Penetrating Silence

I Kings 3: 5, 7-12; Matt 13: 44-52

The first reading, from First Kings is one that I’m quite familiar.  It’s the reading we use each year at the celebration marking the end of the Pinkard Scholars at the seminary.  There’s a lot to like about it.  Solomon finds himself, like many others in Scripture, in a position he’s not sure he’s capable of fulfilling, despite the call from God.  He’s also free to ask for anything to help him become the leader that he’s being called to at this point.  It’s almost like asking for a wish, and yet, despite all of it, Solomon asks not for what he wants but what he feels he needs in that moment in this momentous call from God.  Solomon asks for an understanding heart.

It appears that even God is taken back by the request, assuming he’d ask for a long life, riches, the life of his enemies.  Anything; and yet, he asks for a heart that understands.  Even in the request, this prayer of Solomon, shows the depth of his wisdom and understanding, a deep penetrating silence, that is already there and somehow, in the midst of the unknown, God is going to take it and use him as an instrument of that wisdom and understanding.

It’s a great reading to reflect upon in our own lives as to what the treasure, the pearl of great price, in which we’d ask of God at this moment.  Not this is not to say that our prayers are futile in some ways, but in my experience, we tend to tell God what we want, as if somehow God is the dispensary of wishes.  We know exactly the way things are supposed to be or should be and we want it that way and so that’s what we ask.  However, that’s not a treasure, nor a pearl of great price, nor the wisdom that Solomon exemplifies.  Rather, it’s so often the God we think we want rather than the God that is trying to reveal in the penetrating silence of our hearts, a deeper mystery, to be able to let go and surrender to the mystery and allow the prayer to fall within.

If there is one thing I have learned up in the mountains of Acadia this week it’s just how much noise we have in our lives.  First, with the noise that I create for myself in the busyness of life but also all the noise that surrounds us and in so many ways violates that deep penetrating silence of our hearts, to the point that we no longer know what it is that we need when God asks and gradually get swallowed up in life, unable to breathe, unable to fall into the mystery in which God is inviting each of us.

More often than not, in my experience, people have no idea what they’d really ask God for.  Sure, there are the standard prayers of praying for everyone else, for the world, and so on, but to understand and touch the deepest desire of our own heart is a whole other story.  One, we often feel unworthy to even say it or even because we already know deep down that if I do ask as Solomon does, it may just happen and something more may be demanded of me, just as it was for him.  So I hold back that desire out of fear, unworthiness, as even he thinks because of his age, and I choose to live with a constant restlessness until I can finally rest in that deep penetrating silence in my heart as Solomon does, realizing that the prayer has already begun to bear fruit in the simple act of naming the desire from deep in my heart.

Solomon is one of the key wisdom figures in Scripture and has much to teach us in our own prayer and in the barrage of noise in our own lives that often prevents us, knowingly or unknowingly, from moving to that place of deep penetrating silence in our own hearts that knows our truest desire, maybe an understanding heart as it was for Solomon.  His invitation and mirror to all of us is, that despite our own fear, our anxiety, our own feeling of unworthiness, can we step away from the noise of our lives long enough to move to that deeper place, that ocean of silence that often reveals what we truly desire and know that we have nothing to fear all at the same time.  In the end, did the disciples really understand what Jesus was trying to convey.  Probably not, but somehow it at least spoke to them on that deeper level, stirring something within them and preparing them for that descent in their own lives, in the face of the cross, to that deep, penetrating silence revealing their deepest desires and the heart open to understanding the mystery of God.

 

 

 

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Really Living & Living Really

“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in…where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.”  John Muir

“It is astonishing how high and far we can climb mountains that we love, and how little we require food and clothing…No sane man in the hands of nature can doubt the doubleness of his life.  Soul and body receive separate nourishment and separate exercise, and speedily reach a stage of development, wherein each is easily known apart from the other.  Living artificially, we seldom see much of our real selves.”  John Muir

I came across both of these quotes today by John Muir, legendary activist and protector of the woodlands of this country, who in many ways has a love affair with the outdoors.  It becomes not only the avenue for finding himself but for finding a being greater than himself, although rarely wrote about God.  He is considered the Father of the National Parks.

If there is one thing I have learned in spending time in the outdoors, whether it’s here at Acadia, the Grand Canyon, the vast forested area of Alaska, or even the shores of Maryland and Jersey, it’s that deep down what defines the soul is something much more than an urban landscape but rather a never-ending twist and turn, yet explored area that very much resembles these wild and uncharted lands that I’ve had the opportunity, and really, privilege, to explore.

His sentiments have been mine through these experiences, that the natural mountains that we climb or even the vast chasms that we descend throughout this land, how little, we begin to realize, that we truly need.  What becomes our challenge as humans is that we often climb illusions of mountains in our lives, seeking power, prestige, so often missing along the way just what it is we’re losing, forgetting, ignoring, that we become blinded by the climb itself.  A return to the mountains is a good reminder of how we fall prey to the illusions that power and climbing seems to offer, leaving us insecure and fearful of losing something that was never really real in the first place.

Of course, descending the chasms can be just as challenging.  The fall from the illusion of grandeur can be a humbling experience when we begin to see what it is that we have forgotten or ignored along the way.  I had that experience climbing, and descending, in Acadia this week, so intent on getting to the top of the mountain and not until I started to descend did I begin to see things differently, as if the hardness of the climb began to dissipate, noticing a fallen tree, a sparkling stream, an unnamed path that leads to one of the most spectacular views and serene locations in the park.

It seems in either instance, our temptation to remain at the top or simply climb, as we see so often in our culture and society, but also to become attached to the bottom, walked upon, taken advantage of or needing to please, both begin to increase what it is that we seem to need in our lives, when the insecurity and fear begin to take root in our hearts and souls, no longer free.  In the words of John Muir, a separateness of heart and mind begins to form, creating a deeper chasm within ourselves.  In some ways, we become needy and no matter what it is, nothing seems to be enough.

The more I give myself the space to explore the outdoors, which in turn frees me to explore myself, the more I see the value in protecting our lands and leaving them as a place of wonder and exploration.  Whether it was watching a group of young boys play the 21st Century version of “cops and robbers” on Cadillac Mountain or even getting lost myself and being aware of the anxiety it brings up within myself and learning again to trust that deeper instinct and voice.  Over and over again, the natural world has something to teach and to help us to understand not only about itself, but about ourselves and even about God.  In not only helps to fill the chasm between the head and heart, it helps to fill the chasm between humans and the natural world, where everything belongs.

The freedom necessary to not live an “artificial” life as Muir speaks about, requires a letting go, surrendering, and living a life filled with the grace of detachment.  No, not in the sense of not caring, but rather in its natural sense, where I can surrender outcomes and trust God no matter what happens.  Otherwise, we predict the outcome, which in and of itself, is an illusion, artificial.  And we’ll do it to ourselves again and again.  The natural world teaches us to be free, to go where the wind blows, and to accept not what should be, but rather, what is, gradually dispelling the artificialness and leading us to a holiness and a wholeness, reminding us how Muir is correct, in how little we really need to experience the fullness of our lives.

 

Summer’s Winter

As someone who grew up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, you know that there’s something very unique about the winter.  For one thing, it seems to last forever, grey skies linger, snow cannot be ruled out until well into Spring, and maybe more than anything, there’s a different feel to the season, in the way the wind blows and even howls, biting through layers of clothing to the depths of your bones, chilling every part of your body.

It’s not quite as noticeable in the other seasons, when leaves fill the trees, but during the winter there is a unique feel and sound to the wind’s wailing.  There seems to be a hollow and even haunting sound to the pines and evergreens, the perennials that manage to survive the stiffness of winter and withstand the mark of death brought on by the season.  It’s a sound that reminds you that the dog days of summer are all but a memory and the sting of winter has seemingly found its day.

As I sat atop Flying Mountain in Acadia National Park today, I was reminded of that wind.  This far north and the extent of the winter season, leaves its marked presence by a sea of evergreens and pine trees filling the top of the mountain and not much else.  As a matter of fact, it’s as if the ground cannot even handle much more than that, when walking along it feels as if the ground beneath is hollow, roots exposed to the surface, creating an obstacle for even the most avid hiker.  There was, though, that wind and the haunting sound.  Interiorly I recalled the days of winter past in the mountains while my body reminded me that we’re at the height of summer season, a seemingly contradiction taking place within and around me.

For a moment, I thought maybe it’s winters way of reminding us that it’s never fully gone, that atop the beauty of summer below, winter awaits its turn, never separated from the warmth of summer life but simply receded to another day, blowing where it will and knowing at some point a necessary transition will take place in order for more growth to bloom.

All too often we try to separate life from its partner, death.  We try to separate anything that we fear or have a disdain for, not necessarily because we don’t know it’s a part of who we are, but rather, a lie we convince ourselves of, that it’s something for another day and another moment.  There’s a house that sits down below on Somes Sound, which is noticeable from Flying Mountain, being the only home along the shore.  The only trees around it protect it from the water, lined along that shore.  When winter knocks, though, not even a longstanding perennial has the whereabouts to stop and prevent what seems to rock what we have protected, cherished, most valued in our lives, trying to weather the storms that seem to haunt us at times during life, like that winter wind that remains atop that mountain.

Summer doesn’t seem to mind that it’s there.  It seems to go about its business as the wind continues to howl above.  Somehow they know they work in tandem with one another, almost instantly, the seasons of life and death dance with one another, each leading the way for the other.  Sometimes the harshest of times are when they try to hold on too long, well aware of their impending future, wreaking havoc on the life cycle.  But don’t we all?  We seem to love Fall and Spring.  They seem to come upon us so gradually and before we know it, we’re sideswiped by change we knew was coming and yet told ourselves, it’s for another day and another moment.  It’s what we tell ourselves as a way to linger, hold onto what we loved but no longer is.  How summer and winter do it will always remain a mystery, so much unseen and non-rational, bending and stretching the mind to something that lies beyond it and yet so much a part of it.  The howling winter wind has a way of reminding us of that, even on a mild summer day.

Live Free or Die

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After traveling through six different states over the span of ten hours and more than 500 miles, I have reached my destination for the evening, Nashua, New Hampshire.   As I attempt to travel to all fifty states (sixteen to go after this one), I figured being so close to my final destination of Maine for the next ten days or so, I thought I’d jump the border!

Of all the state mottos, New Hampshire has one of the most memorable and most blunt of the fifty states…Live Free or Die.  As I saw it flash before me many of times when I entered the State, I couldn’t help but to think that they are some true words; or even better, that in order to live life freely, who we think we are must die.  Maybe those words are more relevant right now because I know in just about 24 hours, I will be in Acadia National Park preparing with my companions on the experience of a vision quest.  

The vision quest provides the space, literally and figuratively, to allow who we think we are to die and to recognize that “i” is not how I am defined as a person.  In order for us to experience true freedom and to live freely, it all must die; in reality, I must die in order for the Christ within to live.  

Tomorrow I will stop in Bangor in order to pick up one of the other guys who is participating before we take the hour or so drive into Acadia to meet up with everyone else.  I don’t know much about them and vice versa, and yet, we all converge at this moment in history in Maine with the questions of who we really are, how we have defined ourselves up to this point , to face the fears that keep us from living out our true self, and just as importantly, the purpose for which God has created us and the exploring of one’s soul.

We come from all walks of life, and yet, there is something common about the journey and the mission at hand…the mission is not to choose to live free or die, but rather to do both, to die in order that I, and them, may live freely.  All done in the confines of nature and the great outdoors, the greatest non-judgmental teacher we have; only now, for me, in an unknown location, reaching unknown parts of myself.  The motto, less the “or”, defines much of what I can anticipate and stirs up anxiety within these next days.  I know there are images of the self that must die, but at this point, the desire to live is much greater than to worry about what it is that must die.

And so, in just a few short hours, the quest will begin.  Four men, one woman, and a leader who will help to mirror the experience for us, all setting out to live life more freely from what holds us back, from what has defined us, from who we think we are, and from settling in life, often for death.  Tomorrow the choice to live free becomes a reality.  No it will not be easy and much will surface, but in the end, it is right, not just for me, but for all of us and for all that the Creator has desired of me and us in this life.  Thanks New Hampshire for the memorable beginning…die in order to live free.