Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Evil Never Wins

" Rainbow Promise"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

We are on our way back home to the desert, but we decided to make one last stop back East. So I am writing today's blog post from a hotel room looking directly at the sight of one of the greatest tragedies in American history- September 11, 2001, when terrorist planes were flown into the Twin Towers.  

As I sit in my hotel room here in New York and look onto the "World Trade Center" sight, I am flooded with vivid memories of that fateful September day, buildings on fire and collapsing to the earth, so many poor souls jumping to their deaths, such horrific destruction and devastation. 

But the sight I gaze upon today has been totally renewed and restored- a touching museum and park have been constructed so that the world might always remember the events and the people of 9/11. And another tower has been erected on the sight- it looks like a phoenix rising up out of the ashes, the tallest building in the United States.

I wasn't exactly sure what to expect or how I would feel going to New York to stand on the sacred ground of the World Trade Center.  Back on that day in 2001 I was filled with an overwhelming sense of deep sorrow, my mind was clouded with anger at such rampant destruction, and I half thought that a visit to the World Trade Center sight might dredge up some of those old feelings. But actually the opposite happened.  

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 many people made their way to the destroyed buildings and wrote messages, leaving them on walls and fences surrounding the smoldering pile of rubble. One  of those messages written back then proclaimed:

Evil never wins!

That message has now been preserved and is enshrined in the new 9/11 memorial, and this is exactly how I feel as I look out today at the rebuilt, renewed and restored sight of what was once utter chaos. Evil never wins, you can't kill love. 

I recall those last words of so many of the victims who were killed on that horrible day in September. As  terrorist planes were heading into the buildings, wives and husbands, children and parents who were just about to die were "saying goodbye" to their loved ones on the ground -  many of those calls have been preserved for posterity. In almost every single instance, just at the threshold of death, parting words took on the form of tender pledges of undying love:

I love you so very much.
Tell the kids how much I love them.
I will love you forever, you will always be in my heart.

Such a vivid reminder that no matter how hard people may try, you can't kill love. You can fly airplanes into buildings collapsing them to the ground; you can incinerate bodies and reduce them into ash, but you can't kill love. In the end love rises up and reaches for the sky.

Evil never wins!

Such a powerful thought as we come to the end of a year so filled with violence and destruction. What a gift it is to be here at the World Trade Center on this day. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Breathing Out Compassion

"Meditation Garden"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Now that we have come to the end of 2014, the media is saturated with stories about the significant events of the year gone by. This morning's NewYork Times featured a very gripping "photo essay" of 2014 - January through December captured in sometimes tender, but more often sad and horrifying pictorial reminders of the memorable events of the year.  

As I made my way through the various pictures I was struck by an awareness that there was certainly a good deal of pain and suffering in our country and our world this year - racial and political division, homelessness and poverty in a nation of staggering wealth possessed by so very few people, passenger airlines shot down or lost at sea, wars in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Syrian refugees, beheadings by Islamic militants, untold sickness and death in the wake of the unchecked Ebola virus. 

As I reviewed those pictures I was also reminded of the fact that throughout last year, every time I heard those month-by-month reports about division, suffering, war and violence I was moved to compassion while at the same time feeling somewhat frustrated at being unable to do anything to alleviate the pain. I also recall many conversations with people who also expressed a similar frustration when confronted by so many stories of profound suffering, and feeling so impotent to do anything about it.

So this is what my year-end meditation has focused on this morning. Is there anything I can do to bring some light into all this darkness?

In one sense I suppose I can do my part to live a life of day to day compassion, and that my everyday living will bring some peace to the chaos. I might also do what I can to work for justice and peace, perhaps volunteer at our local soup kitchen or donate to the food bank. And all these acts are indeed ways in which I or anyone can indeed do our part to help alleviate suffering. Yet somehow I look at those pictures of last year and I am still haunted by them and still left feeling frustrated that I can do little more than feel a sense of compassion- perhaps secretly glad that the same suffering isn't happening to me and mine.

I suppose that I could also "pray" for all those people who have had so many hard times in 2014. But I must say that I resist praying for people in the traditional way of prayer. I resist putting out petitions to a distant, powerful God who sits on high and determines what requests "He" might answer and which ones "He" will deny. 

This morning I was also reminded of a very powerful form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation known as "Tonglen." It is a simple and yet powerful meditation consisting of "mindfully" breathing in and breathing out. What makes "Tonglen" different from other forms of meditation is that, when you become aware of the pain of others, you intentionally breathe in their suffering,  and then, moved to compassion, you breathe out a healing energy. 

Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron,  explains the practice of "Tonglen" meditation in this way:

You breathe in a feeling of hot, dark and heavy - a sense of claustrophobia,
and you breathe out a feeling of cool, bright and light - a sense of freshness.
You breathe in completely through all the pores of your body,
and you breathe out, radiate out completely through all the pores of your body.

As I reflect on this year's end, I  realize that in the year to come there is indeed something I can do to help alleviate the pain of the world whenever I am confronted with it. Every day I can breathe in the hot, dark and heavy suffering and breathe out the cool bright light of healing and compassion. This is something every one of us can do.

I think I just made a New Year's resolution.   


Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Throwaway Culture

"Enduring Beauty"

Yesterday I noticed something that really grabbed my attention - a discarded Christmas tree tossed to the side of the street waiting to be picked up with the rest of the week's trash. I probably wouldn't have paid any attention to it at all if not for the fact that it's only a few days after Christmas. December isn't even over, and yet there was that tree sitting alongside a big trash container loaded up with the boxes and discarded wrapping paper of a Christmas now past. 

As I stared at that tree on the side of the road I wondered how much preparation may have gone into buying and decorating that discarded tree. I thought about all the hectic preparation that went into getting ready for the big day, fighting crowds at the mall, wrapping all the gifts, then Christmas comes,   the gifts get opened, and then the next day it's time to throw it all away and move on to the next big event- maybe Valentines Day? 

My guess is that most people who have put up a Christmas tree haven't put it out with trash quite yet;  however, I also believe that the image of that discarded tree and a trash bin full of used wrapping paper is a fairly expressive icon of life in today's 21st century throwaway culture.

We go to a fast food restaurant, eat some food, have a drink and then throw out the plastic forks and napkins and cups- piles of trash filled with items that have been "discarded after use." 

But this throwaway culture mentality isn't just confined to fast food restaurants. People go out and buy new clothes or new shoes, even new cars or they land a new job, and then quickly get bored or disappointed with it all, so it's on to even bigger and better and newer.

The norms of a throwaway culture are sometimes even applied to the way people treat other people. They accumulate business contacts, acquaintances, even friends who are useful to them and then throw them away when and if they no longer seem to be of any value to them. 

As I think about that discarded tree on the side of the road, I become more and more convinced that the popular path of a throwaway culture is a narcissistic journey that leads to ultimate suffering, and I commit myself once more to walk a spiritual path that leads in the opposite direction.

These days after Christmas are a great gift for me, a time to intentionally become more and more mindful in the moment, and grateful for all that "is." The focus of my energy is not on a Christmas that is over and done; and I am not "getting ready" for anything yet to come.  I am just happy to be here and now, surrounded by people I love, embracing the revelations of this new day. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Holy Moments

"A Thin Space"

We are spending the holidays with our family in Washington D.C. - about as far away from a desert setting as you can possibly be. Yesterday after all the gifts were opened, we all decided that we needed a little exercise, so we bundled up and took a leisurely stroll around the well-known historic sights of the nation's capitol - the Supreme Court, Congress, along the green space of the national mall. 

There were lots of people strolling around the capitol yesterday on the afternoon of Christmas Day - people from all over the world speaking many different languages. The weather was crisp, a brisk wind was blowing, but the day was crystal clear as we walked along, arm-in-arm taking in the sights and sounds, snapping a photo now and then. 

It was in the midst of that very ordinary, casual experience of being together on a beautiful Christmas afternoon that I was struck by a flash of insight.  That stroll around the capitol, walking hand in hand with people I loved, was in fact a very "holy moment."

Interestingly enough, the night before on Christmas eve we were all sitting in a church - a designated holy place. We were surrounded by banners and flowers and figures in a creche, sounds of a choir, the singing of carols, lots of words about the birth of Christ. But even though I was sitting in a designated holy space and this experience in the church was supposed to be a holy moment, it didn't even come close to inspiring me as much as that simple casual walk with my family on a pristinely beautiful Christmas afternoon.

Once again I was taught a lesson that every space is sacred (designated or not) and every moment is holy, but you have to have the eyes to see it and the heart to embrace it or the moment will pass you by.

In a recent article, author and poet Chris Wiman makes this wonderful observation about holy moments in ordinary time:

A holy moment can happen whenever that membrane
 between ourselves and everything that is not our selves thins,
 and we become what we are not, or - more accurately - what we more truly are.

People seem to expect God to come in a whirlwind, not in a real wind.
But it's his presence in 'reality' that is so mysterious, and so insistent.
The whole notion of sacred experience, 
the sense that there are holy moments in this life 
that should be honored and consecrated as such,
is being systematically eliminated by contemporary culture.

Yes holy moments can happen inside churches or within the walls of great cathedrals. Holy moments can be experienced in a desert as a new day dawns. Holy moments can even happen in a big city, taking a stroll with your family on a crystal clear day with a brisk wind blowing on a Christmas afternoon.

People seem to expect God to come in a whirlwind,
not in real wind.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

In the Flesh

"Christmas 2014"

On Christmas Day it is a common practice in the Christian tradition to read from the Gospel of John - not the traditional story about angels and shepherds and a babe in a manger but rather a "theology" about what Christmas actually means. 

John starts out his Gospel by announcing:

And the Word became flesh
and dwelt among us.

With the birth of Jesus,"God" took on human flesh.

I have always thought it odd that on one hand the church would celebrate the nobility of human flesh as a dwelling place for God's own self and then through most of its history go on to denigrate flesh as an evil to be avoided- a source of shame, a cause of sin and temptation. 

In fact the church has either explicitly or implicitly taught that punishing the flesh was a discipline for achieving greater holiness.  To this very day some people think that celibate men or women are somehow "purer" than those who marry. They are closer to God because they refrain from sexual activity.

Many years ago I remember reading this Gospel of John on a Christmas morning and was angrily confronted by a parishioner for doing so after the service was over. She objected to the fact that that the traditional Christmas story about baby Jesus wasn't read, but more than that, she just didn't like the fact that we were using the word "flesh" in a church service on Christmas morning.

But that's exactly what John tells us as he explains Christmas- "God" becomes flesh. Flesh is noble, flesh is sacred, flesh is holy.

Back in the 2nd century, Saint Irenaeus, one of the earliest and most respected teachers of the ancient church wrote this rather extraordinary commentary about the Christmas message:

The Word of God became human so that humans might become God.

The word became incarnate in Jesus, but the Holy Presence is also incarnate in every single one of us. The energy of "God" is on us, flows through us, and connects us all in a wonderfully beautiful complex web of relationship. 

The message of Christmas is that we find "God" in flesh. We meet "God"in flesh.

Christmas is a day not only for Christians but for all human beings to exalt and celebrate our "incarnation." Divinity is wed to humanity - noble flesh, holy flesh, sacred flesh.

Merry Christmas! 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Joyful Hope

"Dawn is Breaking"
- Christmas Eve -

For most of my life I have observed an Old-World Polish Christmas tradition by gathering around a table with family and friends and sharing a festive meal on Christmas Eve. There are several traditions observed as part of this ritualized meal - for one thing, all the specialized foods are meatless (a vegetarian's delight), a candle is set in the window and a place is always set at the table which intentionally remains empty, open invitations for the "Christ about to born" to come to the house with a candle in the window and sit at a place at the table that awaits his presence.

Many years ago I was a Chaplain at Syracuse University. It was just a few days before Christmas when we got the news that Pan Am flight 103 had gone down over Lockerbie Scotland- the victim of a terrorist bomb. Suddenly the whole world seemed to stop for all of us on that campus because 35 of our Syracuse students studying abroad went down with that plane. It was probably the greatest tragedy I have ever had to deal with in my life - such profound sadness over the senseless loss of so many young "kids" who just weren't supposed to die when they were 20 years old. 

A few days after the crash, it was Christmas - and it goes without saying that none of us were in much of a festive mood. In fact,  I wished I could have just turned the clocks ahead- make Christmas go away. But it didn't go away, and when Christmas Eve finally arrived I found myself sitting at a table along with my family and some other chaplains who we had invited to join us to share our traditional Christmas Eve "Vigil" meal with its celebratory meatless foods, a candle in the window and an empty place set at the table.

As we sat at the table, our spirits were grim - all of us still in great pain over the profound loss that had permeated the campus, when suddenly and unexpectedly the doorbell rang.  Since I was a chaplain,  I would often host parties and dinners for students at our home. On that Christmas Eve when the bell rang,  it was a student who stood at the door. He was unable to go home for Christmas, saw that candle in the window, guessed we were having some sort of Christmas gathering, and so he rang our doorbell wondering what was up. 

I immediately invited him into our house telling him that he was just in time to share a traditional  Christmas Eve meal with us. Then I said "we even have a place already set for you." Yes, a place had indeed been already prepared -  an open invitation for the Christ to come and sit.

I can still remember that young man sitting in that empty place at our Christmas Eve table. No one had to say anything because the symbolism was far too obvious for us all, and our grim mood quickly turned into joy. In the midst of our darkness we had set up a place of hope, believing that even in our deepest sorrow we would not be abandoned, and we weren't.

Ever since that Christmas Eve back those many years ago, I remember that student sitting in a chair reserved for the Christ about to be born.  It reminds me that all of us on any sort of spiritual journey must always set an empty place in our lives - an open invitation for the Holy Presence to come and break into our lives. We walk a spiritual path with a candle in the window, awake and available to the revelations of every moment and we live with joyful hope because we know that even in the darkest night, the light is always knocking at the door.

It's Christmas Eve, a candle is lit in the window, an empty place is set at the table -such joyful hope!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

O Come All Ye Faithful

"Almost Christmas"

Regardless of whether or not you are a Christian, a religious person, a spiritual person, an atheist or an agnostic, you pretty much can't escape the sights and sounds of Christmas at this time of year. Yesterday as I walked though a very crowded mega-mall, the sounds of "O Come All Ye Faithful" wafted through the air as shoppers rushed from store to store.  

I thought to myself, "certainly these hordes of people aren't all Christians celebrating the birth of Christ -maybe most aren't, and they probably aren't paying all that much attention to that traditional carol blaring through the speakers. Yet somehow I was struck by the idea that all these people were, in fact, "faithful." As I see it, to be human is to be faithful - "O Come All Ye Faithful."

This morning's New York Times featured a very interesting pre-Christmas Op-Ed piece exploring the question of faith in contemporary society, asking the question:

When I hear people say they have no religious impulses whatsoever, I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some ways inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining to reach you? Never?

Most people have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.

These moments arouse a longing within the human heart to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness  into our practical everyday living.

Faith is this longing of the human heart.

I say that all human beings are faithful because from time to time we are all struck by the transcendent- each of us in some way or other has been pulled beyond our own separated isolation into the experience of something greater, something "beyond," and that experience does indeed leave us "longing for more." 

"Faith" is a "longing of the human heart" - a longing for transcendence that is innate in us, endemic to our nature.

The question that remains is: "What do we do with that "longing?" 

Some people become believers - they affiliate with a religion as a way of feeding the desires of the longing heart. They attend a church, or go to a temple or a mosque, say prayers, sing hymns, walk a "moral" path of everyday living that is informed by the experience of "God." 

Others choose to keep away from an organized religion, choosing instead to feed the longing of the heart by following a spiritual path of daily meditation, living a life of compassion and kindness.

There are also others (maybe many others) who very specifically identify themselves as non-believers - atheists and agnostics who do not affirm the existence of a Divine Being. Yet even non-believers are "faithful," because they are human beings - all human beings have longing hearts even if they don't have beliefs. 

 I've been thinking about those hordes of shoppers making their way through the crowds in that madly chaotic mall yesterday. Perhaps that mall is a perfect icon for the madly chaotic life of the 21st century. And yet, even in the midst of all the chaos, a common thread unites us all and we all can sing the same hymn because all of us are "faithful."

O Come All Ye Faithful!

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Spirituality of Winter


Winter has officially arrived in the Northern hemisphere but for the past several years I hardly paid much attention to it because I have been living in Southern California, a place where a change of seasons isn't all that apparent - this is especially true out in the desert where we now live. The forecast for today is,"sunny and warm."

Usually when I write this daily blog post I am looking out at the desert wilderness outside our home, but yesterday we came back "East" to celebrate the Christmas holidays with our family. The morning is crisp and cold, I've had to get used to wearing coats and gloves again, to see my breath in the frosty air  Yes, indeed, for the first  time in many years I am very aware that winter has arrived.

Today I have been thinking about what winter has to teach about the spiritual life, and in some sense I have come to realize that "winter" may in fact be the perfect icon of what the spiritual journey is all about regardless of whatever path we may be on.

Many times we think of our spirituality as a comfortable old security blanket that we can cling to from time to time, providing glib and easy answers to the great mysteries and ambiguous complexities of life.  Say a few prayers, go to church or temple from time to time and visit with "God," sit on a meditation or yoga mat for a half hour of mindfulness. It's all very comforting, like resting in a jacuzzi or sitting under a shade tree on a summer's day sipping a glass of lemonade.

But the winter season offers me an entirely different perspective about what a spiritual journey is all about. Now that I am experiencing this season first-hand, I realize that this is not a particularly easy or comfortable season. It's hard to negotiate through the ice and cold, the long dark nights make it hard to see the way, and from my experience the spiritual journey is often far more like winter than the laid back easy summer months.

"God" is a Great Mystery who can never be explained with "easy to come by" answers and reliable explanations. Sometimes the spiritual journey offers light on the path, but there is often much darkness that makes it hard to see the way. We get sick, we have doubts and fears, loved ones die, we fall out of love, we make mistakes and more often than not life doesn't always live up to what we expect it to be. Life is filled with ambiguity and it's often hard to make your way around all the ice and cold of everyday living.

Saint John of the Cross once said:

If you would walk along a spiritual path
you have to learn how to walk in darkness.

Now that I have become re-acquainted with this winter season, I have come to appreciate how walking the spiritual path is indeed a walk in the cold and in the dark.

In this season we all seem to "huddle" together more than at any other time of the year. In the past few days I have come to realize just how good it feels to come in out of the darkness and the cold and huddle together around a brightly lit Christmas tree, to huddle together at a blazing hearth, to huddle together around a table as we share and recall our memories. And it is precisely in gathering close to one another that we find a deeper peace and experience the truth of an abiding Holy Presence, and so even though we walk in the dark we have no fear of the night.

There is no deeper "Love" than winter love.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Plenty of Room

"Wide Open Spaces"

I heard a report yesterday about a new campaign among conservative Christians to stop what they  refer to as "The war on Christmas." The argument is that Christ has been taken out of Christmas and the holiday has been secularized so that it is now something akin to some sort of "Winterfest."

While I personally think that this season has become far too commercialized with way too much emphasis on buying more and more stuff, I actually think that you don't have to be a Christian or even a believer to celebrate what Christmas is all about. When it comes to Christmas, there is plenty of room at the table.

I came across a story the other day about a growing phenomenon among atheists, agnostics and humanists in cities across the country who come together during the Christmas season to celebrate  "the Spirit of Christmas." These folks don't necessarily believe in God (at least not in a traditional sense) and their celebration is not a commemoration of the birthday of Jesus. They gather together at Christmastime because there is something about the warmth, intimacy, and generosity of this season that touches their hearts.  They want Christmas to be more than some sort of anemic holiday, a vague "Winterfest" marked by frenzied shopping and endless partying.

I was particularly fascinated by the story of one particular "atheist-humanist" Christmas gathering last week. It was attended by almost 200 people (mostly young folks) who met in an auditorium to hear some inspirational music, have conversations, listen to a "sermon," sing some songs, and experience a sense of fellowship and community with one another.  

The topic of the sermon at this "Christmas celebration" focused on how we might develop a sense of selflessness and generosity during this season. Then they all sang some carols (that didn't specifically  refer to Jesus) and they ended with a potluck supper. 

In the news story about this Christmas gathering, the leader of the assembly told a reporter, "We may be atheist but we aren't a bunch of alienated, creepy Scrooges." 

The more I thought about that story, I realized that an atheist "Christmas" gathering may be Christmas without Christ, but it most certainly is Christmas in the spirit of Christ.

When I look at the life and teachings of Jesus, I find someone who practiced unlimited compassion and unbounded hospitality. His message was that everyone is always welcome to sit at a place of equal dignity and respect at the table of life.  Jesus never turned anyone away.  He ate with saints and sinners, and welcomed good religious people as well as those who had no use for religion - and he invited any who would follow him to do the same.

My guess is that if he were walking around today, Jesus would have been in attendance at one of those atheist-humanist Christmas gatherings last week.

There is no war on Christmas; Christmas is a generous feast of abundant Love, a time to welcome everyone to a big table at which there is plenty of room for all to sit. 

In a few days it will be Christmas, and whether you attend a church or a temple or a mosque,  whether you are religious or spiritual or an atheist or an agnostic, come and enjoy the feast!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Just Say Yes

"Love is in the Air"
- Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House -

As I see it, there is no more beautiful poetry than may be found in the biblical stories of Christmas. Just yesterday, I came across a Christmas card depicting the "Annunciation." The Angel Gabriel is dressed in snow-white robes as he enfolds the maiden Mary in his fluttering wings, inviting her to accept an invitation to become pregnant with the power of "God." Mary says "yes" to the invitation as she surrenders her old-self and becomes a new-self, allowing the power of love to fill her up completely. 

What a shame it would be to view this tenderly beautiful Annunciation story as a single historical event -something that happened to a young Palestinian girl some 2000 years ago, because this story tells the tale of every human soul- regardless of religious belief or non-belief. 

We sometimes think that the spiritual journey is something that we initiate, a journey that we embark upon in order to pursue God, to seek transcendence, to find a deeper truth. I actually think we have it reversed -the  direction of the spiritual journey flows in the other direction. "God' is seeking us; truth and wisdom looks for us. Every day "Grace" comes knocking at the door of our lives.
I am reminded of something the theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote a few years back describing what it is like to be "struck by grace"

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? We cannot transform our lives unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. Certainly grace does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves. And also, it does not happen if we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it.

Grace often strikes us when we are in pain or restless, walking through a dark valley of a meaningless life. It strikes us when we feel our separation deeper than usual. It strikes us when year after year the longed-for perfection of life does not appear.

When grace strikes, a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as if a voice is saying, 'You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you. So simply accept the fact that you are accepted.'

In these cold dark days of late December, "Love" is in the air and "Grace" comes knocking at our door. The Angel Gabriel appears, "his wings are drifted snow, his eyes as flame." He embraces us in a gentle power and tells each of us that we are "highly favored." Then, invites us to "say yes" to "Love" 

And if we do say "yes," we accept the fact that we are accepted.  The old-self dies, the new-self is born. 

The Islamic poet, Rumi, once wrote:

You are so weak. Give up to grace.
The ocean takes care of each wave until it gets to shore.
You need more help than you know

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Building Bridges

"Olive Branches"
- in my meditation garden -

For more than half a century a thick wall of separation had divided the United States and Cuba.  Growing up as a child I remember being taught that Cuba was one of our worst and most dangerous enemies, and I vividly remember that very frightening time when we were on the verge of a nuclear holocaust because missiles in Cuba were pointing at the United States. 

Yesterday one of those "history making" moments happened as that dividing wall came tumbling down and the President announced a normalization of relationships between our two countries - long time, bitter enemies are now poised to become allies and maybe even friends. 

This morning's New York Times reported on the important role Pope Francis played in helping to restore Cuban American relationships, suggesting that this particular pope is  more and more being recognized on the world stage as someone who is capable of "building bridges" between the nations. 

Interestingly enough, one of the Pope's formal titles is "pontiff," which comes from the Latin word "pontifex," meaning "bridge builder." At least in theory, as the title suggests, this is what popes are supposed to do - they are supposed to be bridge-builders.  It seems that perhaps Pope Francis may have actually put this theory into practice.

I've been reflecting on this bridge-builder pope who uses the name "pontifex" as his twitter handle. Just the other day he sent out this tweet:

Where there is a wall, there is a closure of the heart.
We need bridges not walls.

But, of course, the Pope alone is not the only bridge builder. It seems to me that any one of us on any sort of spiritual journey is, in fact, a "pontiff."  

A spiritual path is a path of enlightenment. On this path we tear down the walls of ego isolating us from one another as we become aware of our dynamic interconnection.  But tearing down walls is only the first step. After the walls come down, we are then called to build bridges - to nurture, heal and reconcile relationships, to show kindness to others, to work for justice and peace, to care for the needs of the poor and feed the hungry.

The Buddha taught:

However many holy words you read
However many you speak
What good will they do if you do not act upon them?

It seems to me that this "bridge builder" pope is an inspiration for all of us "pontiffs" who walk a spiritual journey on a path to deeper truth. As pontiffs, we are all called to get up and go outside of our churches and our temples, get up off our meditation mats, get up and go out to the streets of our everyday life and do our very best to "act upon our holy words and holy thoughts and holy ideas,"  each us doing our part to make this world a better place.

Yesterday walls came tumbling down, prisoners were set free, bridges were built, and enemies face the prospect of reconciliation - the message of Christmas became so very real, it took on flesh. 

Peace on earth, goodwill to all people!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

O Wisdom

-in my meditation garden-

There is an ancient tradition in the Christian church to spend these last days before Christmas praying for the gift of "Wisdom."  

O Wisdom
reaching from one end to the other
Come and teach us the way.

I've been reflecting on "wisdom" today, what wisdom is and how to achieve it. For one thing, it's almost impossible to define what wisdom actually is, but I do know what wisdom is "not." Wisdom is very different from knowledge. 

Psychologists pretty much agree that wisdom is a "hard to pin down" deep understanding about what is really real - an awareness of deeper truth. 

A wise person knows that he or she can never figure it all out, that life is a mystery, and so a wise person is comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. A wise person also knows that even though life  is a mystery, life is more than random chaos - we all belong to one another and love prevails even in the worst of times. And so the wise person is able to courageously embrace life as it happens without resisting the moment, and enjoy life as it is. 

Socrates once said:

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing

Interestingly enough there is no way you can achieve wisdom. You can't read books or take courses or get a Ph.D. in order to be certified as being "wise." And in some ways the more you try to achieve  wisdom, the father away you will be from it.  

Personally, I have found the Buddhist insight into the way of wisdom to be particularly helpful - the  only way to wisdom is to "do-nothing." With an open heart and an uncluttered mind be awake in the moment, mindful in the present and wisdom will come to you.

In this sense, "Wisdom" is indeed a gift.

I recently came across something the Dalai Lama once said that was very illuminating for me about the way of wisdom. 

The thing that surprises me most about humanity is 'man'
because he sacrifices his health in order to make money, 
then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.
And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die,
and then dies having never really lived.

I find so much "wisdom" in this teaching of a very wise man. Only the fool regrets the past and plots and plans in order to control the future. Only the fool thinks he or she is smart enough to be able to solve the unsolvable mystery of living. The wise person just watches and waits, living life as it "is." not as you want or expect it to be. The wise person really lives before he dies. 

In these days before Christmas, I sit and I watch and I wait:

O Wisdom
reaching from one end to the other
Come and teach us the way.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Festivals and Feasts

"Light in the Darkness"

Comedian Bill Maher is perhaps one of the most well-known and outspoken atheists in America, so I was somewhat taken back by a statement he recently made on one of his shows when he said, "I love the Christmas season, it's my favorite time of the year." 

So why would someone like Bill Maher have such fondness for a festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus? My guess is that, for him, Christmas is far less about Jesus and far more about a celebration of family, kindness, generosity, warmth and hope which the Christmas festival can evoke in any human heart whether you are an atheist or an agnostic, spiritual or religious, a Christian, a Muslim, Jew or a Buddhist. 

Every culture has its own unique festivals and feasts - religious festivals, nature festivals, family festivals, national festivals. In some sense these celebrations are endemic to the human condition. People yearn to be connected with each other, we yearn for transcendence -to be pulled beyond our own individual isolation into community with others. And so throughout time we human beings have gathered together to mark special occasions and celebrate feasts and festivals that feed and nurture our natural yearning to be part of one another's lives.

Today, Jews throughout the world begin the 8-day Festival of Hanukkah. It is a religious celebration commemorating an ancient time when, under siege from an enemy force, faithful Jews huddled together inside their temple. The oil in the temple lights should have run out, leaving them to sit in darkness with the enemy at the gate, but it miraculously kept on burning, unable to be extinguished. 

Like all religious festivals, the Hanukkah celebration goes well beyond commemorating a past historical event. Hanukkah provides an occasion for "huddling together" around a family table and lighting candles in the darkness. And so each night of Hanukkah a candle is lit on the menorah -candles to protect against the darkness, candles that celebrate hope in the midst of despair and the victory of love even when the forces of hate are knocking at the door.

Interestingly enough, the celebration of Christmas and Hanukkah, as well as the more contemporary African and African-American festival of Kwanzaa are all "Festivals of Light." At the darkest time of year, during the season when the night is longer than the day, Jews light the candles of the Menorah, Christians light candles on an Advent wreath and place bright lights on evergreen trees, and on each of the 7 days of Kwanzaa, colorful candles are lit as friends and family gather together to share a festive meal. 

Martin Luther King Jr. once said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.

And so throughout the world feasts and festivals are being celebrated at this time of year - festivals of light to drive out the darkness, festivals that join us all together celebrating an eternal truth that we human beings all belong to one another. and that in the end, love will indeed conquer all. 

You don't have to be a Christian to celebrate Christmas, you need not be an African America to celebrate Kwanzaa and you don't have to be Jewish to celebrate Hanukkah. All you need is a desire in your heart to drive out the darkness wherever it may be. 

Happy Hanukkah!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Emergent Truth

"Gathering Light"
- Dawn at the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday I came across a "year-end" summary of some of the major events that occurred in America in 2014, suggesting that this has been a year of "deep divisions" in this country.  Unfortunately I think that this observation is quite accurate.

This past year we became more and more racially divided over issues such as police brutality and the failure to indict White police officers. In this past year the "culture wars" have intensified, conservative against liberal, rich against poor, citizen against immigrant, the "Tea Party" and the "Green Party." On the religious front, the emergence of an aggressive strain of new atheists have gone to battle with theist believers, both sides digging in their heels, and the ugly face of religious fundamentalism has once again raised its ugly head as Christians do battle with Muslims, Jews against Palestinians. 

It seems to me that more and more people have retreated into the protection of their own fortified camps talking only to those who think alike, each camp sure that they are right and the other side is wrong, that they possess the light of truth and the other side lingers in an uniformed darkness.  

But, as I see it, this retreat into rigidly autonomous camps of "right and wrong" is a sure formula for failing in the pursuit of deeper truth and greater wisdom.

Truth and wisdom emerge out of dialogue among people who are different.

I am reminded of a trip we took to Greece several years ago, and I vividly remember standing in the middle of the ancient Greek Agora located in the center of Athens. The Agora was an ancient  marketplace for buying and selling, but more than that, it was a place for the lively exchange of ideas. People like Aristotle and Plato would "set up shop" in a corner of the Agora and engage in dialogue about their philosophies of the world, renowned scientists, poets and mathematicians like Pythagoras could daily be found peppered throughout this marketplace venue.  Even Saint Paul was said to have visited there, not so much to preach the gospel but to engage in a conversation about his newly emerging vision of a faith which would ultimately come to be known as Christianity.  

The interesting thing about the Agora was that no one came there to deliver a diatribe about the correctness of their point of view, nor to judge those who thought differently.  They came to the Agora to share their thoughts - ideas that were often challenged by those who disagreed. The now well-established philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, the mathematical theorems of Pythagoras,  even the theology of Saint Paul virtually "emerged" out of those Agora dialogues - ideas formed and fashioned out of  interaction with different others with differing perspectives. 

As a matter of fact, the very idea of a "democracy" that we so much take for granted today "emerged" out of sometimes fairly- heated conversation and debate among people with many different points of  view over what could work best for how societies might govern themselves to promote the common good.

After I read the news report about 2014 being a year of "deep divisions," I thought to myself that if there is to be any hope for our survival as a nation we need to rediscover the "Agora" once again in our own time and in our own place. Perhaps instead of using social media as a vehicle for promoting the ideas of our own individual "camp" and attacking those who differ,  the internet might be able to become a modern-day technological "marketplace" for lively exchange, an Agora where disagreements can be aired but also respected, a place where "truth"  might emerge. 

I don't know, maybe this is asking too much of a self-focused, me-first culture in which so many of us are so absolutely sure we possess the true way, and yet one would think that if so-called primitive people like the ancient Greeks could have done this thousands of years ago, a sophisticated modern society such as ours should able to do the same - otherwise we are surely on a slippery slope.

I have a note card on my desk:

It's an adventure not an axiom,
a story still unfolding, not a tale already told.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Poetry and Metaphor

"A Garden Creche"
- At the Desert Retreat House - 

I'm putting up our Christmas Creche - it's been in our family for many many years now.  As I set out the figures of Mary and Joseph, the babe in a manger surrounded by shepherds and animals and angels, I am flooded with rich childhood memories of setting up a creche with my grandmother when I was just a toddler; setting up the creche with my own now-adult children when they were small boys; setting up the creche as carols play in the background and lights twinkle on a the tree while cookies bake in the oven.  For me, the imagery of Christmas has always evoked a sort of magic - it calls out the "better angels" in me.

As I put out the creche this year I realized that I don't ever ask the question about whether or not the events depicted in the Christmas story actually happened. In fact, my guess is that, for the most part, the story of Christmas didn't actually happen as it is told in the Bible. But then again, I don't really want the story of Christmas to be a hard, cold, historical account of some long ago event. If this were true, the story would lose its magic for me, because the Christmas story is a poem and like all poetry it's aim is not to inform me but to inspire me, to lift my mind and warm my heart. 

In his provocatively titled book, Christianity without God, Daniel Maguire offers this very helpful observation:

Both theists and most of today's agitated atheists get a failing grade in literary criticism, the atheists by obsessing over the dogmas and the theists by mistaking metaphors for facts. Both miss the epic poetry that moves throughout the complex biblical literature.

Fervent atheists join the faithful in reducing infinitely varied and image-rich narrative and writings to a literal reading as though they were historical tracts or a kind of ancient journalism.
Anti-poets take teachings like those found in the Exodus story or the Christmas story and downsize them, de-symbolizing them into happenings that could have been caught on film.

I think that people nowadays have a particularly hard time understanding the language of poetry and metaphor. We live in a 24-hour news world of reporting everyday events "as they happen." We live in a sophisticated technological world that focuses on explanation and analysis.  We assume that when we use language, we are describing "reality." Most people today hardly even know what story telling means and yet storytelling is what the Bible is all about. That's why so many people have such a hard time understanding biblical language. 

The people who wrote the various books of the Bible had no intention of providing  accurate historical data or analyzing a real world. The biblical  writers are storytellers and the biblical accounts are stories of faith and wonder, poetry and metaphor that celebrate the great mystery of the world rather than attempting to explain it. 

And so every year at this time we tell a story and recount the tender Christmas poem about a spark of love that was ignited in the darkness of a stone, cold world. It's a story that's told to any people of goodwill - theists or atheists, Christians or Jews, Muslims or Buddhists.

Mary and Joseph are two weary travelers who have been refused hospitality - no room in the Inn, no place to give birth to their expected  baby. And so they must sleep on straw in a darkened cave in which animals huddle to keep safe from the terror of the night. As shepherds watch there flocks on the surrounding hillsides, the world is dreary and foreboding. The night is long. 

And then, in the midst of all the dreary darkness and the chaos of the world, love emerges. A baby is  born and the warm glow of love beams from a manger lighting up the darkened cave, spilling out to wake up sleepy-eyed shepherds in the fields. Hosts of angels dance with the stars and sing a heavenly song of comfort and joy - "Love has come. Love is the victor. Love conquers the night."

Now, that's poetry!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Abundance Without Attachment

"Generous Beauty"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

An op-ed article in this morning's New York Times was very insightful to me, a helpful guide for navigating through this holiday season without losing my spiritual bearings. 

The article talked about the "Christmas Conundrum" faced by many people at this time of year. 

We are supposed to revel in gift-giving and generosity,
yet the season's lavishness and commercialization leave many people cold.

In some sense the "Christmas Conundrum" is a dilemma that permeates all of our everyday contemporary life. Of course we want to enjoy prosperity - a nice house, a car, new clothes, money in the bank. On the other hand prosperity can also lead to a materialism, stinginess and self-centered consumerism that places a serious roadblock on a spiritual path to deeper peace. 

The answer to this conundrum provided in today's op-ed piece sounded like it could have been written by the Buddha or by Jesus or by some ancient Christian desert monk. We can indeed enjoy the comforts of life and and also find deep peace at the same time when we are guided by the principle of abundance without attachment. 

A wise old abbot in an ancient desert monastery told his fellow monks:

It's not possessing something that is harmful, but being attached to it.

Tibetan Buddhists often talk about the dangers of attachment. In the Tibetan language, the word for "attachment" is "do-chag" which is literally translated into English as:

sticky desire

I really like this insight into what "attachment" is all about. 

We can enjoy the car or the house or all the presents under a tree, but if we cling to them, tightly grasp them with a "sticky desire," then the ego is the victor; and whenever the ego is in charge, we know that we have lost the "way."

I have several very prosperous friends who I also consider to be deeply spiritual people. They live with great abundance but at the same time they are more than willing to give it away.  They don't hide  away their cash in piles, craving and desiring more and more; but they use their prosperity as a tool for promoting the welfare of others - establishing a scholarship fund for poor children, a food bank for hungry people, a shelter for the homeless. When I look at these prosperous friends I see that they are happy people. I honor their abundance and I also celebrate their advancement in the spiritual life- perfect examples of abundance without attachment.

As I reflect upon my own life,  I look to the formulas of "abundance without attachment" as a powerful guiding principle for me in my life, especially in this holiday season.  

We are hardly wealthy people and yet my wife and I lead a pretty comfortable life. We have a beautiful desert home, travel from time to time. enjoy a nice meal in a restaurant, but I must also be careful that this abundance never becomes an obstacle to the spiritual path by doing my best not to cling to anything we have, always looking for ways to cleanse my heart and mind of "sticky desire." 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Dogs in Heaven

- At the Desert Retreat House -

In an attempt to console a distraught little boy whose pet dog had just died, Pope Francis told the child, "Paradise is open to all God's creatures." That one little, seemingly offhand remark sent shock waves through the entire world. The story appeared on the front page of the New York Times this morning and it was the lead story on the TV news shows.

While it may not seem like such a big deal that a pope might say that dogs go to heaven, it's actually a pretty "fringy" thing for a pope to say- quite a departure from traditional, Western, Catholic thinking. As a matter of fact several conservative-minded bishops and theologians were aghast at the Pope's  remarks, claiming that this one offhand comment about dogs in heaven was "a repudiation" of Roman Catholic doctrine."

As far as I'm concerned,  if the "dogs in heaven" remark does indeed repudiate traditional doctrine, I'm very glad it does so.

A traditional Catholic/Christian worldview is essentially medieval and very "human-centered."  Human beings are considered to be more important than other species or other forms of life. The world of nature (including the animal world) exists to serve human needs. It's this kind of attitude that allows human beings to think that "Mother Nature" belongs to them and gives them license to pollute the air or poison the oceans as long as people are comfortable and gratified.

A simple statement like "paradise is open to all creatures" helps shift the center of importance away from an exclusive focus on human beings, recognizing that we all belong to one another. "Mother Nature" doesn't belong to us, bur rather we belong to "Mother Nature."  Humans are not more important than dogs or fish or birds or air or water - all have equal value, all the "many" are woven into ONE fabric of "being."

Hearing about dogs in heaven also helps to rethink what "going to heaven" might actually mean.

From a traditional, dualistic, medieval, human-centered worldview, only human beings have souls. Souls are "spirits" locked inside bodies, and when a person dies the soul is released and travels out to or up to a "place" called heaven to spend eternity with an eternal being whose name is "God"

But thinking about a paradise "open to all creatures," may indeed serve as a catalyst to challenge  some of this antiquated and rather simplistic medieval way of looking at things.

As I see it, the soul is the "life force" inherent to anything or anyone that has being. We are all joined together by a common energy, "the energy of love" "the energy of God," and nothing that dies ever stops being because you can't kill energy. So, when anything or anyone dies it simply returns to that energy from which it came.

In that sense, paradise is indeed open to all creatures - of course dogs go to heaven, so do snakes and plants and trees and fish, as well as human beings.  Paradise is open to all creatures.

I don't have a clue of what it will be like when I die, and to be honest I don't expect I will see my dogs come running up and licking me in the face while we all float around on clouds.  But I know for sure that my death is not my ending nor is it the ending for my dogs. We have always been connected in the flow of life, and that connection will never come to an end.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


"Do Not Be Afraid"
'Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House"

When I was a parish priest, one of the members of my congregation decided that I didn't smile enough, so whenever she saw me she'd look me straight in the eyes and tell me to "smile." At first, I would just slap a big smile on my face when she told me to do so, but after a while her campaign began to annoy me, so one day I asked her: "Why do you always want and expect to see me smiling?' She told me that Christians (especially priests) are supposed to be happy so they should look like they are.  

I think I was so annoyed with that well-meaning parishioner's efforts to get me to smile all the time because I don't for a second believe that we should always be happy- joyful, yes, but not always happy.  

There is a big difference between being happy and being joyful.

If you look at the biblical texts in both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament, you almost never see the word "happy;" but the word "joy" is used consistently. In fact, Saint Paul tells one of his congregations:

Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again, rejoice!

Christians in those early days were being persecuted, tortured, sent to be chewed up by lions. Was Saint Paul telling the people that they should always be happy? "Have a big smile on your face when they throw you into the lion's den?" I hardy think so. Instead he was telling them to be joyful - in all circumstances of life (even when life is at its worst), be joyful.

We experience "happiness" when we feel content, when life seems to be working out for us- the job is going well, there's enough cash in the account, everyone is healthy.  But, of course life doesn't always work out that way. From time to time every single one of us has personal problems, relationship problems, financial issues, health issues. On top of that we live in a world that is often very scary and quite chaotic at times- terrorism and torture, beheadings and Ebola flood our minds on a day to day basis. 

Some may think that the opposite of joy is "sadness," but the fact is that opposite of joy is "fear."  As I see it, there are plenty of times when I might not feel happy, plenty of reasons not to have a big smile, but I honestly believe that I can indeed always be joyful because the bottom line is that I do not need to be afraid of anything in life, come what may. In fact, I don't even have to be afraid of death. 

At this time of year I call to mind the beautiful poetry of the Christmas story. Shepherds are sound asleep in the Bethlehem hills as a baby is born in a manger. Suddenly the skies are lit up by angelic spirits dancing in the cosmos waking the shepherds from their slumber. The sleepy-eyed shepherds are filled with fear and dread and so the angels sing a love song to them- a song to calm their fears:

Do not be afraid, we bring good news of great joy!

The angels do not tell the fear-filled shepherds to be happy- they tell them to be joyful because of the good news that "God" abides, love abides,  and in the end, love will win the day.

You certainly don't have to be a Christian to hear the song of the angels. They dance their cosmic dance and sing their tender song of love to all humankind -to all our sleepy, fearful hearts. They tell us that we don't ever have to be afraid in this wilderness of life: "God" abides, love abides, and in the end "love" will win the day.

I just realized that I am not smiling right now, but I am in fact very joyful! 

I say it again, rejoice!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gift Giving

"In My Meditation Garden"

The other day I heard someone say, "I'd like this Christmas season a whole lot more if it weren't for all the gift-giving." I've been reflecting on that little off-hand remark and the more I've thought about it, the more I find myself agreeing with it. 

I think our modern-day version of "holiday gift giving" has gotten way out of control. It has turned into a burdensome task, often financially draining, weighing lots of people down, making this time of the year far less enjoyable than it otherwise might be. 

Regardless of whether or not someone actually celebrates "Christmas," "holiday gift-giving"" has become a necessary and expected task in the ordinary routine of life for this time of the year.  Many employees are expected to give their boss a gift or to exchange gifts with colleagues. Students are often expected to give gifts to their teachers. The paper boy expects a gift, so does the mail carrier, the babysitter, the gardener and the hairdresser. 

While some of these "required" gifts are given out of love, kindness and gratitude, many of them are given as a means of garnering favor or assuring good service for the year to come. I know plenty of people who give a holiday gift to a supervisor for the primary purpose of staying on his/her good side, and a gift to the paper boy assures that the paper will be delivered every day on time. 

When I was a parish priest we were always very careful about limiting the kinds of often-elaborate gifts that the children (especially children of wealthier parents) would give to their elementary school teachers. While these gifts were usually given to thank the teacher, in some subtle ways they were sometimes given to "bribe" a teacher- "remember what I gave you when you grade my child's essay or write a recommendation." 

It also seems to me that, even "gift giving" among family and friends can be driven by the principles of necessity and utility. People often give presents to other people from whom they expect a present in return, and the amount or value of the gift is also commensurate with what they expect to get back. So, for example I might give my neighbor an elaborate basket of fruit because I expect she will do something similar for me, or I will give my brother a nice gift certificate because I know he is going to do the same for me. 

I sometimes wonder if the "gift giving" behavior in today's culture may actually be quite symptomatic of the way in which we treat relationships in general. Many times our relationships with others (even with people we "care about") look a lot more like a business deal than a relationship based on love: "I will care for you and do nice things for you IF you do the same for me; and when either of us stops behaving this way, the relationship is finished." 

What looks like love can easily be little more than "narcissism" in disguise.

I am reminded of something Saint Paul wrote in his famous "Canticle on Love," and I particularly like this translation:

If I speak with human elegance and angelic ecstasy but do not love,
I am nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
I'm bankrupt without love.
Love cares for others more than self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always 'me first.'
Love doesn't revel while others grovel.
It always looks for the best,
Never looks back, but keeps going to the end no matter what. 

I'm not at all in favor of eliminating all gift giving at this Holiday/Christmas season. However, I am very much in favor of re-thinking why we give a gift, giving not out of necessity or utility but always out of "love," - good advice for how and why and what we give in all of our relationships. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


"Sacred Space"

I found myself laughing out loud the other day at the supermarket as I watched a mother and her small child next to me in the "dairy aisle." The mom had placed a dozen eggs into her shopping cart and asked her daughter, "Do you know where these eggs come from, honey?" Without missing a beat the little girl responded, "From the back room over there."

I am quite sure that the mom was hoping her daughter would tell her that eggs come from chickens, but the child wasn't able to see that bigger picture. For her, the eggs came from a little room in the  back of the store, appearing on a supermarket shelf all cleaned up and neatly packaged in a cardboard crate.

The more I thought about it, I realized that the little girl in that supermarket may not have ever even been to a farm and perhaps had never seen a real-life chicken. She almost certainly had never removed eggs from a chicken's nest and placed them in a basket. So I guess it's not all that surprising that the child thought that eggs came all boxed up from the back room of a market. 

My guess is that more and more of us nowadays live in our "own little world."  Most people get their food from inside a market without ever seeing a farm or they spend so much time in a mall that they hardly ever look up into the starlit sky. Most people spend each day confined indoors, sitting in an office or a classroom staring at a computer, oblivious to the gentle sounds of wind or rain or falling snow, immune to the awesome beauty of a rising sun.

I think of something William Kittredge once said:

Human beings evolved, immersed in a world of nature.
Isolate us from nature too long, as individuals, as societies,
and we start getting nervous, unmoored, inhabited by diseases we cannot name,
driven to thoughtless ambitions and easy cruelties.

We are genetically "wired" for connection and interdependence. We all belong together, we belong to each other, we belong to a world of sunrises and starlit skies, we belong to a world of farms and farmers and chickens that lay eggs in nests. When we live in our own little world, cut off from a sense of belonging, we will always feel incomplete. 

Oddly enough we often think of a "holy" person as someone who has cut himself/herself off from the world. We think of a monk or a hermit as someone who has left the ordinary world of everyday life in order to be closer to "God."  Or we think about going to church as a time when we close the doors on the world in order to visit some sacred realm where "God" exists. But actually the opposite is true. 

The word "holy" comes from an old English word meaning "whole," "complete," "entire." Holiness is not something that people of faith achieve by leaving the world locked away within the walls of a monastery or behind the closed doors of a church.  Holiness is a process by which every human being enters into the world of nature and the world of people more fully. We are holy when we are "whole," aware of our mutual interdependence, knowing that everything and everyone all belong together as the many who are connected in the ONE.

I know many monks of many different religious persuasions who tell me that a monastery is never a place where you go to escape from the world, but rather a place where you go to dive into it wholeheartedly and without reserve. 

The desert where I live is a sacred space and it teaches me how to be holy. Every day I make it a point to practice the spiritual discipline of "being outdoors,"  immersed in a world of nature. I greet the sun and pay attention to the wind in the palms. I relish the crystal blue skies and borderless mountains of stone. I walk outside at night gazing up into the blazing cosmos, feeling so small and yet always so connected to it all. "Holy, holy, holy!" 

But, of course you don't have to live in a desert to practice holiness. Anyone can turn off the computer and take a walk in a park or look up into the heavens on their way to the mall, maybe even drive out to a farm and look at some chickens.