Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Heat of the Noonday Sun

"120 Degrees"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Summer has now officially arrived and an “extreme heat warning” has been issued for this desert region where we live. In fact, yesterday afternoon the outdoor temperature got up to a scorching “120” degrees and when I finally mustered up enough courage to make my way out to the usually-crowded gym, I discovered that there were only five other people in there with me. In this kind of weather no one wants to move around – myself included. When it gets this hot out,  all I want to do is sit in a chair inside my house with the air conditioning at full-blast.

Yesterday as the afternoon temperatures kept climbing, I went home and tried to motivate myself to read a book or maybe to meditate, but found I was too lethargic to do anything at all. It reminded me of a piece of wisdom taught by the 4th century Christian desert monks who moved away from their homes in the cities to live in a region very similar to the one where I now live.  They devoted the themselves to prayer, work and study and to more carefully follow the teachings of Jesus.

Interestingly enough, these ancient “Desert Mothers and Fathers” actually had quite a bit to say about living under the scorching heat of the noonday sun, observing that during the “sizzling” afternoon hours as the desert baked in the sun, they felt particularly afflicted by what they called a “noonday demon” which they referred to as “acedia.”

While the word “acedia” is somewhat difficult to translate, in general it means restless boredom, lethargy, apathy

Under the rays of the summertime sun these ancient monastics talked about how bored and lethargic they all became - no one wanted to move around or to do anything. They became bored with their prayers, apathetic about their work, lethargic when it came to studying, they even became easily bored with one another. Afflicted by the “noonday demon” of “acedia’ many monks talked about how spiritually restless they became, eager to escape to a better place far from the dry emptiness of the fierce desert terrain.

I find one particular description of “acedia” to be quite insightful if not amusing:

In the heat of the noonday sun
as the monk reads, he yawns plenty and can easily fall asleep.
He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms.
He stares at the walls and then goes back to his reading for a little while.
He then wastes his time counting the pages of the book,
sometimes finding fault with the writing or the design.
Finally he just shuts the book and uses it as a pillow.

I find this depiction of “acedia” so entertaining because the monk in that story sounds a lot like me.

Actually I think that, from time to time, many if not most people are afflicted by a “noonday demon” as they make their way along a spiritual journey and you don’t have to live in a desert when its 120 degrees outside to experience this affliction. There are many times when we just don’t feel like praying or meditating and when being kind or compassionate becomes a real burden.

But acedia doesn’t just influence people on a spiritual journey, lots of folks experience a sense of “restless boredom” in their routine of life - tired of the same old job, bored with their everyday tasks, tired of the same old relationships. Like those 4th century monks, when tempted by the “noonday demon” we also want to escape, to move on to something bigger and better and newer.

The ancient “Desert Mothers and Fathers” told one another that the best way to fight off the “noonday demon” was simply to persevere, to persist in the everyday tasks of ordinary life.  If those monks were around today they would tell us that when we don’t feel like praying or studying or working, when we are bored by living into our routine, when we don’t feel like being kind or compassionate, do it anyway!  Soon the “noonday demon” will leave and a sense of peace will return.

The English poet, Samuel Johnson, once said:

Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.

It’s supposed to get up to 120 again today. There are lots of books I want to read.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Fully Human

"A River in the Wilderness"

An ad in our local paper yesterday caught my attention -  an area restaurant was advertising a special “Father’s Day” menu that featured “manly meals.” I wondered just exactly what a “manly meal” might look like and when I went to further explore the menu I discovered that “manly meals” mostly consisted of extra-large portions of “meat and potato” kinds of food.

That “Father’s Day” menu got me to thinking about the odd distinctions we often make between what is “manly” and what is “feminine,” what it means to be a “real man” and what constitutes a “real woman.”  Supposedly women are gentle, nurturing and tender, exhibiting the virtues of compassion, kindness and forgiveness;  whereas, men are  “meat and potatoes” kinds of people, rugged, take-charge types, analytical, courageous, risk-takers, disciplinarians who are sometimes even harsh and judgmental.

As I see it, these gender distinctions are not only “stereotypical” but they may also be inherently “dangerous,” especially on a spiritual path.

For one thing, “God” is often depicted as a “manly man,” a “Heavenly Father” and because of this, “God” is far-too-often seen as an authoritarian school principal who must be obeyed, a distant judge to be feared.

These stereotypical gender distinctions may also keep men locked up within the confines of "ego." After all,  a “manly man” must be strong which sometimes translates into keeping others at “arms-length” while on a life-journey that must be traveled hand-in-hand if deeper peace is ever to be found.

When I look at our common human condition, I actually think that kindness, compassion gentleness and forgiveness have little to do with feminine characteristics, nor do I think courage and boldness are particularly masculine traits.

We are most “fully human” when we have the courage to break out of the restrictions of a self-contained ego and give our selves for the welfare of others. We are most human when we exhibit the boldness of compassionate and are willing to take the risk of living a life of generous kindness in a culture of self-centered consumerism.  

We are indeed "male" and "female" who travel the spiritual journey as human beings, walking together on a pathway toward becoming more fully human every day of our lives.

Many centuries ago Saint Paul wrote a canticle about what it means to be fully human - human beings are most human when they are most loving.  Saint Paul went on to spell out what genuine “love” looks like:

Love never gives up on others.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have,
Love doesn’t have a swelled head,
doesn’t force itself on others,
isn’t always me-first.
Love doesn’t fly off the handle,
doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
doesn’t revel when others grovel.
Love takes pleasure in the flowering of the truth.
Love always looks for the best.
Love never looks back,
but keeps going to the end.

On the path of wisdom it’s not so important to be a real man or a real woman, what really counts is to be a real human.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Pitfalls of a Busy Life

"Shade Trees"
- rest in the wilderness -

“Summertime, and the living is easy?” Maybe not so much.

I overheard two moms at the supermarket lamenting over how “insanely busy” their lives are now that school is closed for the summer. When the kids are in school, they put them on a bus and are basically free until the children come home again in the late afternoon; but the moms complained that, in these summer months, they are involved in programming virtually every waking hour of their children’s days -  taking the kids for lessons at the local pool, baseball practice, arranging “play dates” with other kids, engaging a tutor to help improve math skills over the summer break. It’s an “insanely busy” time of the year.

I am reminded of an article I read a while back written by another “very busy” mother who reported something her fifth grader said to her as she was about to pack him up and cart him off to some sort of summertime event:

‘When are we leaving?’ my kid asks.
‘In 20 minutes,’ I say.
‘Do I have time not to get ready?’
That’s the conversation I had with my fifth grader, the implication being that he’s
constantly getting ready for the next activity and he wanted a little more time
not to get ready, to not do anything,
 maybe to flop on the couch awhile and play with his elbow.

It all makes me wonder if maybe we have come to the point where we over-program way too much in our lives?  Sometimes all of us need to just take some time to "flop on a couch" and do nothing as we make our way along the path of life.

As I see it, many people nowadays find that their lives are “insanely busy,” regardless of who they are or what they do in life - always busy at work or at school, insanely busy even on “days off,” catching up on chores, working at home, and of course always pecking away at the computer, browsing through the internet bombarded by a constant barrage of texts and tweets. People are even “insanely busy” during the lazy days of summer, planning out the lives of their kids, planning for their own vacations and, even when vacation comes, sitting on a beach with a computer or a smartphone in hand catching up on work that needs to be completed.

Perhaps “rest” has become a lost art in our own times, an art that needs to be revived once again to help us grow in wisdom and to live more fully. As Socrates once observed:

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

I also wonder if today’s culture of “busyness” has even affected the way in which many people engage their own spiritual practices: busy going to church or temple, overly obsessing about “getting in” those daily prayers or engaging in “proper” meditation techniques, counting breaths, watching the clock to be sure enough time is being devoted  to practicing mindfulness – “insanely busy.”

Sometimes you just need to rest from it all. Sometimes the best spiritual practice is to sit under a tree, enjoy a cool drink and just do nothing - summertime is a great season for doing this.

I am reminded of one of my favorite “sayings” from the monastic writings of the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers:

When a wise old Abbot was asked how he dealt with
any brother who fell asleep during public prayer, he replied,
‘I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest.’