I am celebrating my seventieth birthday next month (November), though I’m wondering if ‘celebrating’ is the right word. It feels more like an exploration: an exploration of the experience of what it means to be seventy. I just returned from a trip home to Ireland that suggested this because many of the experiences there – gatherings of family and friends – were like revelations of the many layers of my life and the self that has emerged.
One particular example was a gathering of extended family that included about 60 people whose ages ranged from 92 to 3. I stood before them to say a few words, having deliberately not prepared. The reason was that I wanted to immerse myself in the experience rather than do what I have usually done, which is to play the role of the first son of my family, the first grandson of my generation, the onetime priest who had married many of them and baptized their kids and buried their parents. So I began with a poem that I have used a lot recently, including some recent blogs:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
– William Stafford
I told them that I wanted to reflect on what this thread might be, and that I felt it had something to do with who I am at seventy. The thought led to a sudden, if obvious, realization that who I am at seventy was right there in the room, in all of them. I said, it felt like looking in a mirror. Sometimes these days, I added, when I look in the mirror, I see my father looking back at me, and wonder how he got in there. But this mirror that they presented to me was much fuller than that, for I could see many more pieces of myself in their faces. I knew every one of them, and each one of them held a part of me. The relationships I’d had with them had been integrated into the self that I am now.
But, there was more. For, I could see other people in their faces, people who had died over the years of my life: my parents, their parents, their grandparents, in some cases their brothers and sisters and children. I told them that there is an old tradition that says that, when something important is happening, the ancestors gather to participate and encourage – encourage the continuing unfolding, perhaps. So I began to call out names and invited them to do the same. ‘Tommy, Eileen, Bridget, Jimmy, Marion, John, Billy….’ I could feel the company swelling and the room filling with memories and faces: more energy, more life. More self. ‘This is who I am,’ I said. ‘I am you, all of you.’ And the inverse clearly applied: we are all each other. Moreover, this past is endless, or beginningless. Behind every face is a universe that stretches into infinity.
Then something else happened. For, just at that moment, a child cried out, as if to get my attention, and I realized that this process also moved in the other direction: forward, through the children. Many of those present had been little children to me in the past, but were now parents and grandparents of these children and others who were not there. So, once again, I began to call out names – the names of my own grandchildren back in the U.S. – and others took up the call, inviting this new group of guests into the room, which, by this time, was full to bursting. And it became clear that this process forward too was endless, this future, infinite…
And, of course, all of this was now, in an expanded presence, an ever-widening self, threaded together by the reality of interconnectedness – love indeed – that we all clearly felt. I was reminded of a favorite philosopher’s (Gabriel Marcel) thoughts on self as relationship that generates constant possibility and that gives a richer sense of hope in the face of even impossible odds, a fuller understanding of freedom, and a deeper sense of being.
Shortly after I returned from Ireland I was reading a reflection on Teilhard DeChardin’s (a French priest-scientist who died in 1955) macro-level thoughts on this interconnectedness as it applies to the evolutionary process which, the author emphasized, has not lost its way, despite all evidence to the contrary today. Constant relationship is, in fact, opening up constant new possibilities and new hope in the form of a shift from the over-individuality of our culture to new forms and new levels of interaction. The real illusion of our modern world, which is separation, is breaking down, just as it did for me that afternoon in Ireland. The categories – of politics, nationality, race, roles, even gender – are breaking down, along with the institutions that serve them. There is a fundamental shift happening in our own species from individual to person: from an autonomous self as separate to an authentic self as essentially related; from self as an isolated form to self as an expression of an infinite reality. And with this movement comes hope (Marcel distinguishes between this hope and an optimism that things will turn out fine).
Faith, then, becomes staying – tenaciously, as Marcel would say – with this process. This, he adds, is true freedom. And life ceases to be an impossible problem to be solved and becomes instead an ever-expanding self that is born out of relationship to the ultimately unknowable (not yet?) mystery of life.
On a more immediate level, for me, the shift is from questioning the significance of my existence – something one feels inclined to do at 70 – to exploring how I am related: to my own body/mind, to my brothers/sisters, to my planet, my cosmos, my source. It is engaging – eternally – with the one we call God. The implications for thinking about death – which is another inclination at 70 – are intriguing. But that is something for another blog.
And he keeps right on a’changin’, for the better or the worse
Searchin’ for a shrine he’s never found
Never knowin’ if believin’, is a blessin’ or a curse
Or if the goin’ up was worth, the comin’ down
He’s a poet, an’ he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, an’ he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home
But if this world keeps right on turnin’, for the better or the worse
And all he ever gets is older and around
From the rockin’ of the cradle, to the rollin’ of the hearse
The goin’ up was worth, the comin’ down.
My friend John Carpenter – known by his family and friends as Fabs for reasons that are obvious to us all – is one of those people that you don’t easily forget. He’s been many things to many people, as Kris Kristofferson’s song describes. A poet: how often, at a late night party, I have heard him launch into ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ or another of Robert Service’s long people-poems. A picker: his guitar repertoire was reflected in his renditions of songs like, ‘Put Another Log on the Fire.’ A prophet, in the sense that he was ahead of his time in his thinking about how to live the good life: ‘Just be kind…’ he would say. That was Fabs, that was our John.
But ultimately he was a pilgrim. Perhaps most of all he was this, always ‘Searchin’ for a shrine he’s never found.’ I think the next line of the song reflects something that many of his generation who have walked away from formal religion have wondered: ‘Never knowin’ if believin’, is a blessin’ or a curse..’ But John was always clear about the conclusion: ‘the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down..’ That was Fabs, that was our John.
I could add more, I suppose, though perhaps Mary Oliver’s hopes for herself when death comes, says it all:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
That was Fabs, that was our john.
And yes, death came for John last week, after a long interaction with pancreatic cancer, which is a more accurate description than ‘struggle’. For he died the way he lived, savoring every moment, even as he let go if it.
I had the privilege of helping his family with his Memorial Service and was trying to find the right balance. For, not only did the memorial have to reflect the many aspects of his life, some which, as the song describes, were almost contradictory, it also had to hold another tension by being both a celebration and a grieving: a celebration of his life and a grieving of our loss.
As I thought about this, it became clear that true celebration has to include loss. I’m reminded of the words of an Irish revolutionary-poet, Padraig Pearse, who wrote, ‘the beauty of this world has made me sad, this beauty that will pass..’ In his case, Pearse was forced to hold the tension I’m talking about, for he wrote these words on the night before he was executed for his part in the ‘Easter Rising’ – the name given to the 1916 uprising in Ireland against the British. But, in a more general sense, this tension is present in every moment of beauty and every celebration of life, created by the transitory nature of the moment itself that is passing even as we experience it.
The obvious temptation is to hold – or rather to try to hold – on to the experience: the flower that is already wilting, the music that is already fading, the child who is already growing and changing, the relationship that has to evolve. Maybe this is the essential human challenge. Our gift of self-reflective awareness appears to set us up for disappointment, and death would appear to be the ultimate one. But John seemed to have figured that one out too. ‘Don’t be sad,’ he told his devastated family when the diagnosis became clear, ‘I’m not: I’ve had a wonderful life.’
He seemed to have learned the fundamental lesson about the process: Enjoy and let go. Be present now. And now. And now…. Live and let die! I never really got the wisdom of the title of that Bond movie till now. Live by letting go of – letting die – each moment, each form, each stage, in order to become who you ultimately are.
But how do you get to that place? Clearly life does it for us in the end. But, in the meantime, it would probably bring a lot of relief to be able to do it as we go, so to speak. For that we need a little inspiration: someone who has done it and can show us the way: a precious friend, as Pete Seeger sings:
Just when I thought
All was lost, you changed my mind.
You gave me hope,
You showed that we could learn to share in time.
I’ll keep pluggin’ on,
Your face will shine through all our tears.
And when we sing another little victory song,
Precious friend, you will be there,.
I think the figures – the icons – that the religious traditions offer us are meant to provide this inspiration. But, they always seem so distant; and so different from us. John inspires us because he was just like us: a poet and a picker, a prophet and a pusher, a pilgrim and a preacher. Most of all, as the song concludes:
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home..
That’s us. You and me. And John. Maybe, though, he has found his way back home. I sense that he has…
John faithfully read this Blog for years. I dedicate this one to him.
Blessings on you dear friend.
I recently got news of the death of a former colleague from my old world of priesthood. Vin MacNamara was, in fact, a teacher in that world: for me but also for many who passed through the seminary training process of St. Patrick’s Missionary Society. He also had a reputation in the larger religious field as a fine moral theologian. His focus on morality as rooted in desire I found truly helpful, perhaps because my central challenge as a missionary in Africa was always about avoiding any kind of neo-colonial imposition, and rather attempting to assist people in living their own unique lives and their own innate desires more fully, and – perhaps this is clearer in retrospect – doing so more artfully in the face of inexorable forces that would – and have already done so in many ways – sweep them away.
I picked up one of Vin’s more recent books – New Life for Old – partly as a gesture of respect to his contribution and partly to explore where our paths may have crossed in our otherwise separate lives since my departure. There I read about what he called an inner dynamism of the human, a thrust towards ever, greater consciousness, towards a greater aliveness to human potential, towards engagement with the true, the good and the beautiful. I was reminded again of my missionary challenge and how I had tended to resolve it with a similar perspective which suggested that God was natural in a sense to all of us. The divine was already embedded, as it were, in the human, or, perhaps more accurately in all life. More specifically, God was in Africa before I brought the Christian message.
Missionary work then had to be something more than promoting the beliefs and structures of a church. Vin, I think, implied another way when he spoke of how, in all of us, a little self masquerades as the whole self and that it is necessary, therefore, to create a context in which we can sit and attend and allow ourselves to hear echoes from deeper valleys in ourselves: literally make space for our true self to emerge. Spirituality, then, and, by extension, missionary work is about creating this space through practices that help people live more authentically and more deeply. A lot of religion, Vin implied, does not address the hard work involved in coming to the truth of oneself. Shallow religious practices, he says, will, in fact, seek to bypass the grim actuality of being human. The real task, he goes on, is the education of desire, letting go of the limited desires that take up our lives and allowing – trusting – the emergence in us of deeper movements…
The truth is hidden from us, not so much by the complexity of situations as by the veil of our prejudices and patterns. The challenge is in ourselves – how we see things. Becoming free from our ‘prison of perception’ involves an awakened heart which is usually a broken heart. As Leonard Cohen chants, the crack is where the light gets it.
What we need, Vin suggests, is a conversion of the imagination, a sea-change in consciousness. Religious stories and symbols, such as those of Christianity, can help, for the imagination of these great stories colludes with our deepest soul-intuitions that the other is sacred. My own experience, however, is that they may do so for a while, but the roots of our ignorance and related defensiveness mean that we have to do much more. The challenge of the kind of transformation experiences implied here is that their impact tends not to last and we find ourselves needing to go back again and again for another hit. The experience that makes the crack in our defenses needs to be cultivated by understanding and application.
Vin, in fact, acknowledges this when he notes that, In the face of the mania of modern life, we need even more help than of old. He goes further when he reflects on ‘original sin’ which, he says, was intended to highlight the challenges of being fully human in order to help focus our efforts, but instead undermined our capacity to do so with its burden of personal guilt. It is precisely our creation, he concludes – the long evolutionary trail out of matter – and not some sin whose guilt we inherit, which skews our relationships and makes our responses so ambivalent. His conclusion is that morality is a matter of intelligent listening to the experience of being human, and that the task for moral teaching is to engage with the actuality of living.
It is here that I found a complementarity in our approaches. My work with Dialogue has taught that what we need is to learn how to be in the world: to work WITH things, as my friend Rilke has said. What we need is wisdom, which is not something that can be communicated (by religion, for example): it has to be personally discovered and welcomed. We each have to learn that there is a different way, a different kind of knowing/consciousness born of a different kind of presence.
I have come to understand ‘consciousness’ to refer to the nature and quality of our knowing-awareness. I have come to see presence as being present to ourselves – our walking, eating, talking, meeting, opening the door – by connecting with the other person, plant, or place. We can facilitate the process with reminders that pull us back from our deeply ingrained – inherited – habits; create a way of life that gives space for other echoes of ourselves that nourish a richer life.
And who will teach us how to be? In the end, it is ourselves: through continuous exploration of our desires and processes. Meditation, which is one important way of exploring is not a matter of learning a technique once for all, rather it is an ongoing, graceful attention of humility and receptiveness, a disposition simply to be, to listen, to be open. It is more about allowing than doing. I can only create conditions of possibility and wait and trust. I can only learn how to inhabit my own vulnerability and (the secret that everyone knows), my own dying. Then together we can discover the glimpses that surface and continuously build a world that better reflects this expanding consciusness.
The part that is missing for me in Vin’s contribution, as in many religious writers, is the implementation of real insights that are often totally aware of the challenges of a distorted human nature, but, nonetheless, tend to lack the kind of strategy or training that other fields of human activity take for granted.
It’s as if simply seeing is enough. In a sense it is: salvation, to use a religious word, is more about realizing than becoming. But that takes learning and practice. It requires learning to connect and be present to the other we encounter. It is practicing how to listen skillfully to people and things: with true attention and refined self-awareness that enables us to achieve real mutual understanding. It means developing the capacity to explore the mental models and assumptions that constitute the lens that is the instrument with which we construct – and maintain – reality. It is discovering by listening FOR the new understanding that is generated out of the creative tension between differences that such mutual understanding allows. And it is creating shared meaning out of this process that directs the way we build our relationships and our institutions.
Anyone who has read anything that I have written over the years knows that I am referring to the art of Dialogue; to what I have come to call ‘Dialogue for Life’ which I have concluded is the heart of spirituality, the kind of spirituality that Vin describes as educating our desires, freeing them from our unconscious assumptions, and allowing our true self to emerge.
I wish we had been able to explore these two, clearly related approaches together. But that is another conversation.
Last time I touched briefly on our internal conversations and mentioned an article in the August issue of Scientific American, entitled Voices in Our Heads by Charles Fernyhough. Here I’d like to explore the potential of the ideas raised for growth and development.
In the first place, what the article calls ‘inner speech’ is not a solitary process but an actual conversation: a real dialogue between different perspectives. As such it can be developed and enhanced like any interaction. Fernyhough notes four main qualities of inner speech:
- Its dialogic nature: there is an interaction between different perspectives
- Its tendency to be condensed: like conversation between familiars
- The extent to which it can incorporate other people’s voices: parents, historical figures.
- Its role in evaluating or motivating our behavior: effecting actual change
It may be, the article concludes, that inner speech is a crucial piece of apparatus for taking our thoughts into new territories, and, I might add, taking our consciousness to new levels.
I’ve experimented with my own attempts at meditation, which is a form of inner speech, by overlaying the skills and structures of Dialogue. Applying the four stages of dialogue – connecting, exploring, discovering and harvesting – along with the necessary skills, to my inner speech might go something like this:
I connect at the beginning of a meditation by (a combination of) being present to my breath, scanning my body, noticing my feelings, acknowledging what is going on for me. The result is the same presence and compassion that is generated when I connect with anyone in a deliberate and skillful way.
The trust that accompanies such presence and compassion allows me to take the next step into an exploration of what is going on for me. I can deliberately listen to my inner conversation, allowing the different voices to speak without a rush to judgment. I can listen more calmly to the deeper movements, like the triggers that tend to elicit a knee jerk reaction, and instead ask a question to deepen my understanding. Finally I can hold the tension that differences cause rather than succumb to premature resolution.
I’d like to reflect on a practice here that I – and many before me – have found helpful, particularly in this stage of exploration: using a short reading or poem to focus the process. In the Christian world the practice has been known as lectio divina (literally ‘divine reading’). It involves reading a piece in a slow, meditative way, then pausing and musing on a word or phrase that touches in a deeper way. Here the focus is on musing or contemplating in the sense of pondering rather than analyzing. A second reading of the piece can deepen this contemplaiton, leading to a kind of listening for what is stirring in one’s heart. The process can continue in a similar way with further reading-contemplating.
In fact, this practice also includes what I have found to be the third stage of dialogue which is discovering by which I refer to listening FOR the new meaning that is often generated out of the tension between differences when they are held appropriately, that is without easy resolution or simple dominance by one. In the context of inner speech, it can be a way of building new meaning out of these flashes of insight.
Harvesting refers to the takeaway that is necessary if the process is to be fruitful and meaningful. It can take the form of a simple decision/commitment to continue the inner conversation at another specific time or to change a behavior that may be creating problems or to take a particular action that can be reviewed in a way that leads to real change.
I tend to close this inner conversation, the way I would any interaction, with a simple acknowledgment of what has occurred and a word of gratitude.
By way of commentary, let me add a couple of things: one is that it seems reasonable to me – and in fact I have found it most useful – to bring a measure of intention and skill to something that I do a lot of in a more random and even unhelpful way: inner speech. Another is to suggest that prayer – which is a form of inner speech – can be enhanced in a similar way. The poet, Mary Oliver, has suggested something of this nature:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention…
A final thought is on prayer as it is more traditionally understood as an interaction with God. The Scientific American article notes our capacity to converse with an entity that is not there – a deceased parent, for example – which is something we all do. It notes also the power of literature to colonize our thoughts in the sense of causing us to adapt the persona of a character from literature who can then shape our thinking and behavior. In one sense, traditional prayer is doing something like this. Certainly lectio divina is a deliberate practice to allow or invite another entity – whether a teacher or a God – to shape our inner (and outer) world. My dialogues with God or a deceased parent can be as richly creative as those I have with myself.
Of course, it might be suggested that these too – these deceased family members or wise people from the past or even this God – are simply aspects of myself. I have certainly engaged in conversations with my deceased father that were as real as any other conversation. And the fact that looking in the mirror and seeing my father looking out at me, especially as I get older, suggests that he is clearly part of my self. Perhaps, as Rilke suggests, this is the process of becoming: a kind of integration of all the different dimensions and levels of myself.
I live my life in ever widening circles,
each superseding all the previous ones.
Perhaps I never shall succeed in reaching
the final circle, but attempt I will.
I circle around God, the ancient tower,
and have been circling for a thousand years,
and still I do not know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a continuing great song?
This is a process that is ultimately infinite which brings me to my final thought about inner speech or talking to myself. I am inclined to define or describe prayer as this conversation with myself which is endless both in terms of its process and its goal or outcome. Prayer is a way of saying myself; it is speaking from what Yeats calls the ‘deep heart’s core.’ In this sense, it is related to my authentic self as a practice for helping its emergence and realization. Many of our intuitive remarks reflect this awareness in us all: ‘enjoy yourself, be yourself, get a hold of yourself, be true to yourself….’
As a postscript and in anticipation of the next post, I would suggest that there is always the danger of self-delusion in such inner speech, including meditation and prayer, which is why I believe that this project of self-discovery and self-becoming is best done with another, in relationship. At the least, this self-discovery process is enhanced by interaction with others. Which is why community has always been critical in the human journey. The philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, puts it clearly:
The more the self is engaged with other free individuals, the more the self is free..
In the meantime, does any of this ring true for you? Do you talk to yourself? Who is that self? Do you talk to others? To God? Why? I know these questions may sound a little challenging but perhaps they are also an opportunity to speak about something we have all wondered about at one time.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
Speaking is an act of courage because it means offering our very self to the uncertainty of another’s world, hoping for reciprocation but risking rejection. How many times have you shared something at a party, perhaps shyly because it was important to you, only to have it ignored, leaving you feeling exposed and foolish? Never again, you say. But of course, you do, for speaking is an act we are impelled to make because it is the way we live and grow, the way we learn to survive and thrive in the world.
Ursula Le Guin – in an essay entitled Telling is Listening – speaks of two models of communication: one is mechanical whereby information, coded in an agreed upon medium of words or pixels is transmitted from a sender to a receiver who decodes the information in order to understand the information. However, Le Guin says, there is much more than this going on in a human conversation. The second model is what she calls ‘relationship’ where the medium is more complex: less like a code and more like a language, or a function of society, or even a culture in which speaker and listener are both embedded. Live communication is essentially inter-subjective which means that it is more than stimulus and response, but rather a mutual, continuous interchange between two consciousnesses.
Le Guin offers the analogy of amoeba sex. Amoeba usually reproduce alone by simply dividing themselves, but sometimes in order to foster a richer genetic exchange they meld and give each other genetic information – bits of themselves. They mutually respond to each other through a connection or bridge that is also made of bits of themselves. Two people in conversation form such a connection, says Le Guin, sending and receiving bits of themselves. In this sense, talking and listening are the same thing.
Conversation, she continues, is actually synching our essential vibrations. All living beings vibrate: they pulse, move rhythmically, keep time on multiple levels. This is actually the process of life-made-visible. We multi-celled beings have to coordinate millions of vibrations as well as interactions among vibrations both in our own bodies and in our environments by finding a master rhythm. This is called the process of entrainment. Like two pendulums that will come to synchronize their movements, two people can mutually ‘phase lock’. Human relationship is about such entrainment: getting into sync with each other.
Consider deliberate synching, like singing, marching, rowing, or human sex with its foreplay, or infant-mother breast-milk synching: so speaking and listening is synching rather than reacting; it is joining with, becoming part of an other. Speech connects us in such an immediate way because it is a physical process to begin with and only later a mental or spiritual one. This is also the reason why speech is such an important part of forming a community with its calls and responses, its collective inspiration and commitment.
Sound, adds Le Guin, is event, a happening. We see a mountain, for example but realize that something is happening when we hear it. She describes how the sound wave of Mt. St. Helen exploding in 1980, eighty miles north of her in Portland, was so huge that it skipped Portland entirely and touched down in Eugene, a hundred miles to the south.only then causing the event, as it were, when people realized that something was happening. Speech, she concludes, is the most specifically human sound, and the most significant kind of sound; it is never just scenery, it is always event. All speaking presupposes a listener and is shaped accordingly. Speaking is therefore an act – a mutual act, in fact – whereby the listener enables the speaker. Speaker and listener entrain each other, synchronize each other into a mutual vibration.
The power of the speaker is augmented by the entrainment of the listener. A community grows through mutual entrainment that happens through speaking. Words have power: they are events; they change things. Speaking is magic that transforms speaker and listener who feed energy back and forth to each other, who exchange understanding with each other and thereby amplify it.
In the world of art (and ritual) speaking is central. The stories that are presented are actually few in the sense of fundamental or archetypal, but they are ever-different in their telling whereby they constantly and continuously reveal and renew. Such is the power of spoken stories that we know instinctively through our parenting and teaching and in the many forms – novels, songs, movies – through which stories shape and reshape us. It is the process of binding and bonding into the communion we all long for in the silence of our own inner infinite spaces.
However, in the light of the memories stirred by my initial question (about sharing and feeling ignored), I would add that for conversation to truly (and effectively) play this role of entrainment and syncing, a method and skills are required: Dialogue for Life (DfL) offers such a method and skills. DfL is a method of conversation that consists of four steps or stages – Connecting, Deepening, Discovering and Acting – with each stage implemented through simple but critical skills, most of them forms of listening.
The four stages are founded on the clear and deliberate intention to participate in the generation or emergence of true meaning and right action. I say both generation and emergence to highlight the proactive nature of the process but also its grace. We play our part in the emergence of meaning in the form of insights and ideas by interacting creatively. But, we ultimately realize, like the farmer who diligently cultivates the ground where he plants the seeds with the realization that germination is a gift, that meaning is also such a gift that we can never presume or take for granted.
What Le Guin says seems right. Certainly conversations are more than the exchange of information. Words impact us at every level: we experience their impact in our bodies – ‘that went straight to my heart….’ we say. Perhaps because it so common and so much a part of our everyday, conversation seems to be an unlikely spiritual practice. And yet, it is clear, as Le Guin notes, that it is conversation that shapes and reshapes us more than almost anything else. So, in the first place, it would make sense, to pay attention to how we do it. And if we define spirituality – as I’m inclined to do – as (ways of) going deeper, living more fully, deliberately, consciously, then, in the second place, true conversation can surely be a real spirituality.
I have often said to participants in my Dialogue for Life workshops/retreats, that, if you raise the level of your listening even 5%, you will change your world.
I just read an article in this month’s Scientific American, called ‘Talking to Ourselves,’ (Charles Fernyhough) about the new science of inner speech which tells us that self-talk is an actual conversation and that its power comes from the way it orchestrates a dialogue between different points of view. I’ll come back to this inner Dialogue in the next Blog. In the meantime, let me ask you if this makes sense to you?
- Have you experienced what Le Guin describes: that conversation – at least occasionally – is more about sharing bits of ourselves than simply exchanging bits of information? More about discovering together than simply convincing or winning?
- And what allows/enables this to happen, do you think?
A Reflection Inspired by the 8th Anniversary of the Death of Thomas Berry
Today, when we need it most, we have no underpinning narrative that unites us in a common identity and gives us purpose. Without such a foundation, it is extremely difficult to navigate the strange waters of our times.
David Brooks, the NY Times columnist wrote recently about how the Exodus story once served this purpose for our ancestors who came to this country, escaping bondage of various kinds, and seeking a new ‘promised land.’ They saw themselves as a ‘chosen people’ like the people of the original Exodus, with the role of building a ‘new Jerusalem’ and creating a ‘new covenant’. The founders of the United States had a similar sense of destiny, while Martin Luther King invoked the Exodus story in his attempts to expand this new covenant to all the races and peoples of our country. U.S. presidents in the later twentieth century took this further by proclaiming a global Exodus story for all nations, with the U.S. as the leader toward that new world.
The Exodus story inspired the values of social justice, care for the vulnerable and equality for all that shape the U.S. constitution. Over time these values expanded to include ‘ordinary’ people (besides the privileged class of white men who created the constitution): women, slaves, Native Americans, and the many sexual orientations. It is to be hoped that this expansion will, in the future, include refugees, animals, the land and the waters.
But, Brooks laments, this story has effectively gone. It no longer underpins our culture and the institutions that express it. The Exodus story has been replaced, not by a new story, but by a utilitarian philosophy and a technological mindset that is without a sense of purpose: why we are here: what America is for. This philosophy informs a number of models: one is the Libertarian model that emphasizes production, consumerism and acquisition – anything but citizenship; two is a new globalized version of the same; three is a multicultural model that proclaims inclusion into the same process; and four is an America First that is essentially self-focused and views outsiders as diluting and weakening our capacity to produce and consume. The leaders we elect reflect versions and combinations of these models: valueless, materialistic, corrupt, short-term thinking, autocratic on the one hand; idealistic and inadequately skilled in the art of collaboration, on the other.
A New Story
Clearly we need a new story, a new underpinning narrative around which we can all gather. We need a new sense of meaning and purpose that will inspire and direct our relationships with each other and the world we share. The Exodus story is a wonderful history of a people’s journey, and, as such, it is still a good framework for us. Of course the Exodus story – both its Biblical and American forms – was shaped by contexts that are quite different from ours today. The context of our Exodus story is more complex: we are more diverse and there are many more of us; we have more knowledge and technology to use it; we know more and are more aware of the implications of that knowledge: from impact to responsibilities. A new Exodus story will have to reflect all of this.
Thomas Berry was the person who helped me appreciate the critical nature of a new story when he spoke of a ‘functional cosmology.’ Every culture, he told me, needs a story of origins that defines our place in the unfolding of this larger story in order for us to be able to make sense of the world we live in. An adequate – ‘functional’ – cosmology enables me to get up in the morning, to deal with failure, to keep going in the face of overwhelming challenges, to integrate death, our own and others’. Such a cosmology today would have to include the vast, ever-expanding knowledge of the scientific community with its implications of universal interconnectedness and expansion. A truly functional cosmology would have to integrate the realities of this interconnected world: from sustainability to radical rights that go beyond humans.
However, Berry also suggested that the scientific story of the universe – scientific cosmology – is not enough. Rather this is simply the framework that requires the contribution of the vast universe of stories to become a truly functional cosmology. For a common story will only emerge out of the sharing of all the many forms of this universe. Clearly this is an ongoing and, indeed, endless process. But that doesn’t excuse us. In fact, it gives us all a new (or rediscovered) purpose as well as the opportunity to participate in a powerful way in the very unfolding of the universe, in what Berry calls ‘the Great Work’ of our time.
Berry suggests that we humans are the universe come to a self-reflective mode. The universe becomes aware of itself in us. This would suggest that our role – our great work – is to develop this self-awareness on behalf of the universe by engaging the myriad stories. Of course, we’ve been doing this throughout our history: telling our own stories but also the stories of the many forms of life we encounter and relate to. So we know how to do this: we know how to create a functional cosmology. It’s just that we’ve been distracted from our work by the seductive glitter of popular technology that keeps us increasingly busy and increasingly confused about what is real and valuable.
Thomas Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue
The essential work of the Thomas Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue (TBFED) is to assist the emergence of this new story that will serve as a functional cosmology for us all. TBFED, which was formed shortly after Berry’s death in 2009, does this by bringing together the multiple forms (threads) of this essential story in the various worlds of health, education, commerce, law, religion, play, etc. and helping us weave the new story from these threads: can you buy Dilantin over the counter in spain
The Forum also, and perhaps most importantly, does its work by being as well as fostering a community of contemplative ecologists. For, we need to tap into the underground stream of life that we all share in order to access its deep wisdom and higher power to guide and empower our efforts. We do this through our own wells – our own deep stories that are our entry points into this underground stream. Here we meet each other: all of us – human, certainly, but also animal and plant and earth and stars. Here we access the higher power that informs us, and all things. Here we discover the wisdom we need to survive and thrive in this mysterious world.
For the fact is, this is how we have survived (and thrived) till now. The Biologist, E.O. Wilson, has said that the reason humans are a successful species is that we have learned to come together: to form community, to collaborate, to love. We access the wisdom and power that we need through interacting with each other in deep dialogue which, as the Greek roots of the word suggest (dia = ‘through’ and logos = ‘meaning) is actually – at its best – participating in the emergence of meaning and truth. This universal dialogue has been the source of the stars and the planets, the plants and the animals, human beings and their mysterious consciousness.
Thomas Berry, like other major figures at times of change (Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis) tapped into the power and wisdom of this underground stream. Today, we need to do the same in what is clearly a moment of transition for us all.
My invitation to share experiences and ideas about Holy Week elicited some interesting comments. By ‘Holy Week’ I meant to include not only the heart of the Christian tradition but also the central core of any faith perspective, whether that be religious or not. Some of the responses brought these together by focusing not simply on the suffering of the historical Jesus but also on the importance of suffering itself which many spiritual (and psychological) commentators believe is the critical aspect of the second stage of life. As one commentator (Richard Rohr) puts it, if the first stage of life is characterized by following your bliss, the second is characterized by taking up your cross.
My own conclusions (for the moment!!) about the Christian Holy Week are that I find that it is enough for me to be able to acknowledge the reality of a historical figure in order to ground the essential message that the Christian tradition (and many others) offers: namely that we – and every form of life – are an expression – a child – of what I find helpful to call ‘God-Life’, as my way of reflecting both the universe and its source. In this framework, Christ emerges as the template or blueprint for everything: what the early Christians called the logos. The uniquely human aspect of this message is that we are this God-Life in a self-reflective mode, and that our role, therefore, is to live this mode on behalf of everything in the universe, by deepening our own self-reflective consciousness, through celebrating God-Life in all its forms, and by nurturing this consciousness in our fellow humans as the foundation for human living. My particular focus has increasingly been on Dialogue as the essential way of doing this: participating deliberately in the emergence (dia) of ultimate meaning (logos).
In this post I’d like to explore how we are doing this today: deepening our understanding of and developing our relationship with the world and the God-Life that is its source. This is traditionally the work of religion, however many would complain that institutional religion has not served this purpose well for a long time. The result is that we have looked elsewhere for other ways of doing this essential work, both consciously and deliberately or simply spontaneously. Thus, some have explored aspects of older spiritualities, like meditation, yoga, vision quests, and others have developed the deeper dimensions of food, exercise, art, gardening, etc., while yet others have focused on service and healing of the marginalized and the poor.
The other day I heard Krista Tippett – who interviews spiritual (in this broad sense that I am suggesting) thinkers and leaders on her radio program, On Being (check out can you buy Dilantin in mexico for some good podcasts). She was speaking with Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar who is one such thinker and leader and they were discussing how the Christian churches have not served this critical dimension of human life – understanding God-Life and the universe and our place in it – but have become stuck in old and inadequate thinking about these fundamental issues: like transactional redemption or moralistic thinking or imperialistic missioning. On Being is a rich source of examples of how people have addressed this critical need to find meaning and live accordingly. I would like to focus on one that I am part of here in the Cross River NY area. It is called the Leatherman’s Loop. I have written about this elsewhere but let me give a brief background-description of the event before I comment on its significance in the context of this critical need.
The Leatherman was a local hermit-like character in the 19th century who walked a loop of about 350 miles through Northern Westchester and Putnam counties in New York and parts of Eastern Connecticut, stopping at farms for food, but seldom speaking. He dressed in a crude leather outfit and slept in caves along his route, which he followed for about 25 years. It would appear from some sparse evidence (including a French prayer book found on his person when he died in 1889) that he was possibly of French Canadian descent with possible Native American ancestry. The Leatherman is buried in Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, New York. (You can read more about the Leatherman in The Old Leatherman, 2013 by Dan W. DeLuca and Dione Longley)
Over thirty years ago, Tony Godino, a good friend of mine, and many others, created a 10K Trail Run and called it the Leatherman’s Loop. Over the years this run has transformed into an event that many – including Tony – would call spiritual in the sense I described above. Some of the elements of the event highlight this:
- An identification with the pilgrimage-like journey that the Leatherman made. Once I caught the imagination of many of the runners when I described him as a ‘saunterer,’ suggesting ‘Saint de Terre’ (saint of the earth) from his probable French-Canadian background.
- An intense connection with Nature at this time of the year – April – that makes the gathering – and the run through the mud – like a rite of spring.
- The open, inclusive form of the race that brings together national level runners with family groups as well as runners with prostheses whose friends carry them over the river parts of the course.
- A deep sense of communion among the participants with each other and with the place – the Pound Ridge Reservation – enhanced by shared bagels and coffee.
- A sense of a wider connection and responsibility that inspires people to run on behalf of someone ill or deceased or to raise money for a cause.
- A clear sense of ritual that has developed over the years that includes: a ‘Celtic-Navajo’ invocation that as spiritual adviser (a role I am very honored to play) I get to lead for the 1500 runners many of them dressed in Leatherman Loop T-shirts.
- An expanding network of runners that includes iconic figures like Caballo Blanco (who died while running a few years back and is honored every year), and the famous Tarahumari Indian runners that Chris McDougall wrote about in Born to Run, and whom Caballo Blanco supported.
- And not least, a deep sense of fun that is expressed in music that ranges from a bagpiper to Mariachis along the route, and in the figure of the Leatherman who wanders the course, posing with runners for photos.
One final piece – though clearly I could go on and on: we often have a theme, which this year is the celebration of the feminine; the birthing energy reflected in the Spring and in the leadership role women our women are taking today in birthing a new society as the old (fear-driven, masculine) one implodes. Of course it is a spirit that is in all of us that the Leatherman’s Loop nurtures, the way good religion, if I may stretch the term, does.
Let me conclude by asking you: does this make sense to you? Have you experienced the Loop? Do you have similar events in your life? How do you nurture your evolving understanding of the universe and our place in it, and, by implication your evolving understanding of and our relationship with God? Your faith? I am obviously not excluding institutional religion where there are certainly communities that do serve this purpose, but I am particularly looking for the new ways that are emerging to address this critical dimension of our lives.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince)
Growing up as a Catholic in Ireland, and then, later, working as a missionary priest for many years, the week before Easter – what Christians call Holy Week – was always central to my sense of meaning and purpose. Jesus, of course, was the focus of the week. Today, my spirituality focuses on expanding consciousness, both individual – my own – and society’s, and Jesus no longer plays (or at least seems to play) a central role for me. However, at times like this, I experience a sense of something akin to loss or at least nostalgia. Where did Jesus go? So I am using this Holy Week as an opportunity to immerse myself in the story of the life and death of Jesus to see what it stirs in me now.
To help me with my immersion I’ve been re-reading a book by Marcus Borg called, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (2009) that distinguishes between the historical Jesus and what some call the Christ of faith, which is the understanding that developed after the death of Jesus. The historical Jesus we know little about, except that he was a wisdom-teacher whose particular wisdom threatened the conventional wisdom of the day and led to his death. The ideas about his divinity and the salvation he brought – the Christ of faith – were generated out of the experiences of the followers of Jesus after his death and the communities that formed around the experiences. These ideas developed and evolved over many centuries into the teachings and beliefs that shaped many of our lives. Moreover, these ideas continue to evolve, which, for me is equally important.
Holy Week presents the earliest ideas about Jesus as the Christ of faith though they are ideas that are still in the form of stories-as-memories versus the more developed, dogmatic statements that came later. The high-points of Holy Week are Palm or Passion Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Passion Sunday is the story of Jesus’ decision to walk his talk, so to speak. Already there is the sense of paradox that characterizes his entire process in this strange scene of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem – the center of power that he is confronting – as a hero figure: the people lay palm fronds before him and acclaim him as king, but he, in keeping with his ‘subversive wisdom’, is riding on a donkey.
The Holy Thursday story describes the time when the destiny of Jesus is presented in terms of his larger significance: ‘Do this in memory of me’ he tells his followers the night before he dies. ‘This’ – which refers to the ritual he is enacting but also, clearly, to his teaching – is essentially about living in communion with everyone and everything in the world that like us are expressions of the same life-force that constitutes our lives. Good Friday is about what this entails: it is the apparent contradiction of crucifixion when you have to lose your life in order to find it; when you have to let go of the illusions that constitute your sense of reality in order to discover a deeper truth with others. Resurrection is seen in the strange examples of this discovered truth: Oh, so that’s what he was saying….that’s what it all meant.
These resurrection experiences were all forms of deep spiritual awakening. But, like all such experiences and the ideas they generated – whether in Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam – they were shaped by many things, including the cultures of the day and strong, influential individuals. None of this makes them invalid or even less true, rather it simply highlights that truth emerges in different ways and in many different contexts.
The work I have done with Dialogue reflects this process of awakening and resurrection. I have defined Dialogue as participating in the emergence (dia) of truth or meaning (logos). Marcus Borg actually uses the word logos to help explain the emergence and evolution of the Christ of faith. One of the more theologically developed Gospels – the Gospel of John – offers an example in its opening lines: ‘In the beginning was the logos and the logos was God, and the logos was with God….and the logos became flesh.’ Logos is understood as the blueprint of all life that, for Christians, is manifested in a special way in the person of the historical Jesus. This does not suggest, however, that Jesus is the only such manifestation of God/Life/Being: the only logos. In fact, it is accepted by most scripture scholars that the historical Jesus had no such understanding of himself as ‘the son of God’ in the unique sense that we tend to use this term.
Dialogue, for me, has become the process of making sense or meaning (logos) of things in the place where we find ourselves. All of these places have their stories of heroes that point the way. The important thing is not which of these heroes is greatest (and then insisting that he be the hero for everyone, which is the direction that an earlier form of missionary work, that I was part of, took). Rather the important thing is to understand the way that we all make sense of things. This is the reason why I am (re)immersing myself in this Christian tradition even as I find myself seemingly far removed from the forms that once were central to me.
Immersing myself like this in the world that shaped me is important for a number of reasons: One is to help me become more aware of how I see the world, and understand what assumptions I use to construct reality for myself. Another is to help me better appreciate that others have their own – different – ways of seeing the world or constructing reality for themselves. The third, and most important reason is so that I can better bring my unique – but clearly relative – truth to other levels of interaction that will allow new and deeper truths – logos – to emerge.
So, maybe this is what I’m trying to do with this Holy Week immersion: I am not simply attempting to resurrect the historical Jesus as the center of my life; rather I am trying to remember and acknowledge what and who I am deep inside (as someone shaped by this historical figure-become divine symbol), so that I can bring this valid and unique perspective in a more skillfully conscious way to the continuing critical conversation to discover and understand the logos that underpins all life. This, it seems to me, is as vital a conversation for us, and our children, as any other.
For that to happen in the deep, rich way that is needed to generate meaning and purpose that is relevant to us all, we all need to immerse ourselves in our roots. For there is no one who experiences life in a vacuum: there is no ‘immaculate perception’ for any of us, including – perhaps especially – those of us who would claim such objectivity because we have stepped away from our cultural (and religious) roots. Even if we have rejected not only the literal or magical interpretations of our particular scriptures but also the principles and values and structures of the religious cultures of our childhood (or even our grandparents) we have inevitably internalized many elements of that religious culture that constitute the particular lens through which we encounter the world and make meaning. For example, I can see where my rather reactive attitude to authority comes from, but also my sense of justice.
In order to participate in the continuing critical dialogue we need today to find meaning and purpose, we all need to immerse ourselves in our histories: our own Holy Weeks. So I invite you to immerse yourself in whatever tradition that shaped you, one that you may have long since stepped away from. For the stories remain in us like cellular memories, even if we are two or three generations away from the ancestors who practiced the rituals that the stories generated.
Perhaps my sense of something akin to loss or nostalgia comes from my intuition that the Dialogue – about Jesus in my case or about Buddha or Mohammed, or about religion in general – is not over. Perhaps it has not been done as creatively or skillfully as it might: certainly not in this generation.
Do you feel that tug: to do this right; take a closer look at what was maybe so important one time; and explore what it is you’re feeling a hunger for now that other things don’t seem to fill?
Already half-way through Holy Week, I can see that Jesus, for me, is a manifestation of Christ – the blueprint or template (logos) of all living things: certainly an evolved manifestation, though not, thereby, unique in the sense of superior to all others; but clearly unique for those who know him. In that sense he still does play a critical role, the way an important ancestor whose genes you have inherited does, or the way someone you have spent a lot of time with when you were younger still touches something deep in you. Like the Little Prince’s rose. What’s your story? Your rose?