An American Lament

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Vincent Castiglia – “Lament”

When life began shuttering for all of us back in March, I found myself once again on the run and beginning to feel as if I couldn’t breathe.  If you read back to the blogs I posted back in March, the sense of darkness was surfacing, tossing and turning at night, overwhelmed by once again the feeling of drowning.  It was the sense of loss, feeling homeless, a looming pandemic, and admittedly, the humility it takes to move home, even if temporarily, after more than twenty years away.  I could literally feel it on my chest, like I couldn’t breathe.

If you’re a regular reader, you know it’s nothing new for me, the sense of having my breath taken away.  One of the most pivotal moments in my life was nearly drowning while whitewater rafting on the Ohiopyle River in Western Pennsylvania.  It was not only the weight of a raft atop me, but the weight of the handful of men in the raft, and even the weight of a life flashing before my eyes, my life as it seemed to be coming to an abrupt end in a matter of seconds although feeling like minutes.  I couldn’t breathe.

If we can ever admit, or take the time to become aware, most of us at one time or another know that feeling of drowning or being unable to breathe.  We’ve witnessed the story of George Floyd this past week, a man pinned to the ground for what we now know to be nearly 9 minutes with a knee to his throat.  I’ll never admit to understanding I know what it feels like, but I do know the feeling of oppression and the weight of the world and all powers plopped down on top of me, unable to move, breathe, or even live life fully.  It’s the point which often goes unspoken, but believe it has more to do with the fact most don’t know their drowning because it’s often in their own grief.

It takes a great deal of humility to admit something is wrong and needing help, especially for men.  It’s not a surprise to anyone, men are more prone to suppress and repress how they feel and takes a lot of pushing before it begins to spill over.  We’re much better at taking it out on others than we are on allowing the pain to be transformed within us.  If we compound years of anger, hurt, and resentment, with now nearly three months of quarantine and lock-downs, it shouldn’t shock us when it begins to reach a boil and no one willing to turn back the heat.  It becomes, sadly, a political game with each of us as pawns, pushed to stand against so-called beliefs rather than with a hurting people.

We have before us many failing institutions.  It doesn’t mean their surmise; however, it does mean change is necessary, now more than ever.  We find ourselves surrounded by institutions which have become self-serving, which naturally take an oppressive approach because they become about power, and inevitably, an abuse of power.  We certainly see it in our political system, crumbling infrastructures, waffling cities, irrelevant religious institutions driven more by politics, money, and keeping the natives intact.  Is it any wonder we find ourselves now at a boiling point with the fear of only getting worse as this political season heats up?

I, of course, can only speak of my own experience.  There is even a part of me lamenting the rush of churches reopening.  As someone who’s been on the inside, there is great value and still have a resounding faith, but like most institutions, we refuse to look at the whole.  Now more than ever, churches need to move beyond the walls and out into the streets.  The thought of closing church into the confines of a wall gives the sense of suffocation, unable to breathe.  Over time we gradually are lulled into believing the world is bad, dark, evil, or any word you choose to describe.  However, it’s no different than an individual closing in on him or her-self. 

Over time, we become isolated, self-consumed, and breakdown communication.  It doesn’t mean we can’t function in the world; we still work, gather around people, and do what we need to do, but all in anticipation of locking ourselves back up again, feeling like we can once again breathe as we “leave” the world.  Before we quickly return to get our “fix” of comfort, we need to take a look at the world and what’s happening.  Again, I must say, I’m not against any of it; however, more needs to be expected of such an institution claiming transformation at its heart.  It’s also not simply my own faith background; it’s religion in America which fears the world and change and yet paradoxically choosing death over life by not changing systemically.

There is much to lament these days.  There are the countless people killed, hundreds of thousands dying of disease and viruses, at times looking like we don’t care, inequalities we prefer to make judgment of than deal with, failing institutions, increasing debt, anxiety through the roof, thousands upon thousands on prescription drugs for depression and other mental health issues, people yelling at one another unable to listen, pain boiling over, lack of care or concern for the other, selfishness, survival over living, transactional mindsets, empty words and speeches, generational trauma, and the list goes on an on.  Who are the people benefiting from this “normal”?  Is it “normal”?  Why is there a rush to return to “normal”?  Do you see why we shouldn’t rush to once again close off from the world?  It’s understandable why we make it “normal”; who wants to confront the pain of others when we can’t deal with our own!

When we break it down, we’ve lost our ability to dialogue as humans.  We’ve disconnected from our heart and try to understand through an ego which will always try to defend and protect.  Our greatest lament is the loss of our humanity in our institutions and beyond.  People are suffering on levels requiring self-aware leaders, free of the confines of institutional boundaries of cufflinks, dress and three-piece suits, a willingness, as Pope Francis says, “to smell like the sheep”.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed in the pain and suffering of the world, we find ourselves unable to breathe by our own hypocrisy as a fellow human on the journey.  I know; I’ve been there.  Even writing about it brings up the feeling within me, reminding me of a life once lived not my own.  We lament the institutional freedom for true freedom.

As Americans we must lament.  We must grieve in these days.  We must learn to let go of our expectations, dreams unlived, our resentments and anger.  We must go out among the ones we deemed “profane” and listen to their story as well.  It’s not only our story which we find crumbling; it’s everyone’s story.  We need to write a new story for future generations, weaving together the great parts of our tradition with their own vision for tomorrow.  It’s not going to be the same.  It can’t be the same.  It mustn’t be the same.  We need to lament, most of all, a return to “normal”.  If one does not benefit from a return, then none of us do.  We must understand the one who’s been pushed from the top, being held underwater.  They have a perspective and a voice which must be heard, whether we agree or not.  For lamenting is not about agreeing or disagreeing.  It’s about grieving a heart which has hurt, a heart which will continue to scream out from underneath the raft until it’s given its voice to speak.  As Americans, it’s time to lament…

Softening Gorge

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“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”     Norman Maclean

I have spent a great deal of time sitting, walking, and hiking along the Lehigh River and the endless paths of the Lehigh Gorge these two months of distancing. I’ve watched it from a variety of angles, different times of the day, even in differing weather conditions. There’s something quite captivating about listening to the running water as it washes over the rocks. During this time, I could only imagine the chill of it as it rushes along, always seeming like it has somewhere to be and yet nowhere to go all at the same time. The rocks, although we know otherwise, are rather ill-phased by the rush of the water, as if they stand as a stabilizing force against the youthful nature of the water. Maybe it is part of the attraction of the water, knowing there were days earlier in life when I felt invincible against it and now relate more to the grounding rocks than the rage of the water, as if I have learned there’s more to life.

The draw to the water, though, is something internal. It’s the youthfulness of the heart that draws back. I suppose over our lives we fight this spirit, thinking the rocks know better and are going to outdo the waters. We become jaded, hard-hearted, and bitter before life, fighting this youthfulness. However, in these days and weeks sitting there listening to the waters flow, it’s as if my heart leaps for joy, as if it has returned to its home and natural state. Isn’t it always the heart which takes the brunt of our rigidness, fighting off its natural capacity to soften our edges, as if we know better than the heart? We don’t. I don’t. The heart, like the waters, are relentless in their pursuit of our attention.

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Glistening waters along the Lehigh in Rockport

Sure, at times it seems to subside to nearly no movement and even stagnant, but never arid enough to quiet the possibility. The water always seems to make its presence known even when it slows to nearly nothing. Our anger, hurt, pain, seem as if it’s going to do everything to kill the spirit and, of course, at times it does. It often takes something radical or an abrupt change before it once again is awakened and movement becomes unstoppable. The amount of energy it takes to hold onto and to try to control the contours of the water is unbearable. I can try all I want. However, the force of the water far outweighs the grounded dams we construct for ourselves. We are surrounded by plenty of Wonders which remind us of the relentlessness of the spirit of water and its ability to change a landscape, even if over centuries. It is the tireless pursuit of the spirit of the waters keeping it so young and glittering against the spring sun. It is the same relentless spirit determined to change the landscape of my heart.

As Maclean writes, I am haunted by the waters. The waters, at times, have wreaked havoc in my life. The haunting isn’t as much a hallows eve scare as much as it is a deep respect for its nature and ability. However, now in retrospect, it was a fear of the spirit coursing itself through me. It was the edges of my own mind and ego which thought it always knew better than the spirit, and did all it could to suppress it and change its course in order to avoid spilling over the edges. Think about it, when water forces you to confront your own mortality, won’t you do anything you can to avoid such pain again? Little did I know, at such times, of how relentless it would be in vying for my attention, to the point of nearly feeling like I’m drowning on a daily basis, of fear, hurt, pain, and grief. The cleansing power it carries seemed all but a theory in those moments, but now, a recognition of my own self avoiding such a cleanse as if all which stood so firmly was my deepest identity, yet always coming up short. It is this spirit, after all, which defines me and you. It is the heart which claims our deepest self, where waters run freely and consistently.

So, I sit here, simply listening to the movement, as if it aligns itself with the movement of the heart. While here there is a oneness like none other, kids playing together without a care in the world and the rocks sit quietly and patiently no longer needing to control but allowing the waters to flow freely. It’s like the elders and icons of the natural world enjoying the moment for what it is. There’s something quite captivating about the glittering evoked, like the sparkle in the eye of child, a return to innocence. It’s not there to reminisce of who I once was but rather to remind me of who I always am and how easily it is to let the sparkle go. Rocks can be just as relentless, trying to tell us to be something or someone other than. Not these rocks, though. They simply allow the waters to flow where they will, reaching every crevice and crack to reignite an aging earth and for the first time capture the aged truth where all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

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Leaning Into Life

Although not discussed in great detail, I was watching an interview this week from a representative from WebMD about trends on searches during this time of pandemic. It was interesting to note the shift taking place in what people feel they need during this time, first on how long the virus survives on surfaces, when it first began, to now loneliness and depression. It seems like a radical shift as a majority of us quickly approach the second month of quarantine and social distancing and what it’s doing to us psychologically and spiritually. It may be true this pandemic is making us somewhat “stir-crazy”, understandable knowing what it’s been like together and individually. However, what we fail to recognize is the pandemic, in many ways, is simply allowing what has been for some time to rise to the surface and making sure we have nowhere to run, giving us the opportunity to no longer run from our own shadow, scaring us half to death. It begins to rear itself in our dreams and other means demanding our attention.

I’ve been depressed and experienced a deep moral loneliness, as so many readers’ have experienced in their lives or may be for the first time during this pandemic. I have had to take medication along the way in order to assist me in the process, giving the necessary bump to deal with the shadow of my own life in which I was running. If we stop simply at meds, though, we never actually deal with the problem of loneliness and moments like we find ourselves begin to feel excruciating. It truly is an invisible enemy easily masked until we are forced to stop or tragedy strikes, no longer making logical sense of the lives we’ve learned to box up and wrap neatly. It leads, unfortunately, to living a double-life which deepens the loneliness. Now, though, we find ourselves no longer able to run.

I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to any of it. However, most of us have had the experience of living double-lives, growing the gulf within us leading to this sense of darkness. Our identities have a tendency to be wrapped up in what we do, in our work, so when we find ourselves at home, week after week, our ability to run from the pain associated with this loneliness seems nearly impossible. It’s no wonder places selling alcohol become “essential” places because it so often is used as a numbing drug in order to take away the pain, when in reality, only deepens the pain to the point where it feels like there’s an abyss within our soul and we find ourselves freefalling into the darkness. There is a reason many need to go back to work. Certainly, there is the financial element for millions of people right now, but on a human side, so many do not know who they are without working, and working to the point of addiction. If we’re not producing then there must be something wrong with us.

I can recall days in my own life, when, upon finishing working, I dreaded going home. I dreaded the pain which would begin to surface within me because I was feeding an identity not my own. I can recall the level of pain I experienced at times in my life because of the gulf existing between work and home. Home became a place to fear and dread because I couldn’t outrun the pain. All I could ever do was numb it with whatever was available, often food for myself. I feel for the people who find themselves in this position today, after nearly decades of their lives working and being able to leave home to escape themselves. As ridiculous as it seems, I can even feel for people protesting. In the various images I have seen, you can literally see the pain in their faces as they arm themselves with guns and such, giving them a sense of power, in which has felt lost. They’ve lost their outlet and can no longer avoid themselves. Unfortunately, though, there’s always someone ready to capitalize on the pain of others. I remember needing to deal with the regrets in my life, the resentments I was holding onto, all aimed at myself, blaming myself, living out of my own victimhood. It was a feeling as if the world was consistently working against me and I allowed it. Anything to avoid the inevitable flip of the mirror of me staring back at myself, unable to run from my own hurt and pain. I will say, in my experience, men are much more susceptible to this type because they are driven by work.

We have a tendency to limit the pain of loneliness to elements of this pandemic, such as social distancing and the absence of physical touch. This may be true to a point and we can allow ourselves to feel the pain of separation in this way. However, I don’t believe it’s the deep loneliness and darkness some are experiencing these days. There is certainly a level of grief connected to the pandemic. I too am living in the same way, at the house I grew up in, but I by no means feel lonely. I don’t feel the sense of separation from myself. If, though, our identity isn’t wrapped up in our work and what we produce, it can also be tied to what others tell us we are, dependent upon what others think and believe about us. This too leads to a separation from ourselves. As shallow as our culture can be, generally speaking, we’ve lost the sense of transformation and even how to go about doing it and so we live in a perpetual state of anxiousness because of this gulf within ourselves.

There is nothing easy about loneliness, which can lead to depression for many. There is also no quick fix in dealing with it. The rush to normalcy calls to mind just how much we loathe the necessity to allow things to die, especially our thinking and mindset. The rush to normalcy is fed by the fear and anxiety we face in having no where to run from ourselves. Although I don’t know statistics, it would be interesting to see numbers on domestic abuse, alcoholism, increased addiction to pain meds, and all the other numbing elements occurring during this time. It comes down to this very basic principle of knowing ourselves and beginning to close the gap between the persona we present at work, in relationships, etc. and the person who lays his or her head on the pillow at night, the one time when we are truly alone. Our economy, our politics, religion, job, all want to define us in one way or another and slowly we take on their identity as consumer, party affiliate, winner, loser, sinner, hard-worker, and we begin to believe this is finally the identity which defines me.

However, none of them do. None of them. As all of these identities have slowly been stripped of us the past month, we are left with our own poverty, our own sense of abyss within ourselves which doesn’t need to be feared but rather which we surrender to the voice calling us to enter into our own darkness, our loneliness, not to be consumed by it, but to feel our way through the darkened corners of our hearts and souls and to claim it. We need not fear the terror of the night! I have written it in all these posts these weeks, we are all being given a golden opportunity! In an addictive and co-dependent culture within so many of our institutions and organizations, we have been set free from what has bound us most. It’s no wonder they rush to get us back! We help in feeding these masters, these ghouls, decorating us with lavish identities, hiding our poverty and making us feel rich!

My friends, and all who read this day, what is your relationship with the ghouls which have identified you? With your religion, your work, newsfeeds, your political affiliation, your whatever? Most especially, though, what is your relationship like with yourself? Welcome reality as it is and not the way any of them tell you. Recognize what you actually have control over, the choices and decisions you make for yourself and not much else. Become aware of how you feel the world has worked against you and begin to shift the mindset where it works for you. Don’t sit around and simply wait for this to pass, even though it will. Allow yourself to be empowered to change what you can in your life and begin to close the gap causing such deep loneliness. This ultimately leads to the freedom we truly desire in our lives, a freedom which doesn’t come through some official document nor from carrying a weapon.

Think about people like Saint Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr, Anne Frank, and so many others who were imprisoned in their own right and still spoke from a place of freedom. They had the mindset of a world working for them and no need to blame. Trust me, there’s still a loneliness which accompanies such darkness when you feel you stand alone and being crucified. However, they were true to themselves, dealt with their darkness, and learned to be empowered through and with it rather than running away. The wisdom figures of ancient past all point to the same deeply held truth, what appears to be our greatest fear and obstacle, the thorn in our side, is often our greatest gift. Don’t run from the loneliness of these days. Rather, lean into it and allow it to teach by welcoming it in, allow it to be healed, and offer it back to a hurting and often lonely world.

Unknown Truth

It’s not wrong to go without, even if it means confronting some of our deepest demons of safety and security or even the “warm fuzzies” we often come to rely upon in our lives. It has become too easy for any of us to go and get what we need or want when we want or need it. I wouldn’t think twice about running to the store, the computer, Amazon, a church or place of worship, whatever it may be to satisfy often the unease I desperately try to avoid within myself, as if I’m somehow lacking. If there’s anything about this pandemic experience we can learn, it’s just how convenience has ruled our lives. It’s not until we’re forced to stop, shops close, churches lock doors, sports shut-down, where we begin to see just how easy our lives have been and how uncomfortable we are with unease. We begin to “see” how much we’ve been able to avoid the acute pain within ourselves by running and avoiding the darkness, the hell, which has loomed. Quite frankly, more often than not we don’t stop until we’re forced to and are left with nowhere to run, hit square on by our own darkness.

There are more examples than I can write of here how we have projected this darkness onto society and the world rather than confronting our own demons. We simply want life to return to “normal”, one for the sake of routine and ease, but also because of our uncomfortableness with the unspoken and the “virus” which has hovered below the surface of our own lives and society at large. This may very well be the first time for many having to confront the “stuff” lingering below the surface, unable to know where to turn or who is going to understand since it is so new and the natural inclination is to “stuff” it. I don’t know about anyone else, but there are moments, in particular around the sleeping hours, where I’ll awaken in the darkness of night feeling short of breath. It seems impossible to distance ourselves from stories of respiratory failure wondering when it’s going to be my turn. As someone who’s dealt with respiratory issues in the past, including pneumonia, it’s easy to say I’m not going to worry but another to actually believe. There are so many unknown factors at play since it really is, novel. It isn’t, though, a respiratory condition, but rather a deeper reality trying to emerge from the drowning waters of the subconscious.

It may be one of the greatest factors at play in all of this. Living with the sense of ease and convenience, we’ve become accustomed to certain degrees of certainty and now trying to navigate without. As litigious as we are, or were, as a society, we tend to thrive on certainty. The more knowledge, facts, knows we have, the more comfortable we are as people. As it is with avoiding pain, we avoid the uncertain and the unknown out of fear. Yet, much of this experience has been about the unknown. As a matter of fact, it seems as if the more we know by watching news and reading about the pandemic, the greater the degree of fear and anxiety becomes attached to us. If we can extrapolate anything from the experience, it should be the degree of trust we place on what we believe to be certain, what makes us feel safe and secure. We want answers! The level of blame going on, and not simply on the political level, points to how much trust we place in something which is merely an illusion in the first place and how much we lack in faith and the deeper sense of trust which defines it.

We tend to associate experiences of the “dark night” as moments of depression, and it can be, or bad days and weeks, also can true. There would certainly be many stories of such an experience going on in people’s lives at this moment. However, there is a deeper sense of the dark night unfolding within and beyond us at the moment and an invitation to a new way of living rooted in faith and trust. It doesn’t necessarily come in the form of depression or despair or the unsettlement of our lives. Rather, the invitation lies within the experience of the unknown and this sense of aloneness and lack of meaning we find ourselves in during these days and weeks. Even our faith traditions have fallen prey to the illusions of safety and security over the years and the certainty the illusions provide. “If I do all the right things and follow all the rules, I’ll ‘go to’ heaven.” Unfortunately, this isn’t faith. However, when it begins to fall apart, and I question, and life doesn’t seem so ‘black and white’, there is the beginning of what can be a dark night, something truly to be grateful for! Otherwise “faith” is simply a means of control, who’s in and who’s out, especially when the world around us feels out of control. When it begins to feel as if we’re drowning in our own pain and grief, we will find anything to give us this sense of certainty, as if something in our lives is controllable.

Yet, now we even find ourselves in the absence of this version of faith. Doors of churches, mosques, synagogues, places of worship have been closed and locked. It alone can be seen as a dark night, but I would add at this moment of history, a necessary one for the future relevance of religion on our lives and society. The codependent relationship of religion and politics has done nothing to further the rich traditions of the contemplative and meditative natures a dark night like we are experiencing demands. The relationship has clung to safety and security and the demand for certainty which only something like a pandemic can begin to unfurl. We can almost expect the thirst for power to exist in politics; it always has. However, more is to be demanded of our faith traditions than mere fabrications of certainty when the only truth we can cling to in moments of unknown is Trust and learning to accept it in the unknown, in the darkness.

I could understand wanting churches to be packed on Easter Sunday, even if it was a highly unlikely goal. However, in a time of pandemic and utter darkness for so many, maybe the best gift we can give is to delay Easter for a later day. I mean, there really is no reason why it can’t be delayed. If there is a greater need for us as a society, it’s to know what suffering is and learning to trust within these moments. Instead we’ll fabricate an Easter in the absence of people, who not unlike the disciples, found themselves hunkered down, isolated, questioning, fearful, within the upper room, trying to make sense and meaning out of the events of suffering and death. Even after resurrection Easter could not be fabricated for the followers. They had to come to the place in time and it often didn’t happen until they allowed themselves to get out of the way, enter deeply into the sense of “going without”, and learn to trust in their own very darkness, unseen by the naked eye throughout the unfolding story and not made visible until life and death intersected.

We’ve settled for so little and often because of our inability to go without, sacrifice, and to feel the “pinch” so many other previous generations learned to live. We’ve settled more often than not for fabricated Easter’s, saying we no longer need to live with the suffering and darkness. However, this is not faith and trust. It’s living with the illusion of truth and certainty all while closing a blind eye to the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world. We’ve settled for a fabricated Easter by throwing money at problems, always having heady and pious answers, clear definitions, blaming others for problems, weaponizing and polticizing scripture, and spiritualizing real problems. It’s all a fabrication of our collective ego in order to protect what we believe to be most important, but it’s not faith nor trusting. It’s believing a truth we can live with one and without the other. Faith, however, is learning to live with both and feeling the tension between life and death, light and darkness, suffering and joy.

What’s dying is the illusory ego. How do we know? We know because of the lack of certainty, no quick answers or fixes, no foreseeable return to “normal” (nor should we), confusion, darkness, death. It’s all there fixed on our screens not unlike the scenes of 9/11. We were given an invitation then and we let it pass us by, trying to consume our ways out of it. We are now given another invitation to understand our complexity as humans, the truth of life and death are all of us, when we have nothing to consume as doors remain locked, where all we can do is sit in the darkness of the moment and feel. It’s a painful feel, as if I can’t breathe, a sense of isolation, lacking purpose and meaning, trapped in the upper room, fearful of an unseen virus and maybe the unknown of my own life. We are given a dark night at a time when we need it the most. We are given time to “go without” so many ways of life we have become accustomed. I’m not saying it’s easy. As a matter of fact, it’s growing old quickly. However, there’s more to learn. Even as I write I can feel it within myself.

Are we going to continue to settle for mere fabrications of safety and security? Are we going to use this time to grow exponentially as humans, learning to see each other as ourselves, understanding the suffering of others? Are we going to continue to settle for a faith rooted in certainty rather than trust and truth? Are we, as a society, going to finally deal with a broken heart of a life which hasn’t been as expected and finally allowing ourselves to be led by a healed heart rather than an injured ego? Are we going to continue to allow ourselves to be victims and blame “the world” for all of our problems rather than take responsibility for our lives? These are questions we ask in the darkest of nights we are living in this pandemic.

It’s not a moment to sulk, even if I feel it at times, but rather to find glimmers of light within the confusion, chaos, darkness, fear, uncertainty for we are both and not one or the other. It’s a moment to accept our own mortality and commit to living life differently as we go forward, day by day and choice by choice, to live from a deeper level, a higher consciousness, filled with faith and trust. It’s a moment to learn to live without, without certainty, safety, security, knowns, facts, ins and outs, convenience, ease, and to leap into the unknown. The great promise and truth I can give is it’s the best thing you can do for yourself, we can all do for ourselves. It’s uncomfortable, there’s grieving, it’s dark, and all the rest, but it’s the hero’s journey, a faithful journey, and truthful journey, one leading to meaning and purpose and a faith rooted not in certainty but in the darkest night of the soul, wandering lost, where life no longer makes sense, only desiring and wanting nothing more than to feel the “presence of the Soul” once again.

Terror of the Dark Night

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It comes in the form of feeling trapped. For anyone who knows my story, you know I nearly lost my life whitewater rafting more than fifteen years ago now. I will never forget the feeling, the feeling of being trapped. For me, it’s the experience of anxiety. Sure, there are many other manifestations of anxiety in people’s lives. I can simply speak of my own experience. It’s the feeling of drowning, for others, death, still others, trapped in a confined place, a closet, the sense of losing it all, things falling apart around me, the loss of control. The way it becomes embodied in our lives, because it does take shape in the body, are far too numerous to spell out here. Anyone who is at least somewhat self-aware knows and understands, to some degree, how it becomes manifest.

I still remember being called by a funeral director asking if I could come to a cemetery while a body is being transferred from underground into a mausoleum. As I began talking to the daughter of the one being exhumed, I began to understand its link to anxiety and an irrational fear. Here she was, making an expensive decision, based on her own fear. This was not the first, but now going to be the third burial place for her mother’s burial. To the rational mind we’d automatically deduce she’s crazy, and on some level, it is a madness or an insanity knowing we make decisions all the time out of irrational fears. She insisted to me her mother was claustrophobic and needed to be exhumed from the ground while never recognizing a mausoleum isn’t much different, going from one enclosed “resting” place to another. It was clear the daughter was not getting much rest herself.

It is a real problem for many, even on a societal level and begins to become all the more evident the further we embark on unchartered, or as we like to define everything, unprecedented, territory with the coronavirus pandemic. Very little is spoken of about mental health during this crisis but all seems to be surfacing the longer we find ourselves confined to a particular place. Again, there is the feeling of being trapped, cornered, confined, loss of control, aggressively moving itself to the surface. Unfortunately, we all find ways to keep it locked inside, but in some ways, now being confined to places, the external world has met up with the internal world we learned to avoid. We do it through overwork, eating, drinking, gluing ourselves to phones and pads, all to take “the edge” off in order to relax. It’s always been there but the pandemic is forcing us to slow ourselves and no longer run from our own pain and fear finding themselves bubbling to the surface.

Now I am not a mental health professional but I am a self-aware individual who’s done a lot of work on himself and understands the interior landscape. I, too, like many still run at times from my own pain. More often than not it’s because I’m just not ready to look at it but know it’s there. The easiest way we learn to deal with it is blame everyone else for our problems. It’s a good indicator of someone who has not done the hard, interior work. We even see this played out on a large scale when we blame, ridicule, put down, others because of our own inability to take responsibility for where are lives are at and an underlying resentment also feeding into our anxiousness. Most successful corporations are aware of the human condition and even hire psychologists to assist in their success. Steve Jobs never hid the fact of the inception of Apple coming from biblical reference and the unsettlement within human beings to want more.

Now we find ourselves at this crossroad, however, when we can begin to turn the system on its head because it has taken advantage of the weakness of our humanity. It’s one thing as an individual to tackle our own uneasiness, angst, or anxiety which remains the great “invisible enemy” in which we are at “war” with on a daily basis. It’s there and now is beginning to surface. We need to keep ourselves busy, it appears, get back to normal and work, so we can avoid the interior reality all the more. What we seem to fail to see is the energy required to blame, to remain victim, as if someone else is still responsible for our lives. Why on earth would we want to go to our grave miserable having never lived the life we wanted to live? There is a great freedom when we finally recognize the war we fight is against ourselves and no one else.

I think about all the energy I expended fighting everyone else. It’s not to say there aren’t times for it, but generally speaking the damage it does to my health and well-being, including my mental health, is a toll all too expensive. I understand it’s a painful process entering into your own anxiety and pain, but it is a necessary one as individuals and as a nation. If we don’t stop the blame game soon, the anxiety will only continue to deepen, the pain widens, and the feeling as if we are suffocating ourselves, as respiratory diseases do, will only begin to intensify. As a country we have shown our pride, but pride too has a dark side. It is the avoidance of our arrogance and ignorance as if we know better than the world and everyone else and our inability to say we need help. How many avoid the care of a mental health professional simply out of pride? The price, your own well-being. Is it worth it?  Ask for help.

Anxiety and pain are real and has an impact on our lives which goes unnoticed and unrecognized. If this time of quarantine and physical distancing should teach us anything, it’s the wake up call we should have anticipated for a long time. It’s not God smiting us for some bizarre reason, that too is blame. It’s not someone trying to do us in, that’s conspiracy. It’s not the world against me, that’s pride. It is, however, the world we have created and have bought into as being “The American Way”. If you still feel you’re not responsible, well, hopefully one day you’ll move beyond the stage of denial. It is after all a grieving process we find ourselves going through these days. Denial is everywhere around us and within us, avoiding the harsh reality that life isn’t always the way we dreamed or expected. It’s only when we move to the stage of acceptance where we can finally say, “you know what, that’s ok.” I no longer need to fight or blame but rather recognize and accept we are complicated people of both great joy and pain, victim and victor, winner and loser, and all the other paradoxes which make up the human condition.

Do yourself a favor. In this time of pandemic, look at it is opportunity, even our inability to gather as faith communities. We focus too much on the inconveniences of life. There are certainly economic and personal implications. We mustn’t deny it. However, there is also plenty of opportunity. We were designed for simplicity and not just from material things, but all we hold onto. Take the time to journal and write about your own pain, where life seemed to have treated you wrongly, the incessant uneasiness within yourself, the times you can’t breathe, all of it.  Go for a walk in nature and allow it to speak and allow yourself to listen. It’s the pain often making the decisions of holding you back from the life you had wanted and desired. In the end, we aren’t much different than the daughter unearthing her mother over and over again. We all just find different ways of doing it in order to avoid the most fragile part of what makes us human, our pain, hurt, and anxieties.

Use this time to go there and then you will find hope in the midst of pandemic and see just how much you’ve allowed yourself to be bamboozled by a ruthless world not because they’re out to get you and destroy you, but rather because it’s a world which hurts and acts out of the same place as your own pain, hurt, fears, and anxiety. There is already an anchor within you waiting to hold you down in the storm rather than being swept away in despair and depression. “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” It is, after all, a matter of the heart we need to learn to deal with for it is the heart which holds the pain and our head, our ego, trying at all cost to avoid, blame, and make us victim. No one can make the decision for you, not even me, all I can do is act as a guide on this journey to self-awareness. If anything, it will change the way you see the world and yourself. In the end, it’s all we can really ask for ourselves, for we need to fear the “terror of the night”.

Unthinkably Perfect Vision

See the source image“For our faith to evolve, we need to look at the old and original in order to build something new and novel.” Richard Rohr

It’s impossible to miss all the memes and jokes that have been circulating as one calendar year closes and a new one begins. There have been plenty about dressing for the roaring 20’s, Barbara Walters uttering 20/20 as she did for years (for those of us old enough to remember), but also plenty of jokes about perfect vision. I have no such thing. The closest I come are through the progressive lenses I wear to assist in seeing more clearly. Heck, I can’t even seem to hear correctly if I’m not wearing my lenses! We make a lot of these new beginnings, facing a new year, with great anticipation, often with the expectation that somehow everything of the past year will fade into the sunset. It may be true in some sense, but really only if we are willing to work on perfecting our own vision and sense of awareness of where we have come from and where we are being led at the ringing in of a new year. If we’re honest with ourselves, we never truly know where it will lead us!

In looking back, to say 2019 was anything but monumental would be an understatement. There have been times the past few days when I’ve looked back and wondered how I was able to come to this point, the threshold of 2020, not being totally destroyed and utterly depressed. It was early in the year, when resolutions and hopes still rang true, when out of necessity of my health and well-being I needed to step away from priestly ministry. Anyone who has stepped away from any type of life commitment knows, that, once you have been pushed so far off the edge, in those moments there isn’t much chance to return. Again, for those old enough, how many times did Wiley Coyote attempt to do such a thing only finding himself falling flat on his face! It feels as if the ground has dropped beneath you and there’s nothing left to stand on at a time when you need it the most. The questions swirl, especially of the critics, including my own inner critic, as to how this is going to look, degrees of shame, hurt, kicked while you’re down, and all the rest that causes great unrest. You quickly learn who cares about you as a person or simply a persona, role, or identity of which you are associated. Your heart screams out reminding you that your worth is in you as a person, a human, but institutionally, unfortunately, not always the same.

I’ve written before about the level of angst I have lived with over the years, an angst that was norm. The consistent message was to fit into the proper place, but because of my own lack of awareness and deeply-rooted fears, it was easier to not fit than to have to confront what I was running from myself. If the experience has given any glimmer of hope it’s that the angst of trying to fit into what’s not and the necessity to run is no longer the name of the game. They are, though, a part of the story of moving towards that more perfect vision, unexpected as it is. They are moments I will never forget and will even take a great deal of time to heal. I have lost people in my life but have also become much more aware of the people who really matter. If I can offer 2020 anything of myself and the vision that has become more fine-tuned over the past year, it would be a restoration of humanity. We’ve lost touch with our humanity as a society, including many proclaimed Christians who forget it’s the foundational message of Christmas. I suppose it’s easier to dispose of people when we see them as something less, whether some image, their political affiliation, their way of living rather than a part of the human family they are.

The irony in the whole situation, for me, was that I had to step away in order to understand what faith was really about. Taking that step, as for anyone facing change, is to take the first step without knowing where you’ll land or if life really will go on. We have a tendency to get stuck right there, on the cliff, but never willing to step for fear of falling. Of course, there is a fall! There’s a fall from grace and yet into grace. There’s a fall into fear and yet excitement at the same time. There’s a fall into deep sadness but one that leads to great joy! I’m not sure I’d be the man I am standing on the threshold between years and decades without that fall. I can sit and write and find gratitude for the fall because the fall allowed me to reconnect, or maybe simply connect, with my own humanity and no longer shadowed by a role or identity. There have been plenty of times in the past year where I have sat at Mass and wondered how I was able to keep it up for as long as I did. It was about pleasing, all while grumbling within. Of course, there have been plenty of times where I have sat there, left before it ended, and saw for the first time why people don’t return. It felt like I was being fed stones in a moment when, in my own poverty, I desperately needed bread. Vision. How easy it is to become clouded standing atop a sanctuary, looking down, but looking at the wrong thing (that will be the next blog).

After returning from a month-long retreat at Saint Meinrad, I realized that it would be impossible to return at that time; more time was needed more. It was then I was pointed to Catholic Volunteer Network and came across a place close enough, yet far enough way, Bethlehem Farm. It was going to be another act of trust, as much of this experience had been, to keep moving towards rather than running. I began to notice the difference. When they agreed to take me on, another piece of the story, which was unknown just a few weeks earlier, was my dad being hospitalized just four days prior to my arrival date, was also beginning to unfold. After leaving active ministry in January I had started spending more time back where I grew up, not knowing what was about to evolve or devolve for that matter. I hadn’t realized, of course, that the weekend before Easter would be the final time I’d see my dad at home, sitting at the head of the table where he often did.

While his life was unraveling, slowly and quickly at the same time, the farm was beginning to give me what I needed and what was missing in my life, connection to myself and a grounding in the real and in love. For the first two months there, when there was a break from groups, I’d drive up to visit my father in the hospital, slowly watching life escape him. Each time there seemed to be another machine or gadget that was keeping him going. We should have known then, that, when so many artificial means are necessary to live there’s not much longer. It too would be a test of faith. In all reality, death is the ultimate test of faith and trust, not only for the one passing but even more so for those who grieve, despite never leaving. I can only imagine what was going through his mind or anyone in his situation, possibly questions I was asking of myself in those moments. How will I be remembered? Will I be forgotten? Will it be as if I never existed? In the moments of great unraveling lie these existential questions and thoughts of regrets and given but this one life to address them, hopefully before our final breath.

The final breath eventually would come in 2019. It was something not on the radar screen when I had left in January. It was something not on the radar screen when a 50th Anniversary was being planned, or for that matter, an impending wedding, all of which would fall during these months and days. The final breath is that moment of ultimate faith and has a way of perfecting our vision like nothing else. There it was, before our very eyes. After six months of my own tumultuous unraveling and grounding, and despite the sadness associated with death, all I could do was stand in awe. By the end of May I knew the moment would arrive. I could just tell that there was no recovering. Similar to my situation, once you are so far off the cliff, there’s nowhere to go but down. At some point in our lives, the only down is six feet but at others, seemingly a freefall. Little did I know that such an event would solidify that grounding that began at the farm a few months earlier. It was a grounding that would stand the test of the greatest of hurricanes and yet still remain tethered to the real. The vision became clearer and all I could do was continue to walk and walk forward.

It by no means diminishes the grief that needed to be felt; there’s always grief in life’s changes and unraveling. If the year has taught me anything it’s a constant reminder that I can’t think my way through everything, as much as I sometimes try. Some things about life just need to be felt. That’s not easy for a thinker. When the dust finally settled, I landed at one of the great spots for healing in my life, Acadia National Park, and would spend countless hours near the water. There was not only the grief of losing my dad, but the grief of losing relationships and a life once lived. The place which was my escape for so many years, in order to catch my breath, was once again a place of healing. We all have those places in our lives, where we can simply go and find solitude. They are not only the places to encounter the divine but also ourselves. I write these words sitting near the ocean once more, simply allowing myself to slow down and be with myself and hear the roar of the water that stands before me. It is the same roar that lies within me, a roar for life.

I sit here now as the sun begins to rise on a new day (preferred to midnight!). It would be easy to say it’s all behind me but I’m not sure a new year means simply dumping what was and starting new. Sure, there is a sentimentality that accompanies it but the year that now stands behind will be teaching me for the rest of my life. No one can experience life in such a way, and begin to see more clearly, without it being carried the rest of life. If anything, it has taught about what faith is really about. After studying about it and preaching it for years, it finally caught up in my own life and made me eat my own words. Life is all about trust and faith. Yet, nothing is desired more than integrity in an age when it is all but absent. Nothing is more desired than faith in a day when we put more trust in failing institutions than we do in ourselves and the eternal. Nothing is more desired than hope in a culture that demands instant gratification and the absence of death. Nothing is desired more than life when it’s what we fear the most that prevents it from happening.

As a new day dawns, with a morning chill still in the air, I sit, still, in awe of a year gone by. It is a year without regrets. It is a year when I connected and reconnected with the people that matter most. It is a year when I faced death in more ways than one. It is a year that taught me about faith in the absence of what was thought to have given it to me. It is a year that taught me all will be well and all will be well. It is a year of new birth, baby steps to a new way of living. It is a year where fear was taken head on and confronted. It is a year that allowed me to be me and experience the freedom associated with it. It is a year of which I will always be grateful for having the courage to take one step a year ago this month, taking that last breath in order to breathe again, cut from an umbilical cord that poisoned. It was a year when I closed my eyes, jumped, and yet saw more clearly than ever. It is a year that taught me to live without while recognizing I had it all. It is a year I can’t simply let go of, but as I stand now on this threshold, I continue to take very little with me for all I need I have. It is, after all, ending as it began and beginning as it ended, in a moment to trust and to have faith in my own birthright and that, in seeing more clearly, all really will be well. With that, I bid adieu to a year that was and welcome a year of possibility, filled with teachable moments of faith allowing the unthinkable to be seen more perfectly.

The Resistant Hero

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In my years teaching I often joked, but with a lot of truth, that it’s more important to understand the “dark arts” than it is anything else. They were the days of Harry Potter! To understand the workings of the shadow and the numerous blind spots of our lives is the true pathway to the wholeness we desire. An obsession with light tends to simply blind all the more, and, well, with darkness it will ultimately take you down in one way or another. The obsession with light often puts us on the run, from ourselves, and over time, darkness becomes comfortable and a life of consistent turmoil and angst becomes the norm. On the exterior is the display of a virtuous life, per se, but quite the opposite interiorly.

There are many scenes in the new box-office smash, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but one in particular personifies the difficulty we face as humans in seeking that life of wholeness. Both Rey and Ren find themselves in a heated battle with pounding waves crashing around them, in, of all places, a destroyed Death Star. It seems almost inevitable that one will lose their life in the process as all the rest flee. The two of them stand on the edge of the world, battling it out. Of all the scenes in the Star Wars saga, this scene, in many ways, is symbolic of the interior struggle of the two characters playing out in their external environment as one learns to act with great courage and the other, love. Rey, resisting her own lineage to the darkness and fighting it with every ounce of strength she has. While Ren, the great resister of love hides behind the machismo, but what lies behind the mask is a little boy, Ben, desiring to be loved and doubting the worth of the Jedi heritage in which he comes. The two grappling with darkness in their own way, resisting what it is that will bring them wholeness.

The battle between the two is really a battle with themselves, her with the masculine and he with the feminine. As in our own lives, and certainly an unhealthy masculinity, of which we settle for as a society, and I’m only capable of speaking of, we’re tempted to do all we can to abolish the feminine, somehow making us more of a man. Ren, a heartless slab consumed by his own pain and anger, must confront the love of the other in order to let go and reclaim his birthright as Ben, manifested in the healing touch of Rey, but only when pushed to the edge himself. In an intimate moment of touch, Ren can do nothing but cry and be driven to silence. In time he finds himself surrendering to that love, of which he feared most and considered a form of weakness, allowing the mask to fall on his own hero’s journey.

Rey, though, has her own battle. She must confront a history from which she runs, embodied by the darkness she witnesses in Kylo Ren and Emperor Palpatine. Her desire to live the courageous life of a Jedi, as is her birthright, appears to stand in conflict with her lineage and like most of us, finds herself on the run from the darkness. Her history, as part of the Palpatine lineage, points to her demise and to be reduced to the seat of darkness itself. Her history stands in conflict with her heart and spirit, as pointed out by Luke, that she is more than her darkness. She was, like us, going to go to the place she feared the most and confront the Emperor face to face. There is no other way in the hero’s journey. The journey always takes us downward to the places we fear the most and to encounter the demons of our own lives that narrow our thinking and move us to succumbing to a destiny not our own.

The saga that has played out over these past forty years in the Star Wars series is much more than light and dark, good and bad, right and wrong. It wouldn’t have pulled in generations as it has if it were that simple. Granted, some of the movies are better than others, but all the characters have some kind of work to do in their own lives that throws them into the “and” of all the scenarios. They often stand in conflict, and like us, belief life is about getting rid of and keeping hidden what we have deemed as being insufficient, what we see as insufficient or flawed about ourselves. Rey saw that in her lineage and Ren in his own hurt and anger, all of which drove them down into the depths of their being. It’s why the battle takes place on rough seas, on a deteriorating Death Star, and fought alone. It’s their battle to fight and not to win or to kill, as the world often seems all to ready to do, but to find peace with one another and to learn to love all the parts of themselves.

Joseph Campbell, a Jedi in his own right when it comes to mythology writes, “Perhaps some of us have to go through dark and devious ways before we can find the river of peace or the highroad to the soul’s destination.” Rey would never become the Jedi she desired and believed to be in her heart and soul unless she did such a journey. It’s why so few choose such a journey of faith in their lives because it’s what we fear the most. He goes onto say that the tomb and womb are all but one. Something must die, such as Ren’s egoic persona, before the true self, the birthright, is revealed, Ben. Rey too carries that burden and must allow her own persona and expectation of Jedi and darkness, that she is somehow less than, in order to accept her true self.

It is the journey we are all invited into in our lives. We live in a world where all too many settle for something less or simply see it as a movie and irrelevant to our lives. It’s not Lucas’ intent. It’s his journey as much as it is ours. It’s what makes the series more than a series of movies but the unfolding of a story, a life, lives, who have accepted the call to the resistance of “that’s just the way it is” and sees not only themselves as more but the world as well. When the characters, and ourselves, tap into that reality within ourselves, now grounded in more than all the external authorities, there’s no stopping us. It’s why the world, political, and religious leaders fear it the most. It exposes the shallowness of their own authority, an authority that comes not from the deepest recesses of the soul, of one who has done their work. Rather, it comes from position and power.

To experience the wholeness of our lives, light and dark, right and wrong, and all the rest, then the invitation to the Star Wars saga is for us, a journey unique to each but universal in the nature of the timeless hero. In the end they are no longer naïve; it explains the change in facial expression. The hero, rather, learns to embrace and live the tension between what is and what can be, head and heart, and recognize the joy that comes even in the sadness of a life once lived. They are the people we need, now more than ever, to be the Jedi masters to future generations who seek more.

A Servant’s Heart

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A stare into the camera, not for him to be noticed and seen, but to be aware of who’s on the other side watching, and better, feeling something within them that may be beyond words. Keenly aware of the negative feelings, as children, that tie in with self-worth; anger, sadness, hurt, pain, all of it there staring back into his eyes. They are the eyes of Mister Rogers, trying to understand all while carrying the burden of others on a daily basis. A man, a leader in his own right, who never forgot what it was like to be child, evident with the eclectic gathering of characters that engaged him, King Friday, Lady Aberlin, Daniel Striped Tiger, or the countless others that visited the land-of-make-believe, all a portion of the complex self of Mister Rogers that fascinated children and adults for decades.

The newest film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, gives us a glimpse into a man who seems almost unbelievable. How could a man exhibit such kindness and authenticity without becoming jaded like often projected by the world around him? How could such a man survive in a “business” that loves to chew people up and spit them out? As is well known, the man that we all saw with our own eyes through a screen in some far-off neighborhood was no different than Fred off camera. He found a way to transcend the expectations of so much media and technology just by being himself, even while holding a disdain for television. This freed others to do the same, in particular, children, and even parents who had to sit through what, for an adult, can seem, today, like a rather mundane experience of television.

Now decades after the program first appeared, Mister Rogers still has a great deal to teach the world about the human condition and a cultural shift needed, certainly in positions of power, business, school, and so many other facets of life. What Rogers has to bring us back to is not a day gone by, but rather a reminder of who we are as human beings. He knew, undoubtedly from his own experience, that people tended to self-identify. We identify by our negative feelings, which he so often spoke of, but also by the countless labels that are thrust upon us that box us in. We’re classified as consumers and customers, we’re clients, even liabilities at times. All of which sells ourselves short from, as he pointed out, that we are special and unique.

When we think of great leaders my guess is Mister Rogers wouldn’t be the first to come to mind, even for those of us who grew up in his neighborhood. Some would write him off as silly or unrealistic, maybe too religious and living with expectations that are impossible, someone who represents the past. Nonetheless, Rogers points us to what matters most in leaders and what is needed now more than ever. More often than not, leaders are reduced to authority figures or someone who has all the answers, the money, even if a mere perception. If leadership is simply reduced to an authority figure there automatically sets up a hierarchy which in turn leads to a separation and gap that becomes difficult to overcome. We begin to believe more in our position being our identity and seeing others as such, sacrificing our deeper selves and the human connection that binds us. We begin to see customers, clients, consumers, competitors, affiliates of political parties and religions, the countless other ways we try to stroke one’s ego, and ourselves as something other than the “special” that Rogers speaks of, losing our greatest gift, as he points out, our humanity. We begin to believe and are often led to believe that it is that label that makes us special, and worse yet, right.

In the age of reality television, 24-hour news cycles, ever-expanding technology, all with the original intent to keep us informed and connected has done just the opposite, Rogers greatest concern about television and technology. It has fragmented us beyond imagination and separated us to a point where we no longer see ourselves in the other or honestly, only within the people we agree. I don’t know how many times I myself have said in the past few years, “I don’t even know that person anymore”. It is a society and media world that has become heartless in many ways, ego-driven to the point of fanaticism. Everyone becomes a specialist and expert and we become lulled into believing, while at the same time becoming more bankrupt of our humanity at the expense of deep pockets for others. Rogers warned of such a reality, a warning that still rings true to this day.

Our financial, institutional, political, ecclesiastical, and consumer-driven worlds are starving for leaders and leaders in the sense that Rogers not only spoke of but mirrored back to us. No, it’s not a sense of perfection or utopia, but rather leaders who never forget their own humanity, have the ability to empathize, to understand, to see people not first as the customer or consumer or anything else, but rather a brother and sister of the human family. When we lose sight of that we too become ego-driven and at times heartless. It’s not only the world that becomes fragmented, it’s our own hearts and souls as well. We move towards acceptance of manipulation, retaliation, narcissism, revenge, heartlessness, and write it off as, “well, that’s just the way it is.” We live in an age and culture that has separated from the heart of who we are, in Rogers’ words, special and are in dire need of such leaders.

He never says it’s about the elimination of pain and suffering but rather recognizes it in the faces of the people he encounters and how we often inflict it upon one another. Great leaders know how to speak below the surface of all and recognize the greater good that we all bear, sometimes seemingly heavier than the pain at times. Rogers, in his modeling of servant leadership, never lost sight of our essence and how we all fit within the larger family, even when we are at odds or disagree. Servant leadership is needed in all facets of our lives. It is the model of leadership that can redirect companies and institutions that have lost sight of who they are and their original intent. Servant leadership has a way of pulling us back into the tension of our own humanity as to not to lose sight of who we are either. I may, over the course of my day, act as a consumer, client, employee, customer, and even liability, but must never lose sight of being special, connected with head and heart, joy and pain, hurt and care, just as the person next to me. A servant leader, in other words, isn’t quick to avoid pain, suffering, challenges, difficulties, impossibilities, but rather steps back, puts them in perspective, and then faces it head on. This type of leadership is not about quick fixes to problems to try to avoid pain. Rather, it’s about playing the long game and consistently connecting us to our very essence, our specialness.

The world could stand a few more leaders like Rogers, the one who goes under the radar and yet is making a difference in people’s lives and not just because of position, power, or money. A leader may have them all, but leaders today need to respond through acts of service, being authentic and genuine, actively listening with the heart, and always remaining connected to the essence of who we are, recognizing our own commitment to change and grow. Servant leaders remain connected to the grittiness of their own life and the lives of others. Servant leaders strive for the best and yet always remain grounded in reality. Servant leaders serve with an iron fist while draped in a velvet glove. The land-of-make-believe was a world of puppets, cardigan sweaters, cardboard sets, and ringing trollies, but for Rogers it was reality. It pointed the way to a neighborhood that was safe to be who you are, where you felt what you felt, a place to love and to seek truth, and ultimately a place of service. No matter who walked through that door they were met where they were. Undoubtedly, we all arise and descend into varying positions in life; all of which are often necessary for order. Such positions, though, do not define us, especially as servant leaders. Rather, as was taught and is needed, it is our true specialness, our essence, that forms us and makes us the leaders the world needs today. When we embrace that, we will then understand what made it such a beautiful day in Rogers’ neighborhood and why we strive to do the same.

A Puzzled Life

Despite having twice the number of pieces, a puzzle containing 1000 pieces is considered four times as difficult as one half the size. Anyone that has worked on puzzles knows that the greater number of pieces and the smaller they are in size, the harder the puzzle becomes, especially when they all start to look alike. Certainly after hours of work, the eyes can begin to deceive, thinking pieces go together before finally realizing that stepping away from it for awhile is probably best, in order to gain greater clarity and to see the larger picture before trying to return to try to complete the masterpiece that has begun.

It’s no wonder that when we have experiences in our lives, when it feels like we’ve been shattered into a thousand pieces or more, like a puzzle, that it is going to take serious time and a great deal of patience in order to see how all the pieces fit together. In life there’s even an added complication. Over time pieces don’t always necessarily fit the puzzle any more and it comes down to deciding, or better yet, discerning, what stays and what goes. It’s never an easy task. As a matter of fact, as time carries on it begins to seem like less and less of the pieces are even necessary to carry along for life’s journey and can become somewhat cumbersome to a fuller way of life or even an obstacle to joy because they just no longer fit into the narrative of your life, a story that has become too small.

Anyone who has risked the monumental task of being opened to a spiritual awakening in life, knows what it feels like to be shattered in such a way, where the pieces of life just no longer seem to fit the way they used to over the course of life. You’re left trying to make sense of pieces that, even at times, create illusions of fitting, as if, if I just keep pushing hard enough it’ll come together the way I want it to, rather than stepping back and accepting that it’s not real, that it just doesn’t fit, a piece no longer necessary to carry along. It seems, in such moments, that even the pieces that we work with don’t necessarily match the picture given on the box, that somehow the puzzle that is being assembled, or even disassembled for that matter, is much more a mystery than it is contained in the content of a box, spilled out on the table, and by the end of the day the picture is clear. It may work for a child’s puzzle and for a child’s way of thinking, what is seen on the box is definitively what is produced, but not in life, an adult life, or not in a life well lived, and fully.

So much of the spiritual journey has been examining so many different pieces and the comfort of always knowing, the fallback position, of creating a puzzle that is so clearly defined. Yet, over time becomes stifling, losing its edge and creativity, and wanting to break out of the box from which it originally came. More often than not we settle, right there, because of expectations of others or even the expectations that we place upon ourselves, wanting to please, not wanting to rock the boat, or not taking the riskiest step of all, of coming out of what has contained and to examine life from a different perspective. Our eyes can become weary over time, when none of the pieces seem to make much sense and begin to blend together rather than holding their own unique quality. In that moment, we rest the eyes, especially the eyes of the heart. We lose our sense of vision, blurred by our own hurt, only to be healed by a loving hand and embrace, not by trying to fix or produce a puzzle. It seemed so simple when that was the answer, the picture on the box. It was much simpler to return to the box in which you came, to be assembled and disassembled again, all for the sake of comfort and a sense of certainty and what was known, even finding some sense of stability in chaos rather than in peace.

The summons of a spiritual awakening, conversion, transformation, dark night, or whatever such changed is referred, is to recognize that much of pieces in which we’ve carried in our lives, thinking they define the puzzle of our lives, simply aren’t part of the puzzle of who we really are, the deeper mystery of the humanity in which God gives each of us. It’s quite difficult letting that puzzle, and all its clear definition, go, despite knowing that it no longer works and no longer defines who I am. The summons given is a radical one, to recognize that none of the pieces are necessary anymore, and the more we try to define it or have a box define our lives, the more likely they aren’t who we really are. The more we allow the box to define the puzzle, the less the puzzle is a puzzle, the less my life is life. That’s a hard pill to swallow for us who want to belong, to fit, to be accepted. None of which are bad in and of themselves, but nor do they define us in the way we’re so often pulled, by the proverbial box, in which others want to place us and for some reason, we happily choose to go rather than courageously saying no to something else in order to say to our truest self.

The great poet, Maya Angelou sums it up this way, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.” The summons that is granted and afforded each of us is to find that grounding first and foremost in ourselves and in God. The summons is to be defined from within, not by all the pieces that others have contributed to the puzzle, so often not even a suitable fit for your life and yet taken on rather than disappointing, while rejecting that deeper self in the process. The summons is to recognize that our sense of belonging comes from the beloved indwelling, always calling us forth to where everything belongs and where we are no thing at all!

In the end, the summons is to each of us and a summons only we, ourselves, can choose to accept, taking the risk of stepping forth in life, no longer child’s play, but recognizing I’m not a puzzle at all, to be sorted out and figured out, but rather one who is called and summoned to lead others in such a way in their lives to see in the same way, knowing what stays and what goes, knowing what belongs and what doesn’t, knowing when to step away and look at life from a bigger picture, when the boxes we create for ourselves and at times, are thrown into, picture on front clearly defined, no longer works and the true summons for more in and out of life is revealed. They’re the moments we most wait for and desire. They are the moments that will catapult us into the next stages of our lives, no longer simply about fulfilling roles and obligations, but living life to its fullest, free from what has contained, even if it is simply the picture on the box that we ourselves created yet now know just isn’t enough, a life worthy of mystery, love, and the risk of stepping into the unknown, into the less clearly defined life in God.

Convergence

acadia

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.  Wash your spirit clean.”  John Muir

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”  Jacques Yves Cousteau

Mountains and Seas, unlike most other natural realities, have a way of pulling us out of ourselves and often moving us to the needed and necessary perspective on life.  For me, Maine has become the home of where the two converge into one, where climbing can lead to some of the deepest places and the depths of the sea move you to some of the highest reaching points of discovery, all at the same moment.  Even upon departure there’s a sadness that overcomes in that, with the return to the world of life and work, where depth and heights are all but a mystery, stagnant, and even discouraged, the longing and call to nature never leaves, that, as Cousteau points out, casts a spell and captivates forever.  Nature has the ability to seduce us in ways unlike much else, pointing to greater depths and heights that often can only be left to the imagination.

A great deal has been written about nature depravity that has become the norm in our culture.  The days of spending our summer’s as kids outdoors and using our imaginations has all but dissipated with time.  The use of electronics, structured play, and all the rest may have progressed us as a people, but the long-term impact of cutting ourselves off from what is most important and what provides us meaning in our lives will be hard to recover in the generations that follow.  Despite the relentlessness that nature can have on us, as we see through the extremes of weather plaguing the globe, its ability to show compassion and care for the wanderer and seeker isn’t to be overlooked.

Climbing a mountain or spending that week in the woods along the endless shoreline, resurrects that child within to expand the imagination and open the heart to new possibility.  Even in watching others hiking along side at times, it was fascinating to see that much of it was about accomplishing another task, just as we do in our work lives, in order to move onto the next mountain or the path that follows, rather than allowing ourselves to stop and be in the moment, allowing the natural world to speak to and with our souls.  More often than not it speaks a language that remains foreign to us, not dictated by ourselves but by the eternal and the unearthed creation in which we share and walk, hand in hand.

Over time the line and all that separates begins to fall away like scales from the eyes, noticing the intricacy of a freshly spun web, the movement of the fog that seems all too real in life at times, the fallen trees that have been given the proper reverence to return to the earth untouched in order to continue the cycle, all of this unfolding before our eyes and within our very beings waiting to be explored and discovered all anew as if seeing it for the first time yet over and over again.  The natural world, in all its beauty and wonder, provides us all with what we are often lacking in our lives, the natural silence in which can only be heard the groans of new birth breaking forth from the earth, mirroring to us the gift that is freely being offered to us in this very moment if we can only allow ourselves to stop, to breathe, to surrender, and to recall from where and whom we have come.  As much as things change, life and death and the perpetual mystery that surrounds remains intact, ever-true and ever-deepening, nature pointing the way to the naturalness of it all.

It was, though, the guide while whale watching, that reminded us all that we only but see the surface with any of it.  What lies beneath the sea remains unexplored and ever-expanding.  Her reminder to all, whether it was heard or not, is true of each of us.  We only see what our eyes allow us to see in any given moment while so much remains undiscovered.  We trust that what is unseen is there and contains much life but our own fears prevent us from embarking.  The mountains of Acadia, as breathless as the are to see, pale in comparison to what lies beneath in the depths of the earth and sea that continues to call us forth.  Noise, life, distractions, success, accomplishments, and all the rest act as faithful guards to the unexplored.  I don’t have the time.  I’m busy with work.  I can’t get away.  Excuse and excuse, at our own doing, keeps us safe from going to such places and not closing the gap between nature and ourselves, and even more so, closing the gap between me and myself and you and yourself.  Nature opens the door to another world, a world of possibility and healing, a world in which we desperately want to hide, or for that matter, avoid.

It doesn’t take long to begin to feel that loss when, after being immersed for days, we return to life and what often feels so unnatural.  The beckoning and longing only seem to deepen and yearn all the more as the days and years march on.  In these moments of my own life I’m not sure I could even stop myself from making that time to return in order to be found once again, breathing a sigh of relief that all is right with the world again and again, freely falling into the hands that wait.  Until then, the memories remain of the light dancing off the water, waves crashing against the sea, stumbles and falls, tears and joy, of all that the natural world continues to provide for me and so many others that feel that deprivation.  If anything, it stands as a safe place, a place that only wants you to be you and nothing else and where nothing else matters.  It allows us to stand naked, unashamed and unafraid, in all our own highs and lows, light and darkness, and even the glimpses of the shadows that provide shelter.  When the mountains and sea converge into one the consequence is a convergence in our own lives, standing in the tension of life and death, what stays and goes, while continuing to walk on and through, allowing mystery to be revealed step by step.