Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Culture of Racism

-along a wilderness trail-

Over the past few days,"racism"  has once again raised its ugly head in the blatantly bigoted remarks about African Americans made by Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers. Yesterday, when Sterling was punished for his remarks by being "banned for life from the NBA and fined 2.5 million dollars," howls of delight could be heard coming out of various sectors of the country (especially here in Southern California) - prejudice cannot be tolerated, justice has been done.

I was driving in my car and listening to the radio yesterday. An African American sociologist and cultural commentator was being interviewed. While he was grateful and even relieved that Donald Sterling had been justly punished, he also warned everyone not to be too smug about the incident.

He went on to say that it is way too easy to label Mr. Sterling as "the" bigot who has been punished and now justice has been accomplished. Then he said something that really caught my attention, "Most people (especially in the White majority) are simply unaware of their own racist attitudes simmering beneath the surface of life in America today." 

At first I took serious exception to what this guy was saying. When I look at myself I don't find a trace of racism in me. I had been the rector of one of the most diverse parishes in the country. Many of my close friends are people of color.  I wouldn't even think about using the kind of blatant, heinous, bigoted language Donald Sterling used in his rant about African Americans. 

And while I do not at all consider myself to be a racist,  as I drove along and listened to that interview yesterday, I was struck by a sudden flash of memory. 

Recently, my wife and I were doing some shopping at our local Costco.  As you leave this store you are required to present a receipt of your purchases to a "guard" standing at the door who verifies that you have, in fact, "paid for" all the stuff in your cart.

The other day at Costco, the person checking our receipts was an older white woman - very officious and looking very serious. When we arrived at her checkpoint she looked us over -  me and my wife (also older, White, seemingly professional types ).  Then without even looking at our receipt or even glancing at what we had in our cart, she smiled pleasantly and waived us by.

It was then that I noticed the young Mexican family behind us - a mom and a dad and their three kids.  The woman at the checkpoint wasn't waiving them through - not at all. She was carefully checking their receipt, item by item, and then examining everything in their cart to be sure that every single item was accounted for.  If she could,  she probably would have "patted them down" to be sure that they weren't stealing from the store.  It was embarrassing to say the least.

As I drove along yesterday,  listening to that program about racism simmering beneath the surface of the culture,  that flash of memory from Costco really hit me between the eyes.  Maybe the guy on the radio was right. No matter how clean and pure I may think of myself when it comes to racist attitudes, I  live in  a culture in which racism is still very prevalent, just not always so obvious.  As a privileged White male, I am likely often unaware of the bigotry that is constantly being perpetrated around me every day. I may even be unaware of my own racism simmering beneath the surface of my own attitudes.

So I guess I need to pay closer attention. 

The newest scientific evidence suggests that, in reality there is no such phenomenon as "differences in race." DNA studies suggest that  there is only "one" human race - no real DNA differences along racial lines among people anywhere. All the many and various racial categorizations are nothing more than human constructs - artificial labels that we use to divide ourselves from one another.

In my heart of hearts I truly do believe that we human beings are a complex web of inter-relationship. We are "inter being," all united by a universal energy of love flowing in and through us all. There are no different others.

And yet I also believe that we do live in a culture of racism and it's easy to get pulled down into it. The events of the past few days have made me more aware of the fact that I need to start paying closer attention to what may be simmering beneath the surface of my life.

The next time a Mexican couple is stopped by the store police and "frisked" because of the color of their skin, instead of just feeling bad for them, I plan to go up to the lady at the door and ask her why the same thing wasn't done to me when I went through the line.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Practice of Everyday Kindness

"A Few Simple Flowers"
-in my meditation garden-

It's amazing what you can learn sitting in the waiting room of a doctor's office by just paying attention to what is going on. Yesterday I sat in such a room. 

Throughout my life I've sat in hundreds of waiting rooms at numerous doctors' offices - it's almost always the same experience. The receptionists are sometimes pleasant, more often abrupt,  and at times even rude - barely tolerating the people who have appointments to see the doctor. Waiting rooms are often quiet places, but rather than being calming, the silence often hangs like a cloud over the room - filled with tension over upcoming appointments. No one makes eye contact as people avoid one another by browsing through magazines they would otherwise never read. 

My experience in the waiting room yesterday was totally different from anything I had ever before experienced. It was a very low-stress place. People were smiling and even laughing at times. Almost everyone was engaged in some form of conversation. I didn't see a magazine anywhere.  The elderly man who sat next to me smiled and talked with me about how much better he is feeling since he gave up smoking two years ago - I congratulated him on his success.

As I  "paid attention" to what was going on in that room,  I very quickly realized that the relaxed atmosphere, the lively conversations and the camaraderie were all due to one key person who was literally "making it all happen" - a very "kind" receptionist. 

There is a big difference between being "nice" and being "kind." People can often be "nice" to others for very selfish reasons - pasting on a phony smile and saying pleasant things so that other people will like you.  Most of the time it's fairly easy to see through the thinly-veiled facade of "niceness" 

But the "practice" of kindness is far different. The practice of kindness is a diminishment of self-centeredness. The practice of kindness shrinks the ego.  That's why Buddhists talk about "practicing kindness" as a spiritual discipline. Kindness is an act (big or small) done on behalf of another's welfare. One extends kindness to another in order to help, or encourage, motivate or comfort the other person.  

In the waiting room yesterday, the receptionist wasn't rude or indifferent. She wasn't even "nice" - no pasted-on smile, no dismissive wave: "Take a seat,  the doctor will be right with you." 

Yesterday the receptionist was kind. She was practicing simple, everyday kindness. 

I watched carefully as her face lit up every time she greeted patients who entered the room. No one was a number, an anonymous name to be processed and then ignored after they "coughed up" their co-pay.   I really got the sense that she honored the dignity of everyone who approached her- inquiring about their health, encouraging them if they seemed especially frail or elderly. I personally had a humorous conversation with her about the difficulty of pronouncing many syllabic Polish last names. Her last name was longer than mine.

And when she wasn't receiving people at her desk, she was in the room - bringing a glass of water to a woman in a wheelchair, checking on why another patient hadn't yet been seen, always engaged in numerous conversations 

Her kindness was infectious. It spread through that room like wildfire. People not only made eye contact but they were actually talking and even laughing with one another - and an elderly man was telling me about how giving up smoking had helped to heal his life.

I couldn't help but think of how one receptionist's small, simple acts of everyday kindness in a doctor's office waiting room had, in fact, changed the world that day - making it a better and more beautiful place. 

Instead of experiencing stress, instead of feeling ignored or maybe even abused, all of us in that room went home yesterday with an experience of being honored, a sense that someone else was concerned for our welfare.  In some sense the waiting room was more healing for me than my regular  appointment with my doctor.

Who knows how what went on in that waiting room may have affected what all of us did for the rest of the day yesterday. Kindness is infectious.

As always, I begin my day practicing meditation. I will live my day practicing kindness.

Monday, April 28, 2014

No Tomorrow

-At the Desert Retreat House-

A few days ago I received an invitation to attend a "Planning for Tomorrow Conference,"  a day-long financial planning seminar, offering advice and strategies for assuring financial security in retirement.  

At this stage of my life I found the invitation to be somewhat entertaining -  if I haven't yet prepared for retirement I am likely to be in some fairly serious trouble. But for some reason, the very idea of "planning for tomorrow" just really struck me. Maybe, because for most of my life, so much of what I did was planning for tomorrow. In fact I think lots of people today are consumed by and obsessed with making plans and developing strategies for the future. 

When I was in parish ministry we were always strategizing for the future. How can we develop the church? What will the school be like ten years from now? I often found it somewhat humorous, if not disconcerting, to talk with parents of 4 year-old preschool children and discover that,  not only were these parents squirreling away some serious money for their kids' "college fund,"  but they were also deciding on what high schools and colleges they wanted their children to eventually attend - talk about "planning for tomorrow," yikes!

I have now come to that stage of my life where I no longer engage in future strategizing. While I can somewhat see the advantage of preparing for future directions in life,  I am also very convinced that in many cases, all the "planning for tomorrow" is often a useless drain of energy, robbing people of the joy of living every day. 

The truth is that we really never have a "tomorrow." We can remember the past but we can't live in the past.  And when tomorrow comes it's no longer tomorrow - it is the present. There is no tomorrow. All we ever have is "now." 

In my reading yesterday I came across a few poems that helped me focus on being here in the "now." The first poem is from the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. I often find the teaching of this unassuming monk to be so very powerful - so simple and yet so profound. In his little poem, Journey, he writes:

Here are words written down -
footprints on the sand,
cloud formations.
I'll be gone.

This morning as I sit and reflect at the beginning of this day, I read this poem over and over again, and I cherish its wisdom. Everything I do or say or write or think today immediately becomes the past -over and done. There is no tomorrow. All I have is this moment, the present, the "now" in which to live fully.

I came across a second poem yesterday written by Janice McLaughin, a Maryknoll nun, titled, Flight.

Flapping, flapping, flapping
Not yet ready to fly.
Anchored by too much- 
Doubts,  fears,  expectations.
The past is a chain
Holding me down.
The future is a vision
Not yet clear
There is only today.
Today I will soar.

The morning sun has once again risen majestically over the eastern mountains, bathing the desert in the indescribable beauty of Spring. No future planning for me. Today is the gift.  I'm here "now."

Today I will soar. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Excruciatingly "Beautiful"

Pristine Blue Skies, Spring Blossoms, Desert Day"

At first it may seem somewhat odd that when people encounter great beauty - a piece of art, a magnificent symphony, a golden sunset, they often refer to their experience as "excruciatingly beautiful." One might think that an encounter with the "Beautiful" would be soothing and pleasant, but in the face of Beauty that is so sublime, it is excruciating - almost too hard to take it all in.

In my life out here in the desert, I often have moments that are excruciatingly "Beautiful." Just yesterday I had a moment like that. For the past few days the winds have been howling through these desert canyons and whenever that happens, they clean out the air leaving everything feeling and looking refreshed and renewed. The blue sky is bluer than ever- pristine, even primordial as if it were the dawn of creation.

Yesterday, I walked a wilderness trail under these pristine blue skies, the snow-capped desert stone mountains towering over me, spring blossoms everywhere. It was excruciatingly "Beautiful"- almost too painful to take it all in.

My experience on the trail yesterday reminded me of the story in the Hebrew Scriptures about Moses on the mountaintop where he encounters "Beauty." Moses is engulfed by the light of the Holy Presence  represented by a burning bush, the passionately blazing light of love. Everything is glowing with the light -  Moses is glowing, the mountain is glowing, the trees and rocks and hills, all aglow. The light is so intense that it hurts. In fact it is all so excruciatingly "Beautiful" that Moses has to cover his face with a veil or he will die-consumed by it all.

As I have reflected on it, the experience of Moses on that mountaintop is a perfect metaphor for why the experience of sublime Beauty is painful.  Encountering this kind of Beauty we, like Moses, are indeed consumed by the light.  We are pulled out of the ego. Our "self" melts into the light and becomes one with the ONE.  The experience is a death to an "old self" and a birth to a newer "true self."  The experience is awesome, wonderful, glorious and yet excruciatingly painful because dying is painful, and unless the "self" is shielded by a veil, it will surely be consumed by the light.

I think that, at the moment of our physical death, when our days on earth are over, we will no longer have need of the veil.

On my way back home yesterday, I recalled a wise old Zen saying that seems to capture something of my excruciatingly "Beautiful" moment out there on the trail.

The true person is not anyone in particular;
but like the deep blue color of the limitless sky,
it is everyone - everyone in the world.

This morning as I sit in my garden at the the beginning of yet another excruciatingly "Beautiful" day in the desert, I call to mind several other wisdom sayings. I recite them as mantras on this glorious new beginning of the week.

By day I praised YOU and never knew it.
By night I stayed with YOU and never knew it.
I always thought that I was me..but no, I was YOU. 
And never knew it.

Joy is the realization of oneness, the oneness of our soul with the world,
and the world-soul with the supreme love.

I am in you and you are in Me, and where you are there I AM.
I am sown in all things and when you gather Me,
it is you, yourself you gather.
(Words of Jesus- Gnostic Gospel of Eve)

I sit in my garden and gaze upon those towering mountains surrounding me.

The birds have vanished into the sky and now the last clouds drain away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
So excruciatingly "Beautiful! "

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Trained Paid Professionals

"Following a Path"

This weekend two former popes will be declared saints in an elaborate ceremony in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican. Huge murals of these "holy saints" will be displayed on the facade of the enormous basilica. The current pope, along with his cardinals, bishops and a slew of various other assorted clergy will sit on a stage towering above the millions of ordinary people in the vast crowds who will cheer in adulation and offer prayers petitioning the new saints to grant them favors.

From my point of view, the scene that will be enacted at the Vatican this weekend provides a perfect icon of just how far official Christendom has gone astray from the teachings of Jesus. 

On any given weekend, average ordinary people throughout the world come into a church and sit in rows of pews. Many will look up at images of holy people depicted in murals, paintings and stained glass windows. Sitting high up on stage are the clergy along with their retinue, the pastors and the priests (or rabbis and imams)  - the educated, trained, and often-times "paid" religious professionals.

As to the average ordinary people in those rows of pews? They are often the "unwashed mob" - kept at  "arms length" from the center of the action.  Most of the "pew people" can hardly imagine that their ordinary lives could ever be as "spiritual" as the saints in stained glass windows. And when they look at their own lives, the people in the pews believe that they can never measure up to those trained, educated professionals sitting up on that stage who have devoted their lives to "God."

In the minds of many "average" people, being spiritual or being holy is the full-time job of the clergy. In fact, many people believe that this is why the clergy get paid - so that they can lead holy lives while everybody else goes back to ordinary living in the real, everyday world.

It's kind of like paying someone to go to the gym for you.

When I look at what Jesus taught and compare it to the institutional church, I see such a vast chasm of difference between the two. 

Jesus gathered disciples like a master gathers apprentices. His invitation was "follow me" and that's exactly what the disciples did. They followed him. They walked along with Jesus and observed the path of his life. They watched him as he prayed. They observed him as he welcomed everyone with the open arms of unbridled hospitality and unrestricted compassion - no one any better than anyone else. They observed him as he honored the dignity of every human being. 

And then those observant apprentices modeled their own lives after that of the master.  

For the first few centuries after Jesus, the word "church" never even existed. Those early disciples called  themselves "Followers of the Way"- a community of "saints" committed to live their ordinary, everyday lives by following the Jesus path. 

Such a far cry from the mighty and often over-bearing religious institution in which the trained professionals are paid to follow the "way," and only a handful are recognized as "holy" enough to be recognized as saints, whose images are displayed in murals hanging from giant basilicas. 

The Buddha taught

Everyone must strive.
The buddhas only point the way.

Those popes about to be declared saints in Rome this weekend, Pope Francis, all those cardinals and bishops and the retinue of clergy sitting on the stage, all the pastors and all the priests in all the churches everywhere, all the ministers, all the rabbis, and the imams and gurus in every corner of the world - they are all buddhas. They point the "way" for all to follow. 

There are no average, ordinary people - every one of us is a "saint" as we follow the path.   

Everyone must strive.

Friday, April 25, 2014

When Will They Ever Learn?

"Flowers in the Wilderness"

I was deeply disturbed by two "back-to-back" stories I recently heard on the news. 

The first story reported U.S. troops being sent into Poland and other Eastern European countries for "military exercises" - all this as a response to the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine. 

Immediately following that story was a report coming out of Tokyo. Led by the Prime Minister of Japan, there is a new social movement aimed at changing the Japanese constitution, declaring that they are no longer a "pacifist" nation. Their "self-defense" army would be transformed into a "belligerent," aggressive military, capable of going to war at any time. 

While I heard these two stories reported together, I literally felt a wave of fear come over me as so many past memories were conjured up. 

As a a child in the 1950's and throughout my life as a young adult, I lived in a world that was always on a "Cold War" alert.  Russia was our  enemy - an "evil empire" who had nuclear capability with  missiles and bombs that could be deployed at any time.  I remember seeing films about mushroom clouds and world-wide destruction. As children we practiced classroom "air raid" drills - a ridiculous procedure of crouching under a classroom desk at the sound of a school siren so that we would be "protected" in the case of a nuclear explosion.

I also grew up believing that Japan was a pacifist nation and had turned away from it's capacity to make war because the people of that nation had learned a harsh lesson about war. Nuclear bombs had been dropped in their cities - millions of people instantly killed - dying horrible deaths.  They wanted no part of war ever again. 

Up until a few months ago, I thought the world  had drastically changed form the world of my youth.   The world threatening "Cold War" had long ago ended. The Soviet Union no longer existed, the Berlin wall had come down.  Russia was our friend and ally. Japan was a nation of Buddhists and lotus blossoms, a highly developed peace-loving people devoting their energy to building new technologies. 

All of a sudden we have troops pitted against the Russians. Japan arms for war, and memories of mushroom clouds and air raid drills once again come back to haunt me.

"Back in the day," we used to sing an old Pete Seeger folk song: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Interestingly enough, the song was based on an old Russian folk tune dating back to Cossack army times.  It depicts young soldiers and husbands as beautiful flowers plucked from the earth on the fields of battle, and it laments the fact that no matter how many times the flowers are destroyed,  people just never seem to learn the lessons of war. They just keep coming back for more - plucking away those beautiful flowers.

When will they ever learn?
Oh, when will hey ever learn?

Human beings have such awesome potential to create beauty, to live with compassion, kindness and generosity of heart.  We are after all, a dynamic and complex web of relationship. The only borders between us are artificial. There are no foreigners. And what we do to others, we do to our selves.

 Human beings also have this innate capacity to destroy one another. We are prone to selfishness and  violence, oppression and making war. And we keep repeating the same mistakes no matter how much they have hurt us in the past. 

Our better angels are always wresting with our lesser selves. 

It's Spring in the wilderness - the Easter Season. Yesterday I walked on the desert floor and my senses were flooded with the sights and fragrances of wild flowers growing everywhere in their full spring-time bloom.

It felt as if the universe was making an announcement: "The flowers haven't been plucked up and thrown away. Life springs up even in the driest places - out of rocks and bone dry sand. In the end, love will win day and life will have the final say."


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Believing in "Nothing"

"Wondrous Mystery"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

I drove by a local church yesterday. There was a sign out front advertising the preacher's sermon for this coming Sunday:  "The Gift of Faith."

I used to think I knew what those words meant. I 'm not so sure any more.

I was always taught to pray for the "gift of faith," which really meant that I was supposed to do my best to hold onto strong beliefs in the doctrine and dogma taught by the church- teachings about  God, Jesus, sin, and salvation. The older I get, these teachings have come to hold little meaning for me,  and in fact I no longer believe that this kind of strong "faith" is even a gift at all. 

I have been re-reading some of the writings of the famous 16th century Spanish monk and mystic, St. John of the Cross. In his "Dark Night of the Soul," John talks about a period in his life where he "lost his faith." He came to a point where he could no longer accept or believe anything he had ever been taught about God - all his theology, all the doctrine,  all the rituals that had once been at the focal point of his life as a priest and monk no longer held any meaning for him.

He was left with "nothing, "not-ness," ("nada" in Spanish). And herein was the gift.

In his dark night of "nada," John came to experience the Holy Presence as he had never before been able. He entered into a love affair with "God." -a passionate encounter with a mystical unnamable Abiding Presence that could never be explained by theologies. In fact,  he referred to all his past beliefs as, "substitutes for God"- feeble attempts of the intellect to capture and control an elusive mystery that can never be contained or explained.  

I have also been reading Barbara Brown Taylor's newly published book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She had been a priest for many years, a famous preacher and celebrated teacher.  She has now has moved to the fringes of the institution and to the edges of formalized religion. She  lives on a farm with her husband.

As I read a passage in her book,  I felt as if Barbara had been reading my mind as she described the point to which she has come in her own spiritual journey:

After so many years of trying to cobble together a way of thinking about God that makes sense 
so that I can safely settle down with it,
it all turns to 'nothing.'
There is no permanent safe place to settle.
I will always be at sea, steering  by stars.
Yet as dark as this sounds, it provides great relief
because it now sounds truer than anything that came before.

In my later years of life I also have moved to the fringes of formalized religion. Living out here in the desert,  I also have received the gift of "nothing" at this stage in my journey. 

Over my many years of studying and teaching, preaching and praying, I had indeed "cobbled together" a nice, neat, safe and understandable way of thinking about "God" - an orderly set of beliefs for explaining and even controlling the great and elusive mystery.

But that's all gone now. The words I used to use no longer make sense to me. I've lost the kind of faith I once possessed and gained a new kind of faith.

I now have faith in "nothing"- belief  in "nada"  It's not so much that I doubt all the things I had previously believed - it goes beyond doubt.  I have been set free from all my answers- such a "great relief." 

All I can now do is be present to the wondrous mystery -  new every morning.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Each Other's Toil

"A Single, Simple Flower in the Garden"

Yesterday was "Trash Pickup Day" around our neighborhood. The trucks come around pretty early,  so when I sit in my garden for my morning sunrise quiet time,  I  hear them barreling through the streets - trash cans banging against the trucks, loud pounding on the pavement, followed by the sounds of other trucks going around the neighborhood cleaning the streets. 

When I first moved here, I somewhat resented this early morning invasion of my quiet time, wondering why on earth they had to begin their work so early in the day?  Yesterday as I sat listening to the invasion of the trucks,  it struck me that they were actually creating quite a beautiful and even harmonious sound. What would life be like without them? 

Years ago, when we were living back East, the sanitation workers went on strike. After more than a month of no trash pickup,  the neighborhood started to look pretty shabby - the sights and smells of rotting piles of garbage everywhere were definitely affecting the quality of our lives and even threatening our health. 

Who would have ever thought that it would be such a joyous day when those "taken for granted" sanitation workers ended their strike and returned to help keep the neighborhood clean and beautiful once again?

Yesterday, I heard the sound of trucks removing trash and cleaning the street in front of my house just  like they do every Tuesday. It was such a "beautiful" sound. What would life be like without them?

I am struck by a phrase from "Night Prayer" (Compline) contained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer."

Grant that we may never forget that our common life
depends upon each other's toil.

I so very much like this phrase because I'm always forgetting about how truly dependent we are upon each other. Our lives literally depend upon each other's toil.  

When I walk into the local supermarket later today, I "expect"  to see a rich abundance laid out before me- fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, eggs, bread, cheese and milk and poultry.  I usually just take it for granted that all these things will be there when I walk into that store- there to sustain us, to keep us alive. 

But all this abundance doesn't just somehow mysteriously appear on the shelves of that store. Farmers and workers have planted and harvested, truckers have delivered it,  clerks sell it. Such an intricate web of dynamic interdependency.

Our common life depends upon each other's toil

The Buddha teaches:

Meditate, live purely, be quiet,
do your work with mastery.

I love this simple yet profoundly wise teaching. I recite it as a mantra this morning as I think about all those many everyday ordinary people out in the world who, at this very moment,  are quietly doing their jobs - cooking in restaurants, tending their crops, driving their trucks, keeping the drinking water clean, picking up the trash, caring for the sick in hospitals and clinics.  They are doing their work with mastery, and because of them I am kept alive

Our common life depends upon each other's toil

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Single Candle

"Buddha Under an Olive Tree"
-in my garden-

When I think about lives that have changed the world, names like Jesus, or Buddha, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind. But as of Sunday night, a new name has been added to my list of "world changers"- Armand Dianglenda from the Congolese city of Kinshasha.

On Sunday night, I found myself watching the CBS program, "60 minutes." A featured story titled "Joy in the Congo" so inspired me that I have gone and online and re-watched it several times since then.  It told the tale of Armand Dianglenda, who upon retiring as a commercial airline pilot, decided that he wanted to establish a symphony orchestra in his home city of Kinshasha, the capitol of the Congo in Africa.

The Republic of the Congo is the poorest country in the world, and 10 million people live in Kinshasha - many in squalor, homes little more than huts, no running water, unpaved streets. So, the idea of establishing a symphony orchestra in a place like this may seem rather far-fetched. 

But,  Armand believed that his proposed orchestra would bring a sense of hope and purpose to the lives of his fellow citizens who were just barely managing to survive day to day. And so,  Armand Dianglenda, a single man with a vision, pressed on - determined that he was going to make his orchestra happen.  

However, initially there were a "few" obstacles to be overcome: Armand had no money and he couldn't read music.  He couldn't play a musical instrument and he knew no one else who could.  Besides, there were no instruments to be played and there was no place in which the orchestra might perform -  a few obstacles indeed.   

What Armand did have was a love for music, a passionate vision, a generous heart, and an enduring idea for helping his fellow citizens find new new hope in their very bleak lives.

And so, Maestro Dianglenda taught himself how to read music. He learned how to play the piano, the trombone and the cello. He went around to various organizations begging for used musical instruments, then he went to his church and invited his fellow parishioners to come and learn along with him.

Five people joined up - none of  them had ever held a musical instrument, let alone played one. 

But they also learned, and then more began to join - some to play instruments, others to sing in a newly forming orchestra chorus. They practiced at Armand's little home, now turned into a veritable music conservancy.

Then, a German news agency heard about this story and made a documentary about this newly emerging "miracle orchestra" in the Congo.  After that,  a whole array of musical instruments arrived from from all over the world along with professional musicians who came along to teach the folks how to play them. Professional opera singers also showed up in Kinshasha to offer master-classes for singers in the Chorus. 

The "60 minutes" story I was watching on Easter night ended with an excerpt from a Beethoven concert performed by the "Kinshasha Symphony Orchestra and Chorus" - an  "Ode to Joy."

I almost couldn't see the TV because my eyes were so flooded with tears as I watched them perform. 

There they were, 200 people strong -  all bedecked in tuxedos and native garb, french horns and timpani, violins and cellos, magnificent voices in such perfect harmony, faces beaming with joy at the miracle they had accomplished - "Joy in the Congo. Incredible! 

Many people may think that their one single ordinary life is insignificant and they spend their days figuring out how to "get by."   If Maestro Armand Dianglenda had that attitude,  there would be no Kinshasha Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and the bleak lives of all those many people would have never been transformed. 

Each of us is a single candle, but if we are willing, generous, courageous and bold enough to share the light,  we can indeed set the world on fire.

The Buddha taught:

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle,
and the life of the single candle will not be shortened.
Happiness never decreases by being shared.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Discipline of Reflection

"Olive Branch and Easter Egg"
-in my meditation garden-

I have been writing this blog for over a year now. In doing so,  I have discovered that my daily posting has become a focal point of my entire day - something I really enjoy doing.

Yesterday I was talking to someone about my blog-writing venture. She said something that really struck me, "What a gift to be able to reflect on what you do every day instead of just only doing it." That one little remark proved to be very insightful for me, and it provided me with an understanding about why I am enjoying my blog-writing so much. The experience has caused me to be a much more "reflective" person.

Like many people, throughout most of my life I was an "action" kind of guy, always busily engaged in a host of activities - church, teaching, meetings, events, shopping, reading, going to the gym, always doing something. But I rarely took time to really reflect on why I did the things I did, or why I thought the things I thought, and the significance they held all held for me in life. I've changed quite a bit nowadays,  and writing this blog has helped me to make those changes.

Of course I still "do" lots of stuff every day,  but the difference is that now I find myself paying much closer attention to my everyday living. I pay attention to what I do, to what I read, to what I am thinking, to what I am hearing and saying in conversations with others. I pay attention when I browse  the social media and listen to the news. I pay attention when I am at a coffee shop, or sitting in a restaurant, or walking in the desert. 

And as I "pay attention,"  I find that I am daily struck by some sort of revelation or another. 

I am often struck by insights into my own self and into my relationships -  struck by new insights into what I mean when I say that word "God."  Many times I am struck by some new understandings of  scripture stories that I had read thousands of times before. I am struck by the beauty of a flower blooming on a cactus or the silent peace of a desert oasis.  I am struck by the innocence of a small child in a grocery store and by the sadness of an old man at a coffee shop.

And when I am struck by those flashes of insight, I find myself stopping and "reflecting" upon what they are revealing to me. I  don't just "think about" or sort of "ruminate," Instead,  I "reflect" on my actions, my thoughts,  and the insights that come to me -  prayerfully and carefully, with an open mind and an open heart.  

I am actively developing a daily "disciple of reflection," and discovering that discipline is having a profound effect on my life-journey and on my journey of faith.

Sometimes my "reflections" are expressed in pictures that I take of the insights that have come my way.  I snap a photo of the "new life" I experience as I gaze upon a simple olive branch and Easter egg in my garden. I take a picture of the vast wilderness,  a picture of the rising sun, the glow of evening,  the blood-red full moon at night. 

And of course, my daily "refections" always lead me to some form of writing about them, and this is exactly why this blog has become such a focal point of my daily life - a great gift to me,  allowing me to reflect upon the significance of what I think and do instead of just simply doing it.

Saint Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, teaches a spiritual path that involves a "twice-daily" period of "prayerful reflection" about what has gone on in everyday living.  The more I think about it, this is very wise advice, not just for Jesuits, but for anyone who has set out to walk on any sort of a spiritual pathway.

You don't need any special talents or profound spiritual gifts in order  to develop a "discipline of daily reflection," nor do you need a whole lot of time to do this. Any one of us can work at paying closer attention to what goes on in the hours of daily life.  And how much time would it take to stop a few times a day and carefully reflect upon what it all means? 

Anyone who wants it,  can embrace the gift of "reflecting upon what you do and not just only doing it." 

Time to start the day -I'm getting ready to write tomorrow's post. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Life Endures

"Easter Sunday, 2014"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

This morning, I was awakened by the sound of tiny high-pitched chirps coming from just outside my bedroom window. The song birds had built a nest in the eaves of the roof, and the eggs hatched overnight. What a wonderful way to greet an Easter Sunday morning - listening to the sounds of newborn chicks.

Years before we moved out here, we were driving through the desert on the way to a summer vacation. As we drove along the highway, I thought to myself, "Why on earth would anyone want to live out here?" It was so hot, dry, so dusty, so vast.  The mountains of stone, boulders and dry sage bushes - it all seemed dead - so inhospitable to life. 

But gradually, as I became more and more acquainted with this desert, that has now become my home,   I discovered that a rich abundance of life endures and even thrives in this fierce dry wilderness. In fact I have found that "life" out here is far richer, fuller and more beautiful than anything I have ever experienced before.

Maybe life seems fuller here because you don't expect to see such astounding beauty springing out of such absolute starkness. 

As I sit in my meditation garden, silently in awe at the rising of the sun on this Easter Sunday morning, I can still hear those little newborn chicks chirping in the background. I also wonder if somehow all the desert birds seem to know it's Easter morning because they all seem to have come out to play - hummingbirds and songbirds, wrens, doves and sparrows, all dancing around me, singing out their morning hymns, sipping at the flowing garden fountain.

The flowers, trees and bushes also seem to be participating in this festival of life today. I have never before seen so many varieties of flowers with such richness of color until I moved out into the desert. All the cacti are in bloom, wildflowers everywhere, my eyes can barely take in all the color- the rich blood-red, orange, ochres, yellow and gold, the fresh green palm trees swaying in the morning breeze, silhouetted against the purple-brown mountains in the distance. Even my fruit trees seem to be celebrating Easter today- all laden with blossoms - lime and lemon, grapefruit and fig.

There is a sweet smelling fragrance in the air this morning. It smells like life to me.

I once heard a story about a wise old bishop who was once asked if he really believed in the resurrection. This was actually a trick question - an inquiry about the orthodoxy of his theology. Did he "really" believe that on Easter Sunday the once-dead Jesus "really" came back to life?

The old bishop closed his eyes and thought about his response for a while, then he looked up and said,  "Do I believe in the resurrection? Of course I do. I've seen it too many times not to believe in it."

That's how I feel this morning.

The desert is a great teacher. The wilderness shows me that although our time on earth is harsh and fierce, although the wilderness through which we journey is rocky and thorny, "life" will always endure.  And in fact, the more fierce the wilderness, the more achingly beautiful will the life be that emerges from it.

The world is a place of beautiful struggle, and life is bittersweet. Our days are filled with violence hatred, war and oppression.  And yet in it all, every day people act with compassion, with kindness and they walk in love. And in the end, there's resurrection - life endures and love will ultimately win the day.

This is the Easter message and you don't have to be a Christian to celebrate resurrection.

Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Graves, Tombs, and Cemeteries

"Almost Sunrise"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

As usual, I am sitting quietly in my garden basking in the hope of daybreak. In the Christian calendar today is "Holy Saturday" - the day in which the body of Jesus lay dead on a slab inside a tomb. 

While it may sound somewhat somber and even a bit macabre, this day always makes me think about graves and tombs and cemeteries - my own eventual grave, the tombs of my loved ones, the graves in which all of us will eventually rest.  

Today I also think about that week I once spent living in a cemetery.

Several years ago, my wife and I accompanied our choir on a tour of the United Kingdom. The choir was to sing for a week of services at the ancient Anglican Cathedral in the City of Saint Davids in Wales. Since this "city" is really more like a small town with few hotels, we all had to stay in whatever little places we could find scattered throughout the region. 

My wife and I were booked into what was advertised as "a lovely little 'bed and breakfast' high atop a hill overlooking the Irish Sea."  And so it was - a quaint little 17th century cottage that did indeed overlook the ocean. What we didn't know was that this house was once the home of the graves' keeper, and it was located right smack dab in the middle of a centuries-old cemetery.

It was already night by the time we arrived. I can still remember the expression of horror on our faces when the cab drove up to a cemetery and somewhat sarcastically announced, "Here it is -your home for the week."  Then he unceremoniously dropped off our bags and nervously drove away. 

At first it was quite disconcerting and rather uncomfortable to look out of every window in the cottage and see nothing but acres and acres of tombstones and ancient graves. But we eventually got accustomed to our new, if not bizarre residence, and so unable to sleep, we decided to take a little adventure and go for a midnight walk among the graves. 

I remember that walk as if it happened yesterday.

It was a brilliant, bright night as we walked among the tombs glowing in the light of the almost-full moon.  Some of the graves were so old that the writing on the tombstones had been eroded by time,  others had been freshly dug. The sky above was blazing with stars. The ocean was gleaming in the horizon. We could smell the salt water and hear the waves gently pounding against the cliffs.  

And then in one magical "thin-place" moment, I realized that there was not a hint of fear in me, and I was overcome by a sense of deep peace. Standing upon the bones of the dead, I experienced an excruciatingly beautiful truth  - there is no death, only life.

On that midnight walk in an ancient cemetery, everything and everyone was swirling around us in a magical, mystical, cosmic dance and we were dancing along with it all-  a sweet communion, an eternal oneness. The bright moon and blazing stars, ocean and earth, those who had died, those who lived, those yet to be born -all flowing with a life that never comes to an end and cannot be snuffed out. 

The sun has just peaked up over the eastern mountains behind my house. It's going to be a glorious spring day- the Eve of Easter.

When I was a young man, I was horribly afraid of dying. Now in these later years of life, I am no longer afraid of my eventual grave. 

 Everything and everyone dies, but nothing ever stops "being."

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Spirituality of Night

"The Coming of the Night"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

As I begin my day on this "Good Friday" morning, I am reminded of a conversation I had several years ago with the mother of one of the children in our parish school. I asked if her family would be attending the services on Good Friday?  She looked at me as if I had two heads, and said, "Of course not, my son is only 9 years old. Why would I ever want to expose him to all that pain and death? We'll come to church on Easter when everything looks a lot happier." 

I've been thinking abut that mother's comment. It's stuck with me over the years. Lots of people want to avoid the night and wait until its a lot happier at the break of day.

In her newly published book, "Learning to Walk in the Dark," priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story of her childhood. She and her sisters were allowed to play outdoors until it was almost night. Her mother would then call everyone in, bolt the doors, and turn on almost every light in the house. She says that her childhood experience planted the seeds for an obsessive, life-long fear of the night - always hiding from the darkness in her life by turning on artificial lights. 

The Buddha teaches that "suffering" is "THE" defining characteristic of our humanity. We all live with some form of pain, sickness, suffering and death, disappointments and failures, broken relationships, financial woes. We all have fears. 

In her book, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it quite beautifully:

To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight,
admitting limits and transcending them,
falling down and rising up.
To want life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life,
shutting the other half away 
where it will not interfere with one's bright fantasies of the way things ought to be. 

I find great wisdom in this observation. When nighttime inevitably falls upon their lives, so many people either pretend the night isn't there or they hide from it by bolting their life-doors and turning on artificial lights- taking a pill, keeping the pain a secret, asking God to take it all away and make it all better, keeping their kids away from looking at the pain of Good Friday and skipping on to Easter when things look a lot happier with all the flowers, bunnies and brunch.

In my lifetime I have found that on my journey, I need to practice a "spirituality of the night" just as much as a spirituality of the light.  Whenever I have been able to "live into" my nighttime experiences of life, I have always grown in courage and strength and in my ongoing awareness of an ever abiding Holy Presence. 

From time to time I walk out into the desert at night- no artificial lights to help me pretend the night's not there - bats circling in the moonlit sky, sounds of a slithering snake, a coyote's howl piercing the thunderous silence and echoing off the mountains. Of course it's frightening, maybe even dangerous. However, it is all so very healing to stand there in the night, and it always gives me courage. 

Today, I look straight on upon that image of Christ on the cross.

Some people will refuse to look at that pain today because makes them feel ill at ease.  Others may avoid the image, thinking that it doesn't apply because they aren't Christians or they are not believers. I think that regardless of one's faith or beliefs, the image of Christ on the cross offers all of us a perfect example of how to face the night and how to face the dark.  

There are no pills to take away his pain, "God" doesn't  intervene and make it all better. Instead the Christ embraces the darkness that has come his way and surrenders to it all. In doing so he comes to perfect peace. 

It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land,
and the sun's light failed.
And Jesus cried out with a loud voice,
Father into your hands I commend my spirit

What a powerful icon of "humanity courageously embracing the darkness of the night."

 I dare to gaze upon it today.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Spirituality of a Table

Dining Table
-At the Desert Retreat House-

This morning,  before going out into the garden for my morning meditation, I sat at my dining room table. It has been our table for over 30 years now.  

As I ran my hands over its still-shiny wood, I was overwhelmed with a flood of memories - all those meals served at that table at which sat all those people over all those many years.

With my hands on the table, I saw the faces of two babies, our now-grown sons, smearing their food and laughing with delight. I saw the face of my spouse who sat with me at that table almost every single day of our many years of married life. I saw the faces of hundreds if not thousands of guests who sat there with us at that table - some were good friends, others just acquaintances, some were even strangers, and sometimes even enemies.

We often engaged in lively discussion around the table - laughing together, sometimes crying together, sometimes debating with one another well into the night. 

Many of those people who once sat there with us have now died. Others have moved out of our lives and we no longer see them. 

This morning, I thought to myself , "Ah what stories it could tell if that table could talk."  Then it hit me, "But, of course, the table can talk." I realized, in fact,  that some of the very DNA of all those many people who sat at that table over the years is actually and physically still there in the wood I was touching. 

So, this morning, just sitting at an empty table and touching its wood was a time of wonderful communion for me. Yes, even after all the years,  all of us were still there at the table - all of us still belonging to one another.

As I think about it, in my lifetime, "eating together at a common table" has always been extremely nourishing to me as I have walked the spiritual path. I have found that sitting at a table and eating together has been as uplifting to my spirit as praying or meditating, or going to church - sometimes even more so. 

It's no wonder to me that "eating together at a common table"  has always occupied a prominent place in all the rituals and spiritual practices of all the great world religions. Muslims break their fast at a shared meal. Jews share a common seder meal to celebrate the Passover (they'll be doing this on this very night). Every Sunday, Christians gather for a communion meal as they share bread and drink wine in memory of Jesus.

In the Christian calendar, today is Holy (Maundy) Thursday - the day before Jesus died. 

Before he was crucified,  Jesus sat down with his good friends and together they shared a "Last Supper." Tonight Christians will commemorate that Last Supper as they gather around altars and holy tables all over the world. They will eat bread and drink wine, and in the sharing of this common meal, they will enter into a "holy communion," everyone belonging to one another - those who have long died, those who still live, those yet to be born, all belonging to one anther, and together belonging to the ONE.  

Tables are such powerful places for walking the spiritual path. 

This morning, as I run my hands over the wood of that holy table in my own dining room,   I am filled with immense gratitude - so very thankful for the many people who have been, continue to be, and will yet be part of my life. 

In a world of fast-food restaurants and "grabbing a quick bite" lifestyles, I commit myself to continue to engage in the discipline of "eating together at a common table" - where we all belong to one another and together belong to the ONE. 

My table will always hold a central place in our home- so many surprises yet to come.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


"Full Moon in the Desert Skies"

Throughout my many years as a priest, there have been countless occasions for being with folks in their happiest times, at their highest points,  and also in their darkest and most pain-filled times -  engagements, baptisms, weddings, funerals, deathbeds, divorces. 

But, in all the high points and all the low points I have shared with people, the times when I have witnessed the greatest emotion and the deepest pain were those times when people have come to me to talk about how they had been betrayed - especially when they were betrayed by someone they deeply loved and trusted.

Although it happened years ago, I still can remember an occasion when a young wife and mother came to me to talk about her husband's blatant infidelity.  She was riddled with such intense pain over what he had done. Her conversation with me was laced with tears and sobs- such deeply felt emotion. 

As our conversation proceeded,  I also sensed that a deeply-held underlying anger was simmering beneath the surface of everything this afflicted wife was saying.  And then in one, violent, sudden outburst, it all spilled out into harsh, shrill cries for vengeance and retribution.  She told me that she wished her cheating husband "would die in a car crash for what he did to us."

It became quite obvious to me that her desire for vengeance was causing this poor woman as much suffering as her husband's betrayal. 

The pain of betrayal cuts deeply. The desire for retribution cuts even deeper.

Yesterday, a full moon in the desert sky was so bright that it literally woke me up in the middle of the night. My bedroom looked like a set from a Hollywood movie - the rays of bright moonlight illuminating the darkness in a mystical, magical glow.  

As I lay there in bed, now fully awake by my moonlight encounter, I was reminded of a moonlight story found in the Christian Scriptures - a story that seems particularly appropriate for this time of the year in the Christian Holy Week - now at the threshold of celebrating the last days of Jesus on earth. It's a tale that speaks not only to Christians, but to the heart of every human being. 

As the story goes, on the night before he died, under the light of the full moon, Jesus and his disciples went out to an olive garden to pray and rest. But, Jesus' good friend and disciple, Judas, wasn't among them. Instead, Judas had gone to fetch the police. He was about to betray his dearest friend Jesus. When they arrive at the garden, Judas tells the police that they should arrest the person whom he kisses. 

In the middle of the night, under the light of the full moon, Judas, the traitor, betrays his dear friend Jesus with a kiss.  Betrayal with a kiss - the very thought of it is so unbearably painful. It cuts to the heart. 

There is a related story- it isn't found in the Scriptures.Yet, like most of the stories in the Bible, it is a legend that is wonderfully metaphorical. 

According to this legend, Judas has now died. After betraying his friend Jesus, Judas had gone out and hung himself,  and he is now suffering in hell. Jesus, who has died on the cross, also shows up in hell and he stands before Judas. When he see Jesus standing there before him, .Judas crouches in fear, expecting to feel the full brunt of painful retribution for the insidious betrayal of his friend.  

Instead, filled with compassion,  Jesus lifts up his still-beloved friend Judas, and he kisses him! And with that kiss Judas is now in heaven.  

The kiss of betrayal has been redeemed by a kiss of compassion. Redemption with a kiss -  such a magnificent legend,  such a powerfully poignant and tender metaphor. I'll be thinking about this all day long. 

The pain of betrayal cuts deeply but the desire for retribution cuts even deeper.  

Anger, hostility and a heart full of vengeance is a bitter poison that will ultimately eat away at the spirit and hurt even more deeply than betrayal.  The only antidote for this poison is to let go of it, and let compassion take its place. 

Betrayal with a kiss. Redemption with a kiss.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Yoke of Freedom

-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Today, and throughout this week, Jewish people all over the world are celebrating Passover -  a foundational festival much like Independence Day in the United States. The Passover is a celebration of the ancient Hebrew "exodus" out of Egypt - when the Hebrew people became a nation as they walked across the desert and took possession of the Promised Land. 

If I take a few steps from my house,  I find myself at the threshold of a vast desert wilderness. It is very similar in appearance to that desert through which those ancient Hebrew people traveled on their  way to the Promised Land,  and so,  every time I walk in this wilderness I am reminded of that "exodus"  journey.

Like all the great biblical epics,  the story of the exodus has been so popularized as to perhaps miss its true significance. Poems and songs, books and Hollywood movies have gloriously depicted this ancient spectacle of the exodus out of Egypt. 

The Hebrew people,  long-burdened under the yoke of Egyptian bondage,  gather together family and possessions and embark on a freedom march out of the land of of Egypt. They cross over the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army hot in pursuit,  but the sea swallows up the Egyptian slave masters. The Hebrews are now free. No longer slaves, they dance at the seashore, singing, playing tambourines, "free at last,  free at last."  What a great story! 

Except, when you look beneath the surface,  there is way more to this story than first meets the eye. 

When the Hebrew people cross the sea, they are indeed "free at last,"  but they aren't yet in their new home - the Promised Land. In fact, they find themselves in the midst of a barren wilderness. So, as they are patting themselves on the back at their good fortune, they suddenly come to realize that a new yoke has been placed upon their shoulders: "the yoke of freedom." 

They are in an uncharted, untamed wilderness. They have no clue as to how to get to their new country. How will they eat? What will they drink?  They are told that,  unless they trust in "God's" guidance,  and unless they help each other find the way, they will die out there in the wilderness and never arrive at their destination. 

When they were in Egypt, the people may have suffered under the cruel burden of slavery,  but at least they knew where their next meal was coming from. It was a harsh life, but they had become accustomed to obeying the orders of their task-masters. And, if nothing else, life in Egypt was at least predictable.

What you don't often hear in the popularized, "Hollywood"  versions of the exodus story is that a whole bunch of the newly freed slaves, unwilling to risk walking the wilderness path to freedom, decided to go back to Egypt. It may have been harsh but it was safer back there. 

Often times, when people hear accounts of biblical epics such as this story of the "exodus," they focus on questions of historicity - "Did this really happen?  Others, upon hearing a story such as this might say, "Well, I'm not Jewish, so this is not my story."

I'm not Jewish, but this is my story.

In fact, the story of the exodus is a universal story about our common human nature. It is a story about freedom and the responsibilities that come with being truly free.

We all walk through the barren wilderness of life. This story teaches that we make our way through this wilderness by trusting in an Abiding Presence and by taking on the responsibility of caring for one another along the way  - treating each other with compassion,  holding each other up, showing each other the way.

So here I am on this Passover morning, standing in the midst of the desert.  As always I have a choice to make today. Do I put on the "yoke of freedom," choosing to live with trust, to walk with courage on the often-uncharted path of compassion?  Or will I choose to go back to Egypt today because the path of freedom is just too hard and the way is too uncertain? 

Will I choose to stay on the freedom road, or go back and live the life of a slave, thinking only of myself and my own needs?  After all, the life of a slave may be harsh, but at least it is predictable. 

I've made my choice this Passover morning. I gladly walk down freedom road as I make my way in the wilderness. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Practice of Solitude

"Singular Beauty"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

My wife is away at a conference,  and so I will be home alone for the next few days. It all gives me a chance to reflect on being alone, being lonely, and the difference between the two.

I know many people who go into a panic at the prospect of being alone. If they come home and the house is empty, the very first thing they do is turn on the TV set, put on some music, or more likely, rush to the computer to go online - connecting with Facebook friends, "twittering" and "googling." They go to their phones, calls and texts - doing almost anything they can to get connected,  anything to fill up the empty space of being alone.  

The thing is that all this supposed connection can still leave a person feeling pretty lonely. In fact, you can even be in the presence of other people - in a home or an office or a school or a restaurant, even in a church full of people, and you can still feel pretty darn lonely.

Over the years, my Buddhist teachers have provided me with some insightful wisdom to help me understand the essential nature of loneliness: The concept of an isolated, separate, individual ego is an illusion, a myth. All being IS a complex web of interrelationship. There are no different others.  

So, when a person lives within the walls of a self-created illusion of an ego, isolated from others, there will always be angst and agony. By our very nature, we human beings are relational and when we cut ourselves off from relationship, we suffer.  This suffering is what loneliness is all about. 

And so,  you can be connected to millions of people online, carrying on multiple conversations in the social media, you can text and tweet until your fingers hurt, you can be surrounded by others at home or work and school all day long, but if your life is essentially narcissistic, you will always be a lonely person. 

As I see it, there are plenty of lonely people in the world nowadays - sometimes the people who are the most popular are the loneliest.

I always find it interesting to read the journal writings and meditations of contemplatives, mystics,  and hermits in the various religious traditions - people who have withdrawn to monastic cells or live in desert caves totally alone. Paradoxically, I often get the sense that there is not much loneliness in their lives. 

Thomas Merton was a Christian monk who spent a good portion of his life alone in a little hermitage located in the hills above the Kentucky monastery where his fellow monks lived. Deeply influenced by Buddhist teachings, Merton would often write about his time alone in his hermitage as a time when he felt most loved - profoundly connected to others, to the natural world, to "God." 

In fact, Merton found that the deeper he went "within," the more he felt himself being pulled out - pulled out of the false "ego" self and into his true "relational" self. He lived alone in his hermitage but he almost never felt lonely. 

Author and spiritual director, Henri Nouwen would often prescribe a seemingly paradoxical path for people who came to him suffering from loneliness. He would suggest that they develop a "practice of solitude." He would regularly advise those seeking his counsel to devote some deliberate time to being alone, and to learn how to be alone without being isolated - this is what it means to "practice solitude." 

Solitude is a time of regular silence, alone, away from others.  In solitude, one is intentionally mindful, aware, with an uncluttered mind, and an open-heart, paying attention in the present. In genuine solitude you don't feel loneliness because,  in genuine solitude, you become aware of the truth that there is no isolated self,  there are no different others, everything and everyone belong to one another - the many are part of the Whole. 

Interestingly enough, although it sounds somewhat paradoxical, the practice of solitude may be "just the ticket"  for all the lonely people in the world nowadays. 

My wife is away,  and I am alone for these first few days of days of Holy Week (actually my dogs are here with me). I welcome this time as a sacred occasion for practicing solitude. I'm alone but I'm not lonely.

The 4th century desert monastics were fond of telling one another:

Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.

I'll be sitting in my cell over the next few days.