Recognize the Whole

The Mississippi River begins in Montana in small streams that flow into the Milk River that merges with the Missouri. The Great River starts near Denver; it flows through Pittsburgh. It contains sediment from New Mexico and Texas.

I recently watched a Ken Burns documentary on the Mayo Clinic, a world-renowned medical center located in the small city of Rochester, Minnesota, about seventy miles from the Mississippi. The clinic exists because Mother Mary Alfred Moes of the Sisters of St. Francis received a vision from God to start a hospital.

Map of the Mississippi River Basin by Shannon1 used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Mississippi River was formed by the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet and subsequent glacial melt at the end of the last Ice Age.

As prescribed by the vision, Mother Mary chose William Worrall Mayo to run the sisters’ hospital. Mayo and his two sons, also doctors, practiced patient-centered care. The hospital provided a venue in which they could learn and develop the most successful surgical techniques.

As their skill and success grew, not only patients but also other doctors flowed into Rochester the way tributaries flow into the Mississippi, through a gravitational pull, in this case the pull of healing, knowledge, and expertise.

I find this map of Ol’ Man River so compelling and beautiful because it’s a map of relationship, a map of the continent’s arterial connections. Without the trickles of water high up in the Rocky Mountains or in the Texas panhandle, the mighty Mississippi would not exist. As far as water is concerned, there’s no separation between Wyoming and Louisiana. The entire river system is one whole.

The Mayos, assisted by the sisters, treated the whole person, body and soul. All expertise poured into the central artery of the patient’s health, with multiple medical specialists cooperating to treat one patient in one location. According to the film, this philosophy continues today and has made the Mayo Clinic the exceptional center of groundbreaking medicine that it is.

And so with our communities, our nations, our world. We are all flowing into one another, more liquid than solid, rivers of interconnected experiences. The patient is our shared life on this planet, and if we would bring healing, we must recognize the whole.


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.

There’s No Escape

A friend and I were talking about our limitations the other day, our differing resistances to God. While we both want to surrender to the spiritual stream like a leaf floating on the surface of the water, content to go where the current takes it, we see ourselves as fighting upstream or trying to stay rooted in the mud.

I think we missed the point, though. We’re not the leaf—we’re part of the flow. All of us are the current and the water molecules. We were seeking to surrender to something external when all that’s needed is to recognize our true nature. As Richard Rohr says, you are what you seek.

This is somehow, incomprehensibly true even when we are in full resistance mode. And I do mean incomprehensibly. How can we be the flow that is God on the days when we’re mean or self-centered or just plain crabby?

I don’t know, but it must be true: in God we live and move and have our being. That statement contains no qualifiers. Not “sometimes,” not “when we’re fully present,” not “when I’ve been so good I’m sure my third eye is going to open any minute.”

To claim that we’re not that flow is like saying, today, I choose not to be a carbon-based life form. Not gonna happen. Today, I choose to be separate from God. Sorry, not up to you.

Does this mean it doesn’t matter when we’re impatient or unkind? I ask questions like this a lot, but they’re kind of stupid. The people on the receiving end of our misery-making—including ourselves—can answer that question. Of course it matters. It’s just that there’s room in God for all of it, and when we see that none of our faults can change that, we’re more likely to say, with the Sufi poet Hafiz,

I do not want to touch any object in this world
Without my eyes testifying to the truth
That everything is
My Beloved.

Or perhaps when we get even more daring:

All I know is Love,
And I find my heart Infinite
And Everywhere!

Poems “Today” and an excerpt in the introduction from The Gift by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.