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.

 

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Tumbling to Success

Wisdom 11: 22-12:2; Luke 19: 1-10

Our society and culture thrives on success and if not on success, winning. We love to succeed and we love to win. No one wants to be a part of a losing team. Of course, at times we even push it to the limits where we will do what it takes to make it to the top. We see cheating in sports and we certainly know of success in the business world has often been on the backs of the people on the bottom. We have literally made success into a virtue that it has often been hard for us to critique it and see the impact it often has on our lives and the lives of others.

But it’s not just our thing. It seems as if it’s a part of our human nature to want to be on top, winners and successful. We even refer to it as climbing the ladder of success. We call it careerism and even clericalism in this Church sphere. But it’s not new. We see it with Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. We know, according to Luke, that he was the chief tax collector and he was a rich man. He was successful and we also know that he often did it while taking advantage of others along the way. He’s already pegged by the people as a cheat and extortioner. Zacchaeus is a climber and he does it well. Like us, he’s made it into a virtue and so it’s no wonder that he will do what he knows how to do well, he’ll climb to just catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passes through.

But the spiritual life isn’t like anything else. As much as we want to make success and winning into a virtue in our daily lives, it pretty much stands in opposition to our spiritual life and our relationship with God. In our spiritual life the virtues are much more about falling, about letting go, and about surrendering. If Zacchaeus is truly open to an encounter with this God that is passing through, then he’s going to have to fall from the tops of the tree and come down to meet the Lord face to face, falling into his love and mercy. But we don’t like to fall. We’ve probably all had those dreams where we find ourselves falling and it has a way of scaring us. It feels like our lives our out of control. It feels like fear and anxiety are taking over our lives. It feels like death in many ways and that makes us uncomfortable and it certainly doesn’t sound anything like success or winning, and it’s not and is at the same time. As Solomon, the writer of Wisdom tells us in the first reading today, this God, who is a lover of souls, has a way of always calling us forth to come home, a home deep within us that no longer is in need of success but rather connection, vulnerability, love, forgiveness. Where does Jesus want to meet Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. Ironically in his home. Today salvation has come to his home. He returns a changed man.

But there are still these grumblers we have to contend with in today’s gospel as well. We all know them because they are often us! They are the ones that have pegged Zacchaeus as a dirtbag. They know what he has done to them and others. They have him all figured out. But that stands as their greatest obstacle. The spirit of conversion is not only for Zacchaeus but for the grumblers. However, there is an openness that lacks in their lives to see Zacchaeus differently and so they’re certainly not going to see themselves differently either. If you don’t think you’re in need of conversion then it’s hard to be open to an encounter that’s going to change you. They have no ability to see their own sin or have quantified Zacchaeus as being worse then theirs. They have named success in their own way, as somehow being better than the other in a moral way. We may not achieve success in the way our culture and society has deemed it, but there is always a part of us that wants to see ourselves as on top, successful in our own way that also clouds us from seeing ourselves in need of conversion and our pride gets in the way, climbing our way to the top only to find ourselves at some point with the invitation to fall into the hands of love and mercy that invites us to this encounter as it was with Zacchaeus.

Like Wisdom tells us today, there remains that lover of souls that is always calling us to our true home, not necessarily just in the life to come, but at this very moment, a God that never gives us because of love. We may climb all we want, but at some point the branches that once sustained us can no longer hold the weight and we’ll find ourselves tumbling. That itself is an invitation from God, to embrace the virtues of the spiritual life now, surrendering, falling, letting go, and finding ourselves in this face to face encounter with the Lord of life. We can have it at this very moment when we embrace our need for forgiveness, climb over our pride, and allow ourselves to fall into love. When we do, like Zacchaeus, our lives are changed forever and so is the world around us.