Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Passion as a Spiritual Discipline

"Crown of Thorns Cactus"
- in my meditation garden -

According to the Christian calendar, “Holy Week” begins this coming Sunday. This is the most sacred time of the year during which the events of Christ’s final week on earth are remembered and the story of the Passion of Christ is told and retold – the story of the pain, suffering and cruel crucifixion of Jesus.  

As Holy Week approaches, I have been thinking about that word “passion.”  Other than referring to the suffering of Jesus, it is a word that is not used very much in most spiritual lexicons. In fact, the word passion often carries a rather anti-spiritual connotation and most wisdom traditions are somewhat reticent about teaching the virtues of being “passionate.”

Many traditions promote the virtue of “detachment” on a spiritual path – wisely teaching that, to be “detached” means that we don’t crave or cling too tightly to anything or selfishly try to possess others in this very impermanent world.  On the other hand, to be detachment does not mean to be indifferent.  When you are indifferent or apathetic you just “don’t care” about anything or anyone. Indifference and apathy are major roadblocks on a spiritual path.  

The psychologist, Rollo May, once wisely observed:

Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is.

As I think about it, “passion” is actually an important spiritual discipline because passion is an antidote to apathy. When we are passionate we are deeply involved with all life has to offer us. When we are passionate we are committed, we embrace our lives as fully as possible. A spirituality without passion is dull and lifeless.

When I get up in the morning and sit in my garden watching in wonder as the sun rises over the eastern mountains, listening to the breezes in the palm trees, inhaling the fragrance of the spring flowers in my meditation garden, I am being passionate. When I deeply feel the pain of a friend who has lost a loved one, I am being passionate. When tears come into my eyes as I gaze upon a mother tenderly kissing her child, I am being passionate. When I laugh with unbridled joy at our baby grandson’s antics as he gleefully tugs at my beard, I am being passionate. When I am able to conjure up a holy anger as I witness racial prejudice or witness the unjust treatment of immigrants and foreigners, I am being passionate.

Passion is that virtue that allows me to fully engage with my life, whatever comes my way. On my spiritual path I need and want to cultivate and practice the spiritual discipline of passion.

As a Christian, in the days to come I will be remembering the Passion of Christ; but when I do so, I will not just reflect on the final week of Christ’s suffering and death, I will also celebrate how passionately Jesus embraced his entire life.

When I hear the stories of Jesus I see someone who basked in the glow of the cosmic stars at night and took delight in the splendor of flowers growing wild in the field. The stories of Jesus are filled with passion, stories of the times when he laughed with children, when he tenderly welcomed outcasts and boldly stood up against those who would oppress the poor and weak. Jesus entire life was a life of passion, ultimately leading to his cruel death on a cross as he sacrificed himself for the sake of compassion.  Then, in the end, even death could not crush this unbridled Love and even a tomb could not restrain the passion of Christ . 

Jesus lived his life with passion – and I want to follow in his “way.”

Back in the second century, Saint Irenaeus, an ancient patriarch of the Christian church, made this observation:

The glory of ‘God’
is ‘man’ fully alive.

To be passionate is to be fully alive – that’s’ why passion is a discipline on the spiritual journey.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Saint Patrick's Day Spirituality

" A Celtic Knot"
- in my meditation garden -

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day in America and amidst all the parties, shamrocks, and pub-crawling of this popular holiday, there is actually a pretty deep, underlying spiritual tradition associated with the day.

Most people think Saint Patrick was the bishop who first brought Christianity to Ireland but that’s not exactly true. Back in the 5th century, the Pope sent Patrick and a group of missionary monks into Ireland to “convert” the pagan Celts. However, when they arrived on the Irish shores, these missionaries very quickly discovered that the practice of Christianity already existed among the people, only it was a somewhat-different form of Christianity than that espoused by the formal, organized, institutionalized Roman church of the time. The ancient practice of Irish Christianity was a unique blend of traditional Christian teaching and practices influenced by the spirituality and customs of the so-called “pagan” Celts.

Way before Christian missionaries arrived in Ireland, the ancient peoples of that land had been influenced by the spirituality of the pagan Druids who had a profound inner awareness of a holy transcendent presence intimately abiding in a world of nature. The ancient Celts believed that a transcendent power flowed in and through all things and all people, binding and weaving everything and everyone together.

The first missionaries and the indigenous native Irish people shared their stories and their faith with one another, and from that dialogue a new form of Christianity emerged - a Celtic Christianity, a Celtic spirituality.

In this newly emergent Celtic spirituality, rather than imagining “God” to be a distant, heavenly being, “God” was viewed more like an ocean in whom we all live and move and have our being.  “God," always, intimately present even if we aren’t always aware of this Presence.

The early Celtic Christians prayed in a manner that extended far beyond the walls of a church. They would pray in every moment of routine life, they prayed while washing pots and cleaning floors, prayed while planting crops and tending sheep. They prayed this way because there was no place that “God” was not present. 

Today I recall a stanza from the well-known “Prayer of Saint Patrick” that beautifully expresses a “Celtic Christianity.” The prayer presents an image of God/Christ as an ever abiding, connecting presence rather than a distant, disconnected power:

Christ behind me, Christ, before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

In our own times, the contemporary Irish poet, John O’Donohue, similarly expresses the essence of a Celtic Spirituality:

Sometimes the urgency of our hunger blinds us to the fact that
we are already at the feast.
We are always home, never exiled.
Although our minds constantly insist on seeing walls of separation,
in reality most of the walls are mere veils.
In every moment, everywhere,
We are not even inches away from the divine presence.

They say that on Saint Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish. I wonder if this might be a good day for any one of us, regardless of the spiritual path we may travel, to embrace a Saint Patrick’s Day Spirituality.  Instead of just wearing green, maybe we might all honor the day by recognizing how intimately interconnected we all are and to remember that we are always and everywhere not even inches away from divine presence.

I am reminded of a Celtic Blessing that has its origins in the pagan tradition of the ancient Irish Celts. It seems like an appropriate blessing for us all this day:

Deep peace of the Running Wave to you.
Deep peace of the Flowing Air to you.
Deep peace of the Quiet Earth to you.
Deep peace of the Shining Stars to you.
Deep Peace!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Never Enough

"Springtime in the Desert"
- along a wilderness trail -

You probably won’t find a more beautiful place in the entire country than the Southern California desert in springtime – moderate temperatures, blue skies, blossoms on the cacti, yellow buds on the shrubs and trees, wildflowers covering the desert floor. In fact, it’s so beautiful out here that our population more than triples with visitors and tourists at this time of year.

Yesterday morning I was out waking along one of the trails outside our home, basking in the luxury of a glorious spring day, when I came upon a group of visitors walking on the path alongside me.  They were actively engaged in a lively conversation about how they would spend their afternoon. Some were closely examining a list of potential activities supplied by the local Chamber of Commerce, one other person was talking on her cellphone making lunch plans with a friend; and as they all planned for something else, they were missing everything along the way – the flowering cacti, the blossoms on the trees, the fresh fragrances of the desert in springtime. It occurred to me that I was observing an “icon” of life in our contemporary culture

I am reminded of a book by Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In his book, Harari observed that contemporary people (especially in so-called advanced societies) are almost obsessed with achieving a sense of happiness and well-being in their personal lives. He also noted that, even though there have been tremendous technological, medical and sociological advances over the past years, it never seems to be enough - people still report that they are unhappy.

People who live in societies like America or Japan or Europe generally have enough food to eat, they don’t die in the streets from uncontrolled diseases and they enjoy many if not most of the “creature comforts” life has to offer; and yet, the suicide rates in these countries is far greater than in poorer nations and it has grown exponentially over the past decades as many people report that they are dissatisfied with their lives.

Professor Harari suggested that “expectation” is the reason so many people who are so obsessed with happiness essentially remain unhappy - the more we achieve, the more we expect to achieve, nothing is ever enough:

We become satisfied when reality matches our expectations,
but the bad news is that,
as conditions improve, expectations balloon.
Dramatic improvements in conditions
such as humankind has experienced in recent decades
translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment.

Long ago the Buddha taught that “craving” and “desire” were poisons to spiritual health and causes of human suffering and pain. He said:

From craving is born grief.
From craving is born fear.
Desire is the cause of suffering.
When you stop desiring you stop suffering.

Perhaps we all need to heed this ancient wisdom now more than ever in our own contemporary times. When we always “crave” the bigger, the better and the newer, the better car, the newer phone, the bigger house, the better job, more agreeable neighbors, when we are always desirous of something more (like those visitors I encountered on the path yesterday) we will inevitably miss the joy of what is

A while back I came across something the Dalai Lama once said – a wise and profound observation about why so many people aren’t “happy” nowadays:  

Human beings sacrifice their health in order to make money.
Then they sacrifice money to recuperate their health.
And then they are so anxious about the future
that they do not enjoy the present.
They live as if they are never going to die
and then die having never really lived.