Open to All

Let’s start with the poem this week because it is breathtaking:

Eagle Poem
By Joy Harjo

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

The hills in this corner of California are covered with wild mustard just now, a striking yellow flower that grows tall. An eagle searching for prey amid the mustard sees colors we will never know and cannot even imagine, including those in the ultraviolet range.

Hills covered in yellow wild mustard flowers.
Wild mustard in bloom in Shoreline Park, Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Photo by carlfbagge on Flicker. Shared under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0.

Every plant, animal, person, or rock we meet contains a world, a mystery that we can no more comprehend than we can see what eagle sees. If we are to live as prayer in this world, we must “open [our] whole [selves]” to these mysteries, including our own.

The haiku poet Basho wrote, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.” That is, open your body, mind, heart, and spirit to that encounter with pine or bamboo. Or with the earth beneath your feet or the person in the cubicle next to you. Let the other’s mystery speak. Encounter a reality rather than projecting one outward.

When we can let go of our selves, of the set of beliefs and perceptions with which we order the world, we come to understand that all creation is “one whole voice that is [us].” Then we can “Breathe in, knowing we are made of/ All this.”

We are physically composed of the sunlight and rain we ate for dinner last night in the form of plants and animals. Our emotional reservoirs are filled with love from family, friends, pets. Our spirits share one fabric, one ground with everything on this Earth and in this universe. We are made of all this.

And so “we must take the utmost care/ And kindness in all things.”

We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

 

When Will We See?

Opalanga Pugh was a tall, elegant, wildly talented storyteller who could capture a large audience’s attention effortlessly. She was probably also the first black woman I ever saw.

In my most vivid memory of Opalanga, I am a kid, maybe ten, at a storytelling camp near Idaho Springs, Colorado. A group of thirty or so adults and I stand around chatting, on a break perhaps, and without warning a commanding voice rises over the hum of conversation. The group parts as if we had rehearsed it, and we find ourselves looking not at Opalanga Pugh but at a bent, aged but unquestionably powerful woman in a shawl: Sojourner Truth.

I can still see her in my mind’s eye, radiating conviction, and then that voice calling every one of us to account, saying, “Ain’t I a Woman?” I have tears in my eyes now remembering her delivery of Truth’s historic speech as I did then hearing it for the first time. Children know something real when they encounter it. Opalanga introduced an entire world to me that day.

Until that performance, my ignorance of what it meant to be a person of color in this country was complete. Though I had likely been taught a few historical details, I didn’t consider the emotional impact of those experiences on the people who lived them, nor did I know much if anything about present day racism. White privilege was not a common term in the 1980s, but it was certainly my privilege to be ignorant of this history, not to have to live its consequences every day. It still is.

I am remembering Opalanga today because a student who attends the university where I work recently appeared at a party in blackface, and every student, staff and faculty member of color must be wondering, “When will you see that I am a person?” In other words, “When will you recognize my inherent divinity? When will you stop denying that our souls are inextricably connected?”

They must be asking with a depth of grief and anger that I will never fully comprehend.

Here is a poem for National Poetry Month from African American poet Lucille Clifton that, like Opalanga’s performance, opens up a world of joy and sorrow.

won’t you celebrate with me
By Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in Babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.


Note: There are multiple versions of the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.

Carrying Christ

At New Camaldoli Hermitage, the evening meditation session begins with bringing the Eucharist into the chapel. For years, the same monk filled this role every night. Brother Emmanuel raised the host—housed in its glass and brass stand—carried it into the chapel, placed it on the altar, and led everyone in a deep bow before the presence of God in our midst.

Br. Emmanuel had shrunk somewhat and was a bit stooped over when I started visiting the hermitage, but there was something about the way he carried the Eucharist that let you know, even if you couldn’t explain what it meant, that this was the body of Christ. I never spoke with Br. Emmanuel, who passed away last year, other than to offer the sign of peace, but I always looked forward to his entrance. I thought of him as the monk who carried Christ.

“We are the body of Christ,” we repeated many times in multiple languages last night as we celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. We hear certain phrases so often that they lose their meaning.

We are the embodiment of eternity, of the Alpha and Omega, of the creative, evolutionary energy of the universe. We are the flesh and blood of the Word of God, which was present in the beginning. We are—collectively throughout time—God’s coming into being.

It is given to all of us to carry Christ, not in some abstract way but in the particles that compose us, in the love that connects us, in the kindness we show each other, and yes, on this Good Friday, in the suffering we share, not for the sake of suffering but for the coming transformation as we look toward Easter morning.

From all eternity, God has known you, Jim Finley says. From all eternity, we are the body of Christ. Within and outside of time, we carry Christ forward as does all of creation.

I think Br. Emmanuel walked into the chapel with such conviction because he knew his kinship with the Eucharist in heart, soul, and body. May we all come to know this reality that surpasses understanding.

Worm Watching

I watched an earthworm work its way across the sidewalk in the rain one evening this week. He drew his body together, ring by muscular ring, until much of it was bunched in one, fat bulge with a bit of a tail sticking out. Then all that gathered energy propelled the front of him forward, the back following along almost as an afterthought.

It was raining. I was walking to my car. I was supposed to meet someone, but instead I stood there in the middle of campus, holding my umbrella, staring at the sidewalk, paying attention to each ring of his body as it contracted and expanded. I wondered whether he would make it, given the history of worms, rain, and sidewalks.

I heard someone coming and looked up, but the thought that she might step on the worm didn’t connect to speech quickly enough, and she did, never knowing it.

After she passed, I squatted down to take a look. The worm was mostly OK, with only a small, flattened segment at the back. The front started moving again, dragging the injured part.

He eventually made it into the dirt on the other side, and I stood for a few moments wondering what that had been all about. Though I had taken no action, had not changed the course of events in any discernible way, it felt as if I needed to be there.

Perhaps everything inherently needs to be admired and wondered at. Maybe we humans came into being so that dancers could exalt in the movement of the body, so entomologists could give their fascination to insects, so farmers and botanists could love plants.

We share this existence with so many other manifestations of God. We are as surely connected to the earthworms as we are to each other. Every part of creation, including the human ones, needs us to see its brilliance and beauty today. All of creation is luminous.

Bigger than Us

Sometimes a phrase or an idea sticks with us for years though we don’t know what it means. Then one day an experience trips the switch of comprehension, as if the concept had been pulling us toward its fulfillment all along.

Richard Rohr says that when we get a college education, we feel entitled to understand everything but that there’s a more generous viewpoint from which we can interact with creation. For me, this was one of those un-realize-able ideas until a couple of weeks ago.

As I was staring out over the ocean from my garden at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, the world got a lot bigger all at once. Between one breath and the next, existence became a reality that is rather than a thing to understand.

Suddenly, the world didn’t owe me anything, not even an explanation. It was free to be itself, and I was free to enter into some deeper communion with its vastness.

When I’m attached to understanding everything, those things that I can’t explain have to be rejected because that’s the way the mind works. Paradoxically in letting go of the need to understand, I felt a deeper comprehension than I had before, “comprehension” in the sense of “being in touch with the nature or meaning of, taking in or embracing.”

This shift in perception is not a dive into willful ignorance. It does not mean denying or rejecting the rational mind. Rather, it’s a wider, richer way of experiencing a cosmos that our minds cannot contain. The Infinite is at play in our souls and at the heart of all creation, and joining that dance will yield a joy and peace that “surpass all understanding.”

Grace and God’s love, never content to leave us where we are, will continually reveal what’s been there all along, will usher us into new, deeper, and more expansive relationship with what is.

The Simplicity of Reverence

Upon arriving at New Camaldoli Hermitage for my annual retreat, my way of moving in the world changes. While unpacking, I ease open the drawer of the little dresser and gently place my clothes inside. At home, I have probably never paid that kind of attention to my dresser or my clothes.

Being at New Camaldoli reminds me to be reverent. Suddenly everything matters—how the door closes, how I set my cup down. Though in daily life I spend a lot of time worrying about whether I’m doing it right, whatever “it” happens to be, staying at the hermitage invites me instead to move through the day with loving attention and gratitude for the gift of the fork, the bed, the moment in time.

The dictionary defines reverence as “a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe.” That might seem like a stretch for a fork, but the silverware is part of an awe-inspiring whole: the natural beauty of Big Sur; the silence and solitude; the monks who hold the space, invite visitors, and provide everything each retreatant needs and nothing more. Without the fork, the whole is incomplete, not to mention how helpful it is with eating.

The atmosphere and substance of our lives is no different from those of a weekend retreat, though we often forget. We are in this sacred place—this Earth, this universe—comprising and encountering a holy and whole existence within this sacred flow of time. What if we approached our lives mainly with reverence rather than a desire to succeed and impress accompanied by the fear that we would do neither?

David Whyte describes this way of living in the poem “Fire in the Earth”:

And we know, when Moses was told,
in the way he was told,
“Take off your shoes!” He grew pale from that simple

reminder of fire in the dusty earth.
He never recovered
his complicated way of loving again….

Every step he took
from there was carefully placed.

Everything he said mattered….

If everything is sacred, we no longer need to spend our energy separating the worthy from the unworthy, the important from the unimportant. We could be, like Moses in the poem, “free to love in the same way/ he felt the fire licking at his heels loved him.”

Allow the Moment

Every now and then, it would be a good idea for me to listen to myself. I often repeat Jim Finley’s description of our lives as “infinite love infinitely giving itself away as every breath and heartbeat,” but I rarely pause to experience this contraction of the ventricles right now, this surge of oxygen into the air sacs as infinite love.

Every day I find a thousand reasons not to walk around in complete awe of that reality. How have I convinced myself that passing concerns, whatever they may be, are more real than the miracle of existence?

I had some help, of course. Our culture teaches us to buy more stuff instead of being blown away by the gift of our lives. It urges us to have everything figured out and be right rather than discover what each moment is teaching us.

I don’t mean a lesson about what we’ve been doing wrong or how we need to improve; I mean an entry way into ever deeper love. We have to let our lives do the teaching, though. We can only bring what we already know and the limited world that we can imagine. If we continually look within our own narrow vision for the horizons the universe is offering, we’ll miss seeing anything new.

There is so much that we cannot imagine, so much that’s eager to reveal itself to us. We need to allow our gaze to be directed. If we can let the moment open for us, like an iris unfurling, rather than wrapping it tightly within our own ideas, the genuine newness of all that is will enter our minds and hearts.

Infinite love by its very nature must always be giving itself away, must always be and be making new. If we can allow it to open us up, we will discover ourselves.