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.


Choosing What Is

I spend a lot of time with the “should”s and the “have to”s. They’re not the most fun group to hang out with, but they’re very insistent.

In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr wrote, “Trapped people have to do what they want to do. Free people want to do what they know they have to do.” I’m quite adept at turning activities I enjoy into tasks that carry some vague but ominous consequence if not completed. I have to go to farmers market. I have to email my friends. Or what? I’ll buy vegetables at the grocery store, God forbid, but I invest that event with such power to define me.

On the other hand, I have a few friends who are caring or cared for loved ones with various health problems with great good will. I’m sure they have their moments of frustration and despair, but they maintain and return to an underlying gratitude for the other person and for being able to care for him or her. Though they choose their actions, the deeper choice is in how they continue to live out these relationships in their hearts.

“You are only free when you have nothing to protect and nothing you need to prove or defend,” Rohr says. He is describing how to live in the present. Protecting, proving, and defending our ideas of who we are prevent us from showing up as ourselves. If we are trying to be someone or something else, we cannot enter into what’s actually happening.

What we are is freely given love, and what’s happening is a movement of love constantly creating all that is. The only true choice is to choose what is, a dialogue facilitator once said. When we choose the love that we are, we will see that all we have to do is love, and we will want nothing more.

None of us are capable of living this way all the time, or perhaps even much of the time, but we can practice, we can remember and return. “Admittedly, it takes a while to get there,” Rohr says. It’s a journey worth setting out on.

Blue Light Special: a Better Life on Aisle Three

Though it’s a little early, I’ve decided what to give up for Lent this year: comparisons. I’ll still price check at the grocery store, but I’m going to stop comparison shopping for my life.

I do this all the time. I have an impressive mental list of things other people have, or more importantly are, that I don’t or am not. I like to check this list regularly to keep myself a little off balance because that is clearly the straightest path to self-improvement. Though of course I wouldn’t dream of assuming someone else’s life is perfect while simultaneously being hard on myself. That’s silly. I mean, who does that?

Life doesn’t come with a shopping cart. We can’t stroll down the aisle and pick unlimited good health off one shelf and a love of gardening off another. No one person’s cart is full of all joy and no suffering, all talent and no failings, no matter what their Facebook feed says.

That’s not to say our actions have no effect. We can eat healthy and exercise. But we arrived in this existence as a particular blessed, beautiful, and messy bundle, and life will happen to all of us fragile and imperfect human beings.

Aside from the unpleasant mental anguish that comes with comparing ourselves to others, the deeper problem arises in our relationship with God. Any time we spend trying to be someone else takes us farther from God dwelling in us and in the other person. God loves us and everyone else as we are, so if we want to encounter God, we need to inhabit ourselves rather than search for someone better to be.

We strive to categorize a world that longs to be celebrated. I watch my mind struggle to find some assurance that I’m better than others—or worry that I’m not—by counting my and their accomplishments and mistakes, strengths and weaknesses. It’s such a poverty-stricken way to relate to the manifestation of infinite love that I am, that everyone else is.

Instead, I plan to hold the mystery of the coexisting wholeness and brokenness of myself and others and let God reveal each moment’s celebration.


Share the Music

My mom and I went to hear Itzhak Perlman play this week. In other words, the best violinist in the world played music for us this week—exquisite, rich, transcendent music. He gave us an astonishing gift by doing what he loves to do.

How remarkable that music is designed to be shared. No one practices an instrument with the goal of sitting in her room and listening to herself. Musicians play hours of scales and arpeggios so that they can perform, so that we can hear each perfectly formed note. They do all this work with the express intent of giving away what they create.

And they’re not the only ones. People don’t make scientific discoveries and keep them secret or develop medicine to heal only themselves. They don’t build buildings that no one else can enter.

My ego, on the other hand, operates in direct opposition to these examples. It has a single message, which it trumpeted loudly this week: I, or more exactly it, am the only one that matters. It’s much too smart to say this directly. It has learned the art of subtlety. It says that other people get everything they want and I don’t—during the same week I heard the best violinist in the world!—or it’s too hard to be loving and generous or I’m messing everything up.

At the concert, Perlman was joined by pianist Rohan De Silva. During the opening movement of the first piece, I thought the piano was too loud because I sometimes couldn’t hear the violin that well, but part way through, I realized that one has to listen to the two instruments together. The music is written for both of them—sometimes the violin is the main character, and sometimes it plays a supporting role. As I listened to the interplay, the relationship between the two strands of notes, a new and more beautiful whole emerged.

My ego doesn’t recognize that there’s a symphony going on in this life. It believes it can create security and control for itself, but there’s no music in that approach. Existence is shared.

I think composers must hear all the instruments supporting and taking off from one another as they write music. Symphonies must arrive as a package deal. And so do we.

Coming and Going

A friend recently texted a group of us a photo of her delightful new grandson not long after his birth. The previous text to this particular group communicated a moment of caring for her dying father.

Seeing this entering and leaving the world in such close proximity brought home to me how natural both stages are. We are not designed to stick around.

I once heard about an indigenous people—I don’t recall where they live—who instead of considering death the opposite of life considers it the opposite of birth. We arrive on this planet, spend some time here, and depart. We come into being, we exist, and we cease to be.

Richard Rohr says, “Your life is not about you. You are about life.” We participate in this cosmic evolution, this ongoing creation, but we are not the point. Perhaps getting this backward makes us reticent to even think about our own ending.

Of course the idea of not existing is terrifying because all we have consciously known is existence, but if we considered the significance of our existence differently, maybe leaving it would be less scary. We are not so much individual identities walking around as we are parts of a greater whole.

We can see it concretely in the DNA passed on from my friend’s father to his great grandson. In a very real way those genes form them but don’t belong to them. The people are expressions of the genes, which existed before them and will continue after them.

In a similar way, we are each expressions of Spirit. In her book God’s Ecstasy, Beatrice Bruteau likens God to the dancer and creation to the dance. Though a dance can be broken down into individual movements, it’s the relationship between the movements, the flow of movement, the giving way of one movement to the next, that makes it a dance.

Each movement is beautiful and necessary and significant. Without any one movement, the dance is not the same. At the same time, every bend of the knees and arch of the back exists only for the dance.

A dance is ephemeral, and so are we. It’s also beautiful, and so are we—in our being born, in our living, and in our dying.