A Soul’s Opening

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet                                                                                      confinement of your aloneness to learn

anything or anyone that does not bring you alive                                     

is too small for you.”                          David Whyte, “Sweet Darkness”

There’s no doubt that the Western Frontier has always been associated with exploration and even facing the great unknowns.  Many left what had been known because of an aching in their own soul, looking for something more in their lives and headed West.  It’s a part of our history as a country but it is also closely associated with a deeper reality of who we are in trying to find our soul in a world that often lacks depth and meaning.  For myself, there has always been a radical opening that takes place within myself when I go West, as if I encounter, for the first time again, the wide and vast area that has yet to be explored or taken over by human innovation, still holding onto the natural that has a way of speaking, or even screaming at times, to places deep within ourselves when we confront in the lived reality what’s really going on within ourselves.  As much as I think I know myself, or God for that matter, I am once again knocked down to a world yet explored, a world unto myself and yet far greater at the same time.

As humans, there is probably nothing that scares us more than confronting those places within ourselves.  At times it seems as if it’s easier to see such vastness and emptiness projected on the frontier to make the task less daunting.  What scares us more than anything is that we may just be proven to be a fraud in our own lives, not living up to the expectations we have placed upon ourselves or others have done for us over time.  Whether they come from the roles we play in our family or in our daily lives, the more we separate ourselves from the last frontier and all it has to offer in exploration, our soul and its vastness, the more daunting it begins to feel to any of us and quite frankly, the less satisfied we become with our lives and the lack of depth and meaning that often becomes associated with it.  It has a way of reminding us of our own shared creation, grounding us in something much deeper than what the world has to offer.

When I spent last week visiting the West, in Colorado, I knew that I couldn’t leave without some time exploring some of the most beautiful spots this country continues to offer, places like Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, Seven Falls, and simply the experience of driving through the high desert area that never ceases to catch you off guard by its unpredictability.  It’s probably the least we can do for ourselves, in our lives, especially when we become so conditioned and domesticated in what we do and when the mundane seems to become the norm of our lives, the loss of mystery, adventure, and unknown, to go out and explore.

So there I was, wandering the Garden of the Gods, at times simply being overwhelmed by the vastness and the intricacies of it all, driving through narrow cutouts, feeling lightheaded by the altitude, a mouth parched from the aridness of the air around, the feeling of being vulnerable as I wander alone in places yet explored.  Will I find my way back to my car?  Do I have enough battery life in my cell phone?  Would someone be able to find me?  Of course, all fear and anxiety I was placing upon myself!  As crazy as it seems, though, the deeper I moved into the area the further I wanted to go, to see, to experience, to understand, as if something within me became enlivened in those moments, knowing that I am no longer bound by the routine and the known, but being invited into the last frontier, the wild west, one more time in my life, and for that matter, my own soul.  For a few moments it seemed to be inviting me to escape it all and reconnect with a deeper reality just now being revealed.  It’s as if, once again, for the first time, you begin to look at life through a different lens that begins to expand and yet mirror how small we sometimes become in our daily lives.

The whole experience was somewhat overwhelming to the point of tears, as if love was revealed again in a different way, a more profound way, and yet questioning whether I could ever accept such a gift that was being revealed in those moments.  In the distance, the snowcapped mountains gleaned, mounds of stone perched, empty vastness that seemed to go on for miles, and there I stood so small before it all and merely an instrument trying to put into words that which could not be described but only experienced, a moment that could never be captured by camera or phone, but one that only speaks soul to soul, that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.  There it was, in a single moment, where all seemed and felt to be one, not wanting to end, not wanting to separate, not wanting to leave but try to absorb a beauty unlike any other.  There I was, not only witnessing what was lying before me but also within me.  It’s times like that when my own fraudulency is revealed and an invitation to go deeper, further, opens up to something more, a deeper understanding of me, God, and love, when what I had become accustomed to no longer was enough but called out for more.

Like most experiences, I go thinking it’s for one reason, to celebrate and vacation a bit, spend time with friends, but a change of place, time, landscape, the normal, has a way of breaking down our own defenses, our own walls we build, to open us up to something new that we could never have expected or even know we desired.  Yet, when the soul becomes dissatisfied and desiring more, it will awaken us to our own complacency and once again invites us to go West, to the great unknown, to open us again to life.  We can all become beat down by life and the challenges that we encounter, relationships that can deflate our souls, but we’ll never be satisfied with anything less than what it desires of and for us.  In those moments of exploration and the loud silence that ensues, we make that promise that we’ll never settle and never be satisfied with anything less for our lives as co-creators with Mystery, with God, with the great unknown that the West has to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Injustice of My Own Heart

Deut 26: 4-10; Luke 4: 1-13

I say it every year as a good reminder, that this gospel reminds us how careful we should be about using Scripture against someone knowing that the devil knows scripture and uses scripture as well as anyone. We can never forget that point. The readings this weekend, though, point us to one reality and that is that there is one God and that it’s not me and it’s not you but we struggle with a daily temptation thinking otherwise. Like most things, we have a way of even making the temptations into something superficial. We limit it often to what we can see, of the flesh, habits we must break, but we never move to the deeper questions that ask why I’m so easily tempted and from where within me do they arise, often these crazy desires that we sometimes face and, rather easily, submit to in our lives. There can be a lot of truth in the statement that the devil made me do it. Of course, as long as we accept that the devil is within me.

But the temptations that Jesus seems to face in today’s gospel don’t sound like anything that we encounter and so can come off as being disconnected from our own humanity. But his temptations go beyond what he can see with his eyes, even though the devil shows him in that way. Let’s recall how the story unfolds because it is the Spirit that leads Jesus out into the desert. Of course, the desert has great meaning to the people as they recall the events of the exodus in the first reading today. The desert becomes that most vulnerable place within, where we are somewhat in limbo and experiencing great vulnerability. We know what it’s like. There’s not much life, or so it seems. It’s hot and can be quite cold. It would make any of us uneasy. But it is precisely in this God-sized hole, our own interior desert, that the Spirit also tries to lead us, to our own place of vulnerability, to a deeper hunger that reveals the depths of the temptations in our own lives.

But it’s the place we’d rather not go. We like Lent the way it is, on the surface and making some little changes in my life knowing I can always go back to it come Easter, a temporary respite. Any of us can do something for forty days. But that’s not the point. I had mentioned yesterday that the Lent we are called to and the fast that we are called to is much more radical, a fast that the prophetic voices preach and lose their lives for. What we are called to fast from and change is from the injustices that happen around us all the time and our participation in the injustices. On a deeper level, there is greed. On a deeper level, there is safety. On a deeper level, within this God-sized hole, there is all this activity that catapults our world into war and famine and how easy it is to turn a blind eye to it all, actively participating so often by doing nothing. Worse yet, we have often made virtues out of some of them, such as greed, that we become so blinded by it that we consciously give into it because we’ve decided it’s something good. How blind we can become and how easily we can be swayed into believing something is not true, all in the name of virtue, happening in the world and Church. We can never call out big money lest we be called out, nor can we say anything against war. Oh, how much easier it is to keep Lent on the surface and never examining where these desires come from and why we are led to such blindness.

But there is that deeper hunger within and that Jesus experiences after forty days in the desert. Again, it’s paramount the experience in the desert. We hear that recounting of the exodus from Deuteronomy today. They too fell into that trap, people Israel, in thinking that they can be god. They buy into the lie that they can do it alone, despite being up against such opposition in facing the same realities in their lives that we do in war and famine, abuse of power and willing it over others. Gradually they too had to be led to that same place, to their own vulnerability and a confrontation with their own inner hunger before they can surrender themselves over to the one true God, the one that leads from death to life.

The Spirit not only leads Jesus to the desert. That same Spirit will lead Jesus to the Garden which we will hear on Palm Sunday. It’s the same Spirit that leads him to the Cross, the most vulnerable and humiliating of places for anyone, including Jesus, only to hand himself over, not only to the hands of the authorities but to hand his life over to the Supreme Authority in God. The temptations Jesus faces in the desert are central to our own lives but we must be willing to go to the same place and allow the Spirit to lead. The only way we change and seek conversion in our lives is to go to that place, below the surface of our superficial temptations that we’ve vowed to give up for at least forty days, and to go to the place of injustice. It’s not just the injustice out there. It’s the injustice in my own heart and soul that I must confront. It’s the injustice in my own heart and soul that needs change and conversion.

As we enter into this season we pray for the Spirit to lead us where it wills, in particular, to the place of vulnerability, to the God-sized hole within that we try to fill. It never works and deep down we know it, but the temptation to be God is also very real and convinces us as it tries Jesus that we’re something and someone that we are not. There is but one God and it is that one God that changes hearts and souls to be more like Him. We pray this is a time to fast from injustice, to feel and experience the Cross within, so that we too may be transformed into a new life, a life we have been created for in serving the one true God in this world and to build up not our own kingdom, but the Kingdom of that God.

Food for the Journey

1Kings 19: 4-8; John 6: 41-51

It’s hard not to feel for Elijah in today’s first reading. It was just a few months ago that we heard the next portion of this reading when he gets to the cave and looks for God in the fire, and earthquake, only to find God in the whisper of the wind, blowing within his heart and soul. But we go to feel for him. We know what it’s like on this journey. His back is up against the wall. Life isn’t nearly what he had expected it to be or wanted it to be. He’s feeling alone and abandoned. All in the name of God who somehow put him in this position! He has nowhere to turn. Queen Jezebel pretty much has a warrant out for his head. He’s exposed and taken out the false gods and prophets, exposing them for what they really were. You just got to feel for him. We all know what that’s like in life when we’re at our wits end. We’d all want to run and hide as he does today. That’s where we pick up the reading today. He even would prefer death! Ironically, that’s what he will experience, but even that will come in a different form than he prays and thinks of at this moment of despair!

In his moment of despair, though, we hear today that an angel appears to him to offer him food. Understandably, he’s not all that interested in eating anything or listening to anyone associated with God, considering so much disappointment in his life right now surrounds that place. But the angel encourages him to eat for the journey; you’re going to need to eat in order to continue the journey. Most notably, though, is that the journey is not to return yet to what he has left behind or to his original call as a prophet. He wasn’t quite ready to return to that place. The food for the journey moves him further and further out into the desert. Elijah must first embark an another journey, deeper into this great place of emptiness in his life, forty days and forty nights, into the depths of the desert, physically, and into his very soul. Elijah must be emptied of all else that he has fed himself with…the despair, the heartache, the expectations, the sadness, before he can return and face his true identity. That little bit of food under the broom tree is enough to take you on your way to these deeper parts. Elijah must make the journey from all that he thought and held onto to the depths of his being to find what will truly nourish. Heck, he’ll be able to confront most anything because not even death can stand in the way once he finds that place!

Desert is a common theme in Scripture. We know Jesus begins his public life in the same way. Before he can go out to both Jew and Gentile, Jesus must go into the depths of his being in the midst of the desert. He must confront his own temptations and the strong pull to be something other than we are and he is. In this squabble with the scribes and pharisees, he comes from that place and tries to lead them to it as well, the place that will endure forever. But like Elijah, they think they have it all figured out. They think they have him figured out in a derogatory way recognizing him only as the son of Joseph. That’s true to a point but he’s more than that and so are we. The scribes and pharisees fear the desert more than anything for it feels like losing control, which is what they thrive on. They like things neatly boxed, fitted together, all the answers and life figured out in their own way. But that’s simply the god they’ve created for themselves and works for them. It’s not the God who feeds eternally, inviting us into that second journey of life as it was with Elijah, calling us to something more, paradoxically, in our very emptiness we find the life of the world.

Now we may find ourselves in the midst of the desert of our lives at this very moment. Maybe we’re right where Elijah is, questioning how all of this can be, bemoaning what life is throwing at us, but that’s the place where we are most vulnerable and the place that God can speak and feed us with the true bread. This isn’t just something that we receive nor is it something that we need to have all figured out. If we think we do, it’s most likely more a theological construct where we get to determine who eats and who doesn’t, but the journey of the desert is one that takes us somewhere deeper into our souls that needs to be nourished and at the same time nourishes us for the journey. In the process and in the journey we find what it is we have always looked for, the true bread from heaven, God, and most likely not in the way we wanted or expected, but God nonetheless. To live our true vocation we must allow ourselves into the journey, and face death like Jesus and Elijah, into the desert of our lives, in order to go back, and yet forward, and be who we always were called to be and to the place that will give us life eternally, both now and forever.

Threshold to Life

Numbers 21: 4-9; John 3: 13-17

It’s always good when these Feasts like we celebrate today, the Exultation of the Holy Cross, fall on Sunday’s because it shakes us out of the normal routine of Ordinary Time. There may be no greater feast for us to spend some time reflecting on than the gift of the Cross! We’ve also, however, used it casually. We talk about the crosses we have to bear or it’s my cross that I carry and so on, and that’s not to minimize anyone’s suffering; suffering is real and painful, but the Cross is something more than that as well. There’s also the risk of making it simply a historical event of the past or a future reality hoped for, but it must speak to us today, at this very moment of our lives. I’d like to consider it from the perspective as a doorway to an authentic way of life. The cross stands as the threshold to an authentic life as individuals and as an authentic relationship with God.

Although the Israelites would not have understood the language of the cross when this first reading is written, they certainly knew about standing on thresholds to something new. It’s a great reading because I think we can all relate. They love to complain about everything. Nothing is ever good enough for them. They always expect more. They complain that they have been led out into the desert. They complain because of the food they have to eat. I dare say, what holds them back the most from crossing into the Promised Land is their own history. They become victims of their own history, their past. They hold onto who they think they should be. They hold onto who they think God has called them to be. All of it holds them back from crossing that threshold to salvation, the Promised Land, the fullness of life that God truly desires for them. But they can’t do it and won’t do it until they pass through the Cross and are stripped of what holds them back. The irony of it all, once you cross over, there’s no turning back. Life in the Promised Land is too big now for going back. The old way will never suffice; it will never be big enough compared to where God has led them.

It’s also the journey of Nicodemus. This is one of three times we encounter him in John’s Gospel with Jesus, beginning in the darkness of night. He will gradually go through the desert of his own life and come out into the light. He will be the one left with Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus to the tomb. But until then, he too holds onto to the known, unwilling to take the risk we call faith. He’s afraid of what the Pharisees will think of him going to seek out Jesus. Obviously something about Jesus is drawing him from the dark of night into the light of day. Gradually in the Gospel he will take the step out, taking the risk of stepping over the threshold of the Cross into an authentic way of life. First stepping back and forth but eventually an experience of salvation in this moment unfolds in his life and in ours.

We, like those Israelites, will do everything to try to avoid that threshold and passing through that doorway. We are comfortable with the known, even if it means bringing about suffering in our own lives. We will hold onto our ego, thinking that’s where it’s at. We will hold onto our past, our own history, being the victim over and over again, each time not recognizing the invitation that lies before us to crossover. It’s hard. It’s painful and it requires great risk on our part to let go, let things die, a necessary part of the journey, in order for new life to take shape on the other side of that threshold.

My friends, as we celebrate this great feast of the Holy Cross, we can exclaim our gratitude. We can be thankful that Jesus died on that Cross and shows the way. We can be thankful that salvation has been won for us. But it doesn’t mean we can sit idly by, waiting for things to happen, reclaiming our victimhood, which just comes down to our unwillingness to trust, and doing the same thing over and over again in our lives. We pray this day for the grace to take a risk, as individuals and a community, to step out and cross that threshold. It’ll be hard. It’ll be painful at times, but when we pass through, we will know how much it was worth it. We pray for that grace today to cross the threshold, let go of what must die and be stripped at that cross, and celebrate the new life that has been promised for the ages to come.

Journeying Downward and Outward

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Genesis 12: 1-4; Matthew 17: 1-9

While I was doing my train trip two years ago, I had blogged a post entitled, “Faces in the Sand” ( http://www.herodescent.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/faces-in-the-sand ).    I had written it while I was at the monastery in the desert out in New Mexico, literally in the middle of nowhere, twelve miles off the main road down a long dirt road.  I had happened to look up while I was out there and saw what looked like faces in the sand, hence the name of the blog!  In that moment, I had thought about all the people that had gone before me in that location, the desert mothers and fathers that are a part of our faith.  At that time, I felt a sense of peace because it was as if they were all praying for me at that moment to trust and to grow in faith, even if it meant going places that I would rather not go.

I thought of that post when I read this first reading from Genesis and the story of Abraham and Sarah.  Just think about it, their families probably thought they were crazy for what they were about to do in their lives.  Keep in mind that they both well advanced in age, often felt unsettled because at times it seemed as if God had not come through for them, and all of a sudden they are being directed to go out, to leave everything behind in these advanced years of their lives and head out to a new land.  The crazy thing is, they did it.  They left where they were not knowing where they were going and God provided.  God provides them with a son, Isaac, and Sarah literally laughs in God’s face.  Yet, when we leave behind and go out to the distant lands, into the desert of our lives, God somehow reaches us on new levels, trust builds and faith deepens, God provides.  They could take such a leap of faith in their lives because they have done much of the hard work and the journey within.  Up to this point in the book of Genesis it hasn’t been very good news and in comes the call of our father in faith, Abraham, to once again put his trust in God and go out.

For the disciples, who too are so often the faces in the sand for us, it wasn’t about going out to distant lands but rather a journey down, a journey that takes, sometimes, even greater trust and faith.  Abraham and Sarah had life’s experience and wisdom behind them but not so for the disciples.  They are new to this pilgrim journey.  They haven’t yet made the journey down and yet, love the experience of being on top of the mountain.  Peter wants to build tents and stay right where he is, along with James and John.  Imagine, any of us in that position would want the same thing, to stay put where they had just seen the glory of Jesus revealed, all is good in the world at that moment, and not a care in the world.  Yet, Jesus leads them down.  As much as Abraham and Sarah go out on their journey, the disciples, as it is for us in this season of Lent, we journey down into the depths of our beings, so often to the places we’d rather not go.  We know how it proceeds for the disciples as we move towards Palm Sunday and Good Friday when they face head on the evil, darkness, and shadow they face within themselves and it isn’t until they are led to those places, into the muck of life, will they be able to go out like Abraham and Sarah.  It will only be in some of the most trying times of their lives where they will learn to trust and their faith deepen.  When they do, they too will go out, but now a new people knowing truly what their lives are about.

As we pilgrims continue this journey, we come mindful of the centuries of those who have gone before us, the many “faces in the sand” which continue to encourage and strengthen us on our own faith journey and desire to take it seriously.  This Lenten season, for us, is about the journey of the disciples and where Jesus leads them, to the cross.  It will only be in facing the Jerusalem of our own lives where we will grow and deepen in faith and learn to trust God with all our heart and soul.  This is a journey, in many ways, we do alone, but at the same time, together, joined with these centuries of mothers and fathers of faith who lead us down to where we’d rather not go in order to leave what we know and trust the call to go out to distant lands being that faith and trust to all the world.  We pray, this season, for the courage to go and to respond to the call of God to let go and to respond with such conviction as Abraham to the unknown of our lives and world with such deep faith and trust.