Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Practice of Patience

"In the Moment"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday, I stood in the checkout line at a local supermarket. In front of me was a dad with his two young sons who were excitedly talking about a Memorial Day barbeque at their home later that afternoon. The two boys tugged at their dad with an urgent plea: “C’mon daddy, let’s get out of here, we cant wait to get back home and go swimming.” But it was the dad’s response that especially caught my attention:’ “Have a little patience boys, we’ll get there eventually.”

I think that response to those “impatient” boys struck me so much because it was quite “iconic”  of how most people understand what “being patient” is all about.

Like those two boys at the market, it seems to me as if lots of people nowadays just can’t wait. They can’t wait to go swimming, they can’t wait for the next big event, the next holiday, the upcoming vacation. Lots of people “just can’t wait” to get the new house or the next job or they can’t wait for school to be finished.  The problem is, of course, that when the next big thing finally comes along it very often does not live up to our “great expectations,” and so people often feel “let down.” And then of course, it’s time to think about the next thing big thing for which we just can’t wait.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until my later years in life that I finally began to have a clue about what waiting patiently means, and to be honest, until rather recently I never quite understood why patience was such a highly-prized virtue.

Why would sitting around and doing nothing while patiently waiting for the next thing to happen be such a positive trait?  Standing in line at a supermarket, waiting in a doctor’s office, waiting for the document to print, waiting at a signal light, waiting for the expected phone call, all this waiting stuff seemed like a real burden to me. I considered “waiting” time to be a necessary evil and I figured that if you had to wait for something to happen, you might as well do it patiently because “eventually” the thing you were waiting for would (hopefully) happen. I used to think that patience was something like “biting the bullet” until something better came along,

More recently I have come to a very different understanding of what patience means and why it is such an important discipline on any spiritual path. I have come to realize that patience has nothing to do with waiting for the future to happen. Patience is a spiritual discipline that keeps us focused in the moment, in the here and now. Patience is another word for practicing mindfulness.

Priest and author, Henri Nouwen, once offered this helpful wisdom:

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 in the moment.

I think of all the wonders I may have missed in my life because I didn’t practice the discipline of patience –the willingness to "stay where I was in the moment in the belief that something hidden there would manifest itself." I have come to believe that standing in line at the market can be just as wonderful as the upcoming picnic.

Now that June is almost here and the afternoon temperatures make their way up into the triple digits, most everything here in the desert goes into a “hibernation mode.” All the tourists have gone back home, the festivals are over, even some of the local restaurants close for these summer months and there are few if any people out walking on the wilderness trails.  A profound sense of utter “peace and quiet” now descends upon the desert unlike any other time of the year.  It is a perfect season for waiting in the moment and practicing the discipline of patience.

Many centuries ago Saint Augustine said:

Patience is the companion of wisdom.

I say Amen to that.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sacrifices

"Memorial Day 2016"

Today is “Memorial Day” in America - a day to honor and remember those men and women who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the nation. Today I am reminded of something Law Professor, Stephen Carter said a while back in his book, Civility, in which he defined “civilization” as:

The sum of sacrifices made by citizens for the common good.

Professor Carter suggested that, if a nation is characterized by its “sacrificial” behavior, the willingness of individuals to give up or share something of their own good for the sake of the common good, the nation is civilized. If a society is characterized by an “every man for himself” mentality, the society is little more than an aggregate of barbarians” – a collection of individuals whose primary life-agenda is personal gain at the expense of everyone else.

The question I raise on this Memorial Day is, “Are we a civilized nation or have we slipped into barbarianism?”

As I think about it I rarely hear the word sacrifice used nowadays nor do I see an awful lot of sacrificial behavior. More and more people have become enamored with the idea of building walls to keep people out (especially people who are foreign or different) rather than building bridges to bring people in. Individual citizens have come to believe that “as long as “I” and my  circle of like-minded friends are happy and fulfilled that’s all that matters - and lets keep it that way.” The rich are getting rich, the poor are getting poorer, the strong are getting stronger as the weak are pushed more and more to the fringes, and respectful dialogue with others who may think differently than “me” is almost non-existent. It all sounds pretty “barbaric” to me.

A few months ago an editorial in the New York Times observed:

In many respects our nation has ruptured with civility.
The advent of digital communications has allowed us to engage
in consequence-free hostility,
hostile messages, abrupt emails and caustic online posts
have normalized an uglier and less empathic side of human behavior
and colored our politics and entertainment as well.

Last week I got in my car and traveled on a few of the many highways that lead up to Los Angeles.  While I like Los Angeles very much, driving up there is one of my least favorite things to do.

As I sit inside the isolation of my own individual automobile protected and surrounded by steel and glass, I find myself speeding along on a highway that is sometimes 8-lanes deep. Everyone in all the other cars are rather single-minded in their desire to get to their destination, often oblivious of any one else on the road. As we speed along at 70 or 80 miles an hour it is sometimes impossible to change lanes since many people speed up and beep their horns refusing to show the courtesy of letting you into their lane.  And even when the traffic is almost at a standstill (which happens often) other drivers cut in front of me so that they can be one car ahead on the mad rush to get to their destinations no matter what the cost.

As I drove along on the highways a few days ago, I wondered if this was perhaps the “icon” of life in 21st century America? When I ask if we are a civilized nation, a people willing to make sacrifices for the common good, I fear I may have an answer to my question and it isn’t the answer I was hoping for.

On this Memorial Day I do indeed honor those men and women who have made the sacrifice of their lives for the welfare of this country. I also hope and pray that we might all follow in their example of sacrificial living. Otherwise we are surely doomed as a civilization - barbarians never survive.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.
Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice and struggle,
the tireless exertions and passionate concerns of dedicated individuals
who offer themselves for the good of others.

Such important wisdom to ponder on this Memorial Day!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Piercing of the Heart

"Breaking Through"
- dawn in the desert -

Throughout the day yesterday I kept coming across one particular, “hauntingly tender” image of the President of the United States embracing an elderly and somewhat frail Japanese man at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. When the atom bomb was dropped on that city 71 years ago, that man was an 8 year-old boy who, at the time, lived very near to the epicenter of the explosion yet somehow managed to survive. After giving his speech yesterday, President  Obama greeted some of the folks who lived through the devastation of the Hiroshima bomb and when he came to that now-elderly man, they both embraced - the president had tears in his eyes and the old man wept openly.

Over and over, throughout the day yesterday I kept seeing the image of that tearful embrace. I saw it on TV, I saw it in the newspapers and in the social media. And, without exception, every time I saw it, I was moved to tears myself. I found it to be such a sacred, holy moment.

Today as I looked out into the wilderness around my house I reflected on yesterday’s scene of “once-enemies” now weeping together and I was immediately reminded of the 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers who lived in a desert like the one in which I now call my home.  For them, weeping was a spiritual act and tears were a gift.

Those ancient monks wrote about embracing a spirituality of weeping, using the Greek word penthos to describe the tears of their spiritual experiences. Penthos is best translated as:

A profound piercing of the heart that wells up into tears.

The desert monks embraced “tears” as a holy gift, they saw tears as the language of transcendence, the currency of the thin places in life. When the veil between humanity and divinity is so porous and so paper thin, it pierces the heart and this piercing wells up and pours out into tears.

This kind of holy weeping cannot be engineered, manufactured or planned- holy tears come unexpectedly and mysteriously. The tears of penthos bubble up from the very core of one’s humanity, they come from the most intimate, fragile and vulnerable places of the human heart. Holy tears are like a spring of refreshing water gushing up into the dry and arid desert soil.

I am reminded of a Native American proverb:

The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.

Yesterday, as one might expect, several critics of the president scolded him for weeping in public - powerful people (especially powerful men) aren’t supposed to express emotions in this way. After all, we live in a culture in which weeping is not highly regarded and tears are symptoms of weakness, to be avoided at all costs. When we see someone weeping over the death of a loved one we often comfort them with the admonition “Don’t cry it will be alright.” When we see someone in pain we do our best to wipe away their tears.

And yet, as I see it, when we suppress our tears we block “transcendence” from bubbling up and we rob ourselves of the language of the thin places in life.

Yesterday as I was “brought to tears” whenever I witnessed that tender scene of “holy weeping” at the Peace Park in Hiroshima, I celebrated the gift of penthos given to me on my own spiritual journey.

I open my heart that it might be pierced so deeply that it will well up into tears.

Author and poet, Paul Coelho, put it this way:

Be aware of the places where you are brought to tears,
that’s where your treasure is.