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Merton on Men, Animals, and God’s Will

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I struggle with how to respond to words and actions that strike at the heart.

“They’re animals.”

“They’re criminals. They don’t deserve consideration and compassion.”

“We have lost our soul.” These last words from Ruben Garcia at the recent Voice of the Voiceless fundraising dinner for Annunciation House, with the theme “If the World Knew,” especially struck my heart. “Our country has lost its soul,” he told us.

Is it true?

I don’t know how to respond.

I wonder how do I convey, through my words, the haunting wails of a child separated from his mother? Or the pain expressed by a woman whose husband – her sole supporter – is forcibly taken from her without her being able to say goodbye? What words exemplify the distress I have been feeling that these “deeds” are done in our name?

What could I possibly write? And how is God asking me to respond?

Part of my assignment with the Living School of Contemplation and Action is to read mystics like Thomas Merton. This morning, I spontaneously opened his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, and discovered the words I was searching for.

Close up of dirt with small sprouting green buds

So I will let him write this post for me.

Just as a forewarning, having written this in 1961, Merton uses a lot of male pronouns and nouns. I have occasionally added “woman” to this excerpt, and I have italicized and boldened some text that especially speaks to me, but his message shines through nonetheless.

“If you want to know what is meant by ‘God’s will’ in man’s life, this is one way to get a good idea of it. ‘God’s will’ is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. You can call this, if you like, the basic tenet of the Natural Law, which is that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, that we should not do to one another what we would not want another to do to us. In other words, the natural law is simply that we should recognize in every other human being the same nature, the same needs, the same rights, the same destiny as in ourselves. The plainest summary of all the natural law is: to treat other [men and women] as if they were [men/women]. Not to act as if I alone were a man, and every other human were an animal or a piece of furniture.

“Everything that is demanded of me, in order that I may treat every other [man/woman] effectively as a human being, ‘is willed for me by God under the natural law.’ Whether or not I find the formula satisfactory, it is obvious that I cannot live a truly human life if I consistently disobey this fundamental principle.

“But I cannot treat other men as men unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least enough compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer. And if for some reason I do not spontaneously feel this kind of sympathy for others, then it is God’s will that I do what I can to learn how. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when men who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice.

“…Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs, it is Christ living in us and uniting [men/women] to one another in His own Life and unity. ‘I in them, and Thou, Father in Me, that they may be made perfect in One…And the glory which Thou hast given me I have given them, that they may be One as we also are One.’” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 76-77)

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Waiting in Darkness

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As the darkest day of the year approaches, I’m finding hope in the darkness.

My own darkness, that is.

I’ve been silent because it’s been hard to put words on a page. Hard to express what I’ve been experiencing.

A couple of months ago I entered a darkness, a place where I felt hopelessly negative and stuck. And it was painful.

Despite the pain, I recognized it as an invitation from Spirit. Draw near. Delve deeper. There’s more to discover. More that hinders you from fully realizing all that you are in Me.

So, I reached out for help.

I’ve no idea where this will take me, but I’m willing to go deeper. I’m willing because I believe my faithfulness in saying yes to this invitation will allow the manifestation of what longs to be born in me.

“The birth of the Word in the soul,” as my Living School teacher Jim Finley puts it. Through our fidelity to these yeses, to what shows up unexpectedly in our lives, Christ is incarnate in the world, he says.

But, for now, I sit in the Advent season of expectant darkness.

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I sit in the silence and wait. I wait because there is nowhere else to go. I wait with hopefulness, with the courage and trust it takes to say yes. To accept what is before me. And I wait with an awareness that infinite Love is loving me in this place. And a recognition that this, too, is part of my spiritual journey.

I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. Each of us has our own moments of waiting in darkness. Sometimes it’s dealing with a chronic illness. Emotional pain. An unexpected medical diagnosis. The death of a loved one. Separation from one’s children.

Here at the border we’ve been getting more asylum seekers lately. We’re especially seeing an increase in refugees from African countries like Ghana, Ethiopia, and Cameroon, where violence has caused many to flee. I’ve begun visiting a few of these young men detained in the El Paso detention facility while they await their court date. They are not much older than my own son. Every one of them has had life-threatening experiences to get here. And every one of them has been separated from their families. If they are sent back, they will be killed.

I wonder how they remain hopeful. How they say yes to the darkness.

One young man I visit tells me his mother knows nothing about where he is. She doesn’t know if he’s safe, or even alive. I think of what that must be like for her – waiting for news. Wondering and worrying. Is she able to say yes to this darkness? To accept this part of her journey? welcoming door

 

I think of Finley’s words: “… your ongoing yes is the incarnation.”

And then I recall a very young woman so many years ago. Her willingness to say yes with courage and trust to what presented itself in the silent darkness led to the incarnation. The birth of Christ in the world.

In the silent darkness of the night, no matter how dark, no matter how uncertain, God speaks the Word in the soul.

Like Mary, fidelity to that yes is my journey, too. It is changing my life.

Life’s water flows from darkness.
Search the darkness, don’t run from it.
Night travelers are full of light,
and you are, too; don’t leave this companionship.
-Rumi

 

 

 

 

Love’s Response

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Apparently, my last post concerned some of my friends. Not to worry. I’m not down or discouraged. On the contrary, I’m actually very encouraged.

Encouraged because the more self-aware I become, the more able to step back and see what is arising in me, the less I identify with this judging, fearful self.  Encouraged that the more I allow myself to be held by love in the middle of all that arises, the more aware I am of the loving container that holds it all.

And encouraged because more people are willing to go down into those places in themselves.

This is what’s needed during this transformative time – this going down into the darkness and meeting what is there. It’s the only way we can begin to heal. As individuals, and as a nation.

Many have been reflecting on this topic lately. Guess we all know that darkness has been coming to the surface. Darkness that needs to be addressed.

As Richard Rohr said in a recent meditation:

“Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that we grow. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding that we break into higher levels of consciousness….”

I’ve certainly tangled with my shadow. Struggled as I’ve discovered my particular woundings.

But I’ve also been trying to listen more deeply from this place.

Twice while in Albuquerque attending the Living School, I heard the same message, from different people on two completely unrelated occasions:  “God wants to take your heart and give you God’s heart in return. Be open to that.”

What does this mean? To have God’s heart?

To tell the truth, the idea scares me. It feels overwhelming, to have a heart that holds all the pain, all this darkness.

What will such a heart ask of me?

I don’t yet completely understand.

But as I listen more deeply, I hear that through this Heart, I will see the world differently. With eyes that recognize the goodness of everything. With a heart that can hold all the pain.

And a heart that is not afraid to step into the light.

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To stand up and speak up from a voice of love. Even if that voice makes others feel uncomfortable. Doesn’t allow them to remain complacent.

A heart that asks me to accompany those in darkness. Those living on the margins. Those who are vulnerable and have no voice.

I hear it challenging me to use my own voice to challenge and change the negativity and untruths associated with words we use. Words like “immigrant” and “Mexican.”

To live out the directive to “welcome the stranger.”

To boldly support DACA and the young people who have studied and worked so hard and contributed so much good to our society.

To speak up when laws are inhumane and need to be changed. Some of us take strong, proactive stands to change the abortion law because we say it is wrong to treat the unborn inhumanely, yet few will stand up to change immigration laws that treat suffering human beings inhumanely.

Love requires that I respond differently to such suffering.

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That I reflect on exactly what Jesus means when he says, “I was away from home and you gave me no welcome, naked and no clothing….I assure you, as often as you neglected to do it to one of these least ones, you neglected to do it to me.”(Matthew 25)

In my heart, I cannot neglect to hear that call. I can’t NOT respond.

And I know it will change me.

Spiritual leaders have been urging us to speak truth to power and call for justice during this transformative time when our collective shadow has shown itself so boldly. Rohr says, “There is every indication that the U.S., and much of the world, is in a period of exile now. The mystics would call it a collective ‘dark night.’

“Those who allow themselves to be challenged and changed will be the new cultural creative voices of the next period of history after this purifying exile.”

I may not know where I am going during this “exile.” I still do not fully know what is being asked of me. Or what it means to receive this heart as my own.

But I do hear love’s question, “Will you allow yourself to be challenged and changed?”

Can I say yes to this?

Can I respond wholeheartedly?

I have come to believe that this is what it means to be “virginal” – to let myself be a vessel, empty and available, open to something new being born in me. Something as unbelievable as the heart of God.

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Paradoxes in Paradise

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Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

I needed to be held.

Difficult feelings had been arising in me well before I landed in Hawaii for a much-needed vacation last Sunday afternoon.

The previous day – Saturday, August 12 – I was driving back from Albuquerque, having spent the last four days at the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Living School. This was the beginning of my two-year journey under Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Jim Finley. Master spiritual teachers, all of them. I was feeling excited and grateful.

And uncomfortable.

I had slept fitfully every night since arriving.

Encountering what was showing up in me in the lessons and meditations had not been easy.

And as I drove the four hours back home to El Paso, something else was on my mind. Charlottesville – my former home, my community, my friends.

Keenly aware of the anxiety and trepidation that had been building in that city for weeks, even months, in anticipation of the alt right march planned to descend there on that day, I knew prayers were needed.

And I had been praying. Praying for love to prevail in the face of such hate and violence.

You could say I had a lot on my mind and heart.

But in the midst of my prayer, something else arose. The violence and hatred I was praying to heal out there was also in me. I suddenly recognized the violence I was perpetrating towards myself in response to what had been showing up in me.

It may have been subtle, but it was definitely present. The self-judgment. The self-rejection. The ways I was hurting myself through my erroneous thoughts and beliefs.

In that moment, I realized that it was only in acting with nonviolence towards myself that I could even begin to help heal the violence out there.

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I needed to be with that painful realization. And to hold it with compassion.

But early the next morning I flew off to Hawaii without having the opportunity to venture into that painful place.

Yet I knew I would have to go there. One of the key teachings I’ve learned from Pathwork is that any difficult feeling must be fully felt before it can be transformed. Whether it’s hate, fear, grief, pain….

So, one morning I sit with that hate in my meditation.

As the feelings of hate increase, I feel my body grow tense and tighten up. I hear myself ask God, where were you? Where are you in this pain and hate?

And I believe that I must tense up to care for and protect myself.  The hate feels too big.

I am deep in the middle of this growing, threatening force when suddenly the image of a beautiful, white Hibiscus emerges. Its delicate blossoms are surrounded by a sea of soft, green leaves that seem to expand as they enfold all the misery and pain and hatred that had surfaced.

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And now everything is enfolded and held tenderly in the arms of this Source. A sea of Love.

Allowing this Love to hold my own hate softens my heart and, in turn, allows me to hold my darkest and most painful places with love, mercy, and compassion.

This is the place I needed to come to.

And I will need to return to again and again.

Because before I can stand against the darkness – and not come from a place of self-righteous certitude – I must be grounded in this love, vulnerable and aware of my own woundedness.

The darkness of the kind of hate we experienced in Charlottesville is, I believe, the pain of separation from this Love. Separation from the unconditional love of our Source.

As Rohr teaches, “The great illusion that we must all overcome is that of separateness.”

“Sin” is a symptom of separation, he says.

And yet the paradox is that we can never really be separated from God.

Here’s another paradox:

We are already whole and yet each of us is in need of healing.

And darkness must be revealed before it can be transformed by the light.

Before I left Hawaii, a hike at Volcanoes National Park gave me a great metaphor for what can emerge when what is percolating underground rises to the surface. Volcanic eruptions have created the most beautiful black sand beaches.

It’s just one example in nature.

All of this gives me hope that healing from the painful darkness we are seeing now is possible.

Because I know that love is trustworthy.

It is trustworthy. And it will prevail.