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.

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.

Can We Care Enough?

I don’t write about current events for a number of reasons: because a lot of other people do, because I’m often not well-informed, and because when I write about others’ actions I tend to blame and judge, which is not helpful. But it seems ridiculous to write a blog on July 7, 2016, that does not take into account the killings of black men on July 5 and 6 in Baton Rouge and St. Paul.

The problem is, I am white. I will never know what it means to worry that, despite all my warnings, my son will leave his hoodie on as he walks to school leaving me to identify his body that night instead of feed him dinner.

I read an op-ed in the New York Times by Michael Eric Dyson, a black sociology professor at Georgetown University, who had little patience for white people who understand privilege because we aren’t doing anything. He said, “We don’t know…how to make you [white people] care enough to stop those who pull the triggers.”

“Care enough”—this is not a policy matter; this is a matter of the heart. Can I truly say that there is nothing of me reflected in the actions of these police officers? I hope I wouldn’t have acted as they did, but until I can love my neighbor as myself—not as much as myself, as Cynthia Bourgeault once explained, but as myself, that is, with a knowing that my neighbor is more myself than other—until I can do that, I am participating in this and all the violence in the world.

So how not to crawl into bed and pull the blanket over our heads because if you are like me, you know that perfection is not within your reach. My prejudices are legion, and they’ll never fully go away.

As my friend Barb Kollenkark wrote recently, the only healthy way to deal with darkness is to bring it into the light. Can we care enough to recognize and act with love toward our own darkness? Loving is not condoning. Loving is seeing it as it is—the woundedness that lies beneath it as well as the harm we have caused and are causing.

I doubt any of this would offer comfort to the loved ones of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, nor, perhaps, should it. It is ours, white people’s, to bear the discomfort of what we have done—not by wallowing in guilt but by acknowledging our responsibility—to ask for God’s undeserved grace to heal us—because surely if we have done these things we are sick—and to act from this new place in a way that can help those we have decimated. “A pure heart create for me, O God.”

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.

Grace in Many Forms

Some days, you are wondering what to write for your blog. Then you drop your sweat-soaked underwear in the very public hallway at work after playing soccer at lunch and your young, male student assistant picks them up. And all of a sudden you have something to write about.

This is a moment without pretense. You cannot act as if you meant to do that. You cannot pretend that you’re in a position of authority over this person who, in the daily hierarchy of things, reports to you. Though not particularly graceful, this moment forces you to be quite present to reality.

“Nice,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said, with astonishing graciousness. I held the bag of exercise clothes open, and he dropped the underwear in. Did I mention that they were bright orange?

The night before I had been listening to Jim Finley talk about his teacher, Thomas Merton’s, writings on solitude in his book Disputed Questions. Finley commented that as we come upon an awareness of our true selves, we are less and less able to give an account of what’s happening either internally or to anyone else.

I spend a lot of time explaining myself. In my head. To people who aren’t there. On topics that no one has asked about and probably never will. Apparently I want to be sure that if anyone ever questions me about anything, I have a reason that it was not my fault.

The underwear moment was a moment without explanation, without excuse. I’m not suggesting I had a deep revelation of my true self in God there in the hallway, but I did have a moment of consciously deciding there was absolutely nothing to do except be OK with what was happening. Maybe it was graceful after all because my student was kind enough to do the same. Perhaps we both took a tiny step toward the solitude Merton says unites us all.

Here is another moment of presence, perhaps gentler, perhaps not, the final poem for National Poetry Month.

After Work
by Richard Jones

Coming up from the subway
into the cool Manhattan evening,
I feel rough hands on my heart—
women in the market yelling
over rows of tomatoes and peppers,
old men sitting on a stoop playing cards,
cabbies cursing each other with fists
while the music of church bells
sails over the street,
and the father, angry and tired
after working all day,
embracing his little girl,
kissing her,
mi vida, mi corazón,
brushing the hair out of her eyes
so she can see.

-From Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor

Remind Me

This Friday, we’ll celebrate a Big Event at work. I have allowed preparations for the festivities to take over a rather significant portion of my life and mental space and use up most of my stress allowance. (Wouldn’t it be great if we really had a stress allowance and when we reached the end, we were cut off? Nope, sorry, that’s all the stress that you’re allowed this week.)

To counteract this, my mom has been sending me reminders every day of the things that are truly important, like love and smiles and miracles. We humans need a lot of reminders. The urgent easily sweeps us away from the important. I don’t know why. Anne Lamott quotes a friend of hers as saying, “Why is not a useful question.” It’s the way we are, no reason attached, like the way chocolate tastes better than broccoli.

I have not remained in a blissed-out state of gratitude all day every day because of her notes, but the people around me have probably breathed a little easier. For example, when someone has said, “I have a question for you,” I’ve replied, “No” with good cheer instead of snarling.

There will always be a next big event, and we can always forget the important stuff when deadlines loom. Important stuff includes wondering at the way light falls from the sky through those specific clouds on that spot in the ocean that will never look exactly the same again, accompanying your co-worker to the storage room because there might be rats and that is creepy, remembering that it is all gift and that it is important to treat each moment, whether it is in preparation for a big event or not, as the gift it is.

So let’s remind each other—of love, of beauty, of heartbreak and the healing that comes afterward, of friendship, of grace.

A Good Week

There are small mysteries in this world, such as why no one seems capable of producing a generic band-aid that sticks to your skin for more than an hour.

Then there are larger mysteries, such as why right when you are feeling hopeless about the writing business, you win a contest, as I did this week. I won the Peter K. Hixson Memorial Award—$1800 of services from Writer’s Relief, a company that handles submissions for authors. They will submit excerpts of my novel to seventy-five magazines for me for free. That’s a rather fabulous number of magazines, and I am ever so slightly excited. (Check it out—my name appears on someone else’s website!)

The day before this happened, I said to God, “OK, I know I’m supposed to be trusting you, and I can see that when it comes to getting things done and to writing, I’m not. Nothing else is working, though, so I will.” I guess God enjoys a good spectacle now and then—parting the Red Sea, smiting folks, the Transfiguration, and winning writing contests.

I don’t think you need to be someone who talks to God for this kind of thing to happen to you.  Grace—“that blind benevolent side of even the fiercest world”—happens to everyone (“Grace Abounding,” William Stafford). Sometimes it comes when we are at our lowest and have done nothing to invite its presence except perhaps needing it.

But I think oftentimes, trust creates a crack in our doubt, our routine, our self-sufficiency—whatever it is that needs cracking—for grace to sneak in through. Sometimes trust might feel more like letting go or giving up, not resignation, but relaxing our death grip on having to do it ourselves or needing events to resolve in a certain way.

So keep the faith, whatever your faith happens to be, and may we all learn “that floating, that immensity waiting to receive whatever arrives with trust” (“Afterwards,” Stafford again).

Note: I will be at a writing workshop next week, and so the blog will be on vacation. Yes, I realize there is a certain irony in not writing because I’ll be writing.