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.

Beyond Reason

No matter how you look at it, this is weird: Sitting, standing, bowing, and singing with two old men you don’t really know in a room on a mostly deserted hilltop. That was my Tuesday night.

The local Benedictine monastery has three resident monks, none of them young. This week, one of them is out of town, and on Tuesday, I was the only lay person at Vespers, the evening service in Catholic liturgy. So there we were, two monks and I, chanting the same psalms Benedictines have chanted for around 1,500 years and looking out through the chapel’s glass doors on a stunning vista of emptiness.

At multiple times during the service I thought, what are we doing here? What can we possibly hope to accomplish, two old men in robes and one middle-aged woman self-consciously trying to hit the right notes? We couldn’t be smaller and more inconsequential, and this thing we are doing is illogical.

I imagine many a parent spending hours on a carrot costume for the school vegetable play has wondered much the same thing, as perhaps has a teacher carefully marking every paper when only a few students will thoroughly read her comments. This is labor all out of proportion to any possible result. The purely rational mind finds these actions incomprehensible.

And perhaps that is the point. I absolutely cannot say why I was at Vespers, and that is why I will go again next week. Though a parent could list off the wonderful qualities of his child, that list wouldn’t account for the parent’s love. Maybe something at the heart of the inexplicable is calling to us. Maybe, if we listen, it will say what we are most longing to hear.

We’re Already There

I had a bad case of the wanting-to-be-importants earlier this week. For me, this generally takes the form of wishing that I had achieved something so impressive that the whole world—or at least everyone I was ever likely to meet—knew of my accomplishments, was favorably impressed by them, and considered me in the top 100 or so human beings of all time. I am not exaggerating.

This model presents a few logical and operational problems. For example, this definition would yield a thousand or two important people out of seven billion. Given that every one of those seven billion people can probably think of at least one person who is personally important to them, the math is a little off. Not to mention that it’s pretty rare to find something that the whole world agrees is a worthwhile accomplishment.

The real danger, though, is not logistical but spiritual because this world of importance is not only all about me but the me it’s about is an external-to-me creation. It’s like seeking to save myself through universal applause.

Salvation has already been taken care of, not because I am Christian but because I exist. As Richard Rohr says, “Incarnation is already redemption….The Earth is good” (from “The Eternal Christ in the Cosmic Story,” an interview with the National Catholic Reporter). That doesn’t mean we don’t do terrible things to each other and to the Earth, but we do them precisely when we are trying to create some version of ourselves rather than get in touch with the reality of ourselves, which is God.

We say this in a lot of different ways in a lot of different faith traditions. It’s impossible to articulate because it’s impossible to say what God is. It doesn’t mean that you or I created the universe single-handedly, which tends to be how we think of God. For me, right now, it means something like this: the very atoms of the universe—including our atoms—are made of God-stuff, and there is God-spirit in each of us connecting us to each other and all of creation and God. And if that doesn’t make us important, nothing is likely to.

Love One Another

This week I was reminded that life pretty much boils down to one thing: love one another. I didn’t make this up. I heard it at church on Sunday.

The priest didn’t make it up, either. Jesus said it a few times. And he didn’t make it up—he learned it from the Jewish tradition. I don’t know all the world’s wisdom traditions backward and forward, but I’d be surprised if any of them didn’t at least mention this idea.

I don’t always remember to love, though, and even when I do, I don’t always practice it. It’s not a complicated teaching like algebra or a foreign language, which can be hard to learn and easy to forget. Yet I don’t spend the majority of my day thinking, “What would be the most loving thing to do in this situation?”

Or maybe “love one another” is hard to learn and easy to forget. Hard to learn because we’re taught that other things—wealth, success, physical beauty—matter more; easy to forget in the constant barrage of daily messages advertising any number of things that are supposed to make us feel loved, none of which include loving one another.

On top of that, there is this whole problem of being human. For reasons I don’t understand, we have a lot of fear and failings built in. No one had to make up greed and envy either, we do those unprompted.

But we also love unprompted and maybe we just need to practice more. It can be daunting if we start with the equivalent of the quadratic equation or irregular verbs, so we could take some guidance from David Roche, who leads the Church of 80% Sincerity. In the Church of 80% Sincerity, as Anne Lamott puts it, “everyone has come to understand that unconditional love is a reality, but with a shelf life of about eight to ten seconds.”

And miraculously, that is enough. The priest said one other thing: only love will change the world, not policies, not wars, not this cause or that one, only love. Amen.

Good Things Come from Brooklyn

Father Tom Dentici, the priest who presided over my childhood, is one part dry humor, two parts conviction, and 100 percent Brooklyn-Italian. I think for him it might be one word, Brooklynitalian.

A snippet of conversation I recently overheard between Fr. Tom and a former parishioner:

Parishioner (excited, cheerful voice): “We’ll be thinking of you.”
Fr. Tom (deep, serious voice with a Brooklyn accent): “Don’t think of me. Pray for me.”
Parishioner: “I’ll tell my parents you’re doing fine.”
Fr. Tom: “Don’t tell them I’m doing fine. I’m not fine. Tell them I’m doing all right.”

At eighty-five, Fr. Tom now moves slowly with a cane, but mind and spirit are obviously still strong.

Fr. Tom preached the same thing every Sunday: God’s love. This was not butterflies and teddy bears love; this was serious love. He preached as if trying to speak forcefully enough to pry open our hearts and allow that love to rush in. Though he always stopped just short of, “You better let God love you or else,” you sometimes felt that’s where he was going, not because he wanted to proclaim punishment but because he believed that this was the most important thing in the world for our souls to understand.

In fourth grade I asked him about the fate of my Jewish mother’s soul, and in that same, grave Sunday-morning-sermon voice he said, “Your mother will go to heaven.” When I protested, pointing out that the New Testament said quite the opposite, he cut me off and repeated himself with such priestly authority that I couldn’t help but believe him. He saved God and Christianity for me that day.

At the same time, he had—and I assume still has—a wicked sense of humor. According to a visiting priest, he once pretended to be the voice of God when he saw a woman praying alone in a church. Though the story may have been apocryphal, no one in the congregation doubted he’d do it if given a chance.

One of my most enduring memories of Fr. Tom comes from the annual Octoberfest. In it, he is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and leading the congregation in the chicken dance, which is being played by a polka band.

Thank you, Tom Dentici, for your faith, your sincerity, and the love with which you shepherded your flock.

Feeling Monkish

Explaining monks is a little like explaining to someone who wasn’t a teenager in the 1980s why The Breakfast Club deserves a place in the respected canon of film. That is to say, you had to be there.

Nevertheless, because I recently spent two wonderfully peaceful days at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, I’ll make an attempt.

Monks are not saints and will be the first to tell you so. They are men who have chosen to dedicate themselves to a certain way of life. That sentence contains three difficult concepts: choice, dedication, and way of life.

Looking at what monks provide their guests may help with understanding those ideas; they give you exactly what you need and nothing more. One frying pan, a large saucepan, a small saucepan, a colander. Four each of cups, glasses, large plates, small plates.

No unnecessary choices are offered to distract you from the most important choice: to spend some time with God. Monks are like that—focused on what’s important.

That is not to say their minds don’t wander. The monastic days that I’m familiar with contain at least four communal prayer services precisely because monks know they need a lot of reminding.

They know they’re likely to get annoyed with the guy in the next cell because of the way he gargles or his ridiculous opinions about the way the church should be run, and they’ve accepted that those irritations only pull them away from their center. They’ve chosen what’s important to them and structured their lives around it in a way that takes their humanity into account.

The result is this amazing capacity for love. Love for each other, love for their visitors, love that flows out and fills the chapel and the entire valley.

I think we could all do this if we chose what was important to us and mustered up enough dedication to build a way of life around whatever we chose. It helps to have a few people around who will hold you to it.

Why Wait?

My life would be a lot easier if impatience were a virtue. Or if I could learn patience faster.

Recently, I’ve been telling myself to buckle down and do more of approximately everything. Myself and I have had this conversation often with no discernible results. So for Advent I decided to stop trying to figure things out and wait and listen instead. This may be what some people refer to as praying.

Our culture doesn’t particularly value waiting, and after two weeks of practicing it, I understand why. The first couple of days you can feel all la-dee-da and enlightened about it, but beginning day three it’s just not fun. The subtitle on the Advent reader they handed out at church says, “Waiting in joyful hope.” I’m not sure where the joyful hope people are, but I’m hanging out in the annoyed get-it-over-with-already camp.

Today I decided that two weeks is quite enough time for God/the universe/whatever to have straightened out my life and revealed at least the next few steps in a clear, concise road map. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, God/the universe/whatever doesn’t appear to be on my timeline, despite my having told her/him/it very sternly in the car on the way home that I’d had about enough of waiting.

But here’s the thing, the point of these four weeks is for people to make a straight path for God, not the other way around. We’re getting ready to celebrate a birth, and though I don’t have any kids, I’ve attended enough baby showers to know that requires a lot of preparation.

Once it happens, your life, as I understand it, does not get easier. Suddenly your time is no longer you own, and this tiny being has the power to disrupt your sleeping and eating and showering in ways previously unimagined. It also has the power to open up a richness and a depth of love that little else can provide.

So that’s what we’re preparing to celebrate, that opening of love in our lives. I suppose it might be worth waiting for.