from William Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence"

My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
--Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
"How is it that you live, and what is it you do?"

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Living and Being

How to come to terms with the daily, the ordinary, the things that get in the way of real faith?  Ah, that's the problem isn't it?  Or is it?

From Into Your Hands Father
Fr. Wilfrid Stinessen

I can speculate with Teilhard de Chardin about God's will for the world and humanity, about development toward the omega point, but I live much more in God's will when I do the little, ordinary work he gives me to do right now. Yes, the more consciously I live and the more concentrated I am in the moment, the more I am one with God's will. It is in the very smallest things that I meet the very greatest. . . . 
If only we could understand that we can only realize our dream by being totally present to the little and insignificant things we have to do at each moment. We encounter the infinity of God only in the present moment. The more we are recollected in the moment, the more clearly does the eternal now of God reveal itself.
The infinity of God comes to us through a funnel. It becomes so little and so narrow that it is difficult for us to recognize it.  It comes only drop by drop through the small opening.  The funnel is the present moment.  When I put my mouth to the funnel, I am nourished by inifinity. . . . The present moment is the incarnation of God's eternity.  Thos who live in the present moment drink unceasingly of eternity.

When we live--really live--in time then we live in the timeless.  When we can know and experience and be in the present moment--when we are aware, all boundaries fall away.  This happens sometimes in prayer--for me it often happens when I am deeply focused on the words as they trickle into my head.  The moment is reified by our service to it, by living in and through it, consciously--not merely walking through life, half-oblivious to everything around us, looking to move from one sensation to the next--but rather when we are aware of what is put before us second by second for us to attend to.  That is the work God has for us at that moment--and that work is always a work of compassion and loving-kindness.

On Doctrine, Dogma, and Losing Your Way

Doctrine and dogma are important and have a firm purpose in most religions--after one has come to believe, doctrine and dogma define the parameters of that belief--they codify and crystallize what it is that one must believe to be a member of that faith.  They define the community of faith--they tell the truths of the faith.

But too often it seems they become the end of the faith.  Rather than believing in God or Jesus one believes the doctrine of the Church.  One states a dogmatic creed that defines the contours of the story of the faith and sometimes the faith does not go below the surface of that creed.  Doctrine and dogma are important, but they can become stultifying.

It would seem that the approach one should take in these matters is strive to understand the doctrine and dogma that define the faith and then, let them go.  Don't worry about them--if you believe what is stated, then it seems best to turn your mind elsewhere and rather than worrying the details to death, arguing and apologizing, living your faith is the best exposition of it.  The faith, if true, needs no defense.  The errors of others are their errors and will either be remedied in time through deepening understanding, or will remain forever.  Either way, arguing the matter isn't likely to change most people's minds.

A focus on doctrine and dogma is the surest path to losing your way entirely.  It is the certain path of losing all compassion because one's obsession becomes being right rather than right action and right disposition. A good understanding of what one believes is essential, but a constant discussion of the fine points of the nature of that belief can be distracting from what we are called to in this life.  Living a faith of compassion, loving-kindness, and caring for others and for ourselves.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Gifts of Buddhism

I am not now a Buddhist--were I to put it in the common vernacular, I might term myself a "recovering" Buddhist.  But I have enormous respect for the gifts, the emphases that Buddhism brings to life.  Chief among these gifts are the concept of practice and of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is nothing less than awareness--living in the present moment.  (This always strikes me as an odd thing to say--after all, when else can one live?  But somehow we seem to find a way.) Mindfulness is common to many faiths, many practices.  But few make it an actual centerpiece.  While it is clearly taught by Jesus in the Bible, it is not a very common strain of thought in Christianity after Christ--we see it in the teachings of a few saints and from time to time it is hearkened back to, but if one were to name the hallmarks of Christian teaching, this would not be one of them.  And so too with most major world faiths.  But Buddhism calls us up short and says--hey, wait a minute, how do you hope to get anywhere if you don't know where you are right now?  You can't move forward from yesterday or tomorrow--you're mired in what is not.  To move forward, you must be aware of what is.

Mindfulness is one of the gifts given by the teaching of the Buddha and elaborated upon by his followers so that we have not only the understanding, but another of the great gifts--a method.  Buddha and his followers clearly delineated a method for beginning to become aware, for waking up to the present moment.  It is neither easy nor short, but it starts with the intent to be awake.  Just as that drowsy period in the morning between waking and sleeping depends on a commitment one way or the other, so mindfulness begins with the intent to be mindful--with the desire to come awake and to experience the wonderful world as it is now.

A third gift of Buddhism is the rawness of their focus on compassion and loving-kindness. Again, a common element of all world faiths--Buddhism brings it front and center as part of the eight-fold path to enlightenment.  Compassion, loving-kindness, and all the rest of what is good are clearly indicated in Right Thinking and Right Practice.

Looking at Buddhism, there is so much to admire and so much to emulate.  And because it is a practice, a way of life without dogma, these practices can be so easily adapted for people in any walk of life.  There is no inherent contradiction in a Christian living a mindful life  (most of the Saints managed somehow to wake up--without help from the Buddha, one assumes--on the other hand, too few of them left a record as to how to go about it).  There is nothing to prevent any practitioner of any faith from moving compassion and loving-kindness to a central place.  Indeed, we are often told that it holds a central place in the Christian faith--though to see some supposedly Christian acts and displays one would have to wonder.

So, learn from where there is truth to be learned.  Use what is good and what leads you home, leave the rest behind.  A person can hold only so much in head and heart and still function like a living, loving human being.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Buddhist-Christian Way

I am often astounded at the convergence of the ways:

from Against the Stream
Noah Levine

If your spiritual practice is all pleasant all of the time, you are probably not doing it right. And it may be that very few people have the kind of commitment to go through a heart-wrenching, dark-night-of-the-soul type of experience. Again, that's probably why the Buddha described this path as leading against the stream.

I believe that Soren Kierkegaard remarked that if you are comfortable with Christ then you probably don't know him.  And isn't it interesting to see Carmelite terminology in a Buddhist book?  Does it not suggest something about the truth being taught?  Shouldn't we be open to the truth wherever it comes from?  And when it comes from many different places at once, how much more so?

Thinking About God

By this title, I do not mean mystical contemplation, but I mean the equally hard work in another sphere--metaphysical analysis--real thought given to God, His place, our place, and meaning.  I have said elsewhere that I truly believe that we better serve God in ten minutes of carefully considered thought than we do in days of half-considered prayer.  God wants all of us--heart, soul, mind, and body.  He wants our love and our service and I have, at this point in my life come down on the side of first we know, then we love.  That is to say, we can love, admire, worship, from a distance, but there comes a time when the gap must be closed.  While God grants to some few the grace to close the gap through prayer--maybe to many--to others He poses the challenge of earnest thought.  Prayer alone will not seem to break through (though that is probably an illusion devised by the self to get in the way of actual progress--but then that self has been shaped and formed lovingly by God Himself--and so we're back into the question of why--which, for the purposes here, is irrelevant).

God wants us to think about Him--to pay attention and ask questions--even hard questions.  He does not want mindless obedience  (which is quite different from unquestioning obedience, which He grants as He wills as a gift to some few).  He is not interested in robots or auto-hypnotized subjects--people who have so long chanted their long litany of prayers that they no longer truly know who or what they serve in saying them.

God wants awareness.  He wants each of us to wake up.  And to each he grants the possibility of wakefulness--the possibility of being alive in Him.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Effects of Judgment

Before I continue to discuss whom we should not (and all too often do) judge, it seems salutary to say a little something about judgment.  Perhaps an example from classical mythology would give us context to understand why judgment is, in general, a negative activity even when the judgment being made is a positive, affirmative judgment.

For a moment let us turn our eyes to that most famous of judgments--one that resulted in no end of calamity for two peoples--The Judgment of Paris.  We all know the story--in order to foment discord Eris, goddess of discord, threw a golden apple in amongst the gathering of the chief goddesses of Olympos.  They fought over it and it was determined that the prize should go to the one judged most beautiful.  It fell to Paris to make this judgment and the prize went to Aphrodite.  In return for his judgment, Aphrodite provided him with the wife of his dreams, who also happened to be the wife of another man.  And so the Trojan war is precipitated because of a judgment.

In so many ways, this wraps together the strands of what is wrong with judgment, even approbation, or a judgment to the good.  Judgment inextricably binds us to the one being judged. Jesus made it clear with a fundamental law of judgment--Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.(Matthew 7: 1-2).  The judgment we render on others will be rendered on us.

Now, this seems not to be too terrible a matter if the judgment we are giving is good; however, the act of judgment is, itself problematic, because it supposes some standing by which we have authority to make such a judgment.  The act of judgment in some way always assumes that the other is subject to judgment.  In a sense it objectifies a person. A person now has become the subject of a judgment.  In itself, this is an attitude that removes dignity.

Judgment inextricably binds the one judging and the one judged and binds them in a way that is always negative because the underlying assumption of judgment is this standing to judge.

But perhaps the strongest negative impact of judgment is that it robs us of joy.  Let's take a matter of much lesser importance--say the judgments that lead us to our taste in music.  By deciding that we do not care for something that is harmless in itself, we are depriving ourselves of an opportunity to enjoy some of life's good things.  Let's say I decide that country music is for the rubes and that one as sophisticated as myself can't have anything to do with it.  In so doing I bar myself from the pleasures of a Patsy Cline or a Hank Williams or a Willie Nelson.  When something that sounds vaguely country shows up on the radio i begin spinning the dial (or pressing buttons) to find something else.  I have excluded myself from something that could be a source of great joy.

Ultimately judgment reveals an enormous lack of humility.  It is in this respect that perhaps the greatest service and the greatest damage is done.  If we can realize that in making a judgment we are puffing ourselves up at the cost of others, then we can turn away from judgment and pick up compassion where we left off.  If, on the other hand, we confirm ourselves in our judgment and stand on our right to judge, then we once again condemn ourselves through making the judgment--we live in our arrogance and in our pride and we wall ourselves off from the needs of others.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Resolution One: Judge Not (2)

Perhaps the most difficult people not to judge are ourselves; after all, we live with ourselves all the time and can easily see all of the silly, stupid, dramatic, and insane things that transpire in the course of a day.  Length of time and proximity/intimacy are a good measure of whom we are more likely to judge, even while exonerating.

This leads us to the next two persons/groups we are most likely to judge--God and family.

Yes, God.  I don't know about you, but I know I have spent a lot of time judging God.  I didn't think of it in those terms, and I'm not certain I've come to understand it in the way I should.  However, I can't imagine that I'm all that unusual--judging God and His power and will seem to be a daily part of our lives.

This question is most prominent when we face the foundational question of the problem of pain.  How we choose to address it both in the abstract and in its more personal application is a good indicator of where we stand in judging God.  Many an atheist has looked at the problem of pain and has concluded that it is not possible to have a God of boundless compassion and a God who allows terrible things to happen--therefore, there is no God--perhaps the ultimate judgment on God.

C.S. Lewis produced a book of  essays titled God in the Dock.  As the title suggests, he makes the case for this kind of treatment of God at far greater length and with a great deal more eloquence than I can summon.  Suffice to say that a great many of us, even those of us who like to think of ourselves as profound and witnessing Christians, have the hubris to believe that we can and should stand in judgment on God.

Needless to say, the presumption is so overblown that it becomes almost a work of art--the most massive monument to human self-esteem that could be conceived.  And in all likelihood it is safe to guess that the self-esteem that it reflects is, perhaps, a little out of proportion to the cause.

One of the most serious problems with judgment is that it assumes a grounds, a basis for making any judgment.  That can be knowledge or authority or anything that gives one sufficient merit and status to make broad, general, evaluations.

Comparing human beings and God on all merit leaves one to wonder where one could find sufficient grounds for permitting judgment.  And yet, grounds or no, too often we presume to do so--and much to our own detriment.  The only thing that judging God is likely to do is alienate us from Him.  Not, mind you Him from us, because our follies and misconceived notions are of the moment and (in all likelihood) as amusing to him as are the dicta that emerge from the mouths of toddlers--filled with a kind of uncanny and situational wisdom, but hardly a light for all time.  And God, we must recall, uniate in substance, is boundless compassion and love--He knows what it is to be human and so bears with the pettiness that can be human judgment.