Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent Meditations

Sunday, November 27: The First Sunday of Advent

Today begins a season of daily meditations based on the little book recommended by Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, Always We Begin Again, by John McQuiston II. In his introduction, the author briefly relates his discovery of the Rule of St. Benedict, and how he came to take a sixth century rule for monastic life and put it in contemporary language for ordinary people in the twenty-first century world.

As we begin Advent, ponder how it is that when we are sometimes unconnected from the world of religious language and ceremony, something will fall onto our path that blows our minds, totally altering the way we see our lives and the world we live them in.

What happened to McQuiston is not terribly different from what happened to a friend of mine, nor what happened to me. In the mid 1980’s I was searching for a way to spend a sabbatical. I talked with a person who put me in touch with a woman who lived in a neighboring State. When I contacted the woman, she told me the story of how one day, hunting for antique china, she happened upon a bookstore. After it fell from its shelf onto the floor three times in a row, she picked it up and opened it. It was The Rule of St. Benedict. It led her to discover Benedictine spirituality. I later joined her and about two dozen others for several weeks at Canterbury Cathedral participating in one of the first Benedictine Experiences sponsored by the Canterbury Cathedral Trust.

Sometimes the moment must be right. Ironically, I kept Always We Begin Again by my bedside for upwards of ten years. Only now that our new bishop has encouraged us to do so am I taking it and reading it, more than simply looking at it. The time is ripe. That is not a bad image of Advent. Open and read. Open and ponder. The Reign of God is at hand.

Monday, November 28: Feast of Kamehameha and Emma, King and Queen of Hawaii, 1864, 1885

The First Rule

The meaning of life cannot be learned, says Benedict. To think otherwise is a delusion. The meaning of life can only be discovered by living faithfully a life which transcends understanding.

Wow! That calls into question some of my most cherished assumptions.

“The first rule is simply this:

“Live this life
And do whatever is done,
In a spirit of Thanksgiving.

“Abandon attempts to achieve security,
They are futile,

“Give up the search for wealth,
It is demeaning.

“Quit the search for salvation,
It is selfish,

“And come to comfortable rest
In the certainty that those who
Participate in this life
With an attitude of Thanksgiving
Will receive its full promise.”

Tuesday, November 29

Each Day

Resolve on waking each day to treat each hour “as the rarest of gifts.” I am not what some call “a morning person.” I am becoming more of one as I get older; but for years I have done well to drag myself from bed and begin the day with mindless teeth brushing. To begin again living consciously, mindful that every day is a gift to be enjoyed, not a to-do list to be completed, is a radical change.

Every day is shot through with eternity, if only I can stop to hear it. Every day is a portal of the divine, if only I peer through it. Every day is a coming of the Reign of God into the present. Can I, shall I, be present to the One who comes?

Wednesday, November 30: Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle

Paramount Goals

To live fully is to embrace life thoroughly. There is nothing to fear in life, nothing to fear in death. Whatever comes we can greet gently and firmly.

Andrew was the first one that Jesus called. The first thing he did was to find his brother Peter to introduced him to Jesus. Practically every picture of Andrew in the gospels shows him bringing others to Christ. I need an Andrew, a messenger or a message, to turn me towards the Truth and walk me to it.

The Truth is that I need training. I need to practice turning my heart to Grace. I need to cut loose from the fears and desires that often drive me, centering instead on the deepest Truth of the universe, which is God, and on the deepest Truth of my Self, which is non-self, which is God. Here I am, old as I am, and I am like a kid. I have to begin again each day. I have to be born all over again.

What sustains me is the knowledge that if I simply let myself be brought to Christ, he who is Truth itself will make me free to be the person I am created to be.

Thursday, December 1: Feast of Charles de Foucauld, Hermit and Martyr in the Sahara, 1916

Good Works

Do good. For whatever good you do, you do not just for those for whom you do it, but for the life you thereby give yourself.

There are many things in my life I could regret, were I one to make regret a habit. But of one thing I am confident: never have I regretted, nor shall I regret, a good deed. Even when I have discovered that the one who sought my helped actually ripped me off, I would rather have erred on the side of generosity than on the side of meanness.

Good works are good even if the motive behind them is less than pure. For no motive we can conceive is ever totally altruistic. When we are conscious as best we can be, we can decide to do good without seeking a reward for doing so—not recognition, not thanks, not some pat on the back by a God made in our image waiting to congratulate us for making it into heaven. Goodness is its own reward.

Friday, December 2: Feast of Channing Moore Williams, Missionary Bishop in China and Japan, 1910

Teaching and Learning

We spend millions and billions of dollars in this country improving education, or so we think. So we hope. But ask nearly anyone to tell about a favorite teacher and chances are you will hear a tale about a man or woman who demanded excellence, who was fair, who cared about the student, and whose example inspired others to learn. We learn because of the relationship we have with whoever teaches us. We learn because someone asks more of us than we are aware we have. All the techniques and tests and standards in the world are no substitute for a relationship of trust and respect.

The things I have learned best are the things I have had to struggle with. The greatest learning experiences I have had thrust me into that awful place of confusion and frustration. And the very best learning experiences I have had are those in which I was tempted to give up somewhere about mid-way.

Teach by example. Learn by emulation. That is the way the disciple grows.

Saturday, December 3: Feast of Francis Xavier, Missionary to the Far East, 1552


In his book Building the Bridge as You Walk On It: A Guide For Leading Change, Robert E. Quinn contrasts “the normal state” with “the fundamental state of leadership.” In my normal state, I am ego-driven, putting my interests ahead of the collective interests of my community. I tend to stay in my comfort zone, running no risks. I tend to define myself by how I think others see me. I usually seek comfort, which means that I stay in a reactive state, solving problems as they come along.

But I can move to the fundamental state of leadership, which comes not by my being elected or appointed a leader, but by my decision to accept my own creativity. Instead of fighting change, I begin asking what change I can create. I begin putting others’ welfare above my own, as I nurture trust in my networks of relationships. I move outside my comfort zone, seeking honest feedback, growth, and competence. I continually confront myself with my own hypocrisy, the gap between what I say I believe and what I actually do. And I pursue my life with confidence and a sense of purpose.

Is it possible for anyone to live in the fundamental state of leadership? Let’s hope so! Because another name which we could give it would be “living in the Spirit.” We could call it “walking by the Spirit,” a term St. Paul uses.

The irony in following Christ is that we become “leaders.” We move into that state of leadership which he embodies and exemplifies.

Lead without fear.

Monday, December 5: Feast of Clement of Alexandria, Priest, c. 210

Right Relationship

My whole practice of Christian living changed when I learned that the “righteousness” of which the Bible frequently speaks is not a kind of moral goodness, let alone purity, still less an unquestionable ethical rectitude. By “righteousness,” Scripture means right relationships. It is when those relationships are out of whack that the purposes of God are at risk. When, for example, I take on the role of God, I arrogate to myself responsibilities and privileges that do not belong to me. The same is true if I exploit others weaker or more vulnerable than I.

Our understanding of right relationships changes over time, and that is appropriate. There was a day when parents were assumed to be all-powerful over their children. We have come to understand that there are appropriate limits to parental power. Likewise in former ages people believed that the rich and the powerful had prima facie the blessing of God, and that those socially subordinate to them properly bent to their control. No longer do we believe that.

Preserving or restoring proper balance in relationships is what the work of the reign of God actually involves. We continue to goof it up, by such things as having too exalted a notion of our own importance, or too debased an idea of our own worth. The work of the spirit enables us always to begin again the task of bringing our relationships into balance.

Tuesday, December 6: Feast of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, c. 342


Obedience comes from the Latin audire, meaning “to hear.” To obey is truly to hear, and to respond accordingly. It is no accident that Christian thought produced a powerful metaphor when thinking began to imagine Christ as “the Word.” It was not a new concept, but the notion took on new life when applied to Jesus. Word of the Father, in flesh appearing, announces that the Reign of God is at hand. It was then, and is now, at hand: the infinite wooing the finite, the divine penetrating the human, the eternal breaking into time. And the Word must be heard that his Way may be followed.
On one of Christianity’s most popular feast days, it is worth remembering that we know practically nothing about Nicholas, except that he was persecuted. If legends count for anything, he had a reputation for being particularly giving and especially good with children and seafarers. We can be reasonably sure that behind the reputation for saintliness lies the life of one who in his own way heard, obeyed, and followed his Lord. That he is remembered at all is not the point, nor would it be for you or me. All any disciple can do is to hear the call, obey the summons, and join him on his Way. Like Nicholas or those other disciples in the gospels, we drop our nets—our agendas, our plans—and follow.

He never takes our lives from us that he does not give them back again, whole and free.

Wednesday, December 7: Feast of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 397


I once lived by myself for a month. During that time I wrote, I prayed the daily office, I had a minimum of human contact, I called and talked on the phone with my family regularly. But as I recall it, I never experienced silence. I don’t know that I ever have been silent. My “monkey mind” continually chatters inside my head, thinking this and that and the other, jumping from subject to subject, rehearsing speeches it will make when given the chance, re-running conversations that I have had or wish I had had.

Right now I feel the pull of the Silence of the night, the quiet of the inner processes of my cells and tissues, the white of the page beneath these words, the spaces that support the weight of the things in the room around me. I need to listen.

No more words now.

Thursday, December 8: Feast of Richard Baxter, Pastor and Writer, 1691


“The way to affiliation with the sublime is not to add, but is to take away more each day until we have been freed, even for desire for perfection.”

I hear that and it evokes from me a sigh of relief. I do not have to add things, activities, resolutions, prayers, projects, in order to be right with God.

I hear that again and I get a little nervous. What about the people, the things I care about? What about the fight for justice and equality? Does that count for nothing?
I hear it a third time and smile. Humility is not being different from me. Humility is simply being myself. Not being myself defined by my ego, nor presented by my various personas, nor given over to my indulgences, nor eager and zealous about my spiritual state, nor fretful about politics or economy, nor second-guessing myself because I am too happy about this or not happy enough about that.


Shed, one attitude at a time, till having left old skin behind, I am simply the person of earth that I began by being and will end in being. A person of the earth, of humus, humble.


Friday, December 9

The Twelve Stages of Humility: 1

Keep consciousness alive. It is sacred. So is the time in which it exists and the space in which it lives.

There is a tremendous reluctance on the part of human beings to become a conscious species. We prefer to amble through life, repeating mindlessly the myths that others have spun, substituting things for relationships, developing armor to shield ourselves from our feelings. Those are not bad things necessarily; they are just the signs of massive unconsciousness.

Pay attention. Notice what is going on around you. Listen to your own heart. Do not judge. Just listen.

When are listening to things close at hand, including our own souls, we are practicing the humility that allows us to pay attention to others.

Saturday, December 10: Feast of Karl Barth, Pastor and Theologian; Feast of Thomas Merton, Contemplative and Writer, 1968

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 2

Distrust your own will.

Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, one a great Reformed theologian and the other a Roman Catholic monk, died on the same day in 1968. From Barth, who shaped much of the debate that dominated twentieth century theology, I have a story. Towards the end of his life someone is said to have asked him if he could sum us his rather vast theology in one sentence. He replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” From Merton, I have a prayer, a part of which is this: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so…”

It is clear to me that my desires keep me whipped into a state of excitement all the time. I do not mean just the desire for food or drink or sex. I mean the desire to be accepted, the desire to be effective, the desire to make some difference in other’s lives. Even this writing comes out of a desire to do something useful, a not insignificant part of my being.

And the fact that I think that I am following God’s will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

Notice what you crave. Do not judge; simply notice. Be aware that the second stage of humility is not to have no will, but to be very skeptical of your will. For chances are it arises from a clot of desire that might have nothing to do with the person you were created to be and are aching down deep to become.

Sunday, December 11: The Third Sunday of Advent

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 3

Accept our limitations.

The oldest characteristic of human beings, once we became a conscious species—if you can call us that—is the desire to be immortal. Most of our mythologies include a dimension, if indeed they do not center, on the obsession of human beings with immortality. Indeed many people today, Christian and non-Christian alike, assume that the whole thrust of Christian religion is to get the individual believer into heaven at death.

Still we die. And not just in the end, but all along the way. We die a thousand deaths, from the loss of innocence to the loss of memory, from the death of embarrassment when some family secret is exposed to the loss of a home or a driver’s license in our tenth decade. Much that happens to us is nothing that we can control.

Why fight it? There are fights worth having, but the fight against mortality is not one of them.

Embrace the fact that you will not live forever. It has nothing to do with what comes after this life. It has everything to do with coming to terms with who you are in this life.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a creature.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 4

Be patient. Be thankful even for your injuries.

There is a fine line between embracing one’s hardships and being a masochist who seeks hardship for its own sake. A great many Christians take persecution in particular to be a sign of their own vindication, and thus are quick to don the robes of the victim, the persecuted, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

But there is something here not to be dismissed as neurotic or unreal. There are hard things that inevitably come our way, testing our mettle, causing us to question our motives, our abilities, our identities. Such things may teach us what we absolutely need to learn. While we are kicking and screaming at the fire whose flames lick and tear at our flesh, we might remember that absolutely nothing need be wasted. Everything, no matter how difficult, can be a means to bring us closer to God, and thus closer to the destiny that is ours to claim.

Richard Baxter, whom we commemorated last week, wrote a memorable line: “Take what he gives and praise him still through good or ill who ever lives.”

Tuesday, December 13: Feast of St. Lucy, Martyr, 304

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 5 and 6

Do not lie to yourself nor conceal your faults, but be ruthlessly honest.

Sounds good. The truth of the matter is that each of us lives by a story, one we tell ourselves about ourselves. Only rarely do we examine those stories, and more rarely still do we change them. One of my mantras is, “If you do not choose a story, a story will choose you.” Better make sure that the story we are telling is true.

My early childhood I lived in an alcoholic home where secrets were kept and bottles hidden. It took me years, on becoming an adult, to learn not to cover up mistakes or faults. Now and again I still encounter myself edging towards the needless lie (“I tried to call you;” “I was tied up in traffic”) which is nothing more than rearranging my façade to present a prettier persona to somebody else, who, if smart, will likely see through the lie immediately.

Confession is not bad news but good news. It is the practice of looking squarely at ourselves, neither exaggerating our faults nor minimizing them, taking stock of our lives, letting the light of Truth shine in all the dark corners, ready to own our defects, ready to make amends when possible and necessary, prepared to take a step towards becoming free and whole.

Wednesday, December 14: Feast of San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross), Mystic, 1591

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 7 and 8

Our most profound idea is the merest fantasy.

Well that’s disappointing. I don’t know that I have ever had profound ideas, but I have certainly loved some of the ideas that I have had. I remember when I was about 27, I spent a week in an inter-personal relationships lab. At that point in my life, ordained less than two years, I cared deeply about making an impact on the world. To be honest, I wanted to make a name for myself. The little boy who used to read the encyclopedia voraciously in the fourth and fifth grades wanted to be in it. The idea I loved was affirmation, recognition. Fame.

Our culture teaches us that certain things matter, and that a few things matter a whole lot. One is success. We spend much of our youth gearing up to be successful: building résumés, making connections, getting into the right schools, knowing the right people, getting the right job, networking the right nets to get the right career move or change. And all of it turns out to be empty, a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Ask nearly anyone who has made it to the top. They will tell you that it is not the top, but the very things you have right now, that make life rich and full: friends, relationships, opportunities to give, moments of quiet, maybe even time with God.

I have lived long enough now to see that a great many mediocre people made it into encyclopedias, as did a great many wicked people, and a great many unhappy people. Finding one’s true path generally involves tuning out the siren-songs wooing us with things like success, fame, security, and listening to the true guides who can help us hear the Word.

Who are your guides, and where are they leading you?

Thursday, December 15: Feast of Robert McDonald, Priest, 1913

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 9

Refrain from judgment.

Most of us understand “judge not that ye be not judged.” I am not so sure that we understand what it is not to judge in a more general, global sense. We are deeply trained to judge. This is hotter than that. That is softer than this. This is good, that is better, the other is better still. And so on. Some would argue that not only language, but the structures of the mind that produce language, are intrinsically tied to judging.

To move beyond judging is at the very least counter-intuitive, which is why so few people are able to do so. We find it very difficult to look at ourselves, let alone other people, and not think such things as, “I could do better. I could do more.” Nor is it inappropriate or unhelpful to be able to do that. Still the challenge for us is to be able to be present to something or someone, whether a part of ourselves or some other person or situation, not evaluating but simply being. It begins by practicing such actions as replacing “I caught myself thinking such and such,” with, “I noticed myself thinking such and such.” I thus can begin to observe, to ask questions, to pay attention, to let the organism that I am absorb data, take in information, without having to label everything with a value judgment.

Thus we begin to develop the strength necessary to be humble.

Do not fear that you will never be able to make a value judgment again! Judging is a faculty that we will hardly lose, so much a part of us it is. But training in humility requires exercising something besides judging.

One word for that something is openness.

Friday, December 16, 2011: Feast of Ralph Adams Cram, Richard Upjohn and John LaFarge, Architects, 1942, 1878; Artist, 1910

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 10-12

Never take pleasure in the shortcomings or misfortunes of another.

I would not think of laughing at someone else’s misfortune. Would I?

I cannot imagine or recall a time when I smiled with glee when someone I knew slipped and fell from grace, nor a moment when I licked my chops when a competitor or an enemy stumbled or took a loss. Well, not since childhood. Or maybe college.

But what I wouldn’t think of doing in the face of one of my friends, I find myself doing all the time when I see political figures whom I dislike suffering setbacks. I rejoice to see hypocrites exposed. I chortle when I hear demagogues make fools of themselves. And none of these things adds anything to humility.

What would happen if I practiced seeing my “enemies” as human beings with flaws? Could I do that and still oppose what seem to me to be clearly wrong-headed and anti-gospel positions? How would I go about that?

I am beginning to see how far from humility I am.

By daily pursuing the habit of humility I might be able to become more humble, more open, kinder.

I think am beginning to understand why grace is something without which I can’t do it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011: O Sapientia


Routine is good. Not all routines are good.

Most of us have routines, because generally we are creatures of habit. The question is whether your routines are good ones that serve you well.

St. Benedict saw the wisdom in having some structure in which to live daily life. His rule, which of course is the basis of McQuiston’s book Always We Begin Again, divided the waking hours into times for worship, times for study, and times for work. This threefold division has tremendously influenced Anglican spiritual life. We are at our best when we balance worship with study and work or Christian action. We are not so strong when one or more of these is given short shrift. The same is true for individual Christians.

I go through seasons. Some years ago when living through “The Benedictine Experience” at Canterbury Cathedral, I identified the fact that there are times when my rhythms seem naturally to resonate with discipline and other times when they don’t. Almost always in the fall, for example, I find myself getting organized. Frequently in the warmer months, I slack off. I have also learned that I cannot sustain but so many disciplines at once. I used to pile on the disciplines like so many layers of clothing until I would find myself bowed down by their weight and suffocating from too many resolutions bearing down upon me. I have learned to go lightly with the disciplines, and to strike a happy medium between routine and flexibility.

As we begin the last week of Advent (the days of which are called by the name of the “Great O” Antiphons sung on the Magnificat at Evening Prayer) it may be helpful to remember that the Wisdom (Sapientia) from on high that orders all things is the power that enables us to sort out soul-refreshing disciplines from soul-withering habits.

Sunday, December 18: The Fourth Sunday of Advent, O Adonai


The real issue of stewardship is nothing more and nothing less than the issue of how to be a (successful) living organism on this planet. It is the matter of how we relate to the world around us.

We have a choice between two options. Either we can possess, or we can share. If we choose to possess, we have at our disposal an entire physical and psychic system that has evolved to do exactly that: to get what it needs, but not to stop with that; to go beyond need to control. It can be argued that control itself is a need that we have developed. Perhaps. The point is, it comes naturally. We have only to observe other animals to see how natural it is.

The gospel introduces a second possibility—and by “gospel” I mean the Presence and work of the Spirit of God. That possibility to live in a way that recognizes our contingency, that sees everything in our lives as a gift. We own nothing, not even ourselves. That is the basis of a life of sharing. Not only might we share what we have with others, we can accept what they share with us. Sharing is more than largesse, either yours or someone else’s. It can also be a sort of common ownership wherein we take responsibility for the things we use (including public spaces, for example) as if they belonged to us with the proviso that we never be stingy or possessive.

Monday, December 19: O Radix Jesse; Feast of Lillian Thrasher, Missionary, 1961


Living life as if the pursuit of goods and recognition is its purpose destroys it.

Perhaps the clearest call of the gospel beckons us to give ourselves in humble service to those in need, sickness, or some other adversity. The woman whom we remember today is an example of what that means. Lillian Thrasher grew up in Georgia, heard the call of God as a young woman summoning her to a life of mission, and went to Egypt after she had read in her Bible, “I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send thee to Egypt.” Would that it were always so simple to discern the call! Lillian probably thought it was anything but simple. She began an orphanage without any steady aid until the Assemblies of God gave her some. Despite hardships, political turmoil, and war, she kept her orphanage running, caring for nearly 25,000 Egyptian children during the course of her life.

In our struggles for justice, it is worth remembering that, while systemic change is difficult and necessary, along the way there are many times that the best, and perhaps the only, thing that we can do is to give a cup of cold water to the thirsty in the Name of Christ.

Tuesday, December 20: O Clavis David


What might happen if every meal we ate consciously as if it were a eucharist?

A trait that runs in my family is grazing. My mother grazed, frequently stopping by the refrigerator or a cabinet to get a handful of something that she could eat. My older brother seemed to have insatiable cravings. I am no stranger to the habit of grazing. The only way I seem to be able to avoid it is to make a conscious decision—and a periodic re-decision—to be absolutely ruthless in not eating mindlessly.

It is possible to eat mindfully. There are some simple practices that can transform mealtime. Choose one meal a day to eat intentionally and consciously, focusing on the act of eating. Refuse to do anything else—no texting, no emailing, nothing that will interfere with eating mindfully. Eat at a table. Appreciate the appearance of the food (it helps to eat healthy food that actually looks good!). Focus on each mouthful, its flavor, texture, and the feel of chewing. Don’t rush. Chew well. Use cutlery, and put it down between mouthfuls. Talk and share with someone, concentrating on the experience of eating as opposed to things that distract from mindful eating. Go for small amounts eaten thoroughly.

Eating is one of the most important activities that any living being can do. Let it nurture the life we seek to be living.

Wednesday, December 21: Feast of St. Thomas, Apostle; O Oriens


The heart of worship is thanksgiving. It is not an accident that eucharist means thanksgiving. There are other things that worship typically includes: confession, adoration, supplication. But giving thanks is central.

We can go nowhere where God is not. We can do nothing that is outside God’s awareness. God is nearer to us than the air we breathe, more accessible than our very bodies. But these are mere words unless we are open to the Presence that permeates everything we are and do.

Worship is not a matter of forms or words so much as it is being tuned in to the sacredness of life.

The Great O antiphon for today is, “O Dayspring, Brightness of the Light Eternal, and Sun of Righteousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” Worship perennially invites the Dayspring from on high to come into our awareness (it is already around us and within us!) to enlighten our hearts and minds. There is no better way to invite the Light than to practice simply being thankful.

Thursday, December 22: O Rex Gentium


We are all guests in the world, and all equally present in time.

The most artificial distinction of all is the distinction between oneself and others. For practical purposes we make that distinction all the time. I am I; you are you; they are they. However practical that might be, it is indeed artificial, if not downright false. For we are all in this life together, part of one species, part of one history and part of one future. In perhaps his most frequently quoted lines, John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Thus there is a sense in which every guest that comes into my house or my church is no more a guest than I. We are all involved in the human experience, and thus bound to one another in ways that defy easy categories and simple analyses.

Standing at the heart of profound and eminently practical truth is that we simply must do unto others as we would have them do unto us. I treat a guest as I would wish to be treated myself. I accord honor and defer to a guest realizing that I am giving away nothing—nothing at all—for the guest is as much a part of me as my arm or my face.

That is why humility, on which topic St. Benedict dwelt so much, is essential to living in accordance with deep truth. Humility is recognizing that the ego-drawn boundary between me and the next fellow is totally useless, not to mention false and demeaning. It is precisely when we give ourselves away that we discover our selves in the faces and hearts of those to whom we give them.

Friday, December 23: O Emmanuel


Humans live in groups, and honesty and candor are essential both to the health of the community and the individuals in it.

What would happen if our public discourse took into account that we are all members of a single human community? Sometimes I walk by the Willard Hotel downtown and muse on the fact that in the Old Willard the term lobbyist was coined to name the persons who hung about the lobby waiting to buttonhole legislators for their own purposes. What took on a name (it certainly was not born then, in the Grant Administration) has now become an art form, or a science unto itself. Everyone has an interest—and the competing voices build to a cacophony that drowns out not only the weak but even the strong who refuse to use their strength to degrade others.

It is not a pretty image to paint these two days before the Church begins to sing of the Savior born unto us at Bethlehem, of him who is to come again in power and great glory to judge the world and to right all wrongs.

Something must change. And the change that must come is not one “out there,” but one that first must take root in your heart and mine. Indeed the phrase “Become the change you want to see” is wise. That change is a rebuilding of the human self. God, the Architect and Builder of the New Self and of the New Age, is also the Mother who gives to us New Birth. We must be born all over again, begotten from above, so to say. Instead of living to protect our interests, the New Birth brings us to live essentially for others. Instead of living to acquire things, security, status, we inch with birthpangs into a world of giving, risking, sacrificing.

And this New Birth is nothing less than Emmanuel’s being born in us. God with us, God for us, God in us: O come, O come, Emmanuel, and save us. Build out of our disparate desires your own beloved community. Be born in us today.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Beyond Good Luck

Thanksgiving Day may be our least corrupt holiday in the United States. It is hard to make giving thanks into much of a spectacle, as one can do with Halloween, Christmas, or even Easter. There is somewhere in the cracks of civil religion and its twin culture religion an allowance for thanksgiving as a worthy thing to do.

I am not sure what they do with Thanksgiving who do not have a god to thank. Perhaps it is sufficient simply to take note of one's good fortunes and to rejoice that one is lucky. But for those who have any semblance of belief in God, thanksgiving poses no problem. For even if our lives are clogged and pent with an abundance of misfortune, without much trouble we can find something somewhere that has come our way through no particular merit of our own, through no heroism or talent or ability that we have exercised, some little or big something for which we can take no credit. Instinctively we want to say something like, "Wow!" or maybe even "Thank God."

Thanksgiving began in a world of agriculture, an industry that few people in modern America engage in--certainly not in the sense of the cultures in which it arose. Harvest festivals, like planting, engendered rituals consisting of prayers, chants, dances, and other acts. When life depends upon good weather, rodent control, a minimum of mildew and rot, managing various pests, not to mention having enough to plant and not having to eat seeds instead of planting them, then it stands to reason that one might want to curry favor with the gods in charge of the universe to get some help in a daunting task. And when there is anything to harvest at all, much less an abundance, thanksgiving seems somehow too appropriate to have to explain.

Thanksgiving is not a situational activity, however, so much as it is a way of life. It is a state of mind and soul. One does not have to live on the margins of planet earth in order to be thankful--nor does one have to break records of good fortune in order to find a reason for Thanksgiving. Rather, the thankful heart is not preoccupied with counting blessings, but in noticing the benefit in all things. The thankful heart embraces not only good fortune but misfortune as well, knowing that even those things which cause us inconvenience or even grief can be the very agents of growth. The truly thankful heart accepts whatever comes as exactly what it needs.

Can one be thankful amidst suffering? Can we be thankful even when our souls are grieving or in pain? Can we be thankful even if, God forbid, we should be slowly starving to death or slipping out of this world sped along by deprivation or cruelty? You will never know the answer to that unless and until you get to the edge and find out there in the direst of straights you might ever imagine that you have it in you to give thanks even in those things and for those things. You do not want to go there and neither do I. But it is certain that in the most abject of circumstances one can find it possible to be thankful only if one has practiced being thankful over and over again. In hard times and in good, in depression as well as in joy, we can open our minds and hearts to the possibility that in the leanest of years there is something to sustain us; in the darkest night, there is some angel bearing us up until the dawn; in the strangest of countries, a companion who knows and charts our way; on the bleakest day, the gift of becoming.

To live like that is to live eucharistically, thankfully. It is to lift up our hearts to the Lord of Life, not measuring our blessings, but rejoicing in all things. Only the loss of such a God could ring the curtain down on thanksgiving. And the God whose hand is open wide to fill all creatures with plenteousness, is so lasting, so true, so sure, so dependable that you can actually believe God's promise: I will be their God and they will be my children and I myself will be with them.

Could we ask for more?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Right Here Beside Us

Calling up the Ancestors on All Saints

On a cool August morning with about eighty other people, I stood in front of a Buddhist shrine in a Colorado valley as a Native American drummed and chanted, calling up the ancestors to accompany us on a pilgrimage that would last for a week. We had gathered to explore the stories that bind us together for good or ill in the present world. I do not know much about my ancestors—specifically mine—who lived before the 19th century. I remember only two of my grandparents and none who came before them. My parents’ stories ran as far back as their grandparents, aunts and uncles, with an occasional anecdote preserved about Great-aunt Julia, because a piece or two of her jewelry came my family’s way when she died. But I knew a handful of names that I could call out loud and strong in the swelling tide of sound raised by that four-score people. We sounded like a chorus of great birds, a swarm of giant insects as we voiced our names that rolled out into the mist for a few seconds that seemed magnified and lengthened by the sheer power of the sound.

That was a very human moment. We were humans, not crows or bees or some other species. We were doing something that human beings alone among the creatures of earth do. With our memories we preserve stories from our past, and with our voices we tell them, passing on the information we need to survive. Along the way we have learned to sing, dance, paint, mime, act, carve, and write. Sometimes we look into the future and imagine what a new world might look like. But nearly always we tell stories and create scenes from our past. You can go the world over and find that what we were doing on that morning in Colorado is of a piece with what peoples everywhere do. We remember the dead. We honor them, sometimes even when we would think in sober moments that they did nothing to deserve honor. We set aside days and seasons to remember simple deeds that become more heroic as passing time gives them height and weight. They are important to us, because we generally have a sense that somehow they do not abandon us when they die. They hang around, unseen and usually silent. We imagine that what they learned they can teach us.

What we are doing on the Feast of All Saints is very like what that crowd of people was doing in Colorado. We have invoked the names of ancestors, some heroes and heroines in the faith, some even known for their opposition and challenge to the faith as they inherited it. We have called out names and placed on the ofrenda signs and tokens of people known mostly or only to ourselves. Not only have we thanked God for them; we have cried out for them to stand here beside us as we walk our journey.

As universal as is this habit of relating to the dead, not everyone does it nor does everyone approve of it. There are lots of reasons not to, if you are looking for one. First, aside from occasional ghosts and poltergeists, there is little evidence that the dead are anything other than dead and gone. Second, in a large swath of our rationalistic Western society, anything that doesn’t serve immediate materialistic goals is suspect if not disdained. Moreover, a host of abuses and not a little silliness has grown up over the years in lots of places when people have turned things like prayers for the dead into elaborate schemes for money making, encouraging a culture of superstition and ignorance. One could go on, but I don’t want to give you gratuitous reasons for spurning All Saints!

The deeper question, far more important than the issue of how human beings can take a good idea and make a mess of it, is why we have this need. What moves us to keep an annual feast for calling up the ancestors?

On the most basic level, we humans are conscious that we are who we are because of so much that so many have done before us. It is no accident that nearly all of our major stories and sagas and epics crystallize around the idea of a journey. We know we are going some place. And we realize on a very obvious level that we did not begin the journey. Others have brought us thus far. It does not take much for us to see, too, that each of us is a product of our parents who are products of their parents. If you are lucky enough to live to see two or three or four generations in your family, you can see before your very eyes how it is that not only physical characteristics are passed down from one generation to another, but how behavior has an uncanny way of replicating itself, too. I look into the mirror and am increasingly startled to see my father’s face looking back at me. I see a photograph of myself and can tell that my mother’s smile is the one I wear. Over my bed hangs a photograph of my great-grandparents and their large Victorian family, taken in 1902. In the center is my great-grandmother Burroughs, who died 19 years before I was born, yet whose expression I see when I catch a glimpse of my face in a shop window as I pass by, and whose eyebrow arch I frequently see my younger daughter bearing. I doubt that dolphins and dogs are aware of such things, but you and I are aware of them all the time.

But the Christian community knows a truth that is stronger, deeper still. We know that the whole story of the human race is a struggle of life against death. We know that the things that often masquerade as life-giving—like power and status and prestige and money—are often the very things that wring the life out of us. And we know that some things like crucifixions and martyrdoms and persecutions and bloodshed that look like things to be avoided at all costs are sometimes the very things that mock cruelty, that in a peculiar way advance the journey of the human race in giant leaps, and even sometimes set us free. We know that ultimately the dying we must undergo is nothing to fear because nothing in this world can take us out of the hand of the Living God, and thus we cannot fall out of the reach of Providence. We know that we live in a world thinly veiled from a powerful reality made of non-material stuff, a spiritual reality that underlies and overarches and supports all that goes on in this workaday life of ours. Not only do we know, but we celebrate the openings to that world when the veil is torn by things like baptism, letting us glimpse and feel the Presence of God in the form of acceptance, incorporation, renewal, affirmation.

We know, too, that though our eyes cannot see them, there are hundreds and thousands of people known by their witness to the Truth and still felt by the love they left behind, now marching in glory. We ponder their examples, believing them to be no more “dead” in the true sense of the word than our latest breath. We know that they are aiding us by their prayers because prayer is nothing less than conversing with the living God to whom they are united. We picture them now, a great multitude which no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Like most of the things in which we believe that encourage and strengthen us, like love, hope, grace, the image of our ancestors in the faith cannot be weighed and measured. But we capture enough of it that it drives us forward, confident that we, too, will get to the place where we will hunger no more, neither thirst any more, nor be struck by scorching heat. We have already taken our places beside the Lamb in the center of the throne, who is our Shepherd. You have a place there too, and he will guide you to springs of the water of life and wipe away every tear from your eyes, save perhaps those of sheer joy that has run through your marrow when you have called out the names of the blessèd dead, saying with all your might, “Stand here, stand here, beside us!”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011