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I assisted with a ‘Blessing of the Animals’ ritual recently that was certainly fun, but also surprisingly meaningful. Immediately following this, I helped a group of friends with the dedication of a bench to a loved one who died some months ago; that was similarly moving. I couldn’t help but feel a deep need behind the enthusiastic appreciation that many expressed after each experience. Perhaps hunger is a better word to describe this need because of the way people seemed to savor every morsel of the simple rituals.

The response suggested to me that we are missing something important in our human process that used to be served by religion: meaningful rituals. We are meaning-making creatures and one of the ways we find or make meaning is through ritual. And, by the way, by religion I’m thinking of the meaning and purpose-making that true religion provides through reconnecting us to the world we share. The roots of the word – re-ligare (to bind back together) – reflect this reconnecting role.

It got me thinking about what in recent blogs I’ve called an ‘everybody’s spirituality’: a spirituality that is both relevant and accessible. By relevant I mean something that helps make sense of everyday things and inspires hope in the face of everyday challenges. By accessible I mean something that we can do for ourselves without the permission or oversight of a professional.

I’ve attempted to define spirituality as simply experience (and understanding of) the deeper dimensions of life that offers meaning and purpose and points to a way of living that reflects this. Spirituality, then, is the implementation of religion. I’ve suggested that there is a critical need for spirituality like this in a world that is experiencing enormous changes that have challenged old senses of meaning and purpose and undermined old ways of living. Thomas Berry, who, some of you know, was my Ph.D. mentor, wrote about religion and spirituality in this way:

“…we will recover our sense of wonder and our sense of the sacred only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves as a revelatory experience of that numinous presence whence all things came into being. Indeed, the universe is the primary sacred reality. We become sacred by our participation in this more sublime dimension of the world about us.” Thomas Berry, “The Wild and the Sacred,” in The Great Work, 49.

The changes that continue to happen at an accelerated rate have already threatened the institutions that have guided our lives in the past. This should, of course, lead to a recovery and renewal of the original vision that inspired each institution. The German sociologist and philosopher, Max Weber, spoke of the ‘routinization’ of the original vision of an institution and the renewal it demands as a normal part of the process of change. However, an unfortunate reaction to change can be a reversion to a kind of tribalism. In the religious context this takes the form of fundamentalism. And, while the latter can give the impression of being solid in the sense of going back to the foundations, I believe it is actually an early stage of transition that reflects the challenge of letting go and grieving the passing of old ways and old beliefs. Other less obvious forms of this fundamentalism include what sometimes feels like a kind of worship of science and technology as the new religion where many see infinite potential that will finally address all our issues, including meaning and purpose, as well as our way of living. However, fundamentalism, with its defensive insistence on literalism, actually lessens our sense of wonder and, thereby, our development.

Fortunately, there is also something else happening in our planetary maelstrom, and that is a movement to recover the essentials of spirituality, as Berry describes it, by searching beneath the surface of ordinary things and finding the sacred. In practices that range from yoga to tai chi and from running (last time I spoke of the beauty that the participants in the Leatherman’s Loop experience) to dancing, many are finding ways to experience the numinous presence that Berry speaks of. Some are also exploring more obviously religion-related practices that range from the blessing of animals to the many forms of memorializing that the bench ritual represents. Rituals, like all of these are, can clearly enhance our sense of wonder and the sacred and enable us to encounter the numinous presence, whence all things came into being, as Berry puts it. For Berry, ordinary life – the universe – is the primary sacred reality. In other words, we find the sacred – God – in the real, here and now of the everyday. Berry concludes that we actually become sacred by our participation in this more sublime dimension of the world about us. I believe that this is a way of describing the human process of becoming – of realizing – our infinite, eternal self. For we are the universe’s expression of wonder.

This thought stirs a couple of things in my mind as I reflect on what I believe is a critical aspect of human survival today, whether you see this as the literal survival of the species or the survival of that which makes us human. The first is awakening and the other is connecting.

I’ve come to believe that human becoming is essentially an awakening process; an ever-expanding awareness. One of the reasons I love the poets – and indeed all artists – and see them, in fact, as the prophets and seers of today, is that they reflect this awakening process and serve as catalysts or reminders for the rest of us, the way the prophets of old did. One of my favorite poets – Rainer Maria Rilke – suggests that our awakening actually serves the unfolding cosmic process of God: God’s becoming, as it were:

What will you do, God, when I die?
When I, your pitcher, broken, lie?
When I, your drink, go stale or dry?
I am your garb, the trade you ply,
you lose your meaning, losing me…

From the Book of Hours

The implication is that human living – and becoming – is essentially a divine process that happens through our ordinary, everyday thinking and acting. It is a process of constant – and expanding – awakening. An obvious spiritual practice, therefore, would be the cultivation of awakening through simple rituals.

Rituals can be about anything for they are simply seeing and drawing out the extraordinary within the ordinary, the way Berry implies. I have heard them described as ‘sacred play.’ Play, of course, is sometimes the most serious thing we can do, as our children demonstrate. It is their way – and our adult way too – of learning how to be in the world by stating (and performing) what is true and real. In that sense, rituals are about awakening us to what is already there and finding meaning and purpose by celebrating this together through symbolic gestures (sacred play) and thereby actually effecting what we intend. It is giving life to life.

This awakening includes everything – every aspect of life – from birth to death: facing, in particular, perhaps, the things we would prefer to avoid, like the inevitable pain and suffering that is part of everyone’s life. This is letting life – including fear – awaken us and thereby enable God to be, the way Rilke describes. We used a poem the other evening at our monthly Meditation-Dialogue here in our local town (which I will write about soon) that captures this aspect:

… we get over the measles but not a broken heart…

…The way to get over a life is to die, Short of that, you move with it, let the pain be pain

Not in the hope it will vanish

But in the faith that it will fit in…

From The Cure, Albert Huffstickler

Connection is central to this process. It is the outcome but also the cause of awakening, which is ultimately awareness of and communion with the ultimate reality, however our imaginations name it.

It is what false or inadequate spiritualities do not achieve. In fact, they have the opposite effect. Fundamentalism of any kind, for example, divides by its very nature, while the apparent connecting devices of the modern religion of technology seem to have the opposite effect.

For the kind of connection implied here, however, we need not only personal practices, but also rites of passage for the constant transitions that constitute our life journey. It is why we find simple rituals like the Blessing of Animals and the Bench Dedication so powerful and moving. I attempted to have these little rituals serve this critical aspect of an expanded awareness through connection. So, at the beginning of the Blessing of the Animals I asked who it is that blesses, suggesting that the blessing is, in fact, a two-way process. I made the point with a little call and response format that highlighted (and expanded) this mutual enhancement:

LEADER: Let us give thanks for life in all its forms but especially in our animal brothers and sisters

RESPONSE: We bless and thank you

LEADER: For the bacteria that digest the food we eat

RESPONSE (We bless and thank you)

Leader: For the worms that help make the soil. RESPONSE

Leader: For the bees that pollinate the plants. RESPONSE

Leader: For the birds that spread the seeds. RESPONSE

Leader: For the fish that keep the seas alive. RESPONSE

Leader: For the wild animals that inspire us with their beauty. RESPONSE

Leader: For the farm animals that share their lives with us. RESPONSE

Leader: For our family animals that enrich our lives. RESPONSE

Leader: For our goldfish who calm us. RESPONSE

Leader: For our cats who teach us. RESPONSE

Leader: For our dogs who give us unconditional friendship. RESPONSE

Leader: For our horses who heal us. RESPONSE

Leader: For all our other family animals – hamsters, rabbits, snakes, parrots, canaries…who share their lives with us. RESPONSE

We are grateful to you, dear animals, birds and fish who share our world. Thank you for all that you do. Thank you for enriching our lives. Thank you for being our friends, our playmates, our pets, our companions in the wonderful adventure of life. May we together create an ever-greater world where we all love and respect each other.

I think I’m coming to see more and more clearly that spirituality is actually a critical part of human life. It is not an addendum. It is not an overlay. It is in fact an essential aspect of the human process that fosters awakening by cultivating attention and presence to the deeper dimensions of every moment and guiding our participation in the cosmic unfolding we are part of. For we are in a continuous process of change (which the philosopher Heraclitus humorously described as ‘the only constant’ in life). As symbolic animals – that is creatures blessed (or cursed) with the impulse to find meaning and purpose – we need the sacred play of ritual and rites of passage to make the constant transitions.

All of this is part of the ‘everybody’s spirituality’ that I am exploring as a new elder. The latter title, of course, suggests yet another conversation. The topics are mounting…

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I’ve written before about the Leatherman’s Loop. It’s a 6.7 mile ‘rite of spring’ run through woods and rivers, sandpits, and mudflats; and it’s been going on for over thirty years, here in Westchester, NY, in the Pound Ridge Reservation. It started with about 50 runners and this year registered 2000.

People love it for the obvious reasons related to any good run, but for something else as well. Yesterday, when I offered a reflection before leading our traditional ‘Celtic-Navajo’ starting blessing, I suggested that this ‘something else’ was all about connection. For it is clear that people feel connected to this event, in all kinds of ways: to the place, to the story of the Leatherman, and to each other.

The Leatherman, by the way, is something of a mystical figure who is part of the lore of these parts: a wanderer who walked a circuit of about 300 miles a month between the Connecticut River and the Hudson River, from around 1857 to 1889. His only possession, when he was found dead – besides his famous handmade leather suit of clothes – was a French prayer book, which gave rise to various stories. For example, one was that he was French and had come to the U.S. as a young man to manage the leather mill of his fiance’s father, partly, it was suggested, as a test of his commitment. It seems he failed to make a success of the task and lost both his job and his finance, which led to his wandering, whether in sorrow or not, we don’t know.

Good story, right? Certainly enough for people to create a little legend around, even if the facts don’t have a lot of foundation! And certainly enough to give a focus to the event.

But there is more. A number of years ago, the founder of the race, my dear friend Tony Godino, invited me to offer a blessing at the start. I can vividly recall the first effort because there was a Nor’Easter that day, with cold, driving rain pelting the exposed bodies of the scantily clad runners, as I stood on a shaky step-ladder with a megaphone in hand and began ee cumming’s famous poem:

i thank You God for most this amazing day…

You could almost feel the less than positive thoughts of the freezing runners, directed like daggers at this strange figure on the ladder: ‘What the…!!’

I continued, a little louder to make myself heard above the wind and the rain:

…for the leaping greenly spirits of trees..

And somebody shouted ‘yeh’, partly out of pity, perhaps, or to keep themselves warm during this ordeal. So I raised the decibel level a little more

and a blue true dream of sky..

A few more voices joined in with a ‘yeh’ response. By the time, I reached the end of the stanza, the crowd had turned the poem into a chant

..and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is YES…

The following year I created our ‘Celtic-Navajo’ chant and we got a microphone and a speaker. Now, all these years later, this chant-blessing has become a central element of the celebration. And now also, even in the midst of all the excitement and anticipation that is generated before the race, when this part of the process is announced you could hear a pin drop. Into that amazing silence I try to spill a couple of thoughts as a way of drawing out the obvious. And then, the climax of the call-response of the chant explodes with the powerful energy of beautiful men, women and children (and a few dogs) released into the wonderful ritual that is the Leatherman’s Loop.

I say ‘beautiful’ men, women and children, because beauty is the core concept that underpins the chant and, for many, the entire event:

Beauty before me as I run
Beauty behind me as I run
Beauty below me as I run
Beauty above me as I run
Beauty beside me as I run
Beauty within me as I run.


I see beauty all around me:
In beauty may we walk.
In beauty may we see.
In beauty may we all be.

The thoughts that I offered this year were that life is really all about connecting. Whenever we connect – with anything or anyone – we see beauty: the beauty that is intrinsic to whomever or whatever we are able to be present to because of this connection. This, for me, is central, simple and profound: when we connect we see beauty. In our world today, because there is less and less real connection, we don’t see the beauty that is at the heart of everything and everyone, and so often we simply use and more often abuse each other and the world that gives us life.

I sense that we all know this, which is why I said that I try to offer a couple of thoughts that are obvious. They are especially obvious in this setting because people have gone to great lengths to be there. Registration is an expression of intent: the online lottery process in January fills to capacity in a couple of days. So we are all open to something special. And, of course, this expectation has only grown over the years as we experience the beauty that is there more obviously in special times like this Loop-rite-of-spring (even if the day is wet), when the first flowers have appeared and the trees have begun to bud, and the birds are gathered round to join in the celebration, and the peepers (tiny frogs) are keeping up their chorus in the background.

Yesterday, I said, that in the face of the increasing dis-connection that we experience in our everyday world, in all its forms – race, immigration, poverty, violence – we are drawn to the Loop, because the Loop connects us – or perhaps, more accurately, reconnects us – to the beauty in each other, the beauty in the earth-home we share, and the beauty in all the members of our earth family. It’s why we chant: ‘beauty before me…beauty behind me…’

This year the Loop coincided with Earth Day so, before the blessing/chant, I invited us to make this our Connecting Loop. Turn to the people around you, I said, and with a handshake or a hug say something like ‘beauty be with you…’ To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about adding this element, lest it seem too much like church and offend some. But, it was like setting fire to dry grass: all through the big crowd, there was an amazing rush of what I can only describe as ‘communion’. You could feel our collective identity move to another level of excitement and, I would be inclined to add, possibility. It was truly wonderful to behold: to see beauty ripple through the gathering like a wave on the sea.

I added that we could continue this generation of beauty by connecting with the members of our earth family as we ran through the trees and the rivers. And, I suggested, we could use this powerful experience afterwards, to inspire us to connect with our communities – our neighbors and our colleagues at work – and release, as it were, the same beauty. When we see the beauty that is in all of us, I concluded, we will heal the rifts and wounds and the abuses we inflict on ourselves and each other.

So off they went on their beauty pilgrimage. And, judging by the conversations Tony and I had afterwards with tired, muddy runners of all ages, beauty was indeed the energy and the experience. ‘It was like a mantra that kept me going..’ said one runner. ‘I experienced so much more in the run because of the blessing part..’ said another. One woman spoke of how the Loop touched something deep in her that she doesn’t experience anywhere else. An older man said that the two most important days of the year for him now were Christmas and the Leatherman’s Loop.

I don’t wish to exaggerate the experience or make it into something that it is not, for I do realize that my passion and my ever-developing work has been to draw out what is already, innately present in things. The Greek word poiesis reflects this process of making present what was not there before, or at least not in a clear or obvious way. In the medical world it refers to processes like the production of blood cells in the body: hematopoiesis. I wrote recently about my intention to explore what I called an ‘Everybody’s Spirituality’, by which I mean concepts and practices that would be relevant and accessible to our increasingly complex and disconnected world. Many of us have discarded the old spiritual concepts and practices we grew up with because they had ceased to be helpful in this way; many more – particularly in the Millennial generation – have never even experienced them. But, as events like the Leatherman’s Loop demonstrate, I believe, the need – indeed the hunger – for ways to address this (spiritual) dimension of life, remains.

Indeed, the Loop also demonstrates ways in which many are already doing this spontaneously. Whether it is running, cycling, hiking, or music, singing, dancing, or gardening, cooking, eating, or yoga, aerobics or tai chi, the central element is clearly coming together: connecting more deeply than we tend to do at work or even at home. My thought about an ‘everybody’s spirituality’, then, is little more than drawing out what is already there, even if not obvious, in the ordinary things of life. Clearly, there is much that can be drawn out of the Loop experience. In fact, it already has many of the elements of what good – in the sense of relevant or meaningful – spirituality is about: an experience of deeper levels of life; gatherings to share and celebrate this experience; reflections to draw out the meaning and implications of the experience; even an iconic figure who symbolizes the ideal; and so on…

I have a hunch that poiesis is what all the spiritual leaders were about, from Buddha to Jesus: what they described in terms of enlightenment or resurrection. Moreover, these leaders all seemed to suggest that this is something we can – should – all do for ourselves and with each other. The implication, of course, is that we have to do this in the world we live in today and avoid the tendency towards fundamentalism and exclusivity (which seems to be constitutive characteristics of our species). But perhaps that is the subject of another blog.

The heart of the Loop is connection, and it is in connection that we find – and cultivate – the underlying beauty that we knew one time as children and only glimpse occasionally, if at all, as we get older. Let me finish with the piece from ee cummings that was the awkward beginning of this ‘beauty’ dimension of the Loop:

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any – lifted from the no

of all nothing – human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

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I’ve always been intrigued – not to say mystified – by the resurrection. It certainly seemed like the ultimate victory, the absolute vindication of the man, Jesus, that we were told was the son of God. But, like many of us, I came to find that it wasn’t quite as simple as that: the ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus, as they called the experiences that his followers had after his death and burial are not quite straightforward. In other words, they are certainly not literal descriptions of a resuscitated corpse. Which is where many part company with religious stories like these. In a recent blog I tried to highlight the difference between literal (scientific) facts and symbolic (religious) meaning. The first emphasizes evidence, the second interpretation.

Another way of saying this is that deep knowing – beyond the basic facts – does not happen simply with our thinking minds. To truly know something, our whole being must be open, awake, and present. We intuitively knew how to be present as babies, when, in the first months, we saw ourselves mirrored in our family’s eyes. We came to believe and then become this vision. The contemplative approach of religion offers a similar kind of mirroring, as we learn to see ourselves in the ultimate gaze of God.

Our early knowing is not so much heard, seen, or thought, rather it is felt as our original identity. But we all inevitably leave the Garden of Eden, this state of innocence and blissful, unconscious union of childhood. The psychologist, Erik Erikson, called it the Fall into consciousness, which is, in fact, a progression into the dualistic thinking that characterizes our adult – differentiated – world. Psychologists suggest that when we first begin to doubt and move outside of this essential knowing, we cling to things like teddy bears and dolls, or the classic security blanket as a way of holding on to this original world.

Unfortunately, if this primal knowing never happens for us, we will doubt whether there is or ever was a Garden of Eden (“God”) where all things are one and good. Without the initial attachment of a good family, we grow up with this uncertainty and its consequences. And as we see ourselves more and more through eyes that compare, judge, and dismiss, we need help to heal the brokenness of this this world. Resurrection is about bringing us back to the original knowing of a loving web of life and an original identity. In this fundamental human experience are the roots of both our sense of sin (as separated from our original identity) and salvation (as reunited with our true self).

In the previous blog I also noted that the context of the Jesus story is the Jewish world of interpretation of life-shaping experiences that became tradition, and reinterpretation of this tradition in the face of new existential challenges, like exile in Babylon or occupation by Rome. In the case of the Jesus story, the Jewish followers of Jesus could only imagine surviving the Temple-destroying savagery in 70 A.D, when the first Gospel (Mark) was written), because Jesus had. This is the essential meaning of Resurrection: a hope that evolved into a conviction that survival of the worst fate imaginable, including death, was a possibility—even, a promise. Moreover, this was a conviction rooted in the very heart of Jewish belief and expectation, centered in a particular way on the book of Daniel (which was part of the collective imagination of that time) which proposes the first clear prediction of the resurrection of the dead in the Hebrew Bible: “..And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.” Resurrection was seen as the resurrection of the body – everything that is – into a here and now eternity where there was no more death. Eternity means that those resurrected will never die again (unlike the raising of Lazarus).

The Christian Gospels, then, were interpretations of existential challenges in the light of the Jewish traditions of the first followers of Jesus. The heart of these interpretations of the resurrection of Jesus was that death is now seen for what it is: not the end but a new beginning. Jesus is not gone but present in a different way, the way God’s presence was understood in a different way at the time of the exile in Babylon. The purpose of Jesus was not simply the overthrow of a corrupt system as a ‘revolutionary messiah’, though he clearly did challenge that, but the renewal of the human condition itself (remember our original identity) and the fulfillment of the life principle that beats in every human heart: namely that we are eternal, infinite, connected: God? This outcome was symbolized – that is ‘made present’ – by Jesus’ personal victory over death, which could only take the form of his personal Resurrection. The association with the Book of Daniel implied that the final realization, the new day – what Daniel called ‘the End Time’ – was here. Their literal interpretation of this ‘end time’ as being here, in the immediate sense, is understandable, though confusing, like all the literal interpretations that have dogged religion.

The first Resurrection story in the Gospel of Mark simply asserts, in the voice of a young man dressed in white, addressing the three women, “He has risen, he is not here.” The image and the words would have made a clear connection, in the minds of Jesus’ followers, to the vision in the Book of Daniel of a ‘son of man coming on the clouds..’ That the story seems unfinished is actually quite fitting, since the finishing was going to happen in the lives of the followers of Jesus. The Resurrection of Jesus, the author of Mark is telling his readers, will be manifest in you. The Gospel invited them to change, if not what they believed, then what it meant. Mark’s Gospel was not an intervention, but a realization. His followers began to come to the recognition that the way to make Jesus present – and the kingdom of God he spoke of actual – is to live as though it were true: as though this so-called kingdom, long expected there and then, were, in fact, here and now.

It has helped me to overlay two frameworks on these Resurrection stories: one is the process of transition that I have used with organizations and groups; the other is the dialogue method that I have applied to it. The followers of Jesus clearly went through a transition with the death of Jesus and they did so through a collective dialogue. Transition might be defined as responding – adjusting, learning, developing – to change. I have found it helpful to define Dialogue as skillful participation in the generation and emergence of new meaning (life, in that sense), often in the face of loss and change.

The stages of Transition are Letting Go (Grieving is a part of it), Uncertainty (affirming vision and direction is a part of this), and New Beginnings when an expanded awareness or awakening occurs and reveals new meaning. The stages of Dialogue are Connecting in order to be present to what is happening; Exploring in order to understand the experience and what it is saying to us; and Discovering when we give voice to new meaning in the form of shared understanding that takes us to a new place.

Thus the followers of Jesus connected to their experience of the absent Jesus, through their letting go-grieving process – talking about him, sharing stories of him. All they could understand at first was that he was gone but still with them – ‘He is risen’ in the words of the Daniel-like young man at the tomb. But then as they explored this experience and remembered the things he had said, they began to recognize his presence with them: in the man they thought was the gardener at the tomb, in strangers they met on the road, when they sat down together to eat their bread and wine. And, in the midst of their uncertainty they began to make connections with the intuitions of their traditions (things the prophets had said). Finally, they began to discover little glimmerings of the implications of this emerging understanding: new awareness of God with them in the present moment, right in the midst of life’s challenges; and eternity as here and now, not later and elsewhere. Resurrection became a realization of what IS: the opening of the tomb of old perceptions and the emergence of a new way of being in the world.

The later (40 – 50 years) writing of Matthew, Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and John would elaborate this recognition and awareness, and further develop it. But this first Gospel was giving expression to the adaptation that Jesus people, drawing on their Jewish habit of mind, had already been making. The later Gospels elaborated in Jewish fashion (re-interpretation in the light of further reflection) on this resurrection experience, realization, and recognition of Jesus present in their lives and in the lives of ordinary people now awakened to ‘eternity’: an awakening of and to the true (original) self beyond the limited ego-self. Pentecost was the logical collective response to an awareness that was expanding in depth but also in breadth into a movement…

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I’M STILL THE ONE

I’m still the one who knelt before you

in monk’s robes, patiently waiting.

You filled him as he called you into being –

– RM Rilke

I recognize what Rilke is saying, for this was my original experience and my journey since then. It was the essential work I was drawn to as a young boy: to access the mystery of the infinite; to sing my song, to dance my dance, to live my life. And thereby to give voice to God; to call God into being, the way Rilke describes.

It sounds almost blasphemous. But in the context of our present knowledge and understanding, are we not indeed the universe evolved to self-reflective consciousness. The stars actually know themselves in my thoughts, while the flowers sing themselves in my songs. So, surely, the universe becomes itself as self-reflective consciousness in us. And surely too we call into being the one that fills us with life. This, I believe, is the essential human-divine reality of life that Jesus Christ symbolizes.

But let me say something about symbol. There are two aspects of truth: facts and meaning. Science is essentially about facts – evidence from experience. Religion is about meaning – interpretation of experience. Science uses the language of description, religion uses the language of analogy and symbol. When science questioned its validity, religion, unfortunately, responded defensively with literalism and fundamentalism. But literalism is the death of religion and fundamentalism fosters fragmentation. Nor is symbol simply a stand-in for meaning like a sign, rather it is a language for expressing meaning that transcends words. Thus a bringing together of hands becomes a handshake – a statement of relationship; and eating together becomes a special meal – a statement of love.

When I was young, Holy Thursday came closest for me to the essential mystery that Jesus Christ symbolizes. Before I understood the science of today I sensed the impossible – wonderful – paradox in the central symbol of Jesus Christ. Good Friday was clearly the human aspect of the mystery: a human being living the deepest existential experience that we all know as suffering and death. And Easter Sunday was certainly the divine aspect: a God emerging from this darkness and death the way a flower emerges out of the dark winter-dead earth. However, it was Holy Thursday where these two aspects were held together in a way that felt real, and that echoed my own deepest experience of God present-in-things; things that called God into being.

The writer, James Carroll – himself a former priest – reflects on this divine incarnation in a recent book called Christ Actually: “…if Jesus were not regarded as God almost from the start of his movement, he would be of no interest to us. We would never have heard of him. Nothing but his divinity accounts for his place in Western culture: not his ethic, which was admirable but hardly uncommon; not his preaching, which was firmly in line with Jewish proclamation; not his heroic suffering, which was typical of many anti-Roman Jewish resisters; not his wonder working, which was attributed to all kinds of charismatic figures in the ancient world. Nothing but a two-thousand-year-old divinity claim puts Jesus before us today.”

Carroll is also an advocate for what you might call Jewish-Christian continuity. The Jewish journey, he says, has been one of continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of its traditions, which are essentially about God’s presence with us. Thus, for example, their exile in Babylon caused them to reinterpret God’s presence as one that transcended place, including the Temple that had been central to their faith. God was now present paradoxically in absence. When they returned from exile God became present in the Torah which described the creation of the entire cosmos and presented a God who transcended not only place, but time.

The Gospels were all written on or after a similar tragedy: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. These Gospels, then, were an attempt to interpret their Jewish traditions in the face of this experience. Thus the Passover meal of Jesus took on new significance for the Jesus-Jews, as Carroll refers to the early Christians, that shed meaning on this tragedy as well as the tragedy of Good Friday.

The Passover Meal was given a new focus and interpretation in the light of their experience of Resurrection and the message of universal Love that Jesus had given them. The poet Milosz describes universal love:

Love means to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills –

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

This is love as seeing and relating. Through this lens, the Passover meal becomes a statement of expanded identity: This is my body, from the human perspective, means, This – earth, water, plant, bird, tree – is my body. While ‘Do this in memory of me’ means, when we eat, remember that we are all this.

When a person realizes this, the poet concludes:

..he wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

This is love as service. This is love that washes each other’s feet.

This is my body – from God’s perspective as it were – in the light of an expanded resurrection-based awareness, means a new interpretation of God’s presence. It means that we – everything, in fact – is a reflection of God, ‘a scrap of Divinity.’ While ‘do this in memory of me’ means make me present in everything you do, and help (enable, perhaps) others make me present: ‘..So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.’

This is a big theme in Rilke’s poetry that is echoed in the insights of Thomas Berry and Teilhard de Chardin. Berry focuses on the human-earth aspect, highlighting new mutually-enhancing human-earth relations. He says:

“The human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single sacred community or we will both perish in the desert.”

Teilhard focuses on the human-divine aspect, highlighting Christ as the ultimate expression of God-incarnate. He writes:

“Christ has a cosmic body that extends throughout the universe.”

Ultimately we are all Christ as the evolving logos of God, with Jesus as the first-born of a new generation that will continue to evolve and to unfold God. At some stage, we can be sure, we will evolve into a human whose consciousness will see clearly what we only glimpse now – the transcendent, the within; beyond present limits, like death…

Jesus Christ is the symbol of our ultimate reality and identity. And back to symbol again, for a moment, to emphasize that symbol, though there is continuity with its culture of origin, is not confined to any culture but can transcend it, like the symbols of love or unity. In a similar way, symbol is not even confined to the person who expresses it, but transcends him or her, like the symbols that the Buddha or MLK have become. So, to focus on Jesus as the only Christ is to fall into the trap of literalism and what one theologian has called Christolatry. The Jesus-Christ symbol belongs to all and speaks to all of us as the essential reality of the God-Universe, and specifically the divine-human.

This unfolding awareness, this evolving understanding, is the presence of God in the Jewish framework, and the Cosmic Christ in the Christian tradition.

But what does this symbol mean for us today? How can we apply the wisdom of our traditions to the challenges we all face, that range from climate change to cultural confusion and from extreme weather patterns we’re attempting to adjust to, to patterns of extreme violence we’re trying to address.

Clearly our Good Friday today is a world that is breaking apart. It is the dying throes of a culture of individualism gone to extremes as a fragmented, unjust, corrupt and unsustainable society, and as alienated, lonely, depressed and violent people. Trump and company are simply manifestations of this tragic world that is at the root of the challenges we face.

But our Easter Sunday today is the great movement – the cultural shift – that is happening. It is the new life that is rising out of the ashes of this darkness in our women, our school children, our food producers, our healers, our advocates….

And our Holy Thursday symbolizes the unfolding process that brings these two together in the mystery that we call Christ who is the symbol of the union of Life and Universe, God and the world, human and divine. This Christ consciousness is evolving in us into an understanding that will reflect the human-divine reality in a new society. Rilke makes the call:

Now it is time that gods come walking out
of lived-in Things. . . .
Time that they came and knocked down every wall
inside my house.  New page.  Only the wind
from such a turning could be strong enough
to toss the air as a shovel tosses dirt:
a fresh-turned field of breath….

This will mean a radical shift in the way we understand the world and ourselves: a ‘fresh-turned field of breath..’ For God is not dead, rather the old ways of understanding God are dead.

O gods, gods!
who used to come so often and are still
asleep in the Things around us..

This is the resurrection that is actually happening today in the face of the chaos that threatens to annihilate us. With this kind of vision of the sacredness – the divinity – of all things and all people – to inspire us, we will know what to do to make the kind of world that we dream of: the kingdom of God that is the right of everyone and everything…

Finally, let me return to the Holy Thursday – the Passover-Eucharist – event. Passover, which was Israel’s constitutive event, took on new meaning that night because of Jesus; or, perhaps more accurately, Passover’s essential meaning survived, after the Roman Genocide put Israel’s very existence at risk. In the face of annihilation, the first Gospel – written the year that Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed – describes Jews entering, as they had done before in their history, into their founding liberation – their Exodus – to discover new meaning and a new way forward. For one group, this became the Rabbinic Judaism of the Law that continues today. For another group of Jews, Jesus was a signal that the liberation now had new meaning for them in a new time. God was seen by them as present in everything and everyone, and Jesus Christ was the symbol of this new realization: God as human, human as God. This realization called them to a universal love that inspires us to use ourselves and others – all others – so that they stand in the glow of ripeness… An amazing revelation, and an amazing challenge. A new era of God-with-us.

Rilke heralds this new era:

Once again let it be your morning, gods.
We keep repeating.  You alone are source. With you the world arises..

There is one source of all things – ‘With you the world arises..’

Rilke concludes:

…your dawn
gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure.

I really appreciate – I’d imagine we all do – that it always seems to take our failures (the cracks where the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen sings) – to awaken us to the new time that is at hand. A little anecdote makes the point. The other evening I attended a meeting on affordable housing. I’d hoped to witness the connection between affordable housing and community – the kingdom of God that is the right of everyone. Affordable housing, it seemed to me, gives us and our children the opportunity to learn about diversity and drive out fear, and thereby build the American community of the future that we will need in order to address the increasingly complex challenges we all face in today’s world. But there was clear anxiety in the room that expressed itself in terms of safety, water issues, and environmental concerns that felt like code for deeper anxieties: about outsiders, and differences. In this, it seemed like a microcosm of the country. I came away realizing that Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday; that awakening requires the opening – the cracks – that only suffering brings. Of course, there is no shortage of this suffering today, so it makes sense to anticipate breakthroughs like the High School kids movement, as we continue (because it is our calling) to do the work of creative dialogue – even in the face of angry resistance.

It is this that is the essential theme of the Jewish journey that produced Jesus Christ and the realization that God is present in everyone and everything in an amazing unfolding that includes us all. The poem of Rilke I began with concludes:

Are you, then, the All? And I the separated one

who tumbles and rages?

Am I not the whole? Am I not all things

when I weep, and you the single one who hears it?

So let us thank God for our Jewish ancestors and their amazing journey that generated wisdom in the face of life’s pain and death, and that generated Jesus Christ as the essential symbol for a new world. For them, God’s presence was reflected in the pillar of fire in the desert, in the Temple in Jerusalem, in the absence of exile, in the Torah on their return, in Rabbinic Judaism that continues today, but also in Jesus bar Joseph who has come to symbolize God present in every created thing, with us humans as the voice of God in a particular way. All of this wisdom – along with the symbols of God’s presence that are reflected in other wonderful cultures – is already giving birth today to a new symbol of God’s presence that will bring hope, purpose, and direction to a global community that is struggling in the face of potential annihilation.

So, Easter – new life – blessings on us all and on all our brothers and sisters everywhere, alive and dead, who participate in the amazing song of God who fills us so that we can call him into being.

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Now it is time that gods come walking out
of lived-in things. . . .
Time that they came and knocked down every wall
inside my house.  New page.

…O gods, gods!
who used to come so often and are still
asleep in the Things around us…     (Rilke)

Spirituality means something different to everyone. For some, it’s about participating in organized religion: going to a church, synagogue, mosque, and so on. For others, it’s more personal: some people get in touch with their spiritual side through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or even long walks. But the central element is the ‘spiritual aspect’ that refers to a real, though less obvious dimension of life. Research shows that even religious skeptics can’t stifle the sense that there is something greater than the concrete world we see. So spirituality is a way of accessing this ‘something greater’: experiencing it, understanding it, seeing its implications for my life, and deciding and acting accordingly. In fact, these elements already suggest a process of transformation and growth. Which means that spirituality is about growth and development, though the implication of the ‘something greater’ is that it is deeper growth, in an ever-expanding context, toward an infinite realization.

But already, language like this this makes spirituality sound a little strange or certainly esoteric and belonging to a world of professional spiritual folk, like monks, priests, and mystics. I want to explore what I’m calling an ‘everyman’s spirituality’: a way of accessing the ‘something greater’ that it appears everyone experiences or intuits, but a way that is understandable and accessible to all.

By way of preface, I might add that this ‘everyman’s spirituality’ will have to be relevant to the world that we find ourselves in today. On the one hand, it will have to be related to everyday, ordinary life, including the larger existential questions we all face. On the other hand, it will have to at least make sense in the world we know today through science.

Like many others, I have drifted away from traditional (in my case Christian) spirituality as presented by religion. Part of the reason is that the institution of religion, like all of our institutions, has struggled to keep abreast of a rapidly changing world. In the case of religion, this has been reflected in a number of its elements, including its male, hierarchical structures as well as its positions and teachings. In the case of the latter, the cosmic framework that was the traditional foundation for these teachings no longer has credibility. For example, the image or idea of a male God, separate from the world who stands back, observes and judges our faults and failings no longer works. This view, in fact, has contributed to the idea that there is something inherently wrong with us, and the world. Christianity’s adherence to the Greek philosophical ideas that spirit and matter are separate has perpetuated a split between theology (or “God-talk”) and science, which has prevented science from playing its critical role of keeping ‘God-talk’ relevant and related to our experience. In a recent blog – where can you buy viagra online using paypal – I outlined the process of this separation and its results: from the Homeric Greek world of infinite gods who were involved in our lives – ‘who used to come so often’ – to the modern nihilism and absurdity that resulted in Nietzsche’s ‘dead God’. Today, in the vacuum of meaning that this has created, there is a clear and perceptible shift toward the resurrection of some kind of spirituality, if only in the form of a growing sense of responsibility for the future we are leaving to our kids. There is a hunger for something important that we used to have in our lives.

Recently, I was privileged to be part of an online global conference entitled ‘Remembering the Truth of Who You Are,’ that brought together a wide range of speakers from many different perspectives to address this important topic. (You can take a look at my interview at buy viagra online usa paypal if you haven’t already seen it). All of the speakers began with the same rationale for their efforts: to leave a better world for our children; better, certainly, than the world we have created over recent decades. All of the presentations reflected aspects of an emerging spirituality.

There was a wide-range of approaches – from shamanic healing to magnetic fields that impact our emotions, and from redefining God to connecting with our ancestors – many of which reflect the various responses to our changing world that we have encountered since the middle of the last century. Essentially, they all reflected a basic and essential impulse to survive and thrive. While I don’t intend to offer a critique of the conference here, I have one comment that relates the presentations to this conversation about finding an ‘everyman’s spirituality’, which is that the approaches tended to fall into two basic categories: regressive and progressive. Of course, it is important to recall and even reclaim – ‘remember’ in that sense – old wisdom and practices that can still help us, but there is always the danger of romanticizing the past – the golden age – and even imposing such wisdom in a fundamentalist way. There was some of that in the presentations. Similarly, while we need to keep our values relevant by integrating new knowledge, it is also important to retain the wisdom of older experiences lest we get caught in the illusions of control that science can create. Some of the presentations struggled with this.

All that said, I think I’ve come to understand spirituality as two things: a framework for understanding the world we live in, and a process for living more fully in this world. The framework that has emerged for me is inspired by people like Thomas Berry (and, before him, Teilhard de Chardin) who attempted to integrate science and religion. Berry claimed that our generation is in-between stories. We are caught between the story that religion has told and the story that science is telling us today. But, he added, a new story has been emerging, a new cosmology that brings issues of science and matters of faith into a place where they can complement each other and generate a fuller picture of what is happening. The universe, in fact, Berry concludes, is not simply a phenomenon but, more accurately, a story: a story in which we are all immersed, to which we belong, and out of which we have evolved. This story has the power to awaken us more deeply to who we are. For, in this new story, the Milky Way becomes the universe in the form of a galaxy, and a daffodil is the universe in the form of a flower, and we are the universe in the form of a human. And so every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself, because this is what humans uniquely do. With the emergence of self-reflective humans, we – the universe – have arrived at an evolutionary breakthrough of conscious compassion: compassion, not just for our own offspring, but for all beings. Our human destiny as earth inhabitants, then, is to be/become the heart of the universe that embraces the whole of the earth community. We may be just a speck in the vast universe, but we are beings with the capacity to feel comprehensive compassion in the midst of an ocean of intimacy. This, for me, is the beginnings of a framework and direction of our becoming more fully human: our everyman’s spirituality.

The word ‘spirituality’ brings up a somewhat recent phenomenon which is that a growing number of people nowadays identify as ‘spiritual but not religious.’ For many this is the result of negative personal experience with the tradition of their childhood, but, for others, it is more the result of a shift in the culture. Many of the more modern notions of spirituality developed in the 19th and 20th centuries through a combination of the growing influence of Asian religions and an increasing disconnect from religious institutions that sometimes reacted defensively to changes in society, including scientific findings and social movements. In the U.S. the Transcendentalists in the 19th century – specifically Ralph Waldo Emerson – emphasized an intuitive, experiential approach to life, inspired by European Romanticism. Other important influences included Rudolf Steiner, who was interested in developing a genuine Western spirituality, and exploring the ways that such a spirituality could transform practical institutions such as education, agriculture, and medicine. The Second World War clearly impacted people and caused them to question many old assumptions, including religious beliefs. The arrival of Asian religions in the form of meditation, yoga and other practices pushed people increasingly toward a subjective experience focus and away from the more traditional approaches of converting or redirecting oneself toward a prescribed – even revealed – path. A new discourse developed, in which (humanistic) psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions were blended, to reach a ‘true self’ by self-disclosure, free expression and meditation. The distinction between ‘spiritual and religious’ became more common in the popular mind during the late 20th century with the rise of legal buy viagra online usa and the advent of the New Age movement. The term “spiritual” is now frequently used in contexts in which the term “religious” was formerly employed, though both theists and atheists have criticized this development. Finally, modern systems of spirituality may (or may not) include a belief in a supernatural (beyond the known and observable) realm, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaning, religious experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension.”

All of this reflects the process-for-living aspect of spirituality. So, what does the science-expanded framework – the cosmic story – mean for our everyday lives? What are helpful practices for cultivating the ‘something greater’ that we sense within and beyond our immediate interactions with everyday life so that this can shape the way we think and live. I’m doing some research into what is being called ‘the science of happiness’, and will share my findings as we go down this road together. Suffice to say here that, already, it becomes clear that a sense of meaning (and purpose) is a critical aspect of happiness or well-being.

So maybe, here is a place to pause. Let me summarize by saying that I think spirituality is an essential aspect of the human process that expands the context – the infinite spaces – we live in and that we all apparently intuit. Unfortunately, the traditional guides of this essential aspect – the religious institutions – have lost credibility for many of us, so many have turned to other resources. This is clearly good, but I think it would be important not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, but rather to reclaim the treasures of our traditions that reflect the efforts of our ancestors to address the same existential questions that we still face today.

And, by way of underlining the importance of this spiritual resurgence, let’s keep in mind the very real challenges we face in today’s world. David Brooks, the NY Times columnist wrote this week:

Conscious reason can get you only so far when tribal emotions have been aroused, when existential fears rain down, when narcissistic impulses have been given free rein, when spiritual longings have nowhere healthy to go, when social trust has been devastated, when all the unconscious networks that make up 99 percent of our thinking are aflame and disordered…

‘When spiritual longings have nowhere healthy to go…’!! But I’ll leave the last word to my friend Rilke who always seems to get the picture:

Once again let it be your morning, gods.
We keep repeating.  You alone are source.
With you the world arises, and your dawn
gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure.

As we know, it usually takes a kind of ‘cosmic nudge’ to get us going. Or, as a colleague of mine used to say, ‘when you’re sick of your sickness, then you’ll start to get well.’ Maybe that’s where we are….

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‘God is dead’ means that the basic questions of life are no longer already answered, and the result is that we now have to answer them ourselves. For Neitzsche – author of the famous statement – this was freedom; for others – like Dostoyevsky – this was emptiness: ‘If there is no God,’ he said, ‘then everything is permitted.’ Dostoyevsky’s statement is a reflection on our world today where a sense of emptiness is eased by distractions – drugs of all kinds – and only occasionally disrupted by tragedies that remind us of what’s truly important. But we patch these disruptions as well as we can in order to revert to the continuing sense of emptiness. For some – increasing numbers – the drugs simply take over.

The deeper, underlying reason for this painful situation is that we have lost the capacity to construct meaning out of our experiences in order to live life with some peace and joy, and so we turn to addictions of all kinds to find relief from our pain. Gabor Mate, a renowned expert on addiction, says the question is not why addiction but why the pain that demands relief. In the case of drug-addicts, he continues, the reason is that the receptors in the brain that enable us to develop a relationship with our world, to make sense of life in other words – like the dopamine that enables motivation, and the endorphins that enable attachment – did not develop in their childhood because they did not have the essential nurturing support. Instead they experienced hurt, abuse or abandonment and the trauma – the cell-based memories – that continues to impact and hinder development. We judge addicts, he says, because they are mirrors of ourselves; because we know this is what is happening more and more to all of us: namely that we are losing our capacity to relate to our environment and depending more and more on things that bring immediate but temporary relief. The opioid crisis in this country is a glaring example.

I am working as a consultant with a program that treats addicted mothers, a daunting challenge for me, and a sometimes overwhelming challenge for those more directly involved in the program. But even more challenging is what I have learned about the – unexpected – profile of the typical addicted mother: average age of 35, with 3 children and expecting a 4th, from a white, Catholic, middle class, suburban background. Surprised? What this says to me is that the abuse and abandonment and the trauma that has always been the lot of the poor, is now spreading. Heroin abuse now ranks with cancer as one of the top health problems in the USA today.

Mate’s statement that the real question is not why the addiction but why the pain suggests that the trauma that hampers the brain development which enables us to make meaning and live with some measure of peace and happiness has increased. The parenting-supportive sector of our society – by which I mean the leadership and the various institutions that serve our needs – is no longer able to guide its children in this essential human process because it does not have the capacity itself. It no longer knows how to live in the world in a creative, meaningful way.

Harvard philosopher, Sean D. Kelly in his book, All Things Shining, offers a helpful outline of the western history that brought us to this place: our earliest stages of participating with life – the ancient (Homeric) Greek sense of wonder and gratitude for the many, ever-present gods (reflected also in the many primary traditions throughout the world); the later, classical Greek sense of a distant supreme, universal Being; the Hebrew God who was directly involved with people and their lives; the Jesus way of love; the attempts to marry the Christian way with the Greek supreme Being that emphasized law and human choice; the Reformation attempts to reclaim the giftedness of life and salvation; the insistent Enlightenment focus on the individual and self-sufficiency that inevitably resulted in Kant’s autonomous self, Neitzsche’s free spirit who makes up whatever meaning he likes, and Sartre’s existentialism that places the entire responsibility for one’s existence on our own shoulders. Kelly describes the modern novelist’s – like David Foster Wallace – American mood where a sense of wonder has simply gone, leaving only emptiness and increasing despair in its place.

Addressing the pain means rediscovering the wonder that is already all around us, if only we were able to pay attention to it; to the joy that is hidden from us because of our attempts to look past it and find something deeper, something we can control. Kelly uses Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby Dick as a metaphor for an approach to life like this that will ultimately drive us crazy. He quotes WB Yeats in a statement he made only weeks before he died: ‘Man can embody the truth, but he cannot know it.’

Clearly, this pursuit of truth and control is understandable, but it is misguided and clearly destructive. So, how can we live in a way that responds to an intuition that there is an ultimate truth behind everything that is, but that works with the fact that this truth is something to be lived with – ‘embodied’, as Yeats said – but not ever known, and certainly not controlled? We, all of us, sense that this is actually the case, for our deepest experiences have always included a sense of givenness, and of something beyond us. It is what all the great athletes say when they have done something amazing: ‘It just happened…something was working through me…’ It is what lovers say when they are grasped by the mysterious purposes of the universe: ‘This thing is bigger than both us, Honey…’!!! It is what every inventor, discoverer, creator, artist proclaims: ‘Things simply came together…’ It is the experience all of us have had a football or baseball game when we were carried on the wave of the crowd after witnessing the grace of an individual or the magic of a team..’ The same kind of experience happens in a concert hall or in a cathedral; sometimes around a family table…

Kelly offers the concept – and practice – of poiesis as the way of appropriating and developing our receptivity to these powerful energies of life that would surely infuse us with hope and meaning in ways that would enable us to reconfigure our worlds; that would remove the pain that is the cause of our addicitons. Poiesis is defined as an activity that produces or leads (a thing) into being. It consists of an approach to life that reflects the ancient experiences of the wonder-inducing gods but also the modern sense that we can develop skills that enable us to participate in this wonder-making. These are the skills of a craftsman who learns over years of practice to discern subtleties in the substance and form of his work: in the soil, the wood, the stone; in the growing, the carving, the building. The craftsman comes to realize that he does not generate meaning but discerns the meanings that are already there. These are also the skills of the athlete and the artist who simply take the craft to another level. But they are also the skills of us ordinary mortals who can learn to discern in this way through intelligent observation, and profound connection, and deep understanding, and perceptive appreciation of differences, and ever-surprising discovery of new things. For me they are the skills of dialogue, as I have described them in other writings where I have defined dialogue as ‘participating in the emergence of meaning.’

Kelly reminds us of today’s forms of the monomaniacal – Ahab-like – pursuit of control that get in the way of this dialogic way of living: the soul-less machine, which with our developing technology, is taking away more and more of our poiesis-relationship with things by removing the need for skill, and thereby the possibility of meaning. Learning a skill is learning to see the world differently. Technology, by taking away the need for skill – Kelly refers to our dependence on GPS for finding our way though we all could add multiple examples – takes away our understanding of ourselves as cultivators of meaning.

The gods are calling us again, Kelly concludes. Perhaps, more accurately they have always been doing so: it’s simply that we have forgotten how to listen. Which is why it feels that God is dead. Now is the time to develop the skills for responding to their manifold manifestations that still linger at the margins of our disenchanted world. What Kelly calls a contemporary polytheistic world will be a wonderful world of shining things. I’m reminded – of course – of a poem by the ever-prescient Rilke:

Now it is time that gods come walking out
of lived-in Things. . . .
Time that they came and knocked down every wall
inside my house.  New page.  Only the wind
from such a turning could be strong enough
to toss the air as a shovel tosses dirt:
a fresh-turned field of breath.  O gods, gods!
who used to come so often and are are still
asleep in the Things around us, who serenely
rise and at wells that we can only guess at
splash icy water on your necks and faces,
and slightly add your restedness to what seems
already filled to bursting: our full lives.
Once again let it be your morning, gods.
We keep repeating.  You alone are source.
With you the world arises, and your dawn
gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure.

I am encouraged in particular by the final lines: ‘With you the world arises, and a new dawn gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure.’ Maybe this is the place to begin.

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Hope and dying are related. Dying is a daily – moment-to-moment – letting go. It is like breathing out. Dying means constantly letting go of the energy that diffuses over a lifetime, but also of the illusions and judgments we create and the false identity they produce. Dying is what enables us to work with the life process that some call God, for it is by letting go of the illusions we live by that we come to know our true identity as united with life and God. We experience this deeper order of things as beauty, goodness, truth, and peace. It is what some call enlightenment or salvation.

Working with life in this way is a continuous emptying and uniting process where we occasionally glimpse the radiance that awaits us as the Welsh poet, RS Thomas writes in ‘The Bright Field’:

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the

pearl of great price, the one field that had

treasure in it. I realize now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

It is this experience of brightness, these glimpses of eternity that are the foundation of real hope. This brightness requires that I give away all that I have in order to possess it. ‘Giving away all’ refers to dying in any moment, as well as the final letting go of this life, in order to live more truly.

I saw this brightness, recently, in a friend, a short time before he died after many years of struggle – and letting go. As he sat across from me at the table in our home he seemed almost translucent. Someone described this afterwards as a radiance: as if he had let go – given all that he had – and been taken (embraced, perhaps) by the eternity that is the ultimate reality that awaits us all. His radiance helped me to realize that ‘awaiting’ refers not simply to an after-life but to the radiance that is within every moment.

This letting go is not resisting, refusing or rejecting life, rather it is embracing it more fully, but without clinging. It is allowing it to pass through us, as it were, the way the breath of life passes through us, enlivening us for a moment (eternity, in the true sense) and then passing on. Were we to cling to it, it would kill us.

This is the process of Life/God who simply breathes out and creates all things that breathe in to give form to Life/God for an eternal moment, and then breathe out to let it continue on its way of realization. This is the mystery of God-becoming: an unfolding universe, an evolving world. Trinity is the Christian symbol of this life process of giving (Creator), receiving (Created), and returning (participating by letting go).

It is a process that is natural to all living beings and all forms of life that spontaneously receive and return: breathe in and breathe out; are born and die. The challenge is the impulse of life-forms to cling to the life they receive. This impulse, which is part of the natural selection process, is directed toward genetic proliferation: the survival of the species. In the normal course of things this natural selection process defers to higher levels of life where stronger forms prevails: what we call evolution. The same impulse applies to us self-reflective species, in whom an increasing conscious-awareness also struggles with the call to let go and die, and to defer to higher levels of being and living. Natural selection in our case uses feelings and thinking to create the illusion of specialness – separation, superiority, etc. – in order to promote its purpose of genetic proliferation. In an increasingly complex world, this illusion is maintained even at the cost, not only of other species and forms of life, but ultimately, at the cost of our own.

But this illusion of separateness and superiority, according to the Buddhist tradition, is the source of all suffering, our own and others. So our real work – our essential purpose as human beings – is to remove this illusion and thereby see who we are and what is really happening. As William Blake once said:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

This work was reflected in my friend’s difficult dying – letting go – process that revealed a deeper radiance: the eternity that awaits us all, as the poet says. It is symbolized in the iconic figures of our traditions – Jesus, Buddha – who let go essentially and ultimately, thereby, live eternally. Resurrection and Enlightenment are attempts to describe this evolutionary process.

And this is where true hope lies. We’ve all known it in the deep longing that we experience at least occasionally in our lives, in moments when life breaks in, in spite of our clinging illusions: those times when we find ourselves saying, ‘now I know what’s important..’ or ‘…from now on…’ These are cosmic nudges that give us glimpses that are the foundation of an intuition-based hope of a deeper reality, an invisible order where ‘all shall be well,’ as the mystic Juliana of Norwich described it.

This hope is not an easy (or even simply a difficult) optimism but a dimension of the soul, as Vaclav Havel (the playwright President of the Czech Republic) once said. He added that it is a hope based not on the possibility of success, as we know it, but anchored somewhere beyond this world. This hope gives us the ability to work with the challenges of life simply because it is good and right to do so.

A growing awareness of the illusions – the products of natural selection – that shape our feeling and thinking and promote our sense of superiority and separation, tempers this hope:

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing 
(TS Eliot)

But a growing awareness also expands this hope into a participation with life that embraces everything.

This season of light in the face of darkness is a profound symbol of hope. But it is also a time for cultivating this hope through awareness-sharpening practices like fasting and light-generating rituals like the Solstice fire.

These practices and rituals reflect the journey from a childhood – spontaneous – Christmas with its Santa Claus possibilities to an adult – deliberate – Christmas that fosters true wonder that comes from letting go of the illusions that hold us bound. Patrick Kavanagh’s poem about Advent captures the process:

We have tested and tasted too much, lover -
 Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
 But here in the Advent-darkened room
 Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
 Of penance will charm back the luxury
 Of a child's soul…

The lights – on the tree, on the wreath, around the fireplace, decorating the walls – reflect this childlike en-lightenment in the darkness that will continue until….

I leave the last word on this to TS Eliot and his story of the Maji who came to honor the child-king of a new era, only to discover – or be reminded – that the process of hope is a continuous dying:

I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

 

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When he died in 2009, four of us who had studied with Thomas, formed the Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue as our way of contributing to this great work. One way we do this is by convening conferences that explore Berry’s vision in the context of the various aspects of human life. A recent such gathering, called ‘Hope and Healing in the Anthropocene,’ addressed formal healthcare as well as healing in a more general sense.

Anthropos is the Greek word for ‘human,’ so the ‘anthropocene’ is understood as ‘relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.’ The challenges that this period presents to all of us is clearly impacting health on many levels from individual stress to declining populations of pollinators.

We began the conference by laying out our desired outcomes for the gathering that included an understanding of what is really going on beneath all the rhetoric around climate change and its impacts. Bro. Kevin Cawley – the Executive Director of the Berry Forum – set the scene by quoting from the powerful Encyclical (Laudato Si) of Pope Francis who remains one of the few world leaders to offer direction on this unprecedented challenge:

‘…the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development (13).

Berry Forum co-founder, Dr. Brian Brown, showed how Thomas Berry’s vision is at the heart of any true response:

‘The glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth and now the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. From here on, the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually-enhancing human/Earth relationship.’

Sr. Kathleen Deignan – co-founder number three – pointed to the kind of resources that we have in our various religious and philosophical traditions, while co-founder number four – myself – spoke of the essential importance of coming together to form ‘communities of possibility’ in order to take on this amazing task of reinventing the human.

The keynote speaker, Professor Mary Beth Morrissey, a phenomenologist who has explored the phenomenon of suffering, described our present situation of fragmentation, polarization, confusion, chaos and violence, as caused by the loss of the maternal ground that enables us to live in the face of the mystery of existence. In other words, we suffer because we no longer feel connected to the world we live in or to each other. Instead we feel a loss of home which makes our crisis an ecological one in the deepest sense (Eco or oikos means ‘home’). The only real resolution of this challenge then lies in remembering our maternal roots and returning to a sense of home. Elements of this response include fostering experiences of interconnectedness through holding (nurturing) environments, characterized by empathic listening, that enable us to access our indigenous (in the sense of innate) wisdom. Implied is a new way of being together that will enable us to thrive as well as survive: to ‘flourish’ in the sense that Aristotle gave to the word of doing and living well.

Professor Morrissey clearly reflected the vision of Thomas Berry, adding to it the reality – the phenomenon – of suffering that is involved now in the collapse of an old order and in the emergence of a new one. The other speakers took up the task of reflecting on what this – being together in a new way – entails.

Dr. Orla Cashman spoke of the power of connection for shifting the sometimes overwhelming energy of anxiety and enabling us to find balance, inside and out. She led us in an exercise of listening to our bodies – to the stress and anxiety we feel and the thoughts they engender – and then to take a ‘flash inventory.’ She then asked us how we felt which, of course, was nervous, enervated, depressed, etc. She continued by inviting us to find a stranger and to share with them something we are anxious about. When we had finished this exchange she asked us once again to take a quick inventory of our feelings and thoughts. This time, the responses were positive: like curious, excited….

What had caused the change she asked? People suggested things like: getting out of my head; being listened to; being vulnerable. Concerning the latter, someone spoke of tears, and how her partner’s crying had caused – or allowed – her to cry. Another added that there was actually power in the vulnerability.

Orla noted how the energy in the room had shifted from tense to relaxed, and from low to high energy – even joy. It was as if, she added, oxytocin – the so-called ‘love hormone’ – had been released in us. Connecting to another actually enables me to connect to my own deep wisdom and the power it brings. The heart of addressing anxiety and panic, which emerge from the uncertainty (angst) of the vast unknown (pan), is connecting: with others, with the world, and essentially (through these) with oneself.

Professor Diane Abatemarco who spoke about her work with addiction, specifically addicted mothers, at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia, pointed to mindfulness as her core tool for helping the mothers rediscover what Professor Morrissey had earlier called their ‘lost maternal ground.’ Addiction to opioids is now the biggest killer in the country, Diane began, while, among mothers, addiction of this nature has increased 500% within a couple of decades. She reflected on how this has happened: how, after the booming economy of the 50s and 60s and the development of the various elements of a strong safety net for the vulnerable, deregulation and the myth of trickledown economics, initiated by Ronald Reagan, caused the economy to shrink in the 70s and 80s and undid the social safety net that had taken years to establish. The result was an increase in alcohol and drugs among young parents that resulted in increased neglect of and trauma for the children who are the adults – and addicted mothers – of today.

Diane’s program – Maternal Addiction Treatment Education and Research (MATER) – focuses on Mindfulness as its essential approach, with the methadone that assists withdrawal from the addiction, seen as a support rather than a solution. She noted that Mindfulness allows the mothers to access their executive function and the choices it enables in order to counter the limbic – ‘fight or flight’ – response that otherwise drives their actions. She spoke of how many of the women who went through the intensive 30 day program spoke of rediscovering their lost capacity to mother from the mindfulness-inspired experience of the maternal ground that underpins all life. They felt a sense of coming back home where they could find themselves and access their innate mothering wisdom.

The conversation that followed touched on how addiction of all kinds is part of our (lack of) response to the enormous challenges that the Anthropocene has brought us. Mindfulness is a critical component of accessing the capacity to address these challenges in a way that can get to the heart of the matter as Berry describes it.

Other speakers described how people were doing this in real life concrete situations: for example, with ‘small acts of kindness’ in places that range from Fukushima, where a Tsunami caused a nuclear accident whose proportions are only partly appreciated, to local communities in this country where citizens are participating in programs like the Zero Waste products we used for our conference lunch.

Dr. Karen Killeen described what she called ‘resilience tools’ that can help us find internal balance by awakening ‘the intentional field’ and the ‘energy of centration’ that Teilhard deChardin described in terms of ‘love.’ Dr. Killeen spoke of this period – the Anthropocene – as a transition space when the veil between worlds (or dimensions) is thinner making it easier to access this energy. As the English playwright wrote:

Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to face us everywhere,

Never to leave us till we take

The longest stride of soul we ever took.

Dr. Vin Maher added what he called ‘modern beatitudes’ that we need to regulate and direct our actions in this complicated period of our journey.

In Berry’s words, the tools for doing the Great Work of reinventing the human are story and shared dream experience. He is referring to the story of the universe that provides the framework and foundation for our lives, and the energies of the universe that empower us to dream new possibilities together. In other words, we can only address the challenges of our ‘anthropocene’ epoch by orienting ourselves within the coherence of the Universe Story. While this seems a daunting mission to say the least, the longer I live and the more I experience the effects of our present human systems and institutions, the more it becomes clear that this indeed is the only way forward.

Throughout the conference, which was truly a conversation, we used music and poetry and art, and silence and mindfulness to help us experience what we were discussing. We finished our sharing in this fashion with a ritual of anointing each other for the work we must undertake for ourselves and for our children.

I had used a poem by Rilke as a kind of thread for weaving our words and experiences together throughout the day.

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.

I want to free what waits within me

so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear

without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God forgive me,

but this is what I need to say.

May what I do flow from me like a river,

no forcing and no holding back,

the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,

these deepening tides moving out, returning.

I will sing you as no one ever has,

streaming through widening channels

into the open sea.

This, I suggested, is the spirit we need to bring to our efforts: the realization that we have what we need to survive and thrive, if we could get out of our own way and become more like the creative children we are at our best. Then we can move through this present transition in a way that allows us to be more alive, more human, more beautiful expressions of the One whose children we all are.

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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.