment - and when loving people act-out in ways that are crazy and hurtful ... it is clear that we aren't practicing the disciplines that can cure our souls. In a word, we're carping without resting in the blessing of contemplative prayer."

Earlier this week I found myself being ambushed and hurt - it came out of nowhere - and threw me into a panic. And I found out - again - how much I need to keep practicing resting in the Lord. Thank God for the tiny reservoir of grace I sensed that was born of past encounters. It is what I trusted and it is what compelled me to go deeper.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
   do not be envious of wrongdoers, 
for they will soon fade like the grass,
   and wither like the green herb. 
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. 
Take delight in the Lord,
   and he will give you the desires of your heart. 
Commit your way to the Lord;
   trust in him, and he will act. 
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
   and the justice of your cause like the noonday. 

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
   do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
   over those who carry out evil devices. 
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
   Do not fret—it leads only to evil. 
 For the wicked shall be cut off,
   but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

 I like the way Rohr wraps this all together:

When we are introduced to the One Life, our smaller life becomes a
matter of lesser importance. We are less concerned about how, when, where, and whether. A new, larger Self takes over. It’s all about getting your True Self right. “Who are you?” is the master’s insistent question. Who I am, and the power that comes with the response, answers all my questions. Life becomes a joyful participation in Being! Basically, you are enlightened every time you awaken to your True Self! I do not believe it just happens once, although the first time is a whopper, as we see in the enlightenment of the Buddha.

Every time you are tempted to hate yourself, just think, “Who am I?” The answer will hopefully come: “I am hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) in every part of my life. In Christ, I am bearing the mystery of the suffering of humanity, its sad woundedness; but I am also bearing the very glory of God, and even “sharing in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). I am a living paradox of divine and human, just as Jesus was and which Jesus fully accepted.

It seems that God keeps looking at what is good in me, what is God in me, and of course always finds it entirely lovable. God fixes God’s gaze intently where I refuse and where I fear to look—on my shared, divine nature as God’s daughter or son (1 John 3:2). And one day my gaze matches God’s gaze (frankly, that is what we mean by conversion and prayer). At those times I will find God fully lovable and myself fully lovable at the same time. Why? Because it is the same gaze, but they have become symbiotic and look out at life together.

Now it is Sabbath time on a stunning autumn day that just begs for a walk in the woods.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

YOU are a part (but only a part) of the sacred whole...

NOTE:  Worship notes for this Sunday, Wilderness Sabbath, in the
season of creation cycle. The key text is Romans 8.


The broad theme for our prayerful consideration today is wilderness – what does the wilderness show us of the Lord, what can we discern of God’s power and grace in the wilderness, how do we come to trust that the One who is Holy is not merely symbolized by the enormity of the wilderness but actually lives within in it, too – this is the challenge.  Fortunately we’ve been given some excellent biblical texts to wrestle with:

The ancient Hebrew prophet Joel grasped that when people live in an unbalanced, selfish and bottom-line way, the earth itself suffered:  … the seed shrivels in the ground, the granaries are ruined and empty, the animals groan, the cattle flee and our flocks of sheep roam the land in a daze. The Psalmist, most likely Israel’s David, wrote of a time that the earth reeled and rocked, the mountains trembled and the heavens roared. And St. Paul reminds us that there are times when all of creation groans – humans and animals, land and water and air – aching to be set free from bondage.

Now, as a Bible geek, I LOVE playing with these texts: the nuances of their poetry call me deeper; the quest to unlock spiritual mysteries awakens both heart and mind.  But not everyone has the time or inclination to be playful with the Scriptures.  In fact, as a number of you have told me over the years, because life is so full and demanding, mostly you want something helpful and useful to come from whatever I share on Sunday morning. How do journalists put it: news you can use? So I’ve been thinking hard about how to talk with you about the blessings of today’s wilderness theme: 

+  How and why do they matter to people struggling to keep up with all their bills in a responsible way?  Or people juggling a few jobs just to keep their heads above water?  Or those caring for children – or aging adults – in addition to work and love and the demands of being a faithful citizen?

+  How does any of this matter beyond an abstract fascination with spiritual words and my introverted, intellectual meditations?

Here’s my hunch – there are at least two ways all of this matters – one is cosmic or macro and the other is intimate and personal. To know the Lord of the wilderness is to experience a love and power that is so vast and grand that most of our puny indiscretions and sins shrivel up and become irrelevant – they even look absurd – in contrast or comparison. It is to confess and celebrate the enormity of God’s greatness and grace in a way that puts our fears and shame into perspective.

+  Let me ask you: have you ever spent any time in a place of wilderness? It could be the Grand Canyon – or parts of the great American desert in the Southwest – or in the forests and mountains of Montana and the Dakotas

+  Where have you encountered and experienced something of the wilderness – and what did it feel like to you?

One of the spiritual mentors I often use as a guide is Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Contemplation and Action in New Mexico.  His writing and reflections are a touchstone for me when I am trying to discern why something biblical matters. Not long ago he wrote this and it speaks to the God of the wilderness to me – let’s see what it says to you.

YOU are about LIFE.  Before a unifying or transformative encounter with God or
creation, almost all people substitute the part for the whole and take their little part far too seriously—both in its greatness and in its badness. But after any true God experience, you know that you are a part of a much bigger whole. That is you know that life is not about you; you are about life. You are part of a universal and even eternal pattern. Life is living itself in you.

+  Are you still with me?  Do you hear what he’s trying to say:  that when we have been touched and embraced and encountered by the enormity of God’s love, our part in the totality is given perspective?

+  We grasp that too often we treat both our sins and our celebrations as too important?  I’ll ask you for your reactions in just a moment, but let me finish this quote.

(Such an awareness of God’s vast love and power) is an earthquake in the brain, a hurricane in the heart, a Copernican revolution of the mind, and a monumental shift in consciousness. Frankly, most do not seem interested.
Understanding that your life is not about you is the connection point with everything else. It lowers the mountains and fills in the valleys that we have created, as we gradually recognize that the myriad forms of life in the universe, including ourselves, are operative parts of the One Life that most of us call God.

And here’s the part that blows my mind and cuts to the chase about WHY and HOW this matters.

After such a discovery, I am grateful to be a part—but only a part! I do not have to figure it all out, straighten it all out or even do it perfectly by myself. I do not have to be God. It is an enormous weight off my back. All I have to do is participate! My holiness is first of all and really only God’s, and that’s why it is certain and secure —and always holy. It is my participation, my mutual indwelling, but never my achievement or performance…. True spirituality is not taught; it is caught once our sails have been unfurled to the Spirit. Henceforth, our very motivation and momentum for the journey toward holiness and wholeness is just immense gratitude—for already having it!

+  Did you get what Rohr was saying?  Can somebody summarize all of that in your own words…?

+  And what do you think about this insight – that the enormity of God’s love and power not only reminds us of our small place within it (freeing us from fretting so much about our sins and accomplishments) – but also shows us how we are connected to something so much bigger than us that all we have to do is respond in gratitude?

It seems to me that one of the blessings of wilderness – as reality and as part of the biblical story – is to give us God’s perspective on our lives.  It shows us that we are a part – a beautiful, loving but nevertheless small part – of the whole.  That is part of the reason why the gospel tells us that the Spirit of God drove Jesus out into the wilderness:  did you notice that choice of words? It wasn’t a studied choice or a deliberate action: the Holy Spirit drove him out into the wilderness where he fasted and wrestled with his demons for 40 days and 40 nights.  There are two really wonderful truths being shared with us in poetic and narrative form here: 

+  The first is a vision of harmony between heaven and humanity, creation and all that is a part of it, during the baptism of Jesus. When he comes up out of the Jordan we have an image of integrity in creation:  the sky opens up, the heavens announce Christ as the beloved, the Spirit is present, the waters and air and even our flesh participate in an act of gratitude.

+  And the second points to something that is essential for every one of us – a vision quest – a spiritual encounter with the vastness of God’s love so that we grasp and own our part in the enormity of grace.  Jesus is driven out into the wilderness so that he too can see where he fits in the plan.

In this Jesus is a symbol for you and me – we need to know, as Fr. Rohr wrote, that we are not the center of the universe. Before a transformative encounter with God or creation, almost all people substitute the part for the whole and take their little part far too seriously—both in its greatness and in its badness.

But afterwards… well what does the gospel tell us?  Jesus found his place in the wilderness even as he wrestled with demons and let the angels and animals minister to him. That’s the first macro reason why Wilderness Sunday matters – and here’s the news you can use summary – something I shared with you from Frederick Buechner earlier in the Spring:

Don't Worry, Trust God. Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter.

+  Are you with me?

+  Before I continue let me stop and ask what you what you think about this – does any of it hold any beauty or power or meaning for you – and questions?

Ok, now here’s the other reason I think this maters – the small, micro and personal reason this matters:  listening the groaning of creation – the weeping of the four-legged ones, the agony of the birds of the air and the fish of the sea to say nothing of the cries of our trees and land – invites us to hear the tears all around us and to respond with tenderness.  We aren’t being asked to solve every problem.  We aren’t being scolded for not doing something huge or changing the course of history. Listening more carefully and responding with tenderness helps us live more fully our heart.  It strengthens compassion and encourages living in harmony rather than discord. And here’s what I mean:

Loving and caring for my strange and often skittish dog Lucie does not change the world in any obvious way – but it changes me.

·   Since she has come into our life I have become a little more patient, a little more aware of how my life affects hers, a little more conscious of how my tenderness might ease a little of her suffering.

·   In a way, Lucie has been a spiritual guide for me, showing me how to become more tender and that has a number of consequences – not the least of which involves the couple hundred people I meet and talk with every week. They, too have wounds and pain, they too are riddled with anxieties and blessings, hopes and fears. 

·   And truth be told I’m not always aware – or sensitive of the needs of others – I can miss the clues in profound and sad way.  And not because I want to, but because I’m too wrapped up in my own agenda and my own hopes and fears.  But my four legged spiritual director, Lucie, shows me what a dead end that can be – how I lose out by not sharing tenderness – and how others do, too.
 
It is a small thing, right? But I’ve learned over the two years she has been in our home that the more I pay attention, the better I am at living into the values I most value and respect.  Listening to creation groaning evokes the best in us – right where we live – so that we can share our best with those who need us. I just read a tragic story from Japan. Maybe you know about this, too.  There are coves along the coast of Japan:

… where one can hear the penetrating screams from dolphins being murdered. It seems that fishermen pound the water with metal poles to confuse these sound-sensitive creatures – the dolphins – and in their confusion they are herded into covers where they are then slaughtered and sold in tins at the supermarket. The dolphins know what is happening to them, they know they are being murdered. Like humans they are self-aware and groan in anticipation. After spikes are driven into their heads, they are held under water until the blood pours out. They take five minutes to die and all the they are bleeding out their companions are crying in sympathy as the sea runs red with blood. (The Advertiser, Oct. 31, 2003, p. 3)

·   The apostle Paul tells us that as the whole creation groans, the Spirit of God groans, too for the Lord shares our pain – the pain of all of creation – a pain that is raised up as sighs too deep for human words.

·   And as we ache, as creation groans, the Spirit intercedes for us – comes to us with a presence of grace – that is also deeper than human words.

Theologians and those far smarter than I have said this is akin to Christ crying
out on the Cross:  Jesus felt all the agony of human suffering on the Cross – a sign and symbol to us that God feels our pain – and here we’re told the Holy Spirit joins us with sighs too deep for human words in the midst of creation groaning. 

+  Knowing that God is with me in my fears and pain doesn’t take away the agony; knowing that the Spirit is with all of creation in our groaning doesn’t make it any less horrible or ugly.

+  And yet knowing God’s presence is with me allows me to continue even in the most broken experiences of life.  And more than continue, says St. Paul in Romans 5, knowing that God is with me in my pain I can trust that my suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and this hope does not disappoint because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

There is a big picture that empowers us NOT to worry but to trust – there is a little picture that invites us to listen more loudly and live more tenderly – and there is a cosmic picture that assures us that God is with us even in our worst agony and fear.  And I don’t know if there is any BETTER news we can use, beloved, so let those who have ears to hear, hear the good news for today.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sweet SOUL music...

I am a bit slow on the uptake this year - who knows why - but it is time to announce, recruit, proclaim and celebrate:

 8th Annual Festival of American Music 
Wednesday, November 26th 2014
 7 pm
(Leonid Afremov - Guitar and Soul)

FIRST CHURCH ON PARK SQUARE
27 East Street, Pittsfield, MA
A benefit for emergency fuel assistance in the Berkshires
27 East Street, Pittsfield, MA 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mysterious ways...

Affirmations come to those who wait - and I'm not so good with waiting. That said, this weekend has been a bit of a test and I've found myself wrestling with demons that I thought were long dead and buried. Or at least on extended vacation. The details of what triggered this inner debacle are less significant than the inner fears and doubts they exposed. Imagine my surprise this morning to read this from Fr. Richard Rohr:

Before a unitive encounter with God or creation, almost all people will substitute the part for the whole and take their little part far too seriously—both in its greatness and in its badness. But after any true God experience, you know that you are a part of a much bigger whole. Life is not about you; you are about life. You are an instance of a universal and even eternal pattern. Life is living itself in you. It is an earthquake in the brain, a hurricane in the heart, a Copernican revolution of the mind, and a monumental shift in consciousness. Frankly, most do not seem interested.

Understanding that your life is not about you is the connection point with everything else. It lowers the mountains and fills in the valleys that we have created, as we gradually recognize that the myriad forms of life in the universe, including ourselves, are operative parts of the One Life that most of us call God. After such a discovery, I am grateful to be a part—and only a part! I do not have to figure it all out, straighten it all out, or even do it perfectly by myself. I do not have to be God. It is an enormous weight off my back. All I have to do is participate! My holiness is first of all and really only God’s, and that’s why it is certain and secure—and always holy. It is a participation, a mutual indwelling, not an achievement or performance on my part.

After this epiphany, things like praise, gratitude, and compassion come naturally—like breath and air. True spirituality is not taught; it is caught once our sails have been unfurled to the Spirit. Henceforth, our very motivation and momentum for the journey toward holiness and wholeness is just immense gratitude—for already having it!

And just to make sure I was listening, later in the day I received a hand-written letter of compassion and gratitude from one of my dearest friends. It, too, helped soothe my angst by reminding me that when I rest and trust, I am connected to life - a living part of life - but not the whole of it because life is NOT about me. Later, when we walked in the quiet woods, I had the chance to listen to my favorite sound in all creation: a soft flowing forest stream. Di tells me that's one of the differences between us:  she chooses to walk beside the lake and I opt for the quiet woods with the stream.
In an odd way I am grateful for being so rattled these past few days: it put a few things into perspective and gave me some clues about more prayers for healing. God works in mysterious ways...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Prayers of healing...

Sometimes we are hurt: every now and again it is intentional, but more often than not these wounds are unintentional. One of the blessings of Celtic spirituality is the way it links the truths of the earth to our encounters with the soul. One prayer, Lord of the Morning, puts it like this:

Bless to us, O God, this day, fresh made.
In the chorus of birds, bless us.
In the scent of blossom, bless us.
In the wet grass and the spring of flowers, bless us.
Bless us and heal us,
for we come to you in love and in trust.
We come to you in expectant hope.

O God, give us a well of tears
to wash away the hurts of our lives.
O God, give us a well of tears
to cleanse the wounds,
to bathe the battered face of our world.
O God, give us a well of tears
or we are left like arid earth
unsanctified.

Heal us and your grieving world
of all that harms us.
By the power of your resurrection
restore us to new life,
set us on new paths,
bring us from darkness to light,
help us to choose hope.

Jesus says, "Pick up your bed and walk."
Pick up the bed of your sorrows and fears,
pick up the bed of your grief and your sin,
pick up your life and come, come follow him.

I claim two truths from this prayer - probably more.  First, the blessings of God's healing forgiveness are greater and more abundant that our wounds. I must trust that at times when I don't "feel" it.  And second, the evidence of these abundant blessings are heralded by the rise of the sun each day. There is nothing I can do to prevent God's grace except ignore/refuse it. It is there for me and free for the taking.

One of the truths of our wounds is that they give us a chance to do better - to make amends - to learn from our mistakes. Lord, let me pick up my bed and follow the one of blessings.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The sensuality and celebration of all that is created...

When I was ordained into Christian ministry 32 years ago, my mentor - Ray
Swartzback - preached a message entitled, "Trapped in the Trappings." Brother Ray was a genius and a giant when preaching. And at the heart of his message was this gem: don't allow your wounds, your ego or your congregation trap you in the trappings of ministry. Rather, let the love of God made flesh in Christ shine in everything you do; anything less will burn you out and diminish the light of of Christ. 

He was right. As long as I stayed grounded in love - love of God, love of others and love of self - the absurdity of ministry made sense and I was saturated with joy. Whenever I thought too highly of myself, however, or when I let the pressures to be successful run the show, ministry became a drag and I ached to get out. I recall reading a slim volume by George MacLeod, the Church of Scotland minister who reclaimed and rebuilt the ministry of Iona during the Great Depression, shortly before my ordination. I knew then that his Celtic spirituality rang more true to me than the Calvinism of my youth. MacLeod's insistence that the whole earth cried glory - and was filled with the living presence of the Lord - resonated with my heart and my head in ways that my Reformed tradition's teaching concerning the total depravity of humanity did not. 

But none of the existing texts celebrating Celtic spirituality offered a clearly articulated alternative to the status quo: most resources were either pseudo-Druidic ramblings or New Age romantic paeans to a time long gone. MacLeod spoke with a passion that was attractive, but at the time I was unable to learn about the intellectual and spiritual practices that strengthened his Celtic faith. So, I stumbled about on my own while exploring two streams of what I now know as embodied Celtic practices: the conviction that all of creation is good rather than fallen, and, the hunch that nourishing all our senses in truth, beauty and goodness is a living prayer. 

My first spiritual discipline for discerning the goodness of all creation was music. I kept finding non-religious songs that spoke more honestly about my experience in the world than almost any of the traditional hymns. Not that I didn't find solace and insight in hymns, too. But the music of the streets and airwaves carried a whole lot more love and prophetic challenge to me than what I heard in church. Take Bruce Springsteen's confessional "Living Proof." He must have been reading my emails when he wrote this - especially the part where he almost weeps, "you do a lot sad and hurtful things when it's you you're trying to lose... you do some sad and hurtful things and I've seen living proof."

In time I found the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who gave me another way to express this quest for the goodness within all creation in his poem: "I Saw Christ Today."

I saw Christ today
At a street corner stand
In the rags of a beggar he stood
He held ballads in his hand

He was crying out "Two a penny
Will anyone buy
The finest ballads ever made
From the stuff of joy"
But the blind and deaf went past
Knowing only there
An uncouth ballad seller
With tail-matted hair

And IO whom men call fool
His ballads bought
Found him who the pieties
Have vainly sought.

Today I better grasp why I find the buzz of the holy in the sounds of improvised jazz as well as U2, Sarah McLachlan and Leonard Cohen: God is not only still speaking, but God is fully present within the totality of creation. When I was finally able to visit Iona, during the 20th anniversary of ordination, I was able to get my hands on the prayers of MacLeod and other interpretive writings and my grasp of Celtic spirituality deepened. (Just a take a listen to U2's newest offering: pure bliss!)


Invisible we see You, Christ above us.
With earthy eyes we see above us, clouds or sunshine, grey or bright.
But with the eye of faith we know you reign:
instinct in the sun ray
speaking in the storm,
warming and moving all creation, Christ above us.
We do not see all things subject unto You.
But we know that man is made to rise.
Already exalted, already honoured, even now our
citizenship is in heaven
Christ above us, invisible we see You.
Invisible we see You, Christ beneath us.
With earthly eyes we see beneath us stones and dust and dross,
fit subjects for the analyst’s table.
But with the eye of faith, we know You uphold.
In You all things consist and hang together:
the very atom is light energy
the grass is vibrant,
the rock pulsate.
All is in flux, turn but a stone and an angel moves.
Underneath are the everlasting arms.
Unknowable we know you, Christ beneath us.


The other practice that I stumbled upon intuitively - and later intentionally - involves feasting wherein all the senses celebrate the God of glory and love. Before I became a person of faith, I used to bake bread - and it was a living time of prayer for me. Mixing the earthy ingredients connected me to the grittiness of life, kneading the dough invited me to get physical and intimate with my food, waiting gave me time to read and sit quietly - and then eating freshly baked bread! It was a taste of heaven on earth. Only later did I learn that part of Celtic spirituality has to do with the way our senses invite us into communion with the Lord.

Most of my Reformed heritage worked to denigrate and diminish the sensual; I didn't now why, but it was clear that being "spiritual" was more about giving things up than embracing them fully. But how could I deny the sensual goodness of freshly baked bread? It seemed sinful to pretend it wasn't an ecstatic experience. Same with feasting with friends - or welcoming strangers - or smelling lilacs - or being consumed by a lover. It was all good - very, very good as God said in the beginning - so I trusted the goodness and sought a way to understand it.


A book by Joy Mead, published by Iona, One Loaf: an Everyday Celebration, gave me some of the words and tools to affirm the blessings of all that is truly sensual and holy.  One poem in particular, Bread-time, cuts to the chase:


Because bread won't be hurried
we have to learn to let it be,
to do nothing, to be patient,
to wait for the proving.
Because bread won't be hurried
and is a life and death process,
we find out in its making
that time is not a line
but a cycle of ends and beginnings
rhythms and seasons,
growth and death,
celebrations and mourning,
work and rest,
eating and fasting,
because bread won't be hurried.

Here is the very essence of Celtic spiritual disciplines, yes? She puts it like this in another poem:

Paul, it seems, thought
truth and sincerity to be in the history
and purity of unleavened bread.
But wasn't it more
the haste of a people
anxious to leave captivity
and so with no time
to wait for a rising.

I wonder.
Didn't Jesus show us
truth and hope
in the light and lovely
pleasure-making, wholly joy-filled,
god-given, fully-leavened loaf
enjoyed while watching
the flowers of the fields.

Do this, he said
take wine and bread
together
fruit and grain
old customs
old ways.
I make them now
in the irreversible power 
of community.

Today, as the grayness of a New England autumn takes hold of the Berkshires; today, as the cool air awakens and refreshes my skin; today, as I walk about the yard and notice not only the brown dead leaves but the vibrant gold and red ones, too: I am aware of a new season.  It is a time of preparation and a time of anticipation. Winter is coming, but it has not yet arrived. So there are pumpkins to be picked and bread to be baked. There is insulation to be readied and clothes to be put away as sweaters replace sandals and shorts. The wisdom tradition of Israel, long embraced by Celtic Christianity, tells us to acknowledge with our sense that to everything there is a season... a time to dance under the moon, a time to bake some more bread and hoist a pint for all that is good and gracious.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The wisdom and promise of Celtic mysticism...

Many people attuned to the song of the soul sense that we are standing on the
precipice of something new: a new spiritual awakening, a new commitment to the common good, a new way of integrating the spirit with the flesh, a new unity between the personal and the political. As I listen more carefully to their insights and longings, my hunch is that this emerging newness is more apt to be a 21st century incarnation of our ancient mystical traditions than a totally new creation. As the worldly-wise preacher of Israel wrote 300 years before Christ: 

 What do people gain from all the toil
   at which they toil under the sun? 
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
   but the earth remains for ever…
What has been is what will be,
   and what has been done is what will be done;
   there is nothing new under the sun. 

Still, it is evident that there is a vigorous, post-modern quest for a new/old spirituality taking place throughout the churches of the US. And the good news is that Celtic mysticism offers some time-tested alternatives to both the vapid sentimentalism that so often informs popular piety, as well as the arid formality of the once religious mainstream. Like the wise Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, quipped at the end of the 20th century: "The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’ . . . or will cease to be anything at all.”

J. Philip Newell, Warden of Spirituality for the Anglican diocese of Portsmouth, makes a strong case that in our quest for a new/old mystical revival, the first Celtic theologian, Pelagius, offers invaluable alternatives to the status quo. Three broad areas of his theology are illustrative of his unique mystical wisdom that has resonance with this moment in time.

+ First, this ancient Celtic saint/heretic not only celebrated the  inherit goodness of creation, he sensed God's presence deep within it. God neither created the world only to step back into benign observation nor did the Lord fashion creation as a mere parable of the holy. God is infused in all of nature because in the beginning, "when God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature; it was that his breath had brought every creature to life.

Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God's spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God's spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God's eyes, nothing on earth is ugly.

Newell goes on to note that because "Pelagius saw God as present within all that had life, he understood Jesus' command to love our neighbor as ourself to mean loving not only our human neighbor but all of life forms that surround us. So that when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree, we are participating in the fullness of God's love." With the mobilization of the Climate March in NYC only one week away - an event calling for a new and compassionate relationship to all of creation - the Celtic mysticism of this ancient theologian rings out with surprising relevance. Indeed, in this liturgical season of "creation," I am discovering long forgotten insights about where I am embraced by God's grace in my ordinary life.

+ Second, the Celtic mystical theologian, Pelagius, was grounded in the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. He taught that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Wisdom tradition - the embodiment of Sophia - as he lived his common life with insight and humility. In this, Celtic mysticism is more concerned with right living - compassionate, honest and real - than right thinking. This is, of course, a challenge to the institutional Church of all traditions that too often insists that they - and they alone - posses the key to both correct wisdom and right living for people of faith. Small wonder that over the past 50 years so many tender and thinking people of all Christian denominations have voted with their feet and simply left. They continue to love Jesus, but can no longer abide with a bureaucratic and judgmental institution knowing full well that Jesus taught: God desires mercy not judgment!

This morning's NY Times noted that some religious traditions are starting to grasp what real people having been saying for decades: we need a church that is long on compassion and short on judgment. We desire mercy not sacrifice. We want our worship to resonate with our ordinary lives and speak to us in ways that help us mature in faith, hope and love. (for more see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/12/upshot/church-is-becoming-more-informal-just-like-the-rest-of-society.html?ref=todayspaper& _r=0&abt=0002&abg=1

+ And third, the Celtic mysticism of Pelagius is bathed in a celebration of God's image in a newborn child. He does not insist on the primacy of sin at the start of life as both the Reformed and Roman Catholic world do. He opposes the binary theology of Augustine who insists that all sin is physically and spiritually a reality of heredity - passed on through the mother's womb - so that we begin life broken and depraved. Pelagius does not deny or diminish the reality of sin, but questions the wisdom and truth of such a harsh assessment. It simply does not square with the God of steadfast love and mercy, especially as embodied in Christ. Newell writes that the challenge of Pelagius:

...stood in stark contrast to Augustine's thinking and the developing spirituality of the Church in the Roman world, which accentuated the evil in humanity and our essential unrighteousness. Augustine, with his sharp awareness of the pervasiveness of wrong-doing in the world, stated that the human child is born depraved and humanity's sinful nature has been sexually transmitted from one generation to the next, stretching from Adam to the present. Augustine believed that from conception and birth we lack the image of God until it is restored in the sacrament of baptism, and that conception involves us in the sinfulness of nature, sexual intercourse being associated with lustful desire. 

The perspective... of Pelagius, on the other hand, is that to look into the face of a newborn is to look at the image of God; he maintained that creation is essentially good and that the sexual dimension of procreation is God-given. The emphasis that would increasingly be developed in the Celtic tradition was that in the birth of a child God is giving birth to his image on earth. 

As I enter this day of Sabbath rest and reflection, as I look upon the beauty just outside my window this morning - or embrace some of the mystery of being in my strange puppy's eyes as she looks at me and evokes only love - I find that I am more and more certain that the path of Celtic mysticism is my spiritual home. It takes practice, however, to grow into this alternative way of living and seeing. Fr. Richard Rohr makes clear that simply knowing is not enough: if we are to live into the promise of mystical love, we must practice - and we must especially practice some type of quiet contemplation.

Contemplation is the key to unlocking the attachments and addictions of the mind so that we can see clearly. I think some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear.

I find most people operate not out of “consciousness,” but out of their level of practiced brain function, which relies on early-life conditioning and has little to do with God encounter or grace or mercy or freedom or love. We primarily operate from habituated patterns based on what Mom told me, what went wrong when I was young, and the defense mechanisms I learned that helped me to be right and good, to be first and famous, or whatever I may want to be. These are not all bad but they are not all good either.

All of that old and practiced thinking has to be recognized and
accounted for, which is the work of contemplation. Without contemplation, you don’t see clearly. Everything is all about you, and you just keep seeing everything through your own agenda, anger, and wounds. Isn’t that most people you know?  Few ever achieve much inner freedom. Contemplation, sadly, helps you see your woundedness! That’s why most people do not stay long with contemplative prayer, because it’s not very glorious. It’s a continual humiliation, realizing, “Oh my God, I did it again. I still don’t know how to love!”

We need some form of contemplative practice that touches our unconscious conditioning, where all our wounds lie, where all our defense mechanisms are operative secretly. Once these are not taken so seriously, there is finally room for the inrushing of God and grace!

The way of humility and compassion, informed by this new/old mysticism, is a treasure to be practiced, explored, celebrated and shared. Lord, may it be so for me today.