Monday, February 29, 2016

Untamed Hospitality

"Wide Open Wilderness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday my wife and I attended a local Greek Festival sponsored by a Greek Orthodox church in one of the neighboring desert communities. Actually we attend this event every year since - we enjoy the good food and the entertainment, and I also find it to be a spiritual experience.

This festival is held outdoors under a massive white tent without any sides so anyone can enter without having to pass through any doors or restrictions and yesterday as we sat eating some wonderful Greek food I noticed the wide diversity of the people who were sitting with us in that tent. There were Anglos, Latinos, Asians and African Americans, old and young, rich and poor, people in wheelchairs and children running all around. There were religious people and people who likely have never seen the inside of a church, and we were all sharing a meal, some were dancing, all of us together under that wide open tent.

It was such a powerful icon of what religion “should” be all about and as I see it, an icon of what any spiritual journey is all about.

In the Jewish Scriptures there is a story about Abraham, the ancient Patriarch, who set up a big tent in the midst of the wide open desert. Abraham was a nomad who with his family and his flock of sheep wandered in the wilderness. Like all nomads from time to time he and his clan would pitch a tent in the wilderness where they might stop and eat and rest. As the story goes, when Abraham set up his tent he always kept the flaps wide-open at all times so that he could see other travelers passing by and call out to them to offer them the hospitality of a cool drink, a meal, a place to rest and talk - such a wonderful story of unrestricted, wide open, untamed hospitality.

According to the legend, one day, three strangers whom Abraham had invited to his tent turned out to be three angels in disguise – that’s why the “Bible” teaches:

Do not forget to welcome strangers,
for by doing do some have shown hospitality to angels (Hebrews: 13:2)

Interestingly enough the three major world religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all hail “Abraham” as their Patriarch and are known as “Abrahamic” religions, so it seems very odd to me that these religions would ultimately become so restrictive and exclusive since the ancient patriarch was an icon of such unrestricted hospitality.  

When I look at the life and teachings of Jesus, I see someone who also lived a life of untamed hospitality and he urged his followers to do the same. For Jesus, no one was ever shut out.  Everyone was always welcome to the table. the rich and the poor, healthy and sick, those who followed the law as well as notorious sinners, Jews, Gentiles and pagans. Jesus never taught people to ignore the laws of religion but he did teach that above all else, hospitality is the primary rule that trumps all the other rules - the ultimate and underlying principle for the the way his followers were to conduct their lives.

As I see it, the practice of untamed hospitality is ultimately at the very heart of any spiritual journey, regardless of the path. On a spiritual path, our life-tent, pitched in the wilderness should always have its “flaps” wide-open to whomever or whatever comes along.

The renowned Sufi Poet, Rumi, compares a “fully alive” human being to a “guest house” whose doors are always open to the visitation of whatever experiences might show up at the entranceway.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Be grateful for whoever comes and invite them in.

I sit in my garden and look out at the wide-open desert outside my house - a place without doors, no locks, no guards at the gates. I pitch the tent of my life out here in the middle of this wilderness and the flaps of the tent are open wide as I look to see who or what may show up on this day of the journey.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Oscar Glitz and Glamor

"Simple Beauty"
 - springtime in the desert -

Today is the day when much of the country (and the world) turn their gaze on Hollywood actors, celebrities and the Oscars. The television coverage begins hours before the start of the ceremony so that the viewing public won’t miss even a minute of all the “glitz and glamor” as the stars arrive in their limos, impeccably coifed, all decked out in designer dresses and wearing expensive jewelry. These are the “beautiful people” who have seemingly made it to the top- they have “arrived” in life.

Many social commentators have suggested that many “ordinary” folks are so enamored by celebrities because they live their rather dull lives vicariously through them: “even though my own life may not amount to much, I can at least dream about being important by watching famous people.”

Interestingly enough, in my life I have learned that all that outward glitz and glamor associated with “big time” actors and Hollywood celebrities is actually quite artificial. When we lived in Los Angeles, our neighborhood was so close to Hollywood that, at the end our street, I could look up into the hills and see the massive “Hollywood sign” towering over the city. Many “famous” Hollywood actors, directors and screen writers attended the church I served and the local restaurants and coffee shops in my neighborhood were favorite haunts of many “big name” celebrities.   

The thing is that for the most part, every single one of the “famous” people I knew or met were very ordinary, average people-  just like the rest of us. For the most part they didn’t want any special attention and they just “blended in” with everyone else. I also discovered that making movies is very demanding- it takes hard work and long hours and all those “famous” actors had to work really hard just like everyone else.

There are no “more important” others. We all walk hand in hand through the beautiful wilderness of this life – each with our own struggles, each with our own joys, each with equal dignity.

On a day when so many people are “star struck” by all the Oscar glitz and glamor, I think about something the monk and author, Thomas Merton, once said

Finally I am coming to the conclusion
that my highest ambition in life
is to be what I already am.

Many people live their lives as if they are actors on a stage hoping or pretending to be someone they are not, competing for the honors and awards and recognition, always seeking out the applause of the crowds. This is a sure path to unhappiness.

The Jesuit priest and author, Anthony De Mello, once observed:

After I turned 20 I worried endlessly about the impression I made
And how other people were evaluating me.
Only sometime after turning 50 did I realize that
other people hardly even thought of me at all.
So often people presume themselves to be the center of everyone else’s attention
performing to an audience that isn’t even there.

“Oscar Sunday” is a good day to give up seeking the applause and to realize that none of us is ever on the center stage in life. When we realize this, we are on a path of wisdom.

On this day when many people are struck with “Oscar fever,” I am paying special attention to the simple advice of the ancient Taoist, Lao Tzu:

Manifest plainness
Embrace simplicity
Reduce selfishness
Have few desires

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Sabbath Time

"Stop and Rest:
- an oasis in the wilderness -

An article in this morning’s New York Times talked about “the lamentable rise of desktop dining.” Apparently the rising trend among many if not most “up and coming” professionals today is to eat their lunch alone at their desks while they sit at their computers and catch up on their work. One person said that he eats at his desk because it allows him to “multitask.” The article also suggests that “taking a break for a midday meal has increasingly become a sign of idleness.”  

I think I was so struck by that article because it was so emblematic of what goes on with lots of people nowadays - everyone is multitasking all the time and taking a break is indeed often viewed as a symptom of laziness or idleness in our always- busy, technological society.

Today is Saturday, and interestingly enough, the very word Saturday means Sabbath or Rest.  Our ancient ancestors thought that taking some time to stop and rest was so important that they named a day of the week for it - perhaps a way of reminding one another to designate some specific time to be away from the busyness of the everyday routine, perhaps also reminding one another that taking time to rest is not a symptom of laziness.

Nowadays weekends tend to be even busier than Monday through Friday.  Many people work on weekends, and if they are not actually at work they are multitasking at home, answering emails and catching up on the work they were not able to do during the week.

As I think of it, in a culture where people won’t even take a break from work to go and eat lunch somewhere, being busy is almost a “badge of honor.” Busy people aren’t lazy people and when you can brag about how “insanely busy” you are, you also make a statement about how important you are.

In a very real sense, “busyness” can be just one more tool in the toolbox for building a big strong ego, and big egos are always a roadblock on the spiritual path.

I am reminded of one of my favorite poems by Mary Howe as she so beautifully describes her very busy day of doing errands accompanied by her little girl:

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market
and ‘hurry up honey,’ I say, ‘hurry, hurry’
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to?
To her grave? To mine?
Where one day she may stand all fully grown?

In the wilderness just outside our home here in the desert, stands a beautiful oasis of palm trees – nature’s way of reminding me that as I walk through the wilderness of life I need to be careful not to always “hurry hurry” so much. I need to take the time and make the time to slow down, stop and rest, unplug for a spell, turn off the computer, listen to some music or read a book or maybe go out and have a leisurely lunch with friends or family, or maybe just sit quietly under a tree in the heat of the day.  Sabbath Time is hardly wasting time. Sabbath Time is finding time. Sabbath time is sacred time.

Wendell Berry once said:

Sabbath observance invites us to stop, it invites us to rest.
It asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues without our help.
It invites us to delight in the world’s beauty and abundance.