An Offering of Love

A friend of mine recently became an oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. The ritual to become an oblate, a layperson affiliated with a monastic community, is called an oblation.

An oblation is an offering to God, so my friend was taking a vow to offer his life to God by following a way of living developed by the Camaldoli monks over many centuries. We really have nothing to offer God other than our lives and no way to offer it other than the way we live.

Every day at morning prayer, the monks chant the Benedictus, which is taken from the Gospel of Luke. In all the years I’ve sung it with them, I had not, until this last time, noticed that God’s covenant boils down to the promise that “we might serve him all the days of our lives, and stand in his presence.”

There’s nothing else coming around the bend. There’s nothing better down the road. God doesn’t guarantee success, health, or wealth. God doesn’t have anything against these, but during sickness, loss, or death the promise remains the same: God’s presence.

The fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich gives us a good idea of what that presence is:

Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing?
Know it well, love is its
meaning. Who reveals this
to you? Love. What does he
reveal? Love. Why? For Love.

Her next words give us directions for life:

Remain in this and you will
know more of the same.

Remain within love—remain in God—and we will know love—we will serve God.

May our lives be a continuous prayer of love, a true oblation.

Relating to the Depths

I recently heard the advice to give up understanding anything (apologies for not remembering the original source). After living with this idea for a little while, it occurred to me that understanding is insufficient to being alive.

Comprehension and figuring things out are essential for a certain level of life. It’s remarkably useful that science has identified human beings as the cause of climate change and can calculate the most effective solutions. We don’t want to give that up.

But the depths of life require entering into rather than figuring out; understanding is too shallow an approach for the deep waters. We cannot comprehend death or loss, love or joy, but we experience them. The preciousness of this life sometimes overwhelms us—an incredible sunset, a flock of birds descending, or children at play to use Jim Finley’s examples. These moments open us to existence in ways that have nothing to do with thought.

In a very real way, we cannot understand any other being. We cannot think our way into the experience of a tree, a cat, our siblings, or the person who sits next to us at work five days a week. To see things from another’s point of view is useful but limited and different from being present with that person, from allowing our spirits to recognize one another.

We share life with all of creation. We are in relationship with all that is, and the foundation of that relationship is love. The desire of love is not ultimately to be understood. It is to see and be seen, to know and be known, to experience and be experienced.

The “peace that surpasses all understanding” is exactly what it says it is. May we dwell there.

Evolving into Love

Some friends and I went camping in Yosemite valley recently. It’s one of those places the words “grandeur” and “majestic” were invented to describe.

The Yosemites of the world can remind us to attend to the world’s beauty wherever we are, whether in the form of an oak tree, a kind word, or an architectural feat. Yet we humans often destroy beauty in all its forms in intentional and unintentional ways, sometimes even as it fills our souls with wonder. We drove to Yosemite after all.

Half dome and the valleyse

Beauty evokes love, and love allows us to see the beauty in others and in the world. I believe that Love is the creative force in the universe. Yet sometimes we are exceptional lovers, and sometimes we miss the boat entirely. (Yes, that would make it the Love Boat. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) How can it be that we act contrary to the very fiber of our existence?

Perhaps we misunderstand the totality that love is. The nature of this universe is not to spring full-form into being but to develop, and we are creatures of this universe. Perhaps love is learning to be love, which is messy.

Learning involves being in tension between who we are and who we are becoming. It means making mistakes. It also makes possible the most beautiful transformation and the most profound change.

We might think that we must force ourselves to evolve the ability to better love one another, the animals, the Earth. It may be tempting to despair, to look at the devastation in the world and think it’s already too late. But if love is the nature of being, it will continue to evolve us. We cannot escape the direction in which we’re heading, and that direction is good.

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.

Living into Love

It’s remarkably difficult to align our lives with what we believe to be true. For example, I believe in love and compassion, in approaching all beings with an open heart, in kindness to self and others, in the power and beauty of words, in the importance of creativity.

But I forget and spend a good amount of time—especially mental time—acting as if I believe in getting things done and receiving recognition for doing them well. Why don’t I more consistently practice what I believe?

Or to phrase the question in a more useful way, how can we live our most deeply held convictions ever more fully? After all, we are and always will be works in progress.

Jim Finely says we must find our identity and security in God alone. That’s a radical statement. He’s not talking about our 401ks and insurance policies. He’s talking about the place from which we move.

Finley also says God is loving us into being with every breath and heartbeat. He’s describing our fundamental nature, beyond protons and electrons, our identity as beings of Love.

When we know we are loved and are made of love, we become free to express that love without worrying that its lack of reception will define us or that we’ll run out of love and there won’t be enough left to sustain us. This freedom allows us to act in accord with the beauty in and around us and discover and reveal that same beauty in others.

Life will always be unpredictable and insecure, but the nature of our existence is utterly reliable. We are made by Love for love. By becoming ever wider conduits of love, we live into the fullness of ourselves, and it is glorious.

If We Only Knew

“Can you use a Roomba on wood floors?” That’s one deeply important topic I considered Googling tonight.

In the story “A Visit from the Buddha” by Theophane the Monk, the Buddha comes to visit a monastery and while the monks are sleeping he scrawls, “Trivia” all over the walls. When the monk narrating the story first sees the graffiti, he’s offended, but then he realizes it’s true.

This existence is difficult. We will all experience loss and mental, emotional, and physical suffering. The degree will differ, but no one is exempt from these realities. Yet when these times pass, we tend to return to Roombas, to the trivial.

There’s nothing wrong with robotic vacuum cleaners. We all need clean floors and great cat videos, both effective antidotes to suffering. But the daily details and decisions, important as they are, will never lead us to the depths of our lives where God waits, hoping to meet us, hoping to open up the fullness of our being.

“If people only knew the love and joy they hold in their hands,” a friend said to me this week, speaking about the often unrealized potential of relationships.

“To be is to be in relationship,” Fr. Cyprian Consiglio once said in a talk. Unless we recognize and live into our interconnectedness by loving one another, we are denying our very existence.

God is relationship, multiple spiritual teachers have said in various ways. For us to encounter the reality of ourselves, we must enter into relationship—with other people, with other beings, with the Earth.

May we choose, as the monk in the story finally does, the heart of Jesus, a path of radical self-giving with the power to transform the world. If we only knew the love and joy we hold in our hands.

 

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.