Archives for the month of: October, 2014

bird

We have all read that Love is patient and kind, Love is not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on getting its own way. Love hopes all things (1 Cor. 13). So explain to me how love of God and love of neighbor can ever be expressed as a commandment? I can command a child to eat their peas, but I cannot command the child to love me or anyone else.

So how do we make sense of this impossible sounding, greatest commandment to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves? It must be that the love is there already within us, often hidden. It must be like commanding a bird to fly, a fish to swim or a child to play. It must be already there.

Tell a Bird to Fly

At the very core of our tradition is this person who is fully human and fully God. You cannot separate the two. Jesus came to tell us we also have the divine embedded in us, which Thomas Merton called the “diamond of pure light.” Thus, there is part of each of us that, this very day, this very hour, loves God with our whole heart, our whole mind and our whole soul. There is a part of you that follows the Golden Rule and loves your neighbor as yourself. This is not something awarded to us for behaving correctly, for studying about God, for believing correctly. This not something awarded after a lifetime of faith. It is not something that can be removed. It is who we truly are.

The first reading shows us what happens if we separate God from the human. I grew up with lots of brothers and sisters and our greatest leverage with each other was to tattle to my father when he got home. This is essentially the spiritual imagination of the folks in the first reading. God is out there somewhere. Those who make enough noise, particularly for a righteous reason, can get God’s attention. Woe to you if God does not like what God sees or hears about you.

If part of us loves God with our whole heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves then you might expect diverse religious folks to encounter it and share similar news. Karen Armstrong has written a book called “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” in which she finds the Golden Rule in EVERY major religion, even those with lots of gods. In fact, she credits Confucius as the first to write down the central rule to love our neighbor as ourselves hundreds of years before Jesus.

This makes total sense to me if God is embedded in everyone. Everyone has the diamond of pure light. No exceptions. It seems everyone who seeks consciousness and awareness of the inner life, regardless of tradition or culture, comes to the same conclusion that compassion is the bottom line.

If part of us already loves God and neighbor you might expect this insight to pop up now and again in the culture. In our culture the musicians sometimes “get it” before the churches. A few years ago there was a wildly popular country music song entitled “I Am Already There” about a working father calling home from a lonely hotel room to his wife and kids. He tells his wife a refrain that has echoed spiritual truth for many:

I’m already there. Don’t make a sound.

I’m the beat in your heart,

I’m the moonlight shining down.

I’m the whisper in the wind,

And I will be there to the end.

Can you feel the love that we share?

Oh, I’m already there.

Oh, I am already there.

Millions of people had clicked on to these lyrics before me. We seem to know in some deep place that this is what Love is like, this is what God is like.

Barriers to Flight 

If the love of God and neighbor is already there, like wings on a bird, why is there not more flying going on? The myths from a simpler age speak to this quandary. The ancient myths often spoke of a “treasure” hidden in the woods or the mountains guarded by a monster or a wild animal of some kind. The hero would need to defeat or avoid the monster to release the magic of the treasure.

Today we would use more psychological language to describe the “monster.” Albert Haase in his book on the false-self, cleverly summarizes what is guarding our treasure as the “Empty Ps” – Power, Prestige, Position, Popularity, Productivity, Possessions. All these things, not evil in themselves, seek separation and are frightened of the treasure available within. These things need to be confronted and put in their proper place if we are to fly.

In a moment we will be considering bread and wine that will become for us the body and blood of Jesus. We cannot separate the presence of God from the presence of the food and drink. They are inseparable. If we can believe in this union in such simple elements, why is it so hard for us to believe in this union in the mystery of our own humanness? We come back to this table over and over to remind ourselves God is already there, inseparable from us, longing for us to fly.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Saturday Evening, October 25, 2014

Focus text: Matthew 22:34-40 (The Greatest Commandment)

Photo by Susanne Nilsson on flickr.com

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As we pause to consider this odd parable of Jesus about inviting guests to a wedding feast, it is tempting to start humming our theme song here “All Are Welcome” and call it a day. The King started out inviting just the special people to the wedding of his son. This did not work out so well, it even got violent. Eventually the King says “all are welcome” and the rich and the poor and everyone in between ends up at the feast. This is what the Kingdom of God is like. The end. Have a nice day.

The only problem with this is that by now the disciples and us have heard many times that the Kingdom of God is not out there somewhere, it is within us. That means this parable is happening within each of us. It slowly begins to occur to us “all are welcome” is not so comfortable in our inner worlds filled with voices, memories, wounds, biases and compulsions. Tonight we are challenged to do inner work by wondering who is invited our own inner dinner table and who is not.

Avoid Nothing

There are lots of ways to find out who is missing from your inner table. Forming a committed relationship will reveal some things. Stress will reveal inner voices you are not aware of. If you want to be intentional about it, counseling can be helpful. There are also tools to discover what we are avoiding. If you have not done so already, the next time you see a book club or a workshop on the Enneagram, join up. It is a spiritual direction tool designed to expose what we seek to avoid.

The spiritual writer Andrew Cohen coined the phrase “Face Everything – Avoid Nothing” as a critical step in our evolution as spiritual beings. If we are not aware of the wounds, the compulsions, the instincts within we will misinterpret life at best and be held captive at worst. He says:

Most of us cling to a self-image that resists extremes – always in denial of our darkness and ever fearful of the overwhelming brightness of our unexplored heights. The heroic practice to Face Everything – Avoid Nothing enables us to face these extremes. Why? Because you want to evolve more than you want to hold onto any particular image of yourself.

I love this quote. I love how he names this journey as courageous. I love how he names that the brightness of our unexplored heights can be just as scary as our shadows.

I have recurrent back pain, and a few years ago I was hurting and not getting answers anywhere. I tried a therapy that focuses on the energy pulses that travel the spine. I would lie very still and the therapist tried to sense where blockages were located. The therapist said that sometimes during therapy the patients would get images from their subconscious that could be instructive. She was not kidding.

During these sessions I became introduced with the Little General within who was always fearful and always wanting control. I came to realize the pain in my joints and muscles was almost matched by the psychic pain of the Little General who felt out of control regarding the back problem! Little General will always need to be invited to my inner dinner table. I ignore him at my peril.

Practicing Everything Belongs

We see a great example of practicing “facing everything” in the writings of the Desert Fathers in the first few centuries of the Christian faith. Folks seeking spiritual guidance would travel to monastic communities in the desert. In their writings the Desert Fathers would lament that people usually came to them to find God, to talk about God, to debate about God. The monastics would always try to turn the conversation to be about them. They would say in essence: “God is just fine, how about you? What is happening inside you?” They understood that if we do not get to know the community inside, we will undoubtedly think one of those unknown voices is God’s voice!

The good news today is that we can practice Face Everything – Avoid Nothing anytime we want. Richard Rohr wrote a book called “Everything Belongs” that explores how meditation teaches us this. When we quiet ourselves to be conscious of God’s presence things start to happen – our foot hurts, the dog barks, your difficult neighbor comes to mind, you think about tomorrow’s dinner party, you suddenly feel anxious etc. etc. We are taught in meditation to face everything and cling to nothing. Let thoughts and feelings come, let them go, in non-judgmental compassion for ourselves. Even if you are like me and you always get the thought during meditation about how bad you are at meditation – let the thought come, let it go. Face everything – avoid nothing.

Is working toward an open inner table good news for you? It is scary. But I think the stakes are high. I wonder how open our outer table can really be if everything inside is not welcome to the inner table? I wonder how many times in my life I thought the voice of the Little General was the voice of God?

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Saturday Evening, October 11, 2014

Focus Text: Mathew 22:1-10

Photo by mendhak on flickr.com

empty

Before I started reading the mystical tradition of our faith I had no idea what “emptiness” meant – the notion that we must past through emptiness to encounter God. Emptiness seemed like an odd virtue to me. I prefer a full gas tank, a full bank account and a full tummy. I want to be “full of the Spirit.” I like to see myself as someone who considers the glass half full rather than half empty. I admired busy people. Many people told be growing up that empty time was an occasion for sin!

Today’s famous second reading suggests I had a lot to learn. Paul quotes an early Christian hymn about Jesus: “Although Jesus was in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, He EMPTIED himself, taking the form of a slave, be born in human likeness…” While in human form Jesus “empties” again, suffering a slave’s death. This emptying is a pattern Jesus chose and calls us to follow. Tonight we try to get our heads around emptiness as a pathway for love and spiritual growth.

Flowers in the Desert

What do we mean by emptiness? In the biblical tradition the desert is a symbol for emptiness. God seems more palpable, more immediate, in the desert. Bushes are burning in the desert, manna falls from the sky, water comes out of a rock, the Torah is given there. Interesting people like John the Baptist hang out in the desert.

The spiritual richness of the desert makes sense because our ego has very little to hang on to there. The desert does not care what we do for a living and our money does no good. There is nobody to perform for. There is not a wine list there or other things to dull our senses. The masks we wear so effortlessly most of the time become heavy and start to itch in the emptiness of the desert.

I am so biased against emptiness, that it is only in hindsight that I can see its transcendent power. My first experience of emptiness was in my last year of college when I went off to London for a semester. My girlfriend (now my wife) had dumped me and I left behind a very close knit youth group. I did not know a soul at school in London and it was hard for me to connect in the five months I was there. I went from being extremely busy and very well connected to be very alone. It was very difficult, but it was a powerful time for me. I got the first hint that maybe I could be alone, that I was not alone.

Death is the Teacher of Life

I bet everyone here has a story of how empty moments in life changed you. It could have been an illness, a lost job, a lost relationship, an addiction…. something that makes us ungrasp and fall inward wondering if there is anything there. When we find out there is Someone there, we see for ourselves why emptiness is a divine path.

When it comes to emptiness I am convinced life is sometimes a better teacher than religion. I keep returning to a book called “The Grace of Dying” written by a hospice nurse who accompanied hundreds of people through death. She talks about the denial and anger that are usually present. She then describes a “nearing death experience” where an emptying often leads to transcendence. It occurs whether the patient is religious or not or whether they are looking for it or not. The patient tends to relax and withdraw. There is a silence and peace. Witnesses routinely speak of a discernible radiance and the patients often use transcendent language – like a veil is being lifted.

The author concludes that the nearing death experience is virtually identical with the experience of contemplation! Emptiness and transcendence go hand in hand in life as in death. Like Jesus we can choose emptiness with intention by nurturing contemplative practices that works for us. This is hard work. In our plugged in world there is no assistance is exercising our contemplative muscles.

Religion often does not help us find emptiness. For years I used religion to avoid emptiness. I filled myself up with the right beliefs, the right morality, the right liturgical events. I used my religion as another decoration on my constructed self. I am not over this tendency, however, it excites me to now see religious practice as training in emptiness, whether it be lost in the music, in the quiet after communion, in the quiet safety of a small group, in some form of meditation. We listen well when we are “empty” of our own ideas and agendas. Let’s be a faith community that treasures emptiness so we can bring transcendence and awareness to the circumstances of life in which we find ourselves.

Is this little hymn of the early church good news for you tonight? Perhaps this Eucharist can help us see the emptiness life brings us in a new light – as an opportunity as well as a challenge. Perhaps we can be inspired to act with intention to find empty space in our day and in our walk together. Let’s be a people who ungrasp, fall inward, and discover there is Someone there.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community
Liturgy for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Saturday evening, September 27, 2014
Focus text – Second reading, Philippians 2:1-11

Photo by Alexander Steinhof on flickr.com