Holding Reality

My water heater went out this week—in the middle of the day on a Sunday when I was home. It couldn’t have picked a better time. I was without hot water for less than 48 hours.

Sometime during that stretch, I listened to a news report on Venezuela, where it must feel as if the street might disintegrate between one step and the next as the country’s systems and infrastructure stop working.

I read a powerful poem, “Will You?” by Carrie Fountain, this week about the edges of our lives when the daily moments are just a little too beautiful or a little too difficult. One stunning line says,

…My children
are so young they cannot imagine a world
like the one they live in.

Boys taken as child soldiers in Somalia cannot imagine the world of making valentines described in the poem.

We cannot choose one of these realities over the other. The suffering, the cruelty, the misery are no more nor less real than the safety, the love, the connection.

We cannot put all of our attention on one side of the coin. To enter the depths of our lives, we must hold within ourselves the suffering of the world and the joy of existence. To love we must be present to what is.

The poem is not about a perfect moment. The mother gets impatient, she relents, she is overcome by the beauty of her children.

In one line she asks her daughter, “How can there be three Henrys in one class?” and the daughter responds “Because there are.”

How can there be such pain in the world? Because there is. How can there be such love and beauty in the world? Because there are. How can we be present to all that at once? Inconsistently, in fits and starts, with as much failure as success. And because we must.

The Joy of Presence

Instead of a license plate holder that says, “I’d rather be golfing” or “I’d rather be hiking.” I want one that says, “I’d rather be present.”

All the great spiritual traditions recommend dwelling in the here and now (or at least, as in the old Trident commercial, four out of five do). I tend to view being present as an accomplishment to attain, but maybe it’s simply a joyful place to be.

When we’re present, we can see that creation is one big current of love. Trees are manifesting love in tree form, grass in grass form.

Even we humans, confused as we are, walk around as electric charges of love. It seems improbable amidst all the horrors that we inflict on each other and on the Earth, but if it’s true of the hollyhock and the quail, it must be true of us. What else could we be when we are manifestations of God, of Infinite Love?

It’s easy to mythologize being present, seeing it as a state of perfection in which our mind is quiet and focused and our emotions are tranquil. While I’ll certainly take that when it comes, maybe presence is simpler than we think. Maybe all it requires is holding to a vision of life as it is, which is love.

Love does not make everything OK in the way we are accustomed to think of it. It doesn’t erase suffering or loss or insulate us from them, but as Jim Finley says, it offers “freedom from suffering in the midst of suffering.” It shows us the beauty of the bigger picture, the unchangeable nature of our and reality’s true identity regardless of the current circumstances.

Being present—being love to ourselves and others and recognizing love as the nature of all creation—is available to each of us every moment of every day, and it’s the most joyful choice we can make.

A Joyful Yes, an Ecstatic Yes

We have no idea what we’re doing in this life. On the one hand. On the other hand, we are deeply connected to this unfolding, called to play a role in creation’s coming into being, intimately integrated into the existence in which we find ourselves.

Every dawn we greet a moment in time that has never existed before. We appear to be doing the same things we did yesterday, but what folly if we expect one day to be like the next. From the large to the small, everything is different. One day our body functions perfectly, or we think it does, and the next the flu keeps us in bed all day. Overnight, a country goes to war. Every second our solar system, our galaxy is traveling to a new location in the universe.

That we are part of the great improvisation is cause for great joy. I’ve heard that the way to be successful in improvisational comedy is to always say yes to whatever your fellow comedians have just come up with. The yes we are called to is an embrace of the miracle of our own existence, an ecstatic yes.

Beatrice Bruteau says that ecstatic love is loving someone in such a way that you love what they love in the way that they love it, not because they love it. You enter into their reality so profoundly that you join in their outflowing love.

I have a friend who loves buckeye trees. I never thought much about buckeye trees before knowing this friend, but now I’m always happy to meet one of them and notice with affection the curve of their leaves, the profusion of their flowers, and of course the smooth nuttiness of the buckeye.

Bruteau goes on to say that the universe is God’s ecstasy, is God’s outflowing love. To fully embrace the miracle of our own existence is necessarily to embrace the miracle of all existence.  To give an ecstatic yes to the infinite Love being poured out as our lives, as Jim Finley would call it, is to wake up to the intimacy and joy in which we belong to all creation.

Free of any need to contain the infinite in our limited understanding, we can learn what it means to be alive.

 

 

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.

Profound Gratitude and Deep Joy

Sometimes it is hard to get here. OK, it is almost always hard to get here. By here I mean mentally in the same place that our feet touch the Earth, where the oxygen that we’re breathing actually floats—or whatever oxygen does.

On my way to work yesterday, the interconnected miracle of it all announced itself. A day had passed, and everything that supported my life and made the ride to work beautiful still existed. Soil still anchored the trees. The grass still covered the hillsides (I know, I know, but it’s California—what can I say?). The ocean hadn’t moved and neither had the freeway. “The sky gathered again/And the sun grew round that very day,” as Dylan Thomas writes in “Fern Hill.”

When I checked my email, a friend had written, “Have a wonder-filled day of it!” Yes! Why not? Sounded like a good idea.

And then I forgot. I got caught up in doing things and didn’t do them with great focus or productivity. When I notice that not many items have been checked off the list, I tend to freak out a little. This is rarely a helpful response.

I used to not know I was freaking out. It appeared to me as trying to buckle down and concentrate. I’m beginning to think that we spend vast swaths of our lives being afraid and not knowing it.

There is more than enough fear to go around right now, but if we respond with joy and gratitude, we can help relieve some of that fear. True joy won’t come through ignoring the difficult things happening in every life. It can come when we pause and wonder at having oxygen to breathe, lungs that work, rain, and electric green hillsides.

I’m always tempted to think that these things are not enough, but they are literally life. If we can cultivate profound gratitude and deep joy for that life, our actions will be what’s needed. These actions may or may not have the desired outcome. Our exterior circumstances may become more difficult. But what we’re creating together now on this Earth is bigger than our individual circumstances, and when we can see it, we will know that it is exquisite.

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.

Lenten Joy

For Lent, I am giving up being frustrated with myself. We’re a couple of Sundays in, and I regret to inform you that I’m not yet walking around in a state of perpetual bliss.

My exterior behavior hasn’t changed much. I am still getting or not getting about the same amount done, still going to bed late sometimes, still missing the van, still haven’t written the great American novel. So what, then, is the point of this practice?

The more I do it, the more I think it helps me learn to “refuse to find my security and identity in anything but God,” as Jim Finley says. When I look at the source of my frustration, it’s usually not my actions but rather fear of what people will think about me.

On the one hand, it’s not an unreasonable fear. Most of us receive job evaluations that could have real effects on our lives, and our days are simply more enjoyable when people are kind to us. On the other hand, what exactly would happen if the nebulous “they” didn’t like me? To paraphrase Finley, when we think our lives are going down the drain, stop and ask which drain.

Not to mention that I’m making it all up—no one has ever approached me and said, I don’t like you because you don’t get enough done.

Basil Pennington, reflecting on the Rule of St. Benedict, says that the point of Lenten practice is to enter into the “fullness and joy of Easter” now, to look forward to Easter by being joyful. Richard Rohr in his daily meditations this week has included the prayer, “Astound me with your love.”

This wide open graciousness can feel risky. It’s much safer, at least to me, to stick within my narrow frustrations because there, I know who I am—I’m someone who’s going to mess up and disappoint myself. God may just have a better option than that.