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God’s Word is something very near to you,
already in your mouths and in your hearts;
you have only to carry it out.
  Dt 30: 14

“Spiritual journey” can imply there’s a destination, a holy grail that once attained will reveal Life’s secrets and transform our lives.  Like walking a labyrinth the destination sometimes feels close and sometimes very far away as we wind through our lives.  My experience of labyrinth walking at Mercy Center has provided a unique mirror.  When I first began I would frequently feel anxious about the amount of time it took to get to the center, pressured by other walkers to go faster, startled (and a bit relieved) when I suddenly found myself in the center.  After a while I thought I had the labyrinth “figured out.”  I knew that it seemed like I was far, but just a few more bends and I’d get there.  Then one day I suddenly noticed some lavender planted at a bend in the path.  “Huh, when was that planted?”  I discovered there were pebbles and rocks with words etched in them all along the way.  “Were they always here?”  I moved my gaze up from my feet for a moment and caught the flight of a bright cardinal.  Suddenly the path was alive.  God’s Word is something very near.

Karen Armstorng writes in The Spiral Staircase, “In the course of my studies, I have discovered that the religious quest is not about discovering ‘the truth’ or ‘the meaning of life,’ but about living as intensely as possible here and now…” Concern for our goals or ultimate purpose can distract us from seeing the work of God unfolding in this moment.  Moment by moment, decision by decision God’s word comes to us, already in our mouths and in our hearts.

We are pulled away from the moment though. It’s so automatic.  Suddenly we find ourselves in our driveway at home after a day at work and wonder how we got there.  Where was our attention?  On the future – preoccupied with what may be coming next, anxiety about something that hasn’t yet come to pass?  On the past – replaying memories from the day or from months or years ago?

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his 
journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

Living God’s “command” is less about doing the “right” thing and not the “wrong,” but living in dynamic relationship to the preset: How do I respond to the needs of this situation, of this moment?  Now this moment? And this one?  Setting down the burden of the past and the future.  True compassion comes from a place not motivated by what our mother told us what the “right” thing to do.  True compassion is without concern for who’s watching or how this is going to affect my reputation.  True compassion doesn’t need to check off a to-do list.  When we meet in the moment some form of suffering – our own or that of another – we need only to be present, becoming part of the moment without changing it.  It is in this sacred, spacious place that a creative response can emerge, a response of true compassion.  God’s word is very near – already in our mouths and our hearts.

Our relationship to the present is key to a compassionate response.  Read this New York Times article on the “Morality of Meditation.”  This study of meditation’s effects on our empathetic response is telling:

recent findings by the neuroscientists Helen Weng, Richard Davidson and colleagues confirm that even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with empathic understanding of others’ distress — areas whose responsiveness is also modulated by a person’s degree of felt associations with others.

So take heart. The next time you meditate, know that you’re not just benefiting yourself, you’re also benefiting your neighbors, community members and as-yet-unknown strangers by increasing the odds that you’ll feel their pain when the time comes, and act to lessen it as well.

No one is good at this.  By grace, we may find ourselves dropped into the Now – suddenly finding an incredible spaciousness and Presence, but it can be fleeting. But every time we ask ourselves, “What is my relationship to this moment?” every time we catch ourselves preoccupied, every time we make a choice to draw near to the present moment, it softens us, little by little.  And we come to know God’s word is very near – already in our mouths and our hearts.

Rev. Jessica Rowley
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 13, 2013
Focus text: Deuteronomy 30:10-14, Luke 10:25-37 (the Compassionate Samaritan)

photo by h.koppdelaney on flickr.com

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