Teaching Love

At some unconscious level, we all know that our lives are “infinite love infinitely giving itself away as every breath and heartbeat,” to quote Jim Finley, because that is what is really going on in the cosmos. But I hadn’t heard it so clearly spoken aloud, and certainly wouldn’t have described myself that way, until I entered the Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation.

If you’ve noticed a change in these blog posts over the last couple of years, that’s the Living School at work. In a world where religion often becomes associated with anything but, the Living School teaches love. Not Valentine’s Day love but something deeper and more demanding—a love that invites you to look at yourself and practice letting go of whatever in you resists loving, a love that accepts and includes that darkness without requiring any guilt or shame, a love that recognizes the interconnectedness of all being, a love that unites, a love that transforms.

And our teachers insist that the way to this love is by becoming more and more present to this world, to this moment. Wherever we are, whoever we are with, and whatever we are doing, that is the place God is concretely present—in us, in the person checking us out at the grocery store, in the tree growing in the parking lot, and in the relationships between us. Though we may transcend old ways of thinking and knowing, the purpose of doing so is to enter ever deeper into life, not to escape it. After all, the cosmos, as God said, is good.

I think the Living School is food for a—perhaps the—particular hunger of our world at this time. It doesn’t take more than a glance in any direction to see that we are in desperate need of a way to love each other, of a vision of spirit and life as inherently dynamic and unitive.

Next Thursday, our cohort will complete the formal course of study in the Living School, though of course this learning will never be complete. To all of those who have made this journey possible—faculty, staff, supportive friends and family, and most especially my fellow students—a deep bow of gratitude. Send us a prayer or a good thought or some positive energy that we might be good stewards of our mystical lineage, that we might keep growing in and sharing this love, that we might feed others as we have been fed.

Note the first: If you are interested in the Living School, applications are open until the middle of September.

Note the second: Blogging is discouraged during the ceremony, so the next post will be in two weeks.

Finally in Favor of Falling

Sometimes you hear things over and over again—or think you do—and then one day, you actually listen.

I don’t know how many times in the last two years I’ve encountered Richard Rohr’s advice to let and fall into God. It’s not so much that I’ve doubted the wisdom of the idea as that it’s sounded terribly unpleasant, somewhere between a colonoscopy and complete financial ruin.

Then a friend reframed it for me. While talking about visiting one of my favorite places, New Camaldoli Hermitage, he said, “I can’t wait to be there and fall into the place.” Now that is a falling I can embrace—a falling into peace and silence, into the invisible care and attention with which the monks hold each of their visitors.

If a bunch of humans can offer such a welcoming landing, God might be capable of at least matching them.

My friend went on to say something brilliant: “That’s probably the attitude I should have in every moment, including this one!” I have probably heard this before, too, but something about seeing retreat time and right now compared in that way flipped a switch. It became clear to me that we have the choice to enter rather than control the experience of each one.

I tried it—only for a few seconds mind you—and it was a radical shift of being. Instead of trying to cram the moment into the shape I imagined it ought to be—a trapezoid perhaps—I entered into it with trust, like in those group bonding games where you fall backward and let people catch you. And they do. And it did. Existence opened up into the unfolding that is actually always happening. Nothing was different from the moment before; I was just paying some attention to what is instead of what is inside my head.

Then I started thinking about how extraordinary the experience was, and it ended. I’ve tried to return to that radical shift, and unsurprisingly, it hasn’t happened. But I’ll keep practicing.

Who’s Throwing the Party

I had the urge to perform a random act of celebration at work the other day. As a friend was walking toward me, I suddenly wanted to shout her name out with great exuberance and throw my hands into the air. I hesitated because, after all, this was work, and that’s not exactly how one behaves at work.

So I announced her name to the hallway with less than the trumpet blast of volume I’d first considered and raised my arms—not too quickly—into the air with less than all-out enthusiasm.

She looked worried and said, “What do you need?”

“Nothing,” I said, “I’m just celebrating your presence.”

“You must need something,” she said.

I wonder how many times God and I have had a similar conversation without my being aware of it. I suspect God is always rejoicing in the great good news of our existence. My most likely response to this outpouring is “What do you need?” as if I had to do something to earn that goodwill.

I can fool myself into thinking I’m being responsive or responsible asking that question, but really I’m being a control freak. If I can earn God’s favor, then I am in charge. If, on the other hand, we recognize that God’s love is unreasonable, is always pouring out regardless of what we do, our whole world shifts.

Life is no longer about getting it right because as Richard Rohr says, “God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.” When we stop worrying about what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re free to participate in whatever God is doing, to enter the divine flow, to throw up our arms and say, “I praise you God for I am wonderfully made” (Psalm 139).

I don’t mean we have free license to treat other beings or the Earth poorly. God’s not throwing that kind of party.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Perhaps the joy he is talking about is the kind that would arise if we stopped wondering what we needed to do to be good and entered into God’s celebration.

Making New

In other parts of the world, it is still spring. A friend who lives in the Colorado mountains posted a beautiful description of the new life frolicking outside her window: baby foxes, cranes, and birds.

I easily fall into thinking that nothing really changes, or perhaps more exactly that I am not making things change fast enough or am incapable of doing so at all. The thing is, as usual, it’s not me who changes things. “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God says in Isaiah.

Fr. Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam., looked out at the beauty of the Big Sur coast and wrote, “Within us…is to be discovered a free, imaginative power which has been given us so we can actually bring forth the beginning of a new creation” (from his essay “The Big Sur Coast—Sixty Miles of Music to the Eye”). So how can this bringing forth be both within us and not from us?

It is not our power, as in something that belongs to us. It has been given to us, Fr. Bruno says, not the way we’re given a set of cutlery to use every day but rather the way we’re given the gift of baby foxes playing outside our window.

We didn’t do anything to make it happen. We can’t do anything to make it stay. We can’t use it to do whatever we want to because it’s a “free, imaginative power.” It’s never separate from us, but we can’t hold onto it. It works through us, sometimes in spite of us; it both does and does not need our participation.

If you’re thinking right now that this doesn’t make any sense, I agree. This power is not especially interested in making sense—it’s interested in making new. And it’s important to remember that we, too, are part of the new creation, that we are being brought forth, continuously, from the inside out.

Being Love

I often have a hard time remembering what I’m on this Earth for, which is to love and be loved. I am not referring only to interpersonal relationships, though they are likely our truest guide, but rather to a way of being in the world, a participation in the life of God.

One conception of creation is that it’s a result of God pouring out God’s love. My understanding of a recent talk by Jim Finley is that we are called to live in this love and let it flow through us until we’re just one big love exchanger with God, both the unimaginably bigger than we can understand God and the God within all that we see and meet. That’s what creation is, including us, and that’s what keeps it unfolding—this reciprocal flow of love.

I’m not very good at this. There’s something about being human that makes it often difficult, but it’s desperately important. As a friend pointed out in an online discussion this week, if we’re not practicing love, we’re practicing something else—fear, retribution, take your pick among several nasty alternatives.

So I started reminding myself by saying, for example, “I have to do the dishes with love.” Whatever it was that was on my list, I added, “with love,” the way you add “in bed” to the advice from a fortune cookie.

Then an interesting thing happened: I realized that “with love” and “have to” don’t go together. Love is always free, never forced. I changed it to, “I would like to walk down the stairs with love.” The current iteration is “Grant me the grace to write this blog in love.”

I am sorry to report that I’m not walking around in an aura of glowing golden light yet, though I’m sure that’s right around the corner. Maybe I was more patient with a friend or my cat or the garbage disposal. Practice, practice.

A Push Stroke

There are a couple of certainties when my dad comes to visit: we will eat a lot of fish, and home improvement projects will be completed. Odds are also pretty good that we will go kayaking.

I was much more relaxed during this kayak trip than during the previous one with the death machines/motor boats, relaxed enough to think about my form. “It’s a push stroke,” Dad always says, meaning that to get the most power, I need to lean back against the seat, push against the foot pegs with my legs, and then, with all this support in place, push the paddle through the water using my back muscles.

When something terrifying is happening—for example, I can’t get the boat to turn around, which is really urgent because I’m in open, calm water with nothing around me—I do the opposite of this. I lean forward and try to pull the paddle harder through the water using my massive arm strength.

I do this in life as well. Rather than leaning into the Divine, I often decide that I need to attack whatever it is on my own. I don’t trust that when I lean back there will be any seat to hold me.

The problem is, I’m kind of puny, like the strength of my arms compared to that of my legs and back. I’m not going to move the kayak of my life very far by relying on myself.

It would be nice if God were out in front of us, visible, parting the Red Sea as he did for the Israelites (although, really, who was volunteering to take that first step?). But charging forward is most often not how we experience our connection to God, to the power that sustains and ultimately moves us. Richard Rohr would say we have to fall into God, to let go of being in control. Perhaps that journey can be as easy as leaning back with trust.

Plugging in

I played hooky from writing this blog last week and went to listen to Tommy Emmanuel play guitar. If you ever have the chance to play hooky from anything—even, perhaps, a date with the most amazing chocolate cake of your life—to hear this man play, I recommend it.

He played almost every flavor of music from blues to bluegrass to rock and played with virtuosity. But in addition to his incredible skill, what made him so fun to listen to is that he played with joy.

The program quoted Emmanuel as saying, “When I play, I feel like I’m plugged into something. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t really want to know. I just want to know that it’s there.”

I never considered that approach to whatever It is. I most certainly want to know what It is and how It works before I plug in, but it’s just possible that the socket is not the size and shape of understanding. The socket is much more likely the size of “accepting the imperfections…along with the obvious accomplishments,” to quote the program again.

In his book Listen with Your Heart, Basil Pennington says, “Happiness consists in knowing what you want, and then knowing you have it, or are on the way to getting it. What we want is God.”

He doesn’t say, “What we want is to understand God.” He continues, “Our minds seek infinite truth. Our hearts are made for infinite love.” These are experiences beyond our comprehension. These are plugging into the unknown.

Richard Rohr, in one of his daily meditations, writes, “Your image of God creates you.”

It seems to me that Emmanuel’s God is completely trustworthy and delights in him and his music. I’ll take that.