The Narrow Strait

The best any of us can do when it comes to understanding God more deeply is seek out metaphors and images that somehow give us a glimpse into the mystery in which we share.  We are surrounded by them each and every day if we allow ourselves even moments to be aware of the eternal presence shaping our own journey, breaking in, in one way or another.  It’s hard, at times, when you find yourself in paradise, not to miss the moments and signs that are pointing us to a deeper way of life.  It can be something as simple as walking along the beach or watching a sunrise or sunset to even some of the great obstacles we face in trying to pass through in this life.

As I was out walking along the beach yesterday there was one such sign that came in the form of an obstacle.  In parts, the beach is quite narrow right now and you have to practically walk over people in order to keep moving in some direction.  Yet, as you walk, there comes a natural obstacle that would make most pause, at the least, or simply turn around because of the difficulty in passing through.  There is a narrow path in which you can only pass through in single file.  If you’re on the other side it’s best to wait for others to pass.  It’s that narrow of a space, which added with rock formation and water breaking in through that formation, it can easily throw anyone off balance before passing through to the other side.

Yet, if you handle it carefully and with some awareness, you can pass through the narrow strait, which opens up into what appears to be the paradise desired of endless beach, few people, and a sense of stillness that all but makes the memory of the journey thus far all but forgotten.  Now I did happen to notice a woman that thought she’d outsmart it and walk around the narrow strait.  She was going to avoid it all together and somehow go around it to pass through but quickly realized that was nearly impossible, climbing over slippery and jagged rock, of course with phone and other items in hand, before turning back because it was too hard.

Is it not true of our spiritual lives as well?  We too are often left with such a choice as to how we are going to move forward.  It appears that the options are endless, and God knows, we’ll try every one of them before attempting the narrow straight.  We think and convince ourselves that somehow we can outsmart the process and avoid the seeming danger of passing through the most narrow of spots along the journey.  We turn around and settle for a life that we’ve outgrown, that feels crowded and yet lifeless all for the fact that we fear passing through.  We try to avoid that passing and attempt every other option, no matter how dangerous, all but to avoid the one, narrow straight that promises us an openness into what it is we’ve desired.  Maybe it’s why it appears, with the naked eye, to have so few people on the other side because so few of us are willing to take the risk in passing through.  Yet, what lies beyond transcends words and is simply something to be experienced for our own selves.  Otherwise, all we can do is listen in on a story and experience that our hearts long for and desire and yet we continue to allow ourselves to get in the way of possibility all because we convinced ourselves that there should be an easier way to all of it or if I wait long enough I’ll find the way to outsmart it all.  We’ll be waiting a long while if we live our lives that way, lacking the depth and meaning we desire.

Now, it’s not that we toss out that life once we pass through.  We still look behind at times to learn and heal the narrowest parts of our lives that at time continue to plague our hearts.  They remain; but when we allow ourselves the opportunity and invitation to pass through the narrowest of straits, time and again, we are afforded the opportunity to let go and to be healed of the memories that often stand as our greatest obstacle of passing through that space.  It is the fear that has become attached to our memories that hold us back.  More often than not, the fear of being hurt or rejected.  Sure, we may get hurt passing through, but it’s the only way that promises life and the paradise desired by our hearts and souls.

All any of us can do is seek out these metaphors and images.  We can study theology for years on end, and that’s a good thing.  But in the end, when it comes to deepening a relationship with God, it’s the images that find a way to transform our hearts or at minimum open us up toward greater possibility and to the impossible that we tend to avoid.  All too often we settle for being trapped, confined, and allowing our hearts to be overcrowded with a life that once was and setting up shop there thinking we have it all.  At some point, though, we start to get the nudge.  It may take months and years, but eventually cracks begin to break us open enough to realize that narrow strait is unlike the rest and what’s on the other side is something that we desire all the more.  It takes great courage to live now and not hung up in some past life or anxious about what’s next.  In the great moments of passing through that narrow strait, there’s no space for fear or worry, simply about being.  It isn’t until finally braving that space that we learn we need not fear it each time we encounter it because once we encounter the spaciousness of the paradise beyond there’s no turning back.  It’s images like this that speak to us but most importantly, transform our hearts into knowing and understanding the primal message of the sacred word, fear not.

Intimately Beyond

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12

We come to the final Sunday of the Christmas season and it gets bookended with Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ with the visit of the Magi and the star guiding their way.  Of course, even here we lump them all together to create our very own Charlie Brown Christmas but certainly not the intention of either Matthew or Luke, each having their own reasons as to why the story is told.  I’ve said before that Matthew is very much about change and an interior change that is necessary to be a follower and so there’s very little need to historical evidence of these events but very much when it comes to our spiritual life.

It is the rising of the stars appearance that sets these Magi on this journey to Bethlehem.  Many over the years have tried to give historical evidence even of the star, whether it’s a comet or something, but again, not Matthew’s point.  If we want evidence, facts, or certainty we’ve come to the wrong place.  It was common belief that everyone was given a star by these astrologers upon their birth into this world.  Yet something had to be different about this one that would set the astrologers on such an arduous journey themselves.  It’s rising must have set off an unrest within them that would send them seeking and now stand as the archetypal images of seeking of the more.  Not the more the world tries to offer but the seeking of the Christ that forces us to our knees in homage.  So they set out in search of the rising star.  A star that stands as a guiding principle, a seat of wisdom, of sorts that lies deep within them and yet still unknown.

There is another word we use often in our language that has star at its root.  The word we use is disaster, dis-star, meaning separated from one’s internal guide.  We even speak of our lives or such as a disaster when we feel out of sorts or feeling lost and confused.  Which leads us to the first stop of the Magi, Jerusalem, where they encounter disaster first hand in Herod.  Herod considers himself the center of the world and yet is filled with fear and paranoia when he hears of this rising star coming to the world stage.  Not only Herod, but all of Jerusalem with him, Matthew tells us.  Now certainly they knew what Herod was capable of and would see first hand his destruction and just how much of a disaster he was.  This rising star, not only a threat to Herod’s perceived power but very much to the status quo.  Even though this peace was rooted in fear it’s what they knew and what they could cling to.  They were certain of at least that.

The Magi quickly learn that Jerusalem in not the place of the Christ.  It’s going to be an opportunity for these journeymen to let go of their own perceived idea of the power they sought was not going to come from worldly position.  The most obvious place was the palace in Jerusalem and yet all they find there in the midst of wealth and status was fear, jealousy, secrets, and a guy who was most consumed by himself and the power he acquired through position than in seeking.  Herod himself stands as an archetype of the non-seeker, believing that authority comes from him and external authority.  He thinks it’s enough to send the Magi further to do the work for him.  Yet, as a writer who calls for interior change, Matthew understands that the work is done by ourselves.  We must make the journey ourselves while passing through the doors of death in Jerusalem, just as Jesus does as well.  Matthew mirrors Jesus’ own journey by passing through Jerusalem in order to experience the fullness of life that is promised. 

This all leads to the second journey, the journey into Bethlehem.  Notice that it appears in the writing of the gospel that the star seems to dissipate over Jerusalem and reappears as they begin the second journey.  Now having been stripped of their own expectations, the Magi open themselves and create the space within themselves to encounter the divine.  When they find their true home, not in some palace, but in the poverty of Bethlehem, everything begins to make sense.  They recognize that what they have sought they had all along and simply cast a shadow upon Herod and the status quo.  It was simply revealed to them who Herod really was and the emptiness of his supposed power, holding people hostage in fear and settling for the status quo. 

Mary and Joseph, in Matthew’s gospel are not exempt from making a similar journey.  They too will follow and be led by the rising star into Egypt.  They, and all of Israel, are invited to face their own history.  Egypt stood for everything Herod was, despite being a religious leader.  Egypt was the place of slavery, war, and fear for Israel.  Matthew calls them collectively to take this journey that the Magi do to shed light and to cast a shadow on where it is that they need to change and where they still cling to fear.  Like the infant passing through, the Magi passing through Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph passing through Egypt, and ultimately Jesus passing through Jerusalem, there’s no way around.  The journey to a fuller and free life is through our own Jerusalem.

The journey Matthew calls us to and the encounter with the Christ is a difficult one and arduous at best.  It’s long and it takes us to places we’d often rather not go.  No one wants to admit that we at times clamor for power, fear and are anxious, content with the status quo, want proof and certainty, and yet, everything about this feast and season tells us just the opposite of who we have been created to be.  Like Herod, no one else can do it for us.  Heck, we’re even content with living a disastrous life and settling for it in our Church, city, nation, and world.  It’s what we know and can be sure of, but lacks meaning and purpose and certainly shows how separated we’ve become from our own center.  Our faith and what we celebrate in this season points to freedom and liberation, more often than not, from ourselves.  Letting go of our own expectations, being led to the belly of the beast, and yet pushed even further to encounter what is real.  And in a moment, in a simple encounter, everything makes sense.  The Magi could not go home by the same route just as we cannot when we have this encounter with the Christ.  In that encounter the Magi see, for the first time, the real presence, and finally understand that the Christ has been with them all along this journey, when the divine of within encounters the divine beyond.

As we enter into the fullness of this season and begin to tell the story of how this gift is manifested, we pray for the grace to make the journey.  No one can do it for you and no one can tell you how to get there.  Everyone knows their Jerusalem and their Egypt that they need to encounter.  Slowly, the eternal Christ within begins to reveal what is real and the deeper truth of our own lives.  It takes courage and great grace.  But like the Magi, in our own unsettledness, we’re pushed forward and through so that we to can live the fullness of life.  Matthew desired something more from and for his community after witnessing the horrors of the world.  Our desire is the same.  The Magi point the way into our own Bethlehem, into the vulnerability of a heart that throbs and overflows with union.  When we allow ourselves the opportunity to make the journey we become transformed, liberated from a past that holds us back and clouds our vision in order to be led to a deeper understanding of this mystery that lead us to simply do as the Magi, to fall on our knees in homage recognizing that it was never about us but the Christ that calls us forth to new life.

A Stable Force

star-of-bethlehem-wallpaper-source_bff

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14

There’s some irony in hearing this familiar gospel from Luke today of Mary and Joseph heading back to the place of origin for the census. The story we heard more than anything this week was about taxes.  Congress passed a bill and it was signed into law.  There’s debate, depending on who you listen to, as to who it benefits.  I don’t know.  But some 2000 years ago Mary and Joseph found themselves in this same familiar place.  The calling of the census by Caesar Augustus was primarily about taxes.  Like always it seems as if money drives everything no matter the point in history.

We do know one thing, though, that Mary and Joseph would not benefit from this taxation and nor would any other poor person of the day. It was to benefit the expansion of the kingdom that Caesar was creating in his own image.  It was a time of peace that was rooted in oppression, fear, and constant instability for the community in which Luke writes this passage. Yet, despite all of it this couple were faithful to this earthly power just as Jesus would go onto say, give to Caesar what is Caesar.  But they were faithful until they no longer could.  They were faithful until it stood in the way of this newfound life in Christ that seemed harmless and yet a threat to powers of the day, when people, as history is turned on its head, no longer have to be defined by the political or even religious authorities of their day.  In the midst of all the instability, Mary and Joseph return to the place of origin, as we all do to seek what they sought, to the stable, the manger, the garden, to once again find that union with the divine.  In the midst of the instability of the day a Stable arises in their midst to bring lasting peace and freedom that can no longer be contained by the earthly powers.

This passage we hear this evening that stands so familiar to us of the birth of the Christ has great spiritual implications more than any other.  As much as we have softened over time, it was a story of hope for Luke’s community that found themselves displaced and in constant turmoil from within and from the political and religious authorities.  There was no space, no room, for another voice beyond Caesar and anyone that tried faced consequences.  There was, as Luke tells us, no room in the Inn.  The external pressures to conform and that contained them would no longer suffice for a God who was to take on flesh.  Rather, Mary and Joseph leave the confines of the Inn and wander into the darkened night, where the community so often found itself, giving birth in a stable.  This is the defining moment for Mary and Joseph as well who realize there’s no turning back at this point.  They have been given a gift and this gift is going to guide them through some of the darkest moments of their lives.  They will not be defined by Caesar and his cronies.  They will no longer be contained by the political and religious authorities of their day.  They, instead, will be led as refugees to unfamiliar land and space only to turn to the Christ as their guide.  They return to the place of their own origin and give birth to a new way of life, wrapped not in the confines of the worldly desires but rather in mystery and the unknown, learning to trust and navigate the given gift.

But long before there was Israel who too found itself in similar situations.  As much as things change over time they also remain the same.  They find themselves again on the cusp of something new.  They were a people that walked in darkness but now illumined by this light.  Israel will learn in its own history, as in ours, that darkness becomes their greatest teacher.  It’s often when they find themselves wandering, fleeing oppressors, facing the unknown and utter darkness, that grace begins to grow.  They too will return to their own place of origin, to the heart of who they are, only to once again become attached and led to the darkness once more, to grown more deeply in faith and trust of this mystery that continues to call them forth.  Like them, we don’t like to be “in the dark” on things.  We want to know.  We want that certainty in our lives.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the Magi will encounter in the weeks ahead, learn to be sent forth to those very places in their own lives.  As I said, great spiritual implications as to how they and we live our lives.  Our we going to be defined by the confined Inn, cluttered lives we often lead.  Will we simply be identified with our politics and even our religious beliefs.  The radical simplicity of Christmas in a very complex world reminds us that in all our instability, war, poverty, unrest, and all the rest, we’re called to leave it behind, the “worldly desires” and allow the Stable to arise in our own hearts and souls to now be led not from on high and not from these external authorities but rather from within our very hearts and souls where the Christ, from the beginning and always, is being born.

This is what Christmas is about.  Luke turns the story on its head.  Salvation history will not be defined through the eyes of Caesar Augustus, Herod, or any other tyrant of their day, oppressing the people for their own political gain.  Luke reminds us that we live from the inside out and from the bottom up.  The journey now into the great darkness that has seen the great light is a painful one at that, but Mary and Joseph stand as witnesses to the power of the Stable in the midst of the instability of their own lives and ours as well.  Deep within us we know something that goes beyond anything this world offers, all the clutter and noise that distracts us, creating anxiety and instability, turmoil in our lives.  In that very place we’re called to leave it behind on this Christmas, leave the staleness and artificialness of the Inn that has defined to something real, wandering in the darkness of night, to a Stable that holds the eternal and the one who navigates Luke’s community to a new way of life and one for ourselves as well.  We can be defined by the tyrants of our day, the corruption of money, political and religious leaders telling us who we are and what to do but Christmas demands more of us.  Christmas demands us to learn to grown and trust the voice deep within, from a place of mystery and the great unknown, calling us to live our lives identified by the eternal place of origin, a Stable, in the midst of a often unstable world.

Necessary Tears

“Jesus wept.”  John 11:35

Jesus wept.  It’s dubbed as the shortest verse in all of Scripture and despite its size has a way of packing a wallop to the crowds that are gathered at that moment.  It comes as the story builds around the death of Lazarus, his friend, and the questioning of the crowds as to whether Jesus is who he says he is now that he has finally met his match in death.  Sure he could heal the blind man but death has a hold that stands as much greater than blindness or so it would seem.  In that gatherings of jeers, anger, and spite, Jesus weeps.  He weeps.

Of course, though, that is what is seen with the eyes, tears falling down his face.  But tears are never just tears.  Frequently they come from a much deeper place within, a place of our own pain and loneliness.  Once again, he is misunderstood by the crowds and followers.  Once again, he is doubted.  Once again, he sees the lack of faith.  Once again, they can’t seem to get past their own judgment of what they have seen with their own eyes and move to greater depths within themselves.  When we do, we weep with Jesus for many of the same reasons.

More than once this past week I have been told to be angry.  At times, screamed at by people telling me to be outraged.  I’ve had it told to me on Facebook.  I’ve had it told to me through the news.  Heck, I’ve pretty much had it shown to me by the President and other political figures, be angry, and be angry for a reason.  After some time I began to think maybe I should be angry.  Maybe I should start screaming like so many on television are these days, at one another and with one another, with no path to understanding or even an inkling of listening to each other.  Yet, all I feel is sadness and tears, like weeping.  For everyone.

To this day I am most struck by the image of the young men in Charlottesville on Friday evening who had surrounded a gathering of ministers, practically holding them hostage, carrying flames with the looks of rage on their faces.  In symbolic fashion, holding hostage their own hearts from being moved and changed.  The last thing this situation needed was more anger, I thought.  I began to wonder how men of such a young age could be harboring such strong feelings of anger and fear in their lives, knowing full well that that is what I was witnessing with my eyes.  Deep down, though, anger and fear are merely masks, symptoms, of a much deeper hurt and wound that is often not visible with our eyes, including the hurt in my own life that I’m being invited into to seeking healing and reconciliation.  If I’m not careful and aware, it’s quite easy to react to it when it arises and lash out at the closest target, often the one who has embodied that deeper hurt of mine and where I continue to hold onto it in which I don’t want to look or see within myself.  It’s the human dilemma that we all need to face and confront at different points in our lives, individually and collectively.

As the week wore on, I listened to all the noise less and less and found myself wrestling with this reality in which we find ourselves.  It’s not that I don’t agree that the level of hate and the realities of racism continue to cast a shadow upon us because I do.  As long as there are humans we’ll face all of it.  Often people are simply looking for validation of their experience since so much of what we do and how we act happens on the subconscious level without us even thinking.  Raising awareness means the shifting to the conscious level, which is the only place we can deal with them, otherwise the wounds once again become buried within ourselves and the cycle of violence continues not only in the world but in our own lives, many times without us even being aware of it because it becomes are natural fallback, peeling back the scab over and over again.

If there is one thing I have learned through my own struggles and in facing my own violence toward others and myself is that there is no easy way around it.  My natural inclination is to shut down in the face of it until I can reckon with the reality, a reality which never disappears by not confronting it head on.  Dealing with our past is so often minimalized with, the past is already over, move on, as if I can just will my pain be gone.  I wish it were that easy.  However, the pain has a way of manifesting itself in the same ways, again and again, in our lives.  Rather than trying to tear it down and rid ourselves of it, we are often invited to understand it, allow it to surface, and reverence it with the healing it needs, almost always through tears, weeping for what it was and even for what it was not.

The great risk in life as a part of the human race is to become what it is we hate, when in reality, we often already are exactly that.  We live in this world filled with should have’s and could have’s, living with the disappointment that we’re not more than how we appear before others.  We live with the disappointments often because we deal with the same problems the same way and expect different results each time, casting amnesia upon us in the face of perpetual violence towards our brothers and sisters.  Through the use of our judgments, our own misunderstandings, our labels that denigrate fellow human beings to being monsters of sorts, in the end, gets us nowhere, often only validating the monster within ourselves that we haven’t learned to love.  In some ways, I’d rather live with the moments of loneliness that comes with being misunderstood, as it was for Jesus, rather than use him against another.  I’d rather live with the tears that come with not quickly reacting but first trying to understand the deeper hurt that is being aroused.  I’d much rather weep than fan the flames of anger knowing that there is a deeper pain in the others life than I may never understand.  I’d rather sit in silence and wrestle with it, knowing the expectations then placed upon me to react.  Jesus weeps, sure for the death of his friend Lazarus, as most do when they visit a grave.  But what we see never fully defines the depth of the pain and where it comes from within the other in those moments.  All we see is what we want to see most often despite it just being the tip of the iceberg of one’s life, including for the Christ as he weeps for and with humanity.

More often than not, the path to love and peace, a peace which is a marriage of justice and mercy, will never arrive in our own hearts until we learn to sit, quiet ourselves, doubt, question, and learn to accept even our own selves, short comings and all, which closes the gap between myself and the other.  The war that rages on beyond us as we see it is often the war within that we are invited to confront.  The more we separate, divide, demonize, seek winners and losers, the greater that gap becomes, creating the tribal mentality that Jesus himself often confronts.  I not only separate myself from others but I separate myself from myself.  It deepens the blinders we wear, invoking fear and insecurity in our lives, leaving us wandering through the desert, often unbeknownst to us.  In time, even for Israel, the tears began to arrive, not only for what had been done to them but what they had done to the other through their own pain.  In those moments, glimpses of that promised land that they desired became visible.

As a country, and I’ve written this many times before, we will need to learn to weep and weep bitterly.  Not select people, but each of us, individually and collectively.  America has never been what it was supposed to be and never will.  It’s not the chosen one.  It’s not the city on a hill.  It’s by no means perfect or somehow the greatest, all of which only feeds the illusion that we know better than the rest, avoiding the pain that lies within the heart of a nation.  We are country among 195 or so others.  We are 323 million of approximately 7 billion people on the planet.  And it’s all ok.  When we finally give up the illusions, the blinders, what it is we simply see with our eyes, we begin to see that there is something even greater about us that is not always visible to the naked eye.  As much as our heart continues to beat, it is by no means without pain and hurt.  That is very visible not only in Charlottesville but outside my own window, day in and day out.  There is a story that is dying to be told, from deep within, a story that desires to be free, and will continue to kill if it’s not told.  A human desires to be free.  Lashing out and violence will never lead to what it is we want and desire.  Rather, only through our own ability to weep, for what was and wasn’t, for what is and isn’t.  Yes, it is the shortest verse in the bible but in doing so packs quite the wallop of bringing healing and reconciliation that is desperately needed in my life, your life, this city, and well beyond.  Jesus wept.  For everyone.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If You Are…

This feast, Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is a fairly new feast in the Church, only 91 years. It began in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a response to a rising secularism, especially in Europe. Of course, it doesn’t seem to have somehow altered that history. If secularism were a religion, and it is in some ways, it would probably be one of the largest on Earth. Pius XI saw the separation of religion from government that was worrisome. Today, though, it goes even further and maybe a step backwards to individualism. It’s now individuals who are separating themselves from something and someone larger than themselves not just governments. It seems to even escalate here in the States and in Europe this sense of separation, that nations become the center of their own universe. Only time will tell where it will lead us. In the past it has often led to war due to separation and this sense of isolation that causes speculation and mistrust.

When we do begin to separate ourselves from something and someone larger than ourselves is often when we find ourselves getting into trouble. We start to make selfish choices that we think only impact us and forget about those around us. David was such a person whom we hear from in Second Samuel today. He was considered the ideal king. He was young and had lots of energy. But it eventually goes to his head. He eventually begins to believe that he’s all that and not only the King of Israel but also the king of his own life. It begins to impact his relationships and will bring about a fall, a sense of humility has he’s put in his place in life and once again reconnects with the true King and he truly does go onto be one of the greatest. He comes to the realization that he can’t do it on his own and must keep his eye on the true Kingdom.

This tension that exists in our lives as well, between individualism and the reality of the greater Kingdom, plays itself out in today’s gospel from Luke. It’s the last we’ll hear from Luke this year as the liturgical year comes to a close. Jesus finds himself hanging between these two realities. He’s faced with the same temptation that he does in the desert that we heard back in Lent. There’s the crowd and the one thief that puts pressure on Jesus to prove himself. They’re so closed in on their own pain that they miss what’s really going on. There’s the temptation to do it yourself, in somehow I’m able to save myself and no need of a God or anything or anyone bigger than myself. Of course, though, on the other side hangs who we often refer to as the “good thief”. There’s an acknowledgement on his part that he is in need of something bigger, a need for mercy and forgiveness. And there’s Jesus, hanging smack dab in the middle of the two and standing in the middle of our own tension with that reality, that sense we can do it ourselves and don’t need God and a place within us crying out for something more, mercy and forgiveness.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul, in one of the oldest hymns in the New Testament, tries to give community after community this same perspective in their lives. He speaks of not a Christ of the Universe but rather a cosmic Christ that has always been and continues to be to this very moment, unfolding within and yet beyond us. It’s a hymn that expresses the deepest desire of our hearts, this desire for expansion. But it is only the one who stands as mediator that can expand hardened and hurting hearts. The more hardened they become the more we rely upon ourselves, not in need of any God. Our own pride gets in the way. We want to blame everything under the sun as to why people don’t need God or want Church, from soccer fields to wanting to be spiritual and not religious, but there is always a deeper reality at play, that often goes unseen. It is often our own struggle with the two thieves in our lives and often giving into the one that steals our freedom and convinces us that I am enough for me and that salvation is up to me rather than seeing salvation as a communal reality.

This feast will hopefully continue to give us pause in our lives, not only today but with each passing day that we are given, not only as individuals but as community, nation, and world. The more we separate ourselves from the source of life the more we become hardened and no longer feel the need for something or someone bigger than ourselves. Not Christ but I become the center of the universe. We begin to fear expansion like globalization and try to hunker down and isolate ourselves as fear takes root in our hearts. What we truly desire is the expansion of our hearts, to embrace all we encounter and recognize the need for the other and the Other. There will always be that part of us that thinks we can do it alone, the rise of individualism in our own lives, but we must recognize the tension and the desire for connectedness and oneness, the seeking of that Paradise that is promised, not by me, but by the mediator, the one who stands at the center of this tension in our lives and world, Jesus Christ, the true King of the Universe.