Friday, January 23, 2009

Whole-hearted acceptance -- variations on a theme

I've been reflecting some more on the quote from Jean Pierre de Caussade that I referred to in a previous post. Here it is again:

"The Treasure is everywhere. It is offered to us at every moment and wherever we find ourselves. All creatures, friends or enemies, pour it out abundantly, and it courses through every fiber of our body and soul until it reaches the very core of our being. If we open our mouths they will be filled. God's activity runs through the entire universe. . . . We could not choose to become good in a better, more miraculous, and yet easier way than by the simple use of the means offered us by God; the whole-hearted acceptance of everything that comes to us at every moment of our lives." ~ Jean Pierre de Caussade

I am conscious of the fact that truly understanding the writings of the mystics is not possible, as they are writing from the core of their experiences -- experiences that I have not shared. It is not just theory with them. They are trying to reflect in their words something of their actual lived experiences. Therefore, a merely intellectual approach to their writings will always fall short. So I try to listen to these writings as I would listen to a psychotherapy client. That is, I try to get an empathic understanding of the other's experience. Empathy is the process of trying to understand another by imagining yourself into their experience, by feeling yourself into their story.

I said in the previous post that I do not know what the Treasure is that Caussade talks about. That's true. After writing that, I thought some more about this. I tried to put myself in the position of someone who could accept "everything that comes to us at every moment of our lives" whole-heartedly. It was then that I got that rush that feels like insight. I had the thought, "I know what the Treasure is!" It occurred to me that the key is when Caussade says "God's activity runs through the entire universe." Perhaps the Treasure that is offered to the one who can open his or her heart to every moment is the awareness and the experience of the presence of God in each moment. The felt sense that God is active in each and every moment of our lives, waiting, as it were, for us to take notice. I don't know if that's true, but I have to admit that when I consider that thought, I feel something like resonance or excitement that has for me a convincing power.

Here are some others who say something similar to Caussade:

"When one does the next and most necessary thing without fuss and with conviction, one always does what is meaningful and intended by fate." ~ C.G. Jung

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~ Rumi

"My formula for greatness in man is amor fati: that a man should wish to have nothing altered, either in the future, the past, or for all eternity. Not only must he endure necessity, and on no account conceal it--all idealism is falsehood in the face of necessity--but he must love it. . . . " ~ Nietzsche

"Don't demand or expect that events happen as you would wish them to. Accept events as they actually happen. That way peace is possible." ~ Epictetus

"[The] Christian worldview compressed . . . into a sentence: the world is perfect, and the human opportunity is to see that and conform to that fact."
~ Huston Smith

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What if the Mightiest Word is Love

From "Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration" :

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

Text of the benediction by Rev. Joseph Lowery during President Barack Obama's inauguration, as transcribed by CQ Transcriptions:

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.

Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand true to thee, oh God, and true to our native land.

We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we've shared this day.

We pray now, oh Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration.

He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national, and indeed the global, fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hands, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations.

Our faith does not shrink though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.

For we know that, Lord, you are able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor, of the least of these, and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that yes we can work together to achieve a more perfect union.

And while we have sown the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little angelic Sasha and Malia.

We go now to walk together as children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone.

With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Whole-hearted Acceptance of Everything

"The Treasure is everywhere. It is offered to us at every moment and wherever we find ourselves. All creatures, friends or enemies, pour it out abundantly, and it courses through every fiber of our body and soul until it reaches the very core of our being. If we open our mouths they will be filled. God's activity runs through the entire universe. . . . We could not choose to become good in a better, more miraculous, and yet easier way than by the simple use of the means offered us by God; the whole-hearted acceptance of everything that comes to us at every moment of our lives."

~ Jean Pierre de Caussade (quoted in The Teachings of the Christian Mystics, edited by Andrew Harvey)

The above quote continues the theme of suffering begun in my previous post. For though it does not deal with the subject explicitly, it seems to me that Caussade's "whole-hearted acceptance of everything that comes to us at every moment of our lives," necessarily includes the experience of suffering.

In the first place, if I think of accepting those things that I know or want or like, it hardly seems to be an issue, so that the real problem comes when I am confronted with the unknown, the unwanted, the despised. And if I am honest, the unknown, unwanted and despised thing is as likely to be love or happiness as it is conflict or illness. And if love or happiness, then it is a question of growing beyond myself, of letting go a tiny piece of my narcissism and allowing myself to be affected and changed by the world. The ego suffering itself to be changed.

In the second place, "everything that comes to us" includes such things as illness and death. Two people that I love more than I can measure are currently suffering through their own individual ordeals. My wife is battling breast cancer and enduring the punishing effects of chemotherapy, which are assaulting her body and mind. My sister has ALS and is witnessing the too-rapid deterioration of her body (though not her spirit, which is as bright as it ever was). My mother and father, my in-laws, my nephew, family and friends, and myself -- we are all suffering for them and from our collective inability to prevent any of this from happening.

It is hard in the face of this to experience this as "The Treasure" that Caussade describes.

The Treasure is "offered to us at every moment" by God and our task is to accept whatever happens to us in those moments "whole-heartedly," states Caussade. I don't know what the Treasure is. I am nowhere near being able to achieve whole-hearted acceptance of everything. I am sure of this much: The Treasure is not that which is happening in each moment. It has something to do with understanding that it is God who is offering us each and every experience. In other words, that whatever happens to us is not just random and purposeless, but filled with meaning through and through. Perhaps it is only through a courageous kind of acceptance that we can begin to recognize and experience that meaning.

I'm not sure. Like I said, I don't know what the Treasure is. I hope I can learn to gracefully accept the gifts God offers.

However, this quote from my sister's blog, in which she writes about her experience of living with ALS, I believe, gives some hint of what might be experienced when the Treasure is encountered:

I am blessed at every turn. Do I sound full of shit when I say that? I hope not because it’s really true. ALS has torn my heart wide open and there are unimaginable gifts in this disease.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Road Which All Must Tread

"None can come to the sublime heights of the divinity," said the Eternal Wisdom, "or taste its ineffable sweetness, if first they have not experienced the bitterness and lowliness of my humanity. The higher they climb without passing by my humanity, the lower afterward shall be their fall. My humanity is the road which all must tread who would come to that which you seek: my sufferings are the door by which all must come in."

~Heinrich Suso (Teachings of the Christian Mystics, edited by A. Harvey)

What to do about the problem of suffering?

I don't presume to think that I can come to any conclusion regarding this difficult question, but it's an unavoidable one and, what the hell, I might as well jump into the deep end with this blog.

Buddhism teaches that life is suffering and that release from suffering is possible. It prescribes its Eightfold Path as the means for achieving that release. The cause of suffering is said to be attachment. Now, there is much that I admire and am drawn to in Buddhism, but I have always had some trouble with the idea of detachment. Don't get me wrong, there are many things for which I find detachment a wise and healthy and helpful teaching. I try (though I do not succeed) not to cling to material things, or self-aggrandizing states of the ego, or even to my hopes and plans for future, both near and far. However, there are attachments from which I have no desire to be released, no matter what suffering they may cause.

My wife, my two children, my sister, my family and friends -- these are people that I love, for whom I have experienced both joy and grief. Because to love is to suffer. Loving someone means becoming vulnerable, getting hurt, being afraid they'll get hurt, fearing you'll lose them, almost losing them, and inevitably losing them.

The quote above from the Christian mystic, Heinrich Suso, does not teach the avoidance of suffering, but states instead that suffering is the door to sharing in the divinity of the Eternal Wisdom, of Christ. It is through our humanity -- not avoiding or escaping it, but through it -- that we reach to the divine. Our humanity, says the Eternal Wisdom, is composed of bitterness and lowliness, as if it were our task as human beings to learn something about suffering, in particular, the suffering of love ("For God so loved the world . . .").

The night my wife was taken in for emergency surgery, I spent a terrified few hours thinking she would die, desperate at the thought that I would never speak with her, caress her, or kiss her again. I tried to avoid the scene in my head in which I had to tell my kids they would never see their mommy again. I have never experienced such profound desperation. She came through it, thank God, and if there were any way I could go back to avoid that night for both my wife and I, I would do it. And yet, there is something else that is left to me from that night that is harder to describe.

To be able to suffer that way for the love of another human being means something. It's painful, but it's good at the same time. To know that I have the kind of love that could cause me that depth of suffering gives my life a meaning, I believe, that it would not have in any other way. And as I think about it, as I write this, I want more of that kind of dangerous love in my life, not less. It makes me wonder if the Buddhist formula about attachment isn't backwards, at least in respect to the kind of attachment called human love. That is, I do not think, as I said above, that to love is to suffer. Rather, it is suffering that lets us know that we have truly loved.

I want more of that kind of pain.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Circling Around God

I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of this world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don't know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song.

~Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. R. Bly)

This is where I begin. This is where I am going.

I don't intend to make this a very personal blog. I am not interested in confession or memoir or exhibition. Making the personal meaningful is hard and one needs considerably more talent -- and far less ego -- than I possess to make it work.

What I love is the way the Soul speaks, the images with which it cloaks itself, and the magnetic force with which it draws us to that mysterious center which is both our self and the world. I love the infinite ways that God manifests in the world and the many forms of worship and praise that humans have devised that attest to God's presence and power. Mostly, I love those God-drunk lovers who, like Rilke, keep circling around God until they break into song.

This blog is about listening to that song. It is not about anything that I have to say, which would not be very interesting, anyway, given the relatively few years of experience I have acquired as against the Soul's thousands of years. No, I would rather hear from that great Other -- call it God, the Soul, Love, what have you -- and try to simply and humbly respond.

I don't believe that it is the essential thing that we finally come to know whether we are "a falcon, or a storm, or a great song." It's not as important what we are transformed into, but that we become transformable, that our fixed notions of ourselves dissolve, become more fluid, more flowing. It is not important on this journey -- if it is even possible -- that we ever arrive. It's the circling that counts, spiraling wider and wider out "over the things of this world." And that is my hope and intention for this blog, to keep circling until I can more clearly hear that great song that the mystics call the Beloved and peoples everywhere have always called God.

And maybe sing along.