Friday, April 28, 2017

A Revolution of Tenderness

"Cactus Blossom"
- in my meditation garden -

The people attending the annual TED conference in Vancouver the other day got a big surprise when one of the speakers turned out to be Pope Francis giving a TED talk via a video link from Rome. I was surprised that a pope would be giving a TED talk but I was much more “taken” by what the pope had to say.

In his talk, Pope Francis extended an invitation to his listeners (and to the people of the whole world) to engage in what he called a “Revolution of Tenderness.” I was particularly struck by this phrase because, to me, these two little words pretty much sum up the basic path of any spiritual journey.

We hardly ever hear or use the word “tenderness” nowadays and when it is used, it is often a way to talk about the “tender” feelings we associate with romantic love. However, far from being a pleasant feeling, “tenderness” is actually a “practice” and a “discipline” championed throughout almost every one of the world-wide spiritual traditions.

Jesus calls his disciples to be be gentle (tender) of heart, the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures invite the people of Israel to embrace hearts of flesh not hearts of stone, to be tender-hearted and not hard-hearted. The sages of Islam (especially in the Sufi tradition) extol the virtues of cultivating tender hearts and the practice of loving-kindness in the Buddhist tradition is the practice of “tenderness.”

In his TED talk, Pope Francis said this of “tenderness:”

What is tenderness?
It is the love that comes close and becomes real.
It is a movement that starts from our heart
and reaches the eyes, the ears and the the hands.
Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other,
our ears to hear the other, our hands to comfort the other.
To listen also to the silent cry of our common home,
our sick and polluted earth.

We practice the discipline of tenderness when we are able to get out of our own restrictive and protective ego and extend our lives in relationship with others, acting on behalf of others especially those who are poor or needy or sick or alone. And when we seek to mend the deep wounds of our broken planet we are also practicing the discipline of tenderness.

But tenderness is not a virtue that is highly-prized in our own chaotic time of unbridled self-centeredness and so the practice of tenderness in this culture is indeed revolutionary. Those who practice tenderness walk a path that that goes against the flow of popular culture and this takes boldness and courage - it’s revolutionary!

In his TED talk, Pope Francis observed:

Tenderness is the path of choice
for the strongest and most courageous men and women of our time.
Tenderness is not weakness, it is fortitude.

At the end of his TED talk the pope got an enthusiastic standing ovation from everyone listening to him - I hope this is the response we might all be wiling to give. In fact, as I think about it, the degree to which the people of the world respond to this invitation to a revolution of tenderness may well determine the very survival of our planet and the continued existence of our human species.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Wisdom of the Elders

"A Breathtaking Sunset"
- At the Desert Retreat House -


Many older and retired people reside out here in this desert “city” where my wife and I live, but all that changes at this time of year when the famous Coachella Music Festival comes to town. For the past two weekends, more than 200,000 predominantly young people have made their way out here to listen and dance to Indie, Rock and Electronic music under the desert skies. The average age of the population of this region has been radically “lowered’ in this festival season as hordes of young people staying here occupy the hotels, shop at the stores, sit in the restaurants and coffee shops and walk on the streets.

A few days ago I was standing in line at a local market and overheard two young men in front of me “poking fun” at the other customers in the store. One guy said: “Wow there’s a lot of old people here.”  His friend responded “I’m surprised that some of them can even make it out of their house to go shopping.”  I chuckled to myself when I heard this because the other shoppers in that market didn’t seem all that old to me.

I’ve been thinking about the observation of those two young men who were surprised to see so many “elderly” people.  It’s interesting to me that the word “elderly” has taken on a rather a negative connotation in today’s youth-oriented culture   An “elderly” person is often thought to be someone who is confused, cranky and even somewhat decrepit (hardly even able to go to a store to do their grocery shopping).  In fact even older people don’t want to appear elderly so they seek out creams and potions and surgeries to  get rid of the wrinkles and make them appear to be younger..

And yet as I think about it, I fear that the contemporary aversion to being “elderly” may also cause us to “miss out” on the kind of wisdom that elders can inject into a culture. Among “Native Peoples” and Eastern cultures “elders” are honored as “sages,” and "spiritual guides" respected for their wisdom, often sought after for counsel and advice – getting older is a badge of honor not a flaw to be repaired or a process to be reversed.

The poet, Robert Frost, once said:

The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.

As I get older, this makes a lot of sense to me. In the afternoon of my life I see things a whole lot differently than I did when it was morning.

I am not saying that someone should be “automatically” honored for their wisdom just because they have managed to achieve a certain chronological age. There are plenty of folks in in their 60’s and 70’s or even older who are rather judgmental, ornery, and just as narcissistic (if not more so) in their later years as they were when they were younger.

In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr,  makes a helpful distinction between “elderly” people and people who are “elders”

Our elderly are seldom elders,
but when they are true elders we fall in love with them.

In his book, Rohr goes on to suggest that “elders” are people who have come to a new spiritual awareness as they have grown into their later years - all the glib answers and clear certainties about the “truth” of life acquired have dissolved. A true elder is someone who has evolved into a wisdom of uncertainty.

An “elder” is someone who a has developed what the Buddhists would call a “Beginner’s Mind.” They were once the experts with all answers and now they no longer want to be experts anymore – they see themselves as beginning anew on the journey of life.  Elders want to experience the surprises life now has to offer in every moment of every day, they are comfortable with doubt, and are always open to enfolding mystery.

Elders have lived long enough to recognize and embrace their own failures and past mistakes and to realize that imperfection is part of the human condition, so they forgive themselves for the past and don’t expect perfection in anyone else.

As I get older I do so very much want to be an “elder” and my guess is that you can probably be an “elder” at almost any age.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Light of Doubt

"Darkness and Light"
- sunrise in the wilderness -

While most people have probably heard the phrase, “Doubting Thomas,” many may be unfamiliar with its origins in the Christian Gospels – a story that is often told in many Christian churches during this “Easter” season.  As the story goes, the Apostle Thomas initially had some serious doubts about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Although Thomas’s initial doubt ultimately led him to greater faith, historically Thomas has been disparaged for his doubt and to this very day, a “Doubting Thomas” is a phrase that often carries a rather negative connotation, especially when it comes to matters of faith.

A few years back I remember being in church as this “Doubting Thomas” gospel was read. More specifically, I recall singing a line from a hymn chosen to accompany the reading of this Gospel: “Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the dark of doubt away!”  I had to stop singing the hymn as I realized that I didn’t want a faith that had no doubt.  In fact, as I see it, doubt is a light that I need and want to be shed on my path of faith.

The Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, once observed;

Doubt is not the opposite of faith.
It is a necessary element of faith.

I actually take this a step further. For me, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. In fact, certainty is the enemy of any deeper wisdom and greater truth because when you are certain of the truth you are no longer living in the realm of mystery and surprises, and “God” is a Great Mystery always filled with surprises.

I recall an article published in the New York Times by Philosophy Professor, William Irwin, who wisely observed that “God” is never the final, given answer; rather “God” is always an initial question to be explored over and over again by believers as well as non-believers alike. He said:

People who claim certainty about God worry me,
both those who believe and those who do not believe.
Those who are certain really never listen to the other side of conversations
and are all too ready to impose their views.
It is impossible to be certain about God.

Professor Irwin further suggested that, in all “God” conversations, atheists, agnostics, humanists and people of various faith traditions should try to be less strident and rigid, always willing to embrace and encourage doubt when it comes to what it is that they believe or what they don’t believe:

When it comes to God,
rather than seeking the surety of an answer,
we would all do well to collectively celebrate
 the uncertainty of the question.


I am reminded of something the poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, once told a young student who came to him seeking advice:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart,
and try to love the questions themselves.

For me, this one little line beautifully expresses what a spiritual quest is all about.  We dive into the ocean of mystery we call “God” and together we learn to explore the questions that arise unresolved in our hearts.  “We try to love the questions.”

It seems to me that maybe “Doubting Thomas” is a model to be embraced on any spiritual path rather than a figure to be disdained.