Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Spirituality as a Hobby

"A Road Less Traveled"

A few years back when we first moved out to the desert,  I decided to take up a few hobbies: photography and gardening. While I have been somewhat successful in my attempts at photography, I have (to date) been a pretty dismal failure when it comes to gardening.

Interestingly enough, many of my neighbors have planted lush desert vegetable gardens that produce an abundant crop even at the driest and hottest times of the year; but my little garden had barely a few small tomatoes and a couple scrawny looking peppers before I gave up on it and decided to wait and try again when the weather turned cooler.

I’ve been thinking about why my garden has been such a disaster and realized that I just didn’t put enough time and energy into it. Gardening was just a little hobby that I dabbled in from time to time; but it in a desert climate if you really hope to be successful, you have to make gardening somewhat a priority—carefully investigate what plants grow best and when they should be planted, learn about what kind of soil and fertilizer you need, water the garden several times a day.

Like anything in life, I suppose I could yet become a “green thumb” gardener if I put my mind to it. The same is true for my photography, I suppose I could become a really accomplished photographer if I did more than dabble at it from time to time.

There are many people who claim they are “religious” or who think of themselves as pursuing some sort of spiritual path. I wonder if spirituality is little more than a hobby to “dabble in” from time to time?

There are plenty of  “religious “ people who were “born into” their religion. On occasion, they may go to a church or temple, maybe say a few prayers now and then, because that’s what they have always done and that’s what is expected of them. Many people may also think of their religion as an “insurance policy,” thinking that’s it's probably a good idea to keep on God’s good side by checking in with “him” from time to time.

Even for those growing number of people who have abandoned any affiliation with a formalized religion but continue to label themselves as spiritual, their “spirituality” is sometimes little more than an “afterthought," a hobby to be pursued on occasion. Some people pursue spirituality because it reduces their stress, others may carve out a little period of quiet meditation every morning, but then it's off into the real world of everyday life.

When I look at the wisdom of most of the great world-wide religious and spiritual traditions, the spiritual quest is never offered as a hobby to dabble in from time to time but rather it is a “lifestyle," a life-path to be followed.

Jesus told his potential followers:

No one who puts his hand to the plow and keeps looking back
is fit for service in the kingdom of God.

In other words, if you decide to follow the path of the Kingdom of God, to walk on a path of  justice and compassion,  you have to keep your eyes fixed on the road and make walking this path your priority in life.  This is true for any of us who walk on any spiritual journey - the path we travel always points us in the direction of “compassion” in all we say or do and walking that road demands that we keep our eyes fixed on the path. 

In some sense it makes very little difference if you go to church or say some prayers (or even lots of prayers) or meditate on a mat from time to time if the course of your everyday life doesn’t try to follow a way of compassion and generosity of living.

Every day I am confronted with choices to be made on the road I travel in my life. If I chose to be on a spiritual journey, I do my very best to walk the way of peace and love even though it may be a road less traveled.  I am reminded of the well-known Prayer of Saint Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness; joy
In this late summer season it’s staring to get get cooler in the desert and so it will soon be time to try my hand at gardening once again-maybe if I do more than dabble at I might become really good at it.  

I hope the same can be said of my walk in faith.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Forgiving Without Forgetting

"The First Time Again"
- sunrise in the desert -

I remember a recent conversation I had with someone who had been seriously betrayed by a trusted friend. As our conversation progressed the person told me that instead of dwelling with her hurt feelings, she knew she had to move. She told me, “I guess I’ll just have to forgive and forget.” I’m sure my response surprised her when I suggesting that while “forgive and forget” may be a commonly accepted, practical wisdom,  I’m not sure it’s such great spiritual advice.  

In  fact, as I see it, genuine forgiveness always calls for a rather healthy dose of remembering the wrongs that may have been done to us.

Theologian and author, Paul Tillich, put it this way

Forgiving presupposes remembering.
Forgiving creates a different type of forgetting,
not in the natural way by which we might forget yesterday’s weather,
but in a way of the great ‘in spite of’ that says,
‘I forget although I remember.’
Without this kind of forgetting, no human relationship can endure healthily.

It’s interesting to me that the great wisdom of most all world religious traditions hold up “forgiveness” as a core virtue for the spiritual path. We human beings inevitably hurt one another and cause each other pain; but what we do with this pain makes all the difference in the world. If we cling to the pain, keep grudges and seek revenge, the pain becomes a toxin that that infects and destroys our spirit.

I am reminded of something Nelson Mandela once wisely observed:

Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.

Indeed, resentment and revenge are spiritually toxic and forgiveness is the only way we can cleanse our souls of that poison; however, to say that when we forgive we must also forget who harmed us or erase the memory of the wrongs done to us seems somewhat disingenuous to me.  In fact, how can we possibly forgive others unless we remember who they are and what they did to harm us?

The secret to forgiveness is indeed to forgive and remember—to remember what was done and to forgive the trespasses and the trespasser “in spite of it all.”

I recall something the comedian Lilly Tomlin once humorously quipped:

Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.

Of course I can readily remember the injuries done to me over the years, I just refuse to hold onto them and harbor them in my heart as if clinging to those memories might somehow punish the offender or change the past, making it a better place for me.  

So this morning as the sun rises for the first time once again I engage in a discipline of forgiving and remembering. I conjure up the images of those who may have injured me and say “I forgive you, please forgive me.”

I have given up all hope for a better past.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Myth of Deserving More

"A Path on Level Ground"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

In the midst of all the immigration rhetoric surrounding this presidential election season, I  just had a fascinating conversation with a woman who had emigrated from Mexico several years ago, went through the “naturalization” process, and is now a citizen of the United States. She told me that she strongly agrees with the idea of deporting all illegal immigrants. After all, she had “paid her dues” by becoming a citizen and so she felt that “illegal” immigrants should not have the same benefits of living in this country as she enjoys. She told me, “I deserve more than them.”

I’ve spent the last few days thinking about that one line about deserving more. As I think about it, I suspect that many if not most people think they deserve more than others. Citizens feel they are entitled to “more” than foreigners, rich people generally feel entitled to “more” in life than poor people, educated people feel they deserve “more” than those who never went to college. Many White people feel as if they deserve more than Black or Brown people, and lots of men believe they are entitled to “more” than women. Perhaps the phrase I deserve more than them is a motto that underlies much of the ways people live their routine lives everyday.

When I examine some of the core wisdom of most of the major world religions, the idea that some people deserve more than others is always seen as a toxin in the spiritual life. Jesus' core message promoted the dignity of every human being. He taught that we all stand on level ground, we all sit at a place of equal respect at the table of life and no one deserves more than anyone else. The Buddha taught his disciples to offer equal respect to anything that has being and warned his followers that craving for more and better is a poison for the soul. He said:

From craving is born grief.
From craving is born fear.

As I see it, the great wisdom teachers promoted this sense of equal dignity and pointed their followers to live a life of mutual respect for all beings, because, in essence, this is how the natural order works. Everything and everyone exists in a web of dynamic, mutual interdependence, no one better than the other or deserving more than the other. So, when we buy into the myth that we deserve more than them, we live a life that goes against the very grain of the natural order.

I came across this very articulate observation written by a retired Jesuit priest who argues against the "myth of deserving more:"

We need conversion from the prevailing consciousness
that views reality in terms of separateness and hierarchy.
We need to end the worldview that structures reality
into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate
We human beings cannot be fully ourselves
without being in communion with all that exists.

When it comes to the banquet of life, there is no head table, we are all sitting together at a place of equal dignity and we will never find a deeper peace until we can all live lives that models and fosters this reality.

As I sit outside in my garden on this glorious late-summer morning in the desert, I am reminded of a beautiful passage in the Hebrew Scripture:

God raises up the poor from the dust,
And lifts the needy from the ash-heap
To make them sit with kings and princes
and inherit a seat of honor.

Amen to that!