Monday, November 30, 2015

I Don't Know

"Shrouded in Mystery"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

As I sat in a local restaurant eating lunch a few days ago I watched a small child gazing in awe and wonder at what may have been one of the cheapest and ugliest artificial Christmas trees I had ever seen before. The “tree” was made out of plastic, covered with strands of gaudy aluminum tinsel, and decked out with colored twinkling lights that kept blinking off and on, distracting me as I tried to eat my lunch. But the little boy in the restaurant didn’t see it that way- he stood in awe before a wonderful sight, marveling at the sparkling tinsel as it reflected the bright colors of those mysterious lights blinking off and on.

As I sat and watched that child the other day I had a sudden flash of insight. I thought to myself “that little boy is an agnostic, a true agnostic in every sense of the word.”  As for me, I had it all figured out, I had no doubts that the Christmas tree in that restaurant was ugly, cheap and distracting. I obviously know what a good tree looks like and what a cheap and ugly tree is. But that little boy didn’t know what to think, he hadn’t yet lived long enough to make up his mind about what he saw in that tree; so he just “took in” all  the colored lights and sparkling tinsel and it was “wonder-filled.”

That word “agnostic” often carries some pretty negative baggage with it in religious circles. Agnostics are people who do not “enjoy” the certainties of faith and need to be shown the true way. It’s true that agnostics are people who are unable or unwilling to affirm who God is with any degree of certainty, but I’m not at all sure that agnostics need to be shown the “true way,” maybe it’s the other way around.

It seems to me that rather than figuring out how to convert an agnostic, perhaps people of faith might look upon an agnostic mind as a model of where faith should lead. Any spiritual path should always lead to deeper mystery, a mystery that cannot be explained or named or pushed into pre –conceived categories.

As I observed that innocent child gazing in wonder at a Christmas tree the other day I immediately remembered what Jesus taught once when he put a small child upon his knee and told his disciples: The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

As I see it, Jesus was teaching his disciples to have the “mind of a child” when walking on a spiritual path- always be filled with wonder, see the world with new eyes every day, don’t ever try to figure “God” out – God is a mystery that can only be experienced and never explained.

Jesus’ teaching is very similar to the Buddhist concept of a “Beginner’s Mind” - the more one grows in wisdom the more one develops an uncluttered mind, free of pre-conceived explanations and clear-cut ideas, always open and ready to embrace the world as it happens in every moment as if you are seeing it for the first time.

Saint Augustine once said: 

Anything you think you understand about God is not God.

In similar fashion, the celebrated Christian mystic, John of the Cross, said:

The higher one ascends on the ladder of the spiritual journey, the less one understand.

That little child the other day once again reminded me of an important lesson on my journey of faith. Just when I have my mind “made up” and I think I have it all figured out I need to remind myself that the greatest faith to which I can ever hope to aspire is to say:

I don’t know

There is so much about the mystery of life that I just don’t understand, so much about “God” that I will never know or can ever be known. All I can ever do is bask in the presence of the “Great Mystery” and see each day with the wondering mind of a child as if I am looking at it all for the very first time. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Listen: Living With Hope (Season One)

Hope is something we can be sure of. When the storm and winds of life come upon us, and uncertainty reigns, there is always a calm to the chaos - a new day and a true hope to look forward to.

"Desert Wisdom" Season One, is now available on iTunesStitcher and at

Like us on Facebook, Follow Paul on Twitter

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Please Be Patient

"Advent Dawn"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday, a large crowd of “Black Friday” shoppers pushed and shoved each other while waiting in line for the “blowout holiday sale” on big-screen TVs.  As people became more and more unruly a few fistfights broke out and the security guards at the entrance to the store kept begging the crowds, “Please, please be patient!”

I think perhaps that this is good advice for any one of us to hear at this busy and chaotic time of the year -  Please, please be patient!

The Talmud as well as the Quran exhort believers to practice the virtue of patience. In the Christian tradition “patience” is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the Buddha says that patience is the best prayer. And yet, I don’t really think most of us really quite understand what patience really means and why it is such an important virtue across religious traditions.

We often imagine “patience” as something you do that sort of “fills the time” while waiting for something else (often something bigger and better) to happen. We wait patiently for the doors to open up for the big sale, we sit patiently in a doctor’s office waiting for our name to be called, many people patiently “put up with” their current job in the hope that one day something better will come along.

But I don’t at all believe that this is what it means to be patient. The practice of patience is not “biting the bullet” in the present in the hope of a better future. I believe that patience is the practice of the disciple of mindfulness. We practice patience when we are awake, alert and present to “what is” rather than looking for something that yet may be.

Priest and teacher, Henri Nouwen, once described patience in this way:

A waiting person is a patient person.
The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are
and live the situation to the full
in the belief that something hidden there
will manifest itself to us in the moment.

My life out here in the desert teaches me a great deal about being patient. When I get up in the morning and sit in my garden to greet the rising sun, I am never even tempted to make any lists of  what I hope to accomplish during the coming day or what I hope may happen - the stunning pink and blue skies of dawn as the sun rises on a crisp early winter morning are far too spectacular to do anything except to bask in the beauty and the splendor of the moment.

When I sit in the garden each morning, I stay where I am in the belief that something hidden  there will manifest itself to me in the moment.” I am being patient.

I think about all those people yesterday jostling and fighting with each other to get at those bargains and buy a TV they maybe don’t really need in the first place. In their eagerness to get something bigger, newer and better, I wonder how much they may have missed standing there in that line had they only been patient enough to be aware of it all.

Yes, the words those security guards spoke to the unruly crowds waiting for the big bargains  offer great wisdom to all of us as we wait for the arrival of the next big holidays yet to come.

Please, please be patient!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Getting Ready

"In the Moment"

Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is over, it’s time for people to get ready for the next big event – Christmas, Hanukkah, parties, concerts. The days ahead will be pretty busy time for a lot of us - so much to do to get ready for the upcoming holidays. The more I think about it, the more I realize that getting ready pretty much epitomizes what many of us do not just at holiday times but for most of the time throughout our entire lives.

Several years ago I was the priest in a parish with a large and well-established elementary school. Many people would send their children to that school because it was known for its academic excellence and well-rounded program and the kids in the school were among the most talented children I had ever before encountered. I once asked a parent of a little “kindergartner” why they choose to send their child to our particular parish school and the answer I got really “bowled me over.” The parent informed me, “We chose this school because it fits into our plans for what college our child will attend.”

I soon discovered that many parents had indeed chosen our school because it fit into their well-crafted educational plans for their children from kindergarten right up through college. Our particular elementary school would help them to get ready for the Middle School they had chosen, and that Middle School would be the perfect fit for their child to get ready for a High School that had been chosen to best prepare for the college of choice.

I would often look at all those really sweet and talented kids in our school and think that from now on most of them would be spending their entire time in school getting ready for the next big step.  As I think about it, I suppose that could be said of almost any one of us- most of us spend our whole lives getting ready for the next big moment in life, the next school, the next job, the next career move, getting ready to start a family, getting ready to retire after the family has been raised.

In fact when I think about my average, ordinary day, I realize that it is often far too consumed with getting ready for something yet to come - preparing for the upcoming meeting, getting the house ready for the company to come, getting ready to go shopping so I can get dinner ready.

I am reminded of something one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said:

In everyday life we are always looking for the right conditions
that we don’t yet have to make us happy,
and we ignore what is happening right in front of us.
We wait and hope for that magical moment,
always something in the future when everything will be as we want it to be,
forgetting that life is available only in the present moment.

Now that Thanksgiving is over many people have begun their preparations for that next magical moment, perhaps the perfect Christmas holiday with the family all gathered around the twinkling lights of a decorated tree, perhaps a moment in an upcoming religious festival for a deeper spiritual awareness?  But life does indeed only happen in the present and that longed-for magical moment is “only” available right now.

In these days before Christmas I am going to get ready for Christmas by not getting ready. The best way I can prepare for the next big holiday is to realize that what I am looking for is already here – so be alert, be awake!

Author and teacher, John Donohue, put it this way:

Sometimes the urgency of our hunger blinds us to the fact that
we are already at the feast.