Welcoming Autumn

Autumn is always hard for me. From the end of strawberry season to getting up in the dark, nothing about this time of transition flows smoothly.

Toward the end of August I start to feel summer’s fullness slipping away. During the longest days of the year, I could sink into the world’s ripening with trust. Autumn, on the other hand, brings a death, and we never know what waits on the other side of dying, whether the small deaths scattered throughout life or the one that ends our existence.

A friend recently sent me a Rilke poem about this emptying time of year. At first glance, it’s not encouraging:

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

We may be tempted to run from the loneliness, but let’s not miss that this season invites us into the vastness of our hearts, a place we might not hang out very often. That vastness can scare us as it opens up the mystery of our selves, an uncharted territory whose exploration demands some solitude, some loneliness.

Perhaps all endings open up unforeseen space. They enlarge us in ways we could not have predicted; they tumble us into our surprisingly spacious hearts because suddenly nowhere else has anything relevant to say.

Rilke gives instructions for how to navigate autumn: “Be earth now, and evensong.” Though he warns that it won’t be pleasant—“The days go numb, the wind/ sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.”—I love the idea of being earth, that nurturing home that accepts everything back into itself regardless of what form a life took. Whether it was kind or harsh, generative or walled in, earth waits to receive it without judgment or exception.

Summer offers us a dwelling place, but in autumn, we must become the home for all that we have been the previous year, all that is passing away within us. We must stand on that vast plain and welcome our failures and endings and missed opportunities into the soil of our hearts. It is big enough to hold them and deep enough to transform them because there, as Rilke concludes, “he who began it all/ can feel you when he reaches for you.”

Visiting Reality

The present is a nice place. I would give it five stars on TripAdvisor. I visited there recently and hope to return soon.

The casual observer of the inside of my brain might conclude I own a time machine. A quick tour would reveal imagined futures that often affect my life as if they were real: fear about how current projects will turn out, conversations that will never happen, infinite lists of unfinished tasks. And of course a small corner reserved for the chocolate radar.

Driving to work one day, all of that fell away through no particular effort of my own, and for a mile or two, I inhabited the space and time called now. The reality of the same pine trees, the same ocean, the same freeway I see every day suddenly broke through the usual fog I hang over my mind and senses.

My version of the present is narrow, but the actual present is spacious. I tend to see now as a place I’m passing through on the way to somewhere better or somewhere I’m supposed to be, but it is all that is. It is the only thing that’s real.

The future of my own creating is a shadowland. Right now is a force, a power, a beauty that we miss going about our everyday lives trying to get to what comes next.

Of course we have to plan and work toward things. All animals do this. But we tend to focus on the destination to the exclusion of where we are, and the destination we imagine does not exist and never will.

May the present break through for all of us and may we dwell in the spaciousness of the real.

It’s Not Easy

With apologies to Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being human.

First of all, we’re incredibly complex biological organisms in which many things can go wrong and often do. Then there’s sexuality, glorious mixture of chemistry and culture that it is, which generally complicates things a lot.

We have thoughts and feelings, most of which we don’t know what to do with, and many of which do not promote our well-being. Not to mention that a large chunk of what motivates us is unavailable to our conscious minds.

And that’s just the internal world. Add other people into the mix and suddenly we’re dealing with differing pasts, conflicting cultural values, the vagaries of language. Our infinite personality variations mean no two people experience the same event in the same way, yet we long to be understood. It’s a wonder civilization formed at all much less continues.

So perhaps we could cut ourselves some slack and remember that we’re still evolving. According to the economist Max Roser, every day for the last 25 years, 137,000 fewer people lived in extreme poverty than the day before. A company is building a machine to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This doesn’t mean all is well—climate change comes to mind—but it is reason for hope.

The most profound hope comes from the reality that Divinity permeates this beautiful messiness—that we are, that creation is—in a way that we cannot comprehend with our rational minds. The Holy connects us all. No part of our lives or our being is separate from God or from the rest of existence.

To steal a line from William Stafford’s poem “A Message from the Wanderer,” “That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.” The divinity of everything is waiting for us to approach and recognize it with our divinity. That’s not easy, but it’s what we’re here for.

Choosing the Depths

As I was running late to work one day, my mind calculated and recalculated the fastest route, as if I could predict where the slow cars would be or when the traffic lights would turn. Not to mention that the time difference would, in reality, be negligible no matter which way I went.

An interior voice wanted to take a route that I was sure was not the fastest. The voice insisted, though, and off we went. About halfway to the freeway, a blue heron passed overhead. Its majestic, unhurried flight took with it all the melancholy and anxiety that had been gurgling around inside me.

I won’t claim with certainty that I was meant to go that way to meet the heron. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it’s not, and generally speaking, the world is more complex than we can account for. But I will say that the experience made it clear that I so often choose a course of action based on the wrong criteria.

Choosing to go the way in which we will encounter the beauty of our fellow creatures or lessen the suffering in the world is so much more important than making it to work one minute earlier.

I spend a lot of time on the innumerable daily equivalents of that one minute. They come in so many sizes and flavors—which task to do first, which type of olive oil to buy, what the right answer is. Their very quantity makes them seem important when actually they’re distracting.

To make choices that are worthy of us, we need questions that will take us to the depths of our lives where we long to be—is it loving? Is it kind? Does it bring joy to me and others?

We need to remember that we are these depths and that we are here to keep falling more deeply into them.

Have Fun, Lots of It

I love birthdays because they remind us to have fun. For my forty-fourth, I decided to celebrate with four different activities.

The most well-attended was puppet making in the park. To pull this off, it helps to have a mom who makes puppets and has a studio full of colorful supplies, from yarn to fabric to sequins. Awakening people’s liveliness takes little more than setting the plastic bins full of crafty goodness on a picnic table and inviting everyone to begin.

No one hesitated. No one claimed she wasn’t creative. Everyone simply picked up a paper bag or a toilet paper roll and began to construct a being that had never existed before. We had dogs and cats, a mythical rainbow animal and a magician, even a fellow who could raise his bushy purple eyebrows.

When it came time to leave, every guest said, “That was so much fun.”

Our culture often limits fun, both in importance and variety. As adults, we’re told that our responsibilities take priority over our play time and that only a few forms of play are acceptable, some of them more harmful than enjoyable.

But fun is a powerful force. It awakens our souls. It puts us in touch with God’s creativity flowing through us, and so it connects us to our selves, to our divinity.

We are the result of God having a great time. The Big Bang did not arise from a sense of obligation. When divinity decided to have a party about fourteen billion years ago and see what this existence thing was all about, a great outpouring of love and joy set this universe in motion.

That outpouring hasn’t stopped. We are the current manifestation of the divine party that has always been and will always be. Let’s have some fun.

Where We Meet Ourselves

Don’t take the cheese out of the refrigerator until you’re ready to slice it. That’s my deep spiritual insight for the week.

It came about when, you guessed it, I took the cheese out of the refrigerator, thinking I’d do two quick things and then cut up some dairy goodness to take to work the next day. I have no idea what or how many things I did, but by the time I got to the cheese, it had started to wilt.

Every day I create an itinerary for each hour in my head, and every day, it doesn’t go that way. I mean every, single day.

Often around 5 p.m. I think with a tinge of confusion or surprise, wow, that didn’t go as planned. Existence consistently moves along in ways we cannot predict as we trail after saying, huh, I didn’t think it would happen that way, even though it has never once happened the way we envisioned it. It is so difficult to learn that we are not in charge.

Maybe the late Irish poet John O’Donohue was having a cheese moment when he wrote the short poem “Fluent”:

I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.

What freedom we’d have if we lived in openness to the surprise and unfolding of ourselves. Instead of trying to stay on a course we charted for reasons that no longer apply, we could inhabit the spaciousness that exists within and around us.

We are already flowing whether we know it or not, and the moment we are flowing through has never existed before and will never exist again. It is incomparably beautiful. It is more full of life than all of our plans. It is where we will meet ourselves and all of creation, cheese or no cheese.

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.

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.

 

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.

Giving Light

Every time I looked around yesterday, really looked, joy was present—in the light on the pepper trees, in my home office, in the soccer game at lunch. But surely, at those same moments, many beings on Earth felt far from joyful.

Some family friends, Bella and Henry, were in the concentration camps during World War II. They met and married after the war. I met them for the first time for lunch at Red Robbins when they were in their eighties.

At one point, Henry said, “I couldn’t have imagined all this,” he waved his hand, indicating his entire life, the restaurant, grown children, a career, “when I was in Auschwitz.”

We wait, during this Advent season, for the birth of Light in the darkness, the light that “draws us outward into the world and inward into the depths of our hearts,” as Barb Kollenkark says. It draws us to these places because it is there. We and all creation are the light of the world. We are waiting for our own birth, our awakening to the reality that everything is Christ.

A friend recently reminded me that the only way we can be light in this world is by showing up where we are as who we are. All we can offer is the gift of our own becoming responding with love and joy to the reality in front of us at that moment.

“The world is shot through with poverty,” Jim Finley says. Any person we meet today may need a witness to joy. That doesn’t mean false cheer or telling someone in pain that they’re OK. It means embodying “I couldn’t have imagined all this” while being present to their suffering.

“If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives,” Thomas Merton wrote in Thoughts in Solitude. Our lives will contain darkness and light, and the darkness for some will be incomprehensibly deep. At the same time, “The people in darkness will see a great light.” May we be that light.