Incarnate Endings

I dug my first grave this week. There’s simply no way to deny the physicality of life when you’re standing in a three-foot deep hole the purpose of which is to prevent animals from digging up the body of your mom’s dog.

I am not generally good with dead beings, and I was worried about my reaction when taking Brave Soul out of the box and folding back the sheet to see where her head was. To my surprise, she looked peaceful rather than disturbingly dead. She had been sick for a long time, and even her body seemed glad to be at rest. It was the first time I could imagine participating in the ritual of washing a loved one to prepare her for burial.

The day before, I had watched a master taxidermist prepare a condor carcass. At first, I internally shied away, but a friend and I had been discussing the material nature of love. It doesn’t get much more material than a man with a deep respect and affection for birds finding just the right place to poke a sharp metal rod through the skin. This collection of feathers, bones, and skin used to be a condor and is still matter, still existent in its own right, still a manifestation of love, just a different manifestation now.

While we’re alive, our spirit and our body are one. That’s incarnation. In another context, this same friend quoted a Buddhist teacher as saying, “I am a body” as opposed to “I have a body.” A body isn’t something to transcend during life. It is our existence.

There will come a time when we are no longer a body, when we are no longer part of creation in the way we’re familiar with. As we covered Brave Soul’s body with dirt, Mom said, “Take care of her, Mother Earth,” which struck me as a truth. Regardless of our beliefs, the matter of which we are composed will return to Earth’s embrace in one way or another.

I don’t know what happens to our spirits. Cynthia Bourgeault speaks of dying as “leaving the planet.” I thought that maybe Brave Soul paused on her way out, cocking her head at us before she ran off across the field.

All That’s Happening

On Tuesday morning, after a long weekend of mostly solitude—more Netflix-watching solitude than holiness-in-a-cave solitude—I remembered to pray that my day’s work would contribute to the incarnation of God, an idea found in the Camaldoli oblate rule. The prayer reminded me that even while doing my job, I exist not primarily to get things done but rather to manifest God’s presence in the world.

Then on Wednesday I forgot all about it. As a friend said recently, imperfection is a…pain.

But imperfection is part of the deal, part of life, part of the practice. “Enter your practice until all of life is your practice,” Jim Finley says. What exactly are we practicing? Finley again: “Assuming the stance with the least resistance to being overtaken by God.” Because all that’s ever really happening is union with God, though we spend most of our lives not-so-blissfully unaware.

I’m not saying that there’s nothing more important than our relationship with the Divine; I’m saying that there’s nothing else period. Everything belongs to that relationship, as Richard Rohr often says. All the intractable limitations that I mistakenly think define me—they are part of the practice.

I don’t know how to include hatred and violence in this reality of belonging. Including them is not an argument for their continuation, but change doesn’t happen by exclusion; it happens by engagement. Plenty of terrible things we wish didn’t exist do, both internally and externally. How can we welcome actions and situations that are so clearly wrong?

Perhaps it helps to see that the most violent places are the hurting places, to know that, to one extent or another, every human being carries a wound. Physical wounds don’t heal by ignoring them, and neither will spiritual ones. Maybe we can grant our most difficult moments the same grace I attempted to grant my work, the possibility of being the presence of God in the world. Maybe that’s how healing happens. Maybe that’s redemption.

Loving Our Failures

I saw a man at a bus stop this week trying to look as if he chose to be there, and I thought, how much time and energy do I spend maintaining that “everything’s OK, nothing to see here” front?

Nadia Bolz Weber in her book Accidental Saints says that we live in a society that only loves winners. In that society, we must ride the bus as a preference, not because we can’t afford a car. That would make us unlovable. In that society, we will be deserted if we fail, and the norms of that society are alive and well in my brain.

This mindset guarantees a life of fear because as long as we’re human, we are going to fail. We’re even going to fail at the same thing over and over again despite our best intentions. I certainly do, and I avoid looking at those failures because they terrify me, because part of me believes that whoever sees them will walk away and never come back.

The first thing to do when petrified in this way is to read this article from The Onion because it is true and on topic and funny, and it’s hard to be afraid while you’re laughing. The second is to consider surrendering, which may initially kick the fear up a notch. I tend to picture my post-surrender life as oppressive, but we’re raising the white flag not to an enemy but to a God who loves us, a God we can entrust with our failures without dreading abandonment, a God who gives life and freedom.

A little anxiety might be reasonable, though, because with surrender comes greater vulnerability. God doesn’t suddenly transform us into the faultless person we’ve always known we could be. Instead we are opened more and more to our own shortcomings, to our and others’ humanity. We let go of needing to appear on top of it and paradoxically find that, even in the midst of failure, we are much more than OK—we are loved.

Feel the Worth

Standing in front of the mirror one evening, wondering whether I’d added any value to the world that day, I heard these words internally, unconnected to any of my previous thoughts: “and the soul felt its worth.”

The phrase comes from the Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” and the context is “He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” If you can get past the difficulty of humming Christmas carols in May, that’s quite a statement.

Ronald Rolheiser quotes Ruth Burroughs as saying that mysticism is experiencing God beyond seeing, touching, feeling, thinking, or imagining. If we are to follow Christ, then we must aim toward that which Christ’s presence in our life brings—a deep knowing of our own divinity and interconnectedness, “our invincible preciousness,” as Jim Finley would put it, the incalculable worth of our souls.

I forget this approximately all the time. I think I am here to do things, get it right, be good, contribute, but if I am here to follow Christ, to contribute to the evolution of Christ consciousness in the cosmos, then I am here to feel—or to know beyond feeling—the worth of my soul.

When we experience that and stick with it, the rest will follow. It’s impossible to truly feel our own preciousness and not at the same moment be aware of the preciousness of the rest of creation. Meister Eckhart says that God’s ground and our ground are one. When our feet are planted on that ground, we can’t separate ourselves from God or our worth from that of the person next to us, the cat on the windowsill, or the jacaranda just beginning to flower.

If we move from that place, our actions will be true. If we move from that place, we’ll know there’s nothing to add to the world because it’s all already here.

Last week at work we had a Big Event that I had been helping prepare for, a rather all-consuming task. The hour came, the people spoke, the balloons fell—lots of clapping—and then it was over. That’s what events do—they come and go. They end.

It occurred to me that our lives are something like that. We put a lot of energy into trying to make them go a certain way, and then they, too, end.

All I wanted for this event was for that one hour in front of the crowd to go well, and it did. But it wasn’t the whole story. Without a lot of people doing good work in the weeks before, that hour didn’t stand much of a chance.

Though it seemed as if everything was over when the theater crew was cleaning up the streamers, it’s not really. The philanthropic gift we celebrated will affect students for years to come. Attendees carry the memory of that day with them. Those of us working together forged relationships that may or may not grow but certainly affect who we are. A giant Erlenmeyer flask sits on my office chair waiting for a home.

Everything is part of a continuum. Our lives, though Big Events for us, result from billions of years of cosmic preparation and form the groundwork for the next billion years. We are both inconsequential and really important, like that hour on the stage last week.

Perhaps we need to redefine our lives as more than the time that passes between our birth and death. Our lives belong to the entirety of creation, that which exists now, existed before, and will exist after we are gone. We are formed of stardust and breathing the air Aristotle breathed. That connectedness defines us as much as our individuality and will continue after our particular form is gone.

If our lives are primarily part of a larger coming into being, we also need to redefine our selves. Cynthia Bourgeault says “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not mean “as much as yourself” but rather that “your neighbor is you….There are simply two cells of the one great Life.” How differently we might live if we thought of ourselves as one cell instead of the whole organism, one moment instead of the whole event.

Resisting Ourselves

It’s been a good couple of weeks for resistance, the fingers-in-the-ear, la la la I can’t hear you variety. I’ve been putting some pretty serious energy into noticing others’ faults, imagining different ways to order the world, and telling myself I should be doing almost everything better or at least differently.

During these times, I usually ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” a question that feeds the dissatisfaction loop while allowing me to believe I’m on the track to self-improvement. Practice with a seasoned teacher before attempting this advanced technique alone.

In the midst of this fight with reality, a new question occurred to me, “What am I resisting?” The answer that came back was “myself.”

Only one thing is happening in the cosmos: incarnation—divine love being poured out as our every breath and heartbeat, as Jim Finley would say. In other words, to quote those great spiritual teachers the Borg, resistance is futile. We can’t resist our own coming into being, can’t order the enzymes in our cells to stop breaking apart and putting together molecules. And yet I often approach life as if I can.

We are always on the leading edge of becoming, not through any effort of our own but because we are part of the continual process of creation. Life is movement. Each ending begins the next step, and so we are always incomplete.

Perhaps resistance isn’t resistance at all but a misunderstanding of the yearning that comes with our always transitory state. Life draws us forward; Love won’t let us rest unless we enter into the movement we are already a part of and accept that in our unfinished nature, we are already whole. This is not resignation but recognition that creation is not about completion, and that includes us.

We are not a life but the flow of life. We are here not to satisfy a yearning but to yearn. “The palms of your hands are God’s horizon,” Finley says. Horizons are never reached. God is always moving toward us. We are always moving toward God. Resistance is futile.

Follow Me, Really

Almost every Palm Sunday of my life, I have joined the rest of the church congregation in reading Jesus’ Passion—the cheery bit where he is betrayed, arrested, and crucified. We the church have always been given the role of the crowd, and our main line is, “Crucify him!” This is a terrible mistake.

As Cynthia Bourgeault wrote in a recent meditation, the Christian path is one of “acquiring [Jesus’] consciousness.” Not an easy task on the best of days but almost impossible when we’re taught to relate to the resurrection story as those responsible for Jesus’ death. He didn’t say, “Feel guilty forever for being sinful”; he said, “Follow me.”

That means follow me into the garden. Follow me when you’re facing something terrifying that you know is too big for you, when you’ve been betrayed, when your friends have fallen asleep and aren’t watching out for you, when you’re near death and know it. These common human experiences—I shared them with you. Do what I did. Put yourself in my place.

You probably don’t have to look beyond your circle of friends—perhaps beyond yourself—to find someone who is sweating blood right now. None of us knows what to do in those times.

Follow. Jesus prays. He says, “Thy will be done.” He doesn’t say it with equanimity. He doesn’t say it with great enthusiasm or even a shred of enthusiasm. It’s closer to, “Are you kidding me? Could we please do this any other way, take your pick? No? Are you sure? Well then, OK, I’m in.”

How much more in touch with the grace of our own suffering might we be if we experienced the Easter story from Jesus’ point of view? Maybe we would start to see, as he did, God’s presence in the midst of our suffering, not willing it, not causing it, but present with us as it happens.

Resurrection—the transformation of suffering into new life—comes from “Thy will be done.” We get to Easter through surrender. Not to the inevitability of suffering—though it may be inevitable—but to the reality of God’s grace and presence in every moment of our lives.

We have a fantastic teacher to show us the way. Let’s follow.